Changing Society, Emerging Religions in India

THE SUBCONTINENT OF INDIA is the birthplace of two major world religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which have their roots in the region. India has been the subject of a great deal of scholarly investigation because of its long recorded history and its rich cultural heritage. In spite of this, recent archaeological discoveries in India have thrown new light on the country's origins of civilization and have shed new light on the country's religious traditions. Excavations in the Indus Valley, which began in the late nineteenth century and continued until the present day, have revealed a previously unknown civilization that flourished during the Bronze Age. 

From approximately 3500 to 1700 BCE, the Indus Valley was the site of an urbanised and sophisticated civilization, which is sometimes referred to as the Harappan civilization after one of its largest cities, Harappa, which was located there (its ruins lie in the Punjab and Sindh regions of Pakistan). In roughly the same period of time as the Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations, the Harappan civilization reached its zenith. Harappan artefacts have been discovered as far north as the Sumerian city of Nineveh, in present-day Iraq, and as far south as the Indus Valley. 

An old Script of Veda
An old Script of Veda

Carved by rivers from the Himalayan, Hindu Kush, and Sulaiman mountain ranges, the Indus Valley was a fertile agricultural region and was ideally situated, with river access to Harappan artefacts have been discovered as far south as the Indus Valley. The Indus Valley civilization consisted of at least three major cities, according to historians. It was in the foothills of the mountains, on a tributary of the Indus, that the city of Harappa was founded, which was one of the largest of these cities. The cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Chanhu-Daro were located downstream. 

Construction of large public buildings, granaries, citadels, and streets laid out in a grid pattern have all been discovered during excavations of these settlements, as well as evidence of advanced agricultural practises. Agricultural implements, female figurines, and fertility symbols are among the artefacts on display, some of which date back to the fourth millennium. It has become clear that we are dealing with the remains of a sophisticated civilization, and this realisation has altered our perception of the origins of Indian culture.


The decline of the Indus Valley civilization is almost as mysterious as its beliefs about the origins of the universe. Climate change, in conjunction with natural disasters, may have played a significant role in the transformation of this once-fertile region into an arid wasteland. Ancient cities that were once river towns or ports have been reduced to ruins on a desolate steppe. 

By 1500 BCE, only a few centuries after the fall of Harappa, a new people had risen to prominence in the region and established dominance. These nomadic people from Central Asia, known as Aryans, gradually made their way into northern India. There has been some evidence of violence and flight discovered in Harappan settlements, indicating that there was probably a period of conflict during the overlap of the Aryans and the Indus Valley civilization. 

The pottery, beads, and burial mounds that date from this transitional period demonstrate the rapid change that occurred. Urns were shaped and inscribed in a variety of ways, and beads were made from a variety of different materials. Another indicator of climate change is the fact that crops have shifted from primarily wheat to primarily rice in recent years. The Aryans brought with them a religion based on sacred teachings known as the Vedas, which was passed down orally from generation to generation. The long-held belief that Hinduism derives primarily from the Vedas is now being called into question by some scholars. 

Scholars are now turning their attention to pre-Vedic civilization in search of important clues to the complex and varied beliefs that underpin Hinduism, as a result of the recent discoveries in the Indus Valley.

Traditions and beliefs associated with the Vedic religion spread throughout northern India during the first millennium BCE. The discovery of Painted Gray Ware pottery, which was used by this culture, indicates a rapid movement from the Indus Valley eastward toward the Ganges, according to archaeological evidence. 

Ancient Statue of Buddha

Ancient Statue of Buddha 

With this movement came increased contact with indigenous cultures, religious beliefs, deities, and rituals, as well as increased contact with European cultures. As society progressed from a nomadic to an agrarian to an urban lifestyle, the Vedic tradition began to adapt and evolve. The discovery of iron-forging techniques resulted in a resurgence of economic prosperity. During this prosperous period in the Indus and Ganges valleys, kingdoms and empires began to take shape, and society began to become more stratified as a result of the spread of agriculture and trade. 

While there had long been a priestly class in the Vedic tradition, the new hierarchy distinguished four estates, or varnas, that were distinct from the previous one. These people were known as Brahmins; they were followed by the warrior class, which consisted of knights and kings, who occupied the second and third ranks of the hierarchy, respectively. Those who worked as farmers, merchants, and artisans belonged to the Vaishya class, while servants and peasants belonged to the Sudra class. It is possible that this rigidly defined vertical organisation of society paved the way for the emergence of new religious traditions. 

Most sacred sacrifices were performed only for the top three tiers of the social order that had developed in the Indus and Ganges valleys; the servant class was largely excluded from participation in both the material and spiritual realms. As a result of this disenfranchisement of a large portion of the population, some scholars believe that the renunciatory and ascetic religious movements that emerged in the first millennium BCE were the product of beliefs that turned poverty into a virtue.


Around 500 BCE, the Indian religions of Buddhism, Jainism, and Ajivika emerged, all of which have their roots in the country. All of these ascetic traditions turned away from the worldly and corporeal in order to focus on the spiritual. They called for fasting, deprivation of physical comforts, and mendicancy as a means of protest. The ascetic movement, according to some scholars, simply picked up a submerged thread of belief that dated back to pre-Aryan civilization in northern India and carried it forward. However, despite significant differences in theology between these three traditions, they all share a fundamental belief in karma, which is literally defined as "actions" or "deeds" in the English language. 

The actions of a person over the course of a lifetime are believed to have an impact on the outcome of the subsequent life. When it comes to religion, the concept of reincarnation is closely associated with karma, with the belief that one will be continually reborn until achieving either enlightenment (in Buddhism) or moksha (in Jainism), thereby freeing the soul from an endless cycle of rebirth. Both Buddhism and Jainism forbid the harming or destruction of any sentient being, regardless of religion. As a result, these beliefs would be in opposition to the sacrifice that is essential to Vedic practises. 

The ascetics, who had been cast aside by the dominant society, were eventually organised by visionary leaders into a variety of sects, including Buddhism and Jainism, which came to dominate the world. While the founders of these traditions were of noble birth, Buddhism and Jainism initially gained popularity among the Sudra class, despite the fact that their founders were of noble birth. In short order, however, the ascetic beliefs gained ground at all levels of society, particularly as they were spread throughout the world through trade, warfare, and migration routes. Jainism and Buddhism are still practised today, but a renunciatory movement known as the Ajivika tradition, which dates back to the fourteenth century CE, has declined in popularity.


Jain belief divides time into two half-cycles, each of which lasts several millions of years and is divided into two halves again. In each of these half-cycles, a total of twenty-four teachers, known as tirthankaras, will appear in a series of appearances. A tirthankara is regarded as someone who will ford the river of rebirth on behalf of his or her followers, thereby bringing them to moksha (liberation). King Mahavira, who was born around 599 BCE in the Ganges Valley, is considered the twenty-fourth tirthankara of the current epoch. 

However, while he is frequently referred to as the founder of Jainism, a more accurate view is that Mahavira was a key teacher of an ancient tradition. Mahavira was born Prince Vardhamana, a member of the warrior Kshatriya class and the son of King Siddhartha and Queen Trishala. He was raised by his parents, King Siddhartha and Queen Trishala. 

Tirthankar Mahavira
An old statue of Lord Mahavira

Tradition holds that the god Indra placed him into the womb of his birth mother after rescuing him from his Brahmin mother's womb. In Jain belief, a tirthankara must be born into the warrior class in order to be considered a tirthankara. Vardhamana renounced the world at the age of thirty and became an ascetic, spending the next twelve years in intense meditation and fasting before returning to the world. 

With the bestowal of the name Mahavira, which literally translates as "great hero," he was recognised for his commitment to the difficult and austere spiritual path he had chosen. Mahavira gathered a group of twelve disciples, who used his teachings to compile the Jain scriptures. By the time of his death, in 527 BCE, Mahavira had amassed a large number of disciples. During the following centuries, Jainism developed and spread throughout the Indian subcontinent, particularly to the south and west.