Historical Background of the Buddha






Historical Background of the Buddha

The Buddha was a very strong religious and philosophical figure whose teachings form the basement upon which Buddhism religion is based. He emerged during the axial age and underwent certain processes which enabled him to carry out his tasks with ease. He had followers who believed in his teachings and helped him to carry out his mission accordingly. The divine influence that he had was also instrumental in giving him useful insights regarding the content of his teachings. However, it is worth acknowledging that certain external factors in his environment provided a viable environment and greatly influenced his assumption of religious teaching. These were not only social and economic in nature but also cultural, educational and religious. They provided a strong background as well as viable conditions for the rise and development of the Buddha. In essence, these historical conditions greatly influenced the decisions, actions, teachings and general way of thinking of the Buddha.

From a social point of view, the then society had informal social classes that marked the beginning of the emergence of the caste system. Besides having the upper class that lived comfortable lives, there were those that belonged to the lower class such as the slaves who lived in misery. Likewise, there were the wanderers that were also referred to as paronnakalas. These did not live a comfortable life and in most cases, they even walked around naked. These according to Armstrong comprised of philosophers who derived great satisfaction in developing wide ranging theories regarding the origin and nature of the world. They spend a significant period of time thinking and developing wise materials that they later employed in teaching. Their views and teachings are even quoted in Sutta by King Ajatasattu. Certainly, the presence of this segment of the population in the society greatly influenced the teachings of the Buddha. This can be used to explain why he forewent all the luxury and assumed a simple life. Arguably, this provided the right conditions for thinking and even being able to have a divine experience.

During the time of Buddha, there were two main religions in the Indus valley. In his research, Walshe argues that these formed the basement upon which Buddhism was anchored. In this regard, the religion in the Indus valley was characterized by ideas such as karma, rebirth, renunciation, ultimate liberation and meditation. Historical evidence indicates that these were at the core of religious practices of the civilization in Indus Valley. In his teachings, Buddha points out that he taught the path of his ancestors who occupied the Indus Valley. Seemingly, the then religious conditions contributed significantly to the way of thinking of the Buddha. As aforementioned, his teachings were based on the then religious teachings as well as traditions that were held in high regard by his ancestors. At this point, it can be ascertained that the then religious practices greatly shaped and ultimately influenced the ideas that were put forth by the Buddha.

The economic conditions of pre-Buddhism also influenced the decisions and teachings of the Buddha in different ways. In his review, Bodhi indicates that the then population practiced Agriculture because the plains had fertile soils and there was also plenty of water. They grew sugarcane, kept livestock and also cultivated plenty of ice. In essence, land was the most vital aspect of human livelihoods. In addition, animal power was being employed for advancing agricultural practice. Gradually, populations began to own land privately in a bid to benefit from production. Besides land, the population benefited significantly from valuable metals such as silver and gold. The advancement of agriculture led to the rise of slaves that provided human labor in the private lands. To a great extent, this contributed to the emphasis on the caste system by the Buddha. Seemingly, use of slave labor improved economic production significantly and the population ventured in cultivation of other crops such as cotton. Arguably, increased production led to the encouragement of the practice of offering sacrifices that was part of the religious teachings of the Buddha.

In addition, Tambiah posits that the practice of killing animals and specifically cattle for beef by the Brahmin class increased significantly. This can be used to explain the source of Buddha’s teaching regarding destruction. As agricultural activities increased, it became apparent that this trend could possibly culminate in environmental degradation. Coupled with increased exploitation of other natural resources like metals, the Buddha deemed it necessary to forewarn the populations about the far reaching implications that this practice had on their holistic wellbeing.

Politically, the state at the time of the Buddha was eventually attaining a proto-imperial state. This according to Nhat had various negative features pertaining to production, slavery and undue emphasis on materialism. The slaves in this regard assumed the sole responsibility of economic production and maintenance of the army. In addition, the Brahma ritual pertaining to killing animals culminated in agricultural stagnation. This condition greatly influenced the decision of the Buddha regarding eating of beef. This was imperative to trigger economic production and safeguard the livelihood of the population that greatly depended on agricultural production for their welfare.

In addition, the relationship between a person’s consciousness and activities played an important role in shaping Buddha’s ideas regarding production. In this regard, an individual’s actions are influenced by his or her consciousness. It is in this regard that Buddha encouraged virtuous behavior in order to prevent incidences of suffering that stemmed from unacceptable behavior. Having hailed from an upper class, Buddha was conversant with educational issues that enabled him to communicate well. His rational thoughts can also be attributed to his diverse knowledge in important social fields. Arguably, his educational background enabled him to not only think rationally but to also make moral decisions in an effective manner.

In sum, the economic, environmental, social, political, religious and educational conditions greatly influenced the ideas that were put froth by the Buddha. As it has come out from the study, religious practices of the Indus valley were at the core of Buddha’s teachings. Then, his abandonment of the luxury lifestyle enabled him to assume the thoughtfulness of the philosophers. The economic conditions that encouraged agricultural production influenced his teachings related to the caste system and offering of sacrifices. The beef eating ritual that was a part of the Brahma culture influenced his teaching regarding environmental destruction and the importance of conservation. Politically, the proto imperial state organization that was characterized by various social ills made him to align his ideas and teachings to moral thinking and acting. Finally, his educational background enabled him to make rational and informed decisions at all times.


Armstrong, Karen. Buddha. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004.

Bodhi, Bhikkhu. In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon. USA: Wisdom Publications, 2005.

Nhat, Thich. Old Path, White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha. USA: Full Circle Publishing Ltd, 1997.

Tambiah, Stanley. Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North- East Thailand. Cambridge: University Press, 1970

Walshe, Maurice. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. USA: Wisdom Publications, 1995.

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