History of Buddhism

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History of Buddhism

In the history of Buddhism we notice four distinct stages of development which helped the religion to become a powerful factor in the culture not only India but also of a large part of the world.

The first stage of the development of Buddhism movement is marked by the first Buddhist Council held by King Ajatasatru soon after the death of Buddha.

This council was convened by Mahakassapa, a distinguished disciple of Buddha, in order to put all scattered saying of the teacher relating to Dhamma and Vinaya. The result was the compilation of the two pitakas known as Sutta Pitaka and Vinaya Pitaka. Top what extent Buddhism had developed before the First Council cannot be determined. But the three jewels of Buddhism – Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha remained in the sangha and were growing and Devadatta’s attempt to create division in the sangha failed.

Till we reach the time of Ashoka, the Nandas-Maurya emperors, Chandragupta and Bindusara were continued to Brahmanical Hindus, although there is reason to believe that Chandragupta adopted Jainism towards the end of his life. It was Ashoka that imperial patronage was fully extended to Buddhism and Buddhism spread not only within India but also beyond India’s borders and became a world religion.

The most important events associated into the Buddhist Church were the two Councils, the second and the third, both held during the reign of Asoka according to some scholars. According to this the Second Council was convened under the auspices of Kalasoka or Kakavarna, son of Sisunaga. Some historians do not agree with this identification and this Kalasoka may have been Ashoka Maurya. The Second council was held at Vaisali.

According to Buddhist traditions there arose difference among the followers of Buddha about the ten rulers of discipline which the Buddhist of eastern India followed although the westerners protested against that. The then rules were – storing salt for user, taking food after mid-day, over-eating by taking a second forenoon meal, observance of Upasatha at different places, to take sanction for an action after it has been done, use of precedents for an act, drinking whey after meal, use of a seat without border, drinking of unfermented palm juice and acceptance of gold and silver.

A sub-committee with four members from the easterners and the westerners each was formed which declared the ten rules as unorthodox. The easterners called Vajiputtakas did not accept the decision and called another Council which they named as Mahasanjiti and accepted the ten rules as valid. According to some later texts the difference between the two groups related not only to the rules of the discipline but also to doctrines. According to Dipavamsa, the seceding monks made certain changes in the texts of the Tripitaka and excluded Abhidhamma Pitaka from the saying of Buddha. The easterners came to be known as Mahasanghikas and the westerners as Theravada. The Mahasanghikas were also known as Acharyavada.

This diversion in the sangha began to grow up to its logical conclusion and Acharyavada was divided into seven sects while the Theravada was divided into eleven sects. But all the eighteen sects were Hinayanists. A few sub-sects of Acharyavada group later introduced a new doctrine called Mahayanism. The deification of Buddha by certain important sects which branched off from Mahasanghikas, i.e. Acharyavada and introduction of Bodhisattva concept were the precursors of Mahayanism.

The next stage of the development of Buddhism was the rise of a large number of monastic organizations and the history of Buddhist monastic organization ceased to be one and unified. The important of these different monastic organizations compiled their own set of Pitakas and passed them as the original saying of Buddha. Despite these differences Buddhist monks belonging to any sect could live in any monastery but gradually dispute arose in regard to Upasatha ceremony. Every fortnight this ceremony used to be held and like the Christian confession, every monk had to declare that he had not committed any breach of any rule of discipline. But while an Acharyavada (Mahasanghika) would declare him as pure even after taking a meal in the afternoon, Theravad would regard it as impure. Ashoka in order to rid the Sangha by dismissing all those were not believers in Theravad soon called a Council under the chairmanship of Moggaliputta Tissa who refuted the views of the non-Theravadins. His refutations were compiled under the title Kathavatthu which became the fifth book of Abhidhamma Pitaka of the Theravadins.

The holding of Third Buddhist council by Ashoka is not considered authentic by many scholars basing their arguments on Sanskrit traditions and the records of the Chinese travelers. It is, however, conceded that council might have been a sectarian one meant for the Theravadins and Ashoka or his ministers had nothing to do with it.

The excess of zeal shown by Ashoka for Buddhism led to a reaction and his successors were not favorably disposed towards Buddhism. The reaction against Buddhism reached its climax under Pushyamitra Sunga. But despite this antipathy Buddhism enjoyed great popularity for a time and reached phenomenal development by the beginning of the Christian era.

One of the important factors in the development of Buddhism was the patronage it received from foreign rulers like King Menander. The Milindapanha or the questions of King Milinda answered by Nagasena is an evidence of the interest taken by Minander in Buddhism which he helped in spreading in the hilly regions of Hindukush and Sindhu. Other Greek kings also followed Menander’s example. The Kushana King Kanishka was a great patron of Buddhism. Although initially disinterested in Buddhism Kanishka later adopted this religion. He was perplexed by the different interpretations of Buddha’s saying by different teachers. He, therefore, convened a Council at Kashmir (Jalandhar according to some) in which Vasumitra was elected chairman. The discussions held in the meeting were compiled in a commentary known as Vibhashastras. This Council was also a sectarian affair and was held by Sarvastivadins as the Third Council was of the Theravadins.

The Fourth Buddhist council held during the time of Kanishka marks the great split of the Buddhist Church and its fundamental doctrines. With it emerged Mahayanism as a distinct movement of a large section of Buddhists. The beginning of the movement may be traced to a much earlier period as we have already seen.

Buddhism retained its originality for the first hundred years of its existence but after that a new liberal outlook and inauguration of a new movement in interpreting the doctrines and the rules of discipline in a more pragmatic and liberal way are noticed. Emphasis on monastic life was still there, but a new Bodhisattva ideal was incorporated in the doctrine. The doctrine of Bodhisattva implied that any one, be he a recluse or a house holder, was entitled to perform certain meritorious deed Paramitas in order that ultimately he might attain Buddhahood. Paramita means the highest acquisition of a particular virtue. These virtues are:

  1. Liberality (Dana),
  2. Righteousness (Sila),
  3. Forbearance (Kshanti),
  4. Mental strength (Virya),
  5. Mental concentration (Dhyana)
  6. Realization of truth (Prajna),
  7. Skillfulness in expedients (Upayakausalya),
  8. Vow (Pranidhana),
  9. Attainment of certain power (Bala) and
  10. Knowledge (Jnana).

Gautama and all other Buddhas had to acquire these virtues in several of their existences before attaining Buddhahood. 

Mahayana Buddhism at first began with the Mahasanghikas and by the time of Kanishka had become a recognized form of Buddhism. But it led to a formal and clear split in the doctrines and rules of discipline from the time of Kanishka and attained its full glory under the care of Nagarjuna, Aryadana, Asanga and Vasubandhu. The contention that Asvaghosa, the contemporary of Kanishka was the earliest exponent of Mahayana philosophy is not acceptable to many of the modern scholars.

Nagarjuna and Asanga’s masterly exposition of Mahayanism made a strong appeal to the intelligentsia and development of Buddhism as a popular cult all over India and even far beyond its frontiers was due to the growth of Mahayanism. Introduction of theism in Buddhist religion by deification Buddha made Mahayanism more easily understood buy common people as well as foreigners. The pristine Buddhism which went by the name Hinayanism was atheism and very much symbolic, therefore difficult of comprehension by common people. The Mahayanism meant a greater vehicle in the path of religion and Hinayanism a lesser vehicle. Worship of Buddha images gave an opportunity to the masses to satisfy their religious emotions, for they found a visible means for expressing their devotion. They covered India with temples and monasteries filled with images of Buddha in the belief that there would be meritorious deeds both for the donors and the artists.

The rise of Mahayanism affected a significant revolution in Buddhism, both in thought and in practice. Mahayanism is also called Bodhisattvayana, the vehicle for future Buddha. The Mahayanists claim superiority over the Hinayanists ‘Vasubandhu regarded Hinayana as milk and Mahayana as the cream of milk”.

Mahayanism becomes an infinite inspiration to literary and scholastic activities among the Buddhists. The most famous and important literature of Mahayanism is the Prajna-Paramita literature.

Emergence and development of Mahayanism as a theism and image-worship brought it near to Hinduism. Image-worship and bhakti, i.e. loving devotion became the common features of Mahayanism and Hinduism. The Bodhisattva like Avalokitesvara, and Manjusri and goddesses like Tara and Harti appear to be similar to Siva, Vishnu, Lakshmi and Parvati of the Hindu religion. The Gupta period has been regarded as the golden age of Indian civilization and it saw all-round progress of Indian Culture including Buddhism. Under the Gupta the Mahayana philosophy reached its climax.

Besides common practice of image worship in Buddhism and Hinduism, the fact of common patronage, those two faiths received at the hands of the Gupta rulers brought Buddhism nearer to Hinduism. About the middle of the sixth century A.D. Buddha seems to have been accorded the status of an avatara, i.e. incarnation of Vishnu in the Puranas. In Mahayanism Manjusri, Avalokitesvara and goddess Prajna-paramita assumed paramount position. The cult of Amitava Buddha grew during the Gupta period and it seems to have attracted such eminent philosopher as Vasubandhu. Worship of images of Buddha and Bodhisattvas with elaborate rituals had become a universal practice during the period. The sixth century A.D. reveals to important trends, one was the emergence of the Buddhist version of the science of logic and beginning of intense controversy between the Buddhist and the Brahmanical schools, and the other was the emergence if Vajrayana.

Emergence of Vajrayana led to gradual transformation of Buddhism into a new faith and the result was the Tantric Buddhism with which grew popularity of mantras, dharanis, spells, charms, worship of many male and female deities, cult of Avalokita and Tara and Buddhism made nearest approach to Hinduism and eventually made it easy for the latter to assimilate Buddhism after about two centuries.

We may now turn of discuss at some length the concept of bodhisattva about which reference has been made above. The term Bodhisattva ‘means one whose essence is knowledge but is used in the technical sense of a being who is in the process of obtaining but has not yet obtained Buddhahood”. 

The concept of Bodhisattva emerged out of the idea that a Buddha being so superior to ordinary humans should be born suddenly. He was not an incarnation in the strictest sense. It was, therefore, thought logical to suppose that Buddha was the product of a long evolution of virtue, of good deeds and noble resolutions extending countless ages, culminating in Buddhahood – a being superior to the Devas i.e. gods. The Pali canon although recognizes the Bodhisattva as a type, if rare, yet makes its appearance at intervals and does not suggest that one should try to become Bodhisattva in order to attain Buddhahood.

The concept of bodhisattva is characteristic of the Mahayanism and its doctrine is that man can try and should try to become Bodhisattva with the ultimate object of attaining Buddhahood.

In the Pali canon we come across Arhats, Pacceka, Buddhas and perfect Buddhas. The ultimate goal of the three being Nirvana. A Pacceka Buddha is superior to an Arhat and a perfect Buddha is superior to a Pacceka Buddha from the points of view of intellectual power and omniscience. The virtues of a Bodhisattva were similar to those of Arhat. A bodhisattva must be strenuous and concentrated; he must cultivate strict morality, patience, energy, meditation and knowledge. He should also be a bhakta – a devotee, adoring all past, present and future Buddhas. Asanga, however, gives a more technical and scholastic description of the stages that mark the bodhisattva’s progress towards complete enlightenment, that is complete Buddhahood. These stages are – joyful, immaculate, light-giving, radiant, hard to gain, facing transmigration and Nirvana, immovable and good-minded.

The texts of Mahayana Buddhism give the minutest details about the duties of a Bodhisattva for completing each of the different virtues called Paramita in the process of progress to Buddhahood. Thus virtues are Dana-paramita, Sila-paramita, Kshanti-paramita, Virya-paramita, Dhyana-paramita, and Prajna-paramita. The virtues have differently mentioned as five, seven and ten. The Mahayana texts refer to the above six. Stress was also laid on two other virtues – Karuna, that is, compassion and Maitri, that is, love.

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