Why Buddhism died out in India
Date:Wed, 10 Apr 2002 2:10:38 AM Eastern Daylight Time
From: Nanda Chandran
Reply-To:Buddhist Academic Discussion Forum
<BUDDHA-L@LISTSERV.LOUISVILLE.EDU>Sent from the Internet
In my mind factors like the monastries getting destroyed or religious
persecution by other sects, by itself could not have wholly wiped out Buddhism
It might be easy to kill people or destroy buildings - but how do you destroy
ideas? The negative standpoint of Buddhism - anatta, shunyavaada,
vijnaanamaatra - had always had its share of admirers in India. Even if there
weren't any major Buddhist monastry or teacher present, still over the
centuries several intelligent persons could have engaged in philosophical
enterprise based on Buddhist ideas. But no such thing has happened – after a
point in time it seems to have lost popularity and waned out.
In my mind there's a fundamental philosophical reason for the death of
Buddhism in India.
I would like to analyze the development of some core issues in Buddhist
philosophy on this issue:
1. The Buddha - the Buddha is distinct from other philosophical streams due to
his teaching of anatta. Most schools taught the reality of the Self –
knowing the self is salvation - so the path is subjective. In contrast the
Buddha ignored the self and taught the control/discipline of the non-self -
his path thus is objective.
But it is to be noted that nowhere do we find the Buddha denying the atman -
anatta only meant the all that's not the self - the non-self.
In my mind there are two fundamental reasons for the teaching of anatta:
a. When reality is beyond the mind and is not be attained by any action, why
does it need to figure in spiritual practice at all? Understanding and
disciplining the non-self - the mind/body/senses - is what is required.
Including reality in a spiritual scheme only results in endless speculation on
it which is actually counter productive to spiritual progress.
b. Also in the ultimate sense, one needs to let go of the will which is the
root of the "I" sense for reality to manifest.
It is in these two contexts that the Buddha taught anatta.
2. Hinayaana especially the Milindapanha has an axe to grind. Engaging in
polemics against the other ethical schools it leans heavily on anatta and
asserts that there's no substance at all. Everything is momentary. The
Sarvaastivaada schools indulge in some metaphysical speculation - atomism etc
3. Naagaarjuna comes in with two fundamental objectives :
a. to warn against excessive stress on anatta and
b. to condemn the speculative trend in Sarvaastivaada.
He too follows the Buddha in his fundamental teaching:
a. to understand and reject unreality using shunyataa
and b. to abandon the will using the chatushkoti and bhakti (devotion).
Till here Buddhists by always cleverly talking only about unreality or
referring to liberation in phenomenal terms as "end of suffering" or
"elimination of kleshas", had always maintained an ambiguous stand
on reality. Naagaarjuna provides some ontological hints - "cessation of
plurality" and the "world removed from the lens of causation is
itself nirvaana" etc. But his heavy negative dialectic in condemning the
unreal had earned shunyavaada the reputation of nihilism. Also the trend in
Maadhyamika circles to get caught in the intellectual loop and make the
chatushkoti itself a view needs to be corrected.
4. So the Yogaacaarins come into the picture with the main objective : after
chatushkoti, the necessity to practice yoga so as to attain the reality of
pure consciousness (vijnaanamaatra).
So here for the first time, necessiated by the excessive negativity of the
Maadhyamika, Buddhism is forced to compromise on its ambiguous stand on
reality and come forth with a clear assertion on the nature of reality.
5. Now along comes Gaudapaada - a philosopher who notes the similarity of the
teachings of the Mahaayaana with the Upanishads. It is to be noted that the
Vedaanta was not in vogue and atbest practiced only in very select circles as
historically we do not have a record of other schools even talking about it
before the rise of Advaita - but now using Mahaayaana dialectic it is revived.
Gaudapaada only shows that all epistemological or psychological observations
of Mahaayaana presupposes a metaphysical base - you can dispute the
metaphysical conceptions about the object but cannot deny the object itself.
It can be said that the world is like a circle created by waving a firebrand.
But still without the firebrand even such an analogy would not be possible.
The negative is only the luxury of the mind but without conceptual
construction every single instance of our conscious experience only affirms
something and never denies anything. Nobody says : "I'm not" or
"this is not". Consciousness (here I'm talking about basic awareness
and not mind consciousness) itself implies something positive to be conscious
about. And even with respect to conceptual construction, the negative has no
value in itself and exists only in relation to something else.
The negative standpoint has its use but if you take it to its extreme it only
winds up in nihilism. Affirming an absolute is the natural next step after the
chatushkoti. The analysis of the three states of the waking, dream and deep
sleep which reveals the existance of a changeless part of our identity due to
which our identity survives the three states, is itself the pointer to
Metaphysics if logically reconciled with Mahaayaana thought, can end only in
the spiritual absolutism of the Upanishads. Only the Buddha didn't teach it -
naitad Buddhena baashitam - out of practical interest. Gaudapaada provides
numerous quotes from the Upanishads to support his interpretation of
Here the Buddhists could have protested that Gaudapaada was hijacking their
philosphy. But the chronological superiority of the Upanishads over the Buddha
is the deciding factor here. The Upanishads had taught it first and so the
Buddhists are on the defensive now.
Some liberal minded Bauddha scholars like Bhaavaviveka reach out to Gaudapaada
in agreement. But other Bauddhas like Chandrakirti, anxious to preserve the
distinct identity of Buddhism, are opposed to it. But even here they only
oppose any expression of the absolute and not the absolute itself.
But clearly understanding that they cannot maintain their distinctness on the
philosophies of Naagaarjuna and Vaasubandhu, other Buddhists - Dignaaga,
Dharmakirti et al - again revive the doctrine of momentariness. So from
Yogaacaara absolutism, it degenerates to Sautraantika nihilism. But it is a
lost cause since the doctrine had already been discredited by Naagaarjuna and
Vaasubandhu themselves - "it existed before but doesn't exist now -
entails the error of nihilism" - Mulamaadhyamaka Kaarikaa - Examination
One thing to note here is that Buddhism is more a religion of reason than its
other Indian counterparts - unlike the saints of Shaivism or Vaishnavism the
majority of whom are poets who gained their popularity through devotional
poetry (even Shankara is popular among the masses only for his highly inspired
devotional hymns) - every Bauddha aachaarya was an intellectual. Buddhism
sustained itself on its philosophical subtleties attracting the intelligensia
in the society - naturally it caused a heavy brain drain from the braahmanical
But the rise of Advaita Vedaanta which "completes the full picture",
by cooly reconciling Buddhist epistemology and psychology with Upanishadic
metaphysics, with its historical prestige rooted in scripture and powered by
as inspiring a figure as Shankara must have heavily stemmed the intellectual
flow thus sapping the interest in Buddhist philosphy over a period of time.
Buddhist philosophy had helped the Indian mind to climb to a certain level -
without doubt the concepts of maayaa and its implication - advaya or
non-duality - are Buddhist contributions without which there would be no
Advaita at all - but after a certain stage it was helpless to prevent itself
from being assimilated into/by Advaita Vedaanta.
Losing its strong point - philosophy (though in the negative sense) - it
failed to attract new talent and gradually died out.
But again please note that I'm not saying that Adavita and Buddhism are the
same - both have different set of ideals and practices - just that the
differences themselves weren't enough for Buddhism to sustain its individual
identity in India.
It is also to be noted that a couple of centuries after the fall of Buddhism,
the Indian intellect had rejected most of the other philosophies and turned it
attention towards interpreting the scriptures - numerous schools of Vedaanta
In conclusion, I've to assert that Buddhism never died in India, but survives
in the form of Advaita Vedaanta, which represents the best of both the great
traditions - Buddhism as well as the Vedic religion.
Minh Quang posted April 11, 2002
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