Rise of Buddhism notes for UPSC exam

Buddhism is an old Indian religion that started in the area once called the Kingdom of Magadha, now known as Bihar in India. It’s mainly about the teachings of Gautama Buddha. But these teachings have gone beyond Magadha and attracted followers from all over the world.

History & Origin of Buddhism

  • Buddhism began 2,600 years ago in India as a way to improve one’s life.
  • It’s a significant religion in South and Southeast Asian countries.
  • Buddha is another name for Siddhartha Gautam, the founder.
  • Siddhartha was born in 563 BCE into the royal Sakya clan in Lumbini, near the Indo-Nepal border.
  • He had a son named Rahul but became disheartened by his luxurious life and the sight of suffering, old age, and death.
  • At 29, he left his comfortable life to pursue asceticism, extreme self-discipline.
  • After 49 days of meditation under a tree in Bodhgaya, Bihar, he gained enlightenment (Bodhi).
  • Buddha gave his first sermon in Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, near Benares, called Dharma-Chakra-Pravartana (the turning of the wheel of law).
  • In 483 BCE, he died at 80 in Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, an event known as Mahaparinirvana.

Let’s read about Buddhism in more detail.

Beginnings of Buddhism

  • The founder of Buddhism was once a boy born into an aristocratic family from the Shakya clan. His original name was Siddhartha. His birth was foretold by his mother Maya, who dreamt of a white elephant with six white tusks.
  • According to Shakya tradition, births usually happened in the mother’s paternal home, so Queen Maya gave birth in her father’s kingdom, under a garden tree
  • Siddhartha’s father was the leader of the Shakya clan, and they lived in the region between India and Nepal.
  • As Siddhartha grew up, he became increasingly aware of the suffering and difficulties that people faced in life. He saw that life was often painful and decided to leave everything behind to seek the truth about life and how to end this suffering.
  • He began meditating and spent several years in seclusion and asceticism, during which he gained insight into the cycle of rebirth and the nature of life.
  • Buddha journeyed across the Gangetic plain, spreading his teachings and forming a religious community. He advocated a balanced path between extreme pleasures and harsh self-denial, known as the middle way. He emphasised mental and ethical training, self-control, and meditation, which included practices like mindfulness and jhana.
  • Buddha strongly disapproved of animal sacrifices and the caste system.

How did it get more recognition? 

  • A few centuries after his passing, he became known as Buddha, which means “Awakened One” or “Enlightened One.” His teachings were recorded within the Buddhist community’s Vinaya, which contained codes for monastic practices.
  • The Middle Indo-Aryan language preserved these teachings through oral traditions and later created more texts for reference.
  • The Buddhist community split into two main branches: Mahayana in the Himalayas and East Asia, and Theravada in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Additionally, the Vajrayana tradition is considered part of Mahayana Buddhism, although some scholars see it as a separate branch.

The practice of Buddhism

  • In the 7th century, Buddhist symbols lost significance, especially after the Gupta dynasty and the later Pala Empire, which collapsed in the 12th century. This posed a challenge for Buddhists as Hinduism became more popular.
  • However, by the end of the 12th century, Buddhism found new life in the Himalayan region and its southern parts, becoming popular once again. As of the 2011 census, there are 8.4 million Buddhists in India, making up 0.70% of the total population.

Buddhism belief

  • Buddhists don’t worship a supreme god; instead, they aim to achieve enlightenment for inner peace and wisdom. This state of spiritual fulfilment is called nirvana.
  • The founder of the religion, Buddha, is considered an exceptional being, not a god. To his followers, the term “Buddha” means “enlightened.”
  • Buddhists believe in a path to enlightenment through morality, meditation, and wisdom. They often meditate to help discover the truth
  • Buddhist traditions encourage people to find a balance between self-indulgence and self-denial. Understanding the Four Noble Truths is crucial in this religion.

The Four Noble Truths are:

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  1. Suffering is a part of life.
  2. The cause of suffering is attachment.
  3. Suffering can end.
  4. The Noble Eightfold Path is the way to end suffering.
  5. Buddhists also embrace the concept of Karma, which influences reincarnation and the cycle of rebirth.

The teachings

  • In Buddhism, one of the most important teachings is the Twelve linked Chains of Causation, which show how everything is interconnected and how Karma influences our world, leading to suffering and, through these steps, liberation.
  • To find strength and overcome suffering and sadness, there are three key truths: Change, Suffering, and the absence of a permanent “I.”
  • Buddha also taught about The Noble Eightfold Path, which includes Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. This path is often symbolised by a Wheel.
  • The Three Fires—Desire, Anger, and Delusion—are the destructive forces that can harm us and others, like wildfires raging within.

Why Buddhism Became Popular?

  • Buddhism was cost-effective because it didn’t involve expensive rituals like the Vedic religion. It emphasised practical morality rather than costly ceremonies, which helped create a positive social tradition.
  • It offered a spiritual path free from material duties, such as elaborate rituals and offerings to appease gods and Brahmins.
  • Buddhism was against the caste system and treated people equally, regardless of their background. People from different castes came together to discuss ethics and morals, making it particularly attractive to non-Brahmins.
  • The support of kings played a crucial role in Buddhism’s rapid growth. Kings like Prasenjit, Bimbisara, Ajatasatru, Asoka, Kanishka, and Harshavardhan, who were patrons of Buddhism, helped it spread across India and beyond. For example, Asoka sent his sons to Sri Lanka to promote Buddhism.
  • Universities, such as Nalanda, Taxila, Pushpagiri, and Vikramsila, were influential in spreading Buddhism. Students from various regions, including foreign countries, were drawn to Buddhism while studying at these institutions. The famous Chinese pilgrim, Hiuen Tsang, studied at Nalanda University, learning from prominent scholars dedicated to Buddhism’s growth.

Buddhist Monks and the Buddhist ‘Order’ (Sangha)

  • Buddhist monks and the Buddhist ‘Order’ known as Sangha played a crucial role in spreading Buddhism. Students of Buddha like Ananda, Sariputta, Maudgalayana, Sudatta, and Upali were particularly influential in this effort.
  • They were highly determined to promote Buddhism throughout India. The Buddhist Sangha expanded with branches all over the country, and locals were quickly attracted to these branches.
  • These monks and lay devotees lived simple, ascetic lives, setting an example for others to follow. This inspired more and more people to embrace Buddhism, leading to its rapid growth.

Important Buddha Councils 

1st Buddhist Council

The first Buddhist Council happened shortly after Buddha’s passing in Rajgir, India. It was led by the monk Mahakassapa. The main aim was to recite and document Buddha’s teachings (Sutras) and the rules for monks (Vinaya) to preserve and pass them down accurately.

This Council took place at the entrance to Sattapanni Grotto in Rajargaha (now called Rajgir). It occurred in the 4th or 5th century CE. Ven. Mahakasyapa called the Council, with the agreement of Ven. Upali.

During this Council, Ven. Ananda and Ven. Upali taught about Vinaya and Sutta-Pitaka, which are significant parts of Buddhist teachings.

2nd Buddhist Council

The Second Buddhist Council occurred in Vaishali, India, to address disputes among the monastic community (Sangha). It was held in 386 CE and focused on Buddhist rules and practices.

The Council was called by a respected monk named Yasa after observing some local monks behaving inappropriately. They discussed whether monks could handle money for the benefit of the Sangha order.

While some historians referred to the First Buddhist Council as the Second or even the First Third Buddhist Council in Pataliputra, Yasa’s Council rejected this view. However, these disagreements led to the first split in the Buddhist Order.

The Second Buddhist Council took place in the 3rd century CE in Pataliputra. Its primary purpose was to address the “great schism” between Early Theravada Buddhism, Early Mahayana Buddhism, and the Early Buddhist Schools.

3rd Buddhist Council

The third Buddhist council happened during Ashoka’s rule, around 100 years after the second council in Pataliputra, India.

This council, especially significant in Theravada Buddhism, was led by Emperor Ashoka and aimed to discuss the expansion of Buddhism beyond Southeast Asia.

Moggaliputta Tissa is believed to have overseen this third Buddhist Council.

Because of this Council, Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries to various regions, including Gandhara, Kashmir, and Sri Lanka, to spread Buddha’s teachings. However, only Gandhara, Kashmir, and Sri Lanka succeeded in this mission.

Additionally, during this gathering, the Abhidharma writings, comments, and treatises were compiled and integrated into one of the three divisions of the Buddhist canon.

4th Buddhist Council

The Fourth Buddhist Council was held in Tambapanni, Sri Lanka, around the first century BCE, and it followed the Theravada tradition.

Only a few Buddhist Sarvastivadas were believed to be present at this Council.

The Great Commentary on Abhidharma is credited to this Council.

About two hundred years after the third council, another Fourth Buddhist Council took place in Kashmir, under the sponsorship of King Kanishka. During this Council, the canon was revised, and a definitive version was created by five hundred monks led by Vasumitra.

The Fourth Buddhist Council taught Buddhism in various traditions, including Mahayana, Theravada, Tibetan, and more.

5th Buddhist Council

The Fifth Buddhist Council took place in Mandalay, Burma, in 1871 CE, with the support of King Mindon.

Its primary purpose was to recite and thoroughly analyse all of Gautama Buddha’s teachings from the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism. The goal was to ensure that none of the teachings had been altered, misinterpreted, or left out.

This Council was led by three senior monks, Mahathera Jagarabhivamsa, Narindabhidhaja, and Mahathera Sumangalasami, and it involved 2,400 monks. It took them five months to recite the Dhamma together.

Additionally, the Council approved the Tripitaka, which was inscribed in Burmese script on 719 marble slabs for future generations. It’s worth noting that this Council is not widely recognized outside of Burma, as most Buddhist nations were not represented at the gathering held in Burma.

6th Buddhist Council

The Sixth Council of Buddhism was called to gather and compile the teachings of the Buddha. These words were included in a collection known as the Tripitaka, representing the theoretical and practical aspects of the Dhamma.

Prime Minister U Nu of Burma organised the Sixth Council in Rangoon in May 1954, with the participation of knowledgeable monks from various parts of the world.

Venerable Abhidhaja Mahraha Guru Bhadanta Revata presided over the council, where 2,500 learned monks from Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, and other countries carefully re-examined the Tripitaka text.

The council successfully completed its task on the full moon day of Vesak in 1956, which marked the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s Mahparinibbana.

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