Buddhism is one of the oldest religions of the world. It originated about 5th century BCE in ancient India’s part, Meghada in present day Bihar state of India. Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, a warrior prince, who was born (ca 563 BCE) in a place called Lumbini near the Himalayan foothills in present day Nepal. Gautama Buddha rejected the martial Dharma as well as the authority of Brahmins based on the esoteric veda and ritual sacrifice. He left his family in his early 30s to seek a higher path leading to Nirvana. Gautama finally achieved enlightenment as the Buddha in a place called Gaya, Bihar. The enlightened Buddha then began to preach his teachings. In his first sermon, the Buddha conveyed the four noble truths and the eight fold path, his teachings i.e. path of salvation to his followers which became the core of Buddhism. Throughout the rest of his life until his death at the age of 80 around 480 BCE, the Buddha preached his teachings/ideals. As Buddhism accepts all who adopts its middle way, it spread rapidly among many different classes in India. The Buddha and subsequent Buddhist teachers developed the tactics of appropriate teaching so that the followers could appreciate and easily understand. As such the teachings of Buddha spread outside of Bihar during Buddha’s lifetime. The Buddha also sent his disciples to spread the teachings across India.
Spread of Buddhism
After the death of the Buddha, Mauryan Emperor Ashoka promoted the religion. Ashoka’s patronage of Buddhism led to its expansion in the Mauryan empire and other kingdoms during his rule and outside of India from about 250 BCE. Ashoka’s service to Buddhism were most enduring. He built a number of stupus, monasteries and erected pillars. Ashoka sent monks to outside of his kingdom to propagate the teachings of the Buddha. This follows a wave of conversion and the religion spread outside of the country such as Sri Lanka, Burma, Nepal, Central Asia, China, among others. Ashoka even sent his daughter and son as missionaries to Sri Lanka. It is because of Ashoka’s patronage that Buddhism which was then confined to particular localities, it spread across India and later beyond the frontiers of the country. Two hundred years after the Buddha, Ashoka strongly supported the universal teachings of the Buddha. This led to formation of an ideal society and paved the way for the coming generations to spread sublime Dharma to the entire world.
Decline of Buddhism in India
By the end of 11th century, Buddhism started to decline from India, the land of its origin. The exact reason for disappearance is not clear. But some reasons cited included influence of Islam, loss of royal patronage, sectarian conflicts within Buddhism, socio-political development, gains by competing Indian religions, such as Hinduism and Jainisn, etc. Nonetheless, Buddhism largely disappeared from most of India with the Muslim conquest in the Indian sub-continent, surviving in the Himalayan regions and south India. The destruction of Buddhist sites such as Nalanda and Vikramshila by Muslim invader Muhammad Ghori marks the end of Buddhism in India.
Revival of Buddhist institutions
The late 19th century marked the revival of Buddhism in India. This was led by modern Buddhist institutions such as the Maha Bodhi Society in 1891, the Bengal Buddhist Association in 1892 etc. Sri Lankan Buddhist leader Anagarika Dharmapala, who founded the Maha Bodhi Society, was a central figure of this movement. The efforts of these Buddhist institutions including Maha Bodhi Society were for the resuscitation of Buddhism in India. Maha Bodhi Society focused it’s activities in restoration, recovery and conservation of ancient and important Buddhist sites and shrines such as Bodhi Gaya, Mahabodhi Temple, Sarnath, Kushinara etc. In a nutshell, Maha Bodhi Society renewed interest in Buddhism in the country. It spawned the Ladakh Buddhist Association, Himalayan Buddhist Society etc and laid the foundation for the Dalit Buddhist movement. Presently, Maha Bodhi branches have been established in India and in several countries including in Sri Lanka. There is also a Maha Bodhi Society located at Bangalore, Karnataka, founded by Acharya Buddharakkhita in 1956, but it is not part or tied to Maha Bodhi Society of India or Sri Lanka. It is independent society running under Bangalore and have many sister branches in india. The Tripura branch is also a part of it which is running by ven. Visuddhananda bhikkhu. The aim and object of mahabodhi society is to put into practice and teach the most sacred teaching of the buddha through spiritual, educational, medical and other humanitarian services. There is also running a monastic Institute by mahabodhi society Bangalore which is pioneering venture of mahabodhi society and the main focus has been on training monks. It is only the training center in entire India, where they learn Buddha’s teaching through theory and practice. The mahabodhi monastic institute was started in the year 2001 by most respected Bhanteji, Venerable Dr. Acharya Buddharakkhita with the aim of providing all holistic facilities for self – realization through a monastic living and for reviving the dhamma in its birth place India, practical part of the dhamma is one of the most important part of the training program. Another effort of a revival movement to bring the teachings of the Buddha back to India began in 2006 when the Light of the Buddhadharma Foundation sponsored the first International Tipitaka Chanting ceremony at the Mahabodhi Mahavihara in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, the ancient temple and UNESCO world heritage site, where Buddha achieved enlightenment over 2500 years ago. The Tipitaka Chanting were also held in the subsequent years. This gathering was part of a restoration of tradition from earliest recording teachings of the Buddha, known as Pali Tipitaka. The Buddha’s teachings were earlier propogated through recitation several hundreds years ago.
Dalit Buddhist movement
The revival of Buddhism in India also received a shot in the arm with the Dalits Buddhist movement in the country. The Dalits, who are regarded as low caste people by the upper castes, contributed to a great extent for the growth of Buddhism. There was large-scale conversion to Buddhism by the Dalits as a mark of protest for the Hindu caste system and discrimination. The Dalits Buddhist movement was led by late Indian statesman Dr B.R. Ambedkar who converted to Buddhism. Dr Ambedkar’s early experiences of discrimination and segregation led him to fight for reform. Dr Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in 1956 along with his followers and went on to start a revivalist movement, urging millions of Dalits to convert to Buddhism as a means to reclaim their dignity and engage in non-violent social reform. Now conversion by Dalits has become an annual ritual at Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur, Maharashtra, a pilgrimage site dedicated to Dr Ambedkar where he embraced Buddhism. According to the 2011 census data of India, there are more than 8.4 million Buddhists in India and 87% of them are converts from other religions, mostly Dalits also called neo-Buddhists. The remaining 13% of the Buddhists in the country belong to traditional communities of north-east India and Northern Himalayan regions. The conversion movement has been the strongest in Maharashtra, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh.
Popularity through Vipassana meditation
Another factor that is attracting people to Buddhism is the practice of meditation or vipassana. It is not only attracting Indians but people from all over the world. Buddhism and meditation go hand in hand and sometimes considered to be one and the same. Vipassana means ‘insight’ in the Pali language of India. It is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was taught in India more than 2500 years ago as a universal remedy for ills. It is the essence of the teachings of the Buddha, the actual experience of the truths of which he spoke. The Buddha himself attained that experience by the practice of meditation and therefore meditation is what he primarily taught. His words are records of his experiences in meditation as well as detailed instructions on how to practice in order to reach the goal he had attained, the experience of truth. To put it simply, vipassana is based on two main tenets – concentration and self observation. Scientific studies have acknowledged the numerous benefits of mindfulness and linked it to the reduction of stress, better emotional strength, intelligence and a peaceful state of mind. Long preserved within the Buddhist community, vipassana can be accepted and applied by people of any background.
Vipassana is the most holistic, sophisticated and ancient form of meditation with the highest level of authenticity and effectiveness and it is a gift from Buddha’s land to the world.
The practice of Vipassana helps lead one from impurity of mind to purity of mind. This transformation changes people in wonderful ways. It is no magic or miracle; this is a pure science of observing the interaction of mind and matter within. One examines how the mind keeps influencing the material body, and how the body influences the mind. Through patient observation, the law of nature becomes clear: whenever one generates mental negativity, one starts suffering; and whenever one is free from negativity, one enjoys peace and harmony.
Promotion of Buddhist circuit by government
Most importantly, the Government of India supported preservation of Buddhist sites and promoted Buddhism as a source of tourism and to build diplomatic ties with foreign countries. The Central and state governments are developing the Buddhist circuits across the country. The Ministry of Tourism is also organising the international Buddhist Conclave biennially.
Buddhism, since the earliest time, has played a central role in the spiritual, cultural and social life of Asia. During 20th century it spread to the west. Buddhism is one of the most peaceful of the world religions. It needs to be further developed and promoted in India for peaceful and harmonious co-existence. When each person becomes peaceful and starts living a life of morality, the whole society will become an ideal society, happy and peaceful. After all, the society is made up of individuals.
May all being be Happy