Birth of Buddhism Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama, known as the Buddha, gave rise to one of the world’s major religions.

Summary of Event

Buddhism is one of the world’s major religions. The teachings known as the Four Noble Truths are generally recognized as the core of Buddhism. The first truth is that life is suffering. Suffering continues through an endless chain of rebirths. The second truth is that suffering is caused by desire. The third is that desire can be ended, and the fourth is that right living according to Buddhist precepts (known as the Eightfold Path) is the way to end desire. With the ceasing of desire, beings enter nirvana, a state of release from existence. The striving toward nirvana also involves dedication to the Three Jewels. The first jewel is Buddha himself. The second is the dharma, or “universal law,” the truth taught by Buddha. The Saṅgha, or community of monks, is the third. Buddha

The founder of Buddhism, Siddhārtha Gautama, also known as Gautama Śākyamuni, was born in the kingdom of the Śākyas in northeastern India. The most commonly accepted dates for his life are c. 566 to c. 486 b.c.e. During this period, India was in a state of rapid political, social, and economic change. By about 600 b.c.e., a number of republics and kingdoms had arisen in northern India, and settled towns became a prominent part of life. Trade with western Asia and other parts of the world contributed to the growth of merchant and artisan classes.

The development of new urban centers and new social classes led to a tendency to pose fundamental philosophical questions, and the time was rich in philosophical and religious teachers. One of those was Vardhamāna, the founder of India’s Jain religion, who lived and taught at roughly the same time as Buddha. According to Vardhamāna, the universe works according to an eternal law and everything in the universe has a soul. The purpose of living, in Jainism, is the purification of the soul in order to release the soul from the body. Although there are important differences between Jainism and Buddhism, there are also similarities, such as the idea of universal law, adherence to the principle of nonviolence, and the view of life as a movement toward release. These similarities suggest some of the ideas that were current at the time of the birth of Buddhism.

The details of the life of Siddhārtha Gautama are based on tradition because the first written accounts of his life and actions date from about two hundred years after his death. Siddhārtha is said to have been a prince. At his birth, the Brahmans, or priests, at his father’s court foretold that the prince would either become a world-conquering monarch or a Buddha, which means “awakened one” or “enlightened one” in the classical Indian language of Sanskrit. Wishing to keep his son from taking up the life of a holy man, King Śuddhodana attempted to surround the child with luxury and comfort. Nevertheless, as a young man, Gautama saw old age, sickness, and death, which convinced him of the misery of the world. He also saw a wandering holy man and was inspired to leave home to seek wisdom.

For a time, Gautama starved himself and followed a regimen of extreme asceticism and self-mortification. He decided that his self-imposed suffering would not lead him to enlightenment, and he began to live in a more moderate manner. One morning, he sat down under an banyan tree, and according to Buddhist teaching, he vowed not to rise until he had achieved enlightenment. After struggles with the evil spirit Mara, the lord of passion, Gautama realized the truth about existence.

Buddha, as he had become, meditated on his realization for several weeks and then began to teach others. He preached his first sermon at the Deer Park in Sārnāth, about five miles from modern Banāras. As a result of this sermon, Buddha attracted his first five disciples, and these were followed by others. The full-time disciples of Buddha became monks and were known as the Saṅgha, which means “community” or “order.”

At the age of eighty, Buddha became sick and died. About a year later, the First Buddhist Council took place and, in the absence of the founder of the religion, Buddhism split into four factions. At this time, a book of Buddha’s teachings and a book on monastic discipline were written down. Monks traveled about spreading the religion, and monasteries were established in various places. These monasteries contributed to the spread of literacy and the growth of education because they became centers for teaching.

Part of the appeal of Buddhism lay in its rejection of the caste system of ancient India. The established Indian religion, which much later became known as Hinduism, taught that relations among people should be based on a social hierarchy of birth, and that social position was a result of deeds in past lives. Buddhists accepted men and women from all social ranks as monks and nuns. While Buddha was alive, he taught in the popular language of Magadhi, rather than in classical Sanskrit, so that he could be understood by the common people. This relative egalitarianism, another trait that Buddhism shared with Jainism, attracted people from the lower castes and people from the merchant class, who lacked social prestige to match their economic power.

Early Buddhism also denied other aspects of the faith of India’s Brahman priest caste. The Buddhists rejected the authority of the Vedas, the sacred writing of the Brahmans, and they attached no value to Brahman sacred rituals. Animal sacrifices, a central practice of the established religion of ancient India, were contrary to the teachings of both Buddhism and Jainism. Despite this turning away from the ruling religion, though, early Buddhism tended to be open to influences from popular beliefs. Reverence for funeral mounds and tree worship were among the originally non-Buddhist cults that were accepted by Buddhists and were incorporated as Buddhist religious practices. Although Buddhism did not require belief in a god or gods, it also did not reject the existence of deities or other supernatural beings. Spirits, heaven and hell, and divine beings therefore became part of popular Buddhism in many locations, and the religion’s ability to absorb different traditions contributed to its spread.

A second Buddhist council was held about a century after Buddha’s death. At this meeting, known as the Council of Veśālī, the different approaches to Buddhism began to develop into the split that would gradually lead to the develop of the two major sects or schools of Buddhism, Theravāda (also called Hīnayāna) and Mahāyāna. The primary difference between these was that Theravāda Buddhism emphasized the importance of an individual’s own efforts in striving toward nirvana, while Mahāyāna Buddhism gave more emphasis to the ability of beings who had already achieved enlightenment to make salvation possible for others.

In the fourth century b.c.e., the rulers of the Mauryan Dynasty united much of northern India in a single empire. The Mauryan emperor Aśoka, who ruled from c. 273/265 to 238 b.c.e., supported the Buddhist teachings and became the ideal of the Buddhist king. Some historical accounts report that during Aśoka’s reign, a Third Buddhist Council was convened at Pataliputra in 250. Soon afterward, Buddhist missionaries traveled to countries outside of India, possibly as a result of policies set at Pataliputra.


Although Buddhism largely disappeared in India by about 700 c.e., elements of Buddhism were absorbed into Hinduism. However, different versions of the faith preached by Siddhārtha Gautama spread throughout other parts of Asia. In 251 b.c.e., Aśoka’s son Mahinda went to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as a Buddhist missionary. Theravāda Buddhism would later spread from Ceylon to the Southeast Asian lands of Burma (Myanmar), Siam (Thailand), Laos, and Cambodia. Buddhism entered China about 61 c.e., and Mahāyāna Buddhism became one of the dominant religions in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. During the fifth to the seventh centuries c.e., another major school, known as Vajrayāna Buddhism, developed in eastern India and became the faith of Nepal and Tibet.

Buddhist statues and painting became central to the arts in these lands. Monasteries became fundamental social institutions throughout Asia. Political ideas, such as views on the nature of kingship, were often based on concepts of the Buddhist ruler.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Armstrong, Karen. Buddha. New York: Viking, 2001. A short, well-written biography of Buddha and introduction to his teachings. Glossary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keay, John. India: A History. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000. A general history of India that places the birth of Buddhism in its social and historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lopez, Donald S. The Story of Buddhism: A Concise Guide to Its History and Teachings. Harper San Francisco, 2001. A short history of the origins and transformations of Buddhism. Pronunciation guide, bibliography, glossary, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nelson, Walter H. Buddha: His Life and Teaching. Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 2000. An introduction to the basic teachings of Buddha. Glossary, bibliography, index.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Aśoka; Bodhidharma; Buddha; Faxian. Buddhism

Categories: History