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BELIEF AND SOCIETY
Todd T. Lewis
Cities and Kingdoms 12
Class and Hierarchy 14
A World of Sacrifice 16
Art and Architecture:
Ancient Indian Cities 18
An Age of Inquiry 20
CITIES AND KINGDOMS
Bounded to the north by the Himalayas, the world's highest mountain range, and to the south by the Indian Ocean, the Indian subcontinent has constituted a distinct cultural area for several millennia. Since antiquity, the peoples of this region have flourished on fertile alluvial plains watered by great rivers swollen by mountain glaciers and summer monsoon rains.
The region's first urban civilization arose ca. 2500BCE on the Indus River, in modern-day Pakistan. This civilization declined—apparently between 2000BCE and 1750BCE—as its cities were abandoned, due perhaps to one or more factors, including climatic changes, disruption in the courses of rivers, epidemics, invasion or migration, and changing trade patterns. At about the same time, another group appeared, although whether they were migrants from outside India or are best understood as a development of the Indus Valley civilization is a matter of scholarly debate. These peoples called themselves Aryan ("Nobles") and spoke the Indo-European language that later became Sanskrit. The dominant view has been that the Aryans were pastoral migrants who entered the subcontinent from the north or northwest, excelled in mounted warfare, and quicklydominated the local indigenous peoples. Over the succeeding centuries, according to this view, many Aryan clans followed them. Some moved from the Indus to the Ganges plain, subjugating the non-Aryan tribes that they encountered.
This sequence of events has increasingly been challenged by some scholars who believe that the language of the Indus Valley civilization was a member of the Indo-European family rather than Dravidian, which was formerly assumed to be the indigenous linguistic family of the subcontinent, and to which many present-day southern Indian languages belong. These scholars postulate that Aryan culture actually developed among the peoples who remained in the region after the decline of the Indus Valley cities. The old idea that the Aryans were a light-skinned race of immigrants who subjugated a darker-skinned indigenous population has largely been abandoned. Other more recent theories explore the idea that, even if the Aryans were not indigenous, they migrated over a long period, beginning as early as ca. 2200BCE, and became assimilated within a multi-ethnic and partly bilingual culture. Until the Indus Valley script is deciphered, scholarly consensus is likely to remain elusive. However, it is undisputed that Indo-Aryan culture, whatever its ethnic and geographical origins, came to define the region.
Textual and archaeological evidence also suggests the gradual emergence of stable political units and increasing urban settlement in the region. Using iron tools, the migrants cleared the dense jungle and plowed the soil, assisting intensive crop cultivation. The resulting food surpluses supported the growth of specialist groups, towns, and trade.
The formation of city-states from ca. 550BCE onward exerted pressure on the small-scale tribal traditions, centered on a sacrificial religious system, that had characterized generations of Indo-Aryan life in the subcontinent. It was in this era of increasing social complexity that Siddhartha Gautama—the Buddha—was born.
CLASS AND HIERARCHY
As Indo-Aryan society developed, it evolved a highly stratified social system in which may be seen the roots of the much later Hindu caste system. As described in the latest sections of the sacred texts called the Vedas (see p.16)—whence the name Vedic that is commonly applied to this era—there were originally four ranked social "classes," or varnas (see box, below). To be a member of a varna, a person had to be born into it; each group member was assumed to have the same level of innate purity and to possess a very distinct nature and capacity from members of other varnas. Ancient texts also identify socially inferior groups such as chandalas, who performed tasks that members of higher classes considered to be defiling and whose very touch or shadow was considered polluting. From these developed the "Untouchables," traditional India's most underprivileged social group—Mahatma Gandhi, in protest at their status, referred to them as "Harijans" ("Children of the God [Vishnu]").
According to legal and social codes of later centuries, those born into the same class were obliged to marry only within their group and to perform the traditional "expected duty," or dharma (not to be confused with the same word in the sense of the Buddha's teachings) of that group. While it is uncertain to what extent these prescriptions may have applied in earlier Vedic society, the doctrine of class dharma came to play a central role in developed Hinduism. As, a famous passage in the Manava Dharmashastra ("Laws of Manu," ca. second century BCE) states: "Better to do one's own dharma badly than another class's dharma well."
In developed Hinduism, the varna system came to be underpinned by the doctrine of reincarnation, which asserts that those born in the highest varna deserve their status owing to their superior karma, the accumulated merit derived from their deeds and behavior in past lives (see p.20). Although the doctrine of reincarnation is not explicit in the Vedic hymns, it was articulated clearly in the later Upanishads (ca. 800-300BCE) and subsequent texts. Hindu theorists argued that caste rules insured social harmony as well as the spiritual progress of dutiful individuals who would move up in birth status in their next lifetimes.
It is most likely that Indo-Aryan society across north India was highly patriarchal, although it is not clear whether gender roles were as precisely defined as they were to be in the later Hindu codes. A few of the Vedic hymns are apparently attributed to female seers, and one woman, named Gargi, plays a role in the Upanishads. However, while their status in early Indian society is the subject of considerable scholarly controversy, by the time of the Manava Dharmashastra ("Laws of Manu"), women were denied initiation into "twice-born" status (see box, opposite) and were prohibited from hearing the Vedas. They were also considered ritually impure while menstruating and after childbirth. As a much cited passage from the Laws of Manu puts it: "In childhood subject to her father, in youth to her husband, and when her husband is dead to her sons, she should never enjoy independence." While the extent to which such strictures were followed is open to debate, there seems little doubt that the lives of women were highly circumscribed by male authority.
A WORLD OF SACRIFICE
What is known of early Indic society and religion derives largely from the four Vedas, collections of ancient texts of which the oldest, the Rig Veda, was perhaps first assembled ca. 1200BCE; the others (the Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda) were likely collected between three and four centuries later. The Vedas comprise more than one thousand hymns of praise and supplication addressed to the gods; liturgical formulas; and chants, spells, and charms. Composed in an early form of Sanskrit (see sidebar, opposite), the Vedic hymns show no systematic development, ordering, or single mythological framework. It is also likely that the hymns were collected and appreciated by only the most culturally refined social groups of the time. Under the four-class system, it was the Brahmans who controlled access to these texts and they alone were able to teach them (see box, p.14). The Vedas existed for over two millennia in oral form and were only committed to memory by successive generations of male Brahmans.
Early Vedic religion was centered on sacrifice (yajna), the most prestigious of which was the fire ritual called homa. The sacrifice was performed by Brahman priests, who memorized the Vedic hymns and particularly the chants that were integral to the performance of this rite. Highly intricate homa rituals were performed with the aim of gratifying the numerous deities of the Vedic pantheon with offerings of grain, animal flesh, and clarified butter. Accompanied by the chants of the officiating priests, these offerings were believed to be transformed into fragrant smoke by the god of fire (Agni), who carried them upward to nourish the gods. According to one Vedic perspective on creation, the world arose originally through a primordial act of sacrifice: the gods' offering of a great man (purusha) gave rise to all the elements of the cosmos, including the social order—the four varnas (see p.14) sprang respectively from the purusha's mouth (the Brahmans), arms (Kshatriyas), thighs (Vaishyas), and feet (Shudras). Vedic texts state that the entire universe is maintained by sacrifice—propitiated and strengthened through these offerings, the deities will sustain creation and insure the prosperity of those who perform sacrifices.
The major Vedic deities, who were all male, were those connected to the sacrifice, martial conquest, exalted mental states, and the maintenance of moral order. As described above, the fire god Agni was essential for the successful performance of the sacrificial ritual. The Vedic warrior deity par excellence was Indra and it is to him that the greatest number of Vedic hymns are dedicated. Indra subdued alien deities and was called upon to lead warriors into battle. Soma was conceived to be a divine presence dwelling within a psychoactive substance of the same name, which was consumed by humans and deities before battle and at the end of ritual celebrations. Perhaps it was Soma who inspired the early Hindu seers to probe deeper into the nature of reality. The sky god Varuna was thought to enforce rita, the moral order of the Vedic universe, meting out punishments or rewards. The hymns indicate that Varuna was the deity whom humans could approach with personal petitions for forgiveness.
One's destiny after death was partly in the hands of one's descendants. It was believed that one could become an ancestor (pitri) and reach a heavenly afterlife (pitriloka) as a star, provided that one had lived a moral life and that one's family performed special rituals called shraddha in the year following death. However, those who had lived immorally or whose families failed to perform the proper shraddha rituals suffered the disintegration of their afterlife spirits and merely dissolved back into the earth.
Vedic religion was therefore marked by faith in the power of the gods, ritual acts aimed at influencing them, and the spiritual resonance of the sacred texts (see sidebar, right). In post-Vedic religion, however, the principal deities of the earliest pantheon became less prominent, and the idea of rita, the cosmic order, may lie behind the central Hindu notion of dharma ("expected duty,.... eternal universal order"), which became closely tied into the ideas of reincarnation and karma (see pp.14-15).
THE SACRED LANGUAGE
The Sanskrit (meaning "cultured," "refined," or "perfected") language is a member of the Indo-European linguistic family, which also includes Latin and English. The language of the Vedic hymns and also a canonical language of Buddhism (see pp.178-9), Sanskrit is one of the world's oldest recorded tongues and was believed to be divine in origin. Sanskrit words, phrases, and prayers are still at the heart of Hindu rituals because they are believed to delight the gods.
In Vedic society a mastery of Sanskrit was the most important knowledge that one could acquire—it was essential for the male Brahmans who memorized the Vedas and it remains the mark of Brahman scholars to this day. As a scholarly language, Sanskrit has remained remarkably unchanged since its grammar was systematized by the Indian scholar Panini around 600BCE. Until recently, the earliest manuscript of the Vedas was from the eighteenth century CE, but a manuscript dating to the eleventh century CE has recently come to light in Nepal—evidence that the Vedas have been written down for some time.
ART AND ARCHITECTURE
ANCIENT INDIAN CITIES
The earliest cities in India date to the third millennium BCE and belong to what is known as the Indus Valley civilization. The main centers, Mohenjo Daro and Harappa in modern-day Pakistan, were unique in the ancient world for their urban planning: streets laid out according to a defined grid, substantial homes made of fired brick and built, it seems, to a set number of designs, and, finally, a comprehensive drainage system for waste-water and sewage. The picture that emerges is one of a prosperous, well organized, and somewhat bureaucratic society with a substantial middle class. There were also impressive citadels for the rulers and massive buildings for the collective storage of grains. Only the brick plinths of these structures survive. Industrial activities seem to have been laid out in zones, with specific quarters for the production of dyed textiles and other goods. A notable feature of Indus life seems to have been the lack of a central religious cult: there were no temples or other structures which can be identified as being devoted to religious concerns.
The Indus Valley civilization went into decline from the mid-second millennium BCE. This seems to have been due to deforestation, climate change, shifting rivers, and an increasing number of migrants from central Asia and beyond. For the next six hundred years, there were no large urban centers but rather a host of evenly distributed villages across the plains of north India. South Asian society at this time was probably very mixed in ethnic and cultural terms but it came to be dominated by the clan and tribal traditions of a group that called themselves Aryan ("Nobles"). Based on their main scriptures, the Vedas (see pp.16-17), Indo-Aryan society is often called "Vedic," although the people to whom the Vedas belonged cannot be located in the archaeological record. One reason why the Vedic hymns are unrelated to the meager archaeological data between ca. 1500BCE and ca. 600BCE is that the hymns were the property of bards and ritual specialists who had little interest in describing everyday life.
The Vedic texts provide a picture of a society that was decentralized, semi-nomadic, and much concerned with warfare and sacrifice. The demands of this predatory tribal culture clashed with those of the states and cities that were beginning to develop along the Ganga, Yamuna, and other great rivers of north India. An increase in agrarian production led to a larger sedentary population and the emergence of walled settlements where there was a degree of social differentiation and craft specialization. By the time of the Buddha, the towns of Hastinapura, Shravasti, Kaushambi, Varanasi, and Pataliputra were bustling centers of political, military, and economic power. Urban life was prosperous and trade flourished. Beside the rulers and intelligentsia, a new class of influential merchants had now appeared. Cities were surrounded by huge moats and ramparts, their gates fortified and their main avenues laid out to accommodate royal processions. While the foundations of some of these ancient fortifications have been traced, no architecture is preserved because it was made of wood, stucco, and other perishable materials. The bas-reliefs at Bharhut and Sanchi (see illustration, right, and p.48) give some idea of the opulent nature of the early cities and the craft skills of the people.
The new urban centers and the patterns of life on which they depended meant that the old Vedic system had to be overthrown or reformed. The Buddha's repeated use of agricultural metaphors in his teaching, his acceptance of traders as key patrons of the monastic community, his insistence on non-violence and his denial of the efficacy of sacrifice can all be read as part of his attempt to provide a new philosophical and religious system for the urban élite of north India. Vedic tradition survived by being reformulated: the sacrificial fire moved to the domestic hearth and rites of passage, rules of conduct, and minor sacrifices were governed by a new body of orthodox writing known as the Grihya sutras ("Domestic aphorisms").
AN AGE OF INQUIRY
By the mid-second millennium BCE, with the rise of urban settlements on the Ganges plain (see pp.12-13), new religious and philosophical trends characterized by introspection and cosmic speculation had begun to emerge alongside the Vedic sacrificial system. The roots of these trends are discernible both within brahmanical groups as well as among non-Brahman teachers. The Upanishads and other post-Vedic texts refer to the existence among the Brahmans of a certain type of muni ("sage"), who sought to explain the hidden sources that underlay the power of the ritual sacrifices. For example, one sage proposed that Agni, the god of fire, was the ultimate reality behind the sun's fiery presence in the sky, and was inherent in all the natural world, since fire springs to life from dried vegetation while warmth indicates life in the human body.
More influential were the speculations that posited an unseen spirit called Brahman, which had created the world and animated all beings, including humans, through its interior presence as the soul (atman). The Upanishads set out the concept of samsara, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth in the world, whereby the soul transmigrates after death to a new physical body. The form in which the soul is reincarnated depends upon the individual's karma ("action"), the cumulative balance of merit or demerit resulting from one's actions in all previous lives. The doctrine of karma, or moral causality, became central to both Hinduism and Buddhism (see pp.58-61).
In Hinduism, the ultimate goal of religious life is not to achieve an ever higher form of rebirth but to escape samsara entirely by reuniting the soul with Brahman. The means to this end is called yoga (literally "yoke," the idea being that one "yokes" oneself to the divine). By applying mental techniques that lead to altered states of consciousness and by physically training the body, the spiritual seeker attempts to experience the reality of the soul within and eliminate bad karma. To do so requires the guidance of a guru ("spiritual teacher"), who can monitor the disciple's development and lead him or her toward final release (moksha).
Some gurus were Brahmans and over the centuries their views regarding the cosmic Brahman, the individual soul, karma, and yoga were adopted as the central doctrines of Hinduism. These teaching were used to support the logic of the class system, justifying the status of the castes on the grounds of their superior karma (see p. 14). Later generations of Brahman scholars argued that these teachings were consistent with Vedic revelation.
Excerpted from BUDDHISM by Kevin Trainor. Copyright © 2001 by Duncan Baird Publishers. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Ch. 1||Ancient India : belief and society||12|
|Ch. 2||The career of Siddhartha||22|
|Ch. 3||A new community||46|
|Pt. 2||Principles and practice||56|
|Ch. 1||The human condition||58|
|Ch. 2||The "Four Noble Truths"||64|
|Ch. 3||The path of the Buddha||72|
|Ch. 4||Mental cultivation||80|
|Ch. 5||The Buddhist community||90|
|Ch. 6||Buddhism in practice||106|
|Ch. 7||Theravada Buddhism||120|
|Ch. 8||Mahayana Buddhism||132|
|Ch. 9||Chan and Zen : the way of meditation||150|
|Pt. 3||Holy writings||174|
|Ch. 1||Assembling the dharma||176|
|Ch. 2||The three baskets||186|
|Ch. 3||Mahayana scriptures||196|
|Pt. 4||Buddhism today||212|
|Ch. 1||The expanding community||214|
|Ch. 2||Society and the sangha||226|
|Picture credits and acknowledgments||256|