3.III: Ancient Asia

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Lord Shiva, one of the great gods of the Hindu pantheon. Hinduism and its offshoots, including Buddhism, are now practiced by two billion adherents in southern and eastern Asia.

 

A.  India

B.  China

C.  Citations


A.  India

1.  Hinduism

2.  Buddhism

3.  Empires


1.  Hinduism

indo-gangetic_plainBy -1000, Indian civilization had migrated from the Indus River to the Ganges.  The proto-Hindu Vedic hymns of sacrificial ceremonies had already been composed.  The texts that form the core of today’s Hinduism were added in the -1st millennium.

Two central Hindu principles are reincarnation and the caste system.  Castes are social classes.  The priests or Brahmins are highest, then the warriors or Khattiya, followed by the working classes.  Each caste has its own dharma, or proper way of life.  Karma is the moral law of action and consequences:  when a person acts lovingly, he will earn good fortune in return, and when he acts with evil intent, it will come back to harm him.  Karma outlasts a human lifetime.  When each person dies, his soul returns in a new body.  Depending on his karma, he can be reincarnated into a higher caste, a lower caste, or even a nonhuman body.  Karmic justice justifies caste-based discrimination in mortal life.

The Hindu concept of enlightenment is moksha, or connecting one’s soul to a universal consciousness.  Moksha requires humility and a simple, healthy lifestyle.  At the end of life, it can break the cycle of reincarnation.  Some Hindus believe that moksha can also be achieved through meditation.

There are numerous Hindu gods.  The Hindu Trinity is Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver), and Shiva (destroyer).  Other popular deities include Kali, the goddess of death, and Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of beginnings.  These gods are not jealous; Hindus have great flexibility in choosing whom to worship.  Sacrifices (most animal, some human) were crucially important to appease the gods and to transfer karma into the sacrificed being.


2.  Buddhism

A Buddha is a teacher who has learned his own path to moksha.  Buddha Siddhartha Gautama lived in the -6th century.  Legend has it that he grew up extremely sheltered, so when he saw aging, sickness, and death for the first time he was shocked to realize that suffering is an inevitable fate of life.  He devoted the rest of his life to understanding liberation from suffering.  This by itself was standard practice for Hindus, but he reached unique conclusions.

Buddhist cosmology borrows from Hinduism.  There are numerous levels of spiritual beings, including gods, humans, animals, and lost souls.  All are mortal.  Gautama taught a strange form of reincarnation without a continuous soul.  Rather, the karmic energy of each deceased being “conditions” the birth of another, acting as a third parent during conception. 1 The most useful metaphor is as one flame igniting another.  When a being learns to eliminate fear, hatred, and delusion, he reaches a state of nirvana (extinguishment) and he conditions no further lives.  After all, with no life there is no suffering!

Buddhism was politically significant for downplaying the caste system.  Gautama is remembered as being strictly spiritual, but there is reason to doubt this.  His father was a local leader, and young Siddhartha attended courts and councils. 2 He personally converted kings. 3 His family was Khattiya, which was the dominant caste at that place and time while Brahmins were on the rise. 4 Whether intentional or consequential, his teachings served to make Brahmins less exceptional.  He refuted the divine origin of the castes, and welcome disciples of all castes.  He also opposed sacrifice, not only for animals’ sake but to deny its soterial power.  Brahmin priests had monopolized sacrificial rites, charging high fees that fostered corruption. 5 1

Buddhism had populist appeal.  It became rapidly institutionalized with a hierarchy of temples and monks.  This brought about a Hindu counter-reaction, wherein the caste system was enforced more strongly.  This was also the time that the Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu became more popular.  Hinduism offered personal relationships with gods, which improved its appeal versus Buddhism’s. 6


3.  Empires

India has always been diverse.  The peninsula is difficult to unite because of a high plateau separating north from south.  However, the whole country was influenced by the empires of its golden age:  the Maurya and Gupta Empires.  India’s history was also shaped by its unique position in the center of Eurasia; Indians had extensive interchange with Mediterranean and East Asian cultures alike.

The Maurya Empire was the first state to unify most of what we now think of as India.  Emperor Chandragupta Maurya spread his Magadha kingdom west around -320 to fill a void left by the evacuation of Alexander the Great.  Chandragupta’s grandson Ashoka expanded the empire to its greatest extent.  After his final battle, Ashoka felt great remorse for the death and destruction.  He renounced expansion-by-violence, embraced Buddhism, and implored his own heirs to make “conquest by dharma only.” 7  By building temples, convening councils, and sending out missionaries, Ashoka made Buddhism a major religion through the entire Indian subcontinent and into Southeast Asia. 8

After Ashoka, India relapsed into fragmentation for centuries.  The Gupta Dynasty, again from the wealthy Magadha Kingdom, reunited northern India in the 4th – 6th centuries.  The Guptas were Hindus who tolerated Buddhism.  Although not as large or powerful as the Mauryans, the Gupta Empire kept the peace, helping to cultivate great advances in civilization.  This was the highwater mark of ancient Indian art, science, medicine, architecture, and secular literature.  Perhaps the most influential innovation has been the Hindu numeral system, the first to use place values and the “0” digit.  The game of chess and the famous love / sex treatise Kama Sutra were also popularized in this period.


B.  China

1.  Warring states and Chinese philosophy

2.  The Qin and Han empires


1.  Warring states and Chinese philosophy

The warring states of the Eastern Zhou period as they appeared in the -5th century

China is often regarded as the world’s oldest civilization, but it was the last major Eurasian power to consolidate as an empire.  For most of the -1st millennium, it was still the site of several small warring states.  The Zhou Dynasty wrested control of Shang territory, the historic heartland of China, shortly before -1000.  An early Zhou leader justified his family’s takeover by formulating the Mandate of Heaven 9.  The Shang leaders had become corrupt and ineffective, he said, so the gods empowered the Zhou to take the throne.  Most succeeding emperors would claim the same mandate.

The Zhou Dynasty maintained control over some territory for an astonishing reign of eight centuries, though its heyday only spanned the first 10% of that period.  In a uniquely Chinese form of feudalism, early Zhou kings appointed family and loyal officers to govern regional territories and offered them a high degree of autonomy, including hereditary title.  Over the generations, these regional leaders became more distantly related to the Zhou Dynasty and more tied to their own localities.  The Zhou dominion shrank to the capital while the vassals’ spheres of influence grew around it.  As several independent states formed, they engaged in fierce competition for control of the whole region.  The turbulent -8th to -3rd centuries are now known as the Eastern Zhou Period, 2 an incredibly long phase of constant warfare that kept getting worse.

Competition between the warring states spurred innovation.  Local leaders found it ineffective to rely on advisors who had inherited their positions, so they recruited the best minds instead.  In this environment, engineers invented cast iron and designed sophisticated canals and dams.  Kites powerful enough to lift men were invented as military aircraft. 10

Most influential were the philosophers, court advisors who debated “100 Schools of Thought” on how to reform society, win war, or find peace.  Legalism (prominent in the Qin state) started with the premise that each person’s self-interest is harmful to the public good.  Therefore, the law must restrict individual free will for the benefit of society.  Laws must apply equally to everyone and must be enforced strictly.  Laws are administered by a professional bureaucracy chosen by skill rather than birthright.

Confucius, alive in -500 in Lu, proposed a model of society almost opposite of legalism.   He taught that ethical standards were more important than strict rule of law.  A virtuous leader who taught by example, and rituals that reinforced a sense of community, would inspire men to act righteously.  Confucius died a relatively unknown teacher, finding no audience with kings consumed by war. 11 His devoted disciples carried on his wisdom in collected sayings.  His best known is the “silver rule” of neighborly love: “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.” 12  Other key Confucian values were respect for parents and authority.


2.  The Qin and Han empires

Compared to the other post-Zhou states, Qin enjoyed some significant advantages.  Situated on the western frontier, it had easy access to land.  If land was the fuel for its growth, the engine was its legalistic organization.  Chancellor Shang Yang instituted a sweeping program of bureaucratic reforms in the -4th century.  He organized local governments around a strong central court, privatized and taxed land, and created a rank system through society.  For most male commoners, land and promotions were tied to military achievements.  Thus, the entire state became a military machine.  Qin is a strong early example of a society where the ideal of “rule of law” was taken too far.  Crime was low and the state was stronger than its neighbors, but the people had little freedom to do much else besides serve the state. 13

Ying Zheng became king of Qin in -235.  With a particularly fierce ambition and an aggressive military commandant, he decided that the time was right for Qin to subdue all of the warring states.  Amazingly, in just nine years of campaigns, he did destroy the states Qin had been fighting for centuries.  Zheng became Shi Huang, the first emperor (and god) of unified China.  The name China is itself taken from Qin. 3 It is fair to call this new China an empire, not just a reunified state, because Qin had already expanded into non-Zhou lands.

Shi Huang expanded the Qin legalist system through all of China.  Qin bureaucracy still provides the framework of Chinese government today.  Huang’s government standardized the empire’s written language, which helped to unite and maintain Chinese identity for millennia. 14

The emperor died young shortly after unification.  He was unpopular and his heirs were weak; his death was immediately followed by revolts.  His grave was “defended” by the now-famous army of thousands of terra cotta soldiers, an elaborate but vain gesture.  Within just five years, the Han Dynasty assumed the throne.

Hans adopted the Qin style of government and culture for the most part, with one major innovation: they tempered it with Confucianism.  A court advisor convinced the first Han emperor that maintaining the empire required a different approach than conquering it. 15 A Confucian system stabilized peace internally so that the emperor could focus on defending the borders.   By the -2nd century, government jobs required exams on Confucius’ philosophy and similar classics.

The Han Dynasty presided over a golden age for four centuries.  It was a Han envoy that opened the Silk Road through Central Asia.  Chinese silk, spices, and ceramics were valued to the west, while China imported resources such as jade and horses.  The Roman and Han Empires flourished at the same time, creating a trading bloc across half the northern hemisphere.

Continue to Section 3.IV: The “Middle Ages”


C.  Citations

  1. H. W. Schumann, The Historical Buddha, trans.  M.O. Walshe (Penguin / Arkana books, 1989), pp. 139 – 144.
  2. Ibid, p. 22.
  3. Two well-known examples are Kings Bimbisara and Pasenadi, easily found in encyclopedias or other standard references.
  4. Schumann, p. 192.
  5. Schumann, pp. 33 and 79.
  6. Bulliet et al, The Earth and its Peoples: A Global History, Vol. I: to 1550, Cengage Learning, 2013, ISBN 978-1-285-43691-3, Chapter 7.
  7. 13th Edict of Ashoka (-3rd century BC, probably his own words), trans. Ven. S. Dhammika (1993), Buddhist Publication Society, https://www.cs.colostate.edu/~malaiya/ashoka.html (accessed 8/07/16).
  8. J. F. Horrabin, “Areas to which Buddhist missions were sent” (map) appearing in Thapar, Romila, Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, (Oxford University Press, 1961).  Reprinted at http://www.urbandharma.org/pdf/king_asoka.pdf , PDF p. 249 (accessed 8/7/16).
  9. Charles Hucker, China to 1850: A Short History (Stanford University Press, 1978), p. 33.
  10. Keith Ray, “The Origin of Kites”, China Eye Issue 2 (2004), Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding, http://www.sacu.org/kitehistory.html (accessed 8/21/16).
  11. Daniel K. Gardner, Confucianism: A Very Brief Introduction, (Oxford University Press, 2014), Kindle edition, Location 461.
  12. The Analects of Confucius, 6.30, 12.2.
  13. Most of the facts in this paragraph are from Li Feng, Early China: A Social and Cultural History, Cambridge University Press (2013), ISBN 978-0-521-89552-1, Chapter 11.
  14. Gray L. Dorsey, Jurisculture: China, Transaction Publishers (1993), ISBN 1-56000-090-2, https://books.google.com/books?id=b_tA54IOeZAC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false , p. 132 (accessed 12/30/16).
  15. Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian of China (-1st century) translated by Burton Watson (1961, Columbia University Press), Han Dynasty Vol. 1, ISBN 978-0-231-08165-8, https://books.google.com/books?id=wDDLb8LjlNAC , p. 226.
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