Buddhism in India – A religion of ancient India – History of Buddhism

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A clay image of the Buddha sitting in the lotus position with his palm out - Buddhism in India

Buddhism in India – Buddha

Reincarnation and the wheel

In the 500s BC, during the later part of the Vedic period in India, the idea of reincarnation became very strong among Hindus. Most people believed that after you died, you would be reborn in another form, and then reborn again, and again, forever. But then people started to not like this idea. They didn’t want reincarnation to just go on and on forever. Wasn’t there any way to stop this; to get off the wheel of reincarnation and just be?

Siddhartha Gautama Buddha

A young Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama Buddha had an idea. He thought that you could get off the wheel of reincarnation if you were good and pure enough. He refused to be a prince anymore, and tried to spend his life being good and pure so he could get off the wheel. Gautama Buddha had many followers during his lifetime, and after he died he had even more. Most of Buddha’s followers tried to be good while still living their normal lives – working in the fields or as soldiers, getting married, taking care of their parents and their children. But some of his followers adopted a Jain idea of getting away from the world so they could work full-time on being good and pure. These people were called monks or nuns.

Asoka and Buddhism in India

tiny greek and aramaic letters carved into a stone slab - Buddhism in India

This Buddhist inscription from Kandahar, in Afghanistan, has Greek writing at the top, translated into Aramaic at the bottom. The Mauryan Indian king Ashoka put it up about 258 BC.

In the 300s BC, one of the great Mauryan kings, Asoka, became a Buddhist, which helped Buddhism to succeed. Asoka convinced many other Indian people to become Buddhists. Buddhist monks started great monasteries, and some of these monasteries developed into centers of scholarship and research, like the great university at Nalanda in north-eastern India. By 200 BC, scholars were coming from as far away as China to study with the Buddhists at Nalanda. That’s where, about 100 AD, scholars developed the numbers (1,2,3,4) we use today. But they don’t seem to have heard about the research going on in Egypt, at the University of Alexandria, at the same time.

Buddhism spreads from India to China

At first, most Buddhists were in India. But by 500 AD, under the Guptan Empire, travelling Buddhist monks spread Buddhist ideas west to the Sassanian Empire and east to China and other parts of East Asia. Travelling Buddhists also brought other Indian things like sugar with them to China. Chinese Buddhists kept on coming to India to study at the university at Nalanda.

Indians go back to being Hindus

ruined stone walls - Nalanda University, India - Buddhism in India

Nalanda University, India – A Buddhist university

By the 600s AD most of the Buddhists in India had gone back to being Hindus again. They still remembered Buddha, but as one of many Hindu gods. In West Asia, most of the Buddhists gradually converted to the new religion of Islam. The university at Nalanda began to be short of money and people, as Buddhism went out of fashion. Instead, scholars went to the newer Islamic university at Baghdad (in modern Iraq). By the 1200s AD, Nalanda had closed down.

But Buddhism becomes stronger in China

In China, on the other hand, Buddhism got stronger and stronger. Soon most of the Buddhists were in China and not India. In China, as in India, most Buddhist people continued to lead more or less ordinary lives, but some Buddhist men and women left their jobs and their families in order to live in Buddhist monasteries as monks or nuns. But Chinese Buddhism was about meditation and action, not about scholarship and research. No new Buddhist universities opened there.

Did you find out what you wanted to know about Buddhism in India? Let us know in the comments!

Buddhism in China
Learn by Doing – Buddhism Projects

Bibliography and further reading about Buddhism:


Buddhism in China
Zen Buddhism
A project to make a gold Buddha statue
Indian religion
Ancient India
Chinese religion
Quatr.us home

By | 2018-01-11T14:45:48+00:00 July 21st, 2017|India, Religion|2 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Buddhism in India – A religion of ancient India – History of Buddhism. Quatr.us Study Guides, July 21, 2017. Web. March 23, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. Jamie Peterson December 17, 2017 at 2:36 pm - Reply

    Hi Karen, thanks for the pithy introduction to Buddhism.

    I was just wondering if I could pick your brains about something? I read here (https://tinyurl.com/y7e7vupl) that Russian dolls actually originate from the Japanese depiction of an Indian bodhisattva, but tbh it sounds like quite a spurious theory..

    Have you heard of this and, if so, is it true?

    Thank you!

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr December 18, 2017 at 12:53 am

      I didn’t know that story before, so thanks for sharing it! But it’s probably right. It’s on the Wikipedia page, too: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matryoshka_doll. And anyway it’s easy to confirm that there really were Japanese nesting dolls before there were Russian ones, and that the Russian ones got started just after Japan was opened up, which created a fad for anything Japanese.

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