Gautama Buddha, or Siddhartha, was a contemporary of Mahavira.
According to tradition he was born in 567 BC in a Shakya kshatriya family in Lumbini in Nepal near Kapilavastu, which is identified with Piprahwa in Basti district and is close to the foothills of Nepal.
Gautama’s father seems to have been the elected ruler of Kapilavastu, and headed the Shakya republican clan. His mother was a princess from the Koshalan dynasty. Thus, like Mahavira, Gautama too belonged to a noble family. Born in a republic, he also inherited some egalitarian beliefs.
From 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 suffered by people in the world, and sought a solution. At the age of 29, like Mahavira, he left home. He wandered from place to place for about seven years and then attained enlightenment 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 one.
Gautama Buddha delivered his first sermon at Sarnath in Banaras. He undertook long journeys and carried his message far and wide. He had a very strong physique, and this enabled him to walk 20 to 30 km a day. He kept wandering, preaching, and meditating continually for forty years, resting only during the annual rainy season. 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 man and woman. Gautama Buddha passed away at the age of 80 in 487 BC at a place called Kusinagara, coterminous with the village called Kasia in Deoria district in eastern UP. However, as in the case of Vardhamana Mahavira, the existence of Gautama Buddha in the sixth century BC is not supported by archaeological evidence. The cities Kaushambi, Shravasti, Varanasi, Vaishali, and Rajgriha, which the Buddha visited, did not assume any urban character until the fifth century BC.
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 soul (atman) and Brahma which raged in his time, but addressed himself to worldly problems. He said that the world was full of sorrows and that people suffered on account of desires. If desires are conquered, nirvana is attained, that is, man is free from the cycle of birth and death.
Gautama Buddha recommended an eightfold path (ashtangika marga) for the elimination of human misery. This path is attributed to him in a text of about the third century BC. It comprised right observation, right determination, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness, and right concern.
If a person follows this eightfold path, he would free himself from the machinations of priests, and would reach his destination. Gautama taught that a person should avoid an excess of both luxury and austerity, and prescribed the middle path. The Buddha also laid down a code of conduct for his followers on the same lines as those of the Jaina teachers.
The principal tenets are:
(i) Do not commit violence,
(ii) Do not covet the property of others,
(iii) Do not use intoxicants,
(iv) Do not tell a lie, and
(v) Do not indulge in sexual misconduct and adultery.
These teachings are common to the social conduct ordained by virtually all religions.
Features of Buddhism and the Causes of its Spread:
Buddhism does not recognize the existence of god and soul. This can be seen as a kind of revolution in the history of Indian religions. As early Buddhism was not enmeshed in the claptrap of philosophical discussion, it appealed to the common people, and particularly won the support of the lower orders because it attacked the Varna system. People were accepted by the Buddhist order without any consideration of caste, and women too were admitted to the sangha and thus brought on a par with men. In comparison with Brahmanism, Buddhism was liberal and democratic.
Buddhism particularly appealed to the people of the non-Vedic areas where it found virgin soil for conversion. The people of Magadha responded readily to Buddhism because they were looked down upon by the orthodox brahmanas. Magadha was placed outside the pale of the holy Aryavarta, the land of the Aryas, covering modern UP. The old tradition persists, and the people of north Bihar prefer not to be cremated south of the Ganges in Magadha.
The personality of the Buddha and the method adopted by him to preach his religion helped the spread of Buddhism. He sought to fight evil by goodness and hatred by love and refused to be provoked by slander and abuse. He maintained his poise and calm under difficult circumstances and tackled his opponents with wit and presence of mind. It is said that on one occasion an ignorant person abused him.
The Buddha listened on silently, and when the person had ended his abuse, the Buddha asked: ‘My friend, if a person does not accept a present what will happen to it?’ His adversary replied: ‘It remains with the person who has offered it.’ The Buddha then said: ‘My friend, I do not accept your abuse.’
The use of Pali, a form of Prakrit, which began around 500 BC, contributed to the spread of Buddhism. It facilitated the spread of Buddhist doctrines amongst the common people. Gautama Buddha also organized the sangha or the religious order, whose doors were open to all irrespective of caste, creed, and sex. However, slaves, soldiers, and debtors could not be admitted. The monks were required to observe the rules and regulations of the sangha faithfully.
Once they were enrolled as members of the Buddhist church, they had to take the vow of continence, poverty, and faith. There are thus three principal elements in Buddhism: Buddha, dhamma, and sangha. As a result of organized preaching under the auspices of the sangha, Buddhism made rapid strides even during Buddha’s lifetime. The monarchies of Magadha, Koshala, and Kaushambi, and several republican states and their people adopted this religion.
Two hundred years after the death of the Buddha, Ashoka, the famous Maurya king, embraced Buddhism. This was an epoch-making event. Through his missionaries Ashoka spread Buddhism into Central 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 Buddhism:
By the twelfth century Buddhism became virtually extinct in India. It had continued to exist in an altered form in Bengal and Bihar till the eleventh century, but after that Buddhism almost completely vanished from India what caused this? We find that at the outset every religion is inspired by the spirit of reform, but eventually it succumbs to the rituals and ceremonies it originally denounces. Buddhism underwent a similar metamorphosis.
It became a victim to the evils of Brahmanism against which it had initially fought. To meet the Buddhist challenge, the brahmanas reformed their religion. They stressed the need to preserve the cattle wealth and assured women and shudras of admission to heaven. Buddhism, on the other hand, changed for the worse. Gradually the Buddhist monks were cut off from the mainstream of people’s lives; they gave up Pali, the language of the people, and took to Sanskrit, the language of intellectuals. From the first century 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. Some of the monasteries, such as Nalanda, collected revenue from as many as 200 villages. By the seventh century, the Buddhist monasteries had come to be dominated by ease-loving people and became centres of corrupt practices which had been prohibited by Gautama Buddha.
The new form of Buddhism was known as Vajrayana. The enormous wealth of the monasteries with increasing sexual activity led to further degeneration. Buddhists began looking upon women as objects of lust. The Buddha is reported to have said to his favorite disciple Ananda: ‘If women were not admitted into the monasteries Buddhism would have continued for one thousand years, but because this admission has been granted it will last only five hundred years.’
The brahmana ruler Pashyamitra Shunga is said to have persecuted the Buddhists. Several instances of persecution occur in the sixth—seventh centuries. The Huna king Mihirakula, who was a worshipper of Shiva, killed hundreds of Buddhists. The Shaivite Shashanka of Gauda felled the Bodhi tree at Bodh-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 brahmanical 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 came to be coveted by the Turkish invaders, becoming special targets of the invaders’ greed. 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 event, by the twelfth century, Buddhism had virtually disappeared from the land of its birth.
Significance and Influence of Buddhism:
Despite its disappearance as an organized religion, Buddhism left its impact on Indian society and economy. The Buddhists showed a keen awareness of the problems that faced the people of north-east India from about 500 BC. The iron ploughshare-based agriculture, trade, and the use of coins enabled the 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. Buddhism therefore advised people not to accumulate wealth. According to it, poverty breeds hatred, cruelty, and violence.
To eradicate these evils, the Buddha taught that farmers should be provided with grain and other facilities, traders with wealth, and the unemployed with employment. These measures were recommended to eradicate poverty in the world. Buddhism also taught that if the poor gave alms 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 fifth-fourth centuries BC. It imposes restrictions on the food, clothing, and sexual behaviour of the monks. They could not accept gold and silver, could not resort 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, that was prevalent in the fifth century BC in north-east India at a time when property and money were considered luxuries.
Although Buddhism tried to mitigate the evils resulting from the new material life in the fifth century BC, it also sought 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 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 slave owners. Thus, the rules and teachings of Gautama Buddha took full account of the new changes in the material life of the time and strengthened them ideologically. Although the Buddhist monks had renounced the world and repeatedly criticized the greedy brahmanas, in several ways they resembled the brahmanas. Both of them did not participate directly in production, and lived on the alms or gifts given by society.
They emphasized the virtues of carrying out family obligations, protecting private property, and respecting political authority. Both supported the social order based on classes; for the monks, however, the Varna was based on action and attributes but for the brahmanas it was based on birth.
Undoubtedly the objective of 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 egalitarian 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. As both women and shudras were placed in the same category by Brahmanism, they were neither given the sacred thread nor allowed to read the Vedas. Their conversion to Buddhism freed them from such marks of inferiority. Buddism did not deprecate manual labour. In a second-century sculpture from Bodh-Gaya, the Buddha is depicted ploughing with oxen.
With its emphasis on non-violence and the sanctity of animal life, Buddhism boosted the cattle wealth of the country. The earliest Buddhist text, Suttanipata, declares cattle to be givers of food, beauty, strength, and happiness (armada, vannada, balada, sukbada), 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 brahmanical insistence on the sacredness of the cow and non-violence 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 degree, the place of superstition was taken by logic, promoting rationalism among people.
In order to preach the doctrines of the new religion, the Buddhists compiled a new type of literature, enormously enriching Pali by their writings. 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 a philosophical exposition of the dhamma.
In the first three centuries of the Christian era, by blending Pali and 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. Faithful devotees of the religion portrayed the various events in the life of the Buddha in stone.
The panels at Bodh-Gaya in Bihar and at Sanchi and Bharhut in MP are illuminating examples of artistic activity. From the first century onwards, panel images of Gautama Buddha began to be made. The Greek and Indian sculptors worked together to create a new form of art on the north-west frontier of India known as Gandhara art.
The images made in this 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 also in western India around Nasik. Buddhist art flourished in the Krishna delta in the south and in Mathura in the north.