Author: Daniel Jowssey
Buddhism is a variety of teachings described as a religion or way of life. One point of view says it is a body of philosophies influenced by the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, known as Gautama Buddha. Another point of view says it is teachings to guide one to directly experiencing reality. Many scholars regard it as a plurality rather than a single entity. Buddhism is also known as Buddha Dharma or Dhamma, which means roughly the ""teachings of the Awakened One"" in Sanskrit and Pali, languages of ancient Buddhist texts. Buddhism began around the 5th century BCE with the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, commonly referred to as ""the Buddha"".
At the time Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) founded his system of beliefs, Hinduism was the dominant religion accessible to the educated people only.
India, during the lifetime of Gautama Buddha was “in a state of religious ferment,” it was a period during which the authority of The Vedas was in doubt; this was significant as The Vedas were central to Hinduism. Therefore, scepticism regarding their authority was seen as scepticism regarding the Hindu religion itself. The Buddha addressed what he perceived to be the shortcomings of Hinduism; he rejected the inequitable nature of the caste system and preached instead that all beings were equal; by doing this he challenged the supremacy of the Brahmins. It is also interesting to note that Buddhism was the first
“Religion” to indoctrinate women into its religious order or sangha. The Buddha also held the superstitious nature of Hinduism in disdain, as Spears says, “He (Buddha) was an opponent of the priesthood, magic and sacrifice.” Buddha advocated rightful conduct over spells and charms. This line of thought held particular resonance with members of the middle class, who were growing increasingly critical of the aristocratic privilege bestowed upon Brahmin priests. The priests, in turn maintained their stronghold over Hinduism by way of performing rituals, which were often in the form of spells and sacrifice. Buddha’s open rejection of Hinduism was highly inflammatory, especially to the Brahmins. However, Buddha’s message of equality for all strongly appealed to the lower castes within Hindu society. Thus, the egalitarian nature of Buddhism, as well as its renunciation of Hindu ritualism and Brahmanism contributed to its success.
The Buddha rejected the idea of man’s salvation being reliant upon an external force or being such as God. In this sense, Buddhism is not a religion, but rather a philosophy. The early Buddhist sects were either atheistic or agnostic. The atheists believed it was “man, who created God in his own image,” whilst the agnostics believed that the search for and contemplation of God was “an exercise in futility.” Both of these beliefs were in stark contrast to Hinduism’s worship of a pantheon of Gods. Buddha championed the benefits of meditation and reflective practises over prayer, ritual fasting and sacrifices. Buddha’s philosophy taught that salvation lay in one’s own hands. This belief was certainly a revelation to low caste Hindus, who had been brought up to believe that their only hope was to observe the laws of dharma (duty to one’s caste) in order to be reborn into a higher position in the next life. The importance stressed on dharma effectively immobilised lower caste Hindus into a lifetime of servitude and oppression, it also served to perpetuate the hegemonic nature of Indian society. Buddha’s teachings liberated lower caste Hindus. For the first time they were given a feeling of control over their own lives, in the sense that salvation was attainable through a course of right conduct and action rather than adherence to rules made by those in power. Thus Buddhism gained support by espousing the virtues of freedom for all beings, and by preaching that salvation was attainable inside oneself.
As well as placing emphasis on the attainability of salvation, Buddhism also stressed a great deal of importance on the accessibility of its teachings. It was for this reason alone that The Buddha preached in Pali, the then common language of the Gangetic Plain. Spears- “Buddha was an opponent of hiding the truth in the mystery of a strange language and unintelligible books…his message was for all equally…” Thus, a factor crucial to determining the success of Buddhism in India was the level of its accessibility, particularly to the common man who had long been deprived of religious or philosophical education, accessibility also fostered a sense of inclusiveness.
Buddhism’s success in India lay in its attempts to be tolerant of, yet distinct from Hinduism. Initially this worked, however as time went on the fusing of Hindu and Buddhist traditions eventually meant that Buddhism was simply absorbed by the dominant Hinduism. Thus, the early success of Buddhism in India can be attributed to its egalitarian, accessible and peaceful nature, it’s addressing of the social tensions of the day (particularly those regarding Hinduism), and the support and promulgation it received under several rulers. The social atmosphere of the time was calling for reform, and for many this reform was to be found in Buddhism.
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