Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

of a family is the priest of his own household. The chieftain acts as father and priest to the tribe; but at the greater festivals he chooses some one specially learned in holy offerings to conduct the sacrifice in the name of the people. The chief himself seems to have been elected. Women enjoyed a high position, and some of the most beautiful hymns were composed by ladies and queens. Marriage was held sacred. Husband and wife were both “rulers of the house” (dampati), and drew near to the gods together in prayer. The burning of widows on their husbands’ funeral-pile was unknown, and the verses in the Veda which the Brahmans afterwards distorted into a sanction for the practice have the very opposite meaning.

The Aryan tribes in the Veda are acquainted with most of the metals. They have blacksmiths, coppersmiths and goldsmiths among them, besides carpenters, barbers and other artisans. They fight from chariots, and freely use the horse, although not yet the elephant, in war. They have settled down as husbandmen, till their fields with the plough, and live in villages or towns. But they also cling to their old wandering life, with their herds and “cattle-pens.” Cattle, indeed, still form their chief wealth, the coin (Lat. pecunia) in which payments of fines are made; and one of their words for war literally means “a desire for cows.” They have learned to build “ships,” perhaps large river-boats, and seem to have heard something of the sea. Unlike the modern Hindus, the Aryans of the Veda ate beef, used a fermented liquor or beer made from the soma plant, and offered the same strong meat and drink to their gods. Thus the stout Aryans spread eastwards through northern India, pushed on from behind by later arrivals of their own stock, and driving before them, or reducing to bondage, the earlier “black-skinned” races. They marched in whole communities from one river-valley to another, each house-father a warrior, husbandman and priest, with his wife and his little ones, and cattle.

About the beginning of the 6th century B.C. the settled country between the Himalaya mountains and the Nerbudda river was divided into sixteen independent states, some monarchies and some tribal republics, the most Early states. important of which were the four monarchies of Kosala, Magadha, the Vamsas and Avanti. Kosala, the modern kingdom of Oudh, appears to have been the premier state of India in 600 B.C. Later the supremacy was reft from it by the kingdom of Magadha, the modern Behar (q.v.). South of Kosala lay the kingdom of the Vamsas, and south of that again the kingdom of Avanti. In the north-west was Gandhara, on the banks of the Indus, in the neighbourhood of Peshawar. The history of these early states is only a confused record of war and intermarriages, and is still semi-mythical. The list of the sixteen states ignores everything north of the Himalayas, south of the Vindhyas, and east of the Ganges where it turns south.

The principal cities of India at this date were Ayōdhyā, the capital of Kosala at the time of the Ramayana, though it afterwards gave place to Srāvastī, which was one of the six great cities of India in the time of Buddha: Capital cities. archaeologists differ as to its position. Baranasi, the modern Benares, had in the time of Megasthenes a circuit of 25 m. Kosambi, the capital of the Vamsas, lay on the Jumna, 230 m. from Benares. Rajagriha (Rajgir), the capital of Magadha, was built by Bimbisara, the contemporary of Buddha. Roruka, the capital of Sovira, was an important centre of the coasting trade. Saketa was sometime the capital of Kosala. Ujjayini, the modern Ujjain, was the capital of Avanti. None of these great cities has as yet been properly excavated.

In those early days the Aryan tribes were divided into four social grades on a basis of colour: the Kshatriyas or nobles, who claimed descent from the early leaders; the Brahmans or sacrificing priests; the Vaisyas, the Social life. peasantry; and last of all the Sudras, the hewers of wood and drawers of water, of non-Aryan descent. Even below these there were low tribes and trades, aboriginal tribes and slaves. In later documents mention is made of eighteen gilds of work-people, whose names are nowhere given, but they probably included workers in wood, workers in metal, workers in stone, weavers, leather-workers, potters, ivory-workers, dyers, fisher-folk, butchers, hunters, cooks, barbers, flower-sellers, sailors, basket-makers and painters.

It is supposed that sea-going merchants, mostly Dravidians, and not Aryans, availing themselves of the monsoons, traded in the 7th century B.C. from the south-west ports of India to Babylon, and that there they became acquainted with a Semitic alphabet, which they brought back with them, and from which all the alphabets now used in India, Burma, Siam and Ceylon have been gradually evolved. For the early inscriptional remains, see Inscriptions: India. The earliest written records in India, however, are Buddhist. The earliest written books are in Pali and Buddhist Sanskrit.

The Buddhist Period.

The systems called Jainism (see Jains) and Buddhism (q.v.) had their roots in prehistoric philosophies, but were founded respectively by Vardhamana Mahavira and Gotama Buddha, both of whom were preaching in Magadha during the reign of Bimbisara (c. 520 B.C.).

During the next two hundred years Buddhism spread over northern India, perhaps receiving a new impulse from the Greek kingdoms in the Punjab. About the middle of the 3rd century B.C. Asoka, the king of Magadha or Behar, who reigned from 264 B.C. to 227 B.C., became a zealous convert to Buddhism. He is said to have supported 64,000 Buddhist priests; he founded many religious houses, and his kingdom is called the Land of the Monasteries (Vihara or Behar) to this day. He did for Buddhism what Constantine effected for Christianity; he organized it on the basis of a state religion. This he accomplished by five means—by a council to settle the faith, by edicts promulgating its principles, by a state department to watch over its purity, by missionaries to spread its doctrines, and by an authoritative collection of its sacred books. In 246 B.C. Asoka is said[1] to have convened at Pataliputra (Patna) the third Buddhist council of one thousand elders (the tradition that he actually convened it rests on no actual evidence that we possess). Evil men, taking on them the yellow robe of the order, had given forth their own opinions as the teaching of Buddha. Such heresies were now corrected; and the Buddhism of southern Asia practically dates from Asoka’s council. In a number of edicts, both before and after the synod, he published throughout India the grand principles of the faith. Such edicts are still found graven deep upon pillars, in caves and on rocks, from the Yusafzai valley beyond Peshawar on the north-western frontier, through the heart of Hindustan, to Kathiawar and Mysore on the south and Orissa in the east. Tradition states that Asoka set up 64,000 memorial columns; and the thirty-five inscriptions extant in our own day show how widely these royal sermons were spread over India. In the year of the council, the king also founded a state department to watch over the purity and to direct the spread of the faith. A minister of justice and religion (Dharma Mahamatra) directed its operations; and, one of its first duties being to proselytize, he was specially charged with the welfare of the aborigines among whom its missionaries were sent. Asoka did not think it enough to convert the inferior races without looking after their material interests. Wells were to be dug and trees planted along the roads; a system of medical aid was established throughout his kingdom and the conquered provinces, as far as Ceylon, for both man and beast. Officers were appointed to watch over domestic life and public morality, and to promote instruction among the women as well as the youth.

Asoka recognized proselytism by peaceful means as a state duty. The rock inscriptions record how he sent forth missionaries “to the utmost limits of the barbarian countries,” to “intermingle among all unbelievers” for the spread of religion. They shall mix equally with Brahmans and beggars, with the

  1. The historicity of this convention, not now usually admitted by scholars, is maintained by Bishop Copleston of Calcutta in his Buddhism, Primitive and Present (1908).