Buddhism emerged from the depth of the ancient Aryan spiritual faith.
The principles which Buddha propounded were already there in one form or the other in the ancient scriptures of the Hindus.
In the words of Mr. Rhys Davids, “Gautam was born and brought up and lived and died as a Hindu”.
Yet, Gautam Buddha was a great rebel. He challenged the systems where they deviated from original intentions and laid the greatest emphasis on the principles of absolute morality, purity, virtue, equality and human values which the ancient seers had preached but the later society did not observe. “The difference between him and other teachers lay chiefly in his deep earnestness and in his broad public spirit of philanthropy”. Buddha’s greatness was realized when he boldly raised the standard of revolt against conventional religious practices of time.
The Brahmanical order did not object to the tenets of Buddha, because Hinduism was too liberal to accommodate all types of higher opinion within its all pervading fold. But, at the same time, the priestly class, which depended on rigid religious practices, could not like the Buddhist opposition to the existing social organisation and orthodox religious life of the people. As a result, the gulf between the two widened. Both in Buddha’s time and more so after his death, Buddhism was seen to break away from the old faith of the Hindu India.
It is believed that Buddha perhaps did not think of himself as the founder of a new religion. At the most, he might have thought of himself as a reformer. But, his personality was too unique and his messages were most powerful. While accepting the basic principles on the ancient Aryan thought, he exposed and attacked the evils which had dominated it, and campaigned for a total change for the better.
His daring attack on the priestly supremacy in religious and social life of the people made him a hero among his countrymen. And his sermons on the noble existence of man drew princes and paupers to his feet. It was natural, thus that the old orthodox order looked at Buddhism with apprehension, even if the Brahmins themselves felt attracted towards Buddha and his noble path.
Ultimately, the Buddhist movements became wide-spread because of his moral impact on popular mind. When emperor Ashoka championed the cause of Buddhism, the religion of Buddha stood on its high principles of purity and was practiced by the people as a code of moral conduct. Famous as the Hinayana System, and thanks to Ashoka’s zeal, Buddhism spread outside India in Ceylon, Myanmar and Siam.
As the dimension of Buddhism began to grow, the character of the religion also began to change. Inside, India, it tended to come nearer to the popular religion of the Hindus. About the beginning of the Christian era, when the Mahayana form of Buddhism appeared, many changes took place in the older system.
The Buddhist monarch Kanishka championed the cause of the Mahayana Buddhism which began to spread outside. In course of time, Tibet, China and Japan came under the Mahayana system. It was the Mahayana Buddhism in which Buddha was made into a God and the people were taught to offer their devotion to Buddha as the God.
And to satisfy the need of the people, images of Buddha as a God appeared in India, in Gandhara and in every other Mahayana countries like Tibet, China and Japan. It was an irony of time that Buddha who did not pay any regard to the Fatherhood of God, became a God Himself and came to be worshipped as such. It is this change which brought Buddhism nearer to Hinduism as time passed.
A critical question relating to Buddhism and Brahmanical Hinduism has dominated the intellectual thought, namely, how could Hinduism “Push away organised Buddhism from India?” or, “How did Hinduism succeed in absorbing Buddhism, as it was a great and wide spread popular religion, without the usual wars of religion which could disfigure the history of so many countries?”
Be it noted that from the time of Buddha in Sixth century B.C. to the time of emperor Harsha in Seventh century A.D. that is for more than a thousand years Buddhism and Hinduism existed side by side on the soil of India. In further course of time, Buddhism remained as the religion of the vast masses of the Asian people, whereas the people of India abandoned it.
The reason for this has been a subject of learned discussion. According to some scholars, Buddhism died a natural death in India because India has a strange genius to absorb other faiths. Since Buddhism was a product of the ancient thought of the Aryan seers, as propounded in the Upanishads, the inner philosophies of the two religions could act and react in mental spheres for unity.
The newness, which was most prominent in the earlier form of Buddhism in religious practices, gradually weakened in later days. The Mahayana form of Buddhism appeared nearer to Brahmanical system in several ways. When the Mahayana Buddhism made Buddha into God. Brahmanic Hinduism made Buddha an Avatar of Vishnu. When the people of both the faiths regarded Buddha as their God, and when the Hindus showed utmost reverence to the Buddhist doctrines and the ways of life, the distinction between the two religions began to disappear, and philosophies and forms continued to merge.
Like numerous sects and cults, beliefs and practices, philosophical doctrines and spiritual ideas dominating the Hindu thought, the Buddhists also developed various systems of thought and made their religion complicated. More and more did Buddhism turn complex, more did it approach the Hindu modes and systems. It was the popular attitude in India which helped such processes to grow. A common Indian man could at once worship all Gods together, Vishnu, Siva, and Surya and together with them, also Buddha.
The Indian intellectual could speculate and developed belief or disbelief towards any or all. In essence, it was the Indian liberalism, not dogmatism, which saw the amalgamation of Buddhism with Hinduism. This amalgamation widened and strengthened the base of Indian spiritualism. It greatly enriched the literature, philosophy, art and sculpture of the country.
It was Buddhism which made India the sacred land for the rest of Asia. It was also the Buddhists who carried the inner essence of the Indian Aryan faith to the rest of Asia. As is known, the Brahmanical Hinduism was like a ‘national religion’ of India, confined to its land of origin. Hinduism was not a missionary religion. It did not believe in converting other people.
It did not believe in propagation of its value outside the frontiers of India. As a result, the inner philosophies of the Vedas, and the Upanishads, and the higher spiritual thoughts of India’s ancient seers remained in secluded form inside Ridia. Had Hinduism been a missionary religion, it could have spread over a wider part of the world when in those remote days of the past, there was no other refined religion to elevate the mankind. Christianity and Islam came long after.
It was in such situation that Buddhism gradually went out of India to become a mass religion of the Asian people. Being a missionary religion itself, it could spread in a most peaceful manner across the frontiers of India. Indirectly, it carried the universal message of the Aryan faith for a nobler and better existence and for higher goals of life.
It also carried with it the Indian modes of worship and devotion to create godliness in man. Side by side, Buddhism also took to Asian countries India’s epics and literature, art and sculpture, learning and philosophy. Truly did historian Rawlinson feel that Buddhism went out of India not merely as a religion but also as a force of civilization. In India today, so late as this twentieth and twenty-first century, the weaker and neglected sections of the Hindu caste structure, look to Buddhism for their social elevation. In other words, the spirit of Buddhism has proved itself eternal and everlasting in the land of its birth.