Epics for children | Was the Buddha initially a Jain?

When the Sakya Prince Gautama first saw old age, disease, and death, he left home in search of true peace and enlightenment. At the time, the Sramana schools of thought had become very popular. A Sramana is someone who toils for a higher religious purpose. These schools included Ajivika, Charvaka, Jainism and Ajnana. Gautama shaved off his flowing hair and beard and put on the robes of a monk or a beggar. At first, Gautama learnt from two spiritual teachers, Arada Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra, but later left dissatisfied. He met five friends Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama and Assaji—who too had left lives of luxury to live as ascetics. Gautama decided to follow asceticism to its extreme.

The six of them went to a place called Uruvela, and the five friends supported Gautama while he tortured his body to acquire wisdom. He would roam in the forests full of wild animals. He would feel frightened but continue to meditate. He would wear rags that he would find in graveyards and cemeteries, or shun clothing altogether. He fasted by gradually reducing the amount of food he ate. Finally, he stopped eating altogether. He became so thin and weak that his bones could be seen through his skin. His legs were like bamboo sticks and his backbone was like a rope. His stomach sunk in and touched his back. He looked like a skeleton. He also practiced holding his breath for a long time. Due to this, he would feel extreme pain in his ears and hear whooshing sounds in his head and body. He would sometimes become unconscious and fall to the ground.

Finally, when Gautama was close to dying, he thought that he had tortured his body as much as anybody else in the past had or anybody else would in the future. Yet, he had not attained enlightenment. He wondered if the path to enlightenment was something else. He then remembered a time from his childhood when his father had been working, and he had sat under the shade of a tree. He had entered meditation for the first time then. He remembered the joy it had given him, which he was missing now. He decided to eat the rice and milk offered by a village girl, and from that time onwards shunned the extremes of either sensual pleasures or extreme asceticism, preferring the ‘middle path.’

While the practices Gautama followed like fasting, shunning clothes, meditating and torturing his body are similar to those that Jain monks follow, and Mahavira was an older contemporary of Gautama, it is difficult to say whether Gautama was following Jainism per se or the broader set of Sramana practices which included many beliefs besides Jainism.

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