The Rise of Buddhism has its origin to the desire of the common men to realize easily the essence of religion free from abstract philosophical contents grew strong.
In the closing years of the Vedic age, a great revolution in India’s life and religion occurred. The Aryan civilisation spread over to the western periphery of Bengal. It was during this period that Aryan civilisation lost much of its inner vitality and force. In Mithila and North Bihar, the greatness and influence of the Brahmins suffered eclipse, and the Kshatriyas antagonized the Brahmins. Many a scholar says that a religious evolution followed revolt of the Kshatriyas against the Brahamanas and Brahmanical religion, but it would be no exaggeration to say that it is a new and inevitable happening in Indian history.
In the sixth century, a terrible reaction against the Vedic religion began. It regulated the course of Indian History. In later age, two powerful religions, Buddhism and Jainism, challenging the corrupt and superstitious religious practices, arose.
Costly, ceremonious and highly ritualistic Vedic religious performances produced discontent in the minds of the sensitive common people. The Vedic religious practices appeared gradually abstruse to them. The procedure of sacrificial rites required immolation of animals. This was a cruel practice. This created agony and aversion in human mind. With the increase in incidence of costly rites, terrible reaction against them set in. Gautama Buddha laid greatest emphasis on spiritual thinking and moral practices, and that is why he recommended abandonment of all sacrificial rites and religious practices. The genesis of revulosion against the Vedic religion was the immoral practices and social inequality prevalent in the contemporary Hindu society. The Vedic gods and goddesses and the Upanishads failed to fulfill spiritual aspirations of the people. It was not easy for them to comprehend the philosophy of life or to follow the method related to living as incorporated in the Upanishads. It was difficult even for the priests to explain satisfactorily to the people the teachings of the Upanishads, for an ordinary uneducated priest was not equipped with proper knowledge about Vedic thought. For all these reasons, the desire of the common men to realize easily the essence of religion free from abstract philosophical contents grew strong. Regulations were current in society making celebration of Vedic rites obligatory, and for this, the priests were to be paid handsomely. The result was that people grew suspicious about the justification of religious practices and the propriety of priestly conduct.
This made common men veer round to a religion which would, be easily accessible to them and free from ostentation. In fact the historical evolution explained the rise of Buddhism which was protest against Hinduism with its ostentations and occult religious practices. For hundreds of years before Buddha’s time, movements were in progress in Indian thought which prepared the way for the Rise of Buddhism.
In that age, the Hindu religion established firmly social superiority of the Brahmins. The predominance and superiority of the Brahmins made common people, and the politically influential Kshatriyas, aggrieved. Many evils crept in the society following misuse of power by the Brahmins. The latter exploited religion to make a good amount of fortune, and they were mostly engrossed in sensual pleasures. They encouraged various superstitious practices. They uttered spell (mantras) and feigned to fulfill hopes of common men. Thus they constantly kept in fright the people of inferior castes. The Kshatriyas were physically strong, and the Vaishyas were economically advanced. They opposed jointly the Brahmanical supremacy. This created a stir in Hindu society. Dr. D.C. Sircar says that Gautama Buddha rose in open protest against the power and ritual of the Brahamanas and that this introduced a new force into Indian life and thought.
The economic revolution in Aryan society occurred since the age that witnessed the formulation of the Sutras. According to Romila Thappar, the changing features of social and economic life such as the growth of towns, expansion of the artisan class and the rapid development of trade and commerce were closely linked with changes in another sphere; that of religion and philosophical speculation. Changes in economic life of the Aryan society were profound. First, the use of iron made tillage with heavy iron plough possible. The slaves and the non-Aryans treated as slaves were employed for cultivations of vast measure of land. Land was cultivated beforehand in a loose manner. This practice was abandoned. Many plots of land were now joined together and compact cultivation and manuring were resorted to. This resulted in the increase of agricultural products. The surplus of agricultural products was now appropriated by the householders, and they became wealthy men in society. Trade and industry progressed sidewise this agricultural development. The importance of the works of such artisans as carpenters, potters, tanners, blacksmiths etc. came to be appreciated. They established guild and arranged for the sale of their hand-made goods at a profitable price.
With the establishment of big kingdoms, routes of communication were constructed and the commercial link between one end and the other of the land was established. The development of communication led to the expansion of trade. Commerce with West Asia continued through the mountain passes of north-western India and across the Arabian Sea. There were some trade-routes in this age: (I) One, from Rajgriha or Rajgirh in Bihar to Kausambi (Prayaga in Uttar Pradesh); (II) the other, from Ujjain to Broach in West Coast; (III) the third, from Kausambi to Taxila in the Punjab via Delhi. These apart, reverine commerce along and across the streams of the Ganges and the Yamuna were supposed to have given rise of a rich mercantile community called Shreshthi. Trade and business brought them enough wealth. Development of agriculture and commerce made common men of the Vaishya class, the peasants and the business men, and even the Sudras were more prosperous than they had been in the previous age. Briefly speaking, wealth was accumulated in the hands of a particular class. Majority of the people belonging to lower castes remained deprived, oppressed and poor. There was no such provision as even distribution of wealth.
This economic revolution in society in the post Vedic age prepared the way for a revolution in religion. The newly risen rich household and the mercantile class (Shreshthi) longed for a respectable situation in society. They hoped that wealth and prosperity would secure them that much coveted status. But they were treated as inferior castes in a society dominated by the Brahmins. Caste discrimination was the main feature of this Brahmanical society, and that is why this rich class lost faith in Vedic religion and the Aryan social system. Buddhism advocated a casteless society. Naturally, this wealthy class was attracted to Buddhism. In Vedic religion, sea-voyages and travels to foreign lands were not encouraged. But commercial interests demanded of the merchants, sea-voyages or visits to foreign lands. Baudhayana’s Dharma Shashtra described sea-voyage as a crime. It was difficult for the merchants to observe this inhibition. In Vedic religion, laying out money on interest was declared a sinful act. The receivers of interest were held in contempt in society, but the ‘Shreshthi’ or money-lenders could not help doing business of usury. It was for this reason that they did not regard Vedic Brahmanical religion as beneficial to their interests. In the Vedic sacrificial rites, numberless cows were slaughtered. This was harmful to agriculture. The house holders and the common cultivators remained aggrieved. Above all, there was no such provision in the Vedic religion as ensuring even distribution of wealth among all class of society so that the poorer section might secure some benefit. The rich remained rich, and the poor remained poor. Everybody in the society believed the poor man’s plight was due to the consequences of the evil deeds he perpetrated (Karmaphal). The new religion came to regard poor men as part of the Supreme Being, and thus they are accorded new status and rights. In the Vedic region the poor were denied it. This led to the erosion of appeal of the Vedic religion, and the way was prepared for the preaching of a new religion.
Vincent Smith is of opinion that the movement for religious reforms in North Bihar can be explained by the fact that the rulers of this region did not belong to Aryan stock. They were of Mongoloid origin and did not accept Hindu religion whole-heartedly. All these explain the beginning of religious evolution in North India. According to Buddhist literature, the number of new religions that arose in the sixth century was sixty three. The Jain literature refers to a greater number. Among these religions, the Buddhist and the Jain religions earned greatest distinction.
The Vedic civilisation spread to the fringe of Anga kingdom in Eastern India. This event witnessed the decline of Brahmanical influence. The spirit and vigor of the Brahmanical religion and the social supremacy of the Brahmins ebbed away with the expansion of Aryan settlements from the Punjab to Utter Pradesh. The Aryan expansion in the East had to make mar constantly with the non-Aryans and the locals. This explained the increase of the power and influence of the Kshatriyas or warrior class in society.
Meanwhile, the Brahmanical religion lost its pristine valor and youthful vigor. The rise of rich householders and merchants and the antagonism of the Kshatriya community prepared the Aryan society to accept a change. The sphere of this change was eastern India. The exponents of the Jain and the Buddhist religions belonged to eastern India. The northern or central India was the seat of orthodox Brahmanical religion. In eastern India the situation was different, and here a protestant religion could easily grow and make way. Here the Brahmanical religion was not deep-rooted. It is in the context of this background that the religious revolution of the sixth century ought to be analyzed.