Revisiting Vulture's Peak

In June of this year (2013) I had the good fortune to take a trip to Bodhgaya again. During my stay there I visited the area around Rajgir with the main purpose of visiting Vulture's Peak (Gṛdhrakūṭa) once again. It is a sacred site in Buddhism chiefly because the Buddha himself stayed there for a time, even dwelling in the caves which still remain and are open to the public. The surrounding mountains and valley are protected natural habitats, though Shanti Peace Stūpa atop the mountain built by the Japanese monk Nichidatsu Fujii (my teacher's teacher) is a popular tourist attraction and attracts a lot of visitors who casually discard their litter on the ground. There are also vendors who blast music out of their mobile phones.

Nevertheless, I made my way to Vulture's Peak in the hot sun. As I crossed the bridge leading up there the sky turned gray providing refreshing relief. Reaching the top I was pleased to find myself alone. When I visited in 2011 it was during the cool winter, at which time there were plenty of people around.

Looking out from the top you are given a sight of natural beauty quite rare around India these days:

Vulture's peak is located atop a rocky crag not so far down from the peak of another mountain inside a long valley stretching west to east:

The whole area played a core role in the history of the early sangha and later Buddhist mythology. Many of the formative events of the original sangha happened in this area. I found it quite moving to just sit and survey the area, thinking of all the great figures from the Buddha to all the Nālandā scholars who visited.

The site is not so far south from Nālandā, perhaps a day's walk (or twenty minutes by car). Between the years 399-414 the Chinese pilgrim named Faxian 法顯 (338-c423) traveled throughout South Asia before returning back home. He paid a visit to the area and provides a precious witness account. Modern scholars would be at a great loss had Faxian's journal not survived. When Faxian visited it seems there was no largescale monastery built at Nālandā as yet:

《高僧法顯傳》卷1:「從此西南行一由延到那羅聚落。是舍利弗本生村。舍利弗還於此中般泥洹。即此處起塔。今現在。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2085, p. 862, c7-9)

Going southwest from here one yojana one reaches the village of Nālandā. It is was the birth village of Śāriputra. Śāriputra returned here for his parinirvāṇa. They built a stūpa which is still extant.
It seems possible that the Śāriputra Stūpa presently found at the Nālandā site was rebuilt atop the original site which Faxian is referring to here. A lot of the buildings we can presently see at the Nālandā ruins were built atop older ruins.

Faxian then proceeded a short distance to the valley. The old capital of King Bimbisāra Rājagṛha used to be located inside the valley, with the mountains forming natural defense. The natural barrier was supplemented with additional fortifications which are still extant (assuming these were built during the Magadha Empire):

The need for such defenses suggests a strong concern for war. The geography of the surrounding plains is conducive to rapid troop movement. Judging from the Buddhist accounts, there was a great deal of bloodshed in the period around the Buddha's lifetime.

Later a new Rājagṛha was built just just north of the valley by Ajātaśatru, son of Bimbisāra, which probably more or less corresponds to the present town of Rajgir.

Faxian writes the following:

《高僧法顯傳》卷1:「從此西行一由延到王舍新城。新城者是阿闍世王所造中有二僧伽藍。出城西門三百步阿闍世王得佛一分舍利起塔。高大嚴麗。出城南四里南向入谷至五山裏。五山周圍狀若城郭。即是蓱沙王舊城。城東西可五六里南北七八里。舍利弗目連初見頞鞞處。尼犍子作火坑毒飯請佛處。阿闍世王酒飲黑象欲害佛處。城東北角曲中耆舊於菴婆羅園中起精舍。請佛及千二百五十弟子供養處。今故在。其城中空荒無人住。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2085, p. 862, c9-19)
From here going west one yojana one arrives at the new city of Rājagṛha. The new city was built by King Ajātaśatru. In it there are two saṃghārāma-s [monasteries]. Exiting the city's west gate three-hundred steps King Ajātaśatru obtained a part of the Buddha's relics and built a stūpa. It is tall and stately. Exiting the south of the city, going four li south, one enters into a valley surrounded by five mountains. The surrounding five mountains are akin to outer city walls. This was the old city of King Bimbisāra. East to west the city is about five or six li, and south to north it is seven or eight li. It is the place where Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana first saw Aśvajit. It is the place where the nirgrantha made a fire pit and poisoned rice, and invited the Buddha. It is the place King Ajātaśatru made a black elephant intoxicated with liquor, wanting to harm the Buddha. In the northeast corner of the city the Elder [Jīvaka] built a vihāra in the mango grove, where he invited the Buddha and his thousand two-hundred and fifty disciples in order to make offerings. It is still extant. It is vacant inside the city and nobody lives there.

His use of yojana here is important because we can discern his own understanding of the measurement as we know the general distance between Nālandā and Rājagṛha. According to Google Earth is roughly just under fifteen kilometers. Sometimes in his work his directions and measurements are off, but we can assume he was providing us with the details the locals provided or his best estimates.

Faxian then provides a description of Vulture's Peak:

《高僧法顯傳》卷1:「入谷搏山東南上十五里到耆闍崛山。未至頭三里有石窟南向。佛本於此坐禪。西北三十步復有一石窟。阿難於中坐禪。天魔波旬化作鵰鷲住窟前恐阿難。佛以神足力隔石舒手摩阿難肩。怖即得止。鳥迹手孔今悉在。故曰鵰鷲窟山。窟前有四佛坐處。又諸羅漢各各有石窟坐禪處。動有數百。佛在石室前東西經行。調達於山北嶮巇間橫擲石傷佛足指處。石猶在。佛說法堂已毀壞。止有塼壁基在。其山峯秀端嚴。是五山中最高。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2085, p. 862, c19-29)

Entering the valley and following the mountains southeast and then ascending fifteen li one arrives at Gṛdhrakūṭa. Three li short of the peak there is a cave facing south. The Buddha once sat here in meditation. Thirty steps to the northwest there is another cave. Ānanda sat in it in meditation. The Māra Pāpīyas manifested as a vulture in front of the cave and frightened Ānanda. The Buddha with his supermundane ability parted the stone and stretched out his hand to touch Ānanda's shoulder. His fear was then halted. The bird tracks and hole for the hand are all still extant. Now they call it the "Mountain of the Vulture's Cave". In front of the cave are where four buddhas had sat. Also the arhats each had their own respective caves where they sat in meditation, amounting to several hundred. The Buddha would walk east to west in front of the caves. From among the steep cliffs of the north mountain Devadatta hurled a stone at the Buddha, injuring his toes. The stone is still extant. The hall in which the Buddha taught the Dharma has been destroyed. There are just the brick foundations. The peak of the mountain has is green with vegetation and beautiful. It is the highest of the five mountains.

Both Faxian and Xuanzang took the time to detail many of the local legends and myths in the places they visited. Buddhist bards early on naturally formulated these tales based on earlier stories, both fictional and historical (although admittedly that dichotomy is a modern one), and the sites became further sanctified as a result.

The caves mentioned here are still extant. The whole area's geology is conducive to cavern formation. The Jains in ancient times also made use of the area. Vulture's Peak is within easy walking distance of the old and new cities, so it would have been ideal for mendicants living in the caves. Faxian bought necessary items from the nearby town before spending the night at the peak:

《高僧法顯傳》卷1:「法顯於新城中買香華油燈。倩二舊比丘送法顯到耆闍崛山。華香供養然燈續明。慨然悲傷抆淚而言。佛昔於此說首楞嚴。法顯生不值佛。但見遺跡處所而已。即於石窟前誦首楞嚴。停止一宿。還向新城。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2085, p. 862, c29-p. 863, a5)

I went into the new city and bought incense, flowers and oil lamps. I asked two old bhikṣus to take me to the Gṛdhrakūṭa mountain. With flowers and incense offered and burning lamps bright I sadly wept and wiped away the tears saying that the Buddha long ago taught the Śūraṃgama [Samādhi Sūtra] – I could not meet the Buddha in this life, but could only see vestiges. We recited the Śūraṃgama [Samādhi Sūtra] in front of the cave entrance and stayed the night before heading back to the new city.

It is noteworthy here that Faxian “buys” the items. The Chinese verb here mǎi unmistakably means to buy, and not to barter or beg. It seems Buddhist monks in north India, at least in this period, did not object to possessing and using money and/or precious metals. A few centuries later Yijing 義淨 (635-713) also notes how the inheritance system for monks works in India (probably specifically at Nālandā):

《南海寄歸內法傳》卷4:「先問負債囑授及看病人。... 所有券契之物。若能早索得者。即可分之。如不能者。券當貯庫。後時索得充四方僧用。若諸金銀及成未成器貝齒諸錢。並分為三分。一佛陀。二達摩。三僧伽。佛物應修理佛堂及髮爪窣覩波所有破壞。法物寫佛經料理師子座。眾物現前應分。」(CBETA, T54, no. 2125, p. 230, a28-c24)

First of all one should make an inquiry as to whether he had any debts, or he has left a will, and if anyone nursed him while he was ill. ... Those receipts for loans that are claimable at once may be divided right away. If not claimable at once, they should be kept in the monastic treasury, and when the money is reclaimed at a later time, it should be used to replenish the fund of the community of monks from the four quarters. All gold and silver, either wrought articles or unwrought ingots, should be divided into three portions for the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The portion for the Buddha should be spent on repairing the Buddha halls and the stupas containing [the Buddha's] hair and nails, and for mending other dilapidation. The portion for the Dharma is used for copying scriptures and maintaining the lion seat. The portion for the community of monks should be shared by them right away.1

Yijing also notes that beds inlaid with jewels as well as weapons and armor are to be dealt with as well. That of course begs the question why would a monk possess such items, but nevertheless it seems at least some of the clergy at the time amassed plenty of wealth.

Xuanzang 玄奘 (602-664) also visited Vulture's Peak while travelling in India between 633-645. His travel account records the following:

《大唐西域記》卷9:「宮城東北行十四五里,至姞栗陀羅矩吒山(唐言鷲峯,亦謂鷲臺。舊曰耆闍崛山,訛也)。接北山之陽,孤摽特起,既棲鷲鳥,又類高臺,空翠相映,濃淡分色。如來御世垂五十年,多居此山,廣說妙法。頻毘娑羅王為聞法故,興發人徒,自山麓至峯岑,跨谷凌巖,編石為階,廣十餘步,長五六里。中路有二小窣堵波,一謂下乘,即王至此徒行以進;一謂退凡,即簡凡人不令同往。其山頂則東西長,南北狹。臨崖西埵有甎精舍,高廣奇製,東闢其戶,如來在昔多居說法,今作說法之像,量等如來之身。精舍東有長石,如來經行所履也。傍有大石,高丈四五尺,周三十餘步,是提婆達多遙擲擊佛處也。其南崖下有窣堵波,在昔如來於此說《法花經》。精舍南山崖側有大石室,如來在昔於此入定。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2087, p. 921, a20-b7)

Going northeast for fourteen or fifteen li from the palace city, I reached Gṛdhrakūṭa Mountain (known in China as the Vulture peak or terrace, and formerly mistranscribed as as Qishejue Mountain). It links with the south side of the North Mountain, protruding all alone to a great height, where vulture's perch, and also resembles a high terrace. The verdurous mountain presents a distinct color in contrast with the sky. During the fifty years of his missionary career, the Tathāgata stayed on this mountain on many occasions to preach the wonderful Dharma.

In order to hear the Buddha's preaching, King Bimbasāra sent men to build a road leading from the foot of the mountain to the summit, more than ten paces wide and five or six li in length, across valleys and over rocks, with stones piled up into steps. There are two small stupas on the way. One is known as the place of alighting, from where the king started to walk on foot to proceed on his way, and the other as the place of preventing ordinary persons from going further [with the king]. The summit is oblong from east to west and narrow from south to north. On the brink of the west side of the precipice is a brick shrine, high and spacious, built in a marvellous style, with its door opening to the east. The Tathāgata preached the Dharma in it many times. Now there is a life-size statue of the Tathāgata in the posture of delivering a sermon.

To the east of the shrine is an oblong stone on which the Tathāgata walked to and fro. Beside it is a great rock fourteen or fifteen feet high and more than thirty paces in circumference. This was the place where Devadatta hurled a stone from a distance to hit the Buddha. To its south and below the cliff was the place where the Tathāgata preached the Saddharma-puṇḍarīka-sūtra in olden times. To the south of the shrine and beside a steep rock is a cave where the Tathāgata sat in meditation in days of yore.2

The caves he describes, like Faxian, are open to the public. I went and sat inside one of them for a bit and discovered some bats were hanging inside, so I cautiously exited.

You can clearly see many centuries of pilgrims have visited the site. The influx of Tibetans in recent times has ensured plenty of stones with carved mantras are left there along with prayer flags strung all around. A lot of the protruding rocks which make for good grips when climbing up the peak are polished from centuries of use, though the site seems to have been forgotten for several centuries after the disappearance of Buddhism from that part of India.
Incidentally, a long tradition of sacred mountains is found in Mahāyāna literature. One noteworthy example is in the Lotus Sūtra where Vulture's Peak is the site of the Buddha's teachings. In chapter sixteen “The Tathāgata's Lifespan” there are the famous verses where the Buddha declares his omnipresence in the world, which is centered at Vulture's Peak. The relevant part reads as follows.

《妙法蓮華經》卷516 如來壽量品〉:
時我及眾僧,  俱出靈鷲山,
我時語眾生:  『常在此不滅,
以方便力故,  現有滅不滅。』
餘國有眾生,  恭敬信樂者,
我復於彼中,  為說無上法。
汝等不聞此,  但謂我滅度。
我見諸眾生,  沒在於苦惱,
故不為現身,  令其生渴仰,
因其心戀慕,  乃出為說法。
神通力如是,  於阿僧祇劫,
常在靈鷲山,  及餘諸住處。

(CBETA, T09, no. 262, p. 43, b24-c5)

At that time I and the sangha will emerge from Vulture's Peak,
I will then say to beings: I am always here, not perishing.
With the power of skilful means I thus manifest perishing and not perishing.
In other lands there are beings, reverent and faithful.
It is there that I teach the unexcelled Dharma.
You all do not hear this, only thinking I have passed away.
I see beings drowning in suffering.
Thus I do not manifest myself, to make them thirst.
When their minds are longing, I then emerge and teach the Dharma.
Supermundane powers like this, for an asaṃkhya kalpa,
I am always present at Vulture's Peak and other dwelling places.

Countless other works highlight the sacred quality of the mountain. This tradition of orienting holy sites on mountains was emulated in China as well. Mt. Wutai came to be associated with Mañjuśrī in the pan-Buddhist world (Indian monks and not just the Chinese in ancient times acknowledged the mountain as Mañjuśrī's earthly abode).

I always find it interesting to compare these ancient accounts to what is presently extant. In an earlier post Revisiting Ancient Buddhist India we looked at some period accounts of Kushinagar, Kapilavastu and Lumbini. When you visit these places and know this history, the whole experience is far more enriching. I also feel it is a way of connecting to past figures in a spiritual sense. When I read the works of Faxian and Xuanzang, for example, I am always reminded of the same places we visited, albeit in different centuries.



1 English translation by Li Rongxi. See Buddhist Monastic Traditions of Southern Asia (Berkeley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2000), 157-161.

2 English translation by Li Rongxi. See The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions (Berkeley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 1996), 270-271.

Buddhists: Beneficiaries of Violence

In 644 Xuanzang 玄奘 (602–664) was staying in the Central Asian kingdom of Khotan, having returned from his long journey to India. He wrote a letter there to the Emperor Taizong seeking permission to return to China. Taizong was apparently quite pleased, though Xuanzang had initially left the empire without official permission. A few months later on the first lunar month of 645, he arrived in the Tang capital Chang'an. A few weeks later he had an audience with Taizong in Luoyang.

There was actually a significant reason why Taizong was then staying in Luoyang and not Chang'an. He was gathering his troops at Luoyang to invade the kingdom of Koguryo (in modern Korea).

The preceding Sui Dynasty (581-618) had attempted to capture Koguryo in several failed expeditions between 598-614, resulting in great loss of life and state revenues, all of which contributed to the premature downfall of said dynasty. In 622 the recently founded Tang Dynasty (618-907) under Emperor Gaozu 高祖 (566-635) had made attempts at reconciliation with Koguryo, agreeing to prisoner exchanges.1

Nevertheless, in the same decade Koguryo built massive fortifications along the Liao River in preparation for renewed hostilities. The Korean peninsula continued to suffer war as Koguryo fought with Silla to the south. In China Taizong (598-649) in 626 had killed his two brothers and forced Gaozu to abdicate the throne.

Being a military man and ambitious leader, the Sui failure to capture and subjugate Koguryo became an obsessive concern for Taizong. In 641 he even speculated in court that a renewed assault by land and sea could prove feasible. Intelligence operations commenced around the same time as he dispatched his men to scout the border on reconnaissance missions.

The following year there was a coup d'état in Koguryo by the military leader Yeon Gaesomun who had been in charge of building the Liao River fortifications. Having killed the earlier king Yeongnyu 榮留王, who had nominally been a vassal of the Tang, along with over a hundred aristocrats at court, he was able to place a puppet king Bojang 寶臧王 (r. 642-668) on the throne. The new court proceeded with its policies of greater independence from the Tang court.

Taizong did not immediately act as the northeast plains were still recovering economically from the earlier wars. However, by late 643 Silla, a vassal state of the Tang, had been attacked by Koguryo in alliance with Paekche, thereby preventing tribute missions to the Tang court. Taizong failed to resolve this through diplomatic measures and thereafter decided to personally lead the assault on Koguryo.

His ministers had warned him against initiating such a campaign and no doubt the populace still had living memories of the previous failed campaigns of earlier generations. In 644 Taizong moved himself in the direction of the front and while staying in Luoyang received a letter from a curious Chinese monk on the western frontier requesting permission to return home.

This was around the same time he issued edicts to the empire declaring his reasons for the campaign: Yeon Gaesomun was a tyrant guilty of regicide. This seems to have been propaganda aimed at fostering support because even before the regicide he had already taken the initial steps at surveying the frontier, planning for a future assault. Having a unified Korean peninsula was a threat and moreover he had his own dynastic ambitions to retake the territories which had once been controlled by the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE).2

Having a Chinese Buddhist monk with loads of scriptures from India arrive just as the preparations were underway for the invasion no doubt would have been an opportune chance at bolstering his imperial image in the face of widespread reluctance to fight another war against Koguryo. It was a quite fortuitous opportunity to elevate his status as benefactor of the sangha while he marched many men to their inevitable deaths. Tansen Sen explains:

The return of Xuanzang seems to have been taken as an auspicious sign by the emperor. Hence, Taizong, who was generally unsympathetic and sometimes critical of the Buddhist cause, quickly granted audience to Xuanzang. Taizong's aim was not to learn about Buddhist teachings from Xuanzang, nor perhaps was he terribly interested in the details of the Western Regions at that moment, although he did ask the pilgrim to write an account of his journey. More likely, as can be seen from Taizong's suggestion for Xuanzang to return to secular life and assist him in administrative affairs, the emperor wanted to secure spiritual support for his temporal quest. In fact, Taizong indirectly made such a request to the monk: "We cannot completely express our ideas in such a hurry. We wish that you could come with us to the eastern region and observe the local customs. We can carry on the conversation besides directing the army.”3

The support for Xuanzang's translation project, and lack of punishment for having exited the country without permission almost two decades prior, might very well have been not so forthcoming had the circumstances been different. Xuanzang obtained the resources and people he needed to work on his translations, but this success of his was perhaps actually tied to the war on the Korean peninsula.

If Taizong had not been readying himself to fight an unpopular aggressive war (it was not defensive in contrast to the struggles with the Turks and Tibetans), we might imagine there would have been a less supportive response from the emperor and Xuanzang's influential translations and new terminology might not have been possible. In other words, Xuanzang was an indirect beneficiary of the war.

This is a theme we see throughout Buddhist history: Buddhists as beneficiaries of violence. In recent years there has been increasing academic interest in examining the topic. Buddhism and Social Justice at Leiden University is one example of a scholarly project aimed at “moving away from a common perception of Buddhism as intrinsically a tradition of peace and justice.” This indeed is at odds with the mainstream western perception of Buddhism. In the west Buddhism is readily associated with liberal western values and pacifism, though the historical realities of Buddhist institutions across Asia would reveal a different image.

In my readings of Buddhist literature and history I have often found that while Buddhists have been reluctant to exercise violence themselves, they often do not object to being either direct or indirect beneficiaries of violence. What this means is that Buddhist institutions might condemn violence and encourage non-violence while benefiting immensely as a client of a greater power which readily employs violence to secure unearned wealth or even just to protect the realm. As we can see with Xuanzang and Taizong, this sort of relationship between the sangha and state could entail quite significant developments. Of course it was not the first time in China. Tansen Sen explains:

In the past, a number of Buddhist monks, especially those from South and Central Asia, had participated in Chinese military campaigns. The success of their magical and miraculous powers in such operations was legendary since at least the fourth century. The Kuchean monk Fotudeng (an alternate reading of the name is Futucheng), who arrived in China in 310, is perhaps the best example of such “state-monks”. In the fifth century, renowned monk translators such as Jiumoluoshi (Kumārajīva, 344-413) and Tanwuchan (Dharmakṣema?, 385-433) are also known to have assisted the Chinese rulers in military and state affairs. It is not surprising, therefore, that Taizong sought Xuanzang's assistance in the offensive against the Korean kingdom.4

We can actually see this same theme play out back in even the earliest time of institutionalized Buddhism. Long ago there was the famous emperor Aśoka (304-232 BCE) who launched a ghoulish war against his enemies. They were largely conquered and subjugated.

Everyone involved in Buddhism at some point hears about his personal crisis where seeing the devastation and suffering he caused he had a change of heart and adopted Buddhism. He then commenced various building projects. He cracked open old tombs holding the Buddha's relics and erected many new stūpas with the remains divided amongst them. He also had pillars constructed proclaiming how the realm was to follow dhamma. It seems he was quite favorable towards the sangha.

In modern terms, Aśoka would be understood as a war criminal who knowingly launched a war of aggression to expand his sphere of power, and in the process, by his own admission, murdered tens of thousands of innocent people. One of his inscriptions states the following:

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, conquered the Kalingas eight years after his coronation. One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more died (from other causes). After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the-Gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas.

Indeed, Beloved-of-the-Gods is deeply pained by the killing, dying and deportation that take place when an unconquered country is conquered. But Beloved-of-the-Gods is pained even more by this — that Brahmans, ascetics, and householders of different religions who live in those countries, and who are respectful to superiors, to mother and father, to elders, and who behave properly and have strong loyalty towards friends, acquaintances, companions, relatives, servants and employees — that they are injured, killed or separated from their loved ones. Even those who are not affected (by all this) suffer when they see friends, acquaintances, companions and relatives affected. These misfortunes befall all (as a result of war), and this pains Beloved-of-the-Gods.5

Aśoka got away with mass murder, but the Buddhist narratives do not describe him in such terms, as if his atrocities and sins were absolved just by virtue of his apparent conversion to Buddhism. His support to the sangha amplified the power of the Buddhist sangha and really launched the religion into a new development of institutionalization and widespread adoption around the subcontinent and beyond.

The reality is that the Buddhists during his reign and thereafter for a time were beneficiaries of the violence he had committed, which aids in explaining why he came to be seen as an agreeable example of the transformative power of the religion. We have no record to my knowledge of anyone suggesting that the resources invested in the religion might have been better spent as reparations to the conquered peoples.

Understandably, given the power and past history of the regime itself, this was probably not a realistic course of action regardless of Aśoka's new perspective on compassion and non-violence. The emperor was, after all, an institution and not a single man. Still, even after he died, he was embraced as an legitimizing figure. Aśoka became such a powerful and legitimizing authority in Buddhist myth that later sources of the Theravāda school associate him with key events. Romila Thapar explains:

It was during Ashoka's reign that the Buddhist Sangha underwent further reorganization, with the meeting of the Third Buddhist Council at Pataliputra in c. 250 BC. The Theravada sect claimed that it represented the true teaching of the Buddha, a claim that enabled it to become a dominant sect in the southern tradition and allowed it to exclude those regarded as dissidents. Theravada Buddhist sources have naturally tried to associate Ashoka with this important event in order to give it greater legitimacy. Ashoka does not mention it directly in any of his inscriptions, but there is a possibly oblique reference in an inscription addressed to the Buddhist Sangha, stating that dissident monks and nuns are to be expelled. The exclusion of dissidents is a recognized pattern in sectarian contestations.6

It is ironic that a Buddhist school would attempt to legitimize itself and its policies by drawing close a warlord responsible for ghoulish atrocities. However, this is but one of many examples of such a phenomenon in Buddhist history.

We might also imagine that Buddhist history from an early point onward might have developed quite differently had Aśoka not converted to Buddhism, or even if he had converted had never conquered vast territories, thus economically enabling the proliferation of the religion both domestically and abroad.

Modern scholars can therefore state, “Both schools, the Pāli school in Sri Lanka and the Sarvāstivādins in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent, owe their origin to the missions that under king Aśoka (reigned ca. 270-ca. 230 B.C.) were sent in the most diverse directions.”7 We see quite clearly how Buddhism indirectly benefited immensely from Aśoka's wars.

The mythology of Buddhism likewise provides numerous examples of the sangha coming under the protection of cosmic deities who exercise violence or the threat thereof on behalf of those who otherwise adhere to principles of non-violence. In other words, the guardian vows to do the fighting on behalf of the Buddhist, though it normally remains unsaid whether negative karma is still to be suffered for exercising such defensive measures. It begs the question if it virtuous and meritorious to use violence to defend the sangha? Often the idea is that the wrathful and awesome warriors frighten evil away, though this is not always the case. Violence is explicitly mentioned.

There are plenty examples of such deities early on, long before the emergence of Mahāyāna, such as the four Mahārāja (Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Virūḍhaka, Virūpākṣa and Vaiśravaṇa) and their chief Indra (otherwise known as Śakra/Sakka) the Deva King.

Indra is an interesting figure in that, according to the Buddhists, he became a disciple of the Buddha and by his own admission attained stream-entry (srotāpanna):

"Having gone to those whom I considered to be brahmans & contemplatives living in isolated dwellings in the wilderness, I asked them these questions. But when asked by me, they were at a loss. Being at a loss, they asked me in return, 'What is your name?'

"Being asked, I responded, 'I, dear sir, am Sakka, the deva-king.'

"So they questioned me further, 'But what kamma did you do to attain to this state?'

"So I taught them the Dhamma as far as I had heard and mastered it. And they were gratified with just this much: 'We have seen Sakka, the deva-king, and he has answered our questions!' So, instead of my becoming their disciple, they simply became mine. But I, lord, am the Blessed One's disciple, a stream-winner, steadfast, never again destined for states of woe, headed for self-awakening."

Now curiously after making such a statement the Buddha asks him if he could recall ever having experienced such happiness and joy. He states the following:

"Once, lord, the devas and asuras were arrayed in battle. And in that battle the devas won, while the asuras lost. Having won the battle, as the victor in the battle, this thought occurred to me: 'Whatever has been the divine nourishment of the asuras, whatever has been the divine nourishment of the devas, the devas will now enjoy both of them.' But my attainment of happiness and joy was in the sphere of violence and weapons. It didn't lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge to self-awakening, to Unbinding. But my attainment of happiness and joy on hearing the Blessed One's Dhamma is in the sphere of no violence, the sphere of no weapons. It leads to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge to self-awakening, to Unbinding."8

Like Zeus and the Titans (it is the common Indo-European myth actually; called the Titanomachy), Indra is credited with having successfully battled the asuras. In the Rg Veda, Indra is the destroyer of asuras, most notably his enemy Vṛtra who had kept all the waters of the world hostage before being slain by Indra. A similar myth is found in Buddhism as well where Indra defeats the asura leader Vemacitrin (Pāli Vepacitti) who is brought before him in chains in the Trāyastriṃśa realm, whereupon the fallen asura hurls slurs at his patient conqueror (see the Vepacitti Sutta).

The conflict between Indra and the asuras goes back to his early reign. The story is related in the Kulāvaka Jātaka. In his life before being reborn as Indra, he was known as Magha, an energetic and benevolent man of good pedigree.

The story seems to say he was the Bodhisattva (i.e., the Buddha in a past life), but the Samyutta Commentary states his life was like that of a bodhisattva, thus the Indra of this story is the same as the Indra which meets the Buddha (see here). Indra is a mortal god, and the position of Deva King passes from one incarnation of Śakra/Sakka to another, so it is possible that the Buddha in a past life occupied such a position, though the whole of Buddhist mythology would suggest the Indra in the Kulāvaka Jātaka is the same one who meets with the Buddha Śākyamuni.

Magha was reborn as the king of devas in Trāyastriṃśa atop Mount Sumeru. Detesting that asuras lived alongside the devas there, he asked, “What good to us is a kingdom which others share?” He had the asuras partake of the deva's drink, and thus they became intoxicated. It was then that they were hurled from Mount Sumeru to the bottom of the mountain, which was called the realm of asuras. There the Cittapātali blossomed which indicated to them that they were no longer amongst devas, where their cherished Pāricchattaka tree remained.

The asuras became furious that they were made to drink and be cast out of Trāyastriṃśa and said they would forcibly retake their realm, and up the sides of Mount Sumeru they climbed like ants on a pillar. The alarms went up and Indra went into battle against them, but could not repel them and fled into the forest. His chariot trampled the forest and the beings inhabiting it cried out causing him to turn around and sacrifice himself to the asuras rather than injure any more beings in the forest. However, the asuras believed that it was reinforcements arriving instead and they fled back to the realm of asuras.

Indra returned triumphantly to Trāyastriṃśa. He then established a five-fold guard to prevent the asuras from returning, which included the Four Mahārāja who were given this task it seems alongside their other duties of guarding the four continents.

Later one of his former handmaidens Sujā was reborn as daughter to the asura leader Vemacitrin. Indra, driven by his former love, descended amongst the asuras who were assembled so that Sujā could select her husband. Indra disguised himself as an aged asura in anticipation that she would select him. She in fact did, whereupon the assembly cried out he was old enough to be her father. Indra grabbed Sujā and fled into the air before revealing his identity. The asuras gave chase and the pair with the charioteer fled back to Trāyastriṃśa, where Indra installed Sujā as his chief consort. Nevertheless, despite this union the asuras remain actively hostile to the devas and the battles carry on as they remain intent on reclaiming their realm. This is why the four Mahārāja gods that Buddhists venerate are charged with the ongoing task of keeping the exiled asuras off Mount Sumeru.

Despite all his spiritual pursuits and practice of Buddhadharma, Indra's position as guardian and chief of noble guardians also remains ongoing. Indra is basically seven lifetimes away from nirvāṇa (i.e., srotāpanna) and clearly possessed of wisdom and faith in the Buddha, yet he maintains his role as political ruler over Trāyastriṃśa and the armies under his direct command.

Even though this is mythology, it is still remarkable how a cosmic warrior king could manage such a spiritual attainment. It sets a subtle, perhaps almost entirely unrecognized, precedent that even warrior kings can gain wisdom and attainments while simultaneously fulfilling their worldly duties. Here is a character who was clearly subject to ill-will, intolerance and passionate desire, yet still managed to learn Dharma from the Buddha while maintaining his elevated position of celestial king. This is different from Angulimālya in that he renounced his old ways, whereas Indra continues his role as before, presumably still fighting off the asuras who would retake their homeland which they were ejected from. It remains to be seen if Indra will make reparations to the asuras and allow them back.

Indra's character is also celebrated in Buddhism around Asia. You can see his image both in Mahāyāna and Theravāda temples. He has historically been respected as a protector of the Triple Gem and has a role to play in esoteric Buddhism as well. His patience and noble character in the face of the shackled Vemacitrin's slurs is seen as worthy of emulation.

As far as I know, there is little sympathy afforded to the asuras. While it seems they are painted as violent demons, it seems Indra was more jealous than anything else, which prompted him to make them intoxicated and then cast them off Mount Sumeru. This is in line with his other questionable characteristics like deception and passionate desire. He is basically a god with many faults, but still managed to become a stream-enterer. Overall, however, the early Buddhist tradition regarded him as on the side of good, often aiding the Buddha and his disciples in unseen ways (for all the details see

This is still a figure, though, which commands armies who operate directly under his standard. Buddhists are under his protection. Such a myth in many ways reflects how it also works in our conventional reality where Buddhism is usually under the protection of persons or states which, like Indra, have troubled pasts and ongoing problems with old enemies. The sangha owes a debt of gratitude to such a fallible god.

In early Buddhism as well we see incantations used to procure the protection of non-corporeal beings. In the Pāli Dīgha Nikāya the Atanatiya Sutta provides a protection incantation against malevolent Yakkhas. It tells of a meeting with the Buddha where the “four great kings having placed a guard over the four quarters, with a large army of Yakkhas, of Gandhabbas, of Kumbhandas, of Nagas; having placed troops; having placed a barricade of soldiers on four sides, came to the presence of the Blessed One, when the night was far advanced, illuminating the entire Vulture's Peak with their surpassing radiance, saluted the Blessed One and sat on one side.”

Here we see the Buddha and his sangha coming under the armed guard of said beings. It is said that anyone who recites the incantation is protected, and the offending non-human will be ostracized by their community, but also that their head will be split open into seven pieces. There are several Yakkha chiefs which one can appeal to when being assaulted, the names of which are all given.

Not only have Buddhist communities in India been beneficiaries of violence, but they have sanctioned it and even incorporated it within their ideological and religious frameworks, most notably during the later period of Indian Buddhist history. Giovanni Verardi in his work Hardships and Downfall of Buddhism in India explains how the emergence of Vajrayāna was in part in response to mounting social and political pressures on Buddhism from hostile Brahmanical parties. We see the emergence of violent iconography on both sides of the conflict:

Violence was no longer a taboo for the Buddhists: it was part of their strategy, together with sexual unruliness and a conscious resorting to social revolt. It is a mistake to consider the incitements to revolt contained in the texts and the manifestations of violence in both texts and iconographies as purely symbolic. They are literal and metaphorical, not symbolic. As metaphors, through the analogical process, texts and iconographies transfer the violence committed by the Buddhists on the tīrthika-s to those carried out on the Brahmanical gods by the new Buddhist deities. That a symbolic interpretation started developing at an early stage is not particularly significant, because it was largely the work of trans-Himalayan Buddhists who had to adapt the received tradition to a context where there were no tīrthika-s. The Vajrayāna was considered part of the true teaching of the Buddha, and neither texts nor images could be changed: they could only be interpreted. These interpretations have their own legitimacy, and so deep and influential as to have generated an entire symbolic universe, extending from Tibet to Japan, but we must first distinguish between Indian Buddhism and the violent world where it developed and the forms it took when it was received outside India.9

The reaction to such pressures is illustrated in other ways. Ronald M. Davidson in the Handbook of Oriental Studies Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia explains that “Northern Indian monasteries began to assume fortress identities, and over time they became de facto feudal holdings, in which the largest of the newly-formed institutions—Nālandā, Odantapurī, Somapura, Vikramaśīla, etc.—administered domains in the surrounding countryside. Their abbots exercised police powers, collected taxes, engaged other feudal lords in discussions, received their gifts, and otherwise assumed many of the trappings of sāmanta local lords by investing their dominion over a sphere of territory (mandala).”10

Eventually Buddhism collapsed in India and consequently “according to Ronald Davidson in the late-twelfth and early-thirteenth centuries central Tibet (Tsang) was flooded with foreigners, particularly Indian monks fleeing the Turkic and Afghan Muslim invasions of northern India.”11

Tibetan Buddhism likewise early on had a policy of expediently employed violence. Earlier I looked at how Buddhism was used as a practical means of consolidating imperial power in early Tibet and Japan (see here). In the face of fragmented elite power and feeble bureaucratic arrangements, Buddhism offered a means of culturally integrating diverse and competing spheres of power under a centralized state which acted as the primary benefactor of the new common religion. In the case of both countries Buddhist institutions were protected and maintained by imperial powers which had access to significant amounts of unearned wealth, but the Buddhists themselves also used violence to their long-term benefit as well.

For instance, in the case of early Tibet, according to Tāranātha (1575-1634) in his biography of Padmasambhava, Padmasambhava himself used his magic to kill an opponent of Buddhism. Whether this really happened or not is debatable, but nevertheless it is remarkable that the Indian master is said to have intentionally killed someone in his hagiography:

The minister We Dongzig also strongly hated Buddhism, so the Master said, “In a while he will be powerful and won't let the Dharma spread, therefore the time has come to eliminate him.” Padmasambhava meditated for an instant; right then all the minister’s blood drained out of his body, so that he died.12

Throughout the seventh to ninth centuries Buddhism was often attacked by aristocratic elements of Tibetan society. Given the violent of history of the Tibetan empire, it seems probable that indeed a measure of violence was needed to ensure the introduction of Buddhism.

All of this brings into question the relationship between violence and Buddhist institutions. In my estimation if such an institution becomes connected to the state or ruling class, then inevitably it will be either directly or indirectly associated with the violence that underpins authority. As Carl von Clausewitz suggested, "War is the continuation of Politik by other means."

At a more domestic level, the authority of the state over its populace is derived chiefly from its monopoly on violence or the threat thereof. Citizens are forced to comply with taxation under penalty of deprivation or imprisonment, or sometimes harsher punishments. Policing is employed to placate and eliminate internal threats. Buddhist communities might enjoy such a secure environment in which they have the luxury of not having to resort to violence for their survival and well-being.

It might be in the interests of the Buddhist institution to assent to and support the authority of the state, which again exists because of its monopoly and employment of violence. This might be simple things like encouraging people to pay their taxes honestly, or even supporting a war effort, as can be seen throughout Buddhist history.

The Buddha himself believed that organized society and laws came to exist due to the greed and human failings of people. This is related in the Aggañña Sutta where it is explained that long ago people started demarcating plots for rice amongst themselves due to greedy harvesters, though later on some started stealing rice from the plots of others. The people thereafter appointed a capable king to administer justice.

Details aside, from a higher level of abstraction what this myth tells us is that social organization, government and resource management all exist due to human failings. They are not inherently desireable or good, but were brought into existence to address harmful behaviours brought on by the afflictions. This means that justice requires violence of some sort, be it imprisonment, banishment or the application of physical harm.

In the absence of justice, the law of the jungle comes into effect. This is why, as Plato and Polybius noted, people readily elect a tyrant to restore order in chaotic times, especially when democracy inevitably fails. The myth in the Aggañña Sutta states the same thing: the people tried to collectively plead for good behavior from their wicked counterparts, but ultimately failed. They appointed a king who would receive a share of the agricultural surplus, earned through his ability to manage the community.

This Buddhist myth therefore speaks of an intelligent application of violence where required. In the case of refractory thieves, it was necessary to “appoint a certain being who would show anger where anger was due, censure those who deserved it, and banish those who deserved banishment.”13

In modern times as well Buddhism has often indirectly benefited from violence or the threat of violence. Modern Taiwan is a prime example of this where the island was under the control of the Nationalists who were keen on supporting Buddhism as a means of displaying their commitment to certain values which the communists on the mainland were not. What is remarkable is that it was the US war machine during the height of the cold war which really ensured Taiwan's de facto independence and security, within which Buddhism flourished. It became a stronghold of Chinese Buddhist which the Chinese diaspora looked to for Dharma teachers and training. Taiwanese Buddhists became the custodians of Chinese Buddhism, under the protection of America.

The Chinese Buddhist masters that escaped the communits really only survived because a very effective and opportunistic military was protecting them. If Mao had managed to take Taiwan, we can easily imagine the Buddhists there would have suffered much of the same fate their companions did on the mainland, and no large scale organizations like Tzu Chi or Foguangshan could have been built.

This all raises some ethical questions. Can you preach non-violence and yet still so readily benefit, both directly and indirectly, through violence exercised on your behalf?

I believe Buddhist ethics do not function well at a national level. They are very personal and might work on a small scale in a local community, but a state basically maintains order through violence utilized inwardly to suppress domestic disorder and outwardly to deter and/or fight back hostile forces. The precept against killing is unfortunately unrealistic as a national policy, though of course it is desireable in times of relative internal security.

Herein lay the problem: as a Buddhist if you condone violence you are violating a core tenet of the religion, but if you absolutely deny the utility of violence you are possibly denying your community the security and detterance it needs just to survive and function. This perhaps helps to explain why throughout history Buddhists have often abhorred violence yet not really objected too critically to being beneficiaries of it. This is true in history as it is in Buddhist mythology.

As a Buddhist monk I personally cannot condone violence, but then my ethics are inappropriate when it comes to national defense and internal policing. What is applicable to me as an individual is not necessarily applicable to all levels of society. The micro versus the macro.

Perhaps many might find this difficult to accept given how we might hope our highest morals, if carried out to their fullest extent, will always result in favorable outcomes even if we face some obstacles along the way. This is simply naive and idealistic thinking. Sometimes begrudging tolerance of sin is a lesser evil when compared to the damage unrealistic ethics can enable.

You can preach non-violence when you live in a first world country where you do not experience hostile belligerence. Imagine you lived in Thailand some decades ago when the communists were at the borders and their success could have meant the obliteration of Buddhism in Thailand? Look at what happened to the sangha in places like communist China or Cambodia.

Proponents of absolute non-violence will often point to Gandhi as a success story, but bear in mind he was fighting an opponent who did not want to use violence. Stop and consider how successful he would have been had he been facing Joseph Stalin, who was quite ready and willing to kill anyone who got in his way.

Buddhists more or less have to begrudgingly accept a position as beneficiaries of violence. This is the ugly nature of saṃsāra. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. You perhaps cannot condone violence if you strictly follow the teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha, but on the other hand you cannot deny you benefit both directly and indirectly from violence exercised on your behalf.



1 This is recorded in the Samguk Sagi 三國史記 (Korea's oldest extant history, compiled 1145):

五年 遣使如唐朝貢 唐高祖 感隋末戰士多陷於此 賜王詔書曰 朕恭膺寶命 君臨率土 祗順三靈 懷柔萬國 普天之下 情均撫字 日月所 咸使乂安 王統攝遼左 世居藩服 思稟正朔 遠循職貢 故遣使者 跋渉山川 申布誠懇 朕甚嘉焉 方今 六合寧晏 四海淸平 玉帛既通 道路無壅 方申緝睦 永敦聘好 各保疆場 豈非盛美 但隋氏季年 連兵構難 攻戰之所 各失其氓 遂使骨肉乖離 室家分析 多年歳 怨曠不申 今二國通和 義無阻異 在此所有高句麗人等 已令追括 尋即遣送 彼處所有此國人者 王可放還 務盡綏育之方 共弘仁恕之道 於是 悉搜括華人以送之 數至萬餘 高祖大喜
2 See Howard J. Wechsler, "T'ai-tsung (reign 626-649) the consolidator" in The Cambridge History of China Volume 3 Sui and T'ang China 589-906AD, Part 1 (Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 231-235

3 Tansen Sen, Buddhism Diplomacy and Trade The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations, 600-1400 (Honolulu: Universiy of Hawai'i Press, 2003), 36.

4 Ibid., 36.

6 Romila Thapar, The Penguin History of Early India From the Origins to AD 1300 (London, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 2002), 181.

7 Charles Willemen, Bart Dessein and Collett Cox, Handbook of Oriental Studies Sarvāstivāda Buddhist Scholasticism (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1998), XVII.

8 See Sakka-pañha Sutta (Sakka's Questions), DN 21. Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

9 Giovanni Veraridi, Hardships and Downfall of Buddhism in India (New Delhi, India: Manohar, 2011), 349-350.

10 Ronald M. Davidson, "Sources and Inspirations: Esoteric Buddhism in South Asia" in Handbook of Oriental Studies Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011), 20-21.

11 Ruth W. Dunnell, "History from Tangut Texts" in Asia Major, Volume 22, part 1,2009, 43.

12 See Taranatha, The Life of Padmasambhava A Biography of the Greater Master Padmasambhava, translated by Cristiana De Falco (Arcidosso, Italy: Shang Shung Publications, 2011), 25.

Rome, Persia, China and Indian Buddhism

Discussion of classical Indian Buddhism in the early centuries of the first millennium has generally been done within the geographical limits of the Indosphere stretching from what is now Afghanistan down through to Sri Lanka. While Buddhism in the early centuries did expand outside this region to areas like Central Asia and China, Buddhism as a major institution and civilization was in the 3rd century still largely limited to the subcontinent and Persian borderlands. However, the fortunes of Buddhism in the second through fourth centuries CE have to be understood within a greater geopolitical context stretching from the Roman Empire across Asia to China. The prosperity and misfortunes that Buddhism experienced in India were in fact intricately tied to international trade and commerce.

Giovanni Verardi in his recent work Hardships and Downfall of Buddhism in India explains how Buddhism in India established an “open society” across the subcontinent which was effectively an urban pro-trade social model in contrast to the competing Brahman agrarian model based on caste. Whereas the sangha was dependent on and intimately connected to commercial activities and the merchant classes for funding and protection, the Brahmans sought to secure an alternative agrarian order which provided them with supreme authority, even over kṣatriya kings. Such competing social models inevitably led to conflict.

One might even describe it as class warfare. In the traditional caste system a merchant is given a lower position, so it is unsurprising that they might support Buddhism which rejected a preordained social order, and moreover provided merchants with prestigious status as benefactors as well as the opportunity for spiritual attainment. It was also in the interests of some kṣatriya kings to favour Buddhism as they could emulate the cakravartin ideal and increase their power base through taxation of merchants, whereas in the orthodox Vedic model they were supposed to give gifts of cattle and tax-free land to Brahmans, as well as act as caretaker of a throne with the real political power being held by the Brahman priests.

The well-being and sustainability of Buddhism in India in this period effectively rested on trade, which in India was part of a larger pan-Eurasian network stretching from Rome to China. In this period Buddhism had already changed into a highly organized Vinaya-based monastic model. It grew increasingly complex by assembling an extensive written canon that needed to be continually physically reproduced. It further came to have sophisticated artistic traditions. All of this required resources and people plus continual investments to maintain everything. The monastic model in India was parasitic on the economy. It generally consumed resources and did not produce much in the way of agricultural products or commodities, though it did function in the tertiary sector of the economy. Buddhist institutions often operated money lending and storage services. All things considered, Buddhism was a capital intensive religion, much as it largely still is in most of Asia. Predictably, any disruption to capital inputs naturally undermined the religion, which indeed is what happened.
It is interesting to consider how the political developments and plagues that occurred in such distant lands could have impacted Buddhism on the subcontinent in such a deep way, though we have only to think of the so-called Silk Road to the north and transoceanic trade to the south which kept goods, bullion and coinage in circulation around Eurasia. The trade between India and China is widely understood in Buddhist circles, though the relations between Rome and India are less known. Romila Thapar explains the significance of the trade:

Roman historian Pliny complained of the trade with the east being a serious drain on the income of Rome, to the extent of 550 million sesterces each year, of which at least a fifth went to India. Imports from India were largely luxury articles - spices, jewels, textiles, ivories and animals (apes, parrots and peacocks) for the amusement of the Roman patrician and his family. It was therefore thought that the balance of trade was in favour of India. But recently it has been argued that even if Pliny's figure is correct, customs dues and taxes on the imports from the east into Roman Egypt were high enough to compensate for the drain of money in the initial outlay for this trade. It has also been argued that Tiberius and later Pliny, both of whom complained about the drain of Roman wealth to India, may have been more concerned about making a moral judgement on Roman patrician society with its display of wealth, and therefore used the trade to underline the point. Nevertheless, it was a profitable trade for the merchants and chiefs of the Indian peninsula.1

The peak of Buddhist power in India occurred during flourishing trade with Rome but also the era of foreign rule over the subcontinent by the Kuṣāṇa dynasty (1st-3rd centuries CE):

The foreign dynasties that from the first century BC to the second century AD ruled over a considerable part of India could not make themselves into 'national' dynasties, and allowed Buddhism, and also neo-Brahmanical movements, to grow. The case of Kaniṣka I is particularly interesting. Under his reign (second quarter of the second century AD), Indian Buddhism reached, as documented by the imposing building activity and the iconographic output, its greatest economic power and territorial expansion.2

Gold coin of Kaniṣka I with Buddha image.
The trade throughout Kuṣāṇa territories was heavily influenced by Rome as well. Thapar notes that “the gold coins of the Kushanas followed the Roman weight standard, partly to ensure that they would be used as legal tender in areas familiar with Roman trade. The imitation of particular coins probably had more to do with the continuity of a medium of exchange than with fashion.”3 Furthermore, “products that were in demand in Roman markets were exchanged mainly for Roman coins. The frequency of hoards of such coins in the Deccan and south India point to its being a trade of some substance. Most of the coins are of earlier Roman Emperors, such as Augustus and Tiberius, the debased coins of Nero not being thought worthy of hoarding.”4

While Kaniṣka and the Kuṣāṇa dynasty were not strictly Buddhist, they did support the sangha. Their trade policies also fostered favorable conditions in which Buddhist institutions thrived. The well-being of Buddhism partially relied on Indian trade with Rome. It is thus unsurprising that “once the conditions created by Kuṣāṇa rule dissolved, and the imposing building activity and impressive amount of artistic output in key-cities like Mathurā and in Buddhist sanctuaries came to a halt, India, besides being de-urbanised, appeared as an iconic desert.”5

Any disruption of international trade would have undermined Buddhist institutions, and this is precisely what happened. It was not just declining trade with Rome, but also China. Again, Verardi:

There is little doubt that the closing down of the open society of the Buddhists and the resulting weakening of the religion of Dharma coincides with the fall in international trading activities, and in particular with the much decreased demand for Indian goods from Rome. Kuṣāṇa currency, circulating over a vast territory, had been linked to the Roman currency system. The collapse of the Han dynasty in China (AD 221) contributed to changing the picture in Central Asia. By that time, we observe a change in the Indian landscape, namely, a rapid process of de-urbanisation. It is every archaeologist's experience that even in the case of continuous human occupation, post-Kuṣāṇa levels display much poorer building techniques and reuse of earlier building material. A great number of small and large towns were abandoned in the third century, and in certain areas, as is shown by territorial surveys, the collapse of a whole network of roads and small settlements, which had been kept functioning by Buddhist monasteries, is observable. This process was probably aggravated by the collapse of the trading activity with the West that followed St Cyprian's plague of the years AD 251-66, which is an important component of the 'crisis of the third century' in the Roman Empire.6

I would add that prior to St Cyprian's plague, there had been another plague starting a century prior which severely damaged the Roman economy and significantly decreased the population: the Antonine plague which reached the empire in 165. Within a few years it had annihilated a sizable portion of tax payers in Egypt alone, which was also the bread basket of the empire. There were further outbreaks of plague in 172, 174, 175, 179, 182 and 189, and thereafter again in the 250s and 260s. During the Fayum area of Egypt during the Antonine plague the tax base dropped 33-44%. Other areas saw declines up to 93%, though some of that would have been as a result of flight.

One estimate states up to 10% of the empire's total population perished, though alternative estimates would suggest upwards of 30% might have died, which would have been comparable to the Black Death in western Europe between 1347-80. This occurred when the empire was already under enormous demographic-structural stress. Sociopolitical instability and the subsequent endemic civil war of the third century prevented population recovery and only contributed to the slow downfall of Rome over the following two centuries.7 All of this no doubt contributed to the currency debasement of the later empire, which is illustrated in the following chart:8

Under Domitian (reigned 81-96) the silver content of the denarius was 3.28 grams, but by the end of the following century the silver equivalent had fallen to just 2 grams. By 272 the denarius only had 2.5% silver in it. By the time St Cyprian's plague hit in 251, the Roman empire was already suffering critical financial problems, which contributed to the fall in international trading activities.

Verardi also rightfully notes another contributing factor in that decline: the collapse of the Han dynasty in around 220 CE. The Han Dynasty is divded into the western or former Han (206-9 BCE) and the later or eastern Han (25-220 CE). It was during the latter that important local changes unfolded which inevitably reduced China's contribution to the aforementioned pan-Eurasian trade network which Indian Buddhism depended on. 

Emperor Guangwu 光武帝 (reigned 25-57 CE) abandoned an earlier offensive strategy along the north frontier against the Xiongnu (barbarian horsemen), who subsequently increasingly engaged in profitable raiding. Populations fled to the south leaving many areas depopulated. Nomads had to be settled in abandoned regions to fend off the Xiongnu. Between 2-140 CE the formally registered population in the north-west dropped by 70%, while the population in the south increased as much as 100% in some regions.

Despite the defeat of the Xiongnu confederation in the 80s, the Xianbei and Qiang tribes replaced them and continued causing trouble for the Han court. Rebellions occurred and provinces were abandoned. In 143 official salaries were reduced and the court had to start borrowing money, demonstrating severe financial problems. In the end the last Han emperor abdicated to warlord Cao Cao's son in 220, marking the end of a nominally unified Chinese empire and the beginning of a ghastly period of perpetual war and instability.9 All this meant a sharp decline in Chinese exports and imports.

One other important factor in the decline of international trade that Verardi does not mention was the collapse of the Parthian empire. Parthia incidentally had a role to play in the aforementioned plague outbreak of 165. The Romans had taken the Parthian cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, but suffered an outbreak of what was probably smallpox which they brought back to the empire with them when they retreated.

The semi-successful Roman invasion illustrates the exhaustion of the Parthian state which “often fought or frequently had to fight wars on two fronts, for in addition to the Seleucids and Romans in the west they had great adversaries in the east, such as the Greco-Bactrians, the Kushans who succeeded them, the Sakas, the Alans and other peoples of Central Asia. In the long run these conflicts overtaxed both the military and the economic strength of the Parthian empire.”10

Incidentally, the rise of the Sasanians also saw an end to major Buddhist and Brahman activities in Persia. As we can gather from the inscriptions of the priest Kartīr (on the Kabah of Zartusht dating from c.290 CE), Zoroastrianism became the official religion of the Sasanians in 224 CE (this is contested by some modern scholars however: see Gignoux, 1984). The šaman-s (śramaṇa-s) were no longer welcome it seems,11 though at times Buddhism was still tolerated, which was maybe a friendly gesture to certain subjugated peoples of the empire:

However dominant Zoroastrianism was under the Sassanians and whatever exclusivistic and even fanatical tendencies it showed, Buddhism seems to also have been tolerated at times. Even more than tolerance was present if one considers some coins of governor Peroz (242–252 AD) and of king Hormizd (256–264 AD), which depict them as paying homage to the Buddha.12

These developments more or less put an end to the westward expansion of Buddhism, but also quite possibly economic support which would have come from benefactors within the Persian heartlands. Firstly it should be noted that only a few decades before we see the first known reference in the west to mention the Buddhists (and Jains): Clement of Alexandria (c.150-215),13 so Buddhism, or at least knowledge of it, had made its way to the Roman world prior to its prohibition under the Sasanians. Another very curious fact which reveals notable Buddhist culture in Persia is the existence of Buddhist terminology in Manichaean theology:

No Buddhist texts in Parthian are extant, but their existence can been inferred from the presence of Buddhist and Indian terms in the Manichaean Parthian theological vocabulary from the earliest texts onwards (3rd–4th century BC). These terms show that the Manichaeans developed their apologetics in a Buddhist milieu.14

We might surmise that Buddhism in Persia, albeit a minority religion, still could have played a role in trade, but also functioned as another major benefactor to Buddhist civilization both in the Indosphere and Persia. This might not seem so unreasonable when we consider how later institutions like Nālandā received sponsorship from lands as far away as Java. The frontiers of Persia and the Indosphere also had plenty of Buddhist peoples, such as Bactria.

Setting aside such speculation, Parthia in its later years suffered chronic civil strife, a devastating epidemic of smallpox and repeated wars with foreign powers including the Romans, which enabled the rise of the Sasanians (reigned from 224-650 CE). The leader Ardašir went on to capture parts of Armenia, northwest Arabia and the western provinces of the Kuṣāṇa empire. The latter came to be ruled by Sasanian princes. Thereafter he turned west and secured Roman border towns and besieiged Hatra. This predictably led to war with the Romans. We might imagine that the fall of the Parthians and the subsequent wars both on the western and eastern borders of Persia led to decreased trade given the conflict. The Sasanians also had to fend off the nomads from the north, which likewise became a problem for powers in Europe and East Asia.

To summarize, in the third century we see the Roman empire increasingly crippled politically and financially as well as the end of the Kuṣāṇa, Parthian and Han states. The geopolitical situation on the Eurasian continent was largely quite unstable from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It is therefore easy to understand why such a decline in international trade occurred and how it undermined the sustainability of institutionalized Buddhism which had come to be in many ways an extension of the Indian mercantile system. 

Buddhist monasteries in India often provided storage and money lending services in urban areas, which facilitated commercial activities and no doubt encouraged increased patronage from the merchant classes which aligned their own interests with that of the sangha. This was ultimately the undoing of Indian Buddhism for a time, though it did recover but not without suffering hard times, both in terms economic support and a shifting religious atmosphere which saw increasing hostility from forms of Neo-Brahmanism.

The hard times that Buddhism increasingly faced is further reflected later on in the epigraphical record as well. Schopen has examined the relevant inscriptions extensively, which Boucher summarizes stating, “When the Mahāyāna does begin to appear on the scene in Indian Buddhist inscriptions, roughly around the fourth or fifth century, the Mainstream schools increasingly cease to be found epigraphically as recipients of substantial patronage.”15 This likely more reflects the final collapse of the Roman empire and the consequential decrease in coinage in India, but such a decline can already be traced back to the second and third centuries.

As mentioned above, within India as well Buddhism was under increasing pressure from rival religious Neo-Brahmanistic movements, which contrary to former orthodoxy started portraying the divine in art, a practice they probably adopted from the Buddhists. They furthermore developed popular practices that substantially deviated from the orthodox Vedic norm, but unlike the Buddhists they never challenged the caste system. By the fifth century when the Chinese monk Faxian 法顯 (338-c423) visited India, Buddhism was still present and in some regions thriving, but had undergone a few centuries of hardship and decreased support as epigraphical evidence suggests with respect to sponsorship.

Some Mahāyāna sūtras from those hard times take on a particularly pessimistic tone, speaking of how the end of Buddhism is near, such as the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra. Later on the Arthaśāstra from the Gupta dynasty (320-550 CE) takes on a clearly anti-śramaṇa stance. Nevertheless, following the collapse of the Guptas the stage was set for the empowerment of Mahāyāna traditions across north India which prior to that had often been a despised movement. We looked at this in an earlier post 5th Century India: a Turning Point in Buddhist History.

Bodhisattva head. Gandhāra.
The development of Buddhism in India has to be understood in this greater geopolitical context. It is simply not enough to limit one's framework to the Indosphere. This might seem rather daunting, but in reality to understand the historical development of Indian Buddhism, one must understand the greater Eurasian history. The major events in Europe, Persia and China often had an impact on the development of Buddhism on the subcontinent. The famous Graeco-Buddhist artwork from Gandhāra, the descendents of Alexander's men, is one immediately apparent example, but in terms of philosophy and the arcane as well there are distant influences at work as well, most notably in Buddhist Astrology.

We will discuss some these subjects in greater detail in future posts.



1 Romila Thapar, The Penguin History of Early India From the Origins to AD 1300 (London, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 2002), 242-243.

2 Giovanni Veraridi, Hardships and Downfall of Buddhism in India (New Delhi, India: Manohar, 2011), 91.

3 Romila Thapar, 253.

4 Ibid., 242.

5 Giovanni Verardi, 107.

6 Ibid., 106.

7 Peter Turchin and Sergey A. Nefedov, Secular Cycles (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2009), 233-235.

8 Ibid., 221.

9 See Mark Edward Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires Qin and Han (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 24-29.

10 See Encyclopedia Iranica Online:

12 Erik Seldeslachts in "Greece: The Final Frontier" in Handbook of Oriental Studies The Spread of Buddhism, edited by Ann Heirman and Stephan Peter Bumbacher (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 143.

13 Giovanni Verardi, 77.

14 Xavier Tremblay in "The Spread of Buddhism in Serindia" in Handbook of Oriental Studies The Spread of Buddhism, edited by Ann Heirman and Stephan Peter Bumbacher (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 80.

15 Daniel Boucher, “Dharmaraksa and the Transmission of Buddhism to China” in Asia Major, Volume 19, part 1/2,2006, 37.