How Hinduism Faced Challenges of Buddhism and Jainism?

Categories : Spirituality

Hindu dharma is called Sanatan (Eternal, without break) because it is the oldest religion in the world. However, in its former avatar, it was known as Vedic dharma because the term ‘Hindu’ did not exist in the sense as we know it today. Some people called it Vedic Brahminism because of the dominance of Brahmins on Vedic scriptures and sacrificial systems which existed in the Vedic period. The second oldest religion may be Zoroastrianism (Parsi religion). The history of Zoroastrianism may not be that old because the roots of Hinduism might have extended to the Harappan civilization although its confirmation is still awaited. Temple culture which was not existent in the Vedic period was not found in Harappan culture either. The history of the Sanatan dharma may, thus, be about 6000 years old.

Such a religion must have faced difficult periods in its journey and must have responded vigorously to challenges thrown by competing religions during different phases. One main difference between Hinduism and other religions is that while other religions are proselytizing, Hinduism is not. One must get birth in a Hindu family to become a Hindu. The challenges faced in the earlier phase were mostly of two types.

Firstly, the dominance of Brahmins (the priestly class) was becoming unbearable. The exploitative dominance of priests on religious matters is, however, not confined to Hinduism alone. Such a dominance was the rule for Roman Catholic religion from about 600 CE to 1200 CE which pushed Europe into its Dark Age. The people ultimately protested giving rise to protestant, Lutheran and other sections of Christianity. However, priests in Christianity did not belong to one caste (caste did not exist in Europe). But priests belonged to a particular caste known as Brahmins in India. Therefore, public wrath was directed towards the Brahmins.

People in India also protested under the leadership of Gautam Buddha and Mahavir which led to the emergence of Buddha and Jain dharma in the 6th century BCE. Brahminism plus caste taboos imposed by Brahmins on lower castes were responsible for the slide of Hinduism. It continued to lose ground heavily between the 6th century BCE to about the 3rd Century CE because of the spread of these two-protestant religions in India known as Buddha and Jain dharma. In reality, however, both of them were not entirely distinct from Hinduism.

The first corrective measures were taken by Ved Vyas who composed the Mahabharat and Bhagwat Gita and spread the path of Karma yoga, Bhakti yoga and Gyan yoga. These three paths were not only for Brahmins but for all the non-brahmins also. The exclusivity enjoyed by Brahmins was set at rest. However, this did not encourage the formation of a casteless society. Most of the Aryans continued to belong to the seven gotras of legendary seers such as Kashyap, Vashishtha, Bhrigu, Gautam, Bhardwaj, Atri and Vishwamitra. The eighth gotra is Agastya which is found mainly in South India. It became necessary to make the base of Hinduism wider to reclaim the lost ground for which the inclusion of the lower caste was an absolute must. It is in this connection that the rise of Alvars and Nayanars in Tamil lands became very important. These two groups were wandering saints who composed devotional songs in praise of Shiva and Vishnu at a time (between the 6th Century CE to 9th Century CE) when Buddhism and Jainism were at their peaks in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The competition was fierce.

The Chola kings understood the teachings of the Bhagwat Gita which placed the power of Bhakti in the hands of individuals. The Chola kings saw that the demands by the lower castes to have equal access to temples were met by temple administration. The Alvars and Nayanars kept flourishing in this environment. The downtrodden were included. The Avatars of Vishnu were crystallizing. Adi Shankaracharya in his religious discourses looked exactly like Gautam Buddha espousing similar views. Ultimately, Buddha was included as an incarnation of Vishnu. Buddhism continued to linger up to the 4th century CE under the rules of the Guptas but by the time the Huns attacked India, Buddhism was out from the land in which it originated. Jain Dharma continued to survive among the trading community but the two look almost similar (only the details vary).

The second difficulty which Hinduism faced was the language of Sanskrit which was the exclusive preserve of Brahmins and the ruling class. The language of the masses was different. It may have been Magadhi, Bhojpuri, Pali, and Prakrit. These languages were fully exploited by Gautam Buddha and Mahavira to spread their faith. The Devanagari script was not around when Ashoka, the last great Maurya King was ruling. His stone and pillar edicts are in Pali language and Brahmi script.

The lack of scriptures in the local language was a real difficulty for Hinduism. The preachings of Buddha and Mahavira were collected and written down in Pali / Prakrit script. The preachings of Sri Krishna remained confined in Sanskrit till they were translated by the leaders of the Bhakti Movement like Gyaneshwar. Commentaries were written by Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and others but all of them were in Sanskrit. Solutions, to all the two problems, were provided by the Bhakti Movement which originated in the Tamil area. Intense devotion to God assumed many forms (attitudes) depending upon the intent of the devotee. The common Bhavas (attitudes) exhibited by them may be briefly mentioned as follows.

  • Dasya Bhava: The attitude of a devotee as servant and deity as master developed among many. Allah Malik was the common utterance by Sai Baba. The Bhakti of Hanuman for Ram was similar.
  • Sakhya Bhava: The attitude of a friend is reflected by Krishna and Arjun in Mahabharat and Bhagwat Gita.
  • Vatsalya Bhava: Similar to a parent’s attitude to a child like the love between Kausalya and Ram, between Sabari and Ram.
  • Saanta Bhava: The attitude of a child towards his parents, like the attitude of Dhruva to Suniti.
  • Pati Bhava: Like the attitude of a wife to a husband. The love between Sita and Ram. Many devotees of the Bhakti Movement wore women’s clothes and saw their deities as husbands.
  • Kaanta Bhava: The attitudes between a lover and beloved exemplified by Radha and Krishna, Mirabai and Krishna.
  • Ghrina Bhava: The intense hate attitude is also a bhakti. Shishupal was a Krishna hater. Krishna waited till Shishupal abused him 100 times before beheading him with his chakra in front of the full court. Ram killed Ravan in the same manner. However, both attained salvation because God himself killed them.
  • Nairashya Bhava: An attitude of frustration exhibited by the following poem by Cuntarar (8th century, CE)

“I don’t call to him as my mother. I don’t call him my father. I thought it would be enough to call him my lord – but he pretends I don’t exist, doesn’t show an ounce of mercy. If that lord who dwells in Paccilacciramam, surrounded by pools filled with geese, postpones the mercies meant for his devotees – can’t we find some other god?”

Such Bhavas were aroused by hymns and songs composed by some Brahmins as well as a large number of non-brahmins which helped in resurrecting Hinduism to glory. Bhakti cult spread to all parts of India and challenges posed by Buddhism and Jainism were forgotten. Temples were being constructed on a large scale. Samudragupta of the Gupta dynasty was the last king who organized Ashvamedha yagya. The Vedic yagyas like Rajsurya, Bajapeya etc. were completely forgotten. Temples became rich due to the patronage provided by Kings. They became treasure houses and some of them began functioning as banks. The second major challenge to Hinduism began when Mahmud of Ghazanavi started looting temples in the 11th century CE.


  • Bhagwat Gita
  • Ancient and Medieval India – Poonam Dalal Dahiya
  • The wonder that was India II – S.S.A. Rizvi
  • The Hindus: An Alternative History – Wendy Doniger
  • The Great Hindu Civilization – Pavan K. Varma