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The legendary founder of Jainism was called Rishabha, but claims
that he lived many millions of years ago are obviously exaggerated.
This first Tirthankara (literally "maker of the river-crossing")
is said to have invented cooking, writing, pottery, painting,
and sculpture, the institution of marriage and ceremonies for
the dead. Not much else is recorded about Rishabha and the next
twenty Tirthankaras, but the ancient Jaina tradition that there
were ascetic religious teachers in India before the coming of
the Vedic Aryans is likely from evidence found in the Harappan
The twenty-second Tirthankara, Arishtanemi, is mentioned in the Kalpa Sutra. All of the Tirthankaras were Kshatriyas, and Arishtanemi was the son of King Ashvasena of Varanasi (Benares) and cousin of Krishna, who is supposed to have lived during the great Bharata war probably about 900 BC. According to legend Krishna negotiated his marriage to princess Rajamati. However, when Arishtanemi discovered the great number of deer and other animals to be sacrificed at his wedding, he changed his mind to prevent their slaughter, brooded over the cruelty and violence of human society, and soon renounced the world to seek and find enlightenment.
The twenty-third Tirthankara, Parshva, probably lived in the
eighth century BC. Legends connect him with snakes, one of whom
he saved from fire when a Brahmin ascetic was about to burn a
log where it was hiding. He married a princess, and up to the
age of thirty he lived in great splendor and happiness as a householder.
Then he gave up all his wealth to become an ascetic. After 84
days of intense meditation he became enlightened and taught as
a saint for seventy years.
Parshva was called "Beloved" and organized an Order (Samgha) of monks, nuns, and lay votaries of many thousands, though the numbers are probably exaggerated. He had eight or ten disciples (ganadharas) according to different sources. His religion was open to all without distinction of caste or creed, and women were a large part of the Order. He allowed his followers to wear an upper and lower garment.
The main emphasis of Parshva was on the first vow of non-injury (ahimsa), the abstinence from killing any living beings. The other three vows Parshva required were truthfulness, not to steal, and freedom from possession. These vows are the same as the first four vows of the Sannyasins, who renounce the world in the Vedic tradition of Hinduism. The Brahmanic fifth vow of liberality could not be practiced by mendicants without possessions.
Two centuries later during the life of Mahavira there were still followers of Parshva, and they are mentioned in Buddhist texts as well as in Jaina scriptures. In addition to Brahmanical sects of ascetics like those described in the Upanishads, who acknowledged the authority of the Vedas, new Shramana (ascetic) sects were appearing which challenged the Vedas and their rituals, emphasizing ethics and allowing those of any caste and women to renounce the world as well.
Mahavira was born in Kundapura near Vaishali. The traditional Jaina date for Mahavira's birth is 599 BC, but comparison with the life of Buddha and the Magadha kings Bimbisara and Ajatashatru indicate that his death at the age of 72 was probably about 490 BC. An elaborate legend is told in the Acharanga Sutra and in the Kalpa Sutra how he was conceived in the womb of the Brahmin Devananda, who had fourteen prophetic dreams but then after three lunar cycles divinely transferred to the womb of the Kshatriya Trishala, who also had the same fourteen prophetic dreams. These fourteen dreams are supposed to indicate that the child will become either an emperor or a great Tirthankara (prophet). This unbelievable story probably resulted from the Jaina tradition that all the Tirthankaras were Kshatriyas, perhaps converting his stepmother into a second mother.
The father of Mahavira was King Siddartha; he and Trishala were both pious and virtuous followers of Parshva. Trishala was the sister of King Chetaka of Vaishali, the capital of a federation where the Jainism of Parshva was popular. King Chetaka had seven daughters, one of whom was initiated into the Jaina order of ascetics while the other six married famous kings, including King Shrenika (Bimbisara) of Magadha and Mahavira's own brother, Nandivardhana.
Since the wealth of his father's kingdom had increased during the pregnancy, the child was called Vardhamana. He was raised in princely opulence and showed his courage as a child by mounting a charging elephant by the trunk and on another occasion picking up a large snake and casting it aside. For his courage and self-control in enduring the rules of penance, Vardhamana was given the name Mahavira, which means great hero. Jaina comes from jina meaning victor or conqueror. He probably received the usual education for an aristocrat in philosophy, literature, military and administrative sciences, and the arts.
Mahavira married a princess named Yasoda, and they had a daughter, Anojja. She eventually married his nephew Jamali, who later caused a schism in the order. When Mahavira was 28 years old, both his parents died of voluntary starvation. He wanted to renounce the world; but to please his elder brother he agreed to live at home for two more years during which he practiced self-discipline, giving up all luxuries and giving charity to beggars every day of the last year.
At the age of thirty Mahavira renounced all his wealth, property, wife, family, relatives, and pleasures. In a garden of the village Kundapura at the foot of an Ashoka tree, no one else being present, after fasting two days without water he took off all his clothes, tore out the hair of his head in five handfuls, and put a single cloth on his shoulder. He vowed to neglect his body and with equanimity to suffer all calamities arising from divine powers, people, or animals. Having already attained before marriage the first three levels of knowledge (knowledge from the senses and mind, knowledge from study, and knowledge from intuition), at this initiation it was said he attained the fourth level of knowledge that includes the psychological movements of all sentient beings.
Thus Mahavira became homeless. As he was leaving the garden, a Brahmin beggar, who had missed out on the last year of Mahavira's almsgiving, asked him for alms; he gave him half of the garment on his shoulder. After thirteen months he gave up clothes altogether.
Neglecting his body,
the venerable ascetic Mahavira meditated on his self,
in blameless lodgings and wandering,
in restraint, kindness, avoidance of sinful influence,
chaste life, in patience, freedom from passion, contentment;
practicing control, circumspectness, religious postures and acts;
walking the path of nirvana and liberation,
which is the fruit of good conduct.
Living thus he with equanimity bore,
endured, sustained, and suffered all calamities
arising from divine powers, men, and animals,
with undisturbed and unafflicted mind,
careful of body, speech, and mind.1
After a few months of wandering Mahavira went to an ashram in Moraga, where he was invited to spend the four-month rainy season by its abbot who was a friend of his father. Mahavira was assigned a hut with a thatched roof. The previous summer had been so hot that the grass in the forest was destroyed, and the cattle ran to eat the ascetics' grass huts. The other ascetics beat off the cattle, but Mahavira just let the cattle eat the thatched roof. The ascetics complained to the abbot, and so Mahavira decided to leave the ashram and spent the rainy season in the village of Ashtika.
Reflecting upon this experience, Mahavira resolved to follow the fivefold discipline of never living in the house of an unfriendly person, usually standing with the body like a statue (kayostarga), generally maintaining silence, eating out of his hand as a dish, and not showing politeness to householders. Thus he practiced meditation and severe austerities. In the summer he would meditate in the sun or walk through sun-baked fields, and in winter he would meditate naked in the open air. Each year during the rainy season he stayed in one place. He walked quietly, carefully keeping his eyes on the ground so as to avoid stepping on any insects. He stayed in deserted houses, crematoriums, gardens, or any solitary place.
What little food he ate he got from begging. If he saw any other beggar, animal or bird waiting for food at a house, he would silently pass by to another house. He fasted for fifteen days at a time and up to a month. He passed the second rainy season at Nalanda, where he met Gosala, who was impressed by Mahavira and joined him. Traveling with Gosala, his fasts now extended as long as two months. According to Jaina biographies of Mahavira, Gosala often insulted others and misbehaved, while Mahavira remained silent and still (in kayostarga). This brought upon them abusive behavior.
In Choraga of Bengal they were taken for spies and imprisoned. Another time they were both tied up and beaten. In Kuiya they were once again imprisoned as spies, but they were released at the behest of two sisters. In the sixth year Gosala left Mahavira for six months; but he returned until the tenth year when he left Mahavira and proclaimed himself a prophet and leader of the Ajivika sect. Mahavira went to Vaishali where the republican chief Sankha rescued him from trouble caused by local children.
In the eleventh year Mahavira was tested by a god named Samgamaka, who gave him terrible physical pain, accompanied him begging, and contaminated his food. Mahavira gave up begging and sat in meditation. For six months Samgamaka inflicted tortures on him, but unable to disturb him he finally fell at his feet and begged his forgiveness before returning to his own place. Government officials in Tosali took Mahavira for a thief and tried to hang him, but he was rescued in time.
In the twelfth year Mahavira took a vow that he would fast until an enslaved princess with a shaven head and fettered feet, in tears and tired after three days fasting, would lean out a window and offer him boiled pulse. It was five months and twenty-five days before such an event occurred in Champa. While in this town a Brahmin questioned him about the soul and its characteristics, and Mahavira explained that what one understands by the word "I" is the soul.
In Chammani a bull strayed while grazing, and a cowherd asked Mahavira about it. Met with silence, the cowherd became enraged and pushed grass sticks into Mahavira's ears. Remaining peaceful and undisturbed, Mahavira continued his wanderings until eventually a physician noticed the condition, removed the painful plugs from his ears, and cured the wound with medicine. Seeking the highest enlightenment, Mahavira meditated for six months sitting motionless, but he failed. He did penance in a cemetery when Rudra and his wife tried to interrupt him.
Finally in the thirteenth year of this ascetic life while meditating after two and a half days of waterless fasting, Mahavira attained nirvana and the highest awareness called kevala or absolute knowledge. The first message of Mahavira after his enlightenment is recorded in the Buddhist text Majjhima Nikaya:
I am all-knowing and all-seeing,
and possessed of an infinite knowledge.
Whether I am walking or standing still,
whether I sleep or remain awake,
the supreme knowledge and intuition
are present with me---constantly and continuously.
There are, O Nirgranthas, some sinful acts
you have done in the past,
which you must now wear out
by this acute form of austerity.
Now that here you will be living restrained
in regard to your acts, speech and thought,
it will work as the nondoing of karma for future.
Thus, by the exhaustion of the force of past deeds
through penance and the non-accumulation of new acts,
(you are assured) of the stoppage of the future course,
of rebirth from such stoppage,
of the destruction of the effect of karma,
from that, of the destruction of pain,
from that, of the destruction of mental feelings,
and from that, of the complete wearing out
of all kinds of pain.2
After attaining omniscience Mahavira attended a religious conference by the river Ijjuvaliya, but his first discourse had little effect. Then he traveled to another conference in the garden of Mahasena, where in a long discussion he converted eleven learned Brahmins, who had gone there to sacrifice. Breaking the tradition of speaking in Sanskrit, Mahavira spoke in the Ardhamagadhi dialect, and all the Jaina Agama scriptures are written in Ardhamagadhi.
Hearing of a magician, the Brahmin Indrabhuti Gautama went to expose him; but as he approached the garden, Mahavira called him by name and, reading his mind, said, "Gautama, you have a doubt in your mind about the existence of the soul." Then Mahavira explained how to interpret a passage in the Vedas so as to understand that, although categories of knowledge may disappear, this does not affect the existence of the soul. This mind-reading and wisdom convinced Indrabhuti of the omniscience of Mahavira. After hearing Mahavira's discourse on his essential teachings, Indrabhuti decided to renounce the world and was initiated by Mahavira into the religion.
Having heard of his brother's defeat by Mahavira, Agnibhuti Gautama came to debate with Mahavira; but he too, won over by Mahavira's explanation of the reality of karma and the soul's bondage to it, also became initiated. According to tradition nine more scholars argued with Mahavira and were converted, becoming his eleven disciples. Jaina tradition also claims that these eleven brought along 4400 of their pupils into the new faith.
Then Mahavira wandered in silence for sixty-six days until he reached Rajagriha, the capital of the powerful state Magadha. King Shrenika (Bimbisara) and his family attended, and he received satisfactory answers to his questions. Indrabhuti was quite learned and vain; but when an old man came to him for an explanation of a sloka Mahavira had quoted before becoming lost in meditation, Indrabhuti could not explain it. When Mahavira explained it, all of Indrabhuti's pride fell away in the presence of the great ascetic.
Mahavira organized his order into four groups of monks, nuns, male householders, and female householders. All those initiated had to take the five vows, which included the four vows of Parshva (nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, and non-possession) plus chastity. After spending the rainy season at Rajagriha, Mahavira went to Vaishali, where he initiated his daughter and son-in-law Jamali and spent the next year's monsoon season. Perceiving telepathically that the king of Sindhu-sauvira wanted to meet him, Mahavira traveled there and initiated King Rudrayana into the religion of the Shramanas.
Returning from this long journey through the desert of Sindhu, they suffered from lack of food and water but remained indifferent. At Benares a multi-millionaire and his wife were converted. Spending two more rainy seasons in Rajagriha twenty-five of King Shrenika's sons were initiated into the Shramana community. It was recorded that Ardraka Kumara, a non-Aryan prince, who knew his past births, traveled to Mahavira to join his order and on his way defeated in argument Gosala, Vedic Brahmins, and other ascetics.
At Kaushambi Mahavira converted King Prodyota and several queens, who were admitted into the order of nuns. After spending a rainy season at Vaishali he went back to Rajagriha, where he converted many followers of Parshva's religion who adopted the fifth vow of the Shramana community as well. Later he convinced Keshi Kumara, the leader of the Parshva religion, that he was the 24th Tirthankara, and Keshi brought his disciples into the new order. A few years later his son-in-law Jamali left the Shramana order with his disciples to form the Vahurata sect; but it was not successful, and most of his disciples returned to Mahavira's order.
A dispute arose when Mahavira said that Gosala was not omniscient. Hearing of it and approaching Mahavira, Gosala tried to explain to him that he was no longer his disciple because he was a different soul, who had entered Gosala's body and founded a new religion. Mahavira asked why he was vainly trying to conceal his identity. The irate Gosala swore at him and abused two of the Jaina monks, according to tradition destroying them, although Mahavira had warned them not to argue with Gosala. However, the negative energy that Gosala aimed at Mahavira returned to himself. He said that he would cause Mahavira to die of a fever in six months. Mahavira replied that he would live on, but that Gosala would be struck by his own magical power and die from fever in seven days, which came to pass. Mahavira outlived Gosala by sixteen years, but the Ajivika sect, which Gosala founded, lasted for many centuries.
When Kunika (Ajatashatru) forcibly took over his father's kingdom of Magadha, he moved the capital to Champa, where many princes and townspeople adopted Mahavira's religion. Although Ajatashatru liked to listen to Mahavira, it did not stop him from gathering a large army and allies to attack and defeat the Vaishali confederacy in a major war that killed King Chetaka.
Finally at the age of 72 Mahavira left his body and attained nirvana, liberated and rid of all karma, never to return again. His first disciple, Indrabhuti Gautama, died also at dawn the next morning.
According to Jaina tradition nine of the eleven disciples attained the highest knowledge of kevala during Mahavira's lifetime, usually many years before their nirvana and final death. Indrabhuti Gautama, the first disciple, attained kevala and nirvana the same night Mahavira died. The other disciple, Sudharma, became the leader of the Nirgrantha community (Nirgrantha means unfettered ones.) and attained kevala knowledge after twelve more years and died eight years later at the age of one hundred. Thus Sudharma led the Order (Samgha) for twenty years and was succeeded by Arya Jambu Swamy, who had been initiated at the age of 16, attained kevala knowledge twenty years later, and directed the community until his nirvana death when he was 80. According to Jaina tradition he is the last person to have attained omniscience and nirvana.
The essential metaphysical ideas of Jainism are nine cardinal principles. The universe is divided into that which is alive and conscious (jiva) and matter which is not (ajiva). Jivas (souls) are either caught by karma (action) in the world of reincarnation (samsara) or liberated (mukta) and perfected (siddha). Though their number is infinite, jivas are individuals and each potentially infinite in awareness, power, and bliss. Matter (ajiva) is made up of eternal atoms in time and space which can be moved and stopped.
The other seven principles explain the workings of karma and the soul's liberation from it. The soul (jiva) is attracted to sense-objects by the principle of ashrava which leads to the bondage (bandha) of the soul by karma, which covers up and limits the soul's natural abilities to know and perceive in its blissful state, resulting in delusions and a succession of births. The next two principles are virtue (punya) and vice (papa) by which all karma either works beneficially toward liberation or negatively toward bondage.
The seventh principle samvara is how the soul prevents ashrava (the influx of karma) by watchfulness and self-discipline of mind, speech, and body. This eventually leads to nirjara, the elimination of karma. Finally moksha or liberation is attained. In one's last life at death, nirvana (literally "being extinguished") describes the end of worldly existence for the soul, which then rises to the highest heaven.
Although Jainas believe that souls may have some lives as gods and goddesses in heavenly worlds or suffer in hell and become demon-like, there is no total God lifting up souls or punishing them in hell. Rather each individual jiva is responsible for itself and completely determines its own destiny, although these jivas do have the divine attributes of infinite knowledge, power, and bliss. This doctrine of individual responsibility makes Jainism a primarily ethical religion, as does the severity of their five vows of nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, chastity, and non-possession.
Ahimsa (nonviolence) means not injuring any living thing in any way, and the Jainas took it very seriously. Injuring an animal or causing anyone to do so was considered a sin. This meant walking carefully so as not to injure even the tiniest creatures. The mind had to be watched to prevent thoughts and intentions that might lead to quarrels, faults, pain, or any kind of injury. Similarly one's speech had to be carefully monitored. The Jaina must be careful in laying down their begging utensils so as not to hurt a living being, and food and water must be carefully inspected to make sure no living things are hurt or displaced.
As with nonviolence one must not speak any lies nor cause any lies to be spoken nor consent to any lies being spoken. Thus the Nirgrantha (Jaina) speaks only after deliberation and renounces anger, greed, fear, and mirth so that no falsehoods will be uttered. This vow combined with nonhurting (ahimsa) meant that speech must be pleasant and not painful or insulting in any way. Silence as a discipline was observed most of the time.
Non-stealing means that nothing must be taken that is not freely given. Thus the Nirgrantha begs only after deliberation and according to strict rules, consumes food and drink only after permission is granted, occupies only limited ground for short periods of time, continually renewing the grant to be there.
Chastity is the renunciation of all sensual pleasures. To achieve this discipline monks do not discuss women nor contemplate their lovely forms nor recall previously enjoyed pleasures nor occupy a bed or couch used by women, animals, or eunuchs. A Nirgrantha does not eat and drink too much nor drink liquor nor eat highly seasoned food.
Finally all attachments must be renounced, even to the delight in agreeable sounds or being disturbed by disagreeable ones. Similarly with all the five senses, one may not be able to avoid all experiences; but one is not to be attached to the agreeable ones, for those who acquiesce and indulge in worldly pleasures are born again and again. By these disciplines the wise avoid wrath, pride, deceit, greed, love, hate, delusion, conception, birth, death, hell, animal existence, and pain.
In order to find liberation four things must be attained: human birth, instruction in the teachings, belief in them, and energy in self-control. This meant freeing oneself from family bonds, giving up acts and attachments, and living self-controlled towards the eternal. Collecting alms, one may be insulted and despised, but the wise with undisturbed mind sustains their insults and blows, like an elephant in battle with arrows, and is not shaken any more than a rock is by the wind. The sage lives detached from pleasure and pain, not hurting and not killing; bearing all, one's luster increases like a burning flame as one conquers desires and meditates on the supremacy of virtue, though suffering pain.
The great vows, which are a place of peace, the great teachers, and the producers of detachment have been proclaimed by the infinite victor (Jina), the knowing one, as light illuminating the three worlds (earth, heaven, and hell). The unfettered one living among the bound should be a beggar, unattached to women, and speak with reverence, not desiring this or the next world. The dirt of former sins that are committed by a liberated mendicant, who walks in wisdom constantly and bears pain, vanishes like the tarnish from silver in the fire. Free from desire with conquered sensuality, one is freed from the bed of pain like a snake casts off its skin. Renouncing the world, the sage is called "the maker of the end," for that one has quit the path of births.
The soul cannot be apprehended by the senses, because it possesses no corporeal form and thus is eternal. The fetters on the soul are caused by bad qualities, which cause worldly existence. The golden rule is a part of the Jaina teachings and is extended to all living beings:
Having mastered the teachings and got rid of carelessness,
one should live on allowed food,
and treat all beings as one oneself would be treated;
one should not expose oneself to guilt
by one's desire for life;
a monk who performs austerities should not keep any store.3
Once a disciple of Parshva, the 23rd Tirthankara, asked Gautama why Mahavira taught five vows instead of four. Earlier chastity was practiced as part of non-possession or detachment, but Keshi also explained that the first saints were simple and slow of understanding; they could practice the teachings better than they could understand them. The last saints were prevaricating and slow of understanding; though they might understand them, they had difficulty practicing them. Those in between were simple and wise; they easily understood and practiced them.
The three gems of Jainism are right attitude, right knowledge, and right conduct. The right attitude takes an unbiased approach, believes in the nine essential principles, and uses discriminating perception. Right knowledge proceeds through the five stages of sense perception, study, intuition, clairvoyance, and omniscience (kevala). Right conduct or character comes from self-discipline, renunciation, and pure conduct in practicing the five major vows. The rationale for self-discipline is explained in the Uttaradhyayana
Subdue yourself, for the self is difficult to subdue;
if your self is subdued,
you will be happy in this world and the next.
Better it is that I should subdue myself
by self-control and penance,
than be subdued by others
with fetters and corporal punishment.4
The rules for walking, sitting, begging for food, and evacuating one's bowels were very strict. In order to avoid causing anyone else even to do injury in preparing food, for example, monks must not accept food that is especially prepared for them. The monk must not encourage a lay person to give alms by playing with their children, giving information, praising charity, declaring one's family, expatiating on one's misery, curing the sick, threatening, showing one's learning, and so on.
Attending a sacrifice performed by a Brahmin, a sage named Jayaghosha explained that a true Brahmin is one who has no worldly attachment, who does not repent being a monk, who delights in noble words, who is exempt from love, hate, and fear, who subdues oneself and reaches nirvana, who thoroughly knows living beings and does not injure them, who speaks no untruth from anger or fun or greed or fear, who does not take anything that is not given, who does not love carnally divine, human, or animal beings in thought, words, or action, who is undefiled by pleasure as a lotus growing in water is unwetted, who is not greedy, lives unknown with no house or property or friendship with householders, who has given up former connections with relations, and who is not given to pleasure.
Showing that character and actions are more important to what one is than outward symbols or birth and color in regard to caste, Jayaghosha declared,
The binding of animals, all the Vedas, and sacrifices,
being causes of sin, cannot save the sinner;
for one's works are very powerful.
One does not become a Shramana by the tonsure,
nor a Brahmin by the sacred syllable aum,
nor a Muni by living in the woods,
nor a Tapasa by wearing kusha-grass and bark.
One becomes a Shramana by equanimity,
a Brahmin by chastity, a Muni by knowledge,
and a Tapasa by penance.
By one's actions one becomes a Brahmin
or a Kshatriya or a Vaisya or a Sudra.5
Then Jayaghosha warned the Brahmin that there is a kind of glue in pleasure. Those who are not given to pleasure are not soiled by it, but those who love pleasures wander around in Samsara (reincarnation) and are not liberated. He said that if you take two clods of clay, one wet and one dry, and fling them against the wall, the wet one will stick to it. So the foolish are fastened to karma by their pleasures; but the dispassionate are not, just as the dry clay does not stick to the wall.
Mahavira's theory of knowledge (syadvada) is relativistic and tentative to allow for the relativity of this world. Anything may be or not be or be indescribable or any combination of these to allow for various perspectives.
Mahavira taught 73 methods for exertion in goodness by which many creatures, who believed in and accepted them, studied, learned, understood, and practiced them, and acted according to them, obtained perfection, enlightenment, deliverance, beatitude, and an end to all misery. Briefly they are: longing for liberation, disregard of worldly objects, faith in the law, obedience to other monks and the guru, confession of sins, repenting to oneself and the guru, moral purity, adoration of the 24 Jinas, expiation, meditating without moving the body, self-denial, praises and hymns, time discipline, penance, asking forgiveness, study, recitation, questioning, repetition, pondering, discourse, sacred knowledge, concentration, control, austerity, cutting off karma, renouncing pleasure, mental independence, using unfrequented lodgings, turning from the world, not collecting alms in only one district, renouncing useful articles, renouncing food, overcoming desires, renouncing activity and the body and company, final renunciation, conforming to the standard, doing service, fulfilling all virtues, freedom from passion, patience, freedom from greed, simplicity, humility, sincerity of mind and religious practice and action, watchfulness of mind and speech and body, discipline of mind and speech and body, possession of knowledge and faith and conduct, subduing the five senses, conquering anger and pride and deceit and greed and wrong belief, stability, and freedom from karma.
In disciplining the mind, speech, and body, Jainas often stood in one position for a long time. Meditation might focus on such thoughts as the impermanence of worldly things, human helplessness, transitory quality of human relations, aloneness, separateness of the conscious soul from the unconscious body, the impurity of the body, how attachment binds the soul by karma, how good thoughts may release the soul, how karma may be eliminated, the difficulty of attaining perfection, and how the teachings may save one.
Mahavira's travels spread Jainism to various parts of northern India, and later migrations of monks enabled the religion to take hold in most of India. A poetic work on the rules of behavior for monks by Arya Sayyambhava written about 400 BC expresses concern that an act might "undermine the prestige of the Jaina order."6 This lapse of humility, one of the main virtues emphasized in this work, does indicate that Jainism was very likely respected by many. The examples of these extremely conscientious ascetics surely must have had their affect on people wherever they went; since they were homeless, they traveled constantly.
Though they seem to have argued over doctrinal differences, no major schism occurred in the religion until the first century CE, and that was only over whether monks ought to go naked or whether they could wear a garment.
In evaluating the ethics of Jainism we must keep in mind that the ascetic monks and nuns were probably far outnumbered by the householders, who practiced a minor version of the five vows. The primary goal of those who have renounced the world is spiritual liberation (moksha) from the wheel of reincarnation (samsara). Thus their lives were essentially motivated by this intention of removing their souls from the world. Though they lived lightly on the Earth, using as little of its resources as possible, they were still dependent on lay people for their meager survival needs. The complete focus on this other-worldly goal does seem to prevent them from contributing much to society except their example of self-discipline and possibly some teaching.
Yet the lay people, who practiced Jainism while earning a living and providing for their families, were contributing to society while doing their best not to harm others or any living creature. Thus they were vegetarians and, if true to the teachings, lived profoundly ethical lives. Although they provided examples of peace, Jainas often supported the wars that were common in ancient India. Their individual ethics somehow was not able to expand into a larger social ethics to convert society as a whole to the nonviolence they practiced as individuals.
The extremity of their ascetic disciplines seems to have disregarded personal pleasures and happiness so much that the religion never became as popular as Hinduism or Buddhism, although it managed to persist in substantial numbers. Jainism has contributed a marvelous example of individual harmlessness to our world, and though it may not be a complete solution to all human problems, it provided a spiritual path for those seeking liberation and an outstanding model of self-discipline and reverence for all life.
The oldest known date in the history of India is the death of the one called Buddha in 483 BC, and even that date is somewhat controversial. Buddha means "one who is intuitive, awakened, or enlightened." The famous historical person known as Buddha was also called the Tathagata, which means "the one who has come thus," and Shakyamuni, which means "the sage of the Shakya tribe." He is said to have lived eighty years, and thus was probably born in 563 BC.
His father Suddhodana of the Gautama clan was elected king of the Shakya tribe by its five hundred families just south of the Himalaya mountains in the realm of influence of the powerful Kosala monarchy. The son was born in the Lumbini garden and named Siddartha, which means "he who has accomplished his aim." Many myths and legends surround the birth of Siddartha, but most of these seem to have been developed centuries later in the Jatakas. A famous seer named Asita predicted that the child would either become a great king or, if he left home, a great teacher. His mother Maya died seven days after giving birth, and her younger sister Mahapajapati, who was also married to Suddhodana, became his foster mother.
By all accounts Siddartha was raised amid the finest luxuries of the time. Later he said that three palaces had been built for him - one for hot weather, one for cold, and one for the rainy season. His clothes were of the finest silk. When he walked on the grounds, someone held a white umbrella over his head. Even the servants were well fed, and music was played only by beautiful women. Having demonstrated his skill in archery, Siddartha chose Yasodhara to be his wife; they were married when he was about sixteen years old. For the next thirteen years he continued to live in luxury with his wife and concubines.
Then about the time of the birth of his son Rahula, the famous four signs occurred. According to legend, his father had tried to prevent his princely son from experiencing any suffering or sorrow or religious contact so that he would become a king rather than a spiritual teacher. However, one day while traveling outside the palace gates, Siddartha happened to come across an old man for the first time in his life; he was appalled at the wrinkles and decrepitude. On another occasion he happened to observe a sick person and learned about the loathsome nature of disease. The third sign came when he witnessed a funeral procession and was able to see the lifeless corpse that was being carried. The suddenness of these three experiences set him thinking about the transitoriness of human life. Finally he came upon a religious ascetic, who had renounced the world to seek enlightenment, a common occupation for Kshatriyas (rulers and warriors) like himself as well as for Brahmins (priests and teachers).
With the birth of his son he had fulfilled his obligation to continue his family line and decided that he too must renounce his kingdom and seek a way out of the human miseries of old age, sickness, and death. So he removed his silk garments and dressed in the coarse clothes of an ascetic and went south to Magadha seeking enlightenment. While begging for his food in Rajagriha, the capital city of Magadha, his princely demeanor was observed by King Bimbisara (Shrenika). The king went to see Siddartha to find out who he was and what he was doing. Siddartha told him that he was purifying himself in order to achieve nirvana, and he promised to teach the king after he attained enlightenment.
Like the sages of the Upanishads, Siddartha practiced yoga and meditation. He went to Vaishali to learn meditative concentration and studied with Alara Kalama, who was said to have had hundreds of disciples. Siddartha soon learned how to reach the formless world, but still having mental anxieties he decided not to become a disciple of Alara Kalama. Nor did he become a disciple of his second teacher, Uddaka Ramaputra, after he attained the higher state of consciousness beyond thought and non-thought.
Still not satisfied, Siddartha decided to practice the path of extreme austerities, and in this quest he was joined by the sage Kaundinya and four others. He pressed his tongue against his palate to try to restrain his mind until the perspiration poured from his armpits. He restrained his breath and heard the violent sounds of wind in his ears and head. He went into trances, and some thought he was dead. He fasted for long periods of time and then decided to try limiting his food to the juice of beans and peas. As his flesh shrank, the bones almost stuck out of his skin so that he could touch his spine from the front; after sitting on the ground his imprint looked like a camel's footprint.
For six years Siddartha practiced such austerities; but instead of achieving superhuman knowledge and wisdom, he only seemed to get weaker and weaker. Finally he thought that there might be a better way to attain enlightenment. He remembered how, while his father was working, he would sit in the shade of an apple tree free of sensual desires. Perhaps in concentrating his mind without evil ideas and sensual desires, he should not be afraid of a happy state of mind. However, to gain the strength he felt he needed for this concentration he decided to start eating again. When he gave up practicing the extreme austerities, the five mendicants who were with him became disillusioned and left him, saying that Gautama lives in abundance and has given up striving.
Siddartha reasoned that a life of penance and pain was no better than a life of luxury and pleasure, because if penance on Earth is religion, then the heavenly reward for penance must be irreligion. If merit comes from purity of food, then deer should have the most merit. Those who practice asceticism without calming their passions are like a man trying to kindle fire by rubbing a stick on green wood in water, but those who have no desires or worldly attachments are like a man using a dry stick that ignites.
Regaining his strength from normal eating of the food he begged, Siddartha once again practiced meditation. Now he easily attained the first stage of joy and pleasure, then a joyful trance arising from concentration with serenity and the mind fixed on one point without reasoning and investigation. The third stage produced equanimity to joy and aversion in a mindful, happy state. In the fourth stage pleasure and pain were left behind in a mindful purity. With his mind thus concentrated and cleansed, he directed it to the remembrance of former existences from previous births, perceiving cycles of evolution and dissolution of the universe.
Then he directed his mind to the passing away and rebirth of beings, perceiving how the karma of evil actions, words, and thoughts leads to rebirth in miserable conditions and suffering in hell. But those beings leading good lives are reborn in a happy state in a heavenly world. Finally directing his mind to the means of ultimate release, Siddartha realized that there is pain, a cause of pain, the cessation of pain, and a way that leads to that cessation of pain. Thus his mind was emancipated from sensual desires, the desire for existence, and ignorance.
According to legend this whole process occurred in one night after he had decided to sit under a tree until he became enlightened or died. It was also said that he was tested by Mara, the tempter, but Siddartha could not be swayed from his purpose. Thus darkness and ignorance were dispelled by the light as Siddartha Gautama became enlightened and was henceforth known as the Buddha, Shakyamuni, or the Tathagata.
In a deer park at Benares the Buddha gave his first sermon. He explained that the two extremes are not practiced by one who is enlightened - neither what is joined with the passions and luxury which is low, vulgar, common, ignoble, and useless, nor what is joined with self-torture which is painful, ignoble, and useless too. Avoiding these two extremes, the enlightened follow the middle path which produces insight and knowledge and leads to peace, wisdom, enlightenment, and nirvana. Buddha then expounded the four noble (aryan) truths of his doctrine.
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of pain:
birth is painful; old age is painful;
sickness is painful; death is painful;
sorrow, lamentation, dejection, and despair are painful.
Contact with unpleasant things is painful;
not getting what one wishes is painful.
In short the five groups of grasping are painful.
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the cause of pain:
the craving, which leads to rebirth,
combined with pleasure and lust,
finding pleasure here and there,
namely the craving for passion,
the craving for existence,
and the craving for non-existence.
Now this, monks, is the noble truth
of the cessation of pain:
the cessation without a remainder of craving,
the abandonment, forsaking, release, and non-attachment.
Now this, monks, is the noble truth
of the way that leads to the cessation of pain:
this is the noble eightfold way, namely,
correct understanding, correct intention,
correct speech, correct action, correct livelihood,
correct attention, correct concentration,
and correct meditation.7
The Buddha first taught the five mendicants who had previously abandoned him. Yasa, the son of a wealthy guildmaster, became the first lay disciple in the new community. The first women to become lay disciples were Yasa's mother and his former wife. They were soon followed by four friends of Yasa and then fifty more. The Buddha then suggested that the sixty disciples wander around separately to preach the doctrine so that others may be liberated from the fetters of illusion, while he went to Uruvela in Magadha.
Shakyamuni was sitting under a banyan tree when a Brahmin named Drona approached him in awe, asking if he was a god. The Tathagata said no. The Brahmin asked if he were a kind of nature spirit (gandharva or yaksha), but again the Buddha denied it. When he asked if he were a human, he denied that too. Finally Drona asked him if he was neither divine nor non-human nor human, then what was he? The reply was that he is Buddha (awake).
Shubha, a Brahmin student, asked the Buddha why humans differed so much in birth, intelligence, health, and so on. Shakyamuni explained that beings are heirs of karma, the consequences of their actions. Evildoers may experience happiness until their deeds ripen, and the good may experience bad things until their good deeds ripen. The pure and the impure create their own destinies; no one can purify another.
Also living in this region were three Brahmin brothers of the Kashyapa family. They were ascetics with matted hair over the age of seventy and were the most respected religious leaders in Magadha with a total of about one thousand disciples. The Buddha spoke with the oldest, Uruvilva Kashyapa, but it was difficult for him to accept that such a young man could be so holy. Finally the Buddha used his mystic powers. Uruvilva was convinced of the Buddha's superiority and decided to follow him. The Buddha suggested that they ask his five hundred followers what they wanted to do, and they all decided to join as well, shaving their hair and beards and throwing their ceremonial utensils into the river. The other two Kashyapa brothers saw the implements in the river and eventually joined as well with their disciples.
On the way to Rajagriha the Buddha and the thousand disciples saw the volcanic mountain Gayashirsa with its glowing fire. The Buddha preached his sermon on fire - how the sensations, perceptions, thoughts, and actions are burning with the poisons of covetousness, anger, and ignorance. At the capital he preached to King Bimbisara about the triple doctrine of charity, precepts, and good works. The king declared that all five of his wishes had been fulfilled - that he might be king, that a Buddha would come to his kingdom, that he would meet him, be instructed by him, and understand the teachings. After the sermon King Bimbisara donated a bamboo grove near the capital as a site for a monastery.
Also at Rajagriha lived the agnostic Sanjaya, who also had many disciples under two named Shariputra and Maudgalyayana who were seeking enlightenment and a better teacher. Shariputra observed Assaji (one of the first five mendicants in the community) begging and learned of the Buddha's teachings. He told Maudgalyayana, and they told the 250 disciples of Sanjaya. Even though Sanjaya tried three times to stop them from going away, they all went to find the Buddha, who greeted them with the revelation that these two would become his greatest disciples. Within two weeks of joining the community, both Shariputra and Maudgalyayana became enlightened.
In meditating Maudgalyayana had trouble with drowsiness and falling asleep. The Buddha suggested several remedies including laying down for a while to sleep before resuming meditation. The uncle of Shariputra was a skeptic like Sanjaya and told the Buddha that he could not accept any conclusive doctrine. Shakyamuni simply asked him if he recognized his own doctrine as conclusive. Caught in self-contradiction, he realized the weakness and limitation of skeptical philosophy. Then the Buddha explained the law of causation in human life.
Having heard that his son had become a Buddha, King Suddhodana sent Udayin to invite Siddartha to the capital at Kapilavastu. Udayin was converted to the new religion, and Shakyamuni returned to his home town. His father criticized him for begging for food when he was rich enough to feed thousands of followers. Shakyamuni replied that mendicancy was the correct custom for his line, by which he meant the line of Buddhas. Verbal discussions were not enough to win over people who had known him as a boy; so the Buddha used his mystical powers to convince them.
Siddartha's half-brother Nanda was about to be declared crown prince and married to Sundari, the most beautiful woman in the kingdom, but he decided to join the community instead. However, he could not help thinking about Sundari; so the Buddha gave him a vision of hundreds of heavenly maidens. This was later criticized by others because such a vision is a wrong motivation for seeking enlightenment. Eventually Nanda repented of this motivation and asked the Buddha to dissolve his promise of these maidens, and Nanda attained enlightenment and became an arhat (a term meaning "worthy" or "honorable" used for disciples who attained the highest level of awareness).
Siddartha's son Rahula was also admitted to the community at the age of ten, but later a rule was made that minors under twenty could not join the community without permission from their parents. Many Shakya nobles (according to legend 80,000) also joined the community at this time including Ananda, Anuruddha, Devadatta, Bhaddiya, and Kimbila. On the way to Buddha they were accompanied by their barber and slave, Upali. They sent him back to Kapilavastu with their jewels, but afraid of the Shakyas' reaction, he put them on a tree and rejoined the five aristocrats. Upali, who was of the lowest caste, was ordained first giving him seniority over the nobles he had served so that their Shakya pride might be moderated. Like Mahavira, the Buddha taught in the ordinary language of the people rather than in the aristocratic Sanskrit.
Complaints that monks wandering around during the rainy season trampled the grass and destroyed living creatures led the Buddha to adopt the custom of staying in retreat during the three months of rain. After one of these retreats a wealthy householder from Shravasti, who became known as Anathapindada ("Giver of alms to the unprotected"), confessed to the Buddha that he enjoyed his investing and business cares. Shakyamuni suggested that he be a lay disciple and continue his work and use it as a blessing for other people. So Anathapindada invited the Buddha to spend the next rainy season at Shravasti, the chief city in Kosala, where he purchased and built the Jetavana Monastery. Later when Anathapindada was dying of a painful illness, Shariputra went and taught him the mental concentration for the avoidance of pain usually only taught to monks, and Anathapindada died in peace.
The Buddha liked the Jetavana Monastery to be quiet, for he once dismissed Yashoja and five hundred monks for talking too loudly after they arrived. However, they went to another place near Vaishali and made great spiritual gains. Later when the Buddha traveled to Vaishali, he noticed that the area was illuminated. He told Ananda to invite Yashoja and the five hundred monks to the hall with the peaked roof. When they arrived, the Buddha was sitting in silent meditation; they too joined him in silent concentration. Every few hours Ananda approached the Buddha to ask him to greet these monks, but Shakyamuni remained silent and in the morning told Ananda that if he understood meditation better he would not have kept asking him to greet the monks, who were likewise sitting in immovable concentration.
A new monk once confessed to the Buddha for having eaten meat in his almsbowl, but the Buddha forgave those who ate meat that was not prepared for them. Their ethical principle was not to harm any living creature. Yet he criticized those who hunt and kill animals for sport and warned his followers not to accept any food from such blood-stained hands.
After Shakyamuni's father died as a lay disciple, he declared that a lay disciple, whose mind is free from the poisons of lust, attachment, false views, and ignorance, is no different than anyone else who is free. Fearing a famine because of lack of water, the Shakya warrior chiefs agitated for a war with the Kolyas over water rights to the Rohini River. The Kolyas had built a dike to conserve water; when they refused the Shakyas' demand to dismantle it, both sides prepared for war. Just before the battle was to begin, the Buddha spoke to both sides, asking them to compare the value of earth and water to the intrinsic value of people and the human blood they were about to spill. He told a parable about a decrepit demon, who fed on anger and took over a royal throne, becoming stronger as more anger was directed at him until the true king came and calmly offered to serve the throne which led to the diminishment and disappearance of the anger demon. In this way the war was avoided.
Krisha Gautami was stricken with grief when her only son died. Unable to find a physician who could bring him back to life, someone suggested that she go to the Buddha. He told her to get a handful of mustard seed in the city, but it must be from a house where no one has ever lost a child, spouse, parent, or friend. Eventually she came to realize how common death was and put aside her selfish attachment to her child.
Prajapati, the aunt and foster mother of Shakyamuni, asked to be admitted to the community. With Ananda acting as intermediary the Buddha established eight conditions for the admittance of nuns into the community. Nuns had to make obeisance to all the monks even the newest, and nuns were not allowed to criticize a monk even though monks criticized nuns. Although they were not treated equally, women were allowed to join the community. The sexism was also apparent when the Buddha told Ananda that the religious life would only last five hundred years instead of a thousand because women had been admitted.
A legend tells how a disciple used magical power to get a sandalwood bowl that had been tied from the top of a bamboo pole as a kind of contest. When the Buddha heard of it, he forbade those in the community to use such magical powers and had the bowl broken up and used as perfume. He suggested that his disciples only gain adherents by the miracle of instruction.
In the ninth year after the enlightenment the Buddha was at Kaushambi, and the monk Malunkyaputra complained that the Buddha never explained whether the world is eternal or temporary, finite or infinite, or whether life and the body are the same or different, or whether arhats are beyond death or not. He even threatened to leave the community if the Buddha would not answer his questions. First the Buddha asked him if he had ever promised to explain these things; he had not. Then he told the parable of a man who was pierced by a poisoned arrow, and his relatives summoned a doctor. Suppose, he said, the physician had said that he would not remove the arrow nor treat the patient until his questions had been answered, such as who made the bow, what kind it was, all about the arrow, and so on. The man would die, and still the information would not be known. Then the Buddha told Malunkyaputra that a person would come to the end of one's life before those metaphysical questions he had asked could be answered by the Tathagata. Those questions do not tend toward edification nor lead to supreme wisdom. However, the Buddha's teaching regarding suffering, its cause, and the means of ending it is like removing the poisoned arrow.
A conflict arose in the community when a monk who refused to admit he had committed an offense was expelled. Some complained that this violated their principle that only evil deeds committed with conscious intent are morally reprehensible. However, the Buddha declared that the two greatest ways to obtain demerit are not to ask forgiveness after committing a wrong and not to forgive one who has confessed and asked for forgiveness.
A Kalama nobleman from north of Kaushambi admitted that he had doubts because various teachers expressed contradictory views. The Buddha responded that he was wise not to believe everything but to question with reason and by experience. After thorough investigation whether the teachings are good, free from faults, praised by the noble, and when the teachings are practiced whether they lead to the welfare and happiness of oneself and other beings as well, then they may be accepted and lived.
At Asyapura they found Brahmin priests sacrificing horses, sheep, goats, cows, and other animals on bloody altars decorated with images of gods. The Buddha told his followers not to be deceived but to purify their hearts and cease to kill. They should not refuse to admit they are ascetics, who enjoy robes, bowl, bed, and medicine. In their simplified lives they learn how to calm their bodies and concentrate their minds to awaken the four religious qualities of loving friendship, compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity. The Buddha also declared that in regard to this ascetic life all the castes are equal.
A monk named Sona in the Sitavana Monastery at Rajagriha was so zealous in walking that his feet left a bloody trail. The Buddha asked him if his lute could be played well if the strings were too tight or too loose. Just so, excessive zeal may make the mind weary and one's thoughts irritable and uncertain. He suggested to Sona that gradual progress led to self-mastery and happiness rather than anxiety.
A young Brahmin named Vakula was so infatuated with the Buddha that he continually kept him in his sight. The Buddha explained that the one who sees the dharma (doctrine) sees the Buddha, but Vakula still always remained in his presence. Finally at the end of the rainy season the Buddha asked him to go away. Realizing that Vakula was climbing Vulture Peak to commit suicide, Shakyamuni went after him and called him back lest he destroy the conditions for winning great fruit.
An ambitious disciple named Purna decided to spread the doctrine to the Shronaparantakas. The Buddha, knowing that they were a dangerous people, asked him what he would do if they insulted and abused him. Purna said he would consider them good and kind for not hitting him and throwing rocks at him. But what if they hit and throw rocks? Then he would be glad they did not use clubs and swords. If they used clubs and swords, he would be glad they did not kill him; even if they kill him, they would deliver him from his vile body. So equipped with patience and love, Purna went to the Shronaparantakas and was about to be killed by a hunting archer for fun, when the hunter was so struck by how willing this person was to die that he stopped and eventually accepted the three refuges: the Buddha, the doctrine, and the community.
Vishakha, the daughter of a rich man, donated another monastery at Purvarama near Rajagriha. Once at this monastery the Buddha remained silent on the moon day when the preaching service and confessions by the monks took place. Finally the Buddha said to Ananda that the assembly was not wholly pure. Maudgalyayana, perceiving who the immoral person was, asked him to leave; when he refused to leave three times, he was escorted out of the hall by the arm. The Tathagata thought it strange that this man should wait until he was thrown out. Then the Buddha declared that he would no longer attend these sessions, but the monks would recite the regulations themselves.
When Shakyamuni was about 55, his personal attendant at the time, Nagasamala, insisted on taking a different road than the Buddha advised and was beaten by robbers. At the Shravasti Monastery the Buddha announced that he wanted to have a permanent attendant. Shariputra volunteered, but the Buddha said his work was teaching. Maudgalyayana and others were also rejected. Ananda remained silent, but Shakyamuni asked him if he would find it a bother. Ananda said that it would not be bothersome, but he did not consider himself worthy. He offered to be the Buddha's attendant on the following eight conditions: that he not have to accept gifts or alms given to the Buddha nor dwell in his chamber nor accept invitations offered only to him and that he may accompany the Perfect One when the monks are invited, that he may present him to those who come from a distance, that he may have access to him at all times, and that whatever teaching he missed by absence should be repeated to him by the Perfect One's own lips. The Buddha heartily agreed, and Ananda was his personal attendant for the rest of the Buddha's life.
Shakyamuni was able to tame a dangerous robber and admitted him into the community. He also bathed and treated a monk, who was suffering from dysentery and had been neglected by the other monks because he lay in his own excrement. On another occasion he found that a leper understood the doctrine very well as the Buddha explained that whatever has a beginning must have an end.
About 491 BC when Shakyamuni was 72, a schism arose in the community because his cousin Devadatta wanted to take over as head of the community; but Buddha refused, saying that he would not even turn it over to Shariputra or Maudgalyayana much less to a vile one to be vomited like spit. Devadatta became resentful and used his magical powers to win the favor of Prince Ajatashatru, the son of King Shrenika Bimbisara. They plotted together to take over the kingdom of Magadha and the Buddhist community. Bimbisara and the Buddha were to be murdered; but since Bimbisara turned over his kingdom to his son, he was merely put in prison. There he soon died, though chronicles stated he was killed by his son.
Hired killers were converted by the Buddha, but Devadatta tried to roll a huge boulder from Vulture Peak down upon him. However, only Shakyamuni's foot was scratched. Yet spilling the blood of a Tathagata with murderous intent created terrible karma for Devadatta. When he had learned of his intent, the Buddha had already declared that Devadatta's words and actions were not to be considered as representing the community in any way. Although he had gained a few followers, these were persuaded to return to the real community after long sermons by Shariputra and Maudgalyayana when Devadatta fell asleep after his own talk. Abandoned and with his psychic powers destroyed by his evil intentions, Devadatta soon became ill and died.
King Ajatashatru, who had also listened to Mahavira, was eventually converted by the Buddha; but his previous evil intentions and actions prevented him from attaining the enlightenment he might have achieved in that life. Ajatashatru married the daughter of the Kosala king Pasenadi, and Pasenadi's son married a maiden of the resentful Shakyas who was secretly of low birth. Her son, Vidudabha, swore revenge against the Shakyas. Pasenadi killed his powerful general and his sons, replacing them with the nephew Digha Karayana. While Pasenadi was listening to the Buddha, Digha hurried off and put Vidudabha on the throne. Pasenadi tried to get help from Ajatasatru but died of exposure on the way to Rajagriha.
Surveying the world, the Buddha became aware of Vidudabha's intention to attack the Shakyas and three times was able to convince him to turn back; but on the fourth time the Shakyas' karma for poisoning the river could not be averted, and they were massacred. Enough Shakyas remained, however, to accept a portion of Shakyamuni's relics after his death. When Shakyamuni was 79, both his chief disciples, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, died. Shariputra died in the home where he was born, but Maudgalyayana was killed by robbers to balance karma from a former life.
At the age of eighty the vitality of the Tathagata's body seemed to diminish, and he declared that he had only three months to live. Ananda missed the opportunity to plead with him to stay until the end of the eon as Buddhas could do, and Ananda was later blamed for that by the community. Finally Shakyamuni took his last meal, ordering a smith named Cunda to give him some mushrooms (literally pig's food or pork) and give the monks other food and then bury the rest of the mushrooms. Sharp sickness arose with a flow of blood and deadly pains, but the Buddha mindfully controlled them and declared that he would die in the third watch of the night. He sent word that Cunda was not to feel remorse but consider this giving of alms of the greatest merit.
Ananda asked the Buddha how he was to act toward women. The Buddha advised him not to see them; but if he saw them, not to speak to them; but if speaking, to exercise mindfulness. Then he said his burial was to be handled by the local Kshatriyas. That evening Ananda brought the local families to say goodbye, and then the Buddha answered the questions of an ascetic named Subhadda. Before going through the four stages of higher awareness into nirvana, the last words of the Buddha were, "Decay is inherent in all composite things. Work out your salvation with diligence."8
Having taught for forty-five years from his enlightenment to his death, the Buddha left behind a large compendium of teachings that were memorized by various of his disciples. Since writing was a rarity then in India they were passed on through the community until they were written down several centuries later. The earliest texts are in the common Pali language and usually contain dialogs between the Buddha and others. Often the Buddha emphasized that it was more important for disciples to see the dharma (doctrine) than the Buddha, because the dharma would remain and was what they needed to practice to attain enlightenment and even afterward. The third refuge for the Buddhist was in the community (sangha) of monks and nuns.
The Buddha advised his followers not to feel ill will or get angry when others spoke against them, because this might disrupt their self-mastery and prevent them from being able to judge whether the criticism was valid or not. For the same reason they should not be overly glad when the doctrine is praised.
In regard to the moral precepts, the Buddha described himself as having put away the killing of living things, thus holding himself aloof from the destruction of life. Having laid aside weapons, he is ashamed of roughness and full of mercy, being compassionate and kind to all creatures. He does not take what has not been given, is chaste, and speaks truth being faithful and trustworthy, not breaking his word to the world. He has put away lying and slander and does not raise quarrels. Thus does he live:
as a binder together of those who are divided,
an encourager of those who are friends,
a peacemaker, a lover of peace, impassioned for peace,
a speaker of words that make for peace.9
In describing the fruits of living as a recluse the Buddha emphasized to King Ajatasatru the importance of mindfulness toward the ethical significance of every action and word. Then having mastered the moral precepts, restrained the senses, endowed with mindfulness and self-possession, filled with content, the recluse chooses a lonely and quiet spot to meditate in order to purify the mind of lusts, the wish to injure, ill temper, sloth, worry, irritability, wavering, and doubt.
At the end of this long dialog King Ajatasatru confessed his sin in putting to death his father and asked to be a disciple of the blessed one. The Buddha accepted his confession and noted that in the tradition of the noble ones' discipline whoever sees one's fault as a fault and correctly confesses it shall attain self-restraint in the future.
The Buddha was quite a penetrating psychologist and described the psychological causality that leads to suffering in his theory of pratitya-samutpada (dependent origination). Sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, despair, old age, and death are all caused by birth, which depends on existence, which depends on attachment, which depends on desire, which depends on sensation, which depends on contact, which depends on the six senses, which depend on name and form, which depend on consciousness, which depends on karma, which depends on ignorance. However, by ending ignorance, then karma, consciousness, name and form, the six senses, contact, sensation, desire, attachment, existence, and birth with all the misery that comes after birth can be ended. Sensation and desire also lead to pursuit, decision, gain, passion, tenacity, possession, avarice, and guarding possessions, which can lead to blows and wounds, strife, quarreling, slander, and lies.
This process is further described in a parable about an ancient kingdom where the celestial wheel symbolizing the dharma disappeared. The king ignored the advice of the sages that he should share some of his wealth with the destitute. This led to widespread poverty and theft. At first the king gave some wealth to a thief to solve his problem, but then not wanting to reward stealing he ordered that thieves have their heads cut off. This led to the arming of the poor, increased violence associated with their stealing, and more murders. This also caused more lying, evil speaking, and false opinions. Eventually greed, adultery, perverted lust, and incest became common followed by lack of respect for parents, religious teachers, and the heads of the clans. Human life became devalued like hunters feel toward their game, and at times people treated each other like wild beasts. Finally deciding to do something good, people started to abstain from taking life, which led to abstaining from taking what is not given, abstaining from lying, and abstaining from adultery. As the virtues were practiced, the health of the society returned. When this happens, a fully awakened one (Buddha) called Maitreya will come. Until then the Buddha recommended that people live as islands unto themselves, taking the dharma as their refuge, letting the mind be filled with love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
In another dialog the Buddha clarified the meaning of the eightfold path by saying that right view is knowledge of the four noble truths of suffering, its cause, cessation, and the way that leads to its cessation. Right aspiration is towards benevolence and kindness. Right speech is to abstain from lying, slander, abuse, and idle talk. Right doing is to abstain from taking life, from taking what is not given, and from carnal indulgence. Right livelihood is only described as putting away wrong livelihood. Right effort is toward preventing bad states from arising, putting away evil that has arisen, toward good states arising, and nurturing good that does arise.
Right mindfulness is being self-possessed and mindful in regard to the body, overcoming craving and dejection in feelings, thoughts, and ideas. Right rapture is being aloof from sensuous appetites and evil ideas, entering into and abiding in the four levels of higher awareness. The first of these has cogitation and deliberation born of solitude and is full of ease and joy. The second suppresses cogitation and deliberation evoking by itself concentration, calming the mind and dwelling on high. In the third stage one is disenchanted with joy, is calmly contemplative and aware. The fourth state leaves behind ease and transcends former happiness and melancholy by entering into the rapture of pure mindfulness and equanimity, feeling neither ease nor ill.
According to the Buddha the four motives that lead to evil deeds are partiality, enmity, stupidity, and fear. The six channels for dissipating wealth are being addicted to liquors, frequenting the streets at unseemly hours, haunting fairs, gambling, bad companions, and idleness. These ethical teachings and discourses on many other subjects are from the sayings (Nikaya) of the Buddha in the first of the Three Baskets (Tripitaka) that make up the Pali Canon. The second basket contains the discipline (Vinaya) books for the monks and nuns. Later commentaries on the original teachings make up the third basket of "higher doctrines" (Abhidharma).
One of the greatest literary works of early Buddhism is the Dhammapada, which was placed among the smaller sayings in the first basket of sutras although it contains 423 stanzas in 26 chapters. Put together from highlights of Buddha's ethical teachings, it was in existence by the time of Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC. It begins with the idea that we are the result of our thoughts, impure or pure.
Those who harbor resentful thoughts toward others, believing they were insulted, hurt, defeated, or cheated, will suffer from hatred, because hate never conquers hatred. Yet hate is conquered by love, which is an eternal law. Those who live for pleasures with uncontrolled senses will be overthrown by temptation. Those who cleanse themselves from impurity, grounded in virtues, possessing self-control and truth are worthy of the yellow robe. Those who imagine truth in untruth and see untruth in truth follow vain desires.
Passion enters an unreflecting mind like rain comes into a badly roofed house. Wrong-doers suffer and grieve in this world and the next, but the virtuous find joy and happiness in both. The second chapter is on awareness and begins:
Awareness is the path of immortality;
thoughtlessness is the path of death.
Those who are aware do not die.
The thoughtless are as if dead already.
The wise having clearly understood this,
delight in awareness
and find joy in the knowledge of the noble ones.
These wise ones, meditative, persevering,
always using strong effort,
attain nirvana, the supreme peace and happiness.12
It is good to control the mind, but thought is difficult to guard and restrain. Yet a tamed mind brings happiness. A wise person, who shows you your faults, may be followed as though to hidden treasures. The wise, who teach, admonish, and forbid the wrong, will be loved by the good and hated by the bad. The wise mold themselves, as engineers of canals guide water and carpenters shape wood. The path of those who have stilled their passions and are indifferent to pleasure, perceiving release and unconditional freedom, is difficult to understand like that of birds in the sky.
Whoever conquers oneself is greater than the person who conquers in battle a thousand times a thousand people. In regard to punishment this text warns that those who inflict pain on others will not find happiness after death. Self is the master of the self, and a person who is self-controlled finds a master few can find. By oneself wrong is done and suffered, and by oneself one is purified.
In regard to the world the Buddha recommended not following a bad law any more than a wrong idea or thoughtlessness. He advised us not to be attached to the world but to follow the path of virtue, for the world is like a bubble or mirage. Most of the world is blind, but the wise are led out of it by conquering temptation. The teaching of the awakened ones is not to blame nor strike, but to live alone and restrained under the law, moderate in eating, and practicing the highest consciousness.
Joy is the natural state for those who do not hate those who hate them. Craving is the worst disease and disharmony the greatest sorrow. Health and contentment are the greatest wealth, trusting the best relationship, and nirvana the highest joy. Grief comes from pleasure, attachment, greed, lust, and craving. Anger may be overcome by love, wrong by good, avarice by generosity, and a liar by truth. The wise hurt no one and always control their bodies.
There is no fire like lust, no chain like hate;
there is no snare like folly, no torrent like craving.
The faults of others are easy to see;
our own are difficult to see.
A person winnows others' faults like chaff,
but hides one's own faults,
like a cheater hides bad dice.
If a person is concerned about the faults of others
and is always inclined to be offended,
one's own faults grow
and one is far from removing faults.13
Anyone who tries to settle a matter by violence is not just. The wise consider calmly what is right and wrong, proceeding in a way that is nonviolent and fair. For the Buddhist one is not noble because of injuring living beings; rather one is noble, because one does not injure living beings. Whoever realizes that all created things suffer, perish, and are unreal transcends pain. There is no meditation without wisdom and no wisdom without meditation, for in meditating one becomes wise; but in not meditating wisdom is lost. Whoever has wisdom and meditation is close to nirvana.
Lift up your self by yourself;
examine your self by yourself.
Thus self-protected and attentive
you will live joyfully, mendicant.
For self is the master of self;
self is the refuge of self.
Therefore tame yourself,
like a merchant tames a noble horse.
Joyful and faithful in the doctrine of the Buddha,
the mendicant finds peace,
the joy of ending natural existence.14
No one should hurt a holy one, but no holy one should strike back. The sooner the wish to injure disappears, the sooner all suffering will stop. The holy are free of all attachment, anger, and lust. Though having committed no offense, the holy bear reproach, ill treatment, and imprisonment. They are tolerant with the intolerant, peaceful with the violent, and free from greed among the greedy, speaking true words that are useful and not harsh. The holy call nothing their own, letting go of attachment to humans and rising above attachment to the gods. Eventually a holy one knows one's former lives, perceives heaven and hell, and reaches the end of births, having attained perfection.
After the Buddha's death in 483 BC, the first Buddhist Council was led by Mahakassapa during which Ananda recited the discourses on the doctrine and Upali the rules of the discipline. These were then memorized and became the first two baskets of the Pitaka, the Sutta and Vinaya. Buddhism added abstinence from intoxicants to the four cardinal rules of abstaining from violence, stealing, lying, and sexual misconduct.
At Buddhist gatherings the Pratimokshasutra was recited, followed by confessions of monks who felt they had violated any of it. The four offenses that led to expulsion were having sexual intercourse, taking what was not given, taking of a human life or persuading anyone to commit suicide, and falsely boasting of supernatural attainments. The thirteen offenses deserving suspension included sexual misdemeanors, harming living beings by building a hut, falsely accusing another monk of a major offense, persisting in causing divisions in the community, and refusing to move when admonished by other monks. Other minor violations were eating between meals, attending secular entertainment, using unguents and jewelry, using high or luxurious beds, and handling money.
A century after the death of the Buddha the monks of Vaishali relaxed the rules on ten minor points, leading to contributions of money to the monks. These were protested by the elder Yasa, who organized a council to condemn the changed rules. The easterners from Vaishali became known as Mahasanghikas, and the traditional westerners Theravada. According to tradition Theravada soon divided into eleven sects and Mahasanghikas into seven. Thus Buddhism was administered locally, though a monk could reside in any monastery irrespective of sect.
Ashoka became emperor of India about 273 BC. Buddhist texts portray Ashoka consolidating his empire by killing ninety-nine of his brothers; but some consider this an exaggeration to set off the contrast after his conversion to Buddhism, since some of his rock edicts indicate loving care of his brothers. With a sense of his historic mission Ashoka had these rock edicts and stone pillars carved all over India with descriptions of his intentions and actions. These tell a remarkable story of the philosopher king H. G. Wells called the greatest of kings.
Ashoka admitted in Rock Edict 13 that eight years after his consecration as king when "Kalinga was conquered, 150,000 people were deported, 100,000 were killed, and many times that number died."10 Yet after that, Ashoka was converted to justice (dharma), which he loved and taught. With great remorse Ashoka transformed himself and attempted to transform his kingdom and the world, though he warned offenders that they might be executed if they disobey. Eliminating capital punishment was not one of his reforms although he did often delay executions. Ashoka expressed his main concern for the next world.
Ashoka renounced the violence of war, stating that he would have to bear all that could be borne. He refused to conquer weaker and smaller states, allowing even forest tribes an equal sovereignty. He wanted all people to enjoy the benefits of non-injury, self-control, fair conduct, and gentleness. As a benevolent monarch he declared all people his children and expressed his desire that all his children obtain welfare and happiness both in this world and the next. He thus engaged in preaching but also worked hard to serve his people. Instead of organizing military expeditions, he sent out peace missions throughout his kingdom and beyond to teach virtue and conversion to a moral life by love.
In another rock edict Ashoka said he had been an open follower of the Buddha for two and a half years. He abolished royal hunting and animal sacrifices in the capital, reducing the palace's killing of animals for food from several thousand a day to two peacocks and an occasional deer, and he promised to eliminate even those three. He banned sports involving the killing of animals and cruel animal fighting. In the 26th year of his reign he restricted the killing and injury of parrots, wild geese, bats, ants, tortoises, squirrels, porcupines, lizards, rhinos, pigeons, and all quadrupeds that were neither used nor eaten.
Ashoka provided medicinal plants for people and animals to neighboring kings as well as throughout his own kingdom, seeing no more important work than acting for the welfare of the whole world. He appointed governors who would serve the happiness and welfare of the people, and he insisted on justice and consistent punishments. He commanded that reports be made to him at any hour of the day and at any place, so intent was he in working for the welfare of all. To protect people and beasts Ashoka had trees planted and shelters built at regular intervals along the roads. Mango groves were planted, and wells were dug.
Although he followed Buddhist dharma, Ashoka respected all the religious sects and also encouraged his people to do so by guarding their speech in neither praising one's own sect nor blaming other sects except in moderation. He believed that whoever praises one's own sect and disparages another's does one's own sect the greatest possible harm. "Therefore concord alone is meritorious, that they should both hear and obey each other's morals (dharma)."11 He wanted all sects to be full of learning and teach virtue, and he promoted the essence of all religions, their unity in practice, their coming together in religious assemblies, and learning the scriptures of different religions.
Emperor Ashoka tried to unite the Buddhists, but he was stricken with remorse when his minister beheaded monks refusing to comply. Advised by the most learned monk of the time, Moggaliputta Tissa, all monks who did not follow the Theravada were dismissed from the community, and refutations of heretical views were published in the Kathavatthu of the Abhidamma basket. The number of sects was reduced, but others later denied that Ashoka ever held such a council. Regardless of whether that council was held, the support of Ashoka for Buddhism greatly expanded its influence so that it was even adopted and promoted by Greek rulers such as Menander.
Ashoka's emphasis was on ethical action rather than ritual
and ceremonies, which he found of little use. The ceremonies of
dharma that he found useful were "the good treatment
of slaves and servants, respect for elders, self-mastery in one's
relations with living beings, gifts to Brahmins and ascetics,
and so on."8 For thirty-seven years Ashoka ruled a large
empire that included most of India except the southern tip and
portions of Afghanistan, Sind, Kashmir, Nepal, and the lower Himalaya.
Yet his efforts were to bring justice and virtue to the whole
world. He sent Buddhist teachers to the rulers of Syria, Egypt,
Cyrene, Macedonia, and Epirus. Thanks to his rock edicts and human
memory, his admirable intentions will never be forgotten.
Early in the Christian era Buddhism spread to China and from there to Japan and also Tibet. The Buddhist way of life has been a tremendous influence toward peace and has been the most successful religion of the Orient. Among the major religions Buddhism is unusual, like Jainism, in that it did not originally believe in God, though it recognized gods and goddesses and heavens and hells. Less stringent and more popular than the ascetic Jainism, it's emphasis on ethical behavior and the quest for enlightenment appealed to both those who renounced the world and laypeople. Though it also offered excellent individual models of ethical behavior and friendly attitudes, except in its religious community it was unable to convert society as a whole to its way of nonviolence any more than Jainism could.
Nevertheless in my opinion both Jainism and Buddhism even more provided outstanding examples of supremely ethical attitudes and actions. They were not afraid to criticize the priestly corruptions of Brahminism nor the violent ambitions of the ruling class (Kshatriyas). Mahavira and the Buddha were great teachers and leaders, and the non-theistic religions they founded nourished and enriched the spiritual tradition of India and encouraged ethical behavior among its people.
Perhaps the greatest contribution they both made was to make nonviolence a noble path in a culture where the word for noble (Aryan) had stood for racism based on color and the violent conquest of India. Their devotion to truthfulness and their ability to live simple lives with few material possessions as well as their chastity kept their lives relatively pure and free of entanglements and exploitation. Though surely not without their individual imperfections and occasional schisms, the good contributed to the world by these teachings and the lives of their best followers must have been substantial.
1. Acharanga Sutra tr. Hermann Jacobi, 2:15:24.
2. Majjh. I, p. 92-93 quoted in Jain, K. C, Lord Mahavira and His Times, p. 56-57.
3. Sutrakritanga tr. Hermann Jacobi, 1:10:3.
4. Uttaradhyayana tr. Hermann Jacobi, 1:15-16.
5. Ibid., 25:30-33.
6. Sayyanmbhava, Arya, Dasa Vaikalika Sutra, 5B:12.
7. Samyutta Nikaya 5:420 tr. Sanderson Beck in Wisdom Bible, p. 191-192.
8. Maha Parinibbana Suttanta 6:7 (156).
9. Brahma-Jala Sutta 1:9 (4).
10. Sources of Indian Tradition ed. DeBary, p. 143.
11. The Age of the Nandas and Mauryas ed. Sastri, p. 236.
12. Dhammapada 2:1-3 tr. Sanderson Beck in Wisdom Bible, p. 196.
13. Ibid. 18:17-19, p. 216.
14. Ibid. 25:20-22, p. 228.