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INDIA, EMPIRE and CHAOS (4 of 10)

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New Sects Hostile to the Brahmins

Mahavira

Nataputta Vardhamana: Mahavira

Mahavira

The Great Souled One, again, made lovely
and kind through imagination.

Buddha

Siddartha Gautama transformed by
religious imagination.

In the northeast of the Asian subcontinent, Brahmins gave instruction to local, non-Aryan elites who had not been completely Hinduized. These elites were accustomed to deference from local people. They resisted the claims of Brahmins to higher rank, and they were offended by the posturing, pride and arrogance of the Brahmins. Some of them were opposed to the bloodletting of Hinduism’s animal sacrifices – the killing of animals valuable to local people. Some of them thought the Brahmins too involved in ceremonial formalities and ritual, and they saw the Hindu view of gods and salvation as strange.

A variety of men hostile toward the Brahmins tried to create followings. They denied the authority of the Vedas, and each developed a code of conduct and claimed to have found the secret of eternal bliss. Local merchants who were gaining in wealth and influence threw their support to one or another of the religious rebels in their area. Sect leaders wandered across the northeast of South Asia continent, sometimes with large bands of followers. They entered communities to engage in disputations with rival sects and orthodox Brahmins, disputations that were welcomed entertainment for local people.

The most successful of the new sects were those that attempted relief from orthodox Hinduism's failure to alleviate human suffering. One such sect was the Jains – from the Sanskrit verb ji, meaning to conquer. The Jains sought relief from suffering by conquest over one's own passions and senses. This conquest they believed, gave one purity of soul.

According to legend, the Jains were led by Nataputta Vardhamana, the son of a royal governor from the Magadha region. Nataputta Vardhamana gave up his princely status for a life of asceticism, and he became known as Mahavira (Great Souled One). Legend describes Mahavira beginning as a reformer – as not seeking to overthrow the Hindu caste system or the worship of Hindu gods but wishing to do something about the misery that he saw. Legend describes him as having sympathy not only for people but also for the animals that the Brahmins sacrificed.

Mahavira appealed to people who wanted religion without the metaphysical speculations that most people found too vague and complex. He rejected the idea of everything connected into oneness: the doctrine of the universal soul included in the Upanishads. He believed in differentiations as well as associations. He envisioned a dualistic reality, a world with both conscious and unconscious elements, a world that is both spirit and material.

Mahavira became popular among the urban middle class and women in northeastern India. Jainist legend describes his following at the time of his death as 359,000 women and 159,000 men, including full-time devotees numbering 36,000 nuns and 14,000 monks.

After Mahavira's death his followers held to the view that plants and insects, as well animals, had consciousness. It was not yet understood that life included living microorganisms and viruses, or that fleas and other insects carried diseases, and the Jains believed that the destruction of any life, including that of insects, was evil. Maintaining Hinduism's belief in reincarnation, they held that by refraining from killing they could liberate their soul from the cycle of births and deaths. Jain monks swept the path in front of them to avoid crushing insects, and they strained their water believing that this prevented them from consuming any living organisms. Lay persons were less persistent, believing that it was enough that they not intentionally kill.

Jain lay persons took the following vows: never to intentionally destroy a living thing; never to speak falsehoods; never to steal; to be faithful in marriage; to be chaste outside of marriage; to possess no more money or other things than one had set for oneself as sufficient (a practical restriction that varied with how wealthy one was); to travel no farther than the limits that one had set for oneself; to think no evil thoughts about others; to sit in meditation as often as one had planned; to spend time as a temporary monk or nun; and to support the nuns and monks with contributions.

Another movement that was an alternative to the Brahmins was initiated by Siddartha Gautama. It began as a philosophy that included the advice to be one's own light, to remake oneself rather than passively expect others to feed you enlightenment.

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