Buddhism has traditionally been characterized as the religion of peace and tolerance. Nichiren Buddhism, in particular, is a people-centered religion, with its founder, Nichiren Daishonin, seeing all individuals as potential Buddhas and therefore worthy of deep respect.
Ostensibly the priests and lay members of Nichiren Shoshu Temple share the same roots as the members of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI). Even though both even share similar liturgies, their differences in underlying outlooks could not be starker. This is clearly illustrated, for example, in their approaches to Islam. The SGI has been seeking for many years to engage in constructive dialogue with members of the Islamic faith, evidenced by the publication of Global Civilization: A Buddhist-Islamic Dialogue by the Iranian scholar Majid Tehranian and Daisaku Ikeda (2003). In contrast, high ranking priests of Nichiren Shoshu have condemned Islam.
Reverend Jisei Nagasaka, chief priest of the New York Nichiren Shoshu Temple, has published on the Internet several of his sermons in which he made comments about the demise of Buddhism in India. Although he removed his posts on July 3, 2003, he has subsequently issued no apologies for his statements.
In his comments he stated,
Armies of Islam invaded India in the year 1000, and in 1203 destroyed Bikhuramasila (sic), the major Buddhist center in India for intellectual and religious study. The invading Muslims killed all of the monks and nuns, effectively wiping out Buddhism in India (Nagasaka, True Meaning).
These are not isolated comments. Rev. Nagasaka has repeatedly made and published disparaging comments about Islam and its role in the fall of Buddhism in India. Similar thoughts can be found in a sermon entitled “Illness of Mankind” in which he states, “Now is the time that the Daishonin’s Buddhism is able to save the people of Islam” and “all slanderous religions, including Islam, will be defeated by True Buddhism” (www.nstny.org/illnessofmankind). He made similar remarks in a speech “Blind Faith and Correct Faith” (www.nstny.org/blindcorrect519) and in an address commemorating the one-year anniversary of September 11. After he received inquiries about the latter, the original was replaced with a sanitized version that is currently on the New York Temple website (www.nstny.org).
It is my contention that Rev. Nagasaka’s comments reveal disturbing patterns of thought including:
- A weak grasp of historical and cultural processes;
- A weak understanding and disregard of the lives and struggles of common people;
- A predilection towards monasticism and “priestism”;
- An incomplete and immature notion of what constitutes “superior” and “inferior” religious practices;
- A bias that is antithetical to the multicultural perspectives so necessary to secure a peaceful world in the 21st Century.
I have many personal objections to Rev. Nagasaka’s remarks. His usage of terms such as “the armies of Islam” and “all slanderous religions, including Islam, will be defeated by True Buddhism” (Nagasaka, Illness) was very problematic to me as an educator. Such expressions can be best described as “trigger words” in today’s lexicon—the association of Islam with aggressive militancy. From my training as an educator I have learned that a prime rule of multicultural education and human relations is to avoid such generalities about ethnic groups. Therefore, I wanted to know:
- What historical basis is there to “the armies of Islam” in the history of India?
- Should Islam be properly characterized by references to militancy?
I was also struck by his association of the fall of Buddhism in India with the massacre of the monks and nuns of Bikhuramasila (Vikramasila is the spelling used by scholars). I questioned:
- Why was Rev. Nagasaka identifying himself so strongly with the fall of Indian Buddhism when forms of Buddhism in India at that time had lost much of their connections to the Buddha’s teachings?
- Why was Rev. Nagasaka so concerned about the massacre of clergy? Was this a comment designed to invoke sympathy for all Buddhist clergy including Nichiren Shoshu priests?
I began to entertain additional questions about the propagation of major religions and what phenomena undergird their rise and fall. Rev. Nagasaka states: “the invading Muslims killed all the monks and nuns, effectively wiping out Buddhism in India” (Nagasaka, True Meaning) This led me to ask:
- If Rev. Nagasaka is correct and Buddhism fell due to the actions of “the armies of Islam,” what can account for the survival of Hinduism during the same timeframe? In contrast to the decline of Buddhism, why were Hindus able to co-exist and even prosper under Muslim rule? I believe these questions have major implications for modern Buddhists who want to co-exist and prosper in a multicultural and religious world.
- What accounted for the propagation of Islam so far from its point of origin? Can a religion spread so far merely by the point of the sword? As people actively propagating Buddhism, I wondered what we can learn from the successful worldwide propagation of Islam?
- What factors can account for the decline of Buddhism in India given that the land is the historic home of the Buddha and the origin of its worldwide propagation? What can be learned from the decline of Indian Buddhism that can be used to prolong the vitality of the Buddhist movement today?
Towards finding answers to these questions I confined my research to the decline of Buddhism and Islamic expansion in eastern India, now referred to as Bengal. Shakyamuni Buddha lived most of his life in sections bordering on northwestern Bengal. Vikramasila was also located in this section.
I emerged from my study full of wonder. Once again, in a corner of time and history previously distant to me, I discovered the pageant of the human spirit:
- the readiness of the human spirit to be awakened;
- the galvanizing importance of an idea that emerges at a crucial time;
- the wisdom of the people;
- the significance of leadership;
- the necessity of basing religion on the daily lives of people;
- the importance of community in human endeavors.
The Decline of Buddhism in India
According to Eaton (1993), Buddhism had spread in India between the third century BC and the eighth century AD due to its
egalitarian and universalist ethic [which] permitted Buddhists to expand over great distances and establish wide, horizontal networks of trade among ethnically diverse people. This ethic also suited Buddhism to large, cross-cultural political systems, or empires. (9)
Initially this contrasted widely to the “hierarchical vision of Brahmanism, with its pretensions to social exclusion and ritual purity” (Eaton, 9).
However, not long after Asoka’s (ca. 273-236 BC) establishment of Buddhism as an imperial cult, it began to lose much of its vitality. Rev. Nagasaka looks at this phenomenon as a function of the passing of time:
As the Former and Middle Days of Shakyamuni’s Buddhism drew to a close, so reverence for his teachings also faded in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as in many areas of Southeast Asia. The Buddhist deities departed from Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Buddhist statues’ eyes were closed, the lands were possessed by demons and devils, and the seven disasters descended upon these former Buddhist kingdoms, which were invaded, and are still ruled to day by adherents of Islam (Nagasaka, 2001).
Rev. Nagasaka’s association with the expansion of Islam to “demons and devils” and the “seven disasters” is problematic. More troubling is his passive stance which discounts any analysis of Buddhist responsibility to its own demise. As a monastically based teaching, Buddhism lost its connections to indigenous populations in Eastern India and was patronized mainly by traders and administrators. In contrast, Brahman priests began to settle among Bengal’s indigenous people from the fifth century AD on. In particular, they shared their knowledge of agriculture, the calendar, and meteorology with the people. This was particularly important to a society that was moving from primitive agriculture to wet rice production.
This decline of Buddhism was an uneven process as Buddhist influence continued to spread to other parts of the world. The Pala Empire (ca. 760-1161) patronized Buddhism and under its rule a market economy centered on the production of textiles began to form. Under the Chandras dynasty (ca. 825-1035) Buddhist ideas spread to other parts of southeast Asia through the Chandras who were eminent in trade along the Indian Ocean. Again, Buddhism seemed to prosper amidst vital people who were actively engaged in daily life.
In contrast, Buddhist institutions in Bengal declined in both number and importance. One reason for this was the tendency of Buddhist monks to leave the conducting of life-cycle rites to Brahman priests! As a result, “Buddhist monastic establishments, so central for the religion’s institutional survival, became disconnected from the laity and fatally dependent on court patronage for their support” (Eaton, 13).
Without significant lay support, the decline of Buddhism in India was inevitable once court patronage dissipated. Even the physical structures of monasteries led to Buddhism’s decline. According to Muslim historians of the time, the Buddhist monasteries perched on the northern India plains looked like fortresses to invading armies and were targeted as such (Skilton, 145).
By simplistically associating “armies of Islam had destroyed Indian Buddhism” (Nagasaka, Illness), Rev. Nagasaka seems to hide a clear lesson about the dangers of Buddhist “priestism”—Buddhism centered on the practice by, for and of priests. As evidenced by the history of Buddhism in India, monastic or priest-driven Buddhism has the tendency to become detached from the vigorous life of lay people. Buddhism in India spread when it blended into the lives of lay people such as merchants and administrators. In contrast, separated from the currents of daily life, priests became unable to gauge the complexities and nuances of living.
Why did Hinduism survive and prosper under Muslim rule in India whereas Buddhism died? Hinduism had popular support and a priesthood connected to the life of lay people. Buddhism did not. It was the loss of the spirit of the Buddha to plunge into the lives of the people that destroyed Indian Buddhism—not the spread of Islam.
The Rise of Islam in India
Alack of nuanced thinking can certainly be seen in Rev. Nagasaka’s historical treatment of the expansion of Islam; the process was in reality quite complex. For example, Rev. Nagasaka leaves unanswered the explanation of which groups of Muslims invaded India. Islam is a complex teaching with many schools and conflicting ideologies. What were the precise understandings of Islam held by the invading armies? What motivated their conquests?
Certainly, the complexion of Islam had evolved considerably by the time Muhammad Bakhtiyar invaded northwestern India in the early 13th century. Caliphs, seated in Baghdad and perceived as the successors of the Prophet Muhammad, had ruled a centralized and Arab-based Islamic state from 750 AD Increasingly dependent upon Turks and Persians for their military, the role of Baghdad as the center of political and spiritual leadership had already diminished in favor of these new groups. In fact, soon after Bakhtiyar’s invasion of Bengal, Mongol armies in 1258 invaded Baghdad and killed the reigning caliph.
Rev. Nagasaka’s argument that the invaders of India were motivated by their religious passions is highly simplistic. Before the conquests of India, Persian jurists had already created a de facto separation of church and state. The Persian outlook was secular in nature with religion playing a symbolic role, a “unified theory of society’s moral, political, and economic basis—a worldview at once integrated, symmetrical, and closed….it is royal justice, not the Deity, that binds together the entire structure” (Eaton, 30). Thus, although Muslim, the waves of India’s Turkish, Persian, and Afghani invaders were more concerned about political power and wealth than religious conversion.
Much of the moral impetus for the Islamic expansion was sparked by Sufis, or Muslim holy men, who could be characterized more closely as charismatic rather than clerical leaders. Their tradition was largely secular, derived from Turkish traditions of shamans, holy men with magical powers, and alps, heroic warrior-adventurers in Turkish lore.
The more contemporary evidence of Sufis on Bengal’s political frontier portrays men who had entered the delta not as holy warriors but as pious mystics or freebooting settlers operating under the authority of charismatic leaders. No contemporary source endows them with the ideology of holy war; nor is there contemporary evidence that they slew non-Muslims or destroyed non-Muslim monuments (Eaton, 77).
The idea of Islam as a closed system with definite and rigid boundaries is itself largely a product of nineteenth- and twentieth-century reform movements, whereas for rural Bengalis of the premodern period, the line separating “non-Islam” from “Islam” appears rather to have been porous, tenuous, and shifting. Indeed, such boundaries seem hardly to have been present at all (Eaton, 273).
Rev. Nagasaka’s theory that Buddhism was destroyed at the point of the Muslim sword is therefore seriously flawed. More problematic is Rev. Nagasaka’s belief that mass religious conversion can occur anywhere and anytime at the point of the sword. Easton asks, “How did rulers in such circumstances remain in effective control without resorting to the indefinite and prohibitively costly use of coercive force?” (Eaton, 23). Harvey has looked at both European and Muslim explanations of conversion to Islam in South Asia and asks whether a society can ever change its religious identity only because it has a sword at its neck (Harvey, 78).
What type of force does it take to change a human heart? It appears that Rev. Nagasaka has a limited conception of the depths of the human heart. Only with this narrow understanding can he so overestimate the power of force over the human heart and so underestimate the resilience of the human spirit to resist forced conversion.
Learning from the Islamic Expansion
For a period of over five centuries, Muslim leaders ruled Bengal as they ruled over most of the Indian subcontinent. Quite curiously, however, out of all the interior provinces of India, only in western Punjab and eastern Bengal (the areas that are now respectively Pakistan and Bangladesh) did the majority of the indigenous population adopt the Islamic faith.
These were the areas that were on the fringes of Indo-Muslim rule. Muslim soldiers and administrators were predominantly located in garrison settlements in or near pre-existing urban centers along the upper Gangetic Plain. Ironically, these areas historically proved to be the most resistant to Islamic conversion.
Rev. Nagasaka’s theory that Buddhism died at the point of the Islamic sword is embarrassingly not based on historical fact. The mass Islamization of Bengalis, largely rural people, did not occur until the end of the 16th century, under the Mughals, the last of many conquering Moslem regimes. Again, against Rev. Nagasaka’s logic, the Islamization occurred under a regime historically interested in promoting agricultural productivity as the backbone of its economic policy and with almost no interest in the propagation of Islam.
Bratcher cites a claim in Rev. Nagasaka’s temple handbook that, “Islam is a false religion and…only Nichiren Shoshu is a true religion” (Myosetsuji Temple). He claims that teachings such as Islam “are false teachings which not only contradict natural science, but also coolly ignore cause and effect.” Rev. Nagasaka is not alone among Nichiren Shoshu priests in publicly making insensitive and generalized condemnations of Islam. Rev. Shoshin Kawabe of the Nichiren Shoshu Temple in Chicago claims that Indian Buddhism fell into ruin due to “the aggressive spread of Islam” through the actions of the “armies of Islam” (Kawabe). Elmore quotes Rev. Kosho Mizushima, the Vice Chief of the Nichiren Shoshu Study Department, at the 1997 Summer Course at Taisekiji, referring to Allah as “a heartless and uncharitable god” and “a mere figment of the imagination.” Mizushima further describes Islam as an “arrogant faith that lacks compassion” and stated that the loss of many lives in the Mid-East is a “direct manifestation of the tragic harm that is brought about by Islam.”
If Rev. Nagasaka’s claims about Islam are true, what can account for its worldwide propagation? How did it gain the enthusiastic adherence of over a billion people? How was it able to surmount countless cultural barriers and languages? How was it able to withstand the pressures of the centuries in what can be described as a competitive worldwide market of religious ideas? Such success belies labels such as “false religion.” Far from accepting Rev. Nagasaka’s rejection of Islam, Buddhists should study and learn from the process through which Islam was able to energize the hearts, intellect, and loyalties of so many people. Much can be learned from a study of the specific expansion of Islam in Bengal. This trend began with Bakhtiyar’s invasion but accelerated with the onset of Mughal rule and continued well into the 20th century.
The population of Bengal had become quite unique before the start of mass Islamization. Mughal rule meant a consistent integration of Bengal with northern India for the first time in its history. As a result, numerous immigrants followed the heels of the Mughals. They consisted of northern soldiers, merchants, clerks and artisans who serviced the Mughal military. This new population became grafted onto previous Muslim ruling classes that had become assimilated into Bengali culture, descendents of people who over the centuries had emigrated into Bengal to escape the waves of Turk, Persian and Afghani invaders, as well as indigenous populations (Eaton, 167). The entire Bengali delta had become a part of a “world system,” largely inspired by Islamic ethos of the Indian Ocean commercial network, that was “an arena for the circulation of shared texts an values sustained by Sufis, pilgrims, merchants, adventurers, scholars, and soldiers” (Eaton, 306).
Contrary to the “point of sword” theory espoused by Rev. Nagasaka, the process of Islamization was facilitated by tolerant rather than rigid thinking. Mughal officials did not hold up Islam as a state religion. Religious conversions did not merit gifts or other forms of acknowledgement. To the contrary there was an official policy of disdain towards the conversion of Bengalis to Islam. A Portuguese friar who traveled through Bengal in 1640 relates a telling example. He witnessed the near execution of a Moslem by a Mughal official for killing and eating a peacock in a Hindu village. The Mughal official berated him, “How then didst thou dare in a Hindu district to kill a living thing?” (Eaton, 181). Mughal concern was to augment the wealth of the empire and social justice was a more effective tool than religious bigotry.
Indeed, the entire Islamization process occurred during a period of tremendous economic expansion and stability. Slightly before the Mughal conquest, the Ganges River had become silted up and had changed its course to merge with the Padma River. Not only did the river’s annual flooding improve cultivation in eastern Bengal, but the river’s new course allowed direct transportation to North India, providing an expanding market for Bengali textiles, foodstuffs, and new cash crops such as cotton and silk. Maritime and overland trade made Bengal an important part of the world economy in particular with its fine textiles sought after by the Mughal imperial court as well as in Europe and all of Asia. A true economic boon took place through these events. This was a healthy rather than inflationary boon; the rise of money supply was offset by gains in production and population growth.
The boon was partially due to the actions of heroic religious pioneers who worked side-by-side with indigenous people to clear the jungles and establish farmlands. The process of clearing a plot of such land was extremely arduous work, taking three to four years before regular crops could be planted. It entailed battles with tigers, snakes and infestations, the construction of embankments along streams to keep salt water away, the clearing of the forests, the digging of tanks for water supplies, the construction of huts, and the planting of temporary crops to keep the jungle from re-encroaching.
The land reclamation process was a partnership of the Mughal government that granted large tracts to urban Hindus who financed the operation and sublet smaller plots to entrepreneurs with both the charisma, commitment and organizational ability to rally indigenous labor forces with the stipulation that they would encourage the development of religious practice among the people. Grants went to Muslims, Hindus and even a documented Christian settlement. Muslims, however, increasingly received the lionshare of grants, perhaps due to a greater propensity for this type of work. As part of their mission, the Muslim entrepreneurs led the reclamation process, taught local people the technique of rice cultivation, set up small mosques, and taught the fundamentals of Islam. In return from its initial divestiture of wilderness, the government received new revenue sources, loyal elites, and an extended sphere of an organized and population. The importance of the religious figures who led the grassroots process of reclamation can be measured by their incorporation into literary and folk traditions. “Islam gradually became associated with economic development and agricultural productivity….Islam became locally understood as a civilization-building ideology, a religion of the plow” (Eaton, 308).
The establishment of mosques had an enormous role in the Islamization of Bengal. Mosques have traditionally been a cornerstone of Islamic civilization. On the one hand they represent the commonality of the umma, the worldwide fellowship of Muslim believers. On the other hand, they are the center of communal worship and prayer. Quite ironically, located in and around garrison cities, the most significant mosques built over the course of 600 years of Muslim rule in India were in the areas in which the least amount of Islamic conversion took hold. In contrast, eastern Bengal, the site of the most intensive Islamization, witnessed the appearance the small bamboo and thatch mosques associated with the land reclamation led by Muslim holy men. Land reclamation necessarily followed the course of rivers and creeks while at the same time seeking out high patches of land to avoid the dangers of flooding. As a result, the development of villages was hampered and mosques became the center of communal life.
Mosques were the sites where the Qur’an was read. Religious authority in Islam does not flow from particular priests, elders, shamans or ritualists but “from a medium that is ultimately immortal and unchallengeable—written scripture” (Eaton, 291). Hence Islam is identified by it practitioners as the “religion of the Book.” The world civilization created by Islam was based on the Qur’an and the many volumes of Islamic Law. In eastern Bengal as well, even the humblest of mosques patronized Qur’an readers. The introduction in the 15th century of papermaking technology in Bengal further promoted popular association of the written word with religious authority (Eaton, 293).
The match between Islam and the expanding frontier was fortuitous. Eaton states that “Islam creatively evolved into an ideology of ‘world construction’…serving not only to legitimize but to structure the very socioeconomic changes taking place on the frontier” (267). One source of its success was its creative ability to encounter, interact, enrich, and grow from the mythology and religious thought of premodern Bengal. This process was a gradual one. The study of folklore reveals that indigenous populations at first just added Islamic beliefs into the pantheon of their religious universe. With time they associated and then used Islamic vocabulary and concepts instead of their own while maintaining much of their own basic cosmology. Finally Islamic practice displaced native ones. The indigenous people of eastern Bengal, upon encountering Islam, did not see it as a self-contained “culture-box” that had to be fully accepted or rejected; conversion was through “seepage” rather than a sudden mass conversion (Eaton, 309-310). It was truly a case of cultural dialogue.
In summary Eaton argues:
Religious systems are created, cultural artifacts, and not timeless structures lying beyond human societies. As such they are continuously reinterpreted and readapted to particular sociocultural environments. Yet even while this happens, religious traditions transform those environments in creative ways. Herein lies, perhaps, the secret of the successful world religions, for when they are not flexible or adaptable, they tend to ossify into hollow shells, and survive only in museums or forgotten texts….In the “success stories” of world religions, and the story of Islam in Bengal is surely among these, the norms of religion and the realities of local sociocultural systems ultimately accommodate one another. Although theorists, theologians, or reformers may resist this point, it seems nonetheless to be intuitively grasped by common folk (314-315).
There is much here for our consideration. Rev. Nagasaka states, “If we shakubuku Muslims in this country and convince them to chant daimoku, they can then return to their native lands, whether it be to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia or Malaysia, and shakubuku their fellow countrymen” (Nagasaka, Latter 2001). The history of Islamic expansion in Bengal suggests quite a different approach to propagation. It occurred within an ethnic cauldron best described of a rich mixture of diverse people. It was facilitated by liberal tolerance for other religions rather than rigid exclusionist thinking. It was supported by a vibrant economy based on an expanding frontier and new technologies. It was highly dependent on grassroots leaders who worked side-by-side with common people to tame the wilderness. Mosques, in particular small and humble ones, were the center of community. Valuing the written word of scripture rather than the viewpoint of individual priests was an essential. Finally, Islam possesses the wisdom, flexibility, and strength to engage in and sustain cultural dialogue with indigenous people and enrich fundamental religious beliefs with native insight.
Nichiren Buddhists recognize that propagation is a key to the establishment of world peace. Propagation entails sharing the benefits of practice with others. It also entails much broader responsibilities. Nichiren Buddhists have the responsibility of actively participating in the wide range of our diverse democracy. Rather than adopting exclusionist and arrogant stances towards other faiths, we need to engage in meaningful dialogues to find commonalties. We have a responsibility to enrich and energize our economy, our intellectual heritage, and our political system. We must become attractive people working side-by-side with colleagues, friends, and family members to conquer whatever wildernesses and jungles we face: whether that of war, anti-intellectualism, poverty, discord, disease, and racism and other “isms.” Rather than grand shrines and temples, our movement should be community-based and centered in homes and neighborhoods. We should rely on the word, spirit, and example of our founder and recoil from those who claim exclusive rights to reinterpret Nichiren’s doctrine. Finally, we affirm the right of creativity, the right to find metaphors that open understanding to Nichiren Buddhism. Concepts introduced by the successive presidents of the Soka Gakkai such as “value creation,” “the Buddha is life,” “human revolution,” and “the path of mentor-disciple” have launched a new global wave of propagation, one of which we should be rightly proud.
Eaton, R.M. (1993). The Rise of Islam and the Bengal frontier: 1204-1760. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
Hardy, P. (1979). “Modern European and Muslim Explanations of Conversion to Islam in South Asia: A Preliminary Survey of the Literature.” In Conversion to Islam, ed. Nehemia Levtzion (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1979).
Kawabe, S. (1994). “How Rare To Encounter This Teaching.” Myogyoji News. May/June 1994. Retrived on April 13, 2003, from http://ww2.netnitco.net/users/jqpublic/ltn1.html
Mizushima, K. (1997). “The Distinctive Attributes of True Buddhism.” Lecture delivered on August 24, 1994. Quoted by Anthony Elmore. Retrieved April 6, 2003, from http://www.proudblackbuddhist.org/Rev/Page_2x.html.
Myosetsuji Temple (1994). NSH handbook, basic information for Hokkeko members: False religions. Issue No. 6 June 1994. Retrieved April 6, 2003, from www.cebunet.com/nst/6hbfalserelig.html.
Nagasaka, J. “The Illness of Mankind.” Retrieved on April 12, 2003 from, www.nstny.org/illnessofmankind.
Nagasaka, J. “The True Meaning of True Buddha’s Advent”. Retrieved on April 12, 2003 from, www.nstny.org/Tbuddha.
Nagasaka, J. “Blind and correct faith.” Retrieved on April 12, 2003 from www.nstny.org/blindcorrect519.
Nagasaka, J. (2001). “Latter Day of the Law”. Retrieved on April 13, 2003 from http://groups.google.com/groups?hl=en&lr=&ie=UTF-8&safe=off&selm=20011115125508.04371.00000038%40mb-fc.aol.com
Skilton, A. (1997). A Concise history of Buddhism. Newtown, Australia: Windhorse