Gautama or Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism, was born in 567 B.C. in Lumbini Garden near Kapilavastu. His father was Suddodhana of the Sakya clan and mother Mayadevi. As his mother died at child birth, he was brought up by his aunt Prajapati Gautami. At the age of sixteen he married Yasodhara and gave birth to a son, Rahula. The sight of an old man, a diseased man, a corpse and an ascetic turned him away from worldly life. He left home at the age of twenty nine in search of Truth. He wandered for seven years and met several teachers but could not get enlightenment. At last, he sat under a bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya and did intense penance, after which he got Enlightenment (Nirvana) at the age of thirty five. Since then he became known as the Buddha or 'the Enlightened One'. He delivered his first sermon at Sarnath near Benares and for the next forty five years he led the life of a preacher. He died at the age of eighty at Kusinagara.
The most important disciples of Buddha were Sariputta, Moggallanna, Ananda, Kassapa and Upali. Kings like Prasenajit of Kosala and Bimbisara and Ajatasatru of Magadha accepted his doctrines and became his disciples. Buddha in his lifetime spread his message far and wide in north India and visited places like Benares, Rajagriha, Sravasti, Vaisali, Nalanda and Pataligrama. It should be noted that he did not involve himself in fruitless controversies regarding metaphysical questions like god, soul, karma, rebirth, etc., and concerned himself with the practical problems confronting man.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddha are:
The world is full of suffering.
The cause of suffering is desire.
If desires are get rid off, suffering can be removed.
This can be done by following the Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path consists of right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. Buddha neither accepts god nor rejects the existence of god. He laid great emphasis on the law of karma. He argued that the condition of man in this life depends upon his own deeds. He taught that the soul does not exist. However, he emphasized Ahimsa. By his love for human beings and all living creatures, he endeared himself to all. Even under the gravest provocation he did not show the least anger or hatred and instead conquered everyone by his love and compassion. His religion was identical with morality and it emphasized purity of thought, word and deed. He was a rationalist who tried to explain things in the light of reason and not on the basis of blind faith. Though he did not make a direct attack on the caste system, he was against any social distinctions and threw open his order to all. Therefore, Buddhism was more a social than religious revolution. It taught the code of practical ethics and laid down the principle of social equality.
Buddha had two kinds of disciples - monks (bhikshus) and lay worshippers (upasikas). The monks were organized into the Sangha for the purpose of spreading his teachings. The membership was open to all persons, male or female and without any caste restrictions. There was a special code for nuns restricting their residence and movement. Sariputta, Moggallana and Ananda were some of the famous monks. The Sangha was governed on democratic lines and was empowered to enforce discipline among its members. Owing to the organised efforts made by the Sangha, Buddhism made rapid progress in North India even during Buddha's life time. Magadha, Kosala, Kausambi and several republican states of North India embraced this religion. About two hundred years after the death of Buddha, the famous Mauryan Emperor Asoka embraced Buddhism. Through his missionary effort Asoka spread Buddhism into West Asia and Ceylon. Thus a local religious sect was transformed into a world religion.
The first Buddhist Council was held at Rajagraha under the chairmanship of Mahakasapa immediately after the death of Buddha. Its purpose was to maintain the purity of the teachings of the Buddha. The second Buddhist Council was convened at Vaisali around 383 B.C. The third Buddhist Council was held at Pataliputra under the patronage of Asoka. Moggaliputta Tissa presided over it. The final version of Tripitakas was completed in this council. The fourth Buddhist Council was convened in Kashmir by Kanishka under the chairmanship of Vasumitra. Asvagosha participated in this council. The new school of Buddhism called Mahayana Buddhism came into existence during this council. The Buddhism preached by the Buddha and propagated by Asoka was known as Hinayana.
The Buddhist texts were collected and compiled some five hundred years after the death of the Buddha. They are known as the Tripitakas, namely the Sutta, the Vinaya and the Abhidhamma Pitakas. They are written in the Pali language.
The revival of Brahmanism and the rise of Bhagavatism led to the fall of popularity of Buddhism. The use of Pali, the language of the masses as the language of Buddhism was given up from the 1st century A.D. The Buddhists began to adopt Sanskrit, the language of the elite. After the birth of Mahayana Buddhism, the practice of idol worship and making offerings led to the deterioration of moral standards. Moreover, the attack of the Huns in 5th and 6th centuries and the Turkish invaders in 12th century destroyed the monasteries. All these factors contributed to the decline of Buddhism in India.
Buddhism has made a remarkable contribution to the development of Indian culture.
The concept of ahimsa was its chief contribution. Later, it became one of the cherished values of our nation.
Its contribution to the art and architecture of India was notable. The stupas at Sanchi, Bharhut and Gaya are wonderful pieces of architecture. Buddhism takes the credit for the chaityas and viharas in different parts of India.
It promoted education through residential universities like those at Taxila, Nalanda and Vikramasila.
The language of Pali and other local languages developed through the teachings of Buddhism.
It had also promoted the spread of Indian culture to other parts of Asia.