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The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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The Historical Interaction between the Buddhist and Islamic Cultures before the Mongol Empire

Alexander Berzin, 1996
lightly revised, January 2003, December 2006

Part III: The Spread of Islam among and by the Turkic Peoples (840 – 1206 CE)

20 The Ghurid Campaigns on the Indian Subcontinent

The Initial Military Drive across Northern India

In 1148, Ala-ud-Din of the nomadic Guzz Turks from the mountains of Afghanistan conquered the region of Ghur in eastern Iran, which gave its name to his Ghurid Empire (1148 – 1215). He proceeded to take Bactria from the Qaraqitans and, in 1161, Ghazna and Kabul from the Ghaznavids. The latter were forced to move their capital to the Punjabi city of Lahore, which still had a Hindu majority at this time. In 1173, the Ghurid founder appointed his brother, Muizz-ud-Din Muhammad (Muhammad Ghori, r. 1173-1206), governor of Ghazna and encouraged him to raid the Indian subcontinent.

[View Map Thirty: Indian Subcontinent at the Time of the Ghurid Conquests, End of the Twelfth Century.]

Like his predecessor, Mahmud of Ghazni, Muhammad Ghori first took, in 1178, the Ismaili Multan kingdom in northern Sindh, which had regained independence from Ghaznavid rule. The Ismailis were always suspected of harboring Nizaris or similar types of millenarian, terrorist movements. Then, in alliance with a local Hindu ruler, the Ghuri leader overthrew the Ghaznavid Dynasty by conquering Lahore in 1186. Controlling the entire Punjab, he pressed on, taking Delhi in 1193. The Ghurids then swept across the Gangetic Plain of northern India. Muhammad himself conquered as far as Banaras in 1194. He despatched one of his captains, Bakhtiyar Khalji, together with Ikhtiyar-ud-Din Muhammad, to attack further eastward.

The Ghurid campaign on the Indian subcontinent, then, was not, in fact, a holy war to convert infidels, but basically a drive to conquer territory, both Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Although the original military objective against the Ismaili kingdom in Multan might have been properly called a jihad and the Ghurids might have used the theme of a holy war to rally their troops, the Muslim leaders’ enthusiasm was more likely fanned by prospects of booty and power, rather than converts.

The Conquest of Bihar and Bengal

The Pala Dynasty in Bihar and Bengal, under which most of the great Buddhist monastic universities of northern India were built, had been overthrown piecemeal. First, the Karnata Dynasty (1097 – 1324) broke away in Mithila, which covered the area of Bihar north of the Ganges River and the Terai area of southern Nepal. Toward the end of the twelfth century, the Senas established themselves in Bengal and Magadha, the portion of Bihar south of the Ganges. Although the Mithila rulers were Shaivite Hindus, they continued the Pala patronage of Buddhism and offered strong resistance against the Ghurids. They stopped, for example, an attempted drive to take Tibet in 1206. The Senas were more singularly devoted to Hinduism and weaker in strength.

The Ghurids skirted Mithila in their drive eastward, and concentrated their attacks on Magadha and Bengal. The Sena king installed defensive garrisons at Odantapuri and Vikramashila Monasteries, which were imposing walled citadels directly on the Ghurids’ line of advance. Taking them for military forts, the Ghurids totally razed them to the ground between 1199 and 1200. In fact, since Odantapuri occupied such a strategic location, the Ghurid military governors erected their administrative headquarters for the region on its former site near modern-day Bihar Sharif.

The Occupation of Northern India

In 1206, Muhammad Ghori was assassinated, bringing to an end the Ghurid drive across northern India. With no clear successor, his captains fought among themselves for control of the provinces they had conquered. One of them eventually established himself above the others as sultan in Lahore, but died shortly thereafter, in 1210. His freed slave, Iltutmish (r. 1210 – 1237), took over and moved the capital to Delhi, starting what has become known as the Slave Dynasty Sultanate (1210 – 1325).

The Ghurids had been able to conquer northern India due to not only their superior strength and tactics, but also the continual rivalry and infighting among the numerous local Hindu “Rajput” rulers. Although the latter had been unable to present a united front to prevent the Ghurid takeover, they were strong enough to reestablish themselves from the jungles and hills once the foreign troops had moved on. The Ghurids and their successors were later able to maintain only minor administrative posts and these only in the major cities, from which their main task was collecting taxes. Their rule, however, saw economic prosperity and thus remained stable.

Evaluation of the Ghurid Damage to Buddhism

Although the Ghurids had totally looted and demolished Odantapuri and Vikramashila Monasteries, they did not destroy every Buddhist institution in their realm. Nalanda Monastic University, for example, the largest of its kind in northern India, although in Magadha, did not lie on the Ghurids’ path of advance. When the Tibetan translator, Chag Lotsawa Dharmasvamin (Chag Lo-tsa-ba, 1197 – 1264), visited northern India in 1235, he found it damaged, looted, and largely deserted, but still standing and functioning with seventy students. For the Ghurids to destroy it completely would have required a separate expedition, and this was apparently not their main objective.

The Tibetan also found the Sri Lankan Mahabodhi Monastery, not far from Nalanda at Vajrasana  (modern-day Bodh Gaya), still to contain three hundred Sri Lankan monks. It was the site of Buddha’s enlightenment and the holiest pilgrimage site in the Buddhist world. Moreover, it is unclear if Somapura, the largest monastic university in Bengal, located in modern-day northern Bangladesh, was abandoned at this time. However, the Tibetan translator found Jagaddala in northern West Bengal still flourishing and full of monks.

The Ghurid destruction of Buddhist monasteries, then, was focused on those that lay on their direct line of advance and which were fortified in the manner of defensive forts. Furthermore, the Ghurids placed their military commanders as governors of the areas they conquered and, giving them great autonomy, employed the Abbasid system of iqta’ for remuneration. In other words, the Ghurid sultan granted these military governors whatever revenues they could collect in lieu of financial support from the central state. Thus, it would have been against the personal interests of these military chiefs to have destroyed everything that would come under their providence. They followed the Umayyad, Abbasid, and Ghaznavid patterns of conquest, namely looting and inflicting heavy damage on major religious edifices in the initial raids of their takeover and then, once in power, granting protected subject status to their non-Muslim subjects and collecting a poll tax from them.

Repercussions on the Development of Buddhism in Neighboring States

Despite the possibility of accepting protected subject status, many Buddhist monks fled Bihar and parts of northern Bengal, seeking asylum in monastic universities and centers in modern-day Orissa, southern Bangladesh, Arakan on the western coast of Burma, southern Burma, and northern Thailand. The majority, however, together with numerous Buddhist lay followers, went to the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal, bringing with them many manuscripts from the vast monastic libraries that had been destroyed.

Buddhism was in a strong position in Kathmandu at the time. The Hindu kings of the Thakuri Dynasties (750 – 1200) had supported the Buddhist monasteries, and there were several monastic universities. Since the end of the tenth century, numerous Tibetan translators had been visiting these centers on their way to India, and Nepalese masters from them had been instrumental in the revival of Buddhism in central and western Tibet. The early Hindu rulers of the Malla Period (1200 – 1768) continued the policies of their Thakuri predecessors.

Furthermore, Buddhism was spreading to other regions of modern-day Nepal. In the mid-twelfth century, Nagadeva, a non-Tibetan tribal ruler of western Tibet, lost control of that area and conquered western Nepal. There he established the Khasa Kingdom, also known as the Western Malla, which followed the Tibetan form of Buddhism.

Analysis of the Decline of Buddhism on the Indian Subcontinent

Although Hinduism and Jainism were able to survive the Ghurid invasion of northern India, Buddhism never fully recovered. It gradually began to disappear. Granted that this loss was a complex phenomenon, let us examine a few of the factors that might explain it.

The Hindus and Jains had no universities or large monasteries. Their monks lived alone or in small groups in remote regions, studying and meditating privately, with no community rituals or ceremonies. Since they posed no threat, it was not worth the invaders’ time or efforts to destroy them. They damaged only the Hindu and Jain temples found in the major cities for laypeople. The Buddhists, on the other hand, had large, imposing monastic universities, surrounded by high walls and fortified by the local kings. Their razing clearly had military significance.

The fact that only the Buddhist institutions suffered severe destruction, and mostly only those on the major paths of the troops’ advance, is further evidence that although the Ghurids called their campaign a holy war, its actual aim was not converting infidels to Islam. Had it been, they would have focused on the religious communities of the Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists alike, regardless of their size or location.

For laypeople in India, Buddhism was primarily a religion of devotion focused around the large monasteries. Although there was a forest tradition for intense meditation, those who wished to study deeply became celibate monks or nuns. Householders offered food and material support for the monastics. They came twice a month to the monasteries for a day of keeping vows of ethical discipline and listening to sermons based on the scriptures. They did not regard themselves, however, as a separate group from the Hindu majority. For ceremonies marking rites of passage in their lives, such as birth, marriage, and death, they relied on Hindu rituals.

When Hinduism identified Buddha as a manifestation of its supreme god Vishnu, the Buddhists did not object. In fact, throughout northern India, Kashmir, and Nepal, Buddhism was already mixed with many elements of devotional Hinduism. Therefore, when the major monasteries were destroyed, most Buddhists were easily absorbed into Hinduism. They could still focus their devotion on Buddha and be considered good Hindus. Hinduism and Jainism, on the other hand, were more oriented to laypeople’s practice in the home and did not require monastic institutions. When Hindu theologians identified Jina Rshabha, one of the major Jain figures, as an incarnation of Vishnu, the Jains protested.

Furthermore, Hindus and Jains were useful to the Muslim conquerors. The Hindus had a warrior caste that could be conscripted into service, while the Jains were the major local merchants and sources of tax. The Buddhists, on the other hand, did not have a distinguishing occupation or service as a people as a whole. They no longer played a role in interregional trade as they had centuries earlier when Buddhist monasteries dotted the Silk Route. Therefore, whatever efforts there were for conversion to Islam were directed primarily toward them.

Further, many Buddhists were considered to be of the lower castes in Indian society and had been receiving prejudiced treatment under Hindu rule. Many who accepted Islam were undoubtedly attracted by the promise of equality and brotherhood to all who accepted this faith. Hindu converts to Islam, on the other hand, were considered as outcastes by other Hindus, regardless of their castes of origin. Since Buddhists were already treated as outcastes, they did not suffer a change in social status within a predominantly Hindu community when they converted.

Thus, although most of northern India remained Hindu, with pockets of Jains, Punjab and East Bengal gradually had the most converts. The Buddhists in the former had the longest contact with Islam, particularly enhanced with the flood of Islamic masters from Iran and the Middle East that sought refuge there from the Mongol attacks that began in the early thirteenth century. East Bengal, on the other hand, has always been a land with many impoverished peasants who would be ripe for the appeal of equality with Islam.