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Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > History of Buddhism and Bon > A Brief History of Buddhism in India before the Thirteenth-Century Invasions

A Brief History of Buddhism in India
before the Thirteenth-Century Invasions

Alexander Berzin
January 2002, revised April 2007

Introduction

The terms Hinayana (Theg-dman) and Mahayana (Theg-chen), meaning modest or “lesser” vehicle and vast or “greater” vehicle, first appeared in The Sutras on Far-reaching Discriminating Awareness (Sher-phyin-gyi mdo, Skt. Prajnaparamita Sutras; The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras), as a way of expressing the superiority of Mahayana. Historically, there were eighteen schools that predated Mahayana, each with its own slightly different version of the monastic rules of discipline (‘ dul-ba, Skt. vinaya). Although some have suggested alternative names to refer to the eighteen as a whole, we shall use the more commonly known term Hinayana for them, but without intending any pejorative connotation.

[See: The Terms Hinayana and Mahayana.]

Theravada (gNas-brtan smra-ba, Skt. Sthaviravada) is the only one of the eighteen Hinayana schools that is currently extant. It flourishes in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. When Indian and Tibetan Mahayana texts present the philosophical views of the Vaibhashika (Bye-brag smra-ba) and Sautrantika (mDo-sde-pa) Schools, these two Hinayana schools are divisions of Sarvastivada (Thams-cad yod-par smra-ba), another one of the eighteen. The Tibetan monastic rules of discipline are from the Mulasarvastivada (gZhi thams-cad yod-par smra-ba) School, another division of Sarvastivada. Thus, one must not confuse the Tibetan presentation of Hinayana with Theravada.

The East Asian Buddhist traditions follow the monastic rules of discipline from the Dharmagupta (Chos-srung sde) School, another of the eighteen.

Shakyamuni Buddha

Prince Siddhartha, who became Shakyamuni Buddha, lived in central North India from 566 to 486 BCE. After attaining enlightenment at the age of thirty-five, he wandered about as a mendicant, teaching others. A community of celibate spiritual seekers soon gathered around him and accompanied him as he traveled about. Eventually, as the need arose, Buddha made rules of discipline for this community. The “monks” met four times a month to recite these rules and purify any infractions that might have occurred.

About twenty years after his enlightenment, Buddha started the custom of the monks staying in one place each year for a three-month rainy season retreat. The construction of Buddhist monasteries evolved from this custom. A few years before passing away, Buddha also started a nun tradition.

[See: The Life of Shakyamuni Buddha.]

The First Buddhist Council

Buddha taught in the Prakrit (Tha-mal-pa) dialect of Magadha (Yul Ma-ga-dha), but nothing was written down during his lifetime. In fact, Buddha’s teachings were first written down only in the early first century BCE, and those were from the Theravada School. They were written in Sri Lanka in the Pali language. In the centuries before this, the monks preserved Buddha’s teachings by memorizing and periodically reciting them.

The custom of reciting Buddha’s teachings from memory began a few months after Buddha passed away. This occurred at the First Buddhist Council, held in Rajagrha (rGyal-po’i khab, present-day Rajgir), with five hundred disciples attending. The traditional accounts record that all the participants were arhats (dgra-bcom-pa), liberated beings.

According to the Vaibhashika version, three of the arhats recited the teachings from memory. If all the other members of the assembly agreed that what these arhats recited was exactly what Buddha had actually said, this would confirm the accuracy of the teachings.

  • Ananda (Kun-dga’-bo) recited the sutras (mdo) – the discourses concerning various themes of practice.

  • Upali (Nye-bar ‘khor) recited the vinaya – the monastic rules of discipline.

  • Mahakashyapa (‘ Od-bsrung chen-po) recited the abhidharma (chos mngon-pa), concerning special topics of knowledge.

These three divisions of Buddha’s teachings formed The Three Basket-like Collections (sDe-snod gsum, Skt. Tripitaka, Three Baskets).

  • The Vinaya Basket contained the teachings on higher ethical self-discipline,

  • The Sutra Basket, those on higher absorbed concentration,

  • The Abhidharma Basket, the teachings on higher discriminating awareness or higher “ wisdom."

The Vaibhashika account includes the point that not all of Buddha’s abhidharma teachings were recited at this First Council. Some were transmitted orally outside the jurisdiction of the council and were added later.

According to the Sautrantika version, the abhidharma teachings recited at the council were not the words of Buddha at all. The seven abhidharma texts included in this Basket were actually composed by seven of the arhats.

The Second Buddhist Council and the Founding of the Mahasanghika School

The Second Buddhist Council took place, with an assembly of seven hundred monks, at Vaishali (Yangs-pa-can) in 386 or 376 BCE. The purpose of the council was to settle ten issues concerning monastic discipline. The main decision agreed upon was that monks were not allowed to accept gold. In present-day terms, this means that monks are not allowed to handle money. The council then recited The Vinaya Basket to reconfirm its purity.

According to the Theravada account, the first split in the monastic community occurred at this council. The offending monks left to form the Mahasanghika (dGe-‘dun phal-chen-po) School, while the elders who remained became known as the Theravada School. “Theravada” means, in Pali, “followers of the elders’ words.” “Mahasanghika” means “the majority community.”

According to other accounts, the actual split came later, in 349 BCE. The point of contention was not over issues of monastic discipline, but rather over philosophical views. The disagreement concerned whether or not an arhat – a liberated being – is limited.

  • The Theravada elders conceded that arhats are limited in their knowledge. For instance, they might not know directions when traveling and could receive information on such things from others. Nevertheless, they knew everything about Dharma matters. Arhats could even have doubts about their own attainments, although they would not relapse. Theravada insisted, however, that arhats are completely free of disturbing emotions, such as desire.

  • The Mahasanghika or “majority group” disagreed concerning disturbing emotions. They asserted that arhats could still be seduced in dreams and have nocturnal emission, because arhats still had a trace of lust. Thus, Mahasanghika made a clear distinction between an arhat and a Buddha.   

Followers of the Theravada School gravitated to the western part of North India. The Mahasanghika followers gravitated to the eastern part of North India and then spread to Andhra, in the eastern part of South India. It was there, in Andhra, that Mahayana later emerged. Western scholars view Mahasanghika as a forerunner of Mahayana.

The Third Buddhist Council and the Founding of the Sarvastivada and Dharmagupta Schools

In 322 BCE, Chandragupta Maurya founded the Maurya Empire in the central region of North India that had been known as Magadha, the homeland of Buddhism. The Empire quickly grew, reaching its fullest extent under the rule of Emperor Ashoka (Mya-ngan med-pa), 268 – 232 BCE. During his times, the Maurya Empire stretched from present-day eastern Afghanistan and Baluchistan to Assam, and covered most of South India.

During Emperor Ashoka’s reign, in 237 BCE, the Sarvastivada School also broke away from Theravada, over certain philosophical issues. The Theravada School gives, as the occasion for this break, the Third Council, held under imperial patronage at the Maurya capital, Pataliputra - present-day Patna. However, they date this council as having taken place in 257 BCE, twenty years earlier than the Sarvastivada record of the split. This is because, according to Theravada, it was only after this council reaffirmed the purity of the Theravada view that Emperor Ashoka sent out missions, the next year, to introduce Buddhism to new regions, both in his empire and beyond. Through these missions, Theravada Buddhism was introduced to present-day Pakistan (Gandhara and Sindh), present-day southeastern Afghanistan (Bactria), Gujarat, the western part of South India, Sri Lanka, and Burma. After Emperor Ashoka’s death, his son Jaloka introduced Sarvastivada to Kashmir. From there, it eventually spread to present-day Afghanistan.

Regardless of when the council took place, its main work, then, was to analyze Buddha’s teachings and refute what the orthodox Theravada elders considered as incorrect views. The head monk of the council, Moggaliputta Tissa, compiled these analytical refutations as Grounds of Disputation (Pali Kathavatthu), which became the fifth of the seven texts in the Theravada Abhidhamma Basket.

Other Hinayana traditions do not record this council in the same manner as Theravada does. In any case, one of the main philosophical points over which the split took place was the existence of past, present, and future phenomena.

  • Sarvastivada asserted that everything exists – no-longer-happening things, presently-happening things, and not-yet-happening things. This is because the atoms that things are made of are eternal; only the forms they take change. Thus, the forms that the atoms take can transform from not-yet-happening things into presently-happening things and then into no-longer-happening things. But the atoms that constitute each of these things are the same eternal atoms.

  • Not only Theravada, but also Mahasanghika asserted that only presently-happening things exist, as well as those no-longer-happening things that have not yet produced their results. The latter exist because they can still perform a function.

  • Sarvastivada agreed with Mahasanghika, however, that arhats have limitations in the form of traces of disturbing emotions.

In 190 BCE, the Dharmagupta School also split from Theravada.

  • Dharmagupta agreed with Theravada that arhats do not have disturbing emotions.

  • Like Mahasanghika, however, Dharmagupta tended to elevate Buddha. It asserted that it is more important to make offerings to Buddhas, than to monastics, and it especially emphasized making offerings to stupas – monuments containing the relics of Buddhas.

  • Dharmagupta added a fourth basket-like collection, The Dharani Basket. “Dharanis” (gzungs), meaning "retention power" in Sanskrit and “vital measures" in Tibetan translation, are devotional Sanskrit formulas that, when chanted, help the practitioner to retain the words and meaning of the Dharma, so as to uphold constructive phenomena and eliminate destructive ones. This development of dharanis paralleled the devotional spirit of times, marked by the emergence of the Hindu classic, Bhagavad Gita.

The Dharmagupta School spread to present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asia, and on to China. The Chinese adopted the Dharmagupta version of the monks’ and nuns’ vows. Over the centuries, this version of the monastic rules of discipline was transmitted to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

The Fourth Buddhist Council

The Theravada and Sarvastivada Schools each held their own fourth councils.

The Theravada School held its fourth council in 83 BCE in Sri Lanka. In the face of various groups having splintered off from Theravada over differences in interpretation of Buddha words, Maharakkhita and five hundred Theravada elders met to recite and write down Buddha’s words in order to preserve their authenticity. This was the first time Buddha’s teachings were put into written form and, in this case, they were rendered into the Pali language. This version of The Three Basket-like Collections, The Tipitaka, is commonly known as The Pali Canon. The other Hinayana Schools, however, continued to transmit the teachings in oral form.

Within the Sarvastivada School, various differences of interpretation of the teachings gradually arose. The first to appear was the predecessor of the Vaibhashika School. Then, around 50 CE, Sautrantika developed. Each had its own assertions concerning many points of abhidharma.

Meanwhile, the political situation in northern India, Kashmir, and Afghanistan was about to undergo a major change, with the Yuezhi (Wade-Giles: Yüeh-chih) invasion from Central Asia. The Yuezhi were an Indo-European people living originally in East Turkistan. Conquering a vast area to the west and then south at the end of the second century BCE, they eventually established the Kushan Dynasty, which lasted until 226 CE. At its height, the Kushan Empire extended from modern-day Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, through Kashmir and northwest India, to central North India and Central India. Linking the Silk Route with the sea ports at the mouth of the Indus River, this dynasty brought Buddhism into contact with many foreign influences. Likewise through this contact, Buddhism came into China.

The most famous of the Kushan rulers was King Kanishka, who ruled, according to some sources, from 78 to 102 CE and, from other sources, from 127 to 147 CE. In either case, the Sarvastivada School held its fourth council during his reign, either in his capital city of Purushapura (modern-day Peshawar) or in Srinagar, Kashmir. The council rejected the Sautrantaka abhidharma and codified its own abhidharma in The Great Commentary (Skt. Mahavibhasha). The council also oversaw the translation, from Prakrit into Sanskrit, of the Sarvastivada version of The Three Basket-like Collections and the writing down of these Sanskrit texts.

Between the fourth and fifth centuries CE, the Mulasarvastivada School branched off from mainstream Vaibhashika Sarvastivada in Kashmir. In the late eighth century CE, the Tibetans adopted its version of the monastic rules of discipline. In later centuries, it spread from Tibet to Mongolia and to the Mongol and some of the Turkic regions of Russia.

Branches of the Mahasanghika School

Meanwhile, the Mahasanghika School, located mostly in eastern South India, branched into five schools. All of them agreed that arhats are limited and that Buddhas are supreme, and each of them developed this assertion further, paving the way for Mahayana. Concerning the three major schools:

  • The Lokottaravada (‘ Jig-rten ‘das-par smra-ba) School asserted Buddha as a transcendent being, whose body is beyond the perishable ones of this world. This assertion formed the basis for the Mahayana explanation of the Three Corpuses (Three Bodies) of a Buddha. The Lokottaravada School spread to Afghanistan where, some time between the third and fifth centuries CE, its followers built the colossal Buddhas at Bamiyan, reflecting their view of transcendent Buddhas.

  • The Bahushrutiya (Mang-du thos-pa) School asserted Buddha as having imparted both worldly teachings and teachings beyond this world. This led to the Mahayana division between a Buddha’s Corpus of Emanations (sprul-sku, Skt. nirmanakaya) and Corpus of Full Use (longs-sku, Skt. sambhogakaya).

  • The Chaitika School broke from Bahushrutiya and asserted that Buddha was already enlightened before he appeared in this world and was only demonstrating his enlightenment in order to show others the way. This assertion was also accepted later by Mahayana.

The Appearance of Mahayana

The Mahayana sutras first appeared between the first century BCE and the fourth century CE in Andhra, eastern South India, the area in which Mahasanghika was flourishing. According to Buddhist traditional accounts, these sutras had been taught by Buddha, but had been orally transmitted more privately that the Hinayana works had been. Some had even been safeguarded in non-human realms.

The most important Mahayana sutras that openly appeared at that time were:

  • During the first two centuries, The Sutras on Far-reaching Discriminating Awareness (Skt. Prajnaparamita Sutras) and The Sutra Instructing about Vimalakirti (Dri-ma med-pa grags-par bstan-pa’i mdo, Skt. Vimalakirti-nirdesha Sutra). The former concerns the voidness (emptiness) of all phenomena; while the latter describes the lay bodhisattva.

  • Around 100 CE, The Array of the (Pure) Land of Bliss Sutra (bDe-ba-can-gyi bkod-pa’i mdo, Skt. Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra), introducing the Sukhavati Pure Land of Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light.

  • Around 200 CE , The Lotus Sutra of the Hallowed Dharma (Dam-pa’i chos padma dkar-po’i mdo, Skt. Saddharmapundarika Sutra), emphasizing the ability of everyone to become Buddhas and thus all Buddha’s vehicle of teachings fitting together as skillful means. Its presentation is very devotional.

Within Mahayana, the Madhyamaka (dBu-ma) and Chittamatra (Sems-tsam-pa) Schools also appeared first in Andhra, South India.

  • The Madhyamaka School traces from Nagarjuna, who lived in Andhra between 150 and 250 CE, commenting on The Prajnaparamita Sutras. According to traditional accounts, Nagarjuna recovered these sutras from beneath the sea, where the nagas had been safeguarding them from the time when Buddha had taught them on Vulture’s Peak (Bya-rgod phung-pa’i ri, Skt. Grdhrakuta) near Rajagrha, central North India. “Nagas” are half-human half-serpent beings that live beneath the earth and beneath bodies of water.
  • The Chittamatra School based itself on The Descent into Lanka Sutra (Lan-kar gshegs-pa’i mdo, Skt. Lankavatara Sutra). Although this sutra appeared first in Andhra, the Chittamatra teachings were developed further by Asanga, who lived in Gandhara, present-day central Pakistan, during the first half of fourth century CE. Asanga received these teachings through a vision of Maitreya Buddha.

The Development of Monastic Universities and Tantra

The first Buddhist monastic university, Nalanda, was built near Rajagrha at the beginning of the second century CE. Nagarjuna taught there, as did many subsequent Mahayana masters. These monastic universities especially flourished, however, with the founding of the Gupta Dynasty in the early fourth century CE. Their curriculum emphasized the study of the philosophical tenet systems and the monks engaged in rigorous debate with proponents of the six Hindu and Jain schools that developed between the third and sixth centuries CE. 

Tantra also emerged between the third and sixth centuries CE, with the earliest appearing, again, in Andhra, South India. This was The Guhyasamaja Tantra (dPal gSang-ba ‘dus-pa’i rgyud). Nagarjuna wrote several commentaries to it. According to Buddhist tradition, the tantras had also been orally transmitted from the time of Buddha’s teaching them, but even more privately than the Mahayana sutra teachings had been.

Tantra soon spread north. From the mid-eighth to the mid-ninth centuries CE, it especially flourished in Oddiyana (U-rgyan), modern-day Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan. The latest tantra to appear was The Kalachakra Tantra (dPal Dus-kyi ‘khor-lo’i rgyud), in the mid-tenth century CE.

The Buddhist monastic universities reached their height during the Pala dynasty (750 – late twelfth century CE) in North India. Many new ones, such as Vikramashila, were built with royal patronage. The study of tantra was introduced into some of these monastic universities, especially Nalanda. But tantra study and practice flourished more outside the monasteries, especially with the tradition of the eighty-four mahasiddhas (grub-thob chen-po), between the eighth and the twelfth centuries CE. “Mahasiddhas” are greatly accomplished practitioners of tantra.