The Origins of Buddhism

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EmailGoogle GmailEvernoteBookmark/FavoritesShare

The Origins of Buddhism: Circumstances Before the Establishment of Buddhism

Lectures on Basic Study Materials from Dai-Byakuho, issue no. 358 The word “Buddhism” carries two meanings: “teachings expounded by the Buddha” and, “teachings for becoming a Buddha.” Further, there are various explanations of the word “Buddha,” depending on the sutra being examined, and the word is not necessarily limited to Shakyamuni, who made his advent in India. However, viewed from the historical context, Buddhism was first expounded by Shakyamuni in India. It is safe to say that in order to understand the Daishonin’s Buddhism as deeply as possible, it is both normal and essential that we, as Buddhists, learn about the origins of Indian Buddhism. In this article, we would like to briefly explain the circumstances in India before the establishment of Buddhism.


The Indus civilization flourished in the Indus River valley of India during the period between three thousand and two thousand five hundred B.C. The Indus was one of the first four great metropolitan civilizations of humanity, together with the Mesopotamian, Egyptian and the Yellow River civilizations, already fully equipped at that time with a sewage system. The ruins of the cities Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa are known throughout the world. Moreover, it should be mentioned that at that time, the Indus civilization was distinguished for its use of a written language. The center of the Indus civilization was in modern-day Pakistan.

Race and Ethnicity

In about two thousand five hundred B.C., a race known as the Dravidians were well established in India, and in addition to the Indus civilization and the people who spoke the Munda languages, there were many ethnic groups living in their own respective territories. Around one thousand five hundred B.C., the Aryans had penetrated the Punjab region of the upper Indus River, and after subjugating the aborigines, they created a [class] distinction between the (Aryan) freemen and their vassals (the Dravidians, etc.).

The Caste System

Following this, around the time that the Aryans had migrated into the upper regions of the Ganges River, they created a strict status ranking, known as the Caste System, which was divided into four classes and was based on occupation and [social] standing. The four castes are as follows: 1) the Brahmans, or the priesthood; 2) the Kshatriya, which included royalty and the military; 3) the Vaisya or commoner class, which included farmers and merchants, and; the 4) Sudra or outcast [vassal] class, which included the non-Aryan races. The word “caste” comes from Latin, meaning “lineage” or “extraction.” Later on, this caste system was further minutely divided to comprise four thousand classes. As might be expected, inter-class marriage was forbidden, but also the sharing of a meal between people of different classes was prohibited.

Brahmanism and the Vedic Scriptures (Vedas)

The basis for this social structure was Brahmanism [the Brahman religion], whose Rig-Veda the Aryans made their fundamental scripture. The Aryans were a religious people by nature, and awed by natural phenomena, they deified the forces of nature. The Aryan scripture Ñ a collection of songs of praise, prayers, incantations, music and the like, to these deities of nature Ñ is called the Rig-Veda. (“Veda” literally means “sacred wisdom.”) While this Rig-Veda was their basic scripture, another three Vedic scriptures [Sama-Veda, Atharva-Veda and Yajur-Veda] were also compiled. In the Gosho, the Daishonin referred to these four Vedas as the “Shirida.” As indicated by the fact that the period in India between around one thousand five hundred and five hundred B.C. is known as the Vedic Period, Brahmanism was widely practiced, and under its influence, the Four Caste System became firmly established. Hinduism, known for its custom of bathing in the Ganges River and its worship of the cow, is a religion based on the ideologies of Brahmanism.

Other Ideologies and Religions

Over the many years during which the Vedic scriptures were esteemed, ideologies came into being for various festivals and ceremonies, which were represented within the Brahmans scriptures. Further, due to [Aryan] respect for wisdom, the ideology and search for fundamental truths about the universe took shape. In particular, circa eight hundred to five hundred B.C., the ideology of a search for truth, which had arisen from the Rig-Veda, came to fruition as a philosophy in the Upanishads (writings of profound significance). The basic ideological thought in the Upanishads is that the fundamental principle of the universe, called Brahma in Sanskrit, and the fundamental principle of the existence of the personal self, known as Atman, were one and the same. (The oneness of the universe and the self.)

In addition to the above ideologies, there were also the schools of thought of the three Brahman sages (three ascetics), Kapila, Uluka and Rishabha, who are mentioned in the Gosho, “The Opening of the Eyes.” Moreover, during the period in which Shakyamuni made his advent, there were six non-Buddhist teachers who exerted great influence in central India. In the Gosho, “Three Tripitika Masters Pray for Rain,” there is a passage which states: The Brahman teachings date from about eight hundred years before the time of the Buddha. At first they centered around the two deities and the three ascetics, but eventually they split into ninety-five schools.” (M.W., Vol. 6, p. 117) The two deities referred to in this passage are Shiva and Vishnu, who were worshiped in ancient India.

In The Opening of the Eyes, the Daishonin had the following to say about non-Buddhist ideologies, including Brahmanism: “And yet the final conclusion of those non-Buddhist teachings constitutes an important means of entry into Buddhism.” (M.W., Vol. 2, p. 77) From the viewpoint of his own enlightenment, the Daishonin recognized the partial usefulness of non-Buddhist ideologies. These non-Buddhist ideologies and religions do not clarify the law of cause and effect. Because these teachings were removed from the realities of life, they fundamentally had no power to bring salvation to all mankind, and could not reform a social structure dominated by the caste system.

©1995 Nichiren Shoshu Monthly. All rights reserved

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EmailGoogle GmailEvernoteBookmark/FavoritesShare