Thursday, November 10, 2011

How Buddhism disappeared from South India

Sidharth Gautham Sunder (TruthDive), edited by Wisdom Quarterly

How Bodhidharma and Buddhism disappeared from Tamil Nadu
The Tamil film "7 AM Arivu" has evoked much interest in Bodhidharma. The story behind the film revolves around a Buddhist monk [from India] who took Buddhism, martial arts, and medicine in China.

Bodhidharma was a Tamil prince born in Kancheepuram the Pallava capital in 440 AD. After learning Buddhism he traveled to China to spread the true Buddhist way of life.

Buddhism is a religion born in Northern India that evolved and spread to Tamil Nadu [South India] and from there crossed the sea to Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Buddhism thrived in Tamil Nadu in the 5th and 6th centuries.

When Bodhidharma landed in China as a Buddhist monk, he was invited with honor to the court of Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty. Philosophical dialogues were the custom of many Tamil kings in those days. There is a long history of Tamil kings being converted to other faiths after a convincing conversation with holy men. This happened in China, too.

Bodhidharma is known to have had a philosophical conversation with Emperor Wu. And later Bodhidharma stayed in China as a Zen Buddhist philosopher and expert who framed the rules for the training of monks, which was transformed into martial arts in China.

With all this having happened, the question is: Why is he unknown in his birthplace? If he was born, brought up, and practiced Buddhism in Tamil Nadu, what happened to the ancient Buddhist religious establishments in Kancheepuram? Why are there no Buddhist temples or monasteries in Kancheepuram?

We must look at history. Buddhism disappeared from Kancheepuram, giving way to indigenous religious practices interwoven with Vedic religions. In fact many practices, customs, and stories that have now become a part of Hinduism were appropriated and adapted from Buddhism.

We know this from the book Bouthamum Thamizhum by research scholar Mylai Seeni Venkatasamy (1900-1980). The book reveals some startling facts:
  1. Hinduism accepted Buddha as an avatar of Thirumal.
  2. Lesser devas (fairies) or village angels were absorbed.
  3. Animal sacrifices were abandoned by (Hindu) brahmin caste priests who converted to vegetarian food to defend their sacred profession.
  4. Bodhi tree (a symbol of enlightenment) reverence was adapted because it was a popular devotional practice among Hindus, who cared for both nature and tree spirits (bhummatha devas) who often dwell in trees.
  5. Meditation centers (maths) were established just like Buddhist monasteries.
  6. Adi Shankara [who created Hinduism out of existing traditions and rejected Buddhism, which had universal appeal outside India] adapted Buddhism's Soonyavadha to get Mayavadha, the idea that the world is illusory.
  7. Buddhist Rebirth Tales (Jatakas) were accepted.

How it Happened

1. Originally Tamil "religion" or spirituality consisted of Maayon, Seyon, Vendhan, Varunan worship, according to Tholkappiam. The absence of other Hindu "gods" [visitors from space] in Tholkappiam shows the practice of Tamil religion in the pre-Aryan age. During the Tholkappiam and Sangam ages, the arrival of Aryans and their rituals was not a mass following of some Vedic form of religion but as the arrival of unorganized individual Aryans and their influence on Tamil Society. More