Monumental Absence

The destruction of ancient Buddhist sites

01 June 2018

Over his decorated career as a historian, DN Jha has devoted himself to examining flawed views of India’s ancient and medieval past—many of them produced by colonial thinkers—that sustain the Hindu nationalist project. One of his most notable books, The Myth of the Holy Cow, documents the widespread prevalence of beef-eating in ancient India. Another, Rethinking Hindu Identity, argues that the notion of Hinduism as a religion is a colonial construct.

Jha’s new book, Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History, is a collection of essays that, as he writes, “are addressed to the people vulnerable to the balderdash peddled by the Hindu Right.” In this essay, excerpted from the volume, he applies his characteristic combination of polemic and rigour to a greatly disregarded part of Indian history, and points to evidence that shatters the Hindutva notion of a pre-Islamic idyll on the subcontinent.

HINDUTVA IDEOLOGUES look at the ancient period of Indian history as a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence, and portray the middle ages as a phase of a reign of terror unleashed by Muslim rulers on Hindus. Central to their perception is the belief that Muslim rulers indiscriminately demolished Hindu temples and broke Hindu idols. They relentlessly propagate the canard that 60,000 Hindu temples were demolished during Muslim rule, though there is hardly any credible evidence for the destruction of more than 80 of them. On the other hand, even a cursory survey of historical evidence shows that the demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam.

There existed many Brahminical and non-Brahminical religions and their sects in ancient India. Their adherents were not always friendly and mutually accommodative, but were, in fact, very often hostile to one another. The two Brahminical sects, Vaishnavism and Shaivism, fought among themselves, and they both were constantly at loggerheads with the followers of the Shramanic religions—Buddhism and Jainism. Here, I present a limited survey of the desecration, destruction and appropriation of Buddhist stupas, monasteries and other structures by Brahminical forces.

Evidence for such destruction dates as far back as the end of the reign of Ashoka, who is credited with making Buddhism a world religion. A tradition recorded in a twelfth-century Kashmiri text, the Rajatarangini of Kalhana, mentions one of Ashoka’s sons, Jalauka. Unlike his father, he was a Shaivite, and destroyed Buddhist monasteries. If this is given credence, the attacks on Shramanic religions seem to have begun either in the lifetime of Ashoka or soon after his death. Other early evidence of the persecution of Shramanas comes from the post-Mauryan period, recorded in the Divyavadana, a Buddhist Sanskrit work from the early centuries of the Common Era, which describes the Brahmin ruler Pushyamitra Shunga as a great persecutor of Buddhists. He is said to have marched out with a large army, destroying stupas, burning monasteries and killing monks as far as Sakala, now known as Sialkot, where he announced a prize of one hundred dinars for every head of a Shramana. Added to this is evidence from the grammarian Patanjali, a contemporary of the Shungas, who famously stated in his Mahabhashya that Brahmins and Shramanas are eternal enemies, like the snake and the mongoose. All this taken together means that the stage was set for a Brahminical onslaught on Buddhism during the post-Mauryan period, especially under Pushyamitra Shunga, who may have destroyed the Ashokan Pillared Hall and the Kukutarama monastery at Pataliputra—modern-day Patna—in his bid to obliterate an important symbol of Mauryan power.

DN Jha is a leading Indian historian.

Keywords: history architecture Buddhism DN Jha monuments Buddhist architecture monsatery Hsüan Tsang Chola empire