Critical Analysis of Indian Historians' Writings on Buddhism - Part 1


Ratnesh Katulkar

ratneshBuddhism is one of the most prominent topics in the study of ancient Indian history. The reason for its presence and visibility in Indian history owes to its existence to a wide time scale traversed during the 6th century BC to 11th century AD. There is no doubt that many special and unique features of Buddhism not only reshaped Indian culture and society, but it also played an eminent role in spreading its teachings across the world, where it is still shining as one of the prominent religions. However, in its own birth land, Buddhism was not able to sustain its existence.

Indian historians shared their diverse opinions on this subject. But the strange and the weird commonality in their writings is that they all seem to be biased against Buddhism and on some occasions they have committed factual errors in dealing with this important subject. There have also been many instances when the same allegation or beliefs were repeated by a number of prominent Indian Historians but without referring to each other. Thus, there was repetition of same allegations again and again in the manner of putting old wine in new bottles.

This paper1 is an attempt to critically evaluate the writings of these eminent Indian historians.

One prominent, and believed to be one of the most reputed Hindi authors, the so-called Marxist historian Ramvilas Sharma, in his writings on, for instance, Gandhi, Ambedkar, Lohia; Itihas Darshan and in 'Some Aspects of the Teaching of Buddha' levelled various serious charges against the Buddha2. In one of these writings, he alleged that there is hardly any original teaching in Buddhism, whatever the Buddha said had either already been discussed in Upanishads or by the Charvakas. He says,

(The) Buddha did not believe in god or soul and he did not accept the authority of any sacred book. The Charvakas also said the same thing and he is indebted to them for this much of rationalism in his teaching.3

Elsewhere he said that the Sariputta's explanation of consciousness had already been discussed by Dirghatamas (a Vedic sage) prior to the Buddha.4

This is a strange charge against the Buddha, but while levelling these charges, Sharma knowingly or unknowingly committed factual mistakes. First, he failed to understand that the Buddha's denial of god and soul was no doubt similar to that of other Indian materialists and rationalists such as Charvakas but deep down, the Buddha's teachings were not restricted to these denials alone. In fact the Buddha dealt with almost all the issues of human concerns, which in modern terminology are known as psychology5, sociology6, history7 and polity8. Secondly Sharma's point of copying teachings from the Upanishad was even more ridiculous on the simple ground of chronology. As it is now known in the study of Indian history that there is no unanimity on the dates available regarding the creation of these scriptures. Further, the Upanishads if not all, yet a large number of them were in fact post-Buddha. As Kosambi points out that it mentions even the name of Ajatshatru, a king who was a younger contemporary of the Buddha. Thereby Kosambi observes that 'the mention of a past king Ajatshatru of Kasi in the Upanishad shows the nascent doctrines were in the air of the sixth century.9 The students of history know that the business of composing Upanishads continued up until the medieval centuries where one more Upanishad, i.e. Allopnishad was being composed in the praise of Mughal emperor Akbar. But strange that even before Sharma, a learned author Jawahar Lal Nehru in his famous 'Discovery of India' also aired the same view. He also said, 'Buddhism borrowed from Vedanta and Upanishads.'10 The argument of another well known historian Romila Thapar who is recognized as a prominent authority on Ancient Indian history is also not different from the above discussed historians. In one of her writings while beginning with the roots of the Buddha's lineage, she claimed Sakyans to be a vedic tribe.

The republics consisted of either a single tribe such as the Shakyas, Koliyas and Mallas or a confederacy of tribes such as the Vrijjis and Yadavas. The republic had emerged from the Vedic tribes.11

This statement like the above allegations had no ground or any evidence. There is hardly any other historical fact that the Sakyans were linked with the vedics. Rather it is generally known and accepted in history that the Sakyans were a non-vedic tribe. Thapar's belief could also easily be refuted through one of the studies of Kosambi where he categorically denied any vedic lineage to Buddha's tribe. He says:

There were no Brahmins or caste-class divisions within the tribe, nor there have high vedic observances ever been reported among the Sakyas. Further it is to be noted that in spite of being referred as Kshatriyas, the Sakyan also worked at agriculture.12

Kosambi elsewhere, based on the derivation of from word ikshu = sugarcane, viewed that Ikshvaku which is said to be the lineage clan of the Buddha, was a pre-Aryan tribe.13 Thapar's remark therefore seems to be an attempt to assimilate the Buddha into the vedic fold. In one of her famous books, 'Ashoka and Decline of Mauryas', Thapar elaborated her agenda further and imposed her idea that the Dhamma - frequently mentioned by Asoka in his inscriptions- was no way Buddhism (in her words narrow sectarianism) but it was a personal belief of Asoka based on an age old culture and ideology prevailing in the Indian soil. Thereby she concluded that Asoka was not a Buddhist, as frequently claimed by the Buddhists and a wide range of historians. However, this belief is again an individual idea of Thapar's without any evidence or logic. It is strange that those who did even very little reading on Buddhism could easily understand that the Dhamma was no way a sectarian approach but a teaching of universal love with no boundaries of caste, creed, gender, nation or anything else and the Dhamma mentioned by Asoka, was also the same as propagated by the Buddha. But it is strange that the learned authority of ancient India fails to understand this. However, her argument was well refuted by one historian Harishankar Kautiyal:

The Asoka's explanation of Dhamma, were derived from Buddhist texts such as Dighanikaya's Lakkhan Sutta, Chhakavatti Seehnad Sutta, Rahulovaad Sutta and Dhammapada. In these scripture there was mention of Chakravarti Samrat (Universal Emperor) who wins the heart of people by love not by sword. Asokan's definition of non-violence is derived from Rahulovad Sutta.14

Thapar's bias against Buddhism is also reflected in her other writings, where she says, Ashoka became obsessed with Dhamma. Interestingly, Thapar's wrong understanding of Dhamma, was of course not some unique way of thinking, but the same views have already been aired by other historians for instance, RC Majumdar, who while describing Asoka's polity said 'Asoka never sought to impose his sectarian belief on others.'15 Elsewhere he echoed the same view by saying that the Dhamma was not the policy of heretic but a system of beliefs created out of different religious faiths. Majumdar further carried on imposing his belief by saying that Asoka was more influenced towards Brahmanism rather than Buddhism. He says:

The prospect that he held before the people at large is not that of sambodhi or nirvana but of svarga (heaven) and of mingling with the devas. Svarga could be attained by all people high or low, if only they showed zeal, not in adherence to a sectarian dogma or the performance of popular ritual (mangala) but in following the ancient rule (porana pakiti).16

However, here Majumdar forgets that the words like Deva and Svarga, no doubt having deep attachment with Brahmanism, are also words that had frequently been used in the Buddhist scriptures. Further, the ancient rule (Porana Pakiti) mentioned by Asoka was not in any way brahmanic ideas comprising of graded inequality but it was the democratic values of the tribal culture that was in existence from primitive tribal communities onwards. Further, how could one forget that despite using some of the brahmanic terminology, Asoka ridiculed the religious practises carried out by womenfolk. In one of his inscriptions Asoka says:

In times of sickness, for the marriage of sons and daughters, at the birth of children, before embarking on a journey, on these and other occasions, people perform various ceremonies. Women in particular perform many vulgar and worthless ceremonies. These types of ceremonies can be performed by all means, but they bear little fruit. What does bear great fruit however, is the ceremony of the Dhamma. This involves proper behaviour towards servant and employees, respect towards ascetics...17

However, historians continued to ignore these facts and without hesitation continued their agenda of undermining Buddhism, for instance, the historian, Radhakumud Mookerji had produced a strange reason for Asoka's respect and reverence towards Buddhism in general and towards Monks in particular. He says:

Prince Mahendra and Princess Sanghamitra both renounced the world and entered the Sangh as its members. That is why Asoka shows a distinct predilection for ascetics in his edicts.18

But while passing this statement, Mookerji forgets that Asoka embraced Buddhism much before than the royal siblings Mahendra and Sanghamitra joined the Sangha. In fact, the brother-sister duo were influenced towards the Sangha by looking at the dedication and commitment of their parents towards Buddhism19.

Indian Historians also criticise the Buddha as anti-poor and pro-status-quo. For instance, DN Jha believes Buddhism was reluctant for any social change and has followed caste and untouchability in the same manner as in Hinduism. He writes:

In spite of the protestant character of Buddhism and Jainism neither waged any powerful struggle against caste system and untouchability. On the contrary, Buddhism like brahmanical religion seems to have recognized the phenomenon of untouchability, which originated in the post vedic period and remains to this day an appalling feature of Indian social life. The Chandalas and Nishadas, originally aboriginals, were recognized as untouchables by Buddhism. At one place the Buddha himself equates the food earned by unlawful means with the leavings of a Chandala. This is in tune with attitude of the early brahmanical law givers, who prescribed bathing as essential for such members of higher castes as a touch of Chandala. The Jataka stories describe Chandala as amongst the meanest being on caste and regard even contact with air that touches their body as pollution. We are told in one story that the daughter of a setthi of Banaras washed her eyes that were contaminated by the mere sight of a Chandal. The new religions therefore did not try to abolish the existing social differentiation they strongly refuted, lower the importance of caste for attaining nirvana20.

However, in this opinion Jha also committed a fundamental mistake. First, while talking of untouchability he forgets that, all the mainstream Indian historians have dated the origin of untouchability in Indian society much later than the Buddha period.21 Here it is true that society was already stratified into four fold social grading from the Rig vedic period onwards which continued till the post vedic period, where many tribes such as Chandala, Nishada, Pukkasa and others were being looked down by the caste elites. Yet to charge the Buddha for inculcating social distance and untouchability is in no way factual. The mention of Setthi's daughters washing of her eyes on the mere sight of a Chandal has nothing to do with Buddhsim as Jataka are not the tales of Buddhist lifestyle alone but it is the description of the events that happened at that time. Therefore, the characters in Jatakas were both Buddhists as well as non-Buddhists. Thus, in Jatakas there were many Buddhists as well as non-Buddhist practices included. Further, Jha's belief could also be refuted in Matanga Jataka, who was a Buddhist character and according to Gail Omvedt22 seems to have been a famous hero-leader of the Chandals, and was in direct conflict with Brahmins. Besides this another Matang, called Kashyapa Matang was a Buddhist missionary in the first century. Taranath also records a Matangi-pa who was said to have been a disciple of Nagarjuna23. Not only this, even one of the former Buddha was born into a Matanga24 family. Further, with regards to the historical Buddha, it is clear that he inducted a number of despised castes into his Sangha, such as Upali- a Barber, Sunita- a Pukkusa, Sati- a fisherfolk and many others.25 The Buddha in his sermons categorically denied supremacy of caste and he also questioned the graded inequality on logical grounds such as recorded in Amabattha Sutta, Prabhavasutta and in various other places26. He used to say:

Just as, O monks, the great rivers Gangâ, Yamunâ, Aciravati, Sarabhû, and Mahi, on reaching the ocean, lose their earlier name and identity and come to be reckoned as the great ocean, similarly, O monks, people of the four castes (vannas).... who leave the household and become homeless recluses under the Doctrine and Discipline declared by the Tathâgata, lose their previous names and identities and are reckoned as recluses who are sons of Sâkya27.

But these facts and views of Buddhism have often been ignored by the mainstream historians. Irfan Habib, a prominent authority of medieval Indian historians for instance, professes even further than his predecessors by viewing that Buddhism also contributed to the ultimate denigration of the peasantry in the varna structure. He put this argument by quoting Huen Tsang, who was found saying that the Buddha forbade the ploughing to monks as it involves killing.28 But Habib made a blunder while coming to this conclusion. As in actual fact, the Buddha nowhere restricted lay Buddhists to involve in agricultural activities; instead the fact is that the Buddha himself came from a community where his own father used to plough the fields.29 Students of Buddhism know well that the extremity of non-violence is not Buddhist teachings but it was a Jaina teaching. This teachings, as said Rahul Sankrityayan30, resulted in occupational mobility of lay Jain followers to adopt commercial activities by leaving agricultural activities but no where is found any such case in the case of lay Buddhists.31 But Habib did not only stop here, he further charged the Buddha for establishing caste system in India by saying:

Almost everyone seems agreed that in the universalizing the caste system within India, brahmanas have played a key role, and that by integrating the caste doctrine into the dharma, brahmanas made the caste system and Brahmanism inseparable. One result of these assumptions has been that the role of Buddhism in the process of caste formation has often escaped notice.
And yet may be asked whether Buddhism did not have its own contribution to make to the development of the caste system. The Karma doctrine or the belief in the transmigration of souls which formed the bedrock of the Buddhist philosophy was an ideal rationalization of the caste system, creating a belief in its equity even among those who were its greater victims.32

The Karma and Transmigration doctrine referred above by Habib was however never been a part of Buddhism but had been the Brahmanic ideas. Moreover, Habib fails to notice that the Buddhism denies the existence of soul or transmigration in any form. Similar is the case of Karma, which though has frequently been used in Buddhism but is diametrically opposite to that of Brahmanism. As mentioned by Ven. Buddhadasa:

Nowadays, wrong teachings concerning karma are publicized in books and articles by various Indian and Western writers with titles such as "Karma and Rebirth." Although they are presented in the name of Buddhism, they are actually about karma and rebirth as understood in Hinduism. So the right teaching of Buddhism is misrepresented33.

However, with a little reading of Buddhism, Ramvilas Sharma again charged the Buddha by mentioning that there was no progressive agenda in Buddha's mission as there was in the Marxian approach. He writes,

It is true that among Buddhists there were priests, there were Kings but there was also a large group of people without any rights.34

But Sharma here ignores the fact that the Buddha's teaching helped a lot of despised communities to raise their consciousness, it resulted in class revolution. It is interesting that after the Buddha's Dhamma revolution, there was a sudden revolutionary change in social and political sphere; it is interesting to note that all the major ruling dynasties of India after the Buddha were of Shudra class, a varna which was till that time considered and treated as beast of burden. The Nagas, the Nandas and the Mauryans who reigned in Magadha from 363 BC till 185 BC i.e., a long period of 178 years were all Shudra dynasties. It is strange that such a revolutionary socio-political impact remained unacknowledged by these historians. Moreover, they ignore the Buddha's admission of Shudras into his Sangha as mere formality and they fail to understand that still in India, as in other religious minded countries, the priest carries the highest position no matter what his achieved status, whether he is rich or poor, intelligent or stupid, attractive or not. Therefore, in such a case when a person from an extreme humble social background would become a monk in the Buddhist Sangha, it would naturally not only raise his individual position in the society but also upgrade the position of his family (where he was born and bought up) to a great extent.35 In such a case naturally the position of his family and relatives would have been upgraded in the eyes of society. It is on record that the Great Buddhist emperor Asoka used to worship monks by putting his forehead on the ground before the feet of monks. One of his commanders even asked him why he is bowing down before monks of despised communities. To which Asoka responded, caste doesn't matter in the case of Dhamma. There is no doubt that such attempts by the leading Buddhist ruler was successful in breaking the mental barriers of the casteist people.36 The breaking of caste rules and stratification no doubt played an important role in leading the Shudras to the level of rulers.


  1. This paper was presented by me in the 87th International Buddhist Research Seminar, Nan Buddhist College organised during 18-20 February 2016.
  2. These three write-ups appeared at diverse period of time but in all these three with minor changes he repeated the same allegations.
  3. Buddhism: The Marxist Approach p. 61
  4. Ramvilas Sharma, Gandhi Ambedkar Lohia aur Bhartiya Itihas ki Samasyaen p. 615
  5. The Buddha's analysis of mind and his meditation is now widely recommended by Psychologists. See for instance,
  6. See for instance, Kancha Illiaha's God as Political Philosopher
  7. The Buddha's knowledge of History is visible in his narratives some of which are available to us in the forms of Jataka tales where he narrated the stories and lineages of kings.
  8. Kancha Illiaha's God as Political Philosopher
  9. DD Kosmbi, The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India in Historical Outline p. 103
  10. Jawahar Lal Nehru, Discovery of India, p.187
  11. Romila Thapar, A History of India 1 p. 50
  12. DD Kosambi, The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India in Historical Outline p. 108, Interestingly his father and known author Dharmanand Kosambi even refused to accept Sakyans as Kshatriya on a logical ground that in Pali text Khattiyo was a term mentioned for them which is actually derived from a common Indian dialect 'kheti' means agriculture. Thus on this ground Dharmanand Kosambi said that the Sakyans were actually agrarian people not the Kshatriyas.
  13. DD Kosambi, An Introduction to the History of Ancient India p 125.
  14. Pracheen Bharat ka Itihas p. 185
  15. An Advanced History of India ed. Majumdar, Raychaudhary and Dutta p. 99
  16. Ibid p.100
  18. Radhakumud Mookerji, Asoka 1995 p.60
  19. Ashoka's wife, mother of Sanghmitra and Mahendra was a devout Buddhist; tradition says that she played an important role in introducing the teachings of the Buddha to Ashoka.
  20. DN Jha, Ancient India: An Introductory Outline, p.39.
  21. It is generally accepted that the untouchability was emerged during Gupta period. See for instance, RS Sharma, Ancient India.
  22. Gail Omvedt, Buddhism in India p.p.130-131
  23. Ibid
  24. Matanga is a Dalit caste (ex-untouchable) of India.
  25. Dr Ambedkar in his The Buddha and His Dhamma and elsewhere mentions number of such cases.
  26. The Buddha's attitude against caste is well discussed by various modern Buddhist scholars, for instance, see Dr. Ambedkar's Revolution and Counter Revolution in India, Gail Omvedt's Buddhism in India, Kancha Illaiha's God as Political Philosopher.
  28. Irfan Habib, Essyas in Indian History p. 169.
  29. Dharmanand Kosambi in his Bhagwan Buddha: Jeevan aur Darshan elaborated this and said that the Sakyans were actually agriculturists.
  30. Rahul Sankrityayan in his 'Volga se Ganga' discussed this issue by saying that nowhere in the world there is any occupational mobility on ground of religious belief as it happened with Jains in India.
  31. The Huen Tsang attitude towards ploughing seems to be impact of growing materialism among the later Mahayanist monks of Nalanda who instead of begging and engaging with poverty begun to adopt luxurious life. The change in the lifestyle of Nalanda monks was well discussed by Dharmanand Kosambi in his 'The Culture and Civilization of ancient India in Historical Outline.'
  32. Ibid p.p 167-168
  33. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu: Karma in Buddhism: A Message from Suan Mokkh p.4 in Rethinking Karma
  34. Ramvilas Sharma, Ibid p .536
  35. In tribal Catholic converts, whenever a boy joins the Church in the process of ordination of priest his family starts earning special respect among the community.
  36. Here it is important to note that Dr Ambedkar has mentioned that caste is nothing but a notion of mind.


To be continued.


Ratnesh Katulkar works at Indian Social Institute, New Delhi. He can be contacted at:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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