Exploring the History of Buddhism in South India
When there is an attachment to history and heritage that can be a hindrance to fresh thinking and progress – for both individual and society. At the same time, exploration of history is a powerful tool to deconstruct that attachment and to dispel the baggage of misinformed perspectives. Analyzing history can also help in learning from the mistakes of the past and in thus in becoming better individuals and society.
As we explore the history of Buddhism in India and the related pieces of archeological evidence in South India, the benefit we see is also similar. It helps in deconstructing the myths that many Indians hold as history and heritage. The purpose is not to bring up more objects of attachment. While the whole world is benefiting from the progressive, practical and rational teachings of the Buddha, in India many people nowadays have an apathy to this body of knowledge due to the baggage of misperceived history that they bear. This baggage can be diffused through a little exploration of history.
As we get into a historical analysis and exploration of ancient statues and places, it is worthwhile to set off with two reminders about the fundamental characteristics of Buddhism.
The foundation of Buddhism is not in statues, icons or holy places, but in awakening oneself to Buddhahood.
First of all, let us be clear that the foundation of Buddhism is not in statues or any other icons or holy places, but in awakening oneself to Buddhahood. Buddhism is not a religion, but a way to go beyond religion (See Buddhism – a Path beyond Religion ). Genuine Buddhists find delight in working with one’s own wakeful awareness and a blossoming heart that goes beyond religious frameworks. For this, statues are not of the primary concern but they can be of benefit if used with the right mindset. Statues and other representations of the Buddha can instill in us the qualities that the Buddha embody – peace, compassion, clarity of mind and the triumph over emotions. That is how statues become a supporting object for the practice. But, they are not indispensable or non-replaceable objects. The mere sight of a well-crafted Buddha statue can be powerful enough to pacify the mind from disturbing emotions such as attachment and aversions, and instill deep and profound peace and clarity of mind. Since it is meant to pacify emotions, it is not meant to be another object that gives rise to emotions such as attachment (to the object) or hatred (to other people with relation to that object).
Buddhism is a system of practice to break beyond all systems. Hence, attachment to history has no place in Buddhism.
Secondly, the practice of Buddhism is not about holding onto traditions or religious identity. It is the science of mind, and moreover a practical way to transform mind into a state beyond all unsatisfactoriness and suffering. The Buddha’s teachings present a system of practice to break beyond all systems, heritage, traditions, religions, dogmas, etc., to the vast expanse of the natural awakening. Hence, attachment to history has no place in Buddhism. Such attachment is rather detrimental to the practice of Buddhism. It doesn’t matter whether one is born into a Buddhist family or not. It doesn’t matter whether one’s homeland traditionally followed Buddhism or not. If one finds the teachings of the Buddha to be valid and beneficial one accepts them. Otherwise, one should reject it even if it came through one’s own family tradition. For example, our acceptance and rejection of the findings of Physics are not based on which locality or religion we are born into. The findings of the Buddha are to be considered in a similar way. Its acceptance or rejection should be based on its validity as a science of mind and its benefit in transforming oneself positively. In other words, history is not the yardstick for deciding upon Buddhism. The role of historical analysis ends in clearing the baggage of history and heritage.
Some key findings from the exploration of the history
Historically, in India, a person’s entry into Buddhism was not based on family tradition, but through individual choice.
Firstly, the exploration of history reveals that there was no organized religion at the time of the Buddha. Buddha’s purpose was also not to form a religion but to discover a system of practice (rather, many systems of practice) to break beyond suffering and to attain enlightenment. Disciples took that path not based on their family tradition but based on their personal investigation and understanding. Even during Emperor Ashoka’s time, there was no rigid religious boundary in India. People chose whatever suited them based on their inclinations and investigation. Ashoka chose Buddhism as his path, whereas his father chose Ajivika and his grandfather chose Jainism. Varna-system (caste-system) was weak during Ashoka’s time as his own wives came from different backgrounds. In South India too, some kings followed the Buddha while some other kings from the same family followed Mahavira and some others followed Saivism. Also, from the life-stories of many Buddhist masters, it can be seen that they did not come from a particularly Buddhist family but chose the Buddhist path based on their investigation. In that period, most of the kings supported both theistic and atheistic systems equally.
Buddhism’s rejection of varna-system was the main reason, if not the only reason, why Buddhism was seen as an alien system by the orthodoxy.
Later, as Brahminical orthodoxy with its varna-system (caste-system) regained power in India, the philosophical schools that supported the varna-system were categorized together as belonging to a common religious identity. This was in spite of the mutually contradictory philosophical positions of those schools. And, the systems that did not follow the varna-system of the brahminical orthodoxy were seen as outsiders of that new religious identity. Thus, Buddhism, an atheistic and rational system that goes beyond religious clinging, came to be viewed as another religion that is ‘foreign’ to the orthodoxy and heritage. Through this division, Buddhism came to be known as a ‘religion’, and that too a religion foreign to people’s family heritage. Historical and logical analysis can show how artificial these boundaries are.
Scriptural and archeological facts prove that the legend of Buddhism getting defeated by Shankaracharya, Sambandhar, etc., is only false propaganda without any basis.
As another important point, the usual narrative heard in the South is that Buddhism went into oblivion by the 8th Century itself as it was defeated through debates by Shankaracharya and Sambandhar. We can see that this too is an example of false propaganda made later. In our research through the scriptures of Shankaracharya and Sambandhar, we found no evidence to support that story. There is no logical rebuttal of any findings of the Buddha but only fictitious straw-man arguments. Further, an exploration of history and archeological evidence reveals this to be false propaganda.
Buddha statues can be found all over South India, of which some dates before Shankara and Sambandhar while some belong to a later period.
During our journeys, we came across Buddha statues all over the South, including in remote villages. Some of these statues are from the 5th-6th Century CE, while many others are sculpted as late as the 13th-14th Century CE. This clearly shows that the teachings of the Buddha were alive and vibrant all the way into the 14th Century. There are also pieces of evidence for the practice of Buddhism in South India in a somewhat hidden form till the 17th Century (at least in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and coastal Karnataka). This proves that no such defeat of the Buddhist view happened in any significant debate in the 8th Century. The decline of Buddhism had to do with unfavorable social conditions rather than the invalidity of the Buddhist teachings.
Later, due to the propagation of the fictitious story, people in India often did not even try to gain a preliminary understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. Thus, the propagation of this fictitious story itself became another unfavorable social conditioning. This propaganda led to a priori misconception that Buddhism is a failed religion. But, the fact remains that Buddhism is neither a religion nor a failed system.
The Current State of Archeological Remains
During our exploration, we came across many Buddha statues in varying conditions. Some are in an abandoned state by the roadside or field. Some others are kept in museums. Among those in museums, the records regarding the original location of some of the statues are lost. Some others in villages are worshipped as local gods by villagers while some are in other temples. Some other statues in villages are revered as the Buddha but worshipped according to local customs of ‘idol worship’ as they are not familiar with the teachings of the Buddha. A few are kept in newly constructed meditation halls and they are trying to learn Buddhism.
We felt that the statues sitting in their original locations spread across villages in many places have much more inspirational value than those stacked and forgotten in a museum hall. However, some statues in villages went missing and stolen in between. It would be beneficial if some groups or individuals help the villagers or government in building halls and protecting the statues that are in abandoned condition. Beyond that, as a Buddhist, it is inappropriate to get attached to these statues, places, heritage or history.
Dealing with Emotions with regard to History
As we started sharing these findings, we noticed that at least for some Buddhists it was disturbing to know that some Buddha statues are in non-Buddhist temples. As stated earlier, if we understand Buddhism correctly, this should not cause any disturbance or afflictive emotion. We should rather be able to rejoice about that. We shall deal with this topic at length now.
Our exploration of ancient statues and places is for understanding history, and not for making claims about statues and places. Since Buddhism is about getting rid of negative emotions, it is absurd to fall into such emotions with regard to statues and places.
As we saw, Buddhism is not about attachment to statues or places. If disturbing emotions such as attachment and hatred arise with respect to these statues, then we fail in taking to heart the very purpose of Buddhism, and we end up degrading Buddhism to a level of narrow religious clinging. That definitely should be avoided.
The very passing away of the Buddha is taught to be a lesson on impermanence and the eventuality of whatever is constructed (composite phenomena). Buddha also made it clear that let alone statues and sacred places, even Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, will decline during some periods due to causes and conditions. So, there is no need for heartburn regarding how some old statues are used by others.
We can rejoice that the compassion and wisdom intent of the Buddha and even his body representations are turning out to be of benefit to even those who do not follow his teachings.
If any religious group or local community is worshipping a Buddha statue in their own way (either explicitly or covered up), we can rejoice that the compassion and wisdom intent of the Buddha and even his body representations are turning out to be of benefit to even those who do not follow his teachings. Similarly, if a place that was made sacred through the practice of Buddhism is later being used as a place of worship by any religion, we can rejoice that the kind and compassionate intent of those earlier practitioners of Buddhism are still benefiting people there in one or other way. That is truly a matter to rejoice.
Making new statues are much easier than making one’s own mind clean.
The essence of Buddhism is in cleansing one’s own mind. We cannot preserve Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) by causing pain to others and claiming statues or places, because that only leads to afflictive emotions in one’s own mind and defeats the very purpose of Buddhism. Making new statues are much easier than making one’s own mind clean.
As Shantideva, a great master of Buddhism from the 7th Century taught (in Bodhicharya-avatara),
Even towards those who destroy or defame
Statues, stupas and the sacred Dharma,
It does not suit me to have hatred.
The Buddhas are never harmed by these.
And even to those who caused harm to
My Guru, friends and dear ones,
My anger is averted upon seeing that
Everything is conditionally arising.
And, as Gyalse Ngulchu Thogme Zangpo taught (Thirty-Seven Verses on the Practice of a Bodhisattva https://www.wayofbodhi.org/thirty-seven-verses-practice-bodhisattva/):
If I do not subdue the enemy, my own hatred,
The more I conquer the outer enemies, the more they proliferate.
Therefore, with the army of loving-kindness and compassion,
To tame one’s own stream of being is the practice of a bodhisattva.
Thus, the difficult outer conditions where we find apparent harm are powerful situations to check one’s own progress in keeping the mind free from destructive emotions, and moreover good opportunities to train and develop the mind further.
One might wonder, whether this is being too passive and a position of weakness. It is not so. In fact, if one reflects upon dependent arising, it can be seen that agitated minds cannot lead to the flourishing of Buddhism. The resurgence of Buddhism happens when many people take to heart the meaning of the Buddha’s teachings and transform their mind, and not when there are disturbing emotions about old statues and places.
And, as HH Dalai Lama said, There is no need for temples.
There is no need for temples.
There is no need for complicated philosophies.
Our own hearts is our temple.
The philosophy is that of kindness.
The sacred Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya was chopped off by King Shashanka in the early 7th Century. However, the glory of Buddhism peaked in India later in the 7th and 8th Centuries because there were still many living role models.
In fact, if there are genuine practitioners of the Buddha’s teachings who take the teachings to heart and turn themselves into living lamps of peace, wisdom and compassion, the teachings will flourish naturally. For example, the sacred Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya was chopped off by King Shashanka in the early 7th Century. However, the glory of Buddhism peaked in India later in the 7th and 8th Centuries because there were still many excellent practitioners here who accomplished the path through taking the teaching to heart. Sometime later, even the stupa (chorten) at Bodh Gaya went into oblivion and people didn’t even know where Vajrasana (the place made holy by the Buddha’s enlightenment) was. In spite of that, Buddhism flourished all around the world because there were many who imbibed the teachings of the Buddha and became living lamps of wisdom.
The reason why Buddhism vanished in India was not the scarcity of statues but the scarcity of living examples of Dharma in India during the last mlleneum.
Further, the reason why Buddhism vanished in India was not because of the scarcity of statues. One of the main reasons was that scarcity of role models or living examples of Buddhism in India. With the rise of the devotional cults by the end of the first millennium CE, common people got particularly attracted to the prospects of taking a ‘shortcut’. Instead of making the self-effort of leading a virtuous life and working towards taming one’s own emotions, they hoped that they can rely on praying or even simply rely on a priest of a theistic system as an agent for receiving favors from unseen Gods. Thus, there was a mass movement towards theism and devotional cults, away from Buddhism and other self-effort based systems. The efficacy of simply relying on unseen Gods is indeed questionable. However, when a scarcity of role models came up among Buddhists and other self-effort bases Sramanic systems in India, common people were at loss on how to choose a viable path. They didn’t see any direct evidence of a working system. So, they would have pegged their hopes on the least effort option. Thus, the scarcity of living role models mattered, and not the scarcity of statues.
To conclude, through the exploration of history and archeological evidence, we can see that Buddhism flourished in South India till around the middle of the last millennium. The purpose of this exploration is to clear the shadow cast by forged stories passed down as history hitherto. Let us not turn these findings into another image of heritage to be attached to. History and findings of old statues are useful only to the extent it cultivates an open culture free from legacies and biases, and not when it leads to new legacies and biases. It is meaningless to try to protect Buddhism by getting emotional about history. The way to revive Dharma is by being a living lamp of peace, wisdom and compassion, and never by turning off one’s own inner lamp through an outer mockery – that of agitation and violence. Buddhism flourishes when living lamps of Dharma ignite wisdom in others by inspiring similar qualities.