the world of buddha -- 3/21/16

Today's selection -- from Buddha by Karen Armstrong. In the sixth century BCE, when Siddhartha Gautama (better know as Buddha) began his life of teaching a new way, the stresses of rapid urbanization were making the ancient religion of the brahmins seem increasingly out of place:

"In the sixth century B.C.E, power was passing from the old partnership of King and Temple to the merchants, who were developing a different kind of economy. These social changes certainly contributed to the spiritual rev­olution, even if they cannot fully explain it. The market econ­omy also undermined the status quo: merchants could no longer defer obediently to the priests and aristocracy. They had to rely on themselves and be prepared to be ruthless in busi­ness. A new urban class was coming into being, and it was powerful, thrusting, ambitious and determined to take its des­tiny into its own hands. It was clearly in tune with the newly emerging spiritual ethos. The plain around the river Ganges in North India, like the other Axial regions, was undergoing this economic transformation during [Buddha]'s lifetime. ...

"Six great cities became centers of trade and industry: Savatthi, Saketa, Kosambi, Varanasi, Rajagaha and Champa, and were linked by new trade routes. The cities were exciting places: their streets were crowded with brilliantly painted carriages, huge elephants carried merchandise to and from distant lands, and there was gambling, theater, dancing, prostitution and a rowdy tavern life, much of which shocked the people of the nearby villages. Merchants from all parts of India and from all castes mingled in the marketplace, and there was lively dis­cussion of the new philosophical ideas in the streets, the city hall and the luxurious parks in the suburbs. The cities were dominated by the new men -- merchants, businessmen and bankers -- who no longer fit easily into the old caste system and were beginning to challenge the brahmins and ksatriyas. This was all disturbing but invigorating. Urban dwellers felt at the cutting edge of change.

Gautama Buddha

"Many were disturbed by the violence and ruthlessness of the new society, where kings could force their will upon the people, where the economy was fueled by greed, and where bankers and merchants, locked in aggressive competition, preyed upon one another. The traditional values seemed to be crumbling, a familiar way of life was disappearing, and the or­der that was taking its place was frightening and alien. It was no wonder that so many people felt life was dukkha, a word usually translated as 'suffering,' but whose meaning is better conveyed by such terms as 'unsatisfactory,' 'flawed,' and 'awry.'

In this changing society, the ancient ?ryan religion of the brahmins seemed increasingly out of place. The old rituals had suited a settled rural community, but were beginning to seem cumbersome and archaic in the more mobile world of the cities. Merchants were constantly on the road and could not keep the fires burning, nor could they observe the uposatha days. Since these new men fit less and less easily into the caste system, many of them felt that they had been pushed into a spiritual vacuum. Animal sacrifice had made sense when stockbreeding had been the basis of the economy, but the new kingdoms depended upon agricultural crops. Cattle were becoming scarce and sacrifice seemed wasteful and cruel -- too reminiscent of the violence that now characterized so much of public life."


Karen Armstrong




Penguin Books


Copyright Karen Armstrong, 2001


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