Sixth century B.C. witnessed many religious movements in different parts of the world. Heraclitus in Eoinia Island, Zoroaster in Persia and Confucius in China preached new doctrines. In India too, we find an upheaval of new ideas leading to the rise of new philosophical tenets and religious sects.
They were too many and too much varied because philosophical speculations ranged from religious speculations and the craving to search for the Truth which the Upanishads had created, brought about its results in this century.
The old Vedic religion had ceased to be a living force and there was widespread discontent against costly religious rituals and bloody sacrifices. Hatred against the social order was prevalent particularly against the pitiable conditions of the Sudras.
The changing features of social and economic life such as the growth of towns; growth of different professions thereby expansion of artisan class and growth of agriculture which all could be possible because of extensive use of iron for producing tools and implements including those of agriculture; and the rapid development of trade and commerce also focussed on the necessity to bring about changes in society and religion.
The new ideas challenged the established social order particularly the caste-system, the religious rituals and sacrifices, the supremacy of the Brahmanas, particularly by the Kshatriyas, and all the dead customs of the society. The Kshatriyas alone had the right to bear arms. They looked after the security of kingdom, maintenance of peace within it and welfare of agriculture, trade and commerce.
The growth of commerce, trade and agriculture increased their importance in society. Therefore, they dared to contest the supremacy of the Brahamanas in the society. Thus, outwardly this spirit of the age was against the existing organisation of the society and inwardly against the caste-system. It was based on pure individualism and spiritualism. It emphasized personal liberty and purity and claimed that every individual had a right to attain nirvan.
The craving for search of truth was encouraged by the Vedic religious-texts, the Upanishads themselves. The Upanishads propounded the Gyan Marg (path of knowledge) for attaining Nirvana or Moksha, viz., salvation of soul. Whether soul existed or not? If it existed then what was its nature? What happened after the death of an individual? What was the best course of life for an individual?.
These varied questions were raised by the Upanishads themselves and they gave their answers as well. The Upanishads described that the best course of life for an individual was to get rid from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth leading to the merger of soul with the Brahma, viz., attainment of Nirvana.
They described that it could be possible only by Gyan (attainment of knowledge). The Upanishads upheld that good deeds and performance of Yajnas and sacrifices could help an individual in getting a better next life but not in attaining Nirvana.
Thus, the first one in attacking the one essential feature of the Vedic religion, viz., performance of the Yajnas by sacrifices of human beings or animals were the Upanishads themselves. Besides, by the time of writing the Satpath- Brahamana human sacrifices had become virtually negligible in the Vedic religion.
Therefore, the protest of the Upanishads was primarily against animal sacrifices though indirectly because they simply denied the utility of animal sacrifices for attaining Nirvana. Thus, the Upanishads themselves challenged the basic features of the Vedic religion and emphasized freedom of thought and. thereby, created openings for all sorts of thoughts in religion.
Changed economic circumstances also played an important part in the rise of different religious movements in that age During the later Vedic age, the Aryans had moved towards the east and iron had become known to them which they used not only in the production of their arms but also for manufacturing agricultural tools and other implements. It has been described in the Satpath-Brahamana that the fire-god burnt forests and thus cleared the way of the Aryans to proceed ahead towards this north-east.
It meant that forests were burnt for bringing more land under cultivation towards the east by the Aryans. By the time the Aryans reached Magadh (eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) they had extensive land under cultivation. The land was fertile and the iron-plough and other iron-tools helped in increasing the agriculture manifold. The increased agriculture-production affected the economic and social life of the Aryans in several ways.
The increase in agricultural land necessitated increase in the number of cattle. But the Vedic religion was based on performing of Yajnas and animal sacrifices. Yajnas were done by the Aryans on every social and religious ceremony and even to please gods to get their various desires fulfilled and every such occasion resulted in animal sacrifices and, thereby, loss of animal life. Therefore, if agriculture production was to be raised, protection of animal life was a necessity. Thus, arose the necessity of protesting against performing Yajnas and slaughtering of cattle.
Mahatma Buddha pointed out the necessity of stopping sacrifices of cows and bullocks and performing of Yajnas primarily for safeguarding agriculture. One of the Buddhist-texts described animals as relatives of human beings. In the Dig- Nikaya-text. Mahatma Buddha placed king Mahavijit among capable rulers because he distributed ploughs, bullocks and seeds among those people who were prepared to take up agriculture as a profession for serving the state.
The same way, Jain religion emphasized on increasing agricultural land and preached Ahimsa (non-violence) with a view to stop animal-sacrifices. Increased agriculture-production affected economic and social life in several ways. It helped in increasing trade and commerce because peasants had now surplus produce which they used for exchange purposes. The increased trade and commerce facilitated growth of cities. Pali-texts have referred to many developed cities in the Ganges valley. These included cities like Champa, Rajagraha, Vaisali, Varanasi, Kosambi, Kusinagar, Srivasti and Pataliputra.
The growth of cities and use of different iron-implements gave rise to several new professions and production of several new articles. It enhanced both internal and foreign trade. It also widened the differences of wealth among the people and created rich and poor classes in the society.
In that age, Sresthin word was used for rich people in the cities while Gahapati (Grahapati) was used for rich peasants in villages. Punched-coins of that age have been found in good quantity which prove that trade had well-developed at that time.
The growth of agriculture, trade and, thereby, growth of cities resulted in breaking the tribal traditions of the Aryans. The growth of cities was a proof of settled life and, so in villages too, pastoral- farmers were also gradually replaced by farmers who accepted settled life and took up farming permanently.
It became necessary for such farmers and traders that the property should be accepted as personal property of the individual concerned and not that of the tribe and that right should be accepted and protected by the society and the state.
Besides, property no more remained limited to cattle- property only but agricultural land, trade and industrial production were acquired as property. These changes in economic circumstances gave rise to several new classes in society, necessitated the presence of a powerful ruling class which could provide protection to agriculture, trade, industry and private property, pointed out the desirability of stopping unnecessary wars and keeping trade- routes safe and the necessity of breaking several outdated the then social and religious values which were obstructing social and economic progress e.g., while the Vedic religion prohibited sea-voyages, it had become necessary in the interest of foreign trade that sea-voyages should receive the sanction of the society and religion.
Buddhism gave religious sanction to sea-voyages because of this very reason. The same way, wars were fought among different tribes for performing different Yajnas. These wars harmed trade and commerce—both internal and external.
Therefore, an extensive empire of peaceful co-existence of different tribal societies again became a necessity. In such circumstances, performing of religious Yajnas was looked down. Thus, economic changes brought forth the necessity of challenging the necessity of certain the then prevalent social and religious practices.
Social changes also seriously influenced contemporary thoughts. In the beginning the Varna-system of the Aryans was flexible and change in Varna of an individual was possible by changing one’s profession or Karma. But during the later Vedic age, the Varna-system became rigid and the basis of one’s Varna no more remained Karma but only birth.
In such a condition the Brahamanas and the Kshatriyas assumed superior status in the society and, probably, both Varnas came to an understanding by which education and priestly functions were monopolised by the Brahamanas while the right to rule was accepted that of the Kshatriyas.
Later on, it did not remain acceptable in changed circumstances to a large section of the society. When agriculture, trade and industry developed then the Sudras and particularly the Vaisyas who had acquired wealth challenged the existing social system in which their status was kept lower.
They, particularly the Vaisyas, supported the Kshatriyas in challenging the Brahamanas because Kshatriyas alone could provide security to their agriculture, trade and industry and also could be helpful in providing them a better social status.
Besides, one reason of increased Yajnas and practice of sacrifice was increasing cupidity of Brahamana-Purohits. Every Yajna was a religious ceremony after which Brahaman-Purohits received money, cattle, food, etc., as donation. It had debased the character of the Brahamanas. Among them one section was losing its morals because of the temptation of acquiring wealth while another section among them was engaging in lower professions because of poverty.
In such circumstances, maintaining Varna on the basis of birth and claim of superior status by the Brahamanas resulted in widespread protest. The rich Vaisya-community supported this protest with a view to improve its social status and sought help of the Kshatriyas in this task. People of other professions also became a party to that protest because they felt that it provided them a good opportunity to improve their respective social status.
Among new religious movements, Buddhism and Jainism became the most popular ones and it was no accident that the preceptors of both religions were Kshatriya-princes. These both religions aimed at changing social circumstances, opposed determining of Varna on the basis of birth and supported determining of Varna on the basis of Karam (action or deeds). In the Vedic religion, a Brahamana engaged in a lower profession or pursuing debased morals was yet a Brahamana.
But both these religions supported change of Varna according to one’s Karma, viz., a Brahamana with debased morals had no right to remain a Brahamana while a man of lower Varna had the right to upgrade his Varna because of his good deeds. Mahatma Buddha had all praises for a Brahamana who pursued high morals and performed good deeds but he was not prepared to accept a Brahamana of debased morals as a Brahamana.
Mahavir Swami had also expressed the view that ‘I call a person a Brahamana who has been purified like gold under the flames and who was free from passion, jealousy, fear, etc.’ Thus both Buddhism and Jainism justified determining Varna of a person on the basis of one’s Karma (deeds).
Therefore, these both religions were sympathetic towards people of lower Varnas or castes. Both Buddhist and Jain monks were free to accept food from a person of any caste while the Vedic religion had imposed serious restrictions on it.
The same way, both Buddhism and Jainism held liberal attitude towards prostitutes and Nagar-Vadhus. Mahatma Buddha stayed as a guest at the residence of Ambapali, the Nagar- Vadhu of Vaisali and did not prohibit prostitutes to become nuns. On the contrary, the Vedic religion forbade the Brahamanas to accept food from prostitutes and Nagar-Vadhus.
This contrast between the two was a pointer of changing attitudes of society at that time. Thus, the desire of the Vaisyas for improving their social status, the opportunity of challenging the supremacy of the Brahamanas by the Kshatriyas and efforts of the people of other Varnas or castes to utilise that opportune time for improving their social status was also one of the primary causes of different religious movements in that age.
The Vedic religion suffered from certain serious defects. This also helped in the rise of different religious movements. The Vedic religion was based on different rituals like Yajnas, animal-sacrifices, etc. Common people neither understood it nor could pursue it. So, they became entirely dependent on priestly class for pursuing religion. Besides, the priestly class made religion costly with a view to satisfy its greed for wealth.
The common people could not bear the expenses of costly Yajnas and other religious rituals. Only rich people could afford such costly rituals. Besides, every person had not the right to attain Nirvana or go to heaven. The Sudras and women were, certainly, devoid of it.
It was, therefore, quite natural that the common people developed apathy towards such a religion. Besides, claiming of the supremacy of the Vedic religion and the Brahamanas, defending Varna-system on the basis of birth and neglectful attitude towards women and people of lower castes also became reasons of protests against the Vedic religion and that helped in growing new religious thoughts.
The aforesaid circumstances led to the rise of different religious thoughts in north India in later part of the sixth century B.C. and fifth century B.C. Among them some were fatalistic, some were materialistic and devoid of social morality and some others were of extreme nature either way.
Each of them in their own way opposed Varna-system, supremacy of the Purohit-class and performance of Yajnas, animal-sacrifices, etc. and, in doing so, made a person free from the concepts of good and evil deeds and, thereby, bonds of religion but, instead made him subordinate to his Karma (deeds) or fate.
However, such views could not become much popular. Among such views, one was propounded by a Brahamana named Kashyap. He expressed that theft, murder, etc. were no evil and Tapa, devotion to God, etc. were no good. He regarded that soul and body were separate. Therefore, individual’s deeds, whether good or bad, did not affect the soul. The effect of one’s deeds was limited to one’s body alone. Therefore no deed came under the category of good or bad.
Another religious-sect was organised by Gosala which was called Ajivika. He expressed the view that every act and thought of a person was pre-determined by fate. No person could change it. He believed in the life of a Sanyasin but expressed that it was also pre-determined. Therefore, he advised that an individual should take no action.
Action would come by itself as pre-determined. Another philosopher, Keshkambilan propounded purely materialistic philosophy which, probably, finally emerged as Charvaka-philosophy. He expressed that the body of a person was formed of earth (mud), water, fire and wind and each of them is destroyed after death. He preached that good and evil, truth and untruth, were all false assumptions.
Therefore, a person should act which could provide him maximum physical pleasures in life. Another philosopher, Pakudh Katvayana also preached pure materialistic philosophy. He refused to accept the theory of Karma (deeds) and rebirth. He pointed out seven matters — earth, water, wind, light, life, pleasure and pain. An individual neither could create anyone of them nor could destroy them. Therefore, an individual should accept that what was thrown to his lot.
These religious thoughts failed to provide any direction to the then society and did not become popular. However, these affected contemporary social and religious thoughts in some other way.
Their extreme views created reaction and these were opposed. Mahatma Buddha and Mahavir both felt it necessary to oppose not only the then existing Vedic religion but also these extreme and mostly materialistic philosophies. Thus, these new religious philosophies also helped in probing further religious thoughts.
Thus, several religious philosophies were propounded during this age. Besides, were Jainism, Buddhism, Bhagvatism or Vaishnavism and Saivism, which played an important part in the subsequent history of India. All the four religious sects were against the inequalities of the caste-system and marked a considerable departure from the old Vedic cult.
But, while Buddhism and Jainism were looked upon as heterodox and led to the establishment of new religious sects, Bhagvatism and Saivism were regarded merely as reform movements of the old religion and remained as two sects within the Hindu religion.
Nature of Religious Movements:
There were differences in these varied religious philosophies or movements. Yet, there were certain similarities among them. Except Bhagvatism and Saivism, which were simply reform-movements of the Vedic-religion, these all had similarities which were best represented by Buddhism and Jainism, the most popular religions of that age.
Particularly all of them opposed the unchallenged supremacy of the Vedas and Purohit-class and performing of Yajnas and animal- sacrifices; they claimed a superior social status for the Kshatriyas’, emphasized that one’s Varna should be determined not by birth but by deeds declared that observing a moral life and not performance of rituals was necessary for the development of an individual; and, pointed out that Nirvana was possible by any individual without distinction of Varna, class, caste or sex.
Besides, these preached that pursuance of the life of a Sanyasin was necessary to attain Nirvana. The Vedic-religion too had the provision of the life of a Sanyasin but primarily it was based on family-life and Karma (deeds) while several other sects besides Buddhism and Jainism upheld that the life of a Sanyasin was the best and the only way to Nirvana.