Around the same period of history (500 BCE), another major religion of India, Buddhism, was born. This is the only religion that originated in India but spread and flourished more outside its borders. Buddhism took strong roots in China, Tibet, Cambodia, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Korea, and Sri Lanka, and it is still very popular in many of these countries. Buddhist monks also went to the West, to far places such as Egypt, Syria, and Greece. It is believed that as many as eighty-four thousand monks were sent out of the country to propagate the spiritual message of the Buddha. According to historian Professor Mahaffy, Buddhist monks preached in Palestine and Syria a couple of centuries before the birth of Christ.58
Socrates, the famous Greek philosopher (469 – 399 BC), and teacher of Plato, in his writing has quoted, “The soul being immortal, having been born again and again, and having seen all things that exist; …all learning is but a recollection…”. (Hinduism Today July-Sept ’17, p 14) This gives a strong indication that he may have come in contact with Hindu/Buddhist Rishis in some way.
In the opinion of the learned Anglican priest C. F. Andrews, the ideal of ahimsa (non-violence) was planted in a holy manner from the Hindu origin. In India, however, after the initial period of its rapid rise, there was a sharp decline in the influence of Buddhism, mainly due to the heavy destruction of the Buddhist monasteries at Nalanda and other places by the Muslim invaders. The renaissance of Hinduism brought about by Sri Shankaracharya was another important reason.
Gautama was the prince born in northeast India. His original name was Siddhartha. After his birth, an astrologer predicted that he would be an ascetic. His father, the king, did not want this to happen, so he prevented the young prince from coming into contact with any sorrowful events, which might turn his mind toward a more spiritual search. The king’s plan failed, however, as the prince did come face to face with the realities of old age, disease, and death. The phenomenon of kaal chakra, or the cycle of time, was impressed deeply upon his mind. Later, this concept of inevitable suffering would become the pivotal point of his teachings to the entire world.
Prince Siddhartha, who was by now married and had a son, left the palace in search of enlightenment. He performed penance for twelve years by going through extreme degrees of physical austerity and discomfort. Toward the end of this period of penance, he once nearly fainted from hunger and exhaustion. He then realized that by physical torture alone man would not attain the spiritual goal. He therefore gave up extreme degrees of penance, just as he had given up the extreme degrees of indulgence twelve years previously. He adopted the new middle path of moderation. This would be the cornerstone of his spiritual practices in the future. But it was ultimately the process of deep meditation, while sitting under the famous banyan tree at Sarnath that brought him the enlightenment he had been seeking for so long. Later, when asked whether he was a god or an angel, he simply acknowledged, “I am awake, and I know.” 59 He came to be known as Buddha—the wise one!
The middle path of Buddha is, in fact, the path of using one’s own superior mind intelligently and with spiritual compassion and love. Buddha’s avowed declaration not to fall before the worldly temptations (mara) and, at the same time, not to succumb blindly to the demands of the extreme renunciation (sanyasin) is truly a major transformation in religious philosophy. The Buddha also asserted the role of free will in human development. Although Buddhism became separated as a new faith, Hinduism adapted the spiritual thinking of Buddha in a positive and effective manner. There appears to be a misconception that Buddha did not believe in the Vedas. In fact, he rejected only the ritualistic nature of the Vedic teachings. His teachings are otherwise mainly based on the Vedic concepts.
When anyone insulted Lord Buddha, he simply ignored him, saying, “I do not accept what you offered me. Your gift (of abuses) therefore stays with you!” He introduced a policy of tact in place of arguments and quarrels. Later, his famous disciple Emperor Ashoka laid down his arms after a successful though bloody war, in quest of peace and accord. His reign of forty years is considered unparalleled in history, as he may have been the first ruler to condemn war without qualification. He sent religious peace missions to many lands, such as Burma, Ceylon, Egypt, Syria, and Macedonia. He called for a conference of all faiths to promote dialogue and discussion in place of war and quarrel. He however laid a strict condition that no one would be allowed to talk derogatory about anyone else. This may be regarded as the beginning of the interfaith movement in the world. Among his many inscriptions of Buddhist teachings on the pillars, one is most notable: “For he who does reverence to his own sect while disparaging the sects of others with intent to enhance the splendor of his own sect, in reality by such conduct inflicts severest injury on his own sect.” 60 Buddha taught compassion for all, including those who have caused harm to us. To return good for evil, benevolence for injury, love for hate, and compassion for harm are some of the characteristics of the qualities of the bodhi mind.61 Buddha also pointed out that human happiness is completely interdependent; helping others helps us. The message of the Buddha conquered many lands, without sending a single fighting soldier anywhere.
Buddha also rejected the caste system outright and preached religion without the rituals. After the great enlightenment, Buddha immediately saw the need to propagate this vital knowledge to all humanity. He also met his wife, Yashoda, and son, Rahul, whom he had left earlier. He explained that regardless of any material possessions that a son may inherit from his father, the legacy of spiritual teachings is much more worthy and important in life. He then continued to teach for forty-five years before passing away at the age of eighty, on the auspicious day of the full moon. Unlike most other gurus and teachers, he stressed that others should adopt his teachings only when they were convinced about the efficacy of his message in their personal lives.
Modern scientists have discovered that we use only a small fraction of the vast supply of the neurons in the brain. In meditation, we awaken and excite more of these dormant neurons into activity. Some of these neuron centers are activated to think and contemplate in more wise and useful ways than the hitherto used lower centers. We then may see the happenings of the world in an entirely different way, realizing the sacredness of life more vividly, as well as perceiving the spiritual purpose in our universe.
There is great amount of overlapping in the teachings and practices of all the religions that originated on Indian subcontinent. Buddhism and Jainism were essentially reform movements in the Hindu spiritual philosophy. The caste-weary people from all classes jumped onto their bandwagon with great enthusiasm. The priests, who had commanded the highest status, were dispensed with. Human weakness, however, prevailed, with all its faults and foibles. New rituals replaced the old ones. The monks and other holy men came to the forefront in new garb— alas along with all their shortcomings and vulnerabilities!
Changing the practices that make up the religion may not be so difficult, but changing the hearts of the followers is not as easy. Very often, the followers are not able to keep pace with the high ideals of the founders.
According to historian Professor Mahaffy, Buddhist monks preached in Palestine and Syria a couple of centuries before the birth of Christ.
Even though Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism later became separate religions, Hindu society accepted them with open arms, and regarded them as “reform” movements. Many of their new and modified changes in course of time would heavily influence Hindu culture. Buddha adopted the new middle path of moderation. This would be the cornerstone of his spiritual practices in the future. This “middle path” of Lord Buddha has also been generally welcomed in Hindu theology. In fact, this philosophy has become the cornerstone of spiritual practices for many persons in the world, regardless of their religion.
It was finally the process of deep meditation, while sitting under the famous banyan tree at Sarnath that brought him the enlightenment he had been seeking for so long. Later, when asked whether he was a god or an angel, he simply acknowledged, “I am awake, and I know.” He came to be known as Buddha—the wise one! Meditation has been a watch-word in Hindu religion from ancient times, but Buddha propagated it to a whole new level; the whole world has adopted “meditation” with great enthusiasm and keenness. There are now meditation centers in all places, even in prisons!
The caste system was rejected by Buddha in an outright manner, as he preached a religion without rituals. In the same way, excessive rituals associated with the Hindu religion too have been scorned periodically, right from the Upanishad times. They however continue to remain accepted in Hindu society, although changes and modifications have been adopted continually. Buddha also opted heavily for rational, ethical conduct backed by common sense and free will, in place of rigid scriptural commands. This teaching too has found great favor, especially in the modern generation across the globe. Hinduism has approached all of the emerging religions with a soft, welcoming attitude. Lord Buddha has even been regarded by some Hindus as the ninth avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu.