When/How was the Buddha integrated in Vaishnavism?

It is no secret that the Buddha was at some point assimilated into Hinduism through some sects that considered him as an avatar of Vishnu.

But I have not found a good source which convincingly traces it back to sources. Sometimes I find the Bhagavata Purana as a source, or Muslim-Indian influences…

Does anyone know of a good publication which does the complex work of medieval literature research well?


Oh, I think I might have just found a good source:

Holt, J. (2004). The Hindu Buddha and the Buddhist Visnu: Religious Transformations in Indian and Sri Lanka. Columbia University Press.


IMO I would advise to go to what is, AFAIK, the source text of this myth that the Buddha was an avatar of Viṣṇu. In the Viṣṇupurāṇa, Book III Section XVIII, Viṣṇu’s descent and birth as the ascetic Gautama is explained and contextualized as a ploy to lead heretics away from the Vedas, to cause them to reject the Vedas, to slander them, etc.

The Vishnu Purana: Book III: Chapter XVIII.

One can only assume that those asurāḥ became the early bhikṣusaṁgha, the followers of the heretic avatar Gautama, the heretic designed to lead them astray as punishment.

In my opinion this myth is an anti-Buddhist Hindu equivalent to a Chick tract.


Thanks! That’s exactly a recurrent result I get from articles, but I didn’t have the exact location in the Viṣṇupurāṇa. But there are some pieces that don’t really fit:

  • a name is not mentioned
  • the ascetic mentioned is a naked ascetic: “with his head shaven, and carrying a bunch of peacock’s feathers” - the commentary says “A bunch of peacock’s feathers is still an ordinary accompaniment of a Jain mendicant.”
  • Then again there is the phrase which sounds Buddhist: “…by following them you shall obtain either heaven or exemption from future existence.”

So the text itself rather speaks of a Jain, simply because there is no tradition at all of naked asceticism as a Buddhist practice. The question then is when this apparently Jain figure named Mayamoha was identified and accepted as the Buddha.

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Gonda sees a first identification with Buddha by name at about the 8th century. But it’s important that this is not ‘Hinduism’ but some Vishnu sects who pushed a certain agenda - which with time became popular.

At times even Sankara was in hindsight seen as a reincarnation of the Buddha or as a Buddhist in order to corrupt the ‘true vedic teaching’. So it seems to have been an accusation tool at some point to delegitimize competitors. You just see who is the popular historical anti-ritualist at that time and that’s who you blame for the decline of traditional Brahmanism. Ironically, the Buddha wasn’t even that hardcore anti-ritual. He was anti-cruelty and otherwise didn’t find them efficient, other than the ones that got assimilated into Buddhism…

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Interesting. There is a tradition of considering this figure the Buddha, I don’t know from whence it came, but certainly the original text is much more vague and needn’t be the Buddha.

Venerable Bhāvaviveka wrote a treatise defending Mahāyāna against śrāvaka opponents who claim it is merely Vedanta, so that might address some of these claims.

It also reminds me of Venerable Asaṅga classifying his own Yogācāra as āstika and Madhyamaka as nāstika. What he meant by that I can only guess.


I have found good treatments of the topic by now, for anyone interested:
Doniger O’Flaherty - The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (187-211)
Geo-lyong Lee - On the Buddha as an Avatāra of Visnu


And multiple Buddhists, especially Buddhaghosa, are said to be brahmins with a similar agenda.

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