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The sixth century B.C. is considered a wonderful century in history. Great thinkers like Buddha, Mahavira, Heraclitus, Zoroaster, Confucius and Lao Tse lived and preached their ideas in this century. In India, the republican institutions were strong in the 6th century B.C. This enabled the rise of heterodox sects against the orthodox religion dominated by rites and rituals. Among them the most successful were Jainism and Buddhism whose impact on the Indian society was remarkable.

Causes for the Rise of Jainism and Buddhism

The primary cause for the rise of Jainism and Buddhism was the religious unrest in India in the 6th century B.C. The complex rituals and sacrifices advocated in the Later Vedic period were not acceptable to the common people. The sacrificial ceremonies were also found to be too expensive. The superstitious beliefs and mantras confused the people. The teachings of Upanishads, an alternative to the system of sacrifices, were highly philosophical in nature and therefore not easily understood by all. Therefore, what was needed in the larger interests of the people was a simple, short and intelligible way to salvation for all people. Such religious teaching should also be in a language known to them. This need was fulfilled by the teachings of Buddha and Mahavira. 

Other than the religious factor, social and economic factors also contributed to the rise of these two religions. The rigid caste system prevalent in India generated tensions in the society. Higher classes enjoyed certain privileges which were denied to the lower classes. Also, the Kshatriyas had resented the domination of the priestly class. It should also be noted that both Buddha and Mahavira belonged to Kshatriya origin. The growth of trade led to the improvement in the economic conditions of the Vaisyas. As a result, they wanted to enhance their social status but the orthodox Varna system did not allow this. Therefore, they began to extend support to Buddhism and Jainism. It was this merchant class that extended the chief support to these new religions. 

Jainism

Life of Vardhamana Mahavira (539- 467 B.C.)

Vardhamana Mahavira was the 24th Tirthankara of the Jain tradition. He was born at Kundagrama near Vaisali to Kshatriya parents Siddhartha and Trisala. He married Yasoda and gave birth to a daughter. At the age of thirty he became ascetic and wandered for twelve years. In the 13th year of his penance, he attained the highest spiritual knowledge called Kevala Gnana. Thereafter, he was called Mahavira and Jina. His followers were called Jains and his religion Jainism. He preached his doctrines for 30 years and died at the age of 72 at Pava near Rajagriha.

Teachings of Mahavira

The three principles of Jainism, also known as Triratnas (three gems), are:

  • right faith
  • right knowledge
  • right conduct.

Right faith is the belief in the teachings and wisdom of Mahavira. Right Knowledge is the acceptance of the theory that there is no God and that the world has been existing without a creator and that all objects possess a soul. Right conduct refers to the observance of the five great vows:

  • not to injure life
  • not to lie
  • not to steal
  • not to acquire property
  • not to lead an immoral life.

Both the clergy and laymen had to strictly follow the doctrine of ahimsa. Mahavira regarded all objects, both animate and inanimate, have souls and various degrees of consciousness. They possess life and feel pain when they are injured. Mahavira rejected the authority of the Vedas and objected to the Vedic rituals. He advocated a very holy and ethical code of life. Even the practice of agriculture was considered sinful as it causes injury to the earth, worms and animals. Similarly, the doctrine of asceticism and renunciation was also carried to extreme lengths by the practice of starvation, nudity and other forms of self-torture. 

Spread of Jainism

Mahavira organized the Sangha to spread his teachings. He admitted both men and women in the Sangha, which consisted of both monks and lay followers. The rapid spread of Jainism was due to the dedicated work of the members of the Sangha. It spread rapidly in Western India and Karnataka. Chandragupta Maurya, Kharavela of Kalinga and the royal dynasties of south India such as the Gangas, the Kadambas, the Chalukyas and the Rashtrakutas patronized Jainism.

By the end of the fourth century B.C., there was a serious famine in the Ganges valley. Many Jain monks led by Chandrababu and Chandragupta Maurya came to Shravanabelagola in Karnataka. Those who stayed back in north India were led by a monk named Sthulabahu who changed the code of conduct for the monks. This led to the division of Jainism into two sects Svetambaras (white clad) and Digambar as (Sky-clad or Naked).

The first Jain Council was convened at Pataliputra by Sthulabahu, the leader of the Digambar as, in the beginning of the 3rd century B.C. The second Jain Council was held at Valabhi in 5th century A.D. The final compilation of Jain literature called Twelve Angas was completed in this council.

Buddhism 

Life of Gautama Buddha (567- 487 B.C.)

Gautama or Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism, was born in 567 B.C. in Lumbini Garden near Kapilavastu. His father was Suddodhana of the Sakya clan and mother Mayadevi. As his mother died at childbirth, he was brought up by his aunt Prajapati Gautami. At the age of sixteen he married Yasodhara and gave birth to a son, Rahula. The sight of an old man, a diseased man, a corpse and an ascetic turned him away from worldly life. He left home at the age of twenty-nine in search of Truth. He wandered for seven years and met several teachers but could not get enlightenment. At last, he sat under a bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya and did intense penance, after which he got Enlightenment (Nirvana) at the age of thirty-five. Since then he has become known as the Buddha or ‘the Enlightened One’. He delivered his first sermon at Sarnath near Benares and for the next forty-five years he led the life of a preacher. He died at the age of eighty at Kusanagi.

The most important disciples of Buddha were Sariputta, Moggallanna, Ananda, Kassapa and Upali. Kings like Prasenajit of Kosala and Bimbisara and Ajatasatru of Magadha accepted his doctrines and became his disciples. Buddha in his lifetime spread his message far and wide in north India and visited places like Benares, Rajagriha, Sravasti, Vaishali, Nalanda and Pataligrama. It should be noted that he did not involve himself in fruitless controversies regarding metaphysical questions like god, soul, karma, rebirth, etc., and concerned himself with the practical problems confronting man. 

Teachings of Buddha

The Four Noble Truths of Buddha are:

  • The world is full of suffering.
  • The cause of suffering is desire.
  • If desires are got rid of, suffering can be removed.
  • This can be done by following the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path consists of right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. Buddha neither accepts god nor rejects the existence of god. He laid great emphasis on the law of karma. He argued that the condition of man in this life depends upon his own deeds. He taught that the soul does not exist. However, he emphasized Ahimsa. By his love for human beings and all living creatures, he endeared himself to all. Even under the gravest provocation he did not show the least anger or hatred and instead conquered everyone by his love and compassion. His religion was identical with morality and it emphasized purity of thought, word and deed. He was a rationalist who tried to explain things in the light of reason and not on the basis of blind faith. Though he did not make a direct attack on the caste system, he was against any social distinctions and threw open his order to all. Therefore, Buddhism was more a social than religious revolution. It taught the code of practical ethics and laid down the principle of social equality. 

Spread of Buddhism

Buddha had two kinds of disciples – monks (bhikshus) and lay worshippers (up sikas). The monks were organized into the Sangha for the purpose of spreading his teachings. The membership was open to all persons, male or female and without any caste restrictions. There was a special code for nuns restricting their residence and movement. Sariputta, Moggallana and Ananda were some of the famous monks. The Sangha was governed on democratic lines and was empowered to enforce discipline among its members. Owing to the organized efforts made by the Sangha, Buddhism made rapid progress in North India even during Buddha’s lifetime. Magadha, Kosala, Kausambi and several republican states of North India embraced this religion. About two hundred years after the death of Buddha, the famous Mauryan Emperor Asoka embraced Buddhism. Through his missionary effort Asoka spread Buddhism into West Asia and Ceylon. Thus, a local religious sect was transformed into a world religion.

Buddhist Councils

The first Buddhist Council was held at Rajagriha under the chairmanship of Mahakasyapa immediately after the death of Buddha. Its purpose was to maintain the purity of the teachings of the Buddha. The second Buddhist Council was convened at Vaisali around 383 B.C. The third Buddhist Council was held at Pataliputra under the patronage of Asoka. Moggaliputta Tissa presided over it. The final version of Tripitakas was completed in this council. The fourth Buddhist Council was convened in Kashmir by Kanishka under the chairmanship of Vasumitra. Asvagosha participated in this council. The new school of Buddhism called Mahayana Buddhism came into existence during this council. The Buddhism preached by the Buddha and propagated by Asoka was known as Hinayana. The Buddhist texts were collected and compiled some five hundred years after the death of the Buddha. They are known as the Tripitakas, namely the Sutta, the Vinaya and the Abhidhamma Pitakas. They are written in the Pali language. Causes for the Decline of Buddhism in India the revival of Brahmanism and the rise of Bhagavatism led to the fall of popularity of Buddhism. The use of Pali, the language of the masses as the language of Buddhism was given up from the 1st century A.D. The Buddhists began to adopt Sanskrit, the language of the elite. After the birth of Mahayana Buddhism, the practice of idol worship and making offerings led to the deterioration of moral standards. Moreover, the attack of the Huns in the 5th and 6th centuries and the Turkish invaders in the 12th century destroyed the monasteries. All these factors contributed to the decline of Buddhism in India. 

Contribution of Buddhism to Indian Culture  

Buddhism has made a remarkable contribution to the development of Indian culture.

  • The concept of ahimsa was its chief contribution. Later, it became one of the cherished values of our nation.
  • Its contribution to the art and architecture of India was notable. The stupas at Sanchi, Bharhut and Gaya are wonderful pieces of architecture. Buddhism takes the credit for the chaityas and viharas in different parts of India.
  • It promoted education through residential universities like those at Taxila, Nalanda and Vikramshila. 
  • The language of Pali and other local languages developed through the teachings of Buddhism.

It had also promoted the spread of Indian culture to other parts of Asia 


Sources

  1. Module-1 Ancient India by NIOS
  2. India’s Ancient Past by RS Sharma
  3. Class-11 Tamil Nadu State Board History Book

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