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5th Century India: a Turning Point in Buddhist History

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5th Century India: a Turning Point in Buddhist History
By Indrajala (Jeffrey Kotyk)

I believe the fifth century marks a subtle albeit quite profound turning point in Buddhist history. It was around this time that support for established Buddhist institutions was waning while Mahāyāna imagery starts to appear in the art record. The Mahāyāna in India was still a fringe movement, quite possibly disdained and rejected in many places while finding popular support only in frontier realms in Central Asia and distant China. In the greater geopolitical situation Rome was sacked in 410 by the Visigoths led by Alaric I. The decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire did affect international trade, which indeed included India. Reduction in trade might very well have contributed to the declining support for formerly prosperous sanghas in India, which is revealed in the archaeological record. Circumstances changed and for various reasons the Mahāyāna in India became relevant and quite influential, laying the foundation for a mature Mahāyāna that came of age in a feudal age and which in due time gave rise to Vajrayāna. Here I want to take a brief look at how and why this occurred as well as the outcome.

As we discussed in another post to some extent, in the fifth century a Chinese monk named Faxian 法顯 (338-c423) spent some years in India gathering and studying Buddhist texts. At about the age of sixty he departed Chang'an in the year 399 CE, accompanied by his fellow monks Huijing 慧景, Daozheng 道整, Huiying 慧應 and Huiwei 慧嵬. He took the overland route through Central Asia down through northern India and then to Sri Lanka before taking to sea when returning to China in 414.

The record of his journey (see Legge's translation here) offers a first-hand account of early fifth century India under the reign of Candragupta II (375-415) of the Gupta dynasty (320-550) and some of the surrounding kingdoms. Historians have long recognized the value of such witnesses in Indian history (Xuanzang is another notable figure) given the lack of extant histories from the subcontinent during ancient pre-Islamic times. The historical image becomes all the more clear when we combine these accounts with archaeological and epigraphical findings.

One valuable observation Faxian records is the seeming scarcity of Mahāyāna in India and elsewhere at the time of his visit. Naturally, we should not rely entirely on his testimony. Fortunately, we can refer to archaeological evidence that supports the idea that Mahāyāna was indeed a fringe movement in India proper during the period of its early emergence from the first century BCE to the fifth century CE despite it having gained popularity elsewhere in the world.

The geographical spread of Mahāyāna as described by Faxian is noteworthy, which Take'uchi Masayoshi 竹内正祥 in his article “The Distribution of the Influence of Buddhism as Seen in Records such as the Fa-hsien-ch'uan” points out. For ease of understanding let us look at this using some tables.

- The account lists nine countries which were exclusively Hīnayāna as follows.

Shanshan 鄯善國
Agni 烏夷國
Kashgar 竭叉國

Darada 陀歷 North India
Udyāna 烏萇國
Gandhāra 揵陀衛國

Bana[1] 跋那國 West India

Kanyakubja 罽饒夷城 Middle India
Kausambi 拘睒彌

- Two countries which were exclusively Mahāyāna.

Khotan 于闐 Central Asia
Kukyar (Yarkand) 子合國

- Three countries which were mixed Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna.

Luoyi 羅夷國 North India

Bhida 毘荼 West India

Sankasya 僧迦施 Middle India

It is clear that the regions where Śrāvakayāna (i.e., Hīnayāna) was prevalent outnumbered those where Mahāyāna existed. Furthermore, Faxian only identifies two realms which were exclusively Mahāyāna, both of which were in Central Asia and not India proper.

We should take a moment to consider Khotan as it seems to have been a frontier land that especially hosted the Mahāyāna away from its motherland. Khotan is located in the south west corner of the Tarim Basin at 37°06′ N 79°56′ E (see Google Maps). As the map shows it is located on the frontier of Tibet and is on the far side of the Himalayas and Pamirs. It is not so far from Leh in Ladakh. Nevertheless, it was a tough hike from Khotan to the plains of India.


In the fifth century the Chinese considered Khotan part of the “western regions” 西域 and not India proper 天竺. It was a unique country located strategically between a few cultural spheres and major trade routes, hence it prospered throughout its history despite being frequently invaded. While the realm was often under Chinese domination, it was occupied in 670 by the Tibetans and then conquered around 798. Regardless of such foreign influence, the Khotanese people were Iranian during their long history and they produced much of their own native literature. In Old Khotanese they called their land Hvatana. In Indic it was called Gostana. It was Buddhist early on, perhaps from the first century BCE. We might infer that it was a significant centre for Mahāyāna as well given how the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra in 25,000 verses, which was one of the earliest Mahāyāna sūtras to be translated into Chinese, was brought from Khotan in 282 CE. Many other Khotanese monks contributed to translation projects in China later on (some of them seemed to have preferred Indic originals, but they sympathetically translated the texts into Chinese nonetheless). When Faxian visited he observed it having many Mahāyāna monks and a devout population. This is noteworthy because as far as the archaeological record in India and Faxian's observations go, it was only in Khotan and Kukyar where such exclusive centers of Mahāyāna were to be found.

Now, this brings to mind a few things. If Mahāyāna could only remain a fringe movement in India proper, then it possibly confirms Jan Nattier's theory as stated in her work The Bodhisattva Path: Based on the Ugraparipṛcchā a Mahāyāna Sūtra concerning the non-universalism of Mahāyāna texts.

[T]hey recognize that not all beings have the capacity to become Buddhas, and that the śrāvaka and not the bodhisattva path is appropriate for some. Thus even as they instruct the bodhisattva on the specifics of his or her chosen path - for in some of these scriptures bodhisattvas may also be women - they also treat the path of the śrāvaka as entirely legitimate. A careful reading of the surviving texts classified as "Mahāyāna sūtras" (preserved for the most part, only in Chinese and/or Tibetan) shows that this nonuniversalist position was actually quite widespread, especially in the early stages of the production of Mahāyāna sūtras literature.[2]

This aids in explaining in part why the Mahāyāna remained unsupported in the earlier centuries. Lacking a universalist approach would have presumably rendered it unappealing to large numbers of devotees and in turn institutions would have proven difficult to establish and maintain. The archaeological record on the Indian subcontinent does seem to confirm this given the scarcity of references to the Mahāyāna in the period around and before Faxian's visit to India. In other words, the Mahāyāna was a fringe movement and lacked economic support in India. Gregory Schopen has revealed that for the first half of the millennium donative inscriptions in the epigraphical record constantly show that mainstream orders were patronized by prominent laity and royalty. There is only one clear example of a Mahāyāna group receiving patronage prior to the fourth or fifth centuries, which curiously is around the time that Mahāyāna imagery starts appearing. Around that time the mainstream institutions start showing a clear lack of patronage, perhaps revealing a shift of fortunes where the Śrāvakayāna lineages waned and Mahāyāna movements only then gathered substantive support.[3]

If this is true, it still begs the question why did the Mahāyāna come to grow and even dominate north Indian Buddhism in the decline of the Guptas and thereafter in post-Gupta India? I believe the answer might be found in how the Mahāyāna was better able to adapt to and even thrive in the political and economic consequences of that collapse (c. 550). Former institutional paradigms for religion shifted away from old models and in the new setting it was the Mahāyāna with free license to exercise expedient means that had the ability to survive and grow in what became an Indian version of feudalism.

The question of whether or not there really was feudalism on the subcontinent is contested, but for our purposes here might consider one major view on the matter. Burjor Avari in his work India: The Ancient Past A History of the Indian-Subcontinent from 7000 BC to AD 1200 summarizes R.S. Sharma's contentious conclusion that post-Gupta India was in fact feudal. Consider the following:

The distinguished twentieth century historian R.S. Sharma has argued that the political, social and economic development of India during the period examined here can be characterised as feudal too. He sees the subservience of the lower classes of people and their servile mentality arising out of the oppression of their superiors. He has based his argument on the evidence, as he saw it, of manifestations resulting from the widespread disruption in the post-Gupta period, such as the loss of public revenues through the decline of trade and debased coinage, the issuing of land grants (fiefs) by monarchs to their subordinates, the subjugation of the peasantry by landed intermediaries, and the rise of religious devotional movements emphasising loyalty and reverence in general. The fact that the Puranas contain descriptions of the general disorientation within contemporary society, leading to the breakdown of old loyalties and certainties, has also been used as an argument to support the feudal thesis.[4]

The loss of public revenue is relevant to the direction the Buddhism took. The decline of trade can be traced back before the final demise of the Guptas. As Burjor Avari notes, “The fall of the Western Roman Empire and the disappearance of the flourishing trade with Rome meant a certain definite decline from the end of the fourth century in the value and volume of Indian international trade. One indicator of this was the paucity of metallic money from the late Gupta period onwards.”[5] Of course trade did not entirely collapse, though the debasement of coinage and the issuance of land grants that likely resulted from declining trade presumably led to issues with funding Buddhist monasteries as was done before.

It is interesting to consider how this decline in trade owing to the economic decline and final collapse of the Western Roman Empire might have indirectly affected the Buddhist sangha in India. We need only consider that any sizeable vihāra would have required extensive funding and resources, which, as donative inscriptions show, they indeed received. However, from the fourth or fifth centuries those erstwhile prosperous lineages went into economic decline as a result of benefactors perhaps having to tighten their purse strings as investment in religion became infeasible. Nevertheless, this is when the Mahāyāna begins to thrive, perhaps because, unlike the Śrāvakayāna lineages, it was not bound to archaic observances and protocols in respect to social engagement, money and more significantly a closed canon – that is to say, new scriptures emerged suited to the times. It seems that the Mahāyāna had full license to employ expedient means and this made them a more attractive investment option, especially with the emergence of feudalism post-Gupta and the subsequent shift in religious outlooks and needs.

Ronald M. Davidson in the Handbook of Oriental Studies Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia describes the effects of the Gupta collapse in the sixth century on Buddhists and also how they responded. To begin with, whole areas became inaccessible to Buddhists, such as the Kṛṣṇa River Valley, which was home to early Buddhist communities such as Amarāvatī and Nāgārjunakoṇḍa, owing to hostile Śaivaite forces. A number of monasteries in north India, including the famous Nālandā in modern Bihar state, effectively became feudal fortresses with the abbots overseeing taxation and policing over their territories (maṇḍala). Davidson also suggests that female participation in the religion declined owing to “institutional negotiation with non-Buddhist values”, eventually leading to the end of bhikṣuni ordinations in India around the end of the first millennium. This also brings to mind the brahmanization of Buddhism, which is a theory proposed by Bronkhorst and discussed in an earlier post (see here).

In terms of how the Mahāyāna coped in such an environment, institutions adapted to the new circumstances and this led to subsequent ideological and iconographic developments.

While institutions began to assume feudal dimensions, abbots, however, did not provide three important services that acted as much of the glue of the Indian feudal system: they did not engage in marital exchanges (being ostensibly celibate renunciates), they did not swear fealty to provide troops in time of war, and they did not provide the Brahmanical ceremonies needed by the king—marriage, postmortem, coronation, renewal, sacrifice, agricultural, and military rites among them. Buddhists had been aware of coronation ceremonies right from the early days of the order, but the earlier traditions had erected a strong ideological buttress between the law of the land (rājadaṇḍa) and the Buddhist administration (dharmavinaya). Both the Madhyamaka/Prajñāpāramitā ideology of the identity of samsara and nirvana and the feudalization of real Buddhist institutions eroded these ideological walls, so that earlier flirting that Buddhists had done with the Brahmanical practices of homa, coronation, image consecration (pratiṣṭhā), mantra recitation, and so on were now engaged in a much more sustained manner.[6]

Said practices might have been forbidden or discouraged in previous times, especially in orthodox Śrāvakayāna monasteries, but owing to the Mahāyāna capacity for adaptability it seems many appropriated heterodox practices for their own needs. In such feudal social arrangements, these were indeed real needs. It was no longer enough to engage in skilled debate or act as a field of merit as the benefactors had alternative concerns, especially since by this time the brahmanization of India likely forced a lot of Buddhists, either consciously or unconsciously, to adopt forms suitable to a changing social climate.

One such practical concern is perhaps reflected in what is effectively Mahāyāna sorcery literature. These are texts and practices where through various means such a rites and incantations a mundane benefit not directly related to liberation from saṃsāra is sought. One such example is the Mahāmegha Sūtra 大雲輪請雨經, which provides a dhāraṇī for summoning rain.

It was via such functional practices perhaps that Mahāyāna gained a further foothold even before the collapse of the Guptas. In due time the Mahāyāna was able to modify already canonical works from the Śrāvakayāna. One such example such influence is reflected in the Mahāyāna vocabulary and incantations of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya. Such adaptation of the Śrāvakayāna canon to Mahāyāna ends would have been common around Nālandā. It was translated into Chinese in 703 by Yijing 義淨 (635-713), who had traveled to India between 671-695 and went to great lengths documenting Vinaya practices as he observed them (for an English translation see here). We can assume then that the version he translated was from the late seventh century. Hence by the seventh century Mahāyāna influence was capable of appropriating and refitting canonical literature.

One thing I find remarkable is that with the rise of feudal India the major pilgrimage sites associated with the Buddha also fell into ruin. As we explored in an earlier post, based on the recorded observations of East Asian pilgrims to the region, both Kushinagar and Kapilavastu were desolate by the seventh century. Meanwhile, institutions like Nālandā were still operating. This indicates that perhaps Buddhism had effectively lost popular support at the ground level. If Buddhism was still relevant to the laity in the region, presumably such a site as Kushinagar would have been kept in repair. Were the people in that region hostile towards Buddhism? Or had the religion and its holy sites simply become irrelevant to them? Why was Nālandā operating while holy sites fell into ruin and became forlorn? These are questions I lack answers for and perhaps we can investigate them further in a future post.

As the fertile ground of earlier centuries allowed for the Mahāyāna to gain influence, the next layer of the foundation was readied for Vajrayāna in the seventh and eighth centuries. The liberal application of expedient means by the former only enabled more innovative mystics to push the boundaries of what was acceptable. The tendency towards syncretism was taken to its limits owing perhaps to unlimited allowances for anything designed to benefit beings and enable liberation. Taboo subjects such as sexuality and forbidden substances could be revised given the logical application of emptiness analysis. There was furthermore the freedom to re-adapt former adaptations. For example, Buddhism in India had adopted Sanskrit in order to survive (see here), and it did become the official language of orthodoxy at the expense of excluding commoners, but in the Paramādibuddhatantra we see the following sympathetic remark directed to the use of regional languages:

When one understands the meaning from regional words, what is the use of technical terms?
On the earth, a jewel is called by different names from country to country, but there is no difference in the jewel itself.
Likewise, the various redactors of my pure Dharma use diverse terms in accordance with the dispositions of sentient beings.

So, summing it all up, from my perspective the fifth century or thereabouts marks a significant turning point in both regional Indian as well as global history which initiated a lot of changes in Buddhism. It was a kind of fertile ground from which the Mahāyāna after many years of maturation as a largely fringe movement found itself in circumstances suitable to gradual albeit firm growth while its Śrāvakayāna counterpart started to wane given changes in the greater geopolitical context. It was subtle and perhaps nobody noticed. I do not have the impression Faxian perceived this in his years in India, nor did he foresee it coming. It was the eventual decline and fall of the Gupta empire that launched the Mahāyāna into a clear and prominent role on the subcontinent, in part due to its adaptability and its capacity to provide needed occult services to a new feudal society.

We will look at those services in greater detail in the future.


  1. Legge suggests this is Bannu in the Punjab.
  2. Jan Nattier, The Bodhisattva Path: Based on the Ugraparipṛcchā a Mahāyāna Sūtra (New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2007), 175.
  3. Daniel Boucher, “Dharmaraksa and the Transmission of Buddhism to China” in Asia Major, Volume 19, part 1/2,2006, 36-37. See here.
  4. Burjor Avari, India: The Ancient Past A History of the Indian-Subcontinent from 7000 BC to AD 1200 (New York, NY: Routledge, 2007), 208-209
  5. Ibid., 192.
  6. Ronald M. Davidson, "Sources and Inspirations: Esoteric Buddhism in South Asia" in Handbook of Oriental Studies Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011), 21.


by Indrajala (Jeffrey Kotyk)