Apart from these numerous schools of different strands of thought and practice in Hinduism, there were two major religions, Buddhism and Jainism, which emerged around the same time, and in some manner posed a challenge to the entire spectrum of Hindu philosophy.

Buddha was born in Lumbini in around the sixth century BCE in the royal kingdom of Kapilavastu, and lived to the age of eighty. As a young prince he was deeply influenced by the human suffering he saw around him. This suffering, he was convinced, was inevitable in a life that was both transient and unfulfilling, and meaningless beyond the superficial cycle of happiness followed by sorrow, joy followed by grief. He decided then to renounce life and search for the truth that would lead to nirvana or liberation from the cycle of birth and death.

Buddha’s enduring concern was with dukkha or suffering inherent in incarnate life. On receiving enlightenment while meditating under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, he enunciated the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path to liberation. The four truths, simply put, were that there is suffering, there is a cause of suffering, there can be cessation of suffering and there is a way or a path to end the suffering. The Eightfold Path is the way to the cessation of suffering. The eight steps, or the middle way, which he enunciated were right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

Up to this point, there was nothing in what the Buddha preached that was either entirely original or in conflict either with Hinduism as a whole or with the Advaita philosophy of the Upanishads and Shankara’s elaboration of it.

However, the metaphysical reasoning underpinning Buddha’s preoccupation with sorrow, and the way out of it, was, in many respects, directly at variance with the Upanishadic doctrine.

There is nothing like an enduring Self, Brahman or Atman, said the Buddha; in this state of anatta (non-self) what exists is only the rupa (body) and the nama (mind). Everything that we see is samghata (an aggregate); all is inherently nairatmaya (unsubstantial). Moreover, even the self, at the level of body and mind, is anityatva (eternally transient and impermanent).

The reality that we see around us has no svabhava (transcendental substratum); it is samtana (in constant flux), and all experience is kshana bhanga vada (a series of impressions, conceived and extinguished in the same instance), so that no one can ever step into the same river twice. Nirvana, or liberation from sorrow, is literally the realisation of the emptiness of the notion of self, a process of blowing out and extinguishing oneself from the binding shackles of the web of life, samsara.

This kernel of Buddha’s philosophy was taken to new extremes by later Buddhist thinkers. The Yogachara school of Mahayana Buddhism asserted that only thought, in its ever-changing flux, is real, and there is no external reality whatsoever. This exclusive emphasis on the ephemeral mind as the only identifiable reality to the exclusion of all else took subjectivism to another level, and was called Vijnanavada.

Another school, whose chief proponent was Nagarjuna (c 150-250 CE), was the Madhaymika school of Mahayana Buddhism. Nagarjuna postulated the theory of Sunyata or Emptiness, in which he denied not only the existence of external objects but also the perceiving self. Since there is nothing like a Self, and all things are transient and pratityasamputapada (a product of dependent origination), the entire world, mind and matter, is illusory. Nirvana is the outcome of the understanding of this nihilistic Void.

The denial of the Self, or of the ontological reality of Brahman, was a negation of the grand cosmic design of the Upanishads. Equally, the later evolution of Buddhist thought, that either completely denied external reality or even the mind, signified a new subjectivism and nihilism.

Buddha was more concerned with human suffering per se, and the ways to overcome it in the here and now, than with the metaphysical assertions of Atman and Brahman. His was a revolt also against the ritualistic aspects of Hinduism. But his teachings ended up repudiating the philosophical underpinnings of Upanishadic thought as well.

Perhaps the most significant difference between Buddhist thought and Vedanta was on the emphasis each placed on dukkha or suffering, and ananda or joy.

The Upanishads defined the ultimate realisation of Brahman as indescribable bliss. Buddha defined nirvana as the cessation of sorrow, not the benediction of bliss. Nirvana, in the Buddhist sense, is an emptiness where all cravings and aversions have ceased. Vedanta, in contrast, is where, after one has transcended the limitations of body and mind, what is left is the union with Brahman and the rekindling of the flame of unalloyed joy.

Nagarjuna’s Sunyata was nihilistic; it essayed an exhilarating emptiness that stilled the normal turbulence and agitations of the mind. But Nagarjuna would not make the quantum leap to describe Sunyata in positive terms as bliss.

But, this notwithstanding, there were many similarities between Buddhism and Hinduism, especially Vedanta. The devaluation of the external world was common to both. The need to find a way out of sorrow was an imperative for both. Ways to still the sterile agitations of the mind was something both agreed upon. And, both Buddhism and Vedanta were convinced about the end goal of philosophy as liberation, moksha or nirvana.

Between the certainties of Advaita, which asserted the pervasive presence of Brahman signifying Sat chit anand: Being, awareness and bliss, and the certainties of Buddhism, which denied the existence of anything permanent amidst an ocean of impermanence and sorrow, was the deliberate ambivalence of Jainism.

Although twenty-four Tirthankars or spiritual teachers had preceded him, Mahavira is accepted as the principal icon of the Jain faith. Like the Buddha, he was born in a royal family. Though there is no unanimity on dates, it is generally believed that he was born in the Muzzafarpur district of Bihar in 599 BCE, and died at Pawapuri in 527 BCE.

Around the age of thirty, he too, like the young prince of Kapilavastu, left home to search for truth. After twelve years of intense penance and meditation, he acquired Kevala Jnana, or infinite knowledge.

As against the assertions of absolute truth, Jainism consciously postulates a doctrine of uncertainty. The significant point is that it does so not by simplistic rejection, but in keeping with the intellectual rigour of those times, through a considered theoretical structure of thought.

Reality, Jainism says, is complex and admits a plurality and multiplicity of viewpoints – anekantavada; the search for truth must eschew absolutisms and accept the validity of partial standpoints – nayavada; no postulate can be made in such a manner that it denies the possibility of conditional predications – syadavada.

In support of such a deliberate doctrine of relativity, Jainism cites the parable of seven blind men examining an elephant, and depending on what part they touch, coming to a different conclusion of what it is. More formally, Jainism sought to debunk the proponents of “one-sidedness” by its sapatabhangi or seven-step theory, whose purpose is to establish that knowledge of reality is relative.

The seven possibilities that the saptabhangi doctrine outlines are – maybe, it is; maybe, it is not; maybe, it is and is not; maybe, it is inexpressible; maybe, it is and is inexpressible; maybe, it is not and is inexpressible; maybe it is and is not and is inexpressible. The one word that is common to all seven viewpoints is “maybe”.

In Jainism, “maybe” is the antidote to dogmatism, in particular, that of Hindu and Buddhist metaphysics. Jainism brought to the ideological debate a freshness of view that is invigorating for its sheer audacity to question the propensity of other systems of philosophy to believe that they alone are right. And, in many ways, the relativism that it outlined deeply influenced the future evolution of Indic thought.

The important thing is that neither Buddhism nor Jainism were looked upon with inherent or irreconcilable antagonism by Hinduism. Some hostility might have prevailed in the early phase of the rise of the new faiths, but this subsided over time, and I have shown in the previous chapter how Hindu monarchs extensively patronised both.

The reason for this larger tolerance was that Hinduism allowed for heterogeneity, even revolt from its mainstream beliefs, assured that this would not in any way dilute the overarching coherence of its belief system. Buddhism and Jainism were viewed not as antithetical to Hinduism, but as emanations from it, entirely in keeping with the diversity of thought sanctioned by it.

If Brihaspati of the Charvaka school could say without fear that the Vedas have no sanctity, why would Hinduism have a problem if the Buddha denied the existence of a transcendent Atman? If the Nasidiya Sukta of the Rig Veda could ask who knows what the truth is, and speculate that even perhaps the creator may not, why would Hinduism take umbrage against the Jain belief in the relativity of truth?

It is possible that, occasionally, “ideological” differences may have led to friction, but these were of a minor nature, and never assumed, as some historians seem to think, a major confrontation with either of these heterogeneous faiths. Perhaps there were greater differences between Shaivites and Vaishnavites within Hinduism than with proponents of either Buddhism or Jainism. Hinduism’s accommodative ethos enabled a multiplicity of viewpoints, sanctified by the acceptance of the basic premise that the pursuit of truth can have differing narratives.

The Great Hindu Civilisation

Excerpted with permission from The Great Hindu Civilisation: Achievement, Neglect, Bias and the Way Forward, Pavan K Varma, Context Non-Fiction.