Emergence of Heterodox Thinkers
In the sixth and fifth centuries before the Common Era, north India underwent a remarkable intellectual awakening that profoundly impacted India and influenced its culture in subsequent millennia as well. The impact also swept across South Asia. This awakening was the outcome of questioning the existing philosophy by a host of heterodox thinkers. Gosala, Gautama Buddha, Mahavira, Ajita Kesakambalin and other thinkers renounced the world and wandered across the Gangetic plains, contemplating and reflecting on the social and cultural scenario of their times. It was not uncommon to see ascetics crisscrossing the Gangetic plains, propounding new ideas. The teachings of these ascetics addressed the needs of a rapidly changing society, which saw the emergence of new polity, the coming into being of urban centres, development of crafts, and an increase in long-distance trade. These thinkers questioned the Vedic ideas of soul, mind and body, thereby paving the way for the rise of new religious sects. Even though all of them questioned the Vedic religion, there was rivalry among them. Eventually Buddhism and Jainism emerged as popular faiths.
Sixth century BCE was a period of intense intellectual ferment. There are several reasons for the emergence of this ferment.
1. State formation and the rigidity of the Vedic religion constrained the liberty of thought and action. A revolt against religious practice of following dogmas found its articulation in heterodox sects.
The emergence of territorial identities accelerated the process of socio-political and economic changes. The elite class, disillusioned with the system in place, began to move in protest towards the heterodox religions blossoming in Magadha or middle Ganges plains.
As the Vedic religion was not fully organised, its reach did not permeate into the society and hence people did not find it difficult to follow the newly emerging religious sects.
With urbanisation and expansion of trade, new classes of merchants and bankers such as sethis sought higher social status appropriate to their economic status.
The grievance of Kshatriyas was that they were denied a staged life of ashramas, a privilege permitted only to Brahmins in the Vedic texts.
The ascetic wanderers and teachers attracted groups of followers and established various sects. Their philosophies encompassed antinomian (belief that divine grace takes away the necessity of obeying moral law), materialist and fatalist elements. They were heterodox sects that rivalled the orthodox Vedic religion and many of them came into existence during this time.
Buddhist text, Samannaphala Sutta, while making a reference to Ajatashatru of Magadha meeting Gautama Buddha, mentions that before his meeting, the former had a philosophical discourse with the leaders of the various sects such as Purana Kassapa, Makkhali Gosala, Ajita Kesakambalin, Pakudha Kachchayana, Sanjaya Belatthiputta and Nigantha Nataputta (Mahavira). They are described as “homeless wanderers” of longstanding (chira-pabbajito), founders of sects (tithakaro) and leaders of their orders (ganachariyo). These sects were the key rivals of Buddhism. Their doctrines were shown unsatisfactory while that of Buddha was acceptable to Ajatashatru.