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Buddhism is the religion (some consider it a philosophy) based on the teachings of the ancient Indian sage Gautama Buddha.  Born as Prince Siddhartha Gautama in one of the northern kingdoms (now part of Nepal) around 2600 years ago, he was deeply saddened and depressed by sights of poverty and suffering of mankind. At the age of 29 he renounced his family and kingdom to seek the reasons for such sufferings and to find ways to end them.

He embarked on his quest for enlightenment in a rich religious milieu and an ancient religious heritage. The dominant religions at the time were Vedism (precursor of modern Hinduism) and Jainism. The concepts of Samsara (re-incarnation); Karma (causal effect of one’s deeds in the cycle of re-incarnation); and Dharma (religious and moral rights and duties of an individual) were universally accepted. Many of these precepts (with somewhat modified interpretations) found place in the teachings, through discourses (Suttas or Sutras), of the Buddha.

While no verifiable facts on the life of Siddhartha Gautama and his emergence as the Buddha exist, the first known biography, written in Sanskrit sometime in the first century BCE, is the ‘Buddhacharita’. Siddhartha, in the course of his quest, studied under many religious teachers and philosophers of the time without finding any answers. Subjecting himself to extreme asceticism also did not help. Finally, he sat under what is known as the Bodhi Tree in deep meditation, exploring the hidden nuances of the mind and the meaning of life and existence. The deep meditation led him to the ultimate realization of the nature of existence and he became known as the Buddha (the Awakened One) at the age of 35.  He postulated a set of doctrines whose practice leads a person to peace and spiritual emancipation or Nirvana (realization of the ultimate truth of existence which releases one from Samskara).  He advocated a ‘middle path’, between the extremes of self-indulgence (hedonism) and self- mortification (asceticism) for overcoming Samskara and attaining Nirvana.  Gautama Buddha is said to have died or attained Parinirvana (final Nirvana and freedom from re-birth) at the age of 80.

Buddhism may justifiably be called a “world’ religion of Asia. The religion was developed in India in the fifth century BCE and spread throughout south-east Asia, including Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, China, Korea and Japan and others, by around the eighth century CE. The religion became firmly established in Tibet, till recently the bastion of modern Buddhism, only around the eleventh century CE.  In the West, Buddhism, which was probably known from the time of Alexander the Great, has seen a resurgence of interest in Westerners in recent times, due to the increasing presence of Asian immigrants. In India, its land of origin, Buddhism almost died out by the end of the first millennium CE due to the depredations of Muslim invaders and increasing assimilation into Hinduism. While there has been an upsurge in Buddhism in India - the Dalit (the lower-caste or so-called untouchables) neo-Buddhism movement) very recently, it is due more to certain socio-political reasons rather than pure religiosity.

As with all major religions, a certain amount of revisionism crept into Buddhism over time. The three major versions of Buddhism are Theravada Buddhism (‘the Speech of the Elders’), Mahayana Buddhism (‘The Great Vehicle’) and Vajrayana Buddhism (‘The Diamond Vehicle’). All three originally developed in India but underwent further revision in different host nations. While detailed discussions on the foreign mutations are beyond the scope of this article, examples are the ‘CHing-tu’ school of Buddhism in China and the Zen Buddhism of Japan.           

The Theravada version claims to follow the original teachings of Gautama Buddha. This form of Buddhism is predominant in Sri Lanka and South-east Asia and is sometimes called ‘Southern’ Buddhism.  The Mahayana form incorporates certain new texts which were also supposed to have originated with the Buddha. A new goal of attaining ‘Buddha-hood’ rather than mere Nirvana, introduces a radical concept of Gautama Buddha being one of a multiple set of incarnations of a cosmic Buddha. There appears to be influence of certain aspects of Hinduism in this form. The Mahayana flourished further in China, Japan and Korea and is sometimes called ‘Northern’ Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhism, the third major version also shows strong influence of Tantric Hinduism (an esoteric and ritualistic yoga-based process involving a partner of the opposite sex). This form of Buddhism has been preserved in Nepal and Tibet.

The original teachings of Gautama Buddha enshrined in his first sermon (termed the ‘First turning of the wheel of Dharma’) includes the Four Nobel Truths which are the fundamental tenets of all forms of Buddhism. An important Buddhist doctrine (directly contradicting the concept of the Atman or soul in Hinduism) is the negation of an under-lying ‘self’ and the concept of Unatman. A second notable doctrine is that what we consider ‘self’ which animates the body, is nothing but a variable combination of five aggregates, namely, the physical ‘form’, ‘feelings’, ‘discrimination’, ‘predispositions’ and ‘consciousness’; a  mere process. A third important doctrine is that all things, animate or inanimate, are changeable and impermanent (Anitya). A fourth important doctrine is that of ‘Dependant Origination’ which highlights that suffering arises from a series of related causal factors. 

The First Noble Truth postulates the universal nature of suffering; that all beings are afflicted with dissatisfaction and suffering (Duhkha).  There are various nuances of suffering, such as ‘obvious suffering’ like pain, sickness, death, grief. Partly responsible for such duhkha is our inability to appreciate the ‘unatman’ and trying to cling on to a non-existent ‘self’. A second type of suffering is the ‘suffering of change’, when failing to recognize the impermanence of things, we get attached. A third is the ‘pervasive suffering’ of recurring births related to Samsara, the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

The Second Noble Truth states that the suffering is not a pure fact of nature but has a cause. This cause is ‘craving’ or literally, ‘thirst’ (Tanha or Trishna); which could be sensual craving (Kama Tanha), existential craving (Bhava Tanha), or even craving for the cessation of one’s existence (Vibhava Tanha). Another very important aspect of ‘cause’ is the Buddhist principle of ‘Causal Interdependence’ known as ‘Dependent Origination’ cited above. In short, it states that all elements of the natural order, physical and meta-physical, are inextricably connected; disturbance in any one part will, inevitably, affect other parts.

The Third Noble Truth states that there is a way to overcome suffering; by attainment of Nirvana, when all suffering and its causes, such as craving, are ‘extinguished’. Though this explanation tends to give a negative connotation to ‘Nirvana’, the positive aspect of ‘Nirvana’ is absolute peace and happiness.

The Fourth Noble Truth states that Nirvana can be attained by following the ‘Middlepath’ or the ‘Eightfold Path’.

The Eightfold Path consists of eight steps or elements grouped under three basic headings. The elements, while being serially numbered, are mutually independent and may be taken up simultaneously. Under the first basic heading of ‘Wisdom’ (Prajna) are (1) right view and (2) right intention; under the second basic heading of ‘Ethical Conduct’ (Sila) are (3) right speech, (4) right action and (5) right livelihood; while under the third basic heading of ‘Mental Discipline’ (Samadhi) are (6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness and (8) right concentration. The ‘mental discipline’ refers to aspects of meditation and is dealt with in great detail in Buddhist scriptures. Further, in the context of the ‘Eightfold Path’, the word ‘right’ translated from the Sanskrit word ‘Samyanc’ (or ‘Samma’ in Pali), connotes more than the bare meaning of ‘right’, such as ‘perfect’ or ‘ideal’ and includes nuances of ‘completion, togetherness and coherence’.  The eight spokes of the symbolic Buddhist ‘Dharmachakra’ or ‘Wheel of Law’ depict individual steps of the ‘Eightfold Path’. A notable aspect of Buddhism is its emphasis on ‘Monasticism’ and the ‘Sangha’ as a central institution. While ‘Sangha’, in the Pali or Sanskrit languages stands for ‘Assembly’ or ‘Association’, in the context of Buddhism it predominantly refers to the ‘Monastic Sangha’ rather than the association of lay Buddhists. It has been traditionally believed by Buddhists that a monastery provides the proper environment for meditation and enlightenment.

While the Buddha has been assimilated into Hinduism as an incarnation of the Supreme Being (the tenth Avatar of Vishnu), there are significant differences between the two religions. Buddhism does not recognize the existence of an eternal soul (the Atman in Hinduism). While the ultimate aim of existential fulfillment in Hinduism is Moksha (liberation of the soul from the cycle of re-birth and merger with the Supreme God), Buddhism does not accept the existence of the soul.

Unlike some other major ‘world’ religions, Buddhism does not propound the existence of an anthropomorphic God; in fact, it does not even speculate whether God exists. Hence there is a view held in some quarters that Buddhism is an ‘Athiestic’ religion.


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