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All you need to know about the birth of Buddhism


Initially, Buddhism was a reform movement that emerged as a reaction to the alliance of the Brahmins and the kshatriya during the Late Vedic period. Its principal figure was Gautama Buddha who is thought to have lived and taught mainly in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent. It is on his teachings that Buddhism was based.

Born Siddhartha Gautama in Lumbini in modern-day Nepal, he lived sometime between the sixth and the fourth centuries – there is still much debate about the exact dates. He was born a kshatriya, son of a clan chief, Suddhodana. At sixteen, he married a cousin of the same age and they had a son named Rahula (born c. 534 BC). Siddhartha would spend the next thirteen years living as a prince but eventually he ventured out into the world and, disheartened by what he found, adopted the life of an ascetic.

He began this new chapter of his life by begging and, for six years, in the company of five other ascetics who would become his followers, he experimented unsuccessfully with various paths to enlightenment. One day he sat down under a papal tree, now known as the Bodhi tree, having sworn a vow not to rise until he had the answers to all his questions. He is said to have meditated under the tree for 49 days but at the end of it, he had freed himself from samsara, the endless cycle of re-birth, and achieved Enlightenment, finally recalling his past lives and understanding what kept people tied to the cycle ofrebirth. From then on, he was known as the ‘Buddha’ (He Who Is Awake).

A short history of India book coverBuddha was initially hesitant about teaching what he had learned, believing it could not be expressed in words, but not long after his enlightenment he preached his first sermon, the Dharma-cakra-pravartana Sutra to the five colleagues who had rejected him. They became his first disciples. The Buddha continued teaching for the remaining 45 years of his life, travelling around northeast India. At the age of 80, he fell ill and died near the small town of Kusinagara in Malla (modernday Uttar Pradesh).

After the death of the Buddha, a council of 500 Buddhist monks was convened with the aim of ensuring the preservation of his teachings and the codification of monastic rules. At a second gathering, however, in the fourth century BC, a dispute arose that led to a schism. One group, the Sthavira nikaya argued for the retention of the ascetic model for monks – the Sangha – while another group, the Mahasanghika, argued for greater accommodation of lay members and for the Sangha to be widened to include Buddhist disciples who were not monks. This latter movement became known as Mahayana (the ‘Great Vehicle’) and the other side of the argument was called Hinayana (the ‘Small Vehicle’). Not only would this difference of opinion be critical for the development of both Buddhist and Hindu philosophy; it would also contribute to the decline of Buddhism in India, some scholars contending that many Buddhist practices were absorbed by the tolerant Hindu faith.

Extracted from his brilliantly concise book, ‘A Short History of India’. Buy it at Amazon.

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