The Vedic World
2,500 years ago in the foothills ofthe Himalayas a prince was born who renounced all the luxury and prestige ofhis position out of compassion for all beings and in order to become theâteacher of gods and menâ. This young prince would come to be known as theâAwakened One,â or the Buddha. He gave himself this title because he hadaroused himself from the sleep of delusion, the dream of perpetual birth anddeath.
After 2,500 years the Buddha isstill regarded by over 300 million people as the greatest spiritual figure ofall time. Even many of those who do not follow the Buddhist path regard theBuddha and his teachings with great respect and reverence. Many WesternChristians have even discovered a new life for their own faith through theinsights of Buddhism. Remarkably, in India there is currently a Buddhistrevival, as those who have been disenfranchised by the caste system turn to thesocial and spiritual liberation taught by Buddhism. Perhaps even moreremarkable is the fact that they are being assisted by British Buddhists, whosecountry has only recently discovered the Buddha's teachings. Buddhism has alsoinspired many of its followers in all parts of the world to become involved inthe peace movement and other important social causes. After 2,500 yearsBuddhism is still a living religion, and a potent source of spiritual hope andstrength. In light of this, the story of the Buddha's life and accomplishmentsis one with which everyone should become familiar.
The story takes place during a timeof great transition throughout the civilized world. In her book, A Historyof God, KarenArmstrong sets the scene for this momentous period of world history:
The period 800-200 B.C.E. has beentermed the Axial Age. In all the main regions of the civilized world, peoplecreated new ideologies that have continued to be crucial and formative. The newreligious systems reflected the changed economic and social conditions. Forreasons that we do not entirely understand, all the chief civilizationsdeveloped along parallel lines, even when there was no commercial contact (asbetween China and the European area). There was a new prosperity that led tothe rise of a merchant class. Power was shifting from king and priest, templeand palace, to the marketplace. The new wealth led to intellectual and culturalfluorescence and also to the development of the individual conscience.Inequality and exploitation became more apparent as the pace of changeaccelerated in the cities and people began to realize that their own behaviorcould affect the fate of future generations. Each region developed adistinctive ideology to address these problems and concerns: Taoism andConfucianism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India and philosophicalrationalism in Europe. The Middle East did not produce a uniform solution, butin Iran and Israel, Zoroaster and the Hebrew prophets respectively evolveddifferent versions of monotheism. (A History of God, p.27)
The established religion in Indiaprior to the Axial Age was the Vedicreligion (based upon the Vedas or scriptures which contained hymns and ritualsto the gods) of the Aryans. Karen Armstrong went on to say:
In the seventeenth century B.C.E.,Aryans from what is now Iran had invaded the Indus valley and subdued theindigenous population. They had imposed their religious ideas, which we findexpressed in the collection of odes known as the Rig-Veda. There we find a multitude of gods,expressing many of the same values as the deities of the Middle East andpresenting the forces of nature as instinct with power, life and personality.(Ibid, p.28)
The original purpose of the Vedaswas to make it possible for people to commune with the divine order of theuniverse and its representatives. This intent is fully expressed in the MantraGayatri, one of the most famous of the verses in the Rig Veda, which can be translated as: âLetus bring our minds to rest in/The glory of Divine Truth/May Truth inspire ourreflection.â (Hymns from the Rig Veda, p. 4) Eventually, however, the Vedas were used tomanipulate the gods. It was believed that the gods could be approached,appeased and even controlled through the performance of the proper hymns andsacrifices in order to gain good fortune and stave off disaster.
The Vedas also sacralized the socialorder imposed by the Aryan conquerors. According to the Rig Veda, when the gods sacrificed theprimeval cosmic man, his parts became the four classes of Vedic society.
When they divided the Man, into howmany parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two armsand thighs and feet?
His mouth became the Brahmin; hisarms were made into the Warrior, his thighs the People, and from his feet theServants were born.
(The Rig Veda, p. 31)
The âBrahminâ refers to the priestswho were authorized to recite the hymns, conduct the sacrifices, uphold virtue,and teach the Vedic religion. The âWarriorâ refers to the kshatriyas, the warriors and rulers who werecharged with preserving the peace. The âPeopleâ refers to the vaishyas, who were the merchants andlandowners responsible for the economy. Finally, the âServantsâ refers to the shudras, the serfs and the performers of meniallabor. Ideally, these four classes are an attempt to organize society accordingto the inclinations of the individual. Each person should take up one of thosefour roles in accordance with their talents and desires. In reality, hereditywas what came to decide which class a person belonged to, and naturally theAryans belonged to the first three classes while the conquered indigenouspopulation became shudras and even outcastes.
By the time of the Buddha, manypeople had begun questioning this system. They wanted something more thanritual, sacrifices, and the empty authority of a hereditary priesthood. Inorder to satisfy their spiritual thirst they retired to the woods in theirlater years, and looked for sages who could help them. A new paradigm of fourlife stages resulted from this, a paradigm all but institutionalized by thetime of the Buddha. In youth, the religion of the Vedas would be studied underthe guidance of the brahmins. Following this, the young man would become ahouseholder, which meant having a family and fulfilling one's social duties.This would be followed in middle or old age by a retreat into the forest; as aforest-dweller, one would meditate and reflect upon the spiritual significanceof life. The final stage was the life of the wandering mendicant; in thisstage, one renounces the world and attains spiritual freedom. The insightsproduced by such activity were recorded in the Upanishads, and in many ways they brought anew spiritual dimension to the Vedic religion of the brahmins.
Many new themes arose for the firsttime in the Upanishads,including theconcepts of reincarnation and the Atman. The Upanishads taught that until a person ceasesto identify the self with merely phenomenal appearances and awakens instead tothe True Self called the Atman that is identical with the Ultimate Realityknown as Brahman, the individual would be forced to repeatedly undergo thecycle of birth and death. In addition, the Upanishads taught the doctrine of karma. Karmasimply means âaction,â but it refers to the chain of cause and effect set inmotion by our actions; for according to the doctrine of karma everyone mustface the consequences of their own good or bad actions in each subsequent life.This teaching was to have great importance and would be further developed bythe Buddha in a radically new way. By the Buddha's time, however, many peoplehad become very self-preoccupied as a result of apathy over the social problemsengendered by the upheavals of the Axial Age and a misunderstanding of thepremise that the True Self or Atman was the key to ultimate bliss.
The Buddha's time, then, was a timeof drastic change and great challenges. The religious traditions of the pastwere no longer in touch with the needs of the people, and the forest sages andseekers were working to find new answers. His home was the humble city ofKapilavastu, the center of a small tribal kingdom ruled by the Shakya clanlocated in what is now southern Nepal. It is believed that their rulers sharedpower with an assembly known as the sangha, a semi-democratic institution upon which the Buddhawould base his monastic order. Towards the end of the Buddha's life this smallkingdom would be swallowed up by the neighboring state of Koshala, which wouldin turn be swallowed up by the kingdom of Maghada to the south. The Buddha wasborn to King Shuddhodana and Queen Maya, the rulers of Kapilavastu. His familyname was Gautama, and his given name was Siddhartha. As a member of thekshatriya caste, the young Prince Siddhartha was given the finest educationthat could be had in that part of ancient India. As a young man he learned theancient Indian martial arts, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, literature, andthe religion of the brahmins. In short, Prince Siddhartha grew up with all theprivileges and advantages of his caste in a small kingdom about to be sweptaway by the inexorable currents of history. It was a very precarious positionto be in, but this is what made Siddhartha the man he was. Siddhartha Gautamawould, in turn, make his own lasting mark on the future of the world.
From the very beginning of theBuddha's life we are confronted with the strange and the miraculous. A lot ofthis is due to the accretions of the pious; however, I believe that some ofthese fantastic elements were designed to teach and inspire as well as toembellish. Many gods, for instance, take a hand in the story of the Buddha.Perhaps the appearance of these gods and spirits should serve to remind us thatthere are many inner forces at work within the subconscious mind. These forcesmay either help or hinder us. Past memories, good and bad associations, builtup prejudices, habits or predispositions - all of these can serve to darken ourvision or dampen our aspirations. On the other hand, we also have the capacityfor insight. Somehow our subconscious mind manages to fit the whole puzzletogether, or finds the crucial element, or comes up with a new approach to adilemma. There may even be actual spiritual beings at work as well. In TheVarieties of Religious Experience, William James points out that if in fact there arespiritual forces at work in our lives, then it will be through just suchsubconscious phenomena that they will make themselves felt.
Butjust as our primary wide-awake consciousness throws open our senses to thetouch of things material, so it is logically conceivable that if there be higher spiritual agencies that candirectly touch us, the psychological condition of their doing so might be our possession of a subconsciousregion which alone should yield access to them. (p.198)
In addition, outside events andopportunities seem to have an uncanny way of corresponding to the necessitiesof our inner life, providing us with the needed catalysts to facilitate our growthas human beings. C.G. Jung called these meaningful coincidences"synchronicity". Whatever the name or explanation for these internaland external forces, they are a factor in many peoples lives, especially thosewho are perceptive or sensitive enough to realize it. The role of the gods andother supernatural phenomena in the life of the Buddha is to remind us thatthere is more at work in our lives than just our conscious decisions and theseeming randomness of outside events. On a more literary level, they also serveto underscore the powerful impact the events of the Buddha's life had on bothShakyamuni and those who knew him and put their trust in him. They serve toheighten the dramatic effect of what is basically the story of an innerstruggle.
In accordance with the teachings ofcausation it has been taught that Shakyamuni had many previous existences. Ineach of these he perfected the various virtues that would come to fruition inthe future as buddhahood. In the first such story, Shakyamuni is a wealthybrahmin named Sumedha who leaves his town to become a hermit in order to findan answer to the inevitable sorrows of life. One day, while visiting anothercity he has the good fortune of meeting Dipamkara, the buddha of that time. Heis so overcome by the meeting that he makes a vow before Dipamkara to become abuddha himself. Dipamkara then predicts the future buddhahood of Sumedha in afuture existence. After his last earthly rebirth and before his life asShakyamuni, the future Buddha lived in the Heaven of Contentment (Skt. Tushita)awaiting the right time, place and family for his final rebirth. Though all ofthis may seem fanciful, it does demonstrate the Buddhist conviction that allthings are the result of the proper causes and conditions. Even Shakyamuni'sgreatness as a Buddha was the result of a genius borne of previous efforts andhis interaction with the peculiar circumstances into which he was born.
When the right conditions aroseQueen Maya of Kapilavastu had a most singular dream. She dreamed that a sixtusked white elephant holding a white lotus flower in its trunk circled aroundher three times and then entered into her womb. At that moment Queen Maya conceivedthe new buddha. She would give birth to him painlessly while standing up andholding onto a sal tree branch while visiting the Lumbini Garden nearKapilavastu. The legend states that immediately upon entering the world, theyoung Prince Siddhartha took seven steps and made the following statement:"I am born for enlightenment for the good of the world; this is my lastbirth in the world of phenomena." (Asvaghosaâs Buddhacarita, part II, p. 4)
On the fifth day after his birth thebaby prince was presented to the brahmins for his anointing and the choosing ofhis name according to custom. Upon seeing the baby and examining him, thebrahmins declared that he would surely become either the founder of an empireor a buddha, an awakened one. King Shuddhodana was a just and pious king, butworldly success was still far more real to him than spiritual awakening. KingShuddhodana, therefore, expressed the hope that his son might choose the pathof secular rule, and perhaps later retire into the forest at the appropriatetime - after his worldly success was accomplished. In view of the predictionsof the brahmins, the baby was given the name Siddhartha, which means: "Hewho has accomplished his aim."
Also in the temple of the brahminsat this time was the highly respected sage and seer known as Asita. When he sawthe baby he began to weep, thereby arousing great fear in the hearts ofSiddhartha's parents. They asked him if there was any cause to fear for theirson, and Asita told them that he wept not for the baby but for himself. Asitatold them that he wept because their son would surely become a buddha, but hehimself was too old and would not live to hear the Buddha's teachings.
Two days after those events, QueenMaya would die of a fatal illness. From that time on, Mahaprajapati, QueenMaya's sister, would act as the new prince's mother. One can assume that thedeath of his real mother had a hand in the young prince's sensitivity to theproblem of birth and death.
Life in the Palace
The young prince Siddhartha grew upreceiving all the privileges and advantages of his station. King Shuddhodanahad three palaces built for him, and beautiful courtesans and brilliantteachers surrounded the young prince. Above all, King Shuddhodana tried to keepSiddhartha occupied with the pleasures and duties of the life of a prince; hedid not wish to see his one heir heading for the forests to live the life of amendicant. Nevertheless, Prince Siddhartha consistently displayed a compassionfor all around him, and could often be found deep in contemplation. Seeingthis, King Shuddhodana ensured that Prince Siddhartha was married at the age of16 to the beautiful and charming Princess Yashodhara of the nearby kingdom ofthe Koliyas. It was not too long before King Shuddhodana was presented with agrandson, Rahula. The king hoped that Yashodhara and Rahula would be enough tokeep Siddhartha in the palace. Siddhartha, however, could see nothing of anylasting value in the secular life of a ruler.
Despite King Shuddhodana's effortsto shield Siddhartha from the harsh realities of life, the prince was painfullyaware of the limits of life's pleasures and rewards. His realization of theinevitable fate of all mankind is related in the story of the four sightings.The story goes that Siddhartha wished to leave the confines of the palace andtour his kingdom by chariot. King Shuddhodana agreed, but he made sure that theroute taken by the prince was cleared of any disturbing sights. The route to betaken would avoid any areas of poverty and destitution. All beggars, theelderly, and the sick were cleared out. The route would also be swept and hungwith garlands of flowers. After all the preparations were completed the princewas permitted to ride out of the palace grounds. The gods, however, foiled KingShuddhodana's plan by conjuring up the vision of a senile old man, bent andwrinkled by the ravages of time, the sight of which deeply disturbedSiddhartha. The prince asked his charioteer if this man was unique or if allpeople were destined to become old. The charioteer explained old age to theprince and said, "This comes to us all." Prince Siddhartha made moreexcursions from the palace grounds, and each time his father tried to screenall disturbing sights from the route chosen. The gods, however, saw to it thatthe prince was exposed to all of life's suffering. The next vision was of a manlaid waste by sickness. After that, it was a corpse surrounded by grievingfriends and family. Each time, his charioteer explained, "This comes to usall." The last vision was of a wandering mendicant. The charioteerexplained that this was a man who had renounced the life of a house holder inorder to find peace and seek for the answers to life's suffering. Siddhartha knew then, that this was thepath that he was meant to follow. What good was palace life if it offered nosecurity from old age, sickness, and death? Siddhartha decided that if he weredestined to be a conqueror, he would not be a mere conqueror of kingdoms;rather, his victory would be over suffering itself. It would be a victory forall people.
One night, after an especiallylavish party, Siddhartha saw all of his courtesans sprawled about the royalapartments. In the darkness it seemed to him as though he were seeing piles ofcorpses strewn about. What had been seductive and sensuous was now gross andrepulsive. That night he decided to leave the palace and become a monk. After looking in on his sleeping wifeand son one last time, he took his horse and rode out of the palace and intothe forest with Chandaka, one of his retainers. There he cut off his hair andtraded his court clothes for the humble dress of a mendicant. He then sentChandaka back with his horse and a message for his family. He would not returnuntil he had conquered old age, sickness, and death.
At this point several people triedto win Siddhartha back to the palace life. The first was a brahmin fromKapilavastu who argued that he should return out of compassion for his family,duty to his kingdom and the possibility that he need not renounce the familylife to achieve enlightenment. Siddhartha pointed out that the griefexperienced by his family was the result of ignoring the fact that parting withloved ones is inevitable in the face of old age, death, and other calamities.He also pointed out that enlightenment has greater priority than any secularduties. Finally, the life of the householder is the source of too manyanxieties, passions, duties, and other distractions that would impede theachievement of his goal.
Next, a counselor from Kapilavastuappeared, arguing that it was pointless to give up the pleasures of the palacefor a goal that might never be attained. Perhaps there were no answers to befound. Why not simply look to the Vedas, the scriptures, for an answer?Siddhartha's reply was that he must find out for himself if there is an answerto life's suffering. He refused to settle for blind faith, fatalism, or evenagnosticism.
Finally, Siddhartha encountered KingBimbisara of Magadha who offered him a share in his kingdom. King Bimbisara hadno doubt heard of the prophecies that Siddhartha was to be a world conquerorand wanted to see Magadha as the seat of that future empire. Once again,Siddhartha rejected the offer of secular glories in order to continue his questfor enlightenment. For his part, King Bimbisara was so impressed bySiddharthaâs sincerity that he made him promise that if he did attainenlightenment he would return to Magadha and teach the way of liberation.
In his wanderings Siddhartha metmany ascetics who practiced severe disciplines and forms of self-torture inorder to attain religious merits and the hope of a rebirth into one of the manyheavenly abodes of bliss. Siddhartha rejected this as ridiculous. Why shouldpleasure come out of pain? Why should one undergo austerities in this life inthe hope of indulging oneself in the next? Where was the virtue in that?Siddhartha rejected self-torture and self-seeking as worthless if one wants toend the cycle of suffering and pain.
Siddhartha then studied with twogreat masters of meditation. The first was Arada Kalama, who had attained astate wherein one experiences freedom from the material world in the state ofnothingness. Siddhartha rapidly achieved this state as well under AradaKalama's instruction. It was not what he was hoping for. He then studied withRudraka Ramaputra, who was able to enter into a state wherein there is neitherperception nor non-perception. This was also a disappointment for Siddhartha.Siddhartha saw that altered states of consciousness by themselves could notchange one's life or provide any meaningful answers to life's problems. In bothcases his former teachers asked him to assist them in teaching their disciples,but both times Siddhartha turned them down and continued on his search for trueliberation from birth and death.
Siddhartha then joined a band offive ascetics and lived a very austere and reclusive life for six years. He hadhoped that a life of self-denial and severe discipline as opposed toself-torture would give him the clarity he needed to find an answer. After sixyears, however, his body was so weakened from fasting that he was close todeath and still no closer to his goal. In fact, he passed out by the side ofthe Nairanjana River while trying to get some water. A village woman namedSujata, who was stirred by compassion for him and nursed him back to healthwith rice-gruel, saved him from death. Learning of this, the five ascetics weredisappointed in this seeming lapse. How could he let himself be ministered tolike that by a woman? How could he forsake his ascetic discipline? With thesethoughts the five ascetics left for the deer park at Varanasi. In the meantime,Siddhartha realized that self-denial is as much of a hindrance to achievingenlightenment as self-indulgence.
Now the time had come for Siddharthato realize his ultimate aim. He thought back to a day in his youth when he satbeneath a rose-apple tree in a state of calm abiding and clear awareness. Hedecided to again sit beneath a tree and reflect upon life in such a state ofcalm centered awareness. After regaining his health he went to the base of afig tree near the town of Gaya, sat upon a mat made of grass and made the followingvow: âLet only my skin, sinews, and bones remain and let the flesh and blood inmy body dry up; but not until I attain supreme enlightenment will I give upthis seat of meditation.â (The Story of Gotama Buddha, p. 94) This may sound like anextreme attitude to take, but it was not his intention to return to asceticismor self-torture; rather, it was an expression of his single-minded dedicationto achieving his goal.
Now, this aroused the ire of Mara, theDevil of the Sixth Heaven, whose name means "Stealer of Life." Thecharacter of Mara may seem confusing to some people, so a little explanationmay be called for here. The title "Devil of the Sixth Heaven" mayseem very peculiar for instance, especially to those who associate devils anddemons exclusively with hell and the nether world. The Indian conception ofMara, however, is a bit different from the Christian conception of Satan,though there are similarities. In Indian cosmology, Mara is no mere punisher ofevil people in an infernal afterlife or a celestial rebel against the true God.Instead, Mara is the being in charge of all existence involving passion anddesire; in fact, he is also known as Kamadeva, the god of desire whose weaponsare the flowers of sensuality and longing which keeps sentient beings fromrealizing liberation. It is his responsibility as a kind of cosmicprison-warden to keep all sentient beings trapped in the cycle of birth anddeath. He ensures that they are constantly transmigrating through all types ofexistence from hellish to heavenly, always in pursuit of their desires. Mara isthe stealer of life because it is his machinations that rob people of theirlife's purpose, which is to achieve liberation. According to this conception,hell and heaven are both part of the cycle of suffering. There are, in fact,more rarefied heavens which are beyond the jurisdiction of Mara, but inBuddhist teaching these are also considered impermanent states wherein one onlytemporarily transcend Maraâs jurisdiction.
So it was that Mara was veryconcerned that Siddhartha was on the verge of liberation from his realm. AsSiddhartha took up his meditation beneath the Bodhi Tree (as the fig tree hesat under came to be called), Mara summoned his daughters and his demonicarmies to prevent Siddhartha from attaining enlightenment. His first attemptwas to send in his beautiful daughters to tempt Siddhartha back to a worldlylife of sensual pleasures. When his daughters were unsuccessful, he turned tobrute force by sending his army of demons. Once again, Siddhartha was unmoved.Even when the demons shot arrows or threw boulders or balls of flame at him, heremained still and the missiles turned into flowers floating harmlessly to theground. As a last resort, Mara himself appeared and challenged Shakyamuni,saying, "What gives you the right to presume that you can leave my realmof desire?" Siddhartha's reply was to place one hand upon the ground, thuscalling the earth itself to witness that there was nowhere Siddhartha had notsacrificed himself in previous lifetimes for the sake of enlightenment for allsentient beings. Mara could do no more, and so fled with his army. Siddhartha'scompassion and dedication had enabled him to subjugate Mara and his demon army.
Now that all of the distractions,doubts and unconscious inhibitions symbolized by the demon army were clearedaway, Siddhartha began to gain greater and greater insight into the humancondition beginning with his own life. He recollected all of the events in allof his previous lives and reviewed all of the causes and conditions that hadenabled him to arrive at the Bodhi Tree. Next, his awareness took in the livesof all sentient beings, and he saw how their lives were also governed by thecauses and conditions that they themselves had set in motion. Finally, hecontemplated the chain of causation, whereby all things come into existence andsentient beings forge their own destiny. He saw that all sentient beings sufferingwithin the cycle of birth and death are trapped there because of the ignorantpursuit of selfish desires. Siddhartha then realized that all suffering was dueto a misapprehension of the nature of reality. As the night came to an end andthe morning star rose into the dawn sky, Siddhartha awakened to the true natureof life; from that point on he was known as Shakyamuni Buddha. The nameShakyamuni means "Sage of the Shakya Clan"; while the title Buddhameans the âAwakened One". âTathagataâ is another name for the Buddhameaning both âThus Come Oneâ and âThus Gone Oneâ. It is a title that refers tothe Buddhaâs ability to come and go from the realm of Truth.
The Buddha remained in meditationbeneath the Bodhi Tree for a week. His goal was accomplished but now he had todecide what to do next. At this point, Mara saw an opportunity to rid the worldof the Buddha before anyone else could be liberated. He went again before theBuddha and argued that no one else would be able to comprehend what he had realized;and in any case no one else would be willing to give up their worldly pleasuresand dedicate themselves as Siddhartha had. Therefore, it would be best for theBuddha to leave the world and enter the bliss of nirvana, which is theextinction of suffering and worldly life.
As the Buddha considered howdifficult it would be to teach and liberate others, the god Brahmaappeared to plead the case of all sentient beings. Brahma was the god whoresided in the first of the form realm heavens that transcend the desire realmheavens. In Indian cosmology, Brahma is believed to be the god of creation andlord of the universe. It should also be pointed out that in Buddhism, this doesnot make Brahma superior to the Buddha, for even the gods are caught in thecycle of birth and death and their exalted positions are only temporary states.Since even divine beings such as Brahma need to be liberated, the Buddha cameto be known as the teacher of gods and men.
Brahma argued that just as a wealthyman should be generous, the Buddha should also be charitable with the Dharma,or Truth. In addition, not all people were hopelessly enmeshed in ignorance anddesire. Indeed, some only need a guide and others only require the right amountof preparation and assistance in order to liberate themselves from the cycle ofbirth and death. Hearing this the Buddha resolved to teach what he had learnedfor the sake of all sentient beings; and so, he set out to find his five formercompanions in asceticism, since they were the most prepared to hear the Dharma.Once again, Mara had lost, and now all sentient beings would receive theteaching leading to enlightenment and liberation.
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