Austerity, the middle path and the way of householders

Mahavira's own personal austerities were much greater than those of the Buddha. After a few years, the Buddha gave up extreme austerities and adopted the Middle Path. Mahavira was undisturbed by hardships of any kind. He continued practising austerities until he left his body at the age of 72.

But Mahavira did not advocate austerities for all his disciples. To those who were ready to accept the life of monks and nuns, he said, 'You have to be very, very austere.' But to those who were householders, he said, 'Go slowly. If you are not strong enough spiritually to become monks or nuns, then continue to make progress at your present level.' So Jainism has two approaches. In this way, Jainism has left room for progress. Like kindergarten students, householders can grow and grow and grow until they eventually reach the level of the college students, who are the monks and nuns. Then again, these college students can also grow and grow. They will go on to university level and eventually become liberated. Mahavira knew that not everyone could maintain the same standard, and so he allowed immense scope for progress. You can say that Jainism has little plants and it has trees.

Jainism reminds me of our ancient Indian system which tells us there are four stages of life: first you go to school, then you get married and lead a householder's life, then you retire and, finally, you renounce the world and go into the forest. In the same way, Jainism has two stages: the householder life for those who are not strong spiritually, and the life of a monk for those who are ready for the higher life.

The Buddha's philosophy was completely different. He did not advise his disciples to go to the extreme. A musician, for example, cannot remain either on the higher notes or on the lower notes. It is not at all pleasing to the ear. So he stays most of the time in the middle notes. Similarly, the disciples of the Lord Buddha progress steadily towards the perfect bliss of nirvana without going too far on one side or the other. The Buddha had a heart larger than the universe. He cried for the end of human suffering. His path was also very strict, but he did not want to impose undue sufferings on his followers through austerities.