India: Empire of the Spirit

Ancient India


The next series of lectures will trace the genesis and development of the oldest continuous civilizations - the Indian - in order to obtain an understanding of the Asian way of life and allow comparison with the West.

In addition, these lectures will examine the early trade and diplomatic exchanges between East and West. These exchanges provide us with our first view of historical development on a global scale.

A modern Indian scholar has said: "All that India can offer to the world proceeds from her philosophy."

Indian thinkers have consistently held a fundamental belief in the unity of all life, establishing no dividing line between the human and the divine.

This pervasive belief in the unity of life has made possible the assimilation and synthesis of a variety of beliefs and customs from both native and foreign cultures.

Thus, despite its almost continual political disunity, India has achieved and maintained a fundamental cultural unity.


While political disunity has characterized most of India's history, China has been united for more than 2000 years - the longest-lived political institution in world history.

While religion had dominated the customs and attitudes of India's people, the Chinese have been much more humanistic and worldly.

"We find in China neither that subordination of the human order to the divine order nor that vision of the world as a creation born of ritual and maintained by ritual which are part of the mental universe of India." ^1

The Chinese attitude toward life had led to a concern for the art of government, the keeping of voluminous historical records, and the formulation of down-to-earth ethical standards.

[Footnote 1: Jacques Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 28]

This chapter traces the important threads of Indian and Chinese history to the beginning of the third century A.D., a time when the Pax Romana in the West was coming to an end.

This was the formative age of both civilizations, the period in which the major elements of the Indian and Chinese way of life were established.

Early India

About 2500 B.C. a counterpart of the civilizations that had emerged earlier along the Tigris-Euphrates and the Nile rivers appeared along the Indus River in India.

Coinciding with the collapse of this Indus civilization, Indo-European invaders - the Aryans - began a conquest that produced numerous contending states in northern India by 326 B.C.

Long before that date, Aryan and native Indian beliefs and customs had undergone a process of assimilation and development that produced what is called classical Hinduism -

an amalgam of religious and philosophical ideas (humankind's relation to the cosmic order) and socioeconomic institutions (the caste system in particular).

Most of the elements that today are characteristic of Indian thought and action are the products of this period.

Geography Of India

We can think of India* as a gigantic triangle, bounded on two sides by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and on the third by the mountain wall of the Himalayas.

The highest mountains in the world, the Himalayas and their western extensions cut India off from the rest of Asia, making it an isolated subcontinent as large as Europe.

Through the Khyber and other mountain passes in the northwest have come the armed conquerors, restless tribes, and merchants and travelers who did much to shape India's turbulent history.

In addition to the northern mountain belt, which shields India from cold Arctic winds, the Indian subcontinent comprises two other major geographical regions, both characterized by India's most important ecological feature, an enervating subtropical climate.

In the north is the great plain known as Hindustan, which extends from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal.

It forms the watersheds of two great river systems, the Indus and the Ganges, which have their sources in the Himalayas.

South of this great plain rises a high plateau that covers most of the southern, or peninsular, part of India and is called the Deccan (the "South").

The mountains along the western edge of the Deccan plateau, called the Western Ghats ("Steps"), caused the monsoon winds that blow across the Arabian Sea to drop their rain on the Malabar coast.

Since Roman times, the pepper and other spices that grow abundantly on this coast have attracted Western traders.

Our focus is presently on western Hindustan, now part of the state of

Pakistan, where India's earliest civilization arose.

This area is made up of an alluvial plain watered by the upper Indus and its tributaries (called the Punjab, "Land of the Five Rivers"), and the region of the lower Indus (called Sind, from sindhu, meaning "river," and the origin of the terms Hindu and India).

The Indus Civilization (c. 2500-1500 B.C.)

The rise of civilization in the Indus valley around 2500 B.C. duplicates what occurred in Mesopotamia nearly one thousand years earlier.

In both areas, Neolithic farmers lived in food-producing villages situated on the hilly flanks of a large river valley.

Under pressure from increased population and the need for more land and water, they moved to the more abundant and fertile soil of the river valley.

Here their successful adaptation to a new environment led to the more complex way of life called a civilization. In India's case, four or five of the farming villages had grown into large cities with as many as 40,000 inhabitants by 2300 B.C.

Excavations of two of these cities, Mohenjo-Daro in Sind and Harappa in the Punjab, have provided most of our knowledge of this civilization.

Although Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were 400 miles apart, the Indus River made possible the maintenance of a uniform administration and economy over the large area.

The cities were carefully planned, with straight paved streets intersecting at right angles and an elaborate drainage system with underground channels.

A standard system of weights was used throughout the area. The spacious two-storied houses of the well-to-do contained bathrooms and were constructed with the same type of baked bricks used for roads.

A uniform script employing some 400 pictographic signs has not yet been deciphered. The only known use of the script was on engraved stamp-seals, which were probably used to mark property with the name of the owner.

The economy of the Indus civilization, like that of Babylonia and Egypt, was based on irrigation farming.

Wheat and barley were the chief crops, and the state collected these grains as taxes and stored them in huge granaries.

The importance of agriculture explains the presence of numerous mother-goddess figurines; representing the principle of fertility, they exaggerate female anatomy.

For the first known time in world history, chickens were domesticated as a food source, and cotton was grown and used in making textiles. The spinning and weaving of cotton continues in modern times to be India's chief industry.

Copper and bronze were used for tools and weapons, but the rarity of weapons indicates that warfare was uncommon. Trade was sufficiently well organized to obtain needed raw materials - copper, tin, silver, gold, and timber - from the mountain regions to the west.

There is also evidence of active trade contacts with Mesopotamia, some 1500 miles to the west, as early as 2300 B.C. (the time of Sargon of Akkad).

For centuries the people of the Indus valley pursued a relatively unchanging way of life. However, excavations of Mohenjo-Daro show clearly that decline had set in about 1700 B.C., when a series of great floods caused by earthquakes altered the course of the Indus.

Harappa to the north appears to have suffered a similar disaster. The invaders who came through the northwest passes about 1500 B.C. found little remaining of a once-flourishing civilization.

The Aryan Invasion And The Early Vedic Age (c. 1500-1000 B.C.)

The invaders who brought an end to what was left of Indus civilization

called themselves Aryans, meaning "nobles."


They spoke Sanskrit, an Indo-European language, and were a part of the great Indo-European migrations of the second millennium B.C., whose profound effects on the ancient world we have noted in earlier chapters.

The Aryans were pastoralists who counted their wealth in cattle and whose chief interests were war and cattle rustling.


the Homeric heroes of Greece, no greater shame could befall these warriors than to take flight in the face of the enemy. Their horse-drawn chariots, which were new to India, made them invincible.

The native population, later called Dravidians, was either conquered by the Aryans as they expanded eastward into the Ganges plain, or driven south into the Deccan.

The Aryans contemptuously referred to these darker-skinned but more civilized conquered people as Dasas, "slaves."

We know more about the Aryans than we know about their Indus civilization predecessors.

Our knowledge comes largely from the four Vedas ("Knowledge"), great collections of hymns to the gods and ritual texts composed and handed down orally between 1500 and 500 B.C. by the Aryan priests, the Brahmins.

Hence this thousand-year period is commonly called the Vedic Age.

The earliest and most important of the Vedas, the Rig-Veda ("Royal Veda"), the earliest surviving Indo-European work of literature, gives an insight into the institutions and ideas of the Early Vedic Age, which ended about 1000 B.C.

Each tribe was headed by a war leader called rajah, a word closely related to the Latin word for king, rex. Like the early kings of Sumer, Greece, and Rome, the rajah was not considered divine; nor was he an absolute monarch.

Two tribal assemblies, one a small council of the great men of the tribe and the other a larger gathering of the heads of families, approved his accession to office and advised him on important matters.

The earliest hymns in the Rig-Veda mention only two social classes, the Kshatriyas (nobility) and the Vaishyas (commoners).

But by the end of the Early Vedic Age two additional classes were recognized: the Brahmins, or priests, who because of their specialized religious knowledge had begun to assume the highest social rank;

and the Shudras, the non-Aryan conquered population of workers and serfs at the bottom of the social scale.

From these four classes the famous caste system of India was to develop during the Later Vedic Age.

The early Aryans had an unsophisticated premoral religion. It involved making sacrifices to the deified forces of nature in return for such material gains as victory in war, long life, and many offspring.

The gods were conceived in the image of humans - virile and warlike, fond of charioteering, dancing, and gambling (dice, like chess, is an Indian invention).

They were addicted to an intoxicating drink called soma, which was believed to make them immortal. The most popular god of the Rig-Veda was Indra, storm-god and patron of warriors, who is described leading the Aryans in destroying the forts of the Dasas.

Virile and boisterous, Indra personified the heroic virtues of the Aryan warrior aristocracy as he drove his chariot across the sky, wielded his thunderbolts, ate bulls by the score, and quaffed entire lakes of intoxicating soma.

Another major Aryan god was Varuna, the sky-god. Viewed as the king of the gods, he lived in a great palace in the heavens where one of his associates was Mitra, known as Mithras to the Persians and widely worshiped in the Roman Empire.

Varuna was the guardian of rita, which is the right order of things. Rita is both the cosmic law of nature (the regularity of the seasons, for example), and the customary tribal law of the Aryans.

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

Most of our knowledge about the five hundred years that comprise the Later Vedic Age is gleaned from two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and from the religious compositions of the Brahmin priests. The latter comprise three major groups:

(1) the three later Vedas, containing many hymns along with spells and incantations designed to avoid harm or secure blessings to the worshiper,

(2) the Brahmanas, which describe and explain the priestly ritual of sacrifice and reflect the dominant position achieved by the Brahmin class in society; and

(3) the more philosophical speculations collectively known as the Upanishads.

The kernel of the two Indian epics, which glorify the Kshatriyan (noble or warrior) class, was originally secular rather than religious.



The core of

the Mahabharata is a great war between rivals for the throne of an Aryan state situated in the upper Ganges plain in the region of the modern Delhi.

Many passages dwell on the warriors' joy of battle as they fight for glory and booty.

As in the Greek Iliad's account of the Trojan War, all rulers of Aryan India participate in a decisive battle, which rages for eighteen days near the beginning of the Later Vedic Age.

The epic came to be used in royal sacrificial ritual, and a long succession of priestly editors added many long passages on religious duties, morals, and statecraft.

One of the most famous additions is the Bhagavad-Gita (The Lord's Song), a philosophical dialogue which stresses the performance of duty, or dharma, without passion or fear.

It is still the most treasured piece in Hindu literature.

Dharma, whose broad meaning is moral law and is often translated as "virtue," had by this time replaced the earlier Vedic term rita which, as noted above, originally meant premoral customary and cosmic law.

The other great epic, the Ramayana, has been likened to the Greek Odyssey. It recounts the wanderings of the banished prince Rama and his faithful wife Sita's long vigil before they are reunited and Rama gains his rightful throne.

In the course of time priestly editors transformed this simple adventure story into a book of devotion.

Rama became the ideal man and the incarnation of the great god Vishnu, while Sita emerged as the perfect woman, devoted and submissive to her husband. Her words were memorized by almost every Hindu bride:

Car and steed and gilded palace,

vain are these to woman's life;

Dearer is her husband's shadow

to the loved and loving wife.

The two epics, together with the last three Vedas and the Brahmanas, reflect the many changes that occurred in Indian life during the Later Vedic Age.


By the beginning of this age, the Aryans had mastered iron metallurgy, which they may have learned from the Near East.

The Aryans had also moved eastward from the Punjab, conquering the native population and forming larger and frequently warring states in the upper Ganges valley.

These were territorial rather than tribal states. Although some were oligarchic republics, most were ruled by rajahs.

Despite the presence of an advisory council of nobles and priests, the rajahs' powers were greater than those of the tribal leaders of the earlier period.

The rajahs now lived in palaces and collected taxes - in the form of goods from the villages - in order to sustain their courts and armies. A few small cities arose, some as administrative centers connected with a palace, and some as commercial centers.

Trade contacts with Mesopotamia were renewed, and merchants probably brought back from the West the use of coinage and the Aramaic alphabet, which was adapted to Sanskrit.

Village, Caste, And Family

In the Later Vedic Age, the three pillars of traditional Indian society the autonomous village, caste, and the joint family - were established. India has always been primarily agricultural, and its countryside is still a patchwork of thousands of villages.

The ancient village was made up of joint families governed by a headman and a council of elders. Villages enjoyed considerable autonomy; the rajah's government hardly interfered at all as long as it received its quota of taxes.

The four classes, or castes - Kshatriyas (nobles), Vaishyas (commoners), Brahmins (priests), and Shudras (workers or serfs) - have remained constant throughout India's history. But during the Later Vedic Age, the Brahmins assumed the highest social rank.


The four castes also began to subdivide into numerous subcastes, each with a special social, occupational, or religious character. For example, such new occupational groups as merchants and artisans became subcastes of the Vaishyas.

Furthermore, another main social division was formed, consisting of those whose occupations were the most menial and degrading - scavengers, sweepers, tanners (because they handled the carcasses

of dead animals), and carriers of human and animal waste.

These outcasts were called Untouchables because their touch was considered defiling to the upper castes.

Although the inequalities of the caste system clearly contributed to the wealth and influence of the upper castes, the lower caste groups came to accept the system.

One reason for this was the manner in which a caste performed the functions of a guild in maintaining a monopoly for the caste in its occupation and in securing other favorable conditions for its members.

By maintaining discipline in accordance with caste rules, the caste leaders in each village also gave Indian society a stability that partially compensated for the lack of political stability over a wide area through much of Indian history.

The third pillar of Indian society was the joint family, in which the wives of all the sons of the patriarch of the family came to live and raise the children.

When the patriarch died, his authority was transferred to his eldest son, but his property was divided equally among all his sons. Women could not inherit property.

Nor could they participate in sacrifices to the gods; their presence at the sacrifice was considered a source of pollution.

The emphasis placed on the interest and security of the group rather than on the individual is a common denominator of the three pillars of Indian society - the autonomous village, the caste system, and the joint family.

Thus Indian society has always been concerned with stability rather than with progress in the Western sense, and the Indians have had a more passive outlook toward life than their Western counterparts.

The Brahmanas And The Upanishads

Radical changes in Indian religion and thought occurred during the Later Vedic Age, producing what became one of the world's most complex religious and philosophical systems.

The first phase of this development is clearly seen in the Brahmanas. It began about 1000 B.C. and is often called Brahmanism because it was the product of the emergence of the Brahmin priests to a position of supreme power and privilege in society.

During the Early Vedic Age, sacrifice had been only a means of influencing the gods in favor of the offeror; now it became the means of compelling the gods to act, provided the correct ritual was employed.

Since only the priests possessed the technical expertise to perform the complex and lengthy rites of sacrifice (some of which lasted for months), and since the slightest variation in ritual was thought to turn the gods against people, the Brahmins strengthened their position over the nobles and rulers of the Kshatriya class.

Equally important, the priests gave the caste system a religious sanction by extending the concept of dharma, moral duty, to include the performance of caste functions as social duty - behavior suitable to a person's hereditary caste.

The more than 250 Upanishads were composed between 800 and 600 B.C. by some members of the Brahmin and Kshatriya classes who rejected both the simple nature worship of the Rig-Veda and the complicated sacrificial system of the Brahmanas.

The Upanishadic thinkers speculated on the nature of reality, the purpose of life, and immortality. (The Rig-Vedic Aryans, pursuing their heroic warrior values, had not been particularly interested in life after death.)

These first Indian gurus wandered in the forests as hermits, where they meditated and taught their disciples. One of them summed up their quest as follows:

From the unreal lead me to the real!

From darkness lead me to light!

From death lead me to immortality!

The following beliefs ultimately became an integral part of Indian religion and philosophy:


  • 1.The fundamental reality, the essence of all things, is not something material, as most of the early Greek philosophers at about the same time concluded, but spiritual - the World Soul.

    2.Each individual possesses a soul, which is a part of the World Soul.

    3.The material world is an illusion (maya) and the cause of all suffering. As long as such earthly goals as fame, power, and wealth are sought, the result will be pain and sorrow.

    4.Salvation, or deliverance from maya, can only come through the reabsorption of the individual soul into the World Soul.

    5.This release from maya is part of a complicated process of reincarnation. The individual soul must go through a long series of earthly reincarnations from one body to another.

    6.Intertwined with the doctrine of reincarnation is the immutable

  • law called karma (meaning "deed").


    This law holds that the

  • consequences of one's deeds determine one's future after death. A person's status at any particular point is not the result of chance but depends on his or her soul's actions in previous existences.

    Together with the doctrine of maya, karma gives a satisfactory explanation to the question of why suffering exists, a question that

  • has troubled thoughtful people all over the world.

    The Indian answer is that the wicked who prosper will pay later, while the righteous who suffer are being punished for acts committed in former existences.