Buddhism:  Buddhism came into being in northeastern India, during the period from the late 6th century to the early 4th century BC, a period of great social change and intense religious activity. There is disagreement among scholars about the dates of the Buddha's birth and death. Most scholars in Europe, the United States, and India believe that the historical Buddha lived from about 563 to about 483 BC. Many others, especially in Japan, believe that he lived about 100 years later (from about 448 to 368 BC). It is undisputed that he was born in Lumbini which was a part of India but is now in Nepal, and relatively certain that he was born Prince Gautama Siddhartha, the son of Suddhodana, king of the Shakya tribe. At his birth, sages prophesied that he would become either a powerful king or, renouncing his royal life, an enlightened being and religious leader. His father, King Suddhodhana, wanting the former and fearing the later, sought to insulate his son from religious and philosophical concerns by surrounding him with a life of ease and plenty. Cacooned within palace walls, the prince grew to manhood and fatherhood never having seen old age, sickness, poverty, or death. One day the prince ventured beyond the castle walls and, witnessing the inevitable sufferings of human existence, recognized the shallowness of his pampered life. Metaphysical questions filled his thoughts and with them the conviction that he must seek and know the great truths of life. Thus at the age of twenty-nine, he let go the constraints of family and worldly responsibility to tread the path of self-discovery.

Following the ancient traditions of Hinduism, Siddhartha sought out spiritual teachers, and practiced various yogas and meditations. Seven years passed, the last three in extreme asceticism, yet still he had not achieved his goal of enlightenment. Finally recognizing that such practices had served him well but were no longer appropriate, Siddhartha journeyed toward the ancient sacred forests of Uruvela with the intention of finally and completely realizing the infinite. Guided by visionary dreams and following in the footsteps of Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni, and Kasyapa, the Buddhas of three previous ages, Siddhartha sat beneath the Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya. Touching the earth, thereby calling it to witness the countless lifetimes of virtue that had led him to this place of enlightenment, he entered into a state of deep meditation. Three days and nights passed and his intention was realized. Siddhartha became the Buddha, meaning the "Enlightened One."

The Buddha spent the next seven weeks in meditation near the Bodhi Tree. Then, at the request of the god Indra, he began to speak of the great truth he had realized. His first sermon was given at Isipatana (modern Sarnath near Banaras). This first discourse, often called "Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Truth" presented the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path for which Buddhism is so famous. The Buddha spent the remainder of his life traveling around northeastern India teaching and establishing monastic communities for both men and women.

He left his mortal body in Kushinager.sn1.JPG (47432 bytes)

The first Mauryan emperor, Chander Gupta (c. 321-c. 297 BC), patronized Jainism and finally became a Jaina monk. His grandson, Ashoka the Great (c 304 - 232 BC), who ruled over the greater part of the subcontinent from about 270 to 232 BC, became the archetypal Buddhist king. It was he, who promulgated Buddhism into Sri Lanka, China, Japan and the Far East by building monastaries, most famous of which is in Sanchi.

After the destruction of numerous Buddhist monasteries in the 6th century AD by the Huns, Buddhism revived, especially in the northeast, where it flourished for a time under the Buddhist Pala kings (8th-12th century AD). With the collapse of the Pala dynasty in the 12th century, Buddhism suffered another defeat, and this time it did not recover.

Scholars do not know all the factors that contributed to the demise of Buddhism in its original homeland. Some have maintained that Buddhism was so tolerant of other faiths that it was simply reabsorbed by a revitalized Hindu tradition. However, there was another factor that was very important as well: Buddhism in India, having become mainly a monastic movement, probably paid little heed to the laity. Some monasteries became wealthy enough to have slaves and hired laborers to care for the monks and tend the lands they owned. Thus, after the Muslim invaders sacked the Indian monasteries in the 12th century AD, Buddhists had little basis for recovery. After the destruction of the monasteries, the Buddhist laity showed little interest in restoring the "Way", and now number about 0.7% of India's population.

See also Vajrayana Buddhism.