home | history

The Jain and Buddhist Rebellions

By 600 BCE numerous cities had arisen in the Ganges Valley, and sixteen different kingdoms had emerged. There was the hereditary 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 that were parental figures – gods with whom they had personal relationships. 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 Brahmins – and they responded by trying to confine the asceticism movement to elderly wandering ascetics and others beyond middle age.

In the far northeast, Brahmins were performing as teachers to local non-Aryan elites whom they saw as not yet sufficiently Hinduized. Local elites were slow in accepting the authority of the Brahmins, and they resented Brahmin posturing and pride. Some among them opposed Hinduism's animal sacrifices. A few confident young men among the families of the non-Aryan elite refused to accept Brahmin authority. They pointed to the failure of Hinduism to eliminate suffering, and they attracted followers interested in an alternative. Groups of dissidents wandered across the northeast and entered communities to engage in disputations that were welcomed as entertainment by the villagers.

The Jains

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 animal sacrifices. He was popular among women and the urban middle class 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 – a formula for a great if not perfect society. They were also committed to sit in meditation as often as one 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 one needed.

The Buddhists

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. His tribe gained a degree of self-rule in exchange for tribute paid to an Aryan overlord. The Sakya tribe is described as having royalty and Siddhartha as having been a prince. According to legend, when he was twenty-nine (perhaps 534 BCE), Siddhartha decided to become a wanderer. He hardly ate, and he suffered while trying 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 the 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 tenets of the sects going from town making their arguments, and he acquired a following from those hearing him debate.

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 was advocating serenity self-discipline and reflection. This amounted to people working out their own salvation. He realized that people could not escape making choices and that people were their own lamps in finding their way.

In addition to proper understanding, Siddhartha advocated proper attitude, including not wanting the impossible and accepting the inevitable. A third rule 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 (consensual?) and, like other desires, controlled, or at best avoided; and lay off the alcohol.

Siddhartha was less that an absolutist in his asceticism. The control he advocated is said to have been an aim at moderation. And Siddhartha 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 died in 483 BCE, at the age of eighty, according to legend 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 weaken themselves with division, eventually to fade away. Attempts were made by the Buddhist monks to harden 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 membership in the movement to the more 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 a kind of split – between purists and inclusionists – that would occur in other movements.

Buddhism would divide in different schools of thought, or branches: Theravada Buddhism, which has its own diversities; and Mahayana Buddhism. But rather than fade away, its appeal was to make it the fourth-largest of the world's great religions.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.