Mahayana Buddhism

Rise of Mahayana Buddhism

The reign of Kanishka is known for the rise of the new cult of Buddhism known as the Mahayana cult or sect. There were any causes which were responsible for the rise of Mahayana Buddhism.

First the old form of Buddhism, known as the Hinayana Buddhism, had now become quite out-of-date. It was based on icy idealism and lacked realism. It had no emotional appeal. Its chief doctrines of self-suffering, non-violence and self-discipline were too difficult to be followed by common people. So the need of some sort of reformed religion as keenly felt by the people.

Secondly, Hinayana Buddhism sect was mean to suit the Indian nationality alone but it could not serve the purpose of Kanishka’s subjects which were composed of different nationalities. To them a religion based on a personal God, devotion and faith had a greater appeal.

Thirdly, with the fall of the Magadhan Empire, Pataliputra the seat of Buddhist orthodoxy, lost much of its importance and became only a secondary city in India. Without this decrease in the importance of Pataliputra, the rise of a new cult in Buddhism would have become very difficult.

Fourthly, a dispute over many doctrines of Buddhism had lately become so acute that it required an immediate settlement.

Fourth Buddhist Council

Keeping all these things in view Kanishka called a Buddhist council, the fourth of its kind, at Kundalvana, near Srinagar in Kashmir. It was attended by about 500 monks and scholars on the Buddhist theology. The chief among them were Vasumitra, Asvaghosa, Nagarjuna and Parshva. It is generally believed that Vasumitra was the President and Asvaghosa was the Vice-President of this Council. Two important results were achieved in this Council.

  • One was the writing of commentaries on the sacred Buddhist texts” The Tripitakas.” Most of these commentaries were compiled in a book-form known as “Mahavibhasha”, which is generally regarded as the Encyclopedia of Buddhism.
  • The other was the division of the Buddhist Church into two sects—the Hinayana Buddhism and the Mahayana Buddhism. The Mahayana sect was recognized at the state religion by Kanishka.

Main Principles of the Mahayana Faith

  1. While the early Buddhists regarded Buddha merely as a man, a great-guide in the journey of life, the followers of the new faith elevated him to the position of a god.
  2. The followers of Hinyana Buddhism were opposed to idol-worship but now the worship of the image of Buddha became an important feature of the Mahayana Faith.
  3. The early Buddhists relied more on personal efforts for good living as a means to salvation but now the followers of Mahayana sect inclined more and more towards devotion and worship. In short, faith and devotion now took the place of reason.
  4. While the early Buddhist used Pali as means of propagating their faith, the Mahayanists adopted Sanskrit as a means of writing their texts and preaching their faith. In the Hinayana faith rituals, ceremonials and prayers had no place, but now in the Mahayana cult a great importance was attached to these rituals, ceremonies, etc., and they were regarded as important for winning over God’s favour.
  5. The aim of life, according to the Hinayanist, was getting “Nirvana” or release from the cycle of births and deaths but the “New-Buddhists” or the Mahayan Buddhists began to aspire for “Swarga” or heaven.
  6. The Mahayan Buddhists began to worship not only the Master alone but also the “Buddhistavas” i.e., those Buddhists who had not as yet attained Nirvana but who were rapidly proceeding in that direction. In short they were Buddha in the making.

Spread of the Mahayana Buddhism in Central Asia, China and other Countries

Kanishka like Asoka left no stone upturned to make Buddhism a world religion. It was because of his great efforts that Mahayana Buddhism spread in Tibet, China, Japan and Central Asia. Kanishka’s empire was a very vast one. It included many territories outside India, such as Afghanistan, Bactria, Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand. When Kanishka declared Buddhism as the state religion his subjects readily accepted the faith of their king. It was under him that these distant territories which now lie in China and Central Asia were converted to Buddhism. Various monasteries and Stupas for the Buddhist monks were built in these areas which continued to be the centers of Buddhist faith long after the end of Kushan rule in those countries.

Kanishka did not feel content to preach the Buddhist faith in his own empire alone, he tried to spread it in many neighboring countries. A large number of Buddhist missionaries were sent to Tibet, China and many Central Asian countries. All the efforts bore fruit when a great majority of the people of these countries was converted to the faith of the Lord.

All the credit for spreading Buddhism in Tibet, China, Japan and Central Asia goes to Kanishka.

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