Religions in India - Buddhism

Religions in India - Buddhism

Buddhism notes for UPSC Prelims and Mains

Relevance for UPSC CSE

  • UPSC Prelims - History of India (Ancient History)
  • UPSC Mains - GS 1 (Indian culture - Religions in India)

Contribution to Indian Culture

  • Values: Truth, non-violence, Morality, Ahinsa
  • Art and Architecture: Stupas, Chaityas and Viharas, Caves
  • Education: Nalanda, Taxila
  • Language: Pali
  • Society: Alternative to Brahminical domination in Hinduism
  • Culture: Spread Indian culture worldwide

Causes for the rise of Heterodox sects like Buddhism and Jainism

  • Religious unrest in India during 6th century BC
    • Complex rites and rituals advanced in the later Vedic period - Expensive, not acceptable to the general public, superstitious, confused people
    • Teachings of Upanishads were highly philosophical --> beyond understanding of common people. Buddhism and Jainism adopted Prakrit and Pali to propagate their ideas.
    • Knowledge was mostly in Sanskrit- which was beyond the comprehension of common people
  • Rigid caste system and Varna system created tension in Indian society
    • Privileges denied to lower castes
    • Kshatriyas resented the domination of the priestly class
    • Growth of trade enhanced the economic condition of Vaisyas and so they wanted to enhance their social status --> orthodox Varna system didn't allow this --> so, they extended support to Jainism and Buddhism
  • Buddha and Mahavir extended a simple, short and intelligible way of salvation to people
    • Religious teachings in a language known to all people (Prakit and Pali)

Life of Buddha

  • Birth: Lumbini Garden, near Kapilvastu
  • Enlightenment (Nirvana) at Bodh Gaya
  • First sermon at Sarnath, near Benaras
  • Death: Kusinagara

Teachings of Buddha

Four Nobel truths of Budhha

  1. Dukha (world is full of suffering)
  2. Trushna (cause of suffering is desire)
  3. Dukha nirodh (if desires are rid off, suffering can be removed)
  4. Ashtang marg (this can be done by following an eight-fold path)

Ashtang marg (eight-fold path)

  1. Samyak drushti (Right view),
  2. Samyak sankalp (Right resolve),
  3. Samyak vacha (Right speech),
  4. Samyak karma (Right conduct),
  5. Samyak ajivika (Right livelihood),
  6. Samyak vyayam (Right effort),
  7. Samyak smruti (Right mindfulness) and
  8. Samyak samadhi (Right concentration)

Buddhist Doctrine

  • Buddha did not involve himself in fruitless controversies regarding metaphysical questions like god, soul, karma, rebirth, etc
    • He concerned himself with the practical problems confronting man
  • Neither accepts nor rejects god
  • Soul does not exist
  • Emphasis on the law of Karma
  • People were admitted into the sangha irrespective of caste distinctions

Buddhism was more social than a religious revolution.

Spread of Buddhism

Buddha had two kinds of disciples:

  1. Monks (bhikshus)- organised into sangha
    • Membership open to all gender, castes
    • Sangha governed by democratic principles
    • Monks travelled to different places preaching the ideas of Buddha.
  2. Lay worshippers (upasikas):

Buddhist Councils

To maintain the purity of teachings of Buddha
The idea was to preserve Buddha’s teachings (Sutta) and rules for disciples (Vinaya)


Mogaliputta Tissa
Compilation of final version of Tripitikas
Kashmir (Kundalvana)
Mahayan Buddhism came into existence.
Council prepared an authoritative commentary on Tripitikas
4th (b)
Tambpanni (Sri Lanka) 

Decline of Buddhism: Causes

  • Revival of Brahmanism
  • Rise of Bhagavatism
  • Buddhism began to adopt Sanskrit by dropping the use of Pali after the 1st century AD
  • Practice of idol worship and making offerings led to moral deterioration (in the Mahayana sect)
  • Destruction of monasteries by foreign invaders

Sects of Buddhism

Hinayana: Lesser vehicle

  • Conservatives
  • Arhat - self nirvana (The worthy will achieve nirvana)
  • Slow nirvana
  • Buddha was not a god, symbol worshipping
  • Sometimes used as a synonym of Theravada
  • Pali Literature
  • Preached by Ashoka

Mahayana: Greater vehicle

  • Liberals
  • Quick nirvana
    • The idea of transference of merit is a special feature of the teaching of the Great Vehicle
  • Compassion and touts Boddhisattva
  • Buddha was a god, idol worship & rituals
    • Gandhara and Mathura schools
  • Sanskrit Literature
    • 1st book: Buddhacharita by Asvaghosh
  • Boddhi-sattva
    • Minor Buddhist gods who are enlightened like Buddha
    • They have refused nirvana and are present in the world to solve the miseries of others.
    • Avalokiteshwara famous BS
    • The emergence of Bodhisattva is central to Mahayana sect of Buddhism
    • Emerged during 4th council
    • The worship of images of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas
    • Maitreya: Maitreya is the future Buddha
  • Northern Buddhism,
    • China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet
  • Mahayana has two schools of thought:
    1. Yogacara/Vijnanvadin school (way of the union) propounded by Asanga and his brother, Vasubandhu. It focuses on consciousness & knowledge (idealism). It believes that the world is built by consciousness and had no reality than the dream. The only reality is “suchness”(tathata) aka Dharmadhatu. Its basic text is called Sutralankara.
    2. Madhyamika (also known as Shunyata) propounded by Nagarjuna. It preaches midway because neither nihilism (nothing exists) nor realism (everything self-exists & is permanent) is endorsed. It believes that there is no difference between Samsara and Nirvana. According to Nagarjuna, one thing which cannot be asserted or stated is emptiness or void (Sunyata). Its basic text is called as Madhyamika kanika.

Vajrayana: Diamond Vehicle or Thunderbolt Vehicle

  • After 5th AD; offshoot of Mahayana only
  • Tibet and Nepal
  • Promoted Tantricism (Aka Tantric Buddhism)
    • Rituals, chanting, and tantric techniques
    • Tantricism got included in Jainism also!!
  • Female element absorbed in Buddhism

Theravada: Way of the Elders

  • Orthodox form
  • Southern Buddhism
    • Sri Lanka and most of Southeast Asia

Buddhist Literature


The three pitakas are

  1. Sutta Pitaka: Sutta Pitaka contains suttas or sutras related to Buddha and his close companions. This also deals with the first Buddhist council.
    (Buddha's sermons & teachings)
    Sutta Pitaka is divided under following sections:
    • Anguttara Nikaya which comprises the numerical.
    • Digha Nikaya - comprises the long discourses.
    • Khuddaka Nikaya which comprises the minor collection.
    • Majjhima Nikaya- comprises the middle length.
    • Samyutta Nikaya- comprises the connected discourses of Buddha.
  2. Abhidhamma Pitaka: They comprises the philosophy and doctrine of Buddhism. It is divided into seven books, namely Dhammasangani, Dhatukatha, Kathavatthu, Patthana, Puggalapannatui, Vibhanga and Yamaka.
  3. Vinaya Pitaka: also known as the book of discipline, deals with the monastic rules for monks and nuns. It is further divided into three books, namely Suttavibhanga, Khandhaka and Parivara.

Milinda Panha ("Questions of Milinda") contains the dialogue between Buddhist monk Nagasena and Indo-Greek king, Meander. It contains a dialogue on Buddhist doctrine with questions and dilemmas posed by King Milinda and answered by Nagasena, a senior monk.

Symbols & life events of Buddha

  • Elephant, Lotus: Birth of Siddhartha.
  • Peepal tree/bodhi tree: Enlightenment-nirvana.
  • Horse: Mahabhinishkraman- leaving of people & home.
  • Chakra: Dharmachakrapravartan- 1st Sermon.
  • Stupa: Mahaparinirvana – Mokasha- Death.

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