Siddhartha, also known as Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was born about 2500 years ago. The Buddha belonged to a small gana known as the Sakya gana, and was Kshatriya. When he was a young man, he left the comforts of his home in search of knowledge. He decided to find his own path to realization, and meditated for days on end under a peepal tree at Bodh Gaya in Bihar, where he attained enlightenment. After that, he was known as the Buddha. He then went to Sarnath, near Varanasi, where he taught for the first time. He passed away at Kusinara.
The Buddha taught that life is full of suffering and unhappiness. This is caused because we have a vast expanse of desires. If one fulfills, we would like another to be fulfilled. He described this as thirst or tanha.
Around the time of Buddha or a little earlier, other thinkers also tried to find answers to difficult questions. Many of these thinkers felt that there was something permanent in the universe that would last even after death. They described this as the atman or the individual soul and the brahman or the universal soul.
Many of their ideas were recorded in Upanishads. These were part of the later Vedic texts. Upnishad means ‘approaching and sitting near’ and the texts contain conversations between teachers and students.
Most Upanishadic thinkers were men, Occasionally, there is mention of women thinkers, such as Gargi, who was famous for her learning, and participated in debates held in royal courts. One famous exception was Satyakama Jabala, who was named after his mother, the slave woman Jabali. He had a deep desire to learn about reality, was accepted as a student by a brahmin teacher named Gautama, and became one of the best-known thinkers of the time. Many of the ideas of the Upnishads were later developed by the famous thinker Shankaracharya.
The last and 24th Tirthankara of the Jainas, Vardhammana Mahavira, also spread his message atthat time around 2500 years ago. He was a Kshatriya prince of the Lichchhavis, a group that was part of the Vajji sangh. At the age of thirty, he left home and went to live in a forest. For twelve years he led a hard and lonely life, at the end of which he attained enlightenment.
He taught that men and women who wished to know the truth must leave their homes. They must follow very strictly the rules of ahinsa. It was very easy to understand the teachings of Mahavira because he and his followers used Prakrit. It was used in several regions in different forms. For example: in Magadha was known as Magadhi.
His followers were known as Jainas. They had to lead very simple lives like, begging for food. Men had to give up everything, including their clothes.
Over hundreds of years, Jainism spread to different parts of north India, and to Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The teachings of Mahavira and his followers were written down about 1500 years ago which are presently available at a place called Valabhi, in Gujarat.
Both the Mahavira and the Buddha felt that only those who left their homes could gain true knowledge. They arranged for them to stay together in the sangha, an association of those who left their homes.
The rules made for the Buddhist sangha were written down in a book called the Vinaya Pitaka. In the book, the rules were that all men could join the sangha. However, children had to take the permission of their parents. Debtors from creditors, women from their husbands.
They meditated for most of the time, and went to different places to beg for food during fixed hours. That’s why they were known as bhikkhus.
Both Jaina and Buddhist mons went from place to place throughout the year. The only time they stayed in one place was during the rainy season, when it was very difficult to travel.
As time went on, many supporters of the monks and nuns, and they themselves, felt the need for permanent shelters and so monasteries were built. These were known as viharas. The earliest viharas were made of wood, and then of brick. Some were even in caves that were dug out in hills, especially in western India.