Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Spread and Decline : Buddhism

Spread and Decline Whatever its position in the Buddha's lifetime, 200 years later, Buddhism was a distinct religion. In becoming a religion, Buddhism borrowed a adapted much from the popular beliefs of the time.

simple ritual was in no way based on sacrificial Brahma ism, but on the cult of the chaityas, or sacred spots. ThE were often small groves of trees, or single sacred trees, I the outskirts of villages, and might have also includl tumuli, such as those in which the ashes of chiefs we buried. These chaityas were the abodes of earth-spirits ar genii who, to the simpler folk, were more accessible and less expensive to worship than the great gods of the Aryan Stupas or tumulis were built by the recipients over the divided ashes of the Buddha. Other stupas, containing the remains of locally revered monks and ascetics of other denominations, rose up all over India in succeeding cen­turies. Asoka unearthed the ashes of the Buddha from their original resting places and divided them still further, rearing stupas for them all over India. The original Bodhi tree of Gaya became an object of pilgrimage and cuttings of it were carried as far as Ceylon. Temples proper or shrine­rooms do not appear to have been erected until the beginning of the Christian era, when the Buddha began to be worshipped in the form of an image (perhaps the first human figure to be worshipped in India was that of the Buddha).

His simpler followers evidently raised the Buddha almost to divinity even in his lifetime, and after his death he was worshipped in his symbols-the stupa, recalling his parinirvana, and the tree, recalling his enlightenment. The worship consisted of circumambulation in the clockwise direction, and prostrations, with offerings of flowers.

With the support of Asoka, Buddhism greatly ex­panded, spreading throughout India and to Ceylon. Though there is a tradition testifying to cruel persecution of the Buddhists under Pushyamitra Shunga, the faith continued to grow. Of all the religious remains during 200 BC-200 AD so far discovered in India, those of Buddhism outnumber those of Brahmanism, Hinduism and Jainism together.
Probably much of the Pali canon of the Sthaviravadins emanates from the great monastery on a hilltop near Sanchi.

Another very important sect, the Sarvastivadins, was strong in the region of Mathura and in Kashmir. It was in Kashmir, according to a tradition preserved in China, that under the patronage of Kanishka (first-second century AD), a fourth great council was held, at which the Sarvastivadin doctrines were codified in a summary, the Mahavibhasa. It was chiefly among the Sarvastivadins, but also in the old schism of the Mahasanghikas, that new ideas developed, which were to form the basis of the division of Buddhism into the 'Great' and the 'Lesser' Vehicles-Mahayana and Hinayana respectively.

The Mahayanas ruled out self-abnegation but insisted on the dedication of one's life to the service of others. Thus altruism was the keynote of Mahayanism. Mahayana Bud­dhism believes in salvation through the Bodhisattava too. The concept of Bodhisattava-or incarnation' of the Bud­dha-came into vogue around the first century AD.

In the early Christian centuries the Mahayana sect became more popular. (The Sthaviravadin and kindred sects constituted Hinayana Buddhism.) In Ceylon, however, Hinayana Buddhism held ground and thence it was later taken to Burma, Thailand and other parts of South-East Asia, where it became the national religion. Mahayana Buddhism itself soon divided by various schisms, was carried by a succession of Indian monks to China and thence to Japan.

By the time of the Guptas Mahayanism predominated, and Hsuan Tsang, in the seventh century, found the Lesser Vehicle almost extinct in most of India, and only flourishing in a few parts of the west. The chief Buddhist monastery was at Nalanda, which, under the patronage of the Pala kings, remained a centre of Buddhist piety and learning until the Muslim invasion. From Nalanda, the missionary monk Padmasambhava went forth to convert Tibet to Buddhism in the eighth century.

At this time the general standards of culture in North India were decliiung. From the end of the Gupta period onwards, Indian religion became more and more permeated with primitive ideas of sympathetic magic and sexual mysticism, and Buddhism was much affected by these developments. A third vehicle, 'the Vehicle of the Thunder­bolt' (Vajrayana), appeared in Eastern India in the eighth century, and grew rapidly in Bengal and Bihar. It was this form of Buddhism, modified by primitive local cults and tantric practices, which was finally established in Tibet in. the eleventh century, as a result of missions sent from the great Vajray~na monastery of Vikramsila in Bihar.

In the sixth century, the Huna king, Mihirakula, de­stroyed many Buddhist monasteries and killed many monks. A fanatical Saivite king of Bengal, Sasanka, in the course of an attack on Kannauj at the very beginning of the seventh century, almost destroyed the Tree of WISdom at Gaya. There are other less reliable accounts of persecution, but persecution was not the main cause of the disappearance of Buddhism from India by the end of the 12th century AD. A more important factor was the revived and reformed Hinduism, which began to spread northwards from the Tamil country from the ninth century onwards, when Shankaracharya travelled throughout India disputing with
the Buddhists. Behind him he left an organised body of Hindu monks to carry on his work. The new form of devotional Hinduism made a very vigorous appeal to the ordinary man, and the persistent tendency of Hinduism to
assimilate was always at work.

The Buddhist monks also contributed , to the decline in their own way. For instance, they gave up Pali, the language of the people, and adopted Sanskrit. They began to practise idol worship. Lavish offerings from their devotees made their life easy. The monasteries thus began to acquire enormous wealth. Women were also allowed to reside in monasteries and this practice led to further degeneration.
. An illuminated Buddhist manuscript contains a colo­phon stating that it was prepared in Bihar in the 15th century. This is our last record of Indian Buddhism, until its revival in recent years.

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