The Historical Origins of Buddhism

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Episode 19: Origins of Buddhism

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

Benjamin begins this lecture with some background on the Indus Civilization from which Buddhism arose. First emerging around 2300 BC, the first Indus civilization collapsed in 1700 BC, possibly due to earthquakes that changed the course of the Indus River. Beginning around 1500 BC, there was a steady migration of Indo-Europeans from the Iranian Plateau to the Indus Valley. As they became the dominant ethnic group, their Brahmins (priests), introduced a complex cosmology of Vedic (Hindu) deities and a strict class (caste) system.[1]

In the 6th century BC, a radical Hindu sect emerged, [2] characterized by extreme mysticism, rigid discipline and yogic meditation.  Like Daoists, they taught there was a spark of divine energy inside everyone, also that the soul had the ability to end the cycle of reincarnation through the accumulation of good karma. Widespread adoption of these new beliefs led tens of thousands of gurus to wander the country in their efforts to escape reincarnation. Siddharta Gautama (563-438 BC), the founder of Buddhism, was one of these gurus.

After preaching his first sermon in Benares around 500 BC, Siddharta began recruiting disciples and setting up monasteries to teach this new belief system (which he never intended to be a religion).[3] Like Jainism (which also emerged during this period), [4] it rejected the caste system, which proved immensely popular with lower class Hindus.

Under the Mauryan Empire, which reunited India in 322 BC, Siddharta was officially deified as the “Buddha” (one who has achieved a perfect state of enlightenment). Ashoka, who ruled India from 263-232 BC, made Buddhism the official state religion and sent Buddhist missionaries as far north as Bactria and as far south as Sri Lanka.

[1] The initial caste system included Brahmins (priests), Khutrayas (nobility and warriors), Varshyas (artisans and merchants) and Sudras (landless peasants and serfs). Dalits (untouchables), who were charged with disposing of dead animals, were only added later.

[2] Benjamin credits rapid urbanization, which dispensed with the need for ritual sacrifices to guarantee good harvests, for the appearance of the new religion.

[3] The main Buddhist teachings are known as the Four Noble Truths:

  • Suffering dominates human existence.
  • Suffering is caused by desire.
  • Suffering can be extinguished (and Nirvana attained) by extinguishing desire.
  • Desire can be extinguished by following the 8-fold path: rights views, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration).

[4] Jainists, who teach everything on earth has a soul, go to extreme efforts (wearing masks, filtering their water and sweeping the path ahead of them) to avoid killing small insects and microorganisms.

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