When Buddhism appeared in Indias horizon, the priests were the domineering class, who converted Hinduism simply into a cluster of meaningless rituals and sacrifices. The religion was no longer aimed at the realisation of God and the target of life was simply reduced to a mere practice of buying seats in heaven by performing certain rituals.
The situation was similar to that in Rome, where the state of matters produced a serious reaction against the priesthood, giving rise to an elevated school of moralists comprising Plutarch, Dion, Aurelius and others.
In India, people admitted the insufficiency of ceremonies to purge them from sin, and quickly responded to a teaching, which spoke nothing about God yet in all respects true to the deepest convictions of their moral nature.
Unlike his fellow Roman moralist, Sakya Muni did not try to explode the popular opinions about religion and God; he simply tried to assert that path to emancipate oneself from evil lay in pursuing righteousness and charity.
He described himself as the father and mother of his helpless children, their guide and leader along the precipitous path of life. But not only did Buddha leave room for a religion, and emphasise that religion should, above all, be moral and practical, but also, in the course of time, Buddhism sprouted as a religion and not as a philosophy.
The names by which he is commonly addressed are Sakya-muni and, later. Buddha. While the former implies sage of the Sakya tribe, the latter means the enlightened one.
His actual name was Siddhartha, and in his family he was known as Gautama. He was born in 560 BC in a grove called Lumbini. His father, Suddhodana, was the king of the Sakya tribe, who ruled over Kapilavastu in Nepal. His mother Mahamaya died when he was only seven days old. The Sakyas were not Aryan, but of Turanian descent.
Unquestionably it is amongst the Turanians where Buddhism found the most acceptances. The story of the incarnation of Buddha is a myth of later addition. Like any other young prince, he divided his time between luxuries of the oriental palace and the invigorating exercises and athletic competitions, in which he always excelled.
Since he was born with an eye for suffering and a heart of suffering, in the soft strains of musicians and Nautch girls he could hear the moans of those who were born in poverty, filth and disease. His distaste for impermanent pleasures and his yearning for an eternal peace are manifested in a striking and well-known legend surrounding his life.
One day while the prince was going to the pleasure-garden to relax, he met on the way a decrepit old man, leaning heavily on a stick and trembling, his teeth loose or gone, and his voice broken and unsteady. What is this? Is this condition peculiar to this man? questioned the prince anxiously to the charioteer.
Replied the driver, No my Lord, these are the invariable traits of old age. He is scorned by his kindred, and left without support like a dead tree. One day this situation comes to all men; your mother, your father, every creature must reach this stage.
Alas! said the prince, How ignorant and mistaken is man, always proud of his youth, which intoxicates him, though he does not see his old age awaiting him. He turns back to the city realising that he is also destined to such an end.
On another occasion, while on a pleasure trip, he comes across a sick man, lying alone on the road without any shelter, gasping for breath and cramped, he was overwhelmed by frustration. Having heard from the charioteer that it was not a peculiar condition, but a calamity all men are subjected to one or the other day; he understands incongruity in pleasure seeking, and returns to the city, being engrossed in deep contemplation.
In third time on the roads, he meets a funeral procession the dead man stretched stark naked on the bier only wrapped by piece of white cloth, and his relatives throwing dusts on their heads, beating their breasts and crying in heart-renting lamentations.
What a tragedy for youth! comments the prince, Old age destroys, sickness invades health, and death puts an end to his life! I wish, there were no old age, no sickness, and no death! Now I must meditate to seek deliverance from all these tragedies associated with man&’s life.
His determination is further confirmed by the spectacle of an ascetic, who was walking in complete serenity. The ascetics face exuded placid expression of a disciplined mind and body, however he was clothed in a single piece of garment with complete dignity, and carrying in his hand an alms-receiving bowl, which happened to be his only possession.
His interpreter explains that the sannyasi or the ascetic had renounced the world and its pleasures and dedicated himself to meditation, and lived a life free from any desire, passion or envy. His heart was moved with grief at the sight of miseries of the human existence.
He realised that humanity is ultimately subjected to death and decay, but the life of the ascetic lured him, who, Siddhartha felt, was in the midst of death all the time. Coming to know of his sons determination, his father tried to divert Siddhartha&’s mind.
His father and courtiers vehemently opposed to his resolution to renounce the world. The more they tried to entangle him in pleasures, the firmer became his desire to give up on the worldly life. One night after waking up from his couch, Siddhartha vowes with firm determination that never again will he indulge in sensual pleasures.
Going to his wife Yasodharas chamber, he takes a look of his infant son, Rahul, and bid them his goodbye. Then he summoned his attendant, mounted on his horse and left the palace forsaking his kindred, kingdom and all worldly possession at one strike. He rode all night, halted only when he became sanguine that he would not be pursued any more.
He gave his royal mantle and circlet of pearls and diamonds to his faithful and remonstrating servant. Cutting his long locks with the sword, he donned only a loincloth and reduced himself wholly to an undistinguished human being.
Though his resolve was strong, he tried to taste his power of enduring hardships and difficulties, because initially he was not sure of his path. From his twenty-ninth to thirty-sixth year of his life, when he tried to achieve the final peace of his mind, he practised self-mortification and self-torture, but with absolute equanimity of mind.
At first, he attempted to seek the truth by inculcating philosophic thought. But his earlier temptations were not going to leave him so early, because he knew that his father would have offered him the whole kingdom if he returned.
But Siddhartha resisted the temptations and asked to himself, Will the man who has eaten poison and vomited it, return to the tempting dish again? In the beginning, from the distinguished religious teachers he tried to seek direction, but he did not feel satisfied.
Then he sought the company of distinguished ascetics and observed their practices, but he realised the goal of their practices was only restricted to the concepts of heaven, they were not going to open the flood gates of final deliverance to him.
When he failed to receive any light from any man, he surrendered himself to meditation, and retired into the solitude of the forest of Uruvela. For six years he practised extreme austerities and mortification, which completely sapped his physical strength.
One day he swooned and people thought he was dead. But he soon regained his consciousness, and he fell into agony of mental conflict, which legends tried to depict, between Mara , the goddess of evil, and Buddha, like Miltonic picture of battle. In fact, this battle is only a metaphorical conflict between the higher and lower aspirations in the mind of Gautama.
He finally settled down under the tree, which was later named as Bodhinada, in meditation for seven weeks, where he obtained enlightenment sometime in May 544 BC. Henceforth he was considered to be Buddha, the enlightened one. Though tradition affirms that there were many Buddhas before him, and that his religion would last only 5000 years, and some new Buddha would appear and supersede him, historically, there was no person with this title before Sakya-muni.
At Sarnath, he first preached his sermon of Dharmachakra Pravartana to his five ascetic friends, who were with him throughout during his practices, which Buddhas setting in motion of the wheel of law. Buddha had extraordinary skill to teach his new religion, which can be illustrated by the following instances.
When Kisagotami lost her only son, she approached Buddha to give him a new lease of life. Buddha consoled her; he would definitely make her son alive once again provided she brought some mustard seeds from a house where no one has died.
But she failed to find out such a house. Then Buddha said, You thought that you only lost a son; the law of death is that among all living creatures there is no permanence. The other incident is more interesting. A rich merchant, named Purna, being converted to Buddhism, resolved to build his residence forsaking all his riches in proximity of a savage tribe, to win them to the new religion.
Buddha tried to dissuade him, because the task was extremely difficult, and questions him, If the men of Sronaparanta, who are cruel, fierce and insolent, address you in insulting language, what you will do.
Purna replies, The men of Sronaparanta may address me in insulting language, but they are good people, they will definitely not strike me.
When Buddha questions, if they strike him, what he would do. He replies that they will not use sword or cudgels. Or even if they use cudgels or swords, they will not kill him. When Buddha asks him, if they decide to kill him, how will he react?
At this also Purna does not feel defeated and replies, Still I will think the men of Sronaparanta good and gentle, for delivering me from this life full of vileness, with so little pain. Buddha feels absolutely satisfied with this answer and tells, Since you have attained complete Nirvana, now guide others to it also.
Thus commissioned to this difficult task, Purna, armed with unprecedented patience, wins the hearts of the inhabitants. The unmatched zeal of his many indomitable missionaries like Purna has certainly tamed many fiercest and cruel races on earth, and kindled into their heart the flame of Buddhas own universal charity.
Till his last breath, Buddha continued to preach his gospel of deliverance. On the last night of his life, the final sermon he delivered to his disciple Subhadra is worthy to be noted, To true wisdom there is only one way, the path is laid down in my law.
Many have already followed it, and conquering the lust and pride and anger of their hearts, have become free from ignorance, doubt and wrong belief, have entered the calm state of universal kindliness, and reached Nirvana even in this life. O Subhadra, I do not speak to you of things I have not experienced.
Since my twenty-ninth year have I striven after the supreme wisdom, and followed the path that leads to Nirvana. Shortly after this he addressed his disciples, Beloved, that which causes life, causes also decay and death. Never forget this, let your minds be filled with this truth.
I called you to make it known to you. These were the last words of the Buddha; the year was around 480 BC.
(The writer is a former joint secretary, government of West Bengal)