Many religious sects arose in the middle Gangetic plains in the 6th century BC. Of these, Buddhism and Jainism were the most powerful religious reform movements. The society had four sharp divisions - varnas and this varna-dominated society created great social tensions. The brahmins enjoyed great social prestige and privileges from the kshatriyas, while the shudras paid taxes. All these classes were known as dwija (twice-born) in those times. A dwija could wear the sacred thread and study the Vedas, which the shudras could not. The shudras were meant to serve the higher varanas and along with women, were barred from Vedic studies. The kshatriyas reacted strongly against this brahiminical dominance and led a movement to dislodge the existing social order. The two important religious movements during this period - Buddhism and Jainism - were led by Gautam Buddha and Vardhmana Mahavira, both of whom were kshatriyas.
Mahavir Jain, the most important religious teacher of the Jains was born in 540 BC in Vaishali. Mahavira, like Gautam, had a royal background. Initially, Mahavira was a householder, but soon left home at the age of 30 in search of truth. He wandered for 12 years. It is said that he never changed his clothes during those twelve years, and abandoned them at 42 when he gained complete knowledge (kaivalya). Because of this conquest, he is known as Mahavira or jina (The Great Hero). He propagated his religion for 30 years and his mission took him to many places. He passed away at 72 in 468 BC at Pavapuri near modern Rajgir.
1. Do not commit violence
2. Do not speak a lie
3. Do not steal
4. Do not acquire property
5. Observe continence (brahmcharya)
Jainism mainly aims at freedom from worldly bonds, which can be done by having right knowledge, right belief and right conduct. These three make up the Three Jewels of Jainism. Since it prohibits war and even agriculture because both involve killings of animals, most Jains today are confined to mercantile activities.
To spread his teachings, Mahavira organized an order of his followers. Since Jainism does not criticize casteism as severely as Buddhism and does not mark out itself clearly from brahiminism, it failed to have mass appeal. Despite this, it gradually spread in South and West India.
Jainism made the first-ever serious attempt to mitigate the evils of the varna order. The Jain writings are mostly in Prakrit, a language not used in brahiminical texts.
Gautam Buddha (563 BC-483 BC) or Siddhartha belonged to the ruling Shakya kshatriya family of Kapilvastu, Nepal. He was married to Yashodhra, but married life did not interest him. He was moved by the miseries of people and looked for a solution. So, one midnight, he left home at the young age of 29 and started searching the ultimate truth which he found at 35 in Bodh Gaya. Thereafter, he came to be known as the Buddha (The Enlightened One).
Gautam Buddha delivered his first sermon in Sarnath near modern Varanasi. He undertook long journeys during his tours. Braving grave physical dangers, he spread his mission far and wide, disregarding the rich and the poor, friends and opponents. He passed away at a place called Kusinara, U.P.
The Buddha was a practical reformer who, considering the prevailing social conditions, didn’t have fruitless discussions on atman and Brahma, popular in those se days. Instead, he focused on worldly problems.
Gautam Buddha recommended an Eight-fold Path for eliminating human miseries. It comprises right observation, right determination, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right exercise, right memory and right meditation. Gautam Buddha also taught the Middle Path, recommending the avoidance of both luxury and austerity. The major Buddhist books are The Jataka (regarding the previous births of Buddha), The Mahavastu and The Vinaya (Buddha’s teachings).
He laid down a Code of Conduct for his followers:
1. Do not covet the property of others
2. Do not commit violence
3. Do not use intoxicants
4. Do not speak a lie
5. Do not indulge in corrupt practices
Buddhism advocated a practical path of achieving salvation, thus it appealed to the common man. Buddhism also does not talk of God, a kind of revolution in the evolution of Indian religions. Further, it does not recognize casteism. Consequently, Buddhism gained huge popularity and people embraced it, especially the shudras and women, who had been denied all these privileges earlier. Unlike brahminism, it was more liberal and democratic. Buddha’s personality and his preaching also contributed a lot to its spread. The use of Pali, the common language, helped its spread. Since Buddha was a royal, many kings came forward to support Buddhism.
Two hundred years after Buddha’s death, Ashoka, the famous Mauryan king, adopted it as a state religion, marking a watershed event in Buddhist history. His agents spread Buddhism far and wide in Central Asia, West Asia, Sri Lanka, and thus made it a world religion.