How Did Hinduism Absorb Buddhism In India?
Eight or nine years ago, when I was in Paris, Andre Malraux put me a strange question at the very beginning of our conversation.What was it, he asked me, that enabled Hinduism, to push away organized Buddhism from India, without any major conflict,over a thousand years ago? How did Hinduism succeed in absorbing, as it were, a great and widespread popular religion,without the usual wars of religion which disfigure the history of so many countries? What inner vitality or strength did Hinduism possess then which enabled it to perform this remarkable feat?And did India possess this inner vitality and strength today? If so, then her freedom and greatness were assured.
The question was perhaps typical of a French intellectual who was also a man of action. And yet few persons in Europe or America would trouble themselves over such matters; they would be much too full of the problems of today. Those present-day world problems filled and troubled Malraux also, and with his powerful and analytical mind he sought light wherever he could find it in the past or in the present—in thought, speech, writing, or, best of all, in action, in the game of life and death.
For Malraux the question was obviously not just an academic one. He was full of it and he burst out with it as soon as we met. It was a question after my own heart, or rather the kind of question that my own mind was frequently framing. But I had no satisfactory answer to it for him or for myself. There are answers and explanations enough, but they seem to miss the core of the problem.
It is clear that there was no widespread or violent extermination of Buddhism in India. Occasionally there were local troubles or conflicts between a Hindu ruler and the Buddhist Sangha, or organization of monks, which had grown powerful. These had usually a political origin and they did not make any essential difference. It must also be remembered that Hinduism was at no time wholly displaced by Buddhism. Even when Buddhism was at its height in India, Hinduism was widely prevalent. Buddhism died a natural death in India, or rather it was a fading out and a transformation into something else. ‘India,’ says Keith, ‘has a strange genius for converting what it borrows and assimilating it.’ If that is true of borrowings from abroad or from alien sources, still more is it applicable to something that came out of its own mind and thought. Buddhism was not only entirely a product of India; its philosophy was in line with previous Indian thought and the philosophy of the Vedanta (the Upanishads). The Upanishads had even ridiculed priest-craft and ritualism and minimized the importance of caste.
Brahminism and Buddhism acted and reacted on each other, and in spite of their dialectical conflicts or because of them, approached nearer to each other, both in the realm of philosophy and that of popular belief. The Mahayana especially approached the Brahminical system and forms. It was prepared to compromise with almost anything, so long as its ethical background remained. Brahminism made of Buddha an avatar, a God. So did Buddhism. The Mahayana doctrine spread rapidly but it lost in quality and distinctiveness what it gained in extent. The monasteries became rich, centres of vested interests, and their discipline became lax;. Magic and superstition crept into the popular forms of worship. There was a progressive degeneration of Buddhism in India after the first millennium of its existence. Mrs. Rhys Davids points out its diseased state during that period: ‘under the overpowering influence of these sickly imaginations the moral teachings of Gautama have been almost hid from view. The theories grew and flourished, each new step, each new hypothesis demanded another; until the whole sky was filled with forgeries of the brain, and the nobler and simpler lessons of the founder of the religion were smothered beneath the glittering mass of metaphysical subtleties.
This description might well apply to many of the ‘sickly imaginings’ and ‘forgeries of the brain’ which were afflicting Brahminism and its offshoots at that time.
Buddhism had started at a time of social and spiritual revival and reform in India. It infused the breath of new life in the people, it tapped new sources of popular strength and released new talent and capacity for leadership. Under the imperial patronage of Ashoka it spread rapidly and became the dominant religion of India. It spread also to other countries and there was a constant stream of learned Buddhist scholars going abroad from India and coming to India. This stream continued for many centuries. When the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hien came to India in the fifth century A.C., a thousand years after Buddha, he saw that Buddhism was flourishing in its parent country. In the seventh century A.C. the still more famous pilgrim Hsuan Tsang (or Yuan-Chwang) came to India and witnessed signs of decay, although even then it was strong in some areas. Quite a large number of Buddhist scholars and monks gradually drifted from India to China.
Meanwhile there had been a revival of Brahminism and a great cultural renaissance under the Imperial Guptas in the fourth and fifth centuries A.C. This was not anti-Buddhist in any way but it certainly increased the importance and power of Brahminism, and it was also a reaction against the other worldliness of Buddhism. The later Guptas contended for long against Hun invasions and, though they drove them off ultimately, the country was weakened and a process of decay set in. There were several bright periods subsequently and many remarkable men arose. But both Brahminism and Buddhism deteriorated and degrading practices grew up in them. It became difficult to distinguish the two. If Brahminism absorbed Buddhism, this process changed Brahminism also in many ways.
In the eighth century Shankaracharya, one of the greatest of India’s philosophers, started religious orders or maths for Hindu sanyasins or monks. This was an adoption of the old Buddhist practice of the sangha. Previously there had been no such organizations of sanyasins in Brahminism, although small groups of them existed.
Some degraded forms of Buddhism continued in East Bengal and in Sind in the north-west. Otherwise Buddhism gradually vanished from India as a widespread religion.
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