FC50: The development of Indian civilization (1500-500 BCE)


There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond.  What stirred?...There was neither death nor immortality then.  There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day...Darkness was hidden by darkness...Whence was [the universe] produced?  Whence is this creation?...The one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows---or perhaps he does not know. Vedic hymn

Aryan society and the Vedic Age (c.1500-1000 B.C.E.)

It is hard to imagine that the same warrior society that took over the Indus River civilization could also compose such philosophical speculations as those quoted above.  However, it was these Aryans who would create the core and essence of Indian civilization while they themselves were being transformed by elements of the older Indus River culture they had replaced.  Several things distinguished early Aryan society, as seen in the series of four sacred texts, the Vedas, our main source of information on this period.  For one thing, they were a warlike society of nomadic herders closely associated with the Persians until the two peoples parted ways around 2000 B.C.E.  They were organized into tribes ruled by a king and a priest.  The Aryans measured their wealth in cattle, which was a standard unit of trade in the absence of coinage and the primary cause of wars and raids.  Even today, the cow is still highly revered in Indian society.  Aryan society was strongly patriarchal, giving women an inferior status.  However, women probably had a say in who they married, could attend public ceremonies, and could remarry when widowed.  Some women even attended the priestly schools, composed hymns, and were considered sages.

Another important aspect of Aryan society was its religion.  The Aryans worshipped thirty-three gods in human form who were divided into three groups corresponding to the heavens, the sky, and earth.  The most frequently summoned god was Indra, a god of war carrying a lightning bold who ate, drank and lived with gusto.  This reflected a similar joy of living in Aryan society that enjoyed music, dancing, gambling, drinking, and chariot racing.  Possibly the most distinguishing feature of Aryan society was its powerful priesthood, the Brahmins.  Although the Aryans had no temples or images of their gods, just open air sacrificial altars, their priests were the only ones who could perform the highly ritualized and elaborate sacrifices that their religion demanded.

The Later Vedic Age (c.1000-500 B.C.E.)

Around 1000 B.C.E. the Aryans started expanding into the Ganges River valley to the east.  Several factors aided them in this.  One of these was the use of iron that could cut through the Ganges Valley's thick rain forests and clear the way for settlement.  A second factor was the cultivation of rice that has the highest calorie content of any grain, thus supporting large populations.  These combined with the renewal of sea borne trade with Mesopotamia in the 700's and the introduction of coinage by the Persians two centuries later led to the creation of powerful kingdoms in the Ganges Valley characterized by three features.  First they were heavily populated, thanks to the rice agriculture.  Secondly, they were highly centralized under the rule of powerful kings who were needed to supervise the irrigation systems vital to the cultivation of rice.  And third, there was a thriving urban culture with a large middle class involved in trade.

These new cities and kingdoms caused the center of power to shift from the more sparsely populated Indus River Valley in the West to the heavily populated kingdoms and cities of the Ganges.  However, in addition to this shift in the center of power, the structure of Aryan society was being radically changed.  Kings assumed more power for directing the irrigation projects and their wars against neighboring non-Aryans.  Also as many Aryans settled from herding cattle into rice agriculture or moved into the growing cities, they had more daily contact with the non-Aryan population.  The more complex society that was evolving led to mounting concerns among ordinary Aryans about losing their superior status over the non-Aryans.

Meanwhile, as time passed, the Vedas, which had been composed in an archaic form of Sanskrit, became increasingly vague in their meaning to the majority of people.  This left the Brahmins as the only ones who could read and interpret them and properly perform the elaborate rituals needed to influence the gods.  And that gave the Brahmins an even higher status in society.  These changes in society, along with the probable resurgence of many pre-Aryan beliefs, triggered two of the most important developments in Indian history: the caste system and India's unique religious and philosophical ideas.


Before their entry into India, Aryan society was divided into three loosely defined classes: nobles (who chose king), Brahmins (priests), and the ordinary tribesmen who tended cattle.  At that time, there were no restrictions on diet, intermarriage, or occupations.  When they took over the Indus River Valley, the original inhabitants, whom the Aryans had complete contempt for, were lumped together into one class.  At first, this simple arrangement had worked for the Aryans until the changes mentioned above made them more defensive about their traditional place in Indian society.  The result was a rigid stratification of Indian society known as the caste system.  Simply put, a caste is a social group often sharing the same occupation and among whose members intermarriage and dining can exclusively take place.

Justification for the caste system came from commentaries on the Vedas known as the Brahmanas which defined four divinely ordained castes corresponding to various parts of the body: the Brahmins (mouths), Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers) who were the arms, Vaisyas (productive members) who were the thighs, and the Sudras (feet) who performed the humblest tasks, especially those carrying some sort of religious stigma.  The first three castes were composed of Aryans, while the non-Aryan Sudras were, according to the Brahmanas, "fit to be beaten" and could be "slain at will".

Caste defined the boundaries of an Indian's social world, outside of which he could do little.  As Indian society became more complex, literally thousands of castes evolved.  Newcomers, such as the British, would be excluded from other castes and thus became castes of their own.  The caste system fragmented Indian society in such a way as to make political unification very difficult.  As a result, the state has had less power and influence over India's history than its counterparts in other societies.  Instead, the more unifying forces in Indian history have come from its religious and philosophical ideas.

The evolution of India's religious ideas

As we have seen, the archaic Sanskrit used in the Vedas made the Brahmins the only ones who could interpret them and perform the intricate sacrifices they required.  As a result, they claimed and assumed a higher place than ever in society.  In fact, their commentaries on the Vedas, the Brahmanas, played down the power of the Vedic gods and exalted their own since their sacrifices could manipulate the powers of the universe.  This exalted status plus the growing vagueness of the Vedas caused many Brahmins to engage in some wild speculations on the meanings of these texts and the rites they performed.

Not everyone blindly accepted the Brahmins' claims and the value of the rigid rituals they performed.  Instead, a number Indians went to the forest to live as ascetics who, much like the early Christian hermits centuries later, performed various feats such as walking on nails or sitting close to fires in the hot sun to mortify the flesh and thus gain enlightenment.  Many of these hermits were nobles whose status had been cut down by the rising power of kings.  Whereas in most cultures such nobles would stage a rebellion, in India it was common for such men to seek higher knowledge as hermits.  Taking a cue from the Brahmins themselves, these hermits also engaged in philosophical speculations.  From these speculations came another series of treatises, the Upanishads.  Although these works were unsystematic and varied greatly in their conclusions, they all shared a common belief in a more mystical and personal religious experience.

The Upanishads introduced several key concepts of Indian philosophy.  One was a vague universal and spiritual entity known as Brahman .  Although the various gods still existed, they were mere manifestations of Brahman.  This would be a key unifying factor in Hinduism that worshipped thousands of gods, all of which were seen as aspects of the one spirit, Brahman.  Another important idea was reincarnation, the belief that we are reborn over and over again in forms that reflect our karma, the sum total of our good and bad deeds.  The better our karma, the higher the form of life we are reborn as.  Finally, there is dharma, the duty that we are obligated to carry out in our present station in life.  If we carry out our dharma, our karma is improved so we can be reborn in a higher form.  Ironically, this belief in karma and dharma both justified the rigid caste system of India and offered people the hope of rising up from their present station in life to a better one in the next.

Our ultimate goal, according to the Upanishads, is not the old Aryan goal of prosperity and good health in this life.  Rather it is to shed our karma and ego to become one with Brahman like a river flowing into and merging with the sea.  Since these somewhat obscure and esoteric ideas mainly appealed to intellectuals, the Brahmins were willing to accept them as long as people also paid them honor.  As fragmented as India might be politically and socially, these ideas of Brahman, reincarnation, karma, and dharma would provide a unifying thread between India's main religions, in particular Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

Jainism and Buddhism

The radical departure that the Upanishads took from the traditional Brahminic religion opened the way for new beliefs that totally rejected the authority of the Brahmins.  Two of these were Jainism and Buddhism.  Jainism was founded around 500 B.C.E. by a prince Vardhamana known also as Mahavira ("great hero") and Jina ("conqueror"), which gave Jainism its name.  After twelve years of severe austerity and meditation as a hermit, he attained enlightenment and spent the rest of his life sharing his insights with others.  Mahavira accepted the Upanishads' principles of Brahman, karma, and reincarnation.

However, rather than seeing karma as an abstract principle, he viewed is as a material substance that clings to us and weighs us down.  Thus our goal is to cleanse our souls of karma so we can cease to be reborn.  Since nearly every act produces impurities, the ideal life is to retire to a monastery and do nothing.  Even rocks and streams were seen to have souls that it is terrible to kill, causing some Jain monks to sweep paths before them and wear masks to avoid inadvertently killing the tiniest life forms.  Since even plowing the land can turn over the soil and kill worms, agriculture was frowned upon, causing many Jains to become merchants.  The ideal death was seen to be starving oneself, which Mahavira himself did at the age of 72.  Jainism was fairly popular since it made karma more concrete and understandable while offering hope for a better existence to its followers.

Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama who, like Mahavira, at first led the sheltered and privileged life of a prince.  A prophecy supposedly foretold that Siddhartha would either unify all India or spiritually redeem the world.  His father, wanting him to be a great king, tried to shelter him from seeing any of the troubles of the world.  However, this strategy backfired, because when Siddhartha finally did come across humans suffering, he was so shocked that he ran off to live the life of an ascetic.  After six years of this severe lifestyle, he left the forest and found enlightenment while sitting under a fig tree.  From this he became known as the Buddha (Enlightened one).  The basic ideas of Buddhism are found in its four noble truths.

  1. Life is sorrow.

  2. Sorrow arises from craving (especially for individual fulfillment).

  3. The stopping of sorrow is the complete stopping of craving.

  4. A noble eightfold path exists to stop sorrow and which we should follow in order:

  5. Right belief or knowledge—renouncing worldly things & dedication to humanitarianism;

  6. Right resolve—one should aspire to the achievement of Nirvana;

  7. Right speech—lets one serve as a model for others to follow;

  8. Right conduct—acknowledges life's sanctity thorugh chastity, sobriety, & non-violence;

  9. Right livelihood—life of service, not selfishness, preferably monk;

  10. Right effort—helps one keep his inner self-free of evil thoughts;

  11. Right mindfulness—constant awareness that craving is pointless; and

  12. Right meditation—lets one be selfless in thought & acts.

Eventually, following this noble eightfold path should break the chain of reincarnations, and lead to the attainment of Nirvana, a state of bliss where one's ego will melt away and merge with Brahma like a drop of water is lost in the ocean.  In its purest form, known as Hinyana ("smaller vehicle"), Buddhism technically is not a religion with rites for such things as birth and death or a developed theology.  Instead, one must rely on his or her own efforts to attain Nirvana.  However, later versions known as Mahayana ("Greater vehicle") more closely resembled more traditional religions with various rites and reliance on Buddha for salvation.

Buddhism bore some striking similarities to Christianity. Both were egalitarian, treating women and children as equally important as men.  Both had a savior god bridging the gap between humans and god.  The main goal in each religion was salvation of the soul, not earthly wealth or power.  Each of them demanded ethical behavior and had networks of monasteries to spread their respective messages.  Both also made room for the invocation of lesser beings.  In the case of Christianity, those beings were saints and angels.  In Buddhism they were the bodhisattvas, people who were on the verge of attaining Nirvana, but chose to stay behind to help others in their spiritual efforts.  One major difference between the two was that Christianity was an historical religion with certain defining events, such as the Exodus, Christ's life, etc.  In contrast, Buddhism was cyclical in nature, believing that the universe goes through an endless number of cycles of creation and destruction.

Although Buddhism would spread its influence across south and East Asia, it would nearly die out in its homeland of India.  This was because the Brahmins would adopt many of Buddhism's ideas and fuse them with their own practices and the pre-Aryan polytheistic beliefs of the people.  The result would be that unique synthesis known as Hinduism, a religion that would unify India by taking its many cults and gods and interpret them all as manifestations of the same religion