Buddha: His Life and His Teaching (Tarcher Lives of the Masters)

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9781585426645: Buddha: His Life and His Teaching (Tarcher Lives of the Masters)
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More than twenty-five hundred years ago, an Indian prince achieved enlightenment and became “the Awakened One.” However extraordinary Prince Siddhartha Gautama was, he was no divinity, but a self-perfected human being who brought a sweeping message to mankind.

Walter Henry Nelson, a respected historical scholar and author, offers readers a distinctly accessible and authoritative biography of the Buddha and his teachings. In this essential, gripping, and inspiring introduction for the general reader, Buddha explores ancient legends surrounding Buddhism’s founder. It shows how the simple story and profound struggle of Price Siddhartha, who died five hundred years before the birth of Christ, were transformed into one of the world’s great religions.

From tales of Gautama’s struggle to parables of the intervention of gods in his journey, Nelson takes readers through the historical existence and ideals at the heart of a religion and philosophy that searches beyond materialism for the true aim of life.

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About the Author:

Walter Henry Nelson has studied traditional world religions for more than forty years and is the author of numerous histories and biographies. He lives in London.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Look upon the world as a bubble, look upon it as a
mirage: the king of death does not see him who
thus looks down upon the world
. Come, look at the glittering world, like unto a royal
chariot; the foolish are immersed in it, but the
wise do not cling to it.

The Dhammapada (vv. 170-71)

Chapter 1

The Land Awaits

Our dawn lies shrouded in mystery. Recorded history goes back only a few thousand years. Of a time before that, we only know that civilizations prospered in ways unknown and died in ways that remain obscure.

One such civilization, thousands of years before the birth of Christ, lay in India. Of it, there remain a few shards—and our wonder. To look at its traces is to look upon the land in which the Buddha came to be born.

The time is 2300 b.c.e.*

Throughout the Middle and Far East, people create marvels. On the Nile, they build the first pyramid; in Mesopotamia, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon; and throughout the regions in which such new activity represents a flowering of culture, people search to understand the reasons for their existence and place in the universe.

These are no "primitive" people, but individuals with a complex and ordered society: inventive, technically proficient, able to communicate both mathematics and metaphysics in written form. In India, they resided, as far as we know, at Harappa and Mohenjo-Dara, in the northwest of the vast Indian subcontinent. There may well have been other cities of what we call the Harappan—or Indus Valley—civilization, but they are lost. Nor do we even know the people of these two towns. Who they were, what they looked like, and how they vanished, remains a mystery.

The towns they built, each three miles in circumference, are impressive. Like the peoples of the mysterious civilization of Cnossus which vanished in the Aegean Sea so long ago that even the ancient Romans marveled at its antiquity, the Harappans practiced advanced arts and crafts, had baths in most homes, and even public drainage systems.

Each city contained a citadel, built on a high spot overlooking the life of the town; in these were palaces, halls, baths, and storage places for grain. Streets were straight, met at right angles, and were laid out with care. The homes that flanked the streets were connected to a sewage system; irrigation ditches and canals existed as well.

The people of this Indus Valley produced ornaments and implements of considerable beauty; even terra-cotta toys for Harappan children have been found. There was a system of counting and measuring, as well as a system of writing, not yet deciphered for no Harappan "Rosetta Stone" has been unearthed.

These undeciphered characters read from right to left and, on the next line, from left to right, and so on down the page—back and forth in a system of writing called Boustrophedon. It must have been a syllabic script, for it contains 396 signs, too many for a proper alphabet. There were accent marks, too, suggesting that the people of the Indus Valley were advanced in their pronunciations. Perhaps some of the script dealt with Harappan commerce, for there are signs that the peoples of these two towns were merchants and traders, even in touch with the distant Mesopotamian civilization as long ago as 2350 B.C.E.

Perhaps not only trade flowed between India and Mesopotamia and between India and Persia, with which the Harappans were also in touch, but also the more important commodity of ideas. Travelers—the merchants of the caravans and perhaps ambassadors and priests—may well have stimulated the exchange of thoughts about the nature of the universe and our place and purpose in it.

What ideas the Harappans may have had regarding such questions is uncertain. The signs they left behind suggest they worshipped a Great Mother or Earth Goddess, followed a fertility cult, and that certain animals and trees were sacred to them. Among the latter was the pipal tree, which many centuries later would again be revered by others, for it would be beneath such a tree that Prince Siddhartha Gautama would achieve enlightenment, from that day on to go about the world as the Buddha, the Enlightened One.

Little else is known about the Harappan people—except that they vanished around the seventeenth century b.c.e. We do not know what they looked like, though some believe they may have been Dravidians or ancestors of the Dravidians, an advanced people who today inhabit the south of India.

It is now 1500 B.C.E. and an event of great importance is about to take place.

Through the northwest passes into India stream a new people, fair-haired and blue- eyed, who call themselves Aryas, meaning "noblemen" or "owners of land." We call them Aryans. Their destiny was to rule and populate India and to bring to it their own religion, a faith still followed in the subcontinent today.

Who were these people and from where did they emerge?

Again, we face the past with wonderment and awe. Much about this strange people remains unknown. The Aryans may have originated in eastern Europe, near the Caspian Sea, and are believed to have been a nomadic, inventive people who had domesticated cattle and other animals, raised herds, and engaged in agriculture. Thousands of years ago, for unknown reasons, they began to move from their ancient homes, pack their belongings, form great caravans, and march southward, westward, and eastward. There must have been vast numbers of them, organized in great tribes, for different groups of them settled in Persia and Greece, as well as in India.

Some crossed the mountains of Central Asia; others entered Iran, and an Indo-European or Aryan tribe called the Hellenes became the ancestors of the ancient Greeks. They spoke a language which today is the root-language of almost all European tongues. Sanskrit was the language they brought to India; it is closely connected with many European languages and, again, demonstrates the interrelationship. The Sanskrit matr, for example, came to be mater in Latin, Mütter in German, and mother in English; it came to be moder in Swedish, madre in Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian, and mat in Russian.

Just how the Aryans entered the Indian subcontinent we do not know. They probably entered it in waves rather than in one organized "army," though they were indeed prepared to defend themselves and conquer; they rode horses, wore armor, and carried bows and arrows. They had leaders and organization. According to their own records (the Vedas), they encountered, battled, and subdued a primitive brown-skinned Indian people, for whom they apparently had little respect. Were these the Harappans? They may have been, if the Harappans were the ancestors of the Dravidians, for these latter people were indeed dark- complexioned. Yet neither the Harappans nor the Dravidians could objectively be called "primitive" or justifiably be regarded with superior contempt. Also, in order to "meet" the Harappans, some conflict of dates would have to be resolved, for it is believed the Aryans entered India around 1500 B.C.E., while the fall of Harappa and Mohenjo-Dara is dated at two centuries earlier. Of course, all dates so long ago are perforce inexact and it may well be that the Aryans caused the fall of these two civilizations in battle. Perhaps their air of superiority was caused only by their notion of themselves as mighty conquerors, as victors in the struggle. Traces of a conflagration at Harappa have been discovered and it may, indeed, have been burnt down by an Aryan tribe.

If, however, Harappa and Mohenjo-Dara no longer existed in 1500 B.C.E., then the invading Aryans must have fought others indigenous to the region. We know that there were also truly primitive peoples in India, who later sought refuge in the forests, and it may have been these whom the Aryans came upon.

They settled down to stay.

They were not an urban people and did not choose to build cities. They lived close to the soil, in small villages, and it was not to be for centuries that the great cities of India would be built.

For the time being, the Aryans lived a simple life and went to some lengths to preserve their traditions and perhaps also to keep from being intermixed with the indigenous peoples of India. Gradually, this effort developed into a formal "caste system."

The Aryans remained in the northern part of India and, even by 800 B.C.E., never penetrated past the center of the subcontinent, to which they had pressed the Dravidians. Perhaps they did not even know how vast was the region they had entered. The land stretched two thousand miles from north to south and almost another two thousand from east to west.

Its name derived from the Greek word Indos, an adaptation of the Persian hindu, meaning "land of the great river." In Sanskrit, the language of the Aryans, "river" is sindhu— again showing the closeness of the Sanskrit, Persian, and Greek words. They form the root of both the name of the Indian nation and of the Hindu peoples themselves, whose common language today is Hindi.

It was in Sanskrit that the Aryans first wrote down their religion, in a series of texts called the Vedas. This transcription took place around 500 B.C.E., but the faith was hundreds— probably thousands—of years older, passed by word of mouth from sage to sage, from guru (teacher or master) to guru. There are four Vedas, of which the first, the Rig Veda, is regarded as the most significant; the others are the Yajur, Sama, and Atharva Vedas. The Vedas are in India considered eternal, uncreated, and incontestable scripture, though subject to interpretation. While they form the written teaching, in India all teaching is and has always been orally transmitted and the guidance of a guru is considered indispensable.

The Vedas reveal that the Aryans brought to India a system of gods, the chief of whom was Indra. World creation and the forces of nature were explained in the Vedas, and there was sun worship, a form of fire worship. The religion was anthropomorphic, the gods having human attributes, and fi re was regarded as the connection between the gods and men.

Mantras (prayers) and other invocations, including "fices and elaborate rituals, abounded; inevitably, this meant that priests proliferated. After a time, commentaries were added to the Vedas; these explained in complex form how worship was to be carried out and helped further to fix the role of the Vedic priests. Called Brahmanas, these commentaries led to a religion referred to as Brahmanism.

Brahman is a word with many meanings. In one form, br·hman means "prayer," while in another, brahm·n, it means "he who prays" (pray-er). Brahmanaspati became the Lord of Prayer and priests came to be called Brahmans. As for the word "Brahma" itself, it represents the ultimate, absolute, universal, creative deity—"God" in the most abstract form.

Brahmanism eventually was to provide the world with two of the greatest Indian religious works, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Sublime in thought and language, they belong to the great literature of all times and peoples. Mystical works of great philosophical and spiritual importance, they address themselves to the fundamental questions of the universe.

Over the centuries, however, the Vedic faith became increasingly sophisticated, in the sense that it became more and more difficult to comprehend, filled with magic, incantations, strata and substrata of symbolism. Few outside the priestly orders were taught anything regarding it, and those on the bottom or near-bottom of the social scale were left to worship either primitive, pre-Aryan nature gods and other deities, or to consider only the outer shell of the Brahmanic faith, without ever approaching its inner, more symbolic meaning.

Only Aryans were allowed to follow the Brahmanic faith and only the top layers of the Aryans were allowed to approach its meaning—and its temples. Partly in order to protect themselves from intermixture with non-Aryans and partly to provide their priests with special status, the Aryans developed a caste system based on occupation more than anything else.

At the top was a spiritual aristocracy, the priests, forming the Brahman caste, though not all in that caste were necessarily priests, some for example being senior offi cials and counsellors to kings. Below them were the Kshatriyas, rulers and warriors, and below them the Vaisyas, merchants and other commoners. The lowest caste consisted of Sudras, serfs, but even further below them were the Panchamas, a group who were literally outcastes.

The three topmost castes formed the upper layer of the Aryan culture; its male members wore the "sacred thread," given them in a special initiation ceremony as boys, signifying their "second birth." Movement from one caste to another was out of the question, and intermarriage between castes was forbidden, except that a higher-caste male could marry a lower-caste female. Yet it is important to recognize that Indians saw this caste system as perfectly natural; it is only in recent years that it has come to be frowned upon. In today's India, laws "abolish" both castes and outcastes ("untouchables"), but the customs of thousands of years cannot so easily be erased.

In actuality, there are more than the four "main" castes listed—perhaps as many as two thousand may be said to exist! Within each of the main four castes there are members who will look up to others within their caste and look down upon still others. A high-caste Brahman from one section of the subcontinent might actually find himself snubbed in another part of the land, where his particular "branch" of the Brahman caste is considered inferior. Also, Indians tend to create new "castes" with as much avidity as Westerners create fraternal orders or clubs: some years ago, two thousand Indians who decided to start smoking formed a "smokers' caste."

Indians justify the caste system partly on the basis of their belief in rebirth. According to this, a child is born into a higher or lower caste according to the merits acquired in a previous life. Someone who performs conscientiously his role in the present life has hopes of being reborn into better circumstances in the next; at the same time, what misfortune befalls him in this life he regards as a clear effect of neglected duties in a previous incarnation.

Thus the present life is the effect of the past one as well as the cause of the next, and the law governing this—that of karma or, roughly, that of cause and effect—is seen as just, universal, and inescapable.

The caste system did much to remove the Brahmanic faith from the reality of the life of those at the bottom of the ladder. Denied access to certain temples, denied instruction, and kept rigidly apart from the higher castes, millions of low-caste Indians were kept in ignorance and spiritual emptiness. By the time of the Buddha's birth, around 600 B.C.E., the Brahman priesthood had become a rigid, often corrupt, and exclusive society, in private commun...

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