According to the Buddhist traditional records, the historical Buddha Siddharta Gautama at the age of 35, while meditating under a fig tree, now known as the Bodhi tree, he attained Enlightenment. He was then known as Gautama Buddha, or simply “The Buddha”, which means “the enlightened one”.
Buddha then endeavored to share his wisdom with all those around him. For the remaining 45 years of his life, he travelled the Gangetic Plain of central India (region of the Ganges/Ganga river and its tributaries), teaching his doctrine and discipline to an extremely diverse range of people. He traveled all through what is present day India and Nepal preaching and educating others about the middle path. He founded a theology based on moderation.
In general, Buddhism is a practice of finding peace within oneself. It is a religion formulated to win peaceful happiness during the present life and beyond. Their desire is to live happily, not harming others, working towards their ultimate goal of enlightenment.
Soon after Buddha’s death or parinirvana, five hundred monks met at the first council at Rajagrha, under the leadership of Kashyapa. Upali recited the monastic code (Vinaya) as he remembered it. Ananda, Buddha’s cousin, friend, and disciple — and a man of prodigious memory– recited Buddha’s preachings (the Sutras). The monks debated details and made their best efforts to preserve Buddha?s teachings purely and exactly as they were said by Buddha. These were then committed to memory by other monks, to be translated into the many languages of the Indian plains.
In the next few centuries, the original unity of Buddhism began to fragment. The most significant split occurred after the second council, held at Vaishali 100 years after the first. After debates between a more liberal group and traditionalists, the liberal group left and labeled themselves the Mahasangha — “the great sangha.” The liberals became proponents of more relaxed monastic rules, which could appeal to a large majority of monastic and lay people (hence their name the “great” or “majority” assembly). They would eventually evolve into the Mahayana tradition of northern Asia.
The traditionalists, now referred to as Theravada or “way of the elders? compiled a complex set of philosophical ideas elucidated by Buddha. These were collected into the Abhidharma or “higher teachings.”
Later one splinter group after another left the main fold. Ultimately, 18 schools developed, each with their own interpretations of various issues, and spread all over India and Southeast Asia. But today, only the school stemming from the Sri Lankan Theravadan School survives in Burma, Sri Lankar and Thailand, etc.
One of the most significant events in the history of Buddhism is the chance encounter of the monk Nigrodha and the emperor Ashoka Maurya (273?232 BCE). Ashoka, succeeding his father after a bloody power struggle in 268 bc, found himself deeply disturbed by the carnage he caused while suppressing a revolt in the land of the Kalingas (today’s Orissa in eastern India). Meeting with Nigrodha convinced Emperor Ashoka to devote himself to peace. On his orders, thousands of rock pillars were erected, bearing the words of the Buddha, in the brahmi script — the first written evidence of Buddhism. The third council of monks was held at Pataliputra, the capital of Ashoka’s empire.
The king decided to renounce violence, and propagate the faith by building stupas and pillars urging for the respect of all life forms, and enjoining people to follow the Dharma. He also built roads, hospitals, resthouses, universities and irrigation systems around the country. He treated his subjects as equals regardless of their religion, politics or caste.
This period marks the first spread of Buddhism beyond India. According to the plates and pillars left by Ashoka (the Edicts of Ashoka), emissaries were sent to various countries in order to spread Buddhism, as far as the Greek kingdoms in the West, in particular the neighboring Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, and possibly even farther to the Mediterranean.
Some went as far as Egypt, Palestine, and Greece. St. Origen even mentions them as having reached Britain. The Greeks of one of the Alexandrian kingdoms of northern India adopted Buddhism, after their King Menandros (Pali: Milinda) was convinced by a monk named Nagasena — the conversation immortalized in the Milinda Pa?ha. A Kushan king of north India named Kanishka was also converted, and a council was held in Kashmir in about 100 ad.
It is interesting to note that there is a saint in Orthodox Christianity named Josaphat, an Indian king whose story is essentially that of the Buddha. Josaphat is thought to be a distortion of the word bodhisattva.
Emperor Ashoka sent one of his sons, Mahinda, and one of his daughters, Sanghamitta, a monk and a nun, to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) around the year 240 bc. The king of Sri Lanka, King Devanampiyatissa, welcomed them and was converted. One of the gifts they brought with them was a branch of the bodhi tree, which was successfully transplanted. The descendants of this branch can still be found on the island.
King Ashoka convened the third Buddhist council around 250 BCE at Pataliputra (today’s Patna). It was held by the monk Moggaliputta. The objective of the council was to reconcile the different schools of Buddhism, to purify the Buddhist movement, particularly from opportunistic factions which had been attracted by the royal patronage, and to organize the dispatch of Buddhist missionaries throughout the known world. The Pali canon (Tipitaka, or Tripitaka in Sanskrit, literally the “Three Baskets”), which comprises the texts of reference of traditional Buddhism and is considered to be directly transmitted from the Buddha, was formalized at that time. The three sections of the Pali canon are the Vinaya Pitaka (the monastic law), the Sutta Pitaka (words of the Buddha), and the Abhidamma Pitaka (the philosophical commentaries). Greek Buddhists there recorded the Sutras on copper sheets which, unfortunately, were never recovered.
The fourth council was held in Sri Lanka, in the Aloka Cave, in the first century bc. During this time as well, and for the first time, the entire set of Sutras were recorded in the Pali language on palm leaves, from which so much of our knowledge of Buddhism derives.
The Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius I invaded India in 180 BCE as far as Pataliputra, establishing an Indo-Greek kingdom that was to last in various part of northern India until the end of the 1st century BCE. Buddhism flourished under the Indo-Greek kings, and it has been suggested that their invasion of India was intended to show their support for the Mauryan empire, and to protect the Buddhist faith from the alleged religious persecutions of the Sungas (185?73 BCE).
(A Greco-Buddhist statue, one of the first representations of the Buddha, 1st-2nd century CE, Gandhara.)
One of the most famous Indo-Greek kings is Menander (reigned c. 160?135 BCE). He apparently converted to Buddhism and is presented in the Mahayana tradition as one of the great benefactors of the faith, on a par with king Ashoka or the later Kushan king Kanishka. Menander’s coins bear the mention “Saviour king” in Greek, and sometimes designs of the eight-spoked wheel. Direct cultural exchange is also suggested by the dialogue of the Milinda Panha between Menander and the monk Nagasena around 160 BCE. Upon his death, the honour of sharing his remains was claimed by the cities under his rule, and they were enshrined in stupas, in a parallel with the historic Buddha (Plutarch, Praec. reip. ger. 28, 6). Several of Menander’s Indo-Greek successors inscribed the mention “Follower of the Dharma” in the Kharoshthi script on their coins, and depicted themselves or their divinities forming the vitarka mudra.
In 185 BCE, about 50 years after Ashoka’s death, the Sunga dynasty (185?73 BCE) was established. After deposing King Brhadrata (last of the Mauryan rulers), military commander-in-chief Pusyamitra Sunga took the throne. An orthodox Brahmin, Sunga was allegedly hostile towards Buddhists and allegedly persecuted the Buddhist faith. He is recorded as having “destroyed monasteries and killed Monks” (Divyavadana, pp. 429?434): 84,000 Buddhist stupas which had been built by Ashoka were “destroyed” (R. Thaper), and 100 gold coins were offered for the head of each Buddhist monk (Indian Historical Quarterly Vol. XXII, p. 81 ff cited in Hars.407). A large number of Buddhist monasteries (viharas) were said to have been converted to Hindu temples, in such places as Nalanda, Bodhgaya, Sarnath, or Mathura.
During the period, Buddhist monks deserted the Ganges valley, following either the Northern road (Uttarapatha) or the Southern road (Daksinapatha).
In the areas east of the Indian subcontinent (today’s Burma), Indian culture strongly influenced the Mons. The Mons are said to have been converted to Buddhism around 200 BCE under the proselytizing of the Indian king Ashoka. Early Mon Buddhist temples, such as Peikthano in central Burma, have been dated between the 1st and the 5th century CE.
Mons? Wheel of the Law (Dharmachakra), art of Dvaravati, c.8th century.
The Theravada faith expanded in the northern parts of Southeast Asia under Mon influence.