By 600 BCE numerous cities had arisen in the Ganges Valley, and sixteen different kingdoms had emerged. There was the caste system, but Aryan men having married non-Aryan women had contributed to a Hinduism that was a cultural blend of gods and habits. Into the 500s BCE, many were still finding satisfaction in gods with whom they had a personal relationship, but more change came in the second half of the 500s with a growth in spiritual asceticism. This created an economic problem for Hinduism's ruling priesthood class — the Brahmans — and they responded by trying to confine the asceticism movement to elderly wandering ascetics.
In the far northeast, Brahmans were performing as teachers to local non-Aryan elites whom they saw as insufficiently Hinduized. Local elites resented Brahman posturing and pride. Some among them opposed Hinduism's animal sacrifices. A few confident young men from elite families refused to accept Brahman authority, and there were some who pointed to the failure of Hinduism to eliminate suffering, and they were interested in gathering followers. Groups of dissidents wandered across the northeast and entered communities to engage in disputations that were welcomed as entertainment by the villagers.
One of the more successful groups was led by a young man who had been born into a local royal family in what today is India's state of Bihar. He had a religiosity that earned him the title The Great Souled One — the Mahavira. He is said to have appealed to people who wanted religion without vague and complex metaphysical speculation. He rejected the idea of everything connected into oneness, and he opposed Hinduism's animal sacrifices. He was popular among women and the urban middle classes in northeastern India. Legend describes his following at the time of his death at 359,000 women and 159,000 men, including full-time devotees numbering 36,000 nuns and 14,000 monks.
After his death his followers held to the view that plants and insects, as well as animals, had consciousness. The Mahariva's movement had become the greatest in pro-life advocacy. Jain followers took an oath never to intentionally destroy a living thing. (This was before an awareness of micro-organisms.) The most devout Jain monks went so far as to sweep the path in front of them to avoid crushing insects. Meanwhile, lay people were content not to intentionally kill anything.
The Jains were also committed to think no evil thoughts about anyone, to never speak falsehoods, and to never steal — their formula for a great if not perfect society. They were also committed to sit in meditation as often as they had planned, to spend time as a temporary monk or nun, to support monks and nuns with contributions, and to possess no more money than they needed.
The leader of another successful rebellion was known as the Great Teacher — The Buddha. This was Siddhartha Gautama. Legend has him born into the Sakya tribe at the town of Kapilavasu in what is today southern Nepal. It is said that in his youth he saw Kapilavasu overrun and its people butchered. Siddhartha's tribe had gained a degree of self-rule in exchange for tribute paid to an Aryan overlord. And Siddhartha is described as having been a prince. According to legend, when he was twenty-nine (perhaps around 534 BCE), Siddhartha decided to become a wanderer. He hardly ate, and he suffered while failing to acquire spiritual satisfaction. Then he began eating better, and he began devising what he believed were his own solutions to human misery.
Siddhartha agreed with a view expressed in the Upanishads that the cause of human misery was humanity itself. He decided that human misery came from people looking for preeminence where there was none and with people clinging to objects of desire that were transitory. According to legend he mastered the tenets of the sects that were going from town, and he debated them and acquired a following of his own.
Siddhartha saw relief in self-control over one's appetites and ambitions. He believed that giving up hope for that which one cannot have was a means to peace in mind. He advocated serenity and reflection. This amounted to people working out their own salvation. He believed that people could not escape making choices and that people were their own lamps in finding their way.
According to legend, in addition to proper understanding, Siddhartha advocated proper attitude, including not wanting the impossible and accepting the inevitable. Another of his rules – his third – was proper speech, because words precede action. And proper action was his fourth rule. He saw proper actions as important in creating a righteousness that engendered serenity. Proper action took him to his fifth rule: be proper in pursuing your vocation; do no injury to other living things; refrain from theft; don't be a liar; keep your sexuality proper and, like other desires, controlled, or avoided; and lay off the alcohol.
The control that Siddartha advocated is said to have been an aim at moderation. He didn't ask his followers to give up their Hindu gods. The gods Indra, Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu would be worshiped by his followers for centuries to come. Nor was he contentious in fighting the caste system, but he opened his movement to all classes and eventually to females.
When Siddhartha is said to have died, in 483 BCE at the age of eighty, legend has it that a council of five hundred monks met at the city of Rajagriha concerned about preserving Siddhartha's movement. The monks had reason to worry. Movements could easily weaken themselves with division and eventually to fade away. Attempts were made by the monks to harden the movement's orthodoxies, and soon splits occurred over a variety of issues, some as petty as whether one should drink buttermilk after dinner. Some older followers wanted to limit the movement's membership to the most fervent of followers — the monks and nuns – while others wanted the movement to include those not ready to withdraw from the normal routines of life. It was another split between purists and inclusionists.
Eventually, the movement would divide into different schools of thought, or branches, with influence from Hinduism remaining in some branches. By the time of India's first Buddhist emperor, Ashoka (ruled 273-232 BCE), Siddartha would be viewed as "the Lord Buddha." In the Middle Ages, a Muslim invasion would drive Buddhism out of India, and cultural diffusions would contribute to its ideological diversity, but fragmented though it was (as Christianity would be), it would become one of the world's fourth largest religions.
A link to The Buddhist Emperor Ashoka
CONTINUE READING: Hinduism's Scriptural Epic Poetry
Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.