Hindu Persecution of Buddhists in Pre-Islamic India: Selected Readings

Intro:

There’s a sort of controversy in the field of South Asian studies regarding the history of religious persecution in the subcontinent. Specifically, the nature of Hindu persecution at the hands of Muslim conquerors.

Position #1, found mostly among scholars in the field, acknowledges that instances of persecution occurred, but they were not the norm, often exaggerated in the early accounts, and typically the result of political difference rather than religious zealotry.

Position #2, often espoused by those sympathetic to the Hindu Nationalist program, holds that international academia is deliberately whitewashing the extent of Hindu persecution at the hands of Muslim conquerors. Supporters of this latter position prefer to discard scholarly writings on this topic altogether, and instead cite directly from selected early accounts, which describe said persecution with invigorating detail.

If its not apparent, I don’t think much of Position #2. I’m also a bit exercised by its supporters, who will often claim that no such persecution was ever committed by Hindus against other religious communities of India.

So with that in mind, I’ve compiled a number of excerpts from the early works of Taranatha (16th century Tibetan monk), Kahlana Pandita (12th century Kashmiri Brahmin), and Chinese Pilgrims (like 7th century Xuanzeng), which largely describe instances of Buddhist persecution at the hands of Hindus (with examples of Hindu-Hindu and Buddhist-Buddhist violence as well). Not to argue this persecution was the norm in pre-Islamic India (it wasn’t), but to show first that it happened, and second, how easy it is to construct warped narratives when selectively mining these texts.

Hindu Persecution of Buddhists: Excerpts

  • A description of Mauryan Emperor Ashoka’s destruction of the sacred Buddhist Bodhi Tree: “When Ashoka-raja began to reign, he was an unbeliever, and he desired to destroy the bequeathed traces of Buddha; so he raised an army, and himself taking the lead, he came here for the purpose of destroying. He cut through the roots ; the trunk, branches, and leaves were all divided into small bits and heaped up in a pile a few tens of paces to the west of the place. Then he ordered a Brahmin who sacrificed to fire to burn them in the discharge of his religious worship…the queen, who was an adherent of the heretics, sent secretly a messenger, who, after the first division of night, once more put it down.” (1)
  • A similar episode with Bengali Gauda Emperor Shashanka: “In late times Shashanka-raja, being a believer in heresy, slandered the religion of Buddha, and through envy destroyed the convents and cut down the Bodhi tree, digging it up to the very springs of the earth; yet he did not get to the bottom of the roots. Then he burnt it with fire and sprinkled it with the juice of the sugar-cane, desiring to destroy it entirely, and not leave a trace of it behind.” (2)
  • Shashanka continues: “‘We must remove that statue of Buddha and place there a figure of Shiva’. The officer having received the order, was moved with fear, and sighing, said, ‘If I destroy the figure of Buddha, then during successive kalpas I shall reap misfortune ; if I disobey the king, he will put me to a cruel death and destroy my family’…” (3)
  • The Emperor targets another sacred Buddhist figure: “Shashanka-raja, when he was overthrowing and destroying the law of Buddha, forthwith came to the place where that stone is, for the purpose of destroying the sacred marks. Having broken it into pieces, it came whole again, and the ornamental figures as before ; then he flung it into the river Ganges…” (4)
  • The sobering results in Bengal: “Shashanka-raja having destroyed the religion of Buddha, the members of the priesthood were dispersed, and for many years driven away.” (5)
  • An episode in North India where Hindus react with extreme prejudice to Buddhist proselytization: “The Brahmins said amongst themselves, ‘The Buddhist priests have raised a quarrel on some question of words.’ Then these wicked men consulting together, waiting for the occasion, destroyed the Sanghardarma, and afterwards strongly barricaded the place in order to keep the priests out. From that time no priests of Buddha have lived there.” (6)
  • Similar episode with Madhava Hindu voicing discontent at Buddhist Gunamati Bodhisattva and his attempt to debate doctrinal differences: “From this time forth give no hospitality to the Sramana heretics ; let this order be generally known and obeyed.”
    “The Brahmans, moreover, deriding him (Bodhisattva), said, ‘What mean you by your shaven head and your singular dress ? Begone from this! There is no place here for you to stop’… the Brahmans would have no words with him, and only drove him from the place.” (7)
  • Mahirakula, a Hindu of Hun ancestry ruling Northwest India: “issued an order to all the five parts of India to destroy whatever was connected with Buddhism and to expel all monks and not allow a single one to remain behind… and one thousand six hundred stupas and monasteries were demolished.” (18)
  • Assassin confronts Hindu Kashmiri King Jalauka stating: “There was a monastery belonging to us in which the beating of drums once disturbed your sleep, and incited by the advice of wicked men, you have destroyed the monastery. The angry Buddhists sent me to murder you, but our high priest interfered.” The assassin leaves after extracting a promise from Jalauka to rebuild the monastery. (8)
  • Episode describing the violent reaction of Hindus to growing Buddhist influence in Kashmir: “The Buddhists under their great leader Nagarjjuun continued to gain strength in the country; they not only defeated in argument the Pauditas who upheld the worship of Shiva…but have the influence to discontinue the ceremonies and worship enjoined by it. The Nagas, in consequence, rose in arms, murdered many people, mostly Buddhists…and carried on their devastations year by year.” (9)
  • How a Hindu Pahari king reacted when: “A Buddhist…eloped with his queen; this so enraged him, that he burnt thousands and thousands of monasteries, and gave to the Brahmanas… the villages that supported those monasteries.” (10)
  • Hindu Kashmiri King Gopaditiya: “expelled from his country several irreligious Brahmanas who used to eat garlic, brought others of the caste from foreign countries, and induced them to settle…” (11)
  • Hindu King of Kashmir Lalitaditya murders Bengali King of Gauda, whose followers then arrive to destroy the Kashmiri King’s favorite Vishnu idol, but end up destroying the wrong one: “The people of Gauda, seeing Ramasvami, whose temple stood by the side of the other, built of silver, and mistaking it for Parihasakeshava, tore it from its seat and broke it to atoms, scattering the pieces on every side.” (12)
  • Hindu Kashmir King Shankaravarmma: “in order to meet the heavy expenses of his luxury…commenced to plunder the temples…he plundered sixty-four of them.” (13)
  • Brahman adviser Loshtadhara to Kashmiri King: “confiscate the lands and gold of Kalashesha, and with the stones of the temple, I shall build for you a bridge over the Vitasta” (14)
  • Hindu Kashmir King Harsha: “robbed every idol of the wealth bestowed upon it by former kings…and in order to deprive them of their sanctity, he caused urine and ordure to be poured into them through the orifices…he took away all those images which were built of gold and silver. The images were dragged by ropes around their ankle joints, spat upon and made naked, and mutilated. Neither in the capital, nor in the towns or villages, was there a temple left from which the idol was not taken…”
    “He caused the monasteries, in the capital, called after his father’s name, to be plundered.” (15)
  • Hindu Kashmir King Kalasha in a dispute with his parents, “set fire to their place. The fire burnt the house of god Vijayeshvara and the sacred things it contained…Kalasha stood on the terrace of his palace, and saw the flames rising to the sky, and danced with joy”. (16)
  • Hindu King Kshemagupta destroys Buddhist temples, uses leftover materials to build Hindu Temple, he: “set fire to Jayendravihara in order to kill Sanggrama the Damara who was inside the building. And in order to make his name lasting, he brought the images of Buddha from the burning monasteries and other stones from dilapidated temples; and set up Kshemagaurishvara…” (17)
  • Episode in North India: “When he (Visnuraja) was residing in Palanagara situated in Hala in the west, five hundred ascetic brahmanas like the great sages of the past lived in a hermitage. The king killed the birds and deer of the hermitage and diverting the course of the river destroyed the abodes of the rishis” (19)
  • Hindus engaging in violence against Buddhists after winning a debate: “The tirihika became victorious and destroyed many temples of the insiders. They robbed in particular the centres for the Doctrine and took away the deva-dasas… As a result, there were many incidents of the property and followers of the insiders being robbed by the tirthika brahmanas.” (20)
  • The Buddhist Mauryan Empire of India comes to an end when the last emperor is murdered by his Hindu adviser Pushyamitra Shunga, who ushers in a period of severe persecution against Buddhists: “Then the brahmana king Pushyamitra, along with other tirthikas, started war and thus burnt down numerous monasteries from the madhya-desa to Jalandhara. They also killed a number of vastly learned monks. But most of them fled to other countries. As a result, within five years the Doctrine was extinct in the north.” (21)
  • Hindus burning the Buddhist Nalanda Library, a Brahmin: “performed a sacrifice and scattered the charmed ashes all around. This immediately resulted in a miraculously produced fire. It consumed all the eighty four temples, the centres of the Buddha’s Doctrine. The fire started burning the scriptural works that were kept in the Dharmaganja of Sri Nalanda, particularly in the big temples called Ratnasagara, Ratnodadhi and Ratnarandaka, in which were preserved all the works of Mahayana pitaka…Many temples in other places were also burnt, and the two tirthikas, apprehending punishment from the king, escaped to Assam.” (22)
  • Tirthika Brahmin loses debate to Buddhist acarya: “At this, he threw enchanted dust, which burnt the belongings of the acarya, and even the acarya himself narrowly escaped the fire…The tirthika fled.” (23)
  • Iconoclasm between rival Buddhist groups: “In a temple of Vajrasana there was then a large silver-image of Heruka and many treatises on Tantra. Some of the Sravaka Sendhavas of Singa island and other places said that these were composed by Mara. So they burnt these and smashed the image into pieces and used the pieces as ordinary money.” (24)

Closing:

Many modern scholars believe some of these accounts to be exaggerated and not representative of the normative interaction between Hindus and Buddhists. I agree, just as I agree that despite juicy accounts of violence between Muslims and Hindus, these two communities typically got on relatively well.

For ideological reasons some will continue to reject this evaluation, though hopefully they will consider how poorly everyone’s history looks when taking these early historical excerpts at face value.

Sources:
(1) Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, Samuel Beal, 117
(2) Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, Samuel Beal, 118
(3) Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, Samuel Beal, 121
(4) Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, Samuel Beal, 91
(5) Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, Samuel Beal, 42
(6) Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, Samuel Beal, 217
(7) Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, Samuel Beal, 106
(8) Kings of Kashmira, Dutt, 11
(9) Kings of Kashmira, Dutt, 13
(10) Kings of Kashmira, Dutt, 15
(11) Kings of Kashmira, Dutt, 21
(12) Kings of Kashmira, Dutt, 77
(13) Kings of Kashmira, Dutt, 117
(14) Kings of Kashmira, Dutt, 250
(15) Kings of Kashmira, Dutt, 251
(16) Kings of Kashmira, Dutt, 198
(17) Kings of Kashmira, Dutt, 154
(18) The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions, Rongxi, 98
(19) Taranatha’s History of Buddhism in India, Taranatha, 224
(20) Taranatha’s History of Buddhism in India, Taranatha, 226
(21) Taranatha’s History of Buddhism in India, Taranatha, 121
(22) Taranatha’s History of Buddhism in India, Taranatha, 142
(23) Taranatha’s History of Buddhism in India, Taranatha, 183
(24) Taranatha’s History of Buddhism in India, Taranatha, 279

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