A History of Buddhist India

Written by Randeep Singh

The Buddhist period of India’s history (c. 273 BCE-646 CE) refers to a time where Buddhism shaped India’s culture, religions, social and political institutions and its relations with other countries. The Buddhist emperors ruled over multi-ethnic and multi-religious empires, and not over the monolithic Hindu nation India is imagined to be.

Ashoka (r. 273-232 BCE)

Ashoka was the last major emperor of the Maurya Dynasty (321-185 BCE). He unified most of the Indian subcontinent and helped spread Buddhism throughout his empire. His empire included Buddhists but also Jains, Brahmins and followers of different sects. His policy of “dharma” exhorted religious tolerance and expressed his concern for the welfare of his subjects.

Kanishka (r. 127-150 CE)

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Above: Map of the Kushan Empire

Under Kanishka, the Kushan Empire encompassed Bactria, Afghanistan, the Punjab and the Indo-Gangetic plains. Ruling from Purusapura (Peshawar), his empire was home to Zoroastrians, Brahmins, Jains, Buddhists, Greeks and other pagan cults. He connected India to the Silk Road and his patronage of Buddhism helped it spread to Central Asia and China.

Harsha (r. 606-647)

Harsha was the last great “ancient” emperor of northern India. He patronized Buddhist universities like Nalanda and established benevolent institutions throughout his empire. He established relations with China and welcomed monks like Hsuan Tsang (602-664) to his court. He was also, incidentally, a patron of Sanskrit literature and himself wrote plays.

nalanda

Above: Ruins of the Nalanda University. Nalanda was founded during the fifth century. Its subjects included Buddhist philosophy, logic, grammar and philology and medicine.


Dharmapala
(r. c. 780-820)

Dharmpala was a ruler of the Pala Dynasty (750-1174). His empire spanned Bengal, Bihar and central India. He founded the Vikramshila University which attracted students from across India, China, Tibet and South East Asia. The Buddhist architecture and iconography of his reign would influence styles found in Burma, Java, Tibet and Nepal.

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