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Buddhism in Ancient India


BUDDHISM IN ANCIENT INDIA Buddhists believe in "three jewels": the Buddha, or the Enlightened One; Dharma, or doctrine combining both truth and law; and Sangha, the order of monks and nuns. Buddhism traces its origins to a historical founder, Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, who preached in the middle of the first millennium b.c., between 550 and 450 b.c., though the precise dates are far from clear. Born a prince in the community of the Sakyas, he left his life of opulence and luxury. Having seen an old man, a sick man, and a corpse, Siddhartha was awakened to the fragile nature of life and worldly pleasures, and he went forth from the palace, leaving behind his beautiful wife and son, in search of a solution to human suffering. After many trials and tribulations, he attained enlightenment at the age of thirty-five. Urged by the gods, he decided to preach the Dharma and chose his five erstwhile companions as his first disciples.

The Buddha's first sermon, delivered in the Deer Park of Sarnath, just outside Varanasi, is known as dharmacakra-pravartana, or "setting the Wheel of Law in motion," and the Buddha is often depicted in sculptures as touching a wheel to indicate this event. His message brought him several rich disciples, and he spent his life preaching for over forty years in the urban environment of the middle Ganga valley. An analysis of two collections of religious poems, the Theragāthā and Therigāthā, attributed to monks and nuns, respectively, provides data on Buddhism's early patrons. This survey of the biographies of over three hundred monks and nuns reveals that two-thirds of them came from large towns; of these, 86 percent were from just four cities. These early converts belonged to rich and powerful families, and at least 40 percent of them were Brahmans. The Buddha died at the age of eighty, and after cremation his ashes were divided among his followers, who built stupas over the relics.

Some historians regard the Buddha as a social reformer, but it is evident from his teachings that his emphasis was on reforming the individual rather than the world, since he viewed life in the world as suffering, or dukkha. To regard him as a socialist who fought against inequality would therefore be a serious anachronism.

The Buddha and His Teachings

The central doctrine of the Buddha came as a response to the teachings of the Upanishads, notably the Brhadāranyaka, in which one of the central issues of debate and discussion was the notion of karma, or kamma. In the Upanishadic teachings, man is reborn according to the quality of his "works" (karman; "works" refer here to ritual prescriptions). Buddha redefined "action" as "intention" and thus, by turning Brahman ideology upside down, ethicized the universe. In the Amagandha text of the Sutta Nipāta, the Buddha argued that defilement comes not from eating this or that, prepared and given by this or that person, but from evil deeds, words, and thoughts.

There were several tenets of karma in existence at the time of the Buddha, though we know very little about them. The only data that we have on the concept of karma are that of the Jains. In contrast to the Hindu concept of ritual act, the Jains also held that karma had an ethical value. For the Jains, however, karma was not either good or bad; it was essentially bad. They conceptualized karma as a kind of dust or dirt, and they argued that for attaining liberation, one had to expunge all karma from the soul. The transfer of good karma, or merit, was known to Hindu thought and occurs in the Sanskrit epic the Mahābhārata. In Buddhism, however, the concept of karma became a crucial turning point, transforming Buddhism into a religion in which one could be saved by others.

The basic tenet of early Buddhist teachings was the emphasis on "the Middle Way"; this principle, located between indulgence and asceticism, molded the Buddhist approach to life. After enunciating the Middle Way, the Buddha revealed the four Noble Truths that he had realized. These included the awareness that life is unsatisfactory and that dukkha, or suffering, arises from desire or want. Suffering can, however, be overcome by following the eightfold path stressed by the Buddha, which helps eradicate desire.

Though the Buddha himself had shown the path of homelessness, Buddhist monks and nuns were enjoined to stay in one place during the three months of the rainy season, and monastic living soon became the norm. This congregation of monks and nuns and the demands of community living required that rules be framed regarding the permitted size and location of monastic buildings. A complex organization evolved to appoint officials to assign rooms, look after stores, and organize the acceptance of meals from the laity. Most important, the Buddha is credited with framing an elaborate set of rules of monastic discipline that governed not only life within the monastic complexes, but also the personal conduct, behavior, and decorum of monks and nuns in public.

Ashoka and the Institution of Buddhist Sacred Geography

Literary references record that within the lifetime of the Buddha as many as twenty-nine sites and buildings had been donated to him: 18 in Rajagaha, 4 in Vaisali, 3 in Kosala, and 4 in Kosambi. Further support for the early association of some of the sites with the life of the Buddha comes from one of the earliest Buddhist texts, the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (V. 16–22), which mentions four places to be visited and revered. These include: the Buddha's birthplace (identified with Lumbini); the place where he attained enlightenment (Bodh Gayā); the site of his first sermon (Sarnath); and the place where he passed away (Kushinagara). The textual references, however, do not match the archaeological data, since a majority of the structures associated with early Buddhism are shrines, which date from the Mauryan period onward; perhaps the only example of a pre-Mauryan stupa is the one from Vaisali.

One of the long-debated topics in Indian history is whether the Mauryan emperor Ashoka himself was a Buddhist, or whether his policies were rooted in the Hindu tradition, or whether he instead propagated a nonsectarian ethical concept, set within an imperial framework. Some scholars have suggested that it may be useful to view the rock inscriptions of his reign not as historical facts, but as pieces of political propaganda. The major indicators of Ashoka's ideas are the inscriptions or dhammalipi, dated between his eighth and twenty-seventh regnal year, corresponding approximately to 264–245 b.c. A majority of these are written in Brahmi script in the eastern or western (Gandhari) dialects of Prakrit, the exceptions being the northwestern edicts in Kharosthi and those in Greek and Aramaic. The inscriptions may be classified as rock edicts (major and minor), cave inscriptions, and pillar edicts (major and minor). Major pillar edicts have been found at six sites, mainly in central India, while minor pillar edicts were usually situated at Buddhist pilgrimage sites such as Sarnath, Sanchi, Lumbini, and Nigalisagar. Fourteen major rock edicts have been found in peripheral areas including Girnar, while minor rock edicts have been discovered at seven sites in central and southern India. It is generally accepted that Ashoka's minor rock edicts were issued earlier than his fourteen major rock edicts and that the pillar edicts were the last to be promulgated. This then makes the inscriptions of Ashoka in peninsular India the earliest inscribed by the king, thus making them particularly significant for a study of the dharma of Ashoka.

As compared to the diversity of records in the north, a majority of the inscriptions from peninsular India are the minor rock edicts. The homogeneity is particularly noticeable in the cluster in Karnataka, though there are exceptions elsewhere in the Deccan. In his minor rock edicts, Ashoka refers to himself as a Buddhist lay follower, or upāsaka, and expresses his desire that Buddhism percolate down to the lowest level to include elephant trainers, charioteers, teachers, and scribes. It would seem that the southern versions all belong to a single recension, which was issued for engraving extensively on the hills at one specific time, as indicated by the reference to 256 nights. The dharma of these records is largely ethical, with injunctions to obey mother and father, obey teachers, have mercy on living beings, speak the truth, and propagate the dharma.

This stress on ethical and moral values in the minor rock edicts of Ashoka is in keeping with Buddhist teachings to the laity. The canonical Nikāya literature makes a concerted attempt to inculcate a sense of moral and ethical values among the laity, based on Buddhist ethics and loyalty to the Triratna (three jewels), that is, the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Discourses contained in the Brahmajāla Sutta and the Samannaphala Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya emphasize the importance of adhering to the five shīlas, or moral values, and stress that the lay devotee should concentrate on religious talks on the fortnightly uposatha days.

Though the Buddhist canon was written down in Sri Lanka around 100 b.c., it is generally accepted that major portions of the Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas belong to the pre-Ashokan period. The Bhabhra edict of Ashoka provides evidence for this in that it refers to specific passages for study by monks and nuns. Four of the passages have been identified as forming part of the first four Nikāyas.

The involvement of Ashoka with the dharma was by no means limited to propagation of an ethical way of life, as is evident from his records. Minor Rock Edict III was addressed to the Sangha and the laity, and it contains an unequivocal expression of the emperor's respect and faith in the "three jewels." In the Bairat rock edict, Ashoka recommends the study of seven texts of the Buddhist canon (dhammapaliyāni) as a way of ensuring that the dharma would last forever. Rock Edict VIII dates his pilgrimage (dharmayātrā) to Sambodhi, or Bodh Gayā, ten years after his coronation. Minor pillar inscriptions at Allahabad, Sarnath, and Sanchi (Minor Pillar Edict III), generally referred to as schism edicts, warn monks and nuns against creating schisms in the Sangha. In his edicts Ashoka praises ceremonies performed for religious purposes (mahā-[pha]le [e] dhamma-mangale), but decries those performed on the occasion of births, illnesses, and weddings (Major Rock Edict IX). At Bodh Gayāthe installation of a polished sandstone throne (vajrāsana) in a shrine at the foot of the bodhi tree is attributed to Ashoka.

Archaeology of Buddhist Sites in South Asia

In contrast to the scattered shrines of the Mauryan period, large interconnected monastic complexes emerged in the post-Ashokan period. Sanchi and its neighboring sites, including Sonari, Satdhara, Bhojpur, and Andher, provide a good example of this development. A study of the inscriptions on relics and reliquaries shows that these locales were all linked to the person of Gotiputa and formed a tightly knit community that owed allegiance to the Hemavata School. Archaeological surveys conducted in Raisen and Vidisha districts led to the recovery of 120 settlements and 35 previously unrecorded sites and an impressive database incorporating finds of 15 embankments within about 154 sq. mi. (400 square kilometers) around Sanchi. It is suggested that the extensive water system around Sanchi may have been associated with irrigation and rice cultivation, rather than domestic supply.

Perhaps the transformation was nowhere as fundamental as in the western Deccan in the second and first centuries b.c., just prior to the rise of the Satavahana dynasty. In the western Deccan, more than eighty sites have been recorded, with 1,200 rock-cut monastic centers. While the average number of excavations at a majority of these sites varies from twelve to fifteen, the largest concentrations of more than a hundred are at Kanheri and Junnar. Junnar lies on the Kukdi River, in a cup-shaped valley surrounded by hills, 56 mi. (90 kilometers) northwest of Pune; Kanheri, near Bombay (Mumbai) on the west coast, is located in the fertile basin of the Ulhas River. This divergence in location is also reflected in the nature of donations. Inscriptions at Junnar record the grant of land to the monastic establishment in the nearby villages, and archaeological exploration has led to the recovery of several settlements in the vicinity. Inscriptions at Kanheri recording donations were placed on the side wall of the courtyard and refer to gifts of money by traders, financiers, goldsmiths, blacksmiths, physicians, housewives, stone polishers, and others. Visitors included residents from neighboring coastal settlements such as Sopara, Kalyan, and Chaul, as well as inhabitants of inland centers such as Nasik.

In the eastern Deccan, rock-cut excavations are few, and structural monuments dominate, with concentrations in coastal Andhra and Telengana. Unlike the monuments of the western Deccan, there is no evidence of paintings in Andhra. The Andhra stupas, on the other hand, have yielded a rich treasure of relic caskets in a variety of materials. Another characteristic feature of the Andhra monuments, perhaps in keeping with their status as centers of pilgrimage, is the presence of congregation halls. It is significant that few urban centers have been identified in coastal Andhra, and pilgrimage may have provided an alternative strategy for the mobilization of resources.

Archaeological excavations unearthed a hall measuring 253 sq. ft. (23.5 square meters), with sixty-four pillars, at Thotlakonda on the north Andhra coast. To the southeast of the stupa was a kitchen complex, comprising four rectangular halls of varying dimensions. Three of these may have been used as storerooms, while the fourth was perhaps a refectory. About 2 mi. (3 kilometers) from Thotlakonda lies the site of Bavikonda, where twenty-six structural units have been identified, including stupas, caitya-grhas (stupa or place of worship), an uposathagāra (hall in a monastery used for ordination ceremonies, measuring 307 sq. ft., or 28.5 square meters), viharas (Buddhist monastic residences), and kitchen-cum-store complexes. Two other sites that have provided evidence for the presence of assembly halls are the sites of Ramatirtham, located 43 mi. (70 kilometers) from Visakhapatnam, and Salihundam, near Srikakulam.

An equally impressive series of Buddhist sites is located along the transpeninsular route connecting the lower Krishna valley via Nelakondapalle, Kondapur, and Dhulikatta to Ter and Paithan. The village of Dhulikatta is located 6 mi. (10 kilometers) west of Peddabankur and is marked by a habitation site 44 acres (18 hectares) in extent. About .6 mi. (1 kilometer) to its north lies a stupa constructed of large-sized bricks decorated with carved limestone slabs. Archaeological excavations at Nelakondapalle in Khamam district of Andhra Pradesh have brought to light an extensive Buddhist site of the fourth to fifth centuries a.d. comprising viharas, a mahacaitya (great stupa or place of worship), brick-built water troughs, votive stupas, and a profusion of imagery. A large number of Visnukundin coins were found from the site, as were standing images of the Buddha in limestone and bronze.

Nor are these examples limited to India. Inscriptions from Sri Lanka indicate that as early as the second century b.c., land and irrigation works were transferred to the Sangha. In some cases, arrangements for irrigation were also made along with the transfer of land, but in other cases the monastery enjoyed privileged access to irrigation facilities. Fiscal rights and administrative and judicial authority that the king had traditionally enjoyed were transferred to the monastic authorities. The autonomy that these religious institutions enjoyed changed the nature of interaction between them and the lay community.

How does one explain the discrepancy between monastic rules, which disallowed the practice of agriculture by monks, and the presence of clearly identified structures used for agrarian purposes in the vicinity of monastic sites? The dichotomy between theory and practice was easily resolved by employing several laypeople for undertaking and supervising various jobs in the monasteries. In addition, some of them were placed in charge of irrigation reservoirs that belonged to the monasteries to collect the water dues. While this may have resolved functional issues, the philosophic and doctrinal aspects of this change still needed to be addressed and internalized.

From the fifth century a.d. onward, an interesting development in architecture, epigraphy, and literary texts was the unambiguous notion that the Buddha himself was the legal head of the monastery and that donations to monasteries were conceived as gifts to the Master. The language used in the inscriptions suggests the personal presence and permanent residence of the Buddha in Indian monasteries, further corroborated by changes in plans indicating that specific accommodations for the Master was being provided in the monastic sites. For example, while in the early monasteries there was separation between the residence of the monks and the shrine, the later monasteries combined the two. These changes correspond with another development: abstract theories regarding the person of the Buddha were beginning to take definitive shape. This development provides an interesting example of the intertwining of diverse strands that were associated with functions as varied as agrarian expansion and management and abstruse philosophical discussions.

Buddhism in Sri Lanka

Nowhere, however, does the legacy of Ashoka survive as strongly as in the Buddhist literary tradition, both from North India as well as from Sri Lanka. As with today's historians, there was no unanimity in the past regarding the contribution of Ashoka, and divergent views emerged. One is the Pali version of the legend of Ashoka, preserved in the Sri Lankan Chronicles; the second is the North Indian version, known from Sanskrit and Chinese sources. Few of the missionary activities of Ashoka find mention in the North Indian tradition as preserved in the Sanskrit Avadānas. Instead, these focus on Ashoka's relationship with the Buddhist monk Upagupta, who accompanied him on his pilgrimage to the different sites associated with the life of the Buddha. The Ashokāvadāna is known to have been compiled in the second century a.d. in the Buddhist milieu of northwest India. In the Ashokāvadāna, Ashoka is said to be physically ugly, to have a rough skin, and to have been disliked by his father and the women of his harem. The overall perspective on Ashoka's kingship remains ambiguous. The Theravadin tradition associates the dispatch of missions to the different regions not with Ashoka, but with Tissa Moggaliputta. This is further supported by the finds of relic caskets from Vidisa (Bhilsa), on which have been inscribed names of three of the monks whom the Chronicles credit with missions to the Himalayan region. There is, however, no unanimity among scholars on this point.

In his Major Rock Edict XIII, Ashoka refers to Sri Lanka as one of the countries that received the dharma. This mission of propagation and conversion could only have been possible through monks and nuns, since establishment of the local Sangha, with its traditions and ecclesiastical rites, was outside the scope of a ruler. The inscriptions from Nagarjunakonda provide a somewhat different perspective, and the monks from Sri Lanka are credited with the expansion of Buddhism to various regions, including Kashmir, Gandhara, Cina, Kirata, Aparanta, and Vanga. A Sihala-vihara (Sri Lankan monastic residence) is mentioned at the site, presumably for the residence of monks from the island.

The importance of the clergy in the establishment of the local Sangha is evident in the earliest Pali Chronicle of Sri Lanka, the Mahāvamsa (XV, 181) dated to the late fourth or early fifth century a.d. The Mahāvamsa traces the history of the island from the advent of Vijaya in 483 b.c. Its authorship is attributed to a Buddhist monk, Mahanama, who wrote under the patronage of a Sri Lankan king. The Buddha himself is said to have traveled to the island, and the Chronicle presents detailed accounts of the three visits. Ashoka's concept of Dharma-vijaya is restated in the Chronicle, leading to a symbiosis between the monarch and the Sangha. There are references to Devanampiyatissa (r. 250–210 b.c.) being reconsecrated by envoys of Ashoka, thus marking an integration of the concepts of the universal monarch (cakkavatti ) and the great man (mahāpurisa, the Buddha himself ).

This is a model that is known to have been emulated by several sovereigns in Sri Lanka, the most prominent being Dutthagamini (r. 101–77 b.c.). In Burma, kings constantly invoked Ashoka's example, and the Khmer ruler Jayavarman VII (r. 1181–1215) saw himself as the living Buddha. In the Chronicles, the emphasis is on the purification of the Sangha by Ashoka and the dispatch of Buddhist missionaries not only to different parts of the subcontinent, but also to Suvarnabhumi, or Southeast Asia.

Despite the emulation discussed above, the nearly 1,300 inscriptions from Sri Lanka, incised just below the drip ledge of slightly enlarged natural caves donated to Buddhist monks, present a marked contrast to the Ashokan records. The early Brahmi script used for the inscriptions in the oldest Sinhalese language is the same as that used for the Ashokan edicts. Though there is uniformity in script, there is a marked difference in the language and contents of the inscriptions, and there are no parallels to Ashoka's dhammalipi. Instead, the inscriptions of Ashoka's contemporaries on the island, Devanampiya Tissa and his successor king, Uttiya, record gifts of caves to the Sangha and incorporate the stereotyped formula of dedication to the Buddhist monks. The formula reads: āgata anāgata catudisa sagasa (of the Sangha of the four quarters, present and not present).

Expansion across the Bay of Bengal

It is crucial to emphasize that the communities that traveled across the Indian Ocean were diverse, including sailors, traders, craftsmen, pilgrims, religious clergy, adventurers, minstrels, and others. The epigraphic record indicates the presence of several Indic languages in Southeast Asia, from the early inscriptions in Prakrit and Sanskrit on carnelian seals, dated to the first and second centuries a.d., to Pali inscriptions from the sixth and seventh centuries a.d. A Tamil inscription of the third or fourth century was identified on a small flat rectangular stone, reading perumpatan kal (this is the touchstone of Perumpatan), in the collection of Wat Khlong Thom in south Thailand. The scripts used also varied from Brahmi and Tamil-Brahmi to Kharosthi. Given this wide range, it would be simplistic to expect neat categories in terms of language, caste, or religious affiliations, though in the past many of these categories have been subsumed under the blanket term of "Indianization."

The archaeological data also provide a counterposition to this theory, as it is apparent that several competing centers, based on rice agriculture, bronze and iron production, developed in the major river valleys of mainland Southeast Asia dating between 2000 and 200 b.c. It is significant that several aspects of the material culture present similarity across the Irrawaddy, Chao Phraya, and Mekong river valleys. This uniformity is paralleled by the use of artifacts obtained from India and China, and it is through these trade networks that religious ideas and beliefs spread and were adopted, and adapted, by the large polities that evolved in the river valleys. Three large political entities dominated mainland Southeast Asia: the Pyu in the Irrawaddy valley, the Dvaravati in the Chao Phraya, and the Oc Eo culture in the Mekong. A common thread that united them was the belief in Buddhism, as evidenced by the statuary and religious architecture.

A cluster of fifth-century inscriptions of unequivocal Buddhist affiliation was found in Kedah on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula. Three of these inscriptions are made of local stone and bear similar illustrations of Buddhist stupas. Texts very similar to these inscriptions have been found on the island of Borneo and on the coast of Brunei. The most interesting of these inscriptions in Sanskrit is that of Buddhagupta, which refers to the setting up of the stone by the mariner Buddhagupta, resident of Raktamrttika, on the successful completion of his voyage.

The Sarvastivadins are one of the sects of Buddhism known to have developed missionary activity outside India, and one of the missionaries who stayed for many years in Indonesia, as described in the Chinese sources, was Gunavarman (a.d. 367–431). About one and a half centuries after Gunavarman's visit, the Chinese monk Yijing confirmed that the Sarvastivada school was flourishing in the lands of the South Sea.

This missionary activity was paralleled by pilgrimage to sites associated with the life of the Buddha not only within South Asia, but also by groups from across the Bay of Bengal. One of the monuments that holds an important position in the context of pilgrimage is that of Borobudur. On the basis of the paleography of the fragmentary inscriptions covering the base, the monument has been dated to the late eighth or ninth century a.d. The monument is elaborately carved, with 1,460 sculpted panels, a majority of these depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha. Not only did Borobudur spread the message of acquisition of knowledge and merit, it also became the center of pilgrimage itself. In the ninth century, central Java had acquired a reputation for being a treasure house of sacred learning, as evident from an inscription from Champa. An indication of the importance of the site of Borobudur for pilgrimage is provided by the finds of more than 2,000 unbaked clay votive stupas and 252 clay tablets to the southwest of the Borobudur hill.

Religious communication continued across the Bay of Bengal, as is evident from gifts of Sanskrit Mahayana and Tantric texts from Bengal to monasteries in Myanmar as late as the fifteenth century. This raises the final question: did Buddhism decline in South Asia in the seventh century, as argued by Marxist historians, or was it reinvented and appropriated?

Transformation or Decline?

In the past, scholars have often suggested a phased development of Buddhism from the early Hinayana form to Mahayana and Vajrayana, but it is increasingly evident that these three vehicles shared more than is usually assumed. For example, even as late as the seventh century, followers of Hinayana and Mahayana lived together in monasteries and maintained the same monastic vows. It is also apparent that, despite the Buddha's incorporation into the Hindu pantheon as an incarnation of Vishnu, Buddhist monastic centres continued to maintain a separate identity.

The data from inscriptions and textual sources indicate the continuation of several monastic centers well into the thirteenth century, such as the monastic settlement at Ratnagiri in Orissa and those at Nalanda and Bodh Gayā in Bihar. In addition, there is evidence for the repair and renovation of several other Buddhist sites in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Gadaladeniya rock inscription from Sri Lanka, dated to 1344, records the restoration of a two-story image house at Dhanyakataka, identified with Amaravati in Andhra, by a monk named Dharmakirti. Another contemporary of Dharmakirti, the minister Sena Lankadhikara, is said to have dispatched men and money to the site of Kanci in Tamil Nadu to establish a Buddhist shrine in that city. No Buddhist monuments have survived at Kanchipuram, though several images dated between the seventh and fourteenth centuries have been discovered in and around the city. However, the time gap between the fifteenth century and the nineteenth, when a revival of Buddhist learning was spearheaded by European, Sri Lankan, and Indian scholars, has yet to be bridged. In 1956 Buddhism entered its latest Navayana phase, when B. R. Ambedkar administered Buddhist vows to the low caste masses in their quest for a new world order.

Himanshu Prabha Ray

See alsoAmbedkar, B. R., and the Buddhist Dalits ; Sculpture, Buddhist ; Sculpture, Mauryan and Shungan


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