In the 5th century BC, India was already an old and vast civilization, and one that had reached a point of maturity. Great cities once again sprung up across the subcontinent, and local kingdoms coalesced into empires or Mahajanapadas ("great states"). These monarchies, and sometimes oligarchic republics, had for some time professed a religion unique to the lands of the Sindhu (Indus) and Ganga (Ganges) rivers. The people of the Achaemenid empire in Iran to the west had taken to calling their neighbours to the East "Hindus" very recently, derived from the Sindhu river. The Iranians and Indians were ancient cousins, and although both were residents of the stretch of land called the aryavarta by Indians (where the term "Aryan" derived from), their customs and religious beliefs had started to diverge. Both were significantly different from the Abrahamic beliefs that were being formed in the fertile crescent to the west.
Buddha depicted meditating inside a palm in the ancient Indian style.
These Hindus revered the teachings of the vedas, ancient sources of knowledge that at this point were several centuries old (the oldest, rigveda, may have been a thousand years old already). These vast teachings comprising religion, science, philosophy, poetry, literature and medicine had spawned a deeply introspective, curious, often scholarly all-encompassing way of life (its modern iteration is today known as "Hinduism"). The priests and scholars of this religion, the brahmins, were placed at the top of a social order that appeared to grow increasingly rigid with time. However, philosophy and religion themselves were far from rigid, and many sages, saints and appeared, professing different beliefs and prescribing different solutions for social issues. However, on the whole, Hindu society revolved around the concepts of dharma, or duty, the impermanence of life on Earth and the permanence of the soul, frequently preserved in transmigration, whereby the soul was reborn after every death in a new body and possibly a new lifeform.
Buddhism strongly influenced ancient Indian art, sculpture, and architecture, as seen in the Great Stupa at Sanchi built by the Buddhist Mauryan empire.
This eternal cycle of death and rebirth was based on an individual's adherence to their own dharma, which depended on their class, caste, circumstances, age and gender. The ultimate goal for most Hindus thus became escape from this cycle and freedom from earthly bonds, to be achieved through good dharma. It is, however, very important to stress the intellectual diversity of the Indian subcontinent, as people who were broadly "Hindu" had many different beliefs within the Dharmic framework. Gods were worshipped in many forms, sometimes as Ishvara, the supreme God, or as a manifestation of the divine in specific forms, or sometimes a rejection of God or Gods altogether!
Religion and philosophy entwined in the subcontinent to produce an incredibly complex and esoteric system of thought. The Hindu trimurti, or trinity, of Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu, depicted here, play an important role in mythology.
In the 6th and 5th centuries BC, the Dharmic peoples saw a turn towards asceticism, as an ever-growing civilization scaled new material heights, yet still yearned for Earthly release. Saints underwent increasingly trying forms of meditation, rejecting any sustenance and exposing themselves to harsh elements, frequently in the heights of the Himalayas, the jungles of central India, or the deserts of the west, in an effort to reject the worldly and embrace the eternal. Although it was not unusual for there to be sages who modified the wisdom of the ancients, this backdrop of the search for liberation gave birth to two men of royal lineage, both of whom abandoned their material life and developed whose teachings that remain profoundly observed and have been key in developing the Indian ethos.
Samsara, a sanskrit word that means wandering with a connotation of change, is a core belief in Indic religions. Depicted here as the wheel of life, it represents the eternal cycle of rebirth. Attaining moksha or nirvana is the ultimate spiritual goal of most Dharmic religions.
Lord Mahavira was born Vardhamana, somewhere between 600 and 550 BCE, into the royal family of the Ikshvaku dynasty and raised a prince. Around the age of 30, he renounced material life and adopted a lifestyle of frugal penance, as the sages of the time did. For twelve long years, Mahavira lived the life of an ascetic until he achieved "omniscience". His teachings, which form the backbone of the Jain religion, revolve around the central tenet of ahimsa, or non-violence, which the world probably knows better today though its political weaponization by Mohandas Gandhi in the 20th century. Jain ahimsa, however, extends to every living creature, from the smallest ant to the largest elephant, also making them the first de facto vegans in history. Although it never became a predominant religion in India, Jainism nonetheless has become an enduring and key influence in shaping the subcontinent. It also became key in being one of the first in India to spread a message of egalitarianism, as Mahavira taught that all could attain moksha, or liberation, no matter what their caste, creed, or gender.
While Jainism had begun to start making wave and attracting a large following, not too long after another prince was born into yet another royal family. Siddhartha Gautama was a promising and greatly sheltered youth who had never left the confines of his palace. As with any curious and ambitious young man, he was eager to step out into the world, but, having been raised in a life of luxury, he was not prepared for the human suffering he encountered. This had a profound impact on the young man, and his tutors' and priests' explanation that suffering was merely the result of one's karma, and a condition of earthly life, probably did little to convince him. And although none could know it then, this encounter with suffering changed not only his life, but that of millions of Indians, Sri Lankans, south-east Asians, Chinese, Central Asians, and East Asians to this day.
Siddhartha Gautama, depicted here after his enlightenment, was known by many titles, including Shakyamuni, or sage of the Shakyas, the clan that he came from.
Where Mahavira had adopted extreme asceticism much like many Hindu sages, Siddhartha was not convinced of embracing suffering as a means to end it. After himself going through extreme trials and consulting with learned men from all over India, when Siddhartha final received enlightenment under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya (modern-day Bihar, India), he gleaned an insight that remains incredibly relevant today and began to develop a system of thought which would explore the mind and consciousness in ways that few others have even approached. Now called the "Buddha", or enlightened one, Siddhartha arrived at the famous conclusion that suffering was tied to craving, and only by the cessation of craving could suffering end. However, subjecting one to more intense suffering did not cause the cessation of craving. What the Buddha urged was the eightfold path, a framework of values to dispassionately detach oneself from the worldly.
The Laughing Buddha, depicted here, is a representation of Budai, a Buddhist master venerated in the Chinese and Japanese traditions. The ancient Maurya empire in India was a patron of Buddhism and its King Asoka played an active role in exporting the belief. Over the centuries, Buddhism made its way into much of Asia, establishing a lasting presence even as it diminished in India itself, partly from a resurgence of mainstream Hindu beliefs, and later from the incredible destruction wrought by the iconoclastic Islamic invasions of the subcontinent.
Neither Mahavira nor Siddhartha lay claim to divinity themselves. Indeed, the Jains do not place a belief in God at all, and Siddhartha himself dismissed the existence of God as immaterial to the question of human suffering. Their teachings are as relevant today as they were in ancient India. Mahavira's ideals form the basis for a peaceful society of co-existence which is founded on kindness, and Siddhartha offered what even today, remains perhaps the most elegant explanation on the causes of suffering and the fickle human soul. When it is in pleasure, the human soul suffers from the anxiety that the pleasure would only be temporary, or for a need to intensity pleasurable feelings. When it experiences pain, it suffers from a feeling that is unpleasant. It is only by ridding oneself of desire that peace is to be attained. Both men also realized that renunciation is an extreme step and unsuitable for all, and granted that ultimately, it is the individual who is to decide that which is her own good. And in doing so, they shine bright through the pages of history, not as great conquerors, writers, builders, or artists, but as men who attempted to end suffering itself.