The causes for the origin of Buddhism are many. Infact, the Rise of Buddhism is a result of several contemporary factors combined together. Let us have a review at those factors.
The Rise of Large Kingdoms
The political, social and economic life of the Aryans in the sixth century B.C. was different from that of the Vedic period. The traditional concept of society could no longer meet the challenges posed by the new developments. The changing features of social and economic life, the growth of the towns and expansion of artisan class and the rapid development of trade led to changes in different sphere including religion and philosophical thought. The expansion of the Aryans in Eastern India in the 6th century B.C. led to weakening of the traditional Vedic society. The constant wars between the Aryans and the non-Aryans in the Gangetic Valley enhanced the power and influence of the Kshatriyas or warrior class.
They were in no mood to submit tamely to the claim fo divinity and superior status of the Brahamanas. The voice of protest and criticism against Brahmanical form of worship and Yajnas found in the Aranyakas and Upanishads were mostly raised by the wandering ascetics of Eastern India. The doctrine of Karma and Janmantara (Transmigration of the soul) had a greater impact on the thought process of the people of Eastern India than in the traditional land of Rig Vedic civilization in North-Western India, because Eastern India was relatively free from orthodox Brahmanism.
Social and economic factors also contributed to the rise of a protestant creed like Buddhism. The extensive use of iron implements for felling trees of jungles brought new lands under plough. The use of heavy ploughs drawn by bullocks for tilling the land and the custom of manuring the fields revolutionized agriculture. House-holders mobilized the Sudra labourers for cultivation of extra lands. The traditional system of cultivating small, plots by surface digging was replaced by improved method of cultivation. The house-holders or Gahapati class became wealthy due to surplus production in agriculture. They were mostly Vaishyas and in a caste ridden society they had no chance of enjoying higher caste status inspite of their wealth.
In the 6th century B.C. trade and commerce increased due to expansion of Aryan settlements in the Gangetic Valley. Trade was carried by land and river routes and also by sea routes. In land towns such as Videha, Vaisali, and Kosala, Magadha grew. The Pali Texts mention 20 towns of North India. The circulation of punch-marked coins helped the smooth exchange of goods. A class of merchants known as Sethia or Shreshthi became affluent due to trade. The Pali texts mention the name of Anathapindako of Sravasti who opened the doors of his treasury to fight famine at the command of Buddha. The artisan class also became prosperous due to wide demand for different crafts and they formed Samghas or nigamas or guilds.
In short the tribal, self-contained village economy of the Aryans and the tribal social structure was cracking under the impact of changing economy. In such a transitional stage the caste-oriented Vedic religion was out of tune with the changing social and economic life of the people. The Gahapati, Shreshthi class due to their wealth wanted higher status in the society which hereditary caste system denied them. The artisan class also felt unhappy due to class rules which treated them as Sudras. The growth of towns and the increasing contact between different parts of the country broke the barrier of old tribal bonds and economy. The Brahmanical religion failed to meet these challenges. Society was ready to embrace a new philosophy and religion.
Moreover, the Brahmanical form of worship was too expensive for a common man. The Brahmana squeezed his Yajamana in various ways. The Yajnas were highly expensive. None but a king or the whole community perform a Yajna. Large number of oxen and bullocks slaughtered in a Yajna and it caused tremendous hardship to the peasants who had to till the land by bullock-plough. The Brahmanical Sastras prohibited voyages. Baudhayana regarded voyages over the sea as a sin. The Dharma Sastras also prohibited usury. The merchant community found these Sashtric injunctions galling to their trade. They had to sail the seas for selling their goods in foreign lands. They had to borrow money on interest for financing their trade. For these reasons Brahmanism lost its appeal to the merchants, house-holders and artisans in the society.
The significance of the Social Transformation of 6th Century B.C.
The impact of this social transformation was tremendous. The Kshatriyas, because of their political power and wealth grudged the supremacy of the Brahmins. They were compelled to part with their wealth and hand them over to the Brahamanas during religious sacrifices. The Vaishyas and Gahapatis found that inspite of -their wealth and prosperity, they were placed as an inferior status in the social hierarchy. The merchants, the Sresthis were dissatisfied with the caste rules and the prohibitions on their trade. The Sudras also aspired for higher status. In this way, in the 6th century B.C. the traditional concept of society conflicted with the reality.
The Intellectual Ferment of 6th Century B.C. and protest against Brahmanism
In the intellectual and religious sphere the ascetics and thinkers criticized the Brahmanical system. The Sramanas and the wandering ascetics realized the ineffectuality of Brahmanical form of worship and the performance of Yajna. It was found that man was governed by the law of the deed done (Karmafala). This law of the deed chases him from birth to birth. Gods and Brahmins cannot protect a man from his Karmafala or law of the deed. These short-comings of Brahmanical religion reduced its appeal to the people. The Ajivikas preached the doctrine of pre-destination. The materialists like Charvaka preached that nothing remains after death. The Upanishads preached the doctrine of Supreme Being and Brahman and Atman. Different ideas preached by different thinkers sapped the basis of Brahmanical religion. Many expressed doubt in the efficacy of Vedic form of worship. The magical power of the priests and mantras were doubted by large number of people who got the light of enlightened philosophy. The people who were poor became pessimistic as they were unable to perform the costly sacrifices.
Why Eastern India was the Seat of Protest Government
In Eastern India, where the influence of Brahmanical religion was lesser than in the Madhya Desa, the protest movement became stronger. The republican states where there was a free atmosphere compared to the monarchical states became the seed bed of the protestant religious movements.
Significance of Aryans Satyas and Eight Fold Paths
Gautama Buddha offered an answer to these problems by preaching his four Noble Truths or Aryas Satyas. He pointed out that there is a way to the destruction of sorrow. This was the Great Eight fold path or Astangika Marga. Buddha advised Majjhima Patha or Middle path. One need not perform utmost penance, nor should he practice utmost enjoyment. One should keep away from the two extreme ways of life. The practice of eight fold principles will lead to growth of mental peace or Samadhi, Prajna or knowledge. The attainment of Samadhi and Prajna will lead to the Nirvana or Salvation of the soul.
Buddha’s Appeal to the Down-trodden Class
Buddha said that one can escape suffering and sorrow only when he attains the Nirvana. Buddha did not mention the existence of God, nor did he mention the Vedas. Though he did not openly deny the caste system, he did not accept it either. He said that anybody, belonging to any cake whatsoever could escape from misery and suffering by observing the Eight-fold path. According to the `Sutta Nipata’ Buddha said, One does not become a Brahmin by birth. One does not become an outcast birth. One becomes a Brahmana by act. and One becomes an outcast by act.Buddha initiated in his fold of religion many low caste people. Many of them became respected monks in later years. Buddha advised his disciples, that those who will follow the Eight-fold path and Majjhima Pantha or Middle path strictly, will be strong in spirit and mind. He will be able to enter any society with confidence, self-dignity. He will die without desire and anxiety.
Denial of God Vedas and Caste
Though Buddha did not openly deny caste and God, he denied them in a roundly. His moral codes free from caste restrictions and complicated form of worship attracted the low castes and Sudras to his fold. Buddha did not accept the supremacy of the Brahamanas and their claim to divinity. He even ascribed the term Kulaputtas or noble Kula or birth to Gahapatis and rich merchants. His religion also satisfied the Kshatriya castes who were jealous of the Brahamanas.
The Social Aspect of Buddha’s Teaching’s
Thus Buddhism tried to break the social barrier erected by the Brahamanas. He provided the common men an alternative way of salvation and solace. His doctrine of non-violence found in the Sutta Nipata tried to promote social harmony. Non killing of animals helped the protection of cow, which provided milk to the old and infant, and the bullocks which were so essential for drawing the plough. According to Warder, Buddha not only preached social harmony, he also advocated the upliftment of women. He prescribed five principles of good behavior. People were asked to abstain from: — (a) killing; (b) taking what is not given to one; (c) adultery; (d) falsehood; (e) indolence. The initiation of women as nuns in Buddhist Samghas was a revolutionary step. While the Brahmanical rules tried to put the women under fetters, Buddha sought to liberate them.
Appeal to all Sections of Men
Buddha was careful that his teachings should reach the lower strata of the society. This is why he preached in the language of the people in Magadhi or Prakrita and not in Sanskrit. Though mercantile class flocked round him as disciples, the artisans, cultivators, the low-castes were not kept away. He appealed more to the down-trodden class, than to those who were socially strong.