Buddhism in South Asia

India, Sri Lanka


In the centuries following the Buddha’s lifetime, His followers faithfully preserved His teachings and spread it not only throughout India, but also to many countries in Asia and lately even to Europe and America. During the first five hundred years after the Buddha’s Final Nirvana, the Teaching and Discipline were not yet written down. Instead, they were retained in the memories of the monks who periodically assembled to recite and review them. A number of councils were held during this period to make sure that the Buddha’s teachings were transmitted accurately.
The First Council

The first council arose out of Maha Kashyapa’s concern for the future of the Dharma, as a result of the following incident. Maha Kashyapa was proceeding to Kushinagara at the head of a large assembly of monks when he was informed of the Buddha’s Final Nirvana. On hearing this news, some monks were very sad, but one monk said that they should not grieve because they were free to do as they wished, now that the Buddha was no more with them. This remark made Maha Kashyapa uneasy. He was concerned that the Buddha’s teachings would eventually disappear unless action was taken to preserve it.

Therefore, after the Buddha’s body had been cremated and His relies distributed, Maha Kashyapa, with the support of many of the senior monks, decided to hold a council. At this council, the monks would come to an agreement on the Teaching and Discipline that the Buddha had taught. Maha Kashyapa presided over this first council, which was held at Rajagriha. He began by questioning Upali on the rules governing the life of the monastic community. Based on Upali’s answers, the content of the Discipline (Vinaya) was agreed upon. Similarly, Maha Kashyapa questioned Ananda on the sermons taught by the Buddha. Based upon his answers, the Teaching (Dharma) was established.

The Second Council

About a hundred years after the Buddha’s Final Nirvana, a second council was held at Vaishali. The purpose of this council was to settle a disagreement that had arisen between a group of monks and the elders of the Order. This group of monks resented the exclusive authority of the elders and wanted greater freedom in the application of the rules of the Discipline. They adopted practices, which many of the elders considered to be breaches of the rules of the Discipline. These practices included trivial items as well as more significant ones, such as the practice of accepting gold and silver.

With regard to the Teaching, these dissenting monks did not agree that becoming an Arhat was the highest attainment possible for most people. They believed that the Arhats, who did not possess the extraordinary qualities of the Buddha, were still fallible in many ways. According to them, the only goal worthy of attainment was buddhahood. Moreover, the dissenting monks felt that their views represented the original spirit of the Buddha’s teachings.

At the second council, the practices of the dissenting monks were declared to be unacceptable. The dissenting monks, however, refused to accept the decision of the council and proceeded to hold their own council elsewhere. They called themselves the “Great Community” because they were sympathetic to the concerns of the majority of the ordinary monks and the lay community, and had their support.

The division between the monks of the “Great Community” and the elders gradually led to the appearance of two major Buddhist traditions: Theravada (Way of the Elders) and Mahayana (the Great Way). Although both traditions acknowledge the Buddha as their Teacher, they differ in some of the rules of monastic discipline. They also differ in the goal of religious practice. The Theravada tradition generally teaches that the highest goal, which most people can aspire to, is becoming an Arhat. The Mahayana tradition, however, teaches that the only worthy goal for all is the attainment of buddhahood.

The Third Council

The third council was held at Pataliputra during the reign of Emperor Ashoka, the renowned Buddhist monarch of the third century B.C. The conversion of Emperor Ashoka to Buddhism led to lavish royal patronage of Buddhist monks and monasteries. This inevitably led to many non-Buddhists joining the Order not because they were genuinely interested in Buddhism but because it enjoyed royal patronage. These newcomers tended to retain their old beliefs and practices although they now belonged to the Buddhist Order. Therefore, the third council was held to remove these beliefs and practices which were not part of the Buddha’s teachings.

During the course of the council, several unorthodox beliefs were reviewed, one of which was the belief in an independent and permanent self. These beliefs were rejected and their exponents expelled from the Order. The council also compiled the Buddhist teachings, which by now included not only the Teaching and the Discipline, but also Buddhist Philosophy and Psychology (Abhidharma).

Emperor Ashoka’s Contribution to Buddhism

As a prince, Ashoka was known for his ruthless character. When he heard that his father was dying, he hurried to the capital and eliminated all his rivals to the throne. Ashoka had ambitious plans to expand his empire through military conquests. In his invasion of the neighbouring state of Kalinga, many thousands were killed, wounded or captured. The tremendous loss of lives in this invasion proved a turning point in the life of Ashoka. Disenchanted with war, he decided not to undertake any more military expeditions. He turned to religion instead and soon became a devoted Buddhist.

Ashoka came to respect the value of life. He drastically reduced the number of animals that were killed to sustain his household. While other kings went on hunting excursions, Ashoka went on pilgrimages to holy places. He had trees planted, wells dug and hospitals opened not only within his own territory, but also in the lands of his neighbours.

Ashoka taught people not to harbour unwholesome thoughts like greed and anger, but to cultivate moral values such as respect for truth, loving-kindness and charity. He also encouraged them to be tolerant of all faiths and to show reverence to holy men. Through his proclamations carved on rocks and pillars, and through his missionaries, he hoped to improve the character of people.

Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries to the far corners of the known world. Some of these missionaries went southwards to Sri Lanka where they were well received. Soon Sri Lanka became a stronghold of Buddhism.

The Fourth Council

The fourth council was held in the first century C.E. under the patronage of Kanishka, a powerful king who ruled in the north-western part of India. After his conversion to Buddhism, Kanishka became interested in the Teaching of the Buddha. Each day, he sent for a monk to instruct him in the Teaching. However, the king was confused when each monk gave instructions differing from the others. Finally, on the advice of a monk, he held a council at which the various Buddhist interpretations of the Teaching were represented and reviewed.

Furthermore, the council compiled commentaries on the three divisions of the Buddhist scriptures, that is, the Teaching, the Discipline and the Philosophy and Psychology. These commentaries gave interpretations that were agreed upon by a majority of the monks present at the council.

The Role of Buddhism in Later Indian Culture

For more than a thousand years after the fourth council, Buddhism flourished and enjoyed the patronage of many kings throughout India. Great monastic universities like that of Nalanda (near Rajagriha) were built and generations of scholars from India as well as the rest of Asia were taught there. Magnificent Buddhist paintings, sculptures and other monuments were created, many of which can still be seen today, for example, at Ajanta.

During this period also, Buddhist scholars composed outstanding works in the fields of Ethics, Philosophy and even Logic. Eminent scholars like Nagarjuna and the two brothers, Asanga and Vasubhandu, made important contributions to the philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism. As a result of their efforts, Mahayana Buddhism gained greater popularity throughout India.

Nagarjuna was born in the southern part of India towards the end of the first century CE According to legend, his parents had long wanted a son, so they rejoiced at his birth. However, their happiness soon turned to sorrow when a local soothsayer told them that the boy would not live beyond the age of seven. When the boy’s seventh birthday drew near, his parents, who did not want to see him die before their eyes, sent him on a journey accompanied by attendants. At the great monastic university of Nalanda, Nagarjuna met a renowned Buddhist monk. This monk advised him that he could escape from his premature death by renouncing the family life and reciting the mantra of the Buddha of Limitless Life (Amitayus). Nagarjuna did as he was advised and lived to become one of the greatest philosophers Buddhism has ever known.

Nagarjuna wrote many books explaining the profound teaching of “Emptiness”. These works rank among the best of the philosophical writings ever produced by man. Widely regarded as a Bodhisattva, Nagarjuna gained great fame in India.

Later, when Buddhism reached China, Japan, Tibet and Mongolia, he also received the reverence of Buddhists in these countries.

The two brothers, Asanga and Vasubandhu, were well known Buddhist scholars who lived in the fourth century CE Like Nagaduna, they contributed greatly to Buddhist philosophy. Both wrote many books describing the role of the mind in the origin of suffering and in the attainment of buddhahood. Buddhists of the Mahayana tradition believe that Asanga received instruction directly from Maitreya, the future Buddha, and wrote down what he was taught for the benefit of others.

As Mahayana Buddhism became more popular, many Buddhists in India began to look to the great Buddhas and Bodhisattvas like Amitabha, Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri, for encouragement and inspiration. During this period, there was an increase in the creation of images representing these Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. These images served as a reminder to the Mahayana Buddhists of the qualities of buddhahood such as limitless life, compassion and wisdom.

Vajrayana Buddhism (the Diamond Way) also appeared during this period. Like Mahayana, Vajrayana Buddhism teaches that buddhahood is attainable by all. It differs from Mahayana, however, in some of the methods that it uses for achieving this goal. These methods, which include meditation upon special forms of the Buddha and the recitation of mantras, can help one attain buddhahood more quickly.

After the thirteenth century, Buddhism largely disappeared from India, leaving only a few Buddhist communities in the Himalayas and in what is now Bangladesh. It left, however, a lasting impression on Indian life and culture. The ideas of renunciation, non-violence, karma and freedom from rebirth as they are now found in Indian religion, owe much to Buddhist influence. In addition, Buddhism has contributed its sense of social justice, tolerance and democracy to Indian life. In recent years, Buddhism has again won new followers and fresh recognition in India.

Sri Lanka


From the earliest period of Sri Lankan history, invasions and migrations from India have threatened the independence of the island and have left it with a composite population consisting of both Hindu and Buddhist elements. Buddhism in Sri Lanka suffered setbacks during the periods when Hindu influence was greatest. Later, during the centuries of colonial rule under the Portuguese, Dutch and British, Buddhism suffered further setbacks.

A movement to revive Buddhism in Sri Lanka began in the later half of the nineteenth century through the efforts of a learned monk named Gunananda. His eloquent lectures on Buddhism aroused much interest. These lectures attracted the attention of H. S. Olcott, an American, who then came to Sri Lanka and enthusiastically supported the revival of Buddhism there. A young Sri Lankan named Dharmapala soon aided Olcott. Both of them travelled widely, giving lectures on Buddhism, distributing Buddhist literature and collecting funds for Buddhist education. Their active missionary work created widespread support for Buddhism in Sri Lanka. By the mid-twentieth century, Buddhism was once again as strong as it had ever been on the island. Today, as in the past, Sri Lanka is famous as a source of inspiration to the Buddhist world.

About the year 246 B.C., Emperor Ashoka sent his son, Mahinda, as the head of a mission to Sri Lanka. There, he converted the king to Buddhism. The king supported these Buddhist missionaries and provided facilities for them in his capital. From there, they were able to carry on their work of spreading the Teaching of the Buddha. A great monastery was then built near the capital. Later, Ashoka’s daughter, Sanghamitra, brought a shoot of the Bodhi tree in Buddha Gaya to Sri Lanka. She also established an Order of Nuns in Sri Lanka. With the help of royal patronage, Buddhism became the dominant religion of Sri Lanka by the second century B.C. A century later, a Sri Lankan king commissioned the compilation of a collection of the Buddhist scriptures in written form.

In the first centuries of the Common Era, Buddhist culture and scholarship flourished in Sri Lanka. The fifth century saw the arrival of the famous scholar, Buddhaghosha, from South India. He made an outstanding contribution to the literature of the Theravada tradition.