Buddhism originated in the sixth century BCE in the north east of India. It was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, a warrior prince. Today we refer to him as Buddha, which means “Enlightened One”. He was the founder of a sect of ascetics the Sramanas. It was one of many sects that existed in India at the time. It later changed its name to the Sangha.
The sect rejected the societal norms of the time and the Vedic religion. It was a time when the Vedic religion had many critics. The Vedic faith had originated from a Nomadic society. It was no longer relevant to the more urbanized society that existed in India at the time. People were tired of the unfair caste system. They were not happy the behavior of the Brahmin caste who lived a life of privilege. Many people resented their rituals and animal sacrifices.
A culture of asceticism had started to grow in India from as early as the seventh century. A number of religions and philosophies grew from this culture. Jainism, Charvaka and modern-day Hinduism all have their roots in the culture.
The Life of Buddha
The Early Life of Siddhartha Gautama
Siddhartha Gautama was born in the 6th century BCE in present-day Nepal, in a place called Lumbini. His mother died shortly after his birth and he was reared by his aunt. Legend has it that at his birth a soothsayer predicted that he would renounce civilization and become an ascetic. His father, the king, did what he could to prevent this from happening. He surrounded him with luxuries and kept him within the palace walls. He ensured that his son married a relative at the young age of sixteen.
Siddhartha’s father could not hide the world from him forever. As a young man, he left the protection of the palace walls and took his chariot into the surrounding town. He was shocked and dismayed when he was confronted by sickness, age, and death. On his way home, he encountered an ascetic. This, he saw as a sign of what he needed to do to understand the cause of suffering and the impermanence of everything on earth.
At the age of twenty-nine, he left the life of luxury behind. With no farewell, he left his wife and young son. He cut his hair, removed his jewels and fine clothing and donned simple robes. Along with several followers, he entered a life of severe deprivation. He almost starved himself to death. He finally realized that this life would not lead him to enlightenment. He was unable to concentrate and meditate in his weakened state.
Siddhartha Gautama Finds Enlightenment
At this stage, he ate, bathed and adopted the Middle Way. The Middle Way was of life of neither self-deprivation nor self-indulgence. He spent several months thinking about his past lives and meditating. One day whilst meditating under a bodhi tree, he finally achieved enlightenment. He was no longer ignorant. He had overcome suffering. He had broken from the cycle of rebirth and would enter nirvana when he died.
He soon took to the road and started to teach others the path to enlightenment. His intention was to help them to escape a life of suffering.
As Buddha attracted more followers, he started the Sanghas. Men, and later women, shaved their heads. They renounced their lives and families. They spent eight months wandering around teaching others the path to enlightenment. They meditated and collected alms. For four months, over the monsoon season, they stayed in monasteries living a life of meditation. Buddhism spread quickly across India. All who accepted the Middle Way could find acceptance in Buddhism.
Buddha lived to the age of 80. He had spent forty-five years on the road teaching others how to escape life’s suffering. He was cremated after his death. Despite Buddha’s conviction that the body was impermanent and should not be cherished, his ashes and bones were kept. Many wealthy people built splendid Stupas in which to keep these artifacts.
Buddhism After the Death of Buddha
In the early years after Buddha’s death, eighteen different sects of Buddhism arose. This was partly because Buddha had refused to appoint a successor and partly due to doctrinal enigmas.
For several centuries Buddha’s teachings were passed from one generation to the next by word of mouth. He had been dead for nearly five hundred years when the Pali Canon, also known as the Tipitaka, was written. This work, most of which still exists today, committed his teaching to the written word. During the intermittent years, some of the information about his life may have been somewhat embellished.
Buddhism had spread across the whole of northern India within a century of Buddha’s death.
Ashoka the Great Promotes Buddhism
The Mauryan Indian emperor, Ashoka the Great, ruled most of the Indian sub-continent between 268 and 232 BCE. His empire spread from Bangladesh to Afghanistan. He had been responsible for the death of thousands of people and he had started to regret his actions. He took up Buddhism and swore to promote non-violence. This escalated the importance of Buddhism which until that time had been rather low key.
During the reign of Ashoka, there were several trade routes and many Buddhists took to the road, taking with them their philosophies. Ashoka also sent Buddhist missionaries east to spread the word. It was during this time that the Buddhist religion entered Sri Lanka. It was the missionary Mahindra, Ashoka’s son who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankans are largely Theravada Buddhists.
The Three Main Branches of Buddhism
Theravada Buddhism is the oldest form of Buddhism that still exists today. It is conservative and sticks closely to the teachings of the Buddha. The Theravada believe that there is only one Buddha per era. Other Buddhas have lived and more are to come.
During the second century CE, another branch of Buddhism, the Mahayana, formed. The Mahayana devote themselves to making life easier for others. They believe that all humans can attain enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhism is prevalent in China, Korea and Japan.
In the seventh century, the third branch of Buddhism developed. The Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhists. Tantric Buddhists included some magical rituals borrowed from Hinduism into their religious ceremonies. The monks that perform these rituals are sworn to secrecy. This form of Buddhism is found mainly in Tibet
The Teachings of Buddha
In Buddhism, the concept of God does not exist. The philosophy is based upon the teachings of the Buddha. He taught that everyone through individual effort could attain enlightenment. Unlike other religions, Buddhism does not blame the suffering of man on sin. Instead, Buddhists believe that ignorance is the cause of suffering.
The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path
The most important teachings of Buddha are the Four Noble Truths. These formed the foundation of his first teachings after his enlightenment. This, along with the Eightfold Path, forms the core of the Buddhist teachings
- The First Noble Truth – Life is about suffering. All things lack permanence and even happy times will pass.
- The Second Noble Truth – Suffering is caused by selfish desire. The type of desire that seeks to improve the lot of one at the expense of another.
- The Third Noble Truth – Since nothing is permanent, we should not become too attached to anything.
- The Fourth Noble Truth – Follow the Eightfold Path for release from desire.
The Eightfold path is often depicted as a wheel with eight spokes. This is the Wheel of Dhamma and gives instruction on how to live life. The Eightfold Path includes the right views, the right intentions, the right speech, the right actions, the right occupation, the right endeavor, the right mindfulness, and the right concentration.
Ironically Buddhism practically disappeared from India in the twelfth century. Today Hindu and Muslim beliefs dominate. This was the result of Islamic invasions and a loss of state funding. There has been some regrowth in the number of Buddhists in India in the last seventy years.
Buddhism has continued to spread through Asia. As it expanded across the continent, it has proved very flexible. It has adapted to the different cultures while maintaining its core teaching and moral code of conduct.
In the twentieth century, Buddhism started to spread out of Asia. It now has a significant following in Western countries too. It is estimated that today there are 520 million Buddhists around the world.