Land of the Rose Apple
Although the Dharma is a direct outcome of the Buddha's own understanding,
the form in which it was proclaimed to the world was, of course,
very much influenced by the culture in which the Buddha lived.
Therefore, some understanding of this culture will help to give
a better understanding of the Dharma.
India is a huge, wedge-shaped subcontinent with the Arabian Sea
to its west, the Andaman Sea to its east and the snowy peaks of
the Himalayas to its north. In ancient times it was known as the
land of the Rose Apple (Jambudipa). The Buddha was born
and lived all his life in north-central India in the area known
then as the Middle Land (Majjhima Desa), so called because
it was believed to be, by the people who lived there, the centre
of the earth. The whole area consists of a vast, flat, fertile
plain through which flow two great rivers, the Ganges and the
Yamuna, and many smaller rivers. There are three seasons - summer,
when the temperature can reach as high as 40°; the rainy season,
when the rivers flood and travel becomes difficult; and the winter,
when the days can be pleasant but the nights can be freezing.
In the Buddha's time, large areas of northern India were covered
by jungle and the people who lived in the many villages that bordered
the jungles often encountered lions, elephants, deer, rhinoceros
and other wild animals.
population of this northern part of India was much smaller than
it is today; there was plenty of arable land for farming and most
people had more than enough to eat. Even very poor farmers could
supplement their diet or income by hunting wild animals and collecting
the abundant fruits that the forests provided.
The India the Buddha knew was not a single political unit but
rather a collection of independent countries, often vying with
each other for supremacy. The largest and most powerful of these
countries was the kingdom of Magadha, which during most of the
Buddha's life was ruled by King Bimbasara, a strong and effective
ruler who took a great interest in religion. The capital of Magadha
was Rajagaha (The King's Abode) which nestled amongst rugged hills
and was protected by massive stone walls, the remains of which
can still be seen today. A short time after the Buddha's final
Nirvana, Magadha shifted its capital from Rajagaha to Pataligama,
later to be called Pataliputta and today called Patna, and within
a hundred and fifty years had conquered nearly all of India. Directly
north of Magadha and separated from it by the Ganges River was
the Vajjian Confederacy. The Vajjian Confederacy was made up of
several tribes, two of which were called the Licchavies and the
Videhas, who had united to protect themselves from their powerful
neighbour in the south. The Licchavies were the most important
tribe in the Confederacy and their chief city Vesali was the de
facto capital of the Confederacy.
the western border of the Vajjian Confederacy was Malla, a small
tribal republic divided into two parts, one with its capital at
Kusinara and the other with its capital at Pava.
of Malla were the two small semi-independent republics of the
Sakyans and the Koliyans with their capitals at Kapilavatthu and
Devadaha respectively. These and the other tribal states were
not ruled by kings but by councils made up of the leading citizens,
not unlike those that ruled the ancient Greek city-states. The
councils would meet regularly and everyone was free to speak their
of Magadha was Kosala, the second largest and most powerful country
of the time. During most of the Buddha's life Kosala was ruled
by King Pasenadi from his capital at Savatthi. Kosala exercised
a great deal of influence over the Sakyans. South-east of Kosala
was Vamsa with its capital at Kosambi on the Yamuna River. During
much of the Buddha's time Vamsa was ruled by King Udena.
The 5th century B.C.E. was a period of transition. Old tribal
republics were breaking up under the impact of predatory and autocratic
kingdoms like Kosala and Magadha. Cities were becoming larger
and more sophisticated, and people were leaving their villages
and farms and flocking to Kosambi, Savatthi, Rajagaha and other
Indian society was divided very sharply by the caste system (catuvana).
The caste that people were born into determined what work they
did, their status in society, who they married, where they lived
and who they ate with, in fact almost every aspect of their lives.
The highest caste were the Brahmins, who were the hereditary priests
of Brahminism, the educators and the scholars. Below them were
the Khattiyas, the warrior caste, who were rulers, administrators
and soldiers. The next caste were the Vessa, the merchants, traders
and artisans. At the bottom of the caste system were the Sudas,
who worked as farmers, labourers and menial workers. Outside the
caste system were the Candalas, the outcastes, who were considered
beyond the pale of civilised society and whose touch was considered
to be polluting. They lived on the outskirts of towns and villages,
and were compelled to do degrading jobs like collecting rubbish,
removing dead bodies, tanning and sweeping the streets. The caste
system gave society a great deal of stability but it made social
change and mobility almost impossible and it also engendered a
great deal of cruelty towards lower castes and outcastes.
the caste system was only a social institution but later it was
integrated into Brahminism and given religious sanction, and most
Brahminical and Hindu literature accepts the caste system as having
been ordained by God.
Writing was known at the Buddha's time but it was not widely used.
The reason for this was that India had long before perfected ways
of committing literature to memory and passing it on with such
accuracy that writing was simply not necessary. The Vedas, the
sacred hymns of Brahminism, had been composed nearly a millennium
before the Buddha, and indeed were not written down for many centuries
after his final Nirvana, and yet they were faithfully preserved.
Songs, legends, histories, sacred texts and large amounts of other
literature that formed a part of the culture of the day were all
The prevailing religion in India during the Buddha's time was
Brahminism, not Hinduism as is commonly supposed - Hinduism being
an amalgamation of Brahminism, Buddhism and various folk cults
which developed only many centuries after the Buddha. Brahminism
believed in a supreme creator god named Brahma and many lesser
gods like Aggi, the god of fire, Indra, the king of gods, Yama,
the king of the underworld, Suriya, the god of the sun, and so
on. These gods were propitiated with sacrifices (yaga)
which were thrown into the ritual fire and were then believed
to be taken to heaven in the smoke. Ordinary folk might make small
sacrifices of grain or ghee, but the wealthy or royalty would
sometimes sacrifice large numbers of animals, usually cows but
occasionally even human beings. Sacrifices were very complex affairs
and it was believed that they would bring down the blessings from
the gods only if they were performed absolutely correctly. Only
the Brahmins, the hereditary priests knew how to perform the sacrificial
rituals correctly, a knowledge that they jealously guarded, and
they expected to be well paid for their services. As a result
of this, Brahmins had a well-earned reputation for greed and avarice.
Another important practice in Brahminism was ritual bathing. It
was believed that if a person did evil it could be cleansed or
washed away by bathing in certain sacred rivers, the most popular
of which was the Ganges.
By the Buddha's time, there was widespread dissatisfaction with
Brahminism and many people, including many Brahmin intellectuals,
were becoming interested in new religious ideas. Parallel to Brahminism
and much older was the tradition of unorthodox ascetic teachers
(samana) who were beginning to attract increasing interest.
The most famous of these ascetics was Nataputta, known to his
disciples by the title Mahavira Jain (the Victorious Great Hero).
His followers were known as the Bond-Free Ones (Nigantha)
and the religion he founded came to be known as Jainism. Nataputta
was an older contemporary of the Buddha and already had many disciples
by the time Buddhism began. Another important group of ascetics
were the Ajivikas, founded by Makkhali Gossala. Ajivika ascetics
went naked and taught that being good by refraining from evil
was useless because everyone would eventually find salvation through
the process of transmigration just as a ball of twine rolling
along the ground will eventually unwind. The Ajivikas had many
influential followers and supporters but the Buddha criticised
them as the worst of all ascetics. Some of the other well known
teachers of the time were Ajita of the hair blanket, Purana Kassapa,
Pakudha Kaccayana and Sanjaya Belatthiputta, all of whose religions
lasted only a few centuries and then petered out.