History of Buddhism: Philosophy, 8-Fold Paths & Literature

This comprehensive guide encompasses all the essential aspects of Buddhism you require to excel in the UPSC exam. It covers the history, beliefs, symbols, steps to salvation, the four Noble Truths, literature, councils, schools, architecture, and the eventual decline of Buddhism.

This guide offers 100% coverage, making it the ultimate source. You won’t need any external references to master Buddhism for the UPSC exam—it’s all here.

Rise of Buddhism

The 6th century B.C. was a time of notable global religious shifts. Visionaries around the world rose against prevailing injustices, aiming to create fresh socio-religious systems. This era witnessed the rise of important figures that contributed to social and religious enlightenment, these include:

  • Confucius in China
  • Zoroaster in Persia
  • Pythagoras in Greece
  • Jainism and Buddhism in India

Around the 6th century B.C., India experienced the coexistence of approximately 62 diverse religious sects. Notably, Buddhism and Jainism gained prominence during this period. Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, and Gautam Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, played significant roles in transforming Indian society.

What Led to the Rise of Buddhism?

There are various factors that led to the rise of Buddhism:

  • The Decline of Original Vedic Purity: The fundamental essence of Vedic philosophy had weakened, leading to complex religious practices involving rituals, dogmas, and superstitions.
  • Brahmin Caste Dominance: The dominance of the Brahmin caste created discontent, as their influence shaped religious interpretations and societal norms, causing inequalities.
  • Sanskrit Language Barrier: Religious texts exclusively in Sanskrit limited accessibility, alienating those who couldn’t understand the language, and creating divisions.
  • Solidified Caste System: The caste system had grown inflexible, oppressing lower-caste individuals and women, and aggravating social disparities.
  • Emergence of New Sects: In response, various new religious sects arose, offering fresh perspectives and solutions, and addressing societal issues and dynamics.

Gautam Buddha

The founder of Buddhism, Gautam Buddha, was born in the village of Rumandei in Lumbini, Kapilvastu, Nepal, around the year 567 BC. He was born into the Sakya clan and was the prince of the clan, with his father “Shudhodhana” leading it. He is also known as Sakyamuni or Tathagat. His original name was Siddhartha. Unfortunately, his mother, “Mahamaya“, passed away shortly after his birth, and he was raised by his maternal aunt and stepmother, “Prajapati Gautami“.

He was married to “Yashodra“, and they had a son named “Rahul”. One day, Siddhartha, accompanied by his charioteer and friend “Channa”, explored his kingdom. During this journey, he witnessed four significant sights:

  • an old man
  • a sick man
  • a dead body
  • an ascetic

These events hold significant importance in Buddhism as they are known as the “Four Great Sights.

On a full moon day of Baisakh, when he was 29 years old, Gautam Buddha renounced his palace, accompanied by his friend Channa and his horse “Kantaka“. This pivotal moment is referred to as “Mahabhinishkramana.

Subsequently, he journeyed to Vaishali, where he encountered two teachers named “Rudrak Ramputra and Allarakalma“. However, their teachings didn’t satisfy his quest for deeper understanding, prompting him to leave them and embark on years of wandering in search of truth.

After that, “Ananda” became his chief disciple. At the age of 35, Siddhartha meditated under a “papal tree at Uruvella (Gaya)” on the banks of the “Nirjara River”. After 48 days of meditation, he attained enlightenment (Nirvana) on a full moon day of Baisakh. This transformative experience marked the moment when he became Buddha.

His first sermon, known as the “DHARAMCHAKRAPARIVARTAN”, was delivered at Deer Park in Sarnath. He passed away (Mahaparinirvana) at the age of 80 in Kusinara (Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh) within the territory of the Mallas Republic.

In 1956, the 2600th death anniversary of Buddha was celebrated, commemorating his profound impact and teachings.

Symbols of Buddhism

Buddhist symbols convey deep meanings that embody the core of the religion:

  1. Birth (Janama): Represented by the Lotus flower and the Bull, symbolizing purity and strength.
  2. Mahabhinishkarmna (Renunciation): Depicted by a Horse, symbolizing the leaving behind of material desires.
  3. Nirvana (Enlightenment): Symbolized by the Bodhi tree, where Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment.
  4. Dharam Chakra Parivartan: Represented by the Wheel, symbolizing the turning of the wheel of Dharma, or the teachings of Buddhism.
  5. Mahaparinirvan (Death): Represented by the Stupa, which symbolizes the final resting place of Buddha and his release from the cycle of rebirth.

Philosophy of Buddhism

At the heart of Buddhism lies a profound philosophy that seeks to understand the nature of human suffering and provide a path to liberation. This philosophy is encapsulated in the Four Noble Truths, Steps & Virtues, Jewels, and the Eightfold Path.

I. Four Noble Truths

  1. Sabbam Dukkham – Life is Full of Sorrow: Buddhism starts by acknowledging the reality of suffering (dukkha). Life inherently includes challenges, pain, and difficulties.
  2. Dukha Samudya – Desire Causes Rebirth and Misery: The cause of suffering is our desires and attachments (Tanha). These cravings lead to a cycle of rebirth and misery, known as Pratitya Samutpada.
  3. Dukha Nirodha – Ending Suffering by Conquering Desire: Suffering can be ended by conquering desires. This goal of freedom from suffering is called Nirvana.
  4. Gamini Pratipad – The Path to Nirvana: The path to Nirvana is laid out in the Eightfold Path (Asht Marg). Following this path leads to liberation from the cycle of birth and death.

II. Three Steps to Salvation

  1. Sheel (Ethical Conduct): This involves living a moral and ethical life, refraining from harming others.
  2. Samadhi (Meditative Concentration): Developing a focused and calm mind through meditation.
  3. Sambodhi (Wisdom and Enlightenment): Attaining wisdom, understanding the true nature of reality, and achieving enlightenment.

III. Four Noble Virtues

  1. Maitri (Love): Practicing loving-kindness towards all beings.
  2. Karuna (Compassion): Cultivating compassion and empathy for the suffering of others.
  3. Mudita (Sympathetic Joy): Feeling joy in the success and happiness of others.
  4. Upeksha (Equanimity): Maintaining balance and equanimity, not being swayed by attachment or aversion.

IV. Eightfold Path

The Eightfold Path is a set of ethical and mental guidelines that Buddhists follow to achieve enlightenment and liberation from suffering:

  1. Right View
  2. Right Intention
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

V. Three Jewels of Buddhism

The Three Jewels, also known as the Three Refuges or Three Treasures, are fundamental concepts in Buddhism that serve as the guiding principles for Buddhist practitioners. The Three Jewels are:

  1. Buddha (Buddham Saranam Gacchami): The first jewel is the Buddha himself. Taking refuge in the Buddha signifies seeking guidance and inspiration from the awakened one, Siddhartha Gautama. Buddhists honor his teachings, his example of attaining enlightenment, and his role as a teacher and guide.
  2. Dharma (Dhammam Saranam Gacchami): The second jewel is Dharma, which encompasses the teachings and the path to enlightenment that Buddha shared with his followers. Taking refuge in the Dharma means committing to understanding and applying the teachings to one’s life to attain wisdom, compassion, and liberation from suffering.
  3. Sangha (Sangham Saranam Gacchami): The third jewel is the Sangha, the community of practitioners who support and encourage each other on the path to enlightenment. Taking refuge in the Sangha signifies seeking support and learning from fellow practitioners who share the same goals and values.

Atheistic Views in Buddhism

Buddhism UPSC - Symbols, EIGHT FOLD PATHS, Philosphy
  • Buddha’s Silence on God: Buddha chose not to address the concept of God; he remained silent regarding the question of the creator of the world.
  • Emphasis on Cause and Effect: Buddha’s teachings revolved around the theory of cause and effect. He emphasized that actions have consequences, and events occur due to specific causes.
  • The Impermanence of the World: According to Buddha, the world is transient and temporary. Change is an inherent part of nature, leading to decay and transformation.
  • Belief in Karma: Buddha advocated the concept of Karma, where individuals experience the outcomes of their actions. He stressed that people must face the results of their Karma.
  • Absence of Soul: Buddha rejected the belief in a permanent, unchanging soul. Instead, he viewed humans as a composition of Samskaras or mental and physical elements.
  • Faith in Rebirth: Buddha subscribed to the belief in Punarjanma or rebirth. He held that individuals experience multiple lifetimes, each influenced by their past actions.

In essence, Buddha’s teachings encompassed atheistic perspectives by not focusing on a deity or divine creator, emphasizing cause and effect, and promoting the understanding of impermanence and the consequences of individual actions.

Types of Buddhist Followers

There are two types of Buddhist followers:

1. Layman – Upasaka/Upasika

  • Lay individuals who follow Buddhism are known as Upasaka (male) or Upasika (female).
  • They are not ordained as monks or nuns and continue with their everyday lives while practicing Buddhist principles.
  • Lay followers support the monastic community and often participate in religious activities and ceremonies.

2. Monastic Followers – Bhikshu/Bhikshuni

  • Monastic practitioners in Buddhism are referred to as Bhikshu (monks) and Bhikshuni (nuns).
  • They lead an ordained life, renouncing worldly possessions and dedicating themselves to spiritual practice and service.
  • Monastic followers uphold strict rules and engage in meditation, study, and teaching to progress on the path to enlightenment.

Buddhist Sangha

The Buddha established the Sangha, often referred to as the world’s oldest church. In its inception, women were initially excluded, but this policy was later reversed, allowing women to join. Gautami Prajapati was the first woman to become a member, and the Gautami Monastery in Khotan stands as a testament to her role.

How to Join the Buddhist Sangha?

  • Individuals as young as 15 years old were eligible to become monks.
  • Initiates would wear a distinctive yellow robe and shave their heads as symbols of their commitment.
  • They would recite the Three Jewels of Buddhism: “Buddham Sharnam Gachchami, Dhamam Sharnam Gachchami, Sangham Sharnam Gachchami.
  • Monks maintained minimal belongings, including a yellow robe, a begging bowl, a needle, and a string.
  • Meals were limited to a single daily meal.
  • Monks could choose teachers following the Patimokha system, a regulated framework.
  • After receiving education, novices could advance to the status of shraman, signifying a progression in their spiritual journey.

Mobility & Guidelines of Sangha

Monks were prohibited from staying in one place for more than three months, except during the rainy season (known as Vassa). Initiation into Buddhism was open to all, regardless of gender, age, caste, or social status. Buddha welcomed common men and women into his following, enabling spiritual advancement for everyone.

Buddha’s Views on Veda, Ritualism, and Non-Violence

  • Veda and Ritualism: Buddha rejected ritualism, including practices like Yajna and animal or human sacrifices. He opposed the caste system and did not consider the Vedas as infallible or unquestionable divine texts.
  • Non-Violence: Central to Buddhism was the principle of non-violence. Buddha regarded indulgence in violence as a grave sin, emphasizing the importance of compassion and harmlessness towards all beings.

Buddha’s teachings encompassed equality, non-violence, and the rejection of ritualistic practices, emphasizing the path to enlightenment and inner transformation.

Buddhist Literature

  1. Tripitakas – Three Baskets of Wisdom:
    • Suttapitaka: Compiled by Anand, containing fundamental principles.
    • Vinayapitaka: Compiled by Upali, laws for monks and nuns.
    • Abhidhammapitaka: Created by various scholars, delving into philosophy.
  2. Jatakas – Birth Stories:
    • Reflect Buddha’s past lives, portraying social and economic context.
  3. Milinda Panha – The Questions of Milinda:
    • Dialogues between Indo-Greek ruler Menander and monk Nagsena.
  4. Deepavansha and Mahavansha:
    • Describing socio-religious, political Indian, and Sri Lankan dynasties.
  5. Mahavastu:
    • Sanskrit text detailing Buddha’s powers and Bodhisattva concept.
  6. Vimuttimagga:
    • Guide to Buddhist meditation practices and spiritual liberation.
  7. Madhyamaka Karika by Nagarjuna:
    • Nagarjuna’s work explores Shunyavada, compared to Einstein’s relativity.
  8. Asvaghosa’s Works:
    • Sanskrit texts include “Buddhacharita,” “Saundarananda Kavya,” “Sriputra Prakarana,” “Sutralankara,” and “Vajrasuci.”

Buddhist literature offers profound insights into philosophy, history, and spiritual teachings, shedding light on various facets of the religion and its evolution over time.

WriterNotable Works
Various ScholarsAbhidhammapitaka
AnonymousJatakas (Birth Stories)
NagasenaMilinda Panha (The Questions of Milinda)
Mahanama TheraMahavansha
NagarjunaMadhyamaka Karika
Saundarananda Kavya
Sriputra Prakarana
Buddhist Literature

Buddhist Religious Councils

Four important gatherings called Buddhist Councils have made a lasting impact on Buddhism’s history. These gatherings, held at key moments, guided Buddhism’s growth. Scholars, monks, and followers shaped doctrines, practices, and beliefs.

First Buddhist CouncilRajgrihaAjatshatruMahakasyapa
Second Buddhist CouncilVaishaliKalasokaSabakami
Third Buddhist CouncilPataliputraEmperor AshokaMogaliputra Tissa
Fourth Buddhist CouncilKundal Van ViharKing KanishkaVasumitra
Buddhist Religious Councils

Now, let’s learn about the importance and results of each of these councils:

1. First Buddhist Council (483 B.C.)

  • Organized in Rajgriha with the support of Ajatshatru.
  • Presided over by Mahakasyapa, a senior disciple.
  • Ananda and Upali, disciples of Buddha, actively participated.
  • The main objective was to compile and preserve Buddha’s teachings.
  • Resulted in the compilation of Vinayapitaka (monastic rules) and Suttapitaka (discourses).

2. Second Buddhist Council (380 B.C.)

  • Held in Vaishali due to disputes among monks.
  • Presided over by Sabakami, a respected elder.
  • Around 700 monks participated, but the disagreements remained unresolved.
  • A faction known as MahaSanghikas emerged, seeking modifications in Buddha’s teachings to adapt to the changing times.
  • Another group, Sthavira Hayaka, adhered to traditional teachings and practices.
  • Sthavira eventually split into Sautrantikas, which further branched into Sammitiya.

3. Third Buddhist Council (251 B.C.)

  • Organized during the reign of Emperor Ashoka in Pataliputra.
  • Chaired by Mogaliputra Tissa, a prominent scholar-monk from Ceylon.
  • Approximately 1000 monks participated, representing different regions.
  • The focus was on systematizing and organizing the Buddhist scriptures.
  • Resulted in the composition of the Abhidhammapitaka, a text analyzing Buddhist philosophy and doctrines.
  • This council marked a significant phase in spreading Buddhism, with Ashoka’s children, Mahinda and Sanghamitra, being sent as missionaries to Ceylon.

4. Fourth Buddhist Council (1st A.D.)

  • Held in Kundal Van Vihar under the patronage of King Kanishka, a prominent Kushan ruler.
  • Vasumitra, a scholar-monk, served as the council’s chairman.
  • Asvaghosha, a renowned philosopher and poet, was the vice-chairman.
  • The council aimed to address emerging doctrinal disputes and preserve Buddhist teachings.
  • This resulted in the further division of the Buddhist community into two main branches:
    1. Hinayana (Theravada)
    2. Mahayana
Hinayana BuddhismMahayana Buddhism
Emphasized original teachings of BuddhaIntroduced new concepts and expanded interpretations
Individual enlightenment and self-liberationBuddha is divine, compassion, and salvation of all beings
Used Pali for textsAdopted Sanskrit for texts
“Madhyamika Karika” by Nagarjuna

Buddhist Councils played pivotal roles in shaping the trajectory of Buddhism, resulting in the development of various sects, interpretations, and practices that continue to influence the religion’s evolution to this day.

Decline of Buddhism

The decline of Buddhism in India was fueled by various factors. It faced criticism for adopting perceived negative elements and faced a Brahmanical backlash. The influence of figures like Shankaracharya and Kumaril Bhatt significantly weakened Buddhism.

An important symbol, the Bodhi tree, was uprooted by Sasank, the ruler of Bengal, in the 7th century AD, marking a symbolic blow to the religion’s presence in India.

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