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Instruction 5-2

Origins of India | Buddhism in India | Indian Empires


Buddhism in India
CCSTD History Grade 6 6.5.3, 6.5.5

As we told you in our last Instruction, the Vedic Period in India lasted from 1500 to 1000 BC.

The period that followed lasted another 500 years. It is called the Epic Period. That's when India's two most famous epics were created. These epics are stories about early Aryan (Indian) life, and they are called The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/dutt/index.htm

The Ramayana tells how good (Aryan) King Rama destroyed the evil (pre-Aryan) king Ravana.

The Mahabharata tells how two Aryan clans, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, fought between themselves. The Pandavas won.

Every schoolchild in India knows these stories. Many movies, TV shows, and plays are based on them.

Not long ago, a lavish production of The Mahabharata was performed at the Academy of Music in Brooklyn, New York. It was 12 hours long. The audience sat on uncomfortable wooden benches, but it was still a success.

At the end of the Epic Period something new came to India Buddhism.


Siddhartha Gautama

Siddhartha Gautama was the founder of Buddhism. He was born in 563 BC in Nepal. That's in the foothills of the Himalayas, near Mt. Everest. He was a prince, brought up in luxury, but at the age of 29, he abandoned his princely life. He wandered the countryside as a religious beggar. He was searching for the meaning of existence. For six years, he practiced self-torture, almost starving himself to death but that didn't work. 

So he turned to a more moderate form of renunciation. He sat down under a fig tree and began to meditate. He vowed that he wouldn't move until he had solved the mystery of existence. After many days of meditation, he is said to have achieved enlightenment.

Siddhartha Gautama had become Gautama Buddha, "the awakened one."


The Four Noble Truths /The Eightfold Path

Gautama Buddha expressed his enlightenment as The Four Noble Truths.

They are:

  • All life is suffering (dukhka).
  • The cause of suffering is desire (trishna).
  • The end of desire leads to the end of suffering (nirvana).
  • The way to end desire is to follow a path of discipline and meditation (The Eightfold Path).

The Eightfold Path spells out the rules for correct Buddhist behavior. They are:

  • right views
  • right resolve
  • right speech
  • right action
  • right livelihood
  • right effort
  • right mindfulness
  • right concentration


Buddhism and Hinduism

Gautama Buddha is considered the founder of Buddhism, but what he actually did was refine and reform the practices and beliefs of Hinduism (India's earlier religion) and come up with something new.

Buddha was born a Hindu. But he disapproved of its rigid caste system, which fixed a person's position in life at the moment of birth.

Buddha believed that "karma" or "doing good" was more important than genealogy.

Like the ancient Greeks, he believed in "the golden mean" (moderation).

He also believed in samsara, which holds that all living beings are trapped in a continual cycle of birth and death (reincarnation). The impetus to rebirth is based on one's previous actions (karma). The better one behaves, the higher one's next incarnation.

The utlimate aim is to do so much good that one can transcend samsara and achieve a state of oneness with the universe.

This state of oneness with the universe is called nirvana.


The Spread of Buddhism

After achieving enlightenment, Buddha spent the rest of his life traveling throughout India gathering disciples. He died in 483 BC at the age of 80.

He left a thriving monastic order as well as many non-monastic communities dedicated to continuing his work.

For centuries, Indian royalty and merchants supported Buddhist monasteries. They raised beautiful stone structures called stupas over the graves of holy people.


Ashoka the Great

By the end of the 3rd century BC, a king named Chandragupta Maurya united most of North India for the first time. His empire stretched from present-day Afghanistan to Bengal and as far south as Mysore.

Chandragupta Maurya's grandson, Ashoka the Great (286-231 BC), extended the Mauryan Empire even further. He also became a follower of Buddha and spread this new religion throughout the world. He sent Buddhist missionaries to Egypt, Syria, Rome, and many other places.

Originally, Ashoka was a bloodthirsty killer. But he adopted the Buddhist ideal of nonviolence. He established hospitals for people and animals and built major roads throughout India.

He had inscriptions carved on pillars and rocks throughout his empire. These inscriptions promoted Buddhist morality. They encouraged nonviolence and adherence to dharma (proper behavior).


Buddhsism Throughout the World

Until the 1st century BC, Buddha's teachings were transmitted by word of mouth. This led to differing interpretations and different sects.

The earliest written Buddhist scripture dates from the 1st century BC. It was created in Sri Lanka, where Buddhism is still the official state religion.

Buddhism came to Southeast Asia in the first five centuries AD. It entered China along the trade routes from central Asia.

In the 7th century, it arrived in Tibet and flourished there until Chinese invaders suppressed it in 1950. Thousand of monks and nuns were killed. Their monasteries were also destroyed, along with priceless religious art.

The Dalai Lama (the high priest of Tibetian Buddhism) and his followers fled to India, where they still live in exile today.

Buddhism is also important in Korea and Japan as well as throughout the world, including the United States. In the U.S., the Zen form of Buddhism is especially popular.

But it almost died out in India, the land of its birth.


The Decline of Buddhism in India

There were a number of reasons for the decline of Buddhism in India.

One was a strong Hindu revival. Another was the invasion of the White Huns in the 6th century and the Muslims in the 11th century. Finally, when Turkish invaders destroyed Buddhist monasteries in the 13th century, Buddhism almost became extinct.

In its pure form, it survived only in Bhutan and Sikkim, which were independent Himalayan kingdoms.

It began a dramatic comeback in India in the early 20th century. This was primarily because of the leadership of B. R. Ambedkar, who organized vast numbers of people seeking to break free of the Hindu caste system.


Buddhism and Hinduism Today

It is easy to confuse Buddhism with Hinduism. The two religions have close connections, but they are not the same, except in Nepal (Buddha's birthplace). In Nepal, people consider the two religions one.

Buddha founded a noble religion by refining and reforming Hinduism. He also offered a common-sense approach to self-improvement that people could understand.

Buddhism has spread throughout the world, but it is not the same as Hinduism. Buddhism is simple, while Hinduism is complex.

Hinduism has a rich, important cultural history, and Buddha is part of it. Hindus revere and respect Buddha. They believe his teachings strengthened and purified Hinduism.

But Hinduism is the primary religion of India. India has a population of one billion people. 80% of them are Hindus. Buddhism and other religions are all part of India's rich cultural mix.

Christianity came to India at about the same time it came to Europe. Legend has it that St. Thomas the Apostle brought it to India in 52 AD. Jews arrived even earlier. Jainism began about 500 BC.

In the 7th century AD, a group of Zoroastrians (Parsees) landed in Gujarat. In the 15th century the Sikh religion was born in the Punjab, in northern Indian.

Finally, in the 12th century, Islam came to India, which we'll tell you more about in our next Instruction.

for Students, Parents and Teachers

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