Search This Blog

Sunday, 13 March 2016

World History: Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism
The last time we visited India for World History we looked at the Harappan Civilization (see here: By 1300 BCE the civilization had collapsed and India saw a wave of changes including the increased usage of iron, various invasions by people from the north-west and the resurgence of city based cultures. In this setting India saw the rise of two offshoots of Hinduism. These two religions would go on to be two of the largest religions in not only India but the world. They were Jainism and Buddhism. Before we look at the development of these religions we first have to look at India after the disappearance of the Harappan Civilization.

Post-Harappa India
Around c.1700 BCE a group of people migrated to India through the Indus Valley called the Aryans. Unfortunately through the work of European stupidity and that of the stupidity Social Darwinism the Aryans who migrated to India have often been viewed in terms of the Teutonic meaning. Romila Thapar, a very good historian, has summed it up well by saying 'It is doubtful whether the term arya was ever used in an ethnic sense'. Arya instead is a word meaning 'pure', 'respectable' or 'noble' and was applied to individuals and not an entire ethnicity. Anyway these Aryan people came from around the Caucasus and arrived in India via Iran and Afghanistan in several waves of migrations. They first settled in Panjab and soon spread across the Indian subcontinent. Whether this was a peaceful settlement or not has been highly debated; Mortimer Wheeler, the initial discoverer of the Harappan Civilization sites, argued that the Aryans conquered the Harappans although he lived at a time when the general consensus was if one civilization replaced another it had to be through conquest. 

The new settlers were mainly farmers and it would take centuries for them to build the impressive cities which on the scale that the Harappans did. They did, however, settle alongside the native peoples and eventually the two cultures started to blend together; although there is a strong leaning towards the Aryan culture. They used Sanskrit to write with and this produced the world's oldest religious text: the Rig-Veda. This text would not only give us a name for the new settles, Vedic, but would also act as one of the four sacred texts for Hinduism. In the Rig-Veda we would see some of the Vedic pantheon of gods including Agni, the god of fire, whose sacrificial flames could help people reach the gods as well as Varuna, the god of the heavens. 
The Rig-Veda:
This blend of Vedic and native cultures would eventually shape India in the future. Many parts of Indian society and that of Hinduism can be found emerging during the Vedic period. One of these is the Varna which would evolve into the caste system. Ancient texts said that all of humanity was split into four varnas: the Brahmins, priests, teachers and preachers, Kshatriyas, kings, governors and warriors, Vaishyas, merchants and agriculturalists and the Shudras, laborers. As the brahmins were the mouth for the gods they were highest in society while the shudras who did menial work were at the bottom. The caste system would remain throughout Indian history and would be often challenged by many influential figures such as Gandhi and the 19th Century mystic Ramakhrisna. Varna was heavily linked to the idea of Dharma which is your duty to do your job no matter what. If you were a farmer in was your duty to be a farmer and if you were a warrior it was your duty to fight. In the Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita this is summed up well. Lord Krishna visits a prince and tells him there is nothing more noble for him than to battle, the prince is a kshatriya. Even if he is killed he has achieved his Dharma. It was far better to be a poor warrior than to be anything else. Another major part of Hinduism and Vedic culture is Samsara; the continuous cycle of rebirth. When you died you would be reborn in the body of an individual just born. Who you was reborn as depended on karma. If you did good deeds and worked to fulfill your Dharma you would get good karma and would be reborn as someone in a higher caste but if you did the opposite you would be reborn in a lower caste. However, the goal is not to be born into the brahmin caste; instead the goal is to achieve Moksa which is the liberation from the continuous cycle of rebirth. Different schools of thought in Hinduism disagree about how to achieve this but they often refer to a oneness with god.

Along the Gangetic Plain in northern India in the late seventh century BCE sixteen major city based kingdoms emerged called the mahajanapada. The history of these kingdoms are so complex that it makes European history seem homogenous and easy to follow so instead we shall look at the two major developments that arose during this time period: Buddhism and Jainism

We know very little about the origin of Jainism, much less so than we do other religions like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. Helmut von Glasenapp has suggested that it arose around 1000 BCE. Jainism follows the teachings of twenty-four Tirthankara where Rishabhanatha was the first one. However, the twenty-fourth Tirthankara, Mahavira, is the most influential one and most of the teachings of Jainism derives from him stretching all the way back to the sixth century BCE. Jainism was a reaction against the brahmanical aspect of Hinduism where Moksha can be achieved without a oneness with god. To do this you would have to have the Right View, Right Knowledge and Right Conduct. A series of ethics would go on to shape how Jains lived: Ahimsa, this forbids the harming of any life-form bar the lowest form of life (vegetables, wheat etc.), Satya, to only speak the truth, Asteya, non-theiving, Brachmacharya, chastity and finally Aparigraha, non-possessiveness. Jainism would quickly take off after Mahavira but it would be overshadowed by another new religion: Buddhism.

Like with most religions we actually know little about the actual founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, (there are many debates about when he was actually born). As a result we rely heavily on Buddhist texts and from there Siddhartha Gautama had a somewhat vaguely similar situation to Mahavira. Both came from the kshatriya caste although 'Buddha' would live around the fifth-century BCE. He was the son of Suddhodana who was the raja of the Sakja, a state which had many rajas, and a prophecy said that if Suddhodana's son ever left the palace the family's power would fall. As a result Siddhartha Gautama would be given a wife and as much food and entertainment that he wanted but he realized that there was more to life so would sneak out. While outside the palace he saw an old man, a sick man and a corpse and started to question why these misfortunes happen. He permanently left the palace, renounced his crown and traveled to find the holiest people to help him answer his question. He studied under various distinguished teachers but always felt disappointed and even ignored King Bimbisara of Magadhara who offered him the opportunity to return to his ksatriya station. After meditating for a month he is said to have reached nirvana (moksa) becoming the Buddha. He would teach his pupils the Four Noble Truths: all life is suffering, the source of suffering is desire, to end this suffering you have to end desire and to stop desire you have to follow the Noble Eightfold Path. This path comprised of the right view, the right intention, the right speech, the right action, the right livelihood, the right effort, the right mindfulness and the right concentration. Buddhism managed to quickly become successful as it did not challenge the brahmanical religion but rather sidestepped it, throughout history clashing religions often leads to violence which Buddhism averted. It also managed to gain widespread support as it offered women and members of lower castes the opportunity to become monks or key roles. Caste and sex were irrelevant in the eyes of the Buddha so it gave greater roles to these oppressed peoples.

Buddhism did continue after the death of Siddhartha Gautama, largely thanks to the role of monks. Inevitably Hinduism would win over the people of India and even today Buddhism is nowhere near the main religion in India. Buddhism, however, did spread into Bhutan, Nepal, Japan, China, Sri Lanka and southeast Asia extremely successfully. Today Buddhism is the dominant religion, or one of the main religions, in those countries. However, there was on Indian ruler who did convert to Buddhism.

Ashoka was born around 304 BCE into the Maurya dynasty and is often regarded as one of India's greatest emperors. The Maurya Empire was one of the largest empires at the time. The picture below shows just how great the empire was.
Ashoka in 265 BCE would go on to conquer the Kingdom of Kalinga in eastern India. He attacked the small kingdom with an army of 400,000 and destroyed Kalinga. Over 100,000 civilians were supposed to have been massacred and the Daya River quite literally ran red with blood. This horrified Ashoka so much that he converted to Buddhism, renounced violence and started building monuments including stupas and pillars devoted to Buddhism. On many of these monuments Ashoka had edicts describing Dharma written on them. However, Buddhism's nature directly contradicts the rule of emperors so Ashoka's state can only be considered quasi-Buddhist. The Maurya Empire would collapse fifty years after Ashoka's death and with it Buddhism was almost wiped out in India.

The reason why Buddhism survived though is how flexible it is. Buddhism's teachings and the fact that it says that all religions can achieve nirvana allowed it to blend with local teachings. Buddhist teachings are very similar to that of Taoism and Confucianism which allowed it to get such a stronghold in China. We have to remember that the spiritual leader of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, (a position established in the fourteenth-century CE) home is traditionally in Tibet and not India. Likewise the Buddha is considered to be one of the incarnations of Vishnu in Hinduism. Buddhism's flexibility helped make it last through the ages.

Thanks for reading. The sources I have used are as follows:
-The Penguin History of the World by John Roberts
-India: A History by John Keay
-A History of India by Hermann Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund
Next time on World History we'll be looking at the Achaemenid Empire and seeing how accurate 300 is in representing the mighty Persian empire.

For a list of other World History posts please see here

No comments:

Post a Comment