Buddhism in India: History and Facts


Buddhism is a world religion, based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, later deemed as “Buddha” (meaning ‘Awakened one’). Buddhism in India arose around the ancient kingdom of Magadha and spread outside of Magadha starting in Buddha’s lifetime.

Siddhartha Gautama was born in Lumbini, a kingdom in Nepal, to Suddhodana, the Kapilvastu King of Shakya Kingdom. After meditation and self-discipline which was a common practice, Buddha discovered a Mid-Way—a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.

By accepting Buddhism, people had gone through some social transformations, including a decline in alcoholism, a simplification of marriage ceremonies and higher importance on education with an increased sense of identity and self-worth.

In around 500 B.C. Prince Siddhartha Gautama renounces his life of wealth and privilege to begin a spiritual life and refused to accept the sacrificial rites of the Hindus and the caste system. Gautama Buddha spent most of his lifetime in India. Buddhism mostly emphasizes meditation, the purity of life and non-violence.

The pipal tree at Bodh Gaya under which Buddha attained enlightenment is now known as the bodhi tree.

The third century Buddhism was a new religion based on the teachings of Buddha and it was rapidly growing with the help of the Mauryan empire and by the end of 7th-century Buddhism was followed in almost all of south-east Asia and East Asia, it was the largest religious following of that time.

Now Buddhism is only practiced by about 7.5 million people in India, most of them live near Himalayan region, or South India, or near the Myanmar border. The Buddhism practiced in the Himalayan region is Tibetan Buddhism, and the Buddhism practiced in South is called Theravada Buddhism, similar to that practiced in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand.

The form of Buddhism followed by the Tibetan Buddhist is called Vajrayana or also known as the ‘way of lightning bolt’. The Vajrayana come into practice after the 7 century A.D.

The Vajrayana stresses on the intercession of the enlightened beings, also known as ‘Bodhisattva’ who remain in this world to aid others on the path. The Bodhisattva was considered the high class in the Himalayan kingdom.

The Theravada Buddhists in India followed the traditions from Sri Lanka and Burmese scriptures in Pali language and some of the dialects in Sanskrit. These scriptures focus a more human Buddha and a democratic path toward enlightenment for everyone. The Theravada Buddhism is also known as the ‘Doctrine of the elders’.

The decline of Buddhism commenced around the 13th century when the Turkish invader demolished the Buddhist monasteries. It was then Buddhism as a religion declined from India. The only place where the religion survived was Bhutan and Sikkim which were the independent Himalayan kingdom.

Although there is no single reason for the decline of Buddhism in India, there are many factors that can be considered as the reason for it, such as the similarities between Hinduism and Buddhism, the growth of Islam, the loss of royal patronage, loss of distinctiveness, and the slow adoption of other popular religion by the Buddhist.

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