Understanding Buddhism for GS Prelims


Buddhism has been a favourite topic for UPSC to frame at least one question in the preliminary examination every year. Here we will look to understand the basic concepts, terms and philosophy related to Buddhism that will enable us to answer those questions.

 

What/Who is/was Buddha ?

Siddharta ( family name Gautama ) founded Buddhism. He was given the title of “Buddha”. Buddha means one who has woken up to reality i.e enlightened. So, rather than a single person, Buddha is a title that can be given to anyone who is enlightened. Since Siddhartha was the first to attain it ( according to Buddhists ), he is called the Supreme Buddha.

 

Buddhism as a reaction to rigidities in Hinduism

It is said that the rigidities of the caste system in Hinduism, abuse of power by the Brahman priests was a prominent cause of origination of Buddhism. There are many similarities and differences between the two, which is out of scope of this post. However you can go through this article if you want.

 

The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold path ( Middle path )

1. The truth of Suffering – No matter how much we struggle, we are unable to find the ultimate happiness or satisfaction. Suffering is the common bond we share. Therefore suffering is the real truth of our existence.

2. Desire : The truth about the cause of suffering – Cravings, desires and ignorance about reality are the cause of suffering.

3. The truth about end of suffering – If desire is eliminated, then only the suffering would stop. This stage when all desires are burned is called “nirvana” in Buddhism.

4. The path for ending suffering – This path is called the eightfold path. It emphasizes on a middle path between worldly pleasure and painful asceticism.

 

worldly pleasures<————-MIDDLE PATH——————–>painful asceticism.

 

The image below taken from expertlearners illustrate the 4 noble truth and 8 fold path very well.

 

Four noble truth

 

 

On the issue of God, Soul and Transmigration 

Does Buddhism believe in GOD ? Do they believe that living beings have a soul ? UPSC often form statement on the basis of these facts. Well, the answer for the above is no, for both of them. Buddhism does NOT believe in GOD and SOUL. Their view is that life is transient and changing. Ans where change prevails, something like a ‘permanent soul’ would have no meaning.

Similarly rather than believing in God, Buddhism focuses on moral progress independent of God. Buddha believed that religious ideas and especially the god idea have their origins in fear. Quoting Buddha here ” Gripped by fear people go to sacred mountains, sacred groves, sacred trees and shrines.”

However, Buddhism has been said to accept the theory of transmigration. But, Buddhists refute to accept transmigration as understood in ‘ transmigration of soul’. What they believe is rebirth and not exactly transmigration.

Quoting from buddhanet  ” You may have noticed that in Buddhism, we consistently speak of rebirth and not transmigration. This is because in Buddhism we do not believe in an abiding entity, in a substance that trans-migrates. We do not believe in a self that is reborn. This is why when we explain rebirth, we make use of examples which do not require the transmigration of an essence or a substance. For example, when a sprout is born from a seed, there is no substance that transmigrates. The seed and the sprout are not identical. Similarly, when we light one candle from another candle, no substance travels from one to the other, and yet the first is the cause of the second.”

 

Divisions – Hinayana, Mahayana and Theravada

There are conflicting view about the divisions/sects in Buddhism. This is because each division along with their different schools of thought promote their own sect as actual Buddhism. Nevertheless, few precise differences can be ascertained –

After Buddha’s demise ( Mahaparinirman ), the Buddhist order split into two groups.

1. Hinayana ( lesser vehicle ) – they interpreted Buddha’s teaching literally and strictly, emphasizing on strict personal meditation and the monastic path to Enlightenment.

2. Mahayana ( greater vehicle ) – they interpreted Buddha’s teaching logically and liberally trying to understand the true meaning of Buddha’s teachings.

 

But why were these called “lesser” and “greater” vehicles ?

The word vehicle is used here to describe the Buddha’s teachings, since the ultimate purpose of the teachings is to carry people from the shore of this impure world to the other shore of enlightenment. A great vehicle is like a large ship that can carry many people over the ocean. A lesser vehicle is like a little boat that can carry only a few people across a river.

So Mahayana, which promises spiritual liberation to both monks and ordinary people is called greater vehicle because it can help a large number of people in attaining enlightenment. On the other hand, Hinayana which calls for strict discipline cannot be practiced by ordinary people can only carry fewer people towards enlightenment.

It is to be noted that here lesser and greater are not to be understood in terms of inferior and superior though rival schools do this name calling.

Ok, but what about Theravada ? Isn’t same as Hinayana ? The answer is no. Theravada is also called “southern Buddhism” as it was the form that developed in souther part of the Indian subcontinent, primarliy Sri Lanka. Quoting from Urbandhadharma  ” We must not confuse Hinayana with Theravada because the terms are not synonymous. Theravada Buddhism went to Sri Lanka during the 3rd Century B.C. when there was no Mahayana at all. Hinayana sects developed in India and had an existence independent from the form of Buddhism existing in Sri Lanka. “

 

Bodhisattva

A BODHISATTVA IS an ordinary person who takes up a course in his or her life that moves in the direction of buddha. You’re a bodhisattva, I’m a bodhisattva; actually, anyone who directs their attention, their life, to practicing the way of life of a buddha is a bodhisattva. The Mahayana has conceived them as having renounced the ultimate state out of pure compassion towards all beings, and can therefore refers to anyone en route. In non-Mahayana Buddhism, it usually refers either to Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, or to the historical Buddha Gautama prior to his enlightenment.

 

The four major events

Stupa, wheels, bodhi tree, horses and lotus. Do these remind you of anything ? These are prominent in Buddhist art and architecture. Actually they resemble four major events of Buddha’s life.

1. The great renunciation (Mahabhinishkramana) – Buddha leaving his home, family and kingdom in search of truth. This is symbolised by a horse.

2. Enlightenment (Nirvana) – Buddha attaining enlightenment under the tree in Bodh Gaya. This is symbolised by a bodhi tree.

3. Dhammachakraparivartan – This was Buddha giving his first sermon in Deer Park close to Varanasi. This is symbolised by a wheel.

4. Mahaparinirvana – Buddha’s death. This is symbolised by a stupa. Essentially, stupa is a mound.

Ok, but what is the lotus for ? Some scholars add a fifth event – Buddha’s birth which is symbolised by a lotus. Also to be noted is that before the Mathura school of art, Buddha was never represented in human form.


Mudras in Buddhism

The various hand gestures of Buddha are called mudras. Different gestures signify different meanings. UPSC asked about bhumisparsha mudra in 2012. However preparing all mudras would be a time consuming task. Nevertheless, you can have a look at the various mudras along with their meanings  here.

 

Buddhist Literary Texts – Tripitakas

Tripitakas ( three baskets ) comprises the three main categories of texts that make up the Buddhist canon
1. Vinaya-pitaka – contains the rules of communal life for monks and nuns
2. Sutta-pitaka – collection of sermons of the Buddha
3. Abhidhamma-pitaka – contains interpretations and analyses of Buddhist concept

 

Buddhist Councils

Buddhist Council

 

Two other councils were held, but they do not seem to be important from exam point of view. Ending the post with a quote from Buddha “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”

Please read these two important articles about UPSC prelims preparation –

1. How UPSC asks current affairs in GS Prelims

2. How to practice prelims MCQs for UPSC
Self Study IAS’s GS Prelims Mock Test Series 2015 ( 10 full length mock tests @ RS 500 only). For details, click HERE.

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