India-b

Unlike Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Thailand or Myanmar, India today could hardly be called a Buddhist nation. With the coming of the Islamic conquests in the north, and a resurgence of Hinduism in the south, Buddhism was all but eliminated from its place of birth for a thousand years. Admittedly, I would not have been so taken aback by this news if I had read deeply on the subject before going there, but I had decided to wait on experience.

What movies I have in my archive on Buddhism seem to work hard at avoiding any discussion of its rejection by Indian culture. Attention is directed to the persistent spread of Buddhism in the millennium or more after the Buddha’s death in circa 400 BCE (estimates of his dates begin more than a century earlier). This flourishing was greatly aided by the conversion of the Emperor Asoka in the third century BCE (very similar to the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity over 500 years later). The aggressiveness of the Muslim conquest was a contributing factor to the rejection of Buddhism, but the deeper resistance of older Hindu tradition to the new religion was at the core of the rebuff. There are pronounced parallels to the relationship of Judaism and Christianity.

The movies I have on the progression of Buddhism from its homeland in the Himalayas are more in the documentary style than they are dramatizations of the Buddhist migration.¬† In India, I was able to follow part of the trail of the Buddha’s ministry along the Ganges for a brief time. The movie, Little Buddha (1993), gives a Himalayan (Mahayana) perspective on Buddhism, set in the nation of Bhutan.

The fire ceremonies at Varanasi

The fire ceremonies at Varanasi

From the Caravan Journals:¬†Traveling along the Ganges offers opportunities to visit the major sacred sites of the Buddha’s ministry, but on balance, the experience of the river is overwhelmingly Hindu. Sometimes, when we are in the company of other travelers, the conversation turns to what times or places are most deeply etched in our memories. For me, it is always a night and a morning at Varanasi on the Ganges. The Buddha came here after his enlightenment at Bodh Gaya and very likely saw some of the same Hindu fire ceremonies that we were seeing on the steps along the river. The clanging of small cymbals, the chanting, and the reflections of flames on the water made it seem almost possible to recollect such ceremonies in past millennia. On the next morning, we returned to the same spot and sat in small wooden boats to watch the sun rise in the east. Maybe the Buddha saw this same dawn as he departed for nearby Sarnath to give his first teaching on the Wheel of Law.


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