Gautama taught a Middle Way between sensual indulgence and the severe asceticism found in the śramaṇa movement common in his region. He later taught throughout other regions of eastern India such as Magadha and Kosala.
Gautama is the primary figure in Buddhism. He is believed by Buddhists to be an enlightened teacher who attained full Buddhahood and shared his insights to help sentient beings end rebirth and suffering. Accounts of his life, discourses and monastic rules are believed by Buddhists to have been summarised after his death and memorized by his followers. Various collections of teachings attributed to him were passed down by oral tradition and first committed to writing about 400 years later.
Historical Siddhārtha Gautama
Scholars are hesitant to make unqualified claims about the historical facts of the Buddha’s life. Most people accept that the Buddha lived, taught, and founded a monastic order during the Mahajanapada era during the reign of Bimbisara (c. 558 – c. 491 BCE, or c. 400 BCE), the ruler of the Magadha empire, and died during the early years of the reign of Ajatasatru, who was the successor of Bimbisara, thus making him a younger contemporary of Mahavira, the Jain tirthankara. While the general sequence of “birth, maturity, renunciation, search, awakening and liberation, teaching, death” is widely accepted, there is less consensus on the veracity of many details contained in traditional biographies.
The times of Gautama’s birth and death are uncertain. Most historians in the early 20th century dated his lifetime as c. 563 BCE to 483 BCE. More recently his death is dated later, between 411 and 400 BCE, while at a symposium on this question held in 1988, the majority of those who presented definite opinions gave dates within 20 years either side of 400 BCE for the Buddha’s death. These alternative chronologies, however, have not been accepted by all historians.
The evidence of the early texts suggests that Siddhārtha Gautama was born into the Shakya clan, a community that was on the periphery, both geographically and culturally, of the eastern Indian subcontinent in the 5th century BCE. One of his usual names was “Sakamuni” or “Sakyamunī” (“Sage of the Shakyas”). It was either a small republic, or an oligarchy, and his father was an elected chieftain, or oligarch. According to the Buddhist tradition, Gautama was born in Lumbini, now in modern-day Nepal, and raised in the Shakya capital of Kapilvastu, which may have been either in what is present day Tilaurakot, Nepal or Piprahwa, India. According to Buddhist tradition, he obtained his enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, gave his first sermon in Sarnath, and died in Kushinagar.
Apart from the Vedic Brahmins, the Buddha’s lifetime coincided with the flourishing of influential Śramaṇa schools of thought like Ājīvika, Cārvāka, Jainism, and Ajñana. Brahmajala Sutta records sixty-two such schools of thought. In this context, a śramaṇa refers to one who labors, toils, or exerts themselves (for some higher or religious purpose). It was also the age of influential thinkers like Mahavira, Pūraṇa Kassapa, Makkhali Gosāla, Ajita Kesakambalī, Pakudha Kaccāyana, and Sañjaya Belaṭṭhaputta, as recorded in Samaññaphala Sutta, whose viewpoints the Buddha most certainly must have been acquainted with. Indeed, Sariputta and Moggallāna, two of the foremost disciples of the Buddha, were formerly the foremost disciples of Sañjaya Belaṭṭhaputta, the sceptic; and the Pali canon frequently depicts Buddha engaging in debate with the adherents of rival schools of thought. There is also philological evidence to suggest that the two masters, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, were indeed historical figures and they most probably taught Buddha two different forms of meditative techniques. Thus, Buddha was just one of the many śramaṇa philosophers of that time. In an era where holiness of person was judged by their level of asceticism, Buddha was a reformist within the śramaṇa movement, rather than a reactionary against Vedic Brahminism.
Historically, the life of the Buddha also coincided with the Achaemenid conquest of the Indus Valley during the rule of Darius I from about 517/516 BCE. This Achaemenid occupation of the areas of Gandhara and Sindh, which was to last for about two centuries, was accompanied by the introduction of Achaemenid religions, reformed Mazdaism or early Zoroastrianism, to which Buddhism might have in part reacted. In particular, the ideas of the Buddha may have partly consisted of a rejection of the “absolutist” or “perfectionist” ideas contained in these Achaemenid religions.
No written records about Gautama were found from his lifetime or from the one or two centuries thereafter. But from the middle of the 3rd century BCE, several Edicts of Ashoka (reigned c. 269–232 BCE) mention the Buddha, and particularly Ashoka’s Rummindei Minor Pillar Edict commemorates the Emperor’s pilgrimage to Lumbini as the Buddha’s birthplace, calling him the Buddha Shakyamuni (Brahmi script: 𑀩𑀼𑀥 𑀲𑀓𑁆𑀬𑀫𑀼𑀦𑀻 Bu-dha Sa-kya-mu-nī, “Buddha, Sage of the Shakyas”). Another one of his edicts (Minor Rock Edict No. 3) mentions the titles of several Dhamma texts, establishing the existence of a written Buddhist tradition at least by the time of the Maurya era. These texts may be the precursor of the Pāli Canon.
“Sakamuni” in also mentioned in the reliefs of Bharhut, dated to circa 100 BCE, in relation with his illumination and the Bodhi tree, with the inscription Bhagavato Sakamunino Bodho (“The illumination of the Blessed Sakamuni”).
The oldest surviving Buddhist manuscripts are the Gandhāran Buddhist texts, reported to have been found in or around Haḍḍa near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan and now preserved in the British Library. They are written in the Gāndhārī language using the Kharosthi script on twenty-seven birch bark manuscripts and date from the first century BCE to the third century CE.
On the basis of philological evidence, Indologist and Pali expert Oskar von Hinüber says that some of the Pali suttas have retained very archaic place-names, syntax, and historical data from close to the Buddha’s lifetime, including the Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta which contains a detailed account of the Buddha’s final days. Hinüber proposes a composition date of no later than 350–320 BCE for this text, which would allow for a “true historical memory” of the events approximately 60 years prior if the Short Chronology for the Buddha’s lifetime is accepted (but he also points out that such a text was originally intended more as hagiography than as an exact historical record of events).
The sources for the life of Siddhārtha Gautama are a variety of different, and sometimes conflicting, traditional biographies. These include the Buddhacarita, Lalitavistara Sūtra, Mahāvastu, and the Nidānakathā. Of these, the Buddhacarita is the earliest full biography, an epic poem written by the poet Aśvaghoṣa in the first century CE. The Lalitavistara Sūtra is the next oldest biography, a Mahāyāna/Sarvāstivāda biography dating to the 3rd century CE. The Mahāvastu from the Mahāsāṃghika Lokottaravāda tradition is another major biography, composed incrementally until perhaps the 4th century CE. The Dharmaguptaka biography of the Buddha is the most exhaustive, and is entitled the Abhiniṣkramaṇa Sūtra, and various Chinese translations of this date between the 3rd and 6th century CE. The Nidānakathā is from the Theravada tradition in Sri Lanka and was composed in the 5th century by Buddhaghoṣa.
From canonical sources come the Jataka tales, the Mahapadana Sutta (DN 14), and the Achariyabhuta Sutta (MN 123), which include selective accounts that may be older, but are not full biographies. The Jātakas retell previous lives of Gautama as a bodhisattva, and the first collection of these can be dated among the earliest Buddhist texts. The Mahāpadāna Sutta and Achariyabhuta Sutta both recount miraculous events surrounding Gautama’s birth, such as the bodhisattva’s descent from the Tuṣita Heaven into his mother’s womb.
Nature of traditional depictions
In the earliest Buddhist texts, the nikāyas and āgamas, the Buddha is not depicted as possessing omniscience (sabbaññu) nor is he depicted as being an eternal transcendent (lokottara) being. According to Bhikkhu Analayo, ideas of the Buddha’s omniscience (along with an increasing tendency to deify him and his biography) are found only later, in the Mahayana sutras and later Pali commentaries or texts such as the Mahāvastu. In the Sandaka Sutta, the Buddha’s disciple Ananda outlines an argument against the claims of teachers who say they are all knowing  while in the Tevijjavacchagotta Sutta the Buddha himself states that he has never made a claim to being omniscient, instead he claimed to have the “higher knowledges” (abhijñā). The earliest biographical material from the Pali Nikayas focuses on the Buddha’s life as a śramaṇa, his search for enlightenment under various teachers such as Alara Kalama and his forty-five-year career as a teacher.
Traditional biographies of Gautama generally include numerous miracles, omens, and supernatural events. The character of the Buddha in these traditional biographies is often that of a fully transcendent (Skt. lokottara) and perfected being who is unencumbered by the mundane world. In the Mahāvastu, over the course of many lives, Gautama is said to have developed supramundane abilities including: a painless birth conceived without intercourse; no need for sleep, food, medicine, or bathing, although engaging in such “in conformity with the world”; omniscience, and the ability to “suppress karma”. Nevertheless, some of the more ordinary details of his life have been gathered from these traditional sources. In modern times there has been an attempt to form a secular understanding of Siddhārtha Gautama’s life by omitting the traditional supernatural elements of his early biographies.
Andrew Skilton writes that the Buddha was never historically regarded by Buddhist traditions as being merely human:
It is important to stress that, despite modern Theravada teachings to the contrary (often a sop to skeptical Western pupils), he was never seen as being merely human. For instance, he is often described as having the thirty-two major and eighty minor marks or signs of a mahāpuruṣa, “superman”; the Buddha himself denied that he was either a man or a god; and in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta he states that he could live for an aeon were he asked to do so.
The ancient Indians were generally unconcerned with chronologies, being more focused on philosophy. Buddhist texts reflect this tendency, providing a clearer picture of what Gautama may have taught than of the dates of the events in his life. These texts contain descriptions of the culture and daily life of ancient India which can be corroborated from the Jain scriptures, and make the Buddha’s time the earliest period in Indian history for which significant accounts exist. British author Karen Armstrong writes that although there is very little information that can be considered historically sound, we can be reasonably confident that Siddhārtha Gautama did exist as a historical figure. Michael Carrithers goes a bit further by stating that the most general outline of “birth, maturity, renunciation, search, awakening and liberation, teaching, death” must be true.
Conception and birth
Gautama was born to a Hindu Kshatriya family, the son of Śuddhodana, “an elected chief of the Shakya clan”, whose capital was Kapilavastu, and who were later annexed by the growing Kingdom of Kosala during the Buddha’s lifetime. Gautama was the family name. His mother, Maya (Māyādevī), Suddhodana’s wife, was a Koliyan princess. Legend has it that, on the night Siddhartha was conceived, Queen Maya dreamt that a white elephant with six white tusks entered her right side, and ten months later Siddhartha was born. As was the Shakya tradition, when his mother Queen Maya became pregnant, she left Kapilavastu for her father’s kingdom to give birth. However, her son is said to have been born on the way, at Lumbini, in a garden beneath a sal tree.
The day of the Buddha’s birth is widely celebrated in Theravada countries as Vesak. Buddha’s Birthday is called Buddha Purnima in Nepal, Bangladesh, and India as he is believed to have been born on a full moon day. Various sources hold that the Buddha’s mother died at his birth, a few days or seven days later. The infant was given the name Siddhartha (Pāli: Siddhattha), meaning “he who achieves his aim”. During the birth celebrations, the hermit seer Asita journeyed from his mountain abode and announced that the child would either become a great king (chakravartin) or a great sadhu. By traditional account,[which?] this occurred after Siddhartha placed his feet in Asita’s hair and Asita examined the birthmarks. Suddhodana held a naming ceremony on the fifth day, and invited eight Brahmin scholars to read the future. All gave a dual prediction that the baby would either become a great king or a great holy man. Kondañña, the youngest, and later to be the first arhat other than the Buddha, was reputed to be the only one who unequivocally predicted that Siddhartha would become a Buddha.
While later tradition and legend characterised Śuddhodana as a hereditary monarch, the descendant of the Suryavansha (Solar dynasty) of Ikṣvāku (Pāli: Okkāka), many scholars think that Śuddhodana was the elected chief of a tribal confederacy.
Early texts suggest that Gautama was not familiar with the dominant religious teachings of his time until he left on his religious quest, which is said to have been motivated by existential concern for the human condition. The state of the Shakya clan was not a monarchy and seems to have been structured either as an oligarchy, or as a form of republic. The more egalitarian gana-sangha form of government, as a political alternative to the strongly hierarchical kingdoms, may have influenced the development of the śramanic Jain and Buddhist sanghas, where monarchies tended toward Vedic Brahmanism.
Early life and marriage
When he reached the age of 16, his father reputedly arranged his marriage to a cousin of the same age named Yaśodharā (Pāli: Yasodharā). According to the early Buddhist Texts of several schools, and numerous post-canonical accounts, she gave birth to a son, named Rāhula. Siddhartha is said to have spent 29 years as a prince in Kapilavastu. Although his father ensured that Siddhartha was provided with everything he could want or need, Buddhist scriptures say that the future Buddha felt that material wealth was not life’s ultimate goal.
Renunciation and ascetic life
Siddhartha Gautama continued to ponder about religious questions. At the age of 29, Gautama left his palace to meet his subjects. Despite his father’s efforts to hide from him the sick, aged and suffering, Gautama is said to have seen an old man. When his charioteer Chandaka (Pali: Channa) explained to him that all people grew old, the prince went on further trips beyond the palace. On these he encountered a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and an ascetic that inspired him. Traditional accounts state that he saw these for the first time in his life. Shortly after, Gautama woke up at night and saw his female servants lying in unattractive poses, which shocked him. Therefore, he discovered what he would later understand more deeply during his enlightenment: suffering and the end of suffering. Some time later, he heard the news that a son had been born to him. Moved by all the things he had experienced, he decided to leave the palace behind in the middle of the night against the will of his father, to live the life of a wandering ascetic. Accompanied by Channa and riding his horse Kanthaka, Gautama left his palace for the life of a mendicant, leaving behind his son Rahula and Yaśodhara. He traveled to the river Anomiya with Chandaka and Kanthaka, and cut off his hair. Leaving his servant and horse behind, he journeyed into the woods and changed into monk’s robes there, though in some other versions of the story, he received the robes from a brahma deity at Anomiya.
The now mendicant Gautama began his ascetic life. He went to Rajagaha (present-day Rajgir), begging for alms in the streets. After King Bimbisara’s men recognised Gautama and the king learned of his quest, Bimbisara offered Gautama a share of his kingdom. Gautama rejected the offer but promised to visit the king’s kingdom of Magadha first, upon attaining enlightenment.
Siddhartha Gautama left Rajagaha and practised under two teachers of yogic meditation. After mastering the teachings of the first master, Ārāḍa Kālāma (Pali: Alara Kalama), he was asked by him to succeed him. However, Gautama felt unsatisfied by the practice, and moved on to become a student of Udraka Rāmaputra (Pali: Udaka Ramaputta). With him, he achieved high levels of meditative consciousness and was again asked to succeed his teacher. But, once more, he was not satisfied and moved on.
According to the early Buddhist texts, after realising that meditative dhyana was the right path to awakening, but that extreme asceticism did not work, Gautama discovered what Buddhists know as being, the Middle Way—a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification, or the Noble Eightfold Path, as described in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which is regarded as the first discourse of the Buddha. In a famous incident, after becoming starved and weakened, he is said to have accepted milk and rice pudding from a village girl named Sujata. Such was his emaciated appearance that she wrongly believed him to be a spirit that had granted her a wish.
Following this incident, Gautama was famously seated under a pipal tree—now known as the Bodhi tree—in Bodh Gaya, India, when he vowed never to arise until he had found the truth. Kaundinya and four other companions, believing that he had abandoned his search and become undisciplined, ceased to stay with him, and went to somewhere else. After a reputed 49 days of meditation, at the age of 35, he is said to have attained Enlightenment, and became known as the Buddha or “Awakened One” (“Buddha” is also sometimes translated as “The Enlightened One”).
According to some sutras of the Pali canon, at the time of his awakening he realised complete insight into the Four Noble Truths, thereby attaining liberation from samsara, the endless cycle of rebirth, suffering and dying again. According to scholars, this story of the awakening and the stress on “liberating insight” is a later development in the Buddhist tradition, where the Buddha may have regarded the practice of dhyana as leading to nirvana and moksha.
Nirvana is the extinguishing of the “fires” of desire, hatred, and ignorance, that keep the cycle of suffering and rebirth going. Nirvana is also regarded as the “end of the world”, in that no personal identity or boundaries of the mind remain. In such a state, a being is said to possess the Ten Characteristics, belonging to every Buddha.
According to a story in the Āyācana Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya VI.1)—a scripture found in the Pāli and other canons—immediately after his awakening, the Buddha debated whether or not he should teach the Dharma to others. He was concerned that humans were so overpowered by ignorance, greed, and hatred that they could never recognise the path, which is subtle, deep and hard to grasp. However, in the story, Brahmā Sahampati convinced him, arguing that at least some will understand it. The Buddha relented and agreed to teach.
Formation of the sangha
He then traveled to the Deer Park near Varanasi (Benares) in northern India, where he set in motion what Buddhists call the Wheel of Dharma by delivering his first sermon to the five companions with whom he had sought enlightenment. Together with him, they formed the first saṅgha: the company of Buddhist monks.
All five become arahants, and within the first two months, with the conversion of Yasa and fifty-four of his friends, the number of such arahants is said to have grown to 60. The conversion of three brothers named Kassapa followed, with their reputed 200, 300 and 500 disciples, respectively. This swelled the sangha to more than 1,000.
Travels and teaching
For the remaining 45 years of his life, the Buddha is said to have traveled in the Gangetic Plain, in what is now Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and southern Nepal, teaching a diverse range of people: from nobles to servants, murderers such as Angulimala, and cannibals such as Alavaka. Although the Buddha’s language remains unknown, it is likely that he taught in one or more of a variety of closely related Middle Indo-Aryan dialects, of which Pali may be a standardisation.
The sangha traveled through the subcontinent, expounding the dharma. This continued throughout the year, except during the four months of the Vassa rainy season when ascetics of all religions rarely traveled. One reason was that it was more difficult to do so without causing harm to animal life. At this time of year, the sangha would retreat to monasteries, public parks or forests, where people would come to them.
Upon hearing of his son’s awakening, Suddhodana sent, over a period, ten delegations to ask him to return to Kapilavastu. On the first nine occasions, the delegates failed to deliver the message and instead joined the sangha to become arahants. The tenth delegation, led by Kaludayi, a childhood friend of Gautama’s (who also became an arahant), however, delivered the message.
Now two years after his awakening, the Buddha agreed to return, and made a two-month journey by foot to Kapilavastu, teaching the dharma as he went. At his return, the royal palace prepared a midday meal, but the sangha was making an alms round in Kapilavastu. Hearing this, Suddhodana approached his son, the Buddha, saying:
Ours is the warrior lineage of Mahamassata, and not a single warrior has gone seeking alms.
The Buddha is said to have replied:
That is not the custom of your royal lineage. But it is the custom of my Buddha lineage. Several thousands of Buddhas have gone by seeking alms.
Buddhist texts say that Suddhodana invited the sangha into the palace for the meal, followed by a dharma talk. After this he is said to have become a sotapanna. During the visit, many members of the royal family joined the sangha. The Buddha’s cousins Ananda and Anuruddha became two of his five chief disciples. At the age of seven, his son Rahula also joined, and became one of his ten chief disciples. His half-brother Nanda also joined and became an arahant.
Of the Buddha’s disciples, Sariputta, Maudgalyayana, Mahakasyapa, Ananda and Anuruddha are believed to have been the five closest to him. His ten foremost disciples were reputedly completed by the quintet of Upali, Subhoti, Rahula, Mahakaccana and Punna.
In the fifth vassana, the Buddha was staying at Mahavana near Vesali when he heard news of the impending death of his father. He is said to have gone to Suddhodana and taught the dharma, after which his father became an arahant.
The precise contents of the Buddha’s final meal are not clear, due to variant scriptural traditions and ambiguity over the translation of certain significant terms; the Theravada tradition generally believes that the Buddha was offered some kind of pork, while the Mahayana tradition believes that the Buddha consumed some sort of truffle or other mushroom. These may reflect the different traditional views on Buddhist vegetarianism and the precepts for monks and nuns.
The Buddha then asked all the attendant Bhikkhus to clarify any doubts or questions they had and cleared them all in a way which others could not do. They had none. According to Buddhist scriptures, he then finally entered parinirvana. The Buddha’s final words are reported to have been: “All composite things (Saṅkhāra) are perishable. Strive for your own liberation with diligence” (Pali: ‘vayadhammā saṅkhārā appamādena sampādethā’). His body was cremated and the relics were placed in monuments or stupas, some of which are believed to have survived until the present. For example, the Temple of the Tooth or “Dalada Maligawa” in Sri Lanka is the place where what some believe to be the relic of the right tooth of Buddha is kept at present.
At his death, the Buddha is famously believed to have told his disciples to follow no leader. Mahakasyapa was chosen by the sangha to be the chairman of the First Buddhist Council, with the two chief disciples Maudgalyayana and Sariputta having died before the Buddha.
After his death, Buddha’s cremation relics were divided amongst 8 royal families and his disciples; centuries later they would be enshrined by King Ashoka into 84,000 stupas. Many supernatural legends surround the history of alleged relics as they accompanied the spread of Buddhism and gave legitimacy to rulers.
The Brahmin Sonadanda described him as “handsome, good-looking, and pleasing to the eye, with a most beautiful complexion. He has a godlike form and countenance, he is by no means unattractive.” (D, I:115)
“It is wonderful, truly marvellous, how serene is the good Gotama’s appearance, how clear and radiant his complexion, just as the golden jujube in autumn is clear and radiant, just as a palm-tree fruit just loosened from the stalk is clear and radiant, just as an adornment of red gold wrought in a crucible by a skilled goldsmith, deftly beaten and laid on a yellow-cloth shines, blazes and glitters, even so, the good Gotama’s senses are calmed, his complexion is clear and radiant.” (A, I:181)
A disciple named Vakkali, who later became an arahant, was so obsessed by the Buddha’s physical presence that the Buddha is said to have felt impelled to tell him to desist, and to have reminded him that he should know the Buddha through the Dhamma and not through physical appearances.
Although there are no extant representations of the Buddha in human form until around the 1st century CE (see Buddhist art), descriptions of the physical characteristics of fully enlightened buddhas are attributed to the Buddha in the Digha Nikaya’s Lakkhaṇa Sutta (D, I:142). In addition, the Buddha’s physical appearance is described by Yasodhara to their son Rahula upon the Buddha’s first post-Enlightenment return to his former princely palace in the non-canonical Pali devotional hymn, Narasīha Gāthā (“The Lion of Men”).
Recollection of nine virtues attributed to the Buddha is a common Buddhist meditation and devotional practice called Buddhānusmṛti. The nine virtues are also among the 40 Buddhist meditation subjects. The nine virtues of the Buddha appear throughout the Tipitaka, and include:
- Buddho– Awakened
- Sammasambuddho – Perfectly self-awakened
- Vijja-carana-sampano – Endowed with higher knowledge and ideal conduct.
- Sugato – Well-gone or Well-spoken.
- Lokavidu – Wise in the knowledge of the many worlds.
- Anuttaro Purisa-damma-sarathi– Unexcelled trainer of untrained people.
- Satthadeva-Manussanam – Teacher of gods and humans.
- Bhagavathi– The Blessed one
- Araham– Worthy of homage. An Arahant is “one with taints destroyed, who has lived the holy life, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, reached the true goal, destroyed the fetters of being, and is completely liberated through final knowledge.”
Tracing the oldest teachings
One method to obtain information on the oldest core of Buddhism is to compare the oldest versions of the Pali Canon and other texts, such as the surviving portions of Sarvastivada, Mulasarvastivada, Mahisasaka, Dharmaguptaka, and the Chinese Agamas. The reliability of these sources, and the possibility of drawing out a core of oldest teachings, is a matter of dispute. According to Tilmann Vetter, inconsistencies remain, and other methods must be applied to resolve those inconsistencies.
According to Lambert Schmithausen, there are three positions held by modern scholars of Buddhism:
- “Stress on the fundamental homogeneity and substantial authenticity of at least a considerable part of the Nikayic materials.”
- “Scepticism with regard to the possibility of retrieving the doctrine of earliest Buddhism.”
- “Cautious optimism in this respect.”
Regarding their attribution to the historical Buddha Gautama “Sakyamuni”, scholars such as Richard Gombrich, Akira Hirakawa, Alexander Wynne and A.K. Warder hold that these Early Buddhist Texts contain material that could possibly be traced to this figure.
Influence of Brahmanism and Sramana Traditions
In various texts, the Buddha is depicted as having studied under two named teachers, Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta. According to Alexander Wynne, these were yogis who taught doctrines and practices similar to those in the Upanishads.
In the Early Buddhist Texts, the Buddha also references Brahmanical devices. For example, in Samyutta Nikaya 111, Majjhima Nikaya 92 and Vinaya i 246 of the Pali Canon, the Buddha praises the Agnihotra as the foremost sacrifice and the Gayatri mantra as the foremost meter.
The Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence may also reflect Upanishadic or other influences. K.R. Norman supposes that these terms were already in use at the Buddha’s time, and were familiar to his listeners.
According to Johannes Bronkhorst, the “meditation without breath and reduced intake of food” which the Buddha practiced before his awakening are forms of asceticism which are similar to Jain practices.
The Buddhist practice called Brahma-vihara may have also originated from a Brahmanic term; but its usage may have been common to the Sramana traditions.
Teachings preserved in the Early Buddhist Texts
The Early Buddhist Texts present many teachings and practices which may have been taught by the historical Buddha. These include basic doctrines such as Dependent Origination, the Middle Way, the Five Aggregates, the Three unwholesome roots, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. According to N. Ross Reat, all of these doctrines are shared by the Theravada Pali texts and the Mahasamghika school’s Śālistamba Sūtra.
A recent study by Bhikkhu Analayo concludes that the Theravada Majjhima Nikaya and Sarvastivada Madhyama Agama contain mostly the same major doctrines. Likewise, Richard Salomon has written that the doctrines found in the Gandharan Manuscripts are “consistent with non-Mahayana Buddhism, which survives today in the Theravada school of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, but which in ancient times was represented by eighteen separate schools.”
These basic teachings such as the Four Noble Truths tend to be widely accepted as basic doctrines in all major schools of Buddhism, as seen in ecumenical documents such as the Basic points unifying Theravāda and Mahāyāna.
Critique of Brahmanism
In the early Buddhist texts, the Buddha critiques the Brahmanical religion and social system on certain key points.
The Brahmin caste held that the Vedas were eternal revealed (sruti) texts. The Buddha rejected this view, holding that they were man made.
The Buddha also did not see the Brahmanical rites and practices as useful for spiritual advancement. For example, in the Udāna, the Buddha points out that ritual bathing does not lead to purity, only “truth and morality” lead to purity. He especially critiqued animal sacrifice as taught in Vedas.
He also critiqued numerous other brahmanical practices, such astrology, divination, fortune-telling, and so on (as seen in the Tevijja sutta and the Kutadanta sutta).
The Buddha also attacked the Brahmins’ claims of superior birth and the idea that different castes and bloodlines were inherently pure or impure, noble or ignoble.
In the Vasettha sutta the Buddha argues that the main difference among humans is not birth but their actions and occupations. According to the Buddha, one is a “brahmin” (i.e. divine, like brahma) only to the extent that one has cultivated virtue. Because of this the early texts report that he proclaimed: “Not by birth one is a brahman, not by birth one is a non-brahman; – by moral action one is a brahman”
The Aggañña Sutta explains all classes or varnas can be good or bad and gives a sociological explanation for how they arose, against the brahmanical idea that they are divinely ordained. According to Kancha Ilaiah, the Buddha posed the first contract theory of society. The Buddha’s teaching then is a single Universal moral law, one Dharma valid for everybody, which is opposed to the Brahmanic ethic founded on “one’s own duty” (svadharma) which depends on caste. Because of this, all castes including untouchables were welcome in the Buddhist order and when someone joined, they renounced all caste affiliation.
Another important teaching of mental development in the early texts is the practice of Mindfulness (Sati), which was mainly taught using the schemas of the “Four Ways of Mindfulness” (Satipatthana) and the sixteen elements of Anapanasati (Mindfulness of Breath).
Scholarly Perspectives on the Earliest Buddhism
A core problem in the study of early Buddhism is the relation between dhyana and insight. Schmithausen notes that the mention of the four noble truths as constituting “liberating insight”, which is attained after mastering the Rupa Jhanas, is a later addition to texts such as Majjhima Nikaya 36.
According to Vetter and Bronkhorst, “liberating insight” became an essential feature of the Buddhist tradition at a later date. The Fourth Noble Truths, the Eightfold path and Dependent Origination, which are commonly seen as essential to Buddhism, are later formulations which form part of the explanatory framework of this “liberating insight”.
According to the Mahāsaccakasutta, from the fourth jhana the Buddha gained bodhi. Yet, it is not clear what he was awakened to. According to Schmithausen and Bronkhorst, “liberating insight” is a later addition to this text, and reflects a later development and understanding in early Buddhism.
The mentioning of the four truths as constituting “liberating insight” introduces a logical problem, since the four truths depict a linear path of practice, the knowledge of which is in itself not depicted as being liberating:
[T]hey do not teach that one is released by knowing the four noble truths, but by practicing the fourth noble truth, the eightfold path, which culminates in right samadhi.
According to Vetter, the description of the Buddhist path may initially have been as simple as the term “the middle way”. In time, this short description was elaborated, resulting in the description of the eightfold path.
According to both Bronkhorst and Anderson, the four truths became a substitution for prajna, or “liberating insight”, in the suttas in those texts where “liberating insight” was preceded by the four jhanas.According to Bronkhorst, the four truths may not have been formulated in earliest Buddhism, and did not serve in earliest Buddhism as a description of “liberating insight”. Gotama’s teachings may have been personal, “adjusted to the need of each person.”
Although “Nibbāna” (Sanskrit: Nirvāna) is the common term for the desired goal of this practice, many other terms can be found throughout the Nikayas, which are not specified.
Some Hindus regard Gautama as the 9th avatar of Vishnu. However, Buddha’s teachings deny the authority of the Vedas and the concepts of Brahman-Atman. Consequently Buddhism is generally classified as a nāstika school (heterodox, literally “It is not so”) in contrast to the six orthodox schools of Hinduism. In Sikhism, Buddha is mentioned as the 23rd avatar of Vishnu in the Chaubis Avtar, a composition in Dasam Granth traditionally and historically attributed to Guru Gobind Singh.
Classical Sunni scholar Tabari reports that Buddhist idols were brought from Afghanistan to Baghdad in the ninth century. Such idols had been sold in Buddhist temples next to a mosque in Bukhara, but he does not further discuss the role of Buddha. According to the works on Buddhism by Al-Biruni (973–after 1050), views regarding the exact identity of Buddha was diverse. Accordingly some regarded him as the divine incarnate, others as an apostle of the angels or as an Ifrit and others as an apostle of God sent to human race. By 12th century, al-Shahrastani even compared Buddha to Khidr, described as an ideal human. Ibn Nadim, who was also familiar with Manichean teachings, even identifies Buddha as a prophet, who taught a religion to “banish Satan”, although not mention it explicitly. However, most Classical scholars described Buddha in theistic terms, that is apart from Islamic teachings.
Nevertheless the Buddha is regarded as a prophet by the minority Ahmadiyya sect, generally considered deviant and rejected as apostate by mainstream Islam. Some early Chinese Taoist-Buddhists thought the Buddha to be a reincarnation of Laozi.
Disciples of the Cao Đài religion worship the Buddha as a major religious teacher. His image can be found in both their Holy See and on the home altar. He is revealed during communication with Divine Beings as son of their Supreme Being (God the Father) together with other major religious teachers and founders like Jesus, Laozi, and Confucius.
The Christian Saint Josaphat is based on the Buddha. The name comes from the Sanskrit Bodhisattva via Arabic Būdhasaf and Georgian Iodasaph. The only story in which St. Josaphat appears, Barlaam and Josaphat, is based on the life of the Buddha. Josaphat was included in earlier editions of the Roman Martyrology (feast day 27 November)—though not in the Roman Missal—and in the Eastern Orthodox Church liturgical calendar (26 August).
In the ancient Gnostic sect of Manichaeism, the Buddha is listed among the prophets who preached the word of God before Mani.
In the Bahá’í Faith, Buddha is regarded as one of the Manifestations of God.
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