Episode 13 South Asian Civilizations and Beliefs
The Big History of Civilizations (2016)
Dr Craig G Benjamin
Benjamin begins this lecture around 1500 BC, when Indo-Aryans from northern Asia invaded the Indus Valley civilization. They battled with indigenous Dravidians for 500 years. Eventually they abandoned their nomadic way of life for a sedentary lifestyle, assuming control of most of India as a new ruling elite.
The Rig Veda, a sacred text of the Hindu religion, comes out of this period. From 1000 BC on, the population of India was divided into four varas (Sanskrit for color):*
- Brahmans – priests
- Kshartryas – nobles and warriors
- Varshyas – artisans and merchants (ie commoners)
- Sidras – serfs
“Untouchables,” the fifth vara was added later. “Untouchables” performed unclean work and touched dead animals (tanners and butchers).
In the 7th century BC, a radical Brahman sect emerged that embraced mysticism, yogic meditation and reincarnations. They recorded their teachings in the Upanishads. Jainism and Buddhism emerged about a century later.
Jainism, which teaches that all living beings (including plants and insects) have a soul and forbids any form of violence. The Jains rejected caste systems and lived extremely ascetic lives.
Buddhism, founded by Siddhārtha Gautama during the 6th century BE, also rejected caste systems but were less ascetic than the Jaines. Initially more a philosophy than a religion, Buddhism teaches that renouncing desire and rampant ambition is the only way to end human suffering. Because Siddhārtha and his disciples taught in local dialects, rather than Sanskrit, his teachings quickly spread throughout India, China, Japan, Korea and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Eventually the entire Indus Valley was broken up into city-states, with each having its own maharaja (king). Villages surrounding the city-states were self governing with elected village committees.
Women had virtually no rights. They could only be in public with a male protector and were were forbidden to participate in religious life (except as nuns). After 500 BC, widows were expected to practice Suti (ie leaping into their husband’s funeral pyre).
Between 522 and 486 BC, the Persians expanded their empire into the Indus Valley and occupied much of modern day Pakistan.
Alexander the Great liberated the Indus Valley when he conquered Persia. Once Alexander withdrew (322 BC), Chandragupta Maurya united most northern India city-states into a single state. The Mauryan empire engaged in irrigation agriculture, manufacturing, road construction, timber harvesting, cattle breeding and inter-indregional trade.
Following the death of Chandragupta’s son Ashoka in 232 BC, the Mauryan empire began to decline. It collapsed in 185 BC, with northern and southern India breaking into separate regional city-states.
*After the Portuguese colonized India in the 16th century, the word “caste” was adopted from the Portuguese word “castas”)
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