History of Buddhism: The Post Mauryan Period

Buddha, the Founder of Buddhism

by Jayaram V

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This article describes the history of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent during the post Mauryan Period starting from the Sungas, the Satavahanas and the Kushanas with a brief note on Vajrayana Buddhism and reasons for the decline of Buddhism.

The Sungas

The Mauryas were succeeded by the Sungas, who ruled large parts of northern India between 185 B.C. and 73 B.C., with Vidisa in eastern Malwa as their capital. The Sungas were avowed followers of Vedic religion and showed little respect for other religions. They promoted Hinduism actively and were intolerant towards Buddhism. According to Buddhist tradition, they made serious attempts to suppress the religion and even indulged in religious persecution. Pushyamitra Sunga, one of the most prominent ruler of the dynasty, was said to be a great persecutor of Buddhism.

Apart from patronizing Brahminism at the expense of other faiths, he was referred as a religious bigot who indulged in the destruction of several Buddhist monuments, including a famous monastery at Pataliputra. He said to have even offered monetary reward for killing the Buddhist monks. Some historians do not agree with this theory and point out the construction of the Buddhist stupas and railings at Barhut and the uninterrupted existence of several other stupas and Buddhist monuments throughout the kingdom of the Sungas as evidence their religious tolerance.

The Satavahanas

The Satavahanas ruled large parts of Andhrapradesh, Maharashtra and central India between 200 BC and 250 AD. Like the Sungas they were Brahmin rulers, but unlike the former, displayed exemplary tolerance towards other religions. Both Buddhism and Hinduism flourished and coexisted peacefully during their reign. They made generous grants for the construction and maintenance of several monasteries, cave dwellings and residential quarters for the Buddhist monks. Several Buddhist centers flourished and gained prominence like the ones at Amaravathi and Nagarjunakonda in Andhrapradesh during their period.

The Kushanas - Kanishka

Emperor Kanishka was a Saka-Kushana king. He is remembered in Indian history as a great patron of Buddhism, next to Asoka. He ruled parts of central Asia and north Western India some time during the early Christian era. The fourth Buddhist council was held in Kashmir under his patronage.

During this period, the Mahayana school of Buddhism became popular in the north while Hianayana remained popular in the south and in Ceylon. The Mahayana doctrines crossed the frontiers of the sub-continent and traveled eastwards to China and other far eastern countries.

The Gupta Period

The Guptas ruled large tracts of the Indian subcontinent from the fourth century A.D. to the sixth century A.D. They were great patrons of Vedic religion. Fahien, a Chinese Buddhist monk visited India during the reign of Chandra Gupta II and stayed in India for six years.

His travel account throws considerable light on the socio-religious life in the country during this period. Fahien noted that Buddhism was still popular, though Hinduism was gaining ground under the patronage of the Guptas. He also commented that due to the influence of Buddhism and Jainism many people from higher sections of society had become vegetarians.

The Post Gupta Period

At the close of the fifth century A.D., the Huna began their invasions into India. The Hunas were the most cruel foreign rulers to invade India in ancient times. They were also known for their religious intolerance. Both Hsuan Tsang and the famous Kashmiri poet, Kalhana, recorded the cruel persecution they meted out to Buddhists. Fortunately the Hunas had a short reign in the country and thereby the native religions escaped from a great destruction.


In the first decade of seventh century A.D., Harshavardhana ascended the throne at the age of sixteen. He ruled large parts of central and northern India. His reign lasted for about forty one years. He is also known in Indian history as a great patron of Buddhism, and a man of considerable virtues.

Hsuan Tsang, the famous Buddhist scholar from China, visited India during his reign and stayed in his court for seven years. Like Fa-hien, his predecessor, he also recorded his experiences in India in the form of a book. He gave a fairly accurate picture of the conditions prevailing in the country during his several years' stay. He described Nalanda as a great center of learning for Buddhist monks.

Harshavardhana was a follower of Buddhism. But like many other emperor in the recorded history of India, he was tolerant of other religions and also worshipped some Hindu gods. He saved Buddhism from the hands of Sasanka, who was bent upon destroying Buddhist monuments and harassing Buddhist followers. Despite of support from Harhsavardhana, Buddhism was in decline in various parts of the country.

Vajrayana Buddhism

During the early eight century A.D. Vajrayana Buddhism appeared in eastern India. It gained wider acceptance in Bihar and Bengal. The Vikramasila monastery in Bihar was popular center for this new sect, which was partly based upon the ancient Vedic Tantric practices and worship of Mother Goddess. In subsequent times, Tibet and Nepal came under the influence of Vajrayana Buddhism. Sub-sects such as Sahajayana, Kalachakrayana, and Mantrayana soon arose out of this new sect.

The Decline

Despite of the support and patronage by Harshavardhana and by Pala kings, who came later, by the end of twelfth century A.D, Buddhism declined as a major religious force in the sub-continent . The growing influence of Bhakti movement and the religious bigotry of the Muslim invaders sealed what ever opportunities it had for revival and renewal. However Buddhism continued to flourish in other parts of the world, especially in China, Korea, Japan, Cambodia, Thailand and other far eastern countries.

Today Buddhism is practised in various parts of the world. In India it has the dubious distinction of a separate religion as well as a movement with in Hinduism. The Hindus consider the Buddha as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. But the Buddhists disagree. As a religion, except in certain parts like Sikkhim, Ladakh, Buddhism is a minority religion in India.

But in neighboring Nepal, Bhutan and Ceylon it is still very popular religion. Though it greatly disappeared in main land China, it still survives in many far eastern countries and Japan. The west was introduced to Buddhism mainly in the last century. It is presently attracting many new followers from the western world. As a religion and as a way of life, Buddhism has a great religions appeal to the educated and liberal minded people of the west. It has an inherent strength, a certain dignified charm . It will continue to attract many new followers.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Image Attribution: The image of the Buddha used in this article is either in public domain or licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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