The Brahmans claim to direct the religious life and thought of India and apart from Islam may be said to have achieved their ambition, though at the price of tolerating much that the majority would wish to suppress. But in earlier ages their influence was less extensive and there were other currents of religious activity, some hostile and some simply independent. The most formidable of these found expression in Jainism and Buddhism both of which arose in the sixth century B.C. This century was a time of intellectual ferment in many countries. In China it produced Lao-tzu and Confucius: in Greece, Parmenides, Empedocles, and the sophists were only a little later. In all these regions we have the same phenomenon of restless, wandering teachers, ready to give advice on politics, religion or philosophy, to any one who would hear them.
In Gautama’s youth Bihar was full of wandering philosophers who appear to have been atheistic and disposed to uphold the boldest paradoxes, intellectual and moral. There must however have been constructive elements in their doctrine, for they believed in reincarnation and the periodic appearance of superhuman teachers and in the advantage of following an ascetic discipline. They probably belonged chiefly to the warrior caste as did Gautama, the Buddha known to history.
The Pitakas represent him as differing in details from contemporary teachers but as rediscovering the truth taught by his predecessors. They imply that the world is so constituted that there is only one way to emancipation and that from time to time superior minds see this and announce it to others. Still Buddhism does not in practice use such formulae as living in harmony with the laws of nature.
Indian literature is notoriously concerned with ideas rather than facts but the vigorous personality of the Buddha has impressed on it a portrait more distinct than that left by any other teacher or king. His work had a double effect. Firstly it influenced all departments of Hindu religion and thought, even those nominally opposed to it. Secondly it spread not only Buddhism in the strict sense but Indian art and literature beyond the confines of India. The expansion of Hindu culture owes much to the doctrine that the Good Law should be preached to all nations.