- The Revival of Buddhism in India
- Bhikkhu Prayudh Payutto
I. A General View of the Buddhist Situation
The light of Buddhism was extinguished in India around B.E.
1700/ c. 1200 C.E. In Malaya and Indonesia Buddhism ran the same course of decay. At
first, around 1857/1314, it degenerated into a Hinduized form. Before the end of the
fourteenth century (1900 B.E.), together with Hinduism, it was replaced by Islam imported
from India. In Southeast Asia, as Theravada, and in North Asia, as Mahayana, Buddhism
continued to glow. Then came again the age of decay. In China and Korea from B.E.
1900,onwards, the revival of Confucianism in accord with the state Policy of nationalism
brought Buddhism under suppression. The revival of Shintoism in Japan also led to the
suppression of Buddhism in 2411/1868. In Southeast Asia the decay came with the advent of
colonialism from the West. In Ceylon, the task of suppressing Buddhism, begun by the
Portuguese in 2050/1507, was carried on by the Dutch around 2200/1657 and then by the
British since 2340/1797. In Indochina, it persisted until Burma was made a British colony
in 2367/1814, and Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were brought under French rule in 2426, 2406
and 2436 (1883, 1863 and 1893 C.E.) respectively. In Thailand alone, the religious life of
the people remained unaffected and Buddhism continued to flourish with the support of the
ruler and the public throughout the colonial period without any interruption.
After some time the contact with the West, its colonialism and its
civilization, brought about remarkable changes in the faces of the Asian nations. In
countries under foreign occupation where Buddhism was suppressed and persecuted, people
turned against Western civilization and a strong urge was aroused in them to protect and
maintain their national heritages. This led to the revival of Buddhism and the adjustment
of Buddhist institutions and the monkhood to function efficiently in the changing
situations. However, in Thailand where people did not experience colonial treatment, this
reaction did not take place. On the contrary, the people turned their attention towards
the exciting and tempting materialism of Western civilization. While they pursued this new
kind of material quest, they became more and more indifferent and cold towards their
religious traditions. Buddhist institutions enjoying luxurious support fell into a kind of
indulgence and did not adjust themselves to the changing conditions. Material support and
cooperation continues to grow, while the intellectual and spiritual gap widens.
II. Western Scholars and the Buddhist Revival
After four or five centuries of stagnation, the period of
revival began nearly at the same time in Japan, around 2411/1 868, and in Ceylon, around
2414/1871. In Japan, the suppression and persecution during the Meiji era acted as a
stimulus, while in Ceylon the revival was aroused partly by the colonial suppression and
partly by the awareness of Buddhist traditions in its homeland.
In India Buddhism was completely forgotten by the Indian people and it
was not until the middle of the eighteenth century that there was an awareness of her
existence and prosperity in the past. This awareness may be regarded as the beginning of
the modern period of Buddhism.
It happened that in 2293/1750 a broken piece of an Asokan pillar
inscription was discovered by a British official in Delhi. Then followed many other
discoveries, the study of Asokan inscriptions and the interest in Buddhist traditions
which increased through the years. In 2362/1819. The Ajanta cave was accidentally
discovered by two British soldiers. The great stupa at Sanchi was discovered and in
2394/1851 was opened by Sir Alexander Cunningham. There were large numbers of subsequent
discoveries. An active work of excavation and restoration of Buddhist archaeological sites
was carried on. The glorious history of Buddhism was revealed, its greatness discovered
and brought back to the interest both of India and of the world.
The work of explorers and archaeologists was followed by literary
activities of Western scholars from 2369/1826 onwards. Translations and transliterations
of the Pali canonical literature, treatises, commentaries, chronicles and grammar, essays
and treatises on Pali and Buddhism, and Pali dictionaries were made by scholars of
different nationalities: English, French, German, Danish, Dutch, American, and others. The founding of the Pall Text Society in London by Prof.
T.W. Rhys Davids in 2424/1881 was a great step forward in Pali studies. The Society has
published to date nearly the whole of the Pali Canon and all the important works of the
Pali non-canonical literature together with their translations (a larger number than
scriptural publications in Thailand). Special mention should be made of lexicography. The
well-known Dictionary of the Pali Language by R.C. Childers published in London in
2418/1875 is regarded as the first advance in this field. When this work was found
inadequate, the Pali Text Society published the "Pali-English Dictionary"
edited by T.W. Rhys Davids and William Stede (2464-68/1921-25), which is still the
main reference for all students of Pali. This was followed by 'A Critical Pali
Dictionary' by Dines Anderson and Helmer Smith, the first part of which was published
in Copenhagen in 2470/1927. However, only two volumes of it in twenty-one parts (a -
uparima, in 1085 pages) have been published so far. In London, Pali scholars have also
been preparing for the Pali Text Society "Pali Tipi.taka"m Concordance"
about 1340 pages (a - pura) of which have been published since 1952. Great advances have
also been made in the study of Sanskrit Buddhist literature both in the original and in
later versions, especially in Tibetan and Chinese. In England, Buddhist publications and
researches have followed to the present an unbroken line and contributed greatly to the
steady progress of Buddhist studies. France and Germany have also made considerable
contributions. It is, however, the United States that is stepping forward to take the lead
in Buddhist publications and research works. Rapid progress was made during recent years.
The labours of Western scholars brought about an awakening among the
scholars of India. The Buddhist Text Society was founded in Calcutta in 2435/1892 and the
pioneer work in the field of Buddhist studies was done in Bengal. In the course of time
Santiniketan, Patna and Nalanda in eastern India and Bombay, Poona and Baroda in western
India became active centres of Buddhist studies. Alongside
literary activities, Buddhist revival in India began as an organized movement with the
founding of the Maha Bodhi Society in 2434/1891.
III. Ceylonese and Indian Contributions
The founder of the Maha Bodhi Society was Anaagaarika
Dbarmapaala, a young Buddhist of Ceylon. Dharmapaala was born in 2407/18642 in a
wealthy and influential Buddhist family in Colombo. His personal name was Don David
Hewavitharne. He was educated in a Christian missionary school. As he could not love his
wine-drinking and pleasure-loving missionary teachers, he developed an attachment towards
Buddhist monks who were meek and abstemious. Under the influence of Colonel Olcott and
Madame Blavatsky he took an interest in Theosophy and then adopted a life of religious
dedication as an Andgdrika.
In 2428/1885, Sir Edwin Arnold, the author of The Light of Asia
(a long poem about the Buddha, which made many converts and stimulated scholarly study of
Buddhism), visited Bodh Gaya (or, in Pali, Buddha Gayaa) which was in the hands of the
Mahants, Hindu Shaivites, and was shamefully neglected. He pointed out this fact in a
series of articles in the London Telegraph. Inspired by Sir Edwin Arnold's articles,
Dharmapaala visited Bodh Gaya and was so shocked at what he saw that he made a vow to
dedicate his life both to the task of restoring the Holy Place to Buddhist hands as a
worthy place of pilgrimage, and to the revival of the Noble Dharma in the land of its
Dharmapaala returned to Ceylon in May 2434/1891 and founded the Maha
Bodhi Society in Colombo. In the same year, a mission was sent to Bodh Gaya and, then, an
international conference of Buddhists was held there. In the following year a journal was
launched and headquarters of the new society were set up in Calcutta. Dharmapaala visited
the United States two times during the 1890's, the first time to attend the Parliament of
Religions in Chicago, when he visited Hawaii, Japan, China, Thailand and Malaya on his way
back, and the second time to preach Buddhism when he stayed there for one year and made
several American converts. Substantial financial help came from wealthy Americans,
especially Mrs. Mary E. Foster whom he met in Honolulu and who became his most active
supporter. Further branches of the Society were set up and in 2463/1920 a Buddhist Vihara
was opened at Culcutta. The revival movement was then well founded and continued steadily.
Dharmapaala entered the monkhood in 2474/1931 and passed away two years later, leaving his
unfinished mission to be carried on by his colleagues and followers. ,
India achieved independence on August 15, 2490/1947. When questions
arose as to what should be adopted as national symbols of free India, the Constituent
Assembly ultimately turned towards the Buddhist heritage. Thus, the Dharma-cakra or
the Wheel of the Law came to be represented at the centre of the national flag to remind
the nation of the noble doctrine of the Buddha and of the Dharma-vinaya or Conquest
by Righteousness of Asoka, while the Lion Capital of Asoka, representing the fearless
proclamation of the Dharma to the four quarters of the world, has been adopted as the
official seal of the Republic. The Chairman of the Committee which drafted the
Constitution was Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the leader of the untouchables who became
converted to Buddhism and made the Buddhist revival a mass movement.
Two other important events increased the interest in Buddhism among the
Indian masses, the home-coming of the sacred relics of the two Chief Disciples of the
Buddha in 2492/1949 and the Buddha-Jayanti or 2500th anniversary of the Buddha's
Parinirvaana, in 1956. The relics were returned to India by the British Government to be
enshrined at San chi, their original resting place, on the request of the Maha Bodhi
Society. The enshrinement of the relics was celebrated together with
the Maha Bodhi Society's Golden Jubilee and an international Buddhist conference attended
by the Prime Ministers of India and Burma and world Buddhist leaders. The Indian
Buddha-Jayanti celebrations commenced in May 1956 and lasted for one full year, till May
1957. The programme of the Government of India includes the publication of a Tripitaka in
Devanaagarii script and '2500 Years of Buddhism,' a special volume which is an
indication of the respect given to Buddhism by the Indian educated class.
On October 14 of the year of celebration, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar led half a
million followers in a formal declaration of adherence to Buddhism. This event was
followed by a fast increase in the Buddhist population in India, particularly through a
number of similar conversions among the untouchables seeking social equality. By 2508/1965
there were about 4,000,000 Buddhists in India in contrast to 50,000 in 2434/1891. Numbers
of 13 Bhikkhus, Viharas, and Buddhist societies and organizations have also considerably
increased. The study of Pali was introduced into Calcutta University as far back as the
year 2451/1908. This example has been followed by many other Indian Universities. The
establishment of the Naalanda Pali Institute (Nava Naalandaa Mahaavihaara) in
2494/1951 and the founding of the Magadh University in 2505/1962 are also evidences
of an important place modern India has given to Pali and Buddhist studies.
In the 1950s, when the Red Chinese overran Tibet, her people, both
monks and laymen, fled to north India and found refuge in her hill country. There, a
Buddhist community is taking shape and Tibetan Buddhism may make a significant
contribution to the future of Indian Buddhism.
A Thai monastery called Wat Thai
Buddha-Gaya, which was constructed by the Thai
Government on the invitation of the Government of India to
celebrate the Buddha-Jayanti, was completed in 2509/1966. It
is well known as one of the finest vihaaras ever constructed
in modern India. The Burmese, Japanese, Chinese and Tibetan Buddhists also have monasteries at Buddha Gaya.
Just a century ago Buddhism was unheard of in the land of its birth, as
nearly every trace of the religion had been effaced from the Indian soil. Today, the seed
of the Bodhi tree, deeply planted under the soil, being fed by fertilizer from abroad, has
sprouted and has signs of a glorious growth.
In some border areas of India such as some parts of Assam and in
Bangladesh (East Bengal), Buddhism has never entirely disappeared.
There the monastic life still survives and a small Buddhist population has
persisted. Notable in this way is Chittagong, which has been closely connected with Burma
both historically and geographically; there the monkhood consists of
hundreds of monks and novices. Through some revival movement, Buddhism in these areas has begun
to grow again and may do a good service to the development of modern Buddhism on the
 Among outstanding names were E.
Burnoff, Spence Hardy, R.C. Childers, Fausboll, Trenckner, H. Oldenberg, Mr. and Mrs. Rhys
Davids, Prinsep, Kern, Koros, Poussin, Levi, Stcherbatsky, Miss I.B. Horner, R. Chalmers,
F.L. Woodward, E.M. Hare, E. Hardy, W. Geiger, Winternitz, Warren and E.W. Burlingame.
 Among prominent Indian scholars, the following names should be cited:
B.C. Law, Barua, N. Dutt, Dharmanand Kosambi, P.V. Bapat, C.V. Joshi, P.C. Bagchi, V.V.
Gokhale, A.C. Banerjee, Anand Kausalyayana, S. Dutt and J. Kashyap.
 The number of monks in Bangldesh now is about 900.
[Originally published in Rajavaramuni,
Phra Prayudh Payutto. Thai Buddhism in the Buddhist World. (Bangkok:
Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University, 1st Ed. 1984), pp. 59-66].
Sincere thanks to Phramaha Somnuek Sacksree
for retyping this article.