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The Buddhist Legacy – Buddhism in Karnataka

Under the patronage of the Mauryas and Satvahanas, Buddhism flourished in Karnataka. Gradually Hinduism assimilated most of the teachings of Buddha and Buddhism lost its distinct identity. However, today, there are still numerous places of Buddhist interest spread across the State.

Our destination, Aihole, is today an insignificant village in Bijapur district of north Karnataka and reaching it involves an obstacle course: an excruciatingly slow passenger train to Badami, an hour’s wait for a bus and jostling to get on. The vehicle rattles across the interminable hot plains and flat scrub of north Karnataka. To do just 46 kilometers from Badami to Aihole, the bus needs four tedious hours. But alight at Aihole and the travails are forgotten! For Aihole is one of the most remarkable temple sites in the country with one hundred and twenty temples, big nad small, in different styles, all in a small village.

Art historians say Aihole was a workshop for temple architects and sculptors patronized by early Chalukyan monarchs. Here are some of the earliest structural temples in stone in the country, dating from 450 AD and, among them, is one of the four Buddhist shrines in Karnataka. So we make our way to Aihole’s hillock, Meguti, to the rock cut Buddhist shrine. It is of special interest to us because it is the most important surviving Buddhist temple in Karnataka.

The Chaitya, a double stories structure, is half structural and half excavated in rock. The sanctum sanctorum is in the upper storey. It has a rectangular verandah of 8.78 m x 2.15 m. In the centre of the Verandah’s ceiling is a relief of Buddha in preaching posture. Of the three Buddha sculptures at Aihole, this is the best preserved and is 61cm in Height. He is seated on the padmapitha in the satvaparyankasana, that is, his right hand is placed against his chest in the vyakhyan mudra while the left is placed on the right foot with the palm facing upwards. His right shoulder and right breast are uncovered. There is a triple umbrella above him and his attendants are nearby.

Buddhism was founded in north India in about 500 BC when Siddharth Gautama, born a prince, achieved enlightenment. It is widely held that the religion first emerged during Mauryan times when there was a missionary zeal. Parts of Karnataka were subject to the rule of the Mauryas. Chandragupta Maurya’s son Bindusara (298-273 BC) and Bindusara’s son Asoka (269-232 BC) caused some of his edicts to be put up here. Asoka’s grandson Samprati Chandragupta is believed to have come to Sravanbelagola where he spent his last years. Eleven Asokan edicts, four in Bellary district, three in Raichur district and three others in Chitradurga district bear witness to the Mauryan presence in Karnataka.

Some hold the view, however, that such rock edicts merely prove that Karnataka was within the jurisdiction of Mauryan kings, but not necessarily the advent of Buddhism here. The Sinhalese chronicles, Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa, mention Mangaliputtatissa, a contemporary of Asoka and reputed to be the emperor’s teacher and mentor. He had sent missionaries to Mahshaka (southern region of Karnataka) under Mahadeva, and to Banavasi (the heart of Karnataka) under Rakkhita, to preach the gospel. That would firmly indicate Buddhist prevalence in Karnataka.

In point of fact, Buddhist doctrine held sway in Karnataka even before Asoka’s time. Mahisasana, a form of Hinayana Buddhism, spread after the first convention of Buddhism in Rajgraha (477 BC) to Avanti, and to areas south of it to what are today’s Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Thus, while Asoka accepted Buddhism only in 268 BC, Buddhism was prevalent in Karnataka two centuries prior to the Mauryan monarch.

Early on, Buddhism separated into Sthavarvad (Hinayana) and Mahasanghikvad (Mahayana) which developed into Mahisasana. This branch stretched upto Banavasi from 5th century BC to 3rd century BC, that is, after the very first Buddhist convention in 477 BC and certainly long before Asoka.

Why then, are there are no Buddhist relics found from those centuries before Asoka? The answer is quite simple. There was no idol worship in Buddhism. There had been no sculptures, carvings nor erection of stupas and inscriptions before the Asokan stupas at Sanchi and Sarnath. Prior to them, there were only earthern stupas which could not survive the ravages of time. There is one exception, however, excavations near Banavasi in 1971 revealed stupas and bricks that have been dated to the 2nd and 3rd century BC. A Buddhist deepasthambha (lamp post) of those times was found at the village Togarsi near Banavasi. By and large, in Karnataka, the Hnayana Buddhism that prevailed did not deify Buddha but looked upon him at human level, as perfect man. Paucity of actual remnants before Asoka’s time is thus explained.

The Mauryan inscriptions do not merely indicate the empire’s boundary. They also assert that Buddhism flourished there because the very purpose of Asoka’s edicts was to spread universal message to the masses. Buddhism duly spread and flourished. In sum, the Mauryan was undoubtedly the golden age of Buddhism.

The Satavahanas were successors to the Mauryas and ruled in Banavasi, as is evident from the Nasik inscription of Gautamiputra Satakarni and the copper plates from Hirehadagali. There is a Prakrit inscription belonging to the second century on the stone Naga effigy fund at the Madhukesvara temple, which refers to the fact that Siva-skandanagar-sri, daughter of Satakarni of Chutukula, the king of Vaijayantipura (i.e. Banavasi) was responsible for the installation of that Naga effigy, and the Vihara. A copper plate inscription of 338 AD likens a Banavasi king to a bodhisattva (reincarnation) in his great compassion towards all living beings (praninam parama karnikataya bodhisattvo pamanasya).

From 30 BC to the second century AD, the Satavahanas ruled from Pratisthana (modern day Paithan) on the bank of Godavari river at Aurangabad. Their support to Buddhism is evident from Pliny (1st century AD) whose account mentions Prakrit inscription of Gvinaya Pitaka, referring to Setakannika, which shows that Buddhism was flourishing in Karnataka. Mahavagga, a composer after Asoka’s time endorses this.

The Satvahanas may have been a Karnataka dynasty, as Dharwad and Bellary districts are called Shantavahani Hara (or Shantavahana region). Some of their kings were called rulers of Kunthala, the old name for Karnataka. At Sannati (Gulbarga district), as well as Vadgoan Madhavpur (near Belgaum) and Brahmagiri (Chitradurga district), there are remains of monuments of their period. The Uttara Kannada area of Banavasi has their inscription at Vasan in Dharwad district, and there are remains of a brick temple. The Chandravalli inscriptions that were unearthed in 1888, strongly suggest that worshipers of Buddha were here during the early centuries of the Christian era. The leader coins of the Satvahana kings bear the figure of a humped bull and on the other side of the coins are the unmistakable emblems of the bodhi tree and the chaitya (cairn). Small sculptures of Gandharva, a Buddhist yaksha, are also found.

The earliest epigraphic evidence in this regard (latter half of second century AD) is the stone memorial inscribed in Prakrit. It is that of Vasistapura Sivasiri Pulamari Rajana Mahadevi Sirijantamula, wife of a king of Banavasi who constructed a stambha and a Vihara for the Mahisasanas at Nagarjunakonnda.

Another chronicler, Mahavamso, cites an important event. In the first century, Dattagamini, King of Ceylon, built a vihara and 80000 bhikus of Vanavasi had attended! Bhutpala, a merchant of Banavasi, was responsible for carving the famed Buddhist cave at Karla where an inscription says it was the best in the whole country.

It is at Sannati, (Chitapur, taluk, Gulbarga district), on both banks of the river Bhima, that many Buddhist stupas of the Satvahana times have been found. It resembles Amravati and was the Buddhist centre of the Satvahana period of pre-Christian era and is spread over a three kilometer area. Fine sculptures can be seen all along and the Buddhist ruins found there are in large numbers. They include remnants of stupas, stone pottery for holy bones and ayaka stambha which has symbolic representation of birth, parinishnishkramana, enlightenment, preaching and nirvana (salvation) of Buddha. Inscriptions in the Brahmi script contain names of those who gave grants to sangharama, stupas and viharas. The words – visiriputa sirisata mahasataraha – show the beginning of the Christian era and reference to Banavasi is found. There are stupas carved in stone, and another stupa (1st to 3rd century AD) has Buddha’s feet.

The Sannatis (feudatories) of Satvahanas, known as Mahabhojas, had then ruled the Banavasi area. An inscriptions of that period says: “Nagamulida, wife of Maharathi, daughter of the Mahabhoja, King of Banavasi, mother of Khanda Nagashtak, constructed a cave residence at Kanheri (near today’s Bombay) of Buddhist bhikus.”

After the Satavahanas, Karnataka fell into the hands of the Pallavas of Kanchi and the Chuttu Shatkarnis (who were feudatories of the Satavahanas) ruling from Banavasi after the fall of the Satavahanas. Pallava domination ended when two dynasties, the Kadambas of Banavasi and the Gangas of Kolar (345 AD) held sway.

The Gangas, ruling from Talakadu, followed the vedic religion but were tolerant towards Buddhism. A Sanskrit copperplate (400 AD) issued by Padangala Madhava (440-470 AD), a Ganga ruler, indicated land grants to a Buddhist vihara (gangarajya madhava-sarmanah sasana Buddha-sattvaya dattam). There were Buddhist viharas alive and active and Buddhism was still powerful in the Ganga territory.

Like the Gangas, the Kadambas were also tolerant towards Buddhism as epigraphic evidence shows. The Kadamba capital was also Banavasi, (known as Vaijayanti,) and their century was a prominent one for Buddhism in Karnataka. Chinese traveller, Hieun Tsang, visited Banavasi in the 7th century AD and saw 1000 sangharamas and three stupas. He says: “By the side of the royal palace is a great sangharama with 300 priests, all men of distinction. This convent has a great vihara 100 in height.”

Recent excavations of the site of Banavasi have given the remains of a Buddhist stupa. The large apsidal structure is what remains and it was planned like a dharma-chakra.

The Buddhist Chaitya in front of which we stood at Aihole, is pre western Chalukyan and indicates the influence of Mahayana. It was built around the 5th century and is 25 feet high. We now make our way to Badami in another rickety bus headed toward the erstwhile capital city of the western Chalukyas in the 6th century. These rulers were also associated with Buddhism and relics here have survived in the shape of a Buddhist cave datable to the 6th century. There is also a figure, identifiable as Padmapani, the Bodhisattva of the same period. Hieun Tsang has stated that during the time of Pulakesin II (642 AD) in Banavasi (or Konkanpura), there were 400 Sangharamas and 10000 followers of Buddhism.

In Gadag Taluk, Dharwad district, at Dambal, there was a Buddhist centre as late as 12th century. According to an inscription of 1095 AD, a temple of the Buddhist deity Tara and a Buddhist vihara were built by 16 merchants during the reign of Lakshmidevi, queen of Vikramaditya VI. Another temple of Tara, built at Dambal was by Sethi Sangarmaya of Lokkigundi. Karnataka was indeed the place where the worship of Tara gained ground. Tara became celebrated in Mahayana Buddhism (especially Mantrayana) and acquired popularity as the mother of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, as the power of enlightenment and as the consort of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the patron divinity of the Mantrayana sect in Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia and China.

Tara’s consort Avalokitaesvara-bodhisattva is the Siva of the Saiva cult and there is the correspondence of Tara with Durga. The association between Tara and Avalokita (Lokesvara) is emphasized in Karnataka. In Balligame, on the banks of the river Varada, a Buddhist Vihara known as Jayanti Prabuddha Vihara was built in 1065 by Rupa Byhattaya, the minister of the Chalukyan king Ahavamalla, and the deities that were worshipped there were Tara Bhagavati, Kesava, Lokesvara and Buddha. A Dambala inscription of 1095 AD begins with the customary invocation namo buddhyana and goes go to describe at length the greatness of Tara-bhagavati.

In Kolivada, Hubbali taluk, Dharwad district, an icon of Tara has been discovered belonging to about the thirteenth century and inscribed on the pedestal of this icon are the words siddham om namo bhagavatayai Aryatarayai, followed by the usual statement of the Buddha’s teaching in brief.

The Vihara on Kadari Hill in Mangalore (Dakshina Kannada) was an important site for Mahayana Buddhism. There are three exquisite bronze statues, now in the Manjunatha temple, one of which is of the Mahayana deity Avalokitesvara bodhisattva (consort of Tara) called Lokesvara. The other two bronzes are those of seated Buddha in contemplation. Buddhism, which never became prevalent in Tulu-nadu, continued to survive till the thirteenth century. It gradually got fused with Saivite ideology.

Thereafter, it became difficult for Buddhism to survive, especially as it lost its specific identity and got merged with Saivism. The Buddhist legacy in Karnataka survives in the teachings of Basaveswar or Basava, a religious teacher who flourished in the 12th century.

There are estimated to be 75000 Buddhists in Karnataka of which Tibetans form a substantial portion. Since the year 1900, the South India Buddhist Association of Madras saw Buddhism taking roots and in Kolar Gold Fields near Bangalore there is a Buddhist Vihara at Champion Reef. The Mahabodhi Society of India founded a Buddhist Vihara in Bangalore in 1940 and since 1956, Buddhism has got a fillip under Acharya Buddha Rakkkhita who has published over 50 books and founded an institute, a vidyapeeth and a hospital. Very much in evidence are the four Tibetan settlements of Karnataka, at Bailkuppe (near Mysore), Mundgod (in north Kanara district), Cauvery Valley, and at Kollegal. The most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are Thegchay Ling and Namgoling, both at Bailkuppe.