Why Buddhism Declined in the Land of its Birth

The Buddhist Channel, 12 December 2023

New Delhi, India -- The historical decline of Buddhism in India is a complex narrative shaped by a myriad of internal and external factors. There was no single event which marked its demise. Initially thriving under the patronage of the Maurya Empire, Buddhism experienced a gradual decline following the collapse of centralized power during the Gupta Empire. The process took almost 1,400 years to complete.

Ruins of the Nalanda Institution in Bihar, the most symbolic icon of the decline of Buddhism in India

This decline, marked by shifts in political alliances, religious competitions, doctrinal weaknesses, and external invasions, provides a fascinating journey through the challenges faced by Buddhism in ancient India.

The following outline key events leading to the decline and (almost) erasure of the Buddhist religion in its birth place.

Political Shifts and Financial Strain

The loss of a unified political structure post the Maurya Empire led to diminished royal support for Buddhist institutions, resulting in financial strain. As regional rulers aligned with Brahmin priests who upheld the caste system, contrary to Buddhist principles, Buddhism faced a decline in influence. Changes in political alliances further reduced support for Buddhist monasteries, contributing to their financial and structural decline.

Religious Competition and Doctrinal Challenges

The shift in royal patronage from Buddhist to Hindu temples intensified religious competition, forcing Buddhist monasteries to turn to laypeople for support. Doctrinal and structural weaknesses, including challenges posed by philosophical and religious doctrines like the first precept against killing, contributed to complacency and a decline in followers.

Regionalization, Fragmentation, and Absorption into Hinduism

The regionalization of India and the fragmentation of power among different states intensified religious rivalries. Hinduism, along with movements like Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Bhakti, and Jainism, competed for followers. The inclusive doctrine of the Bhakti movement sought to unite all religions under one God, leading to Buddhism becoming part of this movement and gradually evolving into the Hinduism known today.

Collaboration between Rivals and Decline in Popularity

Collaboration between the ruling class (Kshatriya) and Brahmins strengthened their control over the administration. The astute Brahmin priests, well-versed in administrative law and statecraft, such as the Artha Shastra and the Manusmriti, contrasted sharply with Buddhist monks who were more focused on monasteries and less involved in politics. This led to a decline in the popularity of Buddhism among the ruling elite.

Brahmin Opposition

During Asoka's rule, Brahmins opposed Buddhism's concept of equality. Buddha's emphasis on karma rather than birth as the determinant of caste challenged societal norms. Viewed as a threat due to its alignment with social justice principles contrasting with the Hindu caste system, the Brahmins took revenge to dismantle the Buddhist hold on society once royal support ceased.

Weaponising Language, Competition with Jainism, and Rituals

One effective way used by the Brahmins to eradicate Buddhist influence was by targeting the Pali language, which contained Buddha's original teachings. Sanskrit later replaced Pali as the language for documenting Buddhist teachings, making the absorption of Buddhism into Hinduism easier.

Competition with Jainism, a similar religion founded by Mahavira, added to the challenges. Jainism were more grounded to reach out to the lay people, and therefore was less susceptible to impact of support from the ruling elite. Furthermore, it was not against the caste system. Whereas Buddhism was catered towards serving the monastics. It's growth was predicated against the elite embracing its beliefs, and more often than not turning it into a state religion. Without this support, it is vulnerable to long term sustainability.

Ashoka's Rock Edict IX

During Ashoka's time, the prohibition of elaborate family rituals such as ceremonies after birth, illness, marriage and before setting out of journey (enshrined in Major Rock Edict IX), and that women are forbidden to carry out "various vulgar and useless ceremonies", impacted ingrained Hindu rituals such as Kula Puja. This restrictions then led to reduction in income streams for Brahmins, which led to further animosity.

Invasion and Final Destruction

Due to its pacifist doctrine of non-violence, the inability of Buddhism to resist external forces,  especially invasions from the north by Huns and Muslims, played a crucial role in its downfall. Religious persecution by Huns and Muslims targeted Buddhist institutions, such as the famed Nalanda Institution in the 12th CE, contributing to the destruction of stupas, viharas, and monasteries.


The historical decline of Buddhism in India presents a rich tapestry of challenges, from political shifts and religious competitions to doctrinal weaknesses and external invasions. Understanding these dynamics is crucial for comprehending Buddhism's trajectory in ancient India and appreciating the resilience and transformation of this ancient faith. As we explore this journey, we gain insights into the complexities of coexistence, rivalry, and adaptation that have shaped the cultural and religious landscape of the Indian subcontinent.
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