For centuries, Buddhism has served as a pillar of Asia’s cultural, spiritual and philosophical life, and in later years has found growing influence in the Western world.
One of the oldest and largest religions on Earth, today it boasts around 470 million followers. But when and where did this fascinating way of life originate?
Origins of Buddhism
Buddhism was founded in northeast India in around the 5th century BC, on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Shakyamuni or famously, the Buddha (Enlightened One).
Around this time in its ancient history, India was undergoing a period known as the Second Urbanisation (c. 600-200 BC). Its religious life began to explode into a host of new movements which challenged the established authority of Vedism, one of the key traditions in early Hinduism.
While the Brahmans, amongst the highest classes of Hindu India, followed the Vedic religion with its orthodox sacrifice and ritual, other religious communities began to emerge that followed the Sramana tradition, seeking a more austere path to spiritual freedom.
Though these new communities held differing traditions and creeds, they shared a similar vocabulary of Sankrit words, including buddha (enlightened one), nirvana (a state of freedom from all suffering), yoga (union), karma (action) and dharma (rule or custom). They also tended to emerge around a charismatic leader.
It was from this time of great religious growth and experimentation in India that the birth of Buddhism would take place, through the spiritual journey and eventual awakening of Siddhartha Gautama.
Living over 2,500 years ago, the exact details of Siddhartha’s life remain somewhat hazy, with various ancient texts providing different details.
Traditionally, he is said to have been born as Siddhartha Gautama in Lumbini, modern-day Nepal. Many scholars believe he was likely from an aristocratic family of the Shakyas, a clan of rice farmers near the modern India-Nepal border, and grew up in Kapilavastu on the Ganges Plain.
The early Buddhist texts then tell that, frustrated by lay life and the idea that he would one day grow old, sicken and die, Siddhartha set out on a religious quest to find liberation, or ‘nirvana’. In one text, he is quoted:
“The household life, this place of impurity, is narrow – the samana life is the free open air. It is not easy for a householder to lead the perfected, utterly pure and perfect holy life.”
Adopting the Sramana, or samana, way of life, Siddhartha first studied under two teachers of meditation, before exploring the practice of severe asceticism. This included strict fasting, different forms of breath control and forceful mind control. Becoming emaciated in the process, this way of life proved unfulfilling.
He then turned to the meditative practice of dhyana, allowing him to discover ‘The Middle Way’ between extreme indulgence and self-mortification. Determining to sit under a fig tree in the town of Bodh Daya to meditate, he at last reached enlightenment in the shade of what is now known as the Bodhi Tree, achieving three higher knowledges in the process. These included the divine eye, knowledge of his past lives, and the karmic destinations of others.
Continuing Buddhist teachings
As a fully enlightened Buddha, Siddhartha soon attracted a mass of followers. He founded a sangha, or monastic order, and later a bhikkhuni, a parallel order for female monastics.
Instructing those of all castes and backgrounds, he would spend the rest of his life teaching his dharma, or rule of law, across the Gangetic Plain of north-central India and southern Nepal. He also sent his followers further across India to spread his teachings elsewhere, urging them to use the local dialects or languages of the area.
At the age of 80, he died in Kushinagar, India, achieving ‘final nirvana’. His followers continued his teachings, and in the final centuries of the 1st millennium BC they had broken up into various Buddhist schools of thought with different interpretations. In the modern era, the most well-known of these are Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism.
During the reign of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC, Buddhism was granted royal support and spread rapidly across the Indian subcontinent. Adopting Buddhist principles into his government, Ashoka outlawed warfare, established medical care for his citizens and promoted the worship and veneration of stupas.
One of his most enduring contributions to the early growth of Buddhism was also the inscriptions he had written on pillars across his empire. Noted as the earliest Buddhist ‘texts’, these were placed at Buddhist monasteries, places of pilgrimage and important sites from the Buddha’s life, helping to piece together the early Buddhist landscape of India.
Emissaries were also sent out of India to spread the religion, including to Sri Lanka and as far west as the Greek kingdoms. Over time, Buddhism became accepted in Japan, Nepal, Tibet, Burma and notably one of the most powerful countries of its day: China.
Most historians of ancient China agree that Buddhism arrived in the 1st century AD during the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), and was brought by missionaries along trade routes, particularly through the Silk Roads. Today, China holds the largest Buddhist population on Earth, with half of the world’s Buddhists living there.
With the great success of Buddhism outside of India, it soon began to manifest itself into regionally distinct ways. One of the most famous Buddhist communities today is that of the Tibetan monks, led by the Dalai Lama.