Indian Empire

Early India

The Asian Way Of Life


This chapter will trace the genesis and development of the two oldest

continuous civilizations - the Indian and the Chinese - in order to obtain an

understanding of the Asian way of life and allow comparison with the West. In

addition, this chapter 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.

[Note *: Until the text deals with the creation of the separate states of

India and Pakistan in 1947, the word India will refer to the entire


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


[See Ancient 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


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


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. Like

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


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


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


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


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.

Hindusism: A Religious Synthesis

Upanishadic thought became a part of Hinduism, the developing religion of

India, when the Brahmin priests incorporated it into their teaching. In doing

so they gave the caste system additional religious support by linking it to

karma and the process of reincarnation. In effect, caste became the essential

machinery for the educative process of the soul as it went through the long

succession of rebirths from the lowest categories in caste to that of the

Brahmin, who presumably is near the end of the cycle. The priests made

individual salvation, now a conspicuous part of Indian religion, dependent on

the uncomplaining acceptance of one's position at birth. Marriage outside

one's caste was forbidden.

But because the Upanishadic doctrine of salvation by absorption of the

individual soul into the World Soul was too intellectual and remote for the

average person to grasp fully, devotion to personal redeemer gods emerged.

This new devotion centered on gods who, as manifestations of Brahman (the

World Soul), stood in close relationship to their worshippers.

The major Aryan gods gradually faded away, and Hinduism acquired a

trinity consisting of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the

Destroyer. Brahma, the personification of the World Soul whose name is the

masculine form of Brahman, never acquired the popular following achieved by

Visnu and Shiva, a position they continue to maintain. These two popular

deities evolved from Vedic and Dravidian origins.

In the old Vedic pantheon of the Aryans, Vishnu was a god associated with

the sun. He now evolved into the friend and comforter, the savior who works

continuously for the welfare of humanity. "No devotee of mine is lost," is

Vishnu's promise. His followers believe that he has appeared in ten major

"descents" in human form to save the world from disaster. Two of Vishnu's

incarnations are described in great Indian epics. As Krishna in the

Mahabharata, he is the friend and adviser of princes and the author of The

Lord's Song (Bhagavad-Gita). As Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, he saves the

human race from the oppressions of a great demon before returning to the "City

of the Gods" and resuming the form of Vishnu.

Shiva, the other great popular god of classical and modern Hinduism,

evolved from a minor Aryan Vedic god who was the guardian of healing herbs but

whose arrows also brought disease. Another prototype of Shiva was a pre-Aryan

fertility god who was worshipped in the cities of the Indus civilization. For

this reason, Shiva is often associated with phallic symbols. His spouse is the

pre-Aryan mother goddess who under various forms, from grossly sexual to

gentle and benevolent, often plays a more important role than her husband.

With such a background, Shiva is a very different character from Vishnu.

Shiva personifies the cosmic force of change that destroys in order to build

anew. He exemplifies another major characteristic of Hinduism, the

reconciliation of extremes - violence and passivity, for example, and

eroticism and asceticism. Some representations portray Shiva in terrifying

guise, garlanded with skulls; others show him as the Lord of Dancers, whose

activities are the source of all movement within the cosmos.

Most Hindus are devotees of either Vishnu or Shiva and their respective

emanations, wives, and children. However, animals - especially the cow -

vegetation, water, and even stones are also worshiped as divine. In time

literally thousands of deities, demigods, and lesser spirits came to form the

Hindu pantheon, the world's largest. Hindus, however, do not think of their

religion as polytheistic, for all gods and spirits are viewed as

manifestations of Brahman, the World Soul, which pervades everything.

Hinduism is probably the world's most tolerant religion. It possesses no

canon, such as the Bible or the Koran; no single personal founder, such as

Christ or Muhammad; and no precise body of authoritative doctrine. Hindus can

believe what they like, and they remain Hindus as long as they observe the

rules of their caste. Depending on one's intellectual and spiritual needs and

capacities, Hinduism can be a transcendental philosophy, a devotional

adherence to a savior god such as Vishnu, or simple idolatry. From its

earliest origins, Hinduism has exhibited an unusual organic quality of growth

and adaptation. The last major element in the Hindu synthesis was provided by

Gautama Buddha.

The Middle Way Of Gautama Buddha

By taking over Upanishadic thought, the Brahmins had laid the foundations

of classical Hinduism, but they continued to place great emphasis upon the

importance of sacrifice, priestly ritual, and magical spells. This led in the

sixth century B.C. to the rise of more ascetics and reformers who sought to

pursue the goals of Upanishadic thought by bypassing the priests and other

mechanical ceremonialism. To achieve salvation from the cycle of birth and

death, most of these dissenters lived as hermits, meditating on the true

nature of human beings as part of the World Soul. They demonstrated by their

indifference to worldly matters that they had realized their oneness with the

underlying essence of all things. The most important of these ascetics, who

soon rejected extreme asceticism and found his own "Middle Way" to salvation,

was Guatama, who called himself the Buddha ("The Enlightened One").

Gautama (c. 563-483 B.C.) was the son of a leading noble in a small

oligarchic republic located at the foot of the Himalayas. In his twenty-ninth

year, according to tradition, Gautama was deeply shocked by the misery,

disease, and sorrow that he saw as he walked through the streets of his native

city. He renounced his wealth and position and, forsaking his wife and child,

determined to seek a meaningful answer to the question of human suffering. For

six years he lived in a forest, practicing the self-mortification rites of the

ascetics he found there. Gautama almost died from fasting and self-torture and

at last concluded that these practices did not lead to wisdom.

One day, while sitting beneath a sacred fig tree meditating on the

problem of human suffering, Gautama received "enlightenment." The meaning, the

cause, and the conquest of suffering became clear to him. From this insight,

he constructed a religious philosophy that has affected the lives of millions

of people for 2500 years.

Dressed in a simple yellow robe, with begging bowl in hand, he wandered

through the plain of the Ganges, speaking with everyone regardless of caste

and attracting disciples. At last, when he was eighty years old and enfeebled,

he was invited by a poor blacksmith to a meal. According to legend, the food

was tainted, but Gautama ate it rather than offend his host. Later in the day

the Buddha had severe pains, and he knew death was near. Calling his disciples

together, he gave them this parting message: "Be ye lamps unto yourselves. Be

a refuge to yourselves. Hold fast to the truth as to a lamp. Look not for

refuge to anyone beside yourselves."

What is "the truth" that the Buddha believed could be discovered by

individual effort, without the need for priestly assistance? The answer had

been revealed to him during the Great Enlightenment in the form of the Four

Noble Truths: (1) existence is suffering; (2) suffering springs from desire

and craving; (3) the cure for suffering is the extinction of desire; and (4)

to achieve the absence of desire, there is an Eightfold Path of right conduct,

which is the Middle Way between worldly pursuits and extreme asceticism. The

Buddha offered Five Moral Rules of right conduct: do not kill any living

being; do not take what is not given to you; do not speak falsely; do not

drink intoxicating drinks; do not be unchaste.

Like so many reform movements in the history of religion, the Buddha's

teaching aimed at restoring the purity of an existing creed. The Buddha sought

to strip the Upanishadic teachings of the corruptions that had enveloped them.

Thus he restored the ethical basis of the doctrines of karma and

reincarnation, which the priests had made dependent on the performance of

ritual rather than on moral behavior. He also repudiated the belief that only

members of the Brahmin caste could attain release from the wheel of birth and

rebirth, insisting that release was possible for everyone regardless of caste.

Nor was there any place in his system for the popular gods of Hinduism.

Indeed, what the Buddha taught was more a philosophy than a religion. Thus,

Buddhism became a movement separate from Hinduism.

The Buddhists came to form two groups - monks and laity. The Buddha's

close disciples, who included women as well as men, renounced the world,

donned yellow robes, and lived for part of the year in the world's first

monastic communities (many in caves cut out of rock), with staves and begging

bowls as their only possessions. By means of a strict discipline of mind and

body, they aspired to achieve "the supreme peace of nirvana" - release from

the wheel of birth and rebirth. The literal meaning of nirvana is "to

extinguish," and it refers to the extinguishing of desire, which feeds on

sensual pleasures and is the cause of suffering. Nirvana is also a state of

superconsciousness, attained by a type of yoga concentration in which the

individual personality or ego dissolves and becomes united with the spirit of

life, which the Buddha taught exists in all creatures.

To the ascetic monks, Buddhism's major purpose is the dissolution of the

ego and the sense of release and spiritual joy that results. To the ordinary

Buddhist laity, who continue to live in the world (although they often

"retreat" to a monastery for short periods), the Buddha's ethical teachings

serve as a guide to right living.

The Buddha was a reformer who censured the rites and dogmas of the

Brahmins, broke with the rules of caste, taught that all people are equal, and

proclaimed a code of ethics whose appeal is universally recognized. Buddhism

reached its height in India in the third century B.C. Soon thereafter Buddhism

began to decline, and ultimately it disappeared in its homeland.

One reason for this development was a successful counterreformation of

Hinduism. For most people accustomed to elaborate ritual and the worship of

benevolent personal gods, original Buddhism seemed stern and austere, and in

time the Buddha's simpler followers began to worship him as a god and the

savior of humanity. Temples were built and statues were erected honoring the

savior, and nirvana was viewed as a sort of heaven. Then when the Brahmins

proclaimed the Buddha to be the ninth incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu,

Buddhism began to fade as an independent religion in India. (Destroyed

completely by persecution following the Muslim conquest of India in the eighth

century A.D., Buddhism revived on a small scale in the mid-twentieth century.)

Buddhism's impact on Hinduism was nevertheless profound, for it served to

rejuvenate and purify the older religion. More emphasis was henceforth placed

on ethical conduct as a means of salvation and less on sacrifices, ritual

prayers, and magic spells.

Another order of monks and lay followers who reject the authority of the

Brahmin priests was Jainism. Its founder was Mahavira, a younger contemporary

of the Buddha. Jainism has much in common with Buddhism, but it has never

attained Buddhism's popularity. It places far more emphasis on asceticism and

the doctrine of nonviolence (ahimsa) toward any living creature. It is

probably more through the influence of Jainism than of Buddhism that

nonviolence became a significant aspect of Hinduism.

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