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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 109

Letter from America: Why Buddhism Declined? – Part 5

By Dr. Habib Siddiqui

According to the area historians of South Asia in ancient times the region was very thinly populated. Vast expanses of open scrubland separated countless, tiny, scattered communities of nomads, shifting cultivators, hunters, gatherers, and settled farmers, who multiplied over the centuries.

By Gupta times, an array of densely populated, complex societies thrived in fertile lowlands along major rivers. Their agricultural settlements were still surrounded by dense forest and open scrubland but they were expanding visibly, and they were extensively connected to one another and to many other regions across Eurasia.

By the middle of the first millennium of the Common Era, a second great transformation was well underway with the rise of cities that were surrounded by open land and by communities disconnected from city life.

Medieval kingdoms arose from the power of social groups in dynastic core regions. “Dynasties grew as rising kings subordinated existing local elites and officially recognized their stature in public ceremonies… Local alliances gave local strength to rising dynasties and aspiring kings thus strove to strengthen them by bestowing titles and honors on their leadership. Dynastic lineages competed with one another for supremacy over locals who were often pressed and courted by more than one ruler and often recognized more than one sovereign,” writes Prof. Ludden in his book - India and South Asia: A Short History.

Brahmans spread Hindu cultural forms in much the same way as other religious specialists were spreading Jainism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. They travelled extensively. They settled in strategic places under dynastic patronage. They worked with local and regional allies to translate and interpret ideas and rituals into local vernaculars. They defined Hindu orthodoxy in local terms. They contested for local elite support. Their success depended on innovative adaptations to evolving social environments. Brahman rituals and Sanskrit texts became widely influential in medieval dynasties.

New kinds of society came into being as medieval agrarian domains expanded into landscapes inhabited by nomads, hunters, and forest dwellers. Kings needed to give grants of farm land to temples and Brahmans to express dynastic support for dharma, but they also had to protect local rights to land. Kings, Brahmans, and local landed elites, thus, had to work together to extend and protect the moral authority of dharma. The more popular a temple became -- the more praised in song and more attractive for pilgrims -- the greater became the value of its patronage and the number of people whose identity attached to it.

On the geographies of religion, Professor Ludden says, “Buddhism and Islam became most prominent along routes of trade and migration that ran from one end of Asia to the other. In the sixth century, Buddhists received most of the patronage available in Afghanistan, the upper Indus basin, and Himalayan regions from Kashmir to Nepal; and moving eastward across Central Asia, Buddhists then established themselves firmly in Tibet, China, and Japan. After the eighth century, however, eastward and southern migrations by Arabs and Turks from West and Central Asia shifted religious patronage to Islam in Afghanistan, along the Indus, in Punjab, and in Kashmir. But Buddhist monks had a permanent political base at the hub of the Indian Ocean trade in Sri Lanka, and from the eighth century onward, they won state support in regions from Burma south into Southeast Asia. In Java, early medieval kings patronized Hindus; in the ninth century, Buddhists supplanted Hindus at court, though Hindus remained influential in royal circles in Bali, alongside Buddhists. By the tenth century, Arab traders were expanding their operations in the Indian Ocean. Muslim centres multiplied along the peninsula and on coastal Sri Lanka, and merchant patronage for Islam drew local rulers away from Buddhism around many Southeast Asian ports in the later medieval period.”

Like multiple sovereignties in medieval domains, multi-religious cultures developed where patronage sustained diverse religious institutions. Popular devotionalism attracted thousands of passionate believers to temples and pilgrimage sites. This made public patronage of those sites quite important because sects could provide decisive military and financial support for dynastic contenders. Dynasties gave privileges and funds in various forms -- minimally as tax exemptions -- to various religious institutions and their leaders simultaneously.

“Popular movements made such support contentious. Rulers had to balance support for their core religious constituency with support for others, which brought condemnation from allies. Muslim rulers often faced criticism for patronage they typically gave Hindu groups, following established precedent. Devotees of Vishnu and Siva could be equally unforgiving. As bhakti traveled north along Shankara’s tracks, competing Hindu sectarians not only wrote poems like Jayadev’s Gitagovinda, but also raised armies to fight for sectarian control of pilgrimage sites and temple festivals. From at least the fifteenth century, armies of Shivite and Vaishnava ascetics fought to protect sectarian wealth against raids from competitors and to capture revenues from popular religious gatherings like the kumbh mela in Hardwar and Prayag (Allahabad). In the sixteenth century, the Mughal emperor Akbar witnessed a pitched battle between two sects of Shivites. Akbar’s own religious eclecticism reflects an effort to reconcile contentious devotional loyalties through the medium of mystical speculation.” [David Ludden,India and South Asia: A Short History]

It is not difficult to understand why Buddhism, whose edifice was founded upon patronage, crumbled when it lacked that vital support. It would, however, be wrong to solely blame the external factors as the root causes for decline of Buddhism in South Asia.

Buddhism as a whole was becoming tainted internally in many ways from the end of the Gupta period when it permeated with primitive ideas of sympathetic magic and sexual mysticism. The direct result of this permeation was the birth of a third vehicle, “the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt”, Vajrayana. This new sect misinterpreted religious tenets and allowed the use of intoxicants; it was also lenient in the upholding of celibacy. The corruption of the Sangha, the rivalries between sects, and competition between various monasteries to lure donors weakened Buddhism and made it unable to compete with the reformed Hinduism.

The monks whose survival depended on begging and donation became greedy and often tied their knots with the oppressors rather than the ‘have-nots’ – the oppressed within the society, a trend which we are to see even today in Buddhist-ruled countries. From the many donations it received, the Sangha became rich, and monks began to ignore the tenth rule of the Vinaya and accepted silver and gold. With acquired wealth – donated by rich patrons – came decay and corruption within a faith where the monks had come to embrace a rather easy-going and even lazy lifestyle, quite mindless of the Buddha’s insistence on aparigraha, or non-possession. The Buddhist monasteries came to be known as repositories of great wealth.

The Mahayana school introduced expensive rituals and ceremonies into the religion, causing it to cease to be economical for common masses. The religious texts of the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools began to be written in Sanskrit, a literary language that most Indians did not understand; this further distanced Buddhism from the common people. What is also interesting, no manual for the conduct of the laity in Buddhism existed prior to the 11th century.

The many rivalries between sects destroyed the image the masses held of Buddhism. As an essentially non-theistic religion, it could not achieve the same success with the masses as Hinduism, which possessed a pantheon of gods that could intervene in the affairs of men if appeased. The moral corruption of Buddhism also caused degeneration in its intellectual standards and made it unable to compete with the reformed Hinduism.

With the surge of Hindu philosophers and theologians like Adi Shankara, Madhvacharya and Ramanuja - the three leaders in the revival of Hindu philosophy, Buddhism started to fade out rapidly from the landscape of India. Shankaracharya (788-820 CE) and Ramanuja (c. 1017-1137 CE) advanced philosophies based on the Vedic literature known to the common people and built many temples and schools to spread their thought. At the same time, as already noted earlier, Hinduism, following its tradition of syncretism, incorporated the Buddha himself within its own polytheistic universe as an incarnation of Hindu God Vishnu. A devotee could revere the Buddha within the overarching framework of Hinduism without having to leave it. That was the final nail put to the coffin of Buddhism in the very land where Buddha was born. Hinduism in the early medieval age became a more "intelligible and satisfying road to faith for many ordinary worshippers" than it had been because it now included not only an appeal to a personal god, but had also seen the development of an emotional facet with the composition of devotional hymns.

As can be seen, much of the decline of Buddhism in South Asia was caused by its own failings. It simply could not match the popularity of the re-energized Hinduism of the medieval period. This upsurge of Hinduism is quite evident in North India by the early 11th century which produced influential Sanskrit dramas like the Prabodhacandrodaya (written by Krsnamisra) in the Chandela court; a devotion to Vishnu and an allegory to the defeat of Buddhism and Jainism. The population of North India had become predominantly Shaiva, Vaishnava or Shakta. By the 12th century a lay population of Buddhists hardly existed outside the monastic institutions and when it did penetrate the Indian peasant population it was hardly discernible as a distinct community. By the time of the Muslim conquests in India, there were only glimpses of Buddhism and no evidence of a provincial government in control of the Buddhists.

With the fall of Buddhist rulers and the resurrection of Hindu rulers in much of South Asia, Brahmans vied with one another to organize the operation of spiritual power, and they all needed mundane local patronage to flourish, which came from ruling dynasties, merchants, and landed elite. It was only a question of time when the final curtain on Buddhism would be drawn reflecting the impact of the changing religious environment of the region where Gautama Buddha was born and died.

>>> To be continued…

- Asian Tribune -

Letter from America: Why Buddhism Declined? – Part 5
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