Back to OWR Homepage

Back to
Indian Buddhism


It is probable that various schools following a Theravàdin (Sthaviravàdin) Vinaya lineage and the various textual traditions of the Vibhajjavàdin abhidhamma existed on the mainland of India, perhaps already during the last century B.C. and certainly after that.  They are known mainly through references in texts preserved in Chinese and one or two specific texts, also preserved only in translation.  Little is known of their subsequent history, but there is reason to believe that they came early under Sinhalese influence, especially in the south and in coastal districts.  Certainly, inscriptional evidence does seem to confirm the presence of Sinhalese monasteries on the mainland by the third century A.D.

     By the seventh century A.D. the accounts of the Chinese pilgrims, notably Hsüan-tsang, indicate the presence of schools affiliated to Ceylon, not only in the Tamil country but also in considerable numbers in what is now Gujarat, Orissa and Bangla Desh, as well as at Bodhgayà, the site of the Buddha's enlightenment in Bihar. At the end of that century I-ching describes the Theravàda as predominant throughout the south of India.  It is likely that this had in fact been the case for some considerable time and was to remain so for some further centuries.
     After the twelfth century the slow decline of Buddhism in mainland India affected the Theravàda more slowly than the northern schools, especially in areas in close proximity to the Southern Buddhist centres in Ceylon and Burma.  Both literary and archaeological evidence demonstrates continued contact between Ceylon and Buddhist centres in South India down to perhaps the seventeenth century, after which little or nothing appears to have survived.  In Bengal, however, there may have been some continuous practice of Buddhism, influenced by missions from Burma.

     Southern Buddhism has nonetheless played a considerable part in the revival or reintroduction of Buddhism in India, since the late nineteenth century.  This has gathered momentum with the conversion of large numbers of 'harijans' since Indian independence.