The end of Buddhism in precolonial South India

When did Buddhism finally disappear from Tamil Nadu? And which kind of Buddhism was active in Tamil Nadu until its disappearance?

I am not an expert on this topic, thus, here I only would like to discuss with readers about what I found out in secondary literature and the seeming problems the secondary literature entails.

  • The most comprehensive resource I could locate are the books and articles edited or authored by Peter Schalk, who appears to be the major expert on Buddhism in Tamil Nadu and claims to have examined all possible primary sources on Buddhism in that country. Through a cross-examination of coins, inscriptions, artefacts, texts on Buddhists and texts of Buddhists, Schalk could conclude that “none is before the 4th and none after the 14th century” (Schalk in Deeg et al., 2011, section 8). More in detail, the last Tamiḷ Buddhist document (an inscription displaying a syncretic form of Buddhism and Śaivism, see Āḷvāppiḷḷai Vēluppiḷḷai 2002, section 5.7) is dated to the 13th c.
  • Buddhism, was, moreover, never supported by royal patronage in Tamil Nadu, unlike Vaiṣṇavism, Śaivism and in part also Jainism. Thus, it lacked the protection it could enjoy in other parts of South Asia and in Śrī Laṅkā (Schalk 2011, section 10). This, together with the pressure from Śaivism and Vaiṣṇavism are probably the causes of the Buddhist decline described as early as in 600 AD (in the Mattavilāsa prahasana, see Schalk, 2013, p. 30).
  • The lack of importance of Buddhism in the intellectual arena of Tamil Nadu is also testified by the fact that Jainas are much more frequently attacked and criticised by Śaiva and Buddhist authors (see Schalk 2013, p. 33).
  • In fact, even before the 14th c., Buddhism in Tamil Nadu had evolved into a form of Buddhism-Śaiva syncretism, so that:

    This “freedom’s” strenght was also its weakness: without an authoritative textual base it was soon assimilated with Caivam [=Śaivism] and finally eliminated in the 14th century” (2011, section 1).

    This open and syncretic nature of Tamil Buddhism is also evident in the fact that, as shown again by Schalk (2011), it did not possess a proper canon.

  • A further interesting resource is Anne Monius’ 2001 book, which focuses on the problems entailed in the study of the Buddhist community in South India through texts which only imagine it, such as the poem Maṇimēkalai. I will not focus on her text here, since my main concern is with a later period (1000-1500).

What else can we say about what Buddhists in Tamil Nadu read or listened to, and believed?

  1. The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (ca. 602–664) speaks of a large community and that it belonged to the Great Vehicle. However, Schalk convincingly shows that Xuanzang was speaking from hearsay and is not fully reliable (2011, section 11).
  2. There is a widespread tradition (of which I could not locate the primary source and I ask for help from learned readers) saying that in 1236 a group of bhikkus from Kañci left for Śrī Laṅkā to re-establish there a Theravāda ordination line.
  3. The Jaina Tamil text Nīlakēci seems to target a Abhidharma-like kind of Buddhism (see Āḷvāppiḷḷai Vēluppiḷḷai 2002, section 5.4, especially 5.4.8; for the identification of the Nīlakēci‘s polemical target with Mahāyāna, see Kandaswamy 1999, to which Shalk 2002, section 1.4.2, polemically replies).
  4. The vīracōḷiyam treatise (written during the reign of Vīrarājēndracōḷa, 1063–1070, and commented upon in the 12th c.) is a Buddhist text on Grammar. I wonder whether it could be connected to the flourishing of Buddhist Grammars in Pāli countries (see Ruiz-Falqués’ studies thereon, here) or rather only to the Cāndravyākraṇa.

Point No. 2 might seem to slightly clash with the evidence of the Theravāda ordination line in Śrī Laṅkā being re-established by monks from Pagan (Burma). Nonetheless, it is not impossible that the ordination line was interrupted again and one needed again bhikkus from abroad. These bhikkus most probably did not belong to the syncretic Buddhism described above. In fact, Schalk explicitly acknowledges the presence of Pāli ācariyas (ācārya) in Tamil Nadu, although he adds that

We know that they were also endured in Nākapaṭṭiṇam during the Cōḷa period, but they were evidently secluded, because they left no traces in the documents produced by the Cōḷa establishment (Schalk, 2002, section 5.1.1).

Now, a last question: Do you know whether Buddhist texts were preserved in Jaina institutions in Tamil Nadu, as it happened in North India? This could account for the presence of Buddhist texts even when an institutionalised Buddhist community was absent…

If you are wondering why I am interested in the topic, you can read this post of mine on Veṅkaṭanātha’s (Tamil Nadu, 1269–1370) Buddhist quotes.

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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6 thoughts on “The end of Buddhism in precolonial South India

  1. Regarding your point 2. (A group of monks that went to Sri Lanka in 1236 CE from Kāñcipura to re-establish an ordination lineage): I neither know this statement, nor the source, but I think that different things are mixed up here. It is reported in the Sinhalese chronicle, Mahāvaṃsa, that at the begin of Māgha’s usurpation of Sri Lanka a group of monks fled to South India, and that these monks were re-called by Vijayabāhu III (1232-36) after he became king. But neither were they South Indians nor were they needed to re-establish an ordination lineage. The Sīmālaṅkāra written by Vācissara (who also spent these years in South India) in which he describes deviating methods of the Coḷiyans regarding the determination of monastic boundaries, clearly shows that in the first half of the 13th c. CE there still was a living South Indian Theravāda tradition.

  2. South India boasted of outstanding Buddhist monks, who had made remarkable contributions to Buddhist thought and learning. Three of the greatest Pali scholars of this period were Buddhaghosa, Buddhadatta, and Dhammapala and all three of them were associated with Buddhist establishments in South India..

    South Indian Buddhist monk Thera Buddhaatta lived during the time of Accyutarikkanta, the Kalabra ruler of the Cola-Nadu; was a senior contemporary of Buddhaghosa. He was born in the Chola kingdom and lived in the 5th Century AD. Under the patronage of this ruler, Buddhadatta wrote many books. Among his best known Pali writings are the Vinaya-Vinicchaya, the Uttara-Vinicchaya and the Jinalankara-Kavya. Among the commentaries written by him are the Madhurattha-Vilasini and the Abhidhammavatara. In the Abhidhammaratara he gives a glowing account at Kaveripattinum, Uragapuram, Bhutamangalam and Kanchipuram and the Mahavihara at Anuradapura, (Sri Lanka). While he was at Sri Lanka, he composed many Buddhist works such as Uttara-viniccaya Ruparupa Vibhaga Jinalankara etc. Buddhaghosha, contemporary of Buddhadatta also composed many Buddhist commentaries.

    Buddhaghosha is a South Indian monk, who made a remarkable contribution to Buddhism in Sri Lanka. He stayed and studied Buddhist precepts at Mahavihara in Anuradhapura. The Visuddhimagga was the first work of Buddhaghosha which was written while he was in Sri Lanka.

    After Buddhaghosha, the important Theravada monk from South India was Dhammapala. Dhammapala lived in the Mahavihara at Anuradhapura. He composed Paramathadipani which was a commentary on Buddhaghosha’s work on Khuddaka Nikaya and Paramathamanjusa, which was a commentary on Buddhaghosha’s Visuddhimagga. A close study of the three Buddhist monks viz Buddhadatta, Buddhaghosha and Dhammapala shows that South Indian Buddhists were closely associated with the Sri Lankan Buddhists around the 5th century AD.

    The author of Nettipakarana is another Dhammapala who was a resident of a monastery in Nagapattinam, another important Buddhist centre from ancient times. One more example is the Chola monk Kassapa, in his Pali work, Vimatti-Vinodani, this South Indian monk provides interesting information about the rise of heretical views in the Chola Sangha and the consequent purification that took place. There are so many other South Indian monks who are attributed to the Pali works some of them were resident at Mayura-rupa-pattana (Mylapore, Madras) along with Buddhagosha.

    The South Indian Buddhist monks used Pali languages because the Buddha spoke in Magadi Prakrit (Pali). Sanskrit is the sacred language of the Hindus, and similarly Pali is considered as the sacred language of the Buddhists.

    On the other hand, the well known Tamil Buddhist epics found were Manimekalai, Silappadhikaram, Valaiyapathi, Kundalakesi, and Jivaka Cintamani. The lost Tamil Buddhist works include the grammar Virasoliyam, the Abhidhamma work Siddhantattokai, the panegyric Tiruppadigam, and the biography Bimbisara Kada. Manimekalai, a purely Buddhist work of the 3rd Sangam period in Tamil literature is the most supreme and famous among the Buddhist work done in Tamil. It is a work expounding the doctrines and propagating the values of Buddhism.It also talks about the South Indian Buddhists in the island/Nagadipa even though Manimekalai and Silappathikaram were considered as Tamil literary work and not as historical work.

    The Chinese traveller, Tsuan Tsang, wrote that there were around 300 Sri Lankan monks in the monastery at the Southern sector of Kanchipuram. Ancient Kanchipuram, the capital of Tondaimandalam, ruled by the South Indian Pallava dynasty, an offshoot of Chola rulers was the major seat of Tamil learning and is also known as the city of thousand temples. Even Thirukkural, the ancient Tamil couplets/aphorisms celebrated by Tamils is based on Buddhist principals. Although Buddhism has become almost extinct from South India, it has contributed a great deal to the enrichment of South Indian culture and has exerted a significant influence, both directly and indirectly, on the South Indian religious and spiritual consciousness, present as well as past.

    It is also believed that Bodhidharma who lived during the 5th/6th century AD was a South Indian Buddhist monk and the son of a Pallava king from Kanchipuram. Bodhidharma had travelled from South India by sea to the Far East for the purpose of spreading the Mahayana doctrine, transmitting his knowledge of Buddhism and martial arts. According to Chinese legend, he also began the physical training of the Shaolin monks that led to the creation of Shaolinquan.

    As Buddhism was one of the dominant religions in both South India and Sri Lanka, naturally there were very close relations between the two regions. The monks from Sri Lanka, too, went across to the South India and stayed in the monasteries. The co-operation between the Buddhist Sangha of South India and Sri Lanka produced important results which are evident in the Pali works of this period`.South Indian Buddhist monks were more orthodox than their counterparts in Sri Lanka.

    In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Buddhists who followed Theravada Buddhism shared the common places of worship with the Sinhalese, but there were also Tamil Buddhists who were following the Mahayana Buddhism and they had their own Mahayana temples. There are still some Tamil Mahayana Buddhist establishments (Palli) in the east and possibly in the Jaffna peninsula. The best known was Velgam Vehera which was renamed Rajaraja-perumpalli after the Chola emperor. Another was the Vikkirama-Kalamekan-perumpalli.

    It is a historical fact that among the many ancient Buddhist shrines in Sri Lanka Velgam Vehera which was renamed Rajaraja-perumpalli, also called Natanar Kovil by the present day Tamils stands out as the only known example of a `Tamil Vihare or Buddhist Palli` or as an `Ancient Buddhist shrine of the Tamil people`. Some of the Tamil inscriptions found at the site record donations to this shrine and are dated in the reigns of the Chola Kings, Rajaraja and Rajendradeva. The date of the original foundation of the vihare was no doubt considerably earlier than the reign of King Bhatika Tissa II.

    The situation in South India, however, began to change towards the beginning of the 7th Century AD when the rise of Vaishnavism and Saivism posed a serious challenge to Buddhism and Jainism. There was a significant increase in Hindu/Brahmanical influence and soon the worship of Siva and Visnu began to gain prominence. The Buddhist and Jaina institutions in South India came under attack when they began to lose popular support and the patronage from the rulers.

    Even though today there are no Tamil Buddhists in Sri Lanka, the majority of the early Tamils of Sri Lanka (before the 10th century Chola invasion) were Buddhists. The ancient Buddhist remains in the North and East of Sri Lanka are the remnants left by the Tamil Buddhists and not anybody else. They are part of the heritage of Sri Lankan Tamils. Only the Buddhist temples, statues and structures build in the recent past and present in the North and East can be considered as Sinhala-Buddhist.

    Why does the Sri Lankans believe that the Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka belong only to the Sinhalese (Sinhala heritage) and not to the Tamils? Why are the Sri Lankans ignorant about the early Tamil Buddhists of Sri Lanka and South India? Why do the Sri Lankans think, in Sri Lanka a Buddhist should be a Sinhalese and a Hindu should be a Tamil even though the Sinhalese worship most of the Hindu/Brahmanical Gods

    Unfortunately, the majority of Sri Lankans are ignorant of their ancient past. They think of the ancient past in today’s context.

    Today, the Buddhism in Sri Lanka is monopolized by the Sinhalese and they call it Sinhala-Buddhism. The fusion of Sinhala and Buddhism into Sinhala-Buddhism took place only in the early 20th century by revivalists such as Anagarika Dharmapala. Unfortunately today the Sri Lankan Tamils also believe that Buddhism is a Sinhala religion and is alien to them, but this was not the case in the early past. Unlike today, the Ancient Buddhist/Hindu civilization in Sri Lanka and the ancient Pali/Sanskrit place names has nothing to do with the ethnicity.In otherwords, the Ancient Buddhist/Hindu heritage and the ancient Pali/Sanskrit place names in the North and East of Sri Lanka has nothing to do with Sinhala.

    The Tamil politicians, scholars, intellects and the Tamil media should take every effort to educate the Sri Lankan Tamils to be aware and to understand that Buddhism was a part of Tamil civilization in the ancient past. The Tamil politicians should engage in preserving the `Tamil heritage’ of North & East of Sri Lanka. The most important part of the Tamil Heritage of North & East is its Buddhist and Hindu civilization.

    The lost Tamil Buddhism should be restored back in the North & East. The erection of new Buddha statues in the North & East should be welcomed and the Tamils should consider Buddha also as a part of their religion. Just like in Sri Lanka where in every Buddhist temple you find Hindu Gods, if you go to India, especially the North, in every Hindu temple there is a Buddha statue. There is nothing wrong in having a Buddha statue in the Hindu temples. Also, Tamil Buddhist temples should come up; Tamils should embrace Buddhist monkhood; Buddhism must be taught in Tamil; preaching and worshipping Buddhism in Tamil; Tamil Buddhist monks and a Tamil Buddhist Maha Sangam should be formed.

    If there are Tamil speaking Hindus, Christians, and Muslims in Sri Lanka today, why cannot there be Tamil speaking Buddhists also? After all, we were all Buddhists once upon a time. It all depends on how the Tamil leaders and the Tamil media can enlighten the Sri Lankan Tamils to understand their ancient past and convince, inspire and persuade them to accept Buddhism and the Buddha statues with an open heart and make them a part of their belief system.

    • thank you for this comment. It is a pity that Nationalism has made many people think that there are separate “nations” and that often they need to be identified with a single language, a single religion, a single writing system and so on. In this sense, I find the idea of an intersection of several identities more fruitful. One can be a Buddhist while remaining a Tamil-speaking person, as well as one can be a Christian, a Hindu, a Jew etc., while speaking English, Hindī, Malayalam, etc.