Identify the characteristic differences between the Sramanas of the 6th Century and the Brahmanas of the day.
The religious and philosophical environment in India at the time when the Buddha attained Enlightenment in the 6th Century was complex, elaborate and difficult to understand. The power and importance were monopolized by the Brahmins, the elite class and the Vedas were the basic literature that guided their beliefs and practices.
Under such a social condition, grew a now movement in philosophy that opposed the belief, the superiority of the Brahmins. The new movement was led by men who were not Brahmins, but came from all ranks of society and they set up independent schools. Some Brahmins also joined these schools and were assimilated into this new movement which was essentially a classless one. The Buddha belonged to this new movement and therefore the Bhikkhus during His time were no different from the other Sramanas.
Out of the Sramana movement of the 6th Century B.C., at least five major organized schools out of a large number of schools that developed, became strongly established. They were the Ajivaka, Lokayata, Jaina, Agnostic and the Buddhist schools. By far, the school founded by the Buddha was the most successful in terms of surviving the test of time.
All these schools have first of all, one thing in common and that is they rejected the religious practices of the Brahmins and that the Vedas was the final truth. They declared that the entire Brahmanical system was fraudulent.
The Bhikkhus, like the other Sramanas, were men who had left society to lead a “homeless” life. They became wanderers, living by surviving on what they could obtain in the forests or by begging. Their aim was to discover the truth and attain happiness. They spent their time thinking, trying out ascetic practices and of course spreading he doctrines from village to village and city to city.
Generally, their teachings tend to be instructing people on how to live and some may emphasize on ethical practices like the teachings of the Buddha. They were supported by the masses and were, in return, obliged to teach them once they had discovered the truth.
The Sramanas sought to find satisfactory explanation of the universe and the life through genuine investigations and reasoning. They believed that through their own effort, they were able to ascertain the natural laws and not by following any authoritarian traditions. The Bhikkhus too, like the other Sramanas, under the guidance of the Buddha, rejected all authority.
In fact the Buddha taught them not to accept everything He taught them just because He said so. They should instead experiment for themselves and see that the teachings are true. This sets them apart from the other Sramanas.
There were two extreme practices during that time. One school proclaimed the end of life with death of the physical body (Uccheavada – annihilationism) and the other maintain that self and universe are eternal (Sassatavada – eternalism) Buddhism took the Middle Path between the two.
The differences between the Bhikkhus and the other Sramanas were, firstly, the uniqueness in which the Buddha taught His disciples. His way of life may not be unique but His teachings definitely are. The Buddha Himself attained Enlightenment Himself and without help from any teacher. Therefore His teachings advocates that a person is able to find the truth through his own effort and choice and it is not hereditary.