Buddhism in India

Buddhism in India


Origin of Buddhism

  • Buddhism is one of the important religions of South and South-Eastern Asian countries.  It began in India over 2,600 years ago as a way of life. Through its teaching, it can transform a person completely.
  • It is based upon the life, and experiences of Siddhartha Gautam popularly known as Gautam Buddha and his teachings. He was born in circa 563 BC in a royal family of the Sakya clan who ruled from Kapilvastu, in Lumbini located near the Indo-Nepal Border.
  • Gautama left home at the age of 29 and renounced his royal life and became a hermit. He adopted a lifestyle of asceticism or extreme self-discipline. Gautama attained Bodhi (enlightenment) under a pipal tree at Bodhgaya, a village in Bihar after 49 consecutive days of meditation.
  • Buddha delivered his first sermon in the village of Sarnath, a place located in Benares in UP. In Buddhism, it is known as Dharma-Chakra-Pravartana (turning of the wheel of law). Gautam Buddha died at the age of 80 in 483 BCE at a place called Kushinagara a town in UP. The event is called as Mahaparinirvan in Buddhism.

Tenets of Buddhism

  • According to Gautam Buddha, a person should avoid the two extremes of indulgence in worldly pleasure and the practice of strict abstinence and asceticism. Therefore, he recommended 'Madhyam Marg' or the middle path for his follower.
  • As per his teachings, everyone is responsible for his own happiness in life. He stressed the individualistic component of Buddhism. Buddhism’s teachings are summarized in the basic concept of four noble truths or Ariya-Sachchani and the eightfold path or Ashtanga marg.

Four noble truths:

  • The essence of the world is Suffering (dukkha)
  • Every suffering has a cause which is known as Samudya.
  • Suffering can be put to an end which is known as Nirodha.
  • It can be achieved by following the Ashtanga Marg (Eight-Fold Path).

Eight-Fold Paths: It contains many interlinked activities related to knowledge, conduct, and meditative practices.

  • Right view
  • Right intention
  • Right speech
  • Right action
  • Right livelihood
  • Right mindfulness
  • Right effort
  • Right concentration
  • Suffering and its disappearance are central to the Buddha’s doctrine. Suffering is not restricted to the real pain but it also includes the potential to experience these things.
  • The crux of Buddhism is to achieve enlightenment. It lays emphasis on a life that avoids self-indulgence and self-denial. In Buddhism, there is no concept of a supreme god or deity.
  • The ultimate goal of the teaching of Buddha is the attainment of Nibbana (Nirvana) which is an experience, not a place.
  • In Buddhism, there is a code of conduct both for the monastic order and the laymen to follow that is also known as the Five Precepts or Pancasil and refrain from them.
  • Violence
  • stealing
  • sexual misconduct
  • lying or gossip
  • taking intoxicating substances, for instance, drugs or drink

Major Buddhist Texts: The teaching of Gautam Buddha was oral. He taught for 45 years transforming his teaching to suit the group he was addressing. These teachings are memorized by Sangha and recited at festivals and special occasions. These teachings were authenticated and rehearsed at the First Council and were divided into Three Pitakas in 483 BC. Around 25 B.C.E., his teachings were written down in Pali.

Three Pitakas

  • Vinaya Pitaka: It contains rules of conduct and discipline for the monastic life of the monks and nuns.
  • Sutta Pitaka: It contains the main teaching or Dhamma of Buddha which is divided into five Nikayas or collections:
  • Digha Nikaya
  • Majjhima Nikaya
  • Samyutta Nikaya
  • Anguttara Nikaya
  • Khuddaka Nikaya
  • Abhidamma Pitaka: It consists of philosophical analysis and systematization of the teaching and the scholarly activity of the monks.

Other important Buddhist texts: They comprise Dipavamsa, Divyavadana, Mahavamsa, Milind Panha.

Role of the Buddhist Councils: In early Buddhism, Buddhist Councils marked important turning points. In these councils, sectarian clashes took place that led to the eventual Great Schism that bifurcated Buddhism into two major schools, Theravada and Mahayana. There are four major Buddhist councils were convened:

First Council: Around 483 BC under the patronage of King Ajatashatru, it was held soon after the Mahaparinirvan of the Buddha and was presided by Mahakasyapa.

  • It was held in the Sattapani cave at Rajgriha.
  • Its objective was to preserve Buddha’s teachings (Sutta) and rules for disciples.
  • The teachings of Buddha were divided into three Pitakas during this council

Second Council: In 383 BC under the patronage of the king Kalasoka, it was held in Vaishali, a village in Bihar. It was presided by Sabakami.

Third Council: In 250 BC, it was held in Patliputra under the patronage of Ashoka and was presided by Moggaliputta Tissa.

Forth Council: In 72 AD, it was held at Kundalvana, Kashmir. Under the patronage of King Kanishka of the Kushan Empire, it was presided by Vasumitra while Asvaghosa was his deputy. During this council, Buddhism was divided into two sects namely Mahayana and Hinayan.

Different Schools of Buddhism

Mahayana: There are two main schools of Buddhism. Mahayana is one of them. The term Mahayana is a Sanskrit word that means "Great Vehicle".

  • It believes in idol worship of Buddha and Bodhisattvas embodying Buddha Nature and heavenliness of Buddha. Its origin was lie in northern India and Kashmir.  It spread into East Asia, Central Asia, and some areas of Southeast Asia.
  • There are many countries such as China, Korea, Tibet and Japan in the world in which Buddhist schools are deeply embedded. They follow the Mahayana tradition.


  • It believes in the original teaching of Buddha or the Doctrine of elders. Its literal meaning is the Lesser vehicle. It tries to attain individual salvation through self-discipline and meditation. It does not believe in Idol worship. Theravada is a Hinayana sect.


  • It is considered as the most ancient branch of extant Buddhism today.
  • It is closest to the original teachings of the Buddha.
  • This school of Buddhism developed in Sri Lanka and subsequently spread to the rest of Southeast Asia.
  • It deeply influences the countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand and therefore it is dominant form of religion in these countries.


  • It means “The Vehicle of the Thunderbolt”. Its other name is tantric Buddhism.
  • Around 900 CE, this Buddhist school developed in India.
  • It is based on esoteric elements and has a very complex set of rituals compared with the rest of the Buddhist schools.

Zen: This school of Mahayana Buddhism originated in China in the reign of the Tang dynasty. The Chan School of Chinese Buddhism developed into various schools. In the 7th century C.E, it spread to Japan. Meditation is the most important facet of this Buddhist tradition.

Spread of Buddhism in Ancient India: There were two kinds of disciples – monks (bhikshus) and lay worshippers (upasikas).

  • For the purpose of spreading his teachings, the monks were organized into the Sangha. The Sangha was empowered to enforce discipline among its members and was governed on democratic lines. Buddhism made rapid progress in North India even during Buddha’s lifetime owing to the organized efforts made by the Sangha.
  • His followers followed his path of meditation and roamed throughout the countryside after the death of Buddha. For 200 years Buddhism was at its lowest ebb in comparison to the Hindu religion until the advent of the Great Mauryan King – Ashoka.
  • Emperor Ashoka decided to give up the policy of world conquest and adopted the Dhamma after the bloodbath in his Kalinga conquest. During the third Buddhist council, Ashoka dispatched various Buddhist missions to different areas such as Gandhara, Kashmir, Greece, Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Egypt, and Thailand.
  • Due to his missionary effort, Ashoka spread Buddhism into West Asia and Ceylon which resulted in a local religious sect was transformed into a world religion.

Contribution of Buddhism to Indian Culture

  • The main contribution of Buddhism is the concept of Ahimsa. Later on, it has become one of the defining features of India. It has significantly contributed to the art and architecture of India. The stupas at Bharhut, Sanchi, and Gaya are wonderful pieces of architecture.
  • It also contributed in the realm of education through residential universities like Taxila, Nalanda and Vikramasila. The teachings of the Buddha played a very crucial role in the development of the language of Pali and other local languages. It also promoted the spread of Indian culture to other parts of Asia.

Buddhism and the Soft Power of India

  • Share of Cultural and Moral Values: Due to its emphasis on peaceful co-existence and its wide pan-Asian presence, the Buddhist faith lends itself well to soft-power diplomacy. In India, Buddhism as a Soft Power is different from the conventional sense of the term. India believes in shared cultural development instead of the export of culture. The influence of the teachings of Lord Buddha and Buddhism can be seen in the form of the values of peace, accommodation, inclusiveness, and compassion which are an integral part of Indian society.
  • Strengthening Ties with Asian Countries: The teachings and ideals of Buddhism match with the political and economic contexts of many Asian nations that constitute 22% of the world’s population. Buddhism can play a fundamental role to create Asian emotional bonding and connectivity as it is rooted in their “nationalistic” thinking and actions. There is an abundance of resources that lie before India by way of pilgrimage sites, the presence of the Dalai Lama, and international goodwill as well as the right intentions.
  • International Buddhist Conclave: Every alternate year (since 2004), the Buddhist Conclave with the objective of promoting India as a Buddhist Destination and major markets around the globe is organized by the Ministry of Tourism. In 2018, delegates from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and 29 other countries participated in this conclave.
  • Cultural Exchange Program with Mongolia: There are 10 dedicated ICCR scholarships for studying ‘Tibetan Buddhism’ allocated for Mongolians to study in specialized institutes under the Cultural Exchange Program. For the distribution in the main centres of Buddhism in Mongolia, the Ministry of Culture is likely to complete the reprinting of about 100 sets of sacred Mongolian Kanjur (It is a Buddhist canonical text that is supposed to be the most important religious text in Mongolia).
  • Moreover, to facilitate the visa and travel of Buddhist monks from Mongolia within India many steps have also been taken. Four Holy Relics of Lord Buddha (Kapilavastu Relics) were taken from India to Mongolia in June 2022 for an 11-day exposition to coincide with Mongolian Buddha Purnima celebrations.
  • Kushinagar International Airport: It is the latest international Airport in Kushinagar, UP which is expected to provide seamless connectivity to people from Southeast and East Asian countries for Buddhist Pilgrimage Tourism. Kushinagar International Airport’ inauguration will be a landmark in India-Sri Lanka relations.

Initiatives to Promote Buddhist Tourism in India

  • Buddhist Circuit: The Ministry of Tourism has identified the Buddhist Circuit as one of the thirteen thematic circuits for development under the Swadesh Darshan scheme. Five projects of Rs 325.53 crore have been sanctioned for Buddhist circuit development under this scheme. As a part of the Dekho Apna Desh initiative, a Buddhist Circuit Train FAM Tour has also been organized. It includes the destinations Rajgir-Nalanda in Bihar, Gaya-Bodhgaya, and Sarnath-Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh.
  • Iconic Tourist Sites: There are many Buddhist Sites such as Bodhgaya, Ajanta & Ellora that have been identified to be developed as Iconic Tourist Sites (aimed at enhancing India’s soft power).
  • Dekho Apna Desh Initiative: To encourage the citizens to travel widely within the country thus enabling the development of Domestic Tourism tourist facilities and infrastructure it was launched by the Ministry of Tourism in 2020.
  • Diversity of Languages: Signages have been installed in the Sinhala language (the official language of Sri Lanka) at Sanchi monuments in Madhya Pradesh and in the Chinese language at buddhist monuments in Uttar Pradesh.
  • PRASHAD Scheme: In the year 2014-15, with the objective of holistic development of identified pilgrimage destinations including the “National Mission on Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual, Heritage Augmentation Drive (PRASHAD)” was launched.

UNESCO’s heritage sites related to Buddhism

  • Archaeological Site of Nalanda Mahavihara at Nalanda, Bihar
  • Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi, MP
  • Mahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya, Bihar
  • Ajanta Caves Aurangabad, Maharashtra

Other Measures for India to Pursue Diplomacy through Buddhism

  • Encouragement of Buddhist studies in well-established universities and effective revitalization of the Nalanda University project will bring the international community to a common platform. The promotion of Buddhist tourism reminiscent of the ‘Incredible India’ campaign is required to popularize India’s association with the faith internationally.
  • Buddhist diplomacy can be effectively used in countering the rise of China, to more strengthen its relations with Asian countries, and helping it further down the path of its regional and global power ambitions.
  • Presently, as per the estimation, there are approximately 500 million Buddhists all over the World and the majority of them live in East Asia, South East Asia and Far East countries. But only a very small percentage visit the Buddhist sites in India each year. Therefore, the importance of promoting more tourists to visit the Buddhist destinations where Lord Buddha lived and preached is immense.
  • It is not only a binding factor that strengthens its relationship with Asian countries in line with its Act East Policy but also an important factor from the tourism point of view. Due to the direct connection between sustainable development, the Buddha’s prism can be the guiding light to every single stakeholder from local to global institutions and leaders in order to work together for promoting dialogue, harmony, and justice based on compassion and wisdom.


Q1. With reference to the religious history of India, consider the following statements: (2020)

1.Sthaviravadins belong to Mahayana Buddhism.

2. Lokottaravadin sect was an offshoot of Mahasanghika sect of Buddhism.

3. The deification of Buddha by Mahasanghikas fostered the Mahayana Buddhism.

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?

(a) 1 and 2 only

(b) 2 and 3 only

(c) 3 only

(d) 1, 2 and 3

Ans: (b)

Q2. With reference to the religious history of India, consider the following statements: (2016)

1. The concept of Bodhisattva is central to Hinayana sect of Buddhism.

2. Bodhisattva is a compassionate one on his way to enlightenment.

3. Bodhisattva delays achieving his own salvation to help all sentient beings on their path to it.

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?

(a) 1 only

(b) 2 and 3 only

(c) 2 only

(d) 1, 2 and 3

Ans: (b)

Q3. Which one of the following describes best the concept of Nirvana in Buddhism? (2013)

(a) The extinction of the flame of desire

(b) The complete annihilation of self

(c) A state of bliss and rest

(d) A mental stage beyond all comprehension

Ans: (a)

Q4. Consider the following: (2019)

1. Deification of the Buddha

2. Treading the path of Bodhisattvas

3. Image worship and rituals

Which of the above is/are the feature/features of Mahayana Buddhism?

(a) 1 only

(b) 1 and 2 only

(c) 2 and 3 only

(d) 1, 2 and 3

Ans: (d)

Q5. Why did Buddhism start declining in India in the early medieval times? (2010)

1. Buddha was by that time considered as one of the incarnations of Vishnu and thus became a part of Vaishnavism.

2. The invading tribes from Central Asia till the time of last Gupta king adopted Hinduism and persecuted Buddhists.

3. The Kings of Gupta dynasty were strongly opposed to Buddhism.

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?

(a) 1 only

(b) 1 and 3 only

(c) 2 and 3 only

(d) 1, 2 and 3

Ans: (a)


Q. Pala period is the most significant phase in the history of Buddhism in India. Enumerate. (2020)

Q. Early Buddhist Stupa-art, while depicting folk motifs and narratives successfully expounds Buddhist ideals. Elucidate (2016)

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