The first written records of Indian history are the Vedas, dating from around 1500 BCE. The text of the Vedas is based on secret oral teachings provided by gurus, religious teachers, and they contain a heavy emphasis on rituals, including sacrifices of various kinds. Because of the importance of the Vedas, this early stage in the history of the subcontinent is often known as the “Vedic period.” The Vedas are written in a cryptic language and are difficult to decipher. The Upanishads, commentaries on the Vedas, which originated sometime around 500 BCE, provide more easily comprehensible statements of this early version of Hinduism.
The followers of the Vedas were the Ind-Europeans, sometimes known as “Aryans.” The Ind-Europeans, at least according to one prominent theory, came from Central Asia sometime around 2000 BCE and established themselves in northern India, along the plains of the river Ganges as well as on the Deccan plateau in central and southern parts of the subcontinent. The Ind-Europeans were originally pastoralists and even once they increasingly turned to farming, cattle breeding continued to be important in their lives. The cow was already at this time a sacred animal. Not that much is known about the Ind-Europeans, but the Vedas contain traces of their rituals. Their kings sacrificed horses, and they drank soma, a potion with magical properties.
During the first millennium BCE, there were many ethnic groups located on the plains of the Ganges River. They formed janapada, or “nations,” which gradually came to be associated with a particular piece of territory. All major geographical regions of contemporary India can be traced back to these Vedic nations. Already these early societies were divided into distinct social classes. The priests, or brahmins, formed the leading class; the warriors, or kshatriya, came next, then craftsmen and merchants, and finally the class of servants. These four main groups were later subdivided into a multitude of different castes, each one responsible for a certain task and governed by its respective rules. The caste system as a whole was maintained through religious sanctions. You were born into a caste, into a certain job and a social position, and there was basically nothing you could do about it. This was the world which the gods had ordained. Later indigenous religions, such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, won adherents by rejecting this rigid view of society.
Around 600 BCE, the large number of janapada had been reduced to sixteen major ones, known as mahajanapada, “great nations.” The military competition between them forced each state to protect itself against its neighbors and this required more powerful armies. More powerful armies, in turn, required a more powerful economic base and a more efficient state machinery. This is how — much as in China, and roughly at the same time — military competition came to encourage economic and political change. But, and again much as in China, the competition also produced something akin to a philosophical revolution. The courts of the ruler of each mahajanapada became centers of scholarship and learning, visited by wandering teachers eager to offer advice. Religion was discussed but many philosophical schools developed too, including rationalists, materialists, and atheists. In addition, advances were made in sciences like astronomy and mathematics. It was now — in the late Vedic period, between 500 and 200 BCE — that the great epic poems, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, were composed. But the leaders of the mahajanapadas needed political advice. This was provided in works such as the Arthashastra. Politics, its author suggested, is a dog-eat-dog world in which only the most ruthless rulers survive. Another text from this period is the Manusmriti, the “Code of Manu,” a legal code and manual of statecraft.
As far as religious thought is concerned, two quite distinct traditions developed. In the western part of the Ganges river valley — towards today’s Pakistan — a priest-led culture flourished, as originally described in the Vedas, which focused on rituals and on the secret teachings conveyed by gurus. Here the emphasis was on the sacrifices which the gods required and the rewards you might get if you performed them correctly. This is the religious tradition which later came to be known as Hinduism. The leading social class, the brahmins, were the keepers of these rituals and the wisdom the traditions contained constituted the spiritual basis of their secular power. However, in the eastern part of the Ganges plains — towards today’s Bangladesh — the emphasis was rather on ascetic practices, on meditation and on the spiritual development of each individual. Much debated questions here included the nature of consciousness and the notion of the self. How can the self remain the same from one moment to the next or from one lifetime to another? In order to investigate such questions, ascetics engaged in practices which later developed into yoga and meditation.
It was in this environment that two schools arose which later were to become full-fledged religions — Jainism and Buddhism. The Jains are famous for their doctrine of ahimsa, or “non-violence,” which not only made them renounce war but also turned them into vegetarians. Jainism preaches universal love, non-attachment to worldly possessions, and it emphasizes the importance of devotional practices. Much later, in the twentieth century, the idea of ahimsa would inspire the methods employed by Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement. There are still between four and five million Jains living in India today.
Buddhism was founded by Siddharta Gautama, a prince born in the small Kingdom of Shakya, in today’s Nepal, most likely in the fifth century BCE. At first, he lived the regular, pleasure-seeking life of a prince; he married and had children. Yet at the age of twenty-nine, legend has it, he left his palace one day and encountered first an old man, then a sick man and finally a decaying corpse. Realizing that sickness, old age, and death awaited also him, he decided to change his way of life. He engaged in various ascetic practices before settling on a “middle way,” a life of moderation and detachment, which eventually brought him to enlightenment. Siddharta became a “Buddha,” meaning “the awakened one.” The world is an illusion, the Buddha taught, and through our desires and ceaseless striving, we make ourselves unhappy. In fact, the self is an illusion too. Enlightenment is a matter of being released from suffering and from our notion of a self. This way we no longer have to be reborn.
Soon the Buddha started telling others about his spiritual discoveries and this is how the religion which bears his name came to be established. Buddhism spread quickly along the trade routes of inner Asia and across the Indian Ocean. Before long there were Buddhists from Afghanistan in the west to Japan in the east. Today Buddhism is a world religion with an estimated 500 million followers, including a growing number in Europe and North America. Yet there are many kinds of Buddhists. Some engage in spiritual techniques designed to bring about enlightenment but most devotees are content to engage in various pious practices — bringing food to Buddhist monks or praying and burning incense at temples. Curiously for a religion, Buddhism has no notion of a god. It is also a very egalitarian faith. Buddhism acknowledges no separate social classes, no castes, and few distinctions are made between the roles of men and women. This egalitarian ethos has always been a part of its appeal.