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Tuesday, October 16, 2001

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Primer on Buddhism

LEGACY OF THE BUDDHA: Sanghamitra Sharma; Eeshwar, 229/A, Krantiveer Rajguru Marg, Girgaon, Mumbai-400004. Rs. 325.

BUDDHISM IS a vibrant force today in several parts of the world. Besides having a wide following in many countries of the South- east Asia like Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, China and Japan for several centuries, the religion has made significant inroads into the West also, particularly during the last 100 years, although it is not very much prevalent in its own birth- country, India. Even here it has gained much popularity recently, due to the concerted efforts of Dr. Ambedkar, following whom large sections of people embraced Buddhism.

The book under review, on Buddhism, starts with a life-sketch of Gautama Buddha. Like the Jainism having 24 Tirthankaras (prophets) of whom the popular Vardhamana Mahavira (sixth century B.C.) is the last, Buddhism also has 25 Buddhas of whom the popular Siddhartha Gautama (sixth century B.C.) is the last. There is, however, one difference. Buddhists believe that all these Buddhas were identical in all respects except name and they all went through a series of births culminating in the exalted Gautama Buddha.

The two sacred texts Buddha Vamsa and Jataka chronicle the lives of all the Buddhas, narrating in greater detail the life of the last and famous Buddha. The Jataka Tales describe 547 birth stories, narrating the many lives of the prophet who finally emerged as Gautama.

Gautama Siddhartha's birth to Suddhodana and Mahamaya, his marriage to Yasodara and begetting Rahul, his encounters with old age, sickness and death, his renunciation and deserting his wife and child are all elaborated in the book, and these are only too well-known.

Gautama's subsequent wandering life, embarking on meditation, asceticism and then his attaining enlightenment under the Bodhi (peepul) tree in Bodh Gaya at the age of 35 are also well recorded in sufficient detail.

After his enlightenment (called Nirvana in Buddhism), Buddha resumed his wandering mission. For the next 45 years, he was constantly on the move, preaching his tenets to all classes of people, till death (called Parinirvana) overtook him at the age of 80 (approximate).

Somewhat similar to the Last Supper of Jesus Christ, Buddha developed fatal sickness after what he visualised as the last meal and passed away soon thereafter.

Events subsequent to Buddha's death are next detailed, including holding of serious councils of his followers, under the leadership of immortal kings like Asoka and Kanishka, explaining inter alia the broad spectrum of Buddha's philosophy. The author observes in the course of her narration: "The Buddhism of Gautama was in many ways a re-statement of the thoughts in the Upanishads, from a new standpoint, agreeing in fundamentals, differing in ceremonials and applications. A great deal of his morality could be traced to the Hindu scriptures." Buddha also accepted the Hindu belief in re-births and the Karma theory as the cause of good and bad, enjoyment and suffering.

The core of the Buddhist philosophy containing the four noble truths, the eight-fold path, as also the famous triple refuge viz., "I take refuge in Buddha; I take refuge in dharma; I take refuge in Sangha (brotherhood)," (Buddham saranam gacchami; Dharmam saranam gacchami; Sangham saranam gacchami), is next taken up for elaboration. Attracted by Buddha's philosophy, kings and commoners alike became his disciples.

One significant aspect of Buddha's teaching is he asks his followers not to accept blindly whatever is taught and preached. If by personal knowledge and experience, one finds it is good, one may accept it. If it is found bad, one may reject the same.

The emanation of the two major schools, Mahayana and Hinayana, and the important differences between them are nicely brought out. Mahayana claims to be more progressive in outlook and promises enlightenment to the common man. The Mahayanists called their system as Mahayana or the "great vehicle" because it takes many people across the ocean or river of samsara, to the other bank of enlightenment; and called the other system contemptuously as Hinayana or the inferior vehicle, restricted only to the few spiritually advanced ones. The Mahayana itself further broke into two, as Madhyamika and Yogachara whose philosophies and inter se differences are briefly dealt with.

The spread of the Buddhism to other countries in Asia is next taken up for a detailed narration. The Hinayana system is prevalent in the southern countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Thailand and Cambodia and the Mahayana is popular in the northern belt of India, Nepal, Tibet, China and Japan.

Tibet, one of the last places in Asia to embrace Buddhism, adopts a special type of the religion called Vajrayana, which is claimed to be a happy blend of the doctrines of both Mahayana and Hinayana schools. A separate chapter is devoted to the spread of the Buddhism in the West. The book concludes with a brief description of the important holy places of Buddhism in India and abroad.

The presentation is crisp and clear and makes interesting reading; and the book can appropriately be called as a primer on Buddhism. It is a valuable addition to the existing literature in English on Buddha and Buddhism.

V. N. GOPALA DESIKACHARIAR

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