Two Sides of One Coin? (Buddhist and Christian Decline, Part II)

Two Sides of One Coin? (Buddhist and Christian Decline, Part II) July 1, 2016

Last time, I stated a problem. In the early centuries of the Christian era, Buddhism was an immensely successful and thriving faith, which had its main homeland in India. Between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, though, Indian Buddhism was progressively weakened, to the point of virtual destruction. So totally was it swept away that not until the end of the eighteenth century did British observers of Burma/Myanmar and Sri Lanka hypothesize that there had once been an actual religion called Buddhism, and that this might even have something to do with what was recorded in China or Japan. It was in the 1790s that Scottish surgeon Francis Buchanan first used the word Buddhism in print. Eventually, such scholars realized that it had left traces in India itself.

That story of utter Buddhist eclipse, and its chronology, closely recalls the fate of Middle Eastern Christianity in these same centuries. What parallels can we draw between the two phenomena?

At the beginning, I should make one general point that applies to any number of situations involving the question “Why did X fall, fail, or come to an end?” whether we are dealing with the Roman Empire, the British Empire, the Habsburg Empire, or indeed the American Confederacy. As phrased, the question of itself assumes that this phenomenon is somehow meant to last indefinitely, so that when it does end, some explanation is needed. In each case, it is often better to ask “Why did X last so long?” That is especially true when we are discussing a religious movement that lasts for many centuries. Why should decline and fall not be a natural part of its trajectory? There is an irony in discussing the mystery of the fall of Indian Buddhism, a religion built on the assumption that all is transitory.

With that caveat in mind, what caused the decline of the two faiths in those geographical settings? In both cases, it is easy to point to the massive destruction caused by Islamic campaigns, and the uprooting of monasteries and religious infrastructure, and in each case much of that horror occurred from the tenth century onwards. But in both cases, though, the two religions were already severely weakened by centuries of competition from rival religions that were more successful in winning popular support. In the Middle East, Christians lost out to Muslims. In India, the main competitors were Hindus, long before Muslims ever came on the scene.

To put this in context, think of the critical need for such popular support given the political setting of the different religions. Callous as this may sound, acts of violence and destruction were usually not of themselves fatal to any religious tradition. Through the early Middle Ages, Western European monasteries and cathedrals were sacked regularly, variously by Norse, Saracens and Magyars, and the great Burgundian monastery of Luxeuil actually got attacked by all three of those predators, quire independently of each other, within a few years. The issue was not whether monasteries were destroyed, but whether they could rebuild. Western European churches had the invaluable support of the state, either of kings or local aristocrats, and restoration was usually speedy and complete.

Without that state alliance, patronage and support, though, matters were very different, and that is the situation faced by Middle Eastern Christians throughout our period, and by Indian Buddhists after 650. As time went on, Christians and Buddhists both lost much of their popular constituency to rivals in a fairly wide open marketplace of faiths.

In the Indian case, the great success story was Hinduism (allowing for anachronistic uses of the term). Buddhism began as a reform movement within the larger spectrum of Indic religions, and it offered a radical revision of older systems based on its critique of caste and brahminical privilege, and its rejection of animal sacrifices. But even during the greatest successes of Buddhism, Hinduism never went away, and Hindu thinkers and religious leaders were extremely busy reconstructing the faith on lines that proved immensely appealing to ordinary people. That was especially true under the Gupta Empire (320-550).

Crucially, many of the most successful innovations borrowed heavily from Buddhist practice and thought, which had clearly achieved such wide popularity. In order to compete, Hindus had to evolve from the older Vedic gods and the brahminical order, to create a new religion that looked very much like Buddhism itself. Between (say) the third and eight centuries AD, those innovations included powerful new forms of devotional practice to the gods (bhakti), with a new focus on beloved deities like Vishnu and Shiva, and their respective families. Shaivism, Siva’s path, proved very successful. Legends about these gods were told in the rich tradition of story telling and mythologies, in the Puranas. The age from 650 through 1100 is known as that of Puranic Hinduism.

Hindu philosophy, meanwhile, achieved splendid new heights under brilliant figures like Shankara (?788-820), who created the school of Advaita Vedanta, and urged the necessity of monasticism. He was so close to Buddhism in many ways that he was accused of being a Buddhist in disguise.

On occasion, Hindus did persecute Buddhists, and quite ferociously. In the seventh century, the Bengali Shaivite king Shashanka killed monks and wrecked monasteries, and even destroyed the sacred bodhi tree In the eleventh century, Kashmir’s sultan Harsha Deva boasted of destroying four thousand Buddhist shrines, but that was highly exceptional and the same king also targeted Hindu centers that he disapproved of. (That Harsha should not be confused with the highly tolerant seventh century emperor Harshavardhana). Indeed, the king’s mental stability is in question.

Normally, persecuting Buddhism was simply unnecessary as its beliefs were reabsorbed into the Indic source from which it originally came. To adapt a saying from British political history, the Hindus caught the Buddhists bathing, and made off with their clothes.

It’s useful here to compare China, where emperors sporadically persecuted Buddhism, most dramatically in the mid-ninth century. Rather like in the European Reformation, Buddhist monks were tempting targets because they were associated with foreign influence, while their wealthy monasteries were tempting targets for official plunder. Yet despite multiple waves of persecution, Chinese Buddhism survived and continued, just as it did not in India. Persecution alone was not the key factor there, but rather a wider shift in popular support.

Indian Buddhism, then, was already fatally weakened before the great wars and invasions associated with the rise of Islam. When the great monasteries and shrines were destroyed, there was no popular constituency left to restore them. Around 1200, the once-crucial university of Nalanda was sacked, and either destroyed utterly or irreparably damaged. The site never returned to anything like its ancient glory, and it was ultimately forgotten.

When Islam arrived, it certainly brought destruction, particularly at the hands of legendary conquerors and persecutors like Mahmud of Ghazni c.1000. In many cases, though, the Muslims were conquering sites that had already been converted from Buddhism by Hindu rulers. Islam, though, affected Buddhism in other ways, adding yet another rival temptation for ordinary people who might otherwise have been Buddhist. Particularly appealing were Islam’s rejection of caste, and its Sufi mystical strand.

To over-simplify: perhaps the question is not why Indian Buddhism declined, but why it gained such power in the first place. What happened from the fifth and sixth centuries onward was that the older religious systems reorganized to restore their natural place in the Indic order. Buddhism lost its popular roots.

The resemblances with contemporary Middle Eastern Christianity are significant. In its early phase, Islam in Syria or Iraq offered no intellectual challenge to Christianity, and Christian scholars were much in demand at Muslim courts as scholars, translators and administrators. Increasingly though, their ideas were successfully absorbed into a Muslim-dominated world. From the ninth century onwards, Christian populations increasingly moved to Islam, initially because it offered significant social and political advantages. In that time and place, Christianity and Islam were sufficiently similar in their practices that the shift was far subtler and easier than it might be today. (For instance, eastern Christian Lents were very much like Muslim Ramadan). By the time severe persecutions broke out in later centuries, Christian roots were severely damaged. Monasteries survived as isolated fortresses of Christian faith in increasingly hostile landscapes. Christians almost literally took to the hills, to easily defensible areas. Only in modern times were even those fastnesses overwhelmed.

In my next post, I will discuss exactly what these roots were for each religion, and how they changed over time. And I will develop the comparison with Christian history in the Middle East.


For the modern Western discovery of Buddhism, see Charles Allen, The Buddha and the Sahibs (2002).

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