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The history of Buddhism


  • During the Maurya empire, the Indian culture and way of life were deeply influenced by Buddhism.
  • Buddhism appealed to people of lower castes because it emphasized individuals’ path to enlightenment and salvation, which could be attained in this life.
  • Buddhism also received state support from Emperor Ashoka, who converted to Buddhism in 260 BCE.
The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, was born circa 563 BCE into a wealthy family. Gautama rejected his life of riches and embraced a lifestyle of asceticism, or extreme self-discipline. After 49 consecutive days of meditation, Gautama became the Buddha, or “enlightened one”. He made this announcement in public at about 528 BCE and gained a group of disciples who became Buddhist monks and traveled throughout northern India spreading his teachings.
Buddhism has a strong individualistic component: everyone has responsibility for their own happiness in life. Buddha presented the Four Noble Truths as guiding principles: there is suffering in life; the cause of suffering is desire; ending desire means ending suffering; and following a controlled and moderate lifestyle will end desire, and therefore end suffering.
In order to achieve these goals, the Buddha presented the Noble Eightfold Path: right belief, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right occupation, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi—or meditation. According to Buddhist practice, following the Noble Eightfold Path will ultimately result in being liberated from samsara, the cycle of rebirth and suffering.
Many followers of this path to enlightenment participated in an emerging Buddhist monastic tradition. Monasticism is a religious way of life which involves leaving behind worldly pursuits and devoting oneself to spiritual activity.
Painting of the Buddha's first discourse, turning the Dharmacakra; Circa 700-1100 CE; Sanskrit Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra manuscript written in the Ranjana script. Buddha is dressed in red and is flanked by two attendants.
Painting of the Buddha's first discourse, turning the Dharmacakra; Circa 700-1100 CE; Sanskrit Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra manuscript written in the Ranjana script; Nalanda, Bihar, India. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Buddhism’s individual outlook and disregard for the caste system in attaining enlightenment were appealing to people in lower castes. Buddhism suggested that individual people might be able to attain enlightenment in this life and held that caste was not a punishment for deeds committed in a past life. Women also had some opportunities within Buddhism that they wouldn’t have had access to otherwise, such as the ability to become Buddhist monks. Buddhism gave them an option for work outside the traditional sphere of family and home.
As you can imagine, following the Noble Eightfold Path was not an easy task! Buddhism was less popular with people in the vaishya—merchant—or shudra—servant—classes who could not devote all of their time and mental energy to pursuing these challenging goals. Partly in response, Mahayana Buddhism arose. Mahayana Buddhism is a form of Buddhism in which people could still attain enlightenment by performing acts of devotion or performing the duties of their jobs. This alternative approach made Buddhism more acceptable for a greater number of people. Mahayana means the greater vehicle and refers to the opportunity for more people to gain salvation.
Buddhism also received support from the state. In 260 BCE, King Ashoka adopted Buddhism after a violent war against the feudal state of Kalinga. He wanted to renounce violence and publicly turned to Buddhism in order to achieve this. He may have also turned to Buddhism as a way of uniting people of many castes and cultures under a similar religion, which might have made his empire easier to govern.

What do you think?

How did Buddhism spread from Siddhartha Gautama’s teachings to a broader audience?
Why would Buddhism be difficult for people of lower castes to practice?
Why were the teachings of Buddhism an appealing alternative to Hinduism for people in lower castes?
Was Ashoka responsible for the spread of Buddhism? If so, how?

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