The period after the Epic Age or the Later Vedic Age (1000 BC-600 BC) was marked by the rise of numerous small republics and kingdoms. This period also saw the rise of tyranny of the upper castes and exploitation of the people belonging to the lower castes. Brahmins (priests) and Kshatriyas (rulers and warriors) did not allow the people belonging to lower castes or the Shudras and untouchables to have their say in the society. This period also saw a rift developing between the Brahmins on one hand and the Kshatriyas on the other.
Buddhism is one of the oldest religions in the world. Gautam Buddha (563 BC-483 BC) laid its foundation after he gained Enlightenment under a Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya. The preaching of Lord Buddha revolves around attaining salvation from worldly sufferings, universal brotherhood, peace and non-violence.
Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was born in 563 BC in the ruling Kshatriya family of the Lichhavi tribe in Lumbini, in the foothills of Nepal. His father was the chief of this tribe. It was prophesized that Gautama (who was named Siddharth) would become a saint and renounce the world. Therefore, his father took all possible care to keep Gautama in a palace full of luxuries and comfort.
However, Gautama was not satisfied with his materialistic surroundings, and one day, the young prince sneaked out of the palace in his chariot to see the outside world that was still unknown to him. He was shocked to see an old person, a sick man, and a funeral procession. His charioteer told him that all this was a part of life. Then Gautam saw a saint and was perplexed by the calmness on his face. The charioteer told him that the saint had renounced all materialistic things and therefore he was content and happy. This incident left an indelible mark on the mind of the young prince, and one night he left his beautiful wife and infant son and began his journey to attain the truth of life.
When Gautama left his palace, he was twenty-nine. He wandered from place to place and did heavy penances. He even went to the stage of putting his body to rigorous punishment. Gautama attained Enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree in a place called Bodhgaya (in the state of Bihar), at the age of thirty-five. After attaining Enlightenment, he came to be known as the Buddha (the Enlightened One). He preached his first sermon in a place called Sarnath, which is near Varanasi (Benaras). Gautama Buddha passed away at the age of 80 in Kushinagar near Gorakhpur (in the state of Uttar Pradesh).
TEACHINGS OF BUDDHA
Gautama Buddha discarded the Vedic Brahmanical system, which divided the society into various castes and further alienated the people from one another on the basis of their birth. He strongly opposed lengthy rituals, animal sacrifices and ceremonial worship. According to his doctrine, the existence of God is irrelevant. He laid emphasis on self-effort to attain salvation. He believed that the soul was immortal and attainment of Nirvana (salvation from materialistic life) was the chief object of each human being.
Gautam Buddha preached Four Noble Truths that form the basis of Buddhism:
- Life is full of suffering (dukkha);
- Suffering is caused by desire and craving;
- One can be free from this suffering by removing desire and craving;
- The way to eliminate desire and to get free from the cycle of birth and death is by following the Eight-Fold Path.
During the lifetime of Gautama Buddha, a large number of people became his followers and Buddhism became the state religion of a number of states like Magadh, Kosala and Kaushambi. Great kings like Ashoka (of the Mauryan dynasty) and Kanishka (Kushan dynasty) became Buddhist and they helped spread the sermon of Buddha far and wide through their kingdoms. King Ashoka is said to have built 84,000 stupas and a large number of rock edicts and pillars throughout his empire to preach the message of Buddhism. As Buddha preached his ideas through word of mouth, there were no Buddhist religious scriptures. Later on, his preachings were compiled into Buddhist canon in Pali language, which are also known as Tripitikas. By the second century AD, Buddhism was divided into two main branches-the Mahayana (greater vehicle) and the Hinayana (lesser vehicle). In the course of time, Buddhism became a major religion and spread through most parts of East Asia.