6 History

New Questions and Ideas

Learning Goals:

  • Stories of Buddha and Mahavira
  • Upanishads and Four Ashramas


The original name of Gautama Buddha was Siddhartha. Sidhhartha was born about 2500 years ago at Lumbini in Kapilvastu which is in modern day Nepal. He was a kshatriya nad belonged to the Sakya gana. Sidhhartha was a prince. He was given all the comforts during his childhood. Once he became an adult, many questions regarding the true meaning of life used to come to his mind. In search of true meaning of life; he left the comforts of his home. He began to wander in search of true meaning of life. He consulted many learned men but could not find the real answer.

Finally, he began meditating under a peepal tree at Bodh Gaya. After meditating for many days; Sidhhartha finally attained the enlightenment. After that he became the Buddha. The term ‘Buddha’ means the ‘enlightened one’. After becoming the Buddha; he gave his first sermon at Sarnath (near Varanasi). Then he went to spread his learning among the people. Buddha died at Kushinara (Kushinagar).

Preaching of Buddha:

  • This life is full of desires. Once a desire is fulfilled, we crave for more. This marks the beginning of an unending cycle of cravings and desires. According to Buddha; this is called thirst or ‘tanha’.
  • Life is a suffering because of endless cycle of cravings and desires.
  • This cycle can be removed by following moderation in everything we do.
  • One should be kind to others; including animals.
  • The results of our actions (karma); whether good or bad; affect us in this life and also in the afterlife.

Buddha used the prakrit language to give his preaching. This was the language of the common people at that time. Due to use of the common language; Buddha was able to spread his preaching far and wide. He encouraged people to stop blindly following him and to think for themselves instead.


Upanishads are a collection of philosophical texts. The Upanishads were composed at around the same time; or somewhat earlier; when Buddha came on the scene. The Upanishads are written in the style of dialogue between teachers and disciples.

Thinkers; especially Brahmin and Kshatriya men; were the main composers of the Upanishads. However, some women also contributed to the Upanishads. Gargi is an example of such women. She used to participate in the debates in the royal courts. Poor people seldom took part in such discussions. But Satyakama Jabala was an exception. He was the son of a slave woman Jabali. Satyakama Jabala was accepted by a Brahmin teacher; Gautama; as a disciple.

The human mind always tried to find answers to difficult questions about life. The ideas in the Upanishads were a result of this pursuit. People always wanted to know the meaning of life and the afterlife. Many people were beginning to question the practice of sacrifices and meaningless rituals. Many thinkers believed that there must be something permanent which exists even after the death. They called it atman or the individual soul. The universal soul was called the Brahman. Those thinkers believed that the atman and Brahman were ultimately the one.


Mahavira came at the same time as Buddha. He was the 24th tirthankar of the Jainism. Mahavira was a kshatriya prince of the Licchavi. He belonged to the Vajji sangha. When he was about 30 years of age; he left his home. He roamed in forests in pursuit of the ultimate truth of life. He lived a lonely and tough life. After spending a long period of 12 years of hardships; Mahavira attained enlightenment.

Preaching of Mahavira:

  • People, who wish to know the truth, must leave their home.
  • The truth seeker must follow the rules of ahimsa. The rule of ahimsa means not hurting or killing any living being. Life is dear to all living beings.

Mahavira too preached in prakrit. The use of the language of the common people helped in making a better connect with the common people. The followers of the Jainism had to live a simple life. They had to do begging for food. A jain had to be absolutely honest. He must desist from stealing. The followers of Mahavira had to observe celibacy, i.e. the person was not allowed to marry. Men had to give up everything; including clothes.

It is obvious that sticking to the rules of Jainism was very difficult for most of the people. In spite of that, thousands of men and women left their homes to become followers of Mahavira. Many others supported the monks and nuns and provided them with food.

The trading community made the largest supporter base for Jainism. But for farmers, it was not possible to follow the rules because farmers needed to kill pests for improving crop production.

Jainism spread to different parts of north India and to Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. For many years; the teachings of Mahavira and his followers passed down orally through generations. About 1500 years ago, they were composed in written form. They are presently available in that form at Valabhi in Gujarat.


Mahavira and Buddha arranged for sanghas where their followers could stay together. A sangha was an association of those who left their homes. Both Mahavira and Buddha believed that leaving one’s home was must to find the ultimate truth.

The rules for the Buddhist sanghas are contained in a book called Vinaya Pitaka. Some of the rules are as follows:

  • Both men and women could join the sangha. There were separate branches for men and women.
  • Any man could join the sangha. But a child had to take permission of his/her parents. A slave had to take permission of his/her master.
  • A woman had to take permission of her husband.
  • A person who worked for the king had to take permission from the king.
  • A debtor had to take permission from the creditor.

Life in the Sangha: People living in a sangha had to live a simple life. Most of the time was spent in meditation. The members of a sangha could go to the cities or villages for begging for food. There was fixed timing for begging. They were known as bhikkhus and bhikkhunis (which are the Prakrit words for beggars).


The Jaina and Buddhist monks travelled from one place to another; spreading the preaching of the enlightened ones. But traveling was not possible during rainy season. Hence, they had to stay at some place during rainy seasons. Many of their supporters built temporary shelters in gardens. Many monks also lived in natural caves in hilly areas. With gradual elapse of time, many monks and their supporters felt the need for a permanent shelter. So, monasteries were built for them. These monasteries were called the Viharas. Rich merchants, landowners and kings donated land and money for the building the Viharas. Initially, the Viharas were made of wood. Later on, they were made of bricks. Some monasteries were built in caves; especially in the western part of India.


Around the same time, the Brahmins also developed a new system of ashrama. As per the ashrama system, life was divided into four stages or four ashramas. They are as follows:

  • Brahmacharya: This stage encompassed the early years of life. During this stage, a person was supposed to lead a simple life and study the Vedas.
  • Grihastha: This stage began at the beginning of adulthood. During this stage, one was supposed to marry and lead a domestic life. He had to take responsibilities of a family.
  • Vanaparastha: During this stage, one had to live in the forest for meditation.
  • Samnyasa: During this stage, one had to renounce everything.

The ashrama system was made for Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. Women were not allowed to study the Vedas. Women could not choose a particular ashrama. Women had to follow the ashrama as per the husband’s stage of life.