Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Emergence of Early Buddhism

The Emergence of Early Buddhism Early Buddhism as we know it originated in the 5th century B.C., and its growth was facilitated by several factors, which this essay intends to examine by tracing the background of early Buddhism, in particular the historical, geological and philosophical aspects of the environment in which early Buddhism emerged. The historical and geological background A highly developed civilization existed in the 3rd Millennium B.C in the Indian subcontinent. This civilization, now termed the Indus Valley Civilization or alternately the Harappa Civilization, existed approximately between the year 2800 B.C. and 1800 B.C. This peaceful civilization had a very highly developed spiritual culture, but was unfortunately interrupted in about the year 1800 or 1500 B.C. by an invasion from the North West. The Aryans were nomadic and pastoral. Upon the invasion, the Indus Valley Civilization succumbed very quickly to the military might of the Aryans. The Aryans had a totally secular religion in which the most important figure was the priest, while in the Indus Valley Civilization it was the ascetic. The Indus Valley Civilization stressed renunciation, meditation, rebirth, karma, and the goal of liberation, while the Aryan religion emphasized this life, and sacrifices to achieve the goals of material well-being, wealth, power and fame. In addition, there were two more important elements of Aryan; the caste system which was the division of society into social strata, and belief in the authority of the revealed scriptures, the Vedas. The history of Indian religion from 1500 B.C. onwards was one of gradual interaction between these two opposed religious views up to 600 or 500 B.C., the time of the Buddha approximately 1000 years later. The end of Aryan caused many socio-economic and political changes. While the priests and warriors were the most important figures in the early days of the Aryan Civilization, the merchants’ importance gradually increased. These changes prompted the Aryans to accept the religious ideas of the Indus Valley Civilization. By the first few centuries of the Common Era, the differences between the Aryan tradition and that of the Indus Valley tradition had become less distinguishable. The background: Philosophical thoughts prevalent in India before and during the period of the Buddha’s life Brahmanism The fundamental aspects of Brahmanism were developed around 1000 B.C. from a series of priestly commentaries on the original four Vedas, the Brahmanas. The Vedic period is held to have ended around 500 B.C. During this Vedic period the thinkers provided a foundation for the vast range of metaphysical and theological concepts. The foundation of Brahmanic religion was sacrifice to the great gods or powers of the universe and a conviction that intellectual reflection upon Vedic truth. In the meanwhile the skepticism confronted the problems of both existence (sat) and non-existence (asat), and a link between these existence and non-existence and identified that link with “desire (kāma)”. This recognition of desire would mean the denial of objective determinism and at the same time the acknowledgement of ātman. However, the Upaniṣadic thinkers couldn’t link ātman with doctrines as such a linkage would have excluded the social structure sacred to the Bahmanical thinkers; their ethical principles were derived from the caste system itself. Materialism A reaction to the Brahmanical speculations; while all Materialists agreed that matter is the ultimate fact of the universe there emerged two slightly different thoughts; the basic material elements don’t change is the one and only such material elements follow law of self-nature (svavhāva) is the other. And the second school avoided such reductionism and accepted the reality of both material elements and the physical bodies constituted by them. This latter group emphasized sense experience as a valid source of knowledge which seemed to have paid more attention to the human personality. The Ājīvikas and Jainism Ājīvikas believed in fate rather than karma and disregarded all human effort. Jainism is a doctrine which prescribes a path of non-violence to all living beings. It emphasizes the necessity of self-effort to move the soul towards divine consciousness and liberation. The Buddha Whereas the four major philosophical traditions before the rise of Buddhism were thought to be reluctant to admit uncertainty or skepticism regarding human knowledge Buddha recognized the limitations of human knowledge and draw out a description of truth and reality without reaching out for the ultimate objectivity. The values that emerged from the Buddha’s life were essentially three: renunciation, loving-kindness/compassion, and wisdom. The Buddha then recognized three defilements (Klesha) that caused us to wander in Samsāra, namely the defilements of desire, ill-will and ignorance. Through cultivating these three qualities we were to eliminate the defilements and attain enlightenment. The Buddha did not engage himself in the metaphysical arguments which were prevalent at that time or answer to any of those metaphysical questions, as he thought that these questions were inutile to arriving at Bodhi. While other thinkers of that time resorted to the existence of deities as they couldn’t explain the phenomena, the Buddha abandoned the metaphysical question itself. He rather focused on the reality and recognized the impermanence of all beings, matters and phenomena. Buddha’s penetrating insight of human life and the nature of existence prompted him to realization of the impermanence being the cause of human sufferings. He was then able to perceive the world focusing on the human predicament and the way out of it; the four noble truths (ariya-sacca) and laid out the Noble Eightfold Path to the end of suffering. The Buddha himself called it majjhima patipada (the Middle Path) because it avoided above mentioned two extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. Conclusion The unique historical background of the Indus Valley region led to the trend of the aforementioned prevailing attitudes before and around the time of Buddha; the early Buddhist discourses often refer to the mutual opposition between two views, namely the view of eternalism (sassatavada) and the view of annihilation (ucchedavada) which were referred to as bhava-ditthi, the belief in being and as vivhava-ditthi, the belief in non-being reciprocally. Sassatavada emphasized the duality between the soul and the body leading to self-mortification while ucchedavada (materialism) advocated man to be a pure product of the earth awaiting annihilation at death leading to sensual gratification. It seemed to be as a critical response to the mutual opposition between these views that Buddhism emerged as a new faith amidst many other faiths. In addition, the polarization of religious and intellectual thoughts into sassatavada and ucchedavada paved the way for the birth of skepticism and in turn to lead to the emergence of Buddhism as well. Bibliography Jayatilleke, K. N. 1963. Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Priate Limited, 1963. Kalupahana, David J. 1992. A History of Buddhist Philosophy. Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press, 1992. Karunadasa, Y. 2011. Early Buddhism: a doctrinal exposition. Hong Kong : s.n., 2011. Santina, Dr Peter D. Fundamentals of Buddhism. s.l. : Buddha Dhamma Education Association Inc.