Here we are at the Indus river again, but now Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa are gone. Not often does a civilization disappear, usually it is conquered or absorbed into another. In this case it seems that it has vanished leaving behind barely a trace, barely a memory of its existence. Civilizations are like bubbles of soap on the water. Floating on the surface, for a while, magnificent and full of brilliance. Some collapse into nothing. Others are absorbed by bigger bubbles to create even larger bubbles. Others still, just stick side by side awkwardly bouncing the light off of each other. In the case of the Indus civilization it seems that they were the unfortunate bubble destined to collapse into nothing.
Hinduism… that’s a toughie. It seems to be the most appealing religion. The friendliest and oldest.
Let us start from the beginning…
After the Indus valley civilization disappeared, the Aryan people migrated to the region. To the Indo-Gangetic Plain.
“Aryan… you mean…”
Before you say anything, let me continue. Aryan people are Indo-Aryans that migrated from central Asia. The name came from the Sanskrit word “ārya” meaning noble. It is the Europeans that really messed up the word.
Anyway, the Aryan migration started what is referred to as the Vedic period in which the famous Vedas were written. The Vedas are religious texts, which are written in Sanskrit (ancient sacred language of hinduism) and are full of philosophy, hymns, spells and other stuff. They are considered the oldest scriptures of Hinduism.
“They contained spells. Like, magic spells?”
That’s right, the Atharva-Veda contains spells to prolong life and harm enemies. Other Vedas contained instructions on how to properly sacrifice animals.
With the Aryans came the Varna, first mentioned in the Rigveda (believed to be inserted later). It is also discussed heavily in the epic of Mahabharata. The Varna is the caste system. A way to categorise people into their own class:
Brahmins: The scholars and priests. (The Head).
Kshatriyas: The warriors. (The Arms).
Vaishya: Merchants and Farmers. (The Thighs).
Shudras: The labourers. (The Feet).
“That makes sense but, it seems kind of wrong to label people like that from birth,”
Maybe, maybe not. The whole idea was to be the best you can be at what you are meant to do, then you would have a fighting chance of being reborn into something better in the next life. This is accomplished by Samsāra, reincarnation. You see, Sanātana Dharma or Hinduism, is in essence an “eternal order” which is held together by Karma. You have to accept order and purpose in the universe, and if you do, you will experience life properly the way it was intended.
“See that throws me off. From what I understand, the universe is a mess. All I know is that I would want to become a Brahmin”
You “know” nothing Jon Snow.
Never mind… The final goal is not to become Brahmin through Samsāra or reincarnation, but to break free from the cycle all together. That is referred to as Moksha.
“Man, that’s complicated. So… is Hinduism Monotheistic?”
Wow, big word. Hinduism is a very complex religion; it’s ideas of God are also complex. Hinduism can be classified into almost anything, depending on which philosophy and tradition is followed. One understanding is that one god, Brahnma, takes the many forms of many gods, another is that it is a Henotheistic religion, believing in one god while still accepting others. Due to it being so flexible, Hinduism is able to absorb other religions and customs into itself. That is probably why it was able to survive so long.
Creating a strong government based on those ideas was impossible, though. The religion is too self serving, so obeying a king or emperor won’t help you in any way since you are stuck in your caste for life anyway. You couldn’t even marry anyone outside your caste.
That’s where Vardhaman Mahavira and Siddhartha Gautama made a bit of a change. They introduced Jainism and Buddhism.
“I consider myself a Buddhist. I plan to someday go to and study with the Buddhist monks and learn how to fight. Maybe even hang out with the Dalai Lama.”
Really? Haha. Well, the Buddhism you are referring to is a little different from what Siddhartha Gautama taught. When Buddhism was introduced in china it took a form of its own. In its original form, the monks had no powers or anything like that, the goal was to achieve nirvana, through meditation. To rid yourself of all desire.
“Who is this Siddhartha Gautama character?”
Okay let me tell you how the story goes:
There once was a prince, his name was Siddhartha Gautama. He lived in a nice castle surrounded by nice things at the time of the Magadha empire. He was born into the warrior caste. His father did not want his son to leave the castle because it was foretold that if the prince encountered a sick man, an old man and a dead man he would leave his princehood behind and become a monk.
His father was like, “how do I keep this guy in the castle? I know! I will marry him to his hot cousin and build him a sick castle, with all kinds of pleasures… if you know what I mean.” So his father built his son a “pleasure castle” in which Siddhartha could live together with his wife and never see any suffering, since only healthy young people were allowed in.
But Siddhartha did not want to be cooped up “Man I need to get out of this castle for a bit and see the world, who knows what I fill find. Maybe more hot cousins and pleasure castles!” Finally, the price did manage to leave the castle and on his trips he saw: an old man, a sick man and a dead man.
Shocked by the outside world and suffering, he left the palace and became an ascetic monk, he starved himself and punished himself to achieve enlightenment. “I will not come back until I figure out what is wrong with this crazy world… Plus I am kind of bored of this castle” He probably thought.
He soon realized that starving himself was not the way to go, and stopped his ascetic ways. “Oh man, I nearly died of starvation. If I had died, I would have never reached enlightenment and what would be the point in that? I think I will start eating again, this starvation isn’t working for me. I can’t even meditate, I am so hungry.” What I assume was his train of thought. He began eating properly again but never stopped meditating, until he finally understood the meaning of life, reached Nirvana and became Buddha (the teacher).
He was like, “Wow, Nirvana is much better than any palaces, hot cousins or any of those nasty desires. I think I will just beg and teach people about Nirvana… After I take a couple days’ rest under this tree.” For the rest of his life he taught dharma and the 4 noble truths: He taught that all life is suffering, the source of suffering is desire, if you stop desire you stop suffering, and to do so you have to follow the eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right “samadhi” (meditation).
“So, no monk ninjas?”
Nope. At that time the Jain religion was also gaining ground. Vardhaman Mahavira was a teacher of Jainism. It is an ancient religion centered on ahimsa (non-violence), anekantavada (non-absolutism), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness).
The great things about these religions was the lack of emphasis on the caste system. Which allowed for ambition to flourish. Ambition builds kingdoms. This allowed for the rise of Mahājanapada, “the great realm” where sixteen kingdoms flourished: Anga, Assaka (or Asmaka), Avanti, Chedi, Gandhara, Kashi, Kamboja, Kosala, Kuru, Magadha, Malla, Machcha (or Matsya), Panchala, Surasena, Vriji, Vatsa (or Vamsa).
“Wow. How did you remember all sixteen?”
As you know, people always want what they don’t have, especially if it’s big and shiny. Cyrus the Great of Persia noticed how big and shiny India became all of sudden, so he conquered it. India was completely under Persian rule by the time Darius I was in command. This invasion allowed India to absorb many of the Persian traditions and customs.
As we also know, when someone conquers something big and shiny, someone else notices and also wants a piece. Alexander the Great of Greece conquered the persians and took over India. This allowed India to absorb some of the traditions of the Greeks.
As you see, India was influenced by many cultures and will continue to be throughout history.
After Alexander left, The Maurya Empire rose to power under Chandragupta Maurya. His grandson Ashoka extended the empire even further… But then, he kind of messed it up. You see, Ashoka freaked out when he saw how many people died due to his conquest of Kalinga and decided to embrace Buddhism.
“So what’s wrong with that?”
Nothing, it’s just that he embraced it so much that he neglected the government and strained it financially in his quest to follow Buddha’s teaching. After he died the empire was not able to hold itself together and broke up into separate kingdoms and empires for many years. During which the kingdoms traded heavily with Rome.
After a while, came the rise of the Gupta Empire under Sri Gupta. The Gupta time period gave rise to science, literature, architecture, art and the list goes on. This was the golden age of art and literature in India. But they were also unable to hold the empire together and it soon declined.
Again, India was split up. This time Harsha was able to bring it back together under his rule. He was a Buddhist. He did not allow the killing of animals, only humans. He was a great military tactician and writer. When finally, his kingdom also fell, India broke apart and was conquered by Muhammad bin Quasim and came under Muslim control.
India would not again see independence for a long time.
It is difficult to discuss India because of its extensive culture and variety of beliefs. Contrary to Egypt or the Roman empire, for example, India did not seem to have a long lasting empire or one single set of beliefs. India seems to be a fluid region, ever changing, ever evolving. Absorbing cultures and ideas. The one thing that seems to be a recurring theme in India is kindness. Kindness seems to be the way of the Indian people. From the peaceful people of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, to Buddha and his disciples, it seems that most of the Indian ideas and beliefs are centered about love, kindness and enlightenment.
Hinduism allows its followers to search for a clearer understanding of life. It achieves this, not by fighting, but through compassion. In humans infinite search for the “correct” way to live, it does not seem too farfetched to assume that maybe Hinduism is aimed at the right direction.