Geography and main narratives influenced India culture and beliefs
We talked before about how in ancient times, people living in the same river valley and working on the same large infrastructure project were part of a communication network. The stories they told tended to circulate throughout their area, word spread. Other news came from elsewhere, as distant traders brought snippets of gossip, adventurers appeared… but information from elsewhere was intermittent while the stories circulated within the community were continuous and self-reinforcing.
They became myths as each person telling the tale eliminated the parts they considered irrelevant and enhanced their most powerful features. The four ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indian and Chinese civilisations that arose in the great valleys of the Nile River, the Tigris and Euphrates area, the Indus River, and the Huang He are examples of such internal communication networks.
Two thousand miles southwest of China, a very different narrative was taking shape. Here, in India, the world was not seen as having a single centre, as it was in Chinese civilisation. Nothing in their local history supported that mission of a world created around a centre.
We learned how in the Hindus valley irrigation was not a problem; agriculture was easy and left plenty of time for leisure, which led the rags to enjoy art, craft, and engineering. On the other side were the high grasslands ideal for the pastoral nomads who periodically raided the cities or traded with the townspeople, settling wherever they could.
Today we call these migrants from the northwest the Vedic people, whose priests were called Brahims, and their religious hymns were called Vedas. On the Indus and Ganges rivers, geography facilitated a new settlement pattern full of different kingdoms with distinct social structures and distinctive social classifications very similar to today´s castes.
India was a world of cities and towns proliferating across an infinite landscape. Different kingdoms emerged here and there, but none had any metaphysical significance.
The world was not concentric but organized in layers
For the people living in India, the world was not concentric, but organised in layers. Each city had the same four levels of people, layers derived initially from their occupations – varnas, which were later called castes.
There were priests called Brahmins, there were warriors and kings, there were farmers and merchants and finally there were artisans and labourers. And underneath all these layers, there were people who did the work that nobody wanted to do like washing the dead bodies.
These layers were not contained or limited by human boundaries, but developed across political boundaries. They ignored geography as well.
For example, a marriage between people from different layers? It was a problem even if they lived in the same village. Marriages between people from different villages? No problem, as long as they were from the same social stratum. Cities were formed in the subcontinent but layered society existed in cities, towns and villages.
Time was not cyclical as in China but just an illusion
For the Indians, time was not cyclical as in China but illusory. Things happened, and then other things happened, and in the end, things remained more or less similar. Lives differed in superficial ways but all lives went through the same four stages – again a layered view of the world: people were born, matured, aged and died. It didn’t matter if you were a beggar or a king. It didn’t matter what happened in society as a whole. The most important drama was the drama that each person had to face: birth, growth, decrepitude and death.
There were numerous gods in India, but they were not some hidden pattern of personal abstractions. They were dynamic forces with bodies, faces and their own histories, and they, too, lived on different levels. Some were incarnations as higher gods at lower levels. Some gods incarnated in material reality and lived as humans for a time. The material level, although more palpable, was the most illusory. The higher levels were successively more real until, at last, somewhere above all the layers, the multiplicity dissolved into a single eternal, timeless, featureless reality.
While there are many gods with myriad forms, those most popularly worshiped by Hindus in India are Vishnu, Shiva, the Goddess in her various aspects, and Shiva’s sons Ganesha and Karttikeya.
Shadus, post-vedic Hunduism and the idea of karma
Around 900 BCE a series of deep thinkers known in their society as sadhus emerged around the valley of the river Ganges. They were men who left their families and occupations and withdrew to the forest to reflect on themes of great depth. From the Vedic narrative, they distilled the seeds of a post-Vedic belief system now called Hinduism.
In sacred songs called Upanishads they developed a view of the world as illusion and of reality as a single, seamless whole. They sang that people had no souls, but were souls. They sang that all souls yearned to rise, but mostly could not do so because they were trapped in bodies, and that when the bodies died, the souls underwent reincarnation into new bodies.
The Upanishads introduced the idea of Karma as the iron law of the universe: every action provoked a reaction. If you did something good, you would get something good. If you hurt someone, you would be hurt by someone. But this did not necessarily have to happen in your lifetime. Karma followed the soul through its reincarnations, dictating whether a soul ascended or descended in the next birth.
Souls who accumulated sufficient karma could ascend over many lifetimes, through the layers of the layered universe, to escape at last the endless iterations of the same grim story, which began joyously with birth and ended grimly with decrepitude and death.
A magnificent system to achieve social peace so that those who commanded could command and those who obeyed would continue to obey so as not to be demoted in their next incarnation.
Mahavira, Buddha, thinkers that distilled slightly different ideas to escape from Karma´s belt
In India, as in China, some thinkers distilled slightly different ideas about the master narrative.
Mahavira founded Jainism – a doctrine originating in India, arising in the 6th century BC, which proclaimed a philosophical salvationist path not centred on the worship of any god. It declared that people could escape incarnation by avoiding violence, sex and possessions.
Another fundamental thinker, Siddartha Gautama, known as Buddha (the awakened or enlightened one) offered not so much a philosophy as a practical method for breaking out of the endless cycle in one’s present life.
Like Confucius, Buddha did not speak of gods. When his students asked him about supernatural matters, he replied that the question did not contribute to enlightenment and liberation. He saw himself as a doctor: the world was suffering and he offered a medicine.