The Myth of Persecution of Buddhists by Hindus

After the 1857 war of first independence, the British had a change of heart and became fearful of Hindu resurgence. Though they were subtly undermining Hindu civilization earlier too, they started pulling all-out efforts to subvert it. They commissioned many scholars who took a colonial approach to interpret Indian history and culture. The foremost among them were Vincent Smith, Verrier Elwin and Max Muller. 

Due to the botched British policies, India saw recurring famines, the worst being in 1866 in Orissa, where an estimated 4 to 5 million were killed. Perturbed by such failure and plagued by guilt, British historians went on to concoct different stories with strong anti-Hindu narratives. Aryan invasion theory was one such agenda. Persecution of Buddhists and plunder of temples by rival Hindu kings were another. 

Soon they were joined by a few Indian historians to propagate this narrative after a nudge and a wink by powers-that-be. DN Jha, Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib were the principal historians of this game. 

Hinduism being of polytheistic nature was never worried about having one more god in its vast pantheon. It even incorporated Sai Baba, a Muslim faqir, as one of the gods. It has always respected the god of rival religions and then Buddhism was one of its own. Hindus rarely think in terms of Hinduism Vs. Buddhism or us Vs. them. In a cursory glance itself, the premise of persecution of Buddhists by Hindus seems to be fallacious. 

Nonetheless, let us first examine what experts had to say on the matter.

Even Vincent Smith stated the following on the persecution of Buddhists by Shunga. But the revival of the practice of sacrifice by an orthodox Hindu ruler did not necessarily involve persecution of Jains and Buddhists who abhorred the rite. There is no evidence that any member of those sects was ever compelled to sacrifice against his will, as, under Buddhist and Jain domination, the orthodox were forced to abstain from ceremonies regarded by them as essential to salvation. Pushyamitra has been accused of persecution, but the evidence is merely that of a legend of no authority.

But, although the alleged proscription of Buddhism by Pushyamitra is not supported by evidence, and it is true that the gradual extinction of that religion in India was due in the main to causes other than persecution, it is also true that from time to time fanatic kings indulged in savage outbursts of cruelty, and committed genuine acts of persecution directed against Jains or Buddhists as such.   

Even the doyen of leftist historians, Romila Thapar, had to say the following:

The idea of Puṣyamitra being violently anti-Buddhist has often been stated, but archaeological evidence suggests the contrary. 

Sita Ram Goel, the ace historian, points out the dichotomy of leftist narratives:

 I fail to understand the logic of placing Buddhists and Jains on one side of the fence and Brahminical sects on the other….You are very prompt in pointing out the few cases where Hindu temples were endowed or built under Muslim patronage whenever large scale destruction of Hindu temples by Muslims is brought to your notice. Why do you always fail to point out the numerous cases of Brahminical patronage of Buddhism and Jainism, while listing the few cases of Brahminical persecution? 

However, a colonial historian EJ Rapson seems to support the theory of persecution:

In Buddhist literature Pushyamitra figures as a great persecutor of the Buddhists, bent on acquiring fame as the annihilator of Buddha’s doctrine. He meditated the destruction of the Kukkutarama, the great monastery which Asoka had built for 1000 monks to the south-east of Pataliputra ; but, as he approached the entrance, he was met with the roar as of a mighty lion and hastily withdrew in fear to the city. He then went to Shakala (Sialkot) in the E. Punjab and attempted to exterminate the Buddhist community there, offering a reward of 100 dinaras for the head of every monk. The end of this persecutor of the faith was brought about by superhuman interposition. 

It is to be pointed out here that the Dinara did not come into general circulation in India before the 1st century BCE. Apart from that, there are many other loopholes and at best, these are the sketchy evidence fabricated to justify the Islamic plunder of our temples and British mishandling of Indian affairs.  Further, these shreds of evidence were based on only one text, Divyavadana, which makes it entirely suspect. The Divyavadana (divine stories) is a 2nd century CE anthology of mythical Buddhist tales on morals and ethics, using talking birds and animals, reflecting the declining influence of Buddhism at the Sunga imperial court. Moreover, the source itself, in this instance, being Buddhist, would naturally exaggerate the wickedness of non-Buddhists. Hence, the fictional tales of Divyavadana are now considered of little historical value. Further, Pushyamitra became king after overthrowing the Buddhist Mauryan dynasty, an ample reason for underlying anger. H. C. Raychaudhari, a historian, pointed out that several Buddhist shrines were constructed at Bharhut during the Shunga rule. Several other historians pointed out similar facts and hence can safely be stated that, at best, Pushyamitra did not choose to patronize them.

Enough has already been written against the fallacies perpetrated by the leftist historians in this regard and I will not waste the space by debunking them again. Instead, let us examine the overall ecosystem of India during those days. 

Hindu kings built the most Buddhist monasteries with Hindu money and with the help of Hindu artisans, except those by Ashoka. There was a spurt in the construction of Buddhist caves from 200 BCE till 600 CE and around 1200 caves were excavated in the hilly areas of Deccan. Almost all survived in pristine conditions, barring the damage due to weather. Exquisite stupas and monasteries were also built at Amravati and Nagarjunakonda in coastal Andhra Pradesh. They all were constructed under the patronage of the Hindu dynasties of Satavahanas, Chalukyas, Kalchuris and Vakatakas. In the Ellora complex, the caves belonging to Hindus, Jains and Buddhists co-exist and this is the only example in the world where temples belonging to three religions are in one space. None can be a better testimony to Indic universalism. 

After Ashoka, the next Buddhist king was Harsha in the 7th century, who later converted to Buddhism, a gap of approximately 800 years. In North-west India, Kanishka, the Buddhist Kushan king, ruled with elan in between. From Harsha till Mohd Ghori, for another 600 years, only a few Pala kings were Buddhists, ruling over Bengal and Bihar. In total, during the span of 1500 years, not even five prominent kings, give and take some, were Buddhists. There is no mention of a single incident of plunder of monasteries and stupas by a Hindu king during this period. Being in remote areas, most of the caves also escaped plundering by Muslims. One can observe this in regions of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar.

However, a few incidents are indeed there that I came across. One is Karle caves in Lonavala where a Devi temple was constructed outside the chaitya. However, the caves have large footfalls just because Hindu devotees make a point to visit them after darshan at the temple. Hindus do not tend to differentiate between a temple and a monastery. Another one I observed was at Junnar caves, near Pune, where one cave, out of a total of 30, is dedicated to Ganesha. I again dare say that footfalls in these caves are due to Ganesha inside one of the caves. In both cases, the temple and monastery have a symbiotic relationship. 

Then there are some absurd claims of Buddhism being older than Hinduism and Ram temple at Ayodhya, Gynavapi at Kashi and Balaji at Tirupati were once Buddhist temples. None of the contentions is worth any attention. These are revenge reactions to real and perceived injustices by the neo-Buddhists, mainly after the advent of social media. 

However, the reverse has indeed happened where Hindu temples were converted into Buddhist ones. The foremost example is the Angkor wat and Bayon temples of Cambodia which were once distinctly Hindu temples with panels depicting Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranic stories of Samudra Manthan. The Khmer decline commenced after they converted to Buddhism in the 12th century. The same story repeats in the Bagan temple of Myanmar. It was a Hindu temple, but after the royal patronage of Theravada Buddhism in the mid-11th century, it slowly got rid of Hindu elements. 

Another glaring example, which no one talks about, is the persecution of Hindus in Buddhist majority countries of Bhutan and Sri Lanka. The latter has a history of violent anti-Hindu activities. The Mahavamsa, the 6th century Buddhist chronicle of Sri Lanka, spun a narrative of Lanka belonging to Buddhists only. According to the text:

The Sinhalese ruler Duttagamani (2nd century BCE) went to war against the Sri Lankan Tamils “not for the joy of sovereignty” but “to establish the doctrine of the Buddha”. After having slaughtered thousands of Tamils he was consoled by eight Buddhist saints (arhats). They assured him that these people had not been worth more than wild beasts, and that he had brought great glory to the doctrine of the Buddha (Mahavamsa 25:109ff). 

Even today, both these countries cannot survive for a single day without the benevolence of India. Yet, they had the gall to rid Hindus of their countries and routinely carry out anti-India activities on their soil. Bhutan does not even have a single Hindu temple, while Lanka does not have them in double digits. In contrast, as a country also, India always considered Buddhism as its own and went on to give asylum to the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans at a significant cost. 

There is an adverse effect on Hinduism also. An increasing body of scholarship insinuates that the twin cults of Buddhism and Jainism made Hindus cowardly and fearful of battles. Hindus always had the persona of warriors with both the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata having war as their primary theme. Gita even proposed the famous theory that violence is necessary for preserving dharma. Unnecessary emphasis on Ahimsa and its glorification by Buddhism and Jainism made Hindus fall for such a cowardly concept. Hindus felt the catastrophic result only in the medieval era when Islam came with all its militaristic paraphernalia and we were caught severely lacking the latest military equipment and strategy. This phenomenon can be contrasted with the battle of Hydaspes, where Porus, king of a small province of Punjab, almost pulled out a victory against mighty invader Alexander in 326 BCE when Buddhism was still in its infancy.

Birth of Buddhism

Hinduism was at its peak in 500 BCE and there was an excessive emphasis on Vedic rituals and animal sacrifices. The rising economic costs of sacrifices especially perturbed the trading community. To cater to such needs, Buddhism took an easy birth from the womb of Hinduism and culled its esoteric yet socially lazy concepts of Satya, shanti, ahimsa and nirvana. Over a period, Buddhism caught the fancy of the masses. Its USP was using the masses’ language of Prakrit and Pali instead of priestly Sanskrit and the absence of a caste system. The early Buddhist texts in the Pali language even display a rabid anti-Hindu stance. It reached its zenith under Ashoka when he undertook massive efforts, construction of 84,000 stupas, to name one, to propagate it far and wide in Asia.  It then tapered and 300 years later, Kanishka again began to patronise it. He held the fourth Buddhist council in Kashmir in 72 CE and spawned a new sect Mahayana under the umbrella of Buddhism. At the conference, it was decided to use the iconography of Buddha and Sanskrit. The usage of Buddha idols revolutionized the Indian landscape and its impact was felt all around. However, the use of Sanskrit put a cold shower on its propagation and took it away from the masses.

After the ascension of the Gupta dynasty, the Hindu religion had an intense introspection and looked for remedies to the disorders inflicting it. From this study, a Bhakti cult emerged in South India in the 5th century. With a rise in the cult, Hinduism began to emphasize the concept of love, devotion and salvation, the very ideas copyrighted by Buddhism, making the latter redundant. The iconography, vocabulary and even rituals became similar, if not the same. Buddhism was now the pale copy of Hinduism and with deities like Indra, Laxmi and Ganesha thronging their stories too, there was little to differentiate between the two religions. On the other hand, Buddhism, at least in India, did not help itself as it grew more and more mysterious, detached and other-worldly.  People now began to see Buddhism as a life-denying depressing ideology that aims to escape a life characterised by misery and grief, offering no solace, happiness or hope. From here on, Buddhists would have a parasitic relationship with Hindus, enabling Hinduism to make a strong comeback. Buddhists now depended solely on Hindu patronage without anything significant to offer in return. Whenever such benefaction withered, Hindu kings were routinely accused of partiality. A renowned German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, stated that Buddhism was “nihilistic” but still “a hundred times more realistic than Christianity.” 

During such upheavals, one incident, particularly, would cost them dearly. In the late 5th century, Mihirkula, the dreaded Alchon Hun, sought to learn about Buddhism and asked for a learned guru. At first, the monks did not seem interested, but they sent one, albeit a mediocre guru, after much insistence. Irritated by such a gesture, in 515, he went on to destroy more than 1600 Buddhist monasteries and stupas in Northwest India, sending them on an accelerated decline. Two centuries later, in 712, their betrayal at Sindh made them almost a pariah as their patronage by Hindu kings dried completely. It was this act that removed the ground from under the very feet of Buddhism. It came to be dependent only on the tax revenue from its land holdings, which was not sufficient for the upkeep of the monastic bureaucracy. In 751, in the battle of Talas in Central Asia, Tibetan Buddhists openly sided with Arabs and paved the way for Islam to take roots in the region. In this way, Buddhism was instrumental in making Islam take firm roots in India and Central Asia. 

Sometime later in the 8th century, Shankaracharya sought to reinvigorate Hinduism and took far-reaching measures to strengthen it. He went on to establish Char dhams at the four corners of the country. However, this did not go well with Buddhists as it was clearly at their expense. In recent times, a narrative has been nefariously built that Shankaracharya was a catalyst in killing Buddhism, whereas he was just saving his own religion.

Turks then dealt a final nail in the coffin of Buddhism in India, though a few centuries back, they themselves were Buddhists. The vicious attack by Bakhtiyar Khilji sent them scurrying to Bhutan, Burma and Tibet in 1201, decimating Buddhism in one stroke. Delhi Sultans and Mughals did not offer any support to them for the next six centuries. As Lars Fogelin stated, “The Decline was not a singular event, with a singular cause; it was a centuries-long process”. 

Smith held the Islamic attacks solely responsible for the decline of Buddhism in India. In the words of Smith:

The Muhammadan historian, indifferent to distinctions among idolators, states that the majority of the inhabitants were ‘clean shaven Brahmans,’ who were all put to the sword. He evidently means Buddhist monks, as he was informed that the whole city and fortress were considered to be a college, which the name Bihar signifies. A great library was scattered.

I am not the only one to correctly find out the reason for its decimation. B.R. Ambedkar, a converted Buddhist and the disciple of Hindu guru Ramanuja who fought for equality among men, also subscribed to the thesis of the sword of Islam, the chief reason for his not converting to Islam.

…brahmanism beaten and battered by the Muslim invaders could look back to the rulers for support and sustenance and get it. Buddhism beaten and battered by the Muslim invaders had no such hope. It was an uncared for orphan and it withered in the cold blast of the native rulers and was consumed in the fire lit up by the conquerors. . . . This was the greatest disaster that befell the religion of Buddha in India. . . . The sword of Islam fell heavily upon the priestly class. It perished or it fled outside India. Nobody remained to keep the flame of Buddhism burning.

A Muslim writer Mahmud al-Kashgari describes the Islamic plunder of Buddhist monasteries in sadistic words:

We came down on them like a flood,
We went out among their cities,
We tore down the idol-temples,
We shat on the Buddha’s head!

For the current Buddhist leaders in India, Hindus could well have done this.

Disclaimer: The writer is only presenting a slice of history, free of contortions.


The Decline of Buddhism in India by KTS Sarao
Romila Thapar, Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas
H.C. Raychaudhury, Political History of Ancient India: From the Accession of Parikshit to the Extinction of the Gupta Dynasty
Perry Schmidt-Leukel, Facets of the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism
Sita Ram Goel, Hindu Temples-What happened to them, Vol-II

Written by Amit Agarwal, author of the bestseller on Indian history titled “Swift horses Sharp Swords”. You may buy the book at the following link: (Hindi)

Twitter handle @amit1119     Instagram/ Facebook – amitagarwalauthor

Amit Agarwal

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