The Buddha (‘the enlightened one’) lived in what must have been one of the most exciting and extraordinary times in history—the 6th century and 5th century BC. In the Ganga valley, while some reaped the fruits of increasing urban prosperity, others turned their back on material acquisitions and pleasures. Questioning, debating, philosophising and renunciation were in the air. Wanderers in search of truth defined the age.
Later legends give us an outline of the Buddha’s life. He was born Siddhartha, son of Suddhodana, chief of the Sakya clan, who ruled from Kapilavastu. His mother, Maya, gave birth in a grove at Lumbini, dying soon thereafter. Siddhartha lived a princely life for some years, got married (to Yashodhara) and had a son (Rahula); but he was racked with a deep dissatisfaction and eventually left his palace home.
After many years spent engaging with other thinkers, practising austerities and meditating, Siddhartha attained enlightenment under a pipal tree at Bodhgaya. He gave his first sermon in a deer-park outside Banaras at Sarnath. He moved around, explaining, arguing, teaching, for many decades. He died at the ripe old age of 80 at Kusinara.
These are the bare bones of the life of a man whose philosophy was to have a powerful impact on the culture of India, Asia, and beyond. At the heart of the Buddha’s doctrine was a diagnosis and a cure for the problem of human suffering. His four noble truths are: there is suffering; it has a cause; it can be removed; the way to remove it is by following the eight-fold path. This path, a middle path between extreme indulgence and extreme asceticism, includes right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. The Buddha accepted transmigration and karma, but rejected the idea of any eternal entities such as the soul. Was his a pessimistic or a realistic doctrine? It depends on how you look at it.
The ultimate goal of the Buddha’s teaching was the attainment of nibbana —the extinction of desire, attachment, greed, hatred, ignorance and sense of ego. It could be attained in this life-time, as the Buddha and some of his followers did. The Buddha was pragmatic and recognised that people had different aspirations and capabilities. So to householders, he offered a code of conduct emphasising virtuous living and social ethics, which included an emphasis on nonviolence. (This did not necessarily entail vegetarianism.)
Although he was concerned with the inner rather than the outer world, the Buddha’s thought had an important social dimension and impact. Social reform was not part of his agenda, but his ideas were progressive by the standards of his time. He challenged the authority of the Brahmanas and said that there was no point in performing sacrifices (yajnas). His assertion that anyone, high or low, man or woman, could attain liberation was radical. He was a charismatic thinker and teacher and struck a powerful chord among many social groups. When the Buddha spoke, kings listened. The impact of his ideas lasted beyond his lifetime because he created an institution—the sangha—a monastic order open to men as well as women (the latter, apparently reluctantly included).
The Buddha’s ideas inspired ancient kings like Ashoka. But there was never a Buddhist state in India. Monasteries mushroomed all over the subcontinent, largely on the basis of non-royal support. Some of the finest Indian art—for instance, of Mathura, Gandhara, Amaravati, Ajanta, and Ellora—was inspired by the Buddha and Buddhism.
Buddhism declined but never disappeared from India. The Buddha’s ideas continued to have a powerful latent impact, especially in the 20th century. There are two important reasons for the Buddha’s continued and continuing relevance. He talked about perennial problems of human existence; and his thought could be mined for a variety of ethical concepts, especially nonviolence, compassion and egalitarianism. This is why his ideas were an inspiration to many, including Jawaharlal Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar, both of whom understood them very differently. In fact, the ‘Buddhisms’ that we see in the world today are in many ways quite different from the voice of the Buddha that we hear in the earliest texts.
Upinder Singh is professor of history in the University of Delhi.
Jainism is much older than Buddhism. Mahavira, the last (24th) in a long line of Jaina tirthankaras (saints) was born Vardhamana, in an aristocratic Kshatriya family at Kundagrama near Vaishali. Mahavira taught detachment and renunciation to those who wanted liberation from the cycle of rebirth. For the rest, there was an ethical code, a modified version of the one followed by monks and nuns. Nonviolence was an important part of this code, and the Jains followed this principle with greater ardour than any other Indian religion. Their belief in nonviolence stems from a unique understanding of the relationship between human beings and nature. Apart from humans, animals and plants are sentient; earth, water, fire and air too contain sentient beings. Harming them must be avoided. Injuring living beings causes suffering to the victim as well as to the person who causes the injury. Jainism also has an interesting, almost post-modern philosophy that since reality has infinite aspects, knowledge of it is relative.