Historian Bettany Hughes travels to India, Greece and China on the trail of three giants of ancient philosophy. To begin, she investigates the revolutionary ideas of the Buddha.
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Since the dawn of civilisation,
the forces of nature
and the whims of gods
held sway over humanity.
But 2,500 years ago,
humankind experienced a profound transformation.
Suddenly, there were new possibilities.
This is a time when rationality overrode superstition and belief.
This is an ethic which does not rely on the gods.
The world is now explained in terms of natural forces.
We're now responsible for our own destiny.
Upheavals across the globe sparked an ambitious vision
of what humans could achieve -
spearheaded by three trailblazers.
Socrates, Confucius and the Buddha.
Great thinkers from the ancient world,
whose ideas still shape our own lives.
Is wealth a good thing?
How do you create a just society?
How do I live a good life?
By daring to think the unthinkable,
they laid the foundations of our modern world.
I've always been intrigued by the fact that these men,
who lived many thousands of miles apart,
seemed almost spontaneously,
within 100 years of one another,
to come up with such radical ways of thinking.
So, what was going on?
I want to investigate their revolutionary ideas
to understand what set them in motion.
In this episode,
I'm on the trail of that most enigmatic of philosophers -
The wandering seeker of truth
who challenged religious orthodoxy.
Caste was not a barrier.
Priests were not required.
Analysing his thoughts and desires
sparked game-changing insights.
This is the teaching of Buddha.
Everything's subject to change.
Setting the Buddha on his path to enlightenment -
a whole new way of being
and an escape from the suffering of life.
Technologically, the world has progressed immensely -
but psychologically, I don't think we've moved very far.
Around 2,500 years ago,
a young man made a life-changing decision.
We're told that in the dead of night, he left home.
Pausing, just once, to take a last look at his wife and newborn son.
He then slipped out silently into the darkness.
It was the start of a journey
that would take him from the foothills of the Himalayas
and end here, on the plains of northern India.
His mission was to make sense of human life.
For me, it's genuinely exciting
that what the Buddha discovered 25 centuries ago
continues to inspire hundreds of millions of people
across the globe.
As a religion or belief system, Buddhism has evolved,
taking diverse forms within different cultures.
And as a philosophy, its relevance is undiminished by time.
The fact it's still on the rise
shows it's a potent way to navigate our modern times.
Passed down from the ancient world
that the Buddha inhabited.
Most of what we know about the Buddha is based on oral accounts
that were written down a few centuries after his death.
They tell us he was born
sometime between the sixth and fifth centuries BC
in what's now southern Nepal.
We're told he was a prince,
Siddhartha Gautama -
good-looking, skilled in weaponry
and prophesised to achieve great things.
But his father, the king, was worried
because, it was predicted, his son would do one of two things -
stay in the King's palace, and become an emperor,
or leave home,
and become a great religious leader.
The King, preferring his son to be a more conventional emperor,
surrounded the Prince with luxury, to attach him to a worldly life.
The streets were cleared of all unpleasant sights,
so he was blissfully unaware of the suffering in the world.
But the plan backfired.
One day, whilst out in his carriage,
he unexpectedly saw an old man.
Later, he saw a sick man...
..and then a corpse.
Witnessing the pain and frailty of human existence
shook him to the core.
When the Prince saw a holy man,
he was inspired,
and his destiny was sealed.
I have to say this colourful account of the Buddha's early palace life
does have more than a ring of fable to it.
It feels like a kind of textbook heroic story -
but it does also seem to reflect
a real existential crisis.
The Buddha observed that our lives
were permeated by suffering.
His quest was to find out if there was a way to overcome it.
He left the remote Himalayan foothills and headed south,
abandoning everything -
his privilege, his family,
A small tribal state, it was run by a council of prominent men,
from one clan, called the Sakyas.
Now, it looks as though his father was probably a clan leader,
from a prosperous family -
not the great king that we always hear about.
As the Buddha headed south,
he experienced the cultures
of neighbouring states for the first time.
he'd have seen everything with the eyes of a curious stranger.
Just like those other ground-breaking philosophers
of his day, Socrates in Greece and Confucius in China,
he was the very definition of what it is to be a questioning human.
He refused to be constrained by convention
and complacent belief.
He would follow wherever his enquiry led him.
One of the first things the Buddha would have encountered
was the religion of the Brahmans.
A priestly caste,
who dominated the cultural landscape of the Indian world.
They're going to offer rice and flowers to...
Evoking the gods now.
Brahmans were responsible for reciting the Vedas,
an ancient body of divine teachings and hymns,
in sacred spaces and in people's homes, just as they do today.
Another key role was to perform sacrifices...
to persuade the gods to sustain the order of the cosmos
and deliver prosperity.
They memorised all the old scriptures.
You've seen how the Brahmans here have been just chanting
one after the other and they can go on, like,
for three or four hours.
They memorised all the rituals,
they knew what vibrations,
how the water should be,
how the earth should be,
what space is required -
they had all the understanding of how to communicate with the gods.
What kind of ritual were they in charge of?
If somebody had died and you need to do the last rites,
it was the Brahman who'd come to do it.
If there was a drought, you'd get the Brahman to evoke the rain god.
The whole life depended then on the priest,
the Brahman, who had the knowledge.
That must have given them real power?
They've always dominated the rest
whether you call it the caste system, or the different levels.
They had the highest top position,
then came the warrior community -
the Rajputs, the fighters, the rulers.
Then came the business community - which is the Vaishnavs.
And then came the community that did the service -
the cobblers, the blacksmith.
And that was the Brahmanic society.
For the Buddha, the rigid hierarchy of the caste system
and sacrifice to the gods
relied on blind faith and received wisdom,
not any kind of rational explanation.
He passionately thought that there must be a more robust,
a more credible way, to understand and explain our place in the world.
The Buddha's journey continued on,
down to the Ganges plain.
It was a world in the midst of rapid transformation.
New cities and prosperous, centralised kingdoms had emerged.
The Buddha's said to have entered one,
the kingdom of Magadha,
and spent time here in the royal capital - Rajagriha.
Along these rampart walls,
you can still experience the ancient city
as the Buddha would have known it.
The streets of the city here would have been crowded with
brightly painted carriages
bringing gold and silver,
pearls and blue lapis lazuli,
sandalwood and rich cloths.
And then, in the distance, you'd have seen great caravans
carrying in more fabulous goods, from the Bay of Bengal
and what is modern-day Afghanistan.
There's a lot of evidence in the literature for this time
that cities were expanding, but do we get evidence in archaeology, too?
We get lots of evidence.
This is the period when
cities are emerging and expanding
all over the country.
These are lovely little belongings, here.
Did these all come from cities?
All of them did. You can imagine the people who used them.
Look at this for instance. This is a razor.
That's great, I love it. I love it when design doesn't change.
-That's exactly the same as a razor today.
That is one heck of a doornail!
So, that's quite some door that that's holding together!
And these are lovely, as well.
Is this...? It looks like very fine dining ware is it?
It is. This is a very special kind of pottery that must've been
used only by very rich people for very special occasions.
So, do you think? I mean, this kind of different
way of living is affecting how people feel about their lives?
And the city must have been a very exciting
and also unsettling experience
for somebody who'd walked into one of these cities from a village -
because something new is emerging
but the old ways of life
and the old kinds of social relationships...
This is a time when you have unprecedented
and, I think, unparalleled
level of questioning about
what it means to live in the world
and how one should live one's life
and all kinds of questions that...
concern us very deeply.
Cities were a real paradox.
They did offer dazzling new opportunities,
but they also cut people loose from everything that they knew -
from their tribes, from their land,
from ways of being that hadn't really changed much for millennia.
So, they were wonderful,
but they were also actually quite threatening.
People must have wondered what life was all about,
and how they should now best live together.
It was a time of intense questioning.
Can we control our desires?
And the Buddha would play a vital role in that debate.
What is justice?
By now, deep into his own personal quest,
he engaged with the most intractable question of all.
TRANSLATION: What happens to us when we die?
Inspired by the cycles of renewal in the natural environment,
people had come to believe we were part of an endless cycle of birth,
death and rebirth -
known as samsara.
Samsara is a powerful idea that was really current in the time of Buddha.
The idea of a birth followed by rebirth,
followed by rebirth in the cycle of time.
But humanity's always been aware of the cycle of life,
so what made samsara different?
The cycle of rebirth really means that you go from one life to another
and you can be manifested in
a different form in each life.
You could be manifested as a god
or you could be manifested as a human being
or maybe higher or lower caste.
You can even manifest as an animal or an insect,
as a cockroach, and so that is really the cycle
of rebirth from life to life through
a continuous passage of time.
So, do you think people felt trapped by this?
Yeah, you could imagine somebody thinking that,
at each birth, he has to go through the travails of life,
of sickness, old age, death
and then rebirth and the whole cycle goes on.
And so it's tedious, I mean, it's... It's suffering,
because the existential reality was not one that they felt was bliss.
So, did people try to work out a way
to release themselves from this trap?
Yes, the great quest of that time was to find ways
out of that cycle of rebirth and re-death.
For the Buddha, the rituals of the Brahmans
weren't the answer to the perennial suffering of life.
They didn't seem to offer a permanent solution to samsara...
..but he was convinced that a mechanism
to completely break free from the cycle altogether
could be found...
..and he wasn't alone.
A wave of truth-seekers had left their families and homes
to wander the Earth in search of the solution.
Renouncing everything, some chose to live in forests
which is where, we're told,
the Buddha went looking for them.
For the Buddha, self-discovery came
from examining your own individual experiences,
and then drawing logical conclusions from them.
So, in order to try to evaluate the ideas of these new thinkers,
he decided to try out their methods first-hand.
One of these wandering truth-seekers
was a man called Alara Kalama.
Now, the solution to the problem of samsara, as he saw it,
lay in directly experiencing the permanent,
the eternal part of ourselves,
the part that survived every rebirth.
To do this, he meditated...
to block out the distractions of the temporary external world.
Freed from physical and mental interference,
such seekers could focus on their goal...
to fully merge their eternal soul
with its cosmic counterpart -
a kind of universal soul, the highest reality.
The idea seems to have been that -
by creating union between the microcosm - the individual self -
and the macrocosm - this world soul -
they would achieve liberation.
Under Alara's tuition,
we're told the Buddha showed such remarkable ability,
he could achieve a profound stillness of mind.
So much so, Alara offered him joint leadership of the group...
..but he refused.
He found that once he came out of meditation,
he was just returned, once again, to the same fundamental problems
of birth, sickness, old age and death.
It didn't give him the transformative experience
that he sought.
But the Buddha didn't give up.
It's said, he next experimented
with the techniques of a different type of renouncer
who focused on extreme forms of self-denial.
These type of renouncers also believed that
the material part of our being is an obstacle to liberation -
but theirs was a more drastic solution.
Instead of focusing the mind,
they put all their efforts into subduing their bodies.
Some groups believed that all human action
left a negative dust on our soul...
weighing us down in this life
and trapping us in future rebirths.
Some fasted, some stood stock-still for months on end,
others endured the heat of the midday sun,
all to burn off the results of their previous actions.
Extreme measures to allow space for the permanent soul to expand to the
size of the universe, eventually liberating them from samsara.
It seems the Buddha spent six years experimenting with all
kinds of self-denying, extreme penances.
He tried a technique of holding his breath for longer
and longer periods.
He walked around naked.
He ate tiny amounts of food...
Just one grain of rice a day.
We're told that he almost died.
His bones were like the rafters of a derelict house.
He could actually feel his backbone through his stomach.
But despite all this, he wasn't making any progress.
The pain was clouding his mind.
The austerities weren't providing a solution to suffering,
they were just making him suffer even more.
So, he abandoned the path of self-denial
by eating a bowl of rice-porridge,
disappointing and angering his five fellow renouncers.
Six years of hardship experimenting with different methods,
had come to nothing.
Now, he would go it alone, in his quest to break the cycle of samsara.
What the Buddha attempted next, was something new.
A middle way between the extremes of self-indulgence
and the rigours of self-mortification.
Moderation would be his radical new approach from now on.
The Buddha's change of tack would bring greater clarity
to his examination of the human condition.
The Buddha believed that all we can know for sure,
is how we experience the world,
and that it's our minds that determine what
kinds of experience we have.
Using his meditation skills,
he interrogated the internal workings of his own mind.
And what the Buddha discovered, contradicted the assumptions
people held about the permanence of the soul.
He realised that the external world, as we experienced it,
was constantly changing,
and that we were constantly changing, too.
Our material form, our sensations, our mind, our consciousness,
our character - all in perpetual flux.
This realisation exposed a fundamental flaw
in the Buddha's thinking.
All efforts to identify a permanent self were futile,
because a permanent, or independent self, did not exist.
When the Buddha's looking at how the process of his suffering
was developing, he started looking at it very much like a doctor
and he starts looking at a cause.
He starts realising that everything is fleeting, is changing.
There's nothing that he can put his finger on as a cause and starts
realising that, actually, the cause is the identification with an "I".
There's no such thing, which you can just pinpoint at a certain point
in time and say, "OK, this is it."
But, it changes in the next moment, so I think that realisation
that everything is impermanent, leads to the idea
of the permanently existing entity of a soul as a concept.
Just explain to me, cos I can't quite get my head round this.
What does it mean to have no self? What did he mean by that?
I'll give you an example. For example, I say,
"OK, Bethany, when were you born?"
And you say, "I was born on so and so date and so and so year."
And I'd say, "Really? Weren't you born nine months before that?"
You say, "Yes," and I say,
"Weren't you in your mother and father before that?"
If I took your mother out of you, you're not Bettany any more!
Bettany's made of non-Bettany elements.
Bettany is the sunshine,
the earth, England,
and then you suddenly start realising that there was not
a single point when Bettany came about.
You know, so, in Buddhism we don't talk about creation,
we talk about manifestation.
It's not denying that you exist. You exist.
It's denying that we have an intrinsically independent entity.
The Buddha believed the idea of a permanent self
wasn't part of the solution.
It was actually at the root of the problem,
because it made us selfish, self-absorbed.
It created insatiable craving that enslaved us
to transient earthly concerns, and kept us trapped in samsara.
To rid oneself of this deep-seated delusion of self,
was the way to liberation.
That realisation allows you the freedom not to get caught
in the I, me, mine, which is really the fundamental cause of suffering.
And then he says, "Oh, then there is a way to overcome suffering."
That's a sort of, "A-ha, wow!"
So, his teaching was based around rediscovering your nature,
which is non-self nature.
The Buddha's self-analysis revealed the answer.
If we could extinguish the delusion of self,
we would see things as they truly are and our suffering would end.
We had the capacity to take control of our lives.
The Buddha seems to have recognised that there is plasticity
to our minds and characters.
Living in the world with the right attitude,
is fundamentally empowering.
Basically, know yourself, and the world is yours.
It's cognitive psychology,
25 centuries before the phrase is invented.
The Buddha was ready to throw all his efforts
into bringing about his self-transformation.
Arriving on the outskirts of a small village,
he found a beautiful stretch of countryside,
with a pleasant grove, nestled on the banks of a sparkling river.
We're told that one night, aged 35, the Buddha came here to
Bodh Gaya, and calmly sat underneath the ancestor of this very tree.
Today, it's a pilgrimage site for many millions, for one key reason.
Because this is where it all came together.
The Buddha entered a deep meditative state,
in which he experienced a vast number of his previous lives.
He describes a cycle of many life forms and realms of existence.
From hell-beings and animals,
to humans, through to more abstract levels of consciousness.
Yet all these forms were subject to samsara.
Even a god would eventually die and be reborn.
But, finally, the Buddha moved beyond these states.
Searching deep in his humanity,
he was able to root out and permanently extinguish craving,
ignorance and delusion.
He had finally broken free of the cycle of death and rebirth
and attained, enlightenment - nirvana.
Unshakeable is the liberation of my mind.
This is the last birth.
For me, there is no more renewed existence.
Later, the Buddha would discourage speculation
about the nature of nirvana.
Describing it, was like asking what had happened to a flame
once it had been blown out.
And yet, this was no less than a solution to the human condition,
without the need for heavens or gods or metaphysical knowledge.
This was a state of pure liberation,
directly experienced from within.
The Buddha had harnessed the capabilities of the mind,
to identify what he believed it fundamentally was to be human.
Extinguishing desire and hatred and delusion, had allowed him
to fulfil his full potential.
Now, he could live with absolute wisdom and compassion.
The Buddha found he had a new mission -
to share what he'd experienced.
He wasn't sure if he could ever communicate it,
but his profound empathy for others drove him on.
His starting point, was the five former renouncer friends,
he had left for his middle way.
The sources tell us he found them where I'm heading next, the
outskirts of modern day Varanasi, the site of an ancient deer park.
At first, his former companions were reluctant to welcome him.
And then, we're told, they realised that a great
transformation had taken place.
They greeted him with respect, and washed his feet.
And it's now that we get a sense of the compelling charisma of the man.
Because, what the Buddha had to tell them,
was mind-blowing in its insight and clarity.
The Buddha shared his discoveries, known as the Four Noble Truths.
The first truth was the inevitability
that all life is suffering.
But by suffering, the Buddha didn't just mean illness and old age,
but the persistent disappointments and insecurities of life.
The second truth was that suffering is caused by craving.
The third was that, since suffering has an identifiable cause,
it could have an end.
But it was the fourth truth that offered the critical,
This truth was a path, what he called the Eightfold Path,
and it offered up an end to all suffering.
With the Buddha's guidance,
his small group of disciples made quick progress.
They gained wisdom, practised ethical conduct
and achieved mental discipline through meditation.
Finally, they experienced nirvana for themselves.
But whilst liberation was, in theory, open to everyone,
in practice, many couldn't afford the time and effort.
The Buddha, however, had a message of hope for those who remained
trapped in the cycle of death and rebirth...
..by completely reformulating the long established concept of karma.
Traditionally, karma referred to significant action, which, it was
believed, could improve the quality of our rebirth in the next life.
In the early days of Brahmanism, karma was synonymous with
ritual action, performed by priests, on behalf of the higher castes.
The lowest castes had little prospect of improving
their lot through this ritual form of karma.
The Buddha changed karma from ritual action to the thought
of that action, so the intent of that action was more important than
the action itself.
If you thought well or if you had good intentions,
then you could change your destiny,
not necessarily in this life
but in future lives, as well.
That's a key shift, isn't it?
That is a very major shift in the understanding of the notion
of karma, from ritual action to an individual's choice of doing good.
They have to be good human beings,
and that's the fundamental thing about Buddhism.
So, that's not just a, kind of, philosophical shift,
that's a change in society?
Absolutely, he took it out of the hands of the priests
who were empowered to change the destiny of men
and gave it in the hands of people who were practising Buddhism.
So, it doesn't matter what class you're from or,
actually, what gender?
You could be anyone, you could belong to any caste.
It didn't really matter.
Everybody had the choice and the freedom to improve,
to become a good person.
The Buddha's take on karma was liberating.
Everyone stuck in the cycle of samsara,
had the chance to improve the quality of their rebirth.
Now, you were no longer good or bad,
dependent on class or gender,
or some kind of ritual expertise.
The Buddha sought answers that had the potential to benefit everyone.
Just think what a radical development that is.
The Buddha's democratisation of karma attracted the attention,
and support, of one class in particular,
the merchants and traders, who had fuelled the rise of Indian cities.
According to the conventions of Brahmanism,
contact with anyone outside your caste resulted in contamination.
But of course, by definition, merchants were interacting
with different people and different cultures the whole time.
Now, Buddhism didn't have any kind of a problem with that.
Some merchants felt disadvantaged by the caste system.
The Buddha's inclusive message, gave them a greater sense of place
in society and channelled their aspirational instincts.
The wealth of merchants, like good karma, was by its very nature,
It wasn't in some way pre-ordained,
it was won and accumulated through your own efforts.
The Buddha's take on the ancient ideas of karma,
offered ordinary people a way to a better, moral life.
He helped to create the belief, that action and intention,
in our everyday lives, had real consequences.
Coins like these were a brand-new common denominator,
just as karma was now a kind of moral currency for Buddhism.
It's easy to imagine how, with things like these in your pocket,
you could understand how you could secure future benefit,
by building up merits.
The Buddha had revolutionised ethics.
We could no longer blame any external force, like a God,
for our decisions.
We were entirely responsible for our own moral condition.
The buck stopped with us.
In essence, this is the same rallying cry that we hear from those
other great philosophers of the age, Socrates and Confucius.
To find answers to the universe, first look within.
"Be your own lamp," said the Buddha. "Seek no other refuge."
These are exciting thoughts, the idea that you don't just have
to be a victim, but a master of your own fate.
The Buddha forged ahead with his potent message
of personal liberation.
It's said he criss-crossed the central Indian plains,
giving public talks in cities and the country,
to anybody he thought ready to hear his message.
And the community of disciples, who shared his mission
and wandering lifestyle, acquired a name - the Sangha.
At this stage, the Sangha was dispersed,
and only loosely organised.
But, according to traditional accounts, when the Buddha
came here, to a forest on the outskirts of Rajagriha,
the Buddhist order would take on a whole new direction.
The king of the city, Bimbisara,
heard that the Buddha was camped outside,
and went to visit him with 120,000 Brahmans.
On hearing him preach, we're told that each and every one of them,
including the King, begged to be received as lay followers.
We know that with people when we meet some people,
we immediately feel a sense of reverence, you know,
a sense of humility in their presence.
And yet, they don't seem inaccessible.
He was, I feel, very charismatic,
people were, in a way, entranced by him.
I think he was able to understand the psychology of the person.
He had a, sort of, intuitive sense of what the person needed.
He was not saying, "I'm the one who knows."
He said, "You try it."
And this spirit of free enquiry
that the Buddha was really encouraging,
was quite revolutionary.
Following their meeting, Bimbisara was said to have donated
a bamboo grove on this very spot,
as a retreat for the Buddha's growing community.
Winning over wealthy patrons would be crucial for the future
of the Buddha's message.
The establishment of permanent bases
in places like this, saw the Sangha develop from a group
of like-minded itinerants, into a settled institution.
The Sangha at Rajagriha became the model for something entirely new.
Soon, a network of monasteries,
the first known monasteries in the world, sprang up.
Places where the Buddha, and his travelling disciples,
would stay during the monsoon season.
The movement was changing, and the Buddha's role would change, too.
He'd taught that each monk was an island,
and responsible for themselves.
But, now, he's believed to have created a comprehensive
set of guidelines.
'With early Buddhism, there was only a few monks, so there was no need'
of rules, because those who became monks
were very highly intelligent
and highly, you know, spiritual.
They have the clear intention, comprehension -
why I am become a monk -
so they never done anything wrong.
But gradually, you know, with the numbers growing up,
to maintain the excellence, peace and harmony,
he prescribed the different rules and the discipline.
And amazing to think that two-and-a-half millennia later,
you're still living by those rules.
I think we need MORE rules.
Because, in the modern times, we have to face so many things.
That time, only India, now there is the whole world!
There are 227 rules for monks, enacted every day.
And it is amazing to think that in these words, we could be
getting a glimpse into the mind of the Buddha and his early followers.
The Buddha's thought to have adapted his rules in an ad hoc way.
He was a pragmatist, not above changing his mind
and listening to reason.
Even when it came to the thorny issue of including women.
CHANTING IN BACKGROUND
At the very beginning, they were regarded as a bit of a burden,
because they needed protecting.
But the logic that liberation should be available to all
meant that, really, they had to be included.
And we're told that the Buddha himself eventually declared
that nuns should be part of the Sangha.
The rules of the Sangha are eminently practical.
Self-discipline and resourcefulness are enshrined into daily life.
They dictate what you can own and what you must give up.
Monks are allowed to have eight possessions.
There are three robes, basically.
-It is to look ugly.
Not to be beautiful.
We have to have a small needle and the threads.
But, you know, nowadays, we don't stitch,
-because we have ready-made robes.
This is the razor.
-It is very troublesome to keep hair.
So, we leave it, everything.
-This is bowl...
-Begging bowl of the monks.
So this, you collect food and drinks
-and alms from other people?
And why do you get your food from outside?
Why don't you produce it yourself?
Because a monk has to depend on the people, on the society,
so...we have gratefulness and gratitude.
So, what we return to them -
our compassion and wisdom.
Monks can be a guide to the people,
to the society, to show the path to wisdom,
to show the path to peace and to show the path to happiness.
Apart from that, monks have no other connection,
relations to the lay people, whatsoever.
But you've had to leave your family in order to become a monk?
Yes. In fact, family life is always
full of that kind of miseries,
that kind of obstacles and troubles, so many.
So, living in a family life,
one cannot practise a simple, holy life,
in order to achieve the spiritual heights.
When monks leave home, it can be hard for those left behind.
The Buddha is said to have acknowledged the grief
he'd caused his family and proclaimed that monks needed
parental permission to join.
Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion that's sometimes criticised
for only benefiting the practitioner,
that, rather coldly, sees social and family bonds
as attachments to the world
and, therefore, a barrier to achieving nirvana.
But what I get a sense of here
is a real commitment to collective wellbeing.
The Buddha hadn't shut himself away after his enlightenment.
His insights had heightened his concern for others
and he'd spend over half his life helping those around him
to alleviate their suffering.
The Buddha's insistence on the absolute value of compassion
is something that really impresses me.
Just listen to these words of his,
some of the very earliest ever written down.
"Let no-one deceive another, nor despise anyone anywhere.
"As a mother protects her child, with boundless loving kindness,
"cherish the world.
"Love without limit."
How can you argue with that?
By tirelessly expressing and explaining his ideas,
the Buddha had nurtured a committed following
dedicated to his principles of intellectual rigour
and deep humanity.
But the Sangha couldn't rely on the leadership of its founder forever.
We're told that when the Buddha reached his eighties,
thoughts turned to the continuation of his message.
His faithful attendant, Ananda, asked what would happen
to the Sangha after he died.
He said, "The Sangha doesn't need a leader,"
"it just needs my dharma, my teaching."
After accepting a meal at the house of a humble blacksmith,
it's believed he contracted food poisoning
and quickly became very ill.
Yet, having achieved nirvana,
the Buddha had no fear of death.
His suffering had ended with the moment of his enlightenment.
He would not be reborn
and what followed death was, like nirvana,
Just before he died, he told his fellow monks
to simply keep seeking enlightenment.
"It is the nature of things to decay.
"Be attentive, and you will succeed."
The Buddha's death robbed the Sangha of their founder and leader.
With this vacuum, there was a real danger
his ideas would be lost or corrupted.
The Buddha had encouraged the Sangha to reach consensus
on day-to-day concerns by holding regular meetings.
And now, the monks did as they'd been taught.
They're said to have convened a council
of 500 prominent monks here to this cave
to determine the content of Buddhist doctrine.
Ananda recited the sermons and the teachings of the Buddha.
Another monk, Upali, recited the monastic rules.
They now had a definitive account of the Buddha's ideas.
For the next few centuries,
the Buddha's message was kept alive by the Sangha.
But, ironically, Buddhism's expansion to the wider world
would come courtesy of a despot.
200 years after the Buddha's death,
most of what is modern India
was ruled by the ruthless emperor Ashoka.
This well in Ashoka's ancient capital, Patna,
is believed to have been his purpose-built torture chamber.
We're told that, here, Ashoka's sadistic head torturer
would prise open the mouths of his victims
and pour molten copper down their throats.
But then, around 262 BC,
following a particularly pitiless and bloody victory,
Ashoka suddenly had a sickening realisation
of all the suffering that he'd caused.
And his change of heart could not have been more dramatic.
Invoking the non-violent teachings of the Buddha,
and declaring his heartfelt remorse for all his murderous actions,
he vowed that, from here on in,
he would govern righteously.
The reformed emperor set his new beliefs in stone.
He sought out sites associated with the Buddha's life
and erected pillars up to 15 metres high.
In doing so, he marked them out for the benefit of future pilgrims.
HE SPEAKS IN NATIVE LANGUAGE
He had inscriptions, like this, carved into stone
right across his empire.
But these edicts didn't lionise his victories in battle.
Instead, they declared his revulsion of violence
and urged his subjects to live moral and compassionate lives.
Ashoka gave up conquest and abolished the death penalty.
He liberated slaves, set up free hospitals.
Animal sacrifice was banned in the capital
and a wide range of animals,
including parrots, tortoises, porcupines,
became protected species.
He sent missions out of India,
taking Buddhist principles to Sri Lanka, the Middle East
and across Asia.
Buddhism would continue to dominate the Indian subcontinent
for the next one-and-a-half millennia.
Wealthy patrons donated generously.
Stupas, containing what was said to be relics of the Buddha
and sculptures depicting his life, emerged across the landscape.
But to my mind, the greatest legacy of this time
is here, at Nalanda.
It is just such a treat to be here,
because this place has a claim to be the oldest university
in the world.
We know there was a serious educational establishment here
from at least the fifth century AD,
and you have to try to imagine it in its heyday.
It would have been buzzing with international scholars,
who came from as far afield as Indonesia, Tibet, China,
Turkey and Japan.
It had a huge campus with thousands of students.
200 villages supplied the students' practical needs.
Maths, politics, literature were all studied here,
but there was particular emphasis on Buddhism.
Thousands of Buddhist manuscripts were housed
in a nine-storeyed building.
It was the envy of the medieval world.
One Chinese scholar clearly adored it here.
"There are richly adorned towers, and fairytale turrets.
"Roofs covered with tiles that reflect
"the light in a thousand shades.
"There are observatories and the upper rooms tower above the clouds.
"These things add to the beauty of the scene."
Renewed interest in Nalanda's legacy of enquiry
has been led by Nobel-prize-winning economist Amartya Sen.
Do you think that the Buddha would have approved
of what went on at Nalanda?
I should think that he very much would have approved.
It was inspired by his ideas, it's inspired by the idea
that we have to solve problems by reflection,
by knowledge, by critical examination.
You know, he tried fasting and it didn't do anything for him
and he decided that by torturing the body, you don't improve your mind.
You improve the mind by cultivating the mind.
Some people might think it's counter-intuitive that Buddhism
is being taught at Nalanda alongside maths and science and grammar.
But it's part of that kind of practical understanding
of the world, isn't it?
Well, it's part of a Buddhist understanding of the world, too.
Namely that you have to be concerned with those issues that move people,
which includes mortality, disability, morbidity.
It wouldn't be seen in any kind of conflict with Buddhist studies,
because Buddhism is also about human life.
What would you say the Buddha has to offer the world today?
One of the things that Buddha identifies is that
it's possible for you to agree on good action
without necessarily agreeing
on a bigger, metaphysical view of the universe.
When I was fortunate to get the Nobel,
I gave the bulk of that money to have elementary education,
elementary health care and gender equality.
At the same time, I don't have any great belief
in religion and God.
But it was the Buddha who changed the question from
"Is there a God?"
to questions like, how to behave,
no matter whether there is God or not.
And I think that's a game changer.
Buddhism had been in the ascendency,
but, from the seventh century, changes in patterns of patronage
began to affect big institutions like Nalanda.
Gifts from rich benefactors ebbed away.
Brahmanism had always remained a strong presence
and people drifted back in greater numbers.
It began to dominate state governance, at Buddhism's expense.
Muslim conquerors in the 12th and 13th centuries
sacked monasteries and temples.
Nalanda is said to have been put to the torch
and to have burnt for three days.
The Buddhist way of life
all but disappeared in the land of its birth.
But Buddhism was already on the move.
It had already travelled at a furious pace throughout Asia
and would continue its journey to become a truly global religion.
With no single sacred language, no inflexible dogma,
Buddhism was ripe for export.
It's an adaptable philosophy that's become a diverse belief system.
As it spread, it cross-pollinated with other cultures
in numerous, unexpected ways.
For some, there is life after death
and the Buddha is a figure of devotion.
Since the 20th century, it's even been implicated
in violent, nationalist struggles.
But, at its heart, the Buddha's message remains the same -
that whilst change is inevitable,
we all have the power to direct that change.
By gaining wisdom, we can reduce suffering.
The Buddha's life is a fascinating one
from an age that made history.
But we can relate to him on a very personal level.
His need to find answers to the human condition in the here and now
is one that, I'd argue, deep down, we all share.
He offers practical solutions to help overcome
the desires and delusions, which fuel hatred, jealousy and greed.
And, arguably, his greatest gift is deceptively simple.
That it's compassion, empathy and knowing who we truly are
that makes both us and the world better.
Whether you're Buddhist or not,
the humanity and hope of that message still burns bright today.
If the mind of the Buddha has made you think,
explore further with The Open University
to find out how great minds have influenced our world.
Go to the address on the bottom of the screen
and follow the links to The Open University.
Next time, I investigate a philosopher
who influenced the whole of Western thought -
His rigorous methods and uncompromising questioning
made him the moral conscience of the city he loved - Athens.
Yet, his dogged pursuit of truth would end with a death sentence.
In this first episode, Bettany investigates the revolutionary ideas of the Buddha.