The Buddha’s first sermon, the Dharmachakrapravrtana (Turning of the Wheel of Law), which put forth the Middle Path, The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path after his enlightenment marked the formal beginning of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent.
The propagation and the spread of Buddhism were enhanced by its simplicity, envisioning deliverance from the caste-ridden and ritualistic dogmas, and providing an alternate path to salvation. These ideals which appealed to all caste and class subsequently saw the establishment of a highly organized sangha with the monks and nuns zealously spreading the Buddha’s message in all directions.
By the time the Buddha attained Nirvana at the age of 80 years, the teachings he had propounded had a large following in north India. Following the Buddha’s death, the First Buddhist Council formally codified his teachings which were orally transmitted until the 1st century B.C. when they were first committed to writing.
The conversion of the Mauryan emperor, Ashoka to Buddhism marked the elevation of Buddhism from the position of a sect to that of a state religion. Ashoka’s patronage of Buddhism was responsible for the propagation and spread of Buddhism beyond the Indian subcontinent.
As early as the first five hundred years after the Buddha’s Nirvana, conflicting opinions about monastic practice as well as philosophical issues in the succeeding Buddhist Councils caused splits within the sangha. However the emergence of different sects did not hamper the spread of Buddhism as each sect spread and established itself rapidly throughout the Indian subcontinent and beyond.
Interestingly, Buddhism did not last for long in the Indian subcontinent. Turkish invasions beginning around the 11th century and the revival of Hinduism through Bhakti dealt a major blow to Buddhism. But this virtual disappearance of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent did not herald its extinction as its seeds had already been sowed elsewhere by Buddhist missions sent abroad under the patronage of Ashoka and the succeeding Dynasties.
Here is a list of the spread of Buddhism beyond the Indian subcontinent during the formative centuries:
- 3rd century BCE: Buddhism is brought into Sri Lanka by Mahendra, son of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka; it might have found its way into Thailand about the same time
- Early 1st centuries: Buddhism began to enter China via the Silk Road
- 1153-86 CE: Sinhalese monks from Sri Lanka takes Buddhism to Burma
- 4th century CE: Buddhism enters Korea from China
- 6th century CE: Buddhism comes to Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Indonesia; Buddhism enters Japan from Korea
- Tibet 7th -8th CE
The 19th century which saw the emerging intellectual curiosity by the West in the appealing philosophies of the Buddhist texts, witnessed its subsequent acceptance as a religion in the West. While the number of Buddhists is growing in and around the world, Buddhism which was founded in India survives only in isolated pockets today.