Islam and Sikhism chafe at pictorial depictions of God or their prophets/gurus. Hindus object to their deities’ images being misused in commercial, unrelated products. But the Buddha is unobtrusively seen in secular places like spas and the drawing rooms and patios of people from multiple faiths the world over. Yet, if we were to place the images of Gautam Buddha and Bhagwan Mahavir, propounder of Jainism in this epoch, side by side, you may not be able to tell one from the other. Mahavir’s idols and statues are found only in Jain temples and homes of the laity.
So, from the iconography, how do you tell Mahavir from the Buddha, two near-contemporary historical personages. Both have elongated ears from jewelry use symbolizing the wealth they were born with when young. The two enlightened beings sit erect in a lotus position with a serene face. The figures’ half-closed eyes represent a constant state of meditative equanimity.
Look closely and you will notice the differences. The Buddha has a hand raised in yogic chin mudra while Mahavir keeps his hands in his lap, right on left. While Buddha bears a cloth wrapped around, Mahavir only has a SriVatsa mark on his bare body representing his renunciation of all things worldly. Mahavir does not have hair or tilak showing his simple living. Buddha statues usually but not always have a spiral tilak signifying the third eye. It is the seeming tufts of hair on his head that have recently been a matter of speculation on the internet. The story is not authentic that they are, in fact, 108 snails who gave up their lives to cover his head to spare him from the hot sun in India’s plains as he meditated for long hours.
As for Buddhism and Jainism, both arose around the 6th century BC in reaction to the stratified, ritualistic strains overpowering Hinduism. They rapidly spread across the nation. Buddhism even got exported covering a wide swathe from Sri Lanka to China and Japan. Hinduism, however, drove out Buddhism, when Sankara and other saint-scholars responded, postulating that the Vedas are the ultimate authority. Jainism remained confined to India, and claims 5 million followers today, most of them in India. In contrast, over 500 million people around the world adhere to Buddhism today.
Jainism and Buddhism are unique religions in the sense that they are both atheistic. They argue that finding meaning and purpose to the Universe does not require or depend on affirming a Supreme Being. The two religions are embedded in the Sramanic beliefs like asceticism, renunciation, non-violence, and moksha derived from the Brihadaryanaka Upanishad. Both Mahavir and the Buddha were magnetic personalities who used the common people’s language, Prakrit and Pali respectively, unlike Sanskrit that Brahmins used.
A look at their respective philosophies can be illuminating.
Born in 599 BCE in modern-day Bihar, Vardhman Mahavir was the last and the 24th Tirthankar (preceptor) of Jainism. He belonged to the Hindu Kshatriya (warrior) clan. Jainism believes in rebirth and transmigration of the soul. Liberation of the soul from that cycle is the aim here. To achieve that, a set of five principles or vows are prescribed: non-violence (ahimsa), non-attachment (aparigraha), not lying (satya), not stealing (asteya), and sexual restraint (brahmacharya). While all Indian philosophical schools attach great importance to Ahimsa, it is the centerpiece of Jain ethics. All other restraints are simply elaborations of this. Influenced by Jainism, Mahatma Gandhi made ahimsa and satyagraha (civil disobedience) as the centerpiece of his political philosophy that won India freedom from the British and led to liberation of many other countries from colonial rule.
A contemporary to Mahavir, Sidhartha Gautam was born in an aristocratic Kshatriya family in 563 BCE in Lumbini, Nepal. He attained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya in Bihar, India, and traversed the Indo-Gangetic plains guiding people toward the path to Nirvana.
The starting point of Buddhism is reasoning or understanding. The Buddha discerned Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering (Dukkha), of the cause of suffering (Samudaya), the end of suffering (Nirodha), and the path that leads to the end of suffering (Magga). That path is eightfold consisting of Right View (or Right Understanding), Right Intention (or Right Thought), Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Once followed, it ends the cycles of rebirth and suffering, attaining Nirvana.
There are many factors why Buddhism spread in India and outside more than Jainism. One is patronage. The Mauryan empire’s greatest emperor Ashoka renounced the Kalinga war and embraced Buddhism. He even sent missionaries to Burma and Sri Lanka to preach Buddhism. Buddhist universities like Nalanda, Vikramashila, and Odantipur flourished. Buddhist scholars such as Aryabhatta, Nagarjuna, Fa Hien, and Xuan Zang played a key role in transmitting Buddhism to China and East Asia.
(This article was updated with the clarification that the story of 108 snails on the Buddha’s head is not authentic and has only circulated on the internet in recent years.)