"If there is any religion that could respond to the needs of modern science, it would be Buddhism."
― Albert Einstein
At the end of the sixth and the beginning of the fifth century BCE, a man, popularly known as the Buddha (the Enlightened One), led a community of hundreds of yellow-robed followers on the path of salvation. A small religious community that began as a heterodox sect, which denied the stringent orthodoxy of Brahmanism, went on to become one of the main and foremost religions in India, its birthplace, and the world, with great emperors patronizing its activities. With the passage of time, Buddhism also became one of the richest religions in the East, the adherents of which, were big traders, educationists, and rulers. However gradually, the glory of Buddhism began to fade as Brahmanism revived itself with utmost force and power. The religion then seemed to have traveled full circle. The number of its followers decreased to such a large extent that it again went on to become a minor sect. Nevertheless, in spite of these kinds of historical trends, the religion is the fourth-largest organized faith in the world today, with approximately 376 million followers worldwide.
Buddhism: A Brief History
Quick Fact: Both Buddhism and Jainism rose simultaneously as an open challenge for the already established Brahmanism. The new religions were based on equality, and aimed to accommodate everyone, wanting to be their part.
Before Buddhism was established in India, Brahmanism was the main religion, followed by majority of the people. This orthodox religion was founded on the basis of the chaturvarṇa
, a four-fold class system. This system divided the society into four broad hierarchical ranks viz. the Brāhmaṇs (the priestly and scholarly class), the Kśatriyas (the rulers and warriors), the Vaiśyas (the merchants and traders), and the Śudras (the working class). Owing to this hierarchy, the upper classes enjoyed maximum privileges, and the lower ones were almost deprived of any of them. This kind of social division, not only gave rise to social inequality, but had also triggered dissatisfaction and rage among the people of the lower classes for those of the upper ones. Buddhism rose and flourished against this backdrop, wherein people, especially those who were underprivileged and unprivileged, broke away from the hierarchical structure of Brahmanism, and joined the newly founded heterodox sect in enormous numbers.
The history of Buddhism begins with the birth of Prince Siddhārtha Gautama in a small city state of Lumbini, in present-day Nepal. Though his date of birth is highly debated, what we know for sure is that he was the son of King Śuddhodhana (the local chieftain of the Śākya clan) and Queen Mahāmāyā, and was born after his mother saw a white elephant in her dream. When the queen narrated her dream to the royal astrologer, it was prophesied that the child to be born would either be an extremely able ruler, or a teacher who would inspire the world. Being a prince, Gautama was a pampered child, but he never seemed to like the luxuries and comforts, which his palace gave him. On the contrary, he always seemed to be curious about the happenings outside the palace walls. He wanted to know how and where the common people lived.
One day, he went out to survey the city in his chariot, and came across the four inescapable truths of human life, which proved decisive in making him what he became, in the years to come. ✬
While touring the town, Gautama first saw an old man, and was repulsed by his appearance. But, on learning from his charioteer that all men are bound to grow old, Gautama was even more troubled. He had realized that youth and beauty can never last forever.✬
Next, he came across a man who was very sick, looked pale, and was shivering with fever. He was even more horrified by this sight, and realized that suffering was indeed an inseparable part of life.✬
The third scene that the prince witnessed, made him even more sad. He saw a corpse being carried to the cremation ground, followed by a number of weeping mourners. He realized that death was unavoidable, and everyone who took birth, had to meet this destiny.✬
The fourth sight that Gautama saw, made him realize that in spite of the terrible sufferings and sad truths about human life, one can stay satisfied and happy. The fourth time he saw a poor religious beggar, clad in a shabby yellow robe. Yet, there was an expression of content and calmness on his face, such that he seemed inwardly satisfied.
After having seen all this, Gautama knew where his path lay, and he set his heart on becoming a wanderer. Once this decision was made, he stuck to it, despite all the efforts of his father to instill him on the throne. One night, when everyone in the palace was asleep, he stripped of his jewelry and royal garments, put on a hermit's robe, and quietly left his palace in search of the Ultimate Truth. Finally, after years of severe penance and meditation, he achieved Enlightenment, and then as the Buddha, he set out with his followers to enrich the world with his teachings.
Quick Fact: Some Buddhist non-canonical texts tell us that Gautama left the palace along with his horse, but abandoned it near the periphery of the forest, from where his quest for truth was to begin. The equine was struck with grief as it lost its master, and soon died.
First Sermon and Death✬
The Buddha delivered his first sermon at the deer park near Vārāṇasī in northern India. With this, it is said that he set in motion, the Wheel of Law. Owing to this, his first sermon is known as the Dharmachakra Pravartana Sūtra
(Dharmachakra: Wheel of Dharma; Pravartana: turning; Sūtra: sermon). ✬
The people to whom he delivered the sermon became his disciples, leading to the establishment of the first Saṅgha
(monastic community) of Buddhist monks, thus, giving rise for the first time, to the Buddhist triratna
(triple gem) viz., the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṅgha. In the days to come, this triratna
doctrine formed the basis of all the other Buddhist doctrines and sects.✬
Until the Buddha lived, he is known to have traveled all across northern India, especially the Gangetic Plain, in order to preach people. It was during this course of his travel that he is said to have attained complete salvation (Mahāparinirvāṇa
) in the abandoned forest of Kuśināra, a town in the modern-day state of Uttar Pradesh.
Quick Fact: The Buddha did not like to be worshiped by his followers, and hence initially, the Buddhists worshiped his symbols. These included, lotus (padma), the Wheel of Law (the dharmachakra), the Buddha's footprints, and the symbol of eternity (swastika).
Growth and Development✬
Soon after the Buddha's death, the first Buddhist Council was held in the city of Rājagṛha, under the patronage of Ajāthaśatru, the king of the ancient Indian city state of Magadha in the 5th century BCE. It was at this council that the Buddhist canonical texts were compiled on the basis of the Buddha's teachings. Thus, a foundation of Buddhism was laid so that the followers could practice it properly, even after the death of their master.✬
The next important epoch in the growth of Buddhism happened when Aśoka, the Mauryan Emperor, converted to Buddhism after the bloody Kalinga War. ✬
Aśoka then called upon the third Buddhist Council that was held in his capital, Pataliputra. At this council, it was decided that Buddhism cannot remain confined only to northern India, and that it needed to spread, not only in India but in the entire world. Accordingly, missionaries were sent to the Hellenistic world, and also in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand.✬
As the religion began to grow, a huge number of stūpas (Buddhist temples), monasteries, and educational institutions, owned and commissioned by wealthy Buddhists, came up in different regions.✬
At its peak, the Mauryan Empire controlled the whole of India, except for some parts in the northeast and south. Naturally, when Aśoka made Buddhism, the official religion of his empire, it received all the possible favors from the royal house. ✬
This was Buddhism's most glorious period in the history of the world. It was not only the largest religion in the East at that time, but also the richest. The Buddhists had established themselves in virtually every field at that time, and most importantly, all the major financial activities were controlled by them.
Quick Fact: From about the 3rd century BCE to the 12th century CE, Sanchi, in the present-day Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, was one of the main centers of Buddhist pilgrimage in South Asia. A UNESCO World Heritage Site today, the Great Stūpa at Sanchi is, by far, one of the most beautiful Buddhist religious edifices ever constructed.✬
Buddhism continued to prosper till the end of the Mauryan Empire in the 2nd century BCE. Historical sources tell us that the Sunga rulers, a dynasty that followed that of the Mauryas, were staunch Brāhmaṇs, and were hence, very hostile towards the Buddhists. During this period, virtually every possible Buddhist establishment was destroyed, and an enormous number of Buddhist monks were killed. Owing to this, Brahmanism seemed to have revived in India, but only for short while.✬
In the 1st century CE, the Kuṣāṇ dynasty assumed power in northern India. The Kuṣāṇs had a central Asian lineage, and were Buddhists. Owing to this, Buddhism again rose to prominence in India and in other regions. But this time, the religion not only revived itself, but also developed a step further.✬
During the Kuṣāṇ age, Buddhism underwent an important change. The religion that did not believe in idol worship and lavish religious ceremonies till then, went to worship anthropomorphic form of the Buddha, and numerous other major and minor deities were also added to the pantheon. This new school of Buddhism was called Mahāyāna (the Greater Vehicle)
, as opposed to the earlier, Hinayāna (the Lesser Vehicle)
The creation of the Mahāyāna school was a bold step in that, it created a rift between the followers of the two schools. In lieu of this, both schools flourished in parallel, alongside each other, and with the passage of time, the Mahāyāna school became more dominant over the Hinayāna school.✬
From then on, the Mahāyāna Buddhism spread far and wide, with royal patronages from various rulers. The religion gradually made its way into Southeast Asia, Central Asia, China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet.✬
Between the 5th and the 7th century CE, the third major school of Buddhism was established in eastern India, and then spread to Tibet, Indonesia, and Japan, where it evolved into the Shingon School. This third school was the tantric
form of Buddhism, known as the Vajrayāna (the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt)
, which was esoteric in nature.
Quick Fact: During the Kuṣāṇ period, two important schools of art flourished in India, simultaneously with each other. One of them was a completely indigenous school, called the Mathura School of Art and the other one, called the Gandhara School of Art had obvious Greco-Roman influences. This led to a dramatic boom in the artistic activity in the region, and numerous beautifully sculpted statues of the Buddha and other Buddhist divinities were created during this period.
The Theravāda Revival✬
The dawn of the 11th century saw the advent of Islamic invaders into India. Owing to the iconoclasm of these invaders, the indigenous traditions of India suffered a major setback, and Buddhism was no exception.✬
Because Buddhism, especially the then-dominant Mahāyāna faith, declined on the Indian mainland, it also suffered a decline in the whole of Southeast Asia. The decline of overseas trade, governed by the Buddhists, was one of the major reasons for this.✬
This was, however, definitely not the end of Buddhism in the world. As new trade routes were developed from the Middle East through Sri Lanka to China, the original canonical Buddhism, the Theravāda (the Older Vehicle)
, raised its head again.✬
Theravāda Buddhism was introduced in Sri Lanka in the 11th century, and then spread into other countries, including Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
Ancient Buddhism had made its way into the Greek world, already during the Mauryan period. However, the attention of the West actually turned towards the religion during the colonial period, when many countries of the East were colonized by the Western powers. Today, Buddhism, especially the Tibetan Buddhism, has become renowned and popular in the Western countries.
Quick Fact: According to the CIA World Factbook, as of July 2013, Buddhism is one of the major religions in the United States, with as many as 316,668,567 Americans affiliated to the faith.