Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India: Their History and Their Contribution to Indian Culture

By Sukumar Dutt | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

BUDDHISM, now extinct in India as a formal and institutional religion, has a history in this country spanning nearly seventeen centuries (fifth BC-twelfth AD). It is not the mere history of a faith, though it has been approached too often from this viewpoint only.

Taking Buddhism solely as an '-ism', just a form of faith or system of religion, its history has been sought to be traced through its doctrines and philosophies, its sects and schools, its affinities and inter-connections with other Indian systems of faith or philosophy. This, however, is an introvert view: what it fails to take in is that aspect of the religion which related it most closely to the life of the people--the aspect that is seen in the organization of its monkhood (Saṅgha) and the functioning of its monasteries (Vihāras). It is the cultural aspect of the religion which is perhaps historically and sociologically more significant.

Culture has been defined by scientists in various terms: over a hundred and sixty definitions are listed in a critical review by Kroeber and Kluckhohn. But the simplest, broadest and pithiest one is by the eminent American anthropologist, Henry S. Coon, who identifies culture with the 'sum-total of things people do as a result of having been so taught'.1

India had in the past a culture that took its 'teachings' from Buddhism--one extraordinarily long-lived and widespread, that endured over a millennium and a half, spread in its flourishing periods within that wide span of time from end to end of the country. It has left its vestiges scattered all over the land in what are now 'archaeological remains'.

Except for a struggling forlorn existence in a few obscure localities, the Buddhist religion, along with its monk-organization, the Saṅgha, was extinct in nearly all parts of India over eight hundred years ago. It had been before that in a state of lingering decline for several centuries. The causes of this decline are complex and obscure and still await exploration. What comes, however, into comparative clearness is that Hinduism in its various forms that displaced Buddhism had amalgamated with itself many of its later developments and finally accepted its divine Founder into its own pantheon.

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1
Carlton S. Coon in The History of Man ( London, Jonathan Cape, 1955), p. 5. See also Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions, Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Vol. xlvii, No. I ( 1952).

-19-

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