1. Although the Dharma is a direct outcome of the Buddha’s own understanding, the form in which it was proclaimed to the world was, of course, very much influenced by the culture in which the Buddha lived. Therefore, some understanding of this culture will help to give a better understanding of the Dharma.
2. India is a huge, wedge-shaped subcontinent with the Arabian Sea to its west, the Andaman Sea to its east and the snowy peaks of the Himalayas to its north. In ancient times it was known as the land of the Rose Apple (Jambudipa). The Buddha was born and lived all his life in north-central India in the area known then as the Middle Land (Majjhima Desa), so called because it was believed to be, by the people who lived there, the centre of the earth. The whole area consists of a vast, flat, fertile plain through which flow two great rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna, and many smaller rivers. There are three seasons – summer, when the temperature can reach as high as 40°; the rainy season, when the rivers flood and travel becomes difficult; and the winter, when the days can be pleasant but the nights can be freezing. In the Buddha’s time, large areas of northern India were covered by jungle and the people who lived in the many villages that bordered the jungles often encountered lions, elephants, deer, rhinoceros and other wild animals.
The population of this northern part of India was much smaller than it is today; there was plenty of arable land for farming and most people had more than enough to eat. Even very poor farmers could supplement their diet or income by hunting wild animals and collecting the abundant fruits that the forests provided.
3. The India the Buddha knew was not a single political unit but rather a collection of independent countries, often vying with each other for supremacy. The largest and most powerful of these countries was the kingdom of Magadha, which during most of the Buddha’s life was ruled by King Bimbasara, a strong and effective ruler who took a great interest in religion. The capital of Magadha was Rajagaha (The King’s Abode) which nestled amongst rugged hills and was protected by massive stone walls, the remains of which can still be seen today. A short time after the Buddha’s final Nirvana, Magadha shifted its capital from Rajagaha to Pataligama, later to be called Pataliputta and today called Patna, and within a hundred and fifty years had conquered nearly all of India. Directly north of Magadha and separated from it by the Ganges River was the Vajjian Confederacy. The Vajjian Confederacy was made up of several tribes, two of which were called the Licchavies and the Videhas, who had united to protect themselves from their powerful neighbour in the south. The Licchavies were the most important tribe in the Confederacy and their chief city Vesali was the de facto capital of the Confederacy.
Along the western border of the Vajjian Confederacy was Malla, a small tribal republic divided into two parts, one with its capital at Kusinara and the other with its capital at Pava.
North of Malla were the two small semi-independent republics of the Sakyans and the Koliyans with their capitals at Kapilavatthu and Devadaha respectively. These and the other tribal states were not ruled by kings but by councils made up of the leading citizens, not unlike those that ruled the ancient Greek city-states. The councils would meet regularly and everyone was free to speak their mind.
North-west of Magadha was Kosala, the second largest and most powerful country of the time. During most of the Buddha’s life Kosala was ruled by King Pasenadi from his capital at Savatthi. Kosala exercised a great deal of influence over the Sakyans. South-east of Kosala was Vamsa with its capital at Kosambi on the Yamuna River. During much of the Buddha’s time Vamsa was ruled by King Udena.
4. The 5th century B.C.E. was a period of transition. Old tribal republics were breaking up under the impact of predatory and autocratic kingdoms like Kosala and Magadha. Cities were becoming larger and more sophisticated, and people were leaving their villages and farms and flocking to Kosambi, Savatthi, Rajagaha and other urban centres.
5. Indian society was divided very sharply by the caste system (catuvana). The caste that people were born into determined what work they did, their status in society, who they married, where they lived and who they ate with, in fact almost every aspect of their lives. The highest caste were the Brahmins, who were the hereditary priests of Brahminism, the educators and the scholars. Below them were the Khattiyas, the warrior caste, who were rulers, administrators and soldiers. The next caste were the Vessa, the merchants, traders and artisans. At the bottom of the caste system were the Sudas, who worked as farmers, labourers and menial workers. Outside the caste system were the Candalas, the outcastes, who were considered beyond the pale of civilised society and whose touch was considered to be polluting. They lived on the outskirts of towns and villages, and were compelled to do degrading jobs like collecting rubbish, removing dead bodies, tanning and sweeping the streets. The caste system gave society a great deal of stability but it made social change and mobility almost impossible and it also engendered a great deal of cruelty towards lower castes and outcastes.
Originally the caste system was only a social institution but later it was integrated into Brahminism and given religious sanction, and most Brahminical and Hindu literature accepts the caste system as having been ordained by God.
6. Writing was known at the Buddha’s time but it was not widely used. The reason for this was that India had long before perfected ways of committing literature to memory and passing it on with such accuracy that writing was simply not necessary. The Vedas, the sacred hymns of Brahminism, had been composed nearly a millennium before the Buddha, and indeed were not written down for many centuries after his final Nirvana, and yet they were faithfully preserved. Songs, legends, histories, sacred texts and large amounts of other literature that formed a part of the culture of the day were all preserved orally.
7. The prevailing religion in India during the Buddha’s time was Brahminism, not Hinduism as is commonly supposed – Hinduism being an amalgamation of Brahminism, Buddhism and various folk cults which developed only many centuries after the Buddha. Brahminism believed in a supreme creator god named Brahma and many lesser gods like Aggi, the god of fire, Indra, the king of gods, Yama, the king of the underworld, Suriya, the god of the sun, and so on. These gods were propitiated with sacrifices (yaga) which were thrown into the ritual fire and were then believed to be taken to heaven in the smoke. Ordinary folk might make small sacrifices of grain or ghee, but the wealthy or royalty would sometimes sacrifice large numbers of animals, usually cows but occasionally even human beings. Sacrifices were very complex affairs and it was believed that they would bring down the blessings from the gods only if they were performed absolutely correctly. Only the Brahmins, the hereditary priests knew how to perform the sacrificial rituals correctly, a knowledge that they jealously guarded, and they expected to be well paid for their services. As a result of this, Brahmins had a well-earned reputation for greed and avarice. Another important practice in Brahminism was ritual bathing. It was believed that if a person did evil it could be cleansed or washed away by bathing in certain sacred rivers, the most popular of which was the Ganges.
8. By the Buddha’s time, there was widespread dissatisfaction with Brahminism and many people, including many Brahmin intellectuals, were becoming interested in new religious ideas. Parallel to Brahminism and much older was the tradition of unorthodox ascetic teachers (samana) who were beginning to attract increasing interest. The most famous of these ascetics was Nataputta, known to his disciples by the title Mahavira Jain (the Victorious Great Hero). His followers were known as the Bond-Free Ones (Nigantha) and the religion he founded came to be known as Jainism. Nataputta was an older contemporary of the Buddha and already had many disciples by the time Buddhism began. Another important group of ascetics were the Ajivikas, founded by Makkhali Gossala. Ajivika ascetics went naked and taught that being good by refraining from evil was useless because everyone would eventually find salvation through the process of transmigration just as a ball of twine rolling along the ground will eventually unwind. The Ajivikas had many influential followers and supporters but the Buddha criticised them as the worst of all ascetics. Some of the other well known teachers of the time were Ajita of the hair blanket, Purana Kassapa, Pakudha Kaccayana and Sanjaya Belatthiputta, all of whose religions lasted only a few centuries and then petered out.