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Ancient History / Pre-Mauryan Era

History of Buddhism in India and its Philosophies

History of Buddhism in India dates back to Pre Mauryan era when the founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha was born. According to one tradition, he lived between 566 BC and 486 BC. The original name of Gautama Buddha is Siddhartha Gautama. He belonged to Shakya tribe. Hence, he is also known to be called Shakyamuni. His father is Suddhodana, the king of a small kingdom named Kapilavastu (right now located in Nepal) and his mother is Mahamaya. He is married to Yashodhara. Siddhartha's son was Rahula.

Philosophies of Buddhism

  • Gautama Buddha taught four noble truths namely, Dukkha (suffering), Samudaya (the cause of suffering), Nirodha (the end of suffering) and Marga (the path that leads to the end of suffering).

  • Buddha explained about Astangika Marga, an eightfold path, to become free from Samsara, which is nothing but endless cycle of rebirth. They are (i) Right speech, (ii) Right aim, (iii) Right action, (iv) Right efforts, (v) Right livelihood, (vi) Right vision, (vii) Right awareness and (viii) Right meditation.

  • He always taught the middle path and postulated to avoid extremes that is not to become too spiritualistic or too materialistic.

  • Pratityasamutpada, which actually means dependent origination, is a doctrine in Buddhism, which depicts the chain of causes leading to rebirth and Dukkha.

5 Important Events in Buddha's Life

There were 5 important events in the life history of Gautama Buddha that were responsible for the emergence of Buddhism in India. The five events are Birth, Mahabhinishkramana, Nirvana, Dhammachakraparivartan and Mahaparinirvana.

  • Birth (symbol - Lotus and Bull) - He was born under a Peepal tree at Lumbini. Siddhartha's mother died when he was an infant and he was brought up by his aunt Gautami Prajapati, who is the first woman to convert into Buddhism. In the early life of Gautama Buddha until the age of 29, he never came out of the house. At the age of 29, he saw 4 scenes, which disturbed him. They are (i) an old man, (ii) a sick man, (ii) a dead body and (iv) an ascetic person.

  • Mahabhinishkramana (symbol - Horse) - Channa was the officer who was always there with Siddhartha. Siddhartha left the palace with Channa and Kanthaka, Siddhartha's horse name. This stage is known as The Great Departure. For about 6 years Siddhartha roamed around here and there.

  • Nirvana (symbol - Bodhi or Pipal tree) - At Gaya, he underwent meditation for 49 days under a Bodhi tree. After that he got enlightened. This enlightenment is called Nirvana or Sambodhi. It indicates the third major event. Thathagata (attainer of truth) and Buddha were the names acquired after the enlightenment.

  • Dhammachakraparivartan (symbol - A wheel having 8 spokes) - This is the event where Buddha gave his first sermon (religious speech). From Gaya, he went to Sarnath ( outskirts of Varanasi ). In a deer park at Sarnath, Buddha gave his first sermon. It was attended by 5 disciples. Buddha was 35 years old at that time.

  • Mahaparinirvana (symbol - Stupa) - This event represents death of Buddha. He died at a place called Kusinara (Kushinagar) at an age of 80 years.

Types of Buddhist Architecture

  • Stupa is a Buddhist religious structure built on the relics (ashes) of Buddha.

  • Chaitya is the prayer hall or shrine with a Stupa at one end.

  • Vihara or Arama is the monastery or residence of Buddhist monks.

Buddhist Councils

In total, four Buddhist Councils were held in ancient times and two Theravada Buddhist Councils were held in recent times.

  • First Buddhist Council

    First Buddhist Council was presided by Mahakasyapa and was held in 483 BC at Rajagriha under the patronage of king Ajatashatru. The purpose of this council was to document the preachings of Buddha. This council adopted Sutta Pitaka written by Ananda containing all the preachings of Buddha and Vinaya Pitaka written by Upali containing code of conduct.

  • Second Buddhist Council

    Second Buddhist Council was presided by Sabakami and was held in 383 BC at Vaishali under the patronage of the king Kalashoka. The purpose of this council was to resolve the dispute between two groups of monks. In this council, schism happened for the first time in Buddhism. Reformist Sthaviras split from the conservative Mahasamghikas.

  • Third Buddhist Council

    Third Buddhist Council was presided by Moggaliputta Tissa and was held in the year 250 BC at Pataliputra under the patronage of Emperor Ashoka. The purpose of this council was to discuss various issues in Buddhism. In this council, Abhidamma Pitaka, the third part of Tripitakas was adopted. Buddhist missionaries are also formed through this council.

  • Fourth Buddhist Council

    Fourth Buddhist Council was presided by Vasumitra, assisted by Asvaghosa as his deputy and was held in 78 AD at Kundalavana in Kashmir under the patronage of king Kanishka. The purpose of this council to unite the 18 sects of Buddhism that were existing at that time. In this council, 18 sects were merged into two broader sects, namely Hinayana Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. It is a kind of union and not division.

  • Fifth Buddhist Council

    It was a Theravada Buddhist council. Mahinda, son of Emperor Ashoka, is credited with establishing Theravada sect of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, after which spread of Buddhism happened to South East Asia. This council was held in 1871 at Mandalay, Burma and was presided over by Mahathera Jagarabhivamsa, Narindabhidhaja, and Mahathera Sumangalasami under the patronage of King Mindon. In this council, it was decided that Tripitakas were to be engraved on 729 marble slabs in the Burmese script.

  • Sixth Buddhist Council

    It was also a Theravada Buddhist council. It was held in 1954 at Kaba Aye Pagoda in Yangon, the capital city of Burma. It was held under the sponsorship of Government of Burma led by the then Prime Minister U Nu. The outcome of this council was to print and publish all of the books of Tripitakas and their commentaries in the Burmese script.

Difference between Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism

  • Hinayanas are anti-changers and are traditional and follow the original path of Buddha. They followed Pali even though it disappeared by 1st Century AD. Hinayanas worshipped the symbols of Buddha. They avoided idolatry and image worship. But empty throne, horse without rider, umbrella without a man below it, etc. are being worshiped by Hinayanas.

  • Mahayanas are pro-changers and they are ready to accept the changes in the religion. They adopted Sanskrit by discarding Pali. All Mahayana texts were written in Sanskrit. Mahayanas worshiped idolatry (human form). In full-pledged manner, idolatry was started by Mahayanas in India. Mahayanas started making images of Bodhisatvas (previous births of Buddha).

    Some of the names of Bodhisatvas are Avalokiteswara or Padmapani, Manju Sri, Vajrapani, Amitavha, Padma Sambhava, Ratna Sambhava, Maitreya (Future Buddha), etc.

Vajrayana Buddhism

  • Vajrayana Buddhism was born in 5th century AD. In Vajrayanism, worship of Taras is important. Taras are the wives of Buddha and Bodhisatvas.

  • They argue that Tantrik (evil spirit) activity is the main thing for salvation. They also argue that sex is main thing for salvation. In Sangha (similar to Matha in Hindu religion), monks and nuns were allowed to live together to practice Brahmacharya. Sanghas became prostitute centers. To support this, they preached sex for salvation.

  • Idol worship is present in Vajrayana Buddhism.

  • Rise of Buddhism in India was very fast during the ancient period but because of Vajrayanism, there was decline of Buddhism in India. By 12th Century, Buddhism disappeared from India because of Vajrayana Buddhism. Vajrayanism is still followed in Tibet.