The history of Buddhism spans almost over a period of 2500 years since its origin in India, being founded by Gautama Buddha in the 5th century B.C. Buddha was born as Siddhartha Gautama or Sakhyamuni in a royal family around 544 B.C. in Lumbini in Nepal. Prince Siddhartha grew up in luxuries and married a beautiful princess but was still not happy. At the age of 29, Prince Siddhartha ventured out of his palace on four separate occasions and encountered an old man, a sick man, a dead body and lastly a wondering monk. These are described as the “Four Sights.”
He relinquished his kingdom and roamed around for several years bearing severe hardships in search of salvation. Finally after meditating under a ‘Peepal’ tree for six years, he attained enlightenment and became the Buddha (‘the Enlightened One’). He gave his first sermon at Sarnath, known as the ‘Dharmachakra Pravartana’ (‘Turning of the Wheel of Law’), to a group of five ascetics, who became his disciples and thus the order of the Buddhist fraternity or the ‘sangha’ was formed. Buddha travelled widely to preach his doctrine and soon many Monasteries or ‘viharas’ came into existence, becoming the centres of learning for the spread of Buddhist culture. Ancient universities like the Nalanda, Taxila and Vikramashila gained international fame and recognition.
The primary factor that led to the emergence of Buddhism as a new religion was the growing opposition to increased ritualism in the Brahminical society, which reached its peak under the Mauryas (322-185 A.D.). Emperor Ashoka, who converted to Buddhism, gave it royal patronage and helped in its spread to far-off regions by sponsoring Buddhist missions to places like the Greek-ruled areas of the Northwest, Sri Lanka in the south as well as the Central Asia. After the decline of the Mauryan Empire and the emergence of the Sunga dynasty, Buddhism did not receive royal patronage and was soon wiped out from India. It, however, spread to Sri Lanka, Japan and other South East Asian countries and expanded further. It is estimated that there are over 365 million Buddhists in Asia alone, including 30 million in India.
Fundamental Principles of Buddhism:
Buddhism revolves around the Dharma (teachings of the Buddha), Reincarnation, and the theory of Karma. As part of the Dharma, Buddha taught about the Four Noble Truths (‘Chatvari Arya Satyani’), which are: (i) Life is suffering (‘dukha’); (ii) Suffering is caused by craving (‘tanha’), desires (‘ichcha’) or thirst (‘tishna’); (iii) Suffering can have an end by following (iv) the Eight Fold Path (‘Arya Ashtanga Marga’), which consists of three categories: moral conduct, concentration and wisdom. Moral conduct consists of: (1) right speech (2) right action and (3) right livelihood. Concentration consists of: (4) right effort (5) right mindfulness and (6) right concentration. Wisdom consists of: (7) right thought and (8) right understanding.
The most important symbol of Buddhism is ‘The Wheel of Law’ (‘dharmachakra’), which is a reflection of the positive aspects in each individual. The eight spokes of the wheel represent the eight virtues outlined in the Eight Fold Path. The wheel is an important symbol in Buddhism and it depicts the cycle of life and death. Buddha advocated the Moderate or the Middle Path as opposed to the two extremes of self-indulgence and total abstinence.
The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to reach ‘Nirvana’ or become enlightened. Nirvana signifies freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth. Some schools of Buddhism, particularly the Chinese Buddhism, consider becoming a ‘bodhisattva’ (a being who has attained enlightenment, but vows not to enter into final nirvana until all living things are released from suffering) as a more important goal for individuals than achieving ‘nirvana’.
A ‘vihara’ or ‘gompa’ is the Buddhist place of worship, which usually houses one or more statues of the Buddha. The five great events in Buddha’s life are represented symbolically by: (a) Lotus and Bull (Birth), (b) Horse (Great Renunciation), (c) Bodhi Tree (Nirvana), (d) Wheel (First Sermon) and (e) Stupa (Parinirvana or death).
Schism in Buddhism :
The first schism in Buddhism took place after the death of the Buddha in 483 B.C., dividing it into two main orders: ‘Mahayana’ and ‘Hinayana’ (or ‘Theravada’). The followers of ‘Mahayana’ (meaning the ‘great vehicle’) believe in universal salvation rather than attaining personal nirvana. This is also described as the ‘Tibetan form of Buddhism’ or ‘Lamaism’, since it came to India from Tibet. It is followed in Ladakh, Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh. ‘Hinayana’ means ‘lesser vehicle’ and ‘Theravada’ means ‘doctrine of elders’ and this form of Buddhism aims at attaining personal ‘nirvana’ through the triple recourse to ethical conduct, mental discipline and higher knowledge or wisdom. In India, this form of Buddhism is represented by the ‘Ambedkar Buddhists’, who are followers of Dr B. R. Ambedkar. Besides, there are other lesser schools like the ‘Vajrayana’ or ‘tantric’ sect, which originated in Bengal and Bihar during the 8th century A.D. under the Pala rulers, and the ‘Yogachara School’ founded by Maitreyanatha. The ‘Vajrayana’ sect worship female divinities called ‘Taras’, who include the spouses of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas.
Important scriptures of Buddhism include the ‘Tripitaka’, ‘Anguttra-Nikaya’, ‘Dhammapada’, ‘Sutta-Nipata’ and ‘Samyutta-Nikaya’. The ‘Tripitika’ is divided into three parts: (1) the ‘Vinaya Pitaka’, which deals with the life and teaching of the Buddha and describes in detail about the development of the Sangha; (2) the ‘Sutta Pitaka’, which contains discourses delivered by the Buddha and others. It is divided into five ‘Nikayas’ or groups: ‘Digha Nikaya’, ‘Majjhima Nikaya’, ‘Samyutta Nikaya’, ‘Anguttara Nikaya’ and ‘Khuddakla Nikaya’ and (3) the ‘Abidhamma Pitaka’, which contains the profound philosophy of the Buddha’s teachings. The sacred scriptures of the Mahayana sect include the ‘Mahayana Sutras’ or the ‘Vaipulya Sutras’, which contain the Buddha’s sermons on doctrinal matters. The most important of these scriptures is the ‘Prajnaparamita Sutra’.
The First Buddhist Council was held in 483 B.C. at Rajagriha under the patronage of King Ajatashatru with Mahakashyap as its president. The Dhammapitaka and Vinayapitaka were compiled during this conference. The Second Buddhist Council was held in 383 B.C. at Vaishali under the patronage of King Kalasoka (‘Kakavarnin’), during which the first schism of Buddhism into ‘Sthaviravadins’ and ‘Mahasanghikas’ took place relating to practises followed by some monks. The Third Buddhist Council was convened by Emperor Ashoka in 247 B.C. in Pataliputra under the presidency of Moggliput Tissa. The Fourth Buddhist Council was held under the patronage of the Kushan ruler Kanishka (78-101 C.E.) at Kashmir, under the presidency of Vasumitra and vice-presidency of Asvaghosa. The Buddhism was split into the Hinayana and Mahayana sects during this council.
Tibetan Buddhism, also called ‘Lamaism’, is a predominant religion of Tibet, Mongolia and other parts of the world. In India it is practised by over 120,000 Tibetans in their different settlements at Dharamshala, Kushalnagar (Karnataka), Darjeeling, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Ladakh. The Tibetan Buddhism is “essentially Buddhism of the Mahayana school, with elements of modified Shaivism and native ritualistic Shamanism”. There are various Schools or Sects of Tibetan Buddhism. ˂ Read More ˃