What were the social and cultural conditions that informed and set the stage for the birth and spread of Buddhism?

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In India, Siddhartha Gautama was not the only religious person who was dissatisfied with the status quo. Wandering lay people, or ascetics, believed in living away from worldly superficiality and materialism. After he reached the enlightened state, becoming the Buddha, his teachings spread even further. After his death, others shared...

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In India, Siddhartha Gautama was not the only religious person who was dissatisfied with the status quo. Wandering lay people, or ascetics, believed in living away from worldly superficiality and materialism. After he reached the enlightened state, becoming the Buddha, his teachings spread even further. After his death, others shared his beliefs in northern India, where some followers established monasteries, and then extended north into the Himalayas and south into the Subcontinent. The Buddhist movement gained considerable weight when King Ashoka, whose territory roughly equaled that of contemporary India, converted and made Buddhism the official state religion.

Ashoka’s grandfather, the emperor Chandragupta, had already turned away from Hinduism, effectively challenging the control of the ruling class, or Brahmans, who used divine mandate to justify their control. He ended his days as a Jain monk. Under Ashoka, religion was a key element of political control. He aimed to show his people a pious example of rulership. During his reign, not only did political control extend farther than previous monarchs had achieved, but patronage of Buddhism through written texts as well as monasteries expanded tremendously. By combining religious values with his diplomatic and economic endeavors, Ashoka promoted (although did not always achieve) harmony within his kingdom. The success of Buddhism in India paved the way for its expansion into other kingdoms and later into China.

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In the early twentieth century, greater ease of travel and interest in multiculturalism led to a focus on Asian religions among intellectuals and elites. Discontent with traditional Christianity, often fueled by Darwinism, rationalism, and the backlash against these more modern forces found in what seemed to many a mindless Christian fundamentalism led to a yearning and search for new ways of encountering the spiritual.

Quaker theologian Thomas Kelly, author of the classic work, A Testament of Devotion, typifies these yearnings. As outlined in his son's biography of him, Kelly was troubled by the “narrow exclusiveness” of much of Christianity and wished to know more of the “absorptive attitude of the Oriental faiths.” (55) He wrote of wanting to “sit at the feet of the professors of the Orient to learn their wisdom.” (60) As he expressed it:

In the West, philosophy was separated from religion. Our passionate concern, in philosophy, is not practical, but theoretical or speculative, not to help us live the good life, but to comprehend the universe … But the [Eastern] concern is to reflect in order to live the good life. Knowledge is not abstraction.” (75)

Kelly particularly hoped to study Buddhism in Asia, writing:

one can hardly comprehend fully the quest of the Buddhist sitting under the Bo Tree when one is sitting under a sugar maple in an Midwest cornfield. (81)

After World War II, the Beat poets and writers popularized Eastern religions, including Buddhism, for middle class audiences, and during the Viet Nam period, the anti-war witness of Vietnamese Buddhist priests aligned with anti-war protest thinking, fueling an upsurge of interest in the Buddhist faith.

In recent decades, the individualistic, non-creedal, and seemingly anti-institutional and non-theist leanings of Buddhism (at least in the version imported to the West) has had a strong appeal to the increasing numbers of people turning away from institutional Christianity to become "spiritual but not religious." Writers such as Buddhist Tich Nhat Hahn have done much to popularize the Buddhist faith, which to many seems a viable alternative to the nationalism and militarism that is sometimes associated with traditional Western religions.

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An important social context for the rise of Buddhism had to do with developments within Hinduism. The rigid caste structure endorsed by Hinduism in the fifth century BCE had become distasteful to many who disliked the opulent lifestyles and corruption of the priestly Brahman caste. So when Siddhartha Gautama (himself a member of the priestly Kshatriya caste) became the Buddha, the Enlightened One, his message of simplicity and rejection of earthly pursuits resonated with people. Its rejection of caste especially appealed to people who occupied lower stations in society.

Another reason that Buddhism spread and flourished was that it enjoyed the protection of powerful political figures, including kings and emperors. Perhaps the most important of these men was Ashoka, the ruler of the Mauryan Dynasty who may have converted to Buddhism in the third century BCE. Under his friendly leadership, Buddhism spread throughout much of the northern reaches of the Indian subcontinent and into modern Afghanistan. Buddhism, like other religions, also spread along the trade routes that connected peoples throughout Asia. Known later as the "Silk Road," this was an important network for cultural exchange, including religion. In was along these trade routes that Buddhism reached China, the Korean peninsula, and Southeast Asia within five centuries of the Buddha's death.

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