As observed above, the Brahmans claim to direct the religious life and thought of India and apart from Mohammedanism may be said to have achieved their ambition, though at the price of tolerating much that the majority would wish to suppress. But in earlier ages their influence was less extensive and there were other currents of religious activity, some hostile and some simply independent. The most formidable of these found expression in Jainism and Buddhism both of which arose in Bihar
in the sixth century B.C. This century was a time of intellectual ferment in many countries. In China it produced Lao-tz[u] and Confucius: in Greece, Parmenides, Empedocles, and the sophists were only a little later. In all these regions we have the same phenomenon of restless, wandering teachers, ready to give advice on politics, religion or philosophy, to any one who would hear them.
At that time the influence of the Brahmans had hardly permeated Bihar
, though predominant to the west of it, and speculation there followed lines different from those laid down in the Upanishads, but of some antiquity, for we know that there were Buddhas before Gotama and that Mahâvîra, the founder of Jainism, reformed the doctrine of an older teacher called Parśva.
In Gotama's youth Bihar
was full of wandering philosophers who appear to have been atheistic and disposed to uphold the boldest paradoxes, intellectual and moral. There must however have been constructive elements in their doctrine, for they believed in reincarnation and the periodic appearance of superhuman teachers and in the advantage of following an ascetic discipline. They probably belonged chiefly to the warrior caste as did Gotama, the Buddha known to history. The Pitakas represent him as differing in details from contemporary teachers but as rediscovering the truth taught by his predecessors. They imply that the world is so constituted that there is only one way to emancipation and that from time to time superior minds see this and announce it to others. Still Buddhism does not in practice use such formulae as living in harmony with the laws of nature.
Indian literature is notoriously concerned with ideas rather than facts but the vigorous personality of the Buddha has impressed on it a portrait more distinct than that left by any other teacher or king. His work had a double effect. Firstly it influenced all departments of Hindu religion and thought, even those nominally opposed to it. Secondly it spread not only Buddhism in the strict sense but Indian art and literature beyond the confines of India. The expansion of Hindu culture owes much to the doctrine that the Good Law should be preached to all nations.
The teaching of Gotama was essentially practical. This statement may seem paradoxical to the reader who has some acquaintance with the Buddhist scriptures and he will exclaim that of all religious books they are the least practical and least popular: they set up an anti-social ideal and are mainly occupied with psychological theories. But the Buddha addressed a public such as we now find it hard even to imagine. In those days the intellectual classes of India felt the ordinary activities of life to be unsatisfying: they thought it natural to renounce the world and mortify the flesh: divergent systems of ritual, theology and self-denial promised happiness but all agreed in thinking it normal as well as laudable that a man should devote his life to meditation and study. Compared with this frame of mind the teaching of the Buddha is not unsocial, unpractical and mysterious but human, business-like and clear. We are inclined to see in the monastic life which he recommended little but a useless sacrifice but it is evident that in the opinion of his contemporaries his disciples had an easy time, and that he had no intention of prescribing any cramped or unnatural existence. He accepted the current conviction that those who devote themselves to the things of the mind and spirit should be released from worldly ties and abstain from luxury but he meant his monks to live a life of sustained intellectual activity for themselves and of benevolence for others. His teaching is formulated in severe and technical phraseology, yet the substance of it is so simple that many have criticized it as too obvious and jejune to be the basis of a religion. But when he first enunciated his theses some two thousand five hundred years ago, they were not obvious but revolutionary and little less than paradoxical.
The principal of these propositions are as follows. The existence of everything depends on a cause: hence if the cause of evil or suffering can be detected and removed, evil itself will be removed. That cause is lust and craving for pleasure. Hence all sacrificial and sacramental religions are irrelevant, for the cure which they propose has nothing to do with the disease. The cause of evil or suffering is removed by purifying the heart and by following the moral law which sets high value on sympathy and social duties, but an equally high value on the cultivation of individual character. But training and cultivation imply the possibility of change. Hence it is a fatal mistake in the religious life to hold a view common in India which regards the essence of man as something unchangeable and happy in itself, if it can only be isolated from physical trammels. On the contrary the happy mind is something to be built up by good thoughts, good words and good deeds. In its origin the Buddha's celebrated doctrine that there is no permanent self in persons or things is not a speculative proposition, nor a sentimental lament over the transitoriness of the world, but a basis for religion and morals. You will never be happy unless you realize that you can make and remake your own soul.
These simple principles and the absence of all dogmas as to God or Brahman distinguish the teaching of Gotama from most Indian systems, but he accepted the usual Indian beliefs about Karma and rebirth and with them the usual conclusion that release from the series of rebirths is the summum bonum. This deliverance he called saintship (arahattam) or nirvana of which I shall say something below. In early Buddhism it is primarily a state of happiness to be attained in this life and the Buddha persistently refused to explain what is the nature of a saint after death. The question is unprofitable and perhaps he would have said, had he spoken our language, unmeaning. Later generations did not hesitate to discuss the problem but the Buddha's own teaching is simply that a man can attain before death to a blessed state in which he has nothing to fear from either death or rebirth.
The Buddha attacked both the ritual and the philosophy of the Brahmans. After his time the sacrificial system, though it did not die, never regained its old prestige and he profoundly affected the history of Indian metaphysics. It may be justly said that most of his philosophic as distinguished from his practical teaching was common property before his time, but he transmuted common ideas and gave them a currency and significance which they did not possess before. But he was less destructive as a religious and social reformer than many have supposed. He did not deny the existence nor forbid the worship of the popular gods, but such worship is not Buddhism and the gods are merely angels who may be willing to help good Buddhists but are in no wise guides to religion, since they need instruction themselves. And though he denied that the Brahmans were superior by birth to others, he did not preach against caste, partly because it then existed only in a rudimentary form. But he taught that the road to salvation was one and open to all who were able to walk in it, whether Hindus or foreigners. All may not have the necessary qualifications of intellect and character to become monks but all can be good laymen, for whom the religious life means the observance of morality combined with such simple exercises as reading the scriptures. It is clear that this lay Buddhism had much to do with the spread of the faith. The elemental simplicity of its principles—namely that religion is open to all and identical with morality—made a clean sweep of Brahmanic theology and sacrifices and put in its place something like Confucianism. But the innate Indian love for philosophizing and ritual caused generation after generation to add more and more supplements to the Master's teaching and it is only outside India that it has been preserved in any purity.