Historical Clashes between Hindu Kings and Buddhism

The Buddhist Channel, 6 Aug 2023

New Delhi, India -- In the midst of the ongoing Gyanvapi mosque issue, the call for an archaeological survey of Hindu temples has reignited a long-standing debate about whether Hindu kings destroyed Buddhist structures in ancient India. Swami Prasad Maurya, a prominent leader of the Samajwadi Party, has advocated for such a survey to determine if many Hindu temples were erected after demolishing pre-existing Buddhist religious sites.

bodhi tree

The Bodhi Tree in front of the Mahabodhi Temple, Gaya is said to be not the original one where Buddha attained enlightenment (Nirvana). The original tree was purportedly destroyed by Shaivite king Shashanka in the 6th-7th century.

The Gyanvapi mosque complex in Varanasi has been at the center of the controversy, prompting discussions about the historical religious landscape of ancient India. The Allahabad High Court recently granted permission to the Archaeological Survey of India to conduct a scientific investigation and excavation of the mosque premises (excluding the ablutions area) to ascertain whether the present structure was built over a pre-existing Hindu temple.

For decades, there has been a widely held belief in India about the peaceful and tolerant nature of ancient Hindu civilization, with the idea that religious violence only entered the subcontinent with Muslim invaders. This narrative has been propagated by various political parties and influential figures, shaping the collective understanding of Indian history.

However, some historians have challenged this notion, pointing to instances of violence and religious intolerance in ancient India. They argue that the prevailing narrative is a selective interpretation of history, constructed to fit modern aspirations for a peaceful and harmonious India.

Historian Upinder Singh's extensive study on Political Violence in Ancient India sheds light on the reality of a conflict-ridden past, contradicting the image of a completely peace-loving society. Similarly, the late historian D N Jha emphasized that the demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments were not uncommon in India before the arrival of Islam.

The link between religion and political authority played a significant role in shaping the actions of rulers. Historian Richard Eaton highlighted how temple desecration was intertwined with interdynastic conflicts, revealing the complexity of the relationship between religious institutions and power structures.

Buddhism emerged as a response to the rigid and ritualistic practices of Vedic Hinduism during the second urbanization of India in the fifth-sixth centuries BC. Although Buddhism has been assimilated into the Hindu pantheon in contemporary times, historical accounts indicate periods of violence and persecution between the two faiths.

Accounts of Pushyamitra Shunga, a ruler in the second century BC, are fraught with descriptions of destruction and bloodshed against Buddhists. While some details may be exaggerated, the existence of acrimony between Buddhism and Brahmanism cannot be denied.

Historical figures like Huan Tsang (Xuanzang), the Chinese Buddhist monk who traveled in India during Harshavardhana's time, recounted stories of violence, including the famous tale of Shaivite king Shashanka.

Shashanka, the sixth-seventh century Shaivite king of Gaur (modern North Bengal), was known for his achievements but also infamous for his intolerance towards Buddhists. He is credited with establishing the first distinct political entity in unified Bengal, known as Gauda. His reign is believed to have occurred roughly between 590 and 625 AD, during which he coexisted with contemporaries like Harshavardhan and Bhaskaravarman of Kamrupa.

One of Shashanka's commendable accomplishments was the initiation of the first Bengali calendar, a milestone that historians acknowledge to this day. He was an ardent propagator of Hinduism, specifically following the Shaivaite tradition and dedicatedly constructed temples in honor of Lord Shiva across his kingdom. Notably, the renowned Lingaraja Temple in Odisha is said to have been commissioned by him.

However, historical accounts also reveal a darker side to Shashanka's rule. A 12th-century text indicates that he displayed extreme intolerance towards Buddhists, relentlessly persecuting them and making efforts to eradicate Buddhism from his dominions.

Numerous Buddhist stupas were reportedly destroyed, and viharas were converted into Hindu temples in places like Nalanda, Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Mathura. Tragically, it is even alleged that he cut down the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya. The tree that stands today is not the original one that once bore witness to the profound event.

The call for an archaeological survey of Hindu temples to assess their possible construction over Buddhist structures adds another layer of complexity to India's historical and religious tapestry. As the excavation proceeds, it is hoped that a deeper understanding of ancient India's past will emerge, shedding light on the complexities of its religious and political history.

Only through a comprehensive examination of the evidence can the truth behind these historical claims be ascertained.
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