The Jaina literary tradition strongly advocates that the 24 Thirthankaras were responsible for the origin and development of Jainism, the other prominent heterodox religion.
Of these, the historicity of the first twenty-two is very doubtful and it is said that with a view to claiming more antiquity for Jainism, these Thirthankaras might have been projected as the founders of Jainism.
The twenty-third Thirtankara, Parsvanatha and the 24th Thirthankara Mahavira are historical figures and even the contemporary Buddhist literary tradition refers them.
Interestingly, the 23rd and the 24th Thirthankaras belong to the ruling Kshatriya community, both of them abdicated their thrones, and both became enlightened after severe penance. We notice resemblances in the pattern of enlightenment attained by the Buddha and Parsvanatha and Mahavira. This illustrates the urge of the ruling elite to compete with the ritually powerful Brahmins to claim the spiritual leadership of the community.
Parsvanatha propagated the eternity of matter, the necessity to speak truth, the need for non-violence and non-possession of goods and Mahavira added celibacy or Brahmacharya to the already existing body of principles. He advocated that the Jiva (soul) and Ajiva (matter) are the two basic elements of the universal. Like the Buddha, he too opined that the soul of man is in a state of bondage created by desire, accumulated through previous births. He assured that with continued efforts, one can free oneself from bondage and this is final liberation or Moksha of the soul. As a result, it becomes a ‘pure soul’.
His three principles are known as Ratnatraya or Triratnas. The Triratnas are Right belief, Right knowledge and Right action. Extreme penance and severe ascetism were advocated by him to attain Kaivalya or the highest spiritual state like the Budha. He too had no faith in the supreme creator or God. He thought that the world functioned according to an eternal law of development and decay. He also advocated that all objects had a soul of their own and experienced pain or the impact of injury. He too rejected the sacred authority of the Vedas and objected to the supremacy of the Brahmans.
He prescribed a code of conduct for both the householder and the monks. They have to follow the five vows – non-injury, non-stealing, non-adultery, non-possession and speaking only truth. Mahavira ordained that the Grihasta should feed the guests every day. Mahavira laid so much importance on the concept of non-violence, that lay Jains are prohibited from taking to the cultivation as in that process insects, small plants and animals that inhabit the cultivated land are destroyed forever.
Tradition records that all the doctrines taught by Mahavira were codified into 14 leaves known as ‘Purras’. The first Jaina council was held at Pataliputra and Sthulabhadra divided the Jaina cannon into 12 Angas. The Jains were divided into Swetambaras and Digambaras. In the second council held at Valabhi, new additions were made to what in the form of Upagrayas or minor sections to the existing Purras. The eleven disciples of Mahavira are known as Gandharas and one disciple Arya Sudhamma survived Mahavira and became the Thera or chief preceptor of the Jaina order.
Both these heterodox religion; survived along with the Brahmanic religion and in course of time we notice the impact of the Brahmanical doctrines on Buddhism and Jainism and vice versa. Another feature deserving notice is the fact that all religions were divided into different sects, based on regional or leadership consideration. It may be due to the vastness of the area as well as the diversity we notice in ecological and geographical matters. We can notice this tendency today in respect of political parties, as well as in art and literature.
The doctrines preached by these heterodox religions profoundly influenced the contemporary social thought and action. As such, the idea of social equality became one of the ideals to be achieved. Opening of doors of membership to all irrespective of birth made these religions more acceptable to all those who were denied access to equal social status by the hierarchical and graded social structure of Sanatoria Dharma.
Still social equality has proved to be elusive, in spite of the sincere efforts of progressive minded thinkers and preachers. It is accepted as a theoretical ideal, but traditions as well as the stakes of the privileged groups are so strong that we have yet to accept and approve social equality as practical reality.
Acceptance of women as members of the Sangha is said to have increased the stature of woman. No doubt, due to the growth of these heterodox faiths, trade and commerce developed because of the recognition given to these professions as respectable, by these faiths.
As such, we notice many Stupas, Chaithyas and Viharas on the trade routes patronized by trading and mercantile communities. As the preaching was carried on in mother tongues of the regions, Prakrit, Pali and Arthamagadhi gained strong foothold as languages of communication and of literature. Both these heterodox faiths had some similarities like emphasis on humanitarian values, ethical code of conduct.
Karma doctrine and the principle of Ahimsa, and both of them opposed Vedic orthodoxy, Brahmanical supremacy, animal sacrifices and the concept of God. Yet, there are certain dissimilarities between them. Undoubtedly, they brought about a change in the attitude of the people and some began to challenge the established authority of the Brahmanical religion.
The nature and tenacity of challenge was not uniform as it was vigorous at certain times and places and weak at certain other times and areas. No religion was able to displace the other but all survived side by side with shifting impact from time to time.A noteworthy feature of the religious scenario of early India is the coexistence of different religions leaving the people to choose their faith and the eschewing of suppression of other faiths as a general principle.
A large literary tradition recorded in Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jaina texts refers to the socio-economic milieu of this age. Of this literate tradition, Grihyasutras, Srautasutras and Dharmasutras provide instruction in the performance of day-to-day rites and rituals. Dharma Sutras and Dharma Sastras explain the duties and privileges of the Varnas in the social order.
Brahmans are accorded six professions, out of which teaching of Vedic knowledge and conducting religious rituals are important. This literary tradition specifically proclaims that only those who engage in pure professions and lead a life prescribed for them only are to be considered. Brahmins and those who violate the prescribed code are to be treated as Sudras. The Kshatriyas and Vaisyas are also advised to follow strictly the way of life prescribed to them.
The Sudras are accorded four occupations: service, production of wealth, art and crafts. However, in real practice, more castes are known to have existed than the Vamasrama evidence. Perhaps, the Vamasankara theory was introduced in Dharmic literature to explain that the social order did not run as per the prescriptions of the Dharmasastras and to provide legality and legitimacy to the newly born Jatis as per the needs and demands of the changing socio-economic milieu.
Simply accepting the normative tradition of literature does not appear to be true of the existing social system. Empirical evidence proves this fact. The contemporary Buddhist literary tradition depicts a different picture of society. This was the period when literate tradition began in India with the acquisition of the knowledge of writing and inventing a script known as Brahmi.
This new acquisition made it possible to record the changes and transmit them to posterity through script. While the Brahmanical literature gives secondary rank to Kshatriyas in the social order, the heterodox literary, tradition places them in the first rank. This makes the historian cautious while making a generalization of the social order as the two traditions provide information from their divergent points of view. Likewise, the Brahmanical and the non-Brahmanical literatures also provide information from their point of view about the place of Sudras in the social order and how the higher Varnas oppressed them.
Besides Sudras, we also come across dispossessed groups such as Pukkasas, Nishadas and Vennus, whose condition was very wretched. We have references to a group called Chandalas, who were considered impure because of their profession.
Concepts like purity, impurity, pollution and distance began to take shape during this period. Though we come across the term Gahapati or Kutumbin representing the landed gentry who acted as Grihastas or householders, we also come across a group of Parivrajakas or Sramanas, who voluntarily renounced worldly pleasures and led a simple wandering life.
The position of women deteriorated, as they became a non-entity in the social system. Thus, this was a period when the principle of social stratification can be seen in embryonic form, which made the social system experience the tremors of new winds blowing in the direction of equality.
Literary and archaeological sources provide sufficient evidence regarding the economy of this period. It saw the process of surplus production of agricultural goods, which was supplemented by domestication and rearing of cattle. Thus, this was a period of transition from subsistence economy to market economy. The introduction of coinage gave fillip to market economy.
The exchange of commodities through coinage naturally led to greater mobility, acculturation and growth of trade and commerce, which facilitated the growth of complex economy. We find the growth of villages and towns.
Pali texts refer to three types of settlements:
(1) A typical settlement where we come across different Varnas and professional groups living in peace side by side,
(2) A typical craft village or suburban village linked with a town and
(3) A border village where hunting was still practised for survival and sustenance.
Thus, the factor; of surplus production, craft specialization, trade, markets of exchange, use of metallic currency, emergence of a large territorial unit with more power that is political and the beginning bureaucratic apparatus led to a new social formation where traders and craftsmen through their guilds began to claim dominance, along with the priestly and the warrior groups.
In this process of historical change, we notice a struggle for identity among social groups as well as efforts by the lawgivers and the state apparatus to control the impact of this struggle on society, economy and polity. A significant event of political importance of this age along with the rise of Magadha is the invasion of Alexander on the north-west region inhabited by independence-loving hill tribes.