Notes on Ancient India

CEL 100 – Spring 2021 – Notes on Ancient India
Now heading westward, we will make a two-day stop at the ancient Indian subcontinent. A riverrine civilization on the Indus was discovered only early in the last century – forgotten, it seems, in the wake of the Aryan conquest of India, c. 1500 BCE, which left Indo-European languages dominant in the north, Dravidian in the south. India of the Ganges, by contrast, was subsequently the nursery for no fewer than four major world religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism – and soon hosted four more – Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Indeed, as you no doubt already know, north India was the platform for one of the mightiest Muslim empires of the early-modern period, the Mughal, which in turn paved the way for one of the greatest episodes of European imperialism, with the British helping themselves to direct rule over India (1858-1947). And we are all still living with the consequences of the way in which the British Raj ended, dividing India first into two, then three countries, along sectarian lines.
(A) INDUS VALLEY OR “HARAPPAN” CIVILIZATION, 2600-1700 BCE. Still, a glance at the far-distant past, nearly as far as Gilgamesh, might be called for.
(1) This was definitely an urban civilization, dependent on highly organized irrigation farming, successful enough to support dozens of small towns and at least three cities of 30,000-40,000: Harappa, Mohenjo-daro (with its “Great Bath”), and Ganweriwala (very recently discovered).
(2) And the Harappans had a writing system (AKA, the “Indus script,” with some 400-450 signs – yet to be deciphered, alas (big prize to anyone who succeeds in doing so).
(3) And around 1900 c. there begin to be unmistakably signs of civilizational decline – another mystery, mostly related to climate changes (i.e., the drying up the river Saraswati).
(B) THE FOUNDATIONS OF “VEDIC” CIVILIZATION, C. 1500-1000 BCE. The continuous history of India begins with the Aryan invasions-migrations into the north, beginning c. 1500.
(1) Like the Hittites, Greeks, etc., the “Aryans” (“noble” or “host”) were speakers of an Indo-European language, which, furnished with its own writing system, eventually evolved into classical Sanskrit. As is so often the case, the “invasions” themselves remains something of a mystery, but there is no doubt about the larger linguistic-cultural reorganization that followed, with the northern part of the Subcontinent still dominated by descendants of Vedic Sanskrit – Hindi, Urdu – with Dravidian languages (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam) preponderant in the south.
(2) By 1000, all the evidence – mostly cultural – suggests that the famous “caste” system was in full development. Actually, we need to distinguish between two terms, here. One is varna, literally “color,” “cover,” or “coat” (related to the English “varnish”), yielding the classical four social echelons: BRAHMINS – clerics, scholars; KSHATRYIAS: warriors, rulers; VAISHYAS: landowners, merchants; SHUDRAS: manual laborers – which you will instantly recognize as one more variant of “trifunctionalisim” (cf. the French “estates”). Then there are the jati or “sub-communities” (of 5000-15,000 members), whose origins lie in something like guild organizations, and which remain tremendously important in regulating employment and matrimony in India – related to the varnas, but a distinct system.
(C) VEDIC SCRIPTURE. As Indian civilization reorganized itself around the Ganges, it generated as astonishingly rich sacred literature, in classical Sanskrit, regarded by later Hinduism as divinely inspired. There is a conventional distinction between two different kinds of text here:
(1) The SHRUTI or “that which is revealed,” dating to sometime between 1500 and 300 BCE. The earliest of these are four collections (three of hymns and mantras, one of spells and charms), known as “Vedas” – and we’ll consider a snippet or two from the earliest of these, the RIG VEDA, from which we will look a snippet or two. Among later shruti, the most important are perhaps the UPANISHADS (“sitting near” – discourses of teachers to disciples). We’ll glance at a few pages from these as well, to try to get a sense of how the transmigration of souls functioned in Vedic religion.
(2) Then there are the SMRITI (“remembered” or “handed down”), which include the Sutras and Puranas, and the “Laws of Manu” or “Manusmriti”– but which the most important are certainly the two great Sanskrit epics: (a) the RAMAYANA of Valmiki (c. 500?) – the great tale of Rama and Sita, Ravana and Hanuman; and (b) the MAHABHARATA (perhaps a little later) – the longest piece of writing in human history, recounting a vast civil war between Vedic warriors, from which the Bhagavad-Gita is a tiny extract.
(D) BUDDHIMSM – Yes, can I just say a word or two about what we’re missing here, to my regret?
(1) You’ve definitely got a founding figure here – Siddattha Gotama, the supreme “Buddha” – whose biography (even if the dates are strikingly uncertain – death dates ranging from 543 to 410 BCE) is fundamental to the system, its main component parts being (a) an account of his birth, and youth (the four signs), down to his renunciation; (b) the tale of his Enlightenment itself, at Bodh Gaya; (c) His First Sermon at Benares and subsequent teaching career; and (d) his death, around the age of 80.
(2) It would be lovely to say word or two about the cosmological assumptions in the background – the “six realms of rebirth” arranged in the “wheel of life” (the Bhavacakra), and the role of karma (“action,” literally) in governing movement among them.
(3) And I suppose you could look up a web version of the “First Sermon” (“Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Law” – the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. And as I mentioned before there’s the topic of monasticism itself – which we must just set aside, with a sigh.
(E) OUR TEXTS. Just three short ones – but what texts!
(a) First, from the Rig Veda, there’s the very famous hymn 10.90, the “Purusha Sukta” (the PDF in your files contains two different translations, the second adding some explanation) – a creation story associated with the god Purusha, which has longed served as the classical source for thinking about the four Varnas in cosmological terms. And if you got some time on your hands, I’d recommending just typing “Purusha sukta” into Google and seeing what you get back.
(b) Then two (out of the four in the PDF I’ve shared with you) of the most famous of the Upanishads, the Brhadaranyaka” (a fine brief introduction to karma and to the cycle of rebirth) and the “Chandogya” – the locus classicus for thinking about “selfhood” and its relation to divinity in the Vedic tradition. There are few tales more famous in Indian philosophy than that of Svetaketu and the salt, and no phrase more important than “thou art that” – “Tat tvam asi,” in Sanskrit. Just Google that, as well . . .
(c) Last and definitely not least – in fact, apparently the planet Earth’s favorite spiritual text – the Bhagavad-Gita, the famous dialogue between the warrior Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna, plucked out of the Mahabharata. Actually, the Gita is so short – a poem of a mere 700 verses – it wouldn’t hurt read all of it, readily available on the Web in dozens of different translations. But I’ve made use of the selections, a kind of bare minimum, in the Norton Anthology of World Literature (again, I apologize for the ink stains at the start):
(a) from the First Teaching: Arjuna’s distress over the impending slaughter;
(b) from the Second Teaching: Krishna on the self, duty, and action;
(c) from the Third Teaching: on discipline;
(d) from the Sixth Teaching: the man of discipline – the yogi;
(e) from the Tenth Teaching: the vision of Krishna as deity.

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