Wednesday, October 21, 2009




Buddhist Door, Tung Lin Kok Yuen, Hong Kong
Hong Kong, 2009

Communication Address of Corresponding Author:
Block – EE, No.-80, Flat No.-2A,
Salt Lake City, Sector-2,
Kolkata - 700091, West Bengal, INDIA.
Mobile: +91-9434485543 (India), +852-96195078 (Hong Kong)



Due to the lack of historical and archeological evidence, there is no absolute consensus till date on what led to the disappearance of Buddhism from India. However, if we analyze all the contributing factors and arrange them in a chronological order, we would realize that the whole sequence of events was initiated by the Buddhist monks when they had abandoned the community visits and concentrated on their own salvation instead of helping the common people and oppressed classes to end their sufferings. As the lay devotees were ignored, Buddhism started losing the general support from the community. Subsequently, the Brahmins took advantage of this situation and deepened the rift between the common people and the Buddhist practitioners. They also manipulated the contemporary rulers to withdraw their support from Buddhism and help in reviving the existing Brahmanism. This was followed by the revival of Hinduism and further decline of Buddhism.

Key words: Buddhism, Disappearance, Decline, Responsibility, Brahmanism, Brahmin, Hinduism.


It is still unknown as to what led to the disappearance of Buddhism from India, the land of its origin. Many scholars of Indian history and religion are devoted to unraveling this enigma. Due to the lack of historical and archeological evidence, the debate continues for centuries and there is no absolute consensus on this matter till date.1 Two factors were generally cited as the main reasons for the ultimate disappearance of Buddhism from India. The first one was the Vedic revival, which drove the religion out the country and this was followed by the invading hordes of the Prophet Mohammed, who razed the temples and slaughtered the remaining unresisting monks.1,2,3

Buddhism was a Critical Response to the Existing Brahmanism
Conflicts of opinions prevail while identifying the probable factors leading to the disappearance of Buddhism from India during the 12th century A.D. A few scholars however, cherish the opinion that Buddhism never disappeared as such from India and subsequently got incorporated into the Hinduism. They believe that modern Hinduism in India is a new form of ancient Buddhism.2,3 Due to the striking similarities in the teachings of Buddhism and modern Hinduism, there is another group of scholars who uphold the theory that Buddhism is a restatement of Hinduism.1,2,4 But this notion is absolutely false as Hinduism is a much later development after the disappearance of Buddhism from India. If someone has to relate any ancient religion in India with Buddhism, it should be the existing Brahmanism which paved way to the introduction of Buddhism in India by Sakyamuni Buddha during the 6th century B.C., who was a historical personality. Buddhism should be viewed as a critical response to the existing Brahmanism. Buddhism came into existence in order to wipe off the existing four-tier caste system in India laid down by the Aryans. As the status of women was remarkably subdued and deplorable during the period of Brahmanism, Buddhism came to the rescue by upholding the women’s rights and focused on empowerment of women in the society. Sakyamuni Buddha was the first historical personality who rose against all odds to abolish discrimination and violence against women in the existing Indian society.1,2,5

Gradual Decline of Buddhism in India during the 7th Century A.D.
Though Buddhism had been the dominant religion in much of the Gangetic plains in the early part of the Christian era, but the Chinese traveler, Ven. Hsuan Tsang, during his visit to India in the early years of the 7th century, had witnessed a recession. The testimony of Ven. Hsuan Tsang, had demonstrated the gradual decline of Buddhism in India. In Prayag or present Allahabad, he had encountered many non-Buddhists. This was not surprising considering the importance of Prayag as a pilgrimage site for Brahmins.1,2,3

Shravasti was the capital city of the Lichhavis, a north Indian clan that came to power around 200 AD and established their capital in Pasupatinath. In a long and glorious period of reign extending through the early part of the ninth century, they had endowed a large number of both Hindu and Buddhist monuments and monasteries. However, during his visit, Ven. Hsuan Tsang witnessed a much greater number of Saivites and Jains than Buddhists. 1,2,3,5

Kushinagar, the small village near Gorakhpur where the Buddha had gone into Mahaparinibbana, was in a dilapidated state and Ven. Hsuan Tsang found only a few Buddhists. Though in Varanasi, Ven. Hsuan Tsang found around 3000 Bhikkus or Buddhist monks, but they were outshadowed by more than 10,000 non-Buddhists. Hence, we can conclude that Ven. Hsuan Tsang had arrived in India at a time when Buddhism was entering into a state of precipitous decline. But even as Buddhism went into decline, it is remarkable that Nalanda, the great seat of Buddhist learning, continued to flourish by retaining its importance until the Muslim invasions of the second millennium. It was from Nalanda that Ven. Padmasambhava had carried Buddhism to Tibet during the eighth century.1,2,3,4,5

Hence, it is evident that the story of Buddhism in India cannot be unequivocally written in a single register of decline as the entire process of decline was gradual and spread over a long period of time.

Contributing Factors for the Disappearance of Buddhism from India
Buddhism had altogether disappeared from India as a formal religion during the 13th century A.D.6 In order to explore the contributing factors for the decline and disappearance of Buddhism from India; we need to consider all the events in a sequential and chronological order. These factors could be arranged under the following major headings: (a) Sectarian and Internal Conflicts – Relating to the schisms within the Buddhist faith; the widening differences between the clergy, Buddhist monks and laity; and the growing corruption within the sangha. (b) Buddhists were persecuted by Brahmins - Alleged persecution of Buddhists by Brahmins; the defeat of the Buddhists by the great theologian Adi Shankaracharya in public debates; as well as the characteristic tendency of Hinduism, or rather Brahmanism, to absorb its opponents. (c) Secular and political histories - Withdrawal of royal patronage from Buddhism was followed by the Muslim invasions which had the effect of driving into extinction the already debilitated Buddhist community.1,2,3,5,6

It is important to understand that Buddhism was never wiped off from India on a single day and in any single event. Like the causal web of a disease, it was a multi-factorial causation. The process of decline and subsequent disappearance was gradual and lasted for many centuries. So, before we get into the details of any historical analysis, we should first arrange the factors in a chronological order and observe the interdependency of a previous event leading to the next.

Relationship between Buddhism and Brahmanism
Many narrative accounts of Buddhism’s decline and eventual disappearance from the land of its faith had been focused on Buddhism’s relations with Hinduism or Brahmanism. Some scholars believe that Buddhism never got wiped off from Indian society. On the contrary, it simply changed form and was later absorbed into Hindu practices. They believe that Buddhism disappeared, not on account of persecution by Hindus, but because of the ascendancy of reformed Hinduism. However, there is enough historical evidence to suggest that the Buddhists were persecuted by Brahmins who were keen to assert their caste supremacy. The renowned historian S.R. Goyal concluded that "according to many scholars hostility of the Brahmins was one of the major causes of the decline of Buddhism in India."1,2,3,5

The Buddha’s fight against Brahmanism won him many enemies from among the Brahmins. They were not as greatly opposed to his philosophical teachings as they were to his message of universal brotherhood and equality. As this directly challenged their hegemony and the scriptures, the Brahmins had invented to legitimize this. To combat Buddhism and revive the tottering Brahminical hegemony, Brahminical revivalists resorted to a three-pronged strategy. At the beginning, they launched a campaign of hatred and persecution against the Buddhists. This was followed by the incorporation of many of the finer aspects of Buddhism into the system of Hinduism so as to win over their "lower" caste and newly converted Buddhist masses. However, the Brahmins made sure that these selective appropriations did not in any way undermine Brahminical hegemony. The final blow of the Brahmins to wipeout Buddhism was to propound and propagate the myth that the Buddha was merely another incarnation (avatar) of the Hindu god Vishnu. The historical Buddha was thus turned into just another of the countless mythological deities of the Brahminical pantheon.1,2,3,7

But the hostile attitude of Brahmanism alone could not explain the disappearance of Buddhism from India. As we recall the history, Brahminical opposition to Buddhism was always present right from day one. It was nothing new. If Buddhism could survive and prosper for more than thousand years in spite of Brahminical opposition, there was no reason for it to decline over the time. The "Brahminical opposition" itself was also exaggerated at times by some historians.
We should remember that Buddha himself belonged to the Kshatriya (worrier) caste of Brahmanism which was next to the Brahmins. So, the Brahmins never had any problem related to caste discrimination while accepting his teachings. The first five disciples of the Buddha were the Brahmins. Most of the great Arahants of Buddhism belonged to the Brahmin caste. Historical evidence also suggested that more than any other caste it were the Brahmins themselves who contributed the most in the development of Buddhism.

However, some of the Brahmins did not like the way the outcaste and lower caste community were rapidly getting converted into Buddhism and gaining higher status in the society. The importance of the Brahmins in the Indian society was significantly diminished during the propagative phase of Buddhism. This sense of insecurity among some of the Brahmins vitiated their minds with jealousy which later got transformed into vengeance towards the contemporary Buddhist followers.

Buddhists Were Persecuted by Brahmins
Buddhism did not have any caste discrimination. As Buddhism rose to abolish the caste system in the existing Brahmanism society, majority of the lower castes and outcastes were getting converted into Buddhism in order to attain higher social status. This sent a signal of uncertainty among the Brahmins who were losing grounds on critical arguments with the Buddhist monks and were unable to dominate and rule the deprived section of the Indian society. This sense of insecurity soon led to the development of jealousy and hatred in the minds of the Brahmins who began to assault both physically and mentally and victimize the Buddhist community.1,2,3,5

In recent years this view is championed not only by some Dalit writers, but also some scholars of pre-modern Indian history. Many Hindu nationalists often believe that many Muslim monuments of recent era were actually Hindu temples in earlier times. However, based on archeological evidence, the modern historians are inclined to the view that Hindu temples were often built on the sites of Buddhist shrines.1,2,3,5

The Buddhists, who survived in India after the decline of Buddhism, were finally absorbed into the Hindu caste system, mainly as Shudras. To lend legitimacy to their campaign against Buddhism, Brahminical texts included fierce strictures against Buddhists. Manu, in his Manusmriti, laid down that, “If a person touches a Buddhist he shall purify himself by having a bath.” Aparaka ordained the same in his Smriti. Vradha Harit declared entry into a Buddhist temple as a sin, which could only be expiated for by taking a ritual bath. Even dramas and other books for lay people written by Brahmins contained venomous propaganda against the Buddhists. In the classic work, Mricchakatika, (Act VII), the hero Charudatta, on seeing a Buddhist monk pass by, exclaims to his friend Maitriya" "Ah! Here is an inauspicious sight, a Buddhist monk coming towards us." The Brahmin Chanakya, author of Arthashastra, declared that, "When a person entertains a dinner dedicated to gods and ancestors, then for those who are Sakyas (Buddhists), Ajivikas, Shudras and exiled persons, a fine of one hundred panas shall be imposed on him." 7

The Revival of Hinduism
The Vedic revival during the 8th century A.D. was referred to as the revival of Hinduism by the Western Scholars. This was initiated by Adi Shankaracharya in the Gangetic plains of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The Hindus of Rajasthan also participated in this hostile revival activity. After the death of Harshavardhana, the Rajputs were arising on horizons of North India. The Rajputs belonged to the lineage from among the remnants of Hunas and other foreign hordes which were broken down by the activities of kings like Baladitya and the local tibals. The Rajputs were made prominent by the Brahmins for the specific purpose of suppressing Buddhism by use of force. They subsequently dominated the later part of the history of India and played a key role in the revival of Hinduism.1,2,3,5

During this time, the popular devotion to the Buddha was sought to be replaced by devotion to Hindu gods such as Rama and Krishna. The existing version of the Mahabharata was written in this period when the decline of Buddhism had already begun. It was specially meant for the lower caste community (Shudras), most of whom were Buddhists, in order to attract them away from Buddhism. However, Brahmanism still prevented the Shudras from having access to the Vedas. The Mahabharata was possibly rewritten to placate the Buddhist Shudras and to compensate them for this discrimination. The Mahabharata incorporated some of the humanistic elements of Buddhism to win over the Shudras. Overall, it played the role of bolstering the Brahminical hegemony. Thus, Krishna, in the Gita, was made to say that a person should not violate the divinely ordained law of caste. Eklavya was made to slice off his thumb by Drona, who found it a gross violation of dharma that a mere tribal boy should excel the Kshatriya Arjun in archery.7

The various writers of the puranas carried out this systematic campaign of hatred, slander and calumny against the Buddhists. The Brahannardiya Purana made it a principal sin for Brahmins to enter the house of a Buddhist even at times of great peril. The Vishnu Purana alleged that the Buddha as Maha Moha or the great seducer. It further cautioned against the sin of conversing with Buddhists and lays. Those who merely talked to Buddhist ascetics should be sent to hell. In the Gaya Mahatmaya, the concluding section of the Vayu Purana, the town of Gaya was identified as Gaya Asura, a demon who had attained such holiness that all those who saw him or touched him went straight to heaven. Clearly, this demon was none other the Buddha who preached a simple way for all, including the oppressed castes, to attain salvation.

The Vayu Purana story went on to add that Yama, the king of hell, grew jealous. This was possibly because less people were now entering his domains. He appealed to the gods to limit the powers of Asura Gaya. The gods, led by Vishnu, were able to restrict his powers by placing a massive stone on the demon’s head. This monstrous legend signified the ultimate capture of Buddhism’s most holy centre by its inveterate foes.7

Kushinagar, also known as Harramba, was one of the most important Buddhist centres as the Buddha breathed his last there. The Brahmins, envious of the prosperity of this pilgrim town, invented an absurd theory in order to discourage people from going there. They spread a rumor that if one died in Harramba, he would go to hell. However, if one died in Kashi, the citadel of Brahmanism, he would go straight to the heaven. This belief got deeply rooted in the minds of the local community. So, when the Sufi saint Kabir died in 1518 AD at Maghar, not far from Kushinagar, some of his Hindu followers refused to erect any memorial in his honor there and instead set it up at Kashi. However, Kabir's Muslim followers were less superstitious and they set up a tomb for him at Maghar itself.7

The Tendency of Hinduism to Absorb its Rival Faiths
The tendency of Hinduism to absorb rival faiths was evident from the fact that many elements from other faiths had also gone into the making of Hinduism. While some scholars focus on outright persecution, others speak of a long process during which Buddhist practices became absorbed into Hinduism. Though the doctrine of ‘ahimsa’ or non-violence had originated with the Buddha and had certainly found its greatest exposition in the Buddha’s teachings, but by the second half of the 1st millennium A.D. it had become an integral part of the Hindu teachings. However, it is still not certain whether the Buddha was absorbed into the Hindu pantheon as a gesture of compromise or as an attempt of divide in order to reduce the overwhelming might of Buddhism or whether Hinduism was eager to embrace as its own, certain values that Buddhism stood for against the short-comings of Brahmanism.1,2,3,5,6

The simplicity of the Buddha’s message in emphasizing its stress on equality and crusade against the bloody and costly sacrifices and ritualism of Brahmanism had attracted the oppressed casts in large numbers. The Brahminical revivalists understood the need to appropriate some of these finer aspects of Buddhism and discarded some of the worst of their own practices so as to be able to win over the masses back to the Brahminical fold. Imitating the Buddhists in this regard, the Brahmins, who were once voracious beef-eaters, had turned into vegetarians.7
Adi Shankaracharya Had Preserved Buddhism by Incorporating It into Hinduism
The great Brahmin philosopher, Adi Shankaracharya (c. 788-820 AD), took keen interest in learning the inner aspects of Buddhist philosophy. He was alleged by some scholars to have hated Buddhism and engaged the Buddhist monks in public debates and each time he had emerged triumphant. But this theory was far from truth for the simple reason that, had he successfully defeated the Buddhist monks in debates all the time and had no faith in Buddhism, then there was no logic behind his undertaking the initiative to incorporate the finer aspects of Buddhist teachings into Hinduism. So, by the time he had invited the Buddhist monks in public debates, he had already studied Buddhism and developed an immense respect for the teachings of the Buddha. 1,2,3,5

He had also realized that all the Buddhist monks with whom he had debated were not well-versed with the teachings of the Buddha. Due to their ignorance, they were unable to preach the true meaning of the doctrine of the Buddha in an effective manner. So, he took the initiative to include the finer aspects of Buddhism into the core teachings of Hinduism. Under his supervision, the Vedas, Bhagavad Gita and Puranas were rewritten incorporating these new aspects. The Buddha was also transformed into an avatara (descent) of Vishnu. 1,2,3,5

The monastic practices had been unknown in Brahmanism, but this practice was also initiated under the leadership of Adi Shankaracharya. He had established ‘maths’ or monasteries at Badrinath in the north, Dwarka in the west, Sringeri in the south, and Puri in the east.1,2,3

Modern Hinduism is a Restatement of Buddhism
The finer aspects of Buddhism were later incorporated into the Vedas, Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads by Adi Shankaryacharya during the revival of Hinduism in 8th century A.D. As a result of this, we do not find any major difference between the teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism in modern era. Lay people and many scholars often get deceived by ignoring the chronological order of historical development of Brahmanism, Buddhism and Hinduism and they are unable to make any distinction between these. We should understand that Hinduism was a later development after Buddhism. There is enough historical evidence that Buddhism paved the way for refining the teachings of Hinduism which came into existence after the disappearance of Buddhism from India. We must always remember that the finer aspects of Buddhism had been later incorporated into Hinduism under the supervision of Adi Shankaracharya during the 8th century A.D. 1,2,3

So, by observing the strikingly similar teachings in both these religions, it would be wiser to conclude that modern Hinduism is a restatement of ancient Buddhism. The reverse of this statement is never true on historical perspectives, as an earlier religion cannot predict or copy the teachings of a future religion.1,2,3

Secular and Political Factors
During the rule of the Kushanas and the Guptas (325-497 AD), both Buddhists and adherents of Brahmanism received royal patronage. However, the royal patronage had shifted from Buddhist to Hindu religious institutions from the beginning of the sixth century A.D. Buddhism began to suffer a decline as Brahmanism veered off into Vaishnavism and Saivism. This was followed by some regional kingdoms subsequently developing into the major sites of power. 1,2,3,5

Shashanka, the Shaivite Brahmin king of Bengal was a ferocious oppressor of the Buddhists. The single original source for all subsequent narratives about Shashanka’s ruinous conduct towards Buddhists was documented by Ven. Hsuan Tsang during his visit to India in early part of the seventh century A.D.

But the exact reasons for his hostile attitude towards Buddhism were not known. It was believed that the Brahminical revivalists had goaded the Hindu kings like him to persecute and even slaughter innocent Buddhists.7 It was reported that Shashanka had destroyed the Bodhi tree of Bodh Gaya and ordered the destruction of all Buddhist images and monasteries in his kingdom. This biased and sectarian policy of Shashanka had broken the backbone of Buddhism in India.1,2,3,5,6

Shashanka had also murdered the last Buddhist emperor Rajyavardhana, elder brother of Harshavardhana, in 605 AD. He had marched on to Bodh Gaya and destroyed the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha had attained enlightenment. He forcibly removed the Buddha's image from the Bodhi Vihara near the tree and installed one of Shiva in its place. Shashanka is alleged to have slaughtered all the Buddhist monks in the area around Kushinagar.1,2,3,7

After the rule of Shashanka, the Pala kingdom was established in Bengal. Though the Palas of Bengal had been hospitable to Vaishnavism and Saivism, but nonetheless they were major supporters of Buddhism. However, when Bengal came under the rule of the Senas (1097-1223), Saivism was promulgated and Buddhism was neglected. 1,2,3 Another hostile Shaivite king like Shashanka was Mihirakula who had completely destroyed over 1500 Buddhist shrines. His hostile action was followed by the Shaivite, Toramana who had destroyed the Ghositarama Buddhist monastery at Kausambi.7

Many scholars often like to represent Brahminism as a tyrannical faith that caused massive destruction of the Buddhist monasteries. But this matter is however, far more complicated than this. A recent study of the Bengal Puranas proved that the Buddhists were mocked and projected as mischievous and malicious in Brahminical narratives as well as subjected to immense rhetorical violence. This rhetorical violence should be interpreted as both physical and mental violence perpetrated upon the Buddhists. The extermination of Buddhism in India was hastened by the large-scale destruction of Buddhist shrines by the Brahmins. The Maha Bodhi Vihara at Bodh Gaya was forcibly converted into a Shaivite temple.1,2,3,5,6,7

The controversy of the actual ownership of Maha Bodhi Vihara at Bodh Gaya lingered till it was declared as a “World Heritage” by the UNESCO in recent years. The cremation stupa of the Buddha at Kushinagar was changed into a Hindu temple dedicated to the obscure deity with the name of Ramhar Bhavani. Adi Shankaracharya was alleged to have established his Sringeri Mutth on the site of a Buddhist monastery which he took over by force. 7 At present, many Hindu shrines in Ayodhya are believed to have once been Buddhist temples earlier. This is also the case with other famous Brahminical temples such as those at Sabarimala, Tirupati, Badrinath and Puri.7
Even though there was hatred against Buddhism, but the Brahmins could never deny or disrespect the inner truths in the teachings of the Buddha. So, the subsequent absorption of the Buddha into Vishnu’s pantheon represented some sort of a compromise between the Brahmins and the Buddhists on moral and philosophical grounds. What Buddhism stood for to promote peace and harmony in the society, had been later incorporated into certain strands of modern Hinduism in order to make it more refined and acceptable to the society. Thus, the Buddha was finally given his just dues. 1,2,3,5,6

Though the Buddha is now incorporated into modern Hinduism as Lord Vishnu’s pantheon, but he should not be regarded as a god of the Hindu religion. It needs to be emphasized once again that the Buddha was never a mythological figure as Lord Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma or Rama, but he was a real historical personality.4 Hence, in the light of historical evidence, we should now interpret the disappearance of Buddhism from India as a parable about how a social myth had outlived a historical event.1,2,3

If we analyze all the contributing factors and arrange them in a chronological order, we would realize that the whole sequence of events was initiated by the Buddhist monks and clergy when they had ignored the teachings of the Buddha and concentrated on accumulation of abundance of wealth in the monasteries. This had made them over-satisfied and lethargic. They were often engaged in disputes over money matters and leadership. So, they abandoned the community visits and concentrated on their own salvation instead of helping the common people and oppressed classes to end their sufferings. As the community was ignored, the tight bonding between the lay devotees and the Buddhist monasteries became weak and finally broke loose.

This restricted the spread of Buddhism in India and soon Buddhism started losing the general support from the community. Subsequently, the Brahmins took advantage of this situation and deepened the rift between the common people and the Buddhist practitioners that included the monks and clergy. The Brahmins also manipulated the contemporary rulers to withdraw their support from Buddhism and help in reviving the existing Brahmanism.

This was followed by the revival of Hinduism and further decline of Buddhism. Towards the end stage of the outright massacre of Buddhist followers and demolition of Buddhist monasteries on a large scale, there was the Muslim invasion of India. During this time, majority of the surviving Buddhists in India, who earlier belonged to the lower class Hindus, was forcefully converted into Islam. Some of them of course, willingly adopted Islam as it did not have any caste discrimination and was powerful enough to save them from the torture of Brahmins and upper class Hindus.


1. Lal, V. 2004. Buddhism’s Disappearance from India [serial online]. [cited 2009 August 26]; [2 screens]. Available from: URL:

2. Jaini, P.S., Narain A.K., ed., 1980. The Disappearance of Buddhism and the Survival of Jainism: A Study in Contrast. Studies in History of Buddhism. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Company:181-91.

3. Ahir, D.C. 2005. Buddhism Declined in India: How and Why? Delhi: B.R. Publishing.

4. Kantowsky, D. 2003. Buddhists in India Today: Descriptions, Pictures and Documents. Delhi: Manohar Publications: 156.

5. Goyal, S.R. 1987. A History of Indian Buddhism. Meerut: 394.

6. Beal, S. 1884. Si-Yu Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World. London: Trubner & Co., reprint ed., Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corporation.

7. Pakistan Defence. 2008. Disappearance of Buddhism from "Non Violent India": An Untold Story. Daily Muslims. [serial online]. [cited 2009 October 8]; [2 screens]. Available from: URL:

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