When we study history, we tend to focus on unified polities such as Egypt, France or the League of Nations. This emphasis on unity often leads to labels that mask much of the historical differences associated with the institution in question. One needs only think of Europe and the many different cultures spread across time to understand this idea. I mean, what even is Europe when analysed through a historical dimension?
Today we are going to attempt to tackle something that is even more complicated and hazy than European history: Ancient India. Indian history is comprised of many diverse and distinct cultures which existed over thousands of years and as such, it is rather difficult to put together a clear, coherent and unified history. But we will try.
The (Very) Basics of Hinduism
Hinduism, as with all other world religions, is extremely complex and this article could never, in no way, do justice to the intricacies of it. That being said, hopefully you will understand a little more of the religion (if you don’t already know much) as it is important to comprehend the basics of Hinduism to understand the evolution of history on the Indian subcontinent. So, let’s go.
Remember our old friends, the Indus Valley Civilisation from the fourth instalment of this series? Remember how they were one of the earliest civilisations, but they basically just disappeared under a veil of mystery around 1750 BCE? Well their civilisation was replaced by migrating Aryans (not to be confused with the Nazi’s “master race”) wandering east from the Caucasus. The reason that we know about these guys is because, unlike their predecessors, they left behind some of the earliest religious texts, the oldest of which are known as the Vedas. These Vedas lie at the core of what would later become known as Hinduism.
Not much is known about the authors of these texts as they tend to focus on the ideas rather than on the authors themselves. This allows the reader to look at the message without being influenced by the messenger. There are tonnes of stuff in the Vedas which we do not have time to look at but one of the more culturally important messages to come from the scriptures is the idea of the caste system.
The Caste System
The caste system is one of India’s most enduring and fascinating (and from a western point of view certainly, unjust) establishments. One of the Vedas speaks of Purusha, the cosmic man, whose sacrifice by the gods led to the creation of all life on earth. This parable puts forward a divine explanation for the caste system known to Hindus as the Varna:
- Brahmins – the top class are represented by Purusha’s mouth as they are the ones that speak to the gods.
- Kshatriyas – the arms of Purusha represent the ruling class, including the warriors and administrators.
- Vaishyas – the third caste are the merchants and artisans who provide the money for the priests and the warriors. This caste come from Purusha’s thighs.
- Shudras – the bottom class are represented, unsurprisingly, by the feet of Purusha. This class consists of labourers and farmers who are the foundation of the social order.
The caste system is infinitely more complex and intricate than this but this division into four basic classes remains constant throughout much of India’s history. The caste system lays the foundation for another huge concept in Hinduism: dharma.
One’s role in life and society is predestined and defined primarily by birth and by caste. Someone must fulfil the role that they were born into, even if they are terrible at it. It is better to be an awful warrior than the world’s greatest actor if your role in life is to be a warrior. This is dharma, and someone is better fulfilling their own dharma poorly than playing the part of someone else’s, no matter how well.
Samsara, Moksha and Karma
There are both personal and social reasons for performing your own dharma. The social reasons are rather obvious: dharma and caste combine for excellent social cohesion. There will always be the exact correct number of priests and the exact correct number of farmers and the exact correct number of toilet cleaners (I think you get the picture).
Samsara is the cycle of rebirth (or reincarnation), the idea that when we die our soul is transferred to another living thing as it, itself, is being born. If one fulfils his or her dharma, then they are born into a higher being. This would lead someone, not of this culture or religion, to believe that being reincarnated as a brahmin is the ultimate goal but this thought would be incorrect. The eventual goal of dharma is to be released from the merry-go-round of reincarnation altogether. This release is known as moksha and the law that holds all of this together is karma.
These laws are a great way to organise the social order from top to bottom. Everyone has a role to play in the community and society stays in balance because there is a religious element to it.
Hinduism does have one major design flaw though for those ambitious brahmins and kshatriyas wishing to forge an empire. Originally the brahmins had tried to set themselves up as the political elites but Hinduism does not place a premium on its worshipper’s obeying the leaders because everyone’s path to salvation is an individual and personal experience (perhaps giving a religious tinge to Margaret Thatcher’s famous quip that “…there is no such thing as society.”)
Historians cannot pinpoint the beginnings of Buddhism exactly but according to traditional biographies the story begins in the sixth century BCE with a prince who had known wealth and opulence his whole life. Prince Siddhartha Gautama’s father had locked him in the palace because a prophecy foretold that the family would lose the kingdom if the young prince ever left. This was, however, extremely comfortable as house arrests go: he had fine foods, entertainment and a beautiful wife. Naturally, however, the curious prince began to believe that there must be more to life and snuck out from the palace on several occasions. The legend tells that on his travels, Siddhartha encountered an old man, a sick man, and, finally, a corpse. Having realised the ubiquity of suffering and death, Siddhartha decided to leave the palace and renounce the crown and seek out the holiest men to discover how it was that life could come to such a miserable end.
Siddhartha became an ascetic, abstaining from much of life’s pleasures and fasting and meditating for days on end hoping to find enlightenment. Finally, after meditating for seven weeks under a tree it finally came to him: Siddhartha had achieved nirvana.
He finally understood the meaning of life and began to teach it to people who became his disciples. Siddhartha had become the Buddha (which means Teacher) and taught the Four Noble Truths. These are the principles that form the foundation of Buddhism and they are:
- All life is suffering
- The source of suffering is desire
- To stop suffering, one must rid themselves of desire
- The eightfold path – the path to freedom from suffering:
- Right View
- Right Intention
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Concentration
As a religion Buddhism requires a lot of meditation and moderation and not much fun rituals and Buddhist monks have literally no power unlike the priests of other religions and they must renounce everything. (The exception being Shaolin monks: I mean, who doesn’t want to be a Kung Fu monk!?)
However unattractive Buddhism may have seemed to the higher classes, it was an exceptionally attractive option to the lower caste Hindus. In theory, anyone who follows the eightfold path can be free of suffering and achieve nirvana, maybe even in this life rather than having to be reborn for potentially thousands of years.
Ashoka: the Buddhist Emperor
For the vast majority of history on the Indian subcontinent, India was not one place but rather many different principalities and city-states. India did, however, experience indigenous political unification twice in its long history: the Mauryan Dynasty (321 – 185 BCE) and the Gupta Dynasty (320 – 550 CE). One particular ruler of the Mauryan Dynasty, Ashoka the Great, is worth mentioning as he attempted to rule through quasi-Buddhist principles.
Initially, Ashoka had been a great warrior who expanded the empire that his grandfather had founded but experienced a conversion to Buddhism after witnessing his own army devastate the vanquished kingdom of Kalinga. Ashoka built stupas (mound like monuments to the Buddha) all over the kingdom to show his devotion. He also erected pillars that proclaimed his benevolent rule and described how he was going to rule through something called “Dhamma” which was his policy for public welfare.
Ashoka’s empire was not governed with individualistic goals in mind like we see in Hinduism but was rather run through relational goals. This is one of the reasons that his empire was not all that Buddhist; Buddhism is not concerned with the order of the world but argues that fulfilment of the self will lead to the order of the world.
In the end, Ashoka’s empire did not outlast him by much and Buddhism declined in India, almost to the point of extinction.
The Bigger Picture
Hinduism is the most flexible of the world religions largely down to it being polytheistic and the belief that the many gods can, equally, take many forms. This makes it easy for Hindus to assimilate other religious traditions. This is precisely what happened with Buddhism and in time the Buddha became worshipped as another incarnation of one of the Hindu gods rather than as a mortal teacher. In the end Hinduism enveloped the Buddha rather than eradicating him. This meant that Hinduism, with its tremendous amount of variety and flexibility with it’s core values of samsara, karma and the caste system have provided an incredible amount of cultural and social unity to the Indian subcontinent for millennia.
As unfortunate as it was for the Buddha to have his teachings disregarded in his homeland of India, it was also fortunate that his teachings migrated east to China. And next time, we will follow his teachings and make the same journey eastward.
The Rest is History
Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below: