History and Sources

Was Buddhism ever identified with any political regimes?

Buddhism enjoyed the patronage of two very influential Indian monarchs. A ruler of the Maurya dynasty named Ashoka (r. 270-230 B.C.E.) is credited with the first dramatic expansion of Buddhism across much of India. He declared Buddhism the state creed and sent missionaries westward through present-day Afghanistan and south to Sri Lanka. Not until nearly four centuries later did Buddhism again profit from formal political support. A king of the Kushan dynasty named Kanishka (r. 120-162 C.E.) picked up where Ashoka had left off. In fact, Kanishka may have learned of Buddhism in his native land to the northwest of India as a result of Ashoka’s earlier missionary endeavors. Kanishka launched a new wave of missionary activity, dispatching monks to China, Tibet, and Burma. But it was the newer Mahayana teaching that Kanishka supported.

Only one other important Indian regime would give Buddhism the official seal of approval. From its capitol in Bengal to the northeast, the Pala dynasty (750-1150) supported a brand of Mahayana teaching that retained esoteric elements from Hinduism. Before the last of the Palas died, Buddhism would be nearly defunct in India. Outside of India, several Buddhist dynasties helped to establish the tradition in southeast Asia. On Indonesia’s central island, Java, the Shailendras (778-864) professed a type of Mahayana teaching. Meanwhile, Buddhist monarchs helped the tradition take root in Tibet.


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