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The Age of the Buddha- Ancient India (HISTORY OF INDIA)

The Age of the Buddha- Ancient India (HISTORY OF INDIA)

The Age of the Buddha- Ancient India (HISTORY OF INDIA)

In the 6th century B.C., Indian history emerges from legend and dubious tradition. We read of great kings, whose historicity is certain and some of whose achievements are known, and from now on the main lines of India’s political development (ancient) are clear. Our sources for this period—the Buddhist and Jaina scriptures-are in many respects inadequate as historical documents. Their authors cared little for political affairs; like the Vedas, these texts were passed down from generation to generation orally for centuries, but, unlike the Vedas, they evidently grew and altered with time. Yet they contain authentic reminiscences of historical events, and though composed independently in different languages, they partially confirm one another.

This age was one of intellectual and spiritual ferment. Mystics and sophists of all kinds roamed throughout the Ganga valley, all advocating some mental discipline and asceticism as a means to salvation. But it was also a time of advance in commerce and politics. It produced not only philosophers and ascetics.but merchant-princes and men of action.


From the sixth century B.C. iron tools and implemer.s began to be widely used. This helped in the production of surplus foodgrains The surplus could be collected by princes to meet their military and administrative needs. It could also be given to the new towns coming up. All this enabled the people to lead a settled life, to stick to their land, and also to expand at the cost of the neighbouring virgin areas. The rise of large states with towns as their capitals strengthened the territorial idea.

In the sixth century B.C., there existed 16 large states or Mahajanapadas in India-Kashi, Kosala, Aga, Magadha, Vajji, Malla, Chedi, Vatsa, Kuru, Panchala, Matsya, Surasena, Assaka, Avanti, Gandhara and Kamboja.

By now the focus of civilisation had shifted eastwards, and four great kingdoms, outside the earlier area of brahmanic culture, had eclipsed the old land of the Kurus in both political and economic importance; these were Kosala, Magadha, Vatsa and Avanti. In the beginning Kashi appears to have been a powerful state, but it was later absorbed by Kosala and Magadha.


Magadhan ascendancy began with Bimbisara (544. 492 B.C.) of the Haryanka dynasty. He was a resolute and energetic organiser, ruthlessly dismissing inefficient officers, calling his village headmen together for conferences, building roads and causeways, and travelling around his kingdom on tours of inspection. He cultivated friendly relations with the prominent kings of his time. He himself married the princesses of Kosala, Vaishali and Madra which helped him in his expansionist policy. His one and only conquest was that of Anga, the capital city of which (Champa) was already of considerable commercial importance. He also gained a part of Kasi as the dowry in his marriage with the sister of Prasenajit of Kosala. The Magadhan capital was at this stage at Rajagriha.

Bimbisara was deposed, imprisoned and murdered by his own son, Ajatasatru (492-460 B.C.) who was engaged in a prolonged conflict with Prasenajit. He defeated Prasenajit, married his daughter, and annexed Kasi. Just after this Prasenajit, like Bimbisara, was deposed by his son and he died at the gate of Rajagriha. The new king Virudhaka then attacked and virtually annihilated the little autonomous tribe of the Sakyas to which Buddha belonged. Probably, Virudhaka, like Ajatasatru, had ambitions of empire and wished to embark on a career of conquest after bringing the outlying peoples, who had paid loose homage to his father, more directly under the control of the centre; but his intentions were unfulfilled for we hear no more of him except for an unreliable legend that he was destroyed by a miracle soon after his massacre of the Sakyas. A little later his kingdom was incorporated in Magadha.

Although his mother (Chellana) was a Lichchhavi princess, Ajatasatru did not hesitate from waging wars against the Lichchhavis. His prime minister Vrihadarayan sowed dissensions in their ranks and Ajatasatru finally destroyed their independence, though it took about 16 years. He succeeded in battle because of a war engine which was used to throw stones like catapults, and a chariot to which a mace was attached, thus facilitating mass killings.

Probably the rise of Magadha aroused the jealousy of Avanti and the relations between the two were strained.

Ajatasatru was succeeded by Udayin (460-444 B.C.) who founded the new capital at Pataliputra. Situated at the confluence of the Ganga and the Son, it was commercially and strategically important. The Haryanka dynasty was succeeded by the Sisunaga dynasty, which destroyed the power of Avanti with its capital at Ujjain and incorporated it in the Magadhan empire. The Sisunagas also temporarily shifted the capital to Vaisali.

The Sisunagas were succeeded by the Nandas who annexed Kalinga to the empire. Mahapadma Nanda was the most important king of this dynasty. He claimed to be the ekarat, the sole sovereign who destroyed all the other ruling princes. The Nanda army was very strong– said to comprise 200,000 infantry, 60,000 cavalry, and 6000 war elephants. This is said to have checked Alexander’s army from advancing towards Magadha. The last Nandas turned out to be weaklings. Their rule in Magadha was supplanted by that of the Maurya dynasty-Chandragupta Maurya overthrew the last Nanda ruler Dhanananda.

The ascendancy of Magadha was facilitated by enterprising and ambitious monarchs like Bimbisara, Ajatasatru and Mahapadma Nanda; the rich iron deposits in its land; the strategically situated capitals; fertile alluvium; developed trade and commerce; use of elephants in wars; unorthodox character of the Magadhan society.


In the sixth century B.C., there appeared as many as 62 religious sects in India. Of these there were many heterodox sects, Jainism and Buddhism being the most important of them.

There were several causes for the origin of these sects. Tensions were generated by the division of the society on the varna basis: the kshatriyas, and sometimes vaisyas, disputed the brahmana supremacy. Significantly, the founders of the new religions were kshatriyas. The vedic practice of killing cattle indiscriminately in sacrifices was inimical to the emerging agricul. tural economy based on the iron ploughshare; significantly the new religions were against slaughtering ani. mals. The old brahmanical religion stood in the way of progressive trade and commerce because of its condem nation of many of the commercial practices like usury; this was resented by the vaisyas who were now growing rich and probably were ready to encourage a religion which would improve their position. The vaisyas certainly supported Buddhism and Jainism extensively. Also, there was a growing dislike amongst some people for the heightened materialism in life, and they hankered after simple, indeed ascetic life. The new religions responded to their urge.


According to the Jains, their religion originated in the remote antiquity. In the Rigveda there are references to Risabha, the first Tirthankara as claimed by the Jains. But there is no historical basis for the first 22 Tirthankaras. Only the last two Tirthankaras are historical personages. The twenty-third Tirthankara, Parsvanath, was the son of king Asvasena of Benares. He became an ascetic at the age of 30 and got enlightenment after 84 days of penance. His main messages were: (i) non-injury, (ii) not to tell lies, (iii) non-stealing, and (iv) non-possession. He died on Mount Sammeta in Bengal at the age of 100.

The twenty-fourth and last Tirthankara was Vardhamana Mahavira born in 540 B.C. in Kundagrama (now the place is Basarh) near Vaisali in north Bihar. His father Siddhartha was a chief of the Jnatrika clan, one of the confederates of the Lichchhavis of Vaisali. His mother, Trisala, was the sister of Chetaka, an eminent Lichchhavi prince of Vaisali. He was married to Yasoda and had a daughter called Priyadarsena, who later married Jamali, a disciple of Mahavira. At the age of 30, after the death of his parents, he became an ascetic. After 12 years of asceticism he attained full enlightenment (kaivalya) at Jrimbhigrama and thus, conquered misery and happiness. So he became ‘Mahavira’. He also got the title of Arhant, i.e. worthy, Jina (conqueror), and Tirthankara (ford-maker). In 468 B.C. at the age of 72, he died at Pava, near Rajgir, east of Patna, by self-starvation.

Mahavira preached almost the same message as Parsvanath except that he added a fifth principle in Jainism-vow of chastity. He also established the chaturvidha by formulating rules and regulations for monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen.


The Jains repudiate the authority or infallibility of the Vedas, and do not attach any importance to the performance of sacrifices. They believe that every object, even the smallest particle, possesses a soul and is endowed with consciousness. A natural corollary of this principle is their strict observance of ahimsa or noninjury to any sentient being. The Jains reject the concept of a Universal Soul or a Supreme Power as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. The Jain goal of life is to attain deliverance from the fetters of earthly existence. The cause of the soul’s embodiment being the presence of karmic matter, moksha could be achieved, if and when a person gets rid of all karma inherited from past lives, and acquires no new one. The way to this is through the Triratna (Three Jewels)-right faith, right knowledge, and right conduct. The Jains emphasise the practice of penances, such as yogic exercises and fasting, even to the point of death as it would give strength to the soul and keep the lower matter subdued.

Jainism does not deny the existence of gods but refuses to give gods any important part in the universal scheme. Gods are placed lower than the Jina.

The world, for the Jaina, functions only according to universal law, and is eternal. It existence is divided into an infinite number of cycles, each consisting of a period of improvement (utsarpini), and one of decline (avasarpini). Each period is to all intents and purposes like the last, containing 24 Tirthankaras, 12 ‘universal emperors’ (Chakravartins), both classes being included in the 63 Great Men (Sataka-purusas), who live at regular intervals in the cycle. At the peak period men are of enormous size and reach a tremendous age. They have no need of laws or property, for the wishing-tree (kalpavriksha) gives them all they need for the asking. At present the world is rapidly declining. The last Trithankara of this age has passed to final nirvana, and gradually true religion will be lost. Mahavira in his omniscience is said to have even given his followers the name and address of the last Jaina of this aeon. The process of decline will continue for 40,000 years, when men will be dwarfs in stature, with a life of only 20 years, and will dwell in caves, having forgotten all culture, even the use of fire. Then the tide will turn, and they will begin to improve again, only to decline once more, and so on for all eternity.

Full salvation is not possible to the layman. In this Jainism differs from Buddhism and Hinduism, which concede it in exceptional cases. To attain nirvana a man must abandon all trammels, including his clothes. A monastic life is essential for salvation. The life of the monk should be governed by the five vows. Jainism does not condemn the varna system. Mahavira attrib. uted birth into a varna to the sins and virtues of individuals in previous births. But all individuals irrespective of caste can strive for liberation through good deeds and living


For some two centuries, the Jains remained a small community of monks and lay followers, less important than the rival sect of the Ajivikas. Probably the strength of Jainism increased during the Mauryan times, and Chandragupta Maurya seems to have joined their order as a monk on his abdication. A serious famine at the end of Chandragupta’s reign led to a great exodus of Jaina monks from the Ganga Valley to the Deccan, where they established important centres of their faith.

This migration led to the great schism in Jainism. Bhadrabahu, who led the emigrants, insisted on the retention of the rule of nudity which Mahavira had established. Sthulabhadra, the leader of the monks who remained in the north, allowed his followers to wear white garments, owing to the hardships and confusions of the famine. Hence arose the two sects of the Jainas, the Digambaras (‘sky-clad’, i.e. naked), and the Svetambaras (‘white-clad’). The schism did not become final until the first century A.D., and there were never any fundamental doctrinal differences.


According to tradition an oral sacred literature had been passed down from the days of Mahavira, but Bhadrabahu was the last person to know it perfectly. On his death Sthulabhadra called a great council at Pataliputra, and the canon was reconstructed as best possible in twelve Angas or sections, which replaced the fourteen ‘former texts’ (Purvas). This canon was accepted only by the Svetambaras; the Digambaras claimed that the old canon was hopelessly lost, and proceeded to devise new scriptures for themselves, some of which are still unpublished. The texts of the Svetambara canon were finally settled and reduced to writing at a council at Valabhi in Gujarat in the fifth century A.D. By this time the texts had become corrupt and one of the Angas had been comploetely lost, while new material had been added to the original canon in the form of twelve Upangas, or minor sections, and various lesser works. The literature is in Ardha-Magadhi.

In the Middle Ages a great body of non-canonical literature was written both in Prakrit and Sanskrit. Among the Jain writers the most important were Bhadrabahu, Siddhasena, Divakara, Manibhadra, Siddha, Hemachandra, Nayachandra and Mallinath. The Jainas wrote narrative literature, kavyas, novels, dramas and hymns. Jain philosophers elaborated the doctrine of syadvada as against the Buddhist sunyavada, and attained special excellence in logic. Jains contributed much to grammar, lexicography, poetics, mathematics, astronomy, astrology and political thought. They also contributed to the development of some regional languages like Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, Hindi, Rajasthani and Marathi.


Jainism spread to Kalinga in the fourth century B.C. Kharavela patronised it in the first century A.D. In the period between the Mauryas and the Guptas, Jainism can be traced from Orissa in the east to Mathura in the west, but in later times it was chiefly concentrated in two regions-(i) Gujarat and Rajasthan, where the Svetambara sect prevailed, and (ii) Mysore, where the Digambaras were dominant. The Ganga valley, the original home of Jainism, had little following:

Jainism survived in India, whereas Buddhism perished, because the former sect took better care of its layfolk. In Jainism the layman was a definite memberof the Order, encouraged to undertake periodical retreats and to live as far as possible the life of the monk for specific periods. Like Buddhism, Jainism encouraged the commercial virtues of honesty and frugality. The splendid Jaina temples at Mount Abu and Sravanabelagola are testimonies of the great wealth and piety of medieval Jaina laymen.

Jainism had no special social doctrines. The domestic rites of the laymen, such as birth, marriage and death were those of the Hindus. At one time Jainism maintained a cult of stupas like Buddhism, but this has not survived, and in the early Christian centuries the Tirthankaras were adored in temples in the form of icons. By the Middle Ages this worship approximated to that of the Hindus, with offerings of flowers, incense, lamps, etc. As with Buddhism, the chief gods of the Hindus found their way into Jaina temples in subordinate positions, and though there was no real compromise with theism the sect easily fitted into the Hindu order, its members forming distinct castes.

Various factors were responsible for the decline of Jainism in India. The Jains took the concept of ahimsa too far. They advised that one should not take medicine when one fell sick because the medicine killed germs. They believed that there was life in trees and vegetables and so refrained from harming them. Such practices could not become popular with the common man. There was moreover no patronage from later kings. Bimbisara and Ajatasatru helped this religion in many ways but after them no king of the later dynasties extended help in its spread. The observance of extreme penance and austerity could not find favour with the common people. The Jains did not make any efforts to spread their religion. They remained peaceful and did not compel anyone to embrace their religion.



About 563 B.C., a son was born to Suddhodhana, a chief of the Sakyas (a small clan in the Nepal terai) and his chief queen, Mahamaya. The birth took place in a grove of sal trees at Lumbini (now in Nepal) near the capital of the Sakyas, Kapilavastu. The boy was named Siddhartha, his gotra being Gautama.

Four Signs

One day, as he was driving round the royal park with his charioteer Channa, he saw an aged man, in the last stages of infirmity and decrepitude. When he learned that all men must grow old he was troubled in mind. The second sign that was to decide his career came in the form of a very sick man, covered with boils and shivering with fever. The third was even more terrible-a corpse, being carried to the cremation ground, followed by weeping mourners. But the fourth sign brought hope and consolation-a wandering religious beggar, clad in a simple yellow robe, peaceful and calm.


Yasodhara gave birth to his son Rahul. but it gave him no pleasure. That night there were great festivities, but when all were sleeping Siddhartha roused Channa, who saddled his favourite horse Kanthaka, and he rode off into the night. When far from the city he stripped off his jewellery and fine garments, and put on a hermit’s robe. The horse Kanthaka is said to have dropped dead from grief. Thus Siddhartha performed his ‘Great Going Forth’ (Mahabhinishkramana) and became a wandering ascetic, owning nothing but the robe he wore.

At first he begged for his food as a wanderer, but he soon gave up this life for that of a forest hermit. From a sage, Alana Kalama, he learned the technique of meditation, and the lore of Brahman as taught in the Upanishads, but he was not convinced that man could obtain liberation from sorrow by mental discipline and knowledge. So he joined forces with five ascetics who were practising the most rigorous self-mortification in the hope of wearing away their karma and obtaining final bliss. His penances became so severe that the five quickly recognised him as their leader. For six years he tortured himself until he was nothing but a walking skeleton. But he realised that his fasts and penances were useless. He again began to beg for food, and his body regained its strength. The five disciples left him in disgust at what they thought was a step backward.


One day Siddhartha, now 35 years old, was seated beneath a large pipal tree on the outskirts of Gaya (now Bodh Gaya). He made a solemn vow that, though his bones may waste away and his blood dry up, he would not leave his seat until the riddle of suffering was solved. He withstood fear and the temptations of desire, passion, pleasure, and material power (symbolised by Mara. the devil in Buddhist thought). At the dawning of the 49th day he knew the truth. He had found the secret of sorrow, and understood at last why the world is full of suffering, and what man must do to overcome them. He was fully enlightened-a Buddha. For another seven weeks he remained under the Tree of Wisdom (Bodhivriksha), meditating on the great truth he had found.

For a time he doubted whether he should proclaim his wisdom to the world, as it was so recondite and difficult to express that few would understand it; but the god Brahma himself descended from heaven and persuaded him to teach the world. Leaving the Tree of Wisdom, he journeyed to the Deer Park (the modern Sarnath) near Varanasi, where his five former disciples had settled to continue their penances. To these five ascetics the Buddha preached his first sermon, or “set in motion the Wheel of the Law”. Soon his name was wellknown throughout the Ganga plain, and the greatest kings of the time favoured him and his followers. He gathered together a disciplined body of monks, called bhikshus (‘beggars’), knit together by the yellow robes of the order and a common discipline.

Buddha returned to Kapilavastu, and converted his father, wife and son Rahul, and other members of the court, including his cousin Devadatta, whose heart. however, remained full of jealousy. At the request of his foster-mother and aunt. Krishna-Gautami, he allowed with much misgiving the formation of a community of nuns. According to legend he averted a war between the Sakyas and the Koliyas, by walking between the assembled armies and convincing them of the uselessness and evil of bloodshed. He went alone to the camp of the notorious bandit, Angulimal, and converted him and his followers from their evil ways. There is no record, however, of his healing the sick by supernatural means.


The Buddha told his disciples that when he was gone they were not to look for a new leader–the Dhamma would lead them. They must rely on themselves, be their own lamps, and look for no refuge outside themselves. On the outskirts of Kusinagara (identified with Kasia village in the Deoria district in Eastern Uttar Pradesh) the Buddha lay under a sal tree, and died at the age of 80 (about 487 B.C.). His last words were: “All composite things decay. Strive diligently.” This was his final parinirvana. His sorrowing disciples cremated his body, and his ashes were divided between the representatives of various tibal peoples and King Ajatasatru of Magadha.

Symbols for the events in his life

The Buddha’s birth is symbololised by the lotus and the bull; his great renunciation by the horse; his nirvana by the Bodhi tree; his first sermon by the Dhamma Chakra or Wheel of Law; his parinirvana or death by the stupa.


The Buddha was a practical reformer. His primary aim was to secure deliverance from the grim reality of sorrow and suffering. So he enunciated the

  • Four Noble Truths‘ (Arya satya):

(i) there is suffering;

(ii) this suffering must have a cause which is desire;

(iii) suffering musi be got rid of;

(iv) in order to get rid of suffering one must know the right way.

Suffering is caused by desire; therefore, the extinction of desire would lead to the cessation of suffering. Desire could be extinguished if one follows the ‘Noble Eightfold Path’ (astangika marga): (i) right belief, (ii) right thought, (iii) right speech, (iv) right action, (v) right means of livelihood, (vi) right endeavour, (vii) right recollection, (viii) right meditation. This is the ‘great Middle Path’, for it avoids the extremes of gross luxury and seyere austerity. This Middle Path leads finally to nirvana, which implies not only the extinction of desire but also the attainment of a perfect state of tranquillity. Emphasis is laid on the observance of the silas (moralities), samadhi (concentration) and prajan (insight).

The Buddha differed from Mahavira in his attitude towards asceticism. He laid great stress on non-injury to living creatures, but in this respect Jainism is far more strict than Buddhism. The Buddha repudiated the authority of the Vedas and denied the spiritual efficacy of Vedic rites and sacrifices, although he accepted the traditional belief in transmigration of the soul and law of karma. He did not concern himself with the problem of the existence of God, for abstruse metaphysical speculations were, according to him, quite irrelevant for the development of man’s moral and spiritual worth. His simple faith was meant for all, irrespective of sex, age or social position. He introduced the practice of holding religious discourses in the language of the common people, and refused to confine spiritual teachings to Sanskrit, the language of the learned few.


The Buddhist sacred texts written in Pali are collectively known as the Tripitaka (Three Baskets). A great gathering of monks met at Rajagriha soon after the Buddha’s death. At this council, Upali, one of the chief disciples, recited the first part, the Vinaya Patrika, or rules of the Order, as he recalled having heard the Buddha give tuem. Another disciple, Ananda, recited the Sulta Patrika, the great collection of the Buddha’s sermons on matters of doctrine and ethics. A second general council is said to have been held at Vaishali, 100 years after the Buddha’s death. Here schism raised its head, ostensibly over small points of monastic discipline. and the order broke into two sections, the orthodox Sthaviravadins (Theravadi) or “Believers in the Teaching of the Elders”, and the Mahasanghikas or “Members of the Great Community”. Numerous such differences appeared at the third council, held at Pataliputra under the patronage of Asoka, which resulted in the expulsion of many heretics and the establishment of the Sthaviravada school as orthodox. At this council it is said that the third and last section was added to the Pali scriptures, the Kathavatthu of the Abhidhamma Patrika, dealing with philosophical principles, psychology and metaphysics. Talking of literature, one should not fail to mention the Jataka tales relating to different births of the Buddha.


Whatever its position in the Buddha’s lifetime, 200 years later Buddhism was a distinct religion. In becoming a religion Buddhism borrowed and adapted much from the popular beliefs of the time. Its simple ritual was in no way based on sacrificial Brahmanism, but on the cult of the chaityas, or sacred spots. These were often small groves of trees, or single sacred trees, on the outskirts of villages, and might have also included tumuli, such as those in which the ashes of chiefs were buried. These chaityas were the abodes of earth-spirits and genii who, to the simpler folk, were more accessible and less expensive to worship than the great gods of the Aryans.

Stupas or tumulis were built by the recipients over the divided ashes of the Buddha. Other stupas, containing the remains of locally revered monks and ascetics of other denominations, rose up all over India in succeeding centuries. Asoka unearthed ashes of the Buddha from their original resting places and divided them still further, rearing stupas for them all over India. The original Bodhi tree of Gaya became an object of pilgrimage and cuttings of it were carried as far as Ceylon. Temples proper or shrine-rooms do not appear to have been erected until the beginning of the Christian era, when the Buddha began to be worshipped in the form of an image (perhaps the first human figure to be worshipped in India was that of the Buddha).

His simpler followers evidently raised the Buddha almost to divinity even in his lifetime, and after his death he was worshipped in his symbols—the stupa, recalling his parinirvana, and the tree, recalling his enlightenment. The worship consisted of circumambulation in the clockwise direction, and prostrations, with offerings of flowers.

With the support of Asoka Buddhism greatly expanded, spreading throughout India and to Ceylon. Though there is a tradition testifying to cruel persecution of the Buddhists under Pushyamitra Shunga the faith continued to grow. Of all the religious remains during 200 B.C.-200 A.D. so far discovered in India those of Buddhism outnumber those of Brahmanism, Hinduism and Jainism together.

Probably much of the Pali canon of the Sthaviravadins emanates from the great monastery on a hilltop near Sanchi.


Another very important sect, the Sarvastivadins, was strong in the region of Mathura and in Kashmir. It was in Kashmir, according to a tradition preserved in China, that under the patronage of Kanishka (first-second century A.D.), a fourth great council was held, at which the Sarvastivadin doctrines were codified in a summary, the Mahavibhasa. It was chiefly among the Sarvastivadins, but also in the old schism of the Mahasanghikas, that new ideas developed, which were to form the basis of the division of Buddhism into the ‘Great’ and ‘Lesser vehicles-Mahayana and Hinayana respectively.

The Mahayanas ruled out self-abnegation but insisted on the dedication of one’s life to the service of others. Thus altruism was the keynote of Mahayanism. Mahayana Buddhism believes in salvation through the Bodhisattava too. The concept of Bodhisattava-or incarnation of the Buddha–came into vogue around the 1st century A.D.

In the early Christian centuries the Mahayana sect became more popular. (The Sthaviravadin and kindred sects constituted Hinayana Buddhism.) In Ceylon, however, the Hinayana Buddhism held ground and thence it was later taken to Burma, Thailand and other parts of South-East Asia, where it became the national religion. The Mahayana Buddhism, itself soon divided by various schisms, was carried by a succession of Indian monks to China and thence to Japan.

By the time of the Guptas Mahayanism predominated, and Huien Tsang, in the seventh century, found the Lesser Vehicle almost extinct in most of India, and only flourishing in a few parts of the west. The chief Buddhist monastery was at Nalanda, which, under the patronage of the Pala kings, remained a centre of Buddhist piety and learning until the Muslim invasion. From Nalanda the missionary monk Padmasambhava went forth to convert Tibet to Buddhism in the eighth century.

At this time the general standards of culture in North India were declining. From the end of the Gupta period onwards Indian religion became more and more permeated with primitive ideas of sympathetic magic and sexual mysticism, and Buddhism was much affected by these developments. A third vehicle, ‘the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt’ (Vajrayana), appeared in Eastern india in the eighth century, and grew rapidly in Bengal and Bihar. It was this form of Buddhism, modified by primitive local cults and tantric practices, which was finally established in Tibet in the eleventh century, as a result of missions sent from the great Vajrayana monastery of Vikramsila in Bihar.

In the sixth century the Huna king Mihirakula destroyed many Buddhist monasteries and killed many monks. A fanatical Saivite king of Bengal, Sasanka, in the course of an attack on Kannauj at the very beginning of the seventh century, almost destroyed the Tree of Wisdom at Gaya. There are other less reliable accounts of persecution, but persecution was not the main cause of the disappearance of Buddhism from India by the end of the 12th century A.D. A more important factor was the revived and reformed Hinduism, which began to spread northwards from the Tamil country from the 9th century onwards, when Shankaracharya travelled throughout India disputing with the Buddhists. Behind him he left an organised body of Hindu monks to carry on his work. The new form of devotional Hinduism made a very vigorous appeal to the ordinary man, and the persistent tendency of Hinduism to assimilate was always at work.

The Buddhist monks also contributed to the decline in their own way. For instance, they gave up Pali, the language of the people, and adopted Sanskrit. They began to practise idol worship. Lavish offerings from their devotees made their life easy. The monasteries thus began to acquire enormous wealth. Women were also allowed to reside in monasteries and this practice led to further degeneration.

An illuminated Buddhist manuscript contains a colophon stating that it was prepared in Bihar in the 15th century. This is our last record of Indian Buddhism, until its revival in recent years.


There is much that is common between Jainism and Buddhism. Not only were there marked similarities in the careers of the founders of these two schools of philosophy, but both of them were contemporary and originated in Magadha. Both possess a common background of Aryan culture. Certain common points in their philosophic content are also striking. Both of them reject the authority of the Vedas and the Vedic priest; both repudiate the efficacy of ceremonies and rituals; both bitterly condemn animal sacrifices; both ignore God. Jainism even emphatically denies any Supreme Diety or Creator, as man is his own architect. To both distinctions based on birth have no meaning; both subscribe to ahimsa (non-violence); both believe in transmigration and both hold that karma exerts a definite impact on the future. Both stress on service. Strangely enough, despite their strong regional orientation, both have accommodated many popular beliefs and superstitions.

Notwithstanding these close affinities Jainism and Buddhism differ, at times widely, on certain basic issues. Jainism glorifies self-mortification whereas Buddhism insists upon the pursuit of the Middle Path and the avoidance of extremes. If Buddhism maintains “that everything lacks an ego”, “Jainism exhorts that “every object or particle in this world is tenanted by a soul”. Concept of deliverance and nirvana in the two sects are also not identical. There are also significant differences regarding the importance, role and structuring of their respective church organisations.


A third unorthodox sect was that of the Ajivikas, who also practised complete nudity. The doctrines of the founder of the sect, Gosala Maskariputra, bear a generic likeness to those of his ‘contemporary and former friend, Mahavira. Like Mahavira, he looked back to earlier teachers and ascetic groups, whose doctrines he refurbished and developed. According to both Buddhist and Jaina tradition, he was of humble birth, and he died a year or so before the Buddha did, after a fierce altercation with Mahavira in the city of Sravasti. His followers seem to have combined with those of other teachers, such as Purana Kasyapa, the antinomian and Pakudha Katyayana, the atomist, to form the Ajivika sect. After a period of prosperity in Mauryan times, when Asoka and his successor Dasaratha presented caves to the Ajivikas, the sect rapidly declined, and only retained some local importance in a small region of Eastern Mysore and the adjacent parts of Madras, where it survived until the 14th century, after which we hear no more of it.

No scriptures of the Ajivikas have come down to us, and the little we know about them has to be reconstructed from the polemic literature of Buddhism and Jainism. The sect was definitely atheistic, and its main feature was strict determinism. The usual doctrine of karma taught that though a man’s present condition was determined by his past actions he could influence his destiny, in this life and the future, by choosing the right course of conduct. This the Ajivikas denied. The whole universe was conditioned and determined to the smallest detail by an impersonal cosmic principle, Niyati or destiny. It was impossible to influence the course of transmigration in any way.

Though nothing that a man could do would in any way. influence his future lot, Ajivika monks practised severe asceticism, because the force of destiny compelled them to do so, although their religious opponents accused them of licentiousness and immorality.

The Dravidian Ajivikas developed their doctrines in a way resembling Mahayana Buddhism. Gosala became an ineffable divinity, like the Buddha in Mahayanism, while the doctrine of destiny evolved into a Parmenidean view that all chnage and movement were illusory, and that the world was in reality eternally and immovably at rest.


Buddha, Mahavira, Gosala, and many lesser teachers of the sixth century B.C. ignored the gods, but they were not thoroughgoing atheists and materialists. All admitted the existence of supernatural beings of strictly limited powers, and all accepted the fundamental doctrine of transmigration, though they interpreted its mechanics individually. Some thinkers, however, rejected all immaterial categories completely.

Ajita Vesakambalin, a contemporary of the Buddha, was the earliest known teacher of complete materialism. He founded a sect of monks; the Buddha condemned them for having no good motive for their asceticism. An element of materialism is traceable in Indian thought from this time onwards. The materialist schools came to be known as the Charvakas or the Lokayatas. The general attitude of the materialist schools was that all religious observance and morality were futile. A man should make the most of life and get whatever happiness he could out of it. A man must not turn back from pleasure for fear of concomitant sorrow. He must accept occasional sorrow, for the sake of the joy which he finds in the world, as he accepts the bones with the fish or the husk with the corn.

Besides numerous quotations attributed to materialists in religious and philosophical works, one anti-religious philosophical text has survived. This is the Jattvopaplavasimha (“The Lion Destroying all Religious Truth’) written by a certain Jayarasi in the 8th century A.D.


With the emergence of Vishnu and Shiva as the most popular gods and with people developing deep devotion, the Vedic religion was transformed into a more popular form-what later came to be called Hinduism. Very early a god named Vasudeva was widely worshipped, especially in western India. The inscription on the Besnagar column (2nd century B.C.) shows that the cult of Vasudeva was receiving royal support. Soon, Vasudeva came to be identified with the Vedic god Vishnu. Narayana, a god of obscure origin mentioned in the Brahmana literature, was also identified with Vishnu, whose name was by now closely connected with that of Krishna. This gave rise to Bhagavatism or Vaishnavism.

Saivism probably rose when a fertility deity, whose cult may have been kept alive in non-brahmanic circles from the days of the Harappan civilisation, rose in prominence. This was Shiva, identified with the Rigvedic Rudra. In the Yajurveda Shiva is referred to as Sankara or Shambhu. Siva is usually worshipped in the form of linga (phallus). Saivism had four schools-Pasupata, Saiva, Kapalika, Kalamukha. With Shiva were associated certain other popular divinities, such as Skanda and Ganesha. At the end of the Gupta period goddesses rose to prominence together with magical cults, religious sexuality, and a new form of animal sacrifice.

The final form of Hinduism was largely the result of the influence from the Dravidian south, where, on the basis of indigenous cults fertilised by Aryan influence, theistic schools had arisen, characterised by intense ecstatic piety. It was this devotional religion, bhakti, propagated by many wandering preachers and hymn-singers, which had the greatest effect on Hinduism.

Vishnu is envisaged as resting in the primeval ocean, on the thousand-headed snake, Shesha. In his sleep a lotus grows from his navel, and in the lotus is born Brahma, who creates the world. Once the world is created, Vishnu awakens to reign in the highest heaven, Vaikuntha. He is usually depicted as a four-armed man of dark blue complexion, crowned and seated on his throne, bearing in his hands his emblems (the conch, discus, mace and lotus), wearing the holy jewel called kaustubha round his neck, and with a tuft of curly hair (Srivatsa) on his chest. He rides the great eagle Garuda, generally shown with a half-human face. Vishnu is generally thought of as wholly benevolent. The god works continuously for welfare of the world, and has from time to time incarnated himself. Ten incarnations of the god have been recognised-(i) Matsya (the Fish), (ii) Kurma (the Tortoise), (iii) Varaha (the boar), (iv) Narasimha (the man-lion), (v) Vamana (the dwarf), (vi) Parasurama, (vii) Rama, (viii) Balarama, (ix) Krishna, (or Buddha as some have it) and (x) Kalkin (the destroyer–future incarnation).


The sixth century B.C. is seen as the beginning of the phase of the Northern Black Polished (NBP) ware. (The third century B.C. being associated with the midNBP phase when burnt bricks and ringwell began to be used). What is called as the ‘second urbanisation in India’ following the end of the Indus Valley civilisation is said to begin in this period. Pataliputra was founded in the fifth century. Cities such as Banaras, Vaisali, Taxila, Ayodhya, Ujjain. Kausambi, Rajagriha, Mathura mainly established along the banks of rivers became wellconnected trade routes. Important towns were fortified. Houses were constructed of wood or even brick. Trade was practised by using money as the names of coins, nishka and satamana, in the Vedic texts suggest.

The beginnings of the legal and judicial systems in India are traced to this period. The tribal community was replaced by the class-distinct society. The duties of the four varnas-brahmanas, kshatriyas, vaisyas and sudras-were prescribed in the Dharmasutras. The varna classification provided the basis of civil and criminal law. The highest varna was considered the purest and hence was prescribed a higher order of moral conduct. The emergence and spread of Jainism and Buddhism could not improve the social status of the sudras though they were embraced by the new religious orders. The age of the Buddha is significant in that ancient Indian polity and social set-up actually originated at this time.

A food-producing economy emerged with the practice of agriculture on a wide scale by using iron implements. There was ‘peasant proprietorship’ in rural areas as there were no landlords. But a landowner could not sell or mortgage his land without the permission of the village council. Of the agricultural products, rice was the staple food-crop in Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. The king received the tithes and his share, which varied from one-sixth to a twelfth of the produce, from the headman. The village residents, endowed with a sturdy civic spirit, unitedly undertook tasks such as laying irrigation channels, building mote-halls, rest houses, etc. The women extended their full co-operation in these works of public utility. On the whole, each village was selfsufficient, and life was simple and unsophisticated.

Considerable progress was also made in such crafts as wood-work, architecture, pottery, weaving, ivory-work, etc. It was the general practice of the people to follow the occupation of their ancestors. Castes did not always determine crafts.

The guild system was becoming popular. People from the same profession normally organised themselves into guilds and often lived, or had their business centre, in one ward or street of the town. The Jatakas name at least eighteen such groups.

During this period both inland and foreign trade was fairly brisk. Merchants made fortunes by dealing in articles like silks, muslins, perfumes, drugs, etc. Voyages were taken to Burma, Ceylon from Tamralipti on the east and Bharukaccha on the west. Inland, the traders followed certain well-established routes, connecting various parts of India.


The contacts between India and Iran (Persia) before the sixth century B.C. were mainly cultural and commercial. In the middle of the sixth century B.C., while the north-east was effectively controlled by Magadha, there was no political unity in the north-west part of India and the Persians must have heard about the riches of India. These two factors most probably must have persuaded the Persian emperors to seek territorial aggrandisement in the north-western region of India.

During the second half of the sixth century B.C. Cyrus of the Achaemenian dynasty (558-530 B.C.) established a large empire in Persia. In the west the authority of this monarchy reached the Mediterranean Sea, in the east it touched India. Cyrus is said to have led an expedition against India through Gedrosia, which ended in disaster.

Darius I (522-486 B.C.) annexed Gandhara and the Indus Valley. Herodotus says that the satrapy was the twentieth in the Persian Empire. Xerxes or Kshayarsha (486-465 B.C.), the son and successor of Darius I, retained his hold on the Persian provinces in north-western India. Indian troops joined his expeditionary force against Greece. But on the eve of Alexander’s invasion, the hold of Persian emperors on their Indian provinces had become weak.


The long association between India and Persia, covering a period of about two centuries, left some lasting impressions on Indian history. (i) The Persians introduced into India the Aramic form of writing, which later on developed into the Kharoshthi alphabet. (ii) Iranian coins are found in the north-west frontier region which points to the existence of trade with Iran. (iii) Iranian influence on the Mauryas is quite perceptible. The monuments of Asoka’s time, especially the bell-shaped capitals, owed something to the Iranian models. (iv) Early Buddhist thought influenced the philosophic and religious movements in Persia and further west. Later Zoroastrian religion of ancient Persia influenced the Mahayana school of Buddhism in India. (v) It seems that through the Iranians the Greeks came to know about the riches of India which whetted their greed and eventually led to Alexander’s invasion of India. (vi) The Persians promoted geographical explorations of the Indus and Arabian Sea; Scylax and Caryanda’s efforts helped open a new water-route.


In the fourth century B.C., the struggle for supremacy of the world between the Greeks and the Iranians (Persians) culminated with the victory of the Greek Alexander (of Macedonia) over the Iranian empite. Alexander conquered not only Asia Minor and Iraq but also Iran. From Iran he marched to India as he was attracted by its great wealth. He had heard that on the eastern side of India was the continuation of the Caspian Sea. He was also inspired by the mythical exploits of past conquerors whom he wanted to emulate and surpass.

After the conquest of Iran, Alexander moved on to Kabul, from where he marched to India through the Khyber Pass. It took him five months to reach the Indus. Ambhi, the ruler of Taxila, readily submitted to the invader, augmented his army and replenished his treasure. When he reached the Jhelum, Alexander met from Porus the first and the strongest resistance Although Alexander defeated Porus he was impressed by the bravery and courage of the Indian prince. So Alexander restored his kingdom to Porus and made him his ally. Then he advanced as far as the Beas river. He wanted to move still further eastward but his army refused to accompany him. The Greek soldiers had become war-weary and disease-stricken. The hot climate of India and ten years of continuous campaigning had made them terribly homesick. They had also experienced a taste of Indian fighting qualities on the banks of the Indus, which made them desist from further progress. Alexander was thus forced to retreat, and his dream of an eastern empire remained unfulfilled. On his return march, he vanquished many small republics till he reached the end of the Indian frontier.

Alexander remained in India for 19 months (326-325 B.C.) which were full of fighting. He had barely any time to organise his conquests. Still he made some arrangements. Most conquered states were restored to their rulers who submitted to his authority. But his own territorial possessions were divided into three parts which were placed under three Greek governors. He also founded a number of cities to maintain his power in this area.


Alexander’s invasion provided the first occasion when ancient Europe came into close contact with ancient India. It produced certain important results. The invasion established direct contact between India and Greece in different fields. Alexander’s campaign opened up four distinct routes by land and sea. It paved the way for Greek merchants and craftsmen, and increased the existing facilities for trade. The invasion led to the establishment of more Greek settlements in the northeastern region. As Alexander was deeply interested in geographical discoveries he despatched his fleet under his friend Nearchus to explore the coast and search for harbours from the mouth of the Indus to that of the Euphrates. Thus Alexander’s historians have left valuable geographical accounts which have helped the Indian historians to build up Indian chronology for subsequent events on a definite basis. By destroying the power of petty states in north-west India, Alexander’s invasion paved the way for the expansion of the Mauryan empire in that area.


The Vedic Age – Ancient India (HISTORY OF INDIA)

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