Buddhism: Origin, Founder & Rise

10 Mar 2023  Read 871 Views

Buddhism is an ancient Indian religion which rose in the ancient Kingdom of Magadha (currently Bihar in India). Buddhism is based on the teachings of the Gautama Buddha, which was not only restricted to Magadha but even outside of Magadha with many followers worldwide.

Gautama Buddha was a charismatic leader who founded a different religious community on the basis of his unique teachings. Few of the members of that community were, like, the Buddha himself, whereas others were layman who idolised the Buddha. Say, for example Monks & nuns are “real” full- time Buddhists, and laymen (common man) are considered part- time supporters. 

The Buddha’s teachings highly influenced the Mauryan Empire, the Kanishka Empire and many kingdoms like these. This is evident from the art, literature, sculptures & extent of its spread about the popularity of the religion. This article discusses the history, schools, Ashoka’s role in spreading Buddhism and many more. So, let’s get started.

History of Buddhism

  1. The life and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha provided the ideals and core of their faith and their community to all Buddhists. 

  2. As per the later Buddhist tradition, Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born around 560 B.C.E. as the heir to the royal Shakya clan ruling over a small kingdom in the Himalayan foothills. This kingdom was based on the Brahmanic heartland of the Gangetic Plain, giving the residents more scope for innovation. 

  3. Similar to the founder of Jainism, Mahavira, Prince Siddhartha had a pure conception, absolute nonviolent gestation, and miraculous birth. Even his hands, etc., clearly told everyone that he would become a universal saviour, conqueror, chakravartin, or Lord of the Four Quarters. So, he grew up as a savior while some of his followers became emperors in other parts of India.

  4. There were some striking similarities between Mahavira and Siddhartha Buddha; they were roughly contemporary, both were from North India, & both were Kshatriya by birth. However, both rejected martial dharma, the authority of Brahmins & ritual sacrifice. 

  5. Both of them left their families in their early 30s to pursue a higher path leading to nirvana. Siddhartha Gautam at the age of 16, married his beautiful, pure royal cousin and soon had a son. These four peace-shattering sights, which enabled him to free himself from the pleasures of the palace as he saw in succession:

a. An old man- frail, white-haired, with few teeth.

b. A sick person- Covered in boils & had a fever.

c. A corpse being carried to cremation by the sorrowing relatives.

d. A monk in meditation beneath a tree.

      6. Similar to Mahavira, Siddhartha led self-sacrifice and soberness to the limit. He later began to meditate deeply on the nature of humanity and the cosmos. It is believed in the Buddhist tradition that several gods, particularly the god of death, competed to distract him from his meditation. So, sheltering under a pipal or sacred fig tree, he achieved enlightenment as the Buddha.

      7. This incident took place in the city of Gaya, which was at that time, expanding the north Indian kingdom of Magadha. Few of his devotees claim that this tree under which he meditated still grows on the same site in the city now known as Bodh Gaya. Also there are other beliefs as well.

      8. The first actual Buddhist “texts” that are still present are inscriptions written by Ashoka (including many well-known Ashokan pillars) & displayed at many sites throughout his kingdom. 

As per these inscriptions, Ashoka attempted to establish in his realm a “true dhamma” based on the principles of self-control, impartiality, cheerfulness, truthfulness, & goodness. 

Did you know?

Ashoka’s empire began to disintegrate soon after his death, and the Mauryan dynasty was ultimately overthrown in the early decades of the 2nd century BCE. Evidence suggests that Buddhism in India suffered persecution during the Shunga-Kanva period (185–28 BCE). Also, before the emergence of the Gupta dynasty, that created the next great pan-Indian empire in the 4th century CE, Buddhism had become more famous, even if not entirely dominant religious tradition in India.

Ashoka and Buddhism

The Mauryan Empire peaked during the reign of emperor Ashoka, who converted to Buddhism after the Battle of Kalinga. This empire had vast power, so ambassadors were sent to other countries to propagate Buddhism. Stupas, pillars, and edicts on stone remain at Sanchi, Sarnath, and Mathura, indicating the extent of the empire was made during that time.

Discussing the Kushan Empire, on the other hand, under emperor Kanishka, ruled the strongly Buddhist region of Gandhara along with other parts of northern India, like Afghanistan and Pakistan. At this time, Gandharan Buddhism spread via trade routes safeguarded by the Kushans through the Khyber Pass into Central Asia.

Different schools of Buddhism

1. Mahayana:

  • One of the two main schools of Buddhism and the word ‘Mahayana’ is in Sanskrit that literally means "Great Vehicle".

  • Originated in northern India and Kashmir spreading towards east into Central Asia, East Asia and few places of Southeast Asia.

  • This school believes in the heavenliness & Idol worship of Buddha and Bodhisattvas embodying Buddha Nature.

  • These schools are settled at China, Korea, Tibet and Japan belong to the Mahayana tradition.

2. Hinayana:

  • Meaning lesser vehicle; it considers only the original teaching of Buddha or Doctrine of elders.

  • Does not believe in Idol worship & tries to achieve individual salvation via self-discipline and meditation.

  • Example: Theravada is a Hinayana sect.

3. Theravada

  • The most ancient branch of extant Buddhism to date which still remains closest to the original teachings of the Buddha.

  • Theravada Buddhism developed in Sri Lanka and later spread to the rest of Southeast Asia.

  • This is the primarily practiced religion in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, & Thailand.

4. Vajrayana

  • Meaning “The Vehicle of the Thunderbolt”, also called the tantric Buddhism.

  • Developed in India around 900 CE that is grounded on esoteric elements and very difficult set of rituals compared with the rest of the Buddhist schools.

5. Zen

  • A school of Mahayana Buddhism which originated in China during the Tang dynasty as the Chan school of Chinese Buddhism subsequently developed into several schools.

  • It spread to Japan in the 7th century C.E.

  • Meditation is the most distinguished characteristic of this Buddhist tradition.

Teachings of Buddha

  • Buddha believed that everyone was themselves accountable for their own happiness in life, stressing upon the individualistic component of Buddhism.

  • The main teachings of Buddhism are engraved within these fournoble truths or ariya-sachchani and eightfold path or astangika marg. These four noble truths are

  • A. Suffering (dukkha) is the essence of the world.

  • B. Every suffering has a cause

  • C. Suffering could be extinguished 

  • D. It can be achieved by following the Atthanga Magga (Eight Fold Path).

  • Now, the Eight Fold Paths are those which consists of several interconnected activities related to knowledge, conduct, and meditative practices.

  • Right view

  • Right intention

  • Right speech

  • Right action

  • Right livelihood

  • Right mindfulness

  • Right effort

  • Right concentration

  • The essence of Buddhism is the attainment of enlightenment. Life avoiding self-indulgence and self-denial. There is no supreme god or deity in Buddhism.

  • He also taught on refraining these:

  • Violence

  • Stealing

  • Sexual misconduct

  • Lying or gossip

  • Taking intoxicating substances e.g. drugs or drinks.

What changes Buddhism brought in India?

  1. Concept of “Ahimsa” was its prime contribution, along with the art and Indian architecture. The stupas at Sanchi, Bharhut and Gaya are beautiful pieces of architecture.

  2. Buddhism promoted education through residential universities, say, Taxila, Nalanda and Vikramasila.

  3. Even languages such as Pali and other local languages developed with the help of teachings of Buddhism.

  4. Discussing ancient India, In the 5th and 6th centuries B.C.E., economic development made the merchant class increasingly significant. Merchants were attracted to Buddhist teachings, contradicting the existing Brahmin religious practice.

  5. Buddhism became prominent in merchant communities and it then spread in the entire of Mauryan Empire through commercial connections and trade routes. 

UNESCO’s heritage sites for Buddhism

  • Archaeological Site of Nalanda Mahavihara at Nalanda, Bihar

  • Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh

  • Mahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya, Bihar

  • Ajanta Caves Aurangabad, Maharashtra

About the Author: Kakoli Nath | 157 Post(s)

Kakoli Nath is a legal Content Manager at Finology Legal who pursued BBA.LL.B (5 years integrated course). She is a patent analyst & had also done advanced certification in Forensics Psychology and Criminal Profiling from IFS, Pune.

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