By Jayaram V
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This article describes the history of Buddhism in
the Indian subcontinent during the post Mauryan Period starting
from the Sungas, the Satavahanas and the Kushanas with a brief
note on Vajrayana Buddhism and reasons for the decline of
The Mauryas were succeeded by the Sungas, who ruled large parts
of northern India between 185 B.C. and 73 B.C., with Vidisa in eastern Malwa as
their capital. The Sungas were avowed followers of Vedic religion and showed little
respect for other religions. They promoted Hinduism actively and were intolerant
towards Buddhism. According to Buddhist tradition, they made serious attempts to
suppress the religion and even indulged in religious persecution. Pushyamitra Sunga,
one of the most prominent ruler of the dynasty, was said to be a great persecutor
of Buddhism. Apart from patronizing Brahminism at the expense of other faiths, he
was referred as a religious bigot who indulged in the destruction of several
Buddhist monuments, including a famous monastery at Pataliputra. He said to have
even offered monetary reward for killing the Buddhist monks. Some historians do
not agree with this theory and point out the construction of the Buddhist
stupas and railings at Barhut and the uninterrupted existence of several other stupas
and Buddhist monuments throughout the kingdom of the Sungas as evidence their religious
The Satavahanas ruled large parts of Andhrapradesh, Maharashtra and central India
between 200 BC and 250 AD. Like the Sungas they were Brahmin rulers, but unlike
the former, displayed exemplary tolerance towards other religions. Both Buddhism
and Hinduism flourished and coexisted peacefully during their reign. They made generous
grants for the construction and maintenance of several monasteries, cave dwellings
and residential quarters for the Buddhist monks. Several Buddhist centers flourished
and gained prominence like the ones at Amaravathi and Nagarjunakonda in Andhrapradesh
during their period.
The Kushanas - Kanishka
Emperor Kanishka was a Saka-Kushana king. He is remembered in Indian history
as a great patron of Buddhism, next to Asoka. He ruled parts of central Asia and
north Western India some time during the early Christian era. The fourth Buddhist
council was held in Kashmir under his patronage.
During this period, the Mahayana school of Buddhism became popular in the north
while Hianayana remained popular in the south and in Ceylon. The Mahayana doctrines
crossed the frontiers of the sub-continent and traveled eastwards to China and other
far eastern countries.
The Gupta Period
The Guptas ruled large tracts of the Indian subcontinent from the fourth century
A.D. to the sixth century A.D. They were great patrons of Vedic religion. Fahien,
a Chinese Buddhist monk visited India during the reign of Chandra Gupta II and stayed
in India for six years.
His travel account throws considerable light on the socio-religious life in the
country during this period. Fahien noted that Buddhism was still popular, though
Hinduism was gaining ground under the patronage of the Guptas. He also commented
that due to the influence of Buddhism and Jainism many people from higher sections
of society had become vegetarians.
The Post Gupta Period
At the close of the fifth century A.D., the Huna began their invasions into India.
The Hunas were the most cruel foreign rulers to invade India in ancient times. They
were also known for their religious intolerance. Both Hsuan Tsang and the famous
Kashmiri poet, Kalhana, recorded the cruel persecution they meted out to Buddhists.
Fortunately the Hunas had a short reign in the country and thereby the native religions
escaped from a great destruction.
In the first decade of seventh century A.D., Harshavardhana ascended the throne
at the age of sixteen. He ruled large parts of central and northern India. His reign
lasted for about forty one years. He is also known in Indian history as a great
patron of Buddhism, and a man of considerable virtues.
Hsuan Tsang, the famous Buddhist scholar from China, visited India during his
reign and stayed in his court for seven years. Like Fa-hien, his predecessor, he
also recorded his experiences in India in the form of a book. He gave a fairly accurate
picture of the conditions prevailing in the country during his several years' stay.
He described Nalanda as a great center of learning for Buddhist monks.
Harshavardhana was a follower of Buddhism. But like many other emperor in the
recorded history of India, he was tolerant of other religions and also worshipped
some Hindu gods. He saved Buddhism from the hands of Sasanka, who was bent upon
destroying Buddhist monuments and harassing Buddhist followers. Despite of support
from Harhsavardhana, Buddhism was in decline in various parts of the country.
During the early eight century A.D. Vajrayana Buddhism appeared in eastern India.
It gained wider acceptance in Bihar and Bengal. The Vikramasila monastery in Bihar
was popular center for this new sect, which was partly based upon the ancient Vedic
Tantric practices and worship of Mother Goddess. In subsequent times, Tibet and
Nepal came under the influence of Vajrayana Buddhism. Sub-sects such as Sahajayana,
Kalachakrayana, and Mantrayana soon arose out of this new sect.
Despite of the support and patronage by Harshavardhana and by Pala kings, who
came later, by the end of twelfth century A.D, Buddhism declined as a major religious
force in the sub-continent . The growing influence of Bhakti movement and the religious
bigotry of the Muslim invaders sealed what ever opportunities it had for revival
and renewal. However Buddhism continued to flourish in other parts of the world,
especially in China, Korea, Japan, Cambodia, Thailand and other far eastern countries.
Today Buddhism is practised in various parts of the world. In India it has the
dubious distinction of a separate religion as well as a movement with in Hinduism.
The Hindus consider the Buddha as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. But the Buddhists
disagree. As a religion, except in certain parts like Sikkhim, Ladakh, Buddhism
is a minority religion in India.
But in neighboring Nepal, Bhutan and Ceylon it is still very popular religion.
Though it greatly disappeared in main land China, it still survives in many far
eastern countries and Japan. The west was introduced to Buddhism mainly in the last
century. It is presently attracting many new followers from the western world. As
a religion and as a way of life, Buddhism has a great religions appeal to the educated
and liberal minded people of the west. It has an inherent strength, a certain dignified
charm . It will continue to attract many new followers.
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Suggested Further Reading