Setting the Scene



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Overview featuring Wendy Doniger

Setting the Scene 



Unit 2 features writing from India’s earliest literary tradition. In the following essay, scholar and translator Wendy Doniger talks about how she became interested in Indian literature—and in particular, a collection of ancient Hindu writings called the Rig Veda. As you read her essay, the unit introduction that follows, and the literature in Unit 2, enjoy the richness of Indian culture and the beauty of these texts.

Introducing Wendy Doniger (b. 1940) Born in New York, Doniger is an expert on mythology, world religion, and Hindu literature, with a special interest in the role that gender plays. She is not only a scholar but also a translator of mythological texts.

Why I Was Drawn to Ancient Indian Literature


I first became fascinated by ancient Indian literature when I read a book of Hindu philosophical texts called the Upanishads when I was about fifteen, in 1955. As the child of relentlessly secular1 Jewish refugees who had come to America to escape the pogroms in Russia2 and the Nazis in Vienna, I wasn’t allowed to be interested in religion. But I was, sneaking out to hang out in churches the way other kids snuck out to commit the more traditional sins of adolescence.

Discussing Unanswerable Questions


I was haunted by the great metaphysical questions: How did the universe begin? Why are we here? What is the purpose of human life? When I discovered the Upanishads, I felt that I had come home (although to someone else’s home), that here was a religion that had what I longed for—a discussion of the unanswerable questions that were already beginning to haunt me. I was hooked, and when I went off to Radcliffe College as a seventeen-year-old freshman, I majored in Sanskrit, the ancient language in which the classical Hindu texts are written. The rest is history—of religions, that is, the subject I have studied and taught ever since.

Finding Meaning Without Baggage


Along the way I learned that many Americans, from the great nineteenth-century Transcendentalist philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau to the students in my classes, have found meaning in these texts, in part simply because they are not our own texts, do not have our own baggage, and in part because they say many wonderful things that our own texts do not say—or do not say in a way that is so startling and therefore so thought-provoking for us.

Recognizing Our Own Assumptions


The ancient Hindu texts were composed on the other side of the world, from about 1000 b.c.e. (the Rig Veda) through about 400 c.e. (the Mahabharata), and though many of their assumptions are very different from ours—ideas about reincarnation, about the relationship between many gods and One God, about the class system (and the far more detailed caste system, which divides human beings into thousands of carefully ranked social groups)—we have much in common with them: the fear of death and the hope of knowing what happens to us when we die; a vision of the order and majesty of the universe; a need to be reassured that there is a plan and a purpose to human life on earth. One certainly does not have to be a Hindu or believe what Hindus believe to learn something of value from these poems and prose passages—or to understand our own assumptions better by realizing what does not make sense to us in the Hindu conceptual world.

Reading The Unit Introduction

Reading for Information and Insight


Use the following terms and questions to guide your reading of the unit introduction.

Names and Terms to Know


  • Indus Valley

  • Aryans

  • Dravidians

  • Hinduism

  • Buddhism

  • Jainism

  • Sanskrit

  • Sikh

Focus Questions


As you read this introduction, use what you learn to answer these questions:

  • Which religions began on the Indian subcontinent?

  • In what way is Hinduism a social system?

  • List two or more achievements of Indian painters, sculptors, and architects.

  • In what way is the concept of memory important in the literature of India?



Historical Background


The modern nation of India has existed since 1947. Through most of history, though, the term India has been used to describe the entire sub-continent that is also called South Asia. Surrounded by oceans and by the forbidding Himalayan Mountains, India remained isolated for long periods of its history. This isolation was broken periodically by invasions. Often, however, invading peoples became cut off from their original homelands and then were gradually absorbed into the Indian population.

The Indus Valley, Aryans, and Dravidians


Some early settlers developed an impressive civilization in the northwest, where modern Pakistan and western India are located. This culture—the Indus Valley civilization, named for the river that runs through the region—was urban and highly sophisticated. The Indus Valley civilization mysteriously ended around 1500 b.c.At about the same time, people who called themselves Aryans —from the wordarya , meaning “noble”—migrated into India from the north and west. The Aryans brought with them the hymns of the Rig Veda , which expressed their religious ideas.

Another cultural group, the Dravidians, inhabited southern India in ancient times. We do not know much about the earliest history of these dark-skinned, small-framed people, but we do know that they developed a thriving culture sometime during the first millennium b.c.


A Political Checkerboard


The map of India’s political history is a checkerboard of continually changing boundaries between kingdoms that do battle, absorb one another, and then split into new divisions. There were many empires in India’s history. Perhaps the greatest was that carved out by Candragupta Maurya, ruled by his son Bindusa¯ra and expanded by his grandson Asoka. Much later, in the sixteenth century a.d. , the Moguls, Islamic rulers who were descendants of Genghis Khan, established a great empire in north India.

The subcontinent, however, was never united under any single political administration until the British succeeded in making India a colony. While the British did leave a significant mark on the region, we must also remember that their rule of nearly the entire subcontinent lasted for a relatively short period, from the early 1800s to 1947. For most of its history, India has been a collection of kingdoms with ever-changing boundaries.


Religious Thought


Indian creativity is especially evident in the field of religion. The subcontinent was the birthplace of many important faiths: Hinduism, the dominant religion of India; Buddhism, which had been virtually extinct in India but has been reestablished and has spread throughout Asia; Jainism; and Sikhism. India has also added its own flavor to religions like Christianity and Islam.

The mixture of three early cultures—Indus Valley, Dravidian, and Aryan—contributed to India’s Hindu civilization. The word Hindu comes from sindhu , a word in the ancient Indian language Sanskrit that means “river” or “the Indus River.” This word refers to both a religion and a social system. The Hindu religion recognizes many gods, but central to its belief is a final reality known as brahman. Not only is brahman the foundation of all things, but it is present in every living being as its essential identity, or atman . Hindu society was rigidly divided into groups, or castes, each of which had its own special duties. These castes were, in order of importance, learned people and priests (Brahmans); warriors; farmers and merchants; serfs; and finally, menials who, because of their “low” occupations, were considered “untouchable” by members of other castes.

A revealing fact about Indian religious life is that no Indian language has an exact counterpart for the English word religion . The explanation for this is that Indians do not divide life into “religious” and “secular” spheres. Instead, religious concerns pervade all aspects of thought in Hindu India.

Religions Other Than Hinduism


Jainism (7th –5th century b.c. ) and Buddhism (6th – 4th century b.c. ) arose in protest against certain Hindu beliefs and complex rituals of sacrifice. Jains—a name that derives from the Sanskrit for “saint,” jina —renounced earthly pleasures and devoted them-selves to protecting all forms of life.

Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince. When he left the palace grounds and learned about suffering and death for the first time, he was so affected by this experience that he renounced luxury and became a wandering religious man. After years of fasting and intense study, he achieved nirvana. This Sanskrit word refers to a state of being in which the desire for earthly things has been quenched and the soul therefore need not be reborn. Gautama was given the name Buddha, Sanskrit for “enlightened one,” to honor his achievement.

The Sikh religion developed in northern India about two thousand years after the origins of Buddhism and Jainism. Like these two religions, Sikhism rejected the caste system and rituals of Hinduism; however, the Sikhs’ belief in a single god set them apart.

Seagoing Arab traders brought the Muslim religion to western India in the eighth century. Later, Muslim armies invaded India from the north and established the Mogul empire. Under the Mogul emperors (1526–1857), Islamic and Indian traditions mingled to produce a distinctive style of art and architecture. The most famous example of this style is the Taj Mahal, built by a Muslim emperor after the death of his favorite wife.


Mathematics


Some of India’s cultural achievements are so much a part of our everyday lives that they have lost their identity as Indian discoveries. Among these is our number system. The numerals that we use come from India; they are called Arabic numerals because Arab traders brought them from India to Europe. In addition, ancient Indian mathematicians are responsible for the invention of the zero and the decimal notation that this discovery made possible.

A Link Between Religion and Mathematics


Scholars speculate that philosophical and religious ideas may have led Indian mathematicians to invent the zero and develop other advanced concepts. For example, in the religious writings of Hindus and Jains, time and space were regarded as limitless. It is not surprising, therefore, that mathematicians familiar with these beliefs would study the problems of defining infinite numbers and distinguishing between various types of infinity. Similarly, the Buddhist belief in nirvana and philosophical ideas about emptiness and the void may have prompted mathematicians to develop the concept of zero.

Technology and Medicine


Indians also excelled in metalworking. A monument that testifies to their skill is the Iron Pillar of Delhi, a solid metal column that measures more than 23 feet tall and weighs more than 6 tons. It was erected c. a.d. 400 by the ruler Kumara Gupta I in honor of his father.

Medicine was another field in which Indians distinguished themselves. Ancient Indian physicians were able to set broken bones, knew the impor-tance of keeping wounds clean, and developed plastic surgery long before it was practiced in Europe.


Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture


Indian painters and sculptors were patronized by kings and wealthy merchants. As artists traveled from kingdom to kingdom to show their work, they spread the inventions and secrets of their craft. For the most part, they depicted religious themes. However, their work also reveals the daily life, dress, and pastimes of ancient India, so it is a valuable record for us today.

Among the most notable achievements of Indian art are the frescoes, or wall paintings, in caves near the village of Ajanta in western India. These caves were created by Buddhist monks during the period from the first century b.c. to the seventh century a.d. The vibrant and colorful paintings on their walls depict Buddhist themes.

The artificial caves at Ajanta and elsewhere in western India are also great architectural achievements. Their interiors were designed to imitate the brightly colored halls in which Buddhist monks gathered during the rainy season to recite texts and debate religious questions. Some of the cave temples are also Hindu or Jain. The Hindu cave-temple Kailasa at Ellora was carved downward from a basaltic hillside. It is about 164 feet long, 108 feet wide, and 100 feet high.

 

Literature

The Sacredness of Language


The universal concern with religious values in Hindu life explains the lack of a clear separation between religion and literature. In fact, language itself—the sound of words—was regarded as sacred. An example of this belief is the practice of repeating the word om during Hindu prayers. The repetition of this word is a religious act, a means of saying “yes” to the universe. While all language was considered sacred, the ancient Indian language Sanskrit was considered to be the perfect language. It ceased being a spoken language many hundreds of years ago, but all of the selections in this unit were written in Sanskrit. (Today, we recognize that Sanskrit is related to other ancient Indo-European languages like Latin and Greek.)

Because they believed that language was holy, Indians speculated a great deal about its power to convey ideas and emotions. This speculation led to a greater understanding about how language works. The Sanskrit grammars written by Panini in the sixth century b.c. are still admired by modern linguists.


Ancient Hymns and Epics


The earliest surviving record of Indian religious thought, and the basis of Hinduism, is the collection of hymns known as the Rig Veda . These hymns do not set forth religious ideas in a systematic manner. Their homage to the gods of nature, however, sets a tone of devotion and piety that carries down to the present day.

These ancient hymns accompanied elaborate sacrifices to the gods, some of which lasted as long as a year! The writings that were developed to describe the details of these sacrifices had a profound effect on the way that Hindus thought. This influence is apparent, for example, in the structure of India’s longest epic poem, the Mahabharata , which means “Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty.” Just as a sacrificial ritual was divided into many small parts, the Mahabharata was divided into many small episodes told by different narrators.

Still another ancient epic is the Ramayana , which means “Romance of Rama.” The hero, Rama, is one of the forms of the Hindu god Vishnu, and the high point of the epic is the battle between Rama and the evil demon Ravana. An army of monkeys led by the monkey-general Hanuman assists Rama in this battle.

Epics and Storytelling


Both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are extremely popular in India and in Southeast Asia. People dramatize events from these poems in colorful pageants, dance performances, and puppet shows. Also, storytellers recount the tales of epic heroes in villages across India. The modern writer R. K. Narayan, for example, describes the typical village storyteller, who knows “by heart all the . . . 100,000 stanzas of the Mahabharata,” beginning an evening session:

. . . the storyteller will dress himself for the part by smearing sacred ash on his forehead and wrapping himself in a green shawl, while his helpers set up a framed picture of some god on a pedestal in the veranda, decorate it with jasmine garlands, and light incense to it. After these preparations, when the storyteller enters to seat himself in front of the lamps, he looks imperious and in complete control of the situation. He begins the session with a prayer, prolonging it until the others join and the valleys echo with the chants, drowning the cry of jackals.”


The Importance of Memory


As the recitation of the storyteller suggests, Indians placed great importance on memory, more so perhaps than did other ancient cultures. The traditional way of studying a subject in India was to memorize—completely and perfectly—theentire text and then to hear the teacher explain it. In the case of a sacred text like the Rig Veda , every syllable, every accent, every pause in the recitation had to be correct; otherwise, when these hymns were recited during a sacrifice, their power would be lost.

Students of the Rig Veda were first taught to memorize all 1,028 hymns in the normal way. One hymn, for example, begins, “I pray to the God of Fire, the household priest. . . . ” After memorizing this hymn, each student would be assigned another way to memorize it—for example, “I pray I to pray the to God the of God Fire of the Fire household the priest household. . . .” This second version of the hymn was purposely nonsensical so that the student’s act of memory would not be dependent on meaning. These incredible feats of memory took years, of course, and they seem utterly impossible to us. Yet it was just such dedication that preserved the hymns unchanged from 1500 b.c. to the present.

Texts were also written down in ancient India, but Hindus believed that trusting to the written medium involved too great a risk. A written copy could be lost or damaged. Strange as it may seem to us, a person’s memory was regarded as a far safer means of preserving a text.

The Evolution of Sanskrit Literature


Ancient Indians had no literary genres like the novel or the short story. Except for poetry and drama, most Sanskrit texts imitated the Rig Veda in attempting to convey general and timeless truths. Even the myths that tell the story of the god Krishna—another form of Vishnu, one of the three most important Indian deities—deal with abstract principles. The same is true of the animal fables of thePanchatantra . They use vivid language and are disarmingly naïve, but their purpose is to enable people to fulfill their dharma, or unique obligations in life.

Indian poetry and drama did not come into their own until centuries after the Rig Veda was compiled. The greatest Indian poet was Kalidasa. His plays and epic poems set the standards for those two genres.


The Continuing Influence of Indian Literature


The selections in this unit come from the earliest products of India’s literary tradition. Despite the fact that some of these works are 3,500 years old, however, their influence continues to be felt in modern times. They inspired the American authors Emerson and Thoreau, the Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore, and the Indian leader who pioneered the methods of nonviolent protest, Mohandas K. Gandhi.


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