About Buddhism as a Religion

The Inception and Growth of Buddhism in India:

Buddhism was first introduced to the world in the 6th century BC by Siddhartha Gautam . It first spread outside the ancient kingdom of Magadha. At the time India already had an established reputation for being a land of pioneers in spiritual and intellectual innovation. The Indian demographic at the time, however, had reached a point where it could be divided into two broad sects: the self centered aristocracy, and the ritualistic masses.

Eventually, resentment towards the injustices suffered by the lower classes, and the overwhelming powers of the priestly class prompted the development of alternative teachings and philosophies. These new approaches, however, still maintained that there was some merit to be found in select aspects of Hindu ritual and tradition. Even the most radical of the new theories never directly challenged the Vedic beliefs or gods. Siddhartha Gautama, on the other hand, challenged some of the core beliefs that were revered by the priestly elite. Rituals, and ritualistic sacrifice, were seen as superfluous efforts in Buddhist philosophy. The foundation of the Buddhist way was the Middle Path—a way of moderation between self indulgence and self mortification.

The Hindu way of life was indeed becoming increasingly intolerant. The priestly class, the Brahmans, clung to Sanskrit as their modus operandi, thus alienating most of the masses, who did not have the right to be educated enough to understand the Vedic texts. The Buddhist teachings, on the other hand, were conducted in Prakrit, which was the layman’s language of the day. This made Buddhist philosophy accessible to anyone who felt inclined to explore it.

A large part of the early followers of Buddhist philosophy were merchants and untouchables that suffered the most due to the societal constructs based on priestly administration. The simplicity and the method of Buddhist teaching made it popular among the general masses and added numbers to its following. The teachings were primarily conducted orally. However, these factors also contributed to it remaining one of several small sects present through the country at the time.

The decisive boost in the popularity and outreach of Buddhism came with the royal patronage of the Mauryan Empire. Asoka the Great was intensely moved by the cost of war on humanity, to the point of renouncing violence. Soon after the Kalinga War, he adopted the Buddhist philosophy and assumed responsibility of spreading the Buddhist message throughout his kingdom. Asoka’s endorsement also effectively split the Buddhist community into two branches: the Mahasamghika and the Sthaviravada.

Spread of Buddhism in Asia:

The merchant patronage of Buddhism eventually carried the philosophy to all parts of Asia. Buddhism first travelled to South East Asia and gained popularity, reaching there by sea, and then traveled up to the eastern coast of China. By land, the Silk Route led it all the way from Central Asia till East Asia.

This period, the Common Era, was a turbulent period of significant cultural change. Kinship based systems were rapidly dissolving, giving way to bigger, more powerful rulers. These swift measures of political consolidation, in turn, resulted in the growth of urban centers and trade based economies. These new centers sought new social identities, language, and institutions, and Buddhism provided this cultural support. Every region that Buddhism traveled to, developed its own monasteries and followings.

Almost all the major sects of Buddhism are prevalent in different parts of the Asian continent. While Tantrayana or Vajrayana is predominant in Tibet, Mongolia and parts of India , Theravada Buddhism is being followed in most of the southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Similarly, Mahayana Buddhism remains the most common form in the northern Asian countries like China, Vietnam, Singapore, China(Chan) and Japan(as Zen Buddhism). The Buddhist flag that was designed to celebrate the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, later was accepted as the International Buddhist flag, indicating peace, harmony and love for all beings.

Decline of Buddhism in India:

Chinese monks such as Xuanzang and Song Yun, travelling through the country between the 5th and the 8th century, first noted what eventually was observed to be a steady decline of Buddhism in India. The Buddhist patronage was rendered extremely vulnerable owing to the fact that a large portion of the followers were ascetic communities. Decline accelerated after the fall of the Pala dynasty, and continued to meet hostile rulers with the gradual Muslim conquest of the subcontinent.

Major factor contributing to the decline of Buddhism in India was rise of Hinduism. A vigorous revival of Hinduism, specifically Saivite and Vaishnavite, in several parts of the country severely impacted Buddhist patronage. Furthermore, Hinduism grew to borrow elements from Buddhist philosophy; Vaishnavites eventually denounced animal sacrificed and advocated vegetarianism, while caste distinctions drastically lost relevance in many sects through the country.

Several external sources have also been accredited with the decline of Buddhism within the subcontinent, like the White Hun invasion, which resulted in the destruction of Buddhist monasteries far and wide.

In the 10th century, Mahmud of Ghazni defeated the Hindu Shahis, decisively diminishing Buddhist self governance all through Central Asia. Another theory suggests that between the 7th and the 12th century, when Islam penetrated the subcontinent, it replaced Buddhism as the prudent cosmopolitan trade religion.

Reemergence of Buddhism in India:

Buddhism resurfaced to the forefront of cultural turbulence owing to the Dalit Buddhist movement, a Buddhist revival movement aimed at urging Dalits to convert to Buddhism, abandoning a caste based system that placed them at the bottom of the hierarchy. The grandest advocate of the Buddhist revival movement was Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.

After furiously arguing the case that Buddhism was the only way for the Untouchables to gain equality, and going on to publishing several texts to substantiate the claim, Ambedkar publicly converted to Buddhism on 14 October, 1956. He died less than two months later, and the Buddhist movement was considerably impacted. The proposed agenda of mass conversion was not as well received as it had been hoped for.

At present there are more than 7 million Buddhists in India. This makes Buddhism the fifth largest religion in the country. The primary concentration of the Buddhist revival movement remains in two states: Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh. There are two dominant branches of Buddhism existent in the modern context: in Sri Lanka and South East Asia it is the Theravada, and across the Himalayas and East Asia it is the Mahayana.

The Relevance Of Buddhism In The Modern World

Today everybody seems to be under the influence of external pressure and stressful life. The Dhamma provides ways to free our mind from mental defilement through meditation and concentration, coupled with the true understanding of the world, man’s role in it and practice of the Buddha’s path.

The Spread Of Buddhism In The Modern World

In the modern world, the total number of the Buddhists vary between 230 millions and 500 millions, and even is increasing as the Buddhist ideology, which is based on logic and science, is appealing modern man with modern thoughts.

Buddhism In Other Parts of The World

In the later half of the 19th century, Buddhism as a religion was accepted by a number of European and American people, who were inspired by the teachings of Lord Buddha. The translation of the Asian texts (most of the Pali canons) into English and other western languages further facilitated the spread of Buddhist ideologies into the western nations.

The presence of the Buddhist temples, monasteries and stupas in countries like Cambodia, Bangkok, United States of America and states of United Kingdom proves that Buddhism is being accepted as one of the major religions throughout the world, thus returning its glorious rhythm.