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.

The Prehistory of India

Pin on Re

Episode 13 South Asian Civilizations and Beliefs

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

Benjamin begins this lecture around 1500 BC, when Indo-Aryans from northern Asia invaded the Indus Valley civilization. They battled with indigenous Dravidians for 500 years. Eventually they abandoned their nomadic way of life for a sedentary lifestyle, assuming control of most of India as a new ruling elite.

The Rig Veda, a sacred text of the Hindu religion, comes out of this period. From 1000 BC on, the population of India was divided into four varas (Sanskrit for color):*

  • Brahmans – priests
  • Kshartryas – nobles and warriors
  • Varshyas – artisans and merchants (ie commoners)
  • Sidras – serfs

“Untouchables,” the fifth vara was added later. “Untouchables” performed unclean work and touched dead animals (tanners and butchers).

In the 7th century BC, a radical Brahman sect emerged that embraced mysticism, yogic meditation and reincarnations. They recorded their teachings in the Upanishads. Jainism and Buddhism emerged about a century later.

Jainism, which teaches that all living beings (including plants and insects) have a soul and forbids any form of violence. The Jains rejected caste systems and lived extremely ascetic lives.

Buddhism, founded by Siddhārtha Gautama during the 6th century BE, also rejected caste systems but were less ascetic than the Jaines. Initially more a philosophy than a religion, Buddhism teaches that renouncing desire and rampant ambition is the only way to end human suffering. Because Siddhārtha and his disciples taught in local dialects, rather than Sanskrit, his teachings quickly spread throughout India, China, Japan, Korea and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Eventually the entire Indus Valley was broken up into city-states, with each having its own maharaja (king).  Villages surrounding the city-states were self governing with elected village committees.

Women had virtually no rights. They could only be in public with a male protector and were were forbidden to participate in religious life (except as nuns). After 500 BC, widows were expected to practice Suti (ie leaping into their husband’s funeral pyre).

Between 522 and 486 BC, the Persians expanded their empire into the Indus Valley and occupied much of modern day Pakistan.

Alexander the Great liberated the Indus Valley when he conquered Persia. Once Alexander withdrew (322 BC), Chandragupta Maurya united most northern India city-states into a single state. The Mauryan empire engaged in irrigation agriculture, manufacturing, road construction, timber harvesting, cattle breeding and inter-indregional trade.

Following the death of Chandragupta’s son Ashoka in 232 BC, the Mauryan empire began to decline. It collapsed in 185 BC, with northern and southern India breaking into separate regional city-states.

*After the Portuguese colonized India in the 16th century, the word “caste” was adopted from the Portuguese word “castas”)

The film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy