Classical Society and the Search for Salvation in India

The Aryan settlers of India established a series of small states throughout the area; over time several attempts at consolidation (as occurred in China) were made. The Mauran and Gupta dynasties came close, establishing central states which encompassed much of the Indian sub-continent; however both were relatively short-lived. Neither lasted long enough to establish permanent central rule.

The Mauryan and Gupta Dynasties: India had been invaded c. 520 B.C.E. by the Persian emperor Darius I, who conquered northwestern India and set up the kingdom of Gandara in present day Pakistan. He also introduced Persian governmental structure to the area. Later, in 327 B.C.E., India was again invaded by Alexander the Great, who destroyed the Persian governmental structure before withdrawing in the face of mutiny from his troops. The destruction left by Alexander created a vacuum in leadership and government. That vacuum was ultimately filled by Changdragupta Maurya, of the Magadha Kingdom. By the year 300 B.C.E., he had established a dynastic empire covering all of northern India from the Indus to the Ganges Rivers.

Changdragupta’s advisor, Kautalya, advised him on setting up an efficient administrative structure. Much of the advice he offered survives in a political work known as the Arthashastra. According to Indian tradition, Changdragupta abdicated to become a monk, and led such a severe life of self discipline that he starved himself to death. The dynasty he founded reached its high point during the reign of his grandson, Ashoka Maurya.

Ashoka first conquered the last remaining portion of the sub-continent in an exceptionally bloody campaign and established a fortified capital at Pataliputra. He established a very tightly controlled central government which he ruled by decree. His decrees were carved in stone and erected throughout his kingdom by which he encouraged his subjects to observe the values of Buddhism, and maintained his intention to rule fairly and justly. He encouraged the development of agriculture, built irrigation systems, and roads to support trade. As a means of encouraging trade, he had Banyan trees planted and wells dug along roadsides to provide comfort stations for travelers. As a result of his policies, India developed an expanding economy and stable government.

Ashoka’s empire crumbled almost immediately after his death in 232 B.C.E., largely due to economic difficulties. The cost of maintaining an army (which was largely inefficient) outpaced revenue; and subsequent emperors attempted to compensate for the loss by debasing the currency (reducing the gold or silver in the coin without reducing its face value.) The Mauryan Empire disintegrated c. 185 B.C.E., after which local rulers ruled a series of kingdoms. Among the more significant kingdoms was that of Bactria, governed by successors to Alexander the Great. Its location lent itself to trade and cultural exchange with the Chinese.

Bactria and its kingdom were defeated c. 1 C.E. by the Kushans, a nomadic tribe from central Asia who also engaged in trade with China. They controlled sufficient territory to allow trade between India and China by making passage safe from raiders. Their empire survived until c. 300 C.E. when they were defeated by the Gupta dynasty, which established another large empire, although not as large as the Mauryan.

Unlike the Mauryans, the Guptas did not establish a strong central government, but rather left local affairs to local administrations. They even left some policies in distant regions up to their allies. Under their rule, stability and prosperity returned to India. Very much like the Mauryans, however, the Gupta dynasty was short-lived. Invasion from the White Huns, nomadic warriors from central Asia, ended their rule. India was not united under a single ruler again until the sixteenth century.

Economic Development and Social Distinctions: Early Aryan society was agricultural and the success of agriculture led to the development of towns and the growth of trade. By 600 B.C.E. there were numerous towns across India. Trade was prominent not only within the sub-Continent but also with other parts of Eurasia. (Invasions by Cyrus of Persia and Alexander the Great had led to the building of roads and thereby encouraged trans-continental trade.) Indian merchants exported cotton, black pepper, pearls and precious gems and imported horses, gold bullion, and silk. Over time, transport by sea developed, augmented by the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean. The winds blow from the southwest in the spring and summer, and from the northeast during fall and winter; sailors could thus sail with the prevailing winds to any portion of the Indian Ocean. Marine navigation allowed Indian merchants to establish trade with Indonesia. Their eastern trade connections extended as far as the Roman Empire, where black pepper was so popular that the Romans established direct trade relations and settlements in India.

As in other societies, Indian society was strongly patriarchal, and women were considered subordinate by nature to men. Writings of the day portray women as weak-willed and emotional who should remain devoted to their more stable husbands. By the time of the Gupta dynasty, arranged marriages were the order of the day. Girls were betrothed as early as age eight to young men in their twenties with the formal marriage taking place when the girl reached puberty.

Indian society had consisted of the four primary castes previously discussed. However, as trade and industry flourished, groups of merchants and artisans developed who did not fit nicely into any of the castes. Those working in similar trades often established guilds to supervise prices and wages and provide for the welfare of members and their families. Members of a guild typically lived in the same areas, socialized with each other, married within the guild, and provided for widows and orphans of guild members. In time, the guilds became sub-castes known as jati, which regulated community affairs and even established their own courts. They were largely responsible for maintaining social stability. Those who were disloyal became "out-castes," who were considered untouchable, and were relegated to occupations considered unclean, such as tanners, butchers, and morticians.

The increase in trade and industry brought wealth to the two lower castes, the shudras and vaishyas; which implicitly challenged the importance of the Brahmins and khatriyas. Brahmins, the priestly class, had been responsible for offering sacrifices to ensure successful harvests. They were paid handsome fees and were exempt from taxation. As trade and the economy blossomed, the services of the Brahmin seemed less important; particularly to the merchants and artisans, many of whom came from lower castes. The old distinctions seemed to no longer fit, and the old rituals no longer seemed meaningful. The changing times led to the development of new religions. Some were atheistic in nature, maintaining that the gods were figments of the imagination which the Brahmins used to enrich themselves. These groups believed that life ended with death; a reflection of the materialistic nature of Indian society. Other religions developed which emphasized spirituality and meditation rather than mechanical sacrifice as had been practiced by the Brahmins.

The Religions of Classical India: Among the earliest and most influential responses to changing times was he emergence of Jainism, founded by Vardhamana Mahavira, c. 500 B.C.E. Mahavira (whose name means "the great hero" was born to a kshatriya family, but pondered on the cycle of reincarnation and how one might escape from it. He wandered for twelve years before becoming enlightened, at which point he abandoned all his earthly belongings, even his clothes. He thus taught his followers that the way to salvation (i.e. escape from reincarnation) was through detachment from the world. His disciples called him Jiva, ("the conqueror") and followers to this day call themselves Jains.

Jainist doctrine taught that everything in the universe, even water and inanimate objects such as rocks have a soul. As long as they remain in their physical state, they experience suffering; they are reincarnated according to their karma. They can only free themselves from this karma by purifying themselves from selfish behavior. One purified ones self by observing ahimsa, nonviolence to all living things. The observation of non-violence often went to great extremes: Jainist monks often swept the ground ahead of them to avoid stepping on any creature; filtered their water and made no sudden movements so as not to harm the tiny creatures in the air and water.

Although the idea of reincarnation may at first seem desirable; one must remember that to be reborn meant a subsequent life with all the pain and suffering associated with human (or animal) existence. Contrast this with Christian/Islamic ideas of eternal life in paradise.

Jainism was largely an impractical religion, as it was difficult for one to earn a living without some degree of violence to other creatures or objects. However, its principle of a soul for every creature made the caste system seem irrelevant; it thus became very popular among the lower castes. These people, primarily merchants and artisans, provided substantial material support to the Jainist monks. Jainism has never been a prominent religion (roughly two million people practice it today ;) however it had a profound influence not only on Buddhism but its doctrine of non-violence influenced both Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Buddhism: Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, born 563 B.C.E., the son of a Kshatriya family. His father, the governor of a small tribal state, was determined that his son should never know sorrow or suffering, and as a result he led a sheltered life throughout much of his youth. He married his cousin and studied to succeed his father as governor. According to legend, despite his sheltered life, he saw an old man and learned from the experience that all humans grow old and die. He later saw a sick man and learned that suffering and sickness are also common to human nature. Still later, he saw a monk whom he considered to be a noble character; as a result of which he left his wife and family and became a wandering holy man, trying to understand the problem of human suffering.

Gautama survived as a beggar for a time but ultimately became a hermit. According to legend, he sat one day under a Bo tree and determined to stay there until he understood suffering. He sat under the tree for forty nine days, during which time; demons tempted him with worldly pleasures and threatened him in attempts to shake him. The demons eventually abandoned him, and he received enlightenment. He then understood both the problem of suffering and the solution to it. He then became the Buddha, the "enlightened one." He delivered his first sermon in which he promulgated his philosophy to friends at the Deer Park of Sarnath. The sermon became known as the "Turning of the Wheel of the Law." From there, his followers were organized into groups of monks who owned only yellow robes and begging bowls and traveled the countryside preaching his message and begging for meals. Buddha himself carried the message for forty years before dying at the age of eighty after eating poison mushrooms mistakenly served to him by one of his disciples. His last message to his disciples was: ‘Decay is inherent in all component things. Work out hour salvation with diligence!" After his death, Buddhist monks preached the dharma to many audiences. Many followers joined monastic communities in which they dedicated themselves to the search for salvation. Many monasteries received gifts of land, money, etc. to meet the monk’s financial needs from dedicated followers.

Buddhism’s fundamental doctrine is known as the Four Noble Truths. They are:

  • All life involves suffering.
  • Suffering is caused by desire.
  • Desire must be ended to stop suffering.
  • Desire can be eliminated by following the Noble Eightfold Path.
  • The Noble Eightfold Path promotes a doctrine of a life of moderation and balance. Those who follow it reject luxury as well as extreme asceticism. Rather they follow a path of:

  • Right belief
  • Right resolve
  • Right speech
  • Right behavior
  • Right occupation
  • Right effort
  • Right contemplation
  • Right meditation
  • "Right" might more properly be translated as "moderate," or "temperate."

    Buddhists believe that by following the eight-fold path, they ultimately will escape the cycle of reincarnation and achieve nirvana, a state of perfect spiritual independence. The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path together constitute the Buddhist Dharma, the basic doctrine for all sects of Buddhism.

    As was the case with Jainism, Buddhism did not recognize the caste system of the jati, and therefore appealed to the lower classes. Because it did not demand that one leave behind all earthly possessions, it appealed to more people than Jainism. Early Buddhist monks did not use the Sanskrit used by the Brahmins, but rather carried their message in the vernacular tongue. As a result, they reached a much larger audience. Buddhism also employed a tangible element by enshrining the location of Gautama’s enlightenment and the Deer Park where he delivered his first sermon. Additionally, Buddhism maintains shrines known as stupas where sacred relics of the religion are kept. The Emperor Ashoka built a stupa at the town of Sanchi and encouraged followers to worship there. The tangible element of Buddhism also made it popular. Finally, the monastic system of Buddhism proved efficient in spreading its message. All these factors led to the success of the movement throughout India and Southeast Asia.

    The Emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism, by his own account, after witnessing the suffering inflicted during a war against another tribe. A more likely reason as that the movement offered a means of uniting the people of India into a single faith. He banned animal sacrifices; gave up hunting, which had been his passion; eliminated meat dishes from his table, and encouraged the construction of monasteries and stupas. He also sent missionaries to spread the religion which helped it establish roots throughout Asia.

    Several developments in Buddhist philosophy made following its doctrines easier for those who found it difficult to forsake their family, friends, and social standing:

  • Some of Buddha’s followers began to worship him as a God.
  • The doctrine of the bodhisattva ("enlightened being") became popular. This movement claimed that the bodhisattvas were individuals who had attained nirvana, but intentionally delayed their entry into heavenly bliss so that they might help those who were still struggling. They were examples of spiritual excellence, much like Christian saints.
  • Buddhist monasteries accepted gifts from wealthy persons which gifts were considered acts of generosity that merited salvation. One could thus "buy" one’s way into nirvana without the need for sacrifice of worldly pleasure.
  • Those who followed these changes in philosophy called their sect of Buddhism Mahayana, the "greater vehicle." The more strict form of Buddhism, known as Theravada Buddhism, the Mahayanas called Hinayana, the "lesser vehicle." The term was pejorative. The overwhelming majority of Buddhists follow Mahayana doctrine, including those of China, Japan, and Korea. Theravada Buddhists are more common in Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. Mahayana Buddhism flourished partly because it established educational institutions that spread the faith. The most famous institution of learning was the monastery at Nalanda, where one could study Buddhism, logic, medicine, even Hindu philosophy.

    Mahayana Buddhism’s teachings are preserved in a holy book consisting of the teachings of Buddha known as the Thripitika, (the "three baskets.")

    The Rise of Popular Hinduism: Hinduism was transformed into a religion of salvation, somewhat similar to Buddhism over time. This represented a change in the old doctrine prescribed by the Brahmins. The changes are illustrated by several epic Hindu poems which were committed to writing after having been transmitted orally for centuries:

  • The Mahabharata: tells of a massive war for the control of northern India between two groups of cousins. The God Vishnu, the primary god of Hinduism, is portrayed in the poem as the preserver of the world who intervened on behalf of worthy individuals.
  • The Ramayana: the tale of a legendary Prince, known as Rama, and his wife Sita. The demon king of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) kidnapped Sita with the help of Hanuman, leader of the monkeys. Rama later became an incarnation of Vishnu. Rama and Sita were portrayed as the ideal Hindu couple, devoted and loyal to each other, even in the face of trial.
  • The Bhagavad Gita: ("song of the lord’) represents a dialogue between Arjuna, a Kshatriya warrior about to enter battle, and his chariot driver, Krishna, who was in fact an incarnation of Vishnu. Arjuna is reluctant to do battle, as he is fighting against friends and relatives who would surely die at his hand. Krishna tells him that he must not fear battle, because only their bodies, not their souls would die. He did not have the power to kill their souls; so he could never significantly kill or harm another individual. Krishna also argued that since Arjuna was a Kshatriya, a member of the warrior class, his duty was to fight, and failure to fulfill the duties of ones caste was an egregious sin.
  • The Bhagavad Gita thus held the promise of salvation (similar to the promise of salvation in Buddhism) to those who performed the duties of his caste faithfully. Salvation, of course, meant to escape the cycle of reincarnation.
  • A new philosophy of Hinduism thus emerged, namely that one could lead an honorable life without withdrawing from the world as did the Jains and Buddhists. Reformed Hinduism recognized four principle aims in life:

  • Obedience to the moral and spiritual law. (dharma)
  • Pursuit of economic well being and honest prosperity. (artha)
  • Enjoyment of social, physical, and sexual pleasure.(kama)
  • Salvation of the soul. (moksha.)
  • The Vedas remains the sacred text of scripture for Hindus, although one cannot expect to gain salvation simply by reading the sacred texts.

    A proper balance of the first three would lead to salvation, or moksha. Reformed Hindusim offered salvation to everyone, not just the upper classes. As a result, it gradually replaced Buddhism as the most popular religion in India. Buddhist monks, once zealously missionary, confined themselves to their monasteries which often were lavishly endowed by wealthy patrons. Just as Ahoska had promoted Buddhism; so Gupta rulers promoted and supported Hindu education and values. Their efforts made Hinduism the dominant religion of India.