The Buddha was born in a religiously rich environment: India. India is still considered today one of the most religious places in the world. We must understand that Buddhism was originally an Indian religion. The Buddha tried to solve problems that were present in Indian religious thought at the time. He wasn’t isolated trying to achieve enlightenment as we might want to think. He was really influenced by his environment. To really understand the teachings of the Buddha, we must know his background, we must understand the problems he was attempting to solve.
To understand the religious history of India, we must return first to a body of texts known as the Vedas. The Vedas are a collection of hymns that date back to about fifteen hundred to one thousand years BCE. These hymns were composed in an early form of the Sanskrit language. This is a language that is closely related to Latin and Greek and to many of the languages in Europe. The people who spoke Sanskrit called themselves the Arya. Much of European civilization, like the civilization of India, is derived from the traditions of these ancient people, who might had migrated out of central Asia in the middle of the second millennium BCE and settled as far West as Ireland and as far South as India.
One of the last hymns of the Vedic collection poses what I like to think of as the classic Vedic question. This hymn asks about where we came from, where the diversity of the world arose. And the questions are taking them beyond the gods, this is rather curious for us in the Western world. Where all of this comes from? Including the diversity of the gods themselves?
This thought has a crucial influence in Buddhism. The gods are considered part of the universe. They are more powerful than us in some way, but they will also pass away.
Another point we must bear in mind is the Indian view of the afterlife and the doctrine of reincarnation. f we look back into the early Vedic literature that we talked about in other articles, the tradition particularly of the early Vedic hymns, we find that the view of the afterlife is really quite similar to the view that is found in some of the European traditions familiar to us. It is a view that probably belonged in some way to all the people who called themselves Arya and who migrated across Europe and down into India.
This view is that the people who live a virtuous life in this world, play by the rules, express themselves in some sort of heroic way, and perhaps achieve some kind of eminence, go to live to the land of the ancestors when they die. This believe persists in some aspects in Hinduism today.
Sometime during the first half of the first millennium BCE, this ancient view began to be replaced by another one. Most Indians took the position that human beings didn’t live just one life, but cycled around again and again, life after life, death after death, in a process of death and rebirth.
Sanskrit, the language of ancient India, this phenomenon is called by another word: “Samsara”. The word Samsara means simply to wander from one life to the next. And it already begins to suggest to you what emotion is associated with this idea in classical India. Here we are not talking so much about a direct, straight line, as marching from one life to another in order to achieve a particular goal. But actually the experience of wandering, as you go from one life to the next not knowing fully how it is that you got where you are, or where it is you are really going to end up.
Samsara is the most serious problem of life. Samsara is the problem of life. It is the problem to be solved. This is the problem that the Buddha tried to solve. He says that Nirvana is the solution and the end of the problem. In other articles we’ll study these concepts in more depth.