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General Studies 1 >> Art& Culture

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1. Context
 In his first speech as Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha, Rahul Gandhi on Monday invoked the abhaya mudra, the gesture of the raised open palm that is commonly understood as conveying reassurance and a freedom from fear.
2. What is Abhaya Mudra?
  • In Sanskrit, the term "mudra" can refer to a seal, mark, sign, or currency. However, in Buddhism, it specifically denotes the hand and arm gestures used during rituals or seen in representations of buddhas, bodhisattvas, tantric deities, and other Buddhist figures. Mudras are often associated with visual depictions of the Buddha, with each gesture conveying different emotions and meanings, reflecting the Buddha’s various states of realization.
  • The earliest physical representations of the Buddha emerged around the turn of the first millennium, particularly in Gandhara art from the northwestern Indian subcontinent. These early images of the Buddha (Buddharupa) feature four primary mudras: the abhaya mudra (gesture of fearlessness), the bhumisparsha mudra (Earth-touching gesture), the dharmachakra mudra (gesture of the wheel of dharma), and the dhyana mudra (gesture of meditation).
  • In Buddhist tradition, the abhaya mudra is linked to the Buddha immediately after attaining Enlightenment, symbolizing the security, serenity, and compassion that arise from enlightenment.
  • It also represents the moment Shakyamuni (the Buddha) subdued a mad elephant, showcasing his power to instill fearlessness in his followers. Consequently, the abhaya mudra is seen as a gesture of protection or granting refuge.
  • Over time, the abhaya mudra was adopted in depictions of Hindu deities, and the Buddha was incorporated into the Hindu pantheon as the ninth avatar of the Puranic god Vishnu
3. What is the significance of Buddhism in Indian cultural history?
Buddhism holds a significant place in Indian cultural history due to its profound impact on the country's spiritual, social, and artistic developments.
Here are some key aspects of its significance:
  • Founding of a Major Religion: Buddhism, founded by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) in the 6th century BCE, offered an alternative path to spiritual development and enlightenment, distinct from the Vedic traditions prevalent at the time.
  • Philosophical Contributions: It introduced key concepts such as the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the concept of Nirvana, which have deeply influenced Indian thought and philosophy.
  • Rejection of Caste System: Buddhism challenged the rigid caste system, advocating for equality and social justice. This had a significant impact on the social fabric of Indian society, promoting the idea of social mobility and equality.
  • Ethical Teachings: Emphasizing non-violence (ahimsa), compassion (karuna), and moral conduct, Buddhism influenced the ethical and moral values of Indian society.
  • Iconography and Symbols: Buddhist art introduced significant symbols such as the lotus, the wheel (dharmachakra), and various mudras (hand gestures), which became integral to Indian religious iconography.
  • Stupas and Monasteries: The construction of stupas, such as the Great Stupa at Sanchi, and monastic complexes like Nalanda, played a vital role in the architectural and cultural landscape of India. These structures also became centers of learning and pilgrimage
  • Buddhist Texts: The Pali Canon and other Buddhist scriptures enriched Indian literature, providing a vast body of religious and philosophical texts.
  • Centers of Learning: Buddhist monasteries evolved into major educational institutions, with Nalanda University being a prime example. These centers attracted scholars from across Asia, fostering cultural and intellectual exchanges.
  • Royal Patronage: Indian rulers, most notably Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE, embraced and promoted Buddhism. Ashoka's support led to the spread of Buddhism within India and beyond, influencing neighboring regions and establishing it as a major world religion.
  • Diplomatic and Cultural Exchange: Buddhism facilitated diplomatic relations and cultural exchanges with other Asian countries, such as Sri Lanka, China, and Japan, contributing to a shared cultural heritage.
 4. How anti-caste movements have appropriated Buddhism?
Anti-caste movements in India have appropriated Buddhism as a means to challenge the hierarchical and discriminatory caste system entrenched in Hindu society. This appropriation is rooted in Buddhism's foundational principles of equality, non-discrimination, and social justice, which directly oppose the caste-based discrimination prevalent in India.
Here are some ways in which anti-caste movements have embraced Buddhism:
  • Dr. B.R. Ambedkar's Conversion: The most significant appropriation of Buddhism by anti-caste movements occurred when Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a prominent Dalit leader and architect of the Indian Constitution, converted to Buddhism in 1956 along with millions of his followers. This mass conversion was a powerful statement against the caste system and a rejection of Hinduism, which Ambedkar believed perpetuated caste-based oppression.
  • Ambedkar's Teachings: Ambedkar's reinterpretation of Buddhism, often called Navayana Buddhism, emphasized rationality, social equality, and justice. He saw Buddhism as a means to empower the oppressed and to foster a society based on liberty, equality, and fraternity.
  • Rejection of Brahmanical Hierarchy: Buddhism's historical opposition to the caste system and Brahmanical orthodoxy made it an attractive alternative for anti-caste movements. The Buddha's teachings promoted the idea that spiritual liberation was accessible to all, regardless of caste or social status.
  • Emphasis on Social Justice: Buddhism's core values of compassion (karuna) and non-violence (ahimsa) align with the goals of anti-caste movements, which seek to eliminate social injustices and promote human dignity.
  • Cultural Identity and Empowerment: By adopting Buddhism, Dalits and other marginalized communities sought to reclaim their cultural and religious identity, distancing themselves from the stigma associated with the caste system. This provided a sense of pride and unity.
  • Political Tool: The conversion to Buddhism has been used as a political strategy to mobilize masses against caste-based oppression and to demand equal rights and opportunities. It has also served as a platform for advocating legal and social reforms.
  • Establishment of Buddhist Institutions: Anti-caste movements have established Buddhist educational institutions, cultural centers, and monasteries to promote Buddhist teachings and provide avenues for social upliftment.
  • Promotion of Ambedkarite Buddhism: Through literature, art, and public discourse, Ambedkarite Buddhism has been promoted as a philosophy of liberation and social justice. Celebrations of Ambedkar Jayanti and the conversion anniversary serve to reinforce this cultural identity.
5.What are the various sects of Buddhism?

Buddhism has evolved into several sects and schools over its long history, each with its own interpretations, practices, and geographical focus. The major sects of Buddhism are primarily divided into three broad traditions: Theravāda, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna. Here is an overview of these traditions and their key sects:

Theravāda Buddhism

Theravāda, meaning "Teaching of the Elders," is considered the oldest form of Buddhism. It is based on the Pali Canon and emphasizes monastic life and meditation. Theravāda is prevalent in:

  • Sri Lanka: The primary form of Buddhism practiced, with significant influence on culture and society.
  • Myanmar (Burma): Known for its rich tradition of meditation and large monastic community.
  • Thailand: Features a well-developed monastic system and integration with the national culture.
  • Cambodia: The dominant religion, deeply interwoven with Cambodian identity and history.
  • Laos: Theravāda Buddhism is central to the cultural and religious life.

Mahāyāna Buddhism

Mahāyāna, meaning "Great Vehicle," emphasizes the bodhisattva path, where practitioners seek enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. Mahāyāna includes numerous sects and schools, primarily found in East Asia. Key sects include:

  • Zen Buddhism (Chan in China): Focuses on meditation (zazen) and direct, experiential realization. Prominent in Japan (Zen), China (Chan), Korea (Seon), and Vietnam (Thiền).
  • Pure Land Buddhism: Centers on the veneration of Amitabha Buddha and the aspiration to be reborn in the Pure Land, a realm of bliss. It is widely practiced in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
  • Nichiren Buddhism: Based on the teachings of the Japanese monk Nichiren, emphasizing the Lotus Sutra and the chanting of "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo."
  • Tendai (T’ien-t’ai in China): Integrates various Buddhist teachings and practices, with an emphasis on the Lotus Sutra.
  • Shingon: A form of esoteric Buddhism that focuses on rituals, mantra recitation, and meditation. It is particularly influential in Japan.

Vajrayāna Buddhism

Vajrayāna, meaning "Diamond Vehicle" or "Thunderbolt Vehicle," is also known as Tantric Buddhism. It incorporates esoteric practices and rituals, aiming for rapid enlightenment. Vajrayāna is most prominent in:

  • Tibetan Buddhism: Includes various schools such as Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma, and Sakya. Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes tantra, meditation, and a rich monastic tradition.
  • Mongolian Buddhism: Largely influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, especially the Gelug school.
  • Shingon Buddhism: Though primarily considered part of Mahāyāna in Japan, it shares many Vajrayāna characteristics and practices.
6. Important Buddhist sites in India
India is home to several important Buddhist sites, which are significant for their historical, religious, and cultural value. These sites attract pilgrims, historians, and tourists from around the world.
Here are some of the most important Buddhist sites in India:

Bodh Gaya, Bihar

  • Mahabodhi Temple: This UNESCO World Heritage Site is where Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and became the Buddha. The temple complex includes the Bodhi Tree, under which the Buddha meditated.
  • Bodhi Tree: The descendant of the original tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.

Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh

  • Dhamek Stupa: Marks the spot where the Buddha delivered his first sermon, setting in motion the Wheel of Dharma.
  • Ashoka Pillar: Erected by Emperor Ashoka, this pillar has the famous lion capital, which is now India's national emblem.
  • Sarnath Museum: Houses a large collection of artifacts, including the lion capital and various sculptures and relics.

Rajgir, Bihar

  • Vulture's Peak (Gridhakuta Hill): One of the Buddha's favorite retreat places, where he delivered many sermons.
  • Venuvana: The first monastery offered to the Buddha by King Bimbisara.
  • Nalanda University: One of the world’s oldest universities and a renowned center of Buddhist learning and scholarship.
For Prelims: History of India
For Mains: GS-I: Indian Heritage and Culture
Previous Year Questions
1.With reference to the religious practices in India, the “Sthanakvasi” sect belongs to (UPSC CSE 2018)

(a) Buddhism

(b) Jainism

(c) Vaishnavism

(d) Shaivism

Answer (b)


1.Pala period is the most significant phase in the history of Buddhism in India, Enumerate. (UPSC CSE 2020)

Source: indianexpress

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