Letter from America: Why Buddhism Declined?
By Dr. Habib Siddiqui
Recently, after the publication of the Time Magazine’s cover page article on Wirathu, the Buddhist terrorist monk of Myanmar, I came across an article in which the writer tried to justify the on-going genocidal activities against the Muslims in Buddhist countries by stating that “There is a common thread that runs through the histories of Buddhist countries; they have all been the victim at one time or the other of aggressive incursions made by people of Abrahamic faiths, i.e., Christians or Muslims. “
He continues, “ This process has not ended. It still continues unabated and with greater ferocity… One thousand years ago Buddhist Asia ranged from Afghanistan to Japan. Today countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, and South Korea are no longer identified as Buddhist… Buddhist countries such as Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka today find themselves besieged by forces more powerful and predatory.” The writer went on to state that Time magazine got it all wrong about Wirathu and that the pogroms against Muslims, which was disingenuously called ‘Buddhist nationalism’, must be understood under that context and are a ‘last resort’ to preserve Buddhist ‘heritage, religion and country to ensure history is not repeated.’"
Such apologetic writings unfortunately belie history and twist facts and provide the kind of criminal justification for ongoing violence against a targeted minority. For example, consider Sri Lanka, which is currently a Buddhist majority country. But was it always that way? Surely, not! After all, Buddhism came around 247 BCE while the history of Sri Lanka is much older, believed to be at least 30,000 years old. The forefathers of today’s Sinhalese people were not the aborigines of Sri Lanka. They came from Bengal (today’s Bangladesh and West Bengal state of India) and Orissa (of today’s India). Popular Sinhalese legends claim that Vijaya (543 – 505 BCE), the exiled Bengali prince, supposedly born of a mythical union between a lion and a human princess, became the father of the Sinhalese people, after being seduced by Kuveni, a demon (Yakkhas) queen. The two then exterminated the demons and drove others away from the island. Subsequently Kuveni was betrayed by Vijaya. When she returned with her two children to her people they later killed her for her betrayal.
Even if one were to overlook the fallaciousness of such make-belief stories, the fact remains that in the 6th century BCE Sri Lanka was inhabited by other people, e.g., the Veddas (who has close physical resemblance with people of South India), with different set of beliefs than Buddhism. [It is all possible that those mythic demons of the Hindu/Buddhist folklores were actually human beings who were despised and dehumanized.] The same is the case for every country in which Buddhism later spread by supplanting older beliefs and customs. Vijaya and his 700 followers were colonists and not the first settlers of Sri Lanka. The Tamil speaking people of Sri Lanka, who are mostly Hindus, trace their roots to at least the second century BCE. Sinhalese Tamils claim that they are the original inhabitants of the island. Before European annexation, parts of the island were ruled by Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus. In the early 15th century, the island even came under Chinese rule when it was conquered by Muslim Admiral Zheng He of the Ming Dynasty. [Zheng He is also credited with discovering the Americas before Christopher Columbus.]
Even in India, before the Aryan invasion (ca. 1800 BCE) the original people, the Dravidians with darker complexion, had sets of beliefs that were different than caste-ridden Hinduism. This invasion led to migration of many of the surviving Dravidians to South India. Vedism as the religious tradition of Hinduism under the priestly elites was marginalized by other traditions such as Jainism and Buddhism in the later Iron Age. The same is the case with Burma and parts of Thailand where dark complexioned Indian-looking people lived before the Tibeto-Mongoloid peoples moved in from outside. Their religious traditions were later marginalized by Buddhism. In the former Kushan territories of today’s northern Afghanistan, Peshawar of Pakistan and Kashmir, Zoroastrianism and belief in a pantheon of gods were popular amongst the people before Buddhism made an inroad. [Some Indians claim that the Kushan invasion in the first century CE in the northwest led to the migration of Indians toward Southeast Asia.]
People have been on the move since the first man walked on earth. There is a plethora of reasons why they moved. Sometimes they migrated voluntarily, e.g., to better their lots and at other times they migrated involuntarily, e.g., because of war and politics. As they settled in newer territories, they absorbed newly encountered systems/ideas and/or implanted their own ones depending on the strength and acceptability of those ideas. However, not every culture has adopted a settled lifestyle. There are still small groups that maintain a nomadic existence, moving from territories to territories selling goods and services or grazing cattle and staying wherever they are not unwelcome. They pass along their traditions to succeeding generations, rarely integrating into mainstream society. They ¬speak their own archaic languages, teaching their children themselves. Though often persecuted, many of these groups are protected by laws with the intent of preserving their rare heritage.
In this continuous flux of human activities, it is, thus, not difficult to understand how new traditions, cultures, beliefs and ideas have replaced the old ones, and how sometimes the old ones have also successfully resurrected itself from oblivion or extinction. There were also cases of much synthesis between cultures and traditions. In the context of Muslim-ruled India, Prof. Richard Eaton says, “This cultural synthesis took many forms. In Urdu and Hindi were born languages of great beauty that to different extents mixed Persian and Arabic words with the Sanskrit-derived vernaculars of north India. Similarly, just as the cuisine of north India combined the vegetarian dal and rice of India with the kebab and roti of central Asia, so in music the long-necked Persian lute was combined with the Indian vina to form the sitar, now the Indian instrument most widely known in the west. In architecture there was a similar process of hybridity as the great monuments of the Mughals reconciled the styles of the Hindus with those of Islam, to produce a fusion more beautiful than either.”
It is simply inane to suggest that Buddhism has been integral to places where it has become marginalized. It is the people who make the difference as to what they choose to believe or reject. As history has repeatedly shown forced conversion does not work in long term. Whenever the fear factor is gone, people opt out to choose what suits them. And that has been the history of mankind since the beginning of history. Rulers could not make permanent believers of the subjects if the latter did not like what was forced upon them.
In contrast to popular myths propagated by anti-Muslim zealots, Islam was not spread by sword. Had it been by sword, Islam would have been a majority religion, and Hinduism and other smaller faiths would have vanished. After all, Islam first came to India at the dawn of the 8th century CE with the conquest of Sindh and Muslim power have ruled its vast territories for nearly a millennium. Not a single Muslim military expedition took place in south-east Asia. And yet, there are countries in south-east Asia where Muslims are a majority.
The history of the geographical region commonly known as the South Asia and South-east Asia has no one beginning, no one chronology, no single plot or narrative. This gargantuan fact is recognized by all great historians -- Professor David Ludden, Abdul Karim, Richard Eaton, Romila Thapar, R.S. Sharma and many others -- who spent their lifetimes to study the region. To these unbiased and genuine historians of the ancient world, the region did not have a singular history, but many histories, with indefinite, contested origins and with countless separate trajectories that multiply the more we learn about the region.
What is promoted by ultra-racist and bigot monks like Wirathu of Myanmar, and ultra-nationalist and chauvinist revisionist politicians and their fanatical followers, and pseudo-historians as the single tree of their culture, rooted in their racial and religious myths, is actually more like a vast forest of many cultures filled with countless trees of various sizes, shades, ages, colors and types, constantly cross-breeding to fertilize one another. The profusion of cultures blurs the boundaries of the forest. The so-called cultural boundaries of our time are more like an artifact of modern national cultures than an accurate reflection of pre-modern conditions.
Obviously, such an understanding and analysis of history is unpopular and loathsome with communal, racist, xenophobic regimes and their propagandists and vanguards. The latter bigots would rather have it their way in which the minorities or the have-nots in power simply did neither exist nor mattered. To them, the affected persecuted people just appeared in the recent scene through mere accident of history like those possible through a magic lantern! That is the level of their disgusting chauvinism, which is often reflected through the claims and counter-claims of pen-pushing polemicists as was once again evident in the writing of the admirer of terrorist monk Wirathu.
Nearly a decade ago, Professor Neeladri Bhattacharya of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, commented about Hindu extremist BJP’s attempt to rewriting history textbooks: "When history is mobilized for specific political projects and sectarian conflicts; when political and community sentiments of the present begin to define how the past has to be represented; when history is fabricated to constitute a communal sensibility, and a politics of hatred and violence, then we [[[Wikipedia:historians|historians]]] need to sit up and protest. If we do not then the long night of Gujarat will never end. Its history will reappear again and again, not just as nightmare but as relived experience, re-enacted in endless cycles of retribution and revenge, in gory spectacles of blood and death."
What is happening in Myanmar with Muslim minorities there is worse than what happened in Gujarat. It would be the greatest tragedy and worst crime of our time to find Buddhist excuses for the genocidal activities there. To remain silent is simply is shameful and inexcusable!
When history is twisted, humanity loses. No country epitomizes this notion to the hilt better than Buddhist-majority Myanmar where history is twisted not only to deny human rights but also to justify genocidal campaigns against religious minorities.
There is no historical record of Buddha ever visiting any part of Arakan and Burma, and yet the popular Mon and Myanmar oral tradition, including the chronicle Sasanavamsa, and the belief of the Arakanese Rakhines suggest that the Buddha visited their king and left behind an image of himself for them to worship. The Sasanavamsa mentions several visits of the Buddha to Myanmar and one other important event: the arrival of the hair relics in Ukkala (Yangon) soon after the Buddha's enlightenment.
Modern historiography, of course, dismisses these stories as fabrications made out of national pride, as the Myanmar had not even arrived in the region at the time of the Buddha.
Myanmar is a country of many nations: many races and ethnicities - Shan, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Rohingya, Rakhine, Mon, Karen, Chinese, Indians - and many religions, e.g., Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Hinduism. To insist that Myanmar is the country of the majority Bamar (Burman) - who practice Theravada Buddhism - at the exclusion of the minority religious communities would be a deliberate attempt that ignores and denies the history of the ‘other’ peoples to this landmass.
What we call Myanmar today was known as Burma for most of its modern history, and before its colonization by the British, starting in 1784 CE, it went by other names at various periods. Much of its peripheral territories were annexed only after the time of King Anawrahta (1044-1077 CE) who was converted to Buddhism in 1057 CE by a Mon monk named Arahan. He forcibly converted all his subjects in Pagan kingdom into Buddhism. He invaded and destroyed the Mon kingdom and enslaved its king Manuha who was forcibly made a temple slave (Phya Kyaun), an untouchable, at the Pagan pagodas.
Since Anawrahta’s time the reach of the Burmese sovereign waxed and waned with the ability of each Burmese monarch. For example, the western Rakhine (Arakan) state, bordering today’s Bangladesh, was a sovereign state with a large Muslim population for hundreds of years (1018-1401, 1430-1784 CE). Under King Raza Gri alias Salim Shah Sultan (1593-1612 CE), Arakan was able to capture the Burmese capital of Pegu in 1599 CE. Burma annexed Arakan in 1784 violating the border demarcation agreement signed in 1454 CE between the Arakanese King Mun Khari alias Ali Khan (1434-1459 CE) and Ava King Narapati (1442-1468 CE).
As to the original inhabitants of Arakan, Dr. Emil Forchhammer, a Swiss Professor of Pali at Rangoon College, and Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey (1881), says: “The earliest dawn of the history of Arakan reveals the base of the hills, which divide the lowest courses of the Kaladan and Lemro rivers, inhabited by sojourners from India… Their subjects are divided into the four castes of the older Hindu communities…” [For sources, see this author’s book - Muslim Identity and Demography in the Arakan state of Burma (Myanmar) – (available from Amazon.com)]
The Hindu kings that ruled the coastal territories of Chittagong in Bangladesh also ruled the crescent of Arakan. Presumably, the indigenous people of Arakan, much like their brothers and sisters living to the north-west of the Naaf River in (today’s) Chittagong, practiced some loose form of Hinduism. The second phase of Indianization of Arakan occurred between the 4th and the 6th century CE, by which time the colonists had established their kingdom, and named their capital Vaishali [also spelled as Wesali]. M.S. Collis who did extensive research work on Arakan’s history, including studying its coinage and old manuscripts, similarly concluded that “that Wesali was an easterly Hindu kingdom of Bengal” and that “both government and people were Indian as the Mongolian influx had not yet occurred.”
As to the origin of the ancestors of Rakhines, historian D.G.E. Hall says: “Burmese do not seem to have settled in Arakan until possibly as late as the tenth century A.D. Hence earlier dynasties are thought to have been Indian, ruling over a population similar to that of Bengal.”
From the above brief review, it is clear that the rulers that ruled Arakan, in centuries before the Sino-Tibetan invasion in the 10th and 11th centuries, were of Indian descent, as were the people (the so-called Kalas) who lived there. They had much in common with Banga, or today’s Bangladesh. As credible research work by unbiased historians and researchers have amply shown, the Rohingyas, derogatorily called the Kalas (by the racist Buddhist Maghs of Arakan), are the descendants of the indigenous people of Arakan – the true Bhumiputras (adibashis) - of the land. For instance, the distinguished historian (late) Professor Abdul Karim wrote, “In fact the forefathers of Rohingyas had entered into Arakan from time immemorial.”
Burmese historians also concur that the original inhabitants of vast territories of today’s Burma were dark complexioned Indians, esp. from the east coast of India (e.g., Bangladesh, Orissa and neighboring areas to the west). They formed trading colonies along the coast of the Gulf of Martaban all the way to Borneo in today’s Indonesia. It is also believed that some degree of migration from India to the region of Tagaung and Mogok in Upper Myanmar had taken place through Assam and later through Manipur, but the "hinterland" was of course much less attractive to traders than the coastal regions with their easy access by sea. It is not difficult to surmise that they practiced some form of Hinduism before Buddhism and other religions entered the region.
The entry of the Indian settlers to Burma predates those of the Mon, Pyu, Bamar and Shan peoples. The Kachin people were mostly animists before they embraced Christianity during the British colonial period.
And yet, today, the religious minorities living in Myanmar are depicted as foreigners who settled from outside to dislodge the Buddhist majority. Consider, for instance, Khin Maung Saw (Soe) - whose writings and speeches are linked with Buddhist violence against Muslims - has called the Rohingya Muslims ‘ungrateful’ camels that are trying to dislodge the ‘owner’ of the tent - the Rakhine Maghs of the Arakan state of Myanmar.
Wirathu, the terrorist Buddhist monk, calls the Muslims ‘mad dogs’ and ‘wild elephants’ who needs to be tamed by starving them. "I don't know how you tame a wild elephant in your country," he told The Sunday Telegraph, when asked what exactly he means when he says Buddhist Burmese should "stand up for themselves", "but here the first thing you do is take away all their food and water. Then when the elephant is starving and weak you give him a little bit of water and teach him one word. Then you give him a little bit of food and teach him some more. That's how we tame the elephants here."
Unfortunately, the abovementioned Buddhists are not the only ones entertaining such deep seated bigotry and racism in Myanmar. These two evils, as a matter of fact, act like the Krazy glue that holds together the racist Buddhist community, justifying bestial hostility against disparate groups that have nothing in common either in language or in religion. And no group is treated as inhumanly as the Rohingya people, who live in the northwestern Arakan state, bordering Bangladesh. The Burmese government has denied them their citizenship rights, and through its genocidal campaigns have forced millions of the Rohingya to live either as stateless people in its own soil or as unwanted refugees elsewhere.
The history of Islam in amongst the Rohingyas of Arakan is very similar to the history of Islam in Chittagong and other parts of Bangladesh.
As to the Muslim settlements in Arakan, the renowned scholars of the early 20th century, Professor Enamul Haq and Abdul Karim Shahitya Visarad wrote in 1935: “The Arab traders established trade link with the East Indies in the eighth and ninth century AD. During this time Chittagong, the lone seaport of East India, became the resting place and colony of the Arabs. We know from the accounts of the ancient Arab travelers and geologists including Sulaiman (living in 851 AD), Abu Jaidul Hasan (contemporary of Sulaiman), Ibnu Khuradba (died 912 AD), Al-Masudi (died 956 AD), Ibnu Howkal (wrote his travelogue in 976 AD), Al-Idrisi (born last half of 11th century) that the Arab traders became active in the area between Arakan and the eastern bank of the Meghna River [in today’s Bangladesh]… Other historians also recognized the fact that Islam and its influence developed in Arakan in the 9th and 10th century AD.”
Dr. Moshe Yegar says, “Beginning with their arrival in the Bay of Bengal, the earliest Muslim merchant ships also called at the ports of Arakan and Burma proper… Muslim influence in Arakan was of great cultural and political importance. In effect, Arakan was the beachhead for Muslim penetration into other parts of Burma even if it never achieved the same degree of importance it did in Arakan. As a result of close land and sea contacts maintained between the two countries, Muslims played a key role in the history of the Kingdom of Arakan.”
Unfortunately, these historical findings are denied today by vast majority of Buddhists inside and outside Myanmar to hide the genocidal crimes against the Muslims there. Even those who know better are afraid to speak out against a monk like Wirathu who has essentially become the face of Buddhist terrorism in Myanmar.
It is sad to see what Buddhism has become! Very few in this den of racism are ever willing to contemplate that Gautama Buddha, an Indian born in Bihar which is close to Bengal [[[Wikipedia:Bangladesh|Bangladesh]]], must have resembled a Rohingya better than either a Rakhine Magh or a Burman. But who is pondering when history is twisted!
Popular myths circulated and believed amongst many Buddhists about the decline of Buddhism in South Asia or the Indian subcontinent are so bizarre that they are more often than not diametrically opposed to the historical facts. Those myths, unfortunately, define and justify the current genocidal campaigns against non-Buddhists in Buddhist-majority countries. This series of articles aims at an objective study on the causes of such decline.
Against popular Buddhist narrative of history, before Islam came to South Asia Buddhism has already been marginalized by powerful Hindus. Even in Bengal, which is only a short distance from where Siddhartha Gautama Buddha was born, Hindu Brahmins/leaders/rulers were able to reclaim their control over the people.
As a matter of fact, had it not been for Islam, Buddhism would have totally been wiped out by Hindus in entire India. This fact should not come as a surprise if the apologists for Buddhist crimes in places like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand and elsewhere had read the scholarly writings of unbiased area experts on this issue rather than swallowing poisonous pills that are distributed by chauvinist monks like Wirathu to clear their indefensible ignorance and despicable hostility to Muslims. In contrast to popular anti-Muslim myths, when Bakhtiyar Khilji’s horsemen came to topple Hindu rulers in Bengal (Banga and Anga), they were treated by the inhabitants as saviors who had freed them from the tyranny of ‘upper’ caste Brahmanism.
Millennia before the message of Islam was preached into the world by the Prophet Muhammad (S), the region we know today as South Asia was very different than it looks today with its national borders separating and enclosing state territories. So for an objective study of the region, one must skip the boundaries of today which have changed dramatically and been defended, contested and redrawn at various points in time.
According to history professor David Ludden of NYU (previously with U Penn), South Asia has always been open geographically for human migration and communication. In the Himalayan localities, migrants, herders and setters had moved to and fro regularly across borders with Tibet. Borders with Burma (today’s Myanmar) were also open with Assam (a northeastern state in today’s India) and Bengal (today’s Bangladesh). The coastal regions had similar connectivity, especially after the advent of iron tools in around 1200 BCE. They were the best trading partners of each other. It is, thus, not surprising that the Bangla (spoken in Bangladesh and parts of India) and the Sinhala (spoken by Sinhalese Buddhists of Sri Lanka) are closely related. This trading extended all the way to Java in Southeast Asia, where a major historical period of so-called Indianization occurred during the first millennium.
By the time of Gautama Buddha around the sixth century BCE, elements of Aryan ideology were adapted to local conditions in South Asia by its elites. Brahmans elevated themselves above others. One hymn from the Rig Veda codified such supremacy. It describes the origin of the world in the sacrificial dismemberment of Prajapati, the Lord of Being, into four human essences or varna – his mouth became the Brahman priest, his arms became the Kshatriya or the warriors, his thigh became the Vaisya (farmer and merchant) and his feet became the Sudra (slave or servant).
In spite of Gautama Buddha’s message that opposed Brahminical hegemony, Buddhism did not become a state force until 236 BCE when Hindu emperor Ashoka of Mauryan dynasty (322-185 BCE) embraced Buddhism after he had committed one of the worst mass murders of the ancient world when India was thinly populated. His conquest of Kalinga, on the Orissa coast, cost more than a hundred thousand lives and displaced twice as many people. By his time the teachings of Gautama Buddha and Mahavira had come to be known as Buddhism and Jainism, respectively. Both these teachings shared many elements with Aryan Brahmanism, e.g., its complex ideas about reincarnation and karma, but opposed its sacred division of caste society.
Brahmanism allowed kin groups to form caste groups or jati by assigning each kin group to a varna. Merchants relegated to lower varna ranks were clearly influenced by Buddhist and Jain monks who rejected that Brahmans are the only ones who could attain the highest spiritual purity. While Jainism became popular in the west – in places like Gujarat and Rajasthan, especially among the baniyas (the merchant class), Buddhism took a deep root in the east – in places like Bengal down the Orissa coast to Amaravati, Kanchipuram, Madurai and Sri Lanka. The Greek king of Punjab, Menader, adopted Buddhism as he sought to attract merchants to his realm. [David Ludden, India and South Asia: A Short History]
Under Ashoka, Buddhism spread widely as elite cultural elements sank local roots from town to town in the ambit of Mauryan Empire and along routes of mobility into Central Asia, the southern peninsula and Sri Lanka.
He used his vast winnings at war to support Buddhist monks, ritual centers (stupas), schools, and preachers.
He supported Buddhist kings in Sri Lanka and Buddhist centers in Karnatak, Andhra and the Tamil country.
Buddhists always confronted proponents of Jainism and Brahmanism, and everywhere, patronage from various sources determined the ultimate outcome.
Such Buddhist patronage obviously did not last long. Brihadrata, the last ruler of the Mauryan dynasty, was assassinated in 185 BCE during a military parade, by the commander-in-chief of his guard, the Brahmin general Pusyamitra Sunga, who then took over the throne and established the Sunga dynasty. Buddhist records such as the Asokavadana write that the assassination of Brihadrata and the rise of the Sunga Empire (187-78 BCE) led to a wave of persecution for Buddhists, and a resurgence of Hinduism. Pusyamitra Sunga (185-151 BCE) was hostile to Buddhism. He burned Sutras, Buddhist shrines, and massacred monks in large numbers.
By the time of the powerful Gupta kings (320-550 CE), who were Hindus, the region had gradually moved back to Hinduism. Regional rulers began to choose Hinduism over Buddhism and alliances with Brahmin priests rather than with Buddhist monks were formed. At the popular level, lower castes—who had earlier found the anti-caste philosophy of Buddhism attractive— also began to shift their allegiances back toward more orthodox Hinduism as an anchor in a time of political change. Gupta power essentially launched imperial Brahmanism. Its Hindu rulers donated vast land to Brahmans, funding temple construction, financing temple rituals. [Even at our time, the Gupta core region of Uttar Pradesh in today’s India has the highest Brahman population.]
Such gifts became a hallmark of medieval dynastic authority. As noted by Prof. Ludden, “In the seventh century, the Pusyabuti king Harsha moved his capital to Kanyakubja and celebrated the event with a land grant to two Brahmans. The grant was to be administered personally by one of his commanders under the official protection of janapadas in his realm. This indicates that janapada lineages were still in business and that Harsha relied for his authority on the wealth and power of subordinates supported by local community leaders.”
This trend to bolster Brahmanism continued all across India. The Pallava regime at Kanchipuram is a good example. It emerged from under the canopy of empire thrown across the southern peninsula by imperial Guptas, Vakatakas and Chalukyas. Pallava kings rose from vassal status to become imperial powers in their own right. Kanchipuram had been a center of Buddhist learning. Under the Pallavas, Kanchipuram became a Hindu sacred site and a royal capital; its seaport, Mahaballipuram, adorned with monumental rock sculpture and temple carving to popularize the worship of supreme Hindu gods, Siva and Vishnu. Under the Pallavas, Kanchipuram became a Hindu pilgrimage site and center for Sanskrit learning, whose temples received endowments from dignitaries and gifts from patrons in localities all across the southern India.