Before the emergence of Buddhism in the 6th century BC, majority of the people in Indian subcontinent were practicing Brahmanism. The society was divided into four main varnas – the Brahmins (Priestly Class), the Kshatriyas (Warrior Class), the Vaishyas (Merchants and Agriculturalists), and the Sudras (Peasants). And below these rungs were the untouchables who were not even allowed to come near the habited areas of the other classes.
What made the Varna System Unpopular?
This stratified hierarchy was an accepted tradition which is believed to have been dictated by the Divine Will. The Brahmins claimed the divine right to interpret and to dictate the Will of their Gods on the rest of the varnas. Their interpretation was that, while the Brahmins were chosen to protect and propagate the will of their gods in accordance with the Vedic instructions, the Kshatriyas were to protect the people. In short, every human was born to take up a certain profession which decided his varna. It depended in the performance of their earlier births; if a man was virtuous; his next re-birth would be in a better varna. Social mobility therefore rested in their earlier deeds; deeds decided their ‘karma’.
Historians have argued that the conservatism and the orthodoxy of Brahmanic beliefs and practices were responsible for the emergence of Shramanic (Heterodox) religions. However, these arguments alone could not have been the sole reasons for the emergence of Shramanic religions; there were other associated reasons along with alleged excesses of Brahmanic orthodoxy and monopoly by the Priests.
The 6th century BCE was marked by a rapid agrarian expansion with the use of improved iron tools, especially in the Northern parts of the Indian subcontinent. This initiated the growth of trade centers, the formation of trade guilds, and then the subsequent increase in material wealth. But the increase in wealth also brought about some negative results; people were either becoming richer or poorer, and those whishing to move up the ranks of the varnas could not do so in spite of accumulating great wealth. Moreover, with the increasing wealth, rituals, ceremonies and festivals became more and more elaborate. These often told upon the resources of the families, especially those who did not have enough to perform them. These brought about answered questions about the issues in life; they wanted to escape from the social realities.
What was the reason for the emergence of Buddhism?
It is at this backdrop that one can see the growing number of people renouncing Brahmanism and becoming wandering ascetics to search for the answers in dispelling the suffering of their souls.
The Kshatriyas and Vaihsyas were disappointed because they were not allowed to perform rites and rituals by the Brahmins who claimed divine rights in protecting the Vedic texts. The Sudras were disappointed because they were discriminated and exploited since they belonged to a lower varna. In both cases, they sought to contest against the monopoly of the Brahmins.
One may ask why and how a Shramanic religion like Buddhism could emerge in spite of the strong and conservative hold Brahmanism had over the society.
Some of the reasons which appealed to the masses are:
- Kshatriyas who could not supersede the privileges of the Brahmins, and the Vaishyas who could not claim equality with the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas, the Sudras who were exploited by the higher varnas, and women who were subservient to the family hierarchy, found it more appealing to embrace any religion which promised them equality.
- They also sought to do away with animal sacrifices and dogmatic rituals and instead focus more on pragmatic and meaningful approaches to life which could provide those answers to everyday problems.
- The Brahmins claimed monopoly over Sanskritic texts which no other varnas could have the right to access.
These charged social unrests, where people wanted to escape the social realities, paved the way for the emergence of Buddhism to address these problems.