Gautama Buddha and Buddhism

Lord Buddha

Gautama Buddha or Siddhartha was a contemporary of Mahavira. According to tradition he was bom in 563 BC. in a Shakya kshatriya family in Lumbini in Nepal near Kapilavastu, which is identified with Piprahwa and-close to the foothills of Nepal. Gautama’s father seems to have been the elected ruler of Kapilavastu and headed the republican clan of the Shakyas. His mother was a prince from the Koshalan dynasty. Thus, like Mahavira, Gautama also belonged to a noble family. Born in a republic, he also inherited some egalitarian sentiments.

Since his early childhood Gautama showed a meditative bent of mind. He was married early, but married life did not interest him. He was moved by the misery which people suffered in the world and looked for its solution. At the age of 29, like Mahavira again, he left home. He kept on wandering for about seven years and then attained knowledge at the age of 35 at Bodh Gaya under a pipal tree. From this time onwards he began to be called the Buddha or the enlightened.

Gautama Buddha delivered his first sermons at Sarnath in Banaras. He undertook long journeys and took his message far and wide. He had a very strong physique, which enabled him to walk 20 to 30 km a day. He kept on wandering, preaching and meditating continuously for 40 years, resting only in the rainy season every year. During this long period he encountered many staunch supporters of rival sects including the brahmanas, but defeated them in debates. His missionary activities did not discriminate between the rich and the poor, the high and the low and the man and woman. Gautama Buddhav passed away at the age of 80 in 483 BC. at a place called Kusinagar, identical with the village called Kasia in the district of Deoria in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Doctrines of Buddhism

The Buddha proved to be a practical reformer who took note of the realities of the day. He did not involve himself in fruitless controversies regarding the spill (atman) and the Brahma which raged strongly in his time; he addressed himself to the worldly problems. He said that the world is full of sorrows and people suffer on account of desires. If desires are conquered, nirvana will be attained, that is, man will be free from the cycle of birth and death.

Gautama Buddha recommended an eight-fold path (ashtangica marga) for the elimination of human misery. This path is attributed to him in a text of about the third century B.C. It comprised –

  • right observation
  • right determination
  • right speech
  • right action
  • right livelihood
  • right exercise
  • right memory
  • right meditation.

If a person follows this eight-fold path he would not depend on the machinations of the priests and will be able to reach his destination. Gautama taught that person should avoid the excess of both luxury and austerity. He prescribed the middle path.

The Buddha also laid down a code of conduct for his followers on the same lines as was done by the Jaina teachers. The main items in this social conduct are:

(i)do mot covet the property of others,

(ii) do not commit violence,

(iii) do not use intoxicants,

(iv) do not speak a lie and

(v) do not indulge in corrupt practices.

These teaching’s are common to the social conduct ordained by almost all religions.

Special Features of Budhism and the causes of its spread

Buddhism does not recognize the existence of god and soul (atman). This can be taken as a kind of revolution in the history of Indian religions. Since early Buddhism was not enmeshed in the clap-trap of philosophical discussion it appealed to the common people. It particularly won the support of the lower orders as it attacked the varna system People were taken into the Buddhist order-without any consideration of caste. Women also were admitted to the sangha and thus brought on par with men. In comparison with Brahmanism, Buddhism was liberal and democratic.

Buddhism made a special appeal to the people of the non-Vedic areas where it found a virgin soil for conversion. The people of Magadha responded readily to Buddhism because they were-looked down upon by the orthodox brahinanas. Magadha was placed outside the pale of the holy Aryavarta, the land of the Aryas, covering modern Uttar Pradesh. The old tradition persists; sad the people of north Bihar would not like to be ere mated south of the Ganga in Magadha.

The personality of the Buddha and the method adopted by him to preach his religion helped the spread of Buddhism. He tried to fight evil by goodness and hatred by love. He refused to be provoked by slander and abuse. He maintained poise and calm under difficult conditions and tackled his opponents with wit and presence of mind. 

The use of Pali, the language of the people, also contributed to spread of Buddhism. It facilitated the spread of Buddhist doctrines among the common people. Gautama Buddha also organized the sangha or the religious order, whose doors were kept open to everybody, irrespective of caste and sex. The only condition required of the monks was that they would faithfully observe the rules and regulations of the sangha. Once they were enrolled as members of the Buddhist Church they had to take the vow of continence, poverty and Faith. So there are three main elements in Buddhism: Buddha, sangha and dhamma. As a result of organized preaching under the auspices of the sangha, Buddhism made rapid strides even in the lifetime of the Buddha. The monarchies of Magadha, Koshala and Kausbambi and several republican states and their people adopted this religion.

Two hundred years after the death of the Buddha, the famous Maurya king Ashoka embraced Buddhism. This was an epoch-making event. Through his agents Ashoka spread Buddhism into Cental Asia, West Asia and Sri Lanka and thus transformed it into a world religion. Even today Sri Lanka Burma (Myanmar), Tibet and parts of China and Japan profess Buddhism. Although Buddhism disappeared from the land of its birth, it continues to hold ground in the countries of South Asia, South-East Asia and East-Asia.

Causes of the Decline of Budhism

By the early twelfth century A.D. Buddhism became practically extinct in India. It had continued to exist in a changed form in Bengal and Bihar till the eleventh century but after that this religion almost completely vanished from the country.

What were its causes?

  • We find that in the beginning every religion is inspired by the spirit of reform, but eventually it succumbs to rituals and ceremonies it originally denounced. Buddhism underwent a similar metamorphosis. It became a victim to the evils of Brahmanism against which it had fought in the beginning.
  • To meet the Buddhist challenge the brahmanas reformed their religion. They stressed the need for preserving the cattle wealth and-assured women and shudras of admission to heaven. Buddhism, on the other hand, changed for the worse.
  • The brahmana ruler Pashyamitra Shunga is said to have persecuted the Buddhists. Several instances of persecution occur in the sixth-seventh centuries A.D.. The Huna king Mihirakula, who was a worshipper of Shiva, killed hundreds of Buddhists. The Shaivite Shashanka of Gauda cut off the Bodhi tree at Bodha Gaya, where the Buddha had attained enlightenment. Hsuan Tsang states that 1600 stupas and monasteries were destroyed and thousands of monks and lay followers killed; this may not be without some truth. The Buddhist reaction can be seen in some pantheons in which Buddhist deities trample Hindu deities.
  • In south India both the Shaivites and Vaishnavites bitterly opposed the Jainas and Buddhists in early medieval times. Such conflicts may have weakened Buddhism.
  • For their riches the monasteries became special targets of the invaders. The Turks killed a large number of Buddhist monks in Bihar, although some of the monks managed to escape to Nepal and Tibet.
  • In any case by the twelfth century A.D. Buddhism had practically, disappeared from the land of its birth. Gradually the Buddhist monks were cut off from the mainstream of people’s life. They gave up Pali, the language of the people and took to Sanskrit, the language of intellectuals. From the first century A.D. onwards, they practised idol worship on a large scale and received numerous offerings from devotees. The rich offerings supplemented by generous royal grants to the Buddhist monasteries made the life of monks easy.
  • By the seventh century A.D., the Buddhist monasteries had come to be dominated by ease-loving people and became centres of corrupt practices which Gautama Buddha had strictly prohibited. This new form of Buddhism was known as Vajrayana. The enormous wealth of the monasteries with women living in them led to further degeneration. Buddhists came to look upon women as objects of lust. 

Importance and influence of Buddhism

Despite its ultimate disappearance as an, organized religion, Buddhism left its abiding mark on the history of India. The Buddhists showed a keen awareness of the problems that faced the people of north-east India in the sixth century B.C. The new iron ploughshare agriculture, trade and the use of coins enabled traders and nobles to accumulate wealth and we hear of people possessing eighty kotis of wealth. All this naturally created sharp social and economic inequalities. So Buddhism asked people not to accumulate wealth. According to it poverty breeds hatred, cruelty and violence. To eradicate these evils the Buddha advised that farmers should be provided with grain and other facilities the traders with wealth and the labourers with wages. These measures were, recommended to remove poverty in this world. Buddhism further, taught that if the poor gave aims to the monks, they would be born wealthy in the next world.

The code of conduct prescribed for the monks represents a reaction against the material conditions of north-east India in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. It imposes restrictions on the food, dress and sexual behaviour of the monks. They cannot accept gold and silver and they cannot take to sale and purchase. These rules were relaxed after the death of the Buddha, but the early rules suggest a return to a kind of primitive communism, a characteristic of the tribal society in which people did not practise trade and advanced agriculture. The code of conduct prescribed for monks partially reflects a revolt against the use of money, private property and luxurious living, which appeared in the sixth century BC. in north-east India. In those days property and money were regarded as luxuries.

Although Buddhism tried to mitigate the evils resulting from the new material life in the sixth century B.C. it also tried to consolidate the changes in the social and economic life, of the people. The rule that debtors were not permitted to be members of the sangha naturally helped the moneylenders and richer sections of society from whose clutches the debtors could not be saved. Similarly the rule that slaves could not join the sangha helped the slave owners. Thus the rules and teachings of Gautama Buddha took full account of the new changes in the material life and strengthened them ideologically,.

Undoubtedly the objective of the Buddhist teaching was to secure the salvation of the individual or nirvana. Those who found it difficult to adjust themselves to the break-up of the old tribal society and the rise of gross social inequalities on account of private property were provided with some way of escape, but it was confined to the monks. No escape was provided for the lay followers, who were taught to come to terms with the existing situation.

Buddhism made an important impact on society by keeping its doors open to women and shudras. Since both women and shudras were placed in the same category by Brahmanism, they were neither given sacred thread nor allowed to read the Vedas. Their conversion to Buddhism freed them from such marks of inferiority.

With its emphasis on non-violence and the sanctity of animal life, Buddhism boosted the cattle wealth of the country. The earliest Buddhist text Sattanipata declares the cattle to be givers of food, beauty and happiness (armada, vannada, sukhada) and thus pleads for their protection. This teaching came significantly at a time when the non-Aryans slaughtered animals for food and the Aryans in the name of religion. The brahmanieal insistence on the sacredness of the cow and nonviolence was apparently derived from Buddhist teachings.

Buddhism created and developed a new awareness in the field of intellect and culture. It taught the people not to take things for granted but to argue and judge them on merits. To a certain extent the place of superstition was taken by logic. This promoted rationalism among people.

In order to preach the doctrines of the new religion, the Buddhists compiled a new type of literature. They enormously enriched Pali by their writings. The early Pali literature can be divided into three categories. The first contains the sayings and teachings of the Buddha, the second deals with the rules to be observed by members of the sangha and the third presents the philosophical exposition of the dhamma.

In the first three centuries of the Christian era, by mixing Pali with Sanskrit the Buddhists created a new language which is called Hybrid Sanskrit. The literary activities of the Buddhist monks continued even in the middle Ages and some famous Apabhramsa writings in east India were composed by them. The Buddhist monasteries developed as great centres of learning and can be called residential universities. Mention may be made of Nalanda and Vikramashila in Bihar and Valabhi in Gujarat.

Buddhism left its mark on the art of ancient India. The first human statues worshipped in India were probably those of the Buddha. The faithful devotees portrayed the various events in the life of the Buddha in stone. The panels found at Gaya in Bihar and at Sanchi and Bharut in Madhya Pradesh are Illuminating examples of artistic activity. From the first century A.D. onwards the panel images of Gautama Buddha began to be made. The Greek and the Indian sculptors worked together to create a new kind art on the north-west frontier of India, which is known as the Gandhara art. The images made in tills region betray Indian as well as foreign influence. For the residence of the monks rooms were hewn out of the rocks, and thus began the cave architecture in the Barabar hills in Gaya and in western India around Nasik. Buddhist art flourished in the Krishna delta in the south and in Mathura in the north.

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Ajanta Caves (2nd C. B.C. to 6th C. A.D.)

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