Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India and Nepal

Buddhism began in what is now India and Nepal but today only about 7.5 million people practice the religion in India. Most Indian Buddhists live in the Himalayan region or southern India or near the Myanmar border. The Buddhism practiced in the north is mostly Tibetan Buddhism, similar to the form practiced in Tibet, and the Buddhism practiced in the south is Theravada Buddhism, similar to form practiced in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar.

In 500 B.C. Prince Buddha forsook his life of wealth and privilege for a spiritual life, and rejected the sacrificial rites of the Hindus and the caste system. He spent most of his life in India. Buddhism emphasizes meditation, the sanctity of life and non-violence. Some of its tenets influenced Mahatma Gandhi.

The forms of Buddhism practiced by Himalayan communities and Tibetan refugees are part of the Vajrayana, or "Way of the Lightning Bolt," that developed after the seventh century A.D. as part of Mahayana (Great Path) Buddhism. Although retaining the fundamental importance of individual spiritual advancement, the Vajrayana stresses the intercession of bodhisattvas, or enlightened beings, who remain in this world to aid others on the path. Until the twentieth century, the Himalayan kingdoms supported a hierarchy in which Buddhist monks, some identified from birth as bodhisattvas, occupied the highest positions in society. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Most other Buddhists in India follow Theravada Buddhism, the "Doctrine of the Elders," which traces its origin through Sri Lankan and Burmese traditions to scriptures in the Pali language, a Sanskritic dialect in eastern India. Although replete with miraculous events and legends, these scriptures stress a more human Buddha and a democratic path toward enlightenment for everyone. Ambedkar's plan for the expanding Buddhist congregation in India visualized Buddhist monks and nuns developing themselves through service to others. Convert communities, by embracing Buddhism, have embarked on social transformations, including a decline in alcoholism, a simplification of marriage ceremonies and abolition of ruinous marriage expenses, a greater emphasis on education, and a heightened sense of identity and self-worth. *

See Separate Article 1) BUDDHISM AND THE BUDDHA factsanddetails.com and ASHOKA factsanddetails.com Under History.

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ; Buddhist Centre thebuddhistcentre.com; A sketch of the Buddha's Life accesstoinsight.org ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika buddhanet.net ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) sacred-texts.com ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ignca.nic.in/jatak ; Buddhist Tales buddhanet.net ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi accesstoinsight.org ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index

Buddha in India

Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India, where Buddha experienced The Enlightenment

Buddhism began with the life of Siddhartha Gautama (ca. 563-483 B.C.), a prince from the small Shakya Kingdom located in the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal. Brought up in luxury, the prince abandoned his home and wandered forth as a religious beggar, searching for the meaning of existence. The stories of his search presuppose the Jain tradition, as Gautama was for a time a practitioner of intense austerity, at one point almost starving himself to death. He decided, however, that self-torture weakened his mind while failing to advance him to enlightenment and therefore turned to a milder style of renunciation and concentrated on advanced meditation techniques. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Eventually, under a tree in the forests of Gaya (in modern Bihar), he resolved to stir no farther until he had solved the mystery of existence. Breaking through the final barriers, he achieved the knowledge that he later expressed as the Four Noble Truths: all of life is suffering; the cause of suffering is desire; the end of desire leads to the end of suffering; and the means to end desire is a path of discipline and meditation. Gautama was now the Buddha, or the awakened one, and he spent the remainder of his life traveling about northeast India converting large numbers of disciples. At the age of eighty, the Buddha achieved his final passing away (parinirvana ) and died, leaving a thriving monastic order and a dedicated lay community to continue his work.

Places in India Associated with Buddhism

Bodh Gaya (160 miles from Varanasi) is where Buddha attainted spiritual enlightenment. Commemorating the spot is the vast Mahabodhi temple complex, which has been called the "Jerusalem of the Buddhist world." Here Siddhartha Gautama meditated beneath the Bodhi Tree while being tempted by the demon Mara in an episode similar to Jesus's encounter with the devil on the Mount of Temptation. After casting off the demon the prince was transformed into Buddha—the enlightened one. A marble enclosure surrounds a Bodhi tree said to be a descendant of the original. Saffron robed monks with shaved heads and tourist with nunlike gowns and white mats can often be seen lighting red candles with gilded foil that amplify the light at the base of the temple and the enclosure. [Source: Harvey Arden, National Geographic, May 1990]

Buddha delivering the First Sermon in the Deer Park of Sarnath, India

When Buddhism grew and prospered after Buddha’s death, great temples and monasteries were built on Bodh Gaya. These were destroyed or fell into ruins when Buddhism died out in India in the Middle Ages and the region was racked by invaders. In the 19th century the holy Buddhist sites were rediscovered by pilgrims from Sri Lanka and Burma and temples and monasteries were rebuilt and pilgrims began returning in large numbers. Almost every country with a sizable Buddhist population has built a temple or monastery in the city.

Pilgrims have been coming here since Buddha’s time and Buddha himself said that visiting places associated with episodes in his life would help win them merit. Aravind Adiga wrote ein Time, “ You go around the temple, and you wonder at once if that is the tree: an ancient-looking, sprawling tree, with a massive trunk and a zone of deep, hypnotizing shade at its center. A middle-aged Japan man dressed in white, wearing a mask, is meditating in its shadow. Behind him two Tibetan monks are counting off their prayer beads and whispering. But as you walk to the back of the temple, you see another tree, even larger with green metal beams holding up the branches. There is a stone fence around it: a sign says, PRINCE SIDDHARTHA ATTAINED BUDDHAHOOD FULL ENLIGHTENMENT...SITTING UNDER THE PEEPUL (BODHI) TREE.

From Bodh Gaya Buddha walked 130 miles to Saranth near Varanasi where he gave his first sermon in 500 B.C. after experiencing enlightenment to five skeptical followers. In later sermons he revealed the eight-fold path for inner peace and Nirvana. Sarnath is the second most important Buddhist site in the world after Bodh Gaya. Today the site of the first Buddhist sermon is marked by the Dhamek Stupa, a 34-meter-tall domed shrine that looks like giant hump. Built during the Mauryan period and added to over the years, it is covered by elaborate engravings. There is also a deer park, gardens, and the ruins of a monastery that once housed 1,500 monks. Near a statue of Buddha preaching to his first five disciples, people gather to listen to a monk read Buddha’s first sermon. The museum in Sarnath contains the Ashoka Pillar with its four guardian lions. The pillar once was 66-feet-tall and according to some people it was erected by Buddha. Other say it was brought from southern India by the famous emperor Ashoka, who converted himself and later all of India to Buddhism after killing thousands in a bloody battle.

History of Buddhism in India

By the third century B.C., the still-young religion based on the Buddha's teachings was being spread throughout South Asia through the agency of the Mauryan Empire (ca. 326-184 B.C.; see The Mauryan Empire, ch. 1). By the seventh century A.D., having spread throughout East Asia and Southeast Asia, Buddhism probably had the largest religious following in the world.

For centuries Indian royalty and merchants patronized Buddhist monasteries and raised beautiful, hemispherical stone structures called stupas over the relics of the Buddha in reverence to his memory. Since the 1840s, archaeology has revealed the huge impact of Buddhist art, iconography, and architecture in India. The monastery complex at Nalanda in Bihar, in ruins in 1993, was a world center for Buddhist philosophy and religion until the thirteenth century.

Exapansion of Buddhism outside of India

Death of Buddhism in India

By the thirteenth century, when Turkic invaders destroyed the remaining monasteries on the plains, Buddhism as an organized religion had practically disappeared from India. It survived only in Bhutan and Sikkim, both of which were then independent Himalayan kingdoms; among tribal groups in the mountains of northeast India; and in Sri Lanka. [Source: Library of Congress]

The reasons for the disappearance of Buddhism in India are unclear, and they are many. Some attribute it to the fact that Buddhist thought was often centered in monasteries, where it grew out of reach of lay people, and since monks don't begat other monks the religion declined. Other factors include: 1) the influence of Islam; 2) the loss of royal patronage; 3) similarities between Buddhism and Hinduism; 4) the loss of distinctiveness; 5) shifts in royal patronage from Buddhist to Hindu religious institutions; 6) a constant intellectual struggle with dynamic Hindu intellectual schools, which eventually triumphed; and 7) slow adoption of popular religious forms by Buddhists while Hindu monastic communities grew up with the same style of discipline as the Buddhists, leading to the slow but steady amalgamation of ideas and trends in the two religions.

Rebirth of Buddhism in India

Dr B R Ambedkar

Buddhism began a steady and dramatic comeback in India during the early twentieth century, spurred on originally by a combination of European antiquarian and philosophical interest and the dedicated activities of a few Indian devotees. The foundation of the Mahabodhi Society (Society of Great Enlightenment) in 1891, originally as a force to wrest control of the Buddhist shrine at Gaya from the hands of Hindu managers, gave a large stimulus to the popularization of Buddhist philosophy and the importance of the religion in India's past. [Source: Library of Congress *]

A major breakthrough occurred in 1956 after some thirty years of Untouchable, or Dalit , agitation when Bhimrao Ramji (B.R.) Ambedkar, leader of the Untouchable wing within the Congress , announced that he was converting to Buddhism as a way to escape from the impediments of the Hindu caste system. He brought with him masses of Untouchables — also known as Harijans or Dalits — and members of Scheduled Castes, who mostly came from Maharashtra and border areas of neighboring states and from the Agra area in Uttar Pradesh. By the early 1990s, there were more than 5 million Buddhists in Maharashtra, or 79 percent of the entire Buddhist community in India, almost all recent converts from low castes. *

When added to longtime Buddhist populations in hill areas of northeast India (West Bengal, Assam, Sikkim, Mizoram, and Tripura) and high Himalayan valleys (Ladakh District in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and northern Uttar Pradesh), and to the influx of Tibetan Buddhist refugees who fled from Tibet with the Dalai Lama in 1959 and thereafter, the recent converts raised the number of Buddhists in India to 6.4 million by 1991. This was a 35.9 percent increase since 1981 and made Buddhism the fifth largest religious group in the country. *

Buddhism and Dalits (Untouchables)

Today many of India's Buddhists are Dalits (Untouchables) or residents of the southern state of Maharashtra. The term Neo-Buddhist is used to describe Dalit Hindus that began converting to Buddhism around the middle of the 20th century. Thus far the movement has attracted mostly Mahars and Jatavas and hasn’t attracted many Dalits beyond that.

Indian Buddhists with blue Buddhist flag in Sangharsha Shanti Morcha protesting

The conversion is credited to Dr. B.R.Ambedkar. Ambedkar worked with Gandhi and Nehru to forge the independent state of India. He escaped his low caste status by converting to Buddhism. Regarded as the founder of the Neo-Buddhist movement, he viewed Buddhism as a way for Dalits to escape Hinduism and the caste system, arguing it was a better way to achieve an egalitarian society than Communism. Ambedkar died in 1956 after forming the Republican Party of India. Many Dalits keep his picture in their homes today. He has been apotheosized as a Bodhisattva. His birthday is major festival in some places.

In New Delhi those of lower caste members have gathered and collectively renounced Hinduism and taken formal vows to be Buddhists. One participant told the Observer, “I walked out of Hinduism because the 3,000-year-old caste system will never allow me any respect or dignity. There is no future for us in it. Hindus regard them as traitors.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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