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 the“teacher of gods and men”. This young prince would come to be known as the“Awakened One,” or the Buddha. He gave himself this title because he hadaroused himself from the sleep of delusion, the dream of perpetual birth anddeath.
After2,500 years the Buddha is still regarded by over 300 million people as thegreatest spiritual figure of all time. Even many of those who do not follow theBuddhist path regard the Buddha and his teachings with great respect andreverence. Many Western Christians have even discovered a new life for theirown faith through the insights of Buddhism. Remarkably, in India there iscurrently a Buddhist revival, as those who have been disenfranchised by thecaste system turn to the social and spiritual liberation taught by Buddhism.Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that they are being assisted byBritish Buddhists, whose country has only recently discovered the Buddha'steachings. Buddhism has also inspired many of its followers in all parts of theworld to become involved in the peace movement and other important socialcauses. After 2,500 years Buddhism is still a living religion, and a potentsource of spiritual hope and strength. In light of this, the story of theBuddha's life and accomplishments is one with which everyone should becomefamiliar.
Thestory takes place during a time of great transition throughout the civilizedworld. In her book, A History of God, Karen Armstrong sets the scene for this momentousperiod 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)
Theestablished religion in India prior 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)
Theoriginal purpose of the Vedas was to make it possible for people to communewith the divine order of the universe and its representatives. This intent isfully expressed in the Mantra Gayatri, one of the most famous of the verses inthe Rig Veda,which can be translated as: “Let us bring our minds to rest in/The glory ofDivine Truth/May Truth inspire our reflection.” (Hymns from the Rig Veda, p.4) Eventually, however, theVedas were used to manipulate the gods. It was believed that the gods could beapproached, appeased and even controlled through the performance of the properhymns and sacrifices in order to gain good fortune and stave off disaster.
TheVedas also sacralized the social order imposed by the Aryan conquerors.According to the Rig Veda, when the gods sacrificed the primeval cosmic man, his partsbecame the four classes of Vedic society.
When they divided Man, the Person,
How were the parts distributed?
What became of His mouth and arms?
What did they call His thighs andfeet?
His mouth was the Man of the Word,
Into the Prince His arms were made.
While His thighs produced thePeople,
His feet gave birth to the Servant.
The“Man of the Word” refers to the brahmins, the priests who were authorized to recite the hymns,conduct the sacrifices, uphold virtue and to teach the Vedic religion. The“Prince” refers to the kshatriyas, the warriors and rulers who were charged with preservingthe peace. The “People” refers to the vaishyas, who were the merchants andlandowners responsible for the economy. Finally, the “Servant” refers to the sudras, the serfs and the performers ofmenial labor. Ideally, these four classes are an attempt to organize societyaccording to the inclinations of the individual. Each person should take up oneof those four roles in accordance with their talents and desires. In reality,heredity was what came to decide which class a person belonged to, andnaturally the Aryans belonged to the first three classes while the conqueredindigenous population became sudras and even outcastes.
Bythe time of the Buddha, many people had begun questioning this system. Theywanted something more than ritual, sacrifices, and the empty authority of ahereditary priesthood. In order to satisfy their spiritual thirst they retiredto the woods in their later years, and looked for sages who could help them. Anew paradigm of four life stages resulted from this, a paradigm all butinstitutionalized by the time of the Buddha. In youth, the religion of theVedas would be studied under the guidance of the brahmins. Following this, theyoung man would become a householder, which meant having a family andfulfilling one's social duties. This would be followed in middle or old age bya retreat into the forest; as a forest-dweller, one would meditate and reflectupon the spiritual significance of life. The final stage was the life of thewandering mendicant; in this stage, one renounces the world and attainsspiritual freedom. The insights produced by such activity were recorded in the Upanishads, and in many ways they brought anew spiritual dimension to the Vedic religion of the brahmins.
Manynew themes arose for the first time in the Upanishads, including the concepts ofreincarnation 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 will be forced to repeatedly undergo the cycleof birth and death. In addition, the Upanishads taught the doctrine of karma. Karmasimply means “action,” 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.
TheBuddha's time, then, was a time of drastic change and great challenges. Thereligious traditions of the past were no longer in touch with the needs of thepeople, and the forest sages and seekers were working to find new answers. Hishome was the humble city of Kapilavastu, the center of a small tribal kingdomruled by the Shakya clan located in what is now southern Nepal. It is believedthat their rulers shared power with an assembly known as the sangha, a semi-democratic institution uponwhich the Buddha would base his monastic order. Towards the end of the Buddha'slife this small kingdom would be swallowed up by the neighboring state ofKosala, which would in turn be swallowed up by the kingdom of Maghada to thesouth. The Buddha was born to King Suddhodana and Queen Maya, the rulers ofKapilavastu. His family name was Gautama, and his given name was Siddhartha. Asa member of the kshatriya caste, the young Prince Siddhartha was given thefinest education that could be had in that part of ancient India. As a youngman he learned the ancient Indian martial arts, astronomy, mathematics,medicine, literature, and the religion of the brahmins. In short, PrinceSiddhartha grew up with all the privileges and advantages of his caste in asmall kingdom about to be swept away by the inexorable currents of history. Itwas a very precarious position to be in, but this is what made Siddhartha theman he was. Siddhartha Gautama would, in turn, make his own lasting mark on thefuture of the world.
Fromthe very beginning of the Buddha's life we are confronted with the strange andthe miraculous. A lot of this is due to the accretions of the pious; however, Ibelieve that some of these fantastic elements were designed to teach andinspire as well as to embellish. Many gods, for instance, take a hand in thestory of the Buddha. Perhaps the appearance of these gods and spirits should serveto remind us that there are many inner forces at work within the subconsciousmind. These forces may either help or hinder us. Past memories, good and badassociations, built up prejudices, habits or predispositions - all of these canserve to darken our vision or dampen our aspirations. On the other hand, wealso have the capacity for insight. Somehow our subconscious mind manages tofit the whole puzzle together, or finds the crucial element, or comes up with anew approach to a dilemma. There may even be actual spiritual beings at work aswell. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James points out that ifin fact there are spiritual forces at work in our lives, then it will bethrough just such subconscious 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)
Inaddition, outside events and opportunities seem to have an uncanny way ofcorresponding to the necessities of our inner life, providing us with theneeded catalysts to facilitate our growth as human beings. C.G. Jung calledthese meaningful coincidences "synchronicity". Whatever the name orexplanation for these internal and external forces, they are a factor in manypeoples lives, especially those who are perceptive or sensitive enough torealize it. The role of the gods and other supernatural phenomena in the lifeof the Buddha is to remind us that there is more at work in our lives than justour conscious decisions and the seeming randomness of outside events. On a moreliterary level, they also serve to underscore the powerful impact the events ofthe Buddha's life had on both Shakyamuni and those who knew him and put theirtrust in him. They serve to heighten the dramatic effect of what is basicallythe story of an inner struggle.
Inaccordance with the teachings of causation it has been taught that Shakyamunihad many previous existences. In each of these he perfected the various virtuesthat would come to fruition in the future as buddhahood. In the first suchstory, Shakyamuni is a wealthy brahmin named Sumedha who leaves his town tobecome a hermit in order to find an answer to the inevitable sorrows of life.One day, while visiting another city he has the good fortune of meeting Dipamkara,the buddha of that time. He is so overcome by the meeting that he makes a vowbefore Dipamkara to become a buddha himself. Dipamkara then predicts the futurebuddhahood of Sumedha in a future existence. After his last earthly rebirth andbefore his life as Shakyamuni, the future Buddha lived in the Heaven ofContentment (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.
Whenthe right conditions arose Queen Maya of Kapilavastu had a most singular dream.She dreamed that a six tusked white elephant holding a white lotus flower inits trunk circled around her three times and then entered into her womb. Atthat moment Queen Maya conceived the new buddha. She would give birth to himpainlessly while standing up and holding onto a Sal tree branch while visitingthe Lumbini Garden near Kapilavastu. The legend states that immediately upon enteringthe world, the young Prince Siddhartha took seven steps and made the followingstatements: "I am born for Enlightenment for the good of the world; thisis my last birth in the world of phenomena." (Asvaghosa’s Buddhacarita, part II, p. 4)
Onthe fifth day after his birth the baby prince was presented to the brahmins forhis anointing and the choosing of his name according to custom. Upon seeing thebaby and examining him, the brahmins declared that he would surely becomeeither the founder of an empire or a buddha, an awakened one. King Suddhodanawas a just and pious king, but worldly success was still far more real to himthan spiritual awakening. King Suddhodana, therefore, expressed the hope thathis son might choose the path of secular rule, and perhaps later retire intothe forest at the appropriate time - after his worldly success wasaccomplished. In view of the predictions of the brahmins, the baby was giventhe name Siddhartha, which means: "He who has accomplished his aim."
Alsoin the temple of the brahmins at this time was the highly respected sage andseer known as Asita. When he saw the baby he began to weep, thereby arousinggreat fear in the hearts of Siddhartha's parents. They asked him if there wasany cause to fear for their son, and Asita told them that he wept not for thebaby but for himself. Asita told them that he wept because their son wouldsurely become a buddha, but he himself was too old and would not live to hearthe Buddha's teachings.
Twodays after those events, Queen Maya would die of a fatal illness. From thattime on, Mahaprajapati, Queen Maya's sister, would act as the new prince'smother. One can assume that the death of his real mother had a hand in theyoung prince's sensitivity to the problem of birth and death.
Life in the Palace
Theyoung prince Siddhartha grew up receiving all the privileges and advantages ofhis station. King Suddhodana had three palaces built for him, and beautifulcourtesans and brilliant teachers surrounded the young prince. Above all, KingSuddhodana tried to keep Siddhartha occupied with the pleasures and duties ofthe life of a prince; he did not wish to see his one heir heading for theforests to live the life of a mendicant. Nevertheless, Prince Siddharthaconsistently displayed a compassion for all around him, and could often befound deep in contemplation. Seeing this, King Suddhodana ensured that PrinceSiddhartha was married at the age of 16 to the beautiful and charming PrincessYashodhara of the nearby kingdom of the Koliyas. It was not too long beforeKing Suddhodana was presented with a grandson, Rahula. The king hoped thatYashodhara and Rahula would be enough to keep Siddhartha in the palace.Siddhartha, however, could see nothing of any lasting value in the secular lifeof a ruler.
DespiteKing Suddhodana's efforts to shield Siddhartha from the harsh realities oflife, the prince was painfully aware of the limits of life's pleasures andrewards. His realization of the inevitable fate of all mankind is related inthe story of the four sightings. The story runs that Siddhartha wished to leavethe confines of the palace and tour his kingdom by chariot. King Suddhodanaagreed, but he made sure that the route taken by the prince was cleared of anydisturbing sights. The route to be taken would avoid any areas of poverty anddestitution. All beggars, the elderly, and the sick were cleared out. The routewould also be swept and hung with garlands of flowers. After all thepreparations were completed the prince was permitted to ride out of the palacegrounds. The gods, however, foiled King Suddhodana's plan by conjuring up thevision of a senile old man, bent and wrinkled by the ravages of time, the sightof which deeply disturbed Siddhartha. The prince asked his charioteer if thisman was unique or if all people were destined to become old. The charioteerexplained old age to the prince and said, "This comes to us all."Prince Siddhartha made more excursions from the palace grounds, and each timehis father tried to screen all disturbing sights from the route chosen. Thegods, however, saw to it that the prince was exposed to all of life'ssuffering. The next vision was of a man laid waste by sickness. After that, itwas a corpse surrounded by grieving friends and family. Each time, hischarioteer explained, "This comes to us all." The last vision was ofa wandering mendicant. The charioteer explained that this was a man who hadrenounced the life of a house holder in order to find peace and seek for the answersto life's suffering. Siddharthaknew then, that this was the path that he was meant to follow. What good waspalace life if it offered no security from old age, sickness, and death?Siddhartha decided that if he were destined to be a conqueror, he would not be amere conqueror of kingdoms; rather, his victory would be over suffering itself.It would be a victory for all people.
Onenight, after an especially lavish party, Siddhartha saw all of his courtesanssprawled about the royal apartments. In the darkness it seemed to him as thoughhe were seeing piles of corpses strewn about. What had been seductive andsensuous was now gross and repulsive. That night he decided to leave the palaceand become a monk. After lookingin on his sleeping wife and son one last time, he took his horse and rode outof the palace and into the forest with Chandaka, one of his retainers. There hecut off his hair and traded his court clothes for the humble dress of amendicant. He then sent Chandaka back with his horse and a message for hisfamily. He would not return until he had conquered old age, sickness and death.
Atthis point several people tried to win Siddhartha back to the palace life. Thefirst was a brahmin from Kapilavastu who argued that he should return out ofcompassion for his family, duty to his kingdom and the possibility that he neednot renounce the family life to achieve enlightenment. Siddhartha pointed outthat the grief experienced by his family was the result of ignoring the fact thatparting with loved ones is inevitable in the face of old age, death and othercalamities. He also pointed out that enlightenment has greater priority thanany secular duties. Finally, the life of the householder is the source of toomany anxieties, 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 King Bimbisara of Magadha who offered him a share in hiskingdom. King Bimbisara had no doubt heard of the prophecies that Siddharthawas to be a world conqueror and wanted to see Magadha as the seat of thatfuture empire. Once again, Siddhartha rejected the offer of secular glories inorder to continue his quest for enlightenment. For his part, King Bimbisara wasso impressed by Siddhartha’s sincerity that he made him promise that if he didattain enlightenment he would return to Magadha and teach the way ofliberation.
Inhis wanderings Siddhartha met many ascetics who practiced severe disciplinesand forms of self-torture in order to attain religious merits and the hope of arebirth into one of the many heavenly abodes of bliss. Siddhartha rejected thisas ridiculous. Why should pleasure come out of pain? Why should one undergoausterities in this life in the hope of indulging oneself in the next? Wherewas the virtue in that? Siddhartha rejected self-torture and self-seeking asworthless if one wants to end the cycle of suffering and pain.
Siddharthathen studied with two great masters of meditation. The first was Arada Kalama,who had attained a state wherein one experiences freedom from the materialworld in the state of nothingness. Siddhartha rapidly achieved this state aswell under Arada Kalama's instruction. It was not what he was hoping for. Hethen studied with Rudraka Ramaputra, who was able to enter into a state whereinthere is neither perception nor non-perception. This was also a disappointmentfor Siddhartha. Siddhartha saw that altered states of consciousness bythemselves could not change one's life or provide any meaningful answers tolife's problems. In both cases his former teachers asked him to assist them inteaching their disciples, but both times Siddhartha turned them down andcontinued on his search for true liberation from birth and death.
Siddharthathen joined a band of five ascetics and lived a very austere and reclusive lifefor six years. He had hoped that a life of self-denial and severe discipline asopposed to self-torture would give him the clarity he needed to find an answer.After six years, however, his body was so weakened from fasting that he wasclose to death and still no closer to his goal. In fact, he passed out by theside of the Nairanjana River while trying to get some water. A village womannamed Sujata, who was stirred by compassion for him and nursed him back tohealth with rice-gruel, saved him from death. Learning of this, the fiveascetics were disappointed in this seeming lapse. How could he let himself beministered to like that by a woman? How could he forsake his asceticdiscipline? With these thoughts the five ascetics left for the deer park atVaranasi. In the meantime, Siddhartha realized that self-denial is as much of ahindrance to achieving enlightenment as self-indulgence.
Nowthe time had come for Siddhartha to realize his ultimate aim. He thought backto a day in his youth when he sat beneath a rose-apple tree in a state of calmabiding and clear awareness. he decided to again sit beneath a tree and reflectupon life in such a state of calm centered awareness. After regaining hishealth he went to the base of a fig tree near the town of Gaya, sat upon a matmade of grass and made the following vow: “Let only my skin, sinews, and bonesremain and let the flesh and blood in my body dry up; but not until I attainsupreme Enlightenment will I give up this seat of meditation.” (The Story ofGotama Buddha, p.94) This may sound like an extreme attitude to take, but it was not hisintention to return to asceticism or self-torture; rather, it was an expressionof his single-minded dedication to 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 Mara’s jurisdiction.
Soit was that Mara was very concerned that Siddhartha was on the verge ofliberation from his realm. As Siddhartha took up his meditation beneath theBodhi Tree (as the fig tree he sat under came to be called), Mara summoned hisdaughters and his demonic armies to prevent Siddhartha from attainingenlightenment. His first attempt was to send in his beautiful daughters totempt Siddhartha back to a worldly life of sensual pleasures. When hisdaughters were unsuccessful, he turned to brute force by sending his army ofdemons. Once again, Siddhartha was unmoved. Even when the demons shot arrows orthrew boulders or balls of flame at him, he remained still and the missilesturned into flowers floating harmlessly to the ground. As a last resort, Marahimself appeared and challenged Shakyamuni, saying, "What gives you theright to presume that you can leave my realm of desire?" Siddhartha'sreply was to place one hand upon the ground, thus calling the Earth itself towitness that there was no place where Siddhartha had not sacrificed himself inprevious lifetimes for the sake of Enlightenment for all sentient beings. Maracould do no more, and so fled with his army. Siddhartha's compassion anddedication had enabled him to subjugate Mara and his demon army.
Nowthat all of the distractions, doubts and unconscious inhibitions symbolized bythe demon army were cleared away, Siddhartha began to gain greater and greaterinsight into the human condition beginning with his own life. He recollectedall of the events in all of his previous lives and reviewed all of the causesand conditions that had enabled him to arrive at the Bodhi Tree. Next, hisawareness took in the lives of all sentient beings, and he saw how their liveswere also governed by the causes and conditions that they themselves had set inmotion. Finally, he contemplated the chain of causation, whereby all thingscome into existence and sentient beings forge their own destiny. He saw thatall sentient beings suffering within the cycle of birth and death are trappedthere because of the ignorant pursuit of selfish desires. Siddhartha thenrealized that all suffering was due to a misapprehension of the nature ofreality. As the night came to an end and the morning star rose into the dawnsky, Siddhartha awakened to the true nature of life; from that point on he wasknown as Shakyamuni Buddha. The name Shakyamuni means "Sage of the ShakyaClan"; while the title Buddha means the “Awakened One". “Tathagata”is another name for the Buddha meaning both “Thus Come One” and “Thus GoneOne”. It is a title that refers to the Buddha’s ability to come and go from therealm of Truth.
TheBuddha remained in meditation beneath the Bodhi Tree for a week. His goal wasaccomplished but now he had to decide what to do next. At this point, Mara sawan opportunity to rid the world of the Buddha before anyone else could beliberated. He went again before the Buddha and argued that no one else would beable to comprehend what he had realized; and in any case no one else would bewilling to give up their worldly pleasures and dedicate themselves asSiddhartha had. Therefore, it would be best for the Buddha to leave the worldand enter the bliss of nirvana, which is the extinction of suffering andworldly life.
Asthe Buddha considered how difficult 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.
Brahmaargued that just as a wealthy man should be generous, the Buddha should also becharitable with the Dharma, or Truth. In addition, not all people werehopelessly enmeshed in ignorance and desire. Indeed, some only need a guide andothers only require the right amount of preparation and assistance in order toliberate themselves from the cycle of birth and death. Hearing this the Buddharesolved to teach what he had learned for the sake of all sentient beings; andso, he set out to find his five former companions in asceticism, since theywere the most prepared to hear the Dharma. Once again, Mara had lost, and nowall sentient beings would receive the teaching leading to enlightenment andliberation.