Buddhism spread rapidly. Buddha had the satisfaction to see, before he passed away (mahaparinivana), that people and princes of such powerful kingdoms as Magadha, Kosala and Kosambi and republican states like the Sakyas, the Vajis, the Mallas etc. accepted Buddhism and that the whole of middle India or Majjhimadesa was dotted with Buddhist Monasteries and Viharas. After his death a highly organised Buddhist Samgha under the selfless monks made considerable progress.

Two hundred years after the death of Buddha, the famous Mauryan king Asoka embraced Buddhism. This was an epoch-making event. The Great Asoka was also responsible for making Buddhism a world religion. Alongwith popularizing Buddhism throughout India, Asoka sent his missionaries to central Asia, west Asia and Sri Lanka. And that is how Buddha has been described as the ‘Light of Asia’. Even today Sri Lanka, Myanmar, China and Japan profess Buddhism when it has almost became non-existent in the land of its birth. Asoka popularized the Buddhist holy places – the Lumbini Grove at Kabilavastu, where Buddha was born, the Bodhi tree at Gaya where he attained knowledge, the Deer Park at Varanasi where he preached his first sermon and the Kusinagara where he died (mahaparinivana), which were visited by many including Asoka himself. Whatever was the position of Buddhisim during the lifetime of Buddha, 200 years later it was a distinct religion. The Sri Lankan works, Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa and Culavamsa give valuable information and the progress of Buddhism in the Island, and the Chinese pilgrims Fa-Hien, Hiuen-Tsang etc. give the picture of the progress of Buddhism in China and South East Asia.

After the death of Buddha, four Buddhist Councils were held to compile the religious doctrine (Dhamma) and monastic order (Vinanya) from time to time. The First Council was held soon after the death of Buddha in 487 B.C. at Rajagriha under the auspices of king Ajatasatru. Here Upali one of the chief disciples read out Vinaya Pitaka, as heard from Buddha himself. Ananda recited Sutta Pitaka the great collection of Buddha’s sermons. The Second Council was held at Vaisali in 387 B.C. under the auspices of king Kalasoka. A schism raised its head here. Those who went with the traditional Vinaya Pitaka were called Sthvarivadins (Pali Theravad) and the pro-changers were called Mahasanghikas. The Third Council was held at Pataliputra in 251 B.C. under the patronage of Asoka. This was presided over by the learned monk MogalliputtaTissa. It was here that the third Pitak, the Abhidhamma Pitaka was added making the Buddhist canonical literature as Tripitaka (three baskets) – Vinaya (conduct) Pitaka, Sutta (sermon) Pitaka and Abhidharma (metaphysics) Pitaka. The Fourth Council was held at Kundalavana Vihar in Kashmir under the leadership of Vasumitra and Asvaghosa during the reign of Kanishka. It was here that Buddhism was formally divided into two, Hinayana (lesser vehicle) and Mahayana (greater vehicle).

The Hinayanas followed principles of Buddhism in its original form whereas Mahayanas started to worship the images of Buddha in Bodhisattvas form as Avalokiteswar (looking down) and Padmapani (Lotus bearer). The new converts of Buddhism, like the upper caste Hindus and foreigners, found Mahayana form as more convenient. It answered the needs of many and the mood of the time. The Hinayana gradually began to decline and as reported by Hiuen Tsang in 7th CAD the Hinayana had almost become extinct in India though it was widely popular in Sri Lanka and other foreign countries. Among the exponents of Mahayana philosophy were Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Asanga, Dinnaga and Dharmakirti.

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