Ancient edicts, monuments and recordings of travellers reveal that Gujarat has been one of the important centres of Buddhism in the country, besides an ancient centre of learning rivalling Nalanda
Gujarat, so far known for Hindu religious places like Somnath and Dwarka, now hopes to attract Buddhist tourists too. The Gujarat government just organised the International Seminar on Buddhist Heritage atVadodara., from January 15 to 17. According to Gujarat Tourism Minister Jay Narayan Vyas, as many as 500 Lamas, 350 academics, including 200 followers, participated. The seminar aimed to highlight the contribution of Buddhism and its philosophy.
Although numerous literary traditions claim that Buddhism reached Saurashtra during the time of the Buddha itself, the earliest archaeological evidence dates from the time of Emperor Asoka (269-232 B.C.). The Girnar rock edicts were engraved to propagate the Dhamma.
The remains of Buddhist establishments have been found in almost every region of Gujarat in the form of rock-cut caves and archaeological sites. The coastal region of Gujarat, stretching from Kutch to Saurashtra and up to Bharuch is dotted with several such caves. These caves were excavated between 2nd century B.C. and 6th century A.D. It is believed that most of them were excavated during the Kshatrapa rule.
Buddhism became a popular religion in Gujarat during the Kshatrapa period (1st to 4th Century A.D.) and it continued to flourish during the Maitraka rule (470-788 A.D.). Hiuen Tsiang, the Chinese traveller and scholar, visited Gujarat in 640 A.D. during the Maitrakas' reign. He records that there were about 200 monasteries with 10,000 monks living in them. These monasteries were located at Bharuch, Atali, Kheta, Valabhi, Anandapura and Saurashtra.
Another Chinese traveller, I-tsing, who visited Gujarat around 670 A. D., too observed that the Sammitiya school had the greatest number of followers in western India.
According to Y.S. Rawat, director, Gujarat State Archaeology Department, most of the Maitraka kings patronised Buddhism and made land grants to various monasteries for their maintenance. The inscriptions of the Maitraka rulers mention the names and particulars of 16 monasteries of that period. There were separate monasteries for bhikshus (monks) and bhikshunis (nuns).
Valabhi was also a renowned centre of Buddhist studies. I-tsing records that the greatest centres of learning in India were Nalanda and Valabhi. The Valabhi University was especially devoted to the study of the Sammatiya school and interested in the Hinayana. It vied with the Nalanda University, which was much devoted to Mahayana.
Gujarat seems to have contributed some eminent Buddhist scholars during the Maitraka period. Dharmagupta, who went to China in the 6th Century, belonged to Lata, the region between the Narmada and Tapti rivers. According to Taranath, Santideva, who distinguished himself as a preceptor at Nalanda University as well as an eminent author of some work on Buddhist doctrines, was born in a royal family in Saurashtra.
Archaeological evidence from Taranga hill suggests that this site was a prominent Tantrik Buddhist centre till the 9th century. There is an image of Buddha depicted at Ran-ki-Vav in Patan (north Gujarat) along with other incarnations of Vishnu, which indicates that by the 11th century Buddha was already incorporated in the Dashavatar concept of Hinduism.
According to Taranath, the famous Tibetan historian, the old western Indian school of art was one of the ancient schools of arts that influenced the art of eastern India, Kashmir and Nepal.
The majority of the Buddhist monuments of Gujarat are situated in Saurashtra along its coastal andcentral zones, around Junagadh. Junagadh seems to be a prominent centre since Asoka's time.
In north Gujarat, as Hiuen Tsiang records, there were 10 monasteries at Vadnagar. Recent excavation by the State Archaeology Department has brought to light one of the monasteries along with two votive stupas. Many other Buddhist antiquities have also been recovered from the site. Vadnagar has also yielded a Bodhisattva image, which must have been brought by the Sammitiya bhikshus from Mathura for their Chaitya in the 2nd or 3rd century A.D.
The Buddhist site of Devnimori in the east-central part of the state has yielded the most valuable remains of Lord Buddha in 1963. A large Buddhist establishment datable to 2nd to 7th century A.D. has been excavated at this site. The Mahastupa at the site contained the bodily relics of Gautam Buddha and had about 17 images of Buddha in terracotta. These relics are now in the Archaeology Department of Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda.
Kutch was another region on the ancient route connecting Gujarat and Sindh, where Buddhists were in significant numbers.
These findings clearly show that in western India Gujarat was dotted with several Buddhist centres in ancient times. However, further detailed studies are necessary to understand the role of Buddhism in the socio-cultural development of this region.