10. The Old World Empires

10.4 India: the spiritual empire

10.4.1 A frozen Neolithic society

Uruk appeared between 7000 and 8000 years ago, in Mesopotamia. The urban civilizations of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus valley occurred much later, about 5000 years ago. The kingdom of Elam may have fecundated the Indus valley. Indeed, the earliest forms of writing appeared in Sumer and Elam at cities such as Susa and Sialk. The discovery of proto-Elamite writing dating 5500 BC in cities such as Tepe-Yahya (fig. 10.21) suggests a relation between them and the cities of Sumer and Elam.

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Figure 10.21. The civilization of the Indus valley may be an offshoot of the Mesopotamian civilization, through intermediary located cities such as Sialk and Tepe-Yahya, where proto-elamite (Susa) writings were found.

As in Sumer, priests who wielded absolute power ruled Indian City states. Military chiefs, landowners – who could be women – scribes and government officers were also known to exist. This Harappian civilization was extremely widely distributed, going as far as the center of Asia (Amou-Daria), but most of the 1000 settlements on record are very small. One characteristic of these settlements is that they were all alike and this standardization extended to the pottery, the weights and even the toys. Yet, the cities were extremely particularistic and this individuality impeded their union within the realm of a protective central authority. Some indices, such as a numeration on the basis 8, also originally that of the Dravidians, and linguistic analogies show that the Harappian civilization was Dravidian and thus at the origin of modern rural India.

The civilization of Harappa was advanced on many accounts. The trait that distinguishes it is the consumption and commerce of fish on a grand scale. The boats now used on the Indus are similar to those used by the Harappians 5000 years ago. The fishing methods now practiced on the Indus are those practiced in former times. Intense commercial links existed between Harappa and the Mesopotamian kingdoms. The reason for the disappearance of the civilization has been the object of many conjectures. The most plausible reason is a series of earthquakes that transformed the region into a desert.

After thousand years of prosperity, the Indo-European Aryans moved in, occupying successively Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro and finally Lothal. This conquest, achieved around 1600 BC was restricted to the North of the peninsula and the Dravidians of the South were less harassed in the Deccan than the Nagas of the northern valleys. The Aryans imported with them barley, horses and an intense interest in the possession of land for their cattle. The invaders were by no means in sufficient numbers to eradicate the formerly implanted culture and a blend of civilizations occurred. The Nagas and Dravidians were in close commercial contact with human settlements of the West while the Aryans were the cousins of Indo-Europeans 3 who had settled in other places. There is no reason to suppose that the civilization devised by India was not known by the neighbors of that country.

The religion of the Nagas was animist, with innumerable good and bad spirits hidden in stones, brooks, animals, mountains and stars. The whole of human life was bathing in magic. People lived in the terror of the unknown; the world was filled with malevolent forces that destroy whatever had been created. Death is the punishment of birth: to be born is a capital crime that will meet with a death sentence. One way to survive in the world is by the phallus. A priapus is as mysterious as life itself and the shaman has the power to stimulate declining sexual prowess, inspire love and give children to a sterile woman. This religion was similar to that of Sumer.

The invading Aryan warriors brought with them a belief in eternal life, a pantheistic world and an acute sense of superiority for the warrior Kshatriya 4 class. They became the rulers of each village and produced ultimately the rajahs who ruled innumerous small states. No doubt, members of the Kshatriya class held the priests in disdain and conducted the main religious ceremonies themselves.

Since the ruling Kshatryia class was small, a system of marriage was established whereby the color of the brides had to match, so as to avoid a dilution of the Aryan blood among the rest of the population. This rather flexible rule of social stratification, together with the inability of the Indo-European invaders to eliminate the animist beliefs and the ritual division of labor existing before their arrival, led to the system of castes while determining most of the philosophical systems devised by people who were obsessed with death.

A social segregation according to economic activities can appear within an initially homogeneous Neolithic society through a ritual division of labor centering on the shaman. This is the caste system that developed most spectacularly in India but was also present in embryonic form in Europe until the end of the Middle Ages with Nobility, Clergy and Peasantry. Pariah classes loaded with work incompatible with the feelings of other classes existed also in medieval Europe: the strong religious opposition to money and profit manifested by the Church restricted banking activities to Jews and Lombards.

Before the arrival of the Aryans, India had supposedly a ritual division of labor centering on the king, as is still known in the Fiji Islands and the Kandyan kingdom in Ceylon. In the course of times in India, the kings were stripped of their religious functions and the priest became ideologically supreme. An absolute hierarchical distinction between priesthood and government, and also between status and power appeared.

This extraordinary departure from the norm was of no great immediate consequence outside of India. In the East, a distinction between status and power could not take roots anywhere; the supremacy of the king as being high priest as well as ruler never was put into question. In the West, the distinction between status and power appeared during the Middle Ages and we still live by it today although the duality of the system is disappearing as shown by the disdain in which the contemporary Western temporal rulers hold the avocations of the pope.

The caste system that developed in India is a hierarchy of endogamous groups organized in a characteristic hereditary division of labor. Each individual is endogamously born into a particular group, which is the same as that of both his parents, and he or she remains a member of that group throughout life. A man has the duty to accept the rules of his own caste. The first essential of moral duty is that of resignation and acceptance. The value of the caste system was once very great. It ensured hereditary skills; it limited competition. It was the best remedy against pauperism and it had all the advantages of trade guilds. It also favored various modes of living and tolerance of them by other castes. However, it had the social consequence of freezing a Neolithic society into immobility and destroying the creative powers of the people.

10.4.2 Indian Philosophy and Religion

By 800 BC, the philosophical effort of India, as described in the “Upanishads”, attained its maximum. The fundamental theme of the ” Upanishads ” was the mystery of this apparently unintelligible world. From where do we come and where are we going? The “Upanishads” assert that there is only one God, Brahman, who is neither God of Good nor Evil but simply Existence, Life itself. Brahman is the essence of a Universe that was never created but always was.

Our soul and the soul of all living things are at one with the soul of the world, Brahman: God is in us. If our soul is liberated from all the bounds established with our individual material body, then our soul will not be united to Brahman but will be Brahman itself because Brahman is the immaterial soul that subsists after all links with the senses have been broken. With the breaking of such links, the individual soul will reach the comprehension and the power of Brahman.

The Buddha will not pursue the theological effort initiated in the Upanishads but will define an ethical conduct. The birth of the Buddha occurred in 563 BC, when Jews were about to leave Babylon. The Buddha, a member of the Kshatriya warrior class, was another Christ. He returned Evil with Goodness, he remained silent before calumny and incomprehension, he never wrote down his doctrine, he went from town to town accompanied by his favorite disciples, he did not worry about the future, he had only disregard for hypocritical social conventions. “Do to others what you would like them to do to you” was his teaching. He was interested only in human conduct and never discussed God, Immortality or the Creation. His religion was an ethic of conduct.

The idea of Death is at the roots of all religions and the animist feelings of subjection to uncontrollable physical forces that are magical do not favor the belief that individual lives are enjoyable. Buddha professed that a superior way to suppress death was not through indiscriminate procreation but, on the contrary, through voluntary restraint of procreation. Celibacy and a life of such virtue must be led so that passage to another life after death is avoided because there would be no sins to be expiated in another life. And how could virtue be reached if not by the quelling of all egoistic desires? The Nirvana is this peaceful quietness of annihilated desires. The Buddha did not succeed in casting off the poisoned heritage of animist India. He maintained the belief in metempsychosis. His philosophy was a philosophy of inertia.

By that time, the Persian Empire was in full bloom and, in the 4th century BC, the Achemenids conquered the whole of the Indus valley over their Aryan brothers if one is to believe the epitaph on Cyrus’ tomb: “Persian, son of Persians, Aryan of Aryan roots”. Soon after, within two hundred years, the Greeks came with Alexander. They conquered territory as far as Bengal but remained permanently only as far as the Indus valley.

Two hundred years after the Buddha’s death, India reverted to its animist beliefs rationalized through Hinduism. The Buddha’s philosophy was the best that could at that time be offered to the populations living East of India. The missionaries sent off in all directions were most successful in Cambodia, China and Japan and fully colonized Tibet; they also went to the West. The teaching of the Buddha was least successful in Greece. There, the accent was put on the human mind, on reason, on individuality, which made the ethic of conduct of the Buddha least acceptable, despite the use of saints, relics, incense, rosary, candles, ecclesiastical ornaments, purgatory, canonizations, monks and nuns.

References chapter 10.

3. Persians, Medes, Achaeans, Mittanians, Kassites, Sogdians, Bactrians, Hittites, Dorians, Germans.

4. In Iran, the word is at the origin of “shah”.

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