Buddhism began with the life of Siddhartha Gautama (ca. 563-483 B.C.),
a prince from the small Shakya Kingdom located in the foothills of
the Himalayas in Nepal.
Brought up in luxury, the prince abandoned his home and wandered forth
as a religious beggar, searching for the meaning of existence. The
stories of his search presuppose the Jain tradition,
as Gautama was for a time a practitioner of intense austerity, at one
point almost starving himself to death. He decided, however, that self-torture
weakened his mind while failing to advance him to enlightenment and
therefore turned to a milder style of renunciation and concentrated
on advanced meditation techniques.
Eventually, under a tree in the forests of Gaya (in modern Bihar),
he resolved to stir no farther until he had solved the mystery of existence.
Breaking through the final barriers, he achieved the knowledge that
he later expressed as the Four Noble Truths: all of life is suffering;
the cause of suffering is desire; the end of desire leads to the end
of suffering; and the means to end desire is a path of discipline and
Gautama was now the Buddha, or the awakened one, and he spent the
remainder of his life traveling about northeast India converting large
numbers of disciples. At the age of eighty, the Buddha achieved his
final passing away (parinirvana ) and died, leaving a thriving
monastic order and a dedicated lay community to continue his work.
The Buddha accepted or reinterpreted the basic concepts of Hinduism,
such as karma, samsara,
dharma, and moksha, but he generally refused to commit himself to specific
metaphysical theories. He said they were essentially irrelevant to
his teachings and could only distract attention from them. He was interested
in restoring a concern with morality to religious life, which he believed
had become stifled in details of ritual,
The Four Noble Truths summarize the Buddha's analysis of the human
situation and the solution he found for the problems of life.
The first truth is that life, in a world of unceasing change, is inherently
imperfect and sorrowful, and that misery is not merely a result of
occasional frustration of desire or misfortune, but is a quality permeating
The second truth is that the cause of sorrow is desire, the emotional
involvement with existence that led from rebirth to rebirth through
the operation of karma.
The third truth is that the sorrow can be ended by eliminating desire.
The fourth truth sets forth the Eightfold Path leading to elimination
of desire, rebirth, and sorrow, and to the attainment of nirvana or
nibbana (see Glossary), a state
of bliss and selfless enlightment. It rejoins right or perfect understanding,
aspiration, speech, action, livelihood, effort, thought, and contemplation.
By the third century B.C., the still-young religion based on the Buddha's
teachings was being spread throughout South Asia through the agency
of the Mauryan
Empire. By the seventh century A.D., having spread throughout East
Asia and Southeast Asia, Buddhism probably had the largest religious
following in the world.
For centuries Indian
royalty and merchants patronized Buddhist monasteries and raised
beautiful, hemispherical stone structures called stupas over the
relics of the Buddha in reverence to his memory.
Since the 1840s, archaeology has revealed the huge impact of Buddhist
art, iconography, and architecture in India. The monastery complex
at Nalanda in Bihar, in ruins in 1993, was a world center
for Buddhist philosophy and religion until the thirteenth century.
But by the thirteenth century, when Turkic invaders destroyed the
remaining monasteries on the plains, Buddhism as an organized religion
had practically disappeared from India.
It survived only in Bhutan and
Sikkim, both of which were then independent Himalayan kingdoms; among
tribal groups in the mountains of northeast India; and in Sri Lanka.
The reasons for this disappearance are unclear, and they are many:
shifts in royal patronage from Buddhist to Hindu religious
institutions; a constant intellectual struggle with dynamic Hindu intellectual
schools, which eventually triumphed; and slow adoption of popular religious
forms by Buddhists while Hindu monastic communities grew up with the
same style of discipline as the Buddhists, leading to the slow but
steady amalgamation of ideas and trends in the two religions.
Buddhism began a steady and dramatic comeback in India during the
early twentieth century, spurred on originally by a combination of
European antiquarian and philosophical interest and the dedicated activities
of a few Indian devotees. The foundation of the Mahabodhi Society (Society
of Great Enlightenment) in 1891, originally as a force to wrest control
of the Buddhist shrine at Gaya from the hands of Hindu
managers, gave a large stimulus to the popularization of Buddhist philosophy
and the importance of the religion in India's past.
A major breakthrough occurred in 1956 after some thirty years of Untouchable,
or Dalit (see Glossary), agitation
when Bhimrao Ramji (B.R.) Ambedkar, leader of the Untouchable wing
within the Congress (see Glossary),
announced that he was converting to Buddhism as a way to escape from
the impediments of the Hindu caste
system. He brought with him masses of Untouchables--also known
as Harijans (see Glossary) or
Dalits--and members of Scheduled Castes (see Glossary),
who mostly came from Maharashtra and border areas of neighboring states
and from the Agra area in Uttar Pradesh.
By the early 1990s, there were more than 5 million Buddhists in Maharashtra,
or 79 percent of the entire Buddhist community in India, almost all
recent converts from low castes. When added to longtime Buddhist populations
in hill areas of northeast India (West Bengal, Assam, Sikkim, Mizoram,
and Tripura) and high Himalayan valleys (Ladakh District in Jammu and
Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and northern Uttar Pradesh), and to the
influx of Tibetan Buddhist refugees who
fled from Tibet with
the Dalai Lama in 1959 and thereafter, the recent converts raised the
number of Buddhists in India to 6.4 million by 1991. This was a 35.9
percent increase since 1981 and made Buddhism the fifth largest religious
group in the country.
The forms of Buddhism practiced by Himalayan communities and Tibetan
refugees are part of the Vajrayana, or "Way of the Lightning Bolt," that
developed after the seventh century A.D. as part of Mahayana (Great
Path) Buddhism. Although retaining the fundamental importance of individual
spiritual advancement, the Vajrayana stresses the intercession of bodhisattvas,
or enlightened beings, who remain in this world to aid others on the
path. Until the twentieth century, the Himalayan kingdoms supported
a hierarchy in which Buddhist monks, some identified from birth as
bodhisattvas, occupied the highest positions in society.
Most other Buddhists in India follow Theravada Buddhism, the "Doctrine
of the Elders," which traces its origin through Sri Lankan and Burmese
traditions to scriptures in the Pali language, a Sanskritic dialect
in eastern India. Although replete with miraculous events and legends,
these scriptures stress a more human Buddha and a democratic path toward
enlightenment for everyone. Ambedkar's plan for the expanding Buddhist
congregation in India visualized Buddhist monks and nuns developing
themselves through service to others. Convert communities, by embracing
Buddhism, have embarked on social transformations, including a decline
in alcoholism, a simplification of marriage ceremonies and abolition
of ruinous marriage expenses, a greater emphasis on education, and
a heightened sense of identity and self-worth.
this content is derived in part or whole from the
U.S. Library of Congress Country Studies