Buddhism: India's spiritual gift to the world

By Sujoy Dhar, New Kerala, May 5, 2006

Patna, India -- Some time during the sixth century BC, a wandering ascetic sat to meditate under a tree in the vast plains of northern India, resolving not to rise until he had attained the ultimate knowledge of spiritual enlightenment. Thus began Buddhism, one of the world's great religions that originated in India and still exerts a magnetic pull for devotees the world over.

The religion that preaches peace, tolerance and non-violence has found many takers in an increasingly anarchic world and thousands of pilgrims from Japan, Sri Lanka and increasingly from countries like the US wing their way to India to see for themselves where the Buddha started life from.

Buddhism today has made deep impact in places like the US. One consequence of Hollywood attention from people like Richard Gere --who found peace in Buddhism and whose emotional explorations took him from Zen to Tibetan Buddhism as enunciated by the Dalai Lama - is that Buddhism, especially the Tibetan strain, has entered mainstream America.

Madison Avenue uses Buddhist lingo to sell goods, and Buddhist terminology crops up on The Simpsons and other high-profile television shows.

In fact, Buddhism is sometimes referred to as one of India's better-known exports to the world. The stream of people from across the world to the Buddhist centres in India continues.

In February this year, the spiritual head of the Tibetans, the Dalai Lama, inaugurated a three-day international conference to mark the2550th death anniversary of the Buddha near the site of the ancient university of Nalanda in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. Hundreds of delegates from 25 countries attended.

They also visited other Buddhist pilgrim sites like Bodh Gaya, the birthplace of Buddhism, to participate in the Maha Nirvan, or death anniversary commemorations.

It's a story that started an age ago.

Buddhism began with the life of Siddhartha Gautama (ca. 563-483 B.C.),a prince from the small Shakya kingdom located in the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal.

Brought up in luxury, the prince abandoned his home and wandered forth as a religious beggar, searching for the meaning of existence. The stories of his search presuppose the Jain tradition - the religion of 'ahimsa' or non- violence started by Lord Mahavira - as Gautama was for a time a practitioner of intense austerity, at one point starving himself almost to death.

He decided, however, that self-torture weakened his mind while failing to advance him to enlightenment and therefore turned to a milder style of renunciation and concentrated on advanced meditation techniques -the famous middle path of Buddhism.

Eventually, under a tree in the forests of Gaya (in modern Bihar), he resolved to stir no farther until he had solved the mystery of existence.

Breaking through the final barriers, he achieved the knowledge that he later expressed as the Four Noble Truths: all of life is suffering; the cause of suffering is desire; the end of desire leads to the end of suffering; and the means to end desire is a path of discipline and meditation.

Gautama was now the Buddha, or the awakened one, and he spent the remainder of his life travelling about northeast India, converting large numbers of disciples.

At the age of 80, the Buddha achieved his final passing away (parinirvana) and died, leaving a thriving monastic order and a dedicated lay community to continue his work.

By the third century B.C., the still-young religion based on the Buddha's teachings was being spread throughout South Asia through the agency of the Mauryan Empire (ca. 326-184 B.C). By the seventh century A.D., having spread throughout East Asia and Southeast Asia, Buddhism probably had the largest religious following in the world.

Indian King Ashoka (273-232 BC), the grandson of the founder of the Mauryan dynasty, demonstrated his conversion to Buddhism by vigorously promulgating the religion across India. His edicts were carved on pillars of stone and wood, from Bengal to Afghanistan and into the south to Sri Lanka.

For centuries, Indian royalty and merchants patronised Buddhist monasteries and raised beautiful, hemispherical stone structures called stupas over the relics of the Buddha in reverence to his memory.

Since the 1840s, archaeology has revealed the huge impact of Buddhist art, iconography, and architecture in India. The monastery complex at Nalanda in Bihar was a world centre for Buddhist philosophy and religion until the thirteenth century.

But by the thirteenth century, when invaders destroyed the remaining monasteries on the plains, Buddhism as an organised religion had practically disappeared from India.

It survived only in Bhutan and now northeast Indian state of Sikkim, both of which were then independent Himalayan kingdoms, among tribal groups in the mountains of northeast India and in Sri Lanka.

The reasons for this disappearance are unclear, and they are many --shifts in royal patronage from Buddhist to Hindu religious institutions; a constant intellectual struggle with dynamic Hindu intellectual schools, which eventually triumphed; and slow adoption of popular religious forms by Buddhists while Hindu monastic communities grew up with the same style of discipline as the Buddhists, leading to the slow but steady amalgamation of ideas and trends in the two religions.

Buddhism began a steady and dramatic comeback in India during the early twentieth century, spurred on originally by a combination of European antiquarian and philosophical interest and the dedicated activities of a few Indian devotees.

The foundation of the Mahabodhi Society (Society of Great Enlightenment) in 1891, originally as a force to wrest control of the Buddhist shrine at Gaya from the hands of Hindu managers, gave a large stimulus to the popularisation of Buddhist philosophy and the importance of the religion in India's past.

A major breakthrough occurred in 1956 after some 30 years of the Untouchable, or Dalit, agitation when Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, leader of the untouchable wing within the Congress party, announced that he was converting to Buddhism as a way to escape from the impediments of the Hindu caste system.

He brought with him masses of untouchables -- also known as Harijans or Dalits -- and members of Scheduled Castes, who mostly came from western state of Maharashtra and from the Agra area in Uttar Pradesh.

Buddhist sites in India are a prime attraction for tourists across the world. There are between four and 16 principal Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India, with the most important located primarily in India's Ganges valley.

Lumbini, for instance, is one of the most important places of Buddhist pilgrimage located near the Nepal-India border. This is where Buddha was born to a royal family.

Another must visit site for pilgrims and tourists is Bodh Gaya where Buddha attained enlightenment at the age of 29. The Mahabodhi Temple marks Bodhgaya. A thriving Monastic Order continues in the area today.

Sarnath is another place in the valley where Buddha proclaimed the law of faith while Nalanda is important both because it was blessed with the presence of the Buddha and because of the famous monastic university that developed there.

Other commemorative monuments to the spread in Buddhism in India include Sanchi, Bharhut, Amaravati, and Nagarjunakonda where great Buddhist stupas and Buddhist university sites remain. Famous Buddhist cave temples, Ajanta, Ellora, Kanheri and Karli in western India are also major attractions as living symbols of a religion that has more meaning now than perhaps ever before.