FROM INDUS TO INDEPENDENCE: A TREK THROUGH INDIAN HISTORY Part 8

Canberra 02 March 2013
THE FERMENT OF RELIGIOUS THOUGHT (~600 to 250 BC)
Section III
Vardhamana Mahavira—Conqueror of the Spirit
The Spread of Jainism
A few decades after Siddhartha (who went on to become the Buddha) was born as a Sakya prince, another spiritual leader who would have great influence on the religious fabric of India was born to a non-Aryan noble family. There are legends [like in the case of Buddha] regarding the birth of Vardhamana, who in later life was called Mahavira (one of great courage), which are almost certainly later day innovations. The story of his birth goes like this: a Brahmin couple Devananda and Rasabhdatta were expecting a child who the gods knew was destined to become a great saint and religious reformer. Indra, the king of gods, realised that a great leader of men, whether in the battlefield or in the spiritual sphere, must be a Kshatriya and therefore transferred the embryo from the Brahmin womb to that of Trisala, wife of Siddhartha the chieftain of the Jnatrikas, [not to be confused with Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha] which was the prominent clan of the region. Both ladies are supposed to have dreamt of the moon and other auspicious objects and animals, leading to the interpretation that the child (common to two mothers) was indeed [as the gods knew] going to be the ruler of the world with vast armies or the ruler of the three worlds—the monarch of the spiritual world. [This part of the story is so remarkably similar to the story of the birth of Buddha that one is forced to believe that the embellishment of the birth story of both these saints, who were also contemporaries to a certain extent, was made to ensure that their divine status was assured in the even beyond the immediate aftermath of their deaths.] This story also provides Vardhamana the pedigree and lineage of both a Brahmin and a Kshatriya by birth, which was almost tailor made for the work he was to undertake later in his life. However, this story of miraculous birth and the pedigree it bestowed on the individual is in direct contrast to the later teachings of Mahavira, a dichotomy that has not been sufficiently analysed.
The ascertainable facts of this story are: Vardhamana was the second son of Siddhartha the chief of Jnatrikas and his wife Trisala; the Jnaatrikas were the prominent clan of the region; the birth took place in Kundagrama, a suburb of Vaishali on the river Gandak about 44 kilometres from Patna, around 540 BC; and Trisala was the sister of Chetaka the chief of the Lichchavi tribe and ruler of Vaishali. Through his mother Vardhamana was connected to the Videha, Magadha and Anga clans, who were the rulers of the predominant states of the region at that time. There is only limited information about his youth [unlike that of Buddha, who himself gave details of his youth to his disciples, thereby ensuring that it was recorded—as a preconceived plan or happenstance is not clear] but it is known that he grew up in the lap of luxury; he excelled in martial pursuits [unlike Buddha, who although strong, shunned martial training]; he was married to Yasoda, daughter of another clan chief Priyadarshana; and although inclined towards spiritualism, did not become an ascetic until the death of his parents to avoid giving them pain [again unlike the Buddha who absconded in the middle of the night after the birth of his child]. After the death of his parents Vardhamana decided to become an ascetic. There is one group of historians who believe that the parents were already followers of the Jain faith, as it was practiced at that time before the reformation instituted by Mahavira, and voluntarily starved themselves to death in the Jain tradition. Once again, unlike Buddha, Vardhmana’s departure and becoming an ascetic was an event that was celebrated as a public event in the clan. [This could perhaps be explained by the fact that Vardhmana was the second son and in those days, kings did not want capable younger brothers to be around because of the fear of their throne being usurped and to avoid palace intrigue. It is entirely possible that Vardhaman’s elder brother, who inherited the chieftainship on the death of their parents, ‘facilitated’ his becoming an ascetic.] One notable feature of Vardhaman’s life that can be gleaned from the limited information that is available regarding his youth is that almost all events were in direct contrast to those that happened in Buddha’s youth.
Vardhamana Becomes Mahavira
After shedding all trappings of worldly attachments, Vardhmana wandered as an ascetic, naked, for 12 years. During this time he was joined [or he joined, depending on the bias and viewpoint of the analyst/author] by Gosala who also went on to create an independent sect of his own. [The story of Gosala and the sect he created is given at the end of this chapter as a sub section.] The ascetic Vardhamana was not as charming or erudite as Buddha and has often been described as being unkempt in appearance and taciturn in his interaction with people. [With this sort of behaviour pattern, it was perhaps lucky that he was not propounding a brand new way of life, but only altering an already existing faith which already had followers. Otherwise he may have found it difficult to establish a new order.] In the 13th year of his asceticism he took the title of Mahavira and Jina (the Victorious) and dedicated the next 30 years of his life to missionary work. He preached mainly in the Bihar region where his royal connections gave him patronage and increased visibility. Unlike the case of Buddha, Mahavira had a preponderance of women followers. [This is surprising since the basic philosophy of Jainism, (explained later in this chapter) does not accept that women can also achieve the state of nirvana, without being reborn as a man. This is another dichotomy of Jainism that has not been sufficiently well explained] It is reported that he starved himself to death, as per the norms of the Jain faith, around 468 BC in the town of Parva near Rajagriha.
Mahavira’s teachings were initially confined to the Gangetic plain and only later spread to Western India and Karnataka. [In contrast, the maximum numbers of followers of the Jain faith today are to be found in the region of Gujarat and Karnataka.] His teachings were, not surprisingly, passed on in the oral tradition initially and were later collated and recorded in the Sutrakritanga and the Kalpasutra, the earliest of the known Jain texts. Since the teachings were passed orally in the beginning and written down later it is difficult to clearly distinguish the original teachings and later interpolations. [This issue confronts almost all religions to varying degrees.]
The Jain Universe
It is certain that Jaina ideas were in circulation much earlier since it has been posited that Mahavira was the 24th and last of the Teachers, called ‘Thirthankaras’—makers of fords—and therefore has to be seen not as the founder of the religion, but the person who was responsible for reforming and popularising an otherwise deeply conservative precept. Essentially, Mahavira gave form to the ideas that were in circulation from around 8th century BC. The sect was initially called Nirgrantha and was gradually called Jaina (from which the term Jainism was derived) after Mahavira’s name Jina. It is highly likely that the sect, then called Parsva, was formed by the 23rd Thirthankara about 250 years before Mahavira. In fact, it is believed that Mahavira’s parents followed the Parsva way of life (confirmed by the reports that they starved themselves to death) and therefore Mahavira was not a stranger to the basic concepts of the sect. Mahavira was an atheist—believing that the world evolved on its own with absolutely no divine intervention—and his ‘enlightenment’ does not involve any new revelation but the perfecting of his own understanding of the already existing precepts of the sect.
Jainism as a religion has a fundamental commonality with Buddhism in that both the beliefs do not accept Vedic authority and opposed the stranglehold of the Brahmins on religious rituals, education, and knowledge. In the Jaina tradition the Universe functions according to an eternal law that determines a cycle of progress and decline, with the Universe turning in endless cycles without beginning and end. Jainism, therefore, is an eternal religion. In this eternal cycle of the Universe, mankind is currently in a 40,000 year-long declining phase. In the Jaina philosophy the goal of living is to purify the soul, which cannot be achieved through knowledge because it is only a relative quality. Purification requires living a ‘balanced’ life that can normally be achieved only through leading a life as a monk. This is so because balance in life is attainable only through the practice of extreme frugality and an obsessive following of the concept of ‘ahimsa’ or non-violence, which may not possible for a householder leading a normal life. The Jaina concept of ahimsa does not even permit the practice of agriculture since the tilling of the land is bound to injure or kill some living beings, leaving only trade and commerce as somewhat accepted activities. [The large number of people from the trading community in Gujarat who follow the Jain faith is a direct manifestation of this concept.] By following the doctrine of ahimsa, the Jains believe that it is possible to break the chain of birth and rebirth that then sets the human being free for eternity. Jainism, at least in its initial manifestation, cannot be considered a separate religion, but a different way of life that is a non-conformist form of Hinduism.  
[The doctrine of extreme non-violence that emanated from the teachings of Mahavira had a profound influence on the ancient Indian society. Perhaps more importantly, its influence percolated into the everyday life of the broader society in an imperceptible manner, gradually impacting the Indian psyche over a period of generations. Even today the concept of non-violence is considered a virtue to be cultivated, especially if one is to move forward towards spiritual self-actualisation. By extrapolation it can be seen that in a very circumspect manner Mahavira created the modern day Gandhi—the apostle of non-violence.]
The Jaina philosophy holds a dualistic view and divides the world into two—jiva (life and soul) and ajiva (non-life and non-soul)—that are both dravyas (substances) that are indestructible and eternal. Jiva is non-material with no physical limitations; is immutable and always the same; and is homogenous as well as indivisible. Ajiva on the other hand is material and therefore limited by materiality; mutable and can evolve into something else or anything; and is divided further into two categories—the subtle, which cannot be perceived and the gross that can be recognised by human senses. Subtle ajiva has four categories: akasa (ether or space in which all things exist); dharma (energy which is also the motive for action); adharma (inertia, leading to inaction); and kala (time). These can only exist in combination with each other or with gross matter. Jiva—‘chaitanya’, the consciousness—when pure and uncontaminated, exists in a state of perfection in infinite and eternal bliss. This perfection is lost when jiva is contaminated by ajiva and produces karma, which is the beginning of the evolutionary process. This ‘Karmic evolution’ is applicable to both living and non-living beings/things, making no distinction between the two. The precept is that jiva is present in everything—animate and inanimate—since it is present in the four basic elements of earth, fire, air and water. Further expanding this concept it is thought that even ‘inanimate’ objects, if closely watched, is seen to display some animation. [There is a distinct similarity between this concept and the theory in quantum physics that the more closely a particle is watched, the more alive or charged they seem!] In the Jaina thought process, karma is not a process but a substance and accretes to jiva thereby changing its composition and character. [This is in contrast to the basic Hindu belief of karma being the product of a process that evaluates the good and bad deeds of an individual.] In the Jaina belief, karma therefore breeds action and action in turn creates karma—a self-perpetuating and eternal cycle. The only way to break this eternal cycle and attain release would be eliminating karma. This is logical. The Jaina way of life is a continuous quest to remove karma through devising the means to close the channels through which karma enters jiva and contaminates it. In turn, the closing of the channels is achieved through the practice of rigorous austerities and even self-torture—in other words, liberation of the soul through asceticism. The law of karma is applicable to all living beings in nature and the methodology recommended to break the eternal cycle and achieve self-actualisation creates a kind of moral inertia in the person and the group. [The Western society is finds it difficult to comprehend this particular facet because the Western thought process and philosophy are based on matter-of-fact pragmatism. This inability to understand the concept of karma, jiva and ajiva, is one of the primary reasons for the development of the Western opinion that oriental thinking and philosophies are ‘inscrutable’.]
Built on the concept of self-denial to break the Karmic cycle, Jainism is rigid in its practice and manifestation. The life of the monks (since it is felt that only by becoming a monk can one break the hold of worldly desires, which in turn is a font for karma) are regulated through an elaborate set of rules that minutely prescribes the dos and don’ts of normal life and behaviour. The fundamental rules are: not to kill anything; not to have any sexual pleasure; not to steal; not to own anything; and not to lie. Each of these ‘don’ts’ have separate sub-clauses of how it is to be adhered to and practiced in the day-to-day living of a monk. [There are clear dichotomies here; a person is not allowed to kill even an ant, but the ultimate way to attain ‘nirvana’ is to take one’s own life through gradual starvation; and the concept of self-torture while believing in an extreme version of non-violence. The root of ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi’s use of starvation as a coercive tool, by embarking on indefinite fasts to purify not only himself but the ‘corruption’ in the society, as he perceived, can be considered the 20 century manifestation of this Jaina concept.] The precepts of Jainism is considered by many to be cold hearted and selfish since it is only concerned with the self as an individual and his/her salvation. There is no concept within the religion of assisting other people, to an extent that even caring for others is considered a weakness. However, the social code propagated is egalitarian where the status of a person is determined by what one does and not on the person’s birth. [Refer back to the birth of Mahavira where the gods conspired to give him the ‘right’ lineage.]
In later years Jainism split into two orders—the Digambaras (sky-clad) who move around naked; and the Shvetambaras (white-clad) who were a white body cover. The two sub-sects disagree completely regarding the role of women in the religion. The Shvetambaras permit women to become monks (nuns?) and even claim that one Tirthankara, named Malli, was a woman. This is clearly a liberal view. The Digambaras deny the idea of a woman Tirthankara, believing that the only salvation possible for a woman is to be first reborn as a man and then to practice the austerities necessary to attain spiritual release—a totally misogynistic viewpoint by contemporary standards and political correctness. Although Jainism was never concerned with the worship of gods and shunned all associated religious rituals, over a period of time some of the known Tirthankaras were given the status of gods and temples built for them. The adoption of Hindu rituals was not far behind and now the rituals in many temples are conducted by Brahmins. [It is not surprising that the routine trappings of Hinduism have gradually made in-roads into the Jaina concept of living. If the strength of Jainism is the rigidity of its code and the morality expected of its followers, Hinduism thrives on its flexibility and willingness to adapt to changing circumstances. The ability to stay as a yielding and absorbent way of life has been Hinduism’s biggest asset, the primary characteristic that has made it one of the most enduring ‘religions’ of the world. It is only in the past few decades—an insignificant amount of time relative to its long history—that an element of radical intolerance has percolated into the religion. Even this is unlikely to make a noticeable impact on the fundamental ‘live and let live’ and non-violent ethos of the Hindu way of life.]
‘One does not become a monk by tonsure, nor a Brahmin by the sacred syllable Om, nor a muni by living in the woods, nor an ascetic by wearing [clothes of] kusa-grass and bark. One becomes a monk by equanimity, a Brahmin by chastity, a muni by knowledge, and an ascetic by penance. By one’s actions one becomes a Brahmin, or a Kshatriya, or a Vaisya, or a Sudra.’
Uttaradhyayana,
Quoted in ‘Gem in the Lotus’ by Abraham Eraly, Pg 198.                                       
The Ajivaka Sect
The Ajivaka was also a system of philosophy and an ascetic movement that flourished at the same time and in the same area of the sub-continent as Budhism and Jainism. It was founded by Gosala Makhaliputta, a colourful and radical religious leader who was the son of a street singer and reportedly born in a cowshed. The name Gosala, which means cowshed, is derived from this origin. Gosala spent six years in the company of Mahavira before separating to espouse his own version of a philosophy of absolute determinism, in which human actions and choices have no influence to overcome the forces of fate. He was a contradictory figure, being lewd and crude as well as brash and boorish, while at the same time being a great and insightful thinker. Gosala’s philosophy ran thus: all beings have a transmigratory cycle of the same period—8,400,000 mahakalpas (eons)—after which salvation is attained; human effort cannot shorten or alter this process; all human effort is ineffectual in changing the course of history or life; and in an epitomic proclamation of pre-determination, destiny controlled even the most significant action of each human being and nothing could change this. Although the wait for salvation in this belief was almost eternal, the Ajivakas practiced a strict regimen of asceticism that consisted of extreme fasting, indifference to physical comfort, and living exposed to the elements. In the practice of these traditions, Gosala was often described as living without clothes. The sect was completely against the caste system and was mainly non-theistic.
The Ajivakas found primary support with the artisans and the mercantile class who perhaps identified with the leader Gosala, who unlike both Buddha and Mahavira was a commoner, in fact one of a low birth status. The body of monks that formed the sect was primarily occupied with the practice of austerities and only minimal literature has survived. However, despite its inconclusive philosophy with no salvation in sight, irrespective of the asceticism that was being practiced, the Ajivakas survived the death of its leader. Further, and surprisingly, it was the only philosophy (other than Buddhism and Jainism) to continue for a number of centuries unlike other sects and philosophies that quickly declined and fell apart on the death of its principal leader. The Ajivakas were persecuted almost universally, [Buddha was vehemently opposed to the philosophy being propounded by Gosala and there was animosity between the two, which has been recorded.] but spread to the south of the sub-continent and survived as an influential entity around the Palar River in Karnataka till the 14th century AD. There is also evidence of the Ajivakas having been good astrologers and of their presence in Emperor Asoka’s court. Around 14 century AD, at the time of the Hindu revival, the sect seems to have been absorbed into Vaishnavism. The disappearance of the Ajivakas at this late stage could be considered the end of religious experimentation in India.
The Materialists
During the period of religious ferment, there were other movements that took hold for some years and then vanished, normally at the death of the founder-teacher-propagator. One of the more prominent schools was the materialistic school called the Charavakas (also called Lokayatas) that derived its philosophy from materialism and challenged the basic ideology of Vedic Brahmanism. [According to Buddhist chronicles, the Buddha opposed all these philosophies as being incomplete, at times even stating that they were the work of charlatans (‘eel-wrigglers’ is the actual term that has been used).] It is clear that this was period when even the lay person was prone to questioning the established ideologies of religion and experimenting with new religious and spiritual thought and philosophy. The Charavakas taught complete materialism, rejecting the frugal virtues that were the foundations of both Buddhism and Jainism. The Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha (as quoted in AL Basham ‘The Wonder That was India, p. 299) summarises this philosophy through this verse, ‘As long as he lives a man should live happily/and drink ghee, though he run into debt,/for when the body is turned into ashes/how can there be any return to life?’ This philosophy was based on the belief that a man must not give up pleasure because of the fear of sorrow.
Ajita Kesakambalin (Ajita of the Hair-blanket, named for the dress that his order habitually wore), a contemporary of the Buddha, is one of the earliest known teachers of complete materialism. He said:
‘Man is formed of the four elements. When he dies earth returns to the aggregate of earth, water to water, fire to fire, and air to air, while his senses vanish into space. Four men with the bier take up the corpse; they gossip [about the dead man] as far as the burning-ground, where his bones turn the colour of a dove’s wing and his sacrifices end in ashes. They are fools who preach almsgiving, and those who maintain the existence [of immaterial categories] speak vain and lying nonsense. When the body dies both fool and wise alike are cut off and perish. The do not survive after death.’
Digha Nikaya (Pali canon)
Quoted in AL Basham ‘The Wonder that was India’ pp. 298-299
 
 
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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