1993-01-30: Ancient India

Ancient India


by D. D. Kosambi (1876-1947)

Judging from the notes about the author on the dust jacket, Kosambi was not a professional historian. Primarily a mathematician, with interests in genetics, numismatics, microliths, megaliths, rock engravings and other archeological areas, he undertook to write a history of ancient India that accounted for features of that nation’s present as well as the effects of acculturation.

He writes of India’s aboriginal tribal character, and the impact of waves of Aryan immigration on that character. He describes the Vedic, Puranic and Upanishadic eras and the rise of Buddhism, Jainism (among many other sects at about the same time) and their effect on the eventual formulation of Hinduism. He also describes many (supposed) effects of Buddhism on the West, including the monasticism of the Essenes near Qumran in Palestine.

In Chapter 2 on Primitive Life and Prehistory, Kosambi describes the Hindu notion that mankind is currently in a

“dark age (hali yuga). It was supposedly preceded by three nobler periods. The first and best was the golden ‘Age of Truth’ (satya yuga or krita yuga). Men knew neither illness nor want. They toiled not, neither did they spin, for this good earth bore in plenty of her own accord. Peaceful, innocent, simple, virtuous, each man lived for thousands of years. Then human greed developed; men began to accumulate private property, to hoard acquisitions. These sinful activities led successfully [successively?] to the treta, dvapara and kali ages, each worse than the preceding. Life spans became shorter; war, disease, poverty, and hunger afflicted mankind because of its lapse from purity. … The present dark age is to end in a universal deluge. After the total destruction of all life by the flood, the earth will emerge from the waters and a new golden age begin again, followed in time by the three other ages of progressive decay, to end in another flood.”

He ascribes this view to a projection of the seasons as experienced in India: October harvest, followed by cool weather, health and plenty, progressive scarcity, bitter toil to prepare parched fields for sowing, and finally the terrific monsoon rain floods all the land. (I think the near-universal idea of a Golden Age is more akin to the human life stages, with its initial blissful period of freedom from want, followed by awareness of greed, then acceptance of greed and its toil, final decay and judgement on the worth of it all.)

His description of the process of accomodation between the very numerous aboriginal tribal societies and the more structured agrarian Aryans who came to dominate them is very interesting; however, it gives a feeling that other opinions should be compared with his. His description of the position of the brahmin caste, openly profiting from its imposition of religious duties on the warrior/ruling caste gives a background against which the rise of more personal, non-ritualist, sects in the sixth century BC can be understood. He makes a curious statement (in 1964): “Even today educated Indians would generally be aghast or indignant if told that Buddhism – which they regard as a passing aberration – was their country’s outstanding contribution to world culture.” He himself treats Buddhism sympathetically, particularly in a paragraph summarizing Buddhist doctrine.

“The core of Buddhism is the Noble (arya) Eightfold Path. The first of the eight steps is proper vision: this world is filled with sorrow generated by uncontrolled desire, greed, cupidity and self-seeking on the part of mankind. The quenching of this desire is the path to peace for all; the eightfold path is the way that leads to this end. So much for the first step, proper vision. The second step is proper aims: not to increase one’s wealth and power at the expense of others, not to be lost in the enjoyment of the senses and in luxury; to love others in full measure and to increase the happiness of others – this is proper design. Third step, proper speech: lies, calumny, vituperation, useless chatter, and such misuse of the tongue spoils the organisation of society. Quarrels arise that may lead to violence and killing. Therefore, correct speech must be truthful, conducive to mutual friendship, endearing, and measured. Fourth step, proper action: taking life, theft, adultery and such other actions of the body would lead to great disasters in society. Therefore it is necessary to abstain from killing, stealing, fornication; and to do such positive deeds as will lead to the benefit of other people. Fifth step, proper livelihood: no man should make his living by means that harm society, e.g., by the sale of liquor, dealing in animals for butchery, etc. Pure and honest methods alone should be followed. Sixth step, correct mental exercise: not to let evil thoughts enter the mind, to remove evil thoughts already in the mind, to generate good thoughts actively in the mind, and to carry to fulfillment the good thoughts that are already in the mind. This sort of active mental self-discipline is the sixth of the eight steps. Seventh step, correct awareness: to be ever conscious that the body is made of unclean substances, to examine one’s own mind, to meditate upon the evils that come from bonds of the flesh and attachments of the mind; and to meditate upon ways for the removal of these evils. Eighth step, proper meditation: this is a carefully worked out mental training in concentration. Briefly, it is to Buddhism what ‘gymnastics’ was to the Greek body.

“Clearly this is the most social of religions…”

I find this sequence of steps an excellent example of the use of memes to create conditions for the propagation of society/culture. As Kosambi says, it is a most social religion. I think the Greek and Indian ways of life and thought make a wonderful contrast for explication of the operation of memes in propagation of culture.

(By the way, this doesn’t mean that I accept these steps or other Buddhist doctrine as a suitable credo or goal; I follow Smullyan in believing that the Taoist approach is more amiable. Even the combination of Taoism and Buddhism that became Zen is far too structured and discipline-oriented for my taste.)

The invasion by Alexander disrupted Vedic culture in the Indus region; the slightly later rise of Magadha from the Ganges basin completely suppressed it. The support of Buddhism, Jainism and other non-killing sects led to sharp decline of the influence and wealth of the brahmin caste, which was largely based on expensive royal mass sacrifices. However, as the only intellectual class in India, they compensated in other forms of support. One such support was the formulation and implementation of the Magadhan state system, a thorough and ruthless form of state-craft, carefully documented, which placed the welfare of the state above any individual, including the king. The basis for the state was an organized and highly regulated cash economy. Enforcement was by strict application of law, through a complex system of internal espionage and informants, with internal checks throughout.

As the only educated class, the brahmins fulfilled new missions “in education, culture, maintenance of class structure in society, unification of originally irreconcilable groups, and in the general spread of an agrarian society.”

The conversion of innumerable tribes of gather/hunters or slash/burn agrarianists to taxable ploughing/landholding peasants was accomplished by the brahmins. They took the customs and deities of each tribe in turn, and wrote scriptures to include as much as possible in the Vedic outline. Often a village was granted by a king to a brahmin who used this technique to make the village productive in the modern (or medieval) sense, converting tribes into tribal castes (and guilds into guild castes) in the process. Tribal law and ritual continued to apply, as modified by the brahmin, and proved a serious obstacle to administration. This “rule by superstition” was a result of the basic conservatism of the Aryan castes, although the eagerness to adapt religious observance to the needs of each new tribe and village appear superficially otherwise. This weakened the ability of the society to resist external pressure, such as the Muslim invasion.

The acculturation process was a two-way process. The brahmin wrote a pedigree for the local deities, incorporating as much local tradition as possible, which made the local deities equivalent to or related to traditional deities. At the same time, the greater tradition was modified, at least locally, to incorporate the local tradition. In this way, groups which had been inimicable could worship side by side. A disastrous side effect of this tolerance was inability to resist the Islamic invasion.


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