A Brief History of Ancient Buddhism

Amaravati Buddhist sculpture, ca. 150 CE, Government Museum, Chennai / Wikimedia Commons

The origin of Buddhism points to one man, Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, who was born in Lumbini.

By Cristian Violatti
PhD Candidate, University of Leicester


Buddhism is one of the most important Asian spiritual traditions. During its roughly 2.5 millennia of history, Buddhism has shown a flexible approach, adapting itself to different conditions and local ideas while maintaining its core teachings. As a result of its wide geographical expansion, coupled with its tolerant spirit, Buddhism today encompasses a number of different traditions, beliefs, and practices.

Artistic representation of Maya giving birth to the Buddha. This depiction is part of the altar in the “Mother Temple of the Graduated Path to Enlightenment”, an Austrian Buddhist temple located at the West Monastic Zone-9 in Lumbini, Rupandehi, Nepal.

During the last decades, Buddhism has also gained a significant presence outside Asia. With the number of adherents estimated to be almost 400 million people, Buddhism in our day has expanded worldwide, and it is no longer culturally specific. For many centuries, this tradition has been a powerful force in Asia, which has touched nearly every aspect of the eastern world: arts, morals, lore, mythology, social institutions, etc. Today, Buddhism influences these same areas outside of Asia, as well.

Origin and Early Development

The origin of Buddhism points to one man, Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, who was born in Lumbini (in present-day Nepal) during the 5th century BCE. Rather than the founder of a new religion, Siddhartha Gautama was the founder and leader of a sect of wanderer ascetics (Sramanas), one of many sects that existed at that time all over India. This sect came to be known as Sangha to distinguish it from other similar communities.  

The Sramanas movement, which originated in the culture of world renunciation that emerged in India from about the 7th century BCE, was the common origin of many religious and philosophical traditions in India, including the Charvaka school, Buddhism, and its sister religion, Jainism. The Sramanas were renunciants who rejected the Vedic teachings, which was the traditional religious order in India, and renounced conventional society.

Siddhartha Gautama lived during a time of profound social changes in India. The authority of the Vedic religion was being challenged by a number of new religious and philosophical views. This religion had been developed by a nomadic society roughly a millennium before Siddhartha’s time, and it gradually gained hegemony over most of north India, especially in the Gangetic plain. But things were different in the 5th BCE, as society was no longer nomadic: agrarian settlements had replaced the old nomad caravans and evolved into villages, then into towns and finally into cities. Under the new urban context, a considerable sector of Indian society was no longer satisfied with the old Vedic faith. Siddhartha Gautama  was one of the many critics of the religious establishment.

After Siddhartha Gautama passed away, the community he founded slowly evolved into a religion-like movement and the teachings of Siddhartha became the basis of Buddhism. The historical evidence suggests that Buddhism had a humble beginning. Apparently, it was a relatively minor tradition in India, and some scholars have proposed that the impact of the Buddha in his own day was relatively limited due to the scarcity of written documents, inscriptions, and archaeological evidence from that time.

By the 3rd century BCE, the picture we have of Buddhism is very different. The Mauryan Indian emperor Ashoka the Great (304–232 BCE), who ruled from 268 to 232 BCE, turned Buddhism into the state religion of India. He provided a favourable social and political climate for the acceptance of Buddhist ideas, encouraged Buddhist missionary activity, and even generated among Buddhist monks certain expectations of patronage and influence on the machinery of political decision making. Archaeological evidence for Buddhism between the death of the Buddha and the time of Ashoka is scarce; after the time of Ashoka it is abundant.

Schism: Fracture of Buddhism and Origin of the Different Buddhist Schools

There are many stories about disagreements among the Buddha’s disciples during his lifetime and also accounts about disputes among his followers during the First Buddhist Council held soon after the Buddha’s death, suggesting that dissent was present in the Buddhist community from an early stage. After the death of the Buddha, those who followed his teachings had formed settled communities in different locations. Language differences, doctrinal disagreements, the influence of non-Buddhist schools, loyalties to specific teachers, and the absence of a recognized overall authority or unifying organizational structure are just some examples of factors that contributed to sectarian fragmentation.

About a century after the death of Buddha, during the Second Buddhist Council, we find the first major schism ever recorded in Buddhism: The Mahasanghika school. Many different schools of Buddhism had developed at that time. Buddhist tradition speaks about 18 schools of early Buddhism, although we know that there were more than that, probably around 25. A Buddhist school named Sthaviravada (in Sanskrit “school of the elders”) was the most powerful of the early schools of Buddhism. Traditionally, it is held that the Mahasanghika school came into existence as a result of a dispute over monastic practice. They also seem to have emphasized the supramundane nature of the Buddha, so they were accused of preaching that the Buddha had the attributes of a god. As a result of the conflict over monastic discipline, coupled with their controversial views on the nature of the Buddha, the Mahasanghikas were expelled, thus forming two separate Buddhist lines: the Sthaviravada  and the Mahasanghika.

The Buddha seated in meditation, one hand on his lap, the other pendant in a gesture known as earth-witness, which represents unshakability or steadfastness when being subject to the demons’ temptations. This is a superb example of 12th century Nepalese metalcraft: Copper alloy, gilt.

During the course of several centuries, both the Sthaviravada and the Mahasanghika schools underwent many transformations, originating different schools. The Theravada school, which still lives in our day, emerged from the Sthaviravada line, and is the dominant form of Buddhism in Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. The Mahasanghika school eventually disappeared as an ordination tradition.

During the 1st century CE, while the oldest Buddhist groups were growing in south and south-east Asia, a new Buddhist school named Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”) originated in northern India. This school had a more adaptable approach and was open to doctrinal innovations. Mahayama Buddhism is today the dominant form of Buddhism in Nepal, Tibet, China, Japan, Mongolia, Korea, and Vietnam.

Buddhist Expansion Across SouthERN Asia

During the time of Ashoka’s reign, trade routes were opened through southern India. Some of the merchants using these roads were Buddhists who took their religion with them. Buddhist monks also used these roads for missionary activity. Buddhism entered Sri Lanka during this time. A Buddhist chronicle known as the Mahavamsa claims that the ruler of Sri Lanka, Devanampiya Tissa, was converted to Buddhism by Mahinda, Ashoka’s son, who was a Buddhist missionary, and Buddhism became associated with Sri Lanka’s kingship: The tight relationship between the Buddhist community and Lankan’s rulers was sustained for more than two millennia until the dethroning of the last Lankan king by the British in 1815 CE.

After reaching Sri Lanka, Buddhism crossed the sea into Myanmar (Burma): Despite the fact that some Burmese accounts say that the Buddha himself converted the inhabitants of Lower and Upper Myanmar, historical evidence suggests otherwise. Buddhism co-existed in Myanmar with other traditions such as Brahmanism and various locals animists cults. The records of a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim named Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang, 602-664 CE) state that in the ancient city of Pyu (the capital of the Kingdom of Sri Ksetra, present day Myanmar), a number of early Buddhist schools were active. After Myanmar, Buddhism travelled into Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos, around 200 CE. The presence of Buddhism in Indonesia and the Malay peninsula is supported by archaeological records from about the 5th century CE.

A map illustrating the spread of Buddhism from its origins in India in the 5th century BCE with the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama – the Buddha. / Be Zen, Flickr, Creative Commons

While Buddhism was flourishing all over the rest of Asia, its importance in India gradually diminished. Two important factors contributed to this process: a number of Muslim invasions, and the advancement of Hinduism, which incorporated the Buddha as part of the pantheon of endless gods; he came to be regarded as one of the many manifestations of the god Vishnu. In the end, the Buddha was swallowed up by the realm of Hindu gods, his importance diminished, and in the very land where it was born, Buddhism dwindled to be practiced by very few.

Buddhist Expansion Across Central and East Asia

Buddhism entered China during the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE): The first Buddhist missionaries accompanied merchant caravans that travelled using the Silk Road, probably during the 1st century BCE. The majority of these missionaries belonged to the Mahayana school.

The initial stage of Buddhism is China was not very promising. Chinese culture had a long-established intellectual and religious tradition and a strong sense of cultural superiority that did not help the reception of Buddhist ideas. Many of the Buddhist ways were considered alien by the Chinese and even contrary to the Confucian ideals that dominated the ruling aristocracy. The monastic order received a serious set of critiques: It was considered unproductive and therefore was seen as placing an unnecessary economic burden on the population, and the independence from secular authority emphasized by the monks was seen as an attempt to undermine the traditional authority of the emperor.

Despite its difficult beginning, Buddhism managed to build a solid presence in China towards the fall of the Han dynasty on 220 CE, and its growth accelerated during the time of disunion and political chaos that dominated China during the Six Dynasties period (220-589 CE). The collapse of the imperial order made many Chinese skeptical about the Confucian ideologies and more open to foreign ideas. Also, the universal spirit of Buddhist teachings made it attractive to many non-Chinese ruler in the north who were looking to legitimate political power. Eventually, Buddhism in China grew strong, deeply influencing virtually every aspect of its culture.

From China, Buddhism entered Korea in 372 CE, during the reign of King Sosurim, the ruler of the Kingdom of Koguryo, or so it is stated in official records. There is archaeological evidence that suggests that Buddhism was known in Korea from an earlier time.

The official introduction of Buddhism in Tibet (according to Tibetan records) took place during the reign of the first Tibetan emperor Srong btsan sgam po (Songtsen gampo, 617-649/650 CE), although we know that the proto-Tibetan people had been in touch with Buddhism from an earlier time, through Buddhist merchants and missionaries. Buddhism grew powerful in Tibet, absorbing the local pre-Buddhist Tibetan religions. Caught  between China and India, Tibet received monks from both sides and tension between Chinese and Indian Buddhist practice and ideology turned out to be inevitable. From 792 to 794 CE a number of debates were held in the Bsam yas monastery between Chinese and Indian Buddhists. The debate was decided in favour of the Indians: Buddhists translations from Chinese sources were abandoned and the Indian Buddhist influence became predominant.

Key Buddhist Concepts

A rock cut image of Buddha at Bojjanakonda cave Monastery near Anakapalle in Visakhapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh in India. / Photo by N. Aditya Madhav, Wikimedia Commons

The Buddha was not concerned with satisfying human curiosity related to metaphysical speculations. Topics like the existence of god, the afterlife, or creation stories were ignored by him. During the centuries, Buddhism has evolved into different branches, and many of them have incorporated a number of diverse metaphysical systems, deities, astrology and other elements that the Buddha did not consider. In spite of this diversity, Buddhism has a relative unity and stability in its moral code.

The most important teaching of the Buddha is known as “The Four Noble Truths”, which is shared with varying adjustments by all Buddhist schools. In general, the Four Noble Truths are explained as follows:

  1. The First Noble Truth is generally translated as “all life is suffering”, which can be easily understood when it comes to painful situations like death, illness, abuse, poverty, and so forth. But suffering also may arise from good things because nothing is permanent, everything is changing, and whatever gives us happiness will sooner or later come to an end. It seems that all pleasures are temporary and the more we enjoy them, the more we will miss them when they end. “Nothing lasts forever”, is one of the insights of the Buddha.
  2. The cause of suffering is desire. Suffering comes from desire, also referred as “thirst” or greed. Our desires will always exceed our resources and leave us unhappy and unsatisfied. All suffering originates in desire, but not all desire generates suffering. Only selfish desire generates suffering:  desire directed to the advantage of the part rather than to the good of the whole.
  3. By stopping desire, suffering also stops. The idea is not to get too attached to material goods, places, ideas, or even people. Non-attachment to anything is the main idea behind the third noble truth. It means that since all changes if our attachment is too strong, we will inevitably suffer at some point. After all, we will all get old, decay, and die; this is a natural cycle, and there is nothing wrong with it. The problem comes when, by attaching too much, we do not accept the changes.
  4. By following “The Eightfold Path”, desire stops. The Eightfold Path is composed of: right views, right intentions, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

In some religions, sin is the origin of human suffering. In Buddhism there is no sin; the root cause of human suffering is avidyā “ignorance”. In the entrance area of some Buddhist monasteries, sometimes the images of four scary-looking deities are displayed, the four protectors whose purpose is to scare away the ignorance of those who enter.

A grey schist relief panel from Gandhara depicting Buddha eating with monks, 1st-4th century CE. (Museum of Asian Art, Corfu) / Creative Commons

Buddhism does not require faith or belief. If faith can be understood as believing something which is unsupported by evidence, and ignorance is overcome by understanding, then faith is not enough to overcome ignorance and therefore suffering. And belief, as understood by other religions, is not necessary in Buddhism:

“The question of belief arises when there is no seeing – seeing in every sense of the word. The moment you see, the question of belief disappears. If I tell you that I have a gem  hidden  in the folded palm  of my  hand, the question of belief  arises because you do not see it yourself. But if I unclench my fist and show you the gem, then you see it for yourself, and the question of belief does not arise. So the phrase in ancient Buddhist texts reads ‘Realizing, as one sees a gem in the palm’”

(Rahula W., p.9)

In its most basic form, Buddhism does not include the concept of a god. The existence of god is neither confirmed, nor denied; it is a non-theistic system. The Buddha is seen as an extraordinary man, not a deity. Some Buddhist schools have incorporated supernatural entities into their traditions, but even in these cases, the role of human choice and responsibility remains supreme, far above the deeds of the supernatural.

In some Chinese and Japanese Buddhist monasteries, they go even further by performing a curious exercise: The monks are requested to think that the Buddha did not even existed. There is a good reason for this: the core of Buddhism is not the Buddha, but his teachings or dharma. It is said that those who wish to understand Buddhism and are interested in the Buddha are as mistaken as a person who wishes to study mathematics by studying the life of Pythagoras or Newton. By imagining the Buddha never existed, they avoid focusing on the idol so that they can embrace the ideal.


  • Buswell, R. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. (Macmillan Library Reference, 2013).
  • Buswell, R. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. (Princeton University Press, 2013).
  • Durant, W. Our Oriental heritage;. (Simon & Schuster, 1963).

Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, 05.20.2014, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.