Buddha’s teachings vs contemporary religious teachings in the 6th century BC on creator, self and kamma
During the time of the Buddha, brahmanism was rampant. Brahmins regarded themselves as the highest caste of the caste system. They believed and studied the Rig Veda which believed Brahma as the supreme creator god. They said that Brahma created the brahmins (priests) from the mouth, Ksatriya (warriors and royals) from his arm, Vaisya (traders/merchants) from his thigh and the lowest sudra (outcasts) from his feet.
The Brahmins occupied the highest position in society with privileges to conduct sacrifices, chanting, instructing the kings, preserve, study, teach and recite the Vedas. Brahmins carried out many rite and rituals and animal sacrifices to “purify” themselves and to appease the creator god so that they could go to heaven after death to be reunited with Brahma. They practice Monotheism believing in only one creator god, brahma.
By 7th to 6th century, people get dissatisfied with Brahmanism and they saw wastefulness in sacrifices and uselessness of rituals and mantra with no lasting happiness. The samanna/ sramanas were people who rejected the vedas , renounced the world , live a homeless life in search of the truth and attain happiness and peace of mind. Buddha belonged to the sramanas. These contemporary teachers have different views on creator, soul and kamma.
Buddha rejected the existence of a creator. He mentioned that nobody has seen the creator before, no one has spoken to creator before and no one knows how he looks like. If it is so, there is no proof that a creator exists. If a creator exists, then he should answer people’s prayers and stop sufferings but there is still sufferings.
He rejected the theory of creation of human beings from the body of brahma. Instead he was scientific and like any biologist he explained that fertilisation of the woman’s egg by a male partner's sperm will result in an embryo that will develop into a fetus in the mother’s womb just like anyone else. The baby will then be delivered after 9 months of pregnancy. It's the mother that gave birth to a baby not Brahma.
Buddha instead used dependent origination to explain how things are linked, basically "if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist." Only by breaking this vicious cycle, then liberation from this endless cycles of rebirth and dukha (suffering) can be attained.
He mentioned in the first discourse Dhammacakkappavattana-Sutta (Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth): The 4 Noble Truths . There is suffering. There is a cause of suffering. There is an end to suffering. There is a noble eightfold path which lead to the end of suffering.
He also mentions the 3 characteristics of existence which is Anica (impermanence), Dukha (suffering) and anatta (non-self). Firstly, nothing is permanent, everything is subjected to decay and death one day. Because of impermanence, there arises suffering due to attachments and clinging. Lastly, we cannot control anything with our will, nothing belongs to us hence non-self.
Buddha is also a believer of kamma (volition) and described it as cause and effect. What we do (actions), think (thoughts) and speak (speech) plays a part in our kamma. Doing good deeds result in good kamma and bad deeds result in bad kamma. But not every single happening is due to kamma there are still other conditions for certain event to happen.
Makkali Gosala belonged to Ajivika school which believed everything is due to fate or destiny and there is no control. Hence any human effort is useless which means they do not believe in kamma.
He does not believe in a creator but he believed in transmigration of soul through series of reincarnation just like unwinding of a ball of thread till the last life being an ajivika monk. They developed a system of divination and interpretation of omens and dreams.
Buddha criticized this line of thought as it leads to passivity and discourage any human effort.
Pakudha Kaccayana belonged to Ajivika School. He did not believe in creator god. He believed the external existence of 7 basic principles of earth, water, heat, air, pleasure, pain and life principle. These elements he said were not created, indestructible and rigid. He was the first Indian atomist.
Any actions merely pass ineffectively between atoms and the permanent soul cannot be injured/destroyed so there is no basis of kamma. Which means there is no basis for morality as people need not be responsible for their action. He gave example of stabbing with a knife: the knife did nothing but just pass through the space between elements.
Buddha disagreed with this as morality is necessary for social harmony and progression. Buddha said that all intentional actions, speech and thoughts constitute kamma and the effect will ripen when the time arrives. Nigantha Nataputta
Nigantha Nataputta also known as Mahavira was born son of khattiya but he renounced at 28 after death of his parents. He joined Nigantha sect founded 250 years earlier by Parsva. He later revitalized Jainism.
Jainism does not believe in a creator, they believe in relying on oneself through self-mortification to achieve liberation. Their goal is to obtain liberation from cycle of reincarnation. They believed in the existence of soul and non-souls (animate and inanimate objects). The soul to them is originally pure but is covered by karmic particles that bind the soul to samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth). The state of soul is due to karma accumulated over countless lives. Heavy karma is a result of selfish, careless and cruel actions.
They believe that suffering through self-mortification can disperse the karma already accumulated. Nigantha believed that the more the flesh is mortified, the more effective is the practice to liberate the soul. As they believe the most harmful karmic effect is to injure living things, they are vegetarians and not involved in farming. Even plucking of a plant is not allowed. Their occupation is trading and money lending. Nigantha died of voluntary self-starvation at age of 72.
Buddha was against self-mortification which he practiced too before his enlightenment. He said the pain from such practices create delusions, fear and doubts magnified by deprivation and clinging to life. It will not and cannot lead to wisdom.
He belonged to the Ajivika school (Way of life). They do not believe in kamma because all actions of men are considered as no actions. For example: he believed that murder and theft has no evil done and there is no merit in doing anything good.
Buddha disagreed with such believes as it leads to immorality and social decline.
He belonged to the lokayata school (Materialist school) which believed the universe is made up of 4 elements (earth, water, heart or air). There is no soul and no transmigration. There is also no kamma. Upon death, the body breaks up into elements and annihilation of that person. Hence purpose of life is to enjoy the pleasure of the senses.
Buddha mentioned in the first discourse Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta that self-indulgence and self-mortification should be avoided as it is fruitless and does not lead to enlightenment. Hence self- indulgence does not yield anything but more clinging to sensual pleasures which is the cause of rebirth.
He was a well-known leader of the Agnostic school. He evaded questions and answers to avoid conflicts. Hence he was described as a slippery eel.