NUMEROUS religious sects arose in the middle Gangetic plains in the second half of the sixth century B.C. We hear of as many as 62 religious sects . Many of these sects were based on regional customs and rituals practised by different people living in north - east India . Of these sects Jainism and Buddhism were the most important , and they emerged as the most potent religious reform movements.

Causes of Origin

In post - Vedic times society was clearly divided into four varnas : brahmanas , kshatriyas , vaishyas and shudras . Each varna was assigned well - defined functions , although it was emphasised that varna was based on birth and the two higher varnas were given some privileges. The brahmanas , who were given the functions of priests and teachers , claimed the highest status in society . They demanded several privileges , including those of receiving gifts and exemption from taxation and punishment . In post - Vedic texts we have many instances of such privileges enjoyed by them . The kshatriyas ranked second in the varna hierarchy . They fought and governed , and lived on the taxes collected from the peas ants . The vaishyas were engaged in agriculture , cattle - rearing and trade . They appear as principal taxpayers . However along with the two higher varnas they were placed in the cat egory of dvija or the twice - born . A dvija was entitled to wearing the sacred thread and studying the Vedas from which the shudras were kept out . The shudras were meant for serving the three higher varnas , and along with women were barred from taking to Vedic studies . They appear as dornestic slaves , agricultural slaves , crafts men and hired labourers in post - Vedic times . They were called cruel , greedy and thieving in habits , and some of them were treated , as untouchables . The higher the varna the more privi leged and purer a person was . The lower the varna of an offender , the more severe was the punishment pre scribed for him .

Naturally the varna - divided society seems to have generated tensions . We have no means to find out the reactions of the vaishyas and the shudras . But the kshatriyas , who functioned as rulers , reacted strongly against the ritualistic domination of the brahmanas , and seem to have led a kind of protest movement against the importance attached to birth in the varna system . The kshatriya reaction against the domination of the priestly class called brahmanas , who claimed various privileges , was one of the causes of the origin of new religions . Vardhamana Mahavira , who founded Jainism , and Gautama Buddha , who founded Buddhism belonged to the kshatriya clan , and both disputed the authority of the brahmanas . But the real cause of the rise of these new religions lay in the spread of a new agricultural economy in north - eastern India, including the regions of eastern Uttar Pradesh and northern and southern Bihar , has about 100 cm of rainfall . Before these areas came to be colonized on a large scale , they were thickly forested . The thick jungles could not easily be cleared without the aid of iron axes . Although some people lived in this area before 600 B.C. , they used implements of bone , stone and copper , and they led a precarious life on lakes and river banks and river confluences , where land was opened to settlement through the process of erosion and flooding . In the middle Gangetic plains, large - scale habitations began in about 600 B.C .. when iron came to be used in this area . On account of the moist nature of the soil in this area , too many iron tools of earliest times have not survived , but quite a few axes have been recovered from the layers belonging to circa 600 500 B.C. The use of iron tools made possible clearance , agriculture and large settlements . The agricultural economy based on the iron ploughshare required the use of bullocks , and it could not flourish without animal husbandry . But the Vedic practice of killing cattle indiscriminately in sacrifices stood in the way of the progress of new agriculture . The cattle wealth slowly decimated because the cows and bullocks were killed in numerous Vedic sacrifices . The tribal people living on the southern and eastern fringes of Magadha also killed cattle for food . But if the new agrarian economy had be stable , this killing had to be stopped .

The period saw the rise of a large number of cities in north - eastern India . We may refer , for example , to Kaushambi near Allahabad , Kusinagar ( in Deoria district of Uttar Pradesh ) Benaras , Vaishali ( in the newly created district of the same name in north Bihar ) , Chirand ( in Saran district ) and Rajgir ( situated at a distance of about 100 km south - east of Patna ) . Besides others these cities had many artisans and traders , who began to use coins for the first time . The earliest coins belong to the fifth century B.C. , and they are called punch - marked coins . They circulated for the first time in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar . The use of coins naturally facilitated trade and commerce , which added to the importance of the vaishyas . In the brahmanical society the vaishyas ranked third , the first two being brahmanas and kshatriyas . Naturally they looked for some religion which would improve their position . Besides the kshatriyas , the vaishyas extended generous support to both Mahavira and Gautama Buddha . The merchants , called the setthis , made hand some gifts to Gautama Buddha and his disciples . There were several reasons for it . First , Jainism and Bud dhism in 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 the Dharmasutras , decried lending money on interest . A person who lived on interest was condemned by them . Therefore , the vaishyas , who lent money on account of growing trade and commerce , were not held in esteem and were eager to improve their social status .

On the other hand , we also notice a strong reaction against various forms of private property . Old - fashioned people did not like the use and accumulation of coins made certainly of silver and copper and possibly of gold . They detested new dwellings and dresses , new systems of transport which amounted to luxury , and they hated war and violence . The new forms of property created social inequalities , and caused misery and suffering to the masses of the people . So the common people yearned to return to primitive life . They wanted to get back to the ascetic ideal which dispensed with the forms of property and the new style of life . Both Jainism and Bud dhism preferred simple , puritan ascetic living . The Buddhist and Jaina monks were asked to forego the good things of life . They were not allowed to touch gold and silver . They were to accept only as much from their patrons as was sufficient to keep body and soul together . They , therefore , rebelled against the material advantages stemming from the new life in the Gangetic basin . In other words , we find the same kind of reaction against the changes in material life in the mid Ganga plain in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. as we notice against the changes introduced by the Industrial Revolution in modern times . The advent of the Industrial Revolution made many people think of return to the pre machine age life ; similarly people in the past wanted to return to the pre iron age life .

Vardhamana Mahavira and Jainism

According to the Jainas , the origin of Jainism goes back to very ancient times . They believe in twenty - four tirthankaras or great teachers or leaders of their religion . The first tirthankara is believed to be Rishabhadev who was born in Ayodhya . He is said to have laid the foundations for orderly human society . The last , twenty - fourth , tirthankara , was Vardhamana Mahavira who was a contemporary of Gautama Buddha . According to the Jaina tradition , most of the early tirthankaras were born in the middle Ganga basin and attained nirvana in Bihar . The twenty - third tirthankara was Parshvanath who was born in Varanasi . He gave up royal life and became an ascetic . Many teachings of Jainism are attributed to him . According to Jaina tradition , he lived two hundred years before Mahavira . Mahavir is said to be the twenty - fourth .

It is difficult to fix the exact dates of birth and death of Vardhamana Mahavira and Gautama Buddha . According to one tradition , Vardhamana Mahavira was born in 540 B.C. in a village called Kundagrama near Vaishall , which is identical with Basarh in the district of Vaishali , in north Bihar . His father Siddhartha was the head of a famous kshatriya clan called Jnatrika and the ruler of his own area . Mahavira's mother was named Trishala , sister of the Lichchhavi chief Chetaka , whose daughter was wedded to Bimbisara . Thus Mahariva's family was connected with the royal family of Magadha.

In the beginning . Mahavira led the life of a householder , but in the search for truth he abandoned the world at the age of 30 and became an ascetic . He would not stay for more than a day in a village and for more than five days In a town . During next twelve years he meditated , practised austerities of various kinds and endured many hard ships . In the thirteenth year , when he had reached the age of 42 , he attained kaivalya ( Juan ) . Through kaivalya he conquered misery and happiness . Because of this conquest he is known as Mahavira or the great hero or jina , i.e. the conqueror , and his followers are known as Jainas . He propagated his religion for 30 years , and his mission took him to Koshala , Magadha , Mithila , Champa , etc. He passed away at the age of 72 in 468 B.C. at a place called Pavapuri near modern Rajgir . According to another tradition , he was born in 599 B.C. and passed away in 527 B.C.

Doctrines of Jainism

Jainism taught five doctrines :

  1. do not commit violence.
  2. do not speak a lie .
  3. do not steal .
  4. do not acquire property , and
  5. observe continence ( brahmacharya )

It is said that only the fifth doctrine was added by Mahavira : the other four were taken over by him from previous teachers . Jainism attached the utmost importance to ahimsa or non - injury to living beings . Sometimes it led to absurb results , for some Jain kings ordered execution of persons guilty of killing animals . Although Parshva , the predecessor of Mahavira , had asked his followers to cover the upper and lower portions of their body , Mahavira asked them to discard clothes altogether . This implies that Mahavira asked his followers to lead a more austere life . On account of this in later times . Jainism was divided into two sects : shvetambaras or those who put on white dress , and digambaras or those who keep them selves naked .

Jainism recognized the existence of the gods but placed them lower than the jina . It did not condemn the varna system , as Buddhism did . According to Mahavira , a person is born in a high or in a lower varna in consequence of the sins or the virtues acquired by him in the previous birth . Mahavira looks for human values even in a chandala . In his opinion , through pure and meritorious life members of the lower castes can attain liberation . Jainism mainly aims at the attainment of freedom from worldly bonds . No ritual is required for acquiring such liberation . It can be obtained through right knowledge , right faith and right action . These three are considered to be the Three Jewels or triratna of Jainism .

Jainism prohibited the practice of war and even agriculture for its followers because both involve the kill ing of living beings . Eventually the Jainas mainly confined themselves to trade and mercantile activities .

Spread of Jainism

In order to spread the teachings of Jainism , Mahavira organized an order of his followers which admitted both men and women . It is said that his followers counted 14,000 which is not a large number . Since Jainism did not very clearly mark itself out from the brahmanical religion , it failed to attract the masses . Despite this, Jainism gradually spread into south and west India where the brahmanical religion was weak . According to a late tradition , the spread of Jainism in Karnataka is attributed to Chandragupta Maurya ( 322-298 B.C. ) . The emperor became a Jaina , gave up his throne and spent the last years of his life in Karnataka as a Jaina ascetic . But this tradition is not corroborated by any other source . The second cause of the spread of Jainism in south India is said to be the great famine that took place in Magadha 200 years after the death of Mahavira . The famine lasted for twelve years , and in order to protect themselves many a Jaina went to the south under the leadership of Bhadrabahu , but the rest of them stayed back in Magadha under the leadership of Sthalabahu . The emigrant Jainas spread Jainism in south India . At the end of the famine they came back to Magadha , where they developed differences with the local Jainas . Those who came back from the south claimed that even during the famine they had strictly observed the religious rules ; on the other hand , they alleged , the Jaina ascetics living in Magadha had violated those rules and had become lax . In order to sort out these differences and to compile the main teachings of Jainism a council was convened in Pataliputra , modern Patna , but the southern Jainas boycotted the council and refused to accept its decisions . From now onwards , the southerns began to be called digambaras , and the Magadhans shvetambaras . The tradition which refers to drought as the cause belongs to a later period and is considered doubtful . But it is beyond doubt that the Jainas were divided into two sects . However , epigraphic evidence for the spread of Jainism in Karnataka is not earlier than the third century A.D. In subsequent centuries , especially after the fifth century , numerous Jaina monastic establishments called basadis sprang up in Karnataka and were granted land by the king for their support .

Jainism spread to Kalinga in Orissa in the fourth century B.C. , and in the first century B.C. it enjoyed the the Kalinga king patronage of Kharavela who had defeated the princes of Andhra and Magadha . In the second and first centuries B.C. it also seems to have reached the southern districts of Tamil Nadu . In later centuries Jainism penetrated Malwa , Gujarat and Rajasthan , and even now these areas have a good number of Jainas who are mainly engaged in trade and commerce . Although Jainism did not win as much state patronage as Buddhism did and did not spread very fast in early times , it still retains its hold in the areas where it spread . On the other hand , Buddhism practically disappeared from the Indian subcontinent.

Contribution of Jainism

Jainism made the first serious attempt to mitigate the evils of the varna order and the ritualistic Vedic religion . The early Jainas discarded Sanskrit language mainly patronized by the brahmanas . They adopted Prakrit language of the common people to preach their doctrines . Their religious literature was written in Ardhamagadhi , and the texts were finally compiled in the sixth century A.D. in Gujarat at a place called Valabhi , a great centre of education . The adoption of Prakrit by the Jainas helped the growth of this language and its literature . Many regional languages developed out of Prakrit languages , particularly Shauraseni , out of which grew the Marathi language . The Jainas composed the earliest important works in Apabhramsha and prepared its first grammar . The Jaina literature contains epics , Puranas , novels and drama . A large portion of the Jaina writing is still in the form of manuscripts , which have not been published and which are found in the Jaina shrines of Gujarat and Rajasthan . In early medieval times the Jainas also made good use of Sanskrit and wrote many texts in it . Last but not the least , they contributed to the growth of Kannada , in which they wrote extensively .

Initially , like the Buddhists , the Jainas were not image worshippers . Later they began to worship Mahavira and also the twenty - three tirthankaras . Beautiful and sometimes massive images in stone were sculpted for this purpose , especially in Karnataka , Gujarat , Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh . Jaina art in ancient times is not as rich as Buddhist art , but Jainism contributed substantially to art and architecture in medieval times .

Read Also: Goutam Buddha and Buddhism

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