Life of the Buddha

History Channel Buddhism

A short history of eastern religion and the development of Hindu and Buddhist scriptures.

Three major river systems pass through the northern plains of India. The warm climate, rich soil, and annual flooding all combined to make this region an attractive place for early agricultural communities to begin settling around 5000 BC. The first cities in the region appeared around the Indus River Valley in the north west of India around 3000 BC, and by 2500 BC they were using bronze tools and weapons.

Some time around 1500 BC, Indian civilization was overtaken by an invasion of pastoral nomads from around the Caspian Sea, north of Persia. These people continued to flood into the region over several hundred years, conquering and settling among the native people. Hinduism developed as the religious beliefs of the native people merged with those brought to India by the new arrivals.

The new arrivals claimed racial superiority to the darker skinned natives, but their warlike ways resulted in a less stable society. In order to deal with the racial tensions, priests divided the population into a number of castes which were decided along the lines of race and color. Intermarriage between the different castes was forbidden. You were restricted to live your life and do the work expected for the caste you were born into.

The highest caste were the Hindu priests, who maintained their position by controlling all of the religious beliefs and customs. These were followed by the warriors, the farmers and merchants, and the servants and laborers. The lowest caste were the war captives and slaves, whose status was so low that their mere shadow would supposedly defile a priest.

To maintain the caste system, the Hindu priests invented the idea of reincarnation. A persons behavior would be rewarded or punished with good or bad karma. After death, the persons soul would be reborn into a higher or lower caste depending on their accumulation of karma. By accepting ones place in society, and through devotion to duty, a person could supposedly increase their chance of reaching a higher caste in their next incarnation.

By around 800 BC, the essentials of Hinduism had been preserved in writing as a collection of prayers, hymns, and rituals known as the Vedas (meaning knowledge). These writings reveal the gradual development of Hindu religious ideas.

Early writings were full of praise for many different gods. These gods represented the forces of nature and the various aspects of humanity. Later writings introduced the concept of a single universal god. This contradiction was solved by saying that the old gods simply reflected different characteristics of the one universal god. But many people still preferred to worship the old gods. The Vedas say ...

Who knows the truth? Who can tell how and from where this universe came into existence? If the gods themselves came after its creation, then who can know from where it all began? Perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not. The highest god who looks down from the highest heaven, only he knows, or perhaps he does not know.

A second collection of writings, called the Upanishads (which means “sitting at the feet of the master”), was written over the centuries that followed...

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