Were some Hindu temples originally Buddhist structures? It has been noted by historians that several Buddhist temples were destroyed to have Hindu temples built on them.

11, Aug 2023 | CJP Team

In a recent statement, Swami Prasad Maurya, a prominent leader of the Samajwadi Party, has given a call for an extensive archaeological survey of Hindu temples, claiming these were built on demolished Buddhist structures. CJP takes a look at the claim to check if there is any truth in it. The question becomes significant in context of an ASI survey at Gyanvapi to check if a Hindu structure lies underneath the mosque. 

At a time, when a battle over history is constructed as one where a predetermined ideology-laced Hindu-Muslim conflict is played out, the question pertaining to India’s rich Buddhist history reminds us of the need to look back. While conducting surveys or not would remain an administrative concern, the question for all of us is the revival of the need for looking at history with a critical lens.

While Swami Prasad Maurya has not been a stranger to controversy in the past, his assertion serves as an interesting invite to dive into exploring history beyond a Hindu-Muslim binary. Historians have cited that Hindus and Buddhist kings have had a strained relationship coloured with conflict and struggles over each other.

So, where does history weigh in? 

In historical accounts from ancient and early mediaeval literature, various sources describe instances of Hindu kings in pre-Muslim India dismantling and demolishing Buddhist and Jain temples and monasteries. These descriptions, often left behind by historians, religious chroniclers, seers, and foreign travellers, are supported by archaeological findings of Buddhist remains discovered at sites where Hindu temples now stand in regions like India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.

The leaders of Brahmanical Hinduism regarded Buddhism and Jainism as heretical and condemned them as beliefs of the marginalised and outcastes, leading to their desire for eradication of these religions. During Emperor Ashoka’s rule, Buddhism expanded significantly, which contributed to heightened hostility from Brahmanical forces. This hostility resulted in the widespread persecution of Buddhists and the destruction and desecration of their religious establishments in the centuries following the Mauryan period and so forth.

Following the decline of the Mauryan dynasty, Pushyamitra, a ruler of the Shunga dynasty, is said to have demolished numerous Buddhist monasteries and also targeted Buddhist monks for execution. Similar actions were undertaken by Shashanka, the Gauda king of Bengal, who is popularly known for destroying Buddhist establishments. Historical records like the Rajatarangini also clearly mention the destruction of Buddhist monasteries in Kashmir under a Shaivite ruler descended from Ashoka. Furthermore, we have Huen Tsang who was an adventurer to India in the 7th century AD. Tsang noted in his travels through India that Shashanka even felled the Bodhi tree in Gaya, the site where Buddha attained enlightenment, which was and continues to be a sacred site for many.

Delving deeper into the historical context, Naresh Kumar’s essay published at Velivada provides a detailed account of the systematic and widespread vilification of Buddhism by Brahminical revivalists. The destructive influence of these revivalists led to the persecution and even widespread slaughter of innocent Buddhists. The violent acts of Hindu kings like Sasanka and Mihirakula resonate as grim reminders of a period marked by the obliteration of Buddhist shrines and structures. The Mahabodhi Vihara at Bodh Gaya, for instance, was transformed into a Shaivite temple. It is a controversy that persists to this day. 

D D Kosambi’s narration of Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Chuang’s observations offers a poignant reflection on the decline of Buddhism in India. The sobering tale of sacred images sinking into the Indian soil, and the obliteration of the sacred Bodhi tree at Gaya, paints a stark picture of historical erasure of these facts from what we consider mainstream history. 

Kosambi also presents an economic perspective, suggesting that the initial success of Buddhism was rooted in addressing societal needs during a time of turmoil and transition, and furthermore Brahminism was able to overcome these and create a homogenous dialectic that fitted in with caste structures of privilege and exclusion entrenched within society.

Therefore, Swami Prasad Maurya’s call for an archaeological survey of Hindu temples opens a window for us, to delve into India’s intricate historical tapestry.

The ruins of Nalanda. (Source: Wikipedia)

Historian DN Jha, known for his expertise in India’s ancient and mediaeval past, critiques Hindutva ideologues in his book “Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History.” 

He challenges the notion of a harmonious ancient Indian history devoid of violence, stating that demolition, desecration of rival religious sites, and cultural appropriation existed rampantly before Islam’s arrival. He disputes the claim of indiscriminate temple destruction by Muslim rulers, citing a lack of credible evidence for over 80 temples. 

Jha attributes the Nalanda library fire to “Hindu fanatics,” and in fact, not to, Bakhtiyar Khilji, who sacked a nearby site. 

Jha has similarly raised doubts about the Jagannath temple’s origin on a Buddhist site and suggests other temples in Puri too were built on or from Buddhist viharas.

In short the assertion that some Hindu temples were built on Buddhist structures is more than historically validated and, plausible. 

D N Jha (1940-1921) is a historian, former member of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) and expert on ancient and medieval India. Jha was critical of the politically motivated discourse that suggested that the Babri Masjid was built after demolishing a temple, and the theory was constructed by the eco-system of Hindutva only for its own political interests. He first made his conclusions regarding the disputed site at Ayodhya in the famous Ramjanmabhoomi-Baburi Masjid: A Historians’ Report to the Nation.

Image Courtesy: en.wikipedia.org


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