Siddhartha’s story is the quest of a man who set in motion a worldwide religion without knowing anything about it.
Unlike most historical celebrities, the Buddha was never interested in the pursuit of fame, an exceptional life, the expansion of his wealth or a successful career. His story is a contradiction of these qualities. How can such a character become one of the most famous individuals in human history?
Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, was meant to follow the steps of his father and become a leading politician. Born into the ruling clan of an ancient state at the foot of the Himalayas, he gave up his privileges and turned into a homeless ascetic. His early lifestyle of luxury turned into an austere existence, detaching himself from material possessions. Siddhartha’s story is the quest of a man who set in motion a worldwide religion without knowing anything about it.
Searching for a Cure
Time began with a gigantic dismemberment. The Purusha, a cosmic being with a thousand eyes and limbs, was floating in the ocean of the universe. The gods gathered around this creature and cut it up into pieces. Its eyes were set on fire and the sun was born. Its mind was lit and became the moon. From its feet came the servant class and from its thighs, the commoners. The arms of Purusha turned into the kshatriyas, the warrior rulers. From its mouth came the Brahmins, the priests, occupying the top layer of society — the ambassadors of the gods.
This creation story comes from the Rig Veda, the most authoritative of all religious texts in ancient India. During this cosmic sacrifice, so the myth goes, something had escaped through the wounds of Purusha, something that the Brahmins had to learn how to harvest if they were to secure their hegemony: the spells. And trapped inside the spells was the power to manipulate the gods and to master the primal forces of nature. Of course, only the Brahmins were the accredited executioners of the spells. Being the representatives of the gods was good; being able to shape their will was even better.
Society as a whole, especially the rulers concerned with a prosperous government, had to rely on the ritual machinery owned by the priests. This premise remained unchallenged for centuries, until the 600-300 BC period when these beliefs became obsolete. The rise of cities and states now dominated the social and political landscape of India, reshuffling the order of the world. The Vedic tradition fell behind the changes of the new age: As its relevance dwindled, other religious expressions were getting ready to fill the gap.
The power of the Brahmins crumbled as the old religion lost its importance. In desperation, the priests became inflexible, making the rituals and sacrifices even more complex and costly. The Brahminical institution began to collapse under its own weight, and from its ruins arose the sramanas, the members of numerous new schools and sects who rejected the mainstream Vedic teachings. Many sramanas were homeless ascetics who held diverse philosophical views, but despite their differences they all agreed on one point: The religious life of India was sick and they were working on a cure.
Answers in the Silence
The Vedic religion held that the spiritual realm was the highest and ultimate reality. Some sramanas believed the opposite: There is no god, no soul, no life after death; life is purposeless; our bodies will disintegrate after we die and our consciousness will dissolve into oblivion.
While this polarity deepened, a new sramana who held a more balanced perspective entered the scene. He was a kshatriya who had abandoned his homeland in search for answers. His personal name was Siddhartha, his family name, Gautama. He gave up everything in his late twenties, after a personal crisis was triggered during an encounter with different dimensions of human suffering. Later legends would describe this episode as Siddhartha witnessing an old man, a sick man, a dead man and a mendicant. These images shocked Siddhartha, who had been sheltered from the real world since his birth. With this crisis, a question ensnared his mind: Could there be an antidote for human suffering?
Siddhartha’s journey had a disappointing beginning. After following several teachers, he did not attain what he was looking for. Somehow he found himself living a life of extreme austerity that was not taking him any closer to his goal. His personal defeat mirrored the failure of the religious climate of his time: a life that went from excessive luxury to utmost harshness in a world that had traded blind religious devotion for a materialistic, almost cynical, worldview.
After six years of fruitless struggle he gave up everything for the second time, burdened with more questions than answers. Is this imbalanced duality between religion and materialism all there is? Are we doomed to swing between extreme ideas? Could there be a middle way?
After adopting a more balanced approach, Siddhartha reached the climax of his quest under a fig tree. Here — so the legend goes — he heard all the answers in the silence of a deep meditative trance and attained nirvana, the perfect enlightenment. He had escaped from the deep sleep of ignorance. He was awake. He was the Buddha.
What the Buddha experienced during nirvana, including many elements of his teachings, is still a matter of debate as different schools have different interpretations. Despite the disagreements, some aspects of his teachings are beyond question. The Buddha was against the sacrificial rites and the slaughter of animals. Sacrifices are meaningless because they have no connection to any moral elevation of the individual — they are merely used for the achievement of personal goals.
Sacrifices cannot be employed to pave the way to salvation, only meditation, knowledge, and personal growth are the true means of redemption. This is not a redemption from sin: There is no sin, the Buddha said, only ignorance. The caste system is a systematized abuse; people are all equal. Tolerance is the only sensible way to coexist. Do not accept what you are told, no matter the source; always go and find for yourself.
After his enlightenment, the Buddha decided to share his new insights with others and headed to Sarnath, near present-day Varanasi, to deliver his first public talk. His first followers joined him shortly after and a new sramana movement was underway.
Rise to Fame
Buddhist scriptures tell us that the Buddha had a major impact on Indian society during his life. To what extent can we believe this? Historians have exercised a healthy dose of skepticism when faced with such obviously biased sources. The Buddha is depicted as a celebrity, walking freely from city to city, talking to powerful rulers, crowds gathering around him, everybody wanting to see this charismatic mendicant. Was it really so?
To an extent. The Buddha had an impact, but the scale of the impact during his days is in question. Although his life had an enduring influence among the members of the community he led, it seems unlikely that he had the level of recognition that we are told. We know that he did not consider himself to be a religious leader nor did he consciously set out to start a new religion. How then, did he lay the foundations of one of the most widely practiced religions?
After the Buddha passed away, the community he founded slowly evolved into a religious-like movement. A century or so later, we meet an important lesson of history: No matter how inspiring a religion is, it cannot become dominant without governmental support. Confucianism sponsored by the Han rulers in China and Christianity embraced by emperor Constantine are well-known examples. During the 3rd century BC, Buddhism received an unprecedented support by the Indian emperor Ashoka the Great (r. 268 to 232 BC). There is not a single piece of reliable historical or archaeological data suggesting that Buddhism had any major impact during its early days. What is clear is that with Ashoka’s backing, Buddhism gained the momentum it needed for its rise to fame.
Ashoka ruled a vast multiethnic and multireligious realm and was concerned with ensuring the peaceful coexistence of a diverse population. He distributed several edicts carved on rocks, caves, and stone pillars — over forty according to some accounts — along northwest, central and northeast India. Some of these pillars express moral ideas, others commemorate Ashoka’s pilgrimage to sacred Buddhist sites.
This brings us to one fundamental step that Ashoka took in supporting Buddhism: the sponsorship of key pilgrimage sites connected to the life of the Buddha. In Lumbini, where the Buddha was born, we can still see one of the pillars commemorating the visit of Ashoka back in the mid-3rd century BC. Ashoka not only provided a favorable climate for the acceptance of Buddhism, but also encouraged and supported missionary activity. By the end of Ashoka’s reign, Buddhist envoys had reached most of India and also beyond, including Sri Lanka, Central Asia, Syria and Egypt. With every new land that received the teachings of the Buddha, his name was one step closer to worldwide fame.
A Stroke of Luck
At the age of 80, the Buddha visited Kushinagar, fell ill and died. His remains were cremated and divided into eight portions that were sheltered inside different monuments. Emperor Ashoka unearthed and redistributed the ashes of the Buddha into 84,000 portions within and beyond his realm. Taken literally, this account sounds suspiciously hyperbolic; taken as a metaphor, it gives us a sense of what Ashoka did for Buddhism and for the reputation of its founder.
Without institutional patronage, a religious ideal is likely to be nothing but a paragraph in the books of tomorrow; aided by success and the establishment of its time, it could become a chapter or maybe an entire book. If these supports are unavailable, there is a last hope: a posthumous stroke of luck. If luck comes in the form an enthusiastic emperor, the ideal can become more than a paragraph, more than a book, and turn into a living worldwide tradition. And with the rise of the ideal, its idol can become a historical celebrity.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Xsandra