The reason for the decline and alleged disappearance of Buddhism in the land of its birth is a problem that has perplexed historians ever since it became the object of scientific study and research.
The key to the solution lies in the relation of the religion to what is now popularly known as Hinduism. Both systems were tolerant to a degree which to the exclusive monotheisms of the West and the Middle East seems incredible, and neither hesitated to borrow from the other what was required for its own development. Poetic genius needs a language as its medium of expression; but by being used in this way the character of the language itself is modified.
Thus Buddhism, though at the beginning it had perforce to communicate its unique message in terms of the current ethnic religious culture, at the same time charged that culture with part of its own more spiritual meaning.
Or, to change the metaphor, while Buddhism put some of its new wine into the old bottles, Hinduism redesigned its bottles the better to accommodate and preserve the new wine. The result was that if Buddhism appropriated the forms of Hinduism, Hinduism assimilated something of the spirit of Buddhism.
After fifteen centuries of mutual interaction the existence of a Sangha in large centres of monastic learning remained the chief discernible difference between the two religions. When these centres-Nalanda, Vikramasila, Odantapuri, and others-were destroyed by the fury of the Muslim invader, and the native kings who might have sponsored their restoration were replaced by rulers with an uncompromising and alien faith, Buddhism quietly disappeared.
There is no evidence whatever of a deterioration of spiritual life in the monasteries, much less still of a collapse of morality, as some have maintained. The suggestion that the disappearance of Buddhism was somehow connected with the introduction of ‘Tantrism’ (i.e. the Vajrayana) not only involves the grossest misunderstanding of this form of Buddhism but also fails to explain why Hinduism, which had also developed a Tantric aspect, failed to disappear too.
Modern Buddhist revival in India began about a hundred years ago with Mahavir Swami, an Indian Mutiny veteran who, after receiving higher ordination in Burma, settled at Kusinagara, the place of the Buddha’s Parinirvana. Only towards the end of the century, however, with the interposition of other factors, was real momentum gained.
After being awakened by the pioneer work of Western Orientalists, historians, and archaeologists, interest in the cultural and religious achievements of the long-forgotten faith was stimulated by the resurgence of national feeling and reinforced by the missionary endeavours of Buddhists from other Asian countries. In 1891 Anagarika Dharmapala, a Sinhalese, foiUlded the Maha Bodhi Society of India, which ever since its inception has worked for the revival of Buddhism in the land of its birth.
During the first half of the present century appreciation of the importance of Buddhism for the history of Indian religion and culture became fairly general among the educated classes, from them percolating down here and there among the masses. This appreciation was signalized when, upon the attainment of Independence in 1947, the Asoka Chakra was inscribed upon the Indian national flag.
Shortly afterwards, the relics of the Arhants Sariputra and Maudgalyayana, chief disciples of the Buddha, which for nearly a century had lain in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, were at the instance of the Maha Bodhi Society restored to India and made a triumphal progress throughout the land.
In 1956-7, the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s Parinirvana, according to the Theravada tradition, was celebrated on a nation-wide scale. The year 1959 saw the flight of the Dalai Lama from Tibet to India and the influx of about 50,000 Tibetan refugees, among them more than a thousand monks.
From the point of view of Buddhist revival, however, the most decisive and far-reaching event of modern times occurred when the late Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the Untouchable leader, embraced Buddhism at Nagpur on 14 October 1966 along with half a million followers.
Despite his untimely death a few weeks later the movement of mass conversion among the Untouchables snowballed to such an extent that whereas the Census of 1951 returned 181,000 Buddhists for India, that of 1961 recorded 3,250,000, the greatest gains having been made in Maharashtra. With this great upheaval, Buddhism may truly be said to have revived in India and from being ‘the cherished dream of a few’ to have become once more ‘the living hope of millions’.