In the far northeast, Brahmins gave instruction to local, non-Aryan elites who had not been completely Hinduized. These elites were accustomed to deference from local people. They resisted the claims of Brahmins to higher rank and were offended by the posturing, pride and arrogance of the Brahmins. Some of them were opposed to the bloodletting of Hinduism’s animal sacrifices. Some of them thought the Brahmins too involved in ceremonial formalities and ritual and saw the Brahmin’s view of gods and salvation as strange.
With this dissent against orthodox Hinduism, a variety of men with visions appeared who tried to create followings. These new sect leaders denied the authority of the Vedas, and each developed a code of conduct and claimed to have found the secret of eternal bliss. Local merchants who were gaining in wealth and influence threw their support to one or another of the religious rebels in their area. Sect leaders wandered across the northeast, sometimes with large bands of followers. They entered communities to engage in disputations with rival sects and orthodox Brahmins, disputations that were welcomed entertainment for local people.
The most successful of the new sects were those that attempted to provide relief from orthodox Hinduism's failure to alleviate human suffering. One such sect was the Jains -- from the Sanskrit verb ji, meaning to conquer. The Jains sought relief from suffering by conquest over one's own passions and senses. This conquest they believed, gave one purity of soul.
According to legend, the Jains were led by Nataputta Vardhamana, the son of a royal governor from the Magadha region. Nataputta Vardhamana gave up his princely status for a life of asceticism, and he became known as Mahavira (Great Souled One). Legend describes Mahavira beginning as a reformer -- as not seeking to overthrow the Hindu caste system or the worship of Hindu gods but wishing to do something about the misery that he saw. Legend describes him as having sympathy not only for people but also for the animals that the Brahmins sacrificed.
Mahavira appealed to people who wanted religion without the metaphysical speculations that most people found too vague and complex. He rejected the idea of everything connected into oneness: the doctrine of the universal soul included in the Upanishads. He believed in differentiations as well as associations. He envisioned a dualistic reality, a world with both conscious and unconscious elements, a world that is both spirit and material.
Mahavira became popular among the urban middle class and women in northeastern India. Jainist legend describes his following at the time of his death as 359,000 women and 159,000 men, including full-time devotees numbering 36,000 nuns and 14,000 monks.
After Mahavira's death his followers held onto the view that plants and insects, as well animals, had consciousness. It was not yet understood that life included microorganisms and viruses, or that fleas and other insects carried diseases, and the Jains believed that the destruction of any life, including that of insects, was evil. Maintaining Hinduism's belief in reincarnation, they held that by refraining from killing they could liberate their soul from the cycle of births and deaths. Jain monks swept the path in front of them to avoid crushing insects, and they strained their water believing that this prevented them from consuming any living organisms. Lay persons were less persistent, believing that it was enough that they not intentionally kill.
Jain lay persons took the following vows: never to intentionally destroy a living thing; never to speak falsehoods; never to steal; to always be faithful in marriage; to always be chaste outside of marriage; to possess no more money or other things than one had set for oneself as sufficient (a practical restriction that varied with how wealthy one was); to travel no farther than the limits that one had set for oneself; to think no evil thoughts about others; to sit in meditation as often as one had planned; to spend time as a temporary monk or nun; and to support the nuns and monks with contributions.
Another who led a movement to relieve suffering was a prince named Siddhartha Gautama, to be known as the Buddha (Great Teacher). Siddhartha was born into the Sakya tribe at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains north of the Ganges Valley, in a small city, Kapilavastu, in what is now southern Nepal. He is reported to have seen his native city overrun and its people butchered. The Sakya tribe was under Aryan suzerainty and had retained independence in exchange for tribute paid to Aryan overlords. The Sakya tribe had aristocrats and commoners, and according to legend, Siddhartha was a prince.
According to legend, Siddhartha was sheltered in his youth from the ugliness and poverty around him, but when he was twenty-nine -- around 534 BCE -- he decided to become a wanderer. Apparently, Siddhartha withdrew from a world that was inhospitable to conquered royalty such as he, while he remained disturbed and fascinated by the Aryan civilization that had overrun his state and its traditions. The legend created by his followers describes Siddhartha as becoming a wanderer in order to learn about human existence. He became an ascetic and abused his body by hardly eating. Failing in his quest to understand human existence, and for spiritual satisfaction, Siddhartha began eating better, and he began devising what he believed were his own solutions to human misery.
Siddhartha agreed with the view expressed in the Upanishads that the cause of human misery was humanity itself, but he was determined not to fall into what he saw as the error of those who sought salvation in philosophical speculations. He refused to question or discuss whether the cosmos is finite or infinite, whether there is life after death or other metaphysical questions, on the grounds that these sidetrack people from doing something practical about the misery of their existence.
According to legend, Siddhartha became a master of the tenets and practices of other sects, and many of his disciples were recruited after hearing him debate with religious rivals in gatherings that were then popular entertainment in towns across the Ganges Valley. Siddhartha preached no warnings of torments for evil deeds. Instead he preached the attaining of serenity, or nirvana, through self-discipline.
He outlined his numerous rules for attaining this personal salvation. His first rule was proper understanding, by which he meant realizing that there is nothing essentially permanent, that there is only change -- a radical departure from orthodox Hinduism. Siddhartha had decided that human misery came with people looking for permanence where there was no permanence and with people clinging to objects of desire that were transitory.
Siddhartha's next rule was proper attitude, by which he meant not wanting the impossible and accepting the inevitable -- in other words self-control over one's appetites and ambitions. He had concluded that it was not wrong to desire good food and drink, fine clothes, or sexual satisfaction but that it was eventually destructive psychologically to persist in these appetites. He believed that giving up hope for that which one cannot have was a means to peace of mind.
Siddhartha's third rule was proper speech, which he believed important because words preceded actions. His fourth rule was proper actions, Siddhartha seeing this as important in creating a righteousness about oneself that engendered serenity. His fifth rule was to do no injury to other living things. This included refraining from theft, lying, sexual immorality, and drinking liquors which engendered slothfulness. Siddhartha's additional rules reinforced his first five rules and included having a proper vocation, making proper efforts, exercising proper reflection, and partaking in proper meditation.
Like Mahavira (the founder of the Jains), Siddhartha rejected the authority of the Vedas and rejected animal sacrifices, and he rejected the claims of the Brahmins that they were superior. Siddhartha claimed that people should not expect assistance from any source other than themselves, that one could not lean on gods or other spiritual agents, that each person must work out his own salvation, that people had will and could not escape choice by choosing to follow the advice and assistance of others, that people should be their own lamps and their own salvation and take refuge in nothing outside of themselves. But Siddhartha did not ask his followers to give up their Hindu gods, and Indra, Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu would be worshiped by his followers for centuries to come.
Like Mahavira, Siddhartha created an order of monks, with whom he met during the rainy season for strategy sessions and teaching. The monks and nuns did not regard themselves as apart from lay followers or from the world. They saw themselves as promoters of the welfare and happiness not just of themselves but of the many.
Like Mahavira, Siddhartha did not preach against the caste system, which outside his movement was widely viewed as an essential ingredient in family values and necessary for social order. But he opened his movement to all classes and eventually to females, and within his movement everyone was released from caste restrictions.
Siddhartha Gautama died in 483 at the age of eighty. And according to legend, a council of five hundred Buddhist monks met at the city of Rajagriha, concerned about preserving Siddhartha's teachings. They had reason for worry: diversity in belief would soon appear among Buddhists as it had among the Jains and the rest of civilized humanity.
Soon splits among the Buddhists occurred over a variety of issues, some as small as whether one should drink buttermilk after dinner. A split arose among the Buddhists as some older members wanted to limit membership in the Buddhist movement to the ascetic monks and nuns. Other Buddhists wanted a broader movement, one that included those not ready to discipline themselves or to withdraw from the normal routines of life as did the monks and nuns -- a split between purists and inclusionists that would appear among other religious movements.