Responses to and Reformulation of Vedic traditions: Buddhism and Its Contexts
The changing worldview described in the Upanishads is also evident in two other contemporary major movements, those founded by Mahavira (Jainism) and Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha (Buddhism). These shramana movements share much of the basic worldview of the Upanishads but propose radical re-evaluations of Vedic practice and ideology. Both reject the ultimate authority of the veda, unlike the Upanishadic tradition.
The generally accepted dates for Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, are 563–483 B.C.E. Accounts of the Buddha’s life are based on later hagiographies; the actual words of the Buddha were not written down during his own time and the first recordings date from the last century B.C.E. The Buddha is one of three key elements of Buddhist belief and practice. The other two are dharma (here meaning “teaching”) and sangha (“community of believers”). These three—the Buddha, dharma, and sangha—are called the three “jewels” of Buddhism and form the center of Buddhist religious thought and identity. There is a tendency in the West to understand Buddhism primarily through textual and philosophical evidence; that is, through a focus on dharma. Buddhism is also the religion lived by the sangha (monks and nuns—representing a radically new social option for women—as well as lay practitioners) and materialized in representations of the Buddha and sacred sites such as stupas, reliquary monuments holding the remains of the Buddha and other revered persons. Besides the actual teachings and biography of the Buddha, also important are accounts of his past lives, the Jataka Tales. Memorials and tales to his followers and the great saints, who play a prominent role in Buddhist cosmology, play a great role in Buddhist history and ritual.
The Mahayana, or “great vehicle,” came into being at the beginning of the Common Era, and its supporters labeled prior traditions as the Hinayana or “lesser vehicle,” reflecting the sometimes-contentious relationship between the two. A series of new texts, such as the Lotus Sutra, were associated with the Mahayana that had not been accepted by earlier schools. These texts describe a radically different view of the Buddha as forever present and infinite. The cosmology of the Buddhist world took on greater detail and complexity and the role of the bodhisattva—one who strives toward enlightenment but remains active in the world for the sake of sentient beings—came to occupy a central place.
The Buddhist world in the beginning of the first millennium was dynamic and diverse, as the new faith spread out from South Asia to Southeast Asia, China, and beyond. Within South Asia it was centered within large-scale monasteries and scholastic centers, such as that at Nalanda in the Indian state of Bihar. Lay people were active supporters of such establishments, as well as practitioners in their own right. The destruction of major monastic centers by Central Asian invaders contributed to the disappearance of Buddhism from India in the twelfth century, but it has thrived into the present in its Mahayana and Tantric forms in Nepal and Tibet and in its Theravada form in Sri Lanka. Buddhism was also reintroduced into the modern state of India in the twentieth century.
The Jain tradition, on the other hand, has continued uninterrupted into modernity, with the majority of its adherents in western India.
There is little doubt that the rejection of Vedic authority by Buddhist and Jain thinkers encouraged the reformulation and strengthening of particular aspects of Vedic traditions and the reassertion of the authority of Brahmins.
Literature of the period helped to codify and reassert aspects of Brahminical ideology. The concept of Four Stages of Life (ashramadharma) was articulated here, according to which every person must follow the dharma (or social role) assigned to him or er corresponding to his or her place within the caste (varna/jati) systems, and corresponding to his (the emphasis here on men) stage in life, or ashrama. The system defined appropriate roles and responsibilities for “twice-born” men, those from the upper three castes: brahmins, ksatriyas, and vaishyas. Four stages were identified: celibate student, householder, hermit or forest dwelling (undertaken toward the end of life), and renunciation. Four possible aims in life were identified: artha (economic and social success), dharma (learning), kama (pleasure), and moksha (enlightenment). Students were to concentrate on dharma, householders to be concerned with artha and kama, and only in the final stage of life, that of a wandering holy man, is moksha a goal. The system did not hold for all—particularly for those excluded due to their gender or low position in the varna and jati systems—and renunciation was never universally embraced, though it remained an ideal. Although somewhat fluid, position in these systems was hereditary.