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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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History of India from the earliest times to the twentieth century, for the use of students and colleges

by Henry George Keene


SECTION 1.—Up to the great religious schism between Buddhists and Brahmins no historical record in regard to the people in any part of India can be found. The national mind, if such an expression may be permitted, has never shown any aptitude for that branch of letters. Reference may be indeed made to the ancient scriptural hymns, and to the scarcely less sacred sages; and two great epic poems have been noted in which real events may be supposed to have afforded a groundwork for imaginative and mythologic embroidery. Of speculation there was no lack; and it can scarcely be doubted that there was a tendency towards many branches of science. But for concrete facts, the dates of events and their successive evolution, the Hindus have never shown the slightest taste or curiosity. Some admixture of possible biography in their poems, and one set of provincial annals,* are all that they have done in that kind during a period of, say, twenty centuries This peculiarity may have been the result of the very love of speculative philosophy, the taste for abstract reasoning which bred a conviction of the unreality of matter and its appearances. Something, also, may be due to a turn for the marvellous acquired by the conquerors from the ruder aborigines amongst whom their lives were led, and to the natural desire to give their own conditions a heroic scale of proportion. However caused, the scorn of facts and figures is undeniable; and it is likely to keep posterity from all detailed knowledge of the history of the Vedic Aryans. Our information shows them * The " Rrijatarangani."

to us as a pastoral people, who also practised agriculture and made war on the aborigines and among themselves. Gradually settling in villages and towns, they built up a kind of cellular social tissue based on the family as a rudimental organ. The family: which with them meant a permanent incorporation whose managing partner was the father, while the mother was free, but kept to her particular sphere of labour. The sons also worked for the common good, with some voice in council, some latent claim to separate their respective shares of the joint estate; but ordinarily that estate was probably undivided at first, and the private property of the sons was confined to everything that they might earn without using family capital. The daughters, like their mother, had their prescribed occupation—the name is connected with the milking of cattle *—and were allowed some freedom in the choice of husbands. Monogamy was the rule; and when, in certain cases, a second wife could be taken, the original consort remained in the position of " Housewife." When the father became decrepit the eldest son took his place in the management; and when the father died the women came entirely under charge of him who kept the homestead, ordinarily the eldest son. The manes of fathers continued a hypothetic presence, but were not deified; and the performance of certain rites for their spiritual welfare was a necessary part and condition of the administration of the estate. The Deity was regarded as an immanent Power latent in Nature, but capable of representation by one force or another, which became the object of what Professor F. M. Miiller has called "henotheistic" worship. The typical manifestations of that power in the phenomenal universe were, as we have seen, chosen according to the varying pressure of environments; first Aditi, Savitri, or by whatever name the Sun might be indicated, and AGNI, or Fire, the Sun's agent on earth; then came Indra, Vahu, the wind. And this early Trinity was the object of veneration and propitiation before the growth of a cumbrous ritual and a specialised priesthood had begun to act and react upon each other, and to create the system of Vedantic Brahmanism contemplated in the "code of Manu," developing by degrees into an oppressive clericalism.

* Cf. "Dug," and "Dairy." The Aryan languages have the same word for daughter from East to West—Sanskrit, Persian, German, Greek, etc.

The exact period of the first reaction against this system is subject to much of the uncertainty that pertains to all Hindu chronology. According to the ordinary view, the Buddha was a Prince of Bihar, who died 543 B.C. The latest European estimates bring this date to,_4££^ B.C. Some of these critics question if he ever existed at all; and the earliest date that can be actually determined is, perhaps, that of a great council convened at Patna 244 B.C., from which the establishment of Buddhism as a religion unquestionably dates. But this brings us to a date later than that of theMacedonian intercourse with Upper India, at which time the reformation had already begun. We shall, therefore, do well to examine its nature and probable origin before dealing with Hindustan as known to the Greeks.

Not only has the personal existence of the Reformer been doubted,Tiul sUHle scholars have gone so far as to question the existence of Buddhism itself, as a distinct Indian heresy, or counterblast to Brahmanism. It is urged by them that Buddhism is merely the name for a development of the "Sankhya" philosophy, as taught by a sage named Kapila; a system too abstract for the apprehension of the masses unless it could be rendered concrete by being gathered round the person of some human being, however idealised. It is hopeless to seek for the era of Kapila, but there seems reason to believe that he lived at Hardwar—where the Ganges breaks out through the subHimalayan hills—which was a place of sanctity before any of the existing forms of religion had taken birth in India. Such sages and such heresies have never been unknown in the country: the Brahmo Somaj is an instance in our own times as the foundation of Jainism was in the days with which we are now dealing. The Jains—who still exist in India—assert that their reform is older than that of the Buddha; like him they reject the fetters of casteT^no^reach social and spiritual emancipation. It is to be noted that the earliest legends of the reformer represent him as the son of the King of Kapilavastu, which seems to favour the theory mentioned above'

Subject to such cautions as this, the accepted view of the matter may be abstracted as follows. The Reformer dying about the time of the birth of Socrates, his disciples attempted to systematise his teaching in what is known as the First General Council. About a century later a second council is reported, at which certain controversies were brought forward, and an attempt was made for their reconciliation; but the proceedings only led to further dissidence. It was after this that the form known as "Northern Buddhism" arose; and ere long the incursion of Alexander the Great began to throw Upper India open to foreign influence, while the Buddhist missionaries became enabled to penetrate into Central Asia, where the system still subsists, in a form considerably differing from southern and eastern developments. Judging from existing records we are enabled to form a plausible idea of what the nature of the original movement may have been. It sprang out of Brahmanism much as Christianity sprang out of Judaism, substituting a religion of emotion and sympathy/jbr one of ceremonial and dogma. It promulgated the admission of universal sorrow and suffering, and the belief in transmigration as a punishment for the sins of the soul: two doctrines, however, that had long been taught by the Brahmans. But the system rejected the whole Hindu pantheon; and what was offered to mankind as an asylum in its place, was a prospect of ultimate extinction as a reward, to be earned by the accumulation of a capital of good works. There was no place in such a system either for a crowd of monstrous divinities, or for one supreme God in human form. Meanwhile ignorance, pain, and other aspects of evil were to be steadily encountered; and a general charity towards all sentient beings—animals as well as men—became a prominent feature. Such appears, in a few words, to have been the nucleus of ancient Buddhism; an attempt which succeeded, to a far greater extent than might have been expected, in the strange task of founding a system of holy living upon a basis of agnostic doctrine.

We are not to suppose the spread of Buddhism to have taken place suddenly, or even to have ever established a popular creed. Side by side with the orthodox hierarchy, which was its natural foe, was no doubt a mass of polytheistic— or, rather, polydaemonic—superstition, having its roots in the fear and fanaticism of myriads of abject savages, cowering in wild mountain-tracts, and seeking in stones and trees some object of propitiation. Such people would be indifferent to reform, and neither anxious for social progress nor conscious of moral evil; to them the philosophy of the Buddhist would appeal as vainly as would the theosophy of the Brahmans. All that the reformers could do, without a system of universal instruction, would be to kindle a lamp in the darkness, and wait for calls for aid.

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