After Mahavir Jina, another spiritual guru who appeared in the religious firmament of India to rectify the extreme dominance of the Brahmanical class was Gautama Buddha.
Like his predecessor he too raised his voice against the ritualistic practices and tried to purify and simplify the existing religious system.
Thus in course of time there grew a new religion called Buddhism.
Among all the protestant religions, Buddhism became very popular for its mass appeal with its message of compassion, love, self-restraint and non-violence. It extended practically all over Asia and still continues to be a great force in the Far East. Unlike the Jains, the Buddhists never claim a remote antiquity behind their religion. Rather this religion with its strong social base and rational philosophy played a dominant role in the 6th century B.C.
Life of Gautama (566 B.C.-486 B.C.):
Gautama, who later became famous as Buddha, was born at Lumbini garden (Modern Rumnhndei or Rupan-dehi). His childhood name was Siddhartha. His father, Suddliodan, was the chief of the Sakya republican clan. His mother, Mayadevi, passed away few days after his birth. He was brought up by his step mother, Mahaprajapati Gautami.
Though born in an aristocratic family, right from his childhood, Gautama exhibited signs of detachment towards worldly affairs. Rather he developed a contemplative bent of mind and a deep compassionate nature. Observing these peculiar trends in the son’s personality, Suddhodan arranged for his marriage. He got him married to a beautiful princess named Yasodhara. A son was born to them named Rahul. But no such worldly attachments could make the prince happy.
The cause of his unhappiness lay in his realization that the sufferings of the mankind were due to old age, disease and death. Therefore, at the age of twenty-nine, Gautama left home leaving his wife and son behind to realize and understand the ultimate end of human life. This departure is known as the Great Renunciation.
He first became the disciple of two distinguished teachers named Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta. He learnt several sliastras and philosophy from them. But he did not find the real knowledge he was searching for. Then he led the life of an ascetic and practiced severe penance. This effort also ended in failure as he found no answer therein. He spent nearly six years in his futile effort to find the Truth.
Then Gautama went to Uruvela near modern Bodhgaya and sat in deep contemplation under a peepal tree. At last the light dawned on him. He found the Truth he was seeking for. He received the light of knowledge – the means of salvation from human sufferings. His name was changed from Gautama to Buddha, the Perfectly Enlightened One, at the age of thirty-five. The tree under which he got the light of knowledge became famous as Bodhi tree.
Buddha was now prepared to spread the light of knowledge that he had acquired. He delivered his first sermon at Deer Park in Sarnath near Benares. People flocked to join him and became his disciples. For the next forty-five years Buddha journeyed to different parts of India to spread his message of salvation. People from every walk of life became his disciples. His long journey came to an end when he breathed his last under a sal tree at Kusinagar in Gorakhpur district of Uttar Pradesh at the age of eighty in 486 B.C. His final departure from this mortal world is known as Mahaparinirvana – the Great Salvation – in Buddhist scriptures.
Teachings of Lord Buddha:
The teachings of Buddha were extremely simple and practical, ne fundamental principles of Buddha’s teachings are represented this Four Noble Truths. Buddha keenly felt about the pain and sufferings of human beings. So in his very first sermon he mainly addressed to the basic causes of such sufferings and to a way out for their end.
Four Noble Truths:
The Four Noble Truths constitute the very essentials of his teachings illustrated by these four terms:
(i) Sufferings—that the world is full of sufferings.
(ii) Its Causes—that there are causes of sufferings.
(iii) Cessation of Sufferings—that these sufferings can be stopped.
(iv) The Way—that there is a path leading to the cessation of sufferings.
For Lord Buddha, the root of all sufferings lies in desire. Sufferings can stop with the annihilation of all desires. Those who want to get out of the clutches of suffering and want to achieve the ultimate end of human life, i.e., Nirvana, must follow a path.
Aryan Eight-fold path:
The path advocated by Lord Buddha to reach Nirvana is known as the Aryan Eight-fold path that comprises of eight important ways of life.
1. Right Speech
2. Right Action
3. Right Means of livelihood
4. Right Exertion
5. Right Mindfulness
6. Right Meditation
7. Right Resolution
8. Right View
Buddha then summarized the whole process by dividing the human body into three parts – Sila, Chitta and Prajna. The observance of the first three principles lead to the physical (Sila) development. By observing the second three, there occurs mental (chitta) development. The last two principles of right resolution and right view bring about the development of intellect (Prajna). Thus, an all-round development of the human being can be made by following the above eight-fold principles. Then only can Nirvana be achieved – the eternal state of peace and bliss which means freedom from birth and death.
Doctrine of Karma:
The philosophy of Buddhism was extremely rationalistic. It believed in the law of Karma and re-birth. One’s present stage is determined by his past action. Otherwise he reaps the consequences of his own actions done in his previous birth. Since birth is the cause of all human sufferings and sorrows, it is by virtue of one’s own Karma or action that man should try to get rid of birth. In fact, the Buddhist theory of Karma is like that of the Hindus and it contradicts the philosophy of Jainism which refutes the theory of action.
Doctrine of an-atta or No Soul:
One of the specific contributions of Buddhism is its doctrine of an-atta or no-soul. Dualistic Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and even Jainism postulate the existence of a soul behind the changing states of consciousness in every individual. This soul is the I-making principle in every person that differentiates him from others.
According to Buddha, as it is impossible to locate the flame of the lamp after the wick and oil have been consumed, it is similarly impossible to search for a soul after the dissolution of the human body. The concepts of continuity and transmigration can be better explained without postulating anything like soul or ego.
Doctrine of non-existence of God:
Buddha is silent about the existence of the Creator or God. For this he is sometimes regarded as an atheist. He was primarily concerned with the sufferings of human beings. So he thought it futile to ponder much about the mystery of creation and it’s Creator. Rather like a rationalist he paid more emphasis on the good and evil deeds of human beings. For him, vices and sufferings, virtues and happiness were related to the performance of one’s duty or deed.
Emphasis on practical moralities:
Because of its practical and pragmatic approach Buddhism had a mass appeal. It was regarded as a welcome relief from the priest-dominated and caste-ridden rigors of Brahmanism. Buddha freed religion from the elaborate and costly rituals and opposed the infallibility of the Vedas. Further, he made religion more lively and acceptable by laying stress on practical moralities of life that were essential for a common householder.
It included the following:
1. Ahimsa or abstinence from killing.
2. Respect for animal life.
3. Reverence for the superiors.
4. Service to the humanity.
5. Relieving the sufferings of mankind.
Further, Buddha made the life of the community happier by abolishing caste-systems. The status of those belonging to the lower orders was raised for attainment of social and spiritual freedom. These are in brief the main teachings of Lord Buddha. A critical analysis of the doctrines reveals that Buddhism, like Jainism, was originally a moral code rather than a metaphysical or religious system in the western sense of the term. The dying words of Lord Buddha to his disciples, “To be lamps unto themselves as there is no other light”, reveal the very essence of his simple teachings.
Buddhism remained a powerful force in the socio-cultural set up of India for almost one and a half thousand years. It was not merely confined to India. Within a short span of time it reached the soil of various Asian countries like Myanmar, China, Japan, Indonesia, Cambodia etc. During its long journey over the Indian sub-continent itself, Buddhism influenced the Indian cultural heritage to a remarkable extent. The cultural assimilation of Hinduism and Buddhism has been manifested in different manners. The following accounts of the Buddhist cultural contributions speak for themselves.
Simplicity and Neutrality:
Buddhism presented itself in a simple and natural manner. Common people could understand the essence of religion in a very lucid style. It was devoid of Vedic complexity, complicated and meaningless rituals and the predominance of the Brahmanical class. The very simple ethical code of the religion, emotional elements, popular methods of teachings, natural way of worship and prayer etc. introduced a personal element to the religious belief of the people. People liked it and appreciated it and there arose a natural tendency among them to accept the religion without any external force.
Influence on Hinduism:
Although it may sound strange, Buddhism has influenced Hinduism in a number of ways, especially in lie fashion of image-worship of the Hindus. As a matter of fact, after the departure of Buddha, Buddhism was divided into Mahayana Buddhism and Hinayana Buddhism. The Mahayana Buddhists developed the system of the worship of the image of Buddha.
Inspired by this Mahayana practice the Hindus too developed the system of worshipping different images of gods and goddesses. They began to erect temples in the honour of these deities. Prior to Buddhism, Vedic Hinduism consisted mainly of sacrifices and yajnas in the open air. Further the complex rituals of Hinduism admitted into their fold the Buddhist way of prayer and meditation.
In addition, the doctrine of ahimsa or non-violence which constitutes a very important aspect of Buddhism became a part of Hindu religion. The emphasis on the life of animals, pity, compassion and respect for life in all forms, negative attitude towards animal sacrifices had made Buddhism more popular and acceptable.
These lofty ideals were highly appreciated by the scholars and pundits of Hinduism. They incorporated these ideals into their writings. Gradually this led to the rise of a particular phase of Bhagavad-Gita religion which completely believed in the principle of non-violence.
A new feature of Buddhism was its monastic system that later became a part of our culture. Monastery is an organisation of devotees of a particular order based on discipline and community life. The monastic order is built around a democratic system. When the number of Buddhist monks, nuns and followers increased they used to stay in various monasteries in groups called Sangha.
In due course these Buddhist Sanghas became a very important part of Buddhism for general spiritual uplift. The Hindu saints and sages of later years were much influenced by this monastic system. The growth of Hindu Mathas owes their origin to this Buddhist concept. Like Buddhist monasteries, these Mathas were actively engaged in moral and
Language and Literature:
The birth and growth of Buddhism have left behind it a rich heritage in the field of language and literature. In the initial stage, Lord Buddha used to preach in Prakrit, Magadhi and other dialects for the general public to understand his teachings. Later he also used Pali. Therefore, the Buddhist literature that came into existence were in Pali and other dialects. During the reign of Kanishka Sanskrit became the medium of preaching. But only the Pali version of Buddhist literature has survived in its entirety.
All the postulates of Buddhism have been recorded in the Pali version of Tripitaka. They are Vinaya (Conduct) Pitaka, Sutta (Sermon) Pitaka and Abhidhamma (Metaphysics) Pitaka. Besides these Tripitakas, a vast non-canonical literature developed mostly as commentaries to explain the canonical texts of the Buddhist monks outside India. The Sri Lankan monks took the lead in producing vast volumes of such non-canonical texts.
Both these canonical and non-canonical texts were written in Pali language. In the Buddhist monasteries and viharas the beginnings of vernacular Pali literature were made which later developed into lengthy volumes. The attempt of the Buddhists to spread their messages through various languages has not only enriched the literary heritage of the country but has also set the academic tradition on proper footing.
Buddhist literature like Jataka stories, scriptures like the Pitakas, philosophy of Nagarjuna, Asvaghosh, Tantric texts of Vajrayan, logic of Mahayana Buddhism, chronicles of Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa are invaluable gems of Indian culture. Indeed, Buddhist philosophers and writers added a new and glorious feather to the cultural spirit of our country.
Art and Architecture:
Apart from literature, Buddhism also left its indelible mark on Indian art tradition. Prior to the birth of Buddhism the Indian art tradition was confined to the construction of pandals and mandaps, yajnasala (place for fire sacrifice), yajnavedi or altars etc. In other words, Indian architecture was at its rudimentary stage. Under the patronage of Buddhism different areas of art like architecture, sculpture and painting began to prosper.
From the time of the Buddhist king, Ashoka, stones began to be used in sculptural works. The early Buddhist monuments at Sanchi, Bharut, Bodhgaya, Amravati, Dhauli, Jaugad, Rumindei etc. are examples of Buddhist art treasures.
The system of making stambhas or pillars bearing religious emblem was a novel concept. Further, construction of stupas over the relics of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas added a new artistic dimension. A number of viharas came into existence as a heritage of Buddhist art for giving permanent abode to Buddhist monks.
These different manifestations of Buddhist art had its reflection on the continuing Indian style. Ashokan pillars, stupas at Sanchi, cave temples of Kanheri and Karle are brilliant specimens of Buddhist architecture. Two masterpieces of Buddhist sculpture, the standing Buddha statue of Mathura and the seated Buddha of Sarnath, show the sculptural excellence of Buddhist artists.
Even painting did not lag behind. The cave paintings of Karle, Bagh, Ajanta and Ellora display the maturity in style and finish of the Indian painters. The subject matter of Buddhist art revolved around themes of compassion for nature, attachment for the life of animals and love for mankind. The current of life flows in a majestically lively way in these artistic works that the artists had left for posterity. Buddhist art of Gandhara and Mathura have left behind an everlasting impression on Indian culture.
Buddhism has come a long way in establishing itself in the pages of Indian history. Its cardinal concept of non-violence profoundly influenced Ashoka, the third king of the Mauryan dynasty. After the horrors of Kalinga War in 261 B.C., he was converted from Ashoka, the Ogre, to Ashoka, the Virtuous, from Chandashoka to Dharmashoka, under the influence of Buddhism.
The violent march of Indian history not only received a jolt but it also changed its course in a non-violent, pious and benevolent way. Ashokan policy of winning human hearts by love and compassion, paternal form of governance, charity for all forms of life added new dimensions to the rich cultural heritage of the country.
Even in the colonial period the great exponent of truth and non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, gave a fresh orientation to this age-old Buddhist concept which went a long way in achieving freedom from the British.
Buddhism spread to every nook and corner of the land. The very spread of Buddhism within one geographical unit of Bharatavarsha created a sense of unity among its followers. The idea of national unity, solidarity and integrity of the soil was thus facilitated by this religion. The message of equality, fraternity, the voice of protest against caste-system, emancipation of women as nuns of the Buddhist order, literary awakening etc. were hugely responsible for the growth of political unity over this vast land.
Messenger of Universality:
Buddhism became the cultural messenger of India to China, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Burma, Indonesia and Ceylon since the days of Ashoka. In the words of Arnold Toynbee,
“… at the religious level, India has not been a recipient, she has been a giver. About half the total of the number of the living higher religions are of Indian origin. About half the human race today adheres to either Hinduism or Buddhism.”
Thus not only in India but also abroad Buddhism took a leading role in spiritual awakening which constitutes the very essence of Indian culture. The vastness and richness of Indian culture and its universal appeal were reflected in Buddhist way of life and were made known to the outsiders. They came to know about India through Buddhism, saw India through Buddha and realised the Indian spirit with their grasp of Indian culture.
As a religion, Buddhism had a widespread influence on different aspects of Indian culture. It manifested itself in various ways – paleographic, linguistic, literary, religious, philosophical, social, ethical, artistic etc. Patient study, careful observation and prudent judgement are required to understand the vast significance of this religion.
Buddhism has remained a vital force, an inspiration and above all, a guidance to our traditions and customs. In sum, its unique contributions in the various fields of culture has greatly enriched Indian cultural heritage, apart from adding to the religious diversity of the land.