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A Brief History of Buddhism

Almost three thousand years ago, there was a young prince that had everything his heart could desire. Surrounded by luxury, beauty, and loved ones, he was sheltered from the cold, cruel world that lay outside…the world of sickness, old age and death. According to the legend, on his travels from the palace, he would meet an old man, a sick man, and a corpse. The existence of these phenomena was so contrary to everything he was brought up to believe, that he was thrown into a philosophical quandary from which he could not emerge. So he left his life of luxury and wealth to find the answers to the questions of existence.

For six years, he starved himself, studied with gurus, and practiced yoga but to no avail. In order to understand the lessons of Buddhism, we must learn about India, the culture that spawned this school of thought. To expose the revolutionary nature of the Buddhist doctrine, we must explore the guidelines of traditional religion and show how far Buddhism departs from this model. According to religious scholar Huston Smith, there are six aspects of religion: authority (both divine and human), ritual, speculations ore actual answers to the “BIG QUESTIONS” of existence, a solid basis in tradition, grace, and mystery.

We find that Buddhism lives up to none of the above “common elements of religion. ” First, Buddhism is completely devoid of authority. In a culture whose caste structures are as fluid as lead, spiritual authority was granted to a select group of Brahmins. Only they could be “liberated” from the karmic wheel of birth and death because the religious caste contains the most evolved souls in existence. Instead, the Buddha challenges individuals to seek their own spiritual path and liberation, even if a person’s station in life lies among the “untouchables. ” Secondly, Buddhism never encouraged ritualism.

According to the Buddha, these ceremonies were simply a distraction from the more important work of reducing the ego and attaining liberation. In fact, he argued “belief in the efficacy of rites and ceremonies is one of the Ten Fetters that bind the human spirit. ” Third, the Buddha never pontificated on the “Big Questions. ” He would rather his disciples spend time in active practice than endless contemplation that in his opinion leads to nowhere.

Most Indian Philosophy, however, concerned itself with the nature of the Self and the nature of reality. Fourth, there was no rich lineage to grant it legitimacy—i. e. , no tradition, which was quite congruent with his initial rejection of a higher authority, human or divine. He also rejected the doctrine of divine grace, believing each person had to take his salvation into his own hands. “Those who, relying upon themselves only, shall not look for assistance to any one besides themselves, it is they who shall reach the topmost height. ” Finally, Buddha did not emphasize the supernatural in his teachings though he knows that the human mind is capable of great things. He believed that strong attention to the supernatural presented a dangerous distraction.

Politically, Buddhism supported a ruler (dhammaraja) grounded in the principles of the Dharma and supported by the monastic community. Ashoka, one of the most powerful rulers in India during the third century B. C. E> converted to Buddhism and carved his vision in stone as the “operative principles of the politics of enlightenment. ” These principles included individual transcendentalism, non-violence, compassionate welfare policies, and political decentralization. With such egalitarian, and compassionate policies, it is no wonder why many people in the lower social orders were so quick to embrace Buddhism.

Now, this paper will explore the social influence of Buddhism in Indian Culture. A Brief History of Indian Thought Indian thought is said to have four major periods of development up to the time of its serious decline about 1700 C. E. : the Vedic Period (2500-600 B. C. E. ), the Epic Period (600 B. C. E. -200 C. E. ), the Sutra Period (200 C. E. -1700), and the Scholastic Era from 1700-Present. For most of Indian History, the dominant philosophy found its roots in Hinduism. The Laws of Manu (Manusmirti) was the “official rulebook” of Orthodox Hindus. It contained a four-fold approach to life.

There were four stages in life, each lasting approximately 25 years: that of student, householder, the forest dweller and the wandering ascetic. Likewise, there are four aims in life that usually corresponds to each stage: dharma (righteousness), artha (wealth), kama (enjoyment), and moksha (spiritual liberation). The greatest area of contention among modern scholars today is that of caste or varna. Not surprisingly, there are also four castes: the Brahmins (religious caste), kshatriyas (warrior caste), vaisyas (the merchant caste), and the sudras (the working caste).

The standards of behavior for each stage of life and each caste are outlined quite clearly. Failure to live up to these often harsh standards lead to expulsion from one’s community, “By selling flesh, salt , and lac, a Brahmin at once becomes an outcaste; by selling melk he becomes equal to a sudra… punishment alone governs all created beings, punishment alone protects them, punishment watches over them while they sleep; the wide declare punishment to be identical with the law. If punishment is properly inflicted after due consideration, it makes all people happy; but inflicted without consideration, it destroys everything.

” The threat of horrible re-births, execution, or social censure was enough to keep most people in line, yet it was not enough for the revolutionary Siddhartha Gautama. While the notion of “untouchability” had fallen apart after Mahatma Ghandi freed India from colonialism, the caste system remains to this day. Indian personal ads request information about caste along with profession, height, weight, and age. The Dalits in India, formerly declared untouchable, have tired of this unfair treatment and are turning to Buddhism because there is no doctrinaire basis for social discrimination.

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