Brahmanism and Buddhism

The unique character of ancient Indian civilization centered on the institution of caste and the doctrine of reincarnation, or rebirth. The search for freedom from the wheel of rebirth led to a variety of types of piety. The oldest religious texts in India are the Vedas. The Vedas consists of songs recited during sacrifices, and passages instructing priests, or Brahmans, what to do during the ceremony.

As time went on some Vedas became less intelligible and performing rituals correctly became more important, since a single mispronounced word might provoke divine displeasure. This enhanced the power of the Brahmans who insisted on proper invocation, and some Brahmans claimed that they could compel the gods to grant what was asked of them. Such extravagent priestly claims were put forward in texts called Brahamanas, a sort of later commentaries on the Vedas.

Not everybody agreed with this approach and a rival type of salvation was proposed in a literature called Upanishades, which suggested withdrawal and meditation for holy men, whereby a release from the sufferings of existence could be obtained without obedience to the priests.

Such an ascetic path to salvation was tried by Buddha and then rejected by him as preposterous. He abandoned the ascetic life to seek his own path to Enlightenment. While sitting meditating under a banyan tree Gautama had an abrupt illumination and he became convinced that the truth had come to his mind. He is reported to have said:
'There arose within me the insight that now my deliverance was assured; that this was my last birth nor should I ever be born again.' Then he rose up to impart his vision to the world.

Buddha preached that salvation lay in eliminating within oneself all desires and passions. For these, he believed, were the cause of the world's misery. If we are free from evil desire we become free from sorrow, if we are free from desire of pleasure we will not become the slave of material things. Annihilation of suffering by annihilating the self was Buddha's ultimate goal.

That goal - Nirvana - was, however, a difficult one for most mankind. In the meanwhile, Buddha urged to cultivate inner tranquility by pursuing the middle way between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. By means of the 'noble eightfold path' the faithful, purified by moral conduct, could ultimately find salvation from the sorrowful circle of rebirth and enter Nirwana, or extinction. The 'paths' are right belief, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right thought, and right meditation.

The Brahmans, the most privileged caste, were always opposed to the unorthodox teachings of Buddha and slowly they undermined Buddhist influences until Brahmanism again replaced it in India.

Buddhism flourished instead in South-East Asia, China, and Japan - far from its original home. Since the Buddha's death the religion has developed along two distinct lines: Hinayana stressing monasticism and avoiding any belief in a god; and Mahayana which embraces more personal cults and saviours. Hinayana predominates in South-East Asia; Mahayana in China, Japan, Tibet and Korea.

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Hymns from the Rig Veda
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