Buddhism and Jainism

The Rise of Shramanism

Buddhism & Jainism

The period spanning between the later Vedic age and the Mauryan age has witnessed an intellectual revolution in the eastern part of India. The Vedic and post-Vedic periods were riddled with complex rituals and unquestionable faith in brahmans, who were regarded as the intermediaries between the divine and the people. This, along with the need to realign cultural norms in tune with the expanding economic activities during the pre-Mauryan age has resulted in the parallel rise of Shamanic tradition, to which Buddhism and Jainism belong to. Shraman literally means a ‘Seeker”. So, shramanism is basically about seeking true knowledge that’s bereft of dogma, complex rituals, and superstitions. Buddhism and Jainism dawned from such tradition in the fertile plains of Ganga in the eastern part of India and, consequently, were rationalistic in approach.

Reasons for the rise of Buddhism and Jainism

  • People were vexed with the four-fold hierarchical order of the Vedic tradition that discriminated against sections of people in the name of untouchability. Both Buddhism and Jainism have rooted for equality, and this appealed to a huge swathe of masses.
  • Also, this period witnessed the expansion of agricultural economies in north-eastern India, in which bullocks played a decisive role. But Vedic tradition promoted the sacrifice of cattle as a part of rituals to appease gods. But the two new religions have propagated non-violence, which again was beneficial to agrarian communities.
  • In the Vedic tradition, Vaishyas haven’t enjoyed prominence. But this age has witnessed a rapid expansion of trade and commerce, which was championed by Vaishyas. They were eagerly looking out for new traditions that placed them on a higher pedestal and hence have supported Buddhism and Jainism.
  • Kshatriyas resented the Brahminic domination and looked upon Buddha and Mahavira, who belong to the Kshatriya community, to improve their status.

Basically, both these traditions were a revolt against the contemporary Vedic tradition that was mired in dogma and orthodoxy. They provided an alternate tradition to the existing Vedic system.


Origin: Buddhism was founded by Gautam Buddha, whose original name was Siddhartha. He hailed from the republican tribe called ‘Sakyas’ of the Kapilavasthu region. He was born in the year 563 B.C to Suddhodhana and Mahamaya. After witnessing the miserable plight of the old man, sick man, dead body, and an ascetic, he renounced the world (Mahabinishkramana) at the age of 29 and attained nirvana (enlightenment) under the Pipal tree at Bodhgaya at the age of 35. Since the enlightenment, he kept on wandering eastern India and delivered many lectures en route and thus attracting many people through his charming personality. He finally died in Kushinagar of present-day Uttar Pradesh in the year 483 B.C.

Fundamental tenets

  1. It is atheistic and doesn’t believe in God. It propounds that the world is run by natural laws.
  2. Believes in Karma theory. But it is devoid of spiritual connotation. For him, good deeds result in good results and vice-versa. E.g.: pollution causes global warming
  3. Nirvana: Nirvana in the Buddhist tradition is defined as the state of bliss where all the fires that cause the cycle of birth and rebirth is extinguished.
  4. Professes Madhya Marg, i.e., middle path. In other words, he asked his followers to avoid both the extremes of any senses or feelings.
  5. A champion of rational thinking.
  6. He propounded four truths that are famously called “Arya Satya.”
    • The world is full of misery.
    • The cause of misery is desire, hatred, envy, etc.
    • Misery can be overcome by conquering over the defilements.
    • The way to achieve this is through Ashtangamarga.
  1. Ashtangamarga, i.e., Eight-fold path:
    • Right understanding
    • Right resolve
    • Right speech
    • Right action
    • Right living
    • Right efforts
    • Right thought
    • Right self-concentration.

Sub-sects: Buddhism after the Mauryan period has diverged mainly into two sub-sects, named “Hinayana” and “Mahayana”. Hinayana was more orthodox and remained true to the actual teachings of Buddhism. Whereas Mahayana is a later offshoot that was more liberal and unorthodox in its postulates. Hinayana spread to southern Asia, like Sri Lanka and the Indo-China region, whereas Mahayana reached northern Asia, like Japan, Korea, and China.

Patrons: Buddhism has drawn into its fold numerous kings and emperors. The wide spread of Buddhism across India and Asia could be attributed to the royal patronization of the kings. Its patrons include Mauryas, Guptas, Kushans, Sungas, Satavahans, Ikshvakus, Palas, Somavamshis of Odisha, etc. It even enjoyed active patronization outside India, that includes Shailendra and Srivijaya of Indonesia, Langkasuka of the Indo-China region, Sri Lankan kings, etc.

Literature: Buddhism has provided India’s one of the earliest literary works. They are comprised of both canonical and semi-canonical works. Buddha’s teachings were totally oral. He hasn’t embarked on any literary activities. His teachings came down the generations in the form of oral teachings and were codified during the famous Buddhist councils.

  1. Hinayana: The Tripitakas form the mainstay of the Buddhist canonical literature. The Tripitaka, namely Sutta Pitaka, Vinaya Pitaka, and Abhidhamma Pitaka, deal with the teachings of Buddha, monastic codes, and philosophical aspects of Buddhism. These pitakas, apart from throwing light on Buddhist worldviews, have also rendered invaluable information on the history of ancient India. The Semi-canonical works of the Hinayana sect include Srilankan king Milinda’s Milinda Panho, Deepavamsa, Mahavamsa, etc.
  2. Mahayana: They have their own canonical scriptures called “Vaipulya Sutras”, which include Sadharmapundarika, Lalitha Vistara, Vajra chedhika, etc.

Reasons for its decline: Despite its huge popularity during the early ancient period, gradually, it started losing steam from the post-Gupta age and finally disappeared from India before the onset of the medieval period. i.e., 12th century A.D. Many factors cumulatively led to its downfall. A few of them are,

  • It ultimately got mired in the same ritual system that it once opposed and revolted against.
  • Sensing the mass exodus of people to Buddhism, even Brahmanism has modified itself in tune with changing times.

Buddhists gave up the commoner’s language, i.e., Pali, and embraced the elite’s language, i.e., Sanskrit, since the fourth Buddhist council.

  • It alienated many followers hailing from downtrodden communities.
  • Similarly, they’ve started idol-worship, something that they originally are vehemently opposed to.
  • The monks started to accept gifts from the kings and the traders and started indulging in materialistic pleasures. As a result, they lost the public support.
  • Constant assaults on Buddhist sites and monks, especially by Kings like Mihirakula, Shashanka of Gowdas, etc.
  • The emergence of Rajpoots fastened the demise of Buddhism in India. They were champions of warfare and couldn’t tolerate the core concept of Buddhism, i.e., non-violence. Fearing persecution from these rulers, many Buddhist monks fled India.


Origin: Mahavira who was born in 540 B.C, at Kundaligrama to Siddhartha and Trisala, was the 24th Tirthankara. There were 23 Tirthankaras preceding him. His father Siddhartha was the ruler of Jnatrikas. At the age of 30, he left home, became ascetic, and joined the Ajeevika sect. Later, he attained Kaivalya at the age of 43, under a Sal tree at Trimbikagrama. Like buddha, he wandered east India, preaching sermons, and finally died at Pavapuri in the year 468 BC.

Fundamental tenets:

  • Five cardinal principles: Jainism is primarily centered around five principles
    • Ahimsa (Non-violence)
    • Satya (no lies)
    • Astheya (No stealing)
    • Aparigraha (free from material possessions)
    • Brahmacharya (Continence)
  • Different sources have varying information about Jainism’s belief in God. It is widely understood that Jainism doesn’t lay much emphasis on God though it believes in it. So, it is basically non-theistic.
  • Nirvana: Nirvana in Jainism represents the final release from the bondage of Karma. It’s the freedom from pain; a safe, happy, and quiet place which the great sages reach and dwell in.
  • Unlike Buddhism, it was extreme in asceticism as a result of which it wasn’t as popular as Buddhism, back in those days.
  • World is controlled by universal natural laws.
  • Professed theory of Karma and transmigration of soul.
  • Syadavada: All the judgements subjective and hence keep varying.
  • Anekantavada: It states that the ultimate truth and reality is complex and has multiple aspects.
  • Triratna of Jainism
    • Right faith
    • Right Knowledge
    • Right Conduct

Sub-sects: Due to a schism that followed a great famine during the times of Chandragupta Maurya, Jainism had split into Shwetambars and Digambar. Badrabahu led the Digambar to South India to evade the wrath of famine and stuck true to the original extreme essence of Jainism. Male Digambar remains totally naked whereas females wear plain unstitched cloth. Whereas Shwetambars, led by Sthulabahu remained in North India, and had worn plain white clothes and were laxer in following the codes.

Patrons: Though Jainism has enjoyed patronization by many kingdoms, it wasn’t any closer to what Buddhism has got in its heydays. Nevertheless, many kingdoms including Mauryas, Satvahanas, Chalukyas, Kharvela of Odisha, Pallavas, Chandelas, Solankis, etc., have extended their support to Jainism. But unlike Buddhism, Jainism remained within the confines of the sub-continent. Also, unlike Buddhism, Jainism managed to remain significant in the Indian sub-continent to date.

Reasons for its survival:

  • Jainism allowed both men and women into its fold without restrictions.
  • The extreme discipline that Jainism inculcated help the tradition to remain in its pristine form, without dilutions in the later ages.
  • It continued to communicate in Prakrit all through, unlike Buddhism that switched to Sanskrit midway.
  • Jainism hasn’t appeared far distinct from the Hinduism. Jainism recognised the existence of God, hasn’t condemned varna system, believed in transmigration of soul. As a result, it hasn’t attracted much ire from Hindu powers.

Literature: The teachings of Jainism was primarily codified into

    • 12 Angas
    • 12 Upangas
    • 10 Parikramas
    • 6 Chhed sutras
    • 4 Mulasutras
    • 2 Sutra Granthas

Kalpasutra written by Bhadrabahu is replete with biographies of Jain Tirthankaras. Some sections of Sangam literature are also attributed to Jain scholars. They were mainly written in commoner’s language i.e., Prakrit, using Ardha Magadhi grammar.

Disenchantment: Despite the fact that they were launched with revolutionary zeal, they could not quite live up to their core values,

  • They largely remained confined to the elites and traders. Haven’t percolated to the bottom strata.
  • With time, they gave into orthodoxy like image worship, rituals, etc.
  • These religions, more particularly Buddhism couldn’t withstand the ideological battle with Hinduism as Hindu seers like Adi Shankaracharya had won many debates with Buddhists and brought them into the Hindu fold.
  • Buddhism, that claims itself to be liberal, at the beginning didn’t allow women to join sangha.
  • Jainism that champions equality, has vouched for varna system. They also tacitly admitted that women are men’s belongings.

Footprints- an unparalleled legacy: Buddhism and Jainism had left indelible impact on the sub-continent’s social milieu in many aspects;


  • Non-violence: Both these religions have vouched for non-violence and as a result kings like Ashoka gave up on violence and cultivated friendly relations with foreign states. Even modern-day India’s non-alignment movement traces its roots to Buddhism. Gandhiji’s non-violence was inspired by the Buddhist tenets.
  • Friendly relations with foreign kingdoms: It is Buddhism that nourished friendly relations with Srilanka and other Asian regions during ancient times. Rulers like Ashoka used to send missionaries to foreign nations to spread the message of Buddhism.
  • Liberalism: Promoted liberal values like democracy, equality, equal access to education, freedom to question, etc. Buddhist ‘Sanghas’ and ‘maths’ professed democratic conduct and in the course of time its impact was observed in many religious institutions of Hinduism.
  • National Unity: Buddhism and Jainism spread across the length and breadth of India. It promoted the political and cultural unity and integrity of India. Asoka, Kanishka, and Harshvardhan, the followers of Buddhism, became the champions of the unification of India under one umbrella.

Socio-cultural aspects:

  • Egalitarianism: Both these religions rose as an alternative to the hierarchical Vedic tradition and championed the cause of equality. Particularly, Buddhism voiced against the caste system and treated everyone equally. They’ve opened doors to their educational institutions to every person regardless of their social background.
  • Women upliftment: Buddhism (although reluctant at the beginning) and Jainism vouched for equal status for women and accepted women in the sangha. Also, they championed the cause of women’s education.
  • Anti-Superstitions: Both these shramanic traditions were vehemently opposed to orthodoxy and irrational superstitions. They opposed rituals, fatality, pilgrimages, sacrifices, etc.
  • Rationalism: Buddha gave a clarion call to accept only those things that could withstand the scrutiny of logic and reason. These religions obviated the need for complex rituals to lead a spiritual life.
  • Respect for Animal Life: Buddhist text “Sutta Pitaka” pleads for the non-killing of cattle as it regards them as the givers of food, beauty, and happiness. Similarly, Jainism was vehemently opposed to animal torture. They wouldn’t even kill insects and flies. Due to this even Hinduism began vouching for vegetarianism.
  • Languages: Both the religions kept away from Sanskrit and used vernaculars to reach out to the masses. As a result, Pali was patronized by the Buddhists and Prakrit was patronised by the Jainas. These two religions have served lease of life to several vernaculars.
Ruins of Nalanda university
Ruins of Nalanda university

Education: India’s first institutionalised universities belong to the Buddhist tradition. Ancient universities like Nalanda, Vikramsila, Odhantapuri, Taxila, and Nagarjunakonda were all Buddhist contributions to India. Jain education centres flourished in Kancheepuram and manyakhet, etc.

Historical accounts: The scriptures of these religions, apart from throwing propagating their postulates, have also provided vital historical information about India’s past. It is through Buddhist pitakas that we got to know about the presence of 16 Mahajanapadas during the pre-Mauryan age.

Arts and architecture: Probably the most significant legacy that these religions have left behind belong to this category.

  • Literature: They left behind a rich body of ancient scriptures that are full of wisdom and historical accounts. They provide valuable information about the contemporary social milieu, world views of the people, philosophical ideas, relations with foreign kingdoms, etc.
  • Paintings: The paintings based on Buddhist and Jainism themes are one of the hallmarks of India’s painting tradition. They are richly painted on the walls of caves. Places like Ajanta, Ellora, Bedsa caves, Bhaje caves have rich Buddhist paintings whereas places like Ellora, Sittannavasal, etc., house Jain paintings.
  • Sculptures: The sultanganj statue of buddha made of copper and the Chausa statue of Rishabnath along with the Hansi statue stand tall among the sculptural trends of these religions. Buddhism has inspired an entirely
    Statue of Rishabnath from Chausa
    Statue of Rishabnath from Chausa

    new school of sculpturing architecture in the north-western part of India i.e., the Gandhara school of art. It allegedly produced the first statues of Buddha. The Gandhara school that was patronized by Kushanas and Shakas, evolved into a distinct style of sculptural school. Apart from this, Nalanda university housed a unique sculptural trend of Buddhist images, which were made on demand by the foreign students who came to Nalanda for education. While returning, they used to carry a buddha image as a souvenir. Thus, Nalanda once used to be a hub of Buddhist sculptures. Mathura School of Art produced statues of both the Buddhist and Jain Tirthankaras. Amaravati school, down south of India is famous for Buddhist specimens. Similarly, in western India, Akoda near Vadodara of Gujarat has produced rich sculptures of Jain deities like Mahavira, Parshavanath, Adhi Nath, etc. The Gomateshwara Statue at Shravanabelagola, Karnataka is the second tallest free-standing monolithic statue of Bahubali in the world.

  • Caves: The art and architecture of India began with cave traditions. Caves were primarily used as monasteries and prayer halls. They were hewn from the cliffs and rock walls of the mountains. The Buddhist caves trace back their origin to post Mauryan age. Some of their famous caves are Ajanta caves, Ellora caves, Karle, Baje caves, Panduleni caves, etc. These caves were richly adorned with paintings, carvings, and sculpturing. Inside a Buddhist cave, one can find a veranda, an aisle, and a stupa. It is basically a prayer hall. There are two types of caves, Chaitya, and viharas. Chaityas are prayer halls and viharas are residential caves for the monks. The Indian Buddhist monks carried this tradition to China where such caves were carved. Similarly, the Jain caves at places like Ellora, Sittannavaasal, Udaya Giri-khandagiri, hathigumpha, Mangi-tungi testify to the rich cave heritage of Jainism.
  • Sanchi Stupa
    Sanchi Stupa

    Stupas: Stupas were exclusive privy of Buddhism, albeit there were literary mentioning’s about the presence of such structures during the Vedic age. The stupa is central to the religious activities of Buddhism. They are built upon the relics of Buddha.

It is claimed that there were more than 70,000 stupas built across the sub-continent during the times of Ashoka. Some of the famous stupas are the Sarnath stupa, Sanchi stupa, Amaravati Stupa, Barhut stupa, etc.

  • Temples and monasteries: Buddhism and Jainism were not associated with temple tradition as much as Hinduism did. However, there are few examples in this regard. A famous Buddhist temple was found in Bodhgaya, where Buddha meditated and got enlightenment. Some other examples are at Sanchi, Taxila, and Sarnath. Similarly, Jain temples can be found at Mount Abu, Gwalior, Khajuraho, Palitana, Gyraspore, Amwah, Chittor, Sravanbelagola, Pattadakkal, etc.

It would be a grave injustice to the legacy of Buddhism and Jainism if we misconceive that they are things of the past. To date, they keep guiding India’s core ethos as we have seen with a few examples earlier in the article. Their legacy is so all-pervading that they are still pretty much relevant to India’s daily affairs. Buddhism still helps us wield soft power among Asian nations like Japan and Myanmar. Also, centres like Bodhgaya, Ajanta, etc, attract millions of global tourists every year. Buddhism underscores core Asian values. About 99% of the Buddhist followers belong to Asia-pacific region Asia-Pacific region. Fourteen Asian countries have more than 50% of their populations belonging to Buddhism, seven of which have over 90%. India could leverage this advantage to a great extent. Similarly, the ideals of Jainism like Aparigraha promote minimalism, and Satya, Asteya, and Ahimsa promote ethical conduct. Thus, these two shramanist traditions have proved to be timeless spiritual opulence of India.



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