The Origins of Buddhism

From the seventh to the fifth centuries BC, India witnessed its most creative intellectual period in its history. It was a time of immense innovation and intellectual ferment equal to similar periods in Greece from the sixth to the fifth centuries BC in China from the sixth to the second centuries BC.

The details of Gautama Buddha‘s life are mentioned in many early Buddhist texts but are inconsistent, his social background and life details are difficult to prove, the precise dates uncertain. The evidence of the early texts suggests that he was born as Siddhārtha Gautama in Kapilavatthu, a town in the plains region of modern Nepal-India border. Some hagiographic legends state that his father was a king named Suddhodana, his mother queen Maya, and he was born in Lumbini gardens. Early Buddhist canonical texts and early biographies of Buddha state that Gautama studied under Vedic teachers Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta.

However, Indian philosophers and religious sages were reacting to the increasingly restrictive and empty formalism of Vedic sacrifices and rituals. The priestly classes had become the most powerful class in ancient India, theoretically placed above kings and nobles. For the priests controlled the forces of the universe through the power inherent in their hymns, charms, and elaborate rituals. Against this ritualistic focus and concentration of social power, a small revolution occurred in the development of intellectual Hinduism. Admitting that the rituals might have some relative value, these thinkers focused instead on the inspiration contained in the hymns that formed the backbone of Hinduism. Their teachings, called the Upanishadic after the central form of their dissemination, the Upanishads, were largely secret teachings and their religious focus was on the ability of human beings to understand the mysteries of the universe and their own relationship to the divine.

They introduced several new elements into Vedic thought:

  • the doctrine of transmigration, that is, that the soul goes from life to life;
  • the unity of the human soul with the universal soul, or Atman;
  • the doctrine that self-discovery is also the discovery of the one god;
  • and finally, a focus on spirituality rather than material reality.

The most important of these innovations, however, was the doctrine of transmigration. Attached to endless return of the soul was a moral order of the universe, rita; the type of life and the type of moral disposition each soul is born into is determined by the nature and quality of its actions in previous lives. Moral actions take on a larger pattern in the infinite life of the soul. Not only did the Upanishadic thinkers introduce the notion of samsara , but they also began to discuss how the soul might be released from this cycle: this is called moksha, or “liberation.”

Although the teachers of the Upanishads were heterodox thinkers, they still at some level admitted that Hindu tradition and rituals had some effectiveness. But the reaction against orthodox Hinduism would breed even more radical rebellions, particularly in northern India in the states of Brihar and Uttar Pradesh. We don’t know precisely why this region spawned such dynamic intellectual revolt against the prevailing religion.

Ruins of the ancient-Buddhist monasteries in Mardan (Pakistan)
Ruins of the ancient-Buddhist monasteries in Mardan (Pakistan)

Perhaps it was because these regions had only recently been settled by the Aryans, those Indo-Europeans that brought Vedic religion and rituals to India. Perhaps it was because the class system so vital to Vedism and to the Aryans was only loosely structured. Perhaps it was because the political system involved only a very loose confederacy. From an intellectual standpoint, the doctrine of transmigration, which was introduced by the Upanishadic teachers, was the focal point of the heterodox, in fact, heretical religious movements of northern India. For the two most radical challenges to Vedism, Buddhism and Jainism, centered their entire philosophy around this single doctrine. The heretical schools of Vedism, Buddhists and Jainists, all had as the central goal the release of the soul from this infinite cycle of birth and rebirth, or samsara. So the idea that the soul passes from life to life infinitely was the intellectual crucible in which Buddhism was forged. The mainstream reaction to these new ways of thinking were to classify them as “non-Vedic” or heresies; the formal term was nastika darsanas, or “atheists” (as opposed to “Vedic” philosophies, astika darsanas, or “believers”).

Buddhism and Jainism, however, did not appear overnight; there was a natural evolution leading up to them. The Buddhists acknowledge that there were six heretical schools that preceded them. Like Buddhism and Jainism, these heretical schools focussed entirely on the problem of transmigration. The most important of these heretics was Ajita Kesakambala who founded the “materialist” school, or Cakvara. He believed that the soul was only a material phenomenon, an temporary colocation of matter in a living body. When the body died, the temporary collection of matter dissolved and with it dissolved the soul. This meant that the soul was never punished for evil nor was it ever rewarded for good.