In Gautama’s India it is quite possible that there was no such thing as written language. Oral transmission of knowledge and wisdom was the tradition of the period as it had been for a thousand years of Vedic traditional life.
The Vedas were memorised by the Brahmin priests who jealously guarded the Sanskrit verses which gave them their social and spiritual superiority. They were the only people within their self-created caste system that were allowed to propagate this knowledge, prized as the ultimate expression of Vedic and Brahmanic culture. Rote learning of these Sanskrit passages represented a sine qua non of Brahmin existence. In Buddha’s world likewise knowledge and wisdom was passed on orally to those who were close to Buddha. The man who has been accredited with being most cognisant of the entirety of Buddha’s verbal wisdom was his cousin Ananda. Somewhat ironically Anada was never actually a monk during Buddha’s lifetime. He simply perceived the accurate memorisation of his teachings as being his contribution of service to Buddha.
The first time Buddha’s teachings were committed to writing appears to be some three hundred years after his death. Buddha presumably spoke a form of Maghadan Prakrit. Pali is now considered to be the closest language resembling the language that Gautama himself would have used though it itself has naturally changed. With the destruction of so much of Buddhist literature in India, Pali documents mainly exist in Sri Lanka. To understand the historical dilemma it should be remebered that the oldest Pali documents still remaining are a mere 500 years old. The Pali discourses are rich in Buddhist teachings, his dharma, but unfortunately for our purpose poor in historical and biographical detail. This may of course be the result of Buddha’s own insistence that his own life was of little importance as contrasted with the dharma.
Limited biographical detail of Buddha himself appears some time after the commencement of the second century CE with the Buddhacarita and other epic poems. Most of the biographic details that we have are reflections of the biographies of the 3rd century CE (Lalita-Vistara) and the 5th century CE (Nidana Katha). The Pali Canon was put together in a final and chronological order in the 5th century CE by Buddhaghosa some 1000 years after Buddha’s death. These sources give, on the whole, fragmented detail relating mainly to the early life of Buddha. There remains little to no information about his personal life after attaining Buddhahood.
Further information about Buddha and Buddhism comes from Sanskrit sources from Afghanistan and China. Much of the Chinese information comes from the Chinese Buddhist monks, Faxian and Xuan Zang who visited India in the 5th and 7th centuries CE and obtained much information from sources later destroyed in India.
In attempting to define what influenced Buddha it might help to look at some of what was used by Buddha which did originate in the pre-Buddhist Vedic faith. The first was one that we have touched on before namely reincarnation, rebirth or in Sanskrit samsara. Reincarnation comes from the Vedic belief that the essence of life is separate from the physical body. When the body dies this essence crosses over or transmigrates to another body and a person is reborn. The Vedic belief is that these essences or souls are eternal. There is no beginning and no end. This process of continuous rebirth is called samsara. In the Vedas the sense of a personal essence was called atman. Apart from this personal essence the Vedas envisaged a universal essence which was called brahman. This universal essence was an all-encompassing, all-enveloping sense of godliness. In a sense one could relate to atman as one’s individual soul and brahman as a universal soul or an encompassing sense of spiritual-ness. The Atman-Brahman relationship represented a continuum of spirituality in an axis stretching from a personal spiritual essence to a greater universal and eternal spiritual existence.
Buddha accepted the concept of samsara or rebirth unconditionally exactly as it had developed in the Vedic tradition. It was considered traditionally that the form that you were reborn into was determined by the morality of your actions in your previous life. This became a basic tenet of Buddhism exactly as it was in the Vedic religions. In Brahmanism you might be reborn into a lower caste or even as an animal if you had been considered to indulge in wrongful actions in your previous life. In Buddhism if fortunate you might be born into the heavenly realms or human states and if not into the animal states, the hungry ghosts or the hells. This therefore led easily into the idea of karma which is that one’s actions invoked consequences. Hungry ghosts are called in Sanskrit preta and are spirit beings who are animalistically driven by intense emotional needs. They are believed to suffer more than humans and often have intense needs like thirst or hunger. Hungry ghosts or pretas are believed to be the result of having lived corrupt lives full of jealousy, deceit and greed. They were also thought to have died unusually violent deaths. The idea of hungry ghosts was spread by Buddhism from India to Asia. In Thailand outside some temples there you can see quite frightening statues representing these hungry ghosts.
Karma is another Sanskrit term which also has an ancient history in Vedic terms. The common usage of karma in the Vedas and later in Hinduism is in relation to fate. The Sanskrit word karma actually means action. This originally referred to the ritual action performed by the Brahman priests in their practices involving ritual sacrifice to the gods during the Vedic period. The belief was that appropriate ritualistic action resulted in the gods responding in a favourable manner to the person initiating these ritual actions. If the appropriate sacrifice was made via the Brahman priests the heavens would reward you. Ultimately the Vedic belief was that one’s fate was in the hands of the gods. For them your karma was your fate. If you appeased the gods your fate was likely to be better. If you did not the gods decided independently on your fate and that was that. You had no other direct power to influence it. It is one reason why Hinduism has been considered fatalistic.
As explained above karma was linked to the concept of rebirth. The karmic actions taken in your previous life would determine how you lived in a future one. In a previous life if you performed the rituals correctly, made the requisite sacrifices and prayed to the appropriate gods, the karmic consequences would more likely to be in your favour.
In Buddhism things weren’t that fixed. One could influence karma by one’s behaviour. There was a definitive difference between the Vedic position on karma and the Buddhist position. In Buddhism the emphasis was not so much on ritualistic action but on ethical action. Buddha considered that psychological intention was as important if not more so than ritualistic action. The ethical intention of the person involved took on a much greater significance than the action alone. A negative action seen as being necessary to fulfill your duty would not then be considered to have negative Karmic consequence.