Buddhism in India   Leave a comment


The ‘Hindutva’ forces, so powerful in India today, make much of the argument that historically Hinduism has been a tolerant religion, absorbing and co-opting its opponents rather than using force against them, and they, in contrast, depict Islam as a violent, prosyletising religion. This argument fails when we consider the problem of historical evidence.
Brahmanism was intolerant of ‘heretics’(pashandas) is quite clear from the Sanskrit sources themselves. The story of Rama killing Shambuk is symbolic of violence exerted both against ‘low’ castes who overstepped their role and against ‘heretical ascetics’. The Arthashastra is quite specific in classifying the samana sects along with untouchables: ‘Heretics and Candalas shall stay in land allotted to them beyond the cremation ground’ (Arthasastra 1992: 193). More specifically, Kautalya says, in Rangarajan’s translation, ‘Ascetics who live in ashramas and Pashandas [who live in reserved areas] shall do so without annoying each other; they shall put up with minor irritations. Those who are already living in an area shall make room for newcomers; any one who objects to giving room shall be expelled’. The passage makes it clear that pashandas were forced into something like ‘reservations’.
The Arthashastra’s general orientation suggests that Buddhists were looked upon as being equivalent to untouchables; and a Maharashtra historian, B.G. Gokhale, makes a similar point when he notes that Buddhists in the late period in Maharasthra were targets of a resurgent Brahmanism, noting that locally at Ellora and elsewhere some of their units were known as Dhedwada and Maharwada (Gokhale 1976: 118). It is not without reason that 19th and 20th century Dalit leaders such as Ambedkar and Iyothee Thass argued that Dalits were descendents of Buddhists who had been transformed into untouchables by Brahmans.
As Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty’s study of the Gupta period puranas makes clear, Brahmanical attitudes towards pashandas hardened over time. Tolerance in the period of the Upanishads and Asoka turned into a prescription for murder in the puranas. As the Linga Purana describes in its version of history, the Dharma was distroyed because of the Buddha-avatar, a ‘chastiser’ was born called Pramitra who ‘destroyed barbarians by the thousands and killed all the kings who were born of Sudras, and cut down the heretics…. At the age of 32 he set out, and for 20 years he killed all creatures by the hundreds and thousands, until the cruel act reduced the earth to nothing but ashes’ (O’Flaherty 1983: 123). The version she cites from the Matsya Purana is equally stark:
Those who were unrighteous—he killed them all: those in the north and in the central country, and the mountain people, the inhabitants of the east and the west, those in the area of the highlands of the Vindhyas, and those in the Deccan, and the Dravidians and Sinhalas, the Gandharas and Paradas, the Pahlavas and Yavanas and Sakas, Tusakas, Barbaras, Svetas, Halikas, Darada, Khasas, Lampakas, Andhras and the races of the Cola. Turning the wheel of conquest, the powerful one put an end to the Sudras, putting all creatures to flight….
O’Flaherty thus calls the Matsya Purana, Vayu Purana, Brahmananda Purana, Vishnu Purana and Bhagwat Purana ‘the basic scriptures of Gupta paranoia and insecurity’. In fact, Brahmanic paranoia would be more accurate, since as she makes clear, Gupta practice was actually quite tolerant.3 Buddhist sources point more specifically to a great deal of violence in the millennial-long conflict of Buddhism and Brahmanism. Hsuan Tsang, for example, gives many stories of violence, including the well-known story of the Shaivite king Sashanka cutting down the Bodhi tree, breaking memorial stones, and attempting to destroy other images (Beal 1983: II, 91, 118, 121). He also mentions a great monumental cave-temple construction in a mountainous area in Vidarbha, said to have been done by the Satavahana king under the instigation of Nagarjuna, that was totally destroyed.
The late 16th century and early 17th century Tibetan Buddhist chronicler Taranatha describes many more incidents, referring to the ‘three hostilities’ against Buddhism, three periods when Buddhism was under violent attack. The first was that of Pushyamitra Shunga at the end of the Mauryan period:
The Brahmana king Pusyamitra, along with other tirthikas, started war and they burned down numerous monasteries from Madhyadesa to Jalandhara. They also killed a number of vastly learned monks. But most of them fled to other countries. As a result, within five years the Doctrine was extinct in the north (Taranatha 1990: 121).
The ‘second hostility’ appears to be that of Mihirakula (the fiercely anti-Buddhist king who raided north India in the 6th century), though Taranatha does not use the name and instead says a ‘Persian’ king destroyed Magadha with a Turuska army, ruined many temples and damaged Nalanda. The ‘third hostility’ had appears in the south, with less overt reliance on state power; it describes two Brahman beggars, one of whom gains magical powers to start a fire that consumes 84 temples and huge numbers of valuable documents in the country of Krishnaraja (Taranatha 1990:138, 141–42).
When fierce debates with Brahmanic pandits began to take place, these were often marked by violence. In Orissa, writes Taranatha, after one debate the tirthikas became victorious and destroyed many temples of the insiders. They robbed in particular the centers for the Doctrine and took away the deva-dasas [vihara slaves]….[Many debates were lost in the south and] as a result, there were many incidents of the property and followers of the insiders being robbed by the tirthika Brahmans (Taranatha 1990: 226).
Finally, while Turks destroyed Vikramasila and Odantapura in the 12th century, it is noted that this happened because they had mistaken them for forts and in fact the king had stationed soldiers there (Taranatha 1990: 318–19): the Turks made a simple mistake!
This destruction is taken as the final blow and marks the end of Taranatha’s chronicle, as monks fled from there to Nepal, to the south-west of India, and to south-east Asia. Violence in history is easily forgotten. A major example in India may be the Kalinga war, which is attested to by Asoka’s own inscriptions. Visiting the country of Kalinga in the 7th century, Hsuan Tsang described it as once having a dense population but then being depopulated, but gave as explanation only a story about a fabulous rishi who cursed the people. In the plethora of Buddhist legends about Asoka, which stress his wickedness before the conversion, the devastating results of his own major war were not included. The ravages of time have also played a role in erasing the Buddhist heritage of India. The glory of Ajanta’s paintings could survive until British times simply because the cave region was so inaccessible, while other monuments were simply buried—until recovery in the 19th and 20th century led to a new process of theft (with important relics ending up in European museums or private collections), destruction due to failures in maintenance including the failure of the Archaeological Survey of India today! (Menon 2001; Kalidas 2001).
In the end, the patronage of kings was important both for Buddhism and Brahmanism, and the gradual conversion of kings to Brahmanic ideology proved decisive. Rulers gave financial support to Brahmans, took the responsibility of enforcing varna laws and discriminating against ‘heretical’ sects, and refused state protection to their persons and property—if they did not actively murder and loot them themselves. Buddhists philosophised this decline; the notion of constant change was after all a major theme. The idea that the Dhamma would fade with time can be seen in Taranatha, who notes in regard to Pushyamitra Shunga that ‘as predicted, the first 500 years constituted the period of the flourish of the Law of the Teacher, and the next 500 years the period of its decay’ (Taranatha 1990:121) and writes that ‘by the influence of time, the Law was also not as bright as before.’ Thus Taranatha’s own interpretation is often one that simply sees a natural process of decay, interpreted with periodic re-establishment of the Dhamma by brilliant Bodhisattvas and teachers. His very way of telling stories of constant destruction and recovery of manuscripts and teachings suggests the fundamental transitoriness taught by Buddhism. At the same time, also shown in the stories is a many-levelled, fierce and often violent conflict at the social level.
{Excerpts from the book ‘Buddhism in India’ by Gail Omvedt}
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Posted October 9, 2018 by arjunlimbu in Uncategorized

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