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The Disappearance of Buddhism

and the survival of Jainism in
India: A study in Contrast*
One of the most puzzling of the many enigmas that characterize
Indian history is the decline and disappearance, between the sev-
enth and thirteenth centuries A.D., of the religion of the Buddha
from its native land. Numerous theories have been put forth in
the attempt to explain this phenomenon; these are summarized
as follows by Re. Mitra in his excellent work, The Decline of Bud-
dhism in India: 1
1. "Exhaustion"
2. Withdrawal of royal patronage
3. Brahmanical persecution
4. Muslim invasion
5. Internal corruption and decay
6. Divisive effect of sectarianism
7. Insufficient cultivation of the laity.
The first of these suggestions, namely, that Buddhism was sim-
ply "exhausted" or "ready to die" in India by 1200 A.D., must be
dismissed as adding little or nothing to our understanding; no
light is cast by such a statement upon the actual cause of the death
in question.
The remaining six theories, on the other hand, de-
*This article was originally published in Studies in Hutmy of Buddhism, ed. A. K.
, (Delhi, 1980), pp. 81-91. Reprinted with kind permission of A. K. Narain,
serve more serious consideration, for each takes note of a situa-
tion or set of events that certainly exerted some influence upon
Buddhist fortunes. It is hard to accept, however, that anyone of
these factors (or even, for that matter, all of them taken together)
could have been decisive in precipitating the demise of institu-
tional Buddhism on the sub-continent, for as we shall see, similar
and often identical forces were at work on another non-Vedic
community and yet failed to bring about its extinction. The com-
munity referred to is that of the Jainas, whose own circumstances
during the Buddhist "period of decline" have been virtually ig-
nored by scholars. This is mo!>t unfortunate, for it is perhaps only
by asking the question, "How is it that one Gangetic, non-theistic
tradition was able to survive while another closely related
one was not?", that we may discover the unique aspects of the
Buddhist religion that ultimately led to its downfall. The task of
the present essay, then, will be to pursue this long-neglected line
of inquiry, and to produce on the basis thereof a new and, it is
hoped, more plausible explanation for the strange end of Indian
We should at the outset establish our grounds for asserting that
Buddhism andJainism are in fact "similar" enough to warrant the
sort of comparison proposed above. Gautama and Mahavira, re-
spective teachers of these two traditions, both seem to have come
from princely families, families that were not part of an empire,
but rather headed certain small janapadas ("republics") of the
Gangetic valley. Both are said to have left the household in the
prime of life and to have spent several years in great austerities
and mortifications, practices common among the non-
Vedic ascetics of ancient India.' In addition, Buddha and Mahavira
are perhaps the only two human beings in history to have claimed
for themselves the attainment of "omniscience" (saroajnatva).4
Following this attainment, each man founded a sangha (congrega-
tion) consisting of both monastic and lay followers, and each at-
tracted large numbers of brahmins and sons of wealthy families
to his order. Finally, the two great teachers wandered and preached
in the same general area for more than thirty years, passing at last
into what was claimed to be their final death
The institutional histories of the religions originating from these
k$atriya saints also run in a parallel manner. Both movements
actively sought and often gained royal patronage, and typically
migrated along the trade routes (often one behind the other) in
its pursuit; both developed extensive bodies of philosophical lit-
erature and were vilified for propounding anti-Vedic doctrines.
Most important, both lived in what might be called a constant
state of seige, struggling to preserve their integrity amidst a veri-
table sea of more or less hostile Hindu custom and belief. Thus,
while Jainas and Buddhists often engaged in heated polemics
against each other, we are nevertheless justified in viewing them
as "cousin" traditions occupying an equivalent position relative to
the surrounding environment.
Moving now to the theories enumerated by Mitra, let us first
consider the issue of royal patronage. While Indian kings were
bound by custom to assist all religions, their active support of a
given sect almost always brought with it a great increase in the
status enjoyed by that sect. This took the form not only of greater
prestige among the common people, but also of tangible material
gain (a certain percentage of tax revenues, for example, might be
turned over to a mendicant community) and of access to the
court itself. From the very beginning of their careers, both Bud-
dha and Mahavlra enjoyed the generous patronage of the
Magadhan king SreQika and of his patricide son AjataSatru. Jainas
have traditionally held that the Nanda kings who followed
AjataSatru were adherents to their faith (a claim supported by
inscriptional evidence),6 and that Candragupta, first emperor of
the subsequent Mauryan dynasty, was a Jaina convert who even
became a monk late in life. Candragupta's grandson ASoka, on
the other hand, is well-known to have been an ardent supporter
of Buddhism; indeed, his missionary zeal caused the spread of
that religion to Sri Lanka and laid the foundation for its eventual
successes in South and Southeast Asia. The rise of the Brahmanical
Sungas, ending theMauryan dynasty, meant the end of good
times for non-Vedic sects in Magadha; thus large numbers of both
Jainas and Buddhists moved out of their native region towards
Mathura in the west, thence along the mercantile routes into
other areas hospitable to their cause.' For the Jainas, this initially
meant Valabhi and Gimar in Saurashtra, and later the Kamataka
region of South India (where eventually arose the great Jaina
ruling houses of Ganga and Hoysala}.8 The Buddhists, for their
part, obtained a tremendous amount of assistance from the Indo-
Scythian king K a n i ~ k a Many moved northward, penetrating into
Kashmir, Central Asia, and beyond, while others followed the
example of the Jainas and proceeded into the re-
gions of the South. The point to be made here is that royal pa-
tronage was definitely a significantly positive factor during the
formative years of both the Jaina and Buddhist movements. Nev-
ertheless, we blindly extrapolate from this fact and assert
that withdrawal of such patronage (especially during the Hindu
resurgence of later centuries) meant the total eclipse of these
traditions. The continued existence of Jainism, which was every
bit as dependent upon royal support as was Buddhism, belies any
such claim.
Certain historians have emphasized the effect of Brahmanical
persecution upon the non-Vedic traditions. While isolated instanc-
es of actual violence by Hindu zealots doubtless did occur, these
were probably not sufficient in number or impact to seriously
cripple the groups toward which they were directed. It might be
argued that Jainas came in for fewer such attacks than did Bud-
dhists, because Mahavira's doctrine allowed for existence of the
iitman, a fundamental Hindu belief which the Buddhists rejected.
Even if a relative easing of anti:Jaina hostility did take place on
this basis, however, it would have been more than offset by the
Jainas' active and vehement condemnation of animal sacrifice in
Hindu rituals, about which the Buddhists, as meat-eaters, could
make little effective protest. Thus, we have here another negative
situation from which both schools probably suffered to an equal
The case pertaining to the Muslim incursions of the twelfth
and thirteenth centuries is not so easily written off. Thanks to
their geographical position (largely in Western India and the
Deccan), Jainas escaped the fury of the early Muslim onslaughts;
Buddhist communities, especially the great "university" centres at
Nalanda and elsewhere, were not so lutky.9 It cannot be denied
that the sacking of such centres of monastic learning dealt Bud-
dhism a severe blow. Even so, one still must ask how it was that
the Buddhists were not able to regroup and rebuild after the
initial holocaust had come to an end. We find, for example, that
although a great number ofJaina temples in Gujarat and R.yasthan
were converted into mosques in later centuries, the Jainas of those
areas not only survived but were able to become important leaders
in the economic life and government of the Muslim regimes.
Hence, the Islamic invasion, though admittedly the most destruc-
tive. of the external factors considered thus far, should not have
been sufficient to destroy Buddhist society altogether.
Even the earliest Buddhist texts reveal an awareness of tenden-
cies towards laxity and corruption within the sangha, tendencies
that eventually developed to the point where large numbers of
monks were performing magical practices, amassing personal or
community wealth, and engaging in various other improprieties.
Those who have emphasized the significance of this phenomenon
are certainly correct in claiming that it represented a serious weak-
ness in the Buddhist community. It should be borne in mind,
however, that probably every religiouo; community has gone through
periods of decay; those that survived seem to have responded to
these situations with spontaneous internal reform. after which the
movement often became stronger than ever. The ninth<entury
Jaina mystic Haribhadra, for example, rallied against the luxuri-
ous life style of many monks in his community and was able to
arouse popular indignation to the point where such practices were
greatly reduced.
Similarly. the dissatisfaction of certain Jaina lay
people with excessive emphasis on temple ritual and with the
grossly expanded power of the temple cleric-administrators led to
development of an entire "anti-temple" sect in the fifteenth cen-
tury. While this group. the Sthanakavasi. failed to gain many ad-
herents, it did manage to rouse the orthodox from their apathy
and thus bring about many important and necessary reforms within
the larger Svetambara community. I I Decay itself, then, need not
be fatal; the inability of the Buddhists to generate any meaningful
reforms must, like their failure to recover from the loss of their
"universities", be ascribed to still deeper causes.
The existence of widespread sectarianism within Buddhism (as
many as eighteen doctrinally-distinct schools at one point) has
often been construed as indicative of internal weakness. This in-
terpretation, however. is not necessarily valid. In fact, when deal-
ing with the kind of non<entralized movement that Buddhism
comprised, the emergence of numerous sects should probably be
taken as a sign of both intellectual and spiritual vigour. Even
more important, Buddhist sectarianism was confined to interpreta-
tion of texts; members of all schools more or less accepted the
validity of the basic Tripitaka, shared an almost identical code of
conduct, and moved easily among each other's communities.