Gautama Buddha’s death is said to have happened around 486 BCE, forty five years after his enlightenment. Though historians agree that the Buddha died at the age of eighty, they are yet to have a consensus on the exact timeline of the life and death of the Buddha. Though the Buddha’s conventional timeline is considered to be 566-486 BCE, recent studies have revised the dates as 490-410 BCE.
It is said that after the Buddha’s death, his disciples had some confusion over some questions which was left unanswered. Some of these were on the question of the eternity of the world, infinity of the world, oneness of the soul, and existence of the Buddha after death.
The Buddhist council
Three months after the Buddha’s death, his disciples convened a council in order to resolve these matters and to preserve and protect the Buddha’s percepts. The first Buddhist council was thus held at Rajagaha under the patronage of King Ajatasattu at Rajagaha. This council saw the compilation of two of the three Buddhist Pitakas – Vinaya Pitaka (monastic rules) and Sutta Pitaka (sermons of the Buddha).
After Buddhism’s initial proliferation, the first schism within the Buddhist sect occurred, one hundred years after the first council. Convened at Vaisali under the patronage of King Kalasoka, the Second Buddhist council which gathered to resolve some controversies on the Vinaya ended up being divided into two groups, Sthaviravada (school of elders/traditionalists), Mahasanghika (greater sangha).
From sect to religion
Buddism’s major breakthrough from a sect to a religion happened after King Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism. The third Buddhist council held in 3rd century BCE under his patronage not only saw the compilations of the third Pitaka, the Abhidhamma Pitaka (commentaries on the teachings of the Buddha) and Tissa’s Kathavatthu (refutations of false views and theories on Buddhism), but also witnessed Buddhism’s propagation into Sri Lanka, Kanara, Karnataka, Kashmir, Himalaya region, and Burma by missionaries sent by Ashoka.
It is said that the Fourth Buddhist Council held under the patronage of King Kaniska in Kashmir around 100 CE witnessed the formal edition of the three pitakas and the rise of Mahayana Buddhism especially by its exponents like Nagarjuna, Asanga, Shantideva, Ashvagosha, and Vasubandhu.
The growth of Buddhism
Buddhism continued to have a strong influence in the Indian subcontinent till the twelfth century; the coming of the Muslim invasions and the revival of Hindu movements especially “Advaita” and “Bhakti” undermined its popularity.
Moreover, as Buddhism came into contact with different religions, it adopted certain syncretic elements. For instance, it adopted some aspects of Confucianism, Taoism and Shinto in China and Japan, and some Tantric elements in Tibet. Subsequent reinterpretation of the Buddhist Dhamma in accordance with the beliefs of the different syncretic Buddhist sects was followed by further fragmentation of the Sangha.
However, today, regardless of the numerous sects, Buddhism remains a major World religion with over 500 million followers belonging to three major sects Theravada also called Hinayana(Lesser Vehicle), Mahayana Buddhism (Larger Vehicle), and Vajrayana Buddhism (Diamond Vehicle).