Friday, 4 April 2014

India from 1800-500BC: Part Two


"Friends, which of these two kings has greater wealth, greater possessions, the greater treasury, the larger realm, the greater stock of riding animals, the greater army, greater power, greater might: King Seniya Bimbisara of Magadha or King Pasenadi of Kosala?" And this discussion came to no conclusion.
Khudakka Nikaya, Udana, Raja Sutta (translated from Pali by Thanissaro Bhikku)

This is the second post on the Vedic Era. Click here for the first post on the Vedas and the early tribal groupings.

Map of India in 600BC showing kingdoms.
The early periods of many tribes and peoples (often associated with the Early Painted Grey Ware culture in archaeology) gave way to the era of the great kingdoms (associated with the Northern Black Polished Ware pottery by archaeologists, who have a knack for finding descriptive but boring names for eras). These kingdoms were known as the Mahajanapadas; around twelve to sixteen great kingdoms (“Maha” in Sanskrit literally means “great”). They were roughly contemporary with the Assyrian Empire and later with the Persian Empire in Mesopotamia and Iran and also with the Zhou Dynasty through its gradual decline into the Warring States. Either as a result of the Battle of the Ten Kings or because of subsequent developments the Purus and the Bharata tribes merged to become the Kuru state; the first of the Great Kingdoms and the battle itself shows that tribal amalgamations were already taking place (9 kings fought under one ruler against the Trtsu). These great amalgamations into the kingdoms may have influenced the writing of the great Indian epic called the Mahabharata.

By the time of the kingdoms emerging fully the Vedas were effectively compiled and our sources for the period come from Buddhist and Jain texts written around 450-100BC. The Sanskrit language was now becoming ancient and only survived among the intellectuals. The common language was one that resembled a now dead language called Pali or less frequently, Magadhi. In practice, while they are treated as different languages Sanskrit and Pali are so closely related that Pali can be thought of as an extension of Sanskrit. The most powerful of the great kingdoms was Magadha and its capital, Pataliputra would be the centre of empires for centuries to come.

But of their cities it is said that the number is so great that it cannot be stated with precision, but that such cities as are situated on the banks of rivers or on the sea-coast are built of wood instead of brick, being meant to last only for a time, so destructive are the heavy rains which pour down, and the rivers also when they overflow their banks and inundate the plains, while those cities which stand on commanding situations and lofty eminences are built of brick and mud; that the greatest city in India is that which is called Palimbothra (Pataliputra)…
Arrian, Indika 10 (probably based on Megasthenes account of India from the 300’s BC)


Black Polished Ware: a pottery type typical of the period
Some of these states might not have strictly been kingdoms. Buddhist texts and later Greek evidence seem to suggest that some of the states may have been ruled by councils of elder statesmen. The evidence is thin but some historians have gone so far as to posit that these states were the earliest republics. Without any knowledge of the constitution of these states this seems to assume a great deal but it is likely that there were aristocracies that ruled some of the states. This would parallel developments in Greece around 800BC onwards.

By about 1000 AD the Vedas were substantially complete but further scriptures were compiled, including poetic compositions known as the Upanishads and the Puranas that functioned as commentaries and extensions to the Vedas. While these writings are vast and hard to sum up in a few words, they appear to be less concerned with the Vedic rituals and incantations of the RigVeda and the AtharvaVeda and more to do with the underlying conceptions of divinity and the Universe.  These texts are part of the great cultural heritage of humanity but they do not generally contain many useful historical references for the period. Their main use for history is to inform us that many thinkers in this age were considering philosophical and religious concepts and that many of these thinkers found the existing religious concepts to be inadequate in their own right. Again, it should be noted as well that these texts are linguistically very ancient but that they were not written down until substantially later, as at this point there is no clear evidence of writing in India. The Indus Valley Script had died out and it would only be around 300 BC that there is evidence of the newer Kharosthi and Brahmi scripts.

Now, there are of a truth three worlds—the world of men, the world of the fathers, and the world of the gods. This world of men is to be obtained by a son only, by no other means; the world of the fathers, by sacrifice; the world of the gods, by knowledge. The world of the gods is verily the best of worlds. Therefore they praise knowledge.
Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad

Indus Valley Civilization pottery showing elephant
The class system of the great kingdoms was solidifying around 1000-500BC and warfare appears to have become purely the domain of the military classes. This meant that other sections of society could be relatively unaffected by wars but also meant increasing specialisation. The chariots of the earlier Vedic era were refined and the quality of the iron weapons increased, much as was the case in China at that period. The elephant was also trained for war. Elephants had been captured since the era of the Indus Valley Civilization but there are no depictions of elephant riders from that time. Elephant warfare was perfected in India during this period. The specialisation of warfare may also have led to developments in religion, as there was now a powerful class that was nevertheless fairly unoccupied during times of peace and was able to cultivate intellectual ideas.

This concern from the warrior class led to reformers who wished to restructure the Vedic practices. Many schools of thought sprang up and there was an intellectual ferment the likes of which has seldom been seen. The two ideas that have most influenced the world from this period are Jainism and Buddhism, associated with the figures of Mahavira and Gautama Buddha respectively. Both lived in or around the 550-450 BC and renounced their upper-class warrior/ruler status to wander the kingdoms of northern India, learning from the various religious and philosophical schools before forming their own ideas, achieving enlightenment and founding their own schools. The two religions are different but there are similarities. Both preach the importance of non-violence and both reject the Vedas as scripture. However, the overall world view of the Vedas is pre-supposed by many of their teachings. While both schools were immediately very popular, neither of them were universally acknowledged within India or definitely known of outside of India until later.

This has been only the most cursory of overviews of one of the most tantalising and important periods of human history. We know so little of what we would wish to understand but the nature of the source materials makes a full knowledge of this time impossible. The ideas formed in this time and place changed the world irrevocably. The summary is that by the year 500BC there were major kingdoms in India, with an ancient religion that had its roots at least a thousand years previous but that was being added to and challenged by new intellectual ideas; that there was as yet no writing system for these ideas to be written but that there was a strong oral tradition that supplemented this lack and that the kingdoms had created a durable social system with a strong warrior class that would compare favourably with outside forces. Between the Indus Valley Period and 500BC there is no clear outside mention of India. From 500BC peoples beyond the Himalayas and the Spin Gar mountains begin to feature in Indian history. But that is a matter for another day. If you have the time there are few better ways to improve one’s mind than to study the history of India and this period in particular.