Causes that led to the birth of Buddhism and Jainism
India has been a vast country. It is the birth place of four of the famous religion that continues to exist in the world even today. A buddhist text mentions that during the first millennium BCE, there were as many as 64 sects or schools of thought in India. Teachers and thinkers travelled long distances trying to convince one another and also the masses their philosophy. Many of these teachers questioned the authority of the Vedas (religious texts of the Hindus). Along with this, teachers like Mahavira and Buddha emphasised on individual agency- suggesting that men and women could strive to attain liberation from the trials and tribulations of worldly existence. This is why,as many scholars believe, they gained popularity.
When India had a strong religious ground of Hinduism, the question that arises is what led to the rise of Buddhism and Jainism? Why did it become so popular?
The mid first millennium BCE is often regarded as a turning point in the world history. It saw the emergence of thinkers such as Zarathustra in Iran, Kong Zi in China, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in Greece and Mahavira and Gautama Buddha among many others in India. They tried to understand the mystries of existence and the relationship between human beings and cosmic order.
There were several pre-existing traditions of thought, religious belief and practice, including the early Vedic traditions known from the Rigveda, which consists of hymns in praise of a variety of deities, especially Agni, Indra and Soma. Many of these hymns were chanted when sacrifices were performed for cattle,sons, good health, long life etc. These sacrifices at first were performed collectively but later they were done individually. These sacrifices required a lot of materials which was difficult for the common man to get as they were poor and had little to afford. This was one reason why people searched for new sects which demanded no such offerings.
The post-vedic society was clearly divided into four varnas:brahmanas,kshatriyas,vaishyas and sudras. Each varna was assigned well defined functions. The higher the varna, the more previleged a person was. The kshatriya reaction against the domination of the brahmanas, who claimed previledges, was one of the cause of the origin of new religion. Vardhamana Mahavira, who founded Jainism and Gautama Buddha who founded Buddhism belonged to the kshatriya clan and both questioned the authority of the brahmanas.
However, the real cause of the rise of these new religions lay in the spread of a new agricultural economy in the eastern UP and northern and southern Bihar. The agricultural economy based on iron ploughshare required the use of bullocks and could not flourish without animal husbandry. However, the Vedic practice of killing cattle indiscriminately in sacrifices hampered the progress of the new agriculture. To put an end to this the thinkers and believers adopted new path of non violence.
In the brahmanical society, the vaishyas who regulated trade were marked third rank. Naturally they sought a religion that would improve their position. Therefore they started giving generous supports to Buddhism and Jainism. This was mainly because Buddhism and Jainism at the initial stage did not attach any importance to the existing varna system. Second, they preached the gospel of non-violence, which would put an end to wars between different kingdoms and consequently promote trade and commerce. Third, the Brahmanical law books called Dharmasutras, decried lending money at an interest and condemned those who lived on interest. Therefore the vaishyas who lent money because of the growing trade and commerce were held in low esteem and so looked for better social status.
The new religions were also a strong reaction against private property. Old and uneducated people did not like the use of coins. They disliked the new dwellings and clothes, new luxurious systems of transport and war and violence. They longed to return to a primitive lifestyle. Both Jainism and Buddhism propounded simple, puritan and ascetic living.
Lastly, many ideas found in the Upanishads show people were curious about the meaning of life, the possibility of life after death and rebirth. Thinkers were concerned with understanding and expressing the nature of the ultimate reality. And many asked whether or not there even was a single ultimate reality.
All these things and maybe more others combined together to create an atmosphere for the growth of new religious sects in India in the first millennium BCE.