Buddhism Explained

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Prelims: Current events of national and international importance.
Mains: GS I

  • Indian culture will cover the salient aspects of Art Forms, Literature, and Architecture from ancient to modern times.


  • About
    • Buddhism was founded by Gautama in 566 B.C. He was the son of Suddhodhan and Mayadevi. His father Suddhodhan was the eminent king of Sakya republic.
    • Gautama was married to Yasodhara at an early age. Gautama was shocked at the sight of an old man, a diseased person, a dead body.
    • Thereafter, he was attracted by the saintly appearance of an ascetic. One night he renounced the worldly life and left his home, wife, and son.
    • After leaving home, Gautama studied for some time in the philosophical schools of two renowned teachers. Thereafter, six years of profound meditation led to the discovery of truths. Gautama became the ‘Buddha's.e. the enlightened one.
  • The main principle of Buddha’s teachings is represented by the “Four Noble Truths (Arya-Satya's)” as :
    1. Dukkha (the world is full of sorrow)
    2. Dukkha Samuddaya (that causes the sorrow)
    3. Dukkha Nirodha (sorrow can be stopped)
    4. Dukkha Nirodhagamini-pratipada (the path leading to the cessation of sorrow)
  • Teachings of Buddha
    • Desire is the root of all human sadness and the assured way of ending unhappiness was the elimination of desire.
    • Death is certain and there is no escape from it which leads to rebirth and caused further suffering. One could get out of this chain of suffering by attaining Nirvana (salvation).
    • To achieve the final salvation (Nirvana) Buddha suggests ‘Ashtangika marga’ (the eight-fold path).
  • These eightfold paths are :
    1. Right speech,
    2. Right action,
    3. Right means of livelihood,
    4. Right exertion,
    5. Right mindfulness,
    6. Right meditation,
    7. Right resolution, and
    8. Right view.
  • The ultimate aim of life is to attain Nirvana, which means freedom, from further birth and death. Nirvana is the eternal state of peace and bliss or liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
  • Buddha had summarized the whole process in three words viz:
    1. Seela (Right conduct),
    2. Samadhi (Right concentration), and
    3. Prajna (Right knowledge).
      • According to Buddha, Seela and Samadhi lead to Prajna, which is the direct cause of nirvana.
      • Buddha advocated “The Middle Path” in which extremes are avoided.
      • Buddha visited the Deer Park (modern Sarnath), Kasi after his enlightenment, and gave his first Sermon (lecture).
      • His first sermon was known as “Set in Motion, the Wheel of Law”.
  • The followers of the Buddha fell into two categories :
    • Upasakas i.e. the lay followers who lived with family; and
    • Bhikshus i.e. monks who renounced the world and led the life of an ascetic.
      • Bhikshus lived as a commune called ‘Sangha’ founded by Buddha himself. In Buddhism, all the followers enjoyed equal rights irrespective of their Varna and Jati.
      • Women were also allowed to join the Sangha and were known as ‘Bhikshunis.’
      • Buddha debated in the language of the common people.
      • Buddha and his followers used to travel from place to place, and preach for eight months in a year; and, four months, during the rainy season, they stayed at one place.
      • Buddha died in the year 486 B.C. at Kushinagar at the age of 80.
      • The ashes of Buddha after cremation were distributed among his followers.
      • The followers kept these ashes in caskets and built ‘Stupas’ over them. One example of such Stupa is Sanchi Stupa.

Major Buddhist Texts
  • The Buddha's teaching was oral. He taught for 45 years, adapting the teaching to suit the group he was addressing.
  • The Sangha memorized the teachings, and there were group recitations at festivals and special occasions.
  • The teachings were rehearsed and authenticated at the First Council and were divided in Three Pitakas in 483 BC.
  • His teachings were written down around 25 B.C.E. in Pali.
  • Three Pitakas
    • The Vinaya Pitaka consists of rules of conduct and discipline applicable to the monastic life of the monks and nuns.
  • The Sutta Pitaka consists of the main teaching or Dhamma of Buddha. It is divided into five Nikayas or collections:
    • Digha Nikaya
    • Majjhima Nikaya
    • Samyutta Nikaya
    • Anguttara Nikaya
    • Khuddaka Nikaya
  • The Abhidhamma Pitaka is a philosophical analysis and systematization of the teaching and the scholarly activity of the monks.
  • Other important Buddhist texts include Divyavadana, Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa, Milind Panha, etc.

Buddhist Councils

  • Buddhist Councils marked important turning points in early Buddhism.
  • These councils resulted in sectarian clashes and the eventual Great Schism that resulted in the two major schools, Theravada and Mahayana.
  • In total, 4 major Buddhist councils were convened:
    • First Council
      • It was held soon after the Mahaparinirvan of the Buddha, around 483 BC under the patronage of King Ajatshatru, and was presided by Mahakasyapa, a monk.
      • The council was held in the Sattapani cave at Rajgriha.
      • The council was held with the purpose of preserving Buddha’s teachings (Sutta) and rules for disciples. During this council, the teachings of Buddha were divided into three Pitakas.
    • Second Council
      • It was held in Vaishali, a village in Bihar under the patronage of the king Kalasoka in 383 BC. It was presided by Sabakami.
    • Third Council
      • It was held in 250 BC in Patliputra under the patronage of Ashoka and was presided by Moggaliputta Tissa.
    • Forth Council
      • It was held in 72 AD at Kundalvana, Kashmir. It was presided by Vasumitra, while Asvaghosa was his deputy under the patronage of King Kanishka of the Kushan Empire.
      • Buddhism was divided into two sects namely Mahayana and Hinayana.

Schools of Buddhism
  • Mahayana
    • It is one of the two main schools of Buddhism.
    • The term Mahayana is a Sanskrit word which literally means “Great Vehicle”.
    • It believes in the heavenliness of Buddha and Idol worship of Buddha and Bodhisattvas embodying Buddha Nature.
    • It originated in northern India and Kashmir and then spread east into Central Asia, East Asia, and some areas of Southeast Asia.
    • Buddhist schools embedded in China, Korea, Tibet, and Japan belong to the Mahayana tradition.
  • Hinayana
    • The literally Lesser vehicle, also known as Abandoned Vehicle or Defective vehicle. It believes in the original teaching of Buddha or Doctrine of elders.
    • It does not believe in Idol worship and tries to attain individual salvation through self-discipline and meditation.
    • Theravada is a Hinayana sect.
  • Theravada
    • It is the most ancient branch of extant Buddhism today.
    • It remains closest to the original teachings of the Buddha.
    • Theravada Buddhism developed in Sri Lanka and subsequently spread to the rest of Southeast Asia. It is the dominant form of religion in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.
  • Vajrayana
    • Vajrayana means “The Vehicle of the Thunderbolt”, also known as tantric Buddhism.
    • This Buddhist school developed in India around 900 CE.
    • It is grounded on esoteric elements and a very complex set of rituals compared with the rest of the Buddhist schools.
  • Zen
    • It is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that originated in China during the Tang dynasty as the Chan school of Chinese Buddhism in and later developed into various schools.
    • It spread to Japan in 7th century C.E.
    • Meditation is the most distinctive feature of this Buddhist tradition.
Spread of Buddhism
  • Buddha had two kinds of disciples – monks (bhikshus) and lay worshippers (upasikas).
  • The monks were organized into the Sangha for the purpose of spreading his teachings.
  • The Sangha was governed on democratic lines and was empowered to enforce discipline among its members.
  • Owing to the organised efforts made by the Sangha, Buddhism made rapid progress in North India even during Buddha’s lifetime.
  • After the death of Buddha, his followers traversed on his path of meditation and roamed throughout the countryside.
  • For 200 years Buddhism remained overshadowed by their Hindu counterparts until the advent of Great Mauryan King – Ashoka.
  • After the bloodbath in his Kalinga conquest, emperor Ashoka decided to give up the policy of world conquest and adopted Dhamma conquest.
  • Ashoka during the third Buddhist council dispatched various Buddhist missions to different areas such as Gandhara, Kashmir, Greece, Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Egypt, and Thailand.
  • Through his missionary effort, Ashoka spread Buddhism into West Asia and Ceylon. Thus a local religious sect was transformed into a world religion.
Contribution of Buddhism to Indian Culture
  • Buddhism has made a remarkable contribution to the development of Indian culture:
  • The concept of ahimsa was its chief contribution. Later, it became one of the cherished values of our nation.
  • Its contribution to the art and architecture of India was notable. The stupas at Sanchi, Bharhut, and Gaya are wonderful pieces of architecture.
  • It promoted education through residential universities like those at Taxila, Nalanda, and Vikramasila.
  • The language of Pali and other local languages developed through the teachings of Buddhism.
  • It had also promoted the spread of Indian culture to other parts of Asia.
Buddhism as a Way of Soft Diplomacy
  • Buddhism in India as a Soft Power is different from the conventional sense of the term. India talks about shared cultural development instead of the export of culture.
  • The values of peace, accommodation, inclusiveness, and compassion that are part of our societies can be attributed to the influence of the teachings of Lord Buddha and Buddhism.
  • The ideals of Buddhism continue to intersect with the political and economic contexts of many Asian nations with 22% of the world’s population.
  • Buddhism can act as an intensifying factor for Asian emotional bonding and connectivity as it is embedded in their “nationalistic” thinking and actions.
  • Buddhism is not restricted to Asia and has been able to generate a spiritual awakening elsewhere in the world and influenced a stream of philosophical traditions world over.
  • India has in its favor at the moment abundance of resources by way of pilgrimage sites, the presence of the Dalai Lama, and international goodwill, as well as the right intentions.

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