5th century lotus sutra fragment

Buddhism originated in northeast India in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. at a time when the local religion was Brahmanism, the predecessor of Hinduism. Brahmanism was dominated by Brahman priests who presided over rituals and sometimes practiced asceticism. Many of the ascetic Brahmin believed in a concept of the universe known as “brahman” and a similar concept of the human mind, known as “atman”. and thought it was possible to achieve liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth by achieving oneness with the atman. These concepts became cornerstones of Buddhism

The sixth century B.C. is one of the cardinal epochs in human history. It was an age of extraordinarymental and spiritual unrest in several regions widely apart. For instance, Zoroaster in Persia and Confucius in China were promulgating their teachings about this time. In India, too, ardent spirits were unusually active in quest of Truth, and the centre of this ferment was Magadha, where the Brahmanic influence was not yet so deep or potent. Already the Upanisads had marked a stage of revolt against cumber-some rituals and bloody sacrifices. The pretensions and caste-exclusiveness of the Hindus, which were galling to the people in general, had further prepared the ground for new doctrines to germinate. A host of teachers went up and down the country preaching and propagating their solutions of the abstruse problems of God and Soul, and of how to escape from the endless misery of births and deaths by the light of knowledge or the rigours of self-mortification. Numerous reforming schools 1 thus sprang up, but most of them either died out or outlived their utility in course of time. Two of these, known as Jainism and Buddhism, however, proved strong enough to survive, and even today they profoundly influence the thought and faith of mankind. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “In the sixth century B.C., Buddhism was founded by the Buddha (born Siddhartha Gautama, ca. 563–483 B.C.) and Jainism by Mahavira (ca. 540–468 B.C.). These religions emerged at a time of great ferment, when philosophers and mystics advanced ideas about correcting the ills of Indian society, including the Brahmins’ exclusive access to the Vedic gods and the strictures of the caste system. Caste is first mentioned in the Upanishads. Indian society was divided into three strata: a high caste of priests, or Brahmins, who performed all religious rituals; an intermediate caste of warriors ( kshatriyas); and a lower caste of merchants (vaishyas). A fourth caste, defined in the early first millenniumA.D., consisted of servants (shudras). [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

The 6th and 5th centuries B.C. in India was also a time of curiosity, tolerance, and experimentation. Religious scholars and intellectuals speculated about things like the existence of other worlds, the finiteness or the infinity of the universe and whether existence was dominated by is or is not. The conditions were ripe for people to throw out traditional beliefs and accept new ones. A number of movements and leaders appeared. Their success often seemed based on their political skill, and their ability to organize and consolidate their followers with a simple, easy-to-embrace message. There were a great many holy men and women wandering about. Some were hermits who lived in the forest or jungle. Others were ascetics who practiced various forms of austerities and offered sacrifices to things like fire and the moon. There were also charismatic leaders and sects of movements of various kinds and sizes. Early Buddhist texts counted 62 “heretical” sects. Among these were the Jains, the Naked Ascetics, the Eel-Wrigglers, and the Hair-Blanket sect. The Buddha’s greatest rivals were Nataputa, leader the Jains, and Makkhali Godla, the leader of the Naked Ascetics.

Buddhism was influenced a great deal by Hinduism and the other sects. It adopted Hindu beliefs about karma and reincarnation; followed Jain and traditional Indian views about not destroying life forms; and copied forms of organization for other sects for monks communities. The Buddha himself was like an ascetic Brahmin but was regarded as a heretic among Hindus because he emphasized the impermanent and transitory nature of things, which contradicted the Hindu belief in “Paramatman” (the eternal, blissful self).

Brahmanism, Vedic Traditions and the Caste System

Brahmanism was based on a body of texts called the Vedas, which had developed orally beginning about 1500 B.C.. Jacob Kinnard wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: The Vedic religious world was one of numerous deities, or devas, many of whom were personified forces of nature. Humans could interact with and influence these devas via sacrifice; offerings such as grain, milk, and animals were placed in a sacrificial fire by a priest, or Brahman, and "consumed" by the gods. In return, according to the Vedas, humans would receive boons from the gods: abundant crops, healthy sons, protection, and so on.[Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018,]

This was, furthermore, a hierarchical religious world, formally defined by the division of society into four classes, or varnas, membership in which was determined solely by birth. At the top were the sacrificial priests, the Brahmans. It was their role and duty to perform the religious rituals and to preserve and recite the Vedas — to memorize the thousands of verses, to chant them at the sacrificial rituals, and to orally pass these texts on to successive generations of Brahmans. In so doing, the Brahmans maintained the order, or dharma (Pali, dhamma), of the world, assuring that the gods would be appeased. Directly below the Brahmans in the hierarchy were the Kshatriyas, the warriors and sociopolitical rulers. Just as it was the duty of the Brahmans to maintain the order of the divine world, so was it the dharma of the Kshatriyas to preserve order in the human realm. Below the Kshatriyas were the Vaishyas, the cultivators and keepers of domestic animals. It was their dharma, accordingly, to provide food and material goods. Below them were the Shudras, the laborers and servants, whose dharma it was to ensure the cleanliness of the other three classes of humans. Outside this system was a group called untouchables, or outcasts, who had no defined role in the social system and who were viewed as disorderly, as adharmic in character and nature.

This was a system of mutual dependence but also of restriction. There was no upward mobility in this system. One Vedic text (the "Purusha Shukta" of the Rig Veda) that describes the creation of the universe envisions this social system as a human being who is sacrificed to create the world: the Brahmans are the mouth of the human (because of their oral preservation and performance of the sacred verses of the Veda); the Kshatriyas are the arms

One Vedic text (the "Purusha Shukta" of the Rig Veda) that describes the creation of the universe envisions this social system as a human being who is sacrificed to create the world: the Brahmans are the mouth of the human (because of their oral preservation and performance of the sacred verses of the Veda); the Kshatriyas are the arms (because they are the "strong arms" of the social world); the Vaishyas are the thighs (the support of the body); and, significantly, the Shudras are the feet (the lowest but in many ways the most fundamental). Thus, social and cosmic order (dharma) can be maintained only if each part of the body is present and "healthy." Certainly the feet are lower than the head, but without the feet the body cannot stand.

Challenges and Changes to the Indian Religious Status Quo

The religious system in India at the time of the Buddha was beginning to be challenged from a number of directions. Jacob Kinnard wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: A new genre of religious discourse, a body of texts known as the Upanishads, began to emerge out of the Vedic ritual religious world sometime between the seventh and the fifth century b.c.e. Although they would eventually become part of Hinduism, these texts — orally transmitted, like the Vedas — began to question the efficacy of the formal sacrifice and introduced essential new religious ideas that would be adopted, in part, by the Buddha: the idea of rebirth (samsara), the law of cause and effect (karma), the concept of liberation (moksha) from samsara, and the practice of asceticism and meditation (yoga). [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018,]

As the ideas of the Upanishads began to spread, some individuals took them to heart and set out to experience the liberation that they described. These individuals renounced their ties to the material world and set out as wanderers, spreading these new ideas even farther and debating philosophical and meditational points. These various wanderers were called shramanas, and the earliest Buddhists saw themselves as a subset of this group of itinerant religious seekers. Also among these individuals was Mahavira, the founder of another new religious tradition, Jainism.

At about the same time, important social changes were in process along the Gangetic Plain in northern India. Kingdoms began to emerge out of the smaller kinship structures, and with these kingdoms came cities and highly structured systems of government. Furthermore, trade routes began to develop between these cities, and with trade came both economic growth and the emergence of a monied merchant class. This latter group is particularly important in the emergence of Buddhism, for although they had economic status, they, as members of the Vaishya caste, did not have religious status; the Buddha would offer a new religious path that allowed them to develop that status.

Jainism Founded Around the Same Time as Buddhism

Jainism is believed to have been founded in around 500 B.C., around the time the Buddha lived, According to PBS” “Derived from the Sanskrit word "jina," meaning "to conquer," Jainism teaches that all life forms have an eternal soul bound by karma in a never-ending cycle of rebirth. Through nonviolence or ahimsa, the soul can break free of this cycle and achieve kaivalya. Traditions and ideas central to Jainism can be traced to the 7th century B.C., but Mahavira, the last of Jainism's 24 great spiritual teachers, formalized them into the Jain religion in the 6th century. Some scholars see the roots of the faith as far back as the Indus civilization in Gujarat. [Source: PBS, The Story of India,]

“Central to Jainism are five vows: nonviolence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), chastity (brahmacharya), and non-possession or non-attachment (aparigraha). As a manifestation of ahimsa, Jain monks wear nets over their mouths and sweep the street with their clothing so as to avoid harming insects, thereby accruing karma from not injuring even the smallest life forms. Mahavira, whose teachings are recorded in the Agamas texts, taught liberation through the three principles of right faith (samyak darshana), right knowledge (samyak jnana), and right conduct (samyak charitra).

“Between the first and second centuries B.C., the Jains divided into an orthodox sect Digambara ("sky–clad") in which followers claimed adherence to Mahavira's philosophy by going without clothes, and the Shvetambara ("white–clad") sect. Approximately four million Jains practice the religion worldwide, and important places of pilgrimage among observers include Mt. Abu in Rajasthan, site of five ornate Jain temples, and Sravanabelagola, site of a 57.5 foot statue of Gomateshvara (Bahubali), Jainism's first spiritual leader or tirthankara. Today Sravanabelagola is the site of the Mahamastak Abhishek, the biggest Jain religious festival which takes place every 12 years, the last one in 2007.

Mahavira: the Founder of Jainism

According to PBS: “A contemporary of the Buddha, Mahavira (meaning "Great Hero") Vardhamana established the central tenets of the Jain religion in India during the 6th century B.C. Accounts of Mahavira's life differ, particularly between Jainism's two sects, but he was born a prince in Patna as early as 599 or as late as 548 B.C. and died of starvation brought on by fasting as early as 527 or as late as 468 B.C. Renouncing his secular life at the age of 30, Mahavira became an ascetic and through fasting, a vow of silence, and meditation, obtained perfection (keval-jnana) 12 years later. Through the principle of ahimsa, non-injury, Jainism teaches that souls can break out of the cycle of reincarnation or the cycle of constant rebirth. Considered the last of Jainism's 24 great saints (tirthankaras), Mahavira taught throughout India for 30 years after achieving keval-jnana and organized Jain adherents into monk, nun, and layman and laywoman orders. [Source: PBS, The Story of India,]

According to the Jains, their religion originated in the remotest ages of antiquity. They believe that Mahavlra, the last Tirthamkara, was preceded by twenty-three other prophets. Of these, the penultimate, ParSvanatha, appears to have been an historical personage, but the rest are all dim and shadowy figures, wrapped up in mythology. He was the son of king ASvasena of Benares, but ParSva abandoned the royal state in favour of a life spiritual. His main injunctions were : (i) non-injury, (2) non-lying, i.e., not to tell lies, (3) non-stealing, (4) non-possession. We do not know how far he progressed in his mission, but the next Ttrthamkara, Mahavira, who followed Parsva after about 250 years, definitely placed the religion on a secure footing. Vardhamana, as Mahavira was known earlier in his family circles, was born at Kundagrama, near VaiSail. He was the son of Siddhartha, Head of the Ksatriya Jnatrika sect, and his mother was Trisala, sister of the Licchavi chieftain, Cetaka, whose daughter was married to Bimbisara. Vardhamana thus had an aristocratic lineage, and this must have materially helped him in his ministry. We learn that after leading an ordinary householder’s life till the age of thirty, he wandered away from home to become an ascetic. He practised severe meditation and subjected his body to the utmost self-torture for twelve long years. At last, he attained to omniscience (kaival yd), and was hailed as the ‘Nirgrantha’ (free of fetters), or the ‘Jina’ (conqueror), from which is derived the name of his followers. From this time onward till his death, thirty years later, at the age of seventy-two, Mahavira spread the tenets of his religion in Magadha, Anga, Mithila, and KoSala. To the four virtues enjoined by ParSva, he added a fifth, viz., strict chastity. He gave up clothing, and went about naked. Some scholars trace the division into Svetambaras and Digambaras to this new practice of Mahavira. But this view does not appear to be tenable, as the schism took place in the third century B.C. after the return of the Jains from South India, where they had retired owing to famine under the leadership of Bhadrabahu. Mahavira passed away at Pavapuri (in the Patna district), perhaps in circa 527 B.C. This, date, however, is open to certain objections. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

The Pall works mention that, when the Buddha began his ministry, there existed no less than sixty-two different sects (according to the Jain texts, their number was 363). Among these were the Ajxvikas, Jatilakas, Munda-savakas, Parivrajakas, Magandikas, Gotamakas, Tedandikas, etc. The most prominent teachers of the time, besides the Buddha, were: Purana-Kassapa, Makkhali-Goiala, N igantha-N ataputta, Ajita-KeSakambalin, Pakuddha-Kacchayana, Sanjaya-Belatthaputta.

Doctrines of Jainism and Its Relations with Buddhism

The Jains repudiate the authority or infallibility of the Vedas, and do not attach any importance to the performance of sacrifices. They believe that every object, even the smallest particle, possesses a soul (Jiva), endowed with consciousness. A natural corollary of this principle was their scrupulous observance of Ahimsa or non-injury to any sentient being. Sometimes, however, its strict enforcement led to strange contradictions, for history records instances of Jain kings ordering the execution of persons guilty of killing animals. The Jains reject the conception of a Universal Soul ora Supreme Power as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. According to them, “God is only the highest, noblest, and fullest manifestation of the powers which lie latent in the soul of man.” The Jain goal of life is to attain deliverance from the fetters of mundane existence. The cause of the soul’s embodiment being the presence of karmic matter, Moksa can be achieved, if and when a Jain gets rid of all Karma inherited from past lives, and acquires no new one. The way to this lies through the Three Jewels (Triratna) of right faith, right knowledge, and right conduct. The Jains greatly emphasise the practice of penances, such as yogic exercises and fasting, even to the point of death. The idea is that rigorous discipline gives strength to the soul, and keeps the lower matter subdued. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

For a long time it was commonly believed that Jainism was only an offshoot of Buddhism or vice versa. It is, of course, now too late in the day to hold this opinion, although the similarities between the two -systems are remarkable indeed. Both are indifferent to the authority of the Vedas, and deny the efficacy of rituals. Both ignored God, and decried distinctions based on birth. Both emphasised the principle of Ahimsa and the effect of Karma upon an individual’s future life. Both tolerated popular superstitions and beliefs. These are no doubt striking resemblances, but their approach towards certain fundamental problems is widely different. For example. Buddhism propounds that everything lacks an ego (Andtmavddd), whereas according to Jainism every object or particle in this world is tenanted by a soul (Jiva). jainism glorifies self-mortification. The Buddha, on the other hand, recommended the Middle Path, avoiding the extremes of sensualism and asceticism. Their conceptions about deliverance and salvation also are not quite similar. Being products of the same age and land, it was inevitable that Jainism and Buddhism should have some common features, but at the same time their differences were so marked that often there was a good deal of rivalry between them.

Development of Buddhism after Buddha's Death

According to tradition, the first Buddhist texts were collected a few weeks after the Buddha’s death, when 500 arhants gathered at Rajagaha in the Indian state of Bihar for what was effectively the First Council of the Buddhist faith. During the period that followed there a great deal of scholarly debate on philosophical and religious issues, many of which were not addressed or purposely avoided by the Buddha. This debate resulted in the schism of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism.

About four centuries passed between the time of Buddha’s death and when his Sayings, Utterances and Discourses were written down. One of the main reasons for this is that there were no materials used for writing or even engraving in India until that time.

Buddha never claimed to be anything more than a human being who had found a path to truth and enlightenment. By the 1st century B.C. he had essentially been deified. Power struggles took place in Buddhism while The Buddha alive and after his death. His scheming cousin Devadetta tried to rest leadership from him. There were also many power struggles, divisions and rebellions among monks after his death.

Early Buddhists are thought to have practiced their faith by making visits to places the Buddha had been or see relics such as teeth or bones. Perhaps because he put so much emphasis on self-denial no images were made him for some time and when they were made they were not true likenesses.

In the early era of Buddhism there were three primary paths for the devotee. He or she could become 1) an “arahat”, a worthy person who has achieved the goal of a Buddhist life by gaining insight into the true nature of things: 2) a “paccekabuddha”, one who reaches enlightenment by living alone as an “isolated Buddha”; and 3) a fully awakened Buddha

Development of Buddhist Cannon

Buddha appears to have written little or nothing himself. The earliest Buddhist writing that we have today date back to a period 150 years after Buddha's death. Early Buddhist literature consisted mostly of records of sermons and conversations involving The Buddha that were recorded in Sanskrit or the ancient Pali language.

According to tradition, the first texts were collected between the Council of Rajaharha, which took place after Buddha’s cremation, and the first Buddhist schism in the 4th century B.C. These texts consist primarily of orthodox doctrines and discourses and rules recited by the highly respected monks Ananda and Upali. They became the “Vinaya Piataka” and the “Sutra Pitaka”.

Concerns about different interpretations of Buddha’s teachings emerged early. The main goal of the council at Rajagaha was to recite out loud the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings) and the “Vinaya” (a code of conduct for monks) and come to some agreement on what were the true teachings and what should be preserved, studied and followed. Their guiding belief was that “Dharma is well taught by the Bhagavan (“the Blessed One”)” and that it is self-realized “immediately,” and is a “a come-and-see thing” and it leads “the doer of it to the complete destruction of anguish.”

The Vinaya-Pijtaka (the rules for monastic life) was developed at the First Council from a question and answer session between the Upali and the Elder Kassapa. The Sutra-Pijtaka (“Teaching Basket”) is a collection of teachings and sayings from Buddha, often called the “sutras”. It came about from the dialogue between young Anada an the Elder Kassapa about Dharma. A third basket, the “Abhidhamma Pitaka” (Metaphysical Basket) was also produced. It contains detailed descriptions of Buddhist doctrines and philosophy. Its origin is disputed. Together these made up the “Tipitaki” (Three Baskets of Wisdom), the foundation of Buddhism, and sometimes called the “Pali Cannon” because it was originally written in the ancient Pali language.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated January 2024

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