The sixth century B.C. is regarded as an important epoch of world history. The time before that century is described as the pre-historic age.
From sixth century B.C., however historical evidences came to exist.
Thus that there began the historical period in sixth century B.C. This adds significance to that time.
It was in the sixth century B.C. that there lived in India the founders of two great religions of mankind. They were Mahavira Jina and Gautama Buddha, the founders of Jainism and Buddhism. Enough of literature came to be written about Jina and Buddha and about their religions. Though the Jaina and the Buddhist literature were religious in character, yet they contained much information about political and social conditions of that time. History could be written from those literary sources. It was the rise of Jainism and Buddhism which made the sixth century B.C. great and glorious.
It was from that century that the political condition of ancient India began to take a clear shape. Several kingdoms came to exist at that time. Attempts were also made to build bigger kingdoms by uniting larger areas of the country. That added importance to sixth century B.C.
The Rise of New Religious Thoughts:
The 6th century B.C. saw in India a great unrest in the mind of men. It was like a spiritual and religious awakening in the Indian society for newness and reform. Grounds for a changed outlook were being prepared before the age of Mahavira and Buddha by preachers and wandering monks who expressed doubts about the value of existing religious conditions and social order.
The earlier religious simplicity and social equality of the Rig-Vedic time were no longer there. From the Later Vedic time, religion lost much of its inner substance in ever increasing outer practices. Dogmas and rituals became more and more rigid. Many gods and goddesses were made to appear in religious belief. Superstitions superseded spirituality.
The domination of the priests became thorough. They made a monopoly of both religious thinking and sacred performances. The Brahminical supremacy closed the doors of religious quest to other social classes. The unity and morality of the earlier ages got destroyed in blind rites in form of animal sacrifices, numerous ceremonies and meaningless practices.
As religion lost its former vitality, the society also lost its earlier strength. Caste system destroyed the concept of human equality and divided men into sections. Sub-castes began to multiply in number.
For vast majority of men, prevailing social systems were oppressive and painful. The lower classes such as the Sudras lived a life of degradation. The Kshatriyas and the Vaishyas, too, suffered from the domination of the Brahmins, and came to dislike the predominance of the latter.
When intelligent men had no freedom to read the Holy Scriptures like the Vedas and the Upanishads, and common people had no right to worship gods except through priests, the desire of men for higher spirituality remained unfulfilled. The inner meaning of the creator and the creation, of the life, soul and salvation remained submerged in the unintelligible mantras of the priests, and slaughter of animals and blind beliefs. Ignorance, not wisdom, dominated the atmosphere.
A reaction against such religious and social evils became inevitable. There were saints and preachers who openly raised their voice for a rethinking. It was in this mental climate that Jainism and Buddhism rose as two mighty religious movements to usher in an era of enlightened progress. In the long run, the Jaina and Buddhist movements, particularly the Buddhist, led to far reaching results in human history.