Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India: Their History and Their Contribution to Indian Culture

By Sukumar Dutt | Go to book overview

1
'Wandering Almsmen' in the Upaniṣads

POSTULATING 483 BC1 as the year of the Buddha's 'Great Decease', we arrive by a brief and simple chronological computation at some time near the thirties of the sixth century BC when his ministrations commenced in a small eastern corner of northern India.2

Soon there was a group of disciples who had received ordination at his hands and joined the order to which the Master himself belonged--an order that already existed and was even then ancient-- the Order of Wandering Almsmen.

In the legends of the Theravāda Canon, we have the story set forth of the early growth of this body of the Buddha's disciples and followers. They formed at the beginning what is defined as a 'cultgroup' by anthropologists--of men who recognized the Buddha as their Lord and Master ( Bhagavā and Satthā), accepted his given system of spiritual culture (Dhamma) and were devotedly attached to his person. They formed just a union of fait under a spiritual guide and master.

Others joined the union and, when it had grown somewhat in numerical strength, the Master charged it with a mission. It was to 'go forth and wander about for the good of the Many (Bahujana), the happiness of the Many--in compassion for the world--for the good, the welfare and the happiness of gods and men'.3

At the time when they had this message from the Master, the group of disciples was not even a hundred strong and few among them were equal to the given task: the Canon says that there were only sixty-one arhants living in the world then.4 To outsiders this group was known as the 'Ordained Followers of the Sakyaputta' (Sakyaputtiya Samaṇas), but the group called itself by the simple name, the 'Union of Bhikkhus' (Bhikkhu-saṇgha).5

____________________
1
See E. J. Thomas Life of the Buddha, p. xii (Chronology).
2
The computation is as follows: working backwards from the year 483 BC, accepted by western scholars as the year of his decease at the age of 80, we get these dates--563 BC (Birth); 534 (Renunciation at the age of 29); 528 (Buddhahood after six years' wandering and striving); a couple of months later, the First Sermon and Commencement of ministration.
3
Mahāvagga, 1, 11, 1.
4
'Tena kho pana samayena ekasaṭṭhi loke arahanto honti'--Mahā, 1, 10, 4.
5
It will be observed that in the legends of the (Theravāda) Canon, the name by which outsiders designate the Bhikkhusaṅgha is always "'Sakyaputtiya Samaṇas'". Samaṇa in the expression is just a respectful term for a wandering almsman.

-35-

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