The Age of Ideas 



Around the 6th century BCE, a town square anywhere across the Gangetic plains must have been an extraordinary place to be in. Apart from the hustle and bustle of passing caravans and merchants selling their wares, chances are you would have witnessed fiery philosophical discussions too.

‘Vadavidya’ or the science of debate was a well-honed art, and adding colour and passion to it were the sheer number of views from schools of thought on fundamental ideas of life, death and God.


There was the old orthodox Vedic school, strict Jains, the moderate Buddhists, the hedonistic worshiping Charvakas, fatalistic Ajivikas, Atomists and some 30 others!

This ‘burst of ideas’, which were essentially multiple answers to fundamental questions of existence, wasn’t limited to the Indian subcontinent. Described as the ‘Axial Age’ in the West, the period between the 8the century BCE and 3rd century BCE saw the rise of new ideas, philosophies and faiths – Aristotle, Pluto and early Abrahamic prophets.

While it must be noted that the term ‘Axial Age’ is mostly used to describe the emergence of great thinkers and philosophers in the West, you can’t help but draw parallels with the East, in India, West Asia and in neighbouring China, where this was the era of a ‘hundred ideas’.

Interestingly, many of the ideas and philosophies that arose during this phase of world history are followed even today.

So what had changed and why were people suddenly discussing so many existential questions across the known world at this time?

Powered by economic prosperity and the rise of a new rich, the old order was being questioned, debated and dissected. This was the Age of Ideas, one that shapes our beliefs even today.

What Changed

By the 6th century BCE, in India as well as in China and the West, there was a major surge of growth. In India, it was a period referred to as the Second Urbanisation. Initially powered by the discovery of iron – the plough, axe and weapons – productivity increased, creating surpluses, which led to the emergence of trading towns that transformed into thriving cities.

The new, increasingly complex economy also had an impact on society. Old demarcations of caste were questioned as money and power fell into new hands. Also, as people moved into the new towns and cities, old linkages of clan and land gave way.

Ruins at Rajgir
Ruins at Rajgir|Wikimedia Commons

There is evidence to show that between 800 BCE and 600 BCE, more and more people were migrating from villages to urban areas, leading to the emergence of great cities such as Rajgir, Vaishali, Varanasi and Sharavasti. The ‘Uttarapatha’, a major trade route that connected cities in North-West India, such as Taxila, with cities in the Gangetic plain and Bengal led to thriving cultural interaction.

What we know of what was happening at the time in India is mostly based on Buddhist, Jain and Puranic literary accounts along with archaeological remains found at different sites.

Politically, this was the time of the sixteen mahajanapadas. These were dominant city-states that emerged in North India after a long period of war and strife, that led to the strong swallowing the weak janapadas, to create even more powerful ‘maha’ states.

The sixteen Mahajanapadas
The sixteen Mahajanapadas

Life On The Move

These sprawling urban centres must have been a bewildering place for villagers who had newly migrated to them. Buddhist texts like the Jataka Tales talk of caravans of 500 carts moving from one janapada to another. The Khadiravigara-Jataka refers to banker Anathapindika who used to finance the merchants on the basis of written bonds. The same Jataka also refers to a man who built ships and took to trade out of the money he borrowed from the bankers.

We also find references to what might be called ‘corporate empires’ today. For example, in the Jain text Upasaka Dasah, we find mention of a rich potter named Saddalaputta of Sharavasti, who owned 500 potters’ shops and had a large number of potters working under him. The text also goes on to say how he had one crore of gold invested in fixed deposits on interest and another crore invested in real estate! While it might be an exaggeration, it does give an indication of the wealth that the new elites had at the time.

Apart from traditional craftsmen, in these texts we find references to a wide range of ‘urban’ professions emerging such as physicians (vejja), surgeons (salakata), vehicle makers (yanakara), estate managers (pettanikas), jailors (bandhanagarikas) , customs officers (kammikas) and bankers(sethis).

Interestingly, most of the protagonists in the Buddhist Jatakas and Jain tales are merchants, in contrast to the warriors and priests who dominated the Hindu epics. This was a reflection of the new social order, where a wealthy class for looking for a place in the social hierarchy. It was these merchants who would bankroll a new wave of socio-religious change taking place across India.

With an increase in wealth, there was also an increase in political instability. Janapadas fought with each other for supremacy, with the strong swallowing the weak, until Magadha, which controlled the rich iron ore mines in South Bihar, emerged as the largest and the most powerful state under King Bimbisara (545-493 BCE).

So it is no surprise that in the midst of this social, cultural and economic churn, people struggled to make sense of the world around them. Profound philosophical questions like – How did the world originate? Who is the creator? Who creates and who ordains? From what does a world spring up and to what does it return? – began to be debated and contemplated like never before.

The Many Paths

को अद्धा वेद क इह प्र वोचत्कुत आजाता कुत इयं विसृष्टिः |

अर्वाग्देवा अस्य विसर्जनेनाथा को वेद यत आबभूव ॥६॥

But, after all, who knows, and who can say
Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
the gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?

  • The Hymn of Creation, Rig Veda (Chapter 10:129)

Much has been written about rigid Vedic ritualism, and how new philosophies like Buddhism and Jainism emerged as a ‘reaction’ against it. While that was the trigger, it would be a very simplistic explanation for the ‘Age of Ideas’. One can argue that curiosity about who created the world, where we all come from and where we go after death was always there. In fact, the earliest Vedic text, the Rig Veda is full of these basic questions, as can be seen from the famous ‘Nasadiya Sukta’ or the ‘Hymn of Creation’. Moreover, the Vedas also have references of philosopher sages like Aghamarsana, Prajapati, Paramesthin, Brahmanaspati and many others about whom we know almost nothing and whose works are believed to have been lost with time.

Rig Veda manuscript page (Sanskrit, Devanagari script)
Rig Veda manuscript page (Sanskrit, Devanagari script)

There was also a long tradition of renunciants, who advocated giving up attachments to all material things and social relationships. They left their homes and lived as wanderers dependent on alms. They were known as ‘sramanas’, which means ‘one who labours, toils or is a seeker’. The earliest reference to ‘sramana’ is in verse 4.3.22 of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, one of the earlier and more important of the Upanishads. Believed to have been composed around the 8th century BCE, the text however doesn’t explain whether the sramanas were a part of the Vedic tradition or outside of it. This remains a topic of much debate among scholars.

Noted British Historian A L Basham makes a pertinent point in his book The Ajivikas (1949) when he writes:

“The religious reformer rarely devises the central tenets of his new faith without any basis of older belief on which to build; rather he restates, modifies, or throws a fresh light upon earlier teaching, and this restatement has for his contemporaries the force and novelty of a new revelation.”

It is from among these early renunciants that great religious traditions emerged. But over this period, there were also many that disappeared as each faith vied for followers, patrons and control. The strident Charvakas, Ajvikas and Ajnanas disappeared with time, while others like Buddhists and Jains grew and transformed their beliefs into great world religions, which thrive to this day.

Based on the Buddhist, Jain and Puranic texts, we can deduce that there may have existed as many as 50 different philosophical traditions at this time. Sadly, we only know of only six or seven of them. And this too because of the frequent appearance of the so-called ‘Six Heretics’, the six teachers who keep getting defeated by Buddha in debate, in the Buddhist texts. Throughout the Buddhist Pali religious texts, the teachings of the Buddha are contrasted with the doctrines and practices of these teachers and their followers.

Royal procession leaving Rajgir, possibly depicting Ajatashatru, from Sanchi
Royal procession leaving Rajgir, possibly depicting Ajatashatru, from Sanchi

The most detailed account of these teachers is found in a Buddhist text called ‘Samaññaphala Sutta’ (The Fruit of Contemplative Life). The story goes that once when the Buddha, accompanied by 1,250 monks, was staying at Rajgriha, the capital of Magadha, its ruler King Ajatashatru (493-462 BCE) wanted spiritual guidance. Each of his six ministers suggested the names of six different teachers. They were:

Purana Kassapa – The founder of the philosophy of Amoralism, who believed there was nothing that was moral or amoral

Makkhali Goshala – The founder of the Ajivika tradition, who believed in ‘niyati’ or ‘fate’, and that everything, was pre-ordained

Ajita Kesakambali – The leader of the Charvakas, the materialists or hedonists, who denied that there was an afterlife or good or bad karma

Pakudha Kaccayana – The founder of the Atomism philosophy, which believed that everything is made of seven eternal elements – earth, water, fire, air, happiness, pain and soul

Sanjaya Belatthiputta – The leader of the Sceptics, the Ajnana philosophy, which believed in absolute agnosticism. In fact, Ajnana believed there was no such thing as ‘knowledge’!

Nigantha Nataputta – Vardhaman Mahavira, the 24th tirthankar of the Jains, and the founder of Jainism

It is said that King Ajatashatru went to each of these teachers but was impressed with none of them. Finally, he came to Buddha, who was able to satisfy his spiritual quest. This story, though apocryphal and heavily coloured as it was written by Buddhists, tells us about the other tussle – one for political influence that was taking place among these philosophies. Over time, this would prove to be crucial.

The Rise Of A New Political Power

The rise of Magadha, under King Bimbisara in the 6th century BCE and his son King Ajatashatru in the 5th century BCE marked a new era. According to the Buddhist text Mahavamsha, Bimbisara was anointed as king by his father at the age of 15. Mahavamsha tells us that he ruled a large kingdom ‘300 leagues in extent’. The villages in the kingdom were governed by village assemblies under an official called gramaka. The capital was Girivraj or present-day Rajgir.

Both Jainism and Buddhism claim King Bimbisara as their follower. The Jain text Uttaradhyana Sutra tells how Bimbisara ‘The Lion of Kings’ visited the ‘Lion of Ascetics’ (Mahavira) and became a staunch follower of Jainism. Similarly, Buddhist texts claim that Bimbisara was devoted to Buddha, whom he had first met in Rajgir, seven years before Buddha attained nirvana. Later, as a proof of his devotion, Bimbisara lent his personal physician Jivaka as a medical adviser in attendance to Buddha. Most famously, when Buddha did not have money to pay for the ferry to cross the river Ganga, Bimbisara granted remission to all the ascetics.

It is the same with Bimbisara’s son and successor, Ajatashatru, who is claimed as a Jain by Jain texts and a Buddhist by Buddhist texts, as can be seen in the story narrated in the Samaññaphala Sutta.

It is fascinating that while Mahavira and Buddha were contemporaries and were wandering and preaching around the same region, there are no accounts of them ever have met each other.

Mahavira worship in a manuscript c. 1825
Mahavira worship in a manuscript c. 1825

Jainism

The Jain tradition is far older than the Buddhist one, although is difficult to date it precisely. According to Jain religious beliefs, Rishabhanatha, the first tirthankar of the Jains, lived ‘millions’ of years ago. Vardhamana Mahavira, a contemporary of Buddha, is considered the 24th and last of the tirthankaras. Vardhamana is said to have been born around 599 BCE, in Kundagrama, a city near Vaishali, the capital of the Videha janapada. His father was the chief of the Jnatri clan.

At the age of 30, he is said to have abandoned all worldly possessions and left home in pursuit of spirituality, becoming an ascetic. Mahavira practiced severe austerities for 12 years, after which he is believed to have attained kevala jnana (omniscience). He is said to have preached Jainism for the next 30 years, before passing away (vira nirvana) around 527 BCE at the age of 72.

Jainis believe in extreme penance, as well as in the principle of ahimsa or non-violence, making it the core of their identity. Jainism also believes that there is an ‘eternal jiva or a soul, and worships the tirthankaras as opposed to gods. These were enlightened beings who had achieved liberation from the bondage of earthly life.

Another important Jain concept was that of anekantavada , which states that the ultimate truth and reality is complex, many sided and based on viewpoints. Due to its extreme austerities and strict practices, Jainism did not become as popular as Buddhism did and was confined to its dedicated adherents.

The wedding of Prince Siddhartha, 3rd-4th century CE
The wedding of Prince Siddhartha, 3rd-4th century CE

Buddhism

Like Vardhamana Mahavira, Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) too was a ‘Prince’, or more accurately, a ‘son of a chief’. His father belonged to the Sakya clan that ruled over Lumbini in present-day Nepal. At the age of 29, he left his father’s kingdom and became an ascetic.

After trying different practices and extreme asceticism, Siddhartha realised that the way for him was the ‘middle way’, a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. He sat under the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya (in modern Bihar). After 49 days of meditation, at the age of 35, he is said to have attained Enlightenment and, from then on, became known as the ‘Buddha’ or ‘Awakened One’.

For the next 45 years, Buddha travelled across the Gangetic plains, where he gathered a huge following, before passing away at the age of 80. Following his demise, Buddha’s teachings would be orally transmitted by his followers for several centuries, before being written down. The most enduring appeal of Buddhism was that it addressed the problem that every human being experienced – daily suffering, the answer to which was to follow the four noble truths:

"Bhikkhus, it is through not realizing, through not penetrating the Four Noble Truths that this long course of birth and death has been passed through and undergone by me as well as by you. What are these four? They are the noble truth of suffering; the noble truth of the origin of suffering; the noble truth of the cessation of suffering; and the noble truth of the way to the cessation of suffering. But now, bhikkhus, that these have been realized and penetrated, cut off is the craving for existence, destroyed is that which leads to renewed becoming, and there is no fresh becoming."

  • Maha-parinibbana Sutta

Buddha stated that while there was suffering in human life, it could be eliminated through a process of what he called the ‘Eight Fold Path’. It was the simplicity of Buddha’s message that would make it enduring. Over the centuries, merchants, monks and missionaries would take Buddha’s teachings around the world, making Buddhism a major world religion.

Ajivikas in Buddhist Art
Ajivikas in Buddhist Art|Wikimedia Commons

Ajivikas

There were other belief systems, which at least for a while rivalled Buddhism and Jainism in power and influence. The most prominent among them were the Ajivikas. The founder of Ajivikas philosophy was a preacher named Makkhali Gosala, a contemporary of Mahavira and Buddha. Apparently, according to Jain texts, Makkhali Goshala was a follower of Mahavira for six years, before they had a spectacular fallout. Sadly, because most Ajivika texts have been lost, we don’t know much about the sect or its beliefs.

The basic principle of Ajivikas, according to Gosala was niyati or fate or destiny. Ajivikas followers were rigid fatalists, seeing niyati or fate as the sole determinant of everything. No human effort could have any effect against what was preordained to happen.

They claimed that there was no such thing as karma and nirvana was only reached after living through an immense number of lives, which proceeded automatically like the unwinding of a ball of thread. The last life was that of an Ajivika monk.

Makkhali Goshala is believed to have died around 484 BCE. For a brief time, under the Nanda and the Mauryan kings, the Ajivikas thrived till the 1st century BCE, before disappearing from much of India by the 5th century CE.

Atomists and Charvakas

The Atomists were followers of another preacher named Pakudha Kaccayana, also a contemporary of the Buddha and Mahavira. He claimed everything was made up of the seven eternal ‘elements’: earth, water, fire, air, happiness, pain and soul, which do not interact with each other. While Atomist teachings have been lost, we get a glimpse of them in the Buddhist Samannaphala Sutta, in which Kaccayana claims:

And among them [seven elements] there is no killer nor one who causes killing, no hearer nor one who causes hearing, no cognizer nor one who causes cognition. When one cuts off [another person's] head, there is no one taking anyone's life. It is simply between the seven substances that the sword passes.

Then there were the Charvakas or Hedonists who believed there was no such thing as good or bad karma. They believed that humans were born out of the four elements and when they died, they returned back to these elements.

“There is no such thing as alms or sacrifice or offering. There is neither fruit nor result of good or evil deeds. A human being is built up of four elements. When he dies, the earthly in him returns and relapses to the earth, the fluid to the water, the heat to the fire, the wind to the air, and his faculties pass into space.”

Lastly, there were the Ajnanas or Sceptics, who refused to have an opinion on anything. They believed that there was no such thing such as ‘knowledge’ and if even if such a thing existed, it only served as an obstacle to liberation. They refuted all other doctrines without propounding any of their own.

Over the centuries, Buddhism would thrive across India under the patronage of Emperor Ashoka, before being relegated to a narrow belt in the land of its birth, only to be revived with great gusto in the 20th century. Jainism, meanwhile, would spread steadily in pockets and thrive in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Karnataka. In China, Confucianism and Taoism would thrive for two millennia with millions of followers even today. In the West and the Middle East, the teachings of the early Abrahamic prophets and the Greek philosophers, would majorly influence Christianity and Islam.

Other philosophies that arose during this ‘Age of Ideas’ would simply disappear without a trace. But for a few hundred years, around the world, there was room for all and in the town squares, debates would continue till the sun set.

One would like to think that it was during those discussions that another idea took root – a deep-rooted belief that there are many different ways to reach God and salvation, and it is best to respect them all.

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