The Indian subcontinent has an assortment of religions, castes, cultures, faiths that makes it a melting point of spiritual experiences. Amongst the different religions here, one of the major religions is Buddhism. Buddhism is listed as the one of the chief religions in the world and has a lot of influence in the subcontinent of India. Prince Buddha commonly known as Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism gave up his life for spirituality when he founded Buddhism in 500 B.C. The main features of Buddhism are meditation, non-violence and the holiness of life. Buddhism Religion in India has a long history and to learn about the reach of the religion, you need to learn about its roots.
Gautama Buddha & Buddhism
Gautama Buddha left his worldly life at the age of 29 in search of answers for the cause of human sufferings. He attained enlightenment after ceaseless sacrifice and meditation for six years. In the month of May, on a full moon night Buddha attained spiritual knowledge at Bodh Gaya. His first sermon was at Sarnath. The teachings of Gautama Buddha to his followers concentrated on purification and training their mind for spiritual good and avoiding evil. He also emphasized on harmlessness and moderation in all areas of life. The four noble truths of Buddhism were – Life is suffering, suffering is due to attachment, we can overcome attachment, the path is through discipline and meditation. The concept of eight-fold wisdom was an important aspect in Buddhism and they are right speech, right action, and right means of livelihood, right exertion, right mindfulness, right meditation, right resolution and right view. At the age of 80, Gautama Buddha attained his final escape from cycle of life and died fleeing his monastic order which was further maintained by his workers and disciples.
History of Buddhism in India
By the end of the 3rd century B.C., Buddhism had almost spread to South Africa through the Agency of Mauryan Empire and by 7th century A.D., it had spread to East and South East, establishing it as the largest religion in the world (in terms of total followers). In the memory of Buddha, many members of the Indian royalty and merchants patronized the religion and created beautiful stone structures called stupas.
Buddhism in Bodhgaya:
Bodh Gaya is a much-revered destination as the Lord attained spiritual nirvana or enlightenment at this very place. This place has a huge bodhi tree underneath which Gautama carried out rigorous penance and attained the much sought-after Nirvana. After the growth of Buddhism and death of Gautama, to commemorate Buddha, great temples and monasteries were built in Bodhgaya. Archeologists reveal that huge impact of Buddhism was mainly in 1840s, consisting of Buddhist art, iconography and architecture in India. Saffron attired monks with heads shaved and travel with gowns can be seen lighting red candles at the base of the temple. Another tree can be seen encased with green metal and a fence around it with a sign saying that “Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment sitting under this Bodhi tree (Peepal tree)”.
Sarnath near Varanasi is the second most important place for Buddha after Bodhgaya, as this is where Buddha gave his first address after attaining enlightenment. Further during other addresses, he revealed the eight-fold paths and Nirvana concept of Buddhism. Nowadays this place is marked by the Dhamek Stupa, a 34-meter-tall domed shrine. This stupa was built during the Mauryan period and is covered with elaborate engravings. It also houses a deer park, garden and ruins of monasteries that once sheltered 1500 monks.
The Schools of Buddhism
In the 5th century, a new monarchical university was acknowledged in Nalanda, which became the chief center for learning. Nalanda had a well-known Buddhist scholar Bodhidharma, who took Buddhism to China. A Yogic practice school was also established by Nagarjuna, which emphasized on meditative practices.
Death of Buddhism in India
It is believed that, Turkish invaders started destroying the monasteries by the 13th century and after that, Buddhism started disappearing in India. It was only followed in Bhutan and Sikkim. It is also said that, the center place for the monks were monasteries which were destroyed and they finally had no place for themselves. Some other factors were – influence of Islam, loss of royal patronage, slow adoption of popular religions, luxurious life of the monks, revival of Hinduism, internal corruption etc.
Rebirth of Buddhism
Buddhism commenced a sturdy and dynamic comeback in the early 20th century, as it gained impetus by an amalgamation of European primitive curiousity, philosophical strength and devoted activities by few Indian and international followers. Dampara of Sri Lankan shrine founded the Mahabodhi society in 1891 and reinforced control over the Buddhist shrine in Gaya, India. A key revolution arose in 1956, after 30 years of untouchable or Dalit agitation, when Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, leader of untouchable, proclaimed that he was converting into Buddhism as a way to escape from the Hindu caste system. He collected untouchables (also known as Harijans or Dalits) from different places like Maharashtra, its neighboring places and Agra from Uttar Pradesh to Nagpur (a place in Maharashtra). The arrival of the Buddhist Monk Dalai Lama from Tibet to India brought thousands of followers here and thus creating more awareness and knowledge about this religion.
Buddhism and Dalits
Dalit Hindus began to convert themselves to Buddhism in the mid-20th century. These groups of Dalit Hindus were known as Neo-Buddhist. The main credit for the conversion goes to Dr.B.R. Ambedkar. Dr. Ambedkar is recognized as the Father of Neo – Buddhism. Many Dalit people keep his picture at their homes. He has been crowned as a bodhisattva. His birthday is a major festival in some places. In New Delhi, there are gatherings where people take vows and claim themselves as a Buddhist. This is an interesting aspect of Buddhism in India.