Rise of Buddhism and Jainism

Rise of Buddhism

The period after the Epic Age or the Later Vedic Age (1000 BC-600 BC) was marked by the rise of numerous small republics and kingdoms. This period also saw the rise of tyranny of the upper castes and exploitation of the people belonging to the lower castes. Brahmins (priests) and Kshatriyas (rulers and warriors) did not allow the people belonging to lower castes or the Shudras and untouchables to have their say in the society. This period also saw a rift developing between the Brahmins on one hand and the Kshatriyas on the other. 

The rising popularity and aspirations of the Brahmin priests began to collide with the authority of the Kshatriyas, who formed the ruling class of each kingdom or republic. The Kshatriyas were alarmed by the rising power of the Brahmins, but they could not do much as they required the services of the Brahmins in all religious rituals and state occasions. The rise of Buddhism and Jainism during this period was a natural outcome to counter the threat of the Brahmanical Hindu order, as the founders of these religions were themselves Kshatriyas or warriors. 

Buddhism is one of the oldest religions in the world. Gautam Buddha (563 BC-483 BC) laid its foundation after he gained Enlightenment under a Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya. 

The preaching of Lord Buddha revolves around attaining salvation from worldly sufferings, universal brotherhood, peace and non-violence.

Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was born in 563 BC in the ruling Kshatriya family of the Lichhavi tribe in Lumbini, in the foothills of Nepal. His father was the chief of this tribe. It was prophesized that Gautama (who was named Siddharth) would become a saint and renounce the world. Therefore, his father took all possible care to keep Gautama in a palace full of luxuries and comfort. 

However, Gautama was not satisfied with his materialistic surroundings, and one day, the young prince sneaked out of the palace in his chariot to see the outside world that was still unknown to him. He was shocked to see an old person, a sick man, and a funeral procession. His charioteer told him that all this was a part of life. Then Gautam saw a saint and was perplexed by the calmness on his face. The charioteer told him that the saint had renounced all materialistic things and therefore he was content and happy. This incident left an indelible mark on the mind of the young prince, and one night he left his beautiful wife and infant son and began his journey to attain the truth of life. 

When Gautama left his palace, he was twenty-nine. He wandered from place to place and did heavy penances. He even went to the stage of putting his body to rigorous punishment. Gautama attained Enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree in a place called Bodhgaya (in the state of Bihar), at the age of thirty-five. After attaining Enlightenment, he came to be known as the Buddha (the Enlightened One). He preached his first sermon in a place called Sarnath, which is near Varanasi (Benaras). Gautama Buddha passed away at the age of 80 in Kushinagar near Gorakhpur (in the state of Uttar Pradesh). 

Gautama Buddha discarded the Vedic Brahmanical system, which divided the society into various castes and further alienated the people from one another on the basis of their birth. He strongly opposed lengthy rituals, animal sacrifices and ceremonial worship. According to his doctrine, the existence of God is irrelevant. He laid emphasis on self-effort to attain salvation. He believed that the soul was immortal and attainment of Nirvana (salvation from materialistic life) was the chief object of each human being. 

Gautam Buddha preached Four Noble Truths that form the basis of Buddhism:

  • Life is full of suffering (dukkha);
  • Suffering is caused by desire and craving;
  • One can be free from this suffering by removing desire and craving;
  • The way to eliminate desire and to get free from the cycle of birth and death is by following the Eight-Fold Path.
The Eight-Fold Path consists of: right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness, and right concentration. By following the above path, one can attain Nirvana or salvation, which would free the soul from suffering and the cycle of birth and death. 

During the lifetime of Gautama Buddha, a large number of people became his followers and Buddhism became the state religion of a number of states like Magadh, Kosala and Kaushambi. Great kings like Ashoka (of the Mauryan dynasty) and Kanishka (Kushan dynasty) became Buddhist and they helped spread the sermon of Buddha far and wide through their kingdoms. King Ashoka is said to have built 84,000 stupas and a large number of rock edicts and pillars throughout his empire to preach the message of Buddhism. As Buddha preached his ideas through word of mouth, there were no Buddhist religious scriptures. Later on, his preachings were compiled into Buddhist canon in Pali language, which are also known as Tripitikas. By the second century AD, Buddhism was divided into two main branches-the Mahayana (greater vehicle) and the Hinayana (lesser vehicle). In the course of time, Buddhism became a major religion and spread through most parts of East Asia.

Rise of Jainism

Like Buddhism, Jainism also originated at a time when the Later Vedic period (1000 BC-600 BC) had come to an end and there was a rise of republics and small kingdoms. The rise of the first kingdoms was marked by the emergence of the ruling class in each kingdom, which belonged to the Kshatriya or the warrior caste. While the Kshatriyas ruled these kingdoms and protected the rest of the masses, the Brahmin or the priestly caste catered to the religious and educational needs of the people, as well as sanctified the rule of the Kshatriyas.

The Kshatriyas and Brahmins in tandem asserted their authority over the people in general and the masses belonging to the lower caste in particular. The lowermost strata of the society could not question the authority of the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas. Apart from the struggle with the people belonging to the lower caste, there was a rift between the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas to take control of the reigns of the society. The Kshatriyas were alarmed by the rising power of the priests, who in turn wanted to usurp the power of the Kshatriyas. The rise of Buddhism and Jainism during this period was a natural outcome to the counter the threat of the Brahmanical Hindu order, as the founders of these religions were themselves Kshatriyas or warriors. 

Mahavira (540 BC-467 BC) was the founder of Jainism. He founded this religion after attaining Enlightenment. The teachings of Mahavira revolve around leading a pious life, to shun all violence, and to be austere. 
Mahavira was born in 540 BC in a Kshatriya royal family in Vaishali (present-day Bihar). His father was a local ruler of a small kingdom.Mahavira left his home at the age of thirty in search of knowledge. He performed severe and rigorous penances and attained Nirvana or Enlightenment after a period of twelve years. Mahavira came to be known as the 24th Tirthankara or the great Jain spiritual leader. However, there is not much literary evidence of the previous Tirthankaras except Parsvanath, who was the 23rd Tirthankara.


Mahavira denounced the Vedas and the Brahmanical order. Jainism was opposed to the caste system and conducting of sacrifices. It preached that all its followers should refrain from hurting animal life. It also preached vegetarianism, austerity, purity of body and soul to attain liberation from the sufferings of the materialistic world. Shedding all material possessions and actions, which hurt other beings, can only attain purity. Jainism is based on three broad principles or the three jewels (Ratnas): Right Faith, Right Knowledge, and Right Action. The followers of Jain faith have to take the Five Vows:
  • Non-injury to living beings
  • Truth
  • Non-stealing
  • Non-ownership of property
  • Practice of chastity
Parsvanath, who was the 23rd Tirthankara, established the first four vows, while Mahavira added the fifth vow. Mahavira had asked his followers to shed all clothes and go about naked. This meant that the Jain monks had to observe absolute chastity and abandon all the pleasures of material life. They also had to perform rigorous asceticism along with long periods of fasting, self-mortification, meditation and study of Jain scriptures.

The early teaching of Jainism passed from generation to generation through the oral tradition. A religious council was held in Pataliputra (present-day Patna) in third century BC, where all Jain teachings were recorded and compiled. This collection was later on edited in fifth century AD. The followers of Jainism slowly began to move to the southern parts of the country. The differences that rose subsequent to the migration of the monks to the south led to the division of Jainism into two sects-the Digambars or the sky-clad and the Svetambars or the white-clad. The monks belonging to the sky-clad sect are naked, while the monks belonging to the white-clad sect wear white garments. There is hardly any major difference between the two sects. Jain monks practice non-violence to the extent that they put a white cloth over their mouths to prevent them from accidentally inhaling insects.

Jainism became popular amongst the royal dynasties like the Ganga, Kadamba, Chalukya and the Rashtrakuta. The rich merchants of Gujarat have patronized this religion.