THE AGE OF RELIGIONS
India has been a breeding station for some of the important religions in the world. It has also motivated the formation of certain religions in other countries. Human thought and its culture have been greatly influenced by this role India has played over thousands of years. Whether it be Buddhism, which was Asia's most influential religion, or Jainism, which became a significant thought system in India, or Hinduism, the texts of which became the cornerstones of human thought, or Ajivikism or Sikhism or the religion preached by the Charvakas, India remained the most significant cradle for all the flowers of different hues and fragrance.
Jainism is one of India's ancient religions and Vardhamana Mahavira (599-527 BC) its greatest name. He was not its founder, but its reformer. 'Varddhamana' is an honorific title to mean 'ever flourishing', and he has several other honorific names like sanmati, and viraprabhu. 'Mahavira', his given name, is to mean literally a 'Great Hero'. He is also known as 'Jina', the one who conquered the temptations of sensual pleasures, and hence the name Jainism for the religion he shaped up and propagated from the teachings of his predecessors. Mahavira is known as the 24th and the last tirthankara according to the Jain belief. A tirthankara is a role model for all humans who seek spiritual liberation from sensual pleasures. The jains believe that once in a few hundred years a tirthankara appears for the liberation of humans from miseries.
There is no one like the founder of Buddhism in history or in legends, and there is nothing else like his legacy. For more than twenty five hundred years he has been living in the minds of men and women in their millions all over the world. He is Siddhartha, the Prince of Kapilavastu, of the Himalayan Kingdom in Nepal. He is also known as Gautama, to indicate his family, as Saakya Muni to denote that he was the sage of the Saakya order; and as the Buddha, meaning the enlightened (563 – 483 BC). The religion Buddhism is known after him, and it continues to be the faith and the path to salvation for millions and millions of humans. The Buddha set in motion the wheel of the Law, and proclaimed four noble truths and the eight-fold path. These elements of Buddhism have been preserved since the fifth century before Christ
WHAT MAKES BUDDHISM LIVE SO LONG LIKE THIS ?
According to Borges, the Nobel winning writer, who made a special study for the sake of a special lecture, there are two basic reasons: the first of which is the religion's tolerance. He points out it has never resorted to iron or to fire. It has never believed that these means could be persuasive. The best example is that of Ashoka, emperor of India. He did not try to impose his new religion on anyone. Borges concludes that a good Buddhist can be a Lutheran or Methodist or Presbyterian or Calvinist or Shintoist or Taoist or Catholic; he may be a proselyte of Islam or of the Jewish religion, all with complete freedom. In contrast, it is not permissible for a Christian, a Jew or a Moslem to be Buddhist. The second reason is faith, as is in the case of any other religion or any other ideological institution. Buddhism requires a great deal of faith in the four noble truths and the eight - fold path that the Buddha preached..
THE RELIGION OF THE AJIVAKAS
Ajivikism was popular in parts of India during the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. It was founded by Gosala who preached a sharp and consistent criticism against the ways of Brahmanism, and challenged its caste structure. In its early stages, the Ajivikas were the main rivals to the Buddhists, because of the simplicity of the former. But this religion did not provide any plausible alternative to Brahmanism as did Buddhism, it was overtaken by the latter and in course of time Ajivika's teachings lived only in history.
Of the 1.12 billion people of India, 83 % are the followers of Hinduism according to the latest census. And Hindus live in large numbers outside India too. This religion is not founded on the teachings of one powerful master, as in the case of most other religions. There is no known single text nor the name of an author there for the origin of Hinduism, considered by the experts as the oldest religion of mankind. In fact, there is no idea of the time of its origin or of its earliest texts. It evolved over centuries and as is known now, it evolved out of the older Brahmanism, a style of living as practiced by the migrant Aryans, a community of nomadic nature and rural pursuits like farming. The theory was long held as valid that the Aryans were invading migrants, and that their Vedic religion and the Sanskrit language paved the foundations of Hinduism. The very word 'Hindu' is from the Sanskrit word 'Sindhu', meaning 'a river' or 'the sea' itself. This theory is now being challenged with the statement that the Aryans or the Sanskrit were not imported commodities. But the fact remains that the Zoroastrianism of ancient Iran and the Hinduism had a lot of similarities. The Dravidian Indus Valley Civilization that existed before the arrival of the Aryans had a far different style of living, language-wise and otherwise.
The Vedas, the first texts available from the Hindu thought, give the dawn of spiritual vision and the dawn of human thought as well. Scientists of today as well as all thinking men and women from day one of civilization have been asking the question – Where did all these originate and how ? Look at Rig Veda x, 129, as translated by Juan Mascaro (Penguin 1962), wherein the sages of this 'Song Celestial', in its chapter the Song of Creation asks the same question and finds an answer:
There was not then what is nor what is not. There was no sky, and no heaven beyond the sky. What power was there? Where? Who was that power? Was there an abyss of fathomless waters?
There was neither death nor immortality then. No signs were there of night or day. The ONE was breathing by its own power, in deep peace. Only the ONE was : there was nothing beyond.
Darkness was hidden in darkness. The all was fluid and formless. Therein, in the void, by the fire of fervor arose the ONE.
And in the ONE arose love. Love the first seed of soul. The truth of this the sages found in their hearts : seeking in their hearts with wisdom, the sages found that bond of union between being and non-being.
Who knows in truth? Who can tell us whence and how arose this universe? The gods are later than its beginning : who knows whence comes this creation?
Only that god who sees in highest heaven : he only knows whence comes this universe, and whether it was made or uncreated. HE only knows, or perhaps he knows not.
The older Brahmanism of the Vedic and Upanishadic west of India was put to drastic changes over a period when Buddhism was spreading fast in the east of India and even beyond it. These changes in-beliefs and practices and styles are graphically presented in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the great epics. The Ramayana is attributed to Valmiki, the sage while the latter, a conglomerate of a vast number of stories and anecdotes, was composed over a period of centuries – from 4th or 5th century before Christ through the 6th century AD. The Bhagavad Gita, acclaimed as the gem among the Hindu literature, was the first Sanskrit text to be translated into English. This is written in the form of a dialogue between Arjuna, the warrior-prince and Krishna, the incarnation of the supreme god, Vishnu. The dialogue discusses the right and wrong in the actions of men; and at the same time highlighting the fact that everything in the world is nothing but the manifestations of the same spirit.
The fifth largest organized religion in the world, Sikhism was founded in the 15th century, on the teachings of Guru Nanak and his nine successive gurus. Nanak taught that realization of truth is higher than anything else. Higher still is faithful living, he said. He disapproved caste system and belief in many gods. There is only one god, and there is no hell or heaven. All are equal. Asceticism is not a means to attain salvation. In fact leading a true, household life is a better goal.
A key practice for the Sikh is the remembrance of the divine name. A Sikh should balance work, worship and charity and should defend the rights of all creatures.