The Prehistory of India

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Episode 13 South Asian Civilizations and Beliefs

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

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”)

The film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy

https://pukeariki.kanopy.com/video/south-asian-civilizations-and-beliefs

More History You Didn’t Learn in School: The Nazca Empire (100 BC) in Southern Peru

World History Part 3 – The Word and the Sword

BBC (2018)

Film Review

Part 3 traces the rise of the Quin dynasty in China, the Mauryan empire in India, the Roman empire, the Nazca empire in South America, and the first Islamic empire. It also traces the development of world religions that arose in reaction to the barbarous violence of empire building. In my mind the ghoulish reenactments of human sacrifice and the popular Roman spectacles of massacring Christians in the Coliseum significantly detract from the film.

The film starts by contrasting the rise of the Quin empire with that of the Mauryan empire in the 3rd century BC. After coming to power, the Mauryan emperor Ashokan embraced Buddhism, renouncing violence and issuing a universal of human rights. In addition to sending Buddhist missionaries across the known world from Vietnam to the Mediterranean, he abolished the slave trade and established schools and hospitals for the poor.

It goes on to cover the rise of the Roman empire, which owing to an alliance between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra in 48 BC made Egypt a Roman colony.

In this context, it traces the rise of Christianity, thanks to the missionary zeal of Saul of Tarsus (St Paul), who dedicated his life to spreading the Christian faith to non-Jews, and the Christians’ cult of martyrdom in the face of Roman persecution.

The Nazca Empire, which emerged in South America in 100 BC practiced human sacrifice to guarantee soil fertility and protect their civilization against natural disasters. The empire vanished owing to the inhabitants’ depletion of verango trees they relied on for fuel and food. Without tree roots to anchor it, fertile soil was washed away and the region became a desert.

The film ends with the rise of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century AD and the role of Bilal, a freed African slave, in uniting warring Arabian tribes in a religion that united belief in jihad with conquest. Within 120 years, Muslims controlled more territory than the Romans, extending from Central Asia to Spain.

The Hidden History of Money, Debt and Organized Religion

Debt the First 5,000 Years

David Graeber (2012)

In this presentation, anthropologist David Graeber talks about his 2012 book Debt: The First 5,000 Years

For me, the most interesting part of the talk is his discussion of the historical link between debt and the rise of the world’s major religions (Hinduism, Christianity, Confucianism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism) between 500 BC and 600 AD.

As Graeber describes it, all commerce was based on credit prior to the development of coinage around 500 BC. In all societies, coinage arose in conjunction with the onset of empire building – traveling armies had to be paid in hard currency rather than credit. The result, according to Graeber, was the simultaneous rise of military/coinage/slavery* empires in Greece, China and India.

According to Graeber, all the major religions arose around the same time – as a “peace movement” opposing militarism, materialism and slavery.

Around 400 AD, when the Roman and other empires collapsed, coinage vanished, along with the standing armies that necessitated its creation. During the Middle Ages, nearly all financial transactions were based on credit. Until 1493, when the “discovery” of the New World initiated a new cycle of empire building, accompanied by militarism, coinage and slavery.

I was also intrigued to learn that Adam Smith stole most of his thinking about free markets from medieval Islamic philosophers. The Islamic ban on usury enabled the Muslim world to operate pure free markets that were totally outside of government influence or control. Trying to operate an economy without such a ban (or a system of debt forgiveness like the Biblical practice of Jubilee) leads to inevitable economic chaos and ultimately collapse, even with government intervention.

People who like this talk will also really like a series Graeber recently produced for BBC4 radio entitled Promises, Promises: The History of Debt.  In it, Graeber explores  the link between Native American genocide and the harsh debt obligations imposed on the Conquistadors.  He also discusses the formation of the Bank of England in 1694, the role of paper money as circulating government debt and the insanity of striving for government surpluses.


* In ancient times, the primary mechanism by which people became enslaved was non-payment of debt.