History of Buddhism will be presenting a brief outline from the birth of the Buddha to current times. This will be quite a heavy read but it is important to know this history in order to understand how political and cultural influences had caused Buddhism to be the way that it is now.

Parts 1 and 2 of this series will be heavily referencing from the book ‘Indian Buddhism’ by Anthony Kennedy Warder1. There will be several highly debatable dates and scenarios and it will be duly noted.

In this article, the development of Buddhism in India after the Buddha’s extinguishment shall be discussed. There are a number of important events like Buddhist Councils, Schisms and war. These events will eventually shape the form of Buddhism that was exported to various countries thus laying the groundwork for Buddhism in recent times.

First Buddhist Council

The first Buddhist Council was held at Rajgir approximately 3 months after the Buddha’s extinguishment, around 486 B.C. The purpose was to preserve all of the Buddha’s teachings. 500 monks attended and the requirement was to attain Arahantship. In the traditional story, venerable Ānanda had difficulties initially as he had only attained Stream-entry when the Buddha extinguished. He had to attain Arahantship in 3 months in order to join the council. He was also one of the most important participants because he had to recite all the Dhamma teachings that the Buddha had taught in his life time (Highly debatable. Añña Koṇḍañña could be the reciter instead as he was the most senior monk and had heard all the teachings of the Buddha right from the start2).

Venerable Ānanda managed to become an Arahant when the Buddhist Council started so the Dhamma was recited by him. Venerable Mahākassapa led the meeting and he questioned venerable Ānanda on all the topics. Hence, all the recorded teachings started with ‘Thus have I heard’. After each recitation, the council of 500 monks would verify and endorse it. The Vinaya Pitaka (Basket of Rules) was recited by venerable Upāli as he was the foremost monk in the knowledge of the monastic discipline.

As for the Abhidhamma Pitaka being recited during the first Buddhist Council, there are disagreements among the scriptures from different Buddhist schools and western academics generally acknowledge that the Abhidhamma Pitaka came into existence only 100 to 200 years after the Buddha’s extinguishment3.

Second Buddhist Council

Approximately one hundred years after the Buddha’s extinguishment, in 386 B.C., the second Buddhist Council was held in Vesāli.

This happened because a group of Vesāli monks started collecting money from the devotees. This matter blew up when a visiting monk called Yasa objected to the practise. Yasa urged lay devotees not to offer money to monks and this made the devotees see the group of Vesāli monks as corrupt monks.

After Yasa refused to a ‘share’ of the offerings, both sides resorted to gathering senior monks to settle this issue. Finally, a total of 700 monks gathered in Vesāli for the council. A total of 10 monastic rules were debated but the crux of the meeting was the acceptance of money from lay devotees.

It was a long and arduous debate which achieved nothing. Then, they decided to commission a committee to investigate the issue. In the end, it was concluded that the Vesāli monks did violate the monastic rules and the Dhamma-Vinaya was rehearsed again to reaffirm the teachings.

First Schism

Around 35 years after the second Buddhist Council in 351 B.C., at Pāṭaliputta, a monk called Mahādeva (Highly debatable. See Wikipedia ‘Second Buddhist council’4 and Indian Buddhism Chapter 7, Section ‘The First Schism’) raised 5 issues, of which 4 are directly related to Arahantship:

  1. An Arahant can have wet dreams, possibly seduced by deities;
  2. An Arahant can have doubts;
  3. An Arahant can lack knowledge in some areas;
  4. An Arahant can be instructed by another person;
  5. One can enter the Stream as a result of spoken words.

The outcome is that majority voted in favour of these issues regarding the Arahants and this majority formed the Mahāsāṃghika school, which was the origin of Mahāyāna (Great Vehicle) Buddhism and in turn Vajrayāna (Diamond Vehicle) Buddhism. It is interesting to note that those who supported Mahādeva are mostly junior monks. The minority who objected these issues, including most of the senior monks, formed the Sthaviravāda (Doctrine of the Elders) School, which was the origin of the current Theravāda Buddhism.

The table below shows the differences in opinion of the 5 issues by both schools:

Question Mahāsāṃghika Sthaviravāda
1 An Arahant can have wet dreams. An Arahant will never have wet dreams.
2 An Arahant can have doubts. An Arahant can have doubts for non-Dhamma related knowledge.
3 An Arahant can lack knowledge in some areas. An Arahant can lack knowledge in non-Dhamma related knowledge.
4 An Arahant can be instructed by another person. An Arahant can be instructed by another person for non-Dhamma related knowledge.
5 One can enter the Stream as a result of spoken words. One can enter the Stream by speaking the correct speech.

In the scriptures, there is barely any difference between the Buddha and other Arahants in terms of final achievement. The only difference lies in the fact that the Buddha discovered the Dhamma and taught it to others while Arahants had to learn the Dhamma from the Buddha to attain the same achievement. In the end, when both pass away, they are all extinguished, never to be reborn again.

Hence, from this incident, it can be seen that the Mahāsāṃghika school is trying to differentiate between the Buddha and Arahants by making it easier to attain Arahantship and vaulting the Buddha into god-like status by making him omniscience and infallible. Although the Sthaviravāda school did not go to such extreme by aggressively lowering the status of the Arahant, they made changes to the Buddha by making him omniscience and infallible as well.

Over the years, until 50 B.C., various different schismatic Buddhist schools were formed. The actual number could not be verified but it was generally accepted that there were at least 18 schools. The first 4 Suttas in the Sutta Piṭaka had relatively few alterations or additions, as additions were mostly directed towards the Khuddaka Nikāya. Hence, the main reason for schism seemed to be due to different views on the treatises of Abhidhamma.

King Asoka

In one of King Asoka’s edicts, he professed to be a lay Buddhist disciple since 261 B.C., the 8th year of his reign. It was in the Buddhist records that a Buddhist monk persuaded King Asoka to take the 3 refuges. However, he soon went into war again to consolidate his empire. After winning the war, King Asoka claimed that it was a turning point in his life. He found that the Buddhist precept of not taking lives was in conflict with his actions and that made him grieve for the casualties. Thereafter, he strengthened his resolve to follow the Buddhist precepts.

For a start, King Asoka had his edict of following the Buddhist 4 precepts, to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct and telling lies, to be carved on rocks and stone columns all around his empire. Over the years, many edicts were issued and some of them were:

  • Abolition of the death penalty;
  • Animal sacrifices were banned and the royal kitchen were prohibited from killing animals;
  • Medical services for humans and animals were established throughout the kingdom;
  • Officials were required to go out on tour every 5 years to teach the populace;
  • The teaching would be about filial piety, generosity, non-violence towards living beings and frugality in spending.

Of all the missionaries sent abroad to propagate the Dhamma, the most successful was the missionary led by King Asoka’s son, venerable Mahinda who had already ordained as a monk, to Sri Lanka. King Devanampiya Tissa of Sri Lanka warmly welcomed Venerable Mahinda and quickly supported the import of Buddhism into the country. The royal park Mahamegha was given to venerable Mahinda’s group of 5 monks and this park later became a famous monastery, Mahavihara. Upon settling in, venerable Mahinda sent for his sister, Saṅghamittā who was also ordained as a nun, to start the Nuns’ community in Sri Lanka. She brought with her a sapling from the original Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya which was planted in the grounds of Mahavihara. Many Sinhalese aristocratic families, including the royal family, ordained and thus paving the way for the local populace to embrace Buddhism fully.

During his reign, King Asoka also attempted to stop schisms from happening in the communities of monks and nuns. He decreed that should any monk or nun participate in schism, the person would be expelled from the Saṅgha and government officials would enforce this. Initially, this attempt to stop schism created disastrous results due to the officials’ overzealousness. Later, King Asoka was invited to convene the third Buddhist Council which aimed to expel monks holding non-Buddhist opinions.

Around 50 years after the death of King Asoka, the Maurya Empire collapsed and after many years, the pillars containing King Asoka’s edicts were covered up with soil. It was so until 1616 A.C. that an Englishman discovered a 13 metres tall pillar with unknown writing. It was then assumed to be erected by Alexander the Great. Although there were other such pillars found in northern India, nothing was done about it. In 1830 A.C., the British took an economic interest in India and they started archaeological investigations to discover the history of India. It was then that they discovered the writings on the pillars did not belong to Alexander the Great, but rather to King Asoka. The following years, excavations were carried out to uncover the ‘Asoka pillars’ and their edicts were correctly deciphered5.

Timeline for Buddhism in India

Date Events
566 B.C. Birth of Buddha.
486 B.C. Extinguishment of Buddha.
First Buddhist Council.
386 B.C. Second Buddhist Council.
351 – 050 B.C. At least 18 schismatic Buddhist schools were formed.
270 – 231 B.C. King Asoka reigned over the Maurya Empire.
250 B.C. Third Buddhist Council.
King Asoka sent Buddhist Missionaries to other countries like the Hellenistic kingdoms in the west.
Venerable Mahinda, son of King Asoka, introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka.
0 – 200 A.D. Mahāyāna teachings began to appear in northern India and eventually spread to Central Asia, Tibet, and China.
100 – 200 A.D. Venerable Nāgārjuna, the author of various treatises in Mahāyāna Buddhist texts, is active in southern India.
320 – 467 A.D. Nālandā University was built and expanded to support 3,000 to 10,000 monks.
399 – 414 A.D. Venerable Fǎ Xiǎn (法显) travels from China to India to collect Buddhist works to be translated into Chinese.
627 – 645 A.D. Venerable Xuán Zàng (玄奘) travels to India to collect Buddhist works to be translated into Chinese.
1200 A.D. Nālandā University was sacked and burnt by the Turkish army led by Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji. The fire was rumoured to continuously burn for 3 months as Nālandā University housed a great number of manuscripts.

Sources 6,7

Buddhism in India at 1200 A.C. was already in decline. The attack by the Turkish army struck a devastating blow as many temples and monasteries were ransacked and burned in north-west India. Religious competition with Brahmanism and Islam also played an important part in the subsequent disappearance of Buddhism in India.

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