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Buddhism- Origin & Evolution Notes | Study History for UPSC CSE - UPSC

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Table of contents
Origin of Buddhism  
Causes of Origin of Buddhism
Life of Gautama Buddha and Evolution of Buddhism
Doctrine of Buddhism
Major Buddhist Texts
Buddhist Councils
Sects of Buddhism
Spread of Buddhism
Buddhism – Reasons for Decline
Contribution of Buddhism to Indian Culture
Buddhism as a Way of Soft Diplomacy
Way Forward
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Origin of Buddhism  

Buddhism started in India over 2,600 years ago as a way life that had the potential of transforming a person.

  • It is one of the important religions of South and South-Eastern Asian countries.
  • The religion is based upon the teachings, life experiences of its founder Siddhartha Gautam, born circa 563 BCE.
  • He was born into the royal family of Sakya clan who ruled from Kapilvastu, in Lumbini which is situated near the Indo-Nepal Border.
  • Buddhism- Origin & Evolution Notes | Study History for UPSC CSE - UPSCAt the age of 29, Gautama left home and rejected his life of riches and embraced a lifestyle of asceticism or extreme self-discipline.
  • After 49 consecutive days of meditation, Gautama attained Bodhi (enlightenment) under a pipal tree at Bodhgaya a village in Bihar.
  • Buddha gave his first sermon in the village of Sarnath, near the city of Benares in UP. This event is known as Dharma-Chakra-Pravartana (turning of the wheel of law).
  • He died at the age of 80 in 483 BCE at a place called Kushinagara a town in UP. The event is known as Mahaparinibban.

Causes of Origin of Buddhism

The various causes that led to the origin of Buddhism are:

1. Varna System & Kshatriya's resentment: 
Kshatriya class’ resentment towards the domination of the priestly class (Brahmanas) 

  • The order of hierarchy in the Varna system was Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. 
  • The Kshatriyas who were ranked second strongly objected to the ritualistic domination of the Brahmanas and the various privileges enjoyed by them. 
  • It should also be noted that both Buddha belonged to the Kshatriya varna. 
  • It is important to mention that the Buddhist Pali texts at many places reject the Brahmanical claim to superiority and places itself (Kshatriyas) higher than the Brahmanas.

Buddhism- Origin & Evolution Notes | Study History for UPSC CSE - UPSC

2. Agricultural Economy:
Rise of the new agricultural economy that needed animal husbandry instead of killing animals

  • In the sixth century BCE, there was a shift of the center of economic and political activity from Haryana and western U.P to eastern U.P and Bihar where the land was more fertile due to abundant rainfall. 
  • It became easier to utilize the iron reservoir of Bihar and its adjoining areas. People started using more and more iron tools like plowshare for agricultural purposes. 
  • The use of iron plowshare required the use of bullocks, which meant that the age-old custom in the Vedic age of killing animals as sacrifices would have to be abandoned for this agricultural economy to stabilize. 
  • Furthermore, the flourishing of animal husbandry became imminent to raise a potential animal population to take up the work that was required to uphold the agricultural sector development. 
  • Buddhism was against any kind of sacrifice, so the peasant class welcomed it.

3. Emergence of Cities and Trade
The agricultural boom led to the increased production of food which also helped in the development of trade, craft production, and urban centers.

  • The discovery of thousands of silver and copper Punch-Marked Coins (PMC) by the numismatists reflects the development of trade in this era. 
  • This period is known as the era of second urbanization. As many as sixty towns and cities like Rajagriha, Shravasti, Varanasi, Vaishali, and Champa developed between 600 and 300 BCE. 
  • The Vaishyas and other mercantile groups rose to a better economic position and preferred to patronize non-Vedic religions like Buddhism through substantial donations. 
  • As Buddhism promoted peace and non-violence, this could put an end to wars between different kingdoms and consequently promote further trade and commerce, which was beneficial for this economic class.

4. People's liking of living a simple life:
The Vaishyas and other mercantile groups favored Buddhism as they yearned for a better social and peaceful life:

  • simple and peace-centered principles of Buddhism were accepted by people
  • The common masses welcomed the new religions as they preached peace and social equality, simple and ascetic living. 
  • People wanted relief from the growing social problems and yearned to live a peaceful and uncorrupt life.

Life of Gautama Buddha and Evolution of Buddhism

  • Gautama Buddha, founder of Buddhism was born, was born in 563 BC at Lumbinivana in Kapilvastu in the Sakya Kshatriya clan.

Buddhism- Origin & Evolution Notes | Study History for UPSC CSE - UPSC

  • His father Suddodhana was the king of Kapilvastu and his mother Mahamaya was a princess of the Koliya dynasty.
  • Mahaprajapati Gautami was the step mother of Gautama.
  • He was married to Yasodhara (Princess of Kolli dynasty) from whom he had a son Rahul.
  • At the age of 29, he renounced home this was his Mahabhinishkramana (great going forth) and became a wandering ascetic.
  • His first teacher was Alara Kalama. Another teacher was Udraka Ramputra.
  • At the age of 35 under a peepal tree at Uruvella (Bodh Gaya) on the bank of river Niranjana (modern name Falgu) attained Nirvana (enlightenment)after 49 days of continuous meditation

Buddhism- Origin & Evolution Notes | Study History for UPSC CSE - UPSC

  • Buddha delivered his first sermon at Sarnath (Dear park) to his five disciples, this is known as Dharmachakra Pravartana (Turning of the wheel of law).
  • Ananda and Upali were his famous disciples.
  • Sujata was the farmer’s daughter who gave him rice milk at Bodha Gaya
  • He died at the age of 80 in 483 BC at Kushinagar. This is known as Mahaparinirvana
  • Eight great places associated with Buddhism are Lumbini, Sarnath, Sravasti, Rajgriha, Bodh Gaya, Kushinagar, Sankisa, and Vaishali. Patliputra is not associated with Buddha
  • Ashoka, the greatest patron of Buddhism, called the 3rd Buddhist council & sent a mission comprised of his son Mahendra & his daughter Sanghamitra to Sri Lanka.
  • Palas of Bengal & Bihar was the last great patrons of Buddhism 

Events associated with Buddha’s life

Buddhism- Origin & Evolution Notes | Study History for UPSC CSE - UPSC

Doctrine of Buddhism

The core idea of Doctrines of Buddhism is obtained from

1) Four Noble Truth: Ariya-Sachchani and 

2) Eight-Fold Path: Astangika-Marga

Gautam Buddha’s teachings contain three important pillars:

  • Buddha – Founder/ Teacher
  • Dhamma – Teachings
  • Sangha– Order of Buddhist monks/nuns (who act as torchbearers of Dhamma worshippers or Upasakas and are a major factor in the dissemination of the Buddha’s doctrine)
  • While struggling for Enlightenment, Buddha had discovered Dhamma/Four Noble Truths

Question for Buddhism- Origin & Evolution
Try yourself:Who among the following propounded the philosophy of 'Ashtangika marga' (the Eightfold Path)?
View Solution

1) Four Noble Truths

Buddhism- Origin & Evolution Notes | Study History for UPSC CSE - UPSC

  • Desire is the root cause of suffering
  • The cessation of suffering is attainable
  • The cessation of suffering can be attained by following the “Eight Fold Path”
    (i) According to Buddhist philosophy, the ultimate aim of life is to attain nirvana, the eternal state of peace and bliss, which means liberation from the cycle of birth and death
    (ii) According to Buddhist philosophy, the world is momentary
    (iii) The interesting fact about Buddhist philosophy is that while it believes in the cycle of birth and death it  does not believe in the concept of the soul
    (iv) “The Middle Path” of Buddhism states that man should avoid both extremes
  • Triratna i.e. Three Jewels of Buddhism are
    (i) Buddha
    (ii) Dharma
    (iii) Sangha 

2) Eight-Fold Paths 

The Eight-Fold Path is more about unlearning rather than learning, i.e., to learn in order to unlearn and uncover. The path consists of eight interconnected activities and is a process that helps one to move beyond the conditioned responses that obscure one’s nature. The Ashtangika-Marga consists of the following:

Buddhism- Origin & Evolution Notes | Study History for UPSC CSE - UPSC

  1. Right Vision (Samma-Ditthi) – it is about understanding the nature of reality and the path of transformation.
  2. Right Thought or Attitude (Samma-Sankappa)  it signifies having emotional intelligence and acting from love and compassion.
  3. Right or Whole Speech (Samma-Vacca)  it signifies truthful, clear, uplifting and unharmful communications.
  4. Right or Integral Action (Samma-Kammanta)  it signifies an ethical foundation of life, on the principles of non-exploitation of oneself and others. It consists of five rules, which form the ethical code of conduct for the members of the monastic order and the laity. These are:
  • Do not commit violence.
  • Do not covet the property of others.
  • Do not indulge in corrupt practices or sensual behaviour.
  • Do not speak a lie.
  • Do not use intoxicants.

In addition to these, monks and nuns were strictly instructed to observe the following three additional precepts-

  • To avoid eating after mid-day.
  • To refrain from any sort of entertainment and use of ornaments to adorn oneself.
  • To refrain from using high or luxurious beds, and from handling gold and silver (including money).
  1. Right or Proper Livelihood (Samma-Ajiva)  it lays emphasis on livelihood based on correct action and on the ethical principles of non-exploitation. It is believed that this forms the basis of an ideal society.
  2. Right Effort or Energy (Samma-Vayama) – it signifies consciously directing our life energy to the transformative path of creative and healing action that fosters wholeness thus moving towards conscious evolution.
  3. Right Mindfulness or Thorough Awareness ( Samma-Sati)  it means knowing one’s own self and watching self behaviour. There is a saying by the Buddha, “If you hold yourself dear, watch yourself well”.
  4. Right Concentration or Meditation (Samma-Samadhi) – samadhi literally means to be fixed, absorbed in. It means getting one’s whole being absorbed in various levels or modes of consciousness and awareness.


Major Buddhist Texts

The early Buddhist literature is divided into canonical and non-canonical texts: 

1. Canonical texts: 
are believed to be the actual words of the Buddha. Canonical texts are books that lay down the basic tenets and principles of Buddhism such as the Tipitakas. 

Tipitaka

The earliest compilation of Buddhist teachings which were written on long, narrow leaves is “The Tipitakas” (in Pali) and “Tripitaka” (in Sanskrit). 

  • All the branches of Buddhism have the Tripitakas (also called three baskets/collections) as part of their core scriptures, which comprise three books which are:  

Buddhism- Origin & Evolution Notes | Study History for UPSC CSE - UPSC

  1. The Sutta (conventional teaching) 
  2. The Vinaya (disciplinary code)
  3. The Abhidhamma (moral psychology)

1. Sutta Pitaka –  consists of the main teaching or Dhamma of Buddha. It is divided into five Nikayas or collections:
(i) Dighgha Nikaya
(ii) Majhim Nikaya
(iii) Sanyukta Nikaya
(iv) Anguttar Nikaya
(v) Kshudraka Nikaya

2. Vinay Pitaka- This contains rules for monks and nuns of the monastic order (Sangha). It includes the Patimokkha – a list of transgressions against monastic discipline and atonements for these. The Vinaya text also includes doctrinal expositions, ritual texts, biographical stories and some elements of Jatakas or “birth stories”. 

3. Abhidhamma Pitaka –The Abhidamma Pitaka is a philosophical analysis and systematization of the teaching and the scholarly activity of the monks. It consists of the religious and metaphysical discourses of Buddha

Question for Buddhism- Origin & Evolution
Try yourself:To which religion is the 'Tripitaka' scripture related?
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2. Non-canonical texts: 
Non-Canonical or semi-canonical texts are commentaries and observations on canonical texts. Quotes, definitions, historical information, grammar and other writings in Pali, Tibetian, Chinese, and other East Asian languages. 

Some important ones are: 

  • Mahavastu (written in Sanskrit-Prakrit mixed) - it is about the sacred biography, i.e hagiography of the Buddha. 
  • Nidanakatha - the first connected life story of Buddha.
  • The Dipavamsa & the Mahavamsa (both in Pali)- both give historical and mythical accounts of the Buddha's life, Buddhist Councils, Asoka and the arrival of Buddhism to Sri Lanka. 
  • Visuddhimagga (the path to purification written by Buddhaghosa) - deals with the development from the purity of discipline to enlightenment (Nibbana). 
  • Milindapanho (in Pali) - consists of a dialogue between the Indo-Greek king Milinda/Menander and the monk Nagasena on various philosophical issues. It is the only text in Sanskrit 
  • Nettipakarana (The book of guidance) - which gives a connected account of the Buddha's teachings. 

Buddhist Councils

First Council

  • The first Buddhist council was held at Rajgriha in 483 B.C. under the patronage of Ajatshatru. It took place just after the death of Lord Buddha. The compilation of Sutta Pitak and Vinay Pitak took place during this council.
    Question for Buddhism- Origin & Evolution
    Try yourself:The first Buddhist Council was held at ________
    View Solution

Second Council

  • It took place after 100 years of the death of Lord Buddha i.e. 383 in B.C. It took place in Vaishali under the patronage of king Kalashoka, it was presided by Sabakami. The schism took place in this council on the issue of rules and discipline. As a result, two groups, Mahasanghika and Therivadi (Sthavirvadin) were formed.

Third Council

  • It took place in Patliputra under the patronage of Ashoka. It was presided by Mogliputta Tisa. It is also known as the council of Therivadins. “Katthavattu” was added to the Abhidhamma Patika during this council.
  • However, none of the Ashokan inscriptions gives us information about the council.

Fourth Council

  • It was held in Kundalgrama in Kashmir. The president of the council was Vasumitra and the vice president was Ashvagosha. Mahavibhasha, the doctrine of Sravastivadin was written in Sanskrit on a copper plate and enclosed in the stone boxes.
  • During this council, the two sects of Buddhism i.e. Hinayana and Mahayana were formed officially.

Sects of Buddhism

The three sects of Buddhism are Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana

Hinayana 

  • Its followers believed in the original teaching of Buddha.
  • They sought individual salvation through self-discipline and meditation.
  • Followers of this do not believe in idol worship and the historicity of Buddha.
  • This sect treat Lord Buddha as a teacher and not as God
  • The literature of this sect is mainly in Pali.
  • It is known as the ‘Southern Buddhist Religion’ because it prevailed in the South of India, e.g. Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Syam (Thailand), Java, etc.
  • There were two sub sects of Hinayana i.e. Vaibhasika and Sautantrika.

Mahayana 

  • Its followers believed in the historicity of Buddha.
  • They sought the salvation of all through the grace and help of Buddha & Bodhisattva
  • This sect believes in idol worship.
  • This sect treat Buddha as God
  • The literature of this sect is compiled in the Sanskrit language.
  • It is known as ‘Northern Buddhist Religion’, because it prevailed in the North of India, e.g. China, Korea, Japan, etc.
  • There were two sub-sects of Mahayana
  • Madhyamika or Shunyavada: Founded by Nagarjuna
  • Yogacharya or Vijananavada: Founded by Maitreyanath and his disciple Asanga.

Vajrayana                                        

  • Its followers believed that salvation could be best attained by acquiring the magical power i.e. Vajra.
  • The sect developed in Tibet
  • The sect believes in the worship of female deities
  • The chief divinities of this new sect were the Taras.
  • It became popular in Eastern India, particularly Bengal and Bihar.

Spread of Buddhism

  • Buddha had two kinds of disciples – monks (bhikshus) and lay worshippers (upasikas).
  • The monks were organized into the Sangha for the purpose of spreading his teachings.
  • The Sangha was governed on democratic lines and was empowered to enforce discipline among its members.
  • Owing to the organised efforts made by the Sangha, Buddhism made rapid progress in North India even during Buddha’s life time.
  • After the death of Buddha, his followers traversed on his path of meditation and roamed throughout the countryside.
  • For 200 years Buddhism remained overshadowed by their Hindu counterparts until the advent of Great Mauryan King – Ashoka.
  • After the bloodbath in his Kalinga conquest, emperor Ashoka decided to give up the policy of worldly conquest and adopted Dhamma conquest.
  • Ashoka during the third Buddhist council dispatched various Buddhist missions to different areas such as Gandhara, Kashmir, Greece, Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Egypt, and Thailand.
  • Through his missionary effort Ashoka spread Buddhism into West Asia and Ceylon. Thus a local religious sect was transformed into a world religion.

Buddhism – Reasons for Decline

From the early 12th century, Buddhism began to disappear from the land of its birth. Various causes that led to the decline of Buddhism are:

  1. Corruption in Buddhist Sangha– In the course of time, the Buddhist Sangha became corrupt. Receiving valuable gifts drew them towards luxury and enjoyment. The principles prescribed by Buddha were conveniently forgotten and thus started the degradation of the Buddhist monks and their preachings.
  2. Division among Buddhists– Buddhism faced divisions from time to time. The division into various splinter groups like Hinayana, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Tantrayana and Sahajayana led Buddhism to lose its originality. The simplicity of Buddhism was lost and it was becoming complex.
  3. Use of Sanskrit language– Pali, the spoken language of most people of India, was the medium for the spread of the message of Buddhism. But Sanskrit replaced these at the Fourth Buddhist Council during the reign of Kanishka. Sanskrit was the language of a few intellectuals, hardly understood by masses and therefore became one of the many reasons for the fall of Buddhism.
  4. Buddha worship– Image worship was started in Buddhism by the Mahayana Buddhists. They started worshipping the image of the Buddha. This mode of worship was a violation of the Buddhist principles of opposing complex rites and rituals of Brahmanical worship. This paradox led people to believe that Buddhism was tending towards the fold of Hinduism.
  5. Persecution of Buddhists– In course of time there was the rise of the Brahmanical faith again. Some Brahmana rulers, such as Pushiyamitra Shunga, the Huna king, Mihirakula (worshiper of Shiva) and Shaivite Shashank of Gauda persecuted the Buddhists on a large scale. The liberal donations to the monasteries gradually declined. Also, some rich monasteries were specifically targeted by the Turkish and other invaders.
  6. Muslim invasion– The Muslim invasion of India almost wiped out Buddhism. Their invasions of India became regular, and repeated such invasions forced the Buddhist monks to seek asylum and shelter in Nepal and Tibet. In the end, Buddhism died away in India, the land of its birth.

Contribution of Buddhism to Indian Culture

Buddhism has made remarkable contribution to the development of Indian culture:

  • The concept of ahimsa was its chief contribution. Later, it became one of the cherished values of our nation.
  • Its contribution to the art and architecture of India was notable. The stupas at Sanchi, Bharhut and Gaya are wonderful pieces of architecture.
  • It promoted education through residential universities like those at Taxila, Nalanda and Vikramasila.
  • The language of Pali and other local languages developed through the teachings of Buddhism.
  • It had also promoted the spread of Indian culture to other parts of Asia.

Buddhism as a Way of Soft Diplomacy

  • Buddhism in India as a Soft Power is different from the conventional sense of the term. India talks about shared cultural development instead of export of culture.
  • The values of peace, accommodation, inclusiveness, and compassion that are part of our societies can be attributed to the influence of the teachings of Lord Buddha and Buddhism.
  • The ideals of Buddhism continue to intersect with the political and economic contexts of many Asian nations with 22% of the world’s population.
  • Buddhism can act as an intensifying factor for Asian emotional bonding and connectivity as it is embedded into their “nationalistic” thinking and actions.
  • Buddhism is not restricted to Asia and has been able to generate a spiritual awakening elsewhere in the world and influenced a stream of philosophical traditions world over.
  • India has in its favour at the moment abundance of resources by way of pilgrimage sites, the presence of the Dalai Lama, and international goodwill, as well as the right intentions.

Way Forward

  • Effective revitalisation of the Nalanda University project and encouragement of Buddhist studies in well-established universities will bring International community at a common platform.
  • The promotion of Buddhist tourism reminiscent of the ‘Incredible India’ campaign is required to popularise India’s association with the faith internationally.
  • The government faces the crucial challenge of effective execution. Buddhist diplomacy would go a long way in countering the rise of China, strengthening its relations with Asian countries, and helping it further down the path of its regional and global power ambitions.


To practice questions of Buddhism, you can attempt the tests given below:

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