The First Great Popular Religion
In the year 563 B.C., the principal religion of India was Brahminism. Brahminism was a modified version of an older religion still, Vedism, whose “scriptures” are considered to have been the work of poets living between 2000 and 1000 B.C. and came into being round about the year 1000 B.C. as the result of the increasing number and the growing influence of the Brahmins, or priests.
Vedism was a religion which provided for the worship of a very-large numbers of gods, for, strictly speaking, every aspect of Indian life and every act performed by a man was considered to be religious, and had to be accompanied by a prayer of religious right. Nevertheless, all the different gods were regarded each as one aspect of the one Supreme Being.
The gods of Vedism were chiefly personifications of natural objects and forces, and while Brahminism retained the concept of the one supreme God, the One All Brahma, worshipped in all his many forms, the great difference between the ancient religion and Brahminism was a striking one.
In Vedism the gods were worshipped, feared and conciliated by prayers and sacrifices; while in Brahminism they were considered to be controlled by the sacrifices offered or by hymns chanted by the Brahmins.
This was a very important distinction, and one that was chiefly responsible for the development of the religion, for, as will be seen, those who wielded the supreme power were no longer the gods, but the Brahmins who controlled the gods. On the proper performance of the Brahmins’ priestly duties everything, even the acts of the gods themselves, depended.
The principal teaching of the religion was that it was a Way of Life. The good man was the virtuous, upright, honest man, who achieved this state by the strict observance of religious rites and ceremonies. But the Brahmins also taught that these rites and ceremonies had to be performed according to stringent regulations, which were so intricate that only the priests could perform them properly and therefore effectively. So, the ordinary man had to engage the services of a priest if he was to attain the Way of Life. The priest was absolutely essential as the channel of communication between men and the gods, and from this it followed that the priests attained a power scarcely before or since acquired by the priesthood of any religion.
This priestly superiority over ordinary men was established even more firmly by the introduction of a caste system, in which the priests represented the highest caste.
The teaching of Brahminism was based on two classes of religious literature, one regarded as inspired, the other as uninspired. The inspired literature embraces the Mantras, or Vedic hymns, and the Brahamanas. The latter are prose or liturgical treatises intended primarily as manuals for the Brahmins, and they lay principal stress on ritual, not, as do the Vedas, on theology and ethics.
Attached to the Brahamanas are theosophic discourses called Aranyakas, and also Upanishads. The Upanishads are collections of philosophical obiter dicta uttered by many men living at different times, and they constitute for Brahminists (and for modern Hindus) the principal authority in philosophical matters. They conceive Brahma, the Supreme Entity, as (I) an absolute impersonal being, (II) as the ground of being, and (III) as the personal God, the one creator and ruler. On the whole, it is the first conception that predominates, the second following it at no great distance.
The uninspired writings include the code of Manu, which teaches Brahminic doctrine. This code, besides containing a system of theology and philosophy, gives minute directions for the regulation of the individual life from the cradle to the grave.
Others are the two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Rama-Yana, in which the outstanding doctrines of Brahminism are taught. Embedded in the Mahabharata, the Iliad of India, it has been called, is a poem in praise of Krishna, one of the chief Hindu gods, called the Bhagavad-Gita, the Holy Song, generally regarded as one of the most exquisite specimens of religious poetry.
Such then was the religious situation in India when, round about 563 B.C. a certain Maya, while on a journey from Kapilavastu, the capital of the Kshatriya caste of the Sakya clan, whose country lay along the southern edge of Nepal, gave birth to a son in the Lumbini Gardens, just inside the borders of modern Nepal.
Maya was the wife of a wealthy native prince, of Aryan stock, a Rajah of the Sakya clan, named Suddhodana. The Kshatriya caste were the warriors who ranked next after the Brahmins.
The boy born in the Lumbini Gardens was called Siddhartha Gautama, the latter being the family name. No “Life” of Buddha was written until several hundred years after his death, and in consequence what actually happened to him at any given point of his life has become embedded in a mixture of history and legend. It is, however, possible to piece together a consistent outline which can be accepted as historical.
As one would expect, the boy was brought up in an atmosphere of ease which the wealth, position and caste of his father made inevitable. For his part, his father tried to keep all the unpleasantness’s that happen to men in their passage through life from his son.
As the boy grew up, however, it became clear that he was uncommonly intelligent. He was never satisfied for long with the delights of the eye and the flesh but was continually seeking knowledge. On the other hand, he conformed to the requirements of his station in life and undertook the training which was normal to a youth of his social standing.
There are two versions of his marriage which are not easy to reconcile. The first is that he won his wife in a “contest of arms” when he was sixteen, and had by her a son, Rahula. The second says that he did not marry Yasodhara until he was twenty-eight, and that Rahula was born a year later.
Whichever of the two versions is the correct one, however, it has been established that he left his wife and his home when he was twenty-nine and during the remaining fifty-one years of his life returned home only once. The reason for this decision, known as The Great Renunciation, appears to have been the sudden crystallization of his thoughts and meditations on the lot of Man.
Protected though he had been from the world’s unpleasantness’s, he had, nevertheless, not remained in ignorance of them. The story goes that one day when he was out driving, he saw first an old man, then a sick man and then a dead man. He asked his charioteer, Channa, what these sights meant, and received the answer, “These things happen to all men.”
Thinking this over, it occurred to the young man that there was but one cause of Man’s suffering, his birth; and he was much troubled, and presently the desire formed in his mind to save mankind from birth into a world of suffering. The religion of the people, Brahminism, seemed to offer no solution, and he could not decide how he could best fulfil the wish which was daily becoming stronger and stronger.
However, not long afterwards, he was out again with Channa and this time saw a man with a shaven head in a torn yellow robe; and on asking Channa who he was, was told, “He is one of those who have dedicated themselves to a homeless life.”
That night, while he was deep in meditation, surrounded by his pleasure-girls who sprawled around him in unseemly postures, he suddenly became revolted by the pleasurable life that enveloped him and knew at once what he must do.
Going to his wife’s bedroom, he found her sleeping peacefully with his baby son cradled in her arms. Not waking them, he bade them a silent farewell and left the palace, taking Channa with him and his favourite stallion, Kanthaka.
At the edge of the forest he got down from Kanthaka, cut off his long black hair with his sword, and sent Channa back to the palace with it. Going on alone he presently met a beggar and changed his princely dress for the beggar’s torn robe.
He now knew what the object of his search must be. The cause of suffering in this world is lust and selfish craving in all its forms. To attain to rebirth on the Wheel of Righteousness lust and craving must be extinguished; only thus can Man reach the end of suffering. But how were lust and craving to be cast out of a man’s life?
To find the answer he first visited Alara Kalama, a famous Sage; but the Sage could not give him an answer that satisfied him. So, he went to another, Uddaka, and received no help from him either.
Wandering through the country of Magadha, he came to the town of Uruvela, and there settled down in a grove of trees to find Enlightenment. For six years he meditated, practising such an austere way of life that he almost wasted away. But in the process, he overcame fear, subdued all the lusts of the flesh and gained complete control over his mind. Yet he had not received Enlightenment.
Perplexed, he suddenly realized that Enlightenment would not come to him through the ascetic life he was leading, and he decided to eat again. Sugata, a maiden, offered him a bowl of curds which he accepted and ate, and afterwards he bathed.
After he had bathed, he sat down on a heap of grass at the foot of a tree determined to find Enlightenment. It was the night of the May Full Moon.
As he sat there, Mara, the Evil One, and his host of companions approached him and demanded the throne of grass which he had made for himself. But Gautama, undefeated by all the assaults of Mara, refused to give up his throne, and when the Evil One had departed, he fell into deep meditation.
And while he meditated, Enlightenment came to him; he saw for the first time the evil, the cause of all suffering, and the means by which it could be overcome. From that moment he became Buddha, the Enlightened One.
At first he decided that he would be a Buddha only to himself, enjoying alone the blessedness that came to him after he had reached the goal of all his aspirations, But the god Brahma visited him and put into his mind the decision to become a Buddha to all others, preaching the deliverance which had come to his own soul.
Now, while he had meditated and fasted in the grove, five other ascetics had kept him company. They had left him in disgust when he had decided to give up the austere life. To these five, he decided, he would preach first the Dharma, the Path which leads to the end of suffering.
He found his former companions in the Deer Park of Sarnath, near Benares, and on the night of the July Full Moon he preached his first sermon to them, the First Sermon of Setting in Motion the Wheel of Righteousness. The five men perceived the Truth of the Dharma, and were ordained by Buddha, who sent them out to preach the Dharma.
For the next forty-five years Buddha and his disciples wandered about India preaching, and the converts to Dharma increased rapidly in numbers. The Teaching appealed chiefly to the intellectual and wealthy classes, who, as may be imagined from the brief description of Brahminism which introduced this account of Buddha’s teaching, found in it a far more satisfactory path to the good life than could be found in their former religion.
The monastic Order established by Buddha in the monastery built in the Jetavana Grove, which became the headquarters of his ministry, also grew at a great pace. Called the Samga, admission to it was carefully safeguarded and the conditions of membership were very strict. The members were called Bikkhus, or beggars, since they had to beg for a living. Each one had to carry with him a bowl and was required to dress in a yellow robe and to shave his head. Later, an Order of nuns was established.
On the one occasion on which Buddha returned to his father’s palace, his son, coming to him, asked for his inheritance. The Buddha, turning to his chief disciple, Sariputta, said, “Receive him into the order”. So, the future king of the Sakya became a monk.
When he was eighty, while on a visit to Pava, Buddha was invited by the local blacksmith, Cunda, to a meal. After the meal he became ill, and having reached the Sala Grove of the Mallas, he had a bed spread for him and lay down. There, surrounded by his disciples, he died.
Seven days later his body was cremated. The ashes were divided into ten parts and given to the Rajas in whose lands he had lived and died.
In the First Sermon of Setting in Motion the Wheel of Righteousness, preached to the five in Benares, Buddha declared the Four Noble Truths, which contain the kernel of Buddhist teaching:
Suffering is universal, no man being free of it from birth to death.
The cause of suffering is desire or longing, which leads to rebirth and the continuance of desire and misery.
Deliverance from suffering is to be obtained through the suppression of desire, the absence of passion of every kind.
This result can only be obtained by pursuing the holy eightfold Path of right belief, right aspiration, right speech, right conduct, right means of living, right aim and effort, right memory, right meditation.
The goal which Buddhism sets before a man as the Highest Good is called Nirvana.
Nirvana signifies the spiritual state attained by one who has conquered self, and, by the exercise of self-sacrifice, sympathy, loving thought and deeds of kindness, extinguished desire. The attainment of Nirvana, which is achieved in two stages, implies the extinction of personality and the union of the individual with the infinite. The first stage may be attained in this world; the second, and more perfect, state only after death.
Buddhism was a rejection of Brahminism. It laid the greatest stress upon the correctness of life; that is, on the moral principles of living rather than on the observance of rites, which constituted the essence of Brahminism.
Buddhism ignored the existence of gods, and had no place for sacrifice, prayer, worship or the priesthood which the gods demanded. It taught rebirth, the transmigration of souls, the belief that when a man dies his soul returns to earth in another body.
The moral standards it required from its followers were extremely high. No living thing was to be killed; no-one was to take what had not been given to him; adultery was strictly forbidden; all lying was forbidden; no intoxicating drinks were to be taken; no one was to be the owner of silver or gold; these were the main points.
The spread of Buddhism was extraordinary, for it proclaimed a Way of Life which, unlike the teaching of other religions, could be readily understood by men as being able to provide them with a means of attaining a measure of perfection in their own living. All other religions up to this time had taught that perfection could only be reached by Man’s complete subservience to the gods.
Within a relatively short time Buddhism had swept all over Asia, from India and Ceylon, through Burma, Tibet, China and Japan. It brought to the great landmass of Asia a new conception of a way of life that gave to men a new incentive to conduct their lives on a high moral level. Its influence in the East cannot be assessed.
Today, nearly two thousand five hundred years later, it is still a tremendous force in the world, its followers numbering more than one hundred million.
- Works by Buddha at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Buddha at Internet Archive
- Works by or about Siddhārtha Gautama at Internet Archive
- Works by or about Shakyamuni at Internet Archive
- Works by Gautama Buddha at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Buddha on In Our Time at the BBC
- A sketch of the Buddha’s Life
- What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika
- Parables and Stories of Buddha
- Who was the Buddha? Buddhism for Beginners