Write about the teachings of Buddha

Buddhism is a religion in which the teachings of the Lord Buddha are followed by saints, nuns, and lay people across the world. It is no news that it is one of the great ancient religions that emerged during the 5th and 6th C.E. Buddhism holds significance for India as it originated in the country. From its rise as a religion to its decline, it received a massive response from common people who, after following the path of Buddhism, remained uncommon to others. The Mauryan Empire, the Kanishka Empire, and many kingdoms of that time were influenced by the teachings of Buddha. This is evident from the art, literature, sculptures, and the extent of its spread, which reflects the popularity of the religion.

Buddha was born as Siddhartha, the son of Suddhodana, the chief of the Sakya clan, who ruled from Kapilavastu. His mother Maya gave birth to him in a grove at Lumbini while traveling towards her parents’ home and died within a few days. The story goes that soon after he was born, certain Brahmanas saw the 32 marks of a great man on his body. According to Buddhist tradition, a mahapurusha can be of two kinds: a world conqueror or a world renouncer. At the age of 29, Gautama left home, rejected his life of riches, and embraced a lifestyle of asceticism, or extreme self-discipline. After 49 consecutive days of meditation, Gautama attained Bodhi (enlightenment) under a pipal tree in Bodhgaya, a village in Bihar. Buddha gave his first sermon in the village of Sarnath, near the city of Benares in UP. This event is known as Dharma-Chakra-Pravartana (turning of the wheel of law).

The Buddha has often been portrayed as a social reformer, standing against social discrimination and advocating for equality for all. However, a careful examination of the Pali texts reveals a different and more complex perspective.
While the Buddha’s teachings were indeed more socially inclusive than the Brahmanical tradition, they did not aim to abolish social differences. Buddhist texts themselves reflect certain biases, which are also evident in the supposedly non-social world of the sangha. The key point is that the Buddha regarded all social relationships as fetters and a source of suffering. Liberation could only be attained by breaking away from these fetters. The creation of the monastic order had the potential to cause significant social upheaval by providing a refuge for those who chose to drop out of society. However, the Buddhist tradition also sought to maintain the status quo and laid down specific conditions for entry. For example, soldiers could only join with the permission of the king, slaves could only join after being freed by their masters, and debtors could only join after paying off their debts.

As the time of the Buddha progressed, many of these limitations were overcome. The introduction of iron in agriculture facilitated deeper ploughing and the cultivation of hard soil in the mid-Ganga plains. Iron was also used in various crafts and the production of metallic money, such as the punch-marked coins. Simultaneously, the practice of wet paddy transplantation emerged in areas naturally suited for rice cultivation. These developments led to surplus agricultural production, which sustained trade, taxation, and the emergence of a stratified society with administrative officials, ideologues, and wage laborers. Dharmasutra literature justified varna divisions and institutionalized inequality. Vaisyas and sudras bore the burden of carrying out production and provided the necessary revenue and labor to support the king’s officials, army personnel, priests, ideologues, and others. Buddhism, too, recognized and endorsed many of these developments.

References to ministers and armies in the context of Magadha and Kosala can be found. The presence of officials such as balisadhaka and karakara suggests the collection of taxes like bali and kara. Thus, by the sixth to fifth centuries B.C., territorial states emerged in northern India.

The Buddhist tradition viewed varna as a socially constructed hierarchy, in contrast to the divine sanction conferred on it by the Brahmanical tradition. In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha describes a dream in which birds of different kinds and colors, representing the four varnas, came from the four directions and sat at his feet. Similarly, he asserted that monks from the four varnas—Kshatriya, Brahmana, Vaishya, and Shudra—were welcomed into his fold. The same text declares that when a person joins the sangha, they become without varna (avannaṇṇani). Varna and jati were considered irrelevant for aspirants to the sangha. However, a closer examination of the actual composition of the sangha reveals a significant proportion of members from the upper class (Chakravarti, 1987: 124-31). A large section of the monks were Brahmanas or Kshatriyas (including Kshatriyas from the ganas), or they belonged to families of high status (ucchakula). Members from other backgrounds such as householders (gahapatis), merchants (setthis), and those from lower classes (nichakula) were comparatively fewer.

Prominent Brahmanas, such as Sariputta, Mahamoggallana, and Mahakassapa, figure prominently among the famous bhikkhus. Distinguished Kshatriya monks included the Buddha himself, as well as others like Ananda and Aniruddha. On the other hand, the notable monk Upali was originally a barber of the Sakas.
The Pali canon challenges the Brahmanical hierarchy and places the Kshatriya higher than the Brahmana. While the Buddha is often depicted as rejecting the Brahmanical claim of inherent superiority, the term ‘Brahmana’ is used in two senses in Buddhist texts. On one hand, it is used in the conventional sense as a social category. On the other hand, it is also used as an ideal category to refer to a wise person who leads an exemplary life. In some instances, even the Buddha himself is addressed as ‘Brahmana’. The Sonadanda Sutta asserts that Brahmanahood is not a matter of birth; a true Brahmana is not one who merely recites Vedic verses, but one who possesses true knowledge. However, when it comes to descriptions of real Brahmanas, the Buddhist texts do not hesitate to criticize them.

The followers of the Buddha had the choice to join the sangha or remain outside it. The sangha and the laity had a close connection. Members of the sangha taught the dhamma to the laity and were expected to serve as examples of righteous living. The monastic community relied on the support of the laity for food and other forms of patronage. For the laity, dana (giving) was considered an important and meritorious activity that led to the accumulation of punya (merit). It was valued because it involved generosity and letting go of attachment to material possessions. Interactions between monks and the laity occurred in various contexts. The most common one was when monks went on their alms rounds to households to receive food. If invited, monks were expected to give discourses to the laity and participate in significant events in their lives. The establishment of permanent monastic institutions likely strengthened the bonds between them. However, there was always a need to maintain a certain distance and not develop overly close relationships. According to tradition, the first lay followers of the Buddha were two merchants named Tapassu and Bhallika. Afterward, the number of lay followers expanded rapidly. The laity included male followers (upasakas) and female followers (upasikas).

An upasaka or upasika was a person who declared that they had taken refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, but had not taken monastic vows. For the laity, good conduct consisted of observing the five precepts: refraining from harming living beings, refraining from taking what is not given, avoiding sexual misconduct, refraining from false speech, and abstaining from intoxicants. On certain occasions, such as full moon days or for extended periods, a layperson could take additional steps by replacing the vow of avoiding sexual misconduct with sexual abstinence. They could also take additional vows of not eating after mid-day, abstaining from attending entertainments, not using jewelry or perfumes, and not using luxurious beds. By following these modified eight vows, laypersons would align themselves more closely with monastic discipline. Buddhist texts provide examples of learned laypersons, and there are a few instances of laypeople (such as the Buddha’s father) attaining the state of arhat without joining the sangha, simply by hearing the teachings.

Buddhism created and fostered a new intellectual and cultural awareness. It taught people not to accept things blindly but to critically examine and judge them based on their merits. Superstition was replaced, to some extent, by logic, promoting rationalism among the people. To propagate the doctrines of the new religion, Buddhists compiled a new type of literature, greatly enriching the Pali language through their writings. Early Pali literature can be divided into three categories. The first category contains the sayings and teachings of the Buddha, the second deals with the rules to be observed by members of the sangha, and the third presents a philosophical exposition of the Dhamma.

Leave a Comment