The history of Buddhism spans from the 5th century BCE to the present; which arose in the eastern part of Ancient India, in and around the ancient Kingdom of Magadha (now in Bihar, India), and is based on the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama. This makes it one of the oldest religions practiced today. The religion evolved as it spread from the northeastern region of the Indian subcontinent through Central, East, and Southeast Asia. At one time or another, it influenced most of the Asian continent. The history of Buddhism is also characterized by the development of numerous movements, schisms, and schools, among them the Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna traditions, with contrasting periods of expansion and retreat.
Siddhārtha Gautama was the historical founder of Buddhism. He was born a Kshatriya warrior prince in Lumbini, Shakya Republic, which was part of the Kosala realm of ancient India, now in modern-day Nepal. He is also known as the Shakyamuni (literally: “The sage of the Shakya clan”). After an early life of luxury under the protection of his father, Śuddhodhana, the ruler of Kapilavasthu which later became incorporated into the state of Magadha, Siddhartha entered into contact with the realities of the world and concluded that life was inescapably bound up with suffering and sorrow. Siddhartha renounced his meaningless life of luxury to become an ascetic. He ultimately decided that asceticism couldn’t end suffering, and instead chose a middle way, a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.
Under a fig tree, now known as the Bodhi tree, he vowed never to leave the position until he found Truth. At the age of 35, he attained Enlightenment. He was then known as Gautama Buddha, or simply “The Buddha”, which means “the enlightened one”, or “the awakened one”. For the remaining 45 years of his life, he traveled the Gangetic Plain of central India (the region of the Ganges/Ganga river and its tributaries), teaching his doctrine and discipline to a diverse range of people. By the time of his death, he had thousands of followers.
The Buddha’s reluctance to name a successor or to formalise his doctrine led to the emergence of many movements during the next 400 years: first the schools of Nikaya Buddhism, of which only Theravada remains today, and then the formation of Mahayana and Vajrayana, pan-Buddhist sects based on the acceptance of new scriptures and the revision of older techniques. Followers of Buddhism, called Buddhists in English, referred to themselves as Sakyan-s or Sakyabhiksu in ancient India. Buddhist scholar Donald S. Lopez asserts they also used the term Bauddha, although scholar Richard Cohen asserts that that term was used only by outsiders to describe Buddhists.
During the 1st century AD, the trade on the overland Silk Road tended to be restricted by the rise in the Middle-East of the Parthian empire, an unvanquished enemy of Rome, just as Romans were becoming extremely wealthy and their demand for Asian luxury was rising. This demand revived the sea connections between the Mediterranean and China, with India as the intermediary of choice. From that time, through trade connection, commercial settlements, and even political interventions, India started to strongly influence Southeast Asian countries (excluding Vietnam). Trade routes linked India with southern Burma, central and southern Siam, islands of Sumatra and Java, lower Cambodia and Champa, and numerous urbanized coastal settlements were established there.
For more than a thousand years, Indian influence was therefore the major factor that brought a certain level of cultural unity to the various countries of the region. The Pāli and Sanskrit languages and the Indian script, together with Theravāda and Mahāyāna Buddhism, Brahmanism, and Hinduism, were transmitted from direct contact and through sacred texts and Indian literature such as the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata.
From the 5th to the 13th centuries, South-East Asia had very powerful empires and became extremely active in Buddhist architectural and artistic creation. The main Buddhist influence now came directly by sea from the Indian subcontinent, so that these empires essentially followed the Mahāyāna faith. The Sri Vijaya Empire to the south and the Khmer Empire to the north competed for influence, and their art expressed the rich Mahāyāna pantheon of the bodhisattvas.
From the 11th century, the destruction of Buddhism in the Indian mainland by Islamic invasions led to the decline of the Mahāyāna faith in South-East Asia. Continental routes through the Indian subcontinent being compromised, direct sea routes developed from the Middle-East through Sri Lanka to China, leading to the adoption of the Theravāda Buddhism of the Pāli canon, introduced to the region around the 11th century from Sri Lanka.King Anawrahta (1044–1078); the founder of the Pagan Empire, unified the country and adopted the Theravādin Buddhist faith. This initiated the creation of thousands of Buddhist temples at Pagan, the capital, between the 11th and 13th centuries. Around 2,200 of them are still standing. The power of the Burmese waned with the rise of the Thai, and with the seizure of the capital Pagan by the Mongols in 1287, but Theravāda Buddhism remained the main Burmese faith to this day.
The Theravāda faith was also adopted by the newly founded ethnic Thai kingdom of Sukhothai around 1260. Theravāda Buddhism was further reinforced during the Ayutthaya period (14th–18th century), becoming an integral part of Thai society.
In the continental areas, Theravāda Buddhism continued to expand into Laos and Cambodia in the 13th century. From the 14th century, however, on the coastal fringes and in the islands of south-east Asia, the influence of Islam proved stronger, expanding into Malaysia, Indonesia, and most of the islands as far as the southern Philippines.
Nevertheless, since Suharto’s rise to power in 1966, there has been a remarkable renaissance of Buddhism in Indonesia. This is partly due to the requirements of Suharto’s New Order for the people of Indonesia to adopt one of the five official religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism or Buddhism. Today it is estimated there are some 10 million Buddhists in Indonesia. A large part of them are people of Chinese ancestry.