The Origins and Rise of Buddhism

From the Lecture Series: The History of India

By Michael H. Fisher, Ph.D., Oberlin College

One of the most persuasive core concepts in Buddhism is that any person can achieve a higher condition, in worldly, as well as universal terms. But where, and when did Buddhism begin? How did it become so popular, capturing the hearts and minds of millions of faithful followers around the globe?

Ancient Buddha statue in the Sukhothai period At Si Satchanalai Historical Park, Sukhothai, Thailand
(Image: Siwagonphotostock/Shutterstock)

It Began With a Miracle Birth

For Buddhists everywhere, the life and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama provide the ideals and core of their faith and for their community. According to the later Buddhist tradition, Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born around 560 B.C.E. as the heir to the royal Shakya clan ruling over a small kingdom in the Himalayan foothills. This kingdom lay beyond the Brahmanic heartland of the Gangetic Plain, perhaps giving the people there more scope for innovation. Like the Jain leader Mahavira, Prince Siddhartha had a pure conception, absolute nonviolent gestation, and a miraculous birth. Baby Siddhartha’s fingerprints, palms, and soles bore clear signs foretelling that he would become either a universal savior or a universal conqueror, chakravartin, or Lord of the Four Quarters. He grew up to be a savior while some of his followers became emperors over much of India.

photo of idol of Mahavira
The Jain teacher Mahavira, a contemporary of the Buddha (Image: Dayodaya/Shutterstock)

Indeed, there are many parallels between the lives and teachings of the premier Jain teacher Mahavira and those of Siddhartha the Buddha that is, the Enlightened One, who became the exemplar for Buddhists. The two men were roughly contemporary, both based in North India, and both were Kshatriya by birth. But both rejected martial dharma, as well as the authority of Brahmins—based on the esoteric Veda—and ritual sacrifice. Both Mahavira and Siddhartha Gautama left their families in their early 30s to seek a higher path leading to nirvana.

Learn more: The Origins and Rise of Jainism

To protect their precious son, Siddhartha’s royal parents raised him in a perfect world by excluding any possible sources of sorrow. He mastered all the arts and pleasures. At age 16, he married his beautiful, pure royal cousin and soon had a son. But, as recounted by devout Buddhists, the gods arranged for Siddhartha to rise above pure pleasure by encountering the limitations of human existence in the world.

These four peace-shattering sights enabled Siddhartha to free himself from the pleasures of the palace. He left behind his family and all of his possessions, he cut off his luxuriant hair, and he joined a band of ascetics.

Departing From A Life of Pleasure

Suddenly, Siddhartha saw for the first time an old man, frail, bent over, white-haired, with few remaining teeth. Shocked, Siddhartha was told that this was the future condition of all men, including himself. Next, he encountered a sick man, covered in boils and shaking with fever. Again, Siddhartha sought to understand. Then, Siddhartha saw a corpse being carried by sorrowing relatives to the cremation ground. Finally, Siddhartha perceived a wandering mendicant, someone who sought to escape from the pains of this earthly human existence. These four peace-shattering sights enabled Siddhartha to free himself from the pleasures of the palace. He left behind his family and all of his possessions, he cut off his luxuriant hair, and he joined a band of ascetics.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of India. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Like the Jain teacher Mahavira, Siddhartha pushed self-sacrifice and austerities to the limit. Unlike Mahavira, Siddhartha found he could grow only weaker from fasting, unable to concentrate his thoughts on the eternal. After six years as the ideal ascetic, Siddhartha repudiated the path of austerities, seeing them as leading not to salvation but painful frustration. Instead, he resumed eating, and as his body strengthened, he began to meditate deeply on the nature of humanity and the cosmos. In the Buddhist tradition, the various gods, especially the god of death, strove in vain to distract him from his meditation. Finally, sheltering under a pipal or sacred fig tree, he achieved enlightenment as the Buddha. This took place in the city of Gaya, which was then in the expanding north Indian kingdom of Magadha, and is now in the Indian province of Bihar.

photo of the Mahabodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya
The Mahabodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya where it is believed the Buddha once meditated. (Image: Ken Wieland/Public domain)

Some of his devotees claim that the exact tree under which he meditated still grows on the same site in the city now called Bodh Gaya. However, skeptics doubt that the actual tree that sheltered the Buddha as he achieved enlightenment has survived for 2,500 years. Much more likely is that the current tree has grown from a series of cuttings, each taken devotedly from an earlier generation of the tree. However, when you go to Bodh Gaya today, some vendors will sell you an authentic leaf from what they claim is the original tree. Many Buddhist pilgrims and other visitors return with such a relic.

Learn more about Ashoka’s Imperial Buddhism

The first Noble Truth asserts that this worldly existence is inherently filled with suffering, old age, illness, and death as inevitable.

The Enlightened Buddha

Siddhartha, now the enlightened Buddha, began to preach. Later Buddhists recount his First Sermon, which conveyed the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path that became the core of their religion. The first Noble Truth asserts that this worldly existence is inherently filled with suffering, old age, illness, and death as inevitable. The second Noble Truth reveals that all this suffering stems from sensual desire and attachment to this world. The third teaches that, by withdrawing the senses, desire and attachment will disappear and so too will suffering. The fourth and final Noble Truth lays out the Buddhist Middle Way that rejects the extremes of both pleasure and asceticism. This Middle Way is the Eightfold Path that consists of right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. By performing these eight perfectly, anyone can reach nirvana, the final condition of absolute peace, beyond all desire and suffering.

Throughout the rest of the Buddha’s life in this world, until his death at age 80 around 480 B.C.E., he lived and taught these ideas. When two armies from rival Indian kingdoms poised for war, the Buddha stepped between them and preached nonviolence. He, and generations of his followers, elaborated on the meanings of the Buddhist truths and laid out the details for following the Middle Way. These early teachings were often in Pali, the language spoken by the North Indian people around them, rather than in the archaic Vedic Sanskrit preserved by Brahmins. These early Buddhists used the Pali term dhamma, rather than the Sanskrit term of the same concept, dharma, to describe their Middle Way as an ideal code for conduct by which all humans—and everything in the universe—should act.

… the Middle Way was an ideal code for conduct by which all humans—and everything in the universe—should act.

A Loyal Following Takes Shape

As growing numbers of dedicated followers gathered around the Buddha, he organized a sangha or monastic order. Heads shaven, renouncing all family and possessions, living nonviolently and without desire or attachment on donated food, wearing saffron-colored robes—the members of the sangha wandered for eight months of the year. Then they lived during the four months of the Indian monsoon rains in a monastery.

These became the three gems of Buddhism: the Buddha, the dhamma, and the sangha. According to emic accounts, the Buddha initially only accepted men into the sangha, but after the appeal of Siddhartha’s foster mother and aunt, he did allow nuns. Accounts show how convincing many women found Buddhism and its Middle Way of nonviolence, giving, and renouncing desire. Some of the earliest women who entered the sangha expressed their personal feelings in poetry, making these among the very oldest recorded words by women in all of human history.

For example, one nun named Sumangalamata from around 500 B.C.E. celebrated her liberation from the obligations of this life as a wife, and metaphorically from the limits of worldly existence as well. She proclaimed:

A woman well set free! How free I am,
How wonderfully free, from kitchen drudgery.
Free from the harsh grip of hunger,
And from the empty cooking pots,
Free too of that unscrupulous man,
The weaver of sunshades.
Calm now, and serene I am,
All lust and hatred purged.
To the shade of spreading trees I go
And contemplate my happiness.

But, in many Buddhist lands today, most women are customarily excluded from the sangha. Nonetheless, in India and elsewhere many women and men have lived as lay Buddhists, putting the dhamma into practice as much as possible.

Learn more about Dharma in the Bhagavad Gita

Since Buddhism accepts all who adopt its Middle Way, it spread rapidly among many different classes in India. The Buddha and subsequent Buddhist teachers developed the tactic of appropriate teaching—presenting as much of the Buddhist message as that specific audience could appreciate.

painting of the Jataka Tales
The Jataka Tales tell stories about the previous lives of the Buddha and are envisioned here in this painting. (Image: Unknown – Phajoding Gonpa, Thimphu, Bhutan/Public domain)

Teaching Lessons as Jatakas

To convey Buddhist morality to even uneducated people, Buddhist teachers often adapted folktales. Sometimes, such teachers used these folktales as the basis for accounts of the previous lives of the Buddha, before he was born for the last time as Prince Siddhartha. In the most authoritative collection, there are 537 of these jatakas, or accounts of his previous lives, presented in poetic form, but with prose commentary. While for some Buddhists these jatakas are true biographies of those earlier lives, from an etic perspective, we can see how they arose from folktales. In them, the Buddha-to-be is conceptualized in some births as a Brahmin, in some as a Kshatriya, in others as a peasant, often as an animal, including an elephant or a rabbit. Significantly, none of these jatakas have him born female, suggesting residual Buddhist favoring of males.

The Buddhist message about not relying on the five senses, but rather on the truths of Buddhism in order to overcome former foes, comes out clearly in this simple story.

In one jataka, for example, the Buddha-to-be is born as a royal Brahmin called Prince Five Weapons. When encountering a shaggy ogre, he uses his poisoned arrows, sharp sword, piercing spear, and mighty mace. Each of these, however, fails to penetrate the ogre’s thick, sticky, matted hair. The prince then uses his two fists, two feet, and a forehead against the ogre. None of these five blows does him any good. Instead, the only result is his being stuck fast to the ogre, who prepares to eat him. Undismayed, the prince teaches the ogre the Buddhist lessons of the inevitability of death, the futility of fear of it, and also the virtue of not killing. Consequently, the ogre is convinced of the spiritual and moral power of the prince, releases him, and becomes his nonviolent supporter. The Buddhist message about not relying on the five senses, but rather on the truths of Buddhism to overcome former foes, comes out clearly in this simple story.

Br'er Rabbit and the Tar-Baby, drawing by E.W. Kemble from The Tar-Baby, by Joel Chandler Harris, 1904
Brer Rabbit – An American version of a jataka. (Image: Edward W. Kemble/Public domain)

However, the motif of this particular folktale, about being stuck multiple times to a sticky foe but then escaping through persuasive words, appears in nearly 300 versions of this same folktale around the world. This jataka is the only version in which the Buddha appears, but all the others spread out around the world over the centuries from an Indian origin. Even before the jataka version, the folktale seems to have described how hunters trapped monkeys by putting sticky substances on tree branches. Thousands of years later, the American version appears in the Uncle Remus collection, about Brer Rabbit stuck in the Tar Baby. Here, Brer Rabbit talks his way into being thrown in the briar patch and thus escapes.

Learn more about the earliest history of the Indian subcontinent

Collectively, the more than 500 Indian jatakas reveal how the Buddhist teachers reached out, using the language and stories of the folk to convey to them Buddhist lessons in a simple, but effective form. In the Buddhist social model, people are ranked according to the dana, from the same Indo-European word root that gives us donations in English—that is, how much they give. Monks and nuns give up everything and donate their lives to following the dhamma, ranking them the highest. But laypeople can also follow the Middle Way, to the extent that they are able. Over time, people who gave the most, including donations to Buddhist monasteries and shrines, took precedence over those who gave less. This meant that rich merchants and kings, who gave wealth generously, stood highest among laypeople. Those others who did not give to Buddhism at all are ranked the lowest—and these included Jains, Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and other non-Buddhist members of other Varnas.

The Buddhist Middle Way, in which any individual who practiced nonviolence and dana could rise up in his or her condition, attracted many converts in ancient India.

Teaching the Middle Way

The Buddhist Middle Way, in which any individual who practiced nonviolence and dana could rise up in his or her condition, attracted many converts in ancient India. In particular, many economically rising merchants, who could live without themselves killing and who had the means to give substantially, found Buddhism attractive. To address their particular concerns, Buddhist scholars created lessons and guides that showed how one can preserve wealth by not giving in to desire, and how one can prevent one’s son from squandering one’s perfectly preserved resources.

In addition, men and women from other groups in Indian society who did not find the Brahmanic Varna model persuasive, particularly those whose place within that model was unsatisfactorily low, also joined or supported Buddhism. Shudras and other non-Kshatriyas who had fought their way to kingship, for example, preferred to patronize Brahmins less and Buddhists more.

Learn more about Northwest and North India

photo of the Sanchi stupa
The Sanchi stupa was built over the relics of the Buddha. It is the oldest known stupa.

In India, several schools of metaphysics developed within the Buddhist tradition. Their core concepts about the nature of existence largely concurred. They agreed that the individual self is incarnated in birth after birth, as a human or an animal. This self consists of a bundle of sensory perceptions and desires that retain karma—that is, the good and bad actions that one has done in this and in previous lives. As one gives up desires, becomes completely non-attached to the senses, one’s karma also is released. Final liberation comes when all desires and attachments are relinquished, and one’s self achieves nirvana, never to suffer birth, death, rebirth, and re-death ever again.

The Buddha Achieves Nirvana

Upon the Buddha’s final earthly death, his body was cremated. Despite his teachings about the unreality and worthlessness of the material body, his followers preserved his ashes, charred bones, and teeth. For many devotees, these remains contained some of the sacred power of the Buddha himself. To house these relics, donors, including kings and rich merchants, built stupas. Each hemispheric stupa had, at its core, a relic. A stupa also conventionally had above it an umbrella, the symbol of royalty—thus signifying the Buddha’s sovereignty. Pilgrims came from long distances to circumambulate in the auspicious clockwise direction—the most prominent of these stupas, worshipping the Buddha. This pattern of clockwise circumambulation gradually also became customary for Brahmanic temples. Thus, over time, many of the practices of Buddhism became similar to those of other religious traditions, especially for people not learned in the distinct abstract metaphysics of each religion.

While many Buddhist monks and nuns individually conformed to the ideals of non-possession and non-attachment, over time some monasteries themselves became wealthy. Rich donors gained Buddhist merit by giving land, jewels, gold, silver, and other valuable resources to monasteries. Some monasteries became major centers of learning, with growing libraries. Monks taught students and also developed increasingly sophisticated Buddhist scholarly and philosophical traditions.

photo of the Dharmachakra or Wheel of Dhamma
Dharmachakra or Wheel of Dhamma, Symbol of Buddhism

The Buddha Represented in Art

To convey Buddhist teachings visually, artists have used a series of strategies. Since the Buddha had achieved transcendent nirvana, some early artists portrayed him by his absence. This was also an approach used by Jain artists for their liberated transcendent leaders. Some early Buddhist sculptors used the Tree of Enlightenment with the absence beneath it indicating the Buddha—all eyes are to focus on the spot where he is no longer present. Other sculptors convey the same message by showing the Buddha’s footprint, indented with the auspicious marks of his sole. Yet others show the symbolic wheel of dharma, which rolls throughout the cosmos establishing the Buddhist law.

Some later Buddhist artists portray the Buddha in his human form. In western India, not too far from Mumbai, the Ajanta Caves contain some of ancient India’s finest representational art. Some 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments date roughly from the 2nd century B.C. up to perhaps the 7th century C.E. On the walls of some of these caves are highly refined paintings of the Buddha, the events of his life, and the world around him.

Learn more: Epic History: Mahabharata

photo of inside the Buddha inside the Ajanta Caves
The Buddha in a preaching pose inside the Ajanta Caves

In these and other images of the Buddha, like those of Mahavira and other Indian sages, he’s often wearing a halo, with stretched but empty earlobes where his golden jeweled earrings had hung throughout his affluent youth before he abandoned them, and his hair is stylized into snail-like tight curls. Also, the Buddha, like some other sacred beings, is conventionally portrayed with a protuberance on the top of his head. Etic art historians have explained this variously, ranging from the extension of his brain to a knot of hair. Like Mahavira and other revered Jains, Siddhartha is sometimes depicted as the ultimate in asceticism; however, for Siddhartha, asceticism was only an unproductive phase that he abandoned for the Middle Way.

Over the centuries, Buddhism became a world religion, spreading throughout much of Asia.

Buddhism Spreads Across The Globe

Over the centuries, Buddhism became a world religion, spreading throughout much of Asia. Starting around the 3rd century B.C.E., missionaries from mainland India went to Sri Lanka, where the vast majority of the population converted. There they followed the original teachings, called the Theravada or Hinayana, meaning Lesser Vehicle form. From Sri Lanka, this form of Buddhism spread to Southeast Asia, where it remains dominant in Burma—now Myanmar—Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Other religious traditions from India, like Hinduism, also extended along these same routes, but in each case, local societies adapted these religious traditions to their own cultures.

photo of tall buddha in Bamiyan before its destruction by the Taliban in 2001.
One of the tall buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan before its destruction by the Taliban in 2001.

As Buddhist ideas in India continued to develop, the Mahayana, or Greater Vehicle, emerged from about the 1st century C.E. This spread by land into what is today Afghanistan. The famous tall statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan, which were blown up by the Taliban in 2001, were the most dramatic evidence of Buddhism there. Buddhism in Afghanistan mixed with Greek culture as well. From Afghanistan, Mahayana Buddhism spread to China and then to Japan, adapting to local traditions as it went.

The third major type of Buddhism to develop in India is known as the Vajrayana, or Thunderbolt Vehicle, since, among other doctrines, it features sudden enlightenment. By the 7th century, this form had spread to Nepal and Tibet.

Although India was the land where Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha lived and taught, Buddhism died out there over the centuries. In part, this was because Buddhism caught the attention of kings and emperors, especially those who were non-Kshatriya in birth. They and rich merchants gained merit by making massive donations to the Buddhist sangha and its monasteries and nunneries. Some of these became the seats of great scholarship, almost ivory towers of learning. But they gradually lost their connections with the general populace.

Today, there are about 8 million Buddhists in India, mostly so-called neo-Buddhist Dalits. But this is less than one percent of the Indian population. Still, using India’s law courts, these new Buddhists have reclaimed from Brahmins many of the sacred sites of Buddhism, including those in Bodh Gaya where the Buddha achieved enlightenment.

Learn more about Indian Sultans

Common Questions About the Origin of Buddhism

Q: When did Buddhism begin?

While Siddhartha Guatama (the Buddha) was born in 560 B.C.E, and would become enlightened many years later, it was upon his death in 483 B.C.E. that his followers organized his teachings and began to disseminate them to the masses. It was Ashoka who would make Buddhism the religion of India in the 3rd century B.C.E.

Q: Was Buddha an actual person?

Buddha was a real person, originally named Siddhartha Guatama. He was born into a wealthy ruling class family and eventually joined a group of ascetics to leave behind material luxuries and find enlightenment.

Q: Is Buddha a god?

Buddhism does not worship gods. They believe in constant change and the ability to personally attain a state of nothingness, or bliss, which is a release from the sorrows of existence called Nirvana.

Q: Who is Ashoka?

Ashoka the Great was the ruler of the largest empire in the world at that time, 3rd century B.C.E.: the Indian Mauryan Empire. He was essential in placing Buddhism as the state religion of India.

This article was updated on May 4, 2020

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