(PHILOSOPHY in INDIA – continued)

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INDIA, EMPIRE and CHAOS (5 of 10)

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Buddhism's Founder, Siddartha Gautama

Siddartha Gautama was born into the Sakya tribe at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains north of the Ganges Valley, in a small city, Kapilavastu, in what is today southern Nepal. He is reported to have seen his native city overrun and its people butchered. The Sakya tribe was under Aryan (Hindu) suzerainty and had retained independence in exchange for tribute paid to Aryan overlords. The Sakya tribe had aristocrats and commoners, and according to legend, Siddartha was a prince.

According to legend, Siddartha was sheltered in his youth from the ugliness and poverty around him, but when he was twenty-nine – around 534 BCE – he decided to become a wanderer. The legend created by his followers describes him as becoming a wanderer in order to learn about human existence, and it describes him as seeking spiritual satisfaction and becoming an ascetic. He abused his body by hardly eating. Failing in his quests to understand human existence and to acquire spiritual satisfaction, Siddartha began eating better, and he began devising what he believed were his own solutions to human misery.

Siddartha agreed with the view expressed in the Upanishads that the cause of human misery was humanity itself, but he was determined not to fall into what he saw as the error of those who sought salvation in philosophical speculations. He refused to question or discuss whether the cosmos is finite or infinite, whether there is life after death or other metaphysical questions, on the grounds that these sidetrack people from doing something practical about the misery of their existence.

According to legend, Siddartha became a master of the tenets and practices of other sects, and many of his disciples were recruited after hearing him debate with religious rivals in gatherings that were then popular entertainment in towns across the Ganges Valley. Siddartha preached no warnings of torments for evil deeds. Instead, he preached the attaining of serenity, or nirvana, through self-discipline.

He outlined his numerous rules for attaining this personal salvation. His first rule was proper understanding, by which he meant realizing that there is nothing essentially permanent, that there is only change. Siddartha had decided that human misery came with people looking for permanence where there was no permanence and with people clinging to objects of desire that were transitory.

Siddartha's next rule was proper attitude, by which he meant not wanting the impossible and accepting the inevitable. In other words, he favored control over one's own appetites and ambitions. He had concluded that it was not wrong to desire good food and drink, fine clothes, or sexual satisfaction but that it was eventually destructive psychologically to persist in these appetites without measure. He believed that giving up hope for that which one cannot have was a means to peace of mind.

Siddartha's third rule was proper speech, which he believed important because words preceded actions. His fourth rule was proper actions, important in creating a righteousness about oneself that engendered serenity. His fifth rule was do no injury to other living things. This included refraining from theft, lying and sexual immorality. Siddartha's additional rules reinforced his first five rules and included having a proper vocation, making proper efforts, exercising proper reflection, and partaking in proper meditation.

Like Mahavira, the founder of the Jains, Siddartha rejected the authority of the Vedas and rejected animal sacrifices, and he rejected the claims of Brahmins that they were superior. Siddartha claimed that people should not expect assistance from any source other than themselves, that one could not lean on gods or other spiritual agents, that each person must work out his own salvation, that there was no escape from choice or refuge outside themselves. People, he said, should be their own lamps and their own salvation.

But Siddartha did not ask his followers to give up their Hindu gods, and Indra, Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu would be worshiped by his followers for centuries to come.

Like Mahavira, Siddartha created an order of monks, with whom he met during the rainy season for strategy sessions and teaching. The monks and nuns did not regard themselves as apart from lay followers or from the world. They saw themselves as promoters of the welfare and happiness not just of themselves but of the many.

Like Mahavira, Siddartha did not preach against the caste system, which outside his movement was widely viewed as an essential ingredient in family values and necessary for social order. But he opened his movement to all classes and eventually to females, and within his movement everyone was released from caste restrictions.

Siddartha Gautama died in 483 at the age of eighty. And according to legend, a council of five hundred Buddhist monks met at the city of Rajagriha, concerned about preserving Siddartha's teachings. They had reason for worry: diversity in belief would soon appear among Buddhists as it had among the Jains and the rest of civilized humanity.

Soon splits among the Buddhists occurred over a variety of issues. Like others, Buddhists tried to cram their thinking into group thought rather than tolerate variety of opinion about small issues. This included a split among them over whether one should drink buttermilk after dinner – no matter that Siddartha had lectured about being one's own light.

A split arose among the Buddhists as some older members wanted to limit membership in the Buddhist movement to the ascetic monks and nuns. Other Buddhists wanted a broader movement, one that included those not ready to discipline themselves or to withdraw from the normal routines of life as did the monks and nuns – a split between purists and inclusionists that would appear among other religious movements.


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