Sunday, June 24, 2012


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 Brahmaninism. 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 not 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 it. When in later centuries a full biography of the Buddha was needed, much of the details may have been ‘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 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 many Hindu mandir or math, they are clean, quiet, orderly and neither the presiding 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 was allowed in until noon. I could see people in the temple and asked the door guardian why them 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. I understood what he meant; an air of sanctity and peace is not common 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 and in languages 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 morphed into Hinduism. (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’ll 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 hundreds 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.


David ( said...

Hi Bhante,
How about the Sigalovada Sutta DN 31? It seems to have a lot of info for lay people.

David ( said...

Hi Bhante,
Why do you think Jainism was not as successful as Buddhism outside of India? Buddhism spread to most parts of the world, whereas Jainism pretty much stayed confined to the Indian sub-continent (until the 20th century and even then mostly from Indian migration).
Is it the greater emphasis on missionaries in early Buddhism?

Chris Kang said...
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Chris Kang said...

Very interesting and pertinent post, Bhante. The notion that Indian Buddhism was seriously weakened by its absorption of Hindu religious elements is a point well made within Buddhist scholarly circles. Your post summarises the argument nicely.

Unknown said...
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Justin Choo said...


It would be interesting to know the source of this Mahavira's life story. If this is true, then there might be a deliberate attempt to hide this fact from the Buddhist community.

I am sure many like me never knew about this "coincidence".

HMP Street Dharma said...

Well said. We share meditation within the homeless community. It has been impossible to get local sangha members to volunteer with we have agreed that perhaps it's just not their thing..and continue on. thanks- kiley jon clark

brahmavihara said...

So much to say, so little time. Firstly, the actual historic realities of The Buddha's life prior to the his rolling the wheel of the Dharma is to me secondary to his exposition of The Law of Dharma and its ability to be commu nicated. The deification of The Buddha probably came about because the Bikkhu/Bikkhuni Sangha of the earlier historical Buddhist period started fulfill a kind of Brahmin priestly role. Sole Dispensers and interprators of the Dharma, thus more and more the exclusive focus of all religious activities. Its probably still true today that the larger portion of the lay Buddhist community of seekers are more interested in devotional activities(cult of personality, holy relics etc)than actually bringing the Dharma to its natural conclusion within themselves. But of course The Dharma is only for those with little dust in their eyes. So embedded within this number are the true seekers Lay men ,women, Bikkhus and Bikkhunis. Unfortunately, history seems to be repeating, from what I've experienced of Buddhism in the western world. Behind the impressive ever expanding holdings, monasteries. retreat centres et al, to me Buddhism in the west seems to have a rather superficial quality about it. The best example of this is seen after a pretty decent Dharma talk from a Bikkhu or Bikkhuni, just how quickly the Dharma hall empties and generally how little our Buddhist adherants have much meaningful social connection with each other. Retreat centres do not encourage verbal interaction (a good thing) and most people attending a Dharma talk arrive in time for the talk and are gone soon after its conclusion. We all have to go to our homes scattered across the various cities we live in. Ethnic Buddhist adherants excepted( for the moment at least) westerners that come to Buddhism are most likely to be socially isolated from the wider community because of their interest in Buddhist teachings, they dont drink alcohol, if they are married or not, then its unlikely that their partener is of similar belief and so on. So to me it seems that some sort of contriving of mutual support groups for Lay Buddhists is of the utmost importance, because without a healthy mutually supportive lay buddhist community there will not be much of a future for our Monastics. In another ten or twenty years our ethnic Buddhist adherants wil also fall prey to the "nuclear family" model too. I am not wholly pessimistic about Buddhisms future in the west but I see very little recognition of this emerging social problem and little action to address this. If "the main game" of Western Buddhism is almost exclusively taking place with its sole focus upon the Monastic community to the exclusion of noticing the happenstance of our lay Buddhist brothers and sisters, then I don't believe that Buddhism in the western world is probably not functioning at its optimum level.
I hope that i have provoked some thought amongst your readers Bhante and I will be happy to discuss further with other members of this blog, however my busy life is calling me at the moment, so I will have to end my contribution for the moment.
Bye for now and may we all realize the truth of Dukkha and the truth of its cessation.

j d said...

Buddhism in the west has its own slant. Years ago I remember a program hosted by Geraldine Doogue; it was a buddhist retreat for executives only. The hoi polloi need not apply.
This unfortunate grasp of buddhism is laughable, but it's not as rare as you think as the retreats range from costly to very

ze said...

Ellora lives with a buddhist part, a hindu one and a jaina too - all together. Besides Ellora others temples and times too.

Ramakrishnan Suryanarayanan said...

>>The main image in the well-known Kadri Manjunath Temple in Mangalore is of Avalokitesvara.<<

This is the image you've referred to as Kadri Avalokiteshwara. I wonder why a Buddhist deity would wear the Brahminical sacred cord (yajnopavIta)across the torso?