The Sixth century B.C. may be regarded as an important landmark in the history and culture of the world. During this period men’s minds in widely separated parts of the world were stirred by problems of religion and salvation. Mahavira and Gautam Buddha in India, Zoroaster in Iran, Heraclitus and Permiaides in Greece and Confucius and Lao Tse in China, all unknown to one another propagated new religions. All of them asked many pertinent and penetrating questions relating to the existing system. All of them led protestant movements against the existing system and in most cases succeeded.

Religion played an important role in the lives of Indians. During the 6th century B.C. preachers and wandering monks prepared the ground for the rise of some protestant religions in India. About this time Vedic philosophy had failed to satisfy the masses. The dominant tendency was to escape from the formalism of Vedic religion and to question the utility of rituals and the claim of the Brahmins to spiritual superiority. A great religious discontent was clearly visible. The old sacrificial religion of the Vedas had lost its appeal, the Vedic Gods had ceased to satisfy the spiritual needs of the people. The philosophy of the Upanisads like the Brahmam, the Atma and other conceptions remained highly scholastic and out of the reach of the common man. The Aryan Rishis were aranyakas who instead of living among the common men and explaining to them the principles of Hinduism, lived ‘away from the madding crowd.’

Many of the preachers of the new religious ideologies expressed open disapproval of the ritual oriented religion, belief in the pantheon of numerous divinities, emphasis on several religious texts and domination of the priestly class and rigid caste divisions. It is not an accident that nearly all the leaders of the unorthodox sects including Mahavira and Gautam Buddha were non-Brahmins.

The religious simplicity and social equality of the Rig Vedic period was lost during the later Vedic period. Religion had lost its inherent dynamic strength. Unnecessary rituals and dogmas dominated the system. Superstitions suppressed spirituality. Brahmins more often used religious beliefs for their personal gains and monopolized the study and practice of religion. Numerous religious ceremonies and meaningless costly practices including animal sacrifice dominated the scene. The caste system was deliberately made rigid to keep non-Brahmins away from religion. The common man no longer understood Vedic hymns. The study of Sanskrit was the monopoly of the. Brahmins.

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The vitriolic attack on animal sacrifice by Jainism and Buddhism assumed a new significance and became instantly popular. Buddha remarked that the Aswamedha and Vajapeya etc., which involved animal sacrifice, did not produce good results.

The protest movement mainly sprang up from the intellectual and spiritual tension. Discontent with the existing state of things and brooding over the sorrows and ills of life gave rise to the desire to remove them by finding new modes of salvation – ‘Old order changeth yielding place to new.” There may be differences between Hinduism and the new religions but the fact remains that early Buddhism arose within Brahmanism minus its externals and the relative want of attention to the importance of conduct. There was no absolute or violent breach between the two faiths.

The changes in India during 6th century B.C. were not restricted only to the sphere of religion and philosophy; changes were also marked in the realm of politics and economy as well. Indian history itself emerged out of legends and dubious traditions. Kings and kingdoms with known histories developed. The period witnessed new economic forces invigorated through the rapidly expanding commerce and increase in the number of artisans and their influence on society and the economy.

The use of iron during 6th century B.C. around eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar ushered in a momentous change in the material life of the people. Many iron implements such as spearheads, daggers, lances, axes, nails and blades have been found from this region. The advance in metallurgy led to large-scale clearance of jungles and development of human settlements. This found opposition and resistance from the existing social setup.

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The use of iron implements, progress if agriculture and the phenomenal growth in trade and commerce resulted in the urbanization and growth of urban centres. Number of cities like Pataliputra, Kosambi and Vaisali developed, which prepared the ground for bold and un-orthodox thinking. The urban centres were associated with certain features distasteful to the Brahmins like common eating-place and prostitution. The growth of trade and commerce gave rise to a new wealthy class in villages and towns, which caused economic inequalities and broke down the social order. Growing disparity between the high and the low led to the increase in the number of untouchables in the society. A conflict between social status and wealth arose.

The later Vedic society was clearly divided into four Varnas : Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. Each Varna was assigned well-defined functions. The varna-ridden society was bound to generate tension. It was not merely a question of caste conflict but a conflict between the privileged and the unprivileged or the deprived sections. The Brahmans who were given the functions of priests and teachers claimed the highest status in the society. They demanded several privileges including those of gifts and exemption from taxes and punishment. They were placed in the category of dwija or twice born. They were entitled to wear the sacred thread and study the Vedas.

The Kshatriyas ranked second in society. They fought and governed yet were subjected to Brahmin supremacy in every respect. The use of iron implements and the growth of urban centres added to their importance. The Kshatriyas as the warrior class became the protectors of society. Some intelligent members of the ruling class, normally the Kshatriyas, began to question the arrogant class pride and class exclusiveness of the Brahmins. Hence, it is not a mere coincidence that Mahavira and Gautam Buddha were Kshatriyas. The Buddhist text Digha Nikaya praises the Kshatriyas as they were instrumental in bringing order and tranquility out of anarchy and chaos.

Brahmanical attitude towards trade was not encouraging. The trading community, the Vaishyas were given the third position after Brahmanas and Kshatriyas in the society. The wealth of the society was concentrated in their hands but they did not have social recognition or status. Hence, it is significant that the first lay converts of Buddhism came from the trading community. The Vaishyas looked for a religion that would improve their position. They extended generous support to both Mahavira and Gautam.

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Trade in men, liquids, perfumes, cloth, leather and food-grains was prohibited. The people of Magadha and Anga (Bihar region) were displeased because they carried on trade in some restricted items. Hence, as a mark of protest they were enthusiastic in embracing Buddhism.

The newly developed features of the social and economic life of the people did not fit into the Vedic culture. The conflict between the Vedic religious pratices and the aspiration of the rising social groups led to the search for new religious philosophical ideas with basic changes in the material life of the people. Thus, in the 6th century B.C. there arose as many as 62 religious sects who raised a voice of protest against the Vedic religion. The puritan and the unblemished conduct of the new preachers exercised profound influence upon people.

The new sects preached livelihood based mostly on alms. They believed in strict vegetarian diets and abstained from animal sacrifice. Celibacy and abstinence from holding property made them more acceptable than greedy priests who cared for nothing but self. The non-possession ideology of both Jainism and Buddhism became instantly popular. Both Buddhism and Jainism preferred simple puritanical ascetic living. The followers of these religions were asked to forgo good things of life, not to touch gold and silver and to accept only as much from their patrons as was sufficient to keep their body and soul together. They revolted against material life. Hence, these new religions became popular.

The Varnasrama system of Hinduism partially contributed to the rise of the protestant religious movements during 6th century B.C. The last two stages or asramas were vanaprastha (moving into the forest) and sanyasa (ascetism). The wandering ascetics, freed from the obligations of society and prevailing religious ideas and practices thought a new the fundamental problems of life. Their number increased during this period and their movements brought them into frequent associations with one another. The result was a vigorous re-orientation of life. There was an upheaval of new ideas leading to new philosophical tenets and religious sects. And that is how during the 6th century B.C. many protestant ideologies developed. Some of them had a brief period of existence and gradually faded. A few, however, had come to stay permanently.