07 September 2015

#History of World Civilization, Day Seven

India and Buddhism

What were the five major accomplishments of the [Indian] emperor Ashoka?

A. Ashoka conquered the kingdom of Kalinga, along the eastern coast of the Indian subcontinent, the last major holdout against his consolidation of power. This gave him control of the trade routes by sea and along the plains of the Ganges River. B. After seeing the suffering and death caused by the war with the Kalingas, Ashoka devoted himself to Buddhism and the desire to rule by good governance, rather than military might. He instituted a strong ruling bureaucracy that brought stability to the government of India. He established a central treasury in the city of Pataliputra, which efficiently oversaw the collection of taxes and supported the many officials the government required. This stimulated economic activity and created wealth. He built Buddhist monasteries and “stupas” – shrines containing important relics - and sponsored missionaries of the faith to far-flung lands. He recognized the value of a common religion to unite his culturally diverse and geographically sprawling domain. Whatever his motives, his reign was a largely prosperous time in Indian history. C. He promulgated laws and decrees by having them inscribed all across the land, so his subjects could know and understand government policy, and to encourage them to observe the tenets of Buddhism and conduct themselves in an orderly manner. D. He built tremendous irrigation systems that expanded the use and productivity of agriculture, a critical component of creating wealth, expanding trade, and supporting population growth. E. He promoted trade by building roads, including a single stretch of more than 1,000 miles, connecting Pataliputra with Taxila, giving trade caravans access to the western extremes of his empire and the exotic products and cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and beyond. He created the ancient equivalent of the first “truck stops,” building inns, planting trees, and digging wells along this early form of “interstate highway,” for the comfort and safety of travelers, and to encourage trade.

What were Siddhartha Gautama's contributions to the development of Buddhism? How does Buddhism differ from Hinduism? What accounts for the popular appeal of Buddhism?

Siddhartha Gautama was born ca. 563 BC, the son of a minor tribal governor in the Himalayan foothills. As a member of the kKshatriya, he led a comfortable, sheltered young life, until he witnessed a man suffering the effects of age and infirmity. Shocked by the man’s suffering, he left his home and young family in search of an understanding of and relief from this suffering. He developed the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path after years of wandering, meditation, and reflection on life and human suffering. He thus founded Buddhism, and was the original Buddha. He taught that all suffering in life was a result of striving for power and happiness, neither of which will provide contentment. By mastering the self and conquering desire, one can attain “nirvana,” – similar to the Hindu moksha - peace with oneself and his or her fellow man/woman and release from the earthly cycle of reincarnation. Nirvana is available to all who obtain enlightenment, regardless of caste or status. He purposely avoided the use of Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas and the brahmin, believing that the brahmin used their knowledge of the original language to control access to the Vedas, and therefore maintain power and influence over the people. He believed his teachings should be accessible to common people in their own language. An interesting parallel appears centuries later, when reformers fought to translate the Christian Bible into English, breaking the control similarly held by the Catholic Church and its priests over the Latin scriptures.

Buddhism’s rejection of social distinctions differs markedly from Hinduism and its rigid caste system, with virtually impassible gulfs between castes. For the Hindu, the best one could do was to be a good member of his or her caste, following the Dharma –rules of behavior laid out in the many jati, or sublevels, of their caste. Buddhism offers the same opportunities to attain nirvana to all members of society, regardless of caste. This would have been especially popular with members of the lowest castes, for whom Hinduism offered no real hope of improving their lot in life except through reincarnation.

Buddhism benefited from the support of the lower castes, as well as those seeking a less complicated, demanding form of religion than the empty rituals of the brahmin. Its popularity was further expanded by the imperial support of Ashoka, who devoted himself to Buddhist teachings after witnessing the horrors of the war with the Kalingas. This presents another remarkable parallel to the official adoption of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine in about 312 AD. It seems history does, indeed, repeat itself.

Describe Mahayana Buddhism. How does it differ from Theravada Buddhism?

Mahayana Buddhism might be thought of as “liberal,” or “mainstream” Buddhism, and Theravada Buddhism as “conservative,” or “orthodox” Buddhism.

Mahayana literally means “the larger vehicle,” and thus describes more of a “big tent” philosophy regarding the practice of one’s religion. It recognizes many buddhas, not just Siddhartha Gautama as the one, true Buddha, and tolerates the concept of many roads to salvation. While monastic life is desirable, most people will not choose to live this way, and will not incur bad karma for not doing so. It embodies the “live and let live” philosophy. Each person finds his or her own way to enlightenment and oneness with the Brahman.

Theravada Buddhism - literally “the narrower vehicle - is the stricter, more rigid form of Buddhism. It believes the teachings of the Buddha to be the true guide for achieving nirvana, and as such, they must be scrupulously followed. It rejects the idea of many buddhas, worshiping Gautama as a god and the only Buddha, though Gautama never ascribed divinity to himself. Theravada believes all people who wish to attain nirvana should adopt an ascetic, monastic lifestyle. These are the “Buddha-thumpers,” insisting that their version of Buddhism is the true form, and believing that Mahayana Buddhists are misguided and can never hope to achieve nirvana. In reality, Theravada’s rigid requirements are only slightly less impossible to maintain than Jainism, even for cloistered monks, which made Theravada less popular in most of society, drawing only the most devoted followers.

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