The Age of Buddha | Early Buddhism 1


The Cultural Conditions of Buddha's Time

The Buddha was born in the sixth century B.C. It was an age of spiritual restlessness and society was moving away fast from its old religious moorings.

The Vedic sacrifices demanded a strict conformity to the letters of the law more than the observance of the spirit of worship. Obedience to the Scriptures usurped the place of devotion to the gods.

The whole sacrificial cult became complicated, costly and uncertain of results owing to the possibility of formal lapses during the performance of a rite and naturally became the monopoly of those who could remember the minutiae of each type of sacrifice and recite the mantras faultlessly.

Sacrificial cruelty continued unabated and the rise of princely patrons possibly favoured the development of priestly greed to some extent.

The factors that acted adversely to the interest of an elaborate theology, complicated rituals and priestly ascendancy are the philosophical speculations that tended to introduce monotheistic and monistic thought,

the development of the practice of retirement to the forest towards the end of one’s life to meditate on and approach the divine without the aid of costly material sacrifices,

and the increased emphasis on self-knowledge, meditation and morality as the indispensable conditions of spiritual progress.

A re-orientation of the faith was necessitated probably by the impact of Śumeru-Dravidian culture of the Indus Valley and the need of cultural expansion beyond the early frontiers of Āryan domination towards the East and the South

where tribes of the hill and the forest lived and alternately opposed the extension of Āryan influence and imitated Āryan ways of thought and worship.

At this distance of time it is not possible to be positive about Āryan indebtedness to these earlier cultures of the land.

It has been conjectured that yogic meditation, ascetic habit and belief in transmigration may have come from non-Āryan sources as well as the development of the Śiva and, later, of the Śaktī cult.

The knowledge of Vedic theories and practices, as is to be found in early Buddhist literature, does not include detailed information on technical matters and may well have been gathered by an intelligent observation of popular beliefs and religious rites.

The attitude of literary Buddhism towards Vedism was generally one of ridicule. Criticism of Vedic practices had started earlier, in fact, for even the Upaniṣads belittled the efficacy of sacrificial rites and laid emphasis on knowledge of Reality as the best path of attaining a blessed hereafter—

a hereafter not patterned after the pleasant heavenly abode of the sacrificially correct but regarded as a painless state of existence,

a spiritual calm variously conceived but unanimously considered to be a result of strenuous moral endeavour and transcendence of the turmoil of sensuous life with its attractions and repulsions and tenacious clinging to the transitory things of the world.

Magadha, the Centre of Thought Ferment

This changed attitude was probably most accentuated in the region in which the Buddha and Mahāvīra lived, taught and died.

It is not a mere accident that the court of Magadha should be the hospitable home of Upaniṣadic speculations about the nature of Brahman and their generally adverse attitude towards the cult of sacrifice (karma-kāṇda).

In fact, the dissenters were very many and of diverse sorts, if the Brahmajāla-sūtra is to be our guide.

Apart from the six main heretical teachers (tīrthikas) from the Buddhist viewpoint, of whom Pūraṇa-Kassapa, Makkhali- Gosāla, Ajita-keśa-kambalin, Pakudha-Kaccāyana, Nigaṇṭha-Nātaputta and Sañjaya-Belaṭṭhaputta,

there were many others who were trying to find out a new approach to social, religious and philosophical problems, to disseminate their views far and wide by wandering from place to place and thereby to spread the contagion of doubt, disbelief and defection.

The wanderers (parivrājakas) cultivated detachment in worldly matters, but the more ambitious of them seem to have been critical of one another’s teachings and practices and made a bid for the leadership of men who had weighed or were tugging at the sheet anchor of their ancestral faith.

True, the older methods of austerity (tapas) and fire-sacrifice (yajña) had still a large following, but it is likely that these were being gradually outmoded as urban civilization began to spread.

And a new class-consciousness began to question the brāhmanic monopoly in spiritual matters by challenging the system of worship in which the brāhmaṇas were indispensable.

Naturally, persons and places that were less privileged in the realm of the old spirituality were the first to show signs of rebellion, and the hinterland of Āryandom, which was destined to be the field of the mis­sionary activity of Mahāvīra and the Buddha, seethed with spiritual dis­contents of diverse types.

The new wanderers, who belonged to all castes mostly passed into homeless state before paying the traditional debts to the gods, the sages and the ancestors.

What they aimed at was self-culture under the tutelage of a preceptor, who practically supplanted the gods; the method they adopted was developing a philosophy of their own regarding man, his duties and his destiny.

Buddha’s Quest for Truth

It is this brotherhood of monks that the Buddha joined after the Great Renunciation, and like many others he sought at first a teacher under whom he could practise meditation.

After accustoming himself to the life of a recluse at Anūpiya for a few days, he proceeded to Rajagriha (modem Rajgir), the Magadha’s capital, where Bimbisāra held his court and patronized the ascetic fraternity.

Thereafter he put himself successively under two renowned philosophical teachers of the neighbourhood—Ālāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta, both professing to solve the ills of life by trance or ecstatic meditation (samāpatti) of different depths,

in which the main objective was to transcend the consciousness of self, not-self and their distinction, and thereby to stop the flow of consciousness altogether—a stage which the Buddha claimed later to have reached.

We may well believe that his apprenticeship included introduction to the orthodox philosophies of the time as known to his teachers

and that these philosophies were predisposed towards the theoretical distinction between matter and spirit, as is to be found in Sāṁkhya philosophy of later times,

for instance, the practical exercise of controlling the body and expanding the spirit, as is to be found in later yogic prescriptions.

Certain it is that before the Buddha’s time Indian thought had been moving definitely towards ascetic ideals.

Naturally, sex came in for a severe castigation and sexual purity or chastity was equated to absolute dismissal of all thoughts, words and acts connected with sex and to the embracing of a homeless condition.

Diet control culminating in fasts, indifference to bodily comforts about sleep and rest, and clothing restric­tion, amounting even to complete nudity and the abjuration of animal food,

which was supposed to excite passions and create a habit of callous­ness to the sufferings of others, was adopted with greater or less strictness by the religious preachers of the time.

Buddha's Enlightenment

We may very well suppose that, failing to get what he wanted from his teachers, the Buddha turned to this ancient path of austerity to discover whether practical discipline could yield the secret of existence where ecstasy had failed.

Six years of effort, of which graphic description is put into his mouth in the Nikāyas, were followed by an intensification of the rigidity of ascetic practice

and a profounder exploration of the depths of the personality and the secrets of the universe through intense meditation, but excessive fasting so weakened him that he fell into a fainting fit.

He now discovered the futility of extreme asceticism and resumed his former diet though thereby he lost the allegiance of the five monks who left him. He tried his last and successful method of solving the riddles of existence.

He mastered all evil thoughts and dispositions and conquered desire (tṛṣṇā), attachment (rāga), and aversion (a-rati), he gained deeper and deeper insight into the mysteries of existence—first of self, then of human destiny in general and lastly of the universe as a whole.

He attained enlightenment and established his claim to be designated as the enlightened (Buddha) just as his fight against and conquest over temptation (Māra) entitled him also to be called hero (Vīra), and victor (Jina).

Thenceforward he was called Tathagata (one who has known things as they really are), or Arhat (the worthy).

It is evident that the Buddha did not question the validity of certain earlier ethic-religious beliefs and practices, and though he ultimately rejected some of them, a few he retained in his own system of thought and practice.

His New Discovery

What then was the distinctive discovery that the Buddha claimed to have made on that fateful night at Uruvela on the bank of the Nerañjarā?

Naturally we have to rely upon the Pali canon for our knowledge of what early Buddhism was and in it the discourses that profess to record the utterances of the Buddha himself at the beginning of his ministry,

e.g. the Dhamma-cakka-ppavattana-sutta, the Anattā-lakkhaṇa-sutta, and such other expositions.

Unfortunately the present Pali canon does not contain an unvarnished account of what the Buddha said and did, and embodies both earlier and later beliefs of the primitive Buddhist Community;

hence it is not easy to detach the authentic position of the master from the attitudes of the earlier disciples and the later editors of the three baskets (Tri-pitaka).

It is not unlikely either that the mind of the Buddha developed in course of time, or that gaps in his thought were filled up in response to the exigencies of his teaching and missionary life

and a system was evolved to connect disjointed utterances of earlier times or that within the frame­work of the essential viewpoint minor adoptions and adaptations were made to suit local needs,

or that elaborations had to be made in both theory and practice to provide for the understanding and discipline of an expanding Community,

and that different schemes had to be propounded to suit the intellectual capacity of his hearers or to serve the immediate need of the moment.

This led in later times to link in the Buddha’s teaching prajñā (wisdom) and upāya (mode)—matter and form of discourse.

But a prima facie case can be made out for the possibility or certainty of elaborations and inter­polations by a pious and superstitious clergy and laity, faced with superior claims advanced on behalf of rival prophets and determined to uphold the superiority of their own teacher to his rivals.

Though the canonical literature is not couched in the language of Magadha, which the Buddha probably spoke, but is in Pali, which is allied to the language of Avantī, a form of Śaurasenī Prākṛta,

yet we need not, as Oldenberg has remarked, put away every complex thought from Buddhism under the impression that the Buddha taught only simple things and no metaphysics.

If the Sarnath Sermon is to be our guide, we may take one point of the Buddha’s instruction as basic, namely, that just as there are ills (heya) and their causes (heya-hetu)  so also a cure (hāna) and a path thereto (hānopāya) exist,

similar to the case of physical malady (roga, roga-hetu, ārogya, bhaiṣajya)—the world “nidāna” or causative factor being used, in both the sciences of medicine and mental well-being, to designate the source of ill.

These four—duhkha (suffering), samudaya (cause), nirodha (sup­pression), and mārga (way), constitute the four Noble Truths (catvāri ārya-satyāni), without the acknowledgment of which spiritual quest would have no meaning.

If this is pessimism, it is tempered with the optimism that the ills of life are escapable, unless of course we choose not to seek the way to escape and follow the blind alley of ancestral practice or wrong contemporary teaching.

The suffering consists, not in the felt incon­veniences of life, but in life itself—old age, disease, decay and other unpleasant experiences and death

are only incidental to the fact of birth in the different forms of existence in the three realms of desire (kāma), form(rūpa),and  formlessness (a-rūpa)—hellish, animal, ghostly, demoniacal, human and divine, none of which is free from suffering,

though there is a fond popular belief that gods are eternal and ever happy, which is wrong in view of the fact that they too decay and are reborn on earth, where alone man is the only creature that can attain nirvana through spiritual insight and put an end to all ills.

But when we take up the second certainty we are faced with a great doubt.

Did the twelve-linked chain of causation, the twelve nidānas (causes) or the twelve-fold causal production or concatenation (pratītya-samutpāda) form an original part of the Buddha’s teaching?

Śāriputra became converted to Buddhism when Aśvajit (Assaji) told him that the Buddha had found out the cause of all transitory things and also how it could be suppressed—

a popular verse which was inscribed in many items of Buddhist sculpture at a later time (ye dhammā hetu-ppabhavā hetus- teṣām tathāgato hyavadad tasya yo nirodho evam avādi mahāśramaṇo).

It is also mentioned in the Majjhima-Nikāya that he who sees paticca-samuppāda (happening as causal) sees dhamma and vice versa,

and that dhamma means nothing more than the apprehension of the causal law that on the functioning and cessation of the cause depend respectively the emergence and disappearance of the effect.

Mrs. Rhys Davids strenuously combats the opinion that the Buddha was responsible for formulating this law of causation and thinks that he was pre-eminently a pathfinder and a guide:

“For he was the maker-to-arise of a Way not arisen, he was the maker- to-perceive of a Way unperceived, he was the declarer of a Way undeclared; he was the Way-knower, the Way-witter, the Way-master.”

He taught men how to exercise their will to become better and to realize the highest potentialities of their nature and not to meditate on a soulless formal law of causation, which, at least in its cosmic application, was known as ṛita in Vedic literature.

Still it has been consistently claimed by Buddhism that the Buddha extended the application of the causal law to the inner world of man, showing how its operation is responsible for human destiny—

for human embodiment through ignorance as the first term of a concatenated causal series and for human liberation through the dawning of spiritual insight which dispels ignorance, the cause of all bondage.