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the Indian Subcontinent under the Mauryan Dynasty

Buddha preaching the Dhamma.
Sandstone. Gupta period, 5th Century CE
Sarnath Museum, Sarnath, India.

With the unification of the Indian Subcontinent under the Mauryan Dynasty, ruled by pious Asoka the Great, Buddhism became widespread throughout his empire. Asoka even sent missionaries abroad to as far as the Middle-east, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. The patronage of succeeding Kushan, Gupta and Pala dynasties endowed Buddhism with great learning resources and a rich cultural heritage. Reputable Buddhist institutions such as Nālandā University – the earliest and largest in the ancient world – were teeming with scholars from all over Asia.

From its inception, Buddhism has always been a multi-ethnic religion. Due to its vast geographical expansion, Buddhism came into contact with many regional cultures and traditions. The various local beliefs and practices were often assimilated into Buddhism, which gave the religion a rich pan-Asian flavour and outlook. A result of such assimilation was the rise of variations in the interpretation of Buddhist Teachings. By the reign of Emperor Asoka in the 3rd Century BCE, there were 18 schools of Buddhist thoughts. These schools can be divided into two large groupings – the orthodox ‘Hinayāna‘ (comprising 11 doctrinal schools) and the reformist ‘Mahāyāna‘ (7 schools). Today, the Theravāda tradition survives as the sole representative of the orthodox group, whereas a few Mahāyāna traditions have continued existing till now.