Mahatma Buddha was a great philosopher, social reformer and founder of Buddhism who showed the world a new middle way with his thoughts. Mahatma Buddha gave the first concrete challenge to the evils that gradually flourished in the Bharatiya tradition.
Buddha hit hard on the rituals of the dogmatised religious traditions but simultaneously gave a degree of philosophical subtlety to the Vedas and Upanishads in his philosophy and thus created a scope for innovation by removing the Indian cultural heritage from a fixed pattern. In the medieval period, a revolutionary thinker like Kabirdas shows the profound influence of the ideas of Mahatma Buddha. Dr Ambedkar, too, embraced Buddhism shortly before his death in the year 1956 and explained based on arguments why he saw Mahatma Buddha as more democratic than the rest of the religionists. In the modern period, leftist litterateurs like Rahul Sankrityayan also spent a long time of life reading Buddha, influenced by Buddha. In Hindu tradition, he is considered an avatar of Bhagwan Vishnu.
Gautam Buddha was born approximately 563 BC in the district of Lumbini, which is now modern-day Nepal, close to the Indian border. Gautama was the son of the Sakya chief of Kapilavastu, Suddhodana. His mother was Maya Devi, who died seven days after the birth of her son. The child thereupon was nursed by his stepmother and mother’s sister, Mahaprajapati Gautaini. According to her name, the child was named Gautama. The family also belonged to the Gautama gotra.
Another name for Gautama was Siddhartha. He was brought up in a palace with all the comforts and luxuries possible. Growing up a young noble prince, it is said his father sought to shield the young prince Siddhartha from the pain and suffering of the world. It is said his father had a premonition that Siddhartha would one day renounce the world. Therefore, his father, Shuddhodana, paid enough attention to keep the mind of his son engaged in stately activities. The palace of Kapilavastu also presented enough pleasures and luxuries for enjoyment. But, Gautama was seen to have possessed no attraction for the so-called happiness of life. Everything appeared rather painful to him.
When he was sixteen, he got married to Yasodhara, also named Subhadraka, Gopa or Bimba. Marriage was yet another bond for the thoughtful prince. For several years thereafter, Gautama enjoyed the usual pleasures and comforts of the palace like other youthful princes elsewhere.
However, at one point in his early adult life, Siddhartha sought to find greater meaning in life. In disguise, he left the palace and wandered around the kingdom. Here, Siddhartha came across different people suffering from old age and illness and witnessed death. This showed him the transitory nature of life, which had a great impact on him. As a consequence, Siddhartha resolved to seek a deeper meaning in life.
Secretly, Siddhartha left the palace – leaving behind his wife, son and all the worldly comforts that he had enjoyed. He devoted himself to meditation, seeking enlightenment amongst the ascetics of the forest.
In his intense quest for enlightenment, Siddhartha fasted excessively, so his body wasted away; however, despite his great efforts, enlightenment still remained a far cry. At one point, a passing woman gave him some food to eat, and Siddhartha realised it was a mistake to seek enlightenment by torturing the body. He regained his strength and resolved to follow a ‘middle path’, avoiding excesses of both fasting and feasting.
One day, Siddhartha resolved to sit under a Bodhi tree until he attained enlightenment. For several days, he sat in meditation, seeking Nirvana. He was tested by various forces which tried to prevent him from realising the goal.
However, Siddhartha was successful and entered into the blissful consciousness of Nirvana for several days. On returning to normal consciousness, Siddhartha the Buddha (Buddha means ‘enlightened one’) made the decision to spend the remainder of his life teaching others how to escape the inherent suffering of life.
For many years, Buddha travelled around India, especially around the Ganges plain and in Nepal, teaching his philosophy of liberation. His teachings were transmitted orally and not written down until many years after his death.
Many stories relate to the life of the Buddha in this teaching phase. His essential teachings were love, compassion and tolerance. The Buddha taught that a seeker must have compassion for all living beings, and this was the most important teaching. Although the Buddha disliked formal rules, a monastic following sprung up for those interested in following his path. He advocated strict celibacy for those wishing to follow his monastic path.
The Buddha would often give talks on enlightenment, but on one occasion, he simply held up a flower and maintained silence. Many left not understanding the point, but when later questioned, the Buddha replied that his real teaching could only be understood in silence. Talks could only give limited intellectual information, which was not real enlightenment.
The Buddha sought to avoid deep philosophy, and he avoided using the term God, preferring to talk about the practical way that a person may escape the cycle of birth and rebirth and attain enlightenment. Like many spiritual teachers, he often taught in parables to keep his teachings simple and practical.
The Buddha attracted hostility from those jealous of his popularity and spiritual development. One of his own monks, Devadatta, later became jealous of the Buddha and sought to split the community. He even tried on three occasions to kill the Buddha, but on each occasion, he failed. The Buddha was a contemporary of Jain teacher Mahavira, but though they had great mutual respect, they did not physically meet.
The Buddha passed away in Kushinagar at the age of 80, after many years of teaching and travelling throughout India. On his deathbed, he told Ananda (his dearest disciple) that he should now rely on his teachings and own ethical conduct to be the guide of his life.
“For centuries the light of the Buddha has shone as a beacon beckoning men from across the sea of darkness. Like lost children, millions of seekers have reached out to the light with their heart’s inmost cry, and the Buddha has shown them the Way. The world stood before the Buddha with its ignorance, and the Buddha, the Enlightened One, gave man Truth. The world offered its age-old suffering to the Buddha’s heart and the Buddha, Lord of Compassion, showed man the Dharma.”
The following main doctrines constitute the substance of his teachings:
The Four Noble Truths or the Arya Satya
In his enlightenment, Buddha discovered the real causes of the miseries of human existence. He also discovered the way to escape from those miseries which followed endlessly on the wheel of Karma, birth and rebirth. These discoveries were called the Four Noble Truths.
The first truth was the Truth of Pain or Sorrow. “Birth is pain, old age is pain, sickness is pain, death is pain.” felt Buddha. Everything in the world was transient, sorrowful and full of pain. The existence of this sorrow was in the nature of life.
The second truth, according to Buddha, was the Truth of the Cause of Pain or Sorrow. This cause was the Desire. The desire or the Trishna was the lust and the thirst for all worldly things. It was the root of all evils leading to pain.
The third truth was the Truth to end the Pain or Sorrow. This end or cessation of pain was possible by ending desires. Elimination of desires was to lead to the end of sorrows. Perfect bliss was to follow the end of the sorrows. It was like the end of life and death. It was real freedom or emancipation.
The fourth truth was the Truth to End the Desires. This was possible by a noble way to attain real bliss without desires. Extreme penance was not necessary for this, while extreme pleasure was unnecessary by all means. Avoiding both was the noble middle path which was the right way to end the Desires. This path was to lead to the real state of freedom or emancipation. Buddha described this path as the Arya Astangika Marga or the Noble Eightfold path. This Path was the real path to end the cycle of Karma and the rebirth.
The Noble Eight-fold Path
Buddha gave eight principles to follow as his noble eight-fold path. They were: the Right Vision, Right Aims, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Efforts, Right Mindfulness, and Right Meditation.
By right vision or views, Buddha meant that man should realise how sorrowful was this world for man’s greed, desires and selfishness. A man should, therefore, rise above for a new vision for his own happiness and for the happiness of all. By right aims or aspirations, man should not run behind his power and wealth and should not run for passion, pleasures and enjoyment. Instead, he should aim at loving other fellow men and giving them happiness. By right speech, man should give up falsehood, lies, criticism of others and quarrels which spoil the peace of others and of the society.
Instead, a man should be truthful in his words and friendly and kind in his talks. By right action or conduct, man should avoid violence and killing, give up harmful acts like theft, and stealing, and instead could work for the good of all in a virtuous way. By right livelihood, Buddha advised the man to live by harmless means, not by selling or taking wine or butchering animals for himself or others.
Instead, he should live an honest and simple life for peace within and peace outside. By right effort or exertion, Buddha meant a correct discipline in mind and action not for any evil thought or practice but for a proper exercise towards all that was good. The man was asked to give up evil designs from his thought and to develop nobler feelings for better efforts.
By right mindfulness or awareness, Buddha wanted man to be conscious of the unrealities of his existence, the unrealities of the body and the bodily pleasures, and the meaninglessness of worldly bonds and attachments. Instead, he was to search for real happiness beyond the flesh and material existence, which had no substance. Finally, by right meditation or contemplation, Buddha wanted man to concentrate his mind on the real truth of existence. It was necessary for the discipline and training of the mind towards a higher goal.
The Noble Eightfold Path was thus a code of conduct for every man. It became the basis of Buddhism as a religion. It was a religion for the social happiness of all. Buddhism has been rightly described as ‘the most social of religions.
Buddha was born into Sanatan Dharma milieu. He was educated in the philosophies of Vedas and Upanishads and taught the laws laid down in Sastras. He absorbed the values of the society he grew up in. It is not surprising, therefore, that when he revolted against established norms, he would not set his face against dharma; instead, what he propagated was a much-needed reformation and showed the people yet another way of interpreting the world and how to live in it. He left his family and a world of power and wealth behind to seek enlightenment, exactly as the rishis had done in the past and will do again. It is also significant that he was not put to death, nor did he have to establish his dhamma by warfare. Instead, he was accepted as a great teacher and finally found his place among the Avatar pantheon. Just as Vishnu embodied himself as Ramachandra to teach what it means to be Maryada Purushottam, so too Buddha was incarnated to focus on compassion/ Karuna. But this is not one-sided. All Hindu gods find their place in the Buddhist heavens. According to The Lankavatara Sutra, chapter 12, Buddha had declared that people worship him differently — as Bramha, Vishnu, Rama, Indra, Varuna and according to tale no 461 of The Jatakas, Buddha stated that at previous birth, he himself was Rama. If Buddha and Rama are incarnations of each other, then there can be no conflict among their worshippers, and in reality, there is not. Indic traditions cannot be sharply separated from each other nor regarded as a kind of class conflict.
The larger point of peaceful co-existence becomes stronger when we look at the countries where Buddhism is the majority religion, or a substantial population follows Buddhism. Yet there is no conflict with religions native to them, even if those countries are far distant. For example, China’s indigenous philosophy of Taoism and the Chinese folk gods, Japanese Shinto religion with its rich mythology, as old as Japanese culture itself, has blended harmoniously with Buddhism, So too in Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Mongolia, Vietnam, Java, Indonesia, Malaysia. This is because the native ways of living and worshipping – before the coming of Semitic religions — were inclusivist and more in tune with Sanatan Dharma. Interesting also to note that where Buddha went, so too went Rama! All over Asia, Ramayana is retold and performed in varying forms, the story of Rama providing a unifying connection of cultures. In fact, the national epic of Thailand is Ramakien, and the king’s official title is Rama because Rama is the ideal king. Thus even in lands far away from India, another version of Sanatan Dharma flourishes intertwined with Rama, the avatar and hero.
Buddha is not someone divorced from Sanatan Sanskriti, nor is Buddhism an isolated phenomenon that suddenly sprang up in India and travelled out like commodity export. Buddhism and Hinduism are simply two aspects of the same way of living and practising self-realisation.
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Krishna Gopal (2011) Bharat ki Sant Parampara Aur Samrasata, Madhya Pradesh Hindi Granth Academy, Bhopal
Narad Mahather(1998) Buddha and his Teachings, Budha Education Foundation, Taipei, Taiwan