Buddha in a Historical Context


Within a hundred years of the Buddha’s life, an extraordinary number of the greatest minds lived almost concurrently. The influence of their ideas extends to this day. In China, Confucius and Lao Tzu, the summits of Chinese savants, presented their political and social views. In India, Mahavira taught a path that was to become Jainism. In Europe and Asia, diverse philosophers, including Socrates, Plato, Paramiedis, Pythagoras, and Parmenides, expressed remarkable insights to form the foundation of western philosophical thinking. No other time in history compares to this level of creative spiritual richness.

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The Historical Perspective - From the Indus Valley People to the Time of the Buddha

The Indus Valley Civilisation was one of the earliest advanced societies in history. As a Bronze Age civilisation, it flourished from 3300 to 1300 BC. Centred around the Indus River basin and extending into (what is now) Pakistan, the prime phase of this civilisation is known as the Harappan Period (2600-1900 BC). Harappa was the first of several ancient cities to be excavated in the 1920s, revealing a sophisticated and technologically advanced urban culture emphasising town planning and a high priority on hygiene that included the first-known urban sanitation system.

Indus Valley trade extended to Afghanistan, Persia, western India and Mesopotamia. Many artistically impressive Harappa seals emerged in the Arabian Gulf region, attesting to significant scientific knowledge and exceptional artistic skills. The unique Harappan script still presents a problem to decipherers.
In the Middle to Late Bronze Age (1800-1500 BC), the Indus Valley was invaded from the northwest and conquered by nomadic light-skinned Indo-European (Aryan) tribes from Eastern Europe. A period of decline followed, the cause of which could have been a disaster or a direct result of the Aryan invasion. The Aryans soon became dominant. A new culture emerged in India during 1500-600 BC, known as the Vedic Period. At this time, the Vedas, the oldest sacred texts of the Indo-Aryans, were composed. The Vedic Civilisation flourished in the region that now comprises the states of Haryana and Punjab. The emergence of agriculture marked the transition from the early to the later Vedic period as the dominant economic force. The increasing importance of land and its protection gave birth to diverse kingdoms. Vedic religious and spiritual thought is the precursor to modern Hinduism.

Map of ancient India at the time of the Aryan invasion.

Map of the Harappa region.

Harappa ruins at Mohenjo Daro.

Harappa gold coin detail.

Aryan Warriors artifactThe Aryan people, in all probability, originated from the vast steppe region of Eurasia, stretching from Hungary to Mongolia. They were highly mobile nomads, and their rapid expansion is strongly associated with horse training and chariot building skills. The Aryan religion followed the ancient Greek pantheon. Gods were personifications of natural phenomena such as thunder, lightning, fire and water. The priest was the pre-eminent figure in society conducting ritual sacrifices seen as communication with the gods. Heaven resembled a kind of perfected world. Society’s emphasis was on family and progeny, especially on sons. Loyalty was towards the group, not the individual. The cohesion of the tribe was all-important. Power, wealth and progress were central to the Aryan view. Society resembled a strict caste system. Belief in authority was absolute. The Vedas represented books of infallible revelation.

Marappa HeadThe Indus Valley society was sedentary, urban and agricultural, communicating an advanced script, as yet not decoded. The culture had a profoundly spiritual emphasis. There is archeological evidence of meditation, mind training, and yoga practice. Symbols now associated with Buddhism appear on artefacts, including the pipal tree, elephant, deer and swastika. Society appreciated mathematics, science, detailed urban planning and architecture. The absence of a caste system and books of doctrine encouraged personal freedom. Existence extended beyond death. People’s actions were mindful of karma, and the spiritual goal was liberation from the birth/rebirth cycle. Renunciation was valued, and wandering ascetics were respected. There was no emphasis on progeny. Trade rather than military strength supported the economy. Excavations have not yet revealed any indications of warfare or weapons that may have been used.

Ancient Indian ArtOnce the Aryan expansion came to an end, significant social, economic and political changes followed. The two opposing cultures merged somewhat. For the Aryans, life changed to a more sedentary, agricultural and urban existence. In time commerce flourished, and the merchant class became powerful. Raw tribal influences diminished, and territorial states began to emerge. Over time the Aryan energy and the spiritual ideas of the Indus Valley people married into the heterogeneous Vedic Culture that lasted over a thousand years.
The origins of Buddhism probably have their roots in the Indus Valley civilisation. These roots are not an off-shoot of Hinduism or a protest against Hinduism, as is sometimes stated.

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