Introduction to Buddhism
Buddhism is a religion that encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and spiritual practices largely based on teachings attributed to the Buddha.
- Buddhism originated in India around the 5th Century BC, from where it spread through much of Asia, whereafter it declined in India during the middle ages.
- For nearly 500 years, the Buddha’s teachings were passed through generations of the monastic community by oral tradition.
- In the sixth century BCE, the socio-religious norms that were well established & followed were criticised by the then great scholars like Confucius in China, Zoroaster in Iran, Parmenides in Greece.
- They laid emphasis on ethical and moral values.
- India also witnessed the emergence of two alternate religions – Buddhism & Jainism.
- Both these religions believed and propagated non-violence, good social conduct, charity & generosity.
- These religions emphasised that true happiness does not lie in materialism or in the performance of rituals.
Causes of Growth
The various causes that led to the growth of alternative religions are:
1. 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.
2. Rise of the new agricultural economy that needed animal husbandry
- In the sixth century BCE, there was a shift of the centre 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 ploughshare for agricultural purposes.
- The use of iron ploughshare 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.
- Both Buddhism was against any kind of sacrifices, so the peasant class welcomed it.
3. The Vaishyas and other mercantile groups favoured Buddhism and Jainism as they yearned for a better social and peaceful life:
- The agricultural boom led to the increased production of food which also helped in the development of trade, craft production and urban centres. 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 and Jainism 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. Acceptance of simple and peace centered principles of Buddhism and Jainism 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.
Gautama Buddha and Buddhism
- Gautama Buddha, founder of Buddhism was born, was born in 563 BC at Lumbinivana in Kapilvastu in the Sakya Kshatriya clan.
- His father Suddodhana was the king of Kapilvastu and his mother Mahamaya was a princess of the Kosala 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
Five main events of Buddha's Life
- 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
- Stupa – Relics of the Buddha or some prominent Buddhist monks are preserved.
- Chaitya – The prayer hall
- Vihara – Residence of monks and ascetics
Doctrine of Buddhism
The core idea of Doctrines of Buddhism is obtained from Ariya-Sachchani (Four Noble Truth) and Astangika-Marga (Eight-Fold Path)
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
Four Noble Truths
- Desire is the root cause of sufferings
- The cessation of sufferings is attainable
- The cessation of sufferings 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
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:
- Right Vision (Samma-Ditthi) – it is about understanding the nature of reality and the path of transformation.
- Right Thought or Attitude (Samma-Sankappa) – it signifies having emotional intelligence and acting from love and compassion.
- Right or Whole Speech (Samma-Vacca) – it signifies truthful, clear, uplifting and unharmful communications.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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”.
- 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.
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.
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:
- The Sutta (conventional teaching)
- The Vinaya (disciplinary code)
- The Abhidhamma (moral psychology)
1. Sutta Pitaka – It contains the sayings of Buddha. It contains the five groups
(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 – It consists of the religious and metaphysical discourses of Buddha
- Dipavamsha & Mahavamsha – The great chronicles of Sri Lanka.
- Visshudhimagga by Buddhagosha
2. Non-canonical texts:
or semi-canonical texts: these are commentaries and observations on canonical texts, quotes, definitions, historical information, grammars 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.