Decline of Buddhism in India

Today there was an argument on Twitter whether “Pushyamaitra Sunga ans Shashank destroyed the Maha Bodhi*. Some historical refrences in this context:

1. K T S Sarao: 

K T S Sarao, The Decline of Buddhism in India, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd, Delhi, 2011, 327 pages, Price Rs. 895

This excerpt is not from the original book but a review of the book. The review appeared in “Gandhi Marg” – A Journal of the Gandhi Peace Foundation. Volume 34 Isuue No. 3 & 4 for the period July – Dec 2012.  The reveiw is done by Ravi P Bhatia.

Sarao writes that the subject of this decline has remained largely neglected and there is only one full length book published (in English) in 1954 dealing with this question. New data and new approaches have given the subject a fresh perspective and impetus to Sarao to take up this task. He mentions at the very outset that Buddhism was never a state religion in India and India was never a Buddhist country. Even during the Ashokan period, which is considered the most glorious period for Buddhism, the majority
of the population was not Buddhist.


Another factor responsible for the decline according to Sarao was the withdrawal of royal patronage and alleged persecution of Buddhist monks and destruction of their monasteries by certain Brahmanical kings like Pusyamitra Sunga and Sasank. Some Buddhist texts accuse Pusyamitra Sunga of not only withdrawing royal patronage but also destroying stupas, monasteries and massacre of Bhikhus. However, according to the author, some well known historians like R C Mitra, Romila Thapar and others are skeptical about the veracity of this persecution presented in Buddhist texts
although there is no doubt that some friction and animosity between the Brahmanical kings and Buddhists did exist and the latter were despised and sometimes ridiculed. Archaeological evidence suggests that the celebrated stupa at Sanchi was enlargedduring the Sunga period. Sarao sums up the situation in the following words ‘It may not be possible to deny the fact that Pusyamitra showed no favour to the Buddhists but it is not certain that he persecuted them’.


There is another Book “Buddhism and Dalits: Social Philosophy and Traditions” by C D Naik which also deals with Pushyamitra Sunga. The Book repeatedly says though Pushyamitra Sunga is accused of demolishing monastries there is no proof for same.


There is this interesting paper by K T S Sarao titled: 

Double Tragedy: A Reappraisal of the Decline of Buddhism in India

Sarao is incidentally a buddhist and is a Professor of Buddhist Studies, University of Delhi.

Buddhism does not appear to have become a dominant religious at any time in India. It appears to have been primarily confined to urban centres, where only a small percentage of the population lived. A statistical study of the Vinaya and Sutta Pi%aka shows that of all the settlements mentioned in these texts as many as 95.37% were urban.( K.T.S. Sarao, 1989: 44) Similarly, if one were to look at the places of birth of the various personalities mentioned in the Vinaya and Sutta Pi%aka, 57.34% of them came only from six urban centres viz. B2r2!as6, S2vatt6, R2jagaha, Kapilavatthu, Ves2l6 and Mithil2.(Ibid., 45) Right from its inception, Buddhism appears to have been popular amongst royalty, business magnates and bureaucrats. The urban and elite character of Buddhism appears to have kept it out of touch with the common masses. This factor may have aggravated its difficulties when urbanism was on the decline. Buddhism which provided the ideological superstructure of the growing urbanization(D.D. Kosambi, 1950:100-10) and depended increasingly upon it for its own sustenance and growth, finally may have became its victim in decline(B.G.Gokhale, 1982:7-22) Monastic institutions were the only place where Buddhism could be distinctly observed as different from other religious orders. However, the decay of urbanism appears to have hit this very aspect of Buddhism rather hard, as it sapped some of its socially vital foundations.

In conclusion, it may be said that the decline of Buddhism took place at two different levels separated by chronology and circumstances: decline from below and decline from above. The decline from below i.e. at the upāsaka level began almost simultaneously with its origin. It lay hidden in the very nature of Indian Buddhism as founded by the Buddha who did not carve out a distinct Buddhist community of lay-followers as distinct from the followers of the main stream Brahmanism. The decline from above began with the ruin and abandonment of the monastery. The most important reason for this appears to have been the decline in urbanization to which the monastic institutions of Buddhism appear to have been inextricably linked




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s