Buddhism, as we all know, had its birth in India and emerged as an extremely popular religion across Asia in the first few centuries after Christ.
Buddhism rose as a faith that challenged the then prevailing Vedic religion. The Buddha is believed to have condemned several Vedic sacrifices and rituals that were practised in the regions of the Indian subcontinent (modern day Nepal and Bihar) where he lived and preached. More importantly, he rejected the Vedas and evolved his own universal philosophy. Not surprisingly, Buddha and his followers were censured severely as a heretic in several Vedic texts and scriptures.
Isn’t it strange then that the same Buddha, who challenged Hindu practices, was later absorbed into Hinduism as an avatar of Vishnu?
Research scholars offer various theories on us how and why it could have happened.
But before we get there, it is important to understand that neither the term Hinduism nor the Hindu way of life practised today, existed during the times of Buddha. The Hinduism that we practise today is the result of a long period of transition marked by the amalgamation of several religious and folk ideas, and influences of various traditions, practices and faiths including Buddhism.
I use the term ‘Hinduism’ here, to refer to the religion as it is understood today. On the other hand, the term ‘Buddhism’ here does not refer to the modern-day Buddhism or neo-Buddhism practised in India today.
How Buddha become a Hindu god
It so happened that when the great emperor Ashoka embraced Buddhism in the 3rd century BC, Buddhism attained the status of the imperial religion and Buddha became its godhead.
Buddhist cannons were carved on rocks across the empire for the people to read and follow. This made Buddha central to Ashoka’s kingship. As Ashoka’s name (as found on his edicts) ‘Devanamapiya Piyadasi’ indicates, Ashoka wished to identify himself as the ‘Beloved of the Gods’, and that god was Buddha!
Or, in other words, Ashoka came to rule in the name of Buddha. Buddha’s ‘Dhamma’ became the royal diktat and his ‘Dhammachakra’ became part of the royal insignia. And, Buddhism became the dominant religion in Ashoka’s empire.
In the centuries that followed, Ashoka’s idea of ‘god-king’ gained huge popularity among Indian kings. With the emergence of Vaishnavism as a major religion around the 4-6th century AD under the Guptas who ruled large parts of northern India, Vishnu started to gradually replace Buddha as the godhead. In fact, many Gupta kings called themselves ‘Bhagavata Vaishnavas’.
But Buddhism was still a significant force to be reckoned with for the constantly evolving Hinduism that had its roots in the Vedic religion. Buddha could not be just cast away!
What probably happened thereafter is best expressed using the popular adage, “if you can’t beat them, join them!”
Buddha began to be gradually assimilated into the Hindu pantheon, and by the 13th century AD, when Buddhism had all but died out in India, Buddha’s assimilation into the Hindu pantheon as an avatar of Vishnu was complete!
Proof of Buddha’s entry into the Hindu pantheon can be found in various Puranas that were composed during the period from 3rd -13th century AD, of which at least four puranas mention Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. Apart from textual references, we also find Buddha counted among the Dashavatars in the relief works of the famous Srirangam and Airavatesvara temples of Tamil Nadu and the Channakesava temple of Karnataka, to name a few.
Although textual and epigraphic evidences suggest that Buddha was included into the Vaishnava pantheon, it appears doubtful if he was accepted on par with the other avatars. For example, according to Vishnu Purana, Buddha was actually born to mislead the asuras and steer them away from the truth (through his teachings?)! Whereas, some Dashavatara lists exclude Buddha, and include Balarama instead.
But this is not to say that Buddhist ideas were rejected in toto by the Hindus. There was significant exchange of ideas between the two opposing faiths. In fact, it is argued by some that the Upanishadic thoughts, especially relating to Advaita Vedanta, have borrowed several ideas from Buddhism.
This process of gradual assimilation of Buddhist ideas into Hinduism reached the point of culmination with Buddha being accepted as a Hindu god.
But, why an avatar of Vishnu?
The answer to the question why Buddha came to be identified with Vishnu and not any other deity can be found in Vaishnava theology and mythology.
The Vaishnaivites perceive Vishnu as an all-pervading transcendental phenomenon, similar to the Upanishadic idea of an all-encompassing ‘Brahman’. But the transcendental, immeasurable Vishnu becomes accessible to man when he descends to the earth in various forms or incarnations called avataras.
This idea of Vishnu taking various forms (to fight evil) enabled the process of assimilation of various indigenous deities and cults into the Vaishnava fold, including the Buddha.
Stunning similarities between Vaishnavism and Buddhism
Apart from the basic structure of Vaishnavism that facilitated Buddha’s entry into its fold, the stunning similarities we find in their mythology and iconography also probably assisted the process of assimilation.
For example, an idea comparable to the Vaishnava belief that when evil ascends, Vishnu descends to the earth in order to re-establish ‘Dharma’ can be found in Buddhist scriptures and theology too.
Also, in Buddhist mythology, we find a story that is strikingly similar to the Vamana/Trivikrama avatar of Vishnu, where ‘Buddha covers 6,800,000 yojanas in three strides from the earth to the Devaloka’.
Not to forget, the uncanny resemblance in the iconography of Buddha and Vishnu – be it in Buddha’s Dharmachakra and Vishnu’s Sudarshana Chakra or in the posture of the Ananthashayana Vishnu and the Sleeping Buddha.
The story of Buddhism in India is, in some ways, also the story of the all-embracing Hinduism. The inclusive nature of Hinduism and its tolerance and acceptance of diverse (and often, opposing) ideas and ideologies is the reason why it continues to survive and flourish as the world’s most ancient way of life!
Key resource: The Buddhist Vishnu: Religious Transformation, Politics and Culture – John C Holt