(Please note that various schools may differ in details of Buddhist history).
Initially, Buddhism remained one of the many small sects in India. The main breakthrough came when King Asoka (ca. 270-232 BCE) converted to Buddhism. He did not make it a state religion, but supported all ethical religions. He organised the spreading of Buddhism throughout India, but also beyond; most importantly to Shri Lanka. This occurred after the Third Council.
THE BUDDHIST COUNCILS
The First Council
Three months after the Buddha's Mahaparinirvana (passing away), his immediate disciples convened a council at Rajagaha. Maha Kassapa, the most respected and senior monk, presided at the Council.
Two very important personalities who specialised in the two areas of the teachings:
- The Dharma: Ananda, the closest constant companion and disciple of the Buddha for 25 years. Endowed with a remarkable memory, Ananda was able to recite what was spoken by the Buddha.
- The Vinaya: Upali remembered all the Vinaya rules.
Only these two sections - the Dharma and the Vinaya - were recited at the First Council (no mention was made of the Abhidharma yet). Though there were no differences of opinion on the Dharma there was some discussion about the Vinaya rules.
Before the Buddha's Parinirvanana, he had told Ananda that if the Sangha wished to amend or modify some minor rules, they could do so. But Ananda forgot to ask the Buddha what the minor rules were. As the members of the Council were unable to agree as to what constituted the minor rules, Maha Kassapa finally ruled that no disciplinary rule laid down by the Buddha should be changed, and no new ones should be introduced. No intrinsic reason was given. Maha Kassapa did say one thing, however: "If we changed the rules, people will say that Ven. Gautama's disciples changed the rules even before his funeral fire has ceased burning."
At the Council, the Dharma was divided into various parts and each part was assigned to an Elder and his pupils to commit to memory. The Dharma was then passed on from teacher to pupil orally. The Dharma was recited daily by groups of people who regularly cross-checked with each other to ensure that no omissions or additions were made.
The Second Council
According to the Theravadin school (Rahula), about one hundred years after the Buddha's passing away, the Second Council was held to discuss some Vinaya rules, and no controversy about the Dharma was reported. The orthodox monks (Sthavarivada) said that nothing should be changed, while the others insisted on modifying some rules. Finally, a group of monks left the Council and formed the Mahasanghika - the Great Community. (The Mahasanghika should not to be confused with Mahayana.)
According to another version (Skilton), the Second Council may have had two parts: initially in Vaisali, some 60 years after the Buddha, and 40 years after that, a meeting in Pataliputra, where Mahadeva maintained five theses on the Arhat. The actual split may have occurred at Pataliputra, not Vaisali over details of the Vinaya. In the non-Theravadin version of events, the Mahasangha followed the original vinaya and the Sthaviravada (the Elders) wanted changes.
What exactly happened is unlikely to be ever revealed, but the first split in the Sangha was a fact.
The Third Council
During the reign of Emperor Asoka in the 3rd Century BCE, the Third Council was held to discuss the differences of opinion among the bhikkhus of different sects. At this Council differences of opinion were not confined to the Vinaya, but also concerned the Dharma. The President of the Council, Moggaliputta Tissa, compiled a book called the Kathavatthu which refuted the heretical, false views and theories held by some sects occurring at the time. The teaching approved and accepted by this Council became known as Sthaviras or Theravada, "Teaching of the Elders". The Abhidhamma Pitaka was included at this Council.
After the Third Council, King Asoka sent missionaries to Sri Lanka, Kanara, Karnataka, Kashmir, Himalaya region, Burma, even nowadays Afghanistan. Asoka's son, Ven. Mahinda, brought the Tripitaka to Sri Lanka, along with the commentaries that were recited at the Third Council. These teachings later became known as the "Pali-canon".
The Fourth Council
The Fourth Buddhist Council was held under the auspices of King Kaniska at Jalandhar or in Kashmir around 100 CE, where 499 monks of the Sarvastivadin school compiled a new canon. This council was never recognised by the Theravada school.
The Fifth Council (Burma)
The 5th Buddhist Council was held from 1868 to 1871 in Mandalay, Burma where the text of the Pali Canon was revised and inscribed on 729 marble slabs.
The Sixth Council (Burma)
The 6th Buddhist Council was held at Rangoon, Burma in 1954-1956.
FROM 200 BCE TO THE PRESENT
Prior to the Third Council, several schools developed from the Sthavarivadin: Vasiputriya/Pudgalavadin/Sammitiya (three names for the same school), Sarvastivadin and Vibajyavadin.
Later on, the Vibhajyavadin school was divided into the Mahisasika and the Theravada. The Sarvastivadin developed later sub-schools known as Vaibasika and Sautrantika. The Sarvastivadin school is important in that it formed the basis for the later development of Mahayana.
With the conversion of King Asoka, Buddhism suddenly became a main religion in India; it had been just one of the many sects before him.
After the death of Asoka, there followed a period of persecution under Pusyamitra Sunga (183-147 BCE).
The second royal patron for Buddhism was Kaniska (1st to 2nd century). Under his auspices, the Fourth Council was held.
Legend reports that Nagarjuna (ca.150-250 CE) was the person preordained by Buddha to recover and explicate the Perfection of Wisdom texts. The first of these texts was the 'Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines'. After one of his lectures, some nagas approached him and told him of the texts hidden in their kingdom, and so Nagarjuna traveled there and returned with the sutras to India. He is credited with founding the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school of Buddhist philosophy, which emphasized the centrality of the doctrine of emptiness.
Nagarjuna's philosophy is usually connected to the emergence of Mahayana around this time, which meant a clear distinction into the two main schools of Buddhism.
Approximately two centuries after Nagarjuna, a new Mahayana school arose in India, which is commonly known as the Yogachara (Yogic Practice School). The main scriptural source for this school is the Sutra Explaining the Thought (Samdhinirmochana-sutra), which consists of a series of questions put to the Buddha by a group of bodhisattvas. The name "Yogic Practice School" may have been derived from an important treatise by Asanga (ca. 310-390) entitled the Levels of Yogic Practice (Yogachara-bhumi). Along with his brother Vasubandhu (ca. 320-400), Asanga is credited with founding this school and developing its central doctrines. Yogachara emphasizes the importance of meditative practice, and several passages in Yogachara texts indicate that the founders of the school perceived other Mahayana Buddhists as being overly concerned with dialectical debate while neglecting meditation. The Yogachara school is commonly referred to in Tibet as "Mind Only" (sems tsam; Sanskrit: chitta-matra) because of an idea found in some Yogachara texts that all the phenomena of the world are "cognition-only" (vijnapti-matra), implying that everything we perceive is conditioned by consciousness.
From around the 4th cent CE, Vajrayana (Tantrayana) Buddhism started to develop in India as part of the Mahayana tradition. In addition to the developments in philosophy, a new trend in practice developed in India, which was written down in texts called tantras. These texts purported to have been spoken by the historical Buddha (or sometimes by other Buddhas), and while they incorporated the traditional Mahayana ideal of the bodhisattva who seeks buddhahood for the benefit of all beings, they also proposed some radically new practices and paradigms. The central practices of tantra include visualizations intended to foster cognitive reorientation, the use of prayers (mantra) to Buddhas that are intended to facilitate the transformation of the meditator into a fully enlightened Buddha, and often elaborate rituals.
In the 5th cent CE, a Buddhist monastic university was founded at Nalanda, India. This university would become the largest and most influential Buddhist center for many centuries to come.
Chandrakirti (ca. 550-600) was one of the most influential commentators of Nagarjuna
In the following centuries, a number of syncretic schools developed. They tended to mingle Madhyamaka and Yogachara doctrines. The greatest examples of this syncretic period are the philosophers Shantarakshita (ca. 680-740) and Kamalashila (ca. 740-790), who are among the last significant Buddhist philosophers in India.
Following this last flowering of Buddhist thought in India, Buddhism began to decline. It became increasingly a tradition of elite scholar-monks who studied in great monastic universities like Nalanda and Vikramashila in Northern India. Buddhism failed to adapt to changing social and political circumstances, and apparently lacked a wide base of support.
When a series of invasions by Turkish Muslims descended on India in the ninth through twelfth centuries, after the invaders had sacked the great north Indian monastic universities and killed many prominent monks, Buddhism was dealt a death blow from which it never recovered. In 1193 the Moslems attacked and conquered Magadha, the heartland of Buddhism in India, and with the destruction of the Buddhist Monasteries, like Nalanda (1200) in that area Buddhism was wiped out.
Only some small remnants of Buddhist communities, like in the Himalayan areas, Buddhism remained alive. Apart from the Moslims, most Indians are Hindu, and to them Buddhism is a old, dead branch of Hinduism, not a seperate, independent religion.
During the English Colonial Rule, there was a small resurgence of Buddhism in India. In the 1890's, for example, Dammapara of Sri Lanka founded the Mahaboddhi Society, and Ayoti Daas founded the Buddhist Society of South India, as well as other unrelated Buddhist activities in Bengal and other places in India. The effects of these activites where localized, never spreading widely.
In 1956 in the state of Maharashutra, in the city of Nagpur, Dr. Ambedkar held a conversion ceremony, and converted 500,000 untouchables to Buddhism. One of the underlying thoughts of this re-introduction was to reduce the influence of the Hindu caste system in India and its detrimental influence on people of the lower castes. The number of Buddhists in India in 1981 (according to India Govt. estimates) was 4.65 million people, and in 1991, became 6.32 million people. About 80% of this population live in the state of Maharashutra, and in the city of Nagpur; mainly connected to Dr. Ambedkar's efforts. In the last few years, the counciousness of human rights has increased in India, and the number of Untouchables converting to Buddhism is increasing.
Ven. Dr. W. Rahula's "Gems of Buddhist Wisdom"
Asian studies, Buddha Sasana
"A Concise History of Buddhism" by Andrew Skilton (Windhorse 1994).