6 The Growth of Asian Civilizations 500 b.c.–a.d.
Society and Religion
By 500 b.c. the Ganges
Valley had become the center of Indian civilization. The Indo-Aryans had developed a complex religion based on ritual offerings to the gods, and
the ancient hymns of the Rig-Veda had become the source of knowledge and
power for the Brahmins, or priests. As society grew more complex, this
traditional Vedic religion faced challenges. Some people sought more
opportunities to participate in religious practices, while others traveled
new pathways in their search for truth.
500 b.c. the basic
social structure of India, based on the varnas, or social classes of the
Indo-Aryans, had begun to take shape.
As time went on, the varna system itself grew more complex. No longer in
migration mode, the Indo-Aryan tribes no longer looked primarily to their
war leaders and warriors for security. Instead, as they began to settle on
the land, they increasingly depended on the rituals of the Brahmins to
maintain the natural order on which they believed their lives depended. As
a result, the Brahmins soon rose to the top of the varna system,
displacing the Kshatriyas, or warriors, to second place. The Vaisyas
(merchants, traders, and farmers) and the Sudras (artisans and servants)
remained in their earlier positions. At the same time, under the influence
of Brahminical conceptions of ritual purity, a new group developed outside
the system. These “untouchables,” as they became known, performed jobs
that other Indians considered ritually unclean, such as tanning animal
skins, which involved working with animal carcasses, or sweeping among the
ashes of the cremation grounds – all occupations associated with death
For all people, certain interactions, such as marriage or even
sharing a meal, were forbidden with people of a different varna. Such
restrictions were even more severe where the untouchables were
only does one not take water from them [the untouchables], they may not
even take water from the same well. . . . Not only does
one not marry them, they may not even enter the temple or the house or
stroll on the main village streets. Even their cattle may often not drink
from the same pool as [others].”
system became even more complex during the Vedic period when the varna
began to divide into jati, or sub-groups. Each jati
had its own customs, including different diets, marriage and funeral
traditions, and worship practices.
Vedanta and the Upanishads. By
the 700s b.c. the
Brahmins had become the most influential group in the social structure,
and some Indian thinkers were raising questions about Brahminical
authority. Many of these thinkers, both men and women,
became wanderers who taught their new spiritual message to worthy
disciples in the forests of the Ganges plain.
This new school of thought was known as the Vedanta, or "end
of the Vedas," and was most powerfully expressed in a series of
written philosophical dialogues called the Upanishads.
Although the teachers in these ‘forest schools’ did not reject
the Vedas, they sought a more personal and direct connection with
spiritual matters than was offered through Vedic ritual. A verse from
the Upanishads perhaps best expressed the philosophical goal
of the Vedanta:
the unreal lead me to the real!
the darkness lead me to the light!
death lead me to immortality!”
Upanishads taught that the world and all things in it, including human
beings, were part of a single universal being, or Brahma, which is eternal
changes. Everything that humans observe through their senses, according to
the Upanishads, was maya, or illusion. The purpose of life
was to see through this illusion and to experience
the oneness of Brahma.
intellectual and philosophical nature of the Vedanta had little appeal for
many ordinary Indians. Instead, most Indians found spiritual comfort from
another source: epic poetry based on historical and religious themes. The
two greatest epics of this tradition were the Mahabharata (MAH-hah-bah-raht-ah)
and the Ramayana. Through these entertaining tales, ordinary
Indians found lessons of morality and spiritual guidance that they could
relate more easily to their daily lives than was possible with the more
abstract and intellectual speculations of the Upanishads.
The Mahabharata tells the story of a great civil war among
royal cousins battling over the legacy of the king's domain.
The last 18 chapters of this epic, known as the Bhagavad Gita, or
"song of the lord,"
stress that fulfillment comes through bakhti, or complete love and
devotion to god. The Bhagavad Gita made salvation available to
People did not have to perform the sacrifices required by the Rig Veda,
nor did they have to live the life of self-denial prescribed by the Upanishads
in order to achieve salvation.
The Ramayana, or "romance of Rama,"
tells the story of Rama, an exiled prince, and his faithful wife, Sita.
Rama was exiled, then Sita was kidnapped and taken to Ceylon, now Sri
Lanka, by a demon. Rama defeated the demon, rescued Sita and became king.
Because of their devotion to each other and to their people, Rama and Sita
came to symbolize the ideals of Indian manhood and womanhood, and their
struggles to survive and prosper.
of all this ferment of ideas and literature, from the Vedic texts through
the popular epics, developed the predominant Indian religious system that
we know as Hinduism. Combining elements of both Aryan and pre-Aryan
religion, Hinduism represented a synthesis of Indian religious cultures
and recognized many gods—most notably Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the
Preserver, and Siva the Destroyer. At the same time, reflecting the
philosophical principles of the Vedanta, Hinduism also taught that all
gods and living beings are representations of a single universal spirit,
Brahma—a doctrine called monism.
The three most important concepts of Hindu belief are
reincarnation, dharma, and karma. According to these doctrines, when
people die their souls are reborn in new bodies, a process popularly known
as reincarnation. During each cycle of reincarnation, people must
fulfill a moral duty, called dharma, which depends upon the social
class and position into which they are born. The actions that people take
during their lifetimes have moral consequences, called karma, which
determine the next cycle of reincarnation.
who fulfill their dharma are reborn into a higher caste. Those who do not
fulfill their dharma are reborn into a lower caste or even as an animal or
insect. According to Hinduism, people who consistently fulfill their
dharma may eventually break the cycle of birth and rebirth, and realize
their true oneness with the universal spirit, Brahma.
Against Vedic Religion
Hinduism incorporated many different beliefs, many religious offshoots
developed. The two most important were Jainism and Buddhism. These two
movements arose as a reaction to the religious beliefs of the Brahmins. It
is perhaps not surprising that these movements came out of the warrior
class, which stood beneath the Brahmins in Indian society and often
resented the great influence of the Brahmins.
Jainism was founded during the 500s b.c.
by a member of the warrior class named Mahavira, a name that means
According to the Jainist traditions, at around age 30 Mahavira abandoned the pleasures of the world to
become a wandering mystic and teacher.
He denied the special sanctity of the Vedas and taught that humans were
not the only creatures to possess a soul. He believed that everything in
nature—animals, plants, and stones—possessed a soul:
breathing, existing, living, sentient [conscious] creatures should not be
slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tortured, nor driven
belief in nonviolence is called ahimsa.
Mahavira also believed in living a life of deliberate self-denial
for religious purposes. He apparently had such remarkable powers of self-control that
his followers called him jina, or conqueror.
Mahavira and his followers turned away from Vedic religion, in part
because of the Brahmins' use of animal sacrifice, and established a
religious sect that later became known as Jainism.
The Jains believed that everything had a spirit; therefore, unlike
the Hindus, they do not believe in a universal spirit. They apply the law
of ahimsa toward life at every level. They are vegetarians and cover their
noses with a cloth to avoid breathing in—thereby destroying—insects.
Because they avoid occupations such as farming in which they may harm
living things, many Jains worked as merchants.
As Jainism was taking shape, another spiritual philosophy of even greater
impact was developing in India. This was the philosophy of Buddhism, whose
founder, Siddhartha Gautama, became known as the Buddha, the "Enlightened
According to Buddhist traditions,
Gautama was born the son of a prince in
northern India about 563 b.c..
youth, he lived a
luxurious life, shielded from the world's suffering.
At age 29, however, he ventured out of his palace and learned
about hunger, disease, and death.
Vowing to discover the reasons for this suffering, Gautama renounced his
family and possessions and set out in search of the truth.
Like the Upanishadic teachers, Gautama wandered for six years
through the woods of Kosala and Magadha.
Living as a hermit, he fasted and practiced meditation in search of
answers. Finally, after six years of searching, while meditating under a tree Gautama suddenly achieved
what he had been searching for - a state of complete inner peace and
understanding of the nature of all things - enlightenment. He became known
as the Buddha. Gautama spent the rest of his life
teaching his insight and his philosophy of life to others until his death around 483 b.c.
The Buddha accepted the Hindu belief in reincarnation, but his
teachings center on the Four Noble Truths: (1) all human life
contains suffering and sorrow; (2) desire causes suffering; (3) by
renouncing desire, people can attain nirvana, or perfect peace,
which frees the soul from reincarnation; and (4) following the
Eightfold Path leads to renunciation and the attainment of nirvana. The
Eightfold Path requires right faith, intentions, speech, action, living,
effort, mindfulness, and meditation.
As he explained the cycle in one of his sermons:
learned, noble hearer of the word becomes weary of body, weary of
sensation, weary of perception . . . weary of consciousness. Becoming
weary of all that, he divests himself of [gets rid of] passion; by absence
of passion he is made free; when he is free, he becomes aware that he is
free; and he realizes that re-birth is exhausted; that holiness is
completed; that duty is fulfilled; and that there is no further return to
Some of the Buddha's beliefs were revolutionary to Indian society.
For example, he rejected the rigid nature of the varna system.
As Buddhism spread, it divided into two main branches. The first, called Theravada or "way of the elders," recognized the Buddha as a great teacher and retained the Buddha's original teachings. The second branch, called Mahayana or "greater vehicle," turned Buddhism into an organized religion, with priests, temples, and rituals. Eventually, Buddhism spread to many other parts of Asia.
explain the significance of the following:
explain the importance of the following: