In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhism in India

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Monasticism
  • Meditation
  • Ethics
  • Gender
  • Art, Architecture, Material Culture
  • Contemporary Buddhism in South Asia

Buddhism Buddhism in India
Anthony Tribe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 March 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0107


Buddhism in India comprises a vast array of traditions, institutions, doctrines, and literatures. It flourished on the Indian subcontinent for some 1,700 years, from its origins in the 5th century BCE to its effective disappearance from most regions in the 13th century. The early tradition rapidly evolved monastic institutions, and during its first five or so centuries expanded from its birthplace in the north throughout much of the subcontinent. Within the schools and monastic culture of the Indian Buddhism of this period, and possibly as early as the 1st century BCE, a number of movements developed that emphasized the importance of the bodhisattva and the scriptural authority of particular texts. Adopting the label Mahayana (Great Vehicle), these movements distinguished their emphases from those of the Buddhist mainstream (referred to as Mainstream Buddhism in modern scholarship). The Mahayana, apparently of marginal influence for a number of centuries, itself became progressively mainstream from the 5th or 6th century onward. By the end of the 7th century, tantric approaches to meditation and ritual emerged as a self-conscious tradition. Referring to itself as the Vajrayāna (Thunderbolt Vehicle), over the following centuries it increasingly came to dominate Indian Buddhist praxis. Scholarship on Buddhism in India almost matches the size and diversity of its subject. Recent research has been fascinated with issues of origins, whether of early Buddhist ideas and practices, the Mahayana, or tantric traditions. There has also been an emphasis on the importance of understanding the social, cultural, and historical contexts of texts and traditions, and a recognition of the value of epigraphic and archaeological sources of evidence. And, increasingly, studies are exploring the influence of the wider non-Buddhist religious, cultural, and political environments within which Buddhism in India was always embedded.

General Overviews

Recent scholars have generally shied away from attempting comprehensive overviews of this increasingly large field. Burnouf 2010, the earliest work cited here, was written in the 1840s, and this highly influential survey was not superseded for more than a century. The next significant survey of Indian Buddhism following Burnouf, Lamotte 1988, focuses on Buddhism’s first half millennium. Hirakawa 1990, a thorough and readable text that also concentrates on the earlier period, is important for its model of Mahayana origins in a lay Buddhist movement associated with stūpa worship. More recently, Berkwitz 2010 has provided a comparatively brief but comprehensive overview, designed primarily for students. Davidson 2002, treating an often underrepresented area of Indian Buddhism, gives a detailed history and overview of tantric traditions. Providing a valuable wider context, Samuel 2008 surveys Indic traditions of meditation and yoga up to the 13th century.

  • Berkwitz, Stephen C. South Asian Buddhism: A Survey. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.

    The only recent work to focus solely on Buddhism in India that covers the whole field. Up-to-date treatment, with two chapters covering Buddhist revivals from the 19th century onward. Suitable as an undergraduate textbook.

  • Burnouf, Eugène. Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism. Translated by Katia Buffetrille and Donald S. Lopez Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

    First English translation of a highly influential 19th-century overview of the field that set many parameters for future research. Contains a useful introduction by Lopez. Originally published in French in 1844.

  • Davidson, Ronald M. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

    In-depth overview of the development of tantric Buddhist traditions during the early medieval period. Particularly useful for its analysis of the impact of the broader Indic sociopolitical context.

  • Hirakawa, Akira. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1990.

    Detailed account of approximately the first six hundred years of Buddhism in India. Contains the influential, but now generally superseded, thesis of the lay origins of the Mahayana (see Part 3). Written in a clear style. Originally published in 1974 in Japanese.

  • Lamotte, Étienne. History of Indian Buddhism: From the Origins to the Śaka Era. Translated by Sara Webb-Boin. Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium: Université Catholique de Louvain Institut Orientaliste, 1988.

    Landmark overview of the first five centuries of Indian Buddhism. Original French published in 1958. Lengthy (over 900 pages) and detailed. Still largely authoritative.

  • Samuel, Geoffrey. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511818820

    Overview of traditions of mental and physical cultivation—i.e., meditation, yoga, and tantra—within a detailed account of their cultural-historical context. Covers the development of Buddhist, Jain, and Brahmanical renouncer traditions, with the early (4th to 2nd centuries BCE) and late (5th to 12th centuries CE) periods as principal foci. Invaluable for its location of Buddhist traditions within the broader Indic context.

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