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In the land of the Buddha, why are there so few Buddhists? Did they convert to Islam?

Sonali Ranade,
a trader and columnist, who is a prolific tweeter, in a recent blog "How did India’s Buddhists disappear? In the land of the Buddha, why are there so few Buddhists?" suggests that most of the Muslims who converted to Islam in South Asia were Buddhists and they did it mostly out of self-volition. Read on:
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It wasn’t until college, that it dawned on me that I had never met a Buddhist in my life.
I could count quite a few Jains [hawt property for Gujju girls] at college, Muslims a plenty; the Navy, on whose bases I grew up, was chockfull of Sikhs; many Christians at school including a English literature teacher who I think was a recreant Pope in hiding; and not to forget my bestie, a blue-blood Parsi, whacky as they come, [she masquerades as an architect these days, and I always wonder why her buildings don’t collapse laughing at her colorful Hindi]; but no Buddhists.
Puzzled, I asked the Pater, usually my go-to walking encyclopedia, but he was stumped. Or at least he pretended to be so. The question got generalized over time, and stayed with me for years: Why are there so few Buddhists in India, the land of the Buddha?
Mind I am pretty persistent, but college, where I was a Physics student, keen on astrophysics, the scope for finding answers to such questions was limited. The little history that came my way, provided no insights. My Dadi, usually a storehouse of stuff on our clan’s past, with tales of how we came down from Kashmir to Konkan, armed with fair skins and blue-green eyes, chasing Brahamadeya lands from Kings and Chieftains of the Deccan, in return for legitimizing their rule through temples, was of no help either.
So why does our history so hide the answer to such an obvious question?
The answer was to come years later. The story of my discovery begins with the following text and map.
“At around the beginning of the Common Era the Kushans assumed overall control of most of Afghanistan and eastern Iran, under their leader Kujula Kadphises. His son, Wima Kadphises, entered north India in the middle of the first century CE. All Punjab, Kashmir and the plain of the Ganges up to Kashi came to be Kushan-controlled. The whole of the empire, from the River Oxus to Kashi, was consolidated by Kanishka, who succeeded Wima."
(Avari, Burjor. India: The Ancient Past (p. 154). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)
The Kushans ruled a vast empire stretching from the Caspian Sea in the north, to almost Gujarat in the south, eastern Iran, Herat and Kandahar in the West, to Kashi in the east that would include modern Delhi. They started out in the common era, 0 CE, and their rule lasted for 250 years, or until 250 CE. Their most famous ruler was Kanishka, and the buddhist rate him as highly as the earlier Emperor Ashoka, who gave Buddhism in India its first impetus. The Maurya Empire [322 BCE to 185 BCE] lasted 137 years. The Kushans ruled after them for 250 years. Both the empires were Buddhist.
Who were the Kushans? They were an Indo-European tribes much like our ancestor Aryans, but from Xinjiang and Gansu, [yes, very much Chinese], who settled in Bactria [modern northern Afghanistan] at the beginning of the common era. Their Chinese name was Yueh-chi.
India under the Kushans, was fabulously rich because it sat plonk on the Silk Route from China to Rome, at all three key nodes of the main route.
“Caravans from India carried ivory, elephants, spices, cloths, salt, musk, saffron and indigo; the returning caravans brought lapis lazuli, turquoise, fine quality ceramics, wines, and gold and silver coins. The first part of the overland route was from Taxila to Begram, from where two main routes branched out: the northern route via Bactria, the Oxus, the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus to the Black Sea, and the southern route via Kandahar, Herat and Ecbatana to the ports of the eastern Mediterranean.” [The latter, basically Syria, which back then was the trading hub where a number of civilizations met to trade.] (Avari, Burjor. India: The Ancient Past (p. 160). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)
You might well wonder why I am going on and on about some Chinese Buddhist empire in India, that lasted a mere 250 years, dating back to the Common Era.
Start with the fact: Did you know that we were at one time under Chinese rule for 250 years? The fact is carefully hidden in plain sight in our history books. But I bring it up as a gentle reminder for our Hindutva warriors who blithely talk of Akhand Bharat. What if the Chinese start talking of Akhand China? So, it is a good time to put a stop to the Hindutva lunacy before it gets out of hand.
Getting back to my story, it should not then surprise you that about half, or more, of the people in the Mauryan and Kushan Empires over [322 + 250] 572 years were Buddhists, the balance being “Hindus” for want of a better word.
Remember Buddhism was the official religion, and lay people were converting into Buddhism basically to escape the greed and venality of the Vedic Brahmins. Most of the converts were from the lower classes, mainly Shudra, who saw better opportunities in newer professions that were not open to them under the older regime. [The Hindus forbade contact with foreigners, travel abroad etc., restrictions that simply didn’t allow for trade and commerce.] Weavers, caravan drivers, traders, merchants etc., who did not derive their livelihood from agriculture, were those who benefitted the most from conversion to Buddhism.
A note here on the the brief rule of Pushyamitra Shunga and his clan from 185 BCE to 149 BCE, a mere 40 years. Many an educated and well informed Indian thinks that Pushyamitra reversed the trend of lower caste Hindus [mainly, but they included all castes] converting from Brahmanism to Buddhism. It is true Pushyamitra waged a rather cruel and extensive campaign against the Buddhists. But as you can see from the map, Shunga control over territory was limited to some parts of modern Eastern UP and MP, around Ayodhya, an area too tiny to make any dent in the huge waves of conversions, from Hinduism to Buddhism across India. [Do note though, herein lies one reason why the whole of UP didn’t convert to Islam later under the Moguls.]
The Kushan empire was broken up from the north by the influx of new central asian tribes called the Huns, the same people who also destabilized the Roman Empire, our main trading partner back then. It was the Hun destabilization of Rome that led to the Goths ransacking it a bit later.
The Kushans were followed by the Imperial Guptas as rulers in 320 CE or AD, as you prefer. And they were to rule India under various Kings right up to the 550 CE. The Guptas failed to take back the northern most portion of the Silk route from Huns, but still won back control of Kandahar, and the Jamnagar port, the latter through a marriage with the Vakatakas who ruled old Maharashtra, that included the Jamnagar port. [The port was main main transit point from India to Djibouti, on the Ethiopian coast, past the Gulf of Aden, and from there up the Red Sea to the Mediterranean]. The Vedic society saw its flowering under royal patronage of the Guptas as never before. There was an effervescence in sciences, mathematics, arts, crafts that is a treat to read about.
The Guptas were largely even handed between Hinduism and Buddhism, giving large land grants to temples of both the faiths, and persecuting none. It is lesson that RSS would be well advised to imbibe in letter and spirit. So while the official religion switched back from Buddhism to Hinduism, after a lapse of some 600 years, the percentage of Buddhists in the population remained as before. At best the trend towards walking out of Hinduism to Buddhism was arrested.
The Gupta empire began to unravel after it failed to defend Kandahar from raids by the White Huns around 550 CE, and their collapse led to many of their regional chieftains declaring independence, and establishing their own satrapies. The most famous of these was King Harsha [606 to 647 CE]. This was the time of Hsuan Tsang and Banabhatta, the two scholars who shed so much light on on history of that period.
Leaving the all Indian story there, I return to my focus of Jamnagar, and the lower Indus River, to answer the question of where and how our Indian Buddhists disappeared.
Islam came to the Arab world circa 610 CE, when King Harsh had just come on to the scene. By 660 CE the Umayyad Caliphate had been formed.
The delta region of the Indus, and Jamnagar, had a large Arab population of seafarers, traders, merchants and ship owners. The shipping fleet in trade with Rome, and later Europe, was largely in Arab hands since 31 BCE. Map
It boggles the mind that the Indians didn’t build their own merchant navy. The Admirals might wanna look into the reasons more closely. It is said that Arabs [pre-Islamic Arabs] worked out how the trade winds in the Arabian Ocean changed with season by 40 BCE, and used this knowledge to beat all others in the trade, as the latter were forced to hug the coast, while Arab fleets sailed the high seas. Their absolute sway lasted till the Portuguese blasted their dhows with cannon, and imposed their own monopoly circa 1498 CE.
The Arabs around the Indus delta converted to Islam circa 660 CE. They had long been plagued by piracy around the lower reaches of Indus. Under their chief, Muhammad Bin Qasim, they led a raid on the pirates in 711 CE, sailing up the river Indus, and finding practically no opposition, ended up capturing most of Sind.
This was the final nail in the coffin of the of the ever quarreling rulers of northern India after King Harsha. With the capture of Sind, Indian rulers lost control over all branches of the Silk route. And worse, they now faced a hostile monopoly over all trade with the West by a foreign power. The Arabs exacted an enormous price.
An Arab horse sold in India [without a groom] at the equivalent of the price of a BMW today. And was more expensive to maintain than the car, even with Modified petrol prices. With a life of about 4 years, since Indians didn’t know horses need lots of Calcium in their diet, the trade balance got pretty much skewed in Arab favor. [That’s why Arabs refused to sell horses with grooms in India fearing they would let Indian learn how to feed them.]
Sind thus became a Dar al-Islam, and there was much back-and-forth correspondence between Qasim and his mentor in Iraq, the Umayyad Governor Al Hajjaj, on how to treat the new subjects in Dar al-Islam. Luckily, this correspondence is preserved, and for once we know what exactly happened in our history. Part of the correspondence is appended here.
As I mentioned earlier, the Hindus were largely agriculturists, while the Buddhists were more into trade, and had to compete with the Arabs for business. To escape the jazia tax, they started converting into Islam. There were no forced conversions, no massacres, no kidnapping of women; nothing. Economic pressure due to competition sufficed. The conversions happened at a glacial pace in a small trickle. But by the 10th century CE, say 150 years after the Arab conquest of Sind, there was practically no Buddhist left in Sind. All had converted to Islam. The Hindus though remained as they were, and had to leave Sind only at partition in 1947.
The Arab capture of Sind is well documented. But there were other incursions across the Western India from the northern reaches of Mazer-e-Sharif in Bactria, through Kandahar/Herat to Sind, where Arbs, Turks, and many others, trickled in from Muslim lands, and the local Buddhists converted to Islam, mostly voluntarily, while the scattered Hindu communities continued as Hindus. So in the Western parts of India, in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, it was mostly the Buddhists who converted to Islam, not Hindus. What is more, most tales of forced conversion are unlikely true because up to half of the population of northern India was Buddhist, and beginning with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate by Ghouri in 1206 CE, the rulers had a ready supply of coverts from among the Buddhists. There was never any need for forced conversion.
Which is not to say there were no forced conversions, or persecution of Hindus, or whatever. There were such incidents. But two things stand out, and they can be quantified; and verified.
First, Buddhists didn’t disappear into thin air as our history books pretend. They were anything up to one-third of northern India’s population, and they converted to Islam, mostly out of their own volition, and often for they same reason that they left Hinduism in the first place.
Second, the percentage of Muslim population in pre-partition India never exceeded one-third, a number that matches up with the Buddhist population in northern India before the capture of Sind. So if there were forced conversions, they were largely isolated local events, unlikely to have an impact on the aggregate numbers.
The stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, determines who we are. Our history books hide more than they reveal, although they hide facts in plain sight. I think our Historians need to own up the tragedy they have wrought for whatever reason. The story of the missing Buddhist is one such example of their fecklessness. If you understand the story of the disappeared Buddhists, the wellsprings of hate, and desire for vengeance, dry up.

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