We’ve been talking about Vedas and its constituents and principles and substantial matters related to it in our previous entry. So let us start this piece on a lighter note with a bit of a story.
Once upon a time, 563 BC if we want to be precise, a prince was born to a kingdom residing in a place called Lumbini in Nepal. Born in a Shakya clan, he was named Siddhartha Gautam, and was in line to be the next king, a successor to his father. During his birthing celebrations, it was foretold by a hermit that he would grow up to be either a great king or a great religious leader. Fearing that his son would take the latter path, King Sudhodana, Siddhartha Gautam’s father tried his best to seclude his son hoping he would not be exposed to anything that would make him question life and values.
So the prince grew up confined in his castle and in great luxury, and at the age of 16, he was married to his cousin, Yashodhara, arranged by both of their families, which was customary for that time.
It was when he was 29 years old, that the prince decided that he had to satisfy his curiosity about what exactly was the world like outside the walls of his castle. He asked a Channa (a charioteer) to take him out on a stroll to his countryside. On this journey of his, throughout a series of events, he would come face to face with the reality of life and suffering that would change the course of not only his life but whole of human history.
He first encountered an aged man, and after questioning his charioteer learned that aging and growing helpless was an inevitable part of life. Afterward, in a series of events, he saw a diseased person, a funeral procession, and a religious ascetic person. Through his charioteer, he found out that just like the people he caught sight of, he and everybody else in this world are also prone to sickness, death and could lose everything he loved in no time. When he queried about why despite having no possession of his own the ascetic looked content, he was told that the ascetic had come to terms with the sufferings of the world, recognized the worldly trappings and illusions for what they were, and was in a spiritual path, unconcerned with loss as he had already given everything away.
Upon arrival at his home, the prince could not shake what we encountered during the day from his brain. His mind constantly went back to reflect on the events. One night after a celebration in his palace when everybody had fallen asleep he wandered through the palace alone. He took insight of all the luxuries and sprawled musicians and dancers and realized how all of this could be taken away from him. He realized that desire was the root of all pain.
And above all, as Siddhartha grew up in a Vedic society which had the concept of Samsara deeply ingrained, there was this cycle of Samsara that would ensure that people go through all this inevitable pain and suffering in each life. It was then that he accepted that he could no longer be content by living his life as a prince. That very night he stepped out of the palace and started his journey to self-reflection and search for the route to liberation from Samsara.
At the same time, although the Indian subcontinent was still deeply rooted in the Vedic tradition, there was another movement that had also grown, known as the Sramana movement. Sramana (which means seeker) was a movement that started to grow around 800-600 BCE in the Indian Subcontinent in which some sections of society had started taking a more austere path to attain spiritual freedom, rejecting the authority and rituals of the Brahmins. Some of the austere measures would include absolute renunciation of marriage, family, and abstention from various indulgences. So, Siddhartha also followed this Sramana movement to pursue the possible escape route from the Samsara.
At first, Siddhartha took the path of extreme austerity. However, as he got really emaciated and felt that he was almost close to death, he realized that the extreme path could not be the path towards liberation from Samsara.
So, he gave up on this idea of the extreme path and decided to meditate under a tree. And it was there he finally realized why he had failed to get rid of all his desires, despite following the path of renunciation and extreme austerity. The desire to get rid of desires was subsequently also a form of desire itself. As this insight grew upon him, he was able to get rid of all his desires and was finally able to reach a state of ecstasy and attain enlightenment. Upon this attainment of enlightenment, in his mid-thirties, the entitled prince – Siddhartha Gautam became the Buddha.
Buddha discovered that the escape route from the never-ending samsara was to follow what is known as the Middle Path. Buddha advised his followers to avoid both the extremes in life, a life full of pleasure, lusts, and indulgence, and a life full of self-torture. Buddha also preached about the Four Noble Truths to attain a life of eternal peace and joy: All life is permeated with suffering. The cause of suffering is desire. Desire can be eliminated. And the way to eliminate it is to follow the Eightfold Path. With the Eightfold Path being right belief, right resolve, right speech, right behavior, right occupation, right effort, right contemplation, right concentration.
Although Buddha passed away at the age of eighty, the teachings he delivered transformed into a religion that spread throughout Asia and eventually extended worldwide. Buddhism is as much a philosophy as it is a religion, and it requires less of beliefs and more of practice, a contradiction to most of the religions in our world. In that sense, the feasibility and practicality of the teachings of Buddha is pertinent to everyone in every aspect of today’s world. One could be totally agnostic or even atheist and still seek the spiritual path from the practices of Buddhism. Or one could just apply the teachings of Buddhism in a normal day to day life to lead a life with less conflicts and violence, more peace and more balance.
In fact, I personally believe that the teachings of Buddha, and especially his takes on desire, are even more pertinent in today’s world. In an already materialistic world that our generation inherited, new technologies like the internet and social media have meant even more exposure to materialism, which has in turn meant even more surge of our desires. Be it the desire to get the latest new version cell phone or to mark off the latest most common social media bucket list, we are more than ever dictated by our never-ending desires. And the very nature of desires being never-ending, and our failure to fulfill those desires has meant that we are falling even more into the pool of constant craving and dissatisfaction, with occasional extreme highs at the fulfillment of those cravings, again followed by the fall. While the debate on the importance of desires is a completely subjective topic and we all don’t need to have the exact same belief as Buddha in striving to get rid of all of our desires, we can agree on the importance of at least learning to curb some of these never-ending surges of desires. Practices like meditation and mindfulness can help us control our mind, control our desires, and in turn control our lives. And above all, the teachings of Buddhism and the paths laid out by Buddha can help us attain a mind state far less conflicted and a life far less complicated.
Around the same era where both Hinduism first and then Buddhism had developed in the Indian Subcontinent, there was another significant religious development taking place in the middle-east region, where two of the earliest civilizations in the world (Mesopotamia and Egypt) had first flourished. Said religious development would later go on to have an even more profound effect on world religion and overall human history.
Thus, we take a detour towards modern-day Iraq and again go back in time around 1800 BC. Next up is a tale of a man and his two sons.