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.

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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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Ambedkar, Buddhism and Caste

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Written by Randeep Singh

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was one of modern India’s most remarkable statesman. He drafted the Constitution of India, served as the country’s first Minister of Law and led the Untouchables in his fight against the caste system.

Ambedkar singlehandedly revived Buddhism in India. On October 14, 1956, he converted to the religion, prompting the mass conversion of hundreds of thousands of his followers. He created a new identity for India’s Untouchables, but he polemicized his interpretation of Buddhism in the process.

Ambedkar claimed that the Buddha did everything to uproot the caste system, but ignored the fact that the caste system remained entrenched in India throughout the Buddhist period (c. 268 BCE – 551 CE). He did not mention that the practice of Untouchability first emerged during this period. He gushed about how Buddhism gave India democratic parliaments with whip, quorum, resolutions, ballot voting and vote counting.

He still inspires me though and I believe that Buddhism, as secularized political philosophy, can help undermine the caste system. It was the first religion to challenge the caste system by turning upside down the concepts upholding it. Its insights in this respect are interesting from a modern, secular perspective.

Buddhism is concerned with the end of suffering as a human problem.  Its primary concern is to promote human welfare and happiness. It holds that only humans can end their own suffering through moral action, self-discipline, and understanding. No God, divine being, black magic, superstition or astrological charts are necessary.

Humans are equal in Buddhism in the sense of being equally capable of achieving enlightenment. They are equally subject to one universal moral law (‘Dharma’) with moral obligations to one another such as to respect one another’s life, liberty and dignity. This contrasts to the caste system which differentiates laws on the basis of caste.

The Buddha recognized the existence of caste in his society. He exhorted his followers, however, to emphasize the cultivation of moral character as an indication of self-worth. Caste or rather class in Buddhism arise due to human expediency, not divine sanction: it is a matter of vocation, not birth.

Caste is not static either. Like all existence, individual or collective, it is subject to change, interrelated and composite and conditioned by many interdependent factors. The seasons come and go, empires rise and fall and ancient communities perish. There is no “caste” other than the conditions giving rise to it.

Lastly, Buddhism left an important secular legacy for India. It inculcated a more humane ethic in politics (e.g. the reign of Ashoka). It formulated a social contract theory of government. It established inclusive social institutions such as universities, monasteries, and hospitals. Its appeal to reason, ethics and its concern for human well-being, can enlighten India yet.

 

Buddhist Social Philosophy

 

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Written by Randeep Singh

What does Buddhism[1] say about social matters?

In Buddhism, all things are governed by the universal law known as Dharma. In the physical world, Dharma regulates the expansion of galaxies, the flow of the seasons and of the rise and setting of the sun. In the social world, Dharma is found in the obligations and responsibilities we owe to one another as humans.

To live in accordance with Dharma socially is to live a moral life (sila) in harmony with the well-being of others. Buddhism in particular looks at the Dharma in relation to suffering and the end of suffering.

Suffering arises socially when we think we exist separately from one another. In Buddhism, nothing exists separately from anything else and there is no “self” or “essence” which divides one thing from another. The end of suffering begins when we realize that we do not exist seperately from anything or anyone but in a dynamic interdependence with everything and everyone around us. There is no “self” dividing me from my neighbour.

In so realizing, I regard my neighbour as myself. Dharma is realized by “doing good to others, avoiding harm to others.” Buddhist ethics consider how one’s words, actions and livelihood affects other people and the quality of one’s relationships with those people. Kind words, a smile, a handshake, all make a difference. Dharma is apparent through the effects of our moral actions on our lives (‘karma’) and how the cumulative effects of our action produce social relationships, networks and society.

Above all, human relationships provide support and solace in a world of suffering. The loneliness of human existence, the pain of separation, the sorrow of losing someone close to us, all are lessened through the bonds of love, friendship and brotherhood. The ideal society in Buddhist philosophy is one where each person lives in respect and with affection toward others, creating relationships in the spirit of love, compassion and joy in the happiness of others.

Footnote:

[1] I define Buddhism as the teachings of the Buddha and take them as a philosophy like the the teachings of Aristotle, Confucius or Plato, not as a religion per se.

Further Reading:

Ainslee T. Embree ed., Sources of Indian Tradition, Vol. 1: From the Beginning to 1800, Columbia University Press, New York: 1988.

Damien Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 2006).

 

The Dharma Politic

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“Hatred is not appeased by hatred. Hatred is appeased only by Love”
(Dhammapada, 1.5)

Written by Randeep Singh

What role does politics play in Buddhism?

Buddhism originated at a time in India when the state was active in expansion, trade, war and diplomacy. The state is found in the Buddha’s ideas and his teachings have the following implications for politics.

First, like all phenomena in Buddhism, politics is imperfect, subject to change, interrelated and composite and conditioned by many interdependent factors, such as geography, history, inter-state relationships and how people relate to the ruler.

Second, politics is governed by the universal moral law or dharma. The ruler in Buddhism is appointed by the people (Maha Sammata) to protect their life, security and property.[1]  The moral law of Dharma requires such a ruler to be benevolent (adosa), moral  (sila) and not to act contrary to the will of the people (avirodha).[2]

Third, the “benevolent ruler” (dharma raja) is essentially the secular counterpart of the Buddha, a person who has realized his highest spiritual and ethical potential (buddha) and who directs that energy (chanda) to the people’s welfare. He improves their economic condition so they have a foundation upon which to pursue a good life.[3] He avoids harm to others in thought, word or action, particularly through the practice of non-violence (ahimsa).[4]

The purpose of Buddhism is to end human suffering. Government in Buddhist politics lays the foundation for such a life by enabling the people to fulfill their potential for goodness and happiness and, thereby, putting an end to suffering. The Dharma Politic is “for the good of the many, for the happiness of many, out of compassion for the world.”

 

 

[1] Digha Nikaya, 3.80.

[2] “Ten Duties of the King” (dasa raja dhamma). Jataka I, 260, 399

[3] “Kutadanta-sutta” in Digha Nikaya. Emperor Ashoka of India (r. 269-232 BCE) for instance provided public works and medical care. In China, Buddhism encouraged the building of orphanages, hospitals and rest homes for the elderly; see Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey, Kenneth Chen (Princeton University Press, NJ: 1985). 484.

[4] The Buddhist-influenced Gupta Empire (c. 320-551CE) for instance was noted for its minimal state interference in society and its abolition of capital punishment.