1902 Encyclopedia > India > Indian History: 3. Buddhist Period (6th C. BC - 8th C. AD)

(Part 18)


3. Buddhist Period (6th C. BC - 8th C. AD)

The first great solvent of Bráhmanism was the teaching of Buddha. The life of this celebrated man has three sides,—its personal aspects, its legendary development, and its religious consequences upon mankind. In his own person Buddha appears as a prince and preacher of ancient India. In the legendary developments of history Buddha ranks as a divine teacher among his followers, as an incarnation of Vishnu among the Hindus, and apparently as a saint of the Christian church, with a day assigned to him in both the Greek and Roman calendars. As a religious founder he left behind him a system of beliefs which has gained more disciples than any other creed in the world, and which, after a lapse of twenty-four centuries, is now professed by 500 millions of people, or more than one-third of the human race.

The life of Buddha is related at length under BUDDHISM, vol. iv. p. 424. In this place it is unnecessary to give more than a brief sketch of the history of Buddhism in India.

On the death of Buddha, five hundred of his disciples met in a cave near Rájágriha, to gather together his sayings. This was the first council. They chanted the lessons of their master in three great divisions—the words of Buddha to his disciples, his code of discipline, and his system of doctrine. These became the three collections of Buhhda’s reaching, and the word for a Buddhist council means literary "a singing together." A century afterwards, a second council of seven hundred was held at Vaisali, to settle disputes between the more and the less strict followers of Buddhism. It condemned a system of ten "indulgences" which had grown up, but it led to the separation of the Buddhists into two hostile parties, who afterwards split into eighteen or more sects.

During the next two hundred years Buddhism spread over northern India, perhaps receiving a new impulse from the Greek kingdom in the Punjab. About 244 B.C. Asoka, the king of Magadha or Behar, became a zealous convert to Buddhism. He is said to have supported 64,000 Buddhist priest, he founded many religious houses, and his kingdom is called the Land of the Monasteries (Vihára or Behar) to this day. He did for Buddhism what Constantine afterwards affected for Christianity; he organized it on the basis of a state religion. This he accomplished by five means---by a council to settle the faith, by edicts promulgating its principles, by a state department to watch over its purity, by missionaries to spread its doctrines, and by an authoritative collection of its sacred books. In 244 B.C. Asoka convened at Patná the third Buddhist council of one thousand elders. Evil men, taking on them the yellow robe of the order, had given forth their own opinions as the teaching of Buddha. Such heresies were now corrected; and the Buddhism of southern Asia practically dates from Asoka’s council. In a number of edicts, both before and after the synod, he published throughout India the grand principles of the faith. Such edicts are still found graven deep upon the pillars, in caves, and on rocks, from the Yusafzai valley beyond Pecháwar on the north-western frontier, through the heart of Hindután, to Káthiáwár and the Central Provinces on the south and Orissa in the east. Tradition states that Asoka set up 64,000 memorial columns or troops; and the thirty inscriptions extant in our own day show how widely these royal sermons were spread over India. In the year of the council, the kind also founded a state department to watch over the purity and to direct the spread of the faith. A minister of justice and religion (Dharma Mahámátra) directed its operations; and, one of its first duties being to proselytize, he was specially charged with the welfare of the aborigines among whom its missionaries were sent. Asoka did not thin k it enough to convert the inferior races without looking after their material interests. Wells were to be dug and trees planted along the roads; a system of medical aid was established throughout his kingdom and the conquered provinces, as far as Ceylon, for both man and beast. Officers were appointed to watch over domestic life and public morality, and to promote instruction among the women as well as the youth.

Asoka recognized proselytism by peaceful means as a state duty. The rock inscriptions record how he sent forth missionaries "to the utmost limits of the barbarian countries," to "intermingle among all unbelievers" for the spread of religion. They shall mix equally with Bráhmans and beggars, with the dreaded and the despised, both within the kingdom "and in foreign countries, teaching better things." Conversion is to be effected by persuasion, not by the sword. Buddhism was at once the most tolerant. This character of a proselytizing faith which wins its victories by peaceful means, so strongly impressed upon it by Asoka, has remained a prominent feature of Buddhism to the present day. Asoka, however, not only took measures to spread the religion; he also endeavoured to secure its orthodoxy. He collected the body of doctrine into an authoritative version, in the Magadhi language or dialect of his central kingdom in Behar,—a version which for two thousand years has formed the canon (pitakas) of the southern Buddhists.

The fourth and last of the great councils was held under King Kanishka, according to one tradition, four hundred years Buddha’s death. The date of Kanishka is still uncertain; but, from the evidence of coins and inscriptions, his reign has been fixed in the 1st century after Christ, or, say 40 A.D. Kanishka, the most famous of the Saka conquerors, ruled over north-western India and the adjoining countries. His authority had its nucleus in Kashmir, but it extended to both sides of the Himálayas, from Yarkand and Khokan to Agra and Sind. His council of five hundred compiled three commentaries on the Buddhist faith. These commentaries supplied in part materials for the Tibetan or northern canon, drawn up at a subsequent period. The northern canon, or, as the Chinese proudly call it, the "greater vehicle of the law," includes many later corruptions or developments of the Indian faith as originally embodied by Asoka (244 B.C.) in the lesser vehicle," or canon of the southern Buddhists.

The Kanishka commentaries were written in the Sanskrit language, perhaps because the Kashmír and northern priest who formed his council belonged to isolated Aryan colonies, which had been little influenced by the growth of the Indian vernacular dialects. In this way Kanishka and his Kashmír council (? 40 A.D.) became in some degree to the northern or Tibetan Buddhists what Asoka and his Patná council (244 B.C.) has been to the Buddhists of Ceylon and the south.

The missionary impulse given by Asoka quickly bore fruit. In the year after his great council at Patná his son Mahindo carried Asoka’s version of the Buddhist scriptures in the Magadhi language to Ceylon. He took with him a band of fellow missionaries; and soon afterwards his sister, the princess Sanggamitta, who had entered the order, followed with a company of nuns. It was not, however, till six hundred years later (410-432 A.D) that the holy books were rendered into Páli, the sacred language of the southern Buddhists. About the same time missionaries form Ceylon finally established the faith in Burmah (450A.D). The Burmese themselves assert that two Buddhist preachers landed in Pegu as early as 207 B.C. Some indeed place their arrival just after the Patná council (244 B.C.), and point out the ruined city of Tha-ton, between the Tsi-tang and Salwin estuaries, as the scene of their pious labours. Siam was converted to Buddhism in 638 A.D.; Java received its missionaries direct from India between the 5th and 7th centuries, and spread the faith to Bali and Sumatra. While southern Buddhism was thus wafted across the ocean, another stream of missionaries had found its way by Central Asia into China. Their first arrival in that empire is said to date from the 2s century B.C., although it was not till 65 A.D. that Buddhism there became an established religion. The Graeco-Bactrian kingdoms in the Punjab and beyond it afforded a favourable soil for the faith. The Scythian dynasties that succeeded them accepted it, and the earliest remains which recent discovery has unearthed in Afghánistán are Buddhist. Kanishka’s council, soon after the commencement of the Christian era, gave a fresh impetus to the faith . Tibet, south Central Asia, and Chian lay along the great missionary routes of northern Buddhism; the Kirghis are said to have carried Buddhist settlements as far west as the Caspian; on the east, the religion was introduced into the Korea in 372 A.D., and thence into Japan in 552.

Buddhism never ousted Bráhmanism from any large part of India. The two systems co-existed as popular religions during more than a thousand years (244 B.C. to about 800 A.D.), and modern Hinduism is the joint product of both. Certain kings and certain eras were intensely Buddhistic; but the continuous existence of Bráhmanism is abundantly proved from the time of Alexander (327 B.C.) downwards. The historian who chronicles his march, and the Greek ambassador Megasthenes, who succeeded them (330 B.C.) in their literary labours, bear witness to the predominance of the old faith in the period immediately preceding Asoka. Inscriptions, local legends, Sankrit literature, and the drama disclose the survival of Bráhman influence during the next six centuries (244 B.C.) to 400 A.D.). From 400 A.D. we have the evidence of the Chinese pilgrims, who toiled through Central Asia into India as the birthplace of their faith. Fa-Hian entered India from Afghánistán, and journeyed down the whole Gangetic valley to the Bay of Bengal in 399-413 A.D. He found Bráhman priests equally honoured with Buddhist monks, and temples to the Indian gods side by side with the religious houses of his own faith. Hwen Tsang also traveled to India from China by the Central Asia route, and has left a fuller record of the state of the two religions in the 7th century. His journey extended from 629 to 645 A.D., and everywhere throughout India he found the two faiths eagerly competing for the suffrages of the people. By that time, indeed, Bráhmanism was beginning to assert itself at the expense of the other religion. The monuments of the great Buddhist monarchs, Asoka and Kanishka, confronted him from the time he neared the Punjab frontier; but so also did the temples of Siva and his "dread" queen Bhímá. Throughout north-western India he found Buddhist converts and monks surrounded by "swarms of heretics." The political power was also divided, although the Buddhist sovereigns predominated. A Buddhist monarch ruled over ten kingdoms in Afghánistán. At Pesháwar the great monastery built by Kanishka was deserted, but the populace remained faithful. In Kashmír king and people were devout Buddhists, under the teaching of five hundred monasteries and five thousand monks. In the country identified with Jáipur, on the other hand, the inhabitants were devoted to heresy and war.

Buddhist influence in northern India seems, during the 7th century A.D., to have centred in the fertile doáb or plain between the Jumna and the Ganges. At Kanauj (Kanyákubja), on the latter river, Hwen Tsang found a powerful Buddhist monarch, Síláditya, whose influence reached from the Punjab to north-eastern Bengal, and from the Himálayas to the Narbadá river. There flourished one hundred Buddhist converts and ten thousand monks. But the king’s eldest brother had been lately slain by a sovereign of eastern India, a hater of Buddhism; and two hundred temples to the Bráhman gods reared their heads under the protection of the devout Síláditya himself. This monarch seems to have been an Asoka of the 7th century A.D., and he practised with primitive vigour the two great Buddhist virtues of spreading of the faith and charity. The former he attempted by means of a general council in 634 A.D. Twenty-one tributary sovereigns attended, together with the most learned Bráhman and Buddhist monks of their kingdoms. But the sole object of the convocation was no longer the undisputed assertion of the Buddhist religion. It dealt with the two distinct phases of the religions life of India. First there was a discussion between the Buddhists and Bráhmans, especially of the Sánkhya and Vaiseshika schools, and then followed a dispute between the two Buddhist sects who followed respectively the northern and the southern canons, known as "the greater and the lesser vehicle of the law." The rites of the populace were of as composite a character as the doctrines of their teachers. On the first day of the council a statue of Buddha was installed with great pomp; on the second, an image of the sun-god; on the third, a figure of Siva.

Síláditya held a solemn distribution of his royal treasures every five years. Hwen Tsang described how on the plain near Allahábád, where the Ganges and the Jumna unite their waters, all the kings of the empire, and a vast multitude of people, were feasted for seventy-five days. Síláditya brought forth the stores of his palace, and gave them away to Bráhmans and Buddhists, monks and heretics, without distinction. At the end of the festival he stripped off his jewels and royal raiment, gave them to the bystanders, and, like Buddha of old, put on the rags of a beggar. By this ceremony the monarch commemorated the Great Renunciation of the founder of the Buddhist faith, and at the same time practised the highest duty inculcated alike by the Buddhist and Bráhmanical religions, namely, almsgiving. Hwen Tsang described a distribution on a smaller scale in the western kingdom of Valabhí (circa 636 A.D.) "For seven days every year the king holds a great assembly at which he distributed to the multitude or recluses choice dishes, the three garments, medicine, the seven precious things, and rare objects of great value. After giving all these in alms he buys them back at double price." The intellect of this king, we are told, was weak and narrow.1 Similar "fields of charity" seem to have been held by many Buddhist princes in memory of the Great Renunciation. The vast monastery of Nalanda in Behar formed a seat of learning which recalls he universities of mediaeval Europe. Ten thousand monks and movies of the eighteen schools there studied theology, philosophy, law, science, especially medicine, and practised their devotions. They were supported form the royal funds.

Hwen Tsang traveled from the Punjab to the mouth of the Ganges, and made journeys into southern India. But everywhere he found the two religions mingled. Gayá which holds so high a sanctity in the legends of Buddha, has already become a great Bráhman centre. On the east of Bengal, Assam has never been converted to Buddhism. In the south-west, Orissa was a stronghold of the faith; at the seaport of Tamluk at the mouth of the Húgli (Hooghly), the temples to the Bráhman gods were five times more numerous than the convents of the faithful. On the Madras coast Buddhism flourished; and indeed throughout southern India the faith seems still to have been in the ascendant, although struggling against Bráhman heretics and their gods.

During the next two centuries Bráhmanishm gradually became the ruling religion. There are legends of persecutions instigated by Bráhman reformers, such as Kumarila Bhatta and Sankar-Achárjya. But the downfall of Buddhism seems to have resulted from natural decay, and from new movements of religious thought, rather than from any general suppression by the sword. Its extinction is contemporaneous with the rise of Hinduism, and belongs to a subsequent part of this sketch. In the 11th century, only outlaying states, such as Kashmír and Orissa, remained faithful; and before the Mahomentans fairly came upon the scene Buddhism as a popular faith has disappeared from India. During the last ten centuries Buddhism ahs been a banished religion from its native home. But it has won greater triumphs in its exile than it could ever have achieved in the land of its birth. It has created a literature and a religion for more than a third of the human race, and has profoundly affected the beliefs of the rest. Five hundred millions of men, or 35 per cent. of the inhabitants of the world, still follow the teaching of Buddha. Afghánistá, Nepál, Eastern Turkistán, Tibet, Mongolia, Manchuria, China, Japan, the Eastern Archipelago, Siam, Burmah, Ceylon, and India at one time marked the magnificent circumference of its conquests. Its shrines and monasteries stretched in a continuous line from the Caspian to the Pacific, and still extend from the confines of the Russian empire to the equatorial archipelago. During twenty-four centuries Buddhism has encountered and outlived a series of powerful rivals. At this day it forms one of the three great religions of the world, and is more numerously followed than either Christianity or Islám. In India its influence has survived its separate existence. It not only left behind it’s a distinct sect, but supplied a basic upon which Bráhmanism finally developed from the creed of a caste into the religion of the people. This Buddhistic influence on Hinduism will be afterwards noticed. The distinct sect is known as the JAINS (q.v.), who number about half a million 2 in India. The noblest survivals of Buddhism in India are to be found, not among any peculiar body, but in the religion of the people; in that principle of the brotherhood of man, with the reassertion of which each new revival of Hinduism starts; in the asylum which the great Hindu sects afford to women who have fallen victims to caste rules, to the widow and the out-caste; in that gentleness and charity to all men, which take the place of a poor-law in India, and give a high significance to the half-satirical epithet of the "mild" Hindu.


786-1 Report of Arch, Survey, Western India, for 1874-75, p. 83.

786-2 Returned by the census of 1872 as 485,020 "Buddhists" in India, besides the 2,447,831 Buddhists in Burmah. Except in a few spots, chiefly among the spurs of the Himálayas and in south-eastern Bengal, the Indian Buddhists may be generally reckoned as Jains.

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