30 January 2009

Rethinking Indian History

Indian HistoryIn discussing the time of the Buddha it is axiomatic, especially in Buddhist accounts, that Brahminism was the main religion of the Āryan peoples who dominated the Ganges valley at that time. Buddhism is sometimes seen as a reaction against Brahmin orthodoxy, or even as a reform movement within it. While the latter view is clearly ridiculous, the former is backed up by many satirical and polemical texts which have Brahmins, and and their religion, in their sights. I have written about some of these before. The Brahmins are credited with the ideas of karma and rebirth, and with the idea of ātman as an immutable essence of the person. Also at this time, often viewed as an offshoot of Brahmanism were the Śramaṇa movements which denied the Vedic authorities and held a wild variety of views about the world and pursued a variety of religious practices, the most characteristic being severe austerity. Recently scholars have proposed a different model of India in the 5th century BCE in which the Brahmins were not dominant in the Magadha region and, in fact, did not become so until around the beginning of the common era.

Prof. Johannes Bronkhorst, building on a lifetime of Indological research, proposes that although speaking Indo-Āryan languages the Magadhans - centred around the area of modern day Bihar - were culturally distinct from the Brahmins of the western Kuru-pañcala region - the area around modern day Delhi. Bronkhorst suggests that, in fact, Brahmins saw the eastern Ganges valley region as wild and highly undesirable. Brahmins were moving Eastwards, none the less, and creating the conditions to extend their hegemony.

The idea of two cultures eventually merging is supported by archaeological evidence in the form of styles of pottery. One of the features which differentiated the Magadhans was the making of round funeral mounds (precursors of the stūpa). The Brahmins, who preferred square mounds, left negative comments about them in their texts. The two cultures preferred, at least for some time, different styles of government. A feature of Māgadha, for instance, was the small oligarchical state. It was in this kind of state, where a small number of senior men governed, that the Gotama the Buddha was said to have been born. Other Māgadhan states were more like city states ruled over by a king. Geoffrey Samuel, who has independently proposed a two culture model, suggests that the two regions developed contrasting images of kingship: the warrior king (cakravartin) and the wisdom king (dharmarājā) were associated with the western and eastern ends of the Ganges Valley.

Meanwhile, in Māgadha the śramaṇa tradition was developing a series of new religious ideas which were to revolutionise the Brahmin world view. It was in Māgadha that the three notions which came to define Indian religion were developed: karma, rebirth, and ātman (the immutable Self). Contrary to the received tradition, Bronkhorst argues that the early Upaniṣads show the Brahmins in the process of assimilating these ideas. They show at times, for instance in the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad (BU), a form of rebirth (actually redeath, punarmṛtyu) not linked to karma; and then in the same text, in a section believed to be later in time, a version of rebirth linked to actions in life. In the first chapter of BU ātman often means simply "body".

The Jains believed that all actions - both voluntary and involuntary - accumulated 'dust' on the jīva or soul. This weighs the soul down to earth. Austerity can burn up old karma, allowing the soul to be lightened and eventually liberated. They therefore pursued self-mortification to extremes. It was this kind of practice which the Buddha is said to have engaged in during his time as an ascetic. The Ājivakas, although believing in the notion of karma, did not believe that it could be mitigated, and so were more or less fatalistic - one could be liberated but it would take 8,400,000 aeons whatever you did. However, both believed that, actions having consequences, the best thing to do was not to act, and this taken to the extreme resulted in lying down and dying from starvation or thirst. A less extreme version of this was to refrain from moving for long periods of time, and to reduce food to an absolute minimum - the basis of their austerity practices. It was the Ājivakas who first developed the idea of a 'self' which did not participate in the actions of the person, and was not sullied by the consequences of such actions - although it was still bound to continual rebirth.

Karma, Rebirth, and an independent eternal self were to become the pre-occupations of the Brahmins as we see in the Bhagavadgītā, a text which seems to define modern Hinduism if any text can. Brahmins gave rebirth their own spin. Karma changed from being the special ritual actions associated with the sacrifice, to being actions performed in accordance with one's caste duty (dharma). The self is shown by Kṛṣṇa to be untouched by actions and thus it is Arjuna's caste duty to slaughter his relatives in battle, and he is not to worry since the ātman (either his or his relatives') cannot be killed or stained by the apparently 'sinful' action of murder. What emerges in the earliest Upaniṣads is a kind of hybrid of the old Vedic sacrificial religions - with the gods Indra, Soma, Agni at the centre - and the new ideas which featured Brahman as a kind of universal principle, and as time went on as Brahmā a creator god.

Signe Cohen has shown that the Upaniṣads, as well as recording the ideas of the new hybrid Brahminism, highlight internal issues of authority. The Bṛhadāranyaka, for instance, asserts the value of the Yajurveda over the much older Ṛgveda. This can be seen in the pre-eminent position of Yajñavalkya (the legendary composer of the Yajurveda) and the relatively lowly Ṛgvedic priests whom he defeats in debates, and one of whom is shown being taught by a Kṣatriya which is a reversal of the Brahminical social order. So there were tensions within parts of the Brahmin community, with innovators vying for influence. Significantly, the Bṛhadāranyaka is associated with the eastern extreme of the Brahminical heartland - where it would have had a greater exposure to the new ideas. Although it is common to speak of "Upaniṣadic" ideas, practices, or texts, in fact, the Upaniṣads are very heterogeneous - both compared to each other and even, at times (in the BU, for instance), when comparing sections within a text.

Buddhism developed on the margins of Māgadha where it overlapped with the Brahminical territory. The Buddha rejected the mainstream Māgadhan religious views of the Jains and Ājivakas; rejected the new hybrid Brahmanism being developed by eastern Brahmins, often associated with the Yajurveda traditions; and rejected the traditional Vedic sacrificial religion. However, he appears to have been quite knowledgeable about each of them - at least enough to compose satires and polemics.

In my own research I have been exploring parallels in idiom between the Pali texts and the early Upaniṣads, especially the BU. The fact that the Pāli texts are aware of the themes and idioms of the BU may previously have suggested that the Buddha might have known about this text - taking into account that it was an oral tradition with several versions. However, we now have to be more cautious. The early Upaniṣads are dated earlier than the Buddha on the basis that the earliest Buddhist texts seem to be aware of Upaniṣadic themes. But now we may say that the Buddhists were as likely to be responding to these ideas in Jain or Ājivaka circles. Both BU and the Pāli texts might have been drawing on a common pool of Māgadhan ideas and language. And actually this makes better sense, because the Brahmins were jealous of their teachings and tended to keep them secret! Not being a Brahmin (by most accounts anyway, and despite having a good Brahmin surname - Gautama!) the Buddha wasn't in a position to know the contents of the secret teachings (which is one way of translating the word 'upaniṣad'). If the secret teachings were in fact a Brahminical adaptation of Māgadhan teachings, which the we can be fairly sure the Buddha was exposed to, then this would better explain their presence in the Pāli texts. We also know that some Pāli texts, particularly the Dhammapada, seem to have drawn on a common pool of wisdom verses which were not specifically Buddhist or Brahminical.

This is a very different picture of history. Admittedly it is somewhat speculative and will need to be tested with further research - the book is only a year old and likely only to be available in university libraries, although it draws on Bronkhorst's many previous publications. However, I think it is plausible, and that is already corroborated by Samuel and to some extent by Cohen. It is certainly a more nuanced view of India circa 500 BCE. Some work remains to be done to reassess earlier research to see if what we already know makes more sense in this framework than it did previously. My initial feeling is that it does make more sense.

One thing that it highlights is the folly of trying to understand the socio-historical aspects of Buddhism without reference to the context which the Buddha operated in. Certain ideas and practices make better sense in a broader perspective than Buddhists are usually operating in. Sadly, Bronkhorst's book is a very expensive item at more than £130, and not likely to be available outside major university libraries. But you should be able to get your local public library to get it on "Inter-Library Loan". Cohen is similarly very expensive, but happily Samuel's is more reasonably priced and a good read.

  • Bronkhorst, Johannes. 2007. Greater Magadha : studies in the culture of early India. Leiden : Brill.
  • Cohen, Signe. 2008. Text and authority in the older Upaniṣads. Leiden : Brill
  • Samuel, Geoffrey. 2008. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra : Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge University Press.

Alexander Wynn has just published a thoughtful review of Greater Magadha on H-net reviews.
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