Gautama Buddha: Teachings, Rise, Spread and Decline of Buddhism


Early Life:

It was the Buddhism that gave the greatest blow to Brahmanism in 6th century B.C. This religion was started by Gautam Buddha who was a contemporary of Mahavira.

He was a kshatriya and belonged to the Sakya clan, whose territory was represented by that part of the Nepal which lies immediately to the north of the Basti district in the Uttar Pradesh.

His father Suddhodhana was the chief of the Sakya clan of Kapilavastu.

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His mother’s name was Maya Devi. She was a princess of the neighbouring clan of the Koliyar. He was born in the year 566 B.C. in the Lumbini garden of Kapilavastu. He lost his mother within a week of his birth. Siddhartha was brought up by his aunt and step mother Prajapati Gautami. Then Siddhartha was known as Gautama after the name of his aunt Gautami.


The text “Lalitavistara” throws light about the education of Gautama. He became proficient in Swordsmanship, horse-riding and archery and other princely qualities.


From his childhood Gautama showed a meditative bent of mind. All sorts of opportunities were provided to him to lead a life of comfort and pleasure. He was brought up in luxurious surroundings so that he would remain cheerful all through the day. Observing a great indifference to worldliness in his son, Suddhodhana married him at the age of sixteen, to a beautiful princess Yasodhara, daughter of the Sakya noble Dandapani. At the age of twenty-nine, a son was born to him and he was named Rahula. But the married life did not interest him.


However, he was agitated by the fundamental questions of life. He was moved by the misery which people suffered in the world and looked for solution. Popular traditions represented how Gautama was horrified at the sight of an old man, a diseased person and a dead body, and an ascetic.

These four sights made him realize the hollowness of worldly pleasure. He was perturbed by the fundamental problems of life. He was attracted by the saintly appearance of the ascetic and left his home, wife, and son in a sudden fit of renunciation in 537 B.C. at the age of twenty-nine, as a wandering ascetic in search of truth. Buddhist texts describe this incident as the “Great Renunciation”.

He wandered from place to place in search of truth. He learnt sankya philosophy from Alarkalam at Vaisali. From Vaisali he went to Rajagriha. There he learnt the art of meditation from Rudraka Ramaputra. But this meditation or yoga could not qrench his thirst for knowledge.

Then he proceeded to Uruvila near Gaya and began to practise rigorous penance for long six years. But he realized that penance was not the proper path that would give him perfect truth. So he decided to take food. He accepted milk offered to him by a young milk-maid named Sujata. One day he took a bath in the river Niranjana and sat under a pipal tree at Bodhgaya.


After forty-nine days enlightment dawned on him. He attained supreme knowledge and insight. This is known as the “Great Enlightenment” and since then he came to be known as the “Buddha” or the “Enlightened one” or “Tathagat”. The Pipal tree under which he attained wisdom came to be known as the “Bodhi Tree”. Then the place of his meditation was famous as “Bodhagaya”.

Turning the Wheel of Law:

For seven days he remained in a blissful mood for his enlightment. He decided to spread it for the interest of the suffering humanity. He proceeded to the Deer Park near Saranath in the vicinity of Varanasi where he delivered his first sermen to five learned Brahmanas. The Buddhist literatures described it as “Turning the Wheel of Law” or “Dharma Chakra Pravartana.”

Missionary Activity of Buddha:

For the next forty-five years he undertook long journeys and preached his message far and wide. From Saranath he went to Benaras and converted a number of people to Buddhism. From Benaras he went to Rajagriha and converted to his creed many illustrious persons like King Bimbisara, prince Ajatasatru, Sariputta, and Maidglyana etc. He visited many places like Gaya, Nalanda, Pataliputra etc.

He also went to Kosala where Brahmanism had a strong foot hold. King Prasenjit of Kosala embraced Buddhism. One of his queen Malika and his two sisters Soma and Sakula became his disciples. There Buddha stayed at Jetavana monastery which a rich disciple Anathapindika had purchased for him at a high price.

Buddha also visited Kapilavastu and converted his parents, son, and relatives to his creed. The famous courtesan of Vaisali, Amrapalli was converted to his faith. At Vaisali Buddha gave his consent to the formation of the order of nuns (Bhikshunis). He did not achieve much success in the Malla and Vatsa country. He did not visit Avanti Desa. He did not discriminate between the rich and poor, high and low, man and woman.

Preaching and delivering sermons for long forty-five years he passed away at the age of eighty, at Kusinara, modern Kasia in the Gorakhpur district of Uttar Pradesh in a full moon day of Vaisakha in 487 B.C. The Buddhist texts describe this incident as “Mahaparinirvana”.

Teachings of Buddha:

The earliest available source of Buddha’s teachings is the Pali Suttapitaka consisting of five Nickayar. Buddha was a reformer who took note of the realities of life.

Four Noble Truths:

The path he suggested is a code of Practical ethics which has a rational outlook. Buddhism was more social than religious. It advocated for social equality. In his time Buddha did not involve himself in the controversies regarding ‘atman’ (soul) and “Brahma”. He was more concerned to worldly problems.

The Four Noble Truths:

He preached his followers the four “Noble Truths” (Chatvari Arya Satyani) viz:

(1) That the world is full of suffering

(2) That there are causes of suffering like thirst, desire, attachment etc. which lead to worldly existence,

(3) That the suffering can be stopped by the destruction of thirst, desire etc.

(4) That the way leads to the destruction of suffering.

Eight Fold Path:

After describing the chain of causes that lead to suffering, Buddha suggested the Eight fold path (Arya Ashtanga Marg) as the means of deliverance from these sufferings viz:

(1) Right speech

(2) Right action

(3) Right means of livelihood

(4) Right exertion

(5) Right mindedness

(6) Right meditation

(7) Right resolution

(8) Right view.

The first three practices lead to Sila or physical control, the second three lead to Samadhi or mental control, the last two lead to Prajna or development of inner sight.

Middle Path:

The eight fold path is known as middle path. It lays between two extremes, namely, the life of ease and luxury and life of severe asceticism. According to Buddha, this middle path ultimately leads to final bliss or ‘Nirvana’. ‘Nirvana’ literally means “blowing out” or the end of carving or desire or trishna for existence in all its forms.

It is a tranquil state to be realized by a person who is free from all carving or desire. It is deliverance or freedom from rebirth, Nirvana is an eternal state of peace or bliss which is free from sorrow and desire (asoka), decay (akshya), disease (abyadhi) and from birth and death (amrita).

Buddha also prescribed a code of conduct for his followers. These are called the ‘Ten Principles”, consisting of:

(1) do not commit violence

(2) do not steal

(3) do not involve in corrupt practices

(4) do not tell a lie

(5) do not use intoxicants

(6) do not use comfortable bed

(7) do not attend dance and music

(8) do not take food irregularly

(9) do not accept gifts or covet-other’s property,

(10) do not save money.

By following these ten principles one can lead a moral life.

Law of Karma:

Buddha laid great stress on the Law of Karma and its working and the transmigration of souls. According to him the condition of man in this life and the next depends upon his own actions. Man is the maker of his own destiny not any god or gods. One can never escape the consequences of his deeds. If a man does good deeds in this life, he will be reborn in a higher life, and so on till he attains nirvana. Evil deeds are sure to be punished. We are born again and again to reap the fruit of our Karmas. This is the Law of Karma.

Ahimsa or Nonviolence:

One of the important tenants of Buddha’s teaching is Ahimsa. Non-violence towards life is more important than good deeds. He advised that one should not kill or injure others either man or animal. People were discouraged from hunting or killing of animals. He condemned animal sacrifice and meat-eating. Though Buddha attached great importance to non-violence, he permitted his followers to take meat when no other food is available to keep them alive.


Buddha neither accepts nor rejects the existence of God. When he was questioned about the existence of God, he either maintained silence or remarked that Gods or gods were also under the eternal law of Karma. He kept himself away from any theoretical discussion about God. He was only concerned with the deliverance of man from suffering.

Opposition to Vedas:

The Buddha opposed the authority of Vedas. He also denied the utility of Vedic and complex Brahmanical practices and rituals for the purpose of salvation. He criticized the Brahmanical supremacy.

Opposition to Caste System:

The Buddha opposed Varna order or caste system. According to him a man is to be judged not by virtue of his birth but by his qualities. In his eyes all castes are equal. He won the support of the lower orders because of his opposition to caste system.

The Buddhist Church:

The Samgha or the Buddhist Church was equally important like the Buddha and his doctrines. The membership of the Buddhist Church was open to all persons irrespective of any class or caste distinctions, above fifteen years of age, provided they did not suffer from leprosy and other diseases. Women were also admitted. A person to the sangha seeking ordination as a monk had to choose a preceptor and obtain the consent of the assembly of monks. The convert was formally ordained after receiving the consent. He had to take the oath of allegiance to the head of the Sangha. The oath was:

“Buddham Sharanam gachhami”

(I take refuge in the ‘Buddha)

“Dhamam Sharanam gachhami”

(I take refuge in Dharma)

Sangham Sharanam gachhami”

(I take refuge in Sangha)

The convert was admitted to lower ordination or “pravrajya” and then he had to practise stern morality, rigorous austerity for 10 years, then he was admitted to higher ordination or “Upasampada”. After the disciplinary period was over he became a full-fledged member of the church and his life was guided by the rules of the Patimokkha.

Rise and Spread of Buddhism:

Unlike Jainism, this religion spread far and wide like wild fire as it provided relief to the society overburdened with Bramhnical rites and rituals. Various factors worked behind its spread.

1. Buddha’s Ideal Life:

The personality of Buddha and the method used by him to preach the religion helped the spread of Buddhism. His simple life, sweet words, life of renunciation attracted a large number of people to his teachings. He tried to fight evil by goodness and hatred by love. He always tackled his opponents with wit and presence of mind.

Short Comings of Vedic Religion:

Brahmanism became complicated due to the elaborate rites, rituals, caste system, animal sacrifices etc. The common people were fed up with Brahmanism, as it became complicated and expensive. In comparison with Brahmanism, Buddhism was democratic and liberal. The message of Buddha came as a relief to the people. It was free from the evils of Brahmanism.

Use of Pali Language:

Buddha preached his messages in Pali, the languages of the people which contributed to the spread of Buddhism. The Vedic Religion was explained in Sanskrit language. It was difficult to be understood by the common people. But the principles of Buddhism became accessible to all.

Buddhist Sangha:

The missionary activities of the Buddhist Sangha were responsible for the growth of Buddhism. During Buddha’s life time and even after his death Buddhism was confined only to Northern India. But it emerged as a world religion during the rule of the Mauryas and it became possible because of the efforts of the Buddhist Sanghas, Monks (Bikshus), and Upasakar (lay-worshippers).

The Buddhist Sangha established its branches throughout India. The monks spread the message of Buddha in Mathura, Ujjain, Vaisali, Avanti, Kausambhi and Kaunaj. Magadha responded well to Buddhism because they were looked down upon by the orthodox Brahmanas.

Royal Patronage:

Royal Patronage greatly helped in the rapid spread of Buddhism. The rulers like Prasenjit, Bimbisara, Ajatasatru, Asoka, Kaniska and Harshavardhan championed the cause of Buddhism and adopted several measures for its spread throughout India and outside India. Asoka deputed his sone Mahendra and daughter Sanghamitra to Srilanka for the spread of Buddhism. With the efforts of the rulers, Buddhism crossed the long road of progress and reached Tibet, China, Indonesia, Ceylon, Japan and Korea.

Role of Universities:

The famous Universities at Nalanda, Puspagiri, Vikramasila, Ratnagiri, Odantapuri and Somapuri helped indirectly in the spread of Buddhism. Large number of students reading in these universities was influenced by Buddhism and embraced it. They also spread the messages of Buddha far and wide. The famous Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang was a student of the Nalanda University. Nalanda had many renowned teachers like Shilavadra, Dharmapala, and Divakaramitra who dedicated their lives for the spread of Buddhism.

Buddhist Councils:

More over the Buddhist councils also played a vital role for the spread of Buddhism. Shortly after the death of Buddha, the first Buddhist Council was held in 487 B.C. in Sattaponi cave near Rajagriha under the auspices of Ajatasatru to compile the Dhamma (religious doctrine) and vikaya (monastic code).

Bikshu Mahakashyap presided over the council. Nearly 500 monks attended the council and compiled the teachings of Buddha into two pitakas-Sutta Pitaka and Vinaya Pitaka. These two pitakas were written in Pali. Two famous disciples of Buddha, viz. Upali and Ananda addressed the council.

The second Buddhist Council was held at Vaisali in 387 B.C., exactly one hundred years after Buddha’s death because a dispute developed regarding the code of discipline as the monks of Vaisali and Pataliputra began to practise ten rules like storing of salt for future use, taking food after mid-day, over-eating, drinking palm juice, accepting gold and silver etc. which were opposed by the monks of Kausambi and Avanti.

So a council under the supervision of Kalasoka or Kakavarnin was convened in 387 B.C. which condemned all the ten rules. The council ended in a fiasco because of the rigidity of the Vaisali monks and it led to the split of the Buddhist Church into staviras and Mahasamghikas. The former held the orthodox vinay and the latter were pro-changers.

The third Buddhist Council was held in 257 B.C. at Pataliputra by Asoka under the chairmanship of Moggaliputta Tissa in order to eliminate the schism within the Buddhist church and to make it punishable. The council published Abhidhamma Pitaka containing the philosophical interpretations of the doctrines of the existing two pitaks which were supposed to be true to the original teachings of Buddha.

The Kushana King Kinaska convened the Fourth Buddhist Council at Kundalvana Vihara in Kashmir under the leadership of Vasumitra and Asvaghosha. The great Buddhist Scholar Parsva compiled three large commentaries of the three pitaks. They are known as Vibhashas. Mahayanism, a new branch of Buddhism came into existence under the leadership of Asvaghosha.

Thus the Fourth Buddhist Council split the Buddhists into two groups namely “Hinayana” and “Mahayana”. The Hinayanas considered Buddha as a great man and not a God and for them Nirvana was the ultimate goal of life. The Mahayanas worshipped Buddha as a God and observed eight fold path without giving importance to the attainment of Nirvana. Thus the Buddhist Councils held from time to time and due to its efforts Buddhism was popularized.

Decline of Buddhism:

Buddhism became extent in India by twelfth century A.D. Several factors were responsible for the decline of Buddhism in India.

Decline of Buddhist Sanghas:

The important cause of the decline and fall of Buddhism was the decline of Buddhist Sanghas. The Sanghas became centres of corruption. The discipline of vinay pitaka was violated. The viharas were dominated by ease-loving people. The monks and nuns began to lead lives of pleasure and ease. The Mahayanist and Hinayanist quarreled with each other. Internal conflict proved to be the ruin of Buddhism.

2. Revival of Brahmanism:

The revival of Brahmanical Hinduism also served as a cause for the decline of Buddhism. The rites and rituals of Hinduism were simplified. It also incorporated Buddhist principle of non-violence and accepted Buddha as a Hindu incarnation. The Gupta rulers were great patrons of Brahmanical religion and did a lot for it. The reformed Brahmanical Hinduism was able to appeal to the people.

Division among Buddhists:

Buddhism was divided into a number of groups like “Hinayana”, “Mahayana” “Vajrayana” “Tantrayana” and “Sahajayana” and ultimately it lost its originality.

Use of Sanskrit Language:

The Buddhist monks gave up Pali, the language of the common people. Buddha preached his teachings in Pali which accounted for the spread of Buddhism. But the Buddhist monks took up Sanskrit, the language of intellectuals which was rarely understood by the common people. So people rejected it.

Image Worship:

The Mahayana Buddhists started worshipping Buddha as a God. This image worship was a clear violation of the Buddhist doctrines which opposed the critical rites and rituals of Brahmanical Hinduism. Due to image worship, Buddhism lost its importance as it led the people to believe that Buddhism is coming under the influence-of Hinduism.

Loss of Royal Patronage:

With the gradual march of time, Buddhism lost the royal patronage which it received during the period of Asoka, Kaniska and Harshavardhana. Royal Patronage helped a lot for the spread of Buddhism earlier. But due to the lack of royal patronage Buddhism met its end.

Emergence of Rajput’s:

Most parts of Northern India were ruled by the Rajput’s from eight to twelfth century who found great pleasure in fighting. They discarded the Buddhist principle of non-violence. They patronized Hinduism which was a martial religion. The Buddhist monks feared persecution and shed from Northern India. So Buddhism practically disappeared from Northern India.

Muslim Invasion:

The Muslim invasion practically gave a death blow to Buddhism in India. The riches of Buddhists viharas attracted the attention of the Muslim invaders. So the Buddhist viharas became the targets of Muslim invasion whose sole intention was to plunder the wealth. The Buddhists monks couldn’t resist the Muslim attack.

Many Buddhist monks were killed, some of them were converted to Islam and others fled to Nepal and Tibet and took shelter there. Ultimately Buddhism died away in India, the land of its birth though it continued to flourish in countries beyond India for centuries.


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