Heterodox Systems of Sanatana Dharma

Related Article : The Eight Fold Path by Ch'onsa Kim 

During the progression of Sanatana Dharma, around 600 B.C., philosophical thinkers began questioning the authority of the Vedas and the practice of the ritualistic sacrifices. Buddha, Mahavira, Goshala and others challenged the orthodox hierarchy of the establishment. Buddhism, Jainism and Charavaka* systems developed. These religious and non-religious thoughts, which deny the sanctity of the Vedas, but yet mostly following the teachings of Upanishads, are called heterodox systems. Two of these philosophical thought later developed into their own religion. They are Buddhism and Jainism.



A Shakya king Shuddhodhana of Kapilavastu and his chief queen Mahamaya had a son they named Siddhartha. Because of his gotra Gautama, he was called as Siddhartha Gautama (? 566-486). At the time of his birth there was a prophecy that either the boy will grow up to be a Universal Emperor or a Universal Teacher. The royal parents shielded their son from all aspects of sorrows of life including old age, disease and death in the hope of making him the emperor instead of the teacher. He grew up unawares that there was anything but happiness in the world and excelled in his princely training of archery and fighting. He won and married Yashodhara in a great contest of strength and skill. Once when he was riding in a chariot with his favorite charioteer Channa, he was accidentally exposed to all the miseries of the world. First he saw an old decrepit man. He asked Channa what this repulsive being was and learned that all humans eventually grow old. He was very troubled. Later he saw a sick man covered with boils and yet later a dead person being carried in a funeral procession. By now Siddhartha was thoroughly disillusioned. The fourth sign he saw brought him hope and consolation. He saw a wandering religious beggar, clad in a yellow robe appearing peaceful and calm, with an inward joy. Siddhartha immediately realized where his destiny was and set his heart on becoming an ascetic and wanderer. 

On the night his son was born, Gautama escaped from the confines of his palace and renounced his kingdom to become a meditative ascetic. After many years he realized the answer for all human sorrow, while meditating under a pipal tree. It was here that he was enlightened and later came to be known as the Buddha, the enlightened one. The pipal tree came to be known as the Tree of Wisdom, the Bodhi. Buddha's fame spread far and wide and many kings and commoners alike became his followers, after renouncing the Vedic practice of sacrifices. There was already dissension in the Vedic hierarchy and the common folks were questioning the rigid rules of the practice and its strictly enforced class system. Buddha's reputation grew and new societies called as Sangha (Order), of the Buddhist order increased in number. Buddha's teachings later helped form the religion called Buddhism. At the ripe old age of eighty Buddha prepared his disciples for his death and quietly died at night. This was the ' Final Bowing Out' or Pari-nirvana

Gautama Buddha is the greatest Indian born and his doctrines, though not in its pure form anymore, is the dominant religion in the Far East, Tibet, China, Japan and Sri Lanka today. Ironically it is almost non-existent in the country where it was founded. Buddha denounced the extreme ritualism of the Vedic religion. He struck a harmonious balance between extreme self-indulgence and total abstinence. This form of moderation taught by Buddha came to be known as The Middle Path. 

After Buddha's death, disciples such as Upali and Ananda recited his sermons on the matters of his teachings and ethics. Only a century and half later the religion became more organized. However, soon a schism appeared and the religion split into two groups. The orthodox group was called Sthaviravadins (Pali-Theravadis) or 'Believers in the Teaching of the Elders' and the Mahasinghikas or 'Members of the Great Community'. By Ashoka's time the religion was well established and the place and manner of worship had shifted to what are called as Chaityas or sacred spots. Sacrificial Brahminism was especially condemned and the ritual of worship was simplified. Buddha's ashes were distributed all over the country and Stupas (tumuli) were built for them. The papal tree came to be called as Bodhi Tree and attained a holy stature. 

Many monasteries were built and about 500 years after his death Buddha had attained a godly status. Kapilavastu, the place of his birth, the Tree of Wisdom in Gaya, the place of his sermon (Dharmachakra Sutra) in the Deer Park near Varanasi and the grove near Kushinagara where he attained Nirvana - all became holy places. Eventually Buddha was even adopted by the devotional Hindus as the ninth avatara of Vishnu.

Three sects of Buddhism

A new sect called Saravastivadis developed in Kashmir and Mathura. During Kanishka's rule a new idea developed among them. Mahasinghikas, in order to propagate the religion, called it the Great Vehicle or Mahayana. The orthodox sect Sthaviravadins came to be called as Hinayana or the Lesser Vehicle. Mahayana spread to China and Japan whereas Hinayana was exported to Sri Lanka, Burma, Siam (Thailand) and other parts of South East Asia, where it became the national religion. Around 475 C.E. Bodidharma traveled to China and spread his teachings. His views based on meditation came to be known as Zen Buddhism and became popular in China and Japan. This form of Buddhism has also attracted practitioners in the West. A third vehicle called as Vajrayana or the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt appeared in East India by the 8th Century and became the popular religion of Tibet.  

was originally considered as Buddha in his previous birth destined to become Buddha. In a long series of transmigration Bodhisattva brings many deeds of kindness and mercy before he achieves his final Nirvana. Consequently there must be Bodhisattvas alive among us currently striving to alleviate sorrow. Concept of many Buddhas (Pratyeka- Buddha) also developed, as probably taught by Buddha himself. By Ashoka's time, as many as twenty-five Buddhas were recognized. A future Buddha called Maitreya Buddha is yet to come.

The Hinayana sect strictly followed the thought that every human should strive to become an Arhat (Pali- arahant) or saint and ultimately be enlightened to become Buddha. Arhat thus was an individual who worked towards attaining Nirvana. The Mahayana school thought this was a selfish motive on the part of an Arhat and believed in the concept of Bodhisattva, who was available on earth to alleviate suffering and sorrow. He did not attain his Nirvana until every suffering human and animal has been comforted. 

Many Bodhisattvas came to be recognized, the chief among them Avalokiteshvara. Others like Vajrapani and Manjushri came to be worshipped. Maitreya, the future Buddha is also considered to be a Bodhisattva. Ironically, though Buddha himself had forbidden much speculation and was fundamentally atheistic, Gautama himself came to be worshipped as God. Other Buddha images such as Amitabha (Immeasurable Glory) sitting on a lotus in a lovely lake in Mahayana heaven called Sukhavati and enjoying the eternal bliss became common images. The Vajrayana sect took this a step further and introduced female divinities to Buddhist worship akin to Hinduism. Thus Prajnaparamita became Buddha's consort and Tara was associated with Avalokiteshvara. Vajrayana also introduced magic and sexual symbolism as well as chanting rituals. The famous 'Six Syllables' was to be chanted thousand times a day. 'Om mani padme hum' meaning 'Ah, the jewel is indeed in the lotus' is the famous chant of this Tantric Buddhism.

Teachings of Buddha

The fundamental teachings of Buddha were summarized in his famous 'Sermon of the Turning Wheel of Law' (Dhammachakkapavattana Sutta). It contains the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, which are accepted as basic categories by all Buddhist sects.  

The first 'Noble Truth is Sorrow' (dukkha, suffering), which include birth and death and everything in between. Then comes the 'Noble Truth of Arising (causing) Sorrow', which blames desire as the reason for all sorrow. The third truth is the 'Noble Truth of Stopping (end) of Sorrow'. This advises complete stopping of thirst so that no passion remains. The fourth truth is the 'Noble Truth of the Way which Leads to the Stopping of Sorrow'. This is derived from the 'Noble Eightfold Paths'. These are the Right-Views, Resolve, Speech, Conduct, Livelihood, Effort, Recollection and Meditation. 

Buddhist texts were written and stored in baskets and hence called Pitakas. Three such Pitakas are well known. They are Vinaya, Sutta and Abhidhama Pitakas. The most important among them is the Sutta Pitaka, which is again divided into five sections.

Order of the Monks

Monks formed an important part of Buddhism. Complete and total renunciation was taught in monasteries after a monk takes his vow of 'Three Jewels' and 'Ten Precepts'. Followers of Mahayana, after Buddha's death introduced the three jewels, namely:

1) 'I go for the refuge of Buddha'
2) 'I go for the refuge of the Dharma (Doctrine)'
3) 'I go for the refuge of Sangha (Order)'.

The Buddhist order not only recommends pronouncing the Three Jewels but also the 'Ten Precepts'. These are like the ten commandments of Christianity. The Precepts teaches a Buddhist to refrain from

1) Harming living beings
2) Taking what is not given
3) Evil behavior in passion
4) False speech
5) Alcoholic drinks that leads to carelessness
6) Eating at forbidden times
7) Dancing, singing, music and dramatic performances
8) Garlands, perfumes, unguents and jewelry
9) High and broad bed
10) Receiving gold and silver

The rites of admission to the Order also asked the monk to wear a yellow robe and shaving of their heads. A monk is to conduct spiritual exercises by filling his mind with 'Four Sublime Moods', while sitting cross-legged. These 'Four Cardinal Virtues' are 'love, pity, joy and serenity. A devoted Buddhist will consider all living beings in the sight of these four virtues. A fifth mood is impurity, in which he considers all vileness and horror of the world. 

Buddhism was persecuted early not only by the invaders from the North West but also some of the fanatics from India itself. Pushyamitra Shunga as well as the fanatical Shaivite king from Bengal, Shashanka, tried to destroy the religion. Nalanda University was under constant attack. Devotional Hinduism was becoming more popular and Buddhism saw a sustained decline in India. Shankara helped form a religious Hindu order that attracted the common man as well as the intelligentsia. By the time the Muslim invasions started in the North, the few Buddhist monks escaped to Tibet and Nepal and Buddhism in India was only a memory by the 10th Century.



Mahavira (The Great Hero), propagated a religion called Jainism (Religion of the Conquerors), about the same time as Buddha, which took firm hold in India though it did not spread outside of India. Great teachers called Thirhankaras (also called Jinas) had already established the religion. Rshabha, Ajitanatha and Arishtanemi are the original Thirthankaras and their names are mentioned in the YajurVeda. There were not less than twenty-four Thirthankaras identified and they are also mentioned in the Kalpa Sutra as well as in Buddhist literature. Mahavira attained enlightenment at age forty-one and from then on became a Thirthankara. He began preaching and had a large following. Even today Jainism is practiced in many parts of India especially in the State of Gujarat and parts of Karnataka. 

Mahavira was born by the name of Vardhamana in the year 540 B.C.E. to a tribal chief called Siddhartha, belonging to the Licchavis of Vaishali, in a place called Kundapura. He was also brought up as a prince but at the age of thirty left his kingdom (leaving behind a wife and son) to become a wandering ascetic. He cast aside all clothes and subjected his body to severe hardships for thirteen years when finally he found full enlightenment and mukti. His fame spread far and wide and he was looked upon with favoritism by the same kings who also supported Buddha. Mahavira probably outlived both Buddha and Goshala (founder of Ajivaka sect) and died at the age of seventy-two, after self-starvation in the year (?) 468 B.C.E. in a little town called Pava, near Magadha capital Rajagraha.

Schism and Development of Jainism

Chandragupta Maurya patronized the religion and many monasteries were built in India during his reign. At the end of Chandragupta Maurya's reign there was a great famine that forced a great exodus of Jain monks to Deccan lead by their elder Bhadrabahu. He insisted on the retention of the rule of nudity established by Mahavira and the followers of Bhadrabahu came to be called as Digambaras (Sky-clad). The monks who remained in the North allowed the followers to wear white garments and came to be called as Shvetambaras (White-clad). The Digambaras allow the wearing of a robe in public in the present day. There are no fundamental doctrinal differences between the two sects. Jainism is different than Hinduism or Buddhism in that it is not possible for a layman to attain Nirvana without strict self-deprivation. To do so a Jaina has to shun all desires, fast relentlessly and abandon all clothes. Self-mortification and meditation can prevent karma from entering the soul and hence monastic life is the only path to salvation. An individual is responsible for his own destiny and thus it is an ethical religion.

Fourteen original texts of Jains have been lost. Much revival of the scriptures has occurred over many years, yet they all have maintained the fundamental teachings of Mahavira. Twelve Angas or sections, replaced the original fourteen Purvas, which are lost. However this is accepted only by the Svetambaras. These texts were not written down until the fifth century. Many Upangas or minor sections were later added. The Svetambaras mainly remained in Gujarat, Kathiavar and parts of Rajasthan and the Digambaras were dominant in the Southern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. There are little fundamental differences between the two sects and the basic teachings are those of Mahavira for both sects.

The world of Jaina is not created unlike other Vedic religions. Universe is eternal and functions according to universal law. There are infinitesimal numbers of cycles of improvement (utsarpini) and degradation (avasarpini), one following the other like the phases of waxing and waning moons. Each period has twenty-four Thirthankaras, twelve Universal Emperors called Chakravartins and sixty-three Great Men (Salaka purushas). Currently we are in the cycle of decline that will last for 40,000 years. However there is no cataclysmic destruction at the end of each period, unlike Hinduism and Buddhism but the Universe is truly eternal.

Jainism does not profess a judgment day nor does it believe in God lifting up good souls to heaven or condemning bad to hell. The moral codes of the religion encourage all Jivas (souls) to take five vows, i.e. non-violence (Ahimsa), truthfulness, non-stealing, chastity and non-possession (detachment). The soul is naturally bright but adherence of matter, in the form of Karma, will cloud the soul. Every act induces Karma but cruel or selfish Karma is dangerous. The acquisition of the body and spirit on the soul is the result of Karma. The dispelling of the Karma through penance and disciplined conduct is the goal of all human beings. Once the soul is freed from all its Karma, it shines bright again and rises above all the heavens to the top of the Universe, where it remains in bliss for eternity.

Self-discipline of mind, speech and body along with watchfulness will protect the soul from the influx (asrava) and fixation (bandha) of Karma. This in turn will result in elimination of Karma (nirjana) and eventually to salvation (mukti). However only a monastic life of severe self-deprivation and abandonment of all earthly desire can succeed in attaining salvation. Unlike Hinduism and Buddhism, full salvation is not possible for a layman.

*Charvaka system of complete atheism and materialism is discussed in the article, 'Secularism and Freedom of Religion'


More by :  Dr. Neria H. Hebbar

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