BUDDHISM: ITS ORIGIN AND GROWTH
Among world religions, Buddhism is the only one which does not dogmatically insist on the need to believe in one God or swear by the truths of revealed texts. More than metaphysical wrangling, Buddhism places emphasis on the practical aspects of living, which is what makes it truly appealing in our contemporary rational world.
Buddhism originated in India more than 2500 years ago by a prince who was born in the SHAKYA clan and was named Siddhartha at birth. Though he initially lived a cocooned existence, his brush with the realities of life like, illness, old age and death made him to think deeply and ponder over the purpose of life and the road to salvation. To find answers to these elusive questions, he left the comforts of his home and wife, in search of a solution. For six years he led the life of an ascetic, but realized that this was not the path to salvation. Then after meditating under a Bodhi tree, on the forty ninth day he received enlightenment and understood the cause of human suffering and this was born the BUDDHA or the enlightened one.
Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath, about four miles from Benares. To a small group of small disciples he preached his first sermon, enunciating the FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS. Buddha taught that:
1. The world is full of suffering.
2. This suffering is caused by human desire.
3. The renunciation of desire is the road to salvation and
4. Salvation is possible only through the EIGHT FOLD PATH.
This ASHTANG MARG or eight fold path comprises of
1. Right views
2. Right intentions
3. Right speech
4. Right conduct
5. Right livelihood
6. Right effort
7. Right mindfulness
8. Right concentration.
It would be obvious to anyone, that nothing could be more practical or rational than this. It did not insist on rituals or belief in the Vedas. In fact Buddhism was considered heterodox, not only on account of this, but owing to its rejection of the caste system. But there were certain concepts like karma which though seems apparently similar to the Hindu version, were subtly different, because it was not used to explain the caste status. Buddha believed that the world was originally a place of bliss, but owing to man’s capitulation to desire, it has become a place of suffering and misery. Salvation lay in achieving NIRVANA by freeing oneself from the wheel of re-birth. One who has faith in the Buddha leads an ethical life, avoiding the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. Such a person guards his senses, and practices meditation, which leads to his liberation.
BUDDHIST WAY OF LIFE
As an alternative to Hinduism, Buddhism found new converts particularly from the KSHATRIYA and VYSIA caste. Every individual joining the fold must take a vow declaring:
‘I go seek refuge in the Buddha
I go to seek refuge in Dharma
I go to seek refuge in the Sangha (Order).’
A layman who accepts the teachings of Buddha is expected to follow the five precepts which are:
- Abstain from taking life
- Abstain from stealing
- Should not be adulterous
- Be truthful and refrain from telling lies
- Must not take intoxicants.
Monks are expected to lead a much more austere life. Apart from the above, they are expected to:
- Avoid eating at wrong hours
- Abstain from sexual intercourse
- Must not use jewellery or ornaments.
- Abstain from singing and dancing.
- Refrain from sleeping in luxurious beds
- Must not accept money.
After the death of the Buddha, many changes began to take place. There emerged two conflicting schools of thought. One group which was orthodox and claimed to adhere to the original texts and tradition was called the THERAVADHA or HINAYANA (lesser vehicle) and their canonical literature was confined to TRIPITAKA (Three baskets) which were:
VINAY PITAKA (Basket of discipline)
SUTTA PITAKA (basket of discourse)
ABHIDHAMA PITAKA (basket of scholasticism)
As these are written in PALI it is called the PALI CANON and is the oldest Buddhist sect which had its origin in the ancient city KAUSHAMBI. Many Buddhist councils were held to bring about reconciliation amongst the sparring sects, of which the Third and Fourth Buddhist Councils are the most important. In the Third Buddhist council held in PATALIPUTRA during the reign of Emperor Ashoka it was decided to send missionaries abroad. Though during the first four or five centuries, Buddhism remained exclusively in India, afterwards it spread eastwards to other parts of Asia.
Buddhism during this period slowly got transformed. New ideas crept in, which were quite different from the teachings of Buddha. In the first place, Buddha did not believe in being deified by his disciples. Unlike many Semitic religions, he did not consider himself to a prophet nor exhorted his followers to believe in one true God. By the first century of CE images were being carved out in stone and people began to worship him as a God and the concept of BODHISATTVA took root. According to popular belief, a Boddhisattva voluntarily postpones his Nirvana for helping mankind. For some the Boddhisattva was a previous re-incarnation of the Buddha. There was also the belief in the MAITREYA BUDDHA who it was believed would come to save the world.
This widened the schism in Buddhism which resulted in the final split in the Fourth Buddhist held in Kashmir into HINAYANA or the lesser vehicle and MAHAYANA or the greater vehicle. While HINAYANA tried to adhere to Buddha’s original teachings, MAHAYANA incorporated new ideas like BODHISATTVA. HINYANA had adherents in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. MAHAYANA however found followers in Nepal, China, Korea and Japan.
There is also third sect found in Tibet which is called VAJRAYANA BUDDHISM which incorporates both mystical elements and worship of female divinities who are the source of power or SAKTHI behind male divinities and is also known as TANTRIC BUDDHISM. Its main adherents apart from Tibet are found in Mongolia and in some parts of Japan who believe in ESOTERIC BUDDHISM
Monastic orders were established, which soon became centers of education. This brought about great changes, because, education was no longer the monopoly of Brahmins. Men and women from all walks and strata of life, had access to it and in later centuries, great Universities like Nalanda and Taxila flourished. Monasteries were run on democratic lines, which was clearly the influence of ancient republics of India. This is not surprising, when we realize that Buddha was born into such a republican tribe called Shakyas.
In the early period the monks lead a very frugal life who lived entirely on the alms they received in the morning. But later on with greater patronage from the State and the mercantile community monasteries were built either adjoining towns or in remote secluded areas. Some of the caves found in Ajanta and Ellora in India give a glimpse of the austere settings of monastic life in the middle of the first millennium.
Buddhism is a unique religion, and probably the religion of the future. Its strength lies in the rationality of the original teachings of Buddha. Unlike most proselytizing religions the original teachings of the Buddha are not dogmatic and are very pragmatic. However its agnosticism finds appeal only in the elite intellectual community and may not have the mass appeal found in other religions. It must have been to make Buddhism more appealing to the common man that new concepts, deities and rituals added to the original teachings of the Buddha. After all it is the irrational component in man which makes him crave for a personal God who is all merciful and protective. May be as mankind evolves and becomes more rational, the original teachings of Buddha would be better understood and appreciated.
‘No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path’
‘Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without’
‘The tongue like a sharp knife... Kills without drawing blood’
‘There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting’
‘There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills’
‘Those who are free of resentful thoughts surely find peace’
‘Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth’.
‘To keep the body in good health is a duty... otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear’
‘We are formed and molded by our thoughts. Those whose minds are shaped by selfless thoughts give joy when they speak or act. Joy follows them like a shadow that never leaves them’
‘We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world’
‘Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill’
‘Work out your own salvation. Do not depend on others’
‘You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger’
‘It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell’
‘It is a man's own mind, not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil ways’
‘I never see what has been done; I only see what remains to be done’
‘Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship’
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