FROM INDUS TO INDEPENDENCE: A TREK THROUGH INDIAN HISTORY Part 8

Canberra, 18 February 2013
THE FERMENT OF RELIGIOUS THOUGHT (~600 to 250 BC)
Section II
A Prince Explains Life and Creates a Religion
The Story of Buddhism
Kapilavastu was the capital of the Aryan tribe of Sakya (meaning proud) whose territories were situated between the rivers Rapti and Rohini in the Himalayan foothills. The Sakyas were late immigrants and a relatively insignificant clan in the broader context of the sub-continent. Unlike the greater clans of the plains, they held Kshatriyas to be of a higher status than the Brahmins and in fact held no reverence for the traditional priestly class. They also practiced rudimentary democracy, as was the custom amongst many of the tribes, and elected chieftains on a rotational basis. It was into this clan that Prince Siddhartha, later to become Gautama the Buddha, was born.
The Story of Buddha’s Birth
The only description of the events connected to Buddha’s birth is given in the Buddhist literature, written at a later stage and cannot be verified for its truthfulness or accuracy. Therefore, there are two parallel stories to be understood—one that has been embellished in the telling and the subsequent recording of these stories and two, the common facts that can be weaned from the same sources with some amount of certainty. Suddhodana was an elected chieftain of the Sakya clan. Although in later texts he is glorified as a monarch, in the earlier texts he is not even referred to as a king. It is fairly certain that he was an elected chieftain, although Buddha himself in later years has said that he remembers his father ploughing the fields, which should make him a mere agriculturist. However, this reference to ploughing the fields could be explained as the ceremonial ploughing done by the chieftain at the beginning of the cultivation period, which was a practice that seems to have been common in the tribal areas. As was the custom of the period, Suddhodana practiced polygamy and was married to two sisters, the elder one being Mayavati who was the senior wife.
Mayavati conceived a child and subsequently had a dream in which she was penetrated by a white elephant with six tusks and a pink lotus in its trunk; a dream that was interpreted by the seers as a sign that the child to be born would either become a universal ruler or a universal sage. Traditionally ladies went back to their parents’ house to have the baby (a custom that is still followed in India, especially in the rural areas) and so when the time came for her to give birth, Mayavati started for her parents’ house. However, before she could reach her parents’ house, in a place called Lumbinivana, 16 kilometres east of Kapilavastu, she gave birth to a baby boy and called him Siddhartha. The exact date of his birth is not available, but calculating backwards from the recorded date of Buddha’s death, from which the Buddhists derive their dates and calendar—fixed as between 486 and 483 BC—it can be deduced that he was born between 566 and 563 BC, since he was 80 years old at his death. [There is an inherent distortion if this measurement of time was converted to a Euro-centric or Christo-centric calculation because of the confusion between the lunar and solar calendars. Therefore, the superimposition that has been done in this case will always indicate a span of time rather than an exact Gregorian date, and must be treated with caution.]
There are a number of stories associated with Buddha’s birth that were obviously crafted at a later date. It is said that he walked as soon as he was born; that the earth shook with every step he took; that lotuses sprang up at the spot where every step was taken; that the child turned to each of the primary directions and said, ‘I am born for Supreme Knowledge, for the welfare of the world, this is my last birth.’ This and other stories make up the fable of his birth. The divine and extraordinary activities that are supposed to have happened at his birth indicating future spiritual prowess are definitely later embellishments. All major events in the life of Buddha have been aggrandised with such stories and fables, thereby mixing legend and fact and making it extremely difficult to verify anything with certainty. On the other hand the stories, however farfetched, can only be appreciated through believing in the teachings of Buddha and in him as a spiritual incarnation of something outside the normal world. This much (stated above) is legend, fable, story, crafted over a period of time as the importance of the individual and his teachings increased, his following grew and with the young religion started to spread.
The following are facts that can be verified from a number of sources, that:
Buddha was a Sakya (as a sage he was called Sakya-muni), born in mid-6 century BC (around 563 BC) and died aged about 80 years around 483 BC; he was named Siddhartha, which can be very loosely translated as ‘the child of destiny’; his mother died few days after his birth and he was brought up by her younger sister, Gautami Mahapajapati, who was the second wife of the chieftain Suddhodana, Siddhartha’s father; the renowned sage Asita came to Suddhodana’s court on receiving divine knowledge of the birth of his son; Siddhartha grew up as an introverted and contemplative child, mostly shunning traditional education of martial arts and other princely pursuits; he was, however, not a weakling, demonstrated by his winning the hand of Yasodhara, who was his cousin, in a contest of strength and marrying her when they were in their mid-teens; and in a self-admission after becoming a sage, lived a life of luxury, moving between palaces to suit the climate and not being aware of any of the troubles and tribulations that normal human being faced.
Hereafter the story of his life, although having add-ons from later telling, can be traced without much trouble through the detailed records and literature maintained by his followers. It is said that Siddhartha was consciously kept away from witnessing any of the vagaries of life by his father who wanted him to become the universal king that was one possibility laid out by the seer who interpreted the Queen’s dream. However, the gods intervened and conspired to show Siddhartha an old man, a sick man, a corpse and an ascetic to demonstrate the phases of life as well as the fallibility of the human body. Siddhartha wanted to become an ascetic immediately, but his father forbade him from doing so. On the birth of his son Rahul, Siddhartha, then aged 29 left his home and family in the middle of the night. It is reported in the Buddha-Charita and the Lalitavistara that while he was leaving, Siddhartha said, ‘Till I have seen the further shore of birth and death I will never again enter the city called Kapila.’ It is also commonly reported that King Bimbisara of Magadha (related to Siddhartha) intervened at this time and tried to dissuade him from becoming an ascetic, but Siddhartha refused.
Gautama the Ascetic
At his becoming an ascetic—having willingly given up all worldly goods and attachments—Siddhartha’s belief was that happiness was a chimera and the most one could hope to attain was peace or ‘shanti’. He wandered as a mendicant for a number of years unable to find a guru (teacher/mentor) during which period he investigated available traditional wisdom to find a solution to attaining peace. At this stage he came to be called Gautama (alluding to his gotra), shedding his princely name of Siddhartha. A renowned sage of the time, Alara Kalama taught him the techniques of meditation and the teachings or the wisdom of the Upanishads after which he became the disciple of the sage Rudraka Ramaputra who advanced his understanding of meditational techniques to an even higher level. The common theme in all the sources regarding Buddha’s life remain—an extremely sheltered upbringing; the shock of seeing human suffering when he was in his twenties; and the vain consultations with the Brahminical sages of the time to a find a solution to human suffering. These developments in his life can therefore be considered as facts. At this stage in his spiritual development—or lack of development as he felt it to be—Gautama left to live in a forest near the village Uruvela (Bodh Gaya) on the banks of the River Niranjana about 16 kilometres south of Gaya.
Here he was joined by five ascetics and they practiced the most rigorous austerities for the next six years in a quest to attain enlightenment. However, Gautama was frustrated by the whole process and started to question whether or not the practice of austerities itself was the right path to enlightenment. The result was that he resolved to change his life style and the way in which the search for truth was to be conducted.
Enlightenment—Buddha is born
Gautama decided to leave the practice of asceticism and one day after bathing in the river accepted milk-rice offered to him by the daughter of a farmer, Sujatha, thereby breaking his severe penance and austere lifestyle. His five ascetic companions were unhappy with this development and left him, moving to another area to continue their ascetic life style. Gautama now changed his life style and since he was not at war with his body through denial of the basic necessities, regained his health. Gautama sought enlightenment with calm deliberation and with mental equanimity; sitting under a giant peepul tree in a yogic pose, facing east in deep meditation for 49 days. [The story, told later, is that the concentration that emanated from Gautama was of such intensity that even the gods came down to keep him company, although when ‘Mara’ the Buddhist tempter-devil came to prevent his attaining enlightenment, the gods fled. Gautama was unmoved by ‘Mara’s’ efforts to tempt him, and subsequently by his tormenting him through creating earthquakes, hurricanes and shooting flaming arrows at him. When even these failed, ‘Mara’ sent his three daughters—Desire, Unrest and Pleasure—to seduce him, but without any success. ‘Mara’ left without achieving his objective and the gods returned singing Gautama’s praise. There is a distinct similarity between this story and that of the Temptation of Christ!] On a full moon day in May around 528 BC, Gautama aged 35 attained enlightenment. Gautama later told his disciples, ‘My mind was emancipated, ignorance was dispelled, knowledge arose; darkness was dispelled, light arose.’ Asvaghosha, the first century AD writer of the Buddha-Charita says, ‘The earth, the heavens and the divine spirits rejoiced at the happy event—mighty rolls of thunder resounded and the earth quaked like a drunken woman, a supernatural radiance spread over the heavens, a rain of flowers fell from the cloudless sky and the heavenly seers proclaimed Gautama’s glory.’ Siddhartha Gautama thus became Buddha or ‘The Enlightened One’. The peepul tree (under which Buddha attained enlightenment) is revered by the Buddhists as the symbol of Buddha and the ‘Tree of Wisdom’. The Buddha stayed in Uruvela for seven more weeks and then started on his journey of propagation.
Propagation—The Power of Ideas
For the next 45 years of his life, until his death at the age of 80, Buddha travelled in the eastern Gangetic Plain, primarily in the kingdoms of Magadha and Kosala. In the beginning the message that Buddha wanted to spread was not well received. In his first encounter after attaining enlightenment, with an ascetic Upaka, Buddha was unable to convince him that he was the enlightened one. Buddha is supposed to have said, ‘I have overcome all foes; I am all-wise; I am free from stains in every way; I have left everything; and have obtained emancipation by the destruction of desire. I have no teacher; no one is equal to me; in the world of men and gods no being is like me. I am the Holy One in this world; I am the highest teacher…’ [This uncharacteristic boastfulness (if it did happen) can be attributed to the nervousness that he must have felt on starting his long journey of propagation of a completely new philosophy.] But the ascetic, Upaka, was not willing to be a believer and is supposed to have gone away.
Buddha gave his first discourse at the Deer Park in Sarnath, near Varanasi, where a group of five ascetics became his first disciples. This discourse has been subsequently named the ‘Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of Law’ and forms the core of Buddha’s philosophy. The discourse contained the explanation of the Four Noble Truths—the world is full of suffering; suffering is caused by human desires; the renunciation of desires is the path to nirvana (liberation from rebirth); this can be achieved through following the Eight-fold Path. The Noble Eight-fold Path consists of: right views, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation, leading to a balanced moderate life. In combination this way of life is called the Middle Path to enlightenment.
The Middle Path was a path of moderation that avoided the two extremes—one, the pursuit of desires and pleasures, which is common, that leads to rebirth; and the other, self-mortification that an ascetic or renouncer goes through which is grievous and ignoble—that opens the eyes and bestows understanding, that leads to peace of mind, higher wisdom, full enlightenment and finally nirvana. This way of life did not involve any deep metaphysical thinking or complex rituals but only a commitment to ethical living. The first breakthrough in the spread of this concept came in Varanasi when a rich merchant family became Buddha’s disciples. Thereafter it became fashionable for the elite to follow the Buddha’s teachings and the number of lay converts burgeoned. The second breakthrough was the conversion of the sage Kassapa, who was already acknowledged as a highly learned sage, which brought increased prestige to the Buddha and his teachings. By this time his followers were calling him Tathaghata, an obscure term meaning ‘The Perfect One’.  
Buddha saw himself as ‘in the world but not of the world.’ He was a down-to-earth pragmatist and he was concerned with the challenges, issues and problems of life on earth while his teachings were characterised by psychological insight, practical wisdom and compassion. Buddha believed and propagated the idea that all things in the world are fleeting and dissipates at the beginning of a new dawn; and that no suffering or predicament is unique or unbearable. He dealt with issues and problems with wisdom, care and solicitude while his interaction with everyone—irrespective of status and stature—was marked by dispassionate compassion. In many of the stories recorded by his disciples, Buddha is seen to speak loftily, which is not in character with his inherent, innate and demonstrated humility and modesty. This self-promotion (if indeed he did speak so) could well have been a ruse that he employed to propagate the ideas that, for their time, were considered radical. For a similar reason Buddha always travelled with a large following (after he had gathered sufficient disciples), as many as 500 at times, which must have been a grand spectacle by any standards and increased his prestige. He was also not shy of using his aristocratic connections to improve the possibility of converting greater numbers—both Bimbisara and Prasenjit, kings of Magadha and Kosala respectively, were patrons of the new order. [In other words Buddha was a public relations genius.] Bimbisara gifted Buddha extensive parks near Rajagraha, his capital, where Buddha set up monsoon retreats and started to organise his followers into a monastic order, later setting up actual monasteries. This was the beginning of the formation of the Buddhist Sangha, which became the first organised monastic system in the world and fortified the solidarity of the group.
The Buddhist Sangha functioned essentially as an egalitarian extended family where each individual was bestowed with enormous trust and responsibility. Unlike other sects of the time, the monks in the Sangha were given the power to ordain new monks, thereby decentralising the spread of the fundamental principles. Further, the inherent self-discipline of the monks made each one of them autonomous proselytising institutions and since they preached not in the high-flown Sanskrit, but in the language of the people, they were doubly successful. Buddhism, unlike Hinduism, is a proselytising religion and has been described as ‘one of the greatest missionary religions on earth.’ The Sangha having reached a certain stability and maturity, Buddha started to send out his disciples to different parts of the country to spread the principles of his teachings. The ideas of Buddha spread easily, more so because the early devotees were the cultured upper crust of the society, consisting of Brahmins, Kshtriyas and the rich merchant class. There are five fundamental factors within the teachings of Buddha that appeal to the masses, especially at the time they were being propagated. First, the attraction of the Middle Path was that it relied on self-discipline and not austerities to achieve nirvana, needing no commitment to asceticism. Second, it was not a social reformation movement against the established order. Since it operated outside the established religious order and concerned itself with issues on a different plane, there was no direct or even indirect threat to the power of the priests as such. Therefore, there was no back-lash, which made it more acceptable. Third, the teachings did not recognise any social distinctions, stating that all men irrespective of origin and caste could achieve nirvana by following the Noble Eight-fold Path. It did not challenge the existing caste system but operated detached from it.
Fourth, the Noble Eight-fold Path is essentially ethical living and the Middle Path has an inherent human breadth of appeal to it. Essentially the concept was that ethical living is supposed to lead to salvation without the assistance or intervention of priests or, for that matter, even gods. The dichotomy of Buddha’s elevation to god-like status and associated veneration is a development after his death, probably around or after 2nd century BC. Fifth, the monasteries (organised and functioning almost like the earlier gana-sanghas) started to double as centres of learning and knowledge, accelerating education as a non-Brahmin teaching source, thereby underlining the fact that learning was not the privilege of the upper classes (and castes) anymore. This development had profound influence in changing the socio-political conditions in the country. The Buddhist Canon, Tripitaka was written about two centuries after Buddha’s death and is certain to contain later day interpolations of his teachings.
Buddha undertook his last tour to Pataliputra and Vaishali, capital of the Lichchavi kingdom and then proceeded to Beluva. On his way the Buddha was taken ill and died near Kusinara (now called Kasi) about 130 kilometres east of Kapilavastu. On his falling sick, he is supposed to have told one of his disciples, ‘…the nature of decay is inherent in youth.’ Buddha gave his final instructions regarding Sangha matters and gave his last advice, recorded as, ‘Hearken O brethren, I do remind ye: everything that cometh into being passeth away. Strive without ceasing.’ Buddha was cremated with great honour, his remains divided into eight potions as relics to be preserved and monuments were built in all the domains that he had wandered. In time all these monuments would collapse and turn to dust, his teachings would be forgotten in his own homeland, perhaps a perverse vindication of the Buddha’s philosophy—all existence is transitory! In later years dissidence within the Sangha led to breakaway sects, spawning a number of them some of which lasted for very short periods. The two main surviving branches are the Theravadi Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka and Sarativada practiced in other nations, primarily in South East Asia.           
                  
 
 
         
 

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: