The Beginnings of Buddhism

Ian Mabbett considers how Buddhism, while preaching the rejection of society, simultaneously became a popular religion.

Folio from a Kalpasutra (Book of Sacred Precepts) by Acharya Bhadrabahu, c. 1400 CE

The venerable ascetic Mahavira for a year and a month wore clothes; after that time he walked about naked, and accepted alms in the hollow of his hand. For more than twelve years he neglected his body and abandoned the care of it; with equanimity he bore, underwent and suffered all pleasant or unpleasant occurrences arising from divine powers, men or animals.’

Mahavira (599-527 BC), the most celebrated teacher of  the Jain religion in India, cultivated rigorous indifference to his surroundings. He silently endured stoning or dogs being set on him. He fasted, not even drinking, for long periods. He scrupulously harmed no living beings, and for long periods he sat motionless with heart pure and soul serene.

The early Jains like Mahavira were noted for their austerities. They believed that human actions (karma) generate a sort of field that controls the individual’s later fate. Normally it compels the individual to be reborn after death into another form, human or otherwise; and as all forms of life are inherently unsatisfactory, it is better to withdraw from the world, ceasing to generate any karma; then one might hope not to be reborn but to achieve a transcendent spiritual state.

Mahavira was not unique in his day for this radical withdrawal from society. In the sixth century bc in northern India and Nepal, there were many holy men who had cut off ties with their families and lived rough. They sought spiritual advancement by meditation and ascetic practices, often undergoing severe forms of self-mortification. Some, despite their rejection of society, acquired social prestige.

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