Here is a famous story about the Buddha.
Once there was a woman named Kisagotami, whose son had died. She was so sad that she roamed through the streets of the city carrying the child with her, asking for help to bring him back to life. A kind man took her to the Buddha.
The Buddha said: “Bring me a handful of mustard seeds, and I will bring your child back to life.”
Kisagotami was overjoyed and started off at once, but the Buddha gently stopped her and added: “The seeds must come from the house of a family where nobody has died.”
Kisagotami went from door to door, but wherever she went, she found out that someone or the other – father, mother, sister, brother, husband, wife, child, uncle, aunt, grandfather, grandmother – had died.
Over centuries, India’s intellectual exploration of truth has come to be represented by six systems of philosophy. These are known as Vaishesika, Nyaya, Samkhya, Yoga,Purva Mimansa and Vedanta or Uttara Mimansa. These six systems of philosophy are said to have been founded by sages Konada, Gotama, Kapila, Patanjali, Jaimini and Vyasa, respectively. These philosophies still guide scholarly discourse in the country. German – born British Indologist, Friedrich Max Muller, has observed that the six systems of philosophy were developed over many generations with contributions made by individual thinkers. However, today, we find an underlying harmony in their understanding of truth, although they seem distinct from each other.
Here is a dialogue based on a story from one of the most famous Upanishads, the Chhandogya Upanishad.
Shaunaka and Abhipratarin were two sages who worshipped the universal soul.
Once, as they sat down to eat, a beggar came and asked for some food.
“We cannot spare anything for you,” Shaunaka said.”
“Learned sirs, whom do you worship?” the beggar asked.
“The universal soul,” Abhipratarin replied.
“Ah! It means that you know that the universal soul fills the entire world.”
“Yes, yes. We know that.” The sages nodded.
“If the universal soul fills the whole world, it fills me too. Who am I, but a part of the world?” the beggar asked.
“You speak the truth, O young brahmin.”
“Then, O sages, by not giving me food, you are actually denying food to the universal soul.”
The sages realized the truth of what the beggar said, and shared their food with him.
This was also the time when other scholars were at work. One of the most famous was Panini, who prepared a grammar for Sanskrit. He arranged the vowels and the consonants in a special order, and then used these to create formulae like those found in Algebra. He used these to write down the rules of the language in short formulae (around 3000 of them!)
Just as the waters of rivers lose their names and separateness when they flow into the mighty ocean, so are varna and ranks and family forgotten when the followers of the Buddha join the order of monks.
Around the time when Jainism and Buddhism were becoming popular, brahmins developed the system of ashramas.
Here, the word ashrama does not mean a place where people live and meditate.
It is used instead for a stage of life.
Four ashramas were recognized: brahmacharya, grihastha, vanaprastha and samnyasa.
Brahmin, Kshatriya and vaishya men were expected to elad simple lives and study the Vedas during the early years of their life (brahmacharya).
Then they had to marry and live as householders (grihastha).
Then they had to live in the forest and meditate (vanaprastha).
Finally, they had to give up everything and become samnyasins.
The system of ashramas allowed men to spend some part of their lives in meditation. Generally, women were not allowed to study the Vedas, and they had to follow the ashramas chosen by their husbands.
Zoroaster was an Iranian prophet. His teachings are contained in a book called the Avesta. The language of the Avesta, and the practices described in it are very similar to those of the Vedas. The basic teachings of Zoroaster are contained in the maxim “Good thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds.” Here is a verse from the Zend Avesta:
“Lord, grant strength and the rule of truth and good thinking, by means of which one shall create peace and tranquility.”
For more than a thousand years, Zoroastrianism was a major religion in Iran. Later, some Zoroastrians migrated from Iran and settled down in the coastal towns of Gujarat and Maharashtra. They were the ancestors of today’s Parsis.