Buddhism and Jainism
The sixth century BC was a time of social and intellectual ferment in India. It was then that Mahavira founded the Jain religion, and Gautam Buddha attained enlightenment. The two great religions, Jainism and Buddhism, preached non-violence to all living creatures, tolerance and self-discipline, values that have become the cornerstones of the Indian ethos. The teachings of these faiths won immediate popular acceptance owing to their simplicity and practicality; the sermons of both were preached in commonly spoken languages. Later, Buddhist monks were to spread their religion south to Sri Lanka and north-east to China, Japan, Korea and the whole of South-east Asia, where it is practised till today.
Rise of the State
With land becoming property and the society being divided on the basis of occupations and castes, conflicts and disorders were bound to arise. Organised power to resolve these issues therefore emerged, gradually leading to formation of full-fledged state systems, including vast empires.
The Mauryan Empire
By the end of the third century BC, most of North India was knit together in the first great Indian empire by Chandragupta Maurya. His son Bindusara extended the Mauryan empire over virtually the entire subcontinent, giving rise to an imperial vision that was to dominate successive centuries of political aspirations. The greatest Mauryan emperor was Ashoka the Great (286-231 BC) whose successful campaigns culminated in the annexation of Kalinga (modern Orissa). Overcome by the horrors of war, he was probably the first victorious ruler to renounce war on the battlefield. Ashoka converted to Buddhism, but did not impose his faith on his subjects. Instead, he tried to convert them through edicts inscribed on rock in the local dialects, using the earliest known post-Harappan script known as Brahmi.
The Mauryan economy was essentially agrarian. The State owned huge farms and these were cultivated by slaves and farm labourers. Taxes collected on land, trade and manufacture of handicrafts were the other major sources of income during this era.
In 327 BC, Alexander of Macedonia crossed into northwest India. He conquered a large part of the Indian territory before his generals, tired of war, forced him to return home. Alexander left behind Greek governors to rule over Indian territories won by him. But with time, these regions were lost out to Indian states through conflict and slow absorption. However, the contact between the two cultures left a more lasting impact on Indian art. Sculptures of the region bear a marked Greek influence.
Following Ashoka's death in 232 BC, the Mauryan empire started disintegrating. This was an open invitation to invaders from Central Asia to seek their fortunes in India. This period saw the rise of several smaller kingdoms which did not last very long.