Monday, June 9, 2008

Why One And Not The Other?

Mahavira, the founder of the religion that came to be known as Jainism was an older contemporary of the Buddha and is mentioned frequently in the Tipitaka. By the time the Buddha started teaching Jainism was already popular. Vappa the Buddha’s cousin (according to the commentaries) became a Jain. Of the various religious movements that emerged in the 5th century BCE Buddhism and Jainism were the only ones that survived for more than a few hundred years. Upanisadic spirituality which began a little before this time was not a distinct religious movement but one within Brahmanical. By the 2nd century BCE Jainism had lost the edge to Buddhism and forever after remained a minor although vibrant religion. Chandragupta, the first Mauryan emperor, converted to Jainism but this did not have the effect on the religion that the conversion of his grandson Asoka had on Buddhism.
Mahavira’s life parallels rather startlingly with the Buddha’s. He was born of a ksatriyan chief named Siddhattha, married a woman named Yasoda, had one child, a daughter named Anoja, renounced the world at the age of 20 and became enlightened (kevala) at 28 while sitting at the foot of a sal tree. He passed away at the age of 72. Why these and other similarities? Here is one possible explanation. Almost none of the events in the classical biography of the Buddha – the events surrounding his birth, being the son of a king, marriage, being father to a son, his life in the palace, seeing of the four sights, etc; are from the scriptures, i.e. they are later legends. The Tipitaka records virtually nothing about the Buddha’s life until his Great Renunciation. Few people know that nowhere in the Tipitaka does it even mention that the Buddha’s personal name was Siddhattha. Even the very late and very legendary Mahapadana Sutta (D.II,1) doesn’t mentions this. When in later centuries a full biography of the Buddha was needed, much of the details were ‘lifted’ from the biography of Mahavira.
Mahavira founded an order of monks and nuns but also an order of lay people called ‘devotees of the sramamas’ (sramanopasakas) who stood somewhere between the monks and nuns and the lay community and acted as a bridge between them. About 150 years after Mahavira’s passing the Jain monastic community split into two, becoming the Digambaras (Sky-clad, i.e. naked) and the Svetambaras (White-clad). This split was and remains even today more bitter and more complete than that between the Savakayana and Mahayana in Buddhism. Even in ancient times Buddhist monks of different outlooks sometimes lived in the same monastery. This never happened in Jainism. What is not widely known is that the Digambara sangha is very small, there place being taken by the sramanopasakas. The Svetambaras, on the other hand still have a large monastic sangha. Today, Digambara Jains live mainly in the southern Deccan while Svetambaras are found mainly in Gujarat and Rajasthan. All Jains form a close-knit and usually prosperous community. They have traditionally been money-lenders, grain merchants and jewelers.
You really sees the deeper spirit of the Jains when you go into their temples. Unlike the usual Hindu mandir or math. they are clean, quiet, orderly and neither the presideing pujari (monk or priest) or anyone else will badger you for money. When I visited the magnificent Dilwari temples on Mt Abu I arrived early and was told that no one is allowed in until noon. I could see people in the temple and asked the door guardian why they and not me. ‘They are Jains’ he replied. A bit miffed by this and not wanting to have to come back again in the afternoon (I’d walked all the way from town), I asked to see the person in charge. I was led to office where a man, apparently the manager, greeted me politely and asked what I wanted. I told him that I was a Buddhist monk and that I would like to see the temple. ‘A Buddhist monk!’ he said with an expression of admiration and then bowed to me. ‘You are most welcome’ he continued and then added, ‘We reserve the morning for our people so they can do their devotions in peace without the Hindus screaming and shouting, spitting and throwing rubbish all over the place.’ I understood what he meant; an air of sanctity and peace is a rare thing in the average Hindu temple.
Now what is all this leading up to? Well, I wanted to address, if only briefly, the question of why Buddhism disappeared in India and Jainism didn’t. The oft repeated notion that Buddhism was wiped out by the Muslims is a myth. Buddhism was already tittering on the edge when the Muslims invaded. They merely hastened the inevitable. I would like to discuss some differences between Buddhism and Jainism and suggest that these might have something to do with it.

(1) At a fairly early period the Buddha was turned into a god in all but name. In the Sadharmapundarika Sutra (1st cent CE) he is already an eternal transcendental being. Later Mahayana developed this concept even further. This made it much easier for Buddhism to be absorbed into Hinduism, which indeed did eventually happen. The Bodhisattvas, although technically not gods, had a similar effect. The Jains never compromised with theism, they never deified Mahavira or the other Titankaras, thus keeping a clear dividing line between themselves and Hinduism.

(2) Mahayana sutras and sastras are highly speculative and philosophical in nature. It is clear that they were written by and for a tiny intellectual monastic elite. There is almost nothing in this huge body of literature that would be understandable to the overwhelming majority of the Buddhist population; the average simple householder. The Jain scholar Padmanabh Jaini has pointed that in 2000 years Jainism produced over 50 manual of practice for lay people (savakacara), while the Savakayana (including Theravada) produced only one, the Upasakajanalankara, and then not until the 11th century and I wouldn’t mind betting that almost no Theravadins have ever heard of it. To the best of my knowledge Mahayana only produced one such work too, the Upaskaksila Sutra. It is true that there were ‘popular works like the Divyavadana and the Jatakamala but these were in Sanskrit and thus once again only available to the elite. The Buddhist sangha made little effort to present the Dhamma in a way accessible to the average person.

(3) The long slow decline of Buddhism in India can probably be dated from the Brahmanical revival during the Gupta period (which led to the emergence of Hinduism) when devotion to Visnu and Krishna became enormously popular and the great epics, Mahabharata and the Ramayana, reached their final form. The Jains responded to these challenges by audaciously composing their own versions of the epics in which the distinct ethics and attitudes of Jainism were to presented in a popular and appealing manner. They out-maneuvered Hinduism. Buddhism on the other hand, copied it, thus becoming closer to it. To each new Hindu deity Buddhism created a bodhisattva equally good at answering prayers and granting wishes. The Buddhist heavens became as crowded as the platform at Howrah Railway Station. It must have been easy for the Buddhist leaving a shrine to Avalokitesvara to walk down the road and into the Visnu mandir. The images looked similar, the pujas were similar and the differences between the two deities were the domain of the scholars and unknown to the ‘man in the street.’ As this trend became more pronounced it led to the development of Vajrayana where many deities were just copies of Hindu ones (e.g. Vasudhara is Laksmi, Kurukulla is Kamadevi, etc), some were given slightly different names and attributes (e.g. Kali and Mahakala) and others (e.g. Sarasvati) were taken over holus bolus. The main image in the well-known Kadri Manjunath Temple in Mangalore is of Avalokitesvara. The historian M. Govinda Pai has shown that this temple was originally a Buddhist one. It was not ‘turned into’ a Hindu temple, it simply ‘morphed’ into one as Buddhism itself did.

(4) Jain monks have always ministered to their lay community with great diligence in the intellectual, social and personal domains. When Jainism was persecuted, as it sometimes was in south India, Jain monks risked comfort and life to continue teaching their communities. Even when monks and nuns have been too few to go around, the sramanopasakas have filled in the gap, continuing to teach and offer guidance and leadership to the lay community. This is in marked contrast to the Buddhist sangha. There are and always have been active Buddhist monks and nuns but they have done this on their personal initiative. But they didn’t have to do it. If they had settled back and done nothing, the lay community would have still honored and supported them. As it is, the average Theravadin monk’s idea of helping others is to make himself available to receive dana. Buddhist monks have primarily been objects of devotion, Jain monks have been primarily been mediums of support and instruction. This attitude is not so pronounced within the Tibetan or Chinese sangha but it is common enough. I heard a senior Western monk of the Thai forest tradition in England once say, ‘If we can’t follow our Vinaya here we will just go back to Thailand.’ This statement epitomizes the Buddhist sangha’s priorities. If this attitude prevailed in ancient India, and I suspect it did, it is not hard to understand why the lay community slowly drifted into Hinduism. Tibetan sources show that during and after the Islamic invasion of India literally thousands of monks and siddhas fled to Nepal and Tibet. One can hardly blame them, but this must have left the Buddhist community, a community that knew little Dhamma and whose main religious practice was to support the sangha, without leadership, focus or identity.
I don’t think these four things are the only reasons Buddhism disappeared in India and Jainism didn’t, but I do think they were important contributing factors. I also think that modern Buddhists, particularly those in the West, should give long hard thought to this interesting and perhaps relevant phenomena.
Just a footnote on the subject of Buddhism compromising itself to the degree that it allowed itself to be absorbed into Hinduism. Are we still allowing this to happen? Has this process begun anew? The pictures below suggest that it might. Dialogue, emphasizing commonalities, mutual sharing and indigenization are all very well, but keep in mind old Kautiliya’s famous Law of the Fishes (Mastya Nyana) - ‘big fish swallow up little fish.’ Buddhism in the West is still just a little fish.


Anandajoti said...

Very thought-provoking post, Venerable, thanks for that.
One small point is that the Ajivakas seem to have outlasted the Buddhists in India also, until sometime in the 13th century if my memory serves me right (see Basham, A. L., History and Doctrines of the Ajivikas).
We should also recognise that Buddhism is currently undergoing quite a revival in the Old Country, and if that continues let's hope we don't repeat the mistakes of the past.

Justin Choo said...

It is indeed very informative. I don't think I'll ever find such info by myself.

How did you do it? (Just a private thought!)

Thank you.

zen said...

A vital point need to be included.Unlike jains, buddhists were never ever strict in following the central theme of the buddhism in daily life. Even today rarely a buddhist will follow path of vegetarianism which would be emanated from the Ahimsa.For political and economical gains buddhists are buddhists otherwise on moral ground, there appears none to follow code of conduct. know

David said...


Thanks for that additional blog post on Jainism. I have noticed when reading the Tiptiaka that there is no mention of those early life legends and there is only a brief mention of Asita. Your explanations show where it came from.


Most Buddhists don't believe vegetarianism is required as it is in Jainism. Are you a Jain? I am a Buddhist and vegetarian, but most Buddhists are not, citing the three-fold rule and applying it to lay life, plus other reasons.

Bhante, Zen, others,

I wonder if Buddhism's middle way and lack of a firm stand on vegetarianism and other practices led to increased popularity as it spread to other lands, whereas Jainism remained pretty much confined to India for several centuries?

Robert said...

This is an excellent article and has many important points.

Sometimes I think that maybe the patronage of Asoka may have been a double-edged sword. On one hand it helped Buddhism spread, but on the other hand it ended up inviting lots of people who were there mostly to obtain royal patronage. At least one book I read suggests that this is why it broke into so many schools and why things like Mahayana came about.

I personally consider syncretization to be a problem. On one hand it can make Buddhism more appealing to a larger number of people, but on the other hand it seems to usually turn it into something that isn't even Buddhism anymore. I feel like I want to "fight" syncretization in the west somehow, but I'm unsure how to do it skillfully.

BTW, I always thought it was one of the duties of monks to teach. I don't know of anything in the Tipitaka stating this, but I haven't read the whole thing. Perhaps this is just supposed to be the natural result of monks depending on laypeople for food and other things.

zen said...

Why jainism did'nt spread to other countries?Because jain saints and shramans were strict follower of the code of conduct which prohibited to them to even take food without visiting jain temple in morning.Even strict followers of jains are still following the same rule. As far as I know some of them would prefer to remain hungry but they wud take food only after performing daily religious rituals.For buddhas,there are no strict rules.Though basic theme-ahimsa and beliving in the power of self and denoncing role of any super power except karmas of self-are same for jains and buddhas,there is not much commonity in them to organise things jointly in respect to issues involving-KARUNA(PASSION).When did you hear a voice of protest from Buddhas on issues pertaining to kARUNA.There is strong need of introspection by buddhas that what they feel about KARUNA.Neo Buddha GROUP-SOKA-GAKKAI OF JAPAN relies more on chanting lotus sutra:nam-myoho-renge-kyo only.Even followers go blindly after chanting for attaining wordly things.Where is the practice to achieve self satisfaction and internal peace -away from material possession?

yamizi said...

Dear Bhante,

Thank you for such informative input on your view on the matter.

Probably you would like to follow up with a compare-and-contrast on the doctrinal issues between Buddhism and Jainism and such that why is Jainism much less mentioned in the scriptures.

Thank you in advance. =)

sagicaprio said...

I think there are a lot of people from the west, either called themselves, new agers or spiritual persons, are trying to merge Christianity and Buddhism together and creating God in a new term. Very dangerous...

Marco said...

I have been recommending a book called "My Stroke of Insight - a Brain Scientist's Personal Journey" by Jill Bolte Taylor and also a TEDTalk Dr. Taylor gave on the TED dot com site. And you don't have to take my word for it - Dr. Taylor was named Time Magazine 100 Most Influential People, the New York Times wrote about her and her book is a NYTimes Bestseller), and Oprah did not 4 interviews with her.

Terasi said...

"As it is, the average Theravadin monk’s idea of helping others is to make himself available to receive dana."

Very interesting. I am new, but I kinda feel that a lot of people express the idea of upekkha too liberally that it becomes "not reacting to anything, just sit back and enjoy the beatings", which has quite confused me. So they could have adopted this meek view from their monks!
There should be a balance between having unruffled mind and letting people scare you away.

Or is it???? (((Confused)))