In India there was an ancient tradition of meditation and asceticism, dating to the Indus Valley civilization about 2500BC. A great body of literature, called the Upanishads, had developed which summarized the teachings of ascetics. There were two patterns of asceticism: that of the brahmans (priests) and that of the wandering ascetics, called sramanas, "those who strive." The Brahmins followed the Four Stages of life: studying under a teacher when young; returning home to marry and raise a family; turning over daily affairs to a son and taking up meditative practices.
The Six Teachers
At the time Siddhartha began his life as a wandering ascetic, there were in northern India six famous ascetics who led groups of disciplines: Purana Kassapa who argued that the person is unaffected by the goodness or badness of his actions. Morality did not exist; murder and theft were acceptable as those acts did not harm those who performed them.
Makkhali Gosala who contended that a person's success or failure was due to fate and that an individual's actions could not influence the course of his life. His followers were knows as the Ajivakas, which probably refers to their practice of extreme austerities, love of solitude, and disdain for any kind of comfort. So difficult a practice never had many followers, yet the school continued to exist until the 14th century AD.
Ajita Keshakambala, who was materialist, held that everything was composed of four elements (earth, water, fire, and wind), and that moral acts were meaningless. This position was later maintained by the Lokayata or Charvaka tradition.
Pakudha Kacchayana who held that there were seven elements, the four recognized by Ajita plus pain, pleasure, and life. The elements are unchanging and are the only reality. Thus if a person is stabbed with a knife, the knife does nothing but pass through the spaces between the elements, thus is of no consequence, even if the person dies. This position is later represented in the Vaisesika school.
Sanjaya Bellatthiputta who refused to answer any question directly, being a skeptic because of doubts about the nature of knowledge and investigations of logic, and who, through his students, exercised a significant influence on Buddhism.
Mahavira, one of the founding figures of Jainism. Mahavira belonged to the nirgrantha ascetics, those who freed themselves from all fetters through the practice of austerities until they conquered (Jain) ignorance. Jainism belongs with Buddhism as one of the great heterodox schools of Indian thought.
The Wandering Ascetic (533-528)
When Siddhartha reached Magadha, an important kingdom in Central India, he studied first under Alara Kalama from whom he learned the technique of meditation that enabled the adept to attain a state of nothingness. But Siddhartha found this teaching lacking, so he left. On his way to another teacher, King Bimbisara offered to make him a minister, but Siddhartha declined. He then sent a retainer to persuade Siddhartha to abandon his meditation, but to no avail. Siddhartha then sought out Uddaka Ramaputta who taught the technique of meditation of neither perception nor non-perception, a meditation which removed the mind from all contact with the world of sensation. Though more profound than the meditation of nothingness, when the meditation was over, the problems of the world returned, thus quieting the mind was an inadequate technique for attaining true wisdom.
Siddharta as a Forest Ascetic
In the company of Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama, and Assaji, Siddharta entered the forests to practice the greatest austerities of self-mortification in order to gain wisdom and freedom. He would clench his teeth and press his tongue against his palate continually, learning to ignore the pain. He once tried to stop all breathing, closing his nose and mouth, only to have his ears begin to breath which he stopped for a while only with the greatest effort. He experienced pain as strong as if a "man were to bore one's skull with a sharp drill" or to "bind one's head tightly with a hard leather thong" or to "rip up the belly with a sharp butcher's knife" or to "seize a man by his arms and scorch and thoroughly burn him in a pit of charcoal." Finally he began a great fast, gradually reducing the amount of food he ate until he no longer required food. He became progressively more emaciated, his hair fell out, his skin hung loose in folds, the skin of his stomach clinging to his backbone, and his body was in constant pain....
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