Cultural Context

SEARCH     Home     Site Map    Symbolism    Calendar     Karmapa     News    DONATE

The Cultural Context of Early Buddhism

Buddhism is usually considered to have begun over 2,500 years ago in India, when the predominant belief system derived from a complex of mythology and very ancient practices was, as it is today, a rich interweaving known to outsiders as HinduismHindu is an adjective derived from a native word for the Indus River, which also gave rise to the name for the area we call India. 

Many of the continually evolving ideas and beliefs of India are mutually exclusive, but the whole is termed Sanatana Dharma.  There is animism or a belief in nature spirits, as well as monotheism in the form of a somewhat abstract cosmic consciousness as found in the texts collectively known as Vedanta.  Animal sacrifice is still locally practiced, and extreme asceticism is widely known. 

It was widely believed, certainly by 19th-century scholars such as Max Muller who edited the collection of Sacred Books of the East, a series which had a dramatic effect upon the Judeo-Christian West, that Hinduism developed from beliefs and practices introduced by the so-called Aryans

These "Aryan" people were once thought to have migrated from somewhere in central Asia south of the Black Sea and to have conquered the established civilizations that were certainly ancient at the time of supposed invasion.  However, the theory of a so-called Indo-European invasion has lost favour.  A fair amount of exploration in the ancient Indus Valley city sites suggests that Indian culture and religion is indigenous.  That is, it has its roots in India where it continues, albeit in some decline. 


Scriptures: Sutras

The language of classical north Indian literature and hence, of one predominant branch of Buddhism derives from an Indo-European literary language called Sanskrit. It must be said that the writing that the historical Buddha may have used has not been preserved, and we do not know exactly what the language was that he actually spoke. 

As today, in ancient India there were many different languages spoken.  The area where Gautama Shakyamuni was born (somewhere in view of the Himalayas) had its local form of speech, but the early teachings come down to us in the literary languages of Sanskrit or Pali.

Southern Buddhist scriptures are written in the Pali language, for the most part. It resembles Sanskrit, but omits and blends certain sounds.  For example the Sanskrit word for "scripture" is sutra (as it is written in Latin letters) while in Pali the same word is pronounced sutta.  The group following this tradition is known as the Theravada or Way of the Elders.  It is centred in Shri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon), Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand (Siam.)   However, some of the other South Asian traditions such as those of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam also rely on the Sanskrit texts. 



The mythology of India explains the universe as the product of the consciousness of gods manifesting through the power of goddesses.  It is cyclic in nature lasting for eons of time called kalpas that comprise the lifetimes of deities of creation which endure for hundreds of thousands of years, and which are divided into ages or yugas each having specific characteristics.  For example, we are now thought to be living in the Kali Yuga, a time of dissolution and decadent activity that always precedes a new eon or kalpa.

A solar-lunar calendar is used to coordinate time for religious observances.  In other words, there are 13 months of 28 days, which are based on completed cycles of lunar phases but with respect to the entire solar cycle (a year.) This is the system used since ancient times by many other world religions, particularly for the purpose of determining the correct time to begin certain agricultural and other practices and also for rituals.


At the time of the Buddha, there was a strong belief that the universe as we know it derived its form and order from a primordial being called Purusha whose different parts, some texts explain, became people of various abilities thus giving rise to the caste system.  The family of Buddha Shakyamuni belonged to the Kshatriya caste, the class of rulers and warriors thought to be second only to that of the Brahmins or priests.  The two other castes are the Vaishyas who are merchants and craftsmen, and the Shudras who are peasants or servants of various sorts.

There were, and are still, large segments of the population who, since they were descended from the aboriginal peoples of India or who, because they performed tasks that were thought to render them either ritually or actually unclean, were outside the caste system or outcaste. Also rejected by the people of influence and power, they were rejected or outcast.  One of the positive social consequences of Buddhism was, and continues to be, the promotion of the idea of the equality of human beings.

The Buddha  was considered a political radical for permitting people of all castes to mix, to share their food and to join the religious order established by him.

Religious context

In the Hindu tradition, beings are thought to have souls that endure intact through the ages, being born, living and then dying into different states, high or low, animal, human or other depending on the consequences of their actions.  Action and its consequences are known as karma which is certainly not the same as fate. The individual self or atman is thought of as being itself divine and hence sharing in the characteristics of the universal Atman with which it desires to unite or return to at the time of death. 

Have you heard the one about the yogi  who asked the food vendor, "Can you make me one with everything"  ?

The Buddhist view is quite different from the one in the joke, since the goal is release from the wheel of rebirth entirely.

In India, the upper castes are considered twice-born. Thus Hindu boys, at various ages dependent on caste, are invested with the sacred thread to be worn over the right shoulder.  Certain means to spiritual progress are thought best suited to particular castes: the way of knowledge, jnana yoga is suitable for  Brahmins, karma yoga is suitable for "men of action", warriors, and bhakti yoga, the way of devotion, is fitting for the others.

The Sanskrit term "yoga" means "discipline" in the sense of training, deriving from the same root word which appears in the English "yoke" (such as joins oxen to a plow [plough]).  By the way, the animals that are native to India often figure in teachings and metaphors.  They include the ox or buffalo which may stand for the stubborn or untrained  mind, the monkey whose mindless chattering and playfulness stands for the random run of thoughts in our minds, and so on.

Hindu life is based on Dharma, which in this case means divine order and by extension, the duty which is thought to derive from it.  The expression Sanatana-dharma distinguishes it from Buddha-dharma.

Life is idealized as a structure of stages: As a youth, one is brahmacharya -- a celibate student obedient to the teacher or guru.  Then one should marry and raise a family.  When one’s children are able to maintain the home, one should give up other work to practice religion and finally, one should renounce the material life and become a homeless ascetic in order to devote oneself to the quest for moksha or liberation (from the wheel of rebirth.)  Buddhism has been influenced both by this model and in reaction to it, so that in some countries a stage in a monastery is almost mandatory, while in others renowned teachers are married householders.

It is important to realize that it certainly was the belief that one cannot fulfill dharma completely if one lives outside the area of the Indian sub-continent (for mythological reasons, the Indonesian island of Bali is the exception) so that Buddhism provided a solution to this problem for the many Indian people who traveled abroad or emigrated.  It is interesting to recall that for several hundred years, Buddhism was predominant as far west as Afghanistan and into Persia.


In India, when a Hindu person dies, the corpse is normally disposed of by cremation.  Burning has always served as a means to make offerings, but this practice also prevents contamination of the earth which is viewed as sacred.  Only Hindu saints are buried.  The spouse and children perform rituals deemed necessary for the spiritual benefit of the deceased, and it is thought somewhat of a tragedy if there is no heir to perform memorial prayers.

Gods and Goddesses

Many different deities are worshipped in India, as they were in the Buddha’s time.  Among those that are referred to in Buddhist scriptures are Indra, called King of the Gods, Shiva referred to as Kala, the Dark and his consort Kali who together are thought of as embodying the forces of dissolution of existence, Yama Lord of Death, and Saraswati who is goddess of culture and learning.  There are also others who appear relatively unchanged in a Buddhist context, or who appear in other guises. According to at least one Buddhist view, the 33 traditional Hindu heavens are still part of the cosmic vision.

Hinduism is not one single religion, but rather a complex of cults/sects. The three most prominent focus on Shiva whose yogic consciousness/dance is thought to maintain activity, the Great Goddess Durga, Kali or Shakti who acts to replenish, defend and protect her creation and Vishnu, champion of what is good and sustainer of creation.  

Vishnu is a god thought to incarnate in various forms called avatars.  One is the hero-king, Rama who battled the demon Ravana with the aid of Hanuman, the monkey-headed hero. But the form of Vishnu best known in the West is Krishna who is depicted as a blue flute-player and a lover of many women each of whom feels she is the only one.  This form of devotion in which love is the quality tying the deity to his devotees is known as bhakti.  

Since the Buddha is considered by many Hindus to be one of these avatars, for this and for other mythological and philosophical reasons, Buddhism has sometimes been considered an aspect of Hinduism.  But there are some important distinctions.


Hindu religious ritual consists of many traditional constituents that are employed by Buddhist practitioners. Prominent in the ancient Vedic religion rooted in early Hindu hymns is the fire sacrifice.  At one of the earliest confrontations between Buddha and the priests of the time, this ceremony served as the focus for the critical teaching concerning the impermanence of the so-called soul, but also for the manner in which rebirth can be imagined.

A fire can only be lighted from another fire, yet though the flame seems the same, it is obvious that it has been transferred.  However, no substance actually moves from place to place. Therefore, fire has an essential symbolic part to play in Buddhism, which recognizes reincarnation but without any transmigrating  soul.

Poses of the body, that is the postures (asanas) and gestures (mudras) used in meditation and prayer are similar.  They relate to the view of the organization of energy in the body and its arrangement in channels and centers or wheels known as chakras.  This tradition of is common to both systems.

Mudras are the ritual hand gestures which are used in Indian classical dance, but which also accompany various prayers.

Mantras are phrases associated with deities and/or occasions, whose significance lies not only in their meaning but in their sound.  Dharanis or seed syllables are "words of power" the most famous, employed by both Hindus and Buddhists, is Om.


There is a common iconography or language of symbolism used in sculptures and paintings, especially those employed in contemplation or as a focus for meditation and prayer.  The lotus flower, for example always represents the presence of divinity or transcendence in the everyday world.  Nevertheless, Buddhism has developed variations, details and interpretations which can vary significantly from those of Hinduism.  For example, the trident, the distinctive weapon of the Indian god, Shiva, has somewhat different connotations in the Buddhist context. And the Tibetan expression of Buddhism has elaborated on that iconography to such a degree that it has been said that Buddhism now has the richest iconographic vocabulary of any belief system ever.

Forms of devotion

The structure of devotional ritual and the order of service or sadhana is similar, as are the methods employed to achieve certain abilities.  Both use meditation and both can employ the breath in a specialized way. The poses (asanas) of hatha (physical exercise) yoga such as the cross-legged seated position with interlocked ankles known as the lotus posture may be assumed by both kinds of practitioner.

The chanting of mantras and prayers is done in both religions using a mala or string of 108 beads.  There are subtle differences however, in how the mala is held and the purposes for which the repetitions are done.

Common to both are ritual feasts that make use of substances traditionally considered as sacred, such as fire, water, grain, incense and flowers.

In "orthodox" Indian religion, there are four main forms of devotion:  Recital of scripture, ritual worship as already mentioned, personal devotion (called bhakti in Sanskrit) and tantrism which is often called yoga.  All four are also characteristic of Buddhism.


The founder of the Jain religion in this era -- there are believed to have been 22 before him -- is known as Mahavira.  He also lived in the 6th century BCE, around the same time as the historical Buddha.  This religion is noted for its dedicated approach to ahimsa: non-violence and the preservation and protection of life of all kinds.  It, too, promotes the perfectibility of human beings.  Someone who has conquered all desire and attachment is known as a Jina or Winner.  It is noted today for its charitable concerns such as the care of the sick, old and injured whether human or animal.  

Jainism is founded on the idea of the transmigration of souls determined by karma (one’s activity and its consequences) past and present.  For this reason and for reasons of observance of dharma or cosmic law, Jainism forbids absolutely the taking of any life. Besides ahimsa, there are two other principles: aparigraha: non-attachment to material things, and anekantwad: relativity, or awareness that there is always more than one way of seeing.  The famous story of 5 blind men trying to experience an elephant by means of touch is probably a Jain parable.  


Once, a group of blind men, who generally got about by holding on to each other as they cautiously shuffled through the countryside, came upon an elephant.

The first man, feeling the enormous leg, said, "This thing is very like a tree."

The second, standing near its ear reached up and said, "This is a winnowing fan!"  

"No," said a third as he grasped the moving trunk. "Be careful. This is a creature belonging to the serpent family."

"I disagree," said a voice at the other end. "It is only a frayed piece of rope".

"You are all wrong. I have felt this thing on both sides. It is nothing more than a wall."

When the Buddha was staying near Shravasti, he retold this parable to try and get a group of matted-hair ascetics living nearby to quit arguing. Each one was maintaining that he was the only right one and that everyone else was wrong.  The Buddha declared that they were only disputing among themselves out of ignorance.

Jainism teaches also, that once a person has applied ahimsa and the other principles, he or she can experience and share maitri [metta, in the Pali of Buddhist scripture] which is pure love, understanding and compassion, for all beings.

Though Jains do not emphasize the physical form and the image in ritual or art, nevertheless, it is said that the largest statue ever made is one in South India of a Jain saint, a Tirthankara [ford- or bridge-maker.]   Most often, Jaina principles are demonstrated in the abstract as expressed in diagrams and in mathematics.  The Jaina teachings, also in the form of sutras (a famous one is by the teacher whose name, Samantabhadra [boundless virtue,] also appears as one of the Buddha's disciples) promote perfectibility through asceticism, but do not abjure worldly success.   

It is its philosophy of non-violence or ahimsa, made famous by Mahatma Gandhi during the struggle for Indian independence, that comprises its major contribution to Buddhism. This has found expression today in the tactic of passive resistance for political or ecological demonstrations.

Why is Buddhism not widespread in India today?

Though traditionally the decline of the Dharma in the land of its birth is attributed to foreign incursions in the 11th century, others have found a different reason.  It may be possible to draw a parallel between the extinction of the dinosaurs and the disappearance of Buddhism in India:  There is strong evidence to show that the great saurians did not disappear but evolved into the birds. Hinduism absorbed the tenets of Buddhism to a large degree, but the rise of the caste system may have subverted its ultimate, egalitarian nature.

With the advent of democracy in India, there has been an opportunity for Buddhism as a distinct religion to re-establish itself.


usually considered:  According to the Tibetan tradition, Buddhism has been around for tens of thousands of years, at least, considering that there were other  buddhas before "historical" Buddha Shakyamuni.

"orthodox" Indian religion:  Sanatana Dharma ("Eternal Truth.")  The multitude of traditional Indian religious expression that includes a belief in Atman who can manifest as one or a variety of  gods.  The oldest scriptures are the Vedas, but certain Hindu doctrines predate those.

Aryan: It is a word that is often used to refer to a cultural complex although it was used in ancient India to mean something like "exalted" ie. noble, or of the aristocracy.  It certainly did not ever refer to superficial physical characteristics like complexion or skin color.  

Kali Yuga: Age of Conflict, also translated as Dark Age.

Home ] Up ] Next ]

[Policy for the Western World]

[ Cultural Context ] Daily Life ] Policy for the West ] Women ] Buddhist Sutras ] Refuge ] Paths ]

Copyright 1998-2018 Khandro.Net All rights reserved. This Web site is designed with Firefox as browser but should be accessible to others. However,  if you eliminate underlining in your Preferences you could miss some of our links.