THE PLACE OF ORIGIN
OF BUDDHISM - INDIA
There are two general approaches to reach a full understanding of Buddhism.
One is an analytical method to study the theories and practices of the
Buddha's teachings, which have been covered briefly in previous
chapters. The other is a historical approach to examine the life of the
founder of Buddhism, and the development of Buddhism in our world.
When we try to understand Buddhism, we have to know about the founder of
Buddhism, whether his life was real in history, whether he attained the
perfection in personality, whether he was pure in his own nature, whether he
was enlightened with supreme wisdom, whether he was completely liberated from
suffering, whether he was respectful for us to follow, whether his teaching
benefited us to attain ultimate happiness, etc.
Buddhism was founded by Shakyamuni Buddha who was a human being in ancient
India 2,500 years ago. In order to have a clear understanding of Buddhism,
one must have knowledge about the political, cultural, philosophical
and religious background of India at the time of Shakyamuni Buddha.
29.1 The Political & Cultural Background
of Ancient India
The culture of ancient India originated from the Aryan people of central Asia
around 3,000 years ago, known as the Vedic period. During the Vedic period,
the Aryans defeated the native Indians, the Dravidians, and enslaved them.
They also established a caste system in which the status and occupation
of a person were determined by birth.
The four castes were determined as follows:
- Brahmans (the priests) - the highest caste responsible for
religious rituals, prayers, and education. They claimed that they were gods
- Kshatriyas (royal families) - warriors to protect and govern the
land. Educated by Brahmans, they were constrained to obey Brahman's
- Vaishyas (farmers, manufacturers and businessman) - controlled and
protected by Kshatriyas.
- Sudras (slaves) - Dravidians. Not treated as human beings, but can
be traded as products. They worked like cattles and horses.
The first three castes were of Aryan blood. Only the Brahmans were pure Aryan
blood, and the other castes were mixed. Sudras were not allowed to
have Vedic religion.
Shakyamuni Buddha was born in a society of extreme caste system. He was classified
to be Kshatriyas. However, he never suppressed people with his power.
On the contrary, he challenged the caste system and put forth the
doctrines of kindness, compassion and equality. One of the Ten Great
Disciples of Shakyamuni, Upali, was a barber from the Sudras caste.
Shakyamuni was really a remarkable revolutionary.
In history, revolutions are usually initiated by people of lower class.
However, Shakyamuni left his royal family, and sought for the truth in order
to save the people from suffering. Moreover, many revolutionaries fight to
reform others. However Shakyamuni asked us to reform ourselves. He knew
that self was the cause of ignorance and affliction, leading to the suffering
of birth and death. Shakyamuni was an ultimate revolutionary because he broke
up the traditions of pursuing the pleasure of the Five Desires, attained the
highest wisdom and freedom, and liberated human beings from sufferings.
29.2 The Philosophical and Religious
Background of Ancient India
In ancient India, the bibles of Brahmans dictated the philosophical
and religious thoughts, which were regarded as Sruti, i.e. the absolute
truths originated from the holy god. There were four volumes, called
Veda (i.e. knowledge):
- Samhita - consists of four sections, with poems, songs, rituals, mandra, etc.
- Upanisads - the treatise about man and universe, sophiscated exposition of
the Indian philosophy and metaphysics.
This era was known as the Vedic period in India.
Just before Shakyamuni was born, the cultural centre in India had just moved
from the upper Indus River southeastward to the upper and middle of the
Ganges, where Shakyamuni lived and preached.
At that time, there was a number of powerful kings struggling for
supremacy. As political system was undergoing reform and economy was
becoming prosperous, human thinking grew in sophistication. They had
doubts whether human happiness and sufferings simply relied on gods
or religious offerings dominated by the Brahmans. They began to believe
that good/evil acts of the individual determined the reward/punishment.
This gave rise to a belief in the Law of Cause and Effect, and the
Law of Karma. It was actually the philosophy of the Upanishads and
finally became a common feature of all Indian philosophy and religion.
Another feature of the philosophy of Upanishads was the belief that
individual self (Atman) and the universal self (Brahma) were of the
same nature. According to this doctrine, people were bound to an everlasting
cycle of birth and death, provided that they were still governed by
the Law of Cause and Effect and the Law of Karma. Ultimate true happiness
was attained only if the cycle of birth and death was broken and the
ideal realm uniting Atman and Brahma was attained. Thus, meditation
and asceticism system were developed.
Similar doctrines of Upanishadic philosophy were adopted by Buddhism, e.g.
the Law of Cause and Effect in the three worlds (past, present and
future), the Law of Karma, the concept of transmigration, etc. However,
Buddhism goes further to teach that people can escape from the cycle
of birth and death, and enter the tranquil realm of Nirvana, where
Karma no longer exists.
29.3 The demand of new religions
At the time of Shakyamuni, the Upanishadic philosophy was regarded as a secret,
and was only taught by Brahmans amongst themselves. Kshatriyas (royal
clan) and Vaishyas (ordinary citizens) who wanted to know about the
human existence had to seek for wisdom and enlightenment on their
own. Those people were known as Samanas. Comparing to the Brahmans,
Samanas were generally more respected by the people as they renunciated
their belongings and families, and concentrated their effort in the
pursuit of spiritual culmination through self experience. Nevertheless,
some of the Samanas were too superstituous and extreme in tormenting
The unorthodox Samanas did not follow the Brahman's teachings, but established
their own theories. There were several major schools amongst the Samanas,
i.e. the unorthodox seekers of truths:
- Nihilists - who denied everything, including Karma, parents, good
and evil, cause and effect, etc.
- Materialists - who rejected any kind of spiritual existence, and
only accepted the existence in material form.
- Fatalists - who believed that Karma dictated life, thus efforts
could not alter the preordained situation.
- Skeptics - who doubted the existence of truth, thus refused any
judgments on good and evil.
Between the two extremes of philosophical thoughts in Samanas, there came
two new religions called Jainism and Buddhism. The major similarities
of the two are:
- The founder - both founders belonged to the royal clans. Shakyamuni
was the founder of Buddhism and Nataputta was the founder of Jainism.
The former was from the royal clan of Shakyas tribe, while the latter
was from the royal clan of Nata tribe.
- Atheism - both are non-materialistic atheism.
However, the fate of Jainism and Buddhism was different. Buddhism was first
merged by Hinduism and later was destructed by Islam in India. However,
Jainism is still alive today in India. In the area around Bombay, there are
about 1.5 million Jainists, who are mainly traders and merchants with great
economic power. Though there is no Buddhism in India, Buddhism is widely
spread all over the world nowadays with disciples over 500 million, and is one
of the largest international religions.
29.4 Family Background of Shakyamuni
At the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, India was divided politically into 16 major
states, all of which were struggling for supremacy.
The state of the Shakya tribe, in which Shakyamuni was born, was
not one of the 16 major states. The Shakya state was under the power
and influence of Kosala, one of the four greatest states (i.e. Kosala,
Magadha, Vansa & Avanti).
Since the Shakyas had moved to the region at the foothills of the Himalayas
from the central part of India several generations before the birth of
Shakyamuni, they were already an established wealthy royal clan. The Shakya
state was small and remote, and was a council-system republic ruled by the
aristocratic class of the Shakya tribe.
At the time of Shakyamuni's birth, his father Suddhodana was elected
to be the king of the state by the 500 families of the Shakya clan.
As the most outstanding family in the tribe, the Gotama, Shakyamuni's
family, owned the fortified country of Kapilavatthu, which was also
The mother of Shakyamuni was Maya, who was the princess of the royal clan
called Koliya. The kings of the Koliya and Shakyas were brothers,
and the families were inter-married. Indeed, Yasodhana, who was to
become the wife of Shakyamuni, was also a princess of the Koliya royal
Shakyamuni Buddha was born in Lumbini Garden, which lay between the states of
the Shakyas and the Koliyas, while his mother was on the way to give birth to
Shakyamuni in her own family home.