The Mythology of India
Chandragupta II, Wikimedia Commons
The Indian Golden Age
The Heritage of Rome
Towards the end of the reign of Chandragupta II (reigned 378 – 414 A.D.), the chief creative force was no longer Buddhism, but a resurgent, highly sophisticated Brahminism. It had been developed by a generation of Brahmins who knew perfectly well how to synthetize native and alien, high and primitive traditions, to create what can be termed without qualification the richest, most subtle and comprehensive mythological system – or rather, galaxy of systems – known to man. This developed together with a teeming enrichment of the whole range of Indian life, art, literature, science, and religion.
However, a great many of its antecedents lay not in India, but in Rome. There is vast evidence of extensive exchanges between India and Rome, among other the numerous Roman coins of the Madras Museum collection, bearing the seals of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero (42 B.C. – 68 A.D.); less numerously, Vespasian and Titus (69 – 81 A.D.); and again, abundantly, Domitian, Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian (81 – 138 A.D.). In the north, where the Old Silk Road, Rome to China, had been opened about 100 B.C., the Kushanas were cultivating associations both in trade and in diplomacy. An age had dawned of a systematically developed world trade, both by caravan and by ship.
In Rome, under Theodosius I, the old cults were systematically wiped out (379 – 395 A.D.). The temples were systematically closed or destroyed, and priests expelled or killed. This persecution generated refugee flows, and tolerant India (which at this time was ruled by Chandragupta II) received numerous refugees from the Roman empire. From this sprang a flowering of architectural, sculptural, literary, social, religious and philosophical forms – unknown to India before – which bore hundreds of points of relationships to ancient Roman culture. However, all these Roman influences were in time broken up, translated into Indian concepts, and reconstructed on Indian principles. In this process, the Brahmins played a crucial mythological role. The real past was obliterated and a mythic past projected, by which the present then was to be validated, against all heresy, all criticism, and all truth. The Gupta revolution, a hectic cultural development, succeeded on the slogan that it was bringing back the “good old times” of the ancient rishis, heroes, and gods.
The Mythic Past
The chief mythological document of the Indian Golden age is the epic Mahabharata, much of the material of which is indefinitely old, perhaps before 400 B.C., but of which the final style and tone are rather of 400 A.D. and thereafter. It is a moraine of all sorts of mythic, ritual, moral, and genealogical lore, eight times as long as the Iliad and Odyssey combined. Its supposed author, the great rishi Vyasa, has been termed the Homer of India, but he is far more than that. He is what Homer would have been had he, besides singing of the Trojan War, also sired all its characters on both sides. The epic war in the Mahabharata is in essence a conflict between the Sons of Darkness and the Sons of Light.
Through this epic, the Brahmins have developed a highly complex and sophisticated symbolic work. Both powers derive from a single superior source, which is Vyasa. Although an ethical judgment is applied for and against, respectively, the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, the verdict is by no means absolute. The two sides are equally of a secondary, dualistic order, functions of a certain circumstance. The play of light and darkness in the field of human history thus appears to have been a function of human weakness; both the virtue and the vice to which they refer belong to a secondary sphere. They are complementary. The ever-running river of life is throughout the literature of the Orient symbolic of the pouring of divine grace into the field of phenomenality. On the one hand (one shore), there is the field of all joy and pain, virtue and vice, knowledge and delusion; but on the other hand (the other shore), traversed or read the other way, it leads beyond these complementary principles to an absolute that is beyond principles. And in the isle between, the isle of the great Vyasa’s birth, is the world and source of myth – the Mahabharata – which in itself is both true and false, both revelatory and obscuring, and to be read, like life itself, according to one’s talent, either way. In this mythology, those who die with little sin go first to hell to be cleansed, and then to heaven, whereas those of little virtue ascend first to heaven for a brief enjoyment of their merit, and then are cast for a long and terrible term into hell.
The Age of the Great Beliefs (500 – 1500 A.D.)
Buddhism was in origin a doctrine of renunciation, typically represented by the monk who had retired to a monastery in quest of the yonder shore. The resurgent Brahminism of the Gupta restoration, on the other hand, was directed not to monastic ends alone, but equally to the maintenance of a secular society. In this context, the term dharma did not refer primarily, as in Buddhism, to a doctrine of disengagement, but to the cosmic system of laws and processes by which the universe exists. Therefore, whereas in Buddhist mythology we hear nothing of the holy fashioning and maintenance of the world order, but only of the adventure of the biography of the Savior, from which the way to release from the sorrows of phenomenality is to be learned, in the mythologies of Brahminism a dual lesson is always served, both of dharma and of yoga, engagement and disengagement – both at once.
In the orthodox Vedic-Brahminic-Hindu reading, all is the manifestation of a self-giving power (Brahman) that is transcendent and yet immanent in all things. The generative power of that presence is what is to be recognized and experienced in all beings – as opposed to the void of the Mahayana wisdom. There is in Hinduism an essential affirmation of the cosmic order as divine. As the order of nature is eternal, so also is this of the orthodox society. There is no tolerance for human freedom or invention in the social field. As the sun, moon, plants, and animals follow laws inherent in their natures, so therefore must the individual follow the nature of his birth, whether as Brahmin (priestly caste; head), Kshatriya (governing caste; the arms), Vaishya (financial caste; the belly and torso), Shudra (workers; legs and feet), or Pariah (outcasts; of another natural order and perform only inhuman, beastly chores). Each is conceived to be a species. As a mouse cannot become a lion, or even desire to be a lion, no Shudra can be a Brahmin, and desiring to be one would be insane. In this context, the word dharma (virtue, duty, law) has a very deep reach. “Better one’s own duty ill performed, than that of another to perfection.” The Greek or Renaissance idea of the great individual simply does not exist within this system of thought.
The first severe blow to the integrity of this system fell in the Gupta period itself, in the year 510 A.D., when the Huns entered and ravaged the northwest and made the Guptas tributary. They reigned a brief period until 528 A.D., when they were defeated by a confederacy of princes, but the consequences of this period was decisive. What followed was a period of almost a century of internal discord and warfare between different factions of the Guptas, followed by further unrest and strifes – leading to a new order of society where numerous clans established local dominance. A multiplication of alien influences, including Muslim influence on the Indian west coast as a result of the increasing Muslim domination of the Near East, lead to an increasingly feudal-clerical situation: efforts to protect a mythical cultural heritage against an increasing barbarization.
Very broadly viewed, the epoch 500 – 1500 A.D. is distinguished everywhere – not only in India – by a burgeoning of devotional religious art. This combination of strong religious devotion, political and military unrest was also a dominant feature of Medieval Europe where the advent of cathedrals is a striking element. The mosques of Islam, all the chief Brahminical monuments of India, and the Buddhist temples of the Far East also came in this period where the ways of thoughts were rather more scholastic than creative, leaning back on the paragons of an apotheosized past: little doubting, vehemently believing. There was now but peasant piety, applied art, priestly routine, and a world of warring half-barbaric courts.