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10 Reasons Contributing to the Birth of Buddhism and Jainism in India

The emergence of sects such as Buddhism and Jainism represents significant milestones in the history of spiritual and philosophical thought in ancient India. Rooted in the socio-cultural milieu of the time, these movements offered alternative paths to salvation and liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Understanding the reasons behind the birth of Buddhism and Jainism requires delving into the historical, social, and philosophical factors that shaped their development.

Statue of Lord Mahavira, the revered spiritual teacher of Jainism, symbolizing peace and enlightenment.

1. Social and Cultural Context:

The period in which Buddhism and Jainism emerged (the late Vedic period) was marked by profound social and cultural transformations in ancient India. The Vedic period religiously followed the caste system, which ingrained into society a high degree of resentment. The lower caste were treated poorly by the upper caste and the ‘untouchables’ were becoming a common demographic term. The leaders of Jainism and Buddhism were strongly against social division and inequality. They allowed people from any community or caste to join their sect. Therefore, the disadvantaged sections of the society found the undue respect that they had yearned for by joining the new sects. 

Buddhism and Jainism were strong believers in providing equality to their followers. Mahavir saw all human beings as equal, thereby disregarding the discriminating caste system. Buddha also did not believe in the deep-rooted caste system and preached that all men are equal beings.

2. Reaction against Ritualism:

The early Aryans practiced the Vedic religion, which eventually evolved into complicated and expensive ritualistic practices. A majority of the Indian population was not financially capable to afford these expensive religious rituals. As such, they turned towards Buddhism and Jainism as these religions were against such practices and accepted people with little or no resources. 

Lord Mahavira stood with the fact that people were responsible for their own destinies and did not rely on someone else. This eliminated all sorts of practices and worship that required expensive sacrifices to the Gods. He believed that people can escape from a life of suffering through renunciation. The Jains do not follow the practices that were held so highly in the Vedic religion.

Similarly, Lord Buddha did not want his followers to worship him; he wanted people to develop their moral character instead. This point strayed people away from the empty rituals followed by the Brahmins and towards a more spiritual enlightening path filled with equality. 

3. Critique of Brahmanical Authority:

Buddhism and Jainism also challenged the authority of the Brahmin priesthood, which wielded significant power and influence in ancient Indian society. Many times, the priestly class misused their position and in the process, propagated social evils that harmed members belonging to the lower sections of the society, including women. By advocating for spiritual equality and rejecting the notion of a privileged priestly class, these movements appealed to individuals disillusioned with the hierarchical structures perpetuated by Brahmanical orthodoxy. The emphasis on individual agency in achieving spiritual goals undermined the monopoly of the Brahmin caste over religious knowledge and practice.

Statue of Gautama Buddha, the enlightened spiritual teacher and founder ofStatue of Gautama Buddha, the enlightened spiritual teacher and founder of Buddhism, embodying serenity and wisdom. Buddhism, embodying serenity and wisdom.

4. Accessibility and Universality:

Another factor contributing to the emergence of Buddhism and Jainism was their inclusive and universalistic outlook. Unlike the Vedic tradition, which was often confined to the elite Brahmin class, Buddhism and Jainism appealed to people from all walks of life, irrespective of caste or social status. The teachings of Gautama Buddha and Mahavira were delivered in vernacular languages like Prakrit and Pali accessible to the common people, making spiritual wisdom more attainable and relevant to the masses. This was previously not possible as most religious doctrines were in Sanskrit, a language of the Brahmins and elites.

5. Economic Disparities and Social Mobility:

During the time of Buddha and Mahavira, ancient Indian society was characterized by significant economic disparities and social stratification. The dominance of agrarian economies led to the concentration of wealth and resources in the hands of a privileged few, exacerbating inequalities and injustices. Buddhism and Jainism offered a message of social equality and compassion, appealing to those disenfranchised by the prevailing economic order. The emphasis on renunciation and detachment from worldly possessions provided an alternative path to spiritual fulfillment for individuals disillusioned with materialism and social inequality.

6. Intellectual Dissent and Philosophical Inquiry:

The period preceding the emergence of Buddhism and Jainism witnessed a flourishing of intellectual dissent and philosophical inquiry in ancient India. Philosophers and sages engaged in debates and discussions on metaphysical questions, ethical dilemmas, and the nature of reality. Buddhism and Jainism emerged as responses to these philosophical inquiries, offering distinct perspectives on the nature of existence, suffering, and the pursuit of liberation. The emphasis on rational inquiry and critical thinking appealed to individuals seeking answers to existential questions beyond the confines of traditional religious orthodoxy.

7. Animal Sacrifice

As part of the Vedic text, animal sacrifices were an important practice in the religion. However, India’s demography in the 6th century consisted mainly of peasants and farmers. These low-level income individuals found it difficult and burdensome to sacrifice their cattle. They relied on their livestock to fend for themselves. At that very moment, killing an animal to appease the Gods was not at the top of their priority list.

Jainism had extremely polar views as compared to the Vedic religion regarding animal slaughter. The Jains renounced all animal sacrifices and deemed them meaningless. Both Jainism and Buddhism heavily follow the principle of non-violence. 

Young Buddhist child immersed in reading, reflecting the pursuit of knowledge and spiritual growth in Buddhist culture.

The above reasons are concrete enough to understand that the Vedic religion was not suitable in the long-run and especially not for the working class. So how did they come to the decision to practice Jainism and Buddhism?

Attractiveness of Jainism

Vardhaman Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, built his religion on many principles that were appealing to most of the Indian demographics. The main aim of this sect was to attain salvation, or Nirvana. To achieve this, the followers of Jainism would have to actively practice the Triratnas - Right faith, right knowledge, and right conduct. 

Right conduct has more depth to it than it appears. There are five specific vows that are required to be taken to practice the right conduct. First is the vow of Ahimsa (non-violence), followed by not lying, then not stealing. The fourth vow is non-attachment to worldly, material things. The last vow is celibacy, also known as brahmacharya. 

Attractiveness of Buddhism

Gautam Buddha, formerly known as Siddhartha, was the founder of Buddhism. The foundation of Buddhism is based on four noble truths. Firstly, the world is full of sorrows and suffering. Secondly, the main cause of man’s suffering is desire. Thirdly, these sufferings can be removed by getting rid of desires. Lastly, one can overcome desires by following the Eightfold Path. 

Ahimsa was one of the main teachings of Buddha. This principle stresses non-violent acts. The most famous principle is the Karma theory. Basically, what a man sows, he reaps. Just like Jainism, Buddhism also places great emphasis on Nirvana. One can attain Nirvana by following the Eightfold path. 

Spread of Ideas through Trade and Exchange:

The emergence and spread of Buddhism and Jainism were facilitated by the extensive networks of trade and cultural exchange that crisscrossed ancient India and beyond. Traders, merchants, and travelers played a crucial role in disseminating ideas, beliefs, and practices across vast geographical regions. Buddhism, in particular, gained prominence along trade routes such as the Silk Road, spreading to distant lands and assimilating diverse cultural influences along the way. The fluidity of cultural exchange facilitated the transmission and adaptation of Buddhist and Jain teachings, contributing to their widespread diffusion and influence beyond the Indian subcontinent.

The reasons for the emergence of non-religious sects like Buddhism and Jainism are multifaceted, encompassing social, cultural, economic, philosophical, and political factors. By addressing the existential concerns and spiritual aspirations of ancient Indian society, these movements offered alternative paths to salvation and liberation, challenging prevailing religious orthodoxy and social hierarchies. Today, the legacy of Buddhism and Jainism endures as enduring symbols of the human quest for truth, compassion, and transcendence.


Khushi Makasare

Pratha Content Writer


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