Fundamentals of Buddhism


We are going to begin today with a consideration of the pre-buddhist situation in India. Normally Buddhist studies courses begin with a study of the life of the Buddha. We are going to begin before the life of the Buddha. Personally I feel this is quite important as I feel it helps one to understand the life and teachings of the Buddha in their broader historical and conceptual context and to understand and appreciate better the nature of Buddhism and perhaps Indian thought as a whole.

I do not know how many of you have visited India. We have in the North of India two great rivers — one is the Ganges and the other is the Yamuna. These two great rivers have separate sources in the Himalayas and they flow separately for a good proportion of their lengths. They unite in the north eastern region of India. From there they flow on together to the Bay of Bengal. In a way the geography of these two great rivers is a symbol of the origin and development of Indian religion, philosophy and thought because in Indian religion too we have two great rivers which were originally quite distinct and had separate origins and which for a considerable length of time were separate but which at a certain point of time merged and flowed on united right to the present day. Perhaps as I go into the prebuddhist history of India, we can keep in mind the image of these two rivers originally separate and at a certain point merging and flowing together to the sea.

When we look at the very early history of India, we find that there existed in the 3rd Millennium B.C. a very highly developed civilization in the Indian subcontinent. This civilization is as old as those which are called the cradles of human culture, civilizations like those of Egypt and Babylon. This civilization existed approximately between the year 2800 B.C. and 1800 B.C. It was known as the Indus Valley Civilization or it is sometimes called the Harappa Civilization, and it extended from what is now Western Pakistan, south to a point which is near Bombay and eastward to a point which is in the neighborhood of what is now Simla in the foothills of the Himalayas. If you see a map of India, you will realize that this is a very considerable extent. Not only was this civilization stable for a thousand years, it was also a very highly developed civilization both materially and spiritually. Materially the civilization was an agrarian one. They were skilled in irrigation and the planning of towns. In addition, they had a very highly developed spiritual culture. This is clear from the archaeological evidence that has been discovered at Mohenjodaro and Harappa. There is also evidence of the fact that they were literate. They had developed a script which unfortunately we are not able to decipher.

The peaceful life of this civilization was unfortunately interrupted in about the year 1800 or 1500 B.C. by an invasion that came from the North West. The invading people were known as the Aryans and this is a term that designated a people of Eastern Europe. The origin of the Aryans was in the grassy region extending from Poland to Western Russia. The Aryans were very different from the people of the Indus Valley Civilization because they were generally nomadic and pastoral. They did not have a highly developed urban civilization. They were a warlike expanding pioneer civilization that lived in large part from the spoils and plunder that they gathered from the peoples they conquered in the course of their migration. When the Aryans arrived in India, they very quickly destroyed the Indus Valley Civilization. The Indus Valley Civilization succumbed very quickly to the military might of the Aryans. What existed in India after the invasion was an Aryan dominated civilization.

Here we have a brief outline of the facts regarding the early history of India. But let us look at the religious outlook of the people of the Indus Valley Civilization and the Aryan Civilization which is of particular interest to us. The Indus Valley Civilization had a script which we are unfortunately unable to decipher. But our information regarding the nature of this civilization is from two sources, first from the archaeological discoveries at the sites of Mohenjodaro and Harappa and second from the records of the Aryans who described the religious behaviour and beliefs of the people they conquered. From the archaeological evidence we find a number of symbols that are of religious significance, that are special to Buddhism: the symbols of the Bodhi tree and animals such as the elephant and deer. Perhaps most importantly there have been discovered several images of figures sitting in cross-legged postures with their hands resting on their knees, with their eyes narrowed, half-closed quite evidently in postures of meditation. These archaeological findings have been studied by eminent scholars and the conclusion is that we can quite definitely trace the origin and practice of meditation to the Indus Valley Civilization. When we look at the descriptions of the religion of the Indus Valley Civilization from the writings of the Aryans - the Vedas - we find the figure of a wandering ascetic frequently mentioned. We find that they practised meditation, that they were celibate, that they observed an austere life, that they were sometimes naked or clothed in most simple garments, that they wandered about homeless and that they taught in the way beyond birth and death. If we put together the evidence of the archaeological findings and the evidence of Aryan literature, we find that there emerges a picture of the religion of the people of the Indus Valley Civilization in which there are several important elements. First of all, meditation or mental concentration; secondly renunciation, abandoning the household life, living the life of a wandering ascetic; thirdly that we have a conception of rebirth over a long series of lives; fourthly we have a conception of moral responsibility beyond this life, the notion of karma; and lastly we have a goal of religious life, a goal of liberation. These are the salient features of the religion of the very earliest Indian Civilization.

By contrast, and it would be hard to find two religious views that are more different, let us look at the religion of the Aryans. Here we find it much easier to construct a picture because we have a complete literature with regard to their religion. When the Aryans came to India, they had a religion which was totally secular. They were an expanding pioneering society. There are many close parallels between the Aryan religion and the religion of the Greeks. If you have come across the description of the Greek pantheon you will find striking similarities between their pantheon and the Aryan pantheon. You will find in the Aryan faith a number of gods who are personifications of natural phenomena. We have Indra for instance who was the God of Lightning and the Thunderstorm personifying power, we have Agni the God of Fire, and Varuna the God of Water. We have a religious set-up in which the priest is the most important figure, while in the Indus Valley Civilization the ascetic was the most important figure. In the Indus Valley Civilization renunciation was the ideal of religious life, while in the Aryan religion the ideal state is the householder state. In the Indus Valley Civilization we have a rejection of sons and offspring, while in the Aryan religion sons are the highest good. While in the Indus Valley Civilization we have the practice of meditation, in the Aryan religion we have the practice of sacrifice - sacrifice was an important means of communication with the gods, of achieving victories in battles, of gaining offspring, of going to heaven. While in the Indus Valley Civilization we have belief in the Law of Karma, and rebirth, in the Aryan Civilization we have no conception of rebirth. Just as in the Indus Valley Civilization we have the notion of moral responsibility extending over a series of lives, in the Aryan Civilization we have no such notion. In fact the highest ideal was loyalty, those values that contributed to the power of the community. Finally while in the Indus Valley Civilization we have liberation as the goal of religious life, in the Aryan Civilization we have heaven as the goal of religious life. The idea that they had of heaven was a heaven modelled upon a perfected version of this life. So if we want to sum up the differences between the religions of these two civilizations, we can say that on the one hand the Indus Valley Civilization stresses renunciation, meditation, rebirth, karma, the goal of liberation; on the other hand the Aryan religion stresses this life, material well-being, wealth, power, fame and sacrifices as means of achieving these goals. It would be hard to find a set of more diametrically opposed religious attitudes. In addition, there are two more important elements of Aryan religion that we ought to recall caste: the division of society into social strata; and belief in the authority of the revealed scriptures, the Vedas. These two elements were not present in the Indus Valley Civilization.

The history of Indian religion from 1500 B.C. up to 600 or 500 B.C., the time of the Buddha, the history of those 1000 years in India is a history of gradual interaction between these two totally opposed religious views. As the Aryans gradually spread and settled across the gigantic Indian subcontinent, as their pioneering exploits diminished, gradually these two totally opposed religious views began to influence, interact and merge with each other. This is the merging I had in mind when I talked about the merging of the two great rivers. Consequently by the time of the Buddha, we have a very heterogeneous religious scene. We can understand this clearly if we look at some of the facts regarding the life of the Buddha. For instance, we find that when the Buddha was born, two groups of people made prophecies regarding His future greatness. The first prophecy was made by Asita. Asita was a hermit, who lived in the mountains and yet sources tell us that he was a Brahmin, that he belonged to the priestly class. This in itself is already evidence of the interaction of the two traditions. In the Buddha’s time, Brahmins had begun to go forth as hermits. This was unheard of a thousand years before. A little later, we are told that 108 Brahmins were invited to the naming ceremony. Here we have examples of priests who had not renounced the household life, an example of an institution that properly and originally belonged to the Aryan Civilization.

How is it that the two traditions - the Indus Valley tradition and the Aryan tradition, initially so different were able to merge? I think the answer to this lies in the dramatic changes which took place in the life of the Indian people between the 2nd Millennium B.C. and the time of the Buddha. The Aryan expansion came to an end when they had conquered the plains of India. This end of expansion brought about many social, economic and political changes. In the first place, the tribal political society evolved into the institution of the territorial state so that no longer do you have a tribe with a very close personal set of loyalties. You have now a territorial state where many people of various tribes exist together. The kingdom of Magadha ruled by Bimbisara in the time of the Buddha is an example of an emerging territorial state. Secondly, you have this nomadic pastoral lifestyle gradually changed into a more urbanized agricultural settled lifestyle so that the people were now living in urban centres, and were removed from the natural forces that had been personified in the gods. Economically, commerce became important. So while in the early days of the Aryan Civilization the priests and warriors were the most important figures - the priest because he communicated with the gods, the warrior because he waged wars against the enemy and brought spoils into the community - now the merchants became increasingly important. We can see this in the days of the Buddha, the famous disciples who were merchants - Anathapindika to name only one. These social, economic and political changes contributed to an openness on the part of the Aryans to accept the religious ideas of the Indus Valley Civilization. While the Aryans conquered the Indus Valley people militarily, the subsequent 1000 to 2000 years saw them coming increasingly under the influence of ideas taken from the Indus Valley Civilization. So that by the first few centuries of the Common Era, the distinction between the Aryan tradition and the Indus Valley tradition became more and more difficult to draw. In fact, this fact is at the bottom of the misconception when it is said that Buddhism is a protest against Hinduism, or that Buddhism is a branch of Hinduism.

In Buddhism we have a religion which draws most of its inspiration from the Indus Valley religion, the ideas of renunciation, meditation, karma and rebirth, ultimate liberation - ideas which were important to the Indus Valley Civilization. The Buddha Himself indicated the Indus Valley origins of His tradition when He said that the path which He taught was an ancient path and the goal to which He pointed to was an ancient goal. We also have a Buddhist belief in six Buddhas prior to the Buddha Shakyamuni within this aeon. All these point to a continuity between the tradition of the Indus Valley Civilization and the teachings of the Buddha. If we look at Buddhism and Hinduism we will find a greater or lesser proportion of elements taken from either of the two traditions of the Indus Valley Civilization and Aryan Civilization. For instance, if we look at Buddhism, the greater proportion was taken from the Indus Valley Civilization religion, a lesser proportion from the Aryan tradition. That is why we find mention of the Aryan gods in Buddhist scripture, though their role is peripheral, an example of an Aryan element in the Buddhism tradition. On the other hand, if we look at some schools of Hinduism, we find a greater proportion of elements taken from the Aryan tradition and a lesser proportion from the Indus Valley Civilization. We find caste emphasized, the authority of the revealed scripture of the Aryans - the Vedas - emphasized and sacrifices emphasized. Alongside, we find a place made for renunciation, meditation, karma and rebirth.

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