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Some reflections on the origins of Buddhism

This month marks the celebration of Vesak, commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and passing away of Gautama Buddha

By the 6th century BC the centre of Indian civilisation had, according to most accounts, shifted to the Ganges Valley. Social and economic conditions made possible the rise of several religions that posed as alternatives to the rigid orthodoxy of Brahmanism. By the end of the 5th century BC, however, the number of these sects had come down, and among those that survived were Jainism and Buddhism.

There were other religious groups as well — the Ajivikas and the Gotamakas, the latter being the breakaway creed espoused by Siddhartha Gautama’s cousin, Devadatta — but the rise of a merchant class and a universal monarch, as later events clearly showed, brought about a religious paradigm shift which favoured an ideology that followed a middle path. Buddhism, wrote the eminent Indian historian Kosambi, thus became “the most important discovery of India for a great majority of Asian people.” Yet by the end of the Mauryan Empire, this most important discovery had exited India to other neighbouring lands.

The Gangetic Basin became the centre of the second urbanisation of ancient India, following the Indus Valley phase from 3300 to 1800 BC. This second urbanisation accordingly took place in two stages, the first going back to the 6th to 5th century BC and the second to the last centuries of the first millennium BC. By the 7th century BC, before the rise of cities in the region, 16 small states had sprung up, bordering the Ganges Valley.

Alexander Cunningham, founder of the Archaeological Survey of India, retraced the route taken by the Chinese pilgrims Fa-Hsien and Xuanzang to the sites of some of their cities, including Mathura, Ahicchatra, Sankisa, Kanauj, Kausambi, Ayodhya, Sravasti, Kusinagara, Varanasi, Vaisali, Pataliputra, Bodhgaya, Rajagaha, Nalanda, Champa, and Tamralipti. Within 150 years, these small “republics” or “janapadas” would be reduced to four, while within the next two centuries they would be consolidated into one empire, Magadha. Bimbisara and Ajasattu, its most illustrious rulers, were among the most influential patrons of the Buddha, who spent much of his life there; the language he used was, after all, Maghadi Prakrit.

The story of Buddhism and its rise is thus, at one level, the story of the economic and social changes rapidly unravelling throughout India. In the Mauryan Empire Indian civilisation had its first universal monarchy, while Buddhism would be adopted as a state religion many decades later under Asoka, the grandson of its founder.

Jean Darian points out correctly that the ascent of Buddhism was tied to the rise of bureaucratic empires that was in turn based on two historical trends: the withering away of tribal republics and the formation of kingdoms, and the rise of a merchant class which was more conducive to the growth of empires than a priestly class/caste. Buddhism, therefore, did not emerge in a vacuum: there were conditions that stimulated its rise over not just those priestly sects but sects which, while sharing some of its key tenets, nevertheless emphasised a more ascetic and extreme lifestyle. Indeed, Siddhartha Gautama’s first two teachers, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, were followers of these extreme creeds: under Alara Kalama he attained the “Realm of Nothingness” (Akincannayatana), and under Uddaka Ramaputta he attained the “Realm of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception” (Neva Sanna Nasannayatana).

How did urbanisation come about, and what influence did it exert on Buddhism, a religion which in Sri Lanka finds its truest expression, as anthropologists, historians, and eminent writers like Martin Wickramasinghe and Gunadasa Amarasekara have observed, in the village? The transition from the Indus Valley to the Ganges was accompanied, if not driven, by the emergence of a Vedic culture in the latter.

This culture was the product of a semi-nomadic people who called themselves “Arya”, which European orientalists and philologists of the 18th and 19th centuries, including William Jones and Max Muller, linked to the civilisations of Europe. We know a lot from literary sources and at the same time so little from actual inscriptions about the nature and the character of these people. The little we do know is that, in their hands, the Ganges Valley, which Brahmanical and Buddhist texts referred to as the “Majjhimadesaya” or the Middle Kingdom, transformed from a flourishing, fertile agricultural enclave to a highly developing civilisation. As a rural outpost, the valley was the site of a stratified society, divided into castes and occupational groups; its transformation into a highly urban civilisation was thus marked by breakdowns in the traditional rural order.

Buddhists texts attest to the commercialisation of life in the 5th century BC. The Jataka stories tell us of a “flourishing urban society” in North India. This spurt of commercialisation centred on, and revolved around, Rajagaha, the capital of Magadha. A steady rise in the number of people in urban settlements there meant the rise of an urban consciousness and the formation of towns, markets, and trade guilds, including those of woodworkers, ironworkers, leatherworkers, and painters.

The Magadha period moreover saw developments in mercantile practices and skills, in the trade and transport of items such as silk, jewellery, and armour, and of a special ceramic called the Northern Black Polish Ware; the latter would make its first appearance in 500 BC and spread rapidly beyond the Ganges valley. Kosambi puts all this against the ascent of Buddhism: “The 1,500 years of the full cycle of the rise, spread, and decline of Buddhism saw India change over from semi-pastoral tribal life to the first absolute monarchies and then to feudalism.”

Under these absolute monarchies, the faintest outline of a market economy emerged for the first time in India. The rule of these monarchs was linked inextricably, though not without its share of antagonisms and conflicts, to the rise of a merchant class, among which were the famed sresthi, the financiers. The immediate result of this was the undercutting of the caste system. No longer tied to the land like their ancestors, the merchants forwent on their allegiance to the rigid texts of the Vedas.

Indeed, injunctions against and condemnations of city life run through many of the traditional religious texts from this period: cities are described as places “where the Vedas are not recited”, and householders who are completing their studies are warned against “spending too much time in the city”, since urban-dwellers “cannot attain salvation, despite their austerities.” The rulers, on the other hand, found in merchants a ready means of accumulating capital for large public works, which Marx and Engels noted as the distinguishing mark of Indian (and Asiatic) pre-capitalist civilisation. Capital needed to be freed from control by traditional status groups or the upper castes. At the same time, they required a polity, and a religious doctrine, which would discourage too much accumulation of wealth, especially “in the hands of potentially rival groups.”

Buddhism was one among many doctrines that witnessed this spate of urbanisation, but it was also arguably the most adaptable. The religious revolutions of the Gangetic Basin can be traced to the teachings of Ajita Kesakambali, a materialist philosopher who, in stark contrast to the Brahmins and the Vedas, believed that the body turned to dust and nothing else upon death.

This evolved into still other creeds and sects, of which the Samkhyians were among the first to propound that the soul was distinguishable from the physical body, whose decomposition the former survived. Alara Kalama was a follower of this creed. The Jains under Mahaviraswami adhered to a rigid ideology which forbade drinking “without straining or filtering” and in-breathing, since they could kill life-forms in water and in the air. Uddaka Ramaputta is considered to have been a Jain.

The achievement of Buddhism was its avoidance of both materialism and asceticism. The Middle Way, the “Majjhimapatipadawa”, thus suited a civilisation rooted in trade practices liberated from caste constraints on the one hand, and a clergy and a lay following which believed in staying away from accumulating too much wealth on the other. That was, arguably, its single greatest innovation.

The founder of the doctrine, whose birth, enlightenment, and passing away we commemorate this month, was in many respects representative of the transitions of the period he was born to. While much of his life remains shrouded in mystery, there is certainly no lack of biographies, including the Pali Canonical texts, the Tripitakaya, Buddhagosa’s Aththakatha or Commentaries, and Asvaghosa’s Buddhacharitha. Orientalists and Pali scholars of the 18th and 19th centuries, including Carl Koeppen (Die Religion des Buddha und ihre Entstehung, 1857), W. Wassiljew (Der Buddhismus: Seine Dogmen, Geschichte, und Literatur, 1860), Hermann Oldenberg (Buddha: Sein Leben, seine Lehre, seine Gemeinde, 1881), and Edward Thomas (The Life of the Buddha as Legend and History, 1908), all of them dwarfed by Edwin Arnold (The Light of Asia, 1879) and Hermann Hesse (Siddhartha, 1927), published one biography, hagiography, and translation after another.

All these works, or almost all of them, follow the same narrative: the premonition of the birth; the birth amidst several miracles, involving lotus flowers and a sal tree; the naming of the baby at which the youngest of several Brahmins predicts the eventual turning away from worldly life by the prince; the ploughing festival at which the young prince attains the first of many jhanas, or states of being; the marriage at the age of 16 and the later birth of a son; and the decisive four sights.

Nevertheless these texts, including the Canonical texts, differ on certain points though the biographies essentially agree with each other. Michael Carrithers, for instance, argued that the Sakyans were not strictly speaking kings, but were instead oligarchs “or councils of elders, or some mixture of the two”, or leaders of tribal republics which were, in the Buddha’s time, yielding place to the Maghada Empire, while at the First Buddhist Council months after the Mahaparinibbana the interpreters were divided over whether Siddhartha Gautama saw the “four sights” in one go and day or over several days: the “Digabhanakas”, entrusted with the study of the Digha Nikaya, are said to have made the case for the former interpretation, while all other groups favoured the latter.

Despite these differences and disagreements, the outline of Buddhism has survived to this date, and continues to exert a tremendous influence over the spiritual and material life of Asia, especially Sri Lanka. To admit that, however, is to understate the reality, for Buddhism inspired in the latter not just its marvels of architecture and art, but also its trajectory of culture and civilisation. The edifices of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, if nothing else, attest to the sublimeness which architects, under the sway of Buddhism’s Middle Path, sought to emulate. Ironically for a land where the main religion propounded the reality of impermanence and the virtues of a Middle Path, its first “Buddhist capital” Anuradhapura held on longer than any other South Asian capital: 1,500 years, to be exact.

Newton Gunasinghe saw in the transformation of Buddhism from an urban theology in India to a rural folk religion in Sri Lanka an ideological paradigm shift that suited the dominant social patterns of each country. Thus, from the emperor and urban-dweller Buddhism came to be patronised, in Sri Lanka, by the king, landlord, and peasant.

By the turn of the 19th century, when urbanisation made inroads to the country via changes in the economic landscape forced on locals by colonial officials, Buddhism faced its second major revival: the Theosophist Protestant Buddhist revival. Nevertheless, despite its urban trappings, the movement remained bonded to the wellsprings of Buddhism in the village. As in the Ganges Valley and the Middle Kingdom of India, then, the teachings of the Buddha adapted to their new environment, and with that to entirely new patterns of life.

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