Buddhist shrines massively destroyed by Brahmanical rulers in "pre-Islamic" era: Historian DN Jha's survey

Nalanda mahavihara
By Our Representative
Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book, "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".
The book says, "Central to (Hindutva) perception is the belief that Muslim rulers indiscriminately demolished Hindu temples and broke Hindu idols. They relentlessly propagate the canard that 60,000 Hindu temples were demolished during Muslim rule, though there is hardly any credible evidence for the destruction of more than 80 of them."
Presenting what he calls "a limited survey of the desecration, destruction and appropriation of Buddhist stupas, monasteries and other structures by Brahminical forces", Jha says, "Evidence for such destruction dates as far back as the end of the reign of Ashoka, who is credited with making Buddhism a world religion."
He adds, "A tradition recorded in a twelfth-century Kashmiri text, the Rajatarangini of Kalhana, mentions one of Ashoka’s sons, Jalauka. Unlike his father, he was a Shaivite, and destroyed Buddhist monasteries. If this is given credence, the attacks on Shramanic religions seem to have begun either in the lifetime of Ashoka or soon after his death."
According to Jha, "Other early evidence of the persecution of Shramanas comes from the post-Mauryan period, recorded in the Divyavadana, a Buddhist Sanskrit, which describes the Brahmin ruler Pushyamitra Shunga as a great persecutor of Buddhists. He is said to have marched out with a large army, destroying stupas, burning monasteries and killing monks as far as Sakala, now known as Sialkot, where he announced a prize of one hundred dinars for every head of a Shramana."
Bringing up "evidence" from famous grammarian Patanjali, Jha says, he "famously stated in his Mahabhashya that Brahmins and Shramanas are eternal enemies, like the snake and the mongoose. All this taken together means that the stage was set for a Brahminical onslaught on Buddhism during the post-Mauryan period, especially under Pushyamitra Shunga, who may have destroyed the Ashokan Pillared Hall and the Kukutarama monastery at Pataliputra—modern-day Patna."
Jha further says, "The possibility of a Shunga assault on Buddhist monuments is supported by the layers of debris and the evidence of desertion found at many centres of Buddhism, notably in Madhya Pradesh. For example, Sanchi, which was an important Buddhist site since the time of Ashoka, has yielded evidence of the vandalisation of several edifices during the Shunga period. Similar evidence comes from nearby places such as Satdhara, in Katni district, and Deurkothar, in Rewa district."
"The destruction and appropriation of Buddhist sites continued in Madhya Pradesh even after Shunga rule ended", says Jha. "At Ahmedpur, for instance, a Brahminical temple seems to have been constructed on a stupa base in the fifth century, and icons have been found at several sites around Vidisha, which were transformed into Shaivite or Jain places of worship around the eighth century."
Then, "more than 250 kilometres north-east of Vidisha, a Buddhist establishment existed at Khajuraho before it emerged as a major temple town from the tenth century onwards, under the Chandellas. Here, the Ghantai temple appears to have been built on the remains of a Buddhist monument in the ninth or tenth century by the Jains, who also may have had a strong presence in the region."
Providing evidence from Mathura, which was a flourishing town in western Uttar Pradesh during the Kushana period, Jha says, "Some present-day Brahminical temples, such as those of Bhuteshwar and Gokarneshwar, were Buddhist sites in the ancient period. Here, the Katra Mound, a Buddhist centre during Kushana times, became a Hindu religious site in the early medieval period."
Further, at Kaushambi, near Allahabad, "the destruction and burning of the great Ghositaram monastery has been attributed to the Shungas -- more specifically to Pushyamitra", says Jha, adding, "Sarnath, near Varanasi, where the Buddha delivered his first sermon, became the target of Brahminical assault. This was followed by the construction of Brahminical buildings, such as Court 36 and Structure 136, probably in the Gupta period, by reusing Mauryan materials."
Quoting Chinese pilgrim Fa-hsien, who visited India in the early fifth century, during the Gupta period, Jha says, at Sravasti, where the Buddha spent much of his life, "Brahmins seem to have appropriated a Kushana Buddhist site, where a temple with Ramayana panels was constructed during the Gupta period."
Jha notes, "In fact, the general scenario of Buddhist establishments in what is today Uttar Pradesh was so bad that in Sultanpur district alone no less than 49 Buddhist sites seem to have been destroyed by fire when, as described in a paper by the archaeologist Alois Anton F├╝hrer, 'Brahminism won its final victories over Buddhism'.”
In the post-Gupta centuries, says Jha, Chinese Buddhist pilgrim and traveller Hsüan Tsang, who visited India between the years 631 and 645, during the reign of Harshavardhana, "states that the sixth-century Huna ruler Mihirakula, a devotee of Shiva, destroyed 1,600 Buddhist stupas and monasteries and killed thousands of Buddhist monks and laity. He further tells us that 1,000 sangharamas in Gandhara were 'deserted'/and in 'ruins,' and describes 1,400 sangharamas in Uddiyana as 'generally waste and desolate'.”
Then, says Jha, "Hsüan Tsang tells us that the king Shashanka of Gauda cut down the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya in Bihar -- the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment -- and removed a statue of the Buddha from a local temple, ordering that it be replaced by an image of Maheshvara... Bodh Gaya came under Buddhist control again during the period of the Pala rulers, who were Buddhists, and the place has, in fact, remained a site of religious contestation throughout Indian history."
Referring to the internationally reputed Buddhist university at Nalanda, especially the its vast monastic complex where Hsüan Tsang spent more than five years, Jha says, it's library was set on fire by "Hindu fanatics", insisting, "The popular view, however, wrongly attributes this conflagration to the Mamluk commander Bakhtiyar Khilji, who never went there, but, in fact, sacked the nearby Odantapuri Mahavihara at modern-day Bihar Sharif."
Suspecting that even the Jagannath temple at Puri, one of the most prominent Brahminical pilgrimage centres in eastern India, built in the twelfth century during the reign of the Eastern Ganga ruler Anantavarman Chodaganga Deva, "is said to have been constructed on a Buddhist site" something which "may be contested", Jha says, "There is hardly any doubt that the temples of Purneshvara, Kedareshvara, Kanteshvara, Someshvara and Angeshvara, all in Puri district, were either built on Buddhist viharas, or made of material derived from them."


Nandini Oza said…
Very useful and important read.
Unknown said…
Useful, but blaming it all on Brahmins is a bit short-sided. Brahmins wouldn't have been able to pull it off without the military support of Kshatriyas and financial support of Vaishyas while even Jains were seemingly all to happy in seeing a rival shramanistic religion fail. And, the final nail on the buddhist coffin WAS contributed to by Turkic and Afghani islamist invaders as well...
Uma Sheth said…
Why hide behind anonimity? It is true that Kshatriyas destroyed Buddhist sites but they were directed by the Bhrahmins.