Vincent Arthur Smith.

The Oxford student's history of India online

. (page 3 of 27)
Online LibraryVincent Arthur SmithThe Oxford student's history of India → online text (page 3 of 27)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Upanishads differs so much from that of the other parts of the
Brahmanas, that they may be regarded with propriety as
forming a distinct section of the Vedas. Some Upanishads
are presented as chapters of Aranyakas, while others stand
alone. The Upanishads are the foundation of the later and
more systematic Vedanta philosophy. Their metaphysical
doctrine is summed up in the formula tat tvam asi, ' thou art
that '. They also give the earliest indication of the doctrine of
karma, so prominent afterwards in Buddhism, and defined by
Manu in the words : ' action of every kind, whether of mind,
or speech, or body, produces results good or evil, and causes
the various conditions of men, highest, lowest, or intermediate '.

The Rigveda and Samaveda samhitas. The oldest samhitd,
that of the Rigveda (rich = stanza of praise), comprises 1,017
hymns in praise of the various powers of nature the sky, fire,
winds, and so forth worshipped as gods. Occasionally the
poets rise to a higher level, and dimly perceive ' the only God


above the gods '. Some of these hymns must be as old as
1000 B. c., and may be much older. The Samaveda Samhitci,
which is merely a book of chants (saman), nearly all taken
from the Rigveda, is of comparatively slight importance. The
chants relate to the soma sacrifices. The soma was a plant,
the identity of which still is matter of dispute.

The Yajurveda samhita. The Yajurveda samhita, existing
in two principal forms, the Black and White, is mainly com-
posed of original matter, half in prose, although it includes
some hymns, amounting to about one-fourth of the whole,
extracted from the Rigveda. It may be described as a book of
sacrificial prayers, and its compilation is the work of a period
when unduly high value was attached to sacrificial ritual, and
' the truly religious spirit ' of the Rigveda had been obscured
by formalism. The comparatively late date of this Veda is
indicated by the fact that the Hindu holy land, which for the
poets of the Rigveda was the Pan jab, the basin of the Indus and
its tributaries, is shifted in the Yajurveda to Brahmavarta
or Kurukshetra, in the Gangetic basin, between the Sutlaj and
the Jumna.

The Atharvaveda samhita. The Atharvaveda samhita, of
which about the sixth part is in prose, consists mainly of
a collection of spells, charms, and incantations for use in
sorcery and witchcraft. Although many of these formulas
evidently have come down from extremely remote times, the
collection, as a whole was not recognized as a Veda until long
after the sanctity of the other three Vedas had been established,
and its authority still is denied by some of the leading Brah-
mans of the south. Nevertheless, as early as 150 B. c., the
grammarian Patanjali considered it to be ' the head of the
Vedas ', and the compilation of the work must be referred
to a time several centuries before that date, and not later than
600 B.C.

The Brahmanas, Upanishads, and Sutras. Although it is
impossible to date the Brahmana treatises with any approach
to accuracy, their composition is supposed to have taken place

1776 B


between 500 and 300 B.C. The oldest of the numerous Upani-
shads, which are of widely different ages, may go back as far
as 700 or 600 B. c. The Vedic siitras (about 500-200 B. c.) are
compressed treatises dealing chiefly with ritual and customary
law in aphorisms, or terse sayings, reduced to the utmost
possible limits of brevity. They are classed as Srauta, dealing
with ritual ; Grihya, dealing with domestic ceremonies ; and
Dharma, dealing with custom, including law.

The Vedangas. All the works composed in this strange
style are considered to be Vedangas, or members of the Veda,
and as such are divided into six groups namely (1) phonetics
or pronunciation (tiksha) ; (2) metre (chhandas) ; (3) grammar
(vyaTcarand) ; (4) etymology (niruJcta) ; (5) religious practice
(kalpa) ; and (6) astronomy or astrology (jyotisha). In ancient
times the Vedic literature being taught solely by word of
mouth, trained linguistic, grammatical, and metrical skill was
needed to secure, as it has actually secured, the correct preserv-
ation and transmission of the sacred texts. Astronomical
and astrological knowledge was equally necessary to determine
the dates of eclipses, the lucky days for ceremonies, and so forth.
Thus all ancient Hindu science sprang from religious needs
and served religious and ritual purposes.

Uncertain date of Rigveda. The Rigveda, meaning the
collection of hymns (samhitd), is of deep interest to scholars,
because it is certainly by far the oldest book in an Aryan lan-
guage. What its date may be no man can say. Some of the
individual hymns may be of immense antiquity, while others
may be centuries later. At some particular time they were
arranged in a book, but when that was done we cannot tell.
Probably it is safe to say that the composition of the hymns
ranges between 2000 and 1000 B. c., and that the arrange-
ment of them in a book may be assigned to somewhere about
the later date. This utter uncertainty in the chronology
makes it difficult to realize the state of society in the age of the
Rigveda, or to compare it with that in other lands.

Early but not primitive. The society pictured, although of


an early type, is not exactly primitive. The hymns them-
selves are artificial, literary compositions, arranged by scholars.
The language, metres, and style all show a considerable amount
of learning. Probably the scholars did not know how to read
or write, but that did not prevent them from being learned
after their fashion. They had splendid memories.

Social organization. The people were divided into numerous
tribes, of which many are named, and each tribe consisted of
many families or households, each governed by its head. The
Raja, with the help of the elders, governed the tribe, much as
the father managed his family. The several tribes were often
at war, one with another, or with the early aboriginal dwellers
in India. Their wealth consisted chiefly in cattle, and their
principal occupation in peace was tending the kine. But they
also used the plough, and were familiar with the crafts of the
carpenter, smith, jeweller, and other artisans. They rode in
chariots, and fought chiefly with bows and arrows, sometimes
also with spears and battle-axes. In short, their mode of life
seems to have been in many respects not unlike that of certain
tribes on the Afghan frontier in recent times, before firearms
came into use.

Diet, &c. Ordinarily the Indo- Aryans used a diet of vegetable
food and milk, but they partook of flesh offered in sacrifice,
including beef, and so differed widely from modern Hindus.
They liked strong drink, of which there were two kinds
namely beer (sura), and a liquor made from a plant (soma)
found formerly in the hills and not certainly identified. They
amused themselves largely with gambling.

Religion. They worshipped the powers of nature, con-
ceived as living persons. The hymns accordingly are nearly
all addressed to such deities. Indra, the lord of thunder, light-
ning, and rain, received most homage. Agni or Fire comes
next in favour. The Wind, Sun, Dawn, and many other powers
or aspects of nature are appealed to. The worshippers tried
to get all they could out of their gods, and ordinarily sought
from them nothing higher than riches and worldly welfare.


Professor Barnett bluntly observes that ' the Vedic religion,
as presented to us in the Rigveda, is not noble '. It seems to
me that he is right.

Some of the hymns, presumably included among those com-
paratively late in date, strike a loftier note, as already observed,
and indicate the beginnings of the philosophy worked out in
the Upanishads and subsequent treatises. Part of the
Creation Hymn, the most impressive and readable of the lyrics
(x. 129), may be quoted in Professor Macdonell's version :

Non-being then existed not, nor being :

There was no air, nor heaven which is beyond it.

What motion was there ? Where ? By whom directed ?

Was water there and fathomless abysses ?

Death then existed not, nor life immortal ;

Of neither night nor day was any semblance.

The one breathed calm and windless by self -impulse :

There was not any other thing beyond it.

Darkness at first was covered up by darkness ;
This universe was indistinct and fluid.
The empty space that by the void was hidden,
That One was by the heat engendered.

This world-creation, whence it has arisen,
Or whether it has been produced or has not,
He who surveys it in the highest heaven,
He only knows or e'en He does not know it.

Panini. The oldest extant Sanskrit grammar, the wonderful
work composed in sutra style by Panini, a native of the
Panjab, was constructed in the first instance, like its numerous
lost predecessors, to ensure accurate teaching of the sacred
books by highly trained Brahmans. The passion of the ancient
writers for brevity is expressed by the saying that the composer
of a grammatical sutra would have delighted as much in the
saving of a short vowel as in the birth of a son. Panini's work
is so compressed, that although it deals with the whole San-
skrit language, it could be printed in thirty-five small octavo


pages. The date of this prince of grammarians is uncertain,
some authorities placing him in the fourth century B.C., and
others, apparently with better reason, two or three centuries
earlier. Yaska, who wrote an etymological commentary on
the Vedas, long preceded Panini.

Smriti; Manu, &c. The whole of the sutra literature is
regarded as smriti, or venerable traditional matter, not as
sruti, or direct revelation, like the Vedas. The six systems of
philosophy (darsana) were developed from the Upanishads in
course of time, and the law-books (dharmas astro) based on the
sutras, were composed at various dates by the Brahman
teachers of different schools, as manuals of dharma, or the
Hindu rules of life. The most famous of the dharmasastras is
the Manava, commonly called the Laws, or Institutes, of Manu,
a compilation which contains much ancient matter, but is
supposed to date in its present form from somewhere about
A. D. 200 or 300. This treatise deals with the rights and duties
of Hindus in all ranks and conditions of life, and is the founda-
tion of the systems of modified Hindu law now administered
by the courts of British India.

The eighteen Puranas. The eighteen Puranas. which record
the story of the gods, interwoven with legends and traditions
on many subjects human and divine, are closely connected
with the Laws of Manu as well as with the epics. They have
been described as being ' the Veda of popular Hinduism ', and
sometimes are even called 'the fifth Veda '. The BMgawta
and Vishnu Puranas exercise the most influence on the re-
ligion of the present day. The Vayu Purana, believed to be
one of the oldest of the eighteen, seems to date in its present
shape from the fourth century after Christ, but much of its
conterits may be far older. It is intimately related to the
Harivamia, which is a supplement to the Mahabharata. His-
torical traditions of high value to the historian of northern
India are preserved in several of the earlier Puranas. This
class of works has little concern with the south, which has
Puranas of its own that are not familiar to most scholars.


The Epics. The two great Sanskrit epics (itihdsa), the
Mahabharata and the Ramayana, are invaluable as pictures of
life in ancient India before the time when authentic history
begins. The Ramayana, which consists of about 24,000 coup-
lets (slokas), divided into seven books, is essentially the work
of a single author, Valmiki, to which subsequent additions
of moderate bulk have been made. The Mahabharata, more
than four times as bulky, and divided into eighteen books,
although traditionally ascribed to a mythical author named
Vyasa, really is a collection of many separate poems by various
nameless poets of different ages, loosely strung together and
appended to an original narrative comprising only about
24,000 couplets. The bulk of the Ramayana is believed to
have been composed before 500 B.C., but some of the additions
seem to be several centuries later. The Mahabharata, which
in its present form is rather ' an encyclopaedia of moral
teaching ' than an epic properly so called, includes composi-
tions supposed to range in date between 400 B. c. and A. D. 400.

Story of the Ramayana. The main theme of Valmiki's poem
is the story of Prince Rama, son of Dasaratha, king of Ajodhya,
who was driven into exile along with Sita, his faithful wife,
in consequence of a palace intrigue. In the course of his
wanderings, accompanied by his brother, Lakshmana, in the
wild regions of the south Rama suffered the loss of his consort,
who was carried off by the giant Ravana. But the hero, after
many adventures, rescued his wife, and defeated and slew the
giant. In the end, Rama and Sita, having been delivered
from all their troubles, returned to Ajodhya, where Rama and
his loyal brother Bharata reigned gloriously over a happy and
contented people.

Story of the Mahabharata. The subject of the truly epic
portion of the Mahabharata is the Great War between the
Kauravas, the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra, led by Duryo-
dhana, and the Panda vas, the five sons of Pandu, brother of
Dhritarashtra, led by Yudhishthira. The poet relates all the
circumstances leading up to the war, and then narrates the


tale of the fierce conflict which raged for eighteen days on the
plain of Kurukshetra, near Thanesar, to the north of Delhi.
All the nations and tribes of India, from the Himalaya to the
farthest south, are represented as taking part in this combat
of giants. The Panda va host comprised the armies of the
states situated in the countries equivalent to the United
Provinces of Agra and Oudh, Western Bihar, and Eastern
Rajputana, with contingents from Gujarat in the west and
from the Dravidian kingdoms of the extreme south. The
Kaurava cause was upheld by the forces of Eastern Bihar,
Bengal, the Himalaya, and the Panjab. The battles ended
in the utter destruction of nearly all the combatants on both
sides, excepting Dhritarashtra and the Pandavas. But a
reconciliation was effected between the few survivors, and
Yudhishthira Pandava was recognized as king of Hastinapur
on the Ganges. Ultimately the five sons of Pandu, accom-
panied by Draupadi, the beloved wife of them all, and attended
by a faithful dog, quitted their royal state, and, journeying to
Mount Meru, were admitted into Indra's heaven.

Episodes of the Mahabharata. One of the most justly cele-
brated narrative episodes is the charming story of Nala and
Damayanti. The profound philosophical poem, the Bhagavad-
gita, familiarly known as the Glta, or ' the Song ', which forms
the basis of much later pantheistic speculation, and may date
from about 100 or 200 B. c., is inserted in the form of a dia-
logue between Krishna and Arjuna Pandava, supposed to have
been spoken on the eve of battle.

Influence of the epics. These few words, of course, give
a very inadequate notion of the contents of the two great
itihdsas, which are the one department of Sanskrit literature
familiar in substance to Hindus of all classes in every part of
India. These poems are to India all that Homer's reputed
works were to Greece, and, like the Homeric poems, the Maha-
bharata and Ramayana form inexhaustible treasure-houses
filled with material for every kind of literature. The characters
in both works supply the Hindu with examples of his highest


ideal of man and woman. The hero Rama, especially, has
become the man-God of countless millions and the object of
intense devotion.

The Hindi Ramayana. In Northern India the popular
conception of the perfect man is derived, not directly from the
Sanskrit of Valmiki, but from the Ramcharit-manas, a Hindi
poem on the subject of the Ramayana, composed in the six-
teenth century by Tulsi Das. This noble work is an independent
composition of the highest merit, and the characters depicted
in it ' live and move with all the dignity of a heroic age '.

Social conditions in the epics. The world of the Rigveda
(ante, p. 34) is so strange and remote that it is difficult to form
a distinct picture of it in the mind. The Indo- Aryans of that
shadowy time had not yet become Hindus.

When we read the Ramayana or the narrative portions of
the Mahabharata we find ourselves on more familiar ground.
Whatever may be the dates of composition of the poems, both
deal with a thoroughly Hindu India, in which caste was fully
developed, and the leading ideas of Hinduism were generally
accepted. The heroes and heroines of the stories resemble
modern Hindus sufficiently to seem real live men and women,
fit to serve as models and exemplars to their descendants. All
or nearly all the ordinary features of Hindu life are depicted,
and the differences in manners and customs as compared with
those of existing society are not very numerous. The incident
which is the most shocking to modern Hindu notions of dharma
is the marriage of DraupadI to five brothers at once. Such a
relationship, although still lawful in Tibet and among sundry
Himalayan tribes, would be regarded now in India proper as
horrible incest. The practice of svayamvara, or free choice of
her husband by a maiden, is almost equally opposed to existing
sentiment. But, as I have said, such cases are rare, and the
general impression produced by the poems is that of a picture
of old-fashioned Hindu life, such as may be still seen in a purely
Hindu native state. The government described in the epics
is that of any Raja in such a state.


Religion. As regards religion and mythology, the Vedic
gods and modes of worship had dropped out of sight for the
most part. Vishnu in different forms had become the most
prominent divinity, the heroes Rama and Krishna both being
treated as incarnations, or descents in human form (avatar) of
him. Brahma and Siva also appear, as well as Kuvera,
Ganesh, and many other minor deities still worshipped. The
epic mythology seems thoroughly familiar to every Hindu, and
the characteristic Hindu doctrines of Karma (ante, p. 32) and
incarnation are recognized in the poems as freely as they are
to-day. The existing Hindufeeling concerning the sacredness of
cows was then as strong as it is now. Nobody could imagine
Rama sitting down like a Vedic rishi to dine on beef.

Southern literature. The ancient Indian literature and
philosophy known generally to the outer world are Aryan in
origin and Sanskrit in language, as indicated in the foregoing
sketch. But the historian of all India must not forget the fact,
already noted, that the Tamil or Dravidian peoples of the
Far South possessed an ancient civilization of uncertain origin
independent of, and even hostile to, the Aryan system of the
north. They produced an extensive literature, chiefly in the
Tamil language, which includes epics, lyrics, and philosophical
poems. These compositions, although enshrined in the hearts
of the southerners, are unfamiliar to readers of other nations.
The few European scholars sufficiently versed in the language
to appreciate the charms of the Tamil poetry are loud in their
praise of its merits, and the translations published justify
their verdict. The following extract from Gover's version of
a Tamil song may serve as a specimen :

The wise man saith

That God, the omniscient Essence, fills all space
And time. He cannot die or end. In Him
All things exist. There is no God but He.
If thou wouldst worship in the noblest way,
Bring flowers in thy hand. Their names are these :
Contentment, Justice, Wisdom. Offer them
To that great Essence then thou servest God.


No stone can image God to bow to it
Is not to worship. Outward rites cannot
Avail to compass that reward of bliss
That true devotion gives to those who know.

Buddhism and Jainism. About 500 B.C., a time when
speculation was active in several parts of the world, two
systems of religious philosophy, which developed into separate
religions, took shape in the north of India. These two sys-
tems, Buddhism and Jainism, both grew out of Brahmanical
Hinduism, as modified by the teaching of reformers of noble
Kshatriya, not Brahman birth, who failed to find in the
doctrine of the Brahman schools satisfactory solutions of the
problems of life. Both of the new systems were preached first,
at about the same time, in the same region, namely Magadha,
or South Bihar, and the neighbouring districts. Both rely on
the support of an organized society of monks or friars, reject
the authority of the Vedas and the exclusive claims of the
Brahmans, abhor bloody sacrifices, and teach with insistence
the doctrine of extreme respect for every form of animal life
(ahimsa). These obvious and real resemblances between
Buddhism and Jainism are balanced by differences, equally
real, if less obvious. The followers of the two creeds revere
distinct saints, study distinct scriptures, and diverge widely in
both doctrine and practice. The Jains do honour to twenty-
four Jinas or Tirthankaras ; the Buddhists to twenty -four
Buddhas. The Jain scriptures are called Angas and by other
names ; the Buddhist books form the great collection known
as the Tripitaka, or ' Three Baskets ', dealing with doctrine,
monastic discipline, and philosophical comment and specula-
tion. The Pali books of Ceylon give the Buddhist Canon in
its earliest known form. Later developments are dealt with
in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese works. While
both Jains and Buddhists profess to venerate the Three Jewels
(triratna), they use the term in different senses. To the Bud-
dhist the Three Jewels are the Buddha, the Law (dharma), and
the Order of Monks (samgha). To the Jains they are Right


Faith, Right Cognition, and Right Morals. The Jains are
divided into two great sects, the Svetambara, or white-robed,
and the Digambara, or nude (lit. 'sky-clad '). The nudity
affected by the latter is extremely offensive to Buddhist feeling.
The practice of suicide by starvation, which is highly esteemed
by the Jains, is strictly forbidden to the Buddhists. These
instances will suffice to show that Buddhism and Jainism,
notwithstanding their points of resemblance, are radically
different. The actual facts of the lives of the founders of
the Jain and Buddhist systems are obscured, like those of the
founders of all religions, by legends due to the imaginations
of pious followers, but the following brief statement may be
accepted as authentic :

Life of Mahavlra. Vardhamana, surnamed Mahavlra, a
young nobleman of Vaisali, the modern Basar to the north of
Patna, then the chief city of the famous Licchhavi tribe, joined
an ascetic order which had been founded by an ancient teacher
named Parsvanath. Becoming dissatisfied with the doctrine
of his masters, he quitted their fraternity when about forty
years of age, and, like many another Hindu reformer, set
about devising a system of his own and organizing a new
society of friars to give effect to his opinions. He spent the
remaining thirty years of his life in preaching- tours, wandering
with his disciples all over South Bihar (Magadha) and Tirhut
(Mithila or Videha), until he died at Pawa or Papa in the Patna
district. Widely-accepted tradition assigns his death to the
year 527 B.C., but the exact year is open to doubt. Some autho-
rities assign the event to 467 B.C. His relationship through
his mother with the reigning kings of Videha, Magadha, and
Anga (Bhagalpur) gained for his preaching the advantage of
official patronage.

Life of Gautama Buddha. Gautama, surnamed the Buddha,
because he claimed to have attained bodhi, or supreme know-
ledge, the secret of existence, was for some years the contem-
porary of Mahavlra. His father, Suddhodhana, was a prince
or nobleman in the small town of Kapilavastu, situated in the


territory of the Sakya clan, which took rank among the
Kshatriyas. Hence he is often called Sakyamuni, or the Sakya
sage. The land of the Sakyas was the narrow strip of country
between the Rapti river and the mountains, now mostly in-
cluded in the Nepalese Tarai and lying to the north of the
Basti District in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh.

The legends dwell with much play of imagination on the
manner in which the young prince .became oppressed by

Online LibraryVincent Arthur SmithThe Oxford student's history of India → online text (page 3 of 27)