Buddhism

The Origins of Buddhism

Reaction and Intellectual Revolution

   From the seventh to the fifth centuries BC, India witnessed its most creative intellectual period in its history. It was a time of immense innovation and intellectual ferment equal to similar periods in Greece from the sixth to the fifth centuries BC in China from the sixth to the second centuries BC. However, Indian philosophers and religious sages were reacting to the increasingly restrictive and empty formalism of Vedic sacrifices and rituals. The priestly classes had become the most powerful class in ancient India, theoretically placed above kings and nobles. For the priests controlled the forces of the universe through the power inherent in their hymns, charms, and elaborate rituals.

   Against this ritualistic focus and concentration of social power, a small revolution occurred in the development of intellectual Hinduism. Admitting that the rituals might have some relative value, these thinkers focussed instead on the inspiration contained in the hymns that formed the backbone of Hinduism. Their teachings, called the Upanishadic after the central form of their dissemination, the Upanishads, were largely secret teachings and their religious focus was on the ability of human beings to understand the mysteries of the universe and their own relationship to the divine. They introduced several new elements into Vedic thought: the doctrine of transmigration, that is, that the soul goes from life to life; the unity of the human soul with the universal soul, or Atman; the doctrine that self-discovery is also the discovery of the one god; and finally, a focus on spirituality rather than material reality. The most important of these innovations, however, was the doctrine of transmigration. Attached to endless return of the soul was a moral order of the universe, rita; the type of life and the type of moral disposition each soul is born into is determined by the nature and quality of its actions in previous lives. Moral actions take on a larger pattern in the infinite life of the soul. Not only did the Upanishadic thinkers introduce the notion of samsara , but they also began to discuss how the soul might be released from this cycle: this is called moksha, or "liberation."

   Although the teachers of the Upanishads were heterodox thinkers, they still at some level admitted that Hindu tradition and rituals had some effectiveness. But the reaction against orthodox Hinduism would breed even more radical rebellions, particularly in northern India in the states of Brihar and Uttar Pradesh. We don't know precisely why this region spawned such dynamic intellectual revolt against the prevailing religion. Perhaps it was because these regions had only recently been settled by the Aryans, those Indo-Europeans that brought Vedic religion and rituals to India. Perhaps it was because the class system so vital to Vedism and to the Aryans was only loosely structured. Perhaps it was because the political system involved only a very loose confederacy. From an intellectual standpoint, the doctrine of transmigration, which was introduced by the Upanishadic teachers, was the focal point of the heterodox, in fact, heretical religious movements of northern India. For the two most radical challenges to Vedism, Buddhism and Jainism, centered their entire philosophy around this single doctrine. The heretical schools of Vedism, Buddhists and Jainists, all had as the central goal the release of the soul from this infinite cycle of birth and rebirth, or samsara. So the idea that the soul passes from life to life infinitely was the intellectual crucible in which Buddhism was forged. The mainstream reaction to these new ways of thinking were to classify them as "non-Vedic" or heresies; the formal term was nastika darsanas, or "atheists" (as opposed to "Vedic" philosophies, astika darsanas, or "believers").

   Buddhism and Jainism, however, did not appear overnight; there was a natural evolution leading up to them. The Buddhists acknowledge that there were six heretical schools that preceded them. Like Buddhism and Jainism, these heretical schools focussed entirely on the problem of transmigration. The most important of these heretics was Ajita Kesakambala who founded the "materialist" school, or Cakvara. He believed that the soul was only a material phenomenon, an temporary colocation of matter in a living body. When the body died, the temporary collection of matter dissolved and with it dissolved the soul. This meant that the soul was never punished for evil nor was it ever rewarded for good.

Jainism

   Aside from Buddhism, the most important school to arise in this period was Jainism. Unlike the other heretical schools, Jainism has survived to the present day as a major religion in India; unlike Buddhism, however, it has not spread outside of India. The great teacher of Jainism, Vardhamana Mahavira, lived at the same time as Siddhartha Guatama, the founder of Buddhism. It appears to Western historians that Jainism actually begins with Vardhamana, although the Jains believe that the religion is far older, extending in fact to the remotest antiquity. Mahavira, they believe, was the twenty-fourth and last of the teachers. He was born in 599 BC, the son of a daughter of the king of Vaisali. At the age of thirty, he learned the ephemerality of the world and devoted himself to an ascetic lifestyle. Over a period of twelve years, he suffered the most self-denying hardships until he finally reached enlightenment and began to teach others.

   Jainism is based on a single idea, that the transmigration of souls is caused by the union of the living with the non-living which then sets up energies, or tapas , which then drive the cycle of birth and rebirth. This endless process can be stopped if the energies are used up in a life of discipline. At the end of the process, the soul, freed from the cycle of birth and rebirth, then exists in a state of infinite bliss, knowledge, power, and perception—the soul which has achieved this state is siddha-paramesthin . There is a slightly lower stage of the soul, called the arhat-paramesthin , and the arhat is the one who teaches the rest of humanity. This teacher is called the tirthankara , or "ford crosser," and serves as a vehicle of revelation for the rest of humanity. Like the Islamic rasul , each tirthankara is more or less a founder of a new religion.

   The Jains believe that the world was uncreated and lasts for eternity; the only quality that reality has is the fact of change. Things are born, they decay, the pass away. Each physical object is held together by its own internal forces. In the face of this constant change only a few things remain permanent; of these, the most important is jiva , or the soul. The jiva can do two things: it can perceive and it can know. It also controls its own actions when it is part of a concrete body; so also it enjoys all the rewards and punishments of its own actions. There are four categories of souls: gods, humans, demons, and animals; each soul in the infinite cycle of birth and rebirth can enter any of these categories. Moksha occurs only when the soul becomes freed from the cycle of birth and rebirth.

   The path to moksha, moksha-marga , is the central teaching of Jainism. This path has three "jewels": right belief, right knowledge, and right conduct. This path involves a high degree of ascetism; quite literally the best lived life is one of total ascetism: no food or material involvement at all. Since this is an impossible idea, Mahavira developed a second path for normal human beings to follow. This involved five abstinences: ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (abstinence from stealing), brahmacarya (chaste living), and aparigraha (abstinence from greed). This, perhaps, is the most important aspect of Jainism. It is overwhelmingly a moral religion. It promises an eventual release if an individual begins now, in this life, to live under a high moral code.   These are then two of the major nastika darsanas , the materialism of the Ajita Kesakambalin and the moral religion of Vardhamana Mahavira. The third, and the most influential, was founded by a prince of the Shakyas at the foot of the Himalayans: Buddhism.

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Siddhartha Gautama, The Buddha


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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-26-96