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The Pre-Buddhist Background
Dr. Peter Della Santina

Although studies of Buddhism usually begin with the life of the Buddha, the historical founder of the faith, I would like first to examine the situation that prevailed in India before the time of the Buddha, that is to say, the pre-Buddhist background of Buddhism. I personally believe such an examination to be particularly helpful because it enables us to understand the life and teaching of the Buddha in a broader historical and cultural context. This sort of retrospective examination can help us better understand the nature of Buddhism in particular, and perhaps, too, the nature of Indian philosophy and religion in general.

I would like to begin our examination of the origin and development of Indian philosophy and religion with a geographical analogy. In the north of the Indian subcontinent are two great rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna. These two great rivers have separate sources in the high Himalayas, and their courses remain quite separate for the better part of their great length. Gradually they draw nearer to each other and eventually unite in the plains of northern India, near the city now known as Allahabad. From their point of confluence they flow on together until they empty into the Bay of Bengal.

The geography of these two great rivers exemplifies the origin and development of Indian philosophy and religion because in Indian culture, as in Indian geography, there are two great currents of thought that were originally quite different and distinct in character. For many centuries the course of these two remained separate and distinct, but eventually they drew closer together, merged, and continued to flow on together, almost indistinguishable from each other, right up to the present day. Perhaps as we proceed with our examination of the pre-Buddhist culture of India, we can bear in mind the image of these rivers whose origins were separate, but which at a certain point merged and continued together to the sea.

When we look into the very early history of India, we find that, in the third millennium B.C.E., there was a very highly developed civilization on the subcontinent. This civilization was easily as old as those which are called the cradles of human culture, such as the civilizations of Egypt and Babylon. It flourished from about 2800 to 1800 B.C.E. and was known as the Indus Valley, or the Harappan, civilization. It extended from what is now western Pakistan south to a point near present-day Bombay and east to a point near Shimla, in the foothills of the Himalayas.

If you look at a map of Asia, you will at once realize that the geographical extent of the Indus Valley civilization was immense. And not only was this civilization stable for a thousand years, it was also very advanced, both materially and spiritually. Materially, the Indus Valley civilization was agrarian and exhibited a great degree of skill in irrigation and urban planning. There is evidence that the people of this civilization had evolved a system of mathematics based on a binary model--the same model employed in modern computing. The Indus Valley civilization was literate and developed a script that remains largely undeciphered to date. (The meaning of the Indus Valley script is one of the great unsolved mysteries of linguistic archaeology.) In addition, there is ample evidence that the civilization enjoyed a very highly developed spiritual culture. Archaeological discoveries at two major sites, Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, bear witness to this.

The peaceful unfolding of the life of this great ancient civilization was rather abruptly interrupted sometime between 1800 and 1500 B.C.E., either by some natural disaster or by an invasion. What is certain is that, simultaneous with or very soon after the demise of the Indus Valley civilization, the subcontinent was invaded from the northwest--just as, centuries later, Muslim invaders were to come from that direction. The invading people were known as Aryans. This term designated a people who originally belonged to a region somewhere in Eastern Europe, perhaps the steppes of modern Poland and the Ukraine. The Aryans were very different from the people of the Indus Valley civilization. Whereas the latter had been agrarian and sedentary, the Aryans were nomadic and pastoral. They were unused to urban life. A warlike and expansionist people, they lived in large part on the spoils of conquest won from the peoples they subjugated in the course of their migrations. When the Aryans arrived in India, they very soon became the dominant civilization, and after the middle of the second millennium B.C.E., Indian society was largely dominated by Aryan values.

Let us now look at the religious attitudes of the people of the Indus Valley civilization and of the Aryan civilization. This is of particular interest to us. As I have said, the Indus Valley civilization had a written language which we have thus far been unable to decipher. Nonetheless, our knowledge of the civilization is derived from two reliable sources: the archaeological discoveries at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, and the written records of the Aryans, who described the religious behavior and beliefs of the people they came to dominate.

Archaeological excavations have revealed a number of symbols important to the people of the Indus Valley civilization. These symbols have religious significance and are also sacred to Buddhism. They include the pipal tree (later known as the bodhi tree, or ficus religiosa), and animals such as the elephant and deer. Perhaps most significant, the image of a human figure has been found that is seated in a cross-legged posture, hands resting on the knees and eyes narrowed--clearly suggestive of the attitude of meditation. With the help of these archaeological discoveries and other evidence, eminent scholars have concluded that the origins of the practices of yoga and meditation can be traced to the Indus Valley civilization. Moreover, when we study the descriptions of the religious practices of the people of the Indus Valley civilization found in the written records of the early Aryans, the Vedas, we find the figure of the wandering ascetic frequently mentioned. These ascetics are said to have practiced methods of mind training, to have been celibate, naked or clothed in the most meager of garments, to have had no fixed abode, and to have taught the way beyond birth and death. Putting together the evidence gathered from the archaeological findings at the major sites of the Indus Valley civilization and that found in the early records of the Aryans, the picture that emerges of the religious attitudes and practices of the people of the Indus Valley civilization, while sketchy, is clear enough in its essentials.

The religion of the Indus Valley civilization evidently contained several important elements. First of all, meditation, or the practice of training the mind, was clearly present. Second, the practice of renunciation--that is to say, abandoning household life and living the life of a homeless ascetic, or mendicant--was also common. Third, it is clear that there was some conception of rebirth or reincarnation occurring over the course of a countless number of lives, and, fourth, a sense of moral responsibility extending beyond this life--that is to say, some form of the conception of karma. Last, there was a paramount goal of religious life--namely, the goal of liberation, of freedom from the endless cycle of birth and death. These were the outstanding features of the religion of the earliest civilization of India.

Next, let us look at the religion of the early Aryan people, which contrasted sharply with that of the Indus Valley civilization. Indeed, it would be difficult to find two religious cultures more radically different. Constructing a complete picture of the religious attitudes and practices of the early Aryans is much simpler than doing so for the Indus Valley people. When the Aryans arrived in India, they brought with them a religion that was completely secular in nature. As I have said, they were an expansionist society--a pioneer society, if you like. Their origins lay in Eastern Europe, and their religion in many ways resembled that of the ancient Greeks. If you look at descriptions of the gods who composed the Greek pantheon, you will not fail to notice striking parallels between the two. The Aryans revered a number of gods who were personifications of natural phenomena, including Indra (not unlike Zeus), the god of thunder and lightning; Agni, the god of fire, and Varuna, the god of water--to name just a few.

Whereas in the religion of the Indus Valley civilization the ascetic was the preeminent religious figure, in the Aryan religious establishment the priest was by far the most important. Whereas in the religious value system of the Indus Valley civilization renunciation was paramount, in the value system of the early Aryans the most worthy state was that of the family man, or householder. Whereas in the religious culture of the Indus Valley civilization the value of progeny was not emphasized, for the early Aryans progeny, particularly sons, was the highest priority. The religion of the Indus Valley civilization emphasized the practice of meditation, while the Aryan faith relied on the practice of sacrifice, which was its primary means of communicating with the gods, securing victory in war, obtaining sons and wealth, and finally reaching heaven. While the religion of the Indus Valley civilization included the conceptions of rebirth and karma, the early Aryans had no such conceptions. The notion of moral responsibility extending beyond the present life appears to have been unknown to the Aryans, for whom the highest social value was loyalty to the group, a virtue calculated to contribute to the power and cohesion of the tribe. Finally, the ultimate goal of religious life for the people of the Indus Valley civilization was liberation, a state that transcended birth and death, whereas for the early Aryans the goal was simply heaven--and a heaven that looked very much like a perfected version of this world, in fact.

In brief, while the religion of the Indus Valley civilization stressed renunciation, meditation, rebirth, karma, and the final goal of liberation, the Aryan religion stressed this life, ritual sacrifice, loyalty, wealth, progeny, power, and heaven. Thus it is clear that the sets of religious attitudes, practices, and values professed by these two ancient civilizations of India were almost diametrically opposed to each other. And yet, over the course of centuries of cohabitation, these two religious traditions did manage to merge and become, in many instances, practically indistinguishable.

Before concluding our review of the salient features of the Indus Valley and early Aryan religions, it should be mentioned that the religious culture of the Aryans was characterized by two further elements unknown and foreign to the religion of the Indus Valley people. The two elements I have in mind are caste--that is to say, the division of society into social strata--and belief in the authority and infallibility of revelation, in this case the ancient scriptures known as the Vedas. The religious culture of the Indus Valley civilization did not accept these conceptions, and they remained constant points of contention dividing the two major religious traditions of India.The history of Indian religion from 1500 B.C.E. to the sixth century B.C.E. (i.e., the time of the Buddha) is the history of the interaction between these two originally opposed traditions. As the Aryan people gradually moved eastward and southward, settling and spreading their influence over most of the Indian subcontinent, they adopted a more sedentary pattern of life. Little by little, the opposing religious cultures of the two peoples began to interact, influence, and even merge with each other. This is precisely the phenomenon I had in mind earlier when I referred to the merging of the two great rivers of India, the Ganges and the Yamuna.

By the time of the Buddha, a very heterogeneous religious culture flourished in India. This is clear even from a superficial look at some of the prominent facts about the Buddha's life. For example, after his birth, two distinct types of people made predictions about his future greatness. The first prophesy was pronounced by Asita, who was a hermit and ascetic living in the mountains, although the biographies of the Buddha insist that Asita was a Brahmin, a member of the priestly caste of Aryan society. This in itself is clear evidence of the interaction of the two ancient religious traditions, for it indicates that, by the sixth century B.C.E., even Brahmins had begun to abandon household life and adopt the life of homeless ascetics, something unheard of a thousand years before. A little later, we are told that 108 Brahmins were invited to the ceremony for bestowing a name on the young Buddha. There, they also prophesied the future greatness of the child. These men were evidently priests who had not renounced household life and who thus represented the original, orthodox practice accepted in the Aryan fold. How is it that two traditions initially so different were able to merge? I think the answer may be found in the dramatic changes that occurred in the life of the Indian people between the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. and the time of the Buddha. Aryan expansion came to an end when the Aryans had spread across the plains of India. The end of this expansion brought about many social, economic, and political changes. First of all, the tribal, nomadic, and pastoral way of life of the early Aryans gradually changed into a more sedentary, agrarian, and eventually urban pattern of existence. Before long, the majority of the population was living in urban settlements where the people were somewhat removed from the natural forces which had been personified in the gods of the early Aryans.

Second, commerce became increasingly important. Whereas priests and warriors had been the dominant figures in early Aryan society--priests because they communicated with the gods, and warriors because they waged war against the enemies of the tribe and brought home the spoils of battle--now merchants became ascendant. In the time of the Buddha, this trend is evident in the famous disciples who belonged to the merchant class--Anathapindika, to name just one example.Last, the organization of society along tribal lines gradually became obsolete, and the territorial state began to evolve. No longer was society organized into tribes within which there were very close sets of personal loyalties. The tribal pattern of social organization was replaced by the territorial state, in which many people of different tribes existed together. The kingdom of Magadha, ruled by King Bimbisara, the famous patron and disciple of the Buddha, is an example of such an emerging territorial state.

These social, economic, and political changes contributed to a growing willingness on the part of the Aryan people to accept and adopt the religious ideas of the Indus Valley civilization. Although the Aryans had materially dominated the earlier, indigenous civilization of the subcontinent, the next thousand to two thousand years saw them come increasingly under the influence of religious attitudes, practices, and values adopted from the religion of the Indus Valley civilization. Consequently, by the beginning of the common era, the distinction between the Aryan tradition and that of the Indus Valley civilization was more and more difficult to draw. In fact, this historical reality is responsible for the misconception expressed in the claim that Buddhism was a protest against, or an offshoot of, Hinduism.

Buddhism is a religion that draws most of its inspiration from the religious culture of the Indus Valley civilization. The elements of renunciation, meditation, rebirth, karma, and liberation, which were important components of the religious culture of the Indus Valley people, are also important in Buddhism. The Buddha himself very probably meant to indicate that the origins of the religion he proclaimed lay in the Indus Valley civilization when he said that the path he taught was an ancient path, and that the goal to which he pointed was an ancient goal. Buddhism also maintains a tradition of six prehistoric Buddhas who are believed to have flourished before the Buddha Shakyamuni. All this, I believe, points to a certain continuity between the religious culture and traditions of the Indus Valley civilization and the teaching of the Buddha.

When we examine the two religious phenomena we call Buddhism and Hinduism, we find a greater or smaller proportion or preponderance of elements inherited from each of the two great religious traditions of ancient India. In Buddhism the greater proportion of significant elements is clearly inherited from the religion of the Indus Valley civilization, while a far smaller proportion may be traced to the religion of the early Aryans. There are undoubtedly elements in Buddhism inherited from the religion of the Aryans, such as the presence of the gods of the Vedas, but their role is peripheral.

Conversely, many schools of Hinduism retain a greater proportion of elements of religious culture inherited from the Aryan tradition and a much smaller proportion that can be traced back to the religion of the Indus Valley. Many schools of Hinduism still emphasize caste, the authority of revelation in the shape of the Vedas, and the efficacy of the practice of sacrifice. Notwithstanding these clearly Aryan elements, a place is also made in Hinduism for important elements of the culture of the Indus Valley civilization, such as renunciation, meditation, rebirth, karma, and liberation.


[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 13-21].


Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing this article.


Updated: 3-6-2000

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