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The Wonder that was India.

Basham, A.L.

London, 1967



At most periods of her history India, though a cultural unit, has been tom by internecine war. In statecraft her rulers were cunning and unscrupulous. Famine, flood and plague visited her from time to time, and killed millions of her people. Inequality of birth was given religious sanction, and the lot of the humble was generally hard. Yet our overall impression is that in no other part of the [9] ancient world were the relations of man and man, and of man and the state, so fair and humane. In no other early civilization were slaves so few in number, and in no other ancient law book are their rights so well protected as in the Arthashastra. No other ancient lawgiver proclaimed such noble ideals of fair play in battle as did Manu. In all her history of warfare Hindu India has few tales to tell of cities put to the sword or of the massacre of noncombatants. The ghastly sadism of the kings of Assyria, who flayed their captives alive, is completely without parallel in ancient India. There was sporadic cruelty and oppression no doubt, but, in comparison with conditions in other early cultures, it was mild. To us the most striking feature of ancient Indian civilization is its humanity.

Some 19th-century missionaries, armed with passages from Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, often taken out of their context, and with tales of famine, disease, and the evils of the Hindu caste and family system, have helped to propagate the widespread fallacy that India is a land of lethargic gloom. The traveler landing at Bombay has only to watch the rush-hour crowds, and to compare them mentally with those of London, to realize that the Indian character is neither lethargic nor unhappy. This conclusion is borne out by a general acquaintance with the remains of India's past. Our second general impression of ancient India is that her people enjoyed life, passionately delighting both in the things of the senses and the things of the spirit.

The European student who concentrates on religious texts of a certain type may well gain the impression that ancient India was a land of "life-negating" { This term, as applied to Indian religion, thought and culture, is that of the great Dr. Albert Schweitzer (Indian Thought and its Development, passim).} ascetics, imposing their gloomy and sterile ideas upon the trusting millions who were their lay followers. The fallacy of this impression is quite evident from the secular literature, sculpture and painting of the time. The average Indian, though he might pay lip-service to the ascetic and respect his ideals, did not find life a vale of tears from which to escape at all costs; rather he was willing to accept the world as he found it, and to extract what happiness he could from it. Dandin's description of the joys of a simple meal served in a comparatively poor home is probably more typical of ancient Indian everyday life than are the Upanishads. India was a cheerful land, whose people, each finding a niche in a complex and slowly evolving social system, reached a higher level of kindliness and gentleness in their mutual relationships than any other nation of antiquity. For this, as well as for her great achievements in religion, literature, art and mathematics, one European student at least would record his admiration of her ancient culture.



[14] In the early part of the 3rd millennium, civilization, in the sense of an organized system of government over a comparatively large area, developed nearly simultaneously in the river valleys of the Nile, Euphrates, and Indus, We know a great deal about the civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, for they have left us written material which has been satisfactorily deciphered. The Indus people, on the other hand, did not engrave long inscriptions on stone or place papyrus scrolls in the tombs of their dead; all that we know of their writing is derived from the brief inscriptions of their seals, and there is no Indian counterpart of the Rosetta Stone. Several brilliant efforts have been made to read the Indus seals, but none so far has succeeded. Hence our knowledge of the Indus civilization is inadequate in many respects, and it must be classed as prehistoric, for it has no history in the strict sense of the term.

The civilization of the Indus is known to the archaeologist as the Harappa Culture, from the modern name of the site of one of its two great cities, on the left bank of the Ravi, in the Panjab. Mohenjo Daro, the second city, is on the right bank of the Indus, some 250 miles from its mouth. As well as these two cities at least three small towns are known, and a large number of village sites, from Rüpar on the upper Satlaj to Rangpur in Kathiawar. The area covered by the Harappa Culture therefore extended for some 950 miles from north to south, and the pattern of its civilization was so uniform that even the bricks were usually of the same size and shape from one [15] end of it to the other. Outside this area the village cultures of Baluchistan seem to have continued much as before.

This great civilization owed little to the Middle East, and there is no reason to believe that it was formed by recent immigrants; the cities were built by people who had probably been in the Indus Valley for several centuries. The Harappa people were already Indians when they planned their cities, and they altered hardly at all for a thousand years. We cannot fix a precise date for the beginning of this civilization, but certain indications synchronize it roughly with the village cultures of Baluchistan. The site of Rana Ghundai produced a stratification which showed, in the third phase of the village's history, a type of pottery with bold designs in black on a red background. From evidence discovered by Sir R. Mortimer Wheeler in 1946 it seems that the city of Harappa was built on a site occupied by people using similar pottery. There is no evidence of the date of the foundation of the other great city of Mohenjo Daro, for its lowest strata are now below the level of the Indus, whose bed has slowly risen with the centuries; though diggings have reached 30 feet below the surf ace, flooding has prevented the excavation of the earliest levels of the city.

Thus the Harappa Culture, at least in the Panjab, was later in its beginnings than the village cultures, but it was certainly in part contemporary with them, for traces of mutual contact have been found; and some of the village cultures survived the great civilization to the east of them. From the faint indications which are all the evidence we have, it would seem that the Indus cities began in the first half, perhaps towards the middle, of the 3rd millennium B.C.; it is almost certain that they continued well into the 2nd millennium.

When these cities were first excavated no fortifications and few weapons were found, and no building could be certainly identified as a temple or a palace. The hypothesis was then put forward that the cities were oligarchic commercial republics, without sharp extremes of wealth and poverty, and with only a weak repressive organization; but the excavations at Harappa in 1946 and further discoveries at Mohenjo Daro have shown that this idyllic picture is Incorrect. Each city had a well-fortified citadel, which seems to have been used for both religious and governmental purposes. The regular planning of the streets, and the strict uniformity throughout the area of the Harappa culture in such features as weights and measures. the size of bricks, and even the layout of the great cities, suggest rather a single centralized state than a number of free communities.

Probably the most striking feature of the culture was its intense [16] conservatism. At Mohenjo Daro nine strata of buildings have been revealed. As the level of the earth rose from the periodic flooding of the Indus new houses would be built almost exactly on the sites of the old, with only minor variations in ground plan; for nearly a millennium at least the street plan of the cities remained the same. The script of the Indus people was totally unchanged throughout their history. There is no doubt that they had contact with Mesopotamia, but they showed no inclination to adopt the technical advances of the more progressive culture. We must assume that there was continuity of government throughout the life of the civilization. This unparalleled continuity suggests, in the words of Professor Piggott, "the unchanging traditions of the temple" rather than "the secular instability of the court".  It seems in fact that the civilization of Harappa, like those of Egypt and Mesopotamia, was theocratic in character.

The two cities were built on a similar plan. To the west of each was a "citadel", an oblong artificial platform some 80-50 feet high and about 400 x 200 yards in area (pl. V). This was defended by crenelated walls, and on it were erected the public buildings. Below it was the town proper, in each case at least a square mile in area. The main streets, some as much as so feet wide, were quite straight, and divided the city into large blocks, within which were networks of narrow unplanned lanes. In neither of the great cities has any stone building been found; standardized burnt brick of good quality was the usual building material for dwelling houses and public buildings alike. The houses, often of two or more stories, though they varied in size, were all based on much the same plan - a square courtyard, round which were a number of rooms. The entrances were usually in side alleys, and no windows faced on the streets, which must have presented a monotonous vista of dull brick walls. The houses had bathrooms, the design of which shows that the Harappan, like the modern lndian, preferred to take his bath standing, by pouring pitchers of water over his head. The bathrooms were provided with drains, which flowed to sewers under the main streets, leading to soak-pits. The sewers were covered throughout their length by large brick slabs. The unique sewerage system of the Indus people must have been maintained by some municipal organization, and is one of the most impressive of their achievements. No other ancient civilization until that of the Romans had so efficient a system of drains.

The average size of the ground floor of a house was about so feet square, but there were many bigger: obviously there were numerous well-to-do families in the Indus cities, which perhaps had a middle [17] class larger and more important in the social scale than those of the contemporary civilizations of Sumer and Egypt. Remains of workmen's dwellings have also been discovered at both sites - parallel rows of two-roomed cottages, at Mohenjo Daro with a superficial area of 20 x 12 feet each, but at Harappa considerably larger; they bear a striking resemblance to the "coolie lines" of modern Indian tea and other estates. At Harappa rows of such buildings have been found near the circular brick floors on which grain was pounded, and they were probably the dwellings of the workmen whose task was to grind corn for the priests and dignitaries who lived in the citadel. Drab and tiny as they were, these cottages were better dwellings than those in which many Indian coolies live at the present day.

The most striking of the few large buildings is the great bath in the citadel area of Mohenjo Daro. This is an oblong bathing pool 39 x 28 feet in area and 8 feet deep, constructed of beautiful brickwork made watertight with bitumen. It could be drained by [18] an opening in one corner and was surrounded by a cloister, on to which opened a number of small rooms. Like the "tank" of a Hindu temple, it probably had a religious purpose, and the cells may have been the homes of priests. The special attention paid by the people of the Harappa culture to cleanliness is hardly due to the fact that they had notions of hygiene in advance of those of other civilizations of their time, but indicates that, like the later Hindus, they had a strong belief in the purificatory effects of water from a ritual point of view.

The largest building so far excavated is one at Mohenjo Daro with a superficial area of 280 x 78 feet, which may have been a palace. At Harappä a great granary has been discovered to the north of the citadel; this was raised on a platform of some 150 x 200 feet in area to protect it from floods, and was divided into storage blocks of 50 x 20 feet each. It was doubtless used for storing the corn which was collected from the peasants as land tax, and we may assume that it had its counterpart at Mohenjo Daro. The main food crops were wheat, barley, peas, and sesamurn, the latter still an important crop in India for its seeds, which provide edible oil. There is no clear evidence of the cultivation of rice, but the Harappa people grew and used cotton. It is not certain that irrigation was known, although this is possible. The main domestic animals known to modern India had already been tamed - humped and humpless cattle, buffaloes, goats, sheep, pigs, asses, dogs, and the domestic fowl. The elephant was well known, and may also have been tamed. The Harappa people may have known of the horse, since a few horse's teeth have been found in the lowest stratum of the Baluchistan site of Räna Ghundai, probably dating from several centuries earlier than the foundation of Harappa. This would indicate that horse-riding nomads found their way to N.- W. India in small numbers long before the Äryan invasion; but it is very doubtful whether the Harappa people possessed domestic horses themselves, and if they did they must have been very rare animals. The bullock was probably the usual beast of burden.

On the basis of this thriving. agricultural economy the Harappä people built their rather unimaginative but comfortable civilization. Their bourgeoisie had pleasant houses, and even their workmen, who may have been bondmen or slaves, had the comparative luxury of two-roomed brick-built cottages. Evidently a well organized commerce made these things possible. The cities undoubtedly traded with the village cultures of Baluchistan, where outposts of the Harappa culture have been traced, but many of their metals and semi-precious stones came from much longer distances. From Kathiawar and the [19] Deccan they obtained conch shell, which they uses freely in decoration, and several types of stone. Silver, turquoise and lapis lazuli were imported from Persia and Afghanistan. Their copper came either from Rajasthan or from Persia, while jadeite was probably obtained from Tibet or Central Asia.

Though their culture extended nearly to the mouth of the Indus the people of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro seem to have cared little for the sea. Only two representations of ships have been found among their remains, and these are of small river vessels. But whether by sea or land, the products of the Indus reached Mesopotamia, for a number of typical Indus seals and a few other objects from the Indus Valley have been found in Sumer at levels dating between about 2800 and 2000 B.C. Evidence of Sumerian exports to India is very scant and uncertain, and we must assume that they were mainly precious metals and raw materials. The finding of Indus seals suggests that merchants from India actually resided in Mesopotamia; their chief merchandise was probably cotton, which has always been one of India's staple exports, and which is known to have been used in later Babylonia.

It seems that every merchant or mercantile family had a seal, bearing an emblem, often of a religious character, and a name or brief inscription in the tantalizingly indecipherable script. The standard Harappa seal was a square or oblong plaque, usually made of the soft stone called steatite, which was delicately engraved and hardened by heating. The Mesopotamian civilizations employed cylinder seals, which were rolled on clay tablets, leaving an impressed band bearing the device and inscription of the seal; one or two such seals have been found in Mohenjo Daro, but with devices of the Harappa type. Over 2,000 seals have been discovered in the Indus cities so far, and it would seem that every important citizen possessed one. Their primary purpose was probably to mark the ownership of property, but they doubtless also served as amulets, and were regularly carried on the persons of their owners. Generally they depict animals, such as the bull, buffalo, goat, tiger and elephant, or what appear to be scenes from religious legend. Their brief inscriptions, never of more than twenty symbols and usually of not more than ten, are the only signficant examples of the Harappä script to have survived.

This script had some 270 characters, evidently pictographic in origin, which had an ideographic or syllabic character. It may have been inspired by the earliest Sumerian script, which probably antedates it slightly, but it bears little resemblance to any of the scripts of the ancient Middle East …

[22] The men wore robes which left one shoulder bare, and the garments of the upper classes were often richly patterned. Beards were worn, and men and women alike had long hair. The elaborate headdresses of the Mother Goddess figures probably had their counterparts in the festive attire of the richer women. The goddesses often wear only a very short skirt, but on one seal women, perhaps priestesses, are depicted with longer skirts, reaching to just below the knee. The coiffures of the women were often elaborate, and pigtails were also popular, as in present-day India. Women loved jewellery, and wore heavy bangles in profusion, large necklaces, and earrings.

As far as we can reconstruct it from our fragmentary knowledge, the religion of the Harappa people had some features suggesting those characteristics of later Hinduism which are not to be found in the earliest stratum of Indian religious literature. The Mother Goddess, for instance, reappears only after the lapse of over a thousand years from the fall of Harappa. As already stated she was evidently the divinity of the people, and the upper classes seem to have preferred a god, who also shows features found in later Hinduism. As well as the figurines already mentioned, which may represent divinities, there are a few in terracotta of bearded nude men with coiled hair; their posture, rigidly upright, with the legs slightly apart, and the arms held parallel to the sides of the body, but not touching it, closely resembles the stance called by the Jainas kayotsarga, in which meditating teachers are often portrayed in later times; the repetition of this figure, in exactly the same posture, would suggest that he was a god. A terracotta mask of a horned deity [I’ve never seen this!] has also been found.

[the horned god]

The most striking deity of the Harappa culture is the horned god of the seals He is depicted on three specimens [four, at least], [23] in two seated on a stool or small dais, and in the third on the ground; in all three his posture is one well known to later Indian holy men, with the legs drawn up close to the body and the two heels touching, a position quite impossible to the average European without much practice. The god's body is nude, except for many bangles and what appear to be necklaces, and he wears a peculiar head-dress, consisting of a pair of horns, which may have been thought of as growing from his head, with a plant-like object between them. On the largest of the seals he is surrounded by four wild animals, an elephant, a tiger, a rhinoceros and a buffalo, and beneath his stool are two deer, as in the representations of the Buddha preaching his first sermon in the Deer-park at Banaras. The animals, the plant-like growth from the head, and the fact that he is ithyphallic, indicate that he is a fertility god. His face has a fierce tigerish aspect, and one authority has suggested that it is not meant to be human; to the right and left of the head are small protuberances which were believed by Sir John Marshall to represent a second and third face on either side. Marshall boldly called this god Proto-Shiva, and the name has been generally accepted; certainly the horned god has much in common with the Shiva of later Hinduism, who is, in his most important aspect, a fertility deity, is known as Pashupati, the Lord of Beasts, and is sometimes depicted with three faces.

Sacred animals played a big part in the religion of the Indus people. Though all the animals shown on the seals may not have been particularly sacred, the bull occurs in contexts which prove that he at least was so; on many seals he stands before a peculiar object which is evidently not a manger, and has no utilitarian purpose, but is a "cult object", probably a table on which corn was grown for fertility rites. On some seals small lines emerge from the table, which may represent the growing corn, no doubt eaten by the sacred bull as part of the ceremony. The bull is usually depicted with a single horn, and has sometimes been referred to as a unicorn, though there is little doubt that the artist was trying to portray a normal bull, whose second horn was concealed by the first. In Hinduism the bull is specially associated with the god Shiva, but he does not seem to have been connected with the "Proto-Siva" of Harappa, for he is not among the animals surrounding the god on the famous seal. {The horns of the “Proto-Shiva” are evidently those of a buffalo.} The cow, so revered in later Hinduism, is nowhere depicted.

Certain trees were sacred, as they are in Hinduism today, notably the pipal, which is specially honoured by Buddhists as the species under which the Buddha found enlightenment. One very interesting seal depicts a horned goddess in a pipal tree, worshipped [24] by a figure also wearing horns, with a human-headed goat watching the ceremony and a row of seven pigtailed women, probably priestesses [or holy men, like the longhaired sadhus of today], in attendance.

One of the few traces of Sumerian contact is to be found in the seal showing a hero grappling with two tigers - a variant of a famous Mesopotamian motif in which the hero Gilgamesh is depicted fighting two lions. The rotund face of the hero, and the peculiar treatment of his hair, suggest that he represents the sun, and that the night-prowling tigers are the powers of darkness.

Phallic worship was an important element of Harappa religion. Many cone-shaped objects have been found, which are almost certainly formalized representations of the ph.—.s. The liĖga or phallic emblem in later Hinduism is the symbol of the god Shiva, who is more commonly worshipped thus than as an icon; it is a fair inference that these objects were connected with the ithyphallic "Proto-Shiva" of the seals. It has been suggested that certain large ring-shaped stones are formalized representations of the female generative organ and were symbols of the Mother Goddess, but this is most doubtful.

Until Sir Mortimer Wheeler's work at Harappa in 1946 nothing was known with certainty of the way in which these people disposed of their dead; but from a cemetery then discovered, containing at least 57 graves, it appears that burial was the usual rite. The whole cemetery has not been excavated and the evidence is not yet fully assessed, but it is clear that the dead were buried in an extended posture with pottery vessels and personal ornaments.


[30] Among the many peoples who entered India in the 2nd millennium B.C. was a group of related tribes whose priests had perfected a very advanced poetic technique, which they used for the composition of hymns to be sung in praise of their gods at sacrifices. These tribes, chief of which was that of the Bharatas, settled mainly in East Panjab and in the region between the Satlaj and the Jamna which later became known as Brahmavarta. The hymns composed by their priests in their new home were carefully handed down by word of mouth, and early in the 1st millennium B.C. were collected and arranged. They were still not committed to writing, but by now they were looked on as so sacred that even minor alterations in their text were not permitted, and the priestly schools which preserved them devised the most remarkable and effective system of checks and counter checks to ensure their purity. Even when the art of writing was widely known in India the hymns were rarely written, but, thanks to the brilliant feats of memory of many generations of brahmanas, and the extreme sanctity which the hymns were thought to possess, they have survived to the present day in a form which, from internal evidence, appears not to have been seriously tampered with for nearly three thousand years. This great collection of hymns is the Rig Veda, still in theory the most sacred of the numerous sacred texts of the Hindus.

The period of the Vedas, Brahmanas and Upanishads is a sort of transition from prehistory to history. If history, as distinct from archaeology, is the study of the human past from written sources, then India's history begins with the Aryans. The Rig Veda, and the great body of oral religious literature which followed it in the first half of the 1st millennium B.C., are part of the living Hindu tradition. The Vedic hymns are still recited at weddings and funerals, and in the daily devotions of the brahman. Thus they are part of [31] historical India, and do not belong to her buried prehistoric past. But they tell us little about the great events of the time, excel in irritatingly vague incidental references; even on social condition their information is scant; only on religion and thought is the historian more fully informed.

Yet from the hymns of the Rig and Atharva Vedas, the sacrificial instructions of the Brahmanas, and the mysticism of the Upanishads, the outlines of a culture emerge, though often all too vaguely and here and there we see the faint wraiths of great sages and tribal leaders, whose importance for their times was such that their names were recorded in sacred literature. Around these phantoms later tradition draped a glittering mantle of legend, legend in which many Indians still implicitly believe, and which, in other contexts, is exceedingly important. But when the mantles are removed only vague shadows remain, little more than the names of chieftains who three thousand years ago waged successful war against their enemies. For the period before the time of the Buddha we can only trace the general character of the civilization which produced the Vedic literature and give a brief and tentative sketch of its expansion.


No real synchronisms are contained in the Rig Veda itself, to give us any certain information on the date of its composition. Some authorities in the past claimed an exceedingly early date for it, on the basis of tradition and ambiguous astronomical references in the hymns themselves - it was even believed by one very respected Indian scholar that it was as old as 6000 B.C. The discovery of the Indus cities, which have nothing in common with the culture described in the Veda and are evidently pre-Vedic, proves that the hymns cannot have been composed before the end of Harappa. The great development in culture, religion and language which is evident in the later Vedic literature shows that a long period must have elapsed between the time of the composition of the last hymns of the Rig Veda and the days of the Buddha - perhaps as much as 500 years. It is therefore probable that most of the Rig Veda was composed between 1500 and 1000 B.C., though the composition of some of the most recent hymns and the collation of the whole collection may have taken place a century or two later.

[36] The Aryans were a wild, turbulent people and had few of the taboos [37] of later India. They were much addicted to inebriating drinks, of which they had at least two, soma and sura. Soma was drunk at sacrifices and its use was sanctified by religion. Sura was purely secular, and was evidently very potent; in more than one passage it is mentioned with disapproval by the priestly poets.

They loved music, and played the flute, lute and harp, to the accompaniment of cymbals and drums. They used the heptatonic scale, similar to our own major scale, which is thought by some to have originated in Sumeria and to have been spread by the Indo-European peoples. There are references to singing and dancing, and to dancing-girls, who may have been professional.

Besides these amusements the Aryans delighted in gambling. At all times India has loved to gamble. In the remains of the Indus cities numerous dice have been found, and the Aryans have left their own record of their gambling propensities in tbe beautiful "Gamester's Lament", one of the few predominantly secular poems which by lucky chance have found their way into the Rig Veda.

Though they had not developed a city civilization, and did not build in stone or brick, the Aryans were technically well equipped. Their bronze-smiths were highly skilled, and produced tools and weapons much superior to those of the Harappa Culture. They, and the carpenters and chariot-makers, are frequently referred to in the hymns with much respect. There is no good reason to believe that iron was used in India at this period. Ayas, one of the terms for metal in the Rig Veda, came to mean iron at a later date, and is related to the German word Eisen and the English iron; but it is also akin to the Latin aes, meaning bronze, and it certainly means this metal or copper in the Rig Veda. Not race of iron has been found in the upper levels of the remains of the Indus Culture, and at this period iron implements were rare, even in the advanced civilizations of Mesopotamia. Iron ore is common enough, but its smelting demands higher skill than the Aryans had developed. At the time of the composition of the Rig Veda the process of smelting iron was hardly known outside Anatolia, where the Hittite kings tried to keep it a secret. Only at the very end of the 2nd millennium did the use of iron begin to spread widely over the civilized world, and it is very unlikely that it had reached India by this time.

As might be expected of a people without cities, the Aryans did not have an advanced economic system. In Mesopotamia the silver shekel, though unstamped, served as a means of exchange, but the Aryans relied for their unit of value and means of barter on the unwieldy cow.


[38] Between the composition of the Rig Veda and the age of the Buddha, when we begin to trace the history of India with comparative clearness, a period of some four or five hundred years elapsed. During this time the Aryans pushed eastwards down the Ganges, and their culture adapted itself to changed conditions. Very recently Indian archaeologists have excavated a site which belongs to this period, that of the ancient city of Hastinapura, the lowest level of which has been reasonably fixed at between 1000 and 700 B.C., the time of the later Vedas. The town was almost completely destroyed by flood at the end of its existence, and little remains but sherds of painted grey pottery, a few copper implements, and traces of houses of unbaked brick. The typical pottery has been found from the Sarasvati Valley in the west to Ahicchatra, near the upper Ganges, in the east.

With these exceptions we have scarcely any direct knowledge of the period, and our sources are still almost entirely sacred texts, the later Vedas, Brahmanas and Upanishads, which will be treated elsewhere from a religious and literary point of view.

Besides these contemporary documents there are many legends: contained in other sources, notably the Epics and Puranas, which seem: to refer to this period; but these are so overlaid by the accretions of later centuries that no attempt at interpreting them historically has so far won general acceptance, and it may never be possible to sift the fact from the fiction. Even the social conditions described in the Epics, the stories of which may have been composed in a primitive form at this time, mainly refer not to this age, but to the obscure period between the Mauryan and Guptan Empires.

Attempts of some earlier authorities to create an "Epic Age" in the history of India, as distinct from the age of the later Vedas, are quite unconvincing. There was no Epic Age, and for our knowledge of this period we may only rely on the literature of the period itself. This, like the Rig Veda, is wholly religious, and tells us little more than the older source about the history of the time.

One event, not definitely recorded in these contemporary sources, but so strongly remembered that it must have been very important [39] was the great battle of Kurukshetra, not far from the modern Delhi. This battle, magnified to titanic proportions, formed the basis of the story of the greatest of India's epics, the Mahabharata. According to the legend. the whole of India, from Sind to Assam and from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin, took part in the war, which arose through a dynastic dispute in the great Kuru tribe. It is by no means certain that the war was in fact a civil one, and the story has been plausibly interpreted as a muddled recollection of the conquest of the Kurus by a tribe of Mongol type from the hills. But certainly a great war took place, and succeeding generations looked on it as marking the end of an epoch. The names of many of the heroes of the Mahabharata may genuinely be those of contemporary chieftains, but we must regretfully record that the story is of less use to the historian even than the Iliad, or most of the Norse and Irish saga literature. It compares better to the Nibelungenlied, the product of an age very different from that which it purports to describe, and the result of the assimilation of many diverse martial traditions. It is as futile to try to reconstruct the political and social history of India in the 10th century B.C. from the Mahabharata as it would be to write the history of Britain immediately after the evacuation of the Romans from Malory' s Morte d' Arthur.

According to the most popular later tradition the Mahabharata War took place in 5102 B.C., which, in the light of all evidence, is quite impossible. More reasonable is another tradition, placing it in the 15th century B.C., but this is also several centuries too early in the light of our archaeological knowledge. Probably the war took place around the beginning of the 9th century B.C.; such a date seems to fit well with the scanty archaeological remains of the period, and there is some evidence in the Brahmana literature itself to show that it cannot have been much earlier. From this time onwards the centre of culture and political power shifted to the Gangetic Doab and the Kuru capital, Hastinapura or Asandivant. Throughout most of the later Vedic period the Kurus and their neighbours the Pancalas were the greatest and the most civilized of Indian peoples. The names of several Kuru kings have been passed down in legend and two at any rate, Pariksit and Janamejaya, are mentioned In the literature of the time as mighty conquerors.

Early in this period the Aryans pressed further eastward, and set up kingdoms in Kosala, to the east of the Doab, and in Kasi, the region oh Banaras. The former, which grew in importance with time, was the realm of Rama, the hero of the second of th great Indian epics, the Ramayana. For all his later fame the literature of the period ignores Rama and his father Dasaratha completely, so we must [40] conclude that they were both comparatively insignificant chieftains, whose exploits were by chance remembered, to be elaborated and magnified by later generations of bards until, around the beginning of the Christian Era, they received their final form. It is not even certain that Rama was a king of Kosala at all, for the earliest version of the legend that we possess makes him a king of Banaras, which was for a time a kingdom of some importance, but was conquered by Kosala towards the end of this period.

Another important kingdom was Videha, to the east of the River Gandak and north of the Ganges. One of the Brahmanas tells that once the fire-god Agni moved eastwards, burning up the earth, until he came to the River Sadanira (the modem Gandak), where he stopped. In his wake followed a chieftain from the Sarasvati, Videgha Mathava. Before his arrival no Aryan would cross the river, because the purifying fire-god had not burnt the land on its eastern bank; but Agni instructed Mathava to carry him over, and thus the land of Videha was Aryanized, and took its name from that of its first colonizer. The legend is important because it is the only significant account of the process of colonization in an approximately contemporary source. In the progress of Agni, burning up the earth, we see not only the gradual eastward expansion of the Aryan fire cult, but also the clearing of jungle and waste by burning, as bands of migrating warrior peasants founded new settlements.

Though Rama is ignored in the literature of the period his traditional father-in-law, Janaka, king of Videha, is more than once mentioned and is clearly a historical figure. He was a great patron of the hermits and wandering philosophers who propagated the new mystical doctrines of the Upanishads, and himself took part in their discussions. By the time of the Buddha the kingdom of Janaka had disappeared, and his capital city, Mithila, had lost its importance. The kingdom was replaced by the tribal confederacy of the Vrjjis, headed by the Licchavis, who may have been Mongols from the hills, but were perhaps a second wave of Aryan immigrants.

South of Videha, on the right bank of the Ganges, was the region known as Magadha, then of little account. It was not wholly Aryanized, but bands of nomadic renegade Aryans called vratyas, who did not follow the Vedic rites, roamed the land with their flocks and herds. Only in the time of the Buddha, under the great king Bimbisara, did Magadha begin to show the energy and initiative which were to lead to the setting up of the first great Indian empire. To the east of Magadha, on the borders of the modem Bengal, the small kingdom of Anga had arisen, while, beyond Anga, Bengal and Assam were still outside the pale.

[41] Thus the texts of the period are mainly concerned with the region from the Jamna eastwards to the borders of Bengal. The area south of the Ganges receives little attention, and it has been reasonably suggested that the main line of Aryan penetration was not down the river, the banks of which were then probably thick swampy jungle, but along the Himalayan foothills. Expansion was not wholly confined to the north of the Ganges, however. Contemporary literature has little to say about the rest of Northern India, but conditions at the time of the Buddha were such that it must have been colonized some time previously, and this is confirmed by tradition. On the Jamna the tri be of the Yadavas had settled in the region of Mathura, while further down the river the kingdom of Vatsa was ruled from its capital of Kausambi, very important in later times. By the end of this period the Aryans had advanced down the Chambal River, had settled in Malwa, and had reached the Narmada. Probably parts of the N.-W. Deccan were also under Aryan influence. According to the Epic tradition Kathiawar was colonized by a branch of the Yadavas, led by the great hero Krishna, and, though the association of Krishna with the story is probably unhistorical, the legend may be founded on facto.

While the Aryans had by now expanded far into India their old home in the Panjab and the North-West was practically forgotten. Later Vedic literature mentions it rarely, and then usually with disparagement and contempt, as an impure land where the Vedic sacrifices are not performed. It may have been once more invaded by Indo-Iranian tribes who did not follow the orthodox rites.

The culture of the later Vedic period was materially much in advance of that of the Rig Veda. The Aryan tribes were by now consolidated in little kingdoms, which had not wholly lost their tribal character, but had permanent capitals and a rudimentary administrative system. The old tribal assemblies are still from time to time referred to, but their power was waning rapidly, and by the end of this period the king's autocracy was in most cases only limited by the power of the brahmanas, the weight of tradition, and the force of public opinion, which was always of some influence in ancient India. Here and there the old tribal organization succeeded in adapting itself to the changed conditions, and ganas, or tribal republics, survived for many centuries in outlying districts; but political divisions based on kinship were giving place to those based on geography, and in many parts of India the tribes were rapidly breaking up. This, and the strong feeling of insecurity which it caused, may have been an important factor in the growth of asceticism and of a pessimistic outlook on the world, which is evident throughout this period.


[BA2 243] In a late hymn of the Rig Veda we read of a class of holy men different from the brahmans, the “silent ones" (munis), who wear the wind as a girdle, and who, drunk with their own silence, rise on the wind, and fly in the paths of the demigods and birds. The muni knows all men' s thoughts, for he has drunk of the magic cup of Rudra, which is poison to ordinary mortals. Another class, much mentioned in the Atharva Veda was the vratya. This term, in its later broad meaning, implied an Aryan who had fallen from the faith and no longer respected the Vedas; but the vratya of the Atharva Veda was a priest of a non- Vedic fertility cult, which involved ritual dancing and flagellation. He travelled from place to place in a cart, with a woman, whom he prostituted, and a musician, who performed for him at his rites. The status and nature of the vratyas are still [BA2 244] not wholly clear, but it is evident that great efforts were made to convert them to the Aryan faith, and to find room for them in the orthodox cult, and 'they were probably one of the chief sources of the new doctrines and practices.

By the time of the Upanishads asceticism had become very widespread, and it was through the ascetics, rather than the orthodox sacrificial priests, that the new teachings developed and spread. Some ascetics were solitary psychopaths, dwelling in the depths of the forests and suffering self-inflicted tortures of hunger, thirst, heat, cold and rain. Others dwelt in "penance-grounds", on the outskirts of towns, where, like some of the less reputable holy-men of later times, they would indulge in fantastic self-torture, sitting near blazing fires in the hot sun, lying on beds of thorns or spikes, hanging for hours head downwards from the branches of trees, or holding their arms motionless above their heads until they atrophied.

Most of the new developments in thought, however, came from ascetics of less rigorous regimen, whose chief practices were the mental and spiritual exercises of meditation. Some of these dwelt alone on the outskirts of towns and villages, while others lived in groups of huts, under the leadership of an elder. Others wandered, of ten in large groups, begging alms, proclaiming their doctrines to all who wished to listen, and disputing with their rivals. Some were completely nČked, while others wore simple garments.

The original motive of Indian asceticism was the acquisition of magical power. The brahmans claimed this already, by virtue of their birth and training, but there were other types of power, obtainable by other means. By the time of the Upanishads faith in the cosmic mystery of the sacrifice had perhaps begun to wane, even among the brahmans themselves. Though sacrificial mysticism did not immediately disappear the rite once more came to be thought of as a means of obtaining prosperity, long life, and rebirth in heaven, rather than of sustaining the cosmos. Indeed the wealthy patrons of sacrifices had probably always had the former as their main motive. In the eastern parts of the Ganges Basin Brahmanism was not as deeply entrenched as in the west, and older non-Aryan currents of belief flowed more strongly. The sacrificial cult did not wholly meet the needs of these lands, where firmly founded kingdoms were growing in power, and material civilization rapidly progressing.

The ascetic, even though his penance was of the most severe type, rose far above the heights achieved by the sacrificial priest. Once he had inured his body to pain and privation immeasurable joys awaited him. The hermit of the lower type had much to look forward to even on the material plane — honour and respect which as an [BA2 245] ordinary man he could never hope for, and complete freedom from worldly cares and fears. This sense of freedom, of a great load lifted from one's shoulders by casting aside one's family and possessions, is evident in many passages of calm joy in the religious literature of India. But there were greater incentives to asceticism then these. As he advanced in his self-training the hermit acquired powers beyond those of ordinary mortals. He saw past, present and future; he mounted the heavens, and was graciously received at the courts of the gods, while divinities descended to earth and visited him in his hermitage. By the magical power acquired in his asceticism he could work miracles — he could crumble mountains into the sea; if offended, he could burn up his enemies with the glance of his eye, or cause the crops of a whole people to fail; if respected, his magical power could protect a great city, increase its wealth, and defend it from famine, pestiIence and invasion. In fact the magic potency, formerly ascribed to the sacrifice, now began to be attributed to asceticism. In the succeeding age the idea that the universe was founded and maintained through sacrifice slipped into the background; in its place it was widely believed that the universe depended on the penances of the great god Siva, meditating forever in the fastnesses of the Himalayas, and on the continued austerities of his human followers.

If asceticism had its charms even for the less spiritual, they were still greater for the questing souls who took to a life of hardship from truly religious motives. As his mystical exercises developed his psychic faculties, the ascetic obtained insight which no words could express. Gradually plumbing the cosmic mystery, his soul entered realms far beyond the comparatively tawdry heavens where the great gods dwelt in light and splendour. Going “from darkness to darkness deeper yet" he solved the mystery beyond all mysteries; he understood, fully and finally, the nature of the universe and of himself, and he reached a realm of truth and bliss, beyond birth and death, joy and sorrow, good and evil. And with this transcendent knowledge came another realization — he was completely, utterly, free. He had found ultimate salvation, the final triumph of the soul. The ascetic who reached the goal of his quest was a conqueror above all Conquerors. There was none greater than he in the whole universe. The metaphysical interpretation of the ascetic's mystical knowledge varied from sect to sect, but the fundamental experience was the same, and, as has been many times pointed out, was not appreciably different from that of the Western saints and mystics, whether Greek, Jewish, Christian or Muslim. But Indian mysticism is unique in its elaboration of techniques for inducing ecstasy, and in the complex metaphysical systems built upon interpretations of that experience. [BA2 246] Where in other religions mysticism is of varying importance, in those of India it is fundamental.

The great development of asceticism and mysticism soon became too strong for the more earthbound and materialistic Brahmanism to ignore. Places were found for the hermit and the wandering ascetic in the Aryan social structure by the formula of the four stages of life, which first appear in the Dharma Sutras. Accounts of the discussions and teachings of some of the more orthodox of the early mystics were collected and added to the Brahmanas as Aranyakas and Upanishads. A little later short treatises of mystical character were composed in verse, and also appended to the Brahmanas as Upanishads. Later still a system of mystical training, often known as yoga ("union"), was accepted as an orthodox element of the Hindu system. Indian religion had taken a new direction.

It has been suggested that the development of ascetic and mystical doctrines, especially in the heterodox systems of Buddhism and Jainism, represents a reaction of the warrior class to the pretensions of the brahmans and to the sterility of the sacrificial cult. This, however, is certainly not the whole truth. Buddha and Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, were kshatriyas; they proclaimed the futility of sacrifice, and more than one passage in the Buddhist scriptures may be interpreted in an anti-brahmanic sense. But many of the teachers of the new doctrines were themselves brahmans. The Upanishads, which represent the thought of the more orthodox mystics, in no way oppose the sacrificial cult, but maintain its qualified validity; and passages speaking respectfully of brahmans are quite as frequent in the Buddhist scriptures as those which disparage them.

There was certainly some opposition to brahmanic pretensions, and dissatisfaction with the sacrificial cult; but behind this, and the growth of pessimism, asceticism and mysticism, lay a deep psychological uneasiness. The time of which we speak was one of great social change, when old tribal units were breaking up. The feeling of group solidarity which the tribe gave was removed, and men stood face to face with the world, with no refuge in their kinsmen. Chieftains were overthrown, their courts dispersed, their lands and tribesmen absorbed in the greater kingdoms. A new order was coming into being… Despite the great growth of material civilization at the time the hearts of [BA2 247] many men were failing them for fear of what should come to pass upon earth. It is chiefly to this deep feeling of insecurity that we must attribute the growth of pessimism and asceticism in the middle centuries of the first millennium B.C.

Speculation and Gnosis

Asceticism was not merely a means of escape from an unhappy and unsatisfying world; it had a positive aspect. It was in part inspired by a desire for knowledge, for the wisdom which the four Vedas could not give. Thus the growth of asceticism is not only a measure of the psychological uncertainty which was felt at the time, but also of the thirst for knowledge. It is not wholly just to India to stigmatize her ancient wisdom as mere "life-negation".

For comments: Dolf Hartsuiker