Watch | Indians, Episode 5: Nalanda and the Decline of Buddhism

By the early colonial period, Indians had even forgotten that a man called the Buddha had existed in their past! Only in the 19th century did Indians rediscover Nalanda and their amazing Buddhist heritage.

Watch previous episodes here: 1. A Brief History of a Civilisation and Why We Need to Know it | 2. The Aryans and the Vedic Age | 3. The Mauryans and Megasthenes | 4. The Ikshvakus of Andhra Pradesh.

Nalanda was a Buddhist monastery founded in the 5th century during the Gupta period (319–543 CE)—a creative age for literature, art, architecture, maths and science. Nalanda became the greatest centre of Buddhist learning in the world, lasting more than 800 years until the 13th century. It attracted student monks from across Asia, including three from China whose travel accounts contain fascinating insights into the social life of India and academic life at Nalanda in the 5–7th centuries. They describe urban life, laws, medicine, obsessions with purity and pollution, food taboos, untouchability and religious conflicts. They relate the rhythms of daily life at Nalanda, its curriculum, star teachers, academic debates, funding sources and more.

In this episode, I’ll also explore the many causes for the decline of Buddhism in India, starting in the second half of the first millennium. By the time of the Turko-Persian invasions, most Buddhist sites had already been abandoned, destroyed, or converted into Brahminical sites across much of India. Buddhist artifacts and texts were wiped out and Buddhism vanished from India’s public memory. By the early colonial period, Indians had even forgotten that a man called the Buddha had existed in their past! Only in the 19th century did Indians rediscover Nalanda and their amazing Buddhist heritage through archaeology, texts that survived in foreign lands, accounts of Chinese and Tibetan monks, and other sources.

Below is the transcription of the entire episode.

Hello and welcome to Indians. I’m Namit Arora.

In the previous episode, we looked at the Ikshvaku Kingdom that thrived in Andhra Pradesh about 1800 years ago. Among other things, it was a centre of Buddhist learning that was soon followed by even bigger centres of Buddhist learning in Eastern India.

The greatest of them was Nalanda Mahavihara, which attracted students from all across Asia, especially China. In this episode, I’ll look at what it was like to be a student at Nalanda. Who funded it for 800 years, and why did it disappear? What did the foreign students think about Indian society and culture? And what caused the demise of Buddhism in India?

The Rise of Nalanda

Nalanda was a Buddhist monastery, established in the early 5th century during the Gupta Empire (319–543 CE), whose kings were among its early patrons. The Gupta period was highly creative, with major accomplishments in literature, art, architecture, and science. It was the age of Kalidasa, the poet and playwright; Vatsyayana, author of the Kama Sutra; and Aryabhata, the mathematician-astronomer. The decimal number system, also known as the Arabic numeral system, likely arose then, as did some of the sublime rock art at Ajanta and Ellora near modern day Aurangabad.

Nalanda outlasted the Gupta Empire and many others. It lasted about 800 years until its demise in the 13th century. It was the greatest centre of Buddhist learning in the world. So great was its reputation that student monks came to study here from across Asia. Hundreds came from China alone, but also from Sri Lanka, Tibet, Japan, Korea, Sumatra, and Central Asia. They often undertook dangerous overland journeys across deserts and mountains that took years to complete. Many didn’t make it. So why did they risk so much? Because they had several motivations.

Why Foreign Students Came

At least since Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE, Buddhism had been spreading across Asia. The Kushan Empire (c. 30–375 CE), which extended from Central Asia to north India, promoted it. Traders and missionaries took Buddhism to China over the silk road and the seas. Many Turks and Persians embraced it. In China, Buddhism initially found favour among the elites. But they lived far from its Indian roots. Poor translations of Buddhist scriptures did not satisfy them. Misunderstood and defamed by rivals, early Chinese Buddhists longed for authentic sources to guide their faith, institutions, and practices. So these monks travelled to the subcontinent (1) to acquire Buddhist scriptures and texts, (2) to learn from Indian masters, and (3) to visit the sites associated with the Buddha. So in China, ‘Go West, young man!’ became a call to go to … India!

The travel accounts of three of these monks have survived: Faxian (or, Fa-Hien, c. 337–422 CE), Xuanzang (or Hiuen Tsang, c. 602–664 CE), and Yijing (or, I Ching, c. 635–713 CE). They’ve given us many quirky and telling details of social and academic life in India between the 5th and 7th centuries.

What the Chinese Saw in India

In terms of average living standards—of food, clothing, homes—the Chinese monks saw India and China as about on par. They noticed a lot of ‘countries’, or kingdoms, in the Subcontinent. Yijing reported 30 ‘countries’, Xuanzang 70. They mostly encountered kings who were Kshatriya, Vaishya, Brahmin, or Buddhist, but a small minority were Shudra, and one ruler was even a queen.

They recorded a range of laws, punishments, taxation, foods, festivals, and customs. Faxian described a well-functioning civic hospital system in the cities of the Gupta Empire. These monks also passed by large tracts of forests full of wildlife. That’s no surprise; India’s population was only about five percent of what it is today. A very different world from ours!

In the 7th century, Xuanzang noted that Indians were ‘very particular in their personal cleanliness’ but did not seem to mind their public streets being filthy. Sound familiar? Yijing wrote, ‘the first and chief difference between India and other regions is the peculiar distinction between purity and impurity’. The upper-class Indians he met, including monks, obsessed over foods they saw as innately ‘pure’ or ‘impure’. Their custom was to be served on individual plates. They neither shared dishes, nor ate leftovers. To be touched by someone while eating was polluting. Only the right hand was to be used for eating. Onions were considered impure and a cause of tummy aches, diseases, and bodily weakness. We’ve come a long way from that attitude to toppling governments if the price of onions isn’t right.

The Chinese accounts also reveal that in the 7th century, caste and endogamy were well-entrenched. Outcastes lived beyond the walls of towns and villages. They included butchers, fisherfolk, dancers, executioners, scavengers. They could only walk on certain designated tracks. Their status was so low that they could even eat impure foods like onions, garlic, and cattle meat. Manual scavengers had to announce their passage by striking sticks. If a ‘pure’ person touched one of them by accident, he had to thoroughly wash himself and his clothes. In other words, the records of Chinese travellers reveal that untouchability was a firmly established practice in the seventh century.

Xuanzang on Prayag, Varanasi, Mathura, Ayodhya

Xuanzang saw a river festival in Prayag similar to the Kumbh Mela. People had assembled at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna to wash away their sins. He saw a majestic statue of Shiva in Varanasi, and noticed that the town was full of Brahmins and their hundred temples. He was very impressed by the Ganga, calling it wide and blue, and its water ‘sweet and pleasant’. Imagine saying that today! Both Xuanzang and Faxian described Mathura as a Buddhist town, with thousands of monks residing on both banks of the Yamuna. Mathura had long been the most important centre of Buddhist art in north India.

Xuanzang also called Ayodhya a great centre of Buddhist learning, with a hundred monasteries. It was known for its Yogacara school of Mahayana Buddhism. Brahminism was less common in Ayodhya, and Lord Rama is entirely absent in his account. This shouldn’t surprise us. After all, the cult of Rama, or Ram Bhakti, arose centuries after Xuanzang. ‘Ayodhya’ itself was a name recently given to a place long called Saket. This was not the same Ayodhya that Valmiki had in mind. In other words, Ayodhya was mainly a Buddhist town, and Rama was neither a popular god, nor did he have anything to do with the city we call Ayodhya.

The most powerful ruler in India in the 7th century was perhaps Harsha of Kannauj, who Xuanzang praised profusely for his temperance and generosity. Harsha was a strong leader. He had driven out the dreaded Hunas, the invading tribes from Central Asia. Like Ashoka, he too had embraced Buddhism in mid-life. He built hospitals on major highways and provided free food and medicines for all travellers. Every fifth year, in a grand event, he donated all surpluses in his treasury to charity, including to religious institutions. Xuanzang travelled at least as far south as Kanchipuram in modern day Tamil Nadu, where he saw a hundred Buddhist monasteries and eighty Hindu temples.

The State of Ayurveda

Yijing studied Ayurveda but was not too impressed. He judged Chinese medicine better than India’s. Historians of science tell us that by then, Ayurveda had been stagnating for centuries. The origins of Ayurveda go back to the ascetic and Sramana communities of the early first millennium BCE. It had once made great strides, especially in surgery, using rational, empirical methods. But this began changing with the growing embrace of ‘purity and pollution’ in the late first millennium BCE. Many upper-caste healers, or vaidyas, who dominated formal medical education, cut back on working with the ‘unclean’ body and its fluids. The Manusmriti even lowered the ritual status of physicians who came in contact with sick bodies. This attitude only deepened as Brahminism spread in the Subcontinent. It stalled Indian medical science. Without hands-on experiments, unscientific ideas and practices—based on bodily humours or doshas—began rising in Ayurveda, where they stubbornly remain to this day.

Impressions of Nalanda

The Chinese monks say a lot about Nalanda too. When they visited in the 7th century, its resident population was about 3000 monks. Archaeologists have so far uncovered eleven monasteries, six temples, and a giant stupa, called the Great Monument. Each monastery had a rectangular courtyard, a veranda all around it, and dorm rooms stacked two floors high. Each floor had 30–40 rooms, and at least two monks shared each room. The courtyard had a brick oven for cooking, a well for water, and bathrooms with covered drains.

Each monastery was run by a learned master, a sort of dean, along with a supporting faculty. These teachers lived with the students and enjoyed the most spacious rooms. Formal greeting protocols existed between students and teachers. Courtyards had podiums, from where teachers lectured to students seated on the floor. Each monastery had its own shrines to the Buddha and other gods. It’s clear that Buddhism, like Brahminism, had admitted many local folk deities in its pantheon in order to broaden its appeal, though Brahminism was far ahead in this game. The motif of amorous couples had become increasingly common on religious sites; it even appears in the temple art of a monastic institution like Nalanda.

The Chinese accounts describe the monks’ daily walks and bathing routines in nearby ponds, their worship and cremation rites, the games they played and the meals they ate. The staples of their food were rice, barley, beans, cooked veggies, and roots, with ghee, honey, or spices. Mangoes were much-loved. On rare occasions, the monks even ate meat, as long as it came from an animal who had died naturally or in an accident. So while they did not commission animal slaughter, they were pragmatic enough to not let good nutrition go to waste.

Curriculum and a Culture of Debate

All candidates at Nalanda had to be at least 20 years old and pass a qualifying oral exam. Only the best got in. Nuns were admitted too but not much is known about their lives. All students studied grammar, logic, philosophy, theology, astronomy, and medicine. They studied two schools of Mahayana (Madhyamaka and Yogacara), 18 schools of Theravada (or Hinayana) and after the seventh century, several schools of Vajrayana, a Tantra-inflected form of Mahayana that lives on in Tibet. Their curriculum lacked politics, maths, and physics. The main science they studied was medicine, which combined aspects of botany, zoology, and chemistry in the service of a practical end: curing and sustaining the human body. According to Xuanzang, ‘The day is not sufficient for asking and answering profound questions. From morning till night they engage in discussion; the old and the young mutually help each other.’

Many of the teachers were rockstar thinkers and philosophers, such as Dignaga, Dharmakirti, Shantideva. They investigated questions that resonate even today: How does the structure of language impact our understanding of the world? Does language correspond to an objective, mind-independent reality? On what grounds can we establish the truth? Their framework was largely atheistic, and they vigorously debated each other as well as non-Buddhists. According to the Chinese monks, the Buddhists invariably won all the philosophical debates held around the country, handily beating Brahmins, Jains, and others. We can’t rule out bias in their reporting, but their claim was correct in at least one grand debate that was organised by emperor Harsha in the 7th century. From other sources we know that the Buddhists won at this event and Xuanzang was one of their star performers.

Was There an ‘Indian’ Identity?

The Chinese monks observed great cultural diversity in the Subcontinent. But as outsiders, they also saw an ethnic quality that distinguished its people from others. They used a single term for all people on this side of the river Sindhu (Indus). This term was ‘In-tu’, derived from ‘Sindhu’, which the Persians pronounced as ‘Hindu’. This was a non-religious term used for the entire population of the subcontinent, like the term ‘Indians’. Only in late medieval times would ‘Hindu’ start referring to a specific religious identity.

The monks noticed many common cultural features across these kingdoms, especially among the elite followers of big religions. But the people had no broadly common identity. As Yijing wrote, Indians did not see themselves as one people. They neither had a name for their vast territory, nor for themselves as a whole. No one saw themselves as practising ‘Hindu’ religion.

The truth is that most people’s identities were highly local, shaped by their language, tribe, caste, region, king, faith, folk belief or custom. The average religious chap would’ve been very surprised to be told that he practised a widely shared faith called Sanatan Dharma (‘eternal religion’), as Hindu nationalists began claiming in the 19th century. The term sanatan dharma has no such historical reality; it’s a product of the conservative Hindu revivalism of modern times. In fact, the very idea of an ‘eternal’ religion is weird, given the immense historical change in the subcontinent’s religiosity over the last 3500 years.

A Network of ‘Universities’

Is it correct to call Nalanda a ‘university’? Yes and No. Yes, because it was a community of teachers and scholars striving to advance knowledge. No, because it admitted only Buddhist monks committed to celibacy, who came to stay for life rather than graduate with degrees and return to public life. But with this caveat, we could call it the earliest university in the world. In fact, Eastern India sprang up many other well-regarded institutions like Nalanda, for instance, at Uddandapura, Vikramashila, and Somapura. They all collaborated but were also rivals for prestige and funding.

Funding for Nalanda

It seems the monks at Nalanda had a simple yet comfortable life. But who paid for all their food, the buildings, the artwork? Mostly the royals and wealthy merchants. Some of the royals, including foreign ones, secured for Nalanda long-term rights to the revenue of nearby villages. Apparently, a hundred villages supplied rice, cereal, milk, butter, ghee, vegetables, and other produce to the monastery. For the monks, it was like a lifelong scholarship! But while this secured their livelihood, it also had major downsides … and contributed to the decline of Buddhism in India.

Why Buddhism Declined in India

Buddhism’s decline had begun in the second half of the first millennium. Xuanzang had already noticed its slide in the 7th century, and that trend accelerated in the centuries ahead. I think there are five key reasons for the decline of Buddhism in the land of its birth.

First, there had long been a competitive and hostile dynamic between Brahminism and Buddhism, mainly over three things: funding, followers, and ideology. The Chinese monks have recorded frequent and often bitter conflicts between Buddhist monks and Brahmins. Xuanzang reported a failed plot in which 500 Brahmins had hired a killer to assassinate emperor Harsha, because they were jealous and resentful of his ‘excessive’ patronising of Buddhism. Centuries earlier, the grammarian Patanjali had himself compared the animosity between the Brahmins and Shramanas to that between the snake and the mongoose.

Sometimes kings took sides in these battles too. In the 6th century, the Hun ruler Mihirakula, a Shaivite, destroyed stupas, monasteries, and killed monks in the northwest. According to Xuanzang, Shashanka of Bengal, a Brahminical king, ‘slandered the religion of the Buddha’ and raided and ‘cut down the Bodhi tree’, ‘burnt it with fire’ and destroyed the monasteries around it. There are many such stories. In short, Brahminical hostility was a major factor in the demise of Buddhism. Their conflicts appear in sculpture too. For instance, in the site museum at Nalanda, we see Buddhist Tantric deities trampling Brahminical gods, like Trailokya Vijaya trampling Shiva and Gauri, or Aparajita trampling Ganesh. They come from Buddhism’s waning centuries and seem like desperate attempts to signal their religious superiority to lay people.

Second, in the early centuries of Buddhism, its clergy had earned its living by relying on common people, exchanging religious services for donations of food, clothes, or money. But centuries of royal patronage had reduced their dependence on ordinary people. As their needs were taken care of by the royals, the monks reduced their contact with the lay public. They no longer needed the public to earn a living. They began retreating into walled, gated monasteries and grew self-absorbed in their academic and personal quests. As they abandoned the public, the public returned the favour. Lay Buddhists who didn’t care much for abstract theological differences, began shifting to rival religious orders with similar modes of worship. So the funding by the royals turned out to be a very mixed blessing indeed.

Third, between the 7th to 10th centuries, profound changes occurred in the Indian religious landscape. Like the rise of Brahminical orthodoxy, led by Adi Shankara, and the emergence of Bhakti, or mystical devotionalism, in south India. One could say that there was a big churn in the religious market, and more satisfying products were turning up. Buddhism was one of the losers, partly because it was a more sober and austere faith, and partly because Brahminical Hinduism had more cleverly appropriated folk beliefs and practices. It had embraced popular features of Buddhism too, such as monastic orders and stopping animal sacrifices; it had even declared the Buddha as the 9th Avatar of Vishnu. As a business major might say today, this reduced Buddhism’s USP [i.e., unique selling proposition].

Fourth, with declining followers for Buddhism, the kings of the period began shifting to an exclusively Brahminical ideology, and this set in a vicious spiral for Buddhism. Funding for its monasteries began drying up. Its last great royal patrons were the Palas of Bengal. They were followed by the Sena dynasty of Bengal in the 12th century, whose Brahminical kings actively persecuted Buddhist monks. Many monks fled south. On the eve of the Turko-Persian invasions around 1200, Buddhism had vanished from everywhere except isolated pockets in eastern and southern India and the western Himalayas.

And fifth, with Indian Buddhism already on life-support by the late 12th century, the final blow was delivered by the Turks, who finished off its last few, barely-functioning monasteries. But even this was not as black and white, or as dramatic, as many think it is. The popular belief that Nalanda was destroyed by the invader Bakhtiar Khilji (in the 1190s), is not supported by historical evidence. Nalanda was still going in 1234–36, patronized by king Buddhasena of Bodh Gaya, when Dharmasvamin, a monk from Tibet, studied there. Rather than a dramatic final end, Nalanda continued its long phase of decay and depopulation for decades after Khilji’s death (1206).

Buddhism Vanishes From Public Memory

So the decline of Buddhism had many causes, although both British colonisers and Hindu nationalists, for their own convenient reasons, blamed it on Turko-Persian invasions, which was in fact a minor cause. As Buddhism dwindled over time, its sites were either abandoned, destroyed, or converted mostly into Brahminical sites, and a minority into Islamic sites. Even the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya was turned into a Shiva temple. Buddhist texts and artifacts were wiped out. Except in the western Himalayas, Buddhism practically vanished from India and its public memory. By the early colonial period, Indians knew nothing of Ashoka or his edicts or the Sanchi stupa. It’s hard to believe, but Indians even forgot that a man called the Buddha, the founder of a major world religion, had ever existed in their past!

It’s often said that ancient Indians were not interested in history, that their accounts of the past are inseparable from myth. Such accounts are indeed common but they’re not the whole story. Pali chronicles from Sri Lanka suggest that Indian Buddhists had a much stronger tradition of writing history than the Brahmins, so the loss of Buddhism was a major setback for Indian self-knowledge. And when Buddhism disappeared from India, its texts disappeared with it, leaving a deep Brahminical bias in the surviving records. It was only in the 19th century that Indians rediscovered Nalanda and their Buddhist heritage through archaeology, texts that survived in foreign lands, the accounts of these Chinese monks, and other sources.

But Buddhism wasn’t the only casualty of the new political-religious churning in the latter half of the first millennium. Other profound changes were also happening. In the next episode, I’ll take you to a very different setting in central India … the amazing temple town of Khajuraho, and a major historical site where Indians happily combined erotica with religion. See you next time!