The voyage of Buddhism from its origin in India to its eventual adoption in Thailand, with a crucial stopover in Sri Lanka, is a narrative that traverses continents and centuries. The flow of Buddhist teachings across Asia is one of the most profound movements in the history of religion and its migration to an important base in Thailand is a worth noting.
The Birth of Buddhism in India
The journey begins in the 6th century BCE in northeastern India with the birth of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who would later become known as the Buddha. The prince renounced his royal life in pursuit of the truth of human existence, which led to his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya. Thereafter, he spent his life teaching the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, forming the foundational philosophy of Buddhism.
It should be noted that Buddhism, in many ways, is a protest religion (like protestant Christianity) against the dominant beliefs in the subcontinent at the time. Hinduism, the most prevalent system of beliefs in India at the time, had a strictly enforced caste system that gave little hope of spiritual salvations to the lower castes and the Dalit (untouchables). Buddhism could be seen as a direct counter-narrative to this school of thought, preaching that anybody can attain enlightenment provided they followed the teachings of the Buddha.
The religion probably would have not amounted to anymore than a regional belief system without the support of emperors like Ashoka the Great in the 3rd century BCE. Ashoka, having witnessed the horrors of war, adopted Buddhism and embarked on a mission to propagate its teachings across his empire and beyond. It should be noted that just a century after Ashoka’s death, the rulers and clergy that practiced Buddhism quickly relegated the religion back to relative obscurity on the subcontinent.
Buddhism’s Journey to Sri Lanka
However, Ashoka’s mission led to Buddhism’s introduction to Sri Lanka, an island nation to the south of India (and to the Himalayan regions which refined and propagated the religion further).
According to the Mahavamsa, a historical poem written in Pali, it was Ashoka’s son, Mahinda, who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka during the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa in the 3rd century BCE.
Under royal patronage, Buddhism became the state religion, influencing Sri Lankan culture, law, and education. The establishment of the Mahavihara in Anuradhapura marked a significant development, and it became a leading center for Theravada Buddhist scholarship. The island also became home to the sacred Bodhi tree, a sapling of the original tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment, brought by Sanghamitta, Ashoka’s daughter.
The Evolution and Preservation of Theravada Buddhism
Over the centuries, Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka faced numerous challenges, including invasions and periods of decline. However, it was the commitment to preserving the Pali Canon, or the Tripitaka (the religious text of Theravada Buddhism), that helped to maintain the continuity of the religion.
During the 1st century BCE, during a period of famine and strife, the monastic community in Sri Lanka undertook the monumental task of transcribing the entire Pali Canon and its commentaries onto palm leaves. This was the first time these texts were written down, and they have since been preserved and passed down through generations, securing the foundations of Theravada Buddhism.
The journey of Buddhism from Sri Lanka to Southeast Asia is believed to have occurred around the 6th century CE, likely through maritime trading routes. The exact details of how Buddhism made its way to Thailand specifically are unclear, but the influence of Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism is undeniable.
The adoption of Buddhism in Thailand was a gradual process, influenced by trade, politics, and cultural exchanges. Initially, Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism were present in the region due to Indian influence. However, Theravada Buddhism, with its emphasis on personal enlightenment and monastic life, eventually became prevalent.
The turning point came during the 13th century, under the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai, who made Theravada Buddhism the state religion. He was also responsible for the introduction of the Thai alphabet, thus facilitating the reading of Buddhist texts.
Over the centuries, Buddhism became deeply ingrained in Thai society, culture, and identity. Today, Thailand is home to one of the world’s largest Buddhist populations, with nearly 95% of its population identifying as Theravada Buddhists.