The Ten Avataras 9

A Psychological Study of the Evolution of Humankind

Swami Satyadharma Saraswati


The advent of Lord Buddha around 500 BC is symbolic of the compromise between Brahmanism and Buddhism. Buddha came to emphasise the value of non-violence which society had lost sight of. This quality was evident from his early youth, when he refused to give up the swan shot down by his cousin, Devadatta, which fell at his feet. He said that as the swan had come to him, it was his duty to protect it.

From the buddhi-manas stage of mental development, represented by Lord Krishna, man enters the state of pure buddhi, the higher mind in communion with the atman. Renunciation is a natural outcome of this stage of development and results in the upliftment of all beings. Non-violence is a quality of buddhi. When this stage is reached, there is no battle to be waged. It is a state of perfect surrender to the all-pervading Lord that enables one to be one with Him and thus free from fear of all other beings. Buddha, as the personification of buddhi, does not wage war without, but carries the conviction of spiritual vision and unity within.

We are presently living in the period of Buddha avatara, awaiting the appearance of Kalki. In every age there is a need for fresh guidance, a new discovery of the eternal truths and values. At the time of Buddha, there were 84 major philosophical and religious schools, offering perplexing and contradictory views. Those aspirants who were really interested in spirituality were totally confused by all these views and unable to decide which way to turn for the light. Apart from philosophy, ritual was also firmly established at this time. People believed that as long as sacrifice was performed, they could live in any manner and still attain spiritual heights because they would be absolved of their sins. The Buddha reminded people that rituals were not intended to lead to enlightenment.

However, the ordinary people of that time followed no ritual or religion, but believed that life was meant for enjoyment and seeking pleasure. The other extreme was excessive austerity and self-mortification. Buddha found both of these paths ignoble and advised that one must take the middle path that lay between these extremes. So the times warranted a new approach in between worldly interest and spiritual interest.

Buddha was born the son of Shuddhodana, a kshatriya king and member of the Gautama clan of the Sakya tribe. Hence, he is often called Gautama or Sakyamuni. His name at birth was Siddhartha and his mother was Mayadevi. Before his birth, it was prophesied that the child would be either a great king or a great Buddha (wise one), a fact later confirmed when the infant was found to have all the 32 major marks of greatness on his body. Siddhartha’s father, remembering the prophecy, feared that his son might become an ascetic and leave the kingdom. So he gave orders that all evidence of suffering, disease, old age and death should be hidden from the boy.

One day, however, Siddhartha went out into the streets and saw an old man bent with age, and was struck with sorrow to think that all things, if they live, must come to this stage of decrepitude. On another occasion he saw a sick person and pondered the problem of disease and suffering. The sight of a corpse on yet another occasion led him to reflect on the end of life and the misery of existence. These sights were followed by that of a tranquil ascetic with a begging bowl, setting out to learn wisdom, which marked the beginning of his renunciation. While he sat reflecting on these four signs, the news was brought to him of the birth of his first child, a son, after eight years of marriage. His reply to the news bearer was, “Here is yet another bond to break.” He named his son Rahaul, meaning ‘fetter’.

Six days later, he left his home in the night, exchanged his royal garments for the clothes of a beggar, and proceeded to the forest. There he began to practise austerities on his own, but soon felt that without direction he could not progress. So he went to two teachers: Aradhiklama, a Samkhya teacher, and Rudraka Ramaputra, a yoga teacher. Siddhartha spent some time with each teacher and then left, feeling dissatisfied with both. He entered the Urubilva forest and practised severe austerities together with five other monks for seven years. At the end of this period his body was reduced to skin and bone and he could not go even four steps without falling down.

When he realised that the life was going out of him, and he might die without realising the goal, he decided that austerity was not the way. At that point a milkmaid passing by offered him a bowl of milk rice. He ate that and gained enough strength to move to a seat under the bodhi tree in Gaya, a town within the Urubilva region. There he made the resolution that: “I shall not get up from this seat, even if my bones wither away and my skin drops off, without reaching the goal that I seek.” And with that he entered directly into the highest state of meditation. This was the crowning achievement of his life and gave him the direct liberating vision that made him the Buddha.

Later, during his first sermon in the Deer Park at Sarnath, outside Kashi, the Buddha recounted what this experience was to the five monks with whom he had begun his austerities in the Urubilva, thus setting in motion the wheel of Dharma. The five monks who listened were enlightened the moment they heard it and became Buddhas in their own right. So these six Buddhas formed the nucleus of the Sangha. After that, as the Buddha went from place to place, people gathered around him and a small monastic community grew up. People left their homes to join him, to practise meditation under his guidance. They lived in forest retreats, going to the villages only to beg for food.

When the group of monks became too large and unwieldy, the Buddha called them all together at a cross-roads and gave them the following mandate: “Now go forth upon these four roads. Let each one go his own way alone. Let no two bhikhus stay together in the same place. Move about in all the four directions. Walk this path for the welfare of many, to relieve mankind of suffering. Allow nothing to bind you. Keep the way of enlightenment ever in your mind.”

At the end of his life, when he was about 80 years of age, the Buddha was walking in the Kushinara jungle. Feeling a stomach ache, he laid down on his side beneath a tree. After calling all his disciples, who were nearby, he gave his parting message: “All things that are composite are liable to decay. Therefore, work for your salvation with diligence and awareness. May each one of you be a light unto yourself. Depend entirely upon yourself. Strive to be totally self-reliant.”

Buddha always insisted that the path to enlightenment is a narrow path where only one can go. Therefore, each one must walk it alone. Ultimately, even the teacher cannot accompany the disciple. The teacher’s job is over when he shows the way. The Buddha came just to show the way. Each one has to walk the path for themselves.

The Buddha’s teachings were not regarded as anything new or heretical in his own time, but as a part of the Dharma which is eternally relevant. What he taught was the middle path as a means of removing suffering and attaining liberation. Historically, Buddhism did not become a separate religion until the 2nd century AD, 700 years later. Before then, it was an integral part of the Sanatana or eternal culture.

Concluded in the next issue