Skip to main content

In the land of the Buddha, why are there so few Buddhists? Did they convert to Islam?

Sonali Ranade,
a trader and columnist, who is a prolific tweeter, in a recent blog "How did India’s Buddhists disappear? In the land of the Buddha, why are there so few Buddhists?" suggests that most of the Muslims who converted to Islam in South Asia were Buddhists and they did it mostly out of self-volition. Read on:
It wasn’t until college, that it dawned on me that I had never met a Buddhist in my life.
I could count quite a few Jains [hawt property for Gujju girls] at college, Muslims a plenty; the Navy, on whose bases I grew up, was chockfull of Sikhs; many Christians at school including a English literature teacher who I think was a recreant Pope in hiding; and not to forget my bestie, a blue-blood Parsi, whacky as they come, [she masquerades as an architect these days, and I always wonder why her buildings don’t collapse laughing at her colorful Hindi]; but no Buddhists.
Puzzled, I asked the Pater, usually my go-to walking encyclopedia, but he was stumped. Or at least he pretended to be so. The question got generalized over time, and stayed with me for years: Why are there so few Buddhists in India, the land of the Buddha?
Mind I am pretty persistent, but college, where I was a Physics student, keen on astrophysics, the scope for finding answers to such questions was limited. The little history that came my way, provided no insights. My Dadi, usually a storehouse of stuff on our clan’s past, with tales of how we came down from Kashmir to Konkan, armed with fair skins and blue-green eyes, chasing Brahamadeya lands from Kings and Chieftains of the Deccan, in return for legitimizing their rule through temples, was of no help either.
So why does our history so hide the answer to such an obvious question?
The answer was to come years later. The story of my discovery begins with the following text and map.
“At around the beginning of the Common Era the Kushans assumed overall control of most of Afghanistan and eastern Iran, under their leader Kujula Kadphises. His son, Wima Kadphises, entered north India in the middle of the first century CE. All Punjab, Kashmir and the plain of the Ganges up to Kashi came to be Kushan-controlled. The whole of the empire, from the River Oxus to Kashi, was consolidated by Kanishka, who succeeded Wima."
(Avari, Burjor. India: The Ancient Past (p. 154). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)
The Kushans ruled a vast empire stretching from the Caspian Sea in the north, to almost Gujarat in the south, eastern Iran, Herat and Kandahar in the West, to Kashi in the east that would include modern Delhi. They started out in the common era, 0 CE, and their rule lasted for 250 years, or until 250 CE. Their most famous ruler was Kanishka, and the buddhist rate him as highly as the earlier Emperor Ashoka, who gave Buddhism in India its first impetus. The Maurya Empire [322 BCE to 185 BCE] lasted 137 years. The Kushans ruled after them for 250 years. Both the empires were Buddhist.
Who were the Kushans? They were an Indo-European tribes much like our ancestor Aryans, but from Xinjiang and Gansu, [yes, very much Chinese], who settled in Bactria [modern northern Afghanistan] at the beginning of the common era. Their Chinese name was Yueh-chi.
India under the Kushans, was fabulously rich because it sat plonk on the Silk Route from China to Rome, at all three key nodes of the main route.
“Caravans from India carried ivory, elephants, spices, cloths, salt, musk, saffron and indigo; the returning caravans brought lapis lazuli, turquoise, fine quality ceramics, wines, and gold and silver coins. The first part of the overland route was from Taxila to Begram, from where two main routes branched out: the northern route via Bactria, the Oxus, the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus to the Black Sea, and the southern route via Kandahar, Herat and Ecbatana to the ports of the eastern Mediterranean.” [The latter, basically Syria, which back then was the trading hub where a number of civilizations met to trade.] (Avari, Burjor. India: The Ancient Past (p. 160). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)
You might well wonder why I am going on and on about some Chinese Buddhist empire in India, that lasted a mere 250 years, dating back to the Common Era.
Start with the fact: Did you know that we were at one time under Chinese rule for 250 years? The fact is carefully hidden in plain sight in our history books. But I bring it up as a gentle reminder for our Hindutva warriors who blithely talk of Akhand Bharat. What if the Chinese start talking of Akhand China? So, it is a good time to put a stop to the Hindutva lunacy before it gets out of hand.
Getting back to my story, it should not then surprise you that about half, or more, of the people in the Mauryan and Kushan Empires over [322 + 250] 572 years were Buddhists, the balance being “Hindus” for want of a better word.
Remember Buddhism was the official religion, and lay people were converting into Buddhism basically to escape the greed and venality of the Vedic Brahmins. Most of the converts were from the lower classes, mainly Shudra, who saw better opportunities in newer professions that were not open to them under the older regime. [The Hindus forbade contact with foreigners, travel abroad etc., restrictions that simply didn’t allow for trade and commerce.] Weavers, caravan drivers, traders, merchants etc., who did not derive their livelihood from agriculture, were those who benefitted the most from conversion to Buddhism.
A note here on the the brief rule of Pushyamitra Shunga and his clan from 185 BCE to 149 BCE, a mere 40 years. Many an educated and well informed Indian thinks that Pushyamitra reversed the trend of lower caste Hindus [mainly, but they included all castes] converting from Brahmanism to Buddhism. It is true Pushyamitra waged a rather cruel and extensive campaign against the Buddhists. But as you can see from the map, Shunga control over territory was limited to some parts of modern Eastern UP and MP, around Ayodhya, an area too tiny to make any dent in the huge waves of conversions, from Hinduism to Buddhism across India. [Do note though, herein lies one reason why the whole of UP didn’t convert to Islam later under the Moguls.]
The Kushan empire was broken up from the north by the influx of new central asian tribes called the Huns, the same people who also destabilized the Roman Empire, our main trading partner back then. It was the Hun destabilization of Rome that led to the Goths ransacking it a bit later.
The Kushans were followed by the Imperial Guptas as rulers in 320 CE or AD, as you prefer. And they were to rule India under various Kings right up to the 550 CE. The Guptas failed to take back the northern most portion of the Silk route from Huns, but still won back control of Kandahar, and the Jamnagar port, the latter through a marriage with the Vakatakas who ruled old Maharashtra, that included the Jamnagar port. [The port was main main transit point from India to Djibouti, on the Ethiopian coast, past the Gulf of Aden, and from there up the Red Sea to the Mediterranean]. The Vedic society saw its flowering under royal patronage of the Guptas as never before. There was an effervescence in sciences, mathematics, arts, crafts that is a treat to read about.
The Guptas were largely even handed between Hinduism and Buddhism, giving large land grants to temples of both the faiths, and persecuting none. It is lesson that RSS would be well advised to imbibe in letter and spirit. So while the official religion switched back from Buddhism to Hinduism, after a lapse of some 600 years, the percentage of Buddhists in the population remained as before. At best the trend towards walking out of Hinduism to Buddhism was arrested.
The Gupta empire began to unravel after it failed to defend Kandahar from raids by the White Huns around 550 CE, and their collapse led to many of their regional chieftains declaring independence, and establishing their own satrapies. The most famous of these was King Harsha [606 to 647 CE]. This was the time of Hsuan Tsang and Banabhatta, the two scholars who shed so much light on on history of that period.
Leaving the all Indian story there, I return to my focus of Jamnagar, and the lower Indus River, to answer the question of where and how our Indian Buddhists disappeared.
Islam came to the Arab world circa 610 CE, when King Harsh had just come on to the scene. By 660 CE the Umayyad Caliphate had been formed.
The delta region of the Indus, and Jamnagar, had a large Arab population of seafarers, traders, merchants and ship owners. The shipping fleet in trade with Rome, and later Europe, was largely in Arab hands since 31 BCE. Map
It boggles the mind that the Indians didn’t build their own merchant navy. The Admirals might wanna look into the reasons more closely. It is said that Arabs [pre-Islamic Arabs] worked out how the trade winds in the Arabian Ocean changed with season by 40 BCE, and used this knowledge to beat all others in the trade, as the latter were forced to hug the coast, while Arab fleets sailed the high seas. Their absolute sway lasted till the Portuguese blasted their dhows with cannon, and imposed their own monopoly circa 1498 CE.
The Arabs around the Indus delta converted to Islam circa 660 CE. They had long been plagued by piracy around the lower reaches of Indus. Under their chief, Muhammad Bin Qasim, they led a raid on the pirates in 711 CE, sailing up the river Indus, and finding practically no opposition, ended up capturing most of Sind.
This was the final nail in the coffin of the of the ever quarreling rulers of northern India after King Harsha. With the capture of Sind, Indian rulers lost control over all branches of the Silk route. And worse, they now faced a hostile monopoly over all trade with the West by a foreign power. The Arabs exacted an enormous price.
An Arab horse sold in India [without a groom] at the equivalent of the price of a BMW today. And was more expensive to maintain than the car, even with Modified petrol prices. With a life of about 4 years, since Indians didn’t know horses need lots of Calcium in their diet, the trade balance got pretty much skewed in Arab favor. [That’s why Arabs refused to sell horses with grooms in India fearing they would let Indian learn how to feed them.]
Sind thus became a Dar al-Islam, and there was much back-and-forth correspondence between Qasim and his mentor in Iraq, the Umayyad Governor Al Hajjaj, on how to treat the new subjects in Dar al-Islam. Luckily, this correspondence is preserved, and for once we know what exactly happened in our history. Part of the correspondence is appended here.
As I mentioned earlier, the Hindus were largely agriculturists, while the Buddhists were more into trade, and had to compete with the Arabs for business. To escape the jazia tax, they started converting into Islam. There were no forced conversions, no massacres, no kidnapping of women; nothing. Economic pressure due to competition sufficed. The conversions happened at a glacial pace in a small trickle. But by the 10th century CE, say 150 years after the Arab conquest of Sind, there was practically no Buddhist left in Sind. All had converted to Islam. The Hindus though remained as they were, and had to leave Sind only at partition in 1947.
The Arab capture of Sind is well documented. But there were other incursions across the Western India from the northern reaches of Mazer-e-Sharif in Bactria, through Kandahar/Herat to Sind, where Arbs, Turks, and many others, trickled in from Muslim lands, and the local Buddhists converted to Islam, mostly voluntarily, while the scattered Hindu communities continued as Hindus. So in the Western parts of India, in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, it was mostly the Buddhists who converted to Islam, not Hindus. What is more, most tales of forced conversion are unlikely true because up to half of the population of northern India was Buddhist, and beginning with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate by Ghouri in 1206 CE, the rulers had a ready supply of coverts from among the Buddhists. There was never any need for forced conversion.
Which is not to say there were no forced conversions, or persecution of Hindus, or whatever. There were such incidents. But two things stand out, and they can be quantified; and verified.
First, Buddhists didn’t disappear into thin air as our history books pretend. They were anything up to one-third of northern India’s population, and they converted to Islam, mostly out of their own volition, and often for they same reason that they left Hinduism in the first place.
Second, the percentage of Muslim population in pre-partition India never exceeded one-third, a number that matches up with the Buddhist population in northern India before the capture of Sind. So if there were forced conversions, they were largely isolated local events, unlikely to have an impact on the aggregate numbers.
The stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, determines who we are. Our history books hide more than they reveal, although they hide facts in plain sight. I think our Historians need to own up the tragedy they have wrought for whatever reason. The story of the missing Buddhist is one such example of their fecklessness. If you understand the story of the disappeared Buddhists, the wellsprings of hate, and desire for vengeance, dry up.



Global Ambedkarites in deep shock over killing of Buddhist Ambedkarite youth in Nanded

Joint  Ambedkar International Mission and Ambedkar Association of North America statement on killing of an Ambedkarite Buddhist youth for celebrating Dr Ambedkar Jayanti (birth anniversary) in his village on 1st June 2023 in Bondhar Haveli village, Nanded, Maharashtra: *** Every single public event hosted by any social or political organization in Maharashtra is not completed without citing Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and yet an Ambedkarite Buddhist youth, Akshay Bhalerao was brutally murdered for celebrating Dr Ambedkar Jayanti in the village Bondhar, Nanded, Maharashtra by dominant caste goons. Caste Atrocities are common in such villages where the Scheduled Castes and Buddhists are daily humiliated, mocked, or abused with caste slurs and women subjected to sexual violence. 

How this top Maoist leader couldn't extricate completely from the Left adventurist line

By Harsh Thakor  On the 31st of May Katakam Sudarshan, known as Comrade Anand, breathed his last, at the age of 69. Anand was a member of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoists) and an important leader of the revolutionary movement of India.

Discussion on making school education meaningful to vulnerable communities

ActionAid note on workshop to boost National Curriculum Framework operations: *** Leading educationists and activists striving to make education meaningful to vulnerable communities gathered in Delhi to discuss the National Curriculum Framework for School Education (NCFSE). Acting in response to the call of the NCF Steering Committee appointed by the Ministry of Education, Government of India, ActionAid Association had organised the meeting to gather feedback on the draft NCFSE. This is part of ActionAid Association’s commitment to promote inclusive and gender-responsive education. The two-day national workshop titled ‘NCF Perspectives: Seeking Feedback on National Curriculum Framework (NCF)’ on May 30 and 31, 2023, was held at India International Centre, New Delhi. The workshop aimed to ensure a structured approach to gathering feedback from key stakeholders and enhancing their active participation in shaping the response sought by the Government of India. Stakeholders representing e

Abrogation of Art 370: Increasing alienation, relentless repression, simmering conflict

One year after the abrogation by the Central Government of Art. 370 in Kashmir, what is the situation in the Valley. Have the promises of peace, normalcy and development been realised? What is the current status in the Valley? Here is a detailed note by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties , “Jammu & Kashmir: One Year after Abrogation of Art. 370: Increasing Alienation, Relentless Repression, Simmering Conflict”:

Release of dabang neta: Rule of law can't be allowed to be slave to political rhetoric

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat*  When we look to politicians for solutions and politics as the 'final solution' for every evil then we are disappointed most of the time. In politics, we knowingly or unknowingly become part of the propaganda tool of the ruling elite which exists everywhere across different castes. We often provide issues and talk about them in binaries which suit our elites. The minorities among the marginalised who have no political space and representation rarely get heard by these majoritarian parties whose agenda remain power communities. Every political party in today's time is following the 'successful' formula of 'democracy' which is keeping the 'powerful' 'jaatis' with them leaving aside the marginalised one. The BJP started this but yes they cobbled together all other communities too through a diverse narrative.

J&K RTI activist denied opportunity to address audience, bring forward critical issues

Statement by Er. Irfan Banka, Founder of J&K RTI Foundation and convener of the Nalae Ferozpora Bachav Movement, regarding the incident of official misconduct during the My Town My Pride Jan Abhiyan Program and communication to Raj Bhavan: *** Er. Irfan Banka, a prominent RTI Activist and advocate, has come forward to address an incident of misconduct that occurred during the My Town My Pride Jan Abhiyan Program held at Mugam Town Hall in  Budgam. Additionally, Er. Irfan Banka has communicated the matter to Raj Bhavan, seeking appropriate action. During the event, Er. Irfan Banka was denied the opportunity to address the audience and bring forward critical issues concerning the people and services in the community, including waste management, traffic management, and the achievement of sustainable development goals. The incident involved the Additional Registrar Co-operative Kashmir, who not only prevented Er. Irfan Banka from speaking but also subjected him to public humiliation. E

Why are 17 Indian cos, including Sterlite, blacklisted by Norway bank

By Venkatesh Nayak* Readers may recall the gory incidents that took place at Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) in Tamil Nadu in the southern part of India on 22 May, 2018. Thirteen protesters died on the spot when the police opened fire to disperse an assemblage of thousands of local residents and representatives of civil society groups. They were protesting against the adverse environmental impact of the industrial operations of Sterlite Copper which runs a copper smelter plant in the area. Accusations against the company have ranged from polluting local water resources to plans for expanding the installed capacity of the plant without the necessary environmental clearances. A ground report published in The Wire recently, mentions the decision taken by Norges Bank a few years ago to not invest funds from Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG) in Sterlite “due to an unacceptable risk of complicity in current and future severe environmental damage and systematic human rights violations

Sengol imbroglio suggests reason why Modi, BJP don't respect modern Indian history

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat*  The new parliament building opened on February 28. It looks it is not the Parliament but part of #Pratinidhisabhas ' started by earstwhile #princelystates in India. The #BJP for long has been acting as if India is a #Kingdom and Modi ji the new #King of India. Even at the coronations of Kings, you find a large number of people, and dignitaries but look at the opening ceremony we have only one face as if he build everything. Is it the dream of a republic.

Danger ahead: Smartphones making teens sexually smart, but mentally disturbed

By Harasankar Adhikari  We live in a digitally globalised society. Bombarded consumerism and imitation of foreign cultures and practises reshape our everyday lives. Life choices and lifestyles are the driving forces of modernity at present. People of almost all ages are within this realm and rhythm of consumerism for happiness.

Cave of Spleen - a feminist perspective: Status of women in early 18th century England

The Cave of Spleen: Aubrey Beardsley's illustration for Pope's “The Rape of the Lock” By Pragya Ranjan  "The Rape of the Lock" by Alexander Pope published in 1712 is a mock-heroic narrative which satirically glorifies trivial incident of cutting of locks of protagonist Belinda. This poem was written in the Augustan Era (1660-1784) which is marked by the period of scientific reason and rationality, whose effect can be seen on the writers of those times. This timeline is particularly important to analyse the episode of the Cave of Spleen.