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Buddhism: context and comparison

Why did Buddhism emerge when and where it did? Are there other historical parallels to the emergence of Buddhism?

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Video transcript

- [Lecturer] We've already had many videos on Buddhism and its connections to Hinduism but what we want to do in this video is more explicitly answer an important question. Why did Buddhism emerge when and where it did? And this is a question that you should always be asking yourself as you study history. Why did something emerge, why did something happen when and where it did? And I encourage you to pause this video and think about it. Maybe you're viewing some of the other videos on Buddhism and Hinduism or doing some research yourself. Well let's remind ourselves of the context. Buddha emerges in northeast India in modern day Nepal at the end of the Vedic period. Hinduism has been evolving now for many hundreds of years, arguably close to 1,000 years. Now as we've talked about in other videos, there's a spiritual core of Hinduism described in the Upanishads, this idea of Atman, your inner self. Brahman, the ultimate reality that we live in an illusion of Maya and through meditation we should be able to pierce that veil and eventually break free from the cycle of birth and rebirth, Samsara, and become one with Brahmin, become one with the ultimate reality. But in the time of Buddha there were other aspects of Hinduism that were maybe even more associated with the religion. There is also a lot of ritual in the Vedas, and in the time of Buddha the Hinduism that he grows up in is very focused on the ritual aspects of it. And it was a Hinduism in which not just anyone could do the rituals, it was a fairly stratified society that he grew up in. We discussed the caste system in some detail. It's still a matter of debate to what degree caste is hereditary in it's actually part of the religion, but it was a fact of the culture of the time. Where at the top you had the Brahmins who were the priests and much of their power came from their ability to interpret the Vedas. Came from their exclusive ability to practice the rituals just right. Buddha came from a ruling class, he came from the Kshatriyas class, but even they were considered one notch below the Brahmins and especially the bottom rungs of the caste system these were fairly marginalized people. And so when Buddha emerges, initially in a very privileged life he's essentially a prince but eventually when Buddha sees the suffering in the world, a lot of the suffering happening in these lower rungs of society, he looks for answers, spiritual answers, and is not satisfied by what he sees. He's not satisfied by the answers that he's getting from this ruling class. You could imagine that he's even suspicious of it, whether they're focused on the true spiritual core, or whether they're focused on ritual as a way to keep their power. But there's also another tradition in Hinduism at the time. This is all very important to why Buddhism was able to emerge when it happened. There was this tradition of asceticism, of people going off into the woods and meditating and thinking about the nature of life and these folks were much more focused on this spiritual core and so Buddha initially takes that track. He goes and he meditates and he eventually comes to a realization, he awakens so to speak at the root of Buddhism is that there should not be this stratified society. That one should not focus on ritual. That at the end of the day, you need to have a very personal path to Nirvana, to escaping the cycle of Samsara. So I would argue, if I were to simply answer the question why did Buddhism emerge when and where it did? Well if you consider Buddhism to be a reformation of Hinduism, it's important that Buddha was Hindu. It's also important that it needed to be reformed or at least Buddha thought it needed to be reformed. So it's important that at the time that he lived, Hinduism had become very ritualistic. It had become very stratified, and he saw a need to reform it. Now there's even a further question. It emerged when it did and we have some ideas of why that might have happened, but why did it become a major religion? One argument was that what he was describing was just very compelling. You no longer have to go through this ruling class, through the priests anymore. You could have your own personal path. It was also perhaps compelling to people who felt marginalized in the traditional hierarchy of the time. Another argument would be the emperor Ashoka who we study in other videos, that once he converts to Buddhism after feeling guilty for his war with Kalinga where tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people are killed, he converts to Buddhism and becomes a major patron of Buddhism and sends missionaries throughout the world to spread it. So one argument of why Buddhism spread is that a few hundred years after Buddha you have a significant powerful emperor converting to the religion and deciding to spread it. Now that leads us to a second question. Are there other historical parallels to what we have just described? And this is something that once again you should always ask yourself in history. And what's the structure of this? Well there's some spiritual core here, but eventually you have the ritualistic side as it actually gets practiced. And you have a stratified society where you have a class that has a bit of a monopoly on the ritual derives a lot of their power from that ritual. And then someone comes along and says wait, this priesthood is more focused on power and on ritual than the true spiritual core, and they're not happy with the answers that that priesthood is delivering. Can you think of any other parallels to that? Well a few come to my mind, and once again these could all be debated and that's the fun thing about history. I encourage you to debate all of these things. About 500 years after the time of Buddha, someone by the name of Jesus of Nazareth comes onto the scene. Where is the parallel? Well you have the spiritual core of Judaism that comes from Abraham and Moses, but then you have the ritual of the Pharisees of the time. They are the power brokers. He feels that the religion is corrupted. He sees the money changers in the temple, and much of his preaching is a reformation, a reminder of that spiritual core. He also tries to encourage people to have a more personal connection and tries to break up the stratification and once again, you could imagine this to be a very compelling message for those who felt marginalized and the parallel goes even further. Just as Buddha had Ashoka come onto the scene a few hundred years after Buddha to really popularize the religion, Jesus has a parallel. Roughly 300 years after the life of Jesus, Constantine is emperor of the Romans. The same Romans who have been persecuting Christians for 300 years, and all of the sudden Constantine not only allows it to be legal, but he eventually promotes the religion and converts to the religion and it eventually, after Constantine's death, becomes the official religion of Rome whether you're talking about Buddha or Jesus you have a reformer and then a few hundred years later you have a powerful emperor who adopts the religion and spreads it. What are other examples? Well even within the world of Christianity we can fast forward another 1,500 years from the time of Jesus and go to the time of Martin Luther. Who at least from his perspective sees the Christian church in the early 16th Century and thinks that it has diverged from the spiritual core, from the teachings of Jesus that it has become too focused on ritual, that the priesthood and the papacy is really more about power than it is about spirituality. So he brings about what will be known as a Protestant Reformation which is making the religion more personal, not have to go through a priest, having a personal connection with the spiritual core of religion. After this video think about other historical parallels. Are there other religions? What about Islam? What about Sikhism? How do they connect to these ideas or how do they not connect to these? Maybe they're counter-examples, and maybe there are parallels in history that have nothing to do with religion. Maybe it's more about politics or science or economics. Think about these questions.