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Early Development of Buddhism in India

By Gaurav Manandhar at

Siddhartha Gautama, after enlightenment, got support from the emperor Bimbisara, the ruler of Magadha. He recognized Buddhism as personal Faith and allowed the establishment of many Buddhist Viharas in order to preach the Buddha’s teachings.

In Northern India, Buddha delivered his first sermon, Wheel of Dharma, to the group of five companions (his fellow followers with whom he left his teacher). Together, they formed the first Sangha and the first formation of Triple Gem was achieved.

The Buddha, for the rest of his life, preached about life, karmas, wheel of life, etc. to the fellow people. He had traveled in the Gangetic Plain of Northern India and other regions. Later, he died in Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh.

After the death of Buddha, there was much confusion regarding the matters of Buddhist doctrine and practice since the Buddha didn't appoint any successor. That's why there was Buddhist council held at a different place at different times.

The main goal of Buddhists Council was to address the issues that have been occurring in the due course of time. In first Council, it was to recite and agree on the Buddha's actual teachings and on monastic discipline.

In Second one, it was to deal with monastic practices like the use of money, drinking of palm wine, and other irregularities. This council declared these practices were unlawful and are an obstacle to attaining Buddhahood.

In third one, to get rid of a large number of monks joined due to royal patronage.

Increase in popularity of Buddhism in Early period

As time was passed on, self-sufficient production and bartered exchange system were less popular because of commerce and cash. It was during sixth and fifth centuries BCE that people began to give more value to commerce and cash. This motive changed social classes and new social classes also emerged.

At the moment, Merchants found Buddhist moral and ethical teachings as an alternative to traditional rituals performed by Brahmin. It was because the traditional rituals were only known to Brahmins and they couldn't deliver the rituals per the wish of new emerging social classes. This gave them a chance to increase their commercial links throughout the Mauryan Empire. The merchants established communities which served as a silk roads through central Asia. Some of the communities were- Merv, Bukhara, Samarkand, Kashgar, Khotan, Kuga, Turpan, and Dunhuang.

Mauryan Empire

Emperor Asoka the great was the ruler of Mauryan Empire. Legend says that Asoka was very guilty after the battle of Kalinga because he experienced lots of deaths on either side due to the war. Under the influence of his Buddhist wife and Empress Consort Devi and with the help from his Brahmin mentors Radhasvami and Manjusri, Emperor Asoka accepted Buddhism as a personal faith. This conversion resulted in a stability of Buddhist emperor. During his rule, ambassadors were sent to other countries to propagate Buddhism. Later Asoka established several monuments in significant sites which were important in the life of Shakyamuni Buddha.

Kushan Empire

Kanishka the Great was the emperor of the Kushan dynasty in the second century (127 CE - 150 CE). He greatly encouraged and supported Buddhism. Earlier Buddha was not represented in human form but later after Mahayana Buddhism was flourished and was spread to China, Buddha was represented in human form. It was believed that his support to Buddhism played an important role in the development of the Silk Road. It was also recorded that in the rule of Kanishka, Imprints of Buddha Statue were made into the coins. Typically, there were three types of Imprints in the coins- Standing Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, and Maitreya Buddha.

The Pala and Sena period

Mahaviharas were flourished during the period of Pala and Sena kings, which is now in Bihar and Bengal. According to Tibetan sources, there was five Maha Vihara which was prominent in that period. They were- Vikramashila, Nalanda, Somapura, Odantapura, and Jaggadala. These five monasteries were regulated under state supervision and it was recorded that there has been a system of co-ordination among them.

Damien Keown in his book, "a dictionary of Buddhism" states that the kings of the Pala dynasty were a major supporter of Buddhism. He also stated that tantric Buddhism was flourished throughout India while Mahayana Buddhism was in the zenith of sophistication. There were many foreign pilgrims to visit significant places of Buddha, to learn more about the Buddhism and observe antique Buddha statues.

The Decline

Buddhism was spreading over India and other places central and south Asia but there was also a time when Buddhism started to decline due to various reasons. Buddhism was mainly depended upon patronage. However, it was interrupted by periods of war and political change.

With the rise of Gupta dynasty in India, Hindu traditions became increasingly popular even though Gupta kings did support Buddhism. There was evidence that Gupta kings also support to build Buddhist temples.

It was also recorded that Hindu philosophies like Advaita Vedanta proposed by Adi Shankara were on the rise which eventually established Hindu supremacy.