As the primary Upanishads were being written down and shared between 1000 and 600 BCE, the golden age of ancient Indian thought dawned as many thinkers founded new schools of thought, including the six orthodox schools of Hinduism. There are also many references at the time in texts to “strivers” (shramanas) who were leaving Hinduism and setting off to form new unorthodox (non-Hindu) Indian traditions. Today we call this the Shramana Movement, which gave rise to two of the most famous thinkers in human history: Mahavira (599 – 527 BCE) and the Buddha (563 – 483 BCE). These two distinct but similar seekers were dissatisfied by traditional life and beliefs and went off to seek, learn and practice on their own, often in the jungle beyond civilization. In the Abrahamic tradition of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, similar sorts of strivers traditionally practice in the desert, symbolic of death.
Both Mahavira and Buddha were of the Kshatriya second caste, beneath the Brahmin first and top caste, warrior’s sons who wanted to be priestly philosophers instead. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus, whom some scholars thought wrongly was the Buddha, is also said to be a king who abandoned the throne to become a sage, symbolic of the mind’s superiority to the body, the mental conquering the physical. Both Mahavira and Buddha supposedly left home at age thirty, with Mahavira obtaining enlightenment in twelve years and the Buddha in six. The Buddha and Buddhist tradition follow just after Mahavira and the Jain tradition in years, developing in dialog with each other, so this may possibly be Buddhists claiming the Buddha did what Mahavira did, but in half the time. Jainism, founded by Mahavira, is one of the world’s great religions with five million followers today, most living in India but with communities throughout the world. Buddhism is one of the three largest cultures of human thought in history, along with Christianity and Islam.