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Chapter 26 – Buddhist Sacred Literature

In the sixth century before Christ, India witnessed the commencement of a great revolution. Her ancient religion, which the Hindu Aryans had practised and proclaimed for fourteen centuries, had degenerated into forms. The gods of the Rig-Veda, whom the ancient Rishis had invoked and worshipped, had come to be regarded as mere names; the libations of the Soma juice, and offerings of milk, grain, or flesh, which the Rishis of old had offered to their gods, had developed into cumbrous ceremonials, elaborate rites, unmeaning forms. The descendants or successors of those Rishis had now stepped forth as a powerful and hereditary caste, and claimed the right to perform elaborate religious rites and utter sacred prayers for the people. The people were taught to believe that they earned merit by having these rites performed and these prayers uttered by hired priests. The religious instinct which had inspired the composers of the Vedic hymns was dead, and vast ceremonials alone remained.

But a reaction had taken place. About the eleventh century before Christ, five centuries before the time of

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which we are now speaking, earnest and thoughtful Hindus had ventured to go beyond the rituals of the Brahmana literature, and had inquired into the mysteries of the soul and its Creator. The composers of the Upanishads had conceived the bold idea that all animate and inanimate nature proceeded from one universal deity, and were portions of one pervading soul. Inquiries were made into the mysteries of death and the future world, conjectures were made about the transmigration of souls, and doctrines were started containing in a crude form the salient principles of later Hindu philosophy.

Few, however, could devote their lives to these speculations and the abstruse philosophy which they involved. The mass of the Aryan householders – Brahmans, Kshatriyas, and Vaisyas – contented themselves with performing the rites, unintelligible to them, which the Brahmanas had laid down and the Sutras had condensed.

For the Sudras, who had come under the domination of the Aryan religion, there was no religious instruction, no religious observance, no social respect. Despised and degraded in the very community in which they were forced to live, they sighed for a change, and as they increased in number, pursued various useful industries, owned lands and villages, and gained in influence and power, they became more and more conscious of the unbearable conditions to which they were condemned.

To an earnest and inquisitive mind, to a sympathetic

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and benevolent soul, there was something anomalous in all this. Gautama of the Sakya race was versed in the Hindu learning and religion of the age, but he pondered and asked if what he had learnt could be efficacious or true. His soul rebelled against the distinctions between man and man; and his benevolent heart longed for a means to help the humble, the oppressed, and the lowly. The ceremonials and rites which householders practised appeared as vain and fruitless to him as the penances and mortifications which hermits voluntarily underwent in forests. The beauty of a holy and a sinless life of benevolence became to him as the perfection of human destiny, and with the earnest conviction or a prophet and a reformer he proclaimed this as the essence of religion, inviting the poor and lowly to end their sufferings by cultivating virtue, by eschewing passions and evil desire, and by spreading brotherly love and universal peace. The Brahman and the Sudra, the high and the low, were the same in his eyes; each and all could effect their salvation by a holy life, and he invited every man to embrace his creed of love. Mankind responded to the appeal, and Buddhism in the course of a few centuries became the prevailing faith, not of a sect or a country, but of the continent of Asia.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to suppose that Gautama Buddha consciously set himself up as the founder of a new religion. On the contrary, he believed to the last that he was proclaiming only the pure and ancient religion which had prevailed among the Hindus,

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Western Gateway of the Buddhist Tope at Sanchi

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but which had been corrupted at a later day. Hinduism itself recognized wandering bodies of ascetics who renounced the world, performed no Vedic rites, and passed their days in contemplation. Such bodies were popularly termed Sramans. Gautama founded only one sect of Sramans among many sects which then existed, and his sect was known as that of the Sakyaputriya Sramans, to distinguish them from others. He taught them renunciation of the world, a holy life, and pious meditation, such as all sects of Sramans recommended and practised.

Gautama’s holy and pious life, his universal sympathy, his unsurpassed moral precepts, his gentle and beautiful character, stamped themselves on his teachings, which were not altogether new, gathered round him the meek and lowly, the gentlest and best of the Aryans, converted kings on their thrones and peasants in their cots, and united sect and caste in a communion of love. And the sacred recollections of his life and teachings remained long after he had passed away, uniting the community which cherished his teachings, and in course of time giving his doctrines the character of a distinct religion.

Inspired by his love of purity and a holy, gentle life, Gautama eschewed the rites of the Vedas and the penances of ascetics alike, insisting only on self-culture, on benevolence, on pious resignation. This is what has made Buddhism a living and life-giving religion, when so many rival forms of asceticism have withered away and died.

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In its historical development, Buddhism became divided into two great sects, so that the forms of Buddhism prevailing in Nepal and Tibet, China and Japan, are called Northern Buddhism, while the older and purer forms prevailing in Ceylon and Burma are termed Southern Buddhism. The Northern Buddhists furnish us with scanty materials directly illustrating the religion in its earliest form in India, for they embraced Buddhism some centuries after the Christian Era, and the works which they then obtained from India do not represent the earliest form of Hindu Buddhism. The Lalita Vistara, a most important work of the Northern Buddhists, is only a gorgeous poem, composed probably in Nepal in the second or third or fourth century after Christ, although it contains passages – the Gathas – which are of much older date. In China, Buddhism was introduced from the first century after Christ, but did not become the state religion until the fourth century, and the works on Buddhism which were then carried by Chinese pilgrims from India from century to century, and translated into the Chinese language, do not illustrate the earliest phase of Buddhism in India. Buddhism spread to Japan in the sixth century, and to Tibet in the seventh century after Christ, although the latter country has drifted far from primitive Hindu Buddhism, and has adopted forms and ceremonies which were unknown to Gautama and his followers.

The date of Buddha’s death was for a long time believed to be 543 B.C.; but it is now generally accepted

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that the great reformer died about 487 (or 477) B.C., having been born about 567 (or 557) B.C. A council of five hundred monks was held in Rajagriha, the capital of Magadha, immediately after his death, and together they chanted the sacred laws, so as to fix them on their memory. A hundred years later, in 377 B.C., a second council was held in Vaisali, mainly for the discussion and settlement of ten questions on which difference of opinion had arisen. A hundred and thirty-five years after this, the great Asoka, King of the Magadhas, held a third council in Patna about 242 B.C., to determine upon the religious works, or Pitakas1. Through the preaching of this monarch’s son, Mahinda, a Buddhist whose zeal led him to send missionaries to Ceylon and even to foreign countries, Syria, Macedon, and Egypt, to preach the religion, Ceylon embraced Buddhism in the third century B.C. About a hundred and fifty years after this the Pitakas were formally reduced to writing, and thus we have the most authentic account of the earliest form of Buddhism in Magadha in the Pali Pitakas of Ceylon.

These facts will show that the three Pitakas of the Southern Buddhists can claim a date anterior to 242 B.C., for no work which could not claim a respectable antiquity was included as canonical by the Council of Patna, and there is internal evidence in the Vinaya Pitaka for the hypothesis that the main portions of that Pitaka were settled before the Vaisali Council in 377 B.C.

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In the Scriptures of the Southern Buddhists we thus have reliable materials for the history of India for the centuries immediately after the time of Gautama Buddha, while they give a more consistent and a less exaggerated account of the life and work and teachings of Buddha himself than anything which the Northern Buddhists can supply.

The three Pitakas are known as the Sutta Pitaka, the Vinaya Pitaka, and the Abhidhamma Pitaka. The works comprised in the Sutta Pitaka profess to record the sayings and doings of Gautama Buddha himself. Gautama is the actor and the speaker in the earliest works of this Pitaka, and teaches his doctrines in his own words, although occasionally one of his disciples is the instructor, and there are short introductions to indicate where and when Gautama or his disciple spoke.

The Vinaya Pitaka contains very minute rules, often on the most trivial subjects, for the conduct of monks and nuns, the Bhikkhus and the Bhikkhunis who had embraced the holy order. Gautama respected the lay disciple, but he held that to embrace the Holy Order was a quicker path to salvation. As the number of Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis multiplied, it was necessary to fix elaborate rules, often on very minute subjects, for their proper conduct and behaviour in the Vihara, or monastery. As Gautama lived for nearly half a century after he had proclaimed his religion, there can be no doubt that he himself settled many of these rules, but, at the same time, it is equally certain that

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many of them grew up after his death, although they are all attributed in the Vinaya Pitaka to the direct order of the Blessed One himself.

Arid lastly, the Abhidhamma Pitaka contains disquisitions on various subjects, such as the conditions of life in different worlds, personal qualities, the elements, and the causes of existence.

Gautama, disregarding the precedent set by all classical writers and thinkers in India, preached his doctrine and morality to the people of India, not in Sanskrit, but in their own vernacular, and the Chullavagga accordingly says: “There were two brothers, Bhikkhus, by name Yamelu and Tekula, Brahmans by birth, excelling in speech, excelling in pronunciation.” And they went up to Gautama and said, “At the present time, Lord, Bhikkhus differing in name, differing in lineage, differing in birth, differing in family, have gone forth. These corrupt the word of the Buddhas by their own dialect. Let us, Lord, put the word of the Buddhas into Sanskrit verse.”

But Gautama would have none of this; he worked for the humble and the lowly, his message was for the people, and he wished it to be conveyed to them in their own tongue. “You are not, O Bhikkhus, to put the word of the Buddhas into (Sanskrit) verse. I allow you, O Bhikkhus, to learn the word of the Buddhas each in his own tongue.”


1. On the question of the latter date, see vol. ii, p. 139.

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