India is widely known as the birthplace of Buddhism. Therefore, many imagine that India is a Buddhist country. In reality, more than 80 percent of the Indian population is Hindu; only 0.9 percent believed in Buddhism as of 2001. A study conducted in 1931 under British rule showed that only 0.1 percent of the total population was Buddhist.
Many people ask why India has such a small number of Buddhists even though it is the birthplace of Buddhism. Some say, after traveling in India, that “India has only Buddhist relics, no Buddhism.”
History shows that many religions rose and fell over thousands of years. New religions are still rising and falling. Religions that flourished as if they would last for thousands of years disappeared after only decades. Even in modern Korean history, many religions have disappeared.
From 1203 A.D., Buddhism gradually diminished and disappeared in India. Fortunately for the religion, however, Buddhism spread to other Asian countries and flourished. Buddhism took root as a representative Asian religion and a symbol of the traditional cultures of many countries.
What are the reasons for the demise of Buddhism in India, the land of its birth? Some suggest that in human history no founder of a religion, or his doctrine, has been welcomed in his birthplace. A good example is Christianity, which is not accepted by the Jews in Israel, the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
India, once the land of Buddhism
Buddhism dates back to Sakyamuni, who lived more than 2,500 years ago in India. He formed the first Sangha, a very specialized community of Buddhists. He boldly proclaimed that the goal of the Sangha was the happiness and welfare of all beings. As soon as the Sangha grew to 60 members, all of the members set off across India to spread the Buddha’s teachings, or the Dharma: “Go now and wander for the welfare of the many (bahujanahita), the happiness of the many (bah-ujanasukha), and out of compassion for the world (lokanukampa). Let not two of you proceed in the same direction.”
About 100 to 200 years after the death of the Buddha, the Maurya Empire expanded its lands to the largest extent in Indian history. King Asoka of the Maurya Empire was devoted to Buddhism and spared no efforts in supporting Buddhism. Thanks to his support, Buddhism took deep root in the Maurya Empire, which covered all of the Indian Subcontinent at the time. In addition, King Asoka sent Buddhist missionaries beyond the Indian Subcontinent to Europe and Africa.
After that, Buddhism was able to exert its cultural and religious influence to every corner of the Indian Subcontinent. As Buddhism branched due to regional, disciplinary, and dogmatic differences, it thrived even further. After the Theravada School was formed in the northeast of the Indian Subcontinent and the Mahasamghika School was formed in the northwest, Indian Buddhism branched into more than 20 schools and took a variety of shapes.
Indian Buddhism had the greatest influence of any single cultural system in human history. China, then at the center of civilization in East Asia, swallowed its pride and busied itself adopting the sophisticated teachings of Buddhism as a national goal, throughout dynasties and eras. The wooden printing blocks of the Tripitaka Koreana at Haein Temple in Korea, an extensive and great treasure of Korea’s intellectual culture, show the prowess of Indian Buddhism. T. W. Rhys Davids, a British scholar of the Pali language, has inscribed the glory of Buddhism in ancient Indian history in his book, Buddhist India, still a classic today.
Buddhist relics, still present all over India, suggest how Buddhism exerted its great influence throughout India’s long history. To the east, Buddhism spread from the Indian Subcontinent to China, Korea, and Japan via Central Asia. It spread to Uzbekistan to the west, Sri Lanka to the south, and Mongolia to the north.
Indian Buddhism in the doldrums for 700 years
The decline and demise of Indian Buddhism after its long flourishing years is regarded as a cultural conundrum. Even today, many historians, cultural scholars, and religious historians in the East and West alike seek answers to this conundrum. Hypotheses proposed by these scholars have spurred heated debates in academic fields. One scholar has recently conducted an investigation of the causes for the decline and demise of Buddhism in India based on ancient Islamic documents.
There are many hypotheses to explain why Buddhism became disconnected from the center of Indian history, but there are two main hypotheses: external reasons and internal reasons.
External reasons include the rise of Hinduism, which followed Brahmanism, the persistent persecution of Buddhism as a rival religion of Hinduism, and the ruthless destruction caused by Islam. Internal reasons include stagnation and corruption within Buddhist schools that caused Buddhism to become disconnected from the center of Indian history..
It is an undeniable historical fact that the Muslim invasions of India in the 13th century and the subsequent destruction of Buddhist influence were decisive factors in the irrevocable demise of Buddhism in India.
Since then, Indian Buddhism has been in the doldrums for more than 700 years. Indians have gradually forgotten about Buddhism. They regard the Buddha only as an incarnation of Vishnu, one of many Hindu Gods.
Cho Joon-ho, Guest Reporter email@example.com
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