Ancient Indians, their society, laws and life-style

  What are our sources of knowledge about the ancient Indians, their society and life-style? India did not have much of a tradition of writing about the ups and downs of their material existence. Though India has possessed since antiquities the capacity and propensity of expressing their thoughts, but these thoughts primarily concerned with the abstract and subtle mysteries of their own existence in this material world and the existence of this very universe. While so expressing, whether by spoken words (Shrutu and Smirti) or in writing – in Sanskrit language – (like Rig Veda etc.), whenever they hinted at the material circumstances surrounding them, it was only by chance and of a secondary concern.

J.W. McCrindle in his introduction to ‘Ancient India as Described by Arrian etc.’ rightly says:  “The invasion of India by Alexander the Great in 326 BC, like the first voyage of Columbus to America, was the means of opening up a New World to the knowledge of mankind. Before the great conqueror visited that remote and sequestered country, which was then thought to lie at the utmost ends of the earth, nothing was known regarding it beyond a few vague particulars mentioned by Herodotus, and such grains of truth as could be sift from the mass of fictions which formed the staple of the treatise on India written by Ktesias of Knidos. A comparison of this work with the Indika of Megasthenes, which was written after the invasion, will show how entirely all-real knowledge of the country was due to that event.”

Historian Mountstuart Elphinstone writing in ‘The History of India’ says of Manu’s Laws (Manusmirti) and the antiquities of these laws thus: “On a careful perusal of the Code (that is, Manusmirti), there appears nothing inconsistent with the age attributed to it. It may, perhaps, be said that the very formation of a Code, especially in so methodical a manner, is unlike ancient times. And it is certain that a people must have subsisted for some time, and must have established laws and customs, before it could frame a code. But the Greeks, and other nations whose history we know formed codes at a comparatively earlier period of their national existence; and although the arrangement as well as the subject of Manu’s Code show considerable civilization, yet this is no proof of recent origin, more than rudeness is of antiquity.”

  As Brahman was ordained by the law (of Manu) to be superior first-born of all castes and sprung from the mouth of Brahman Himself, he was imposed by the same law a corresponding onerous duty. He was expected to know the supreme Purusha to be the sovereign ruler of all, smaller than even small, bright like gold, and perceptible by the intellect only when in a state of sleep (-like abstraction); that He pervades all created beings in the five forms, and constantly makes them, by means of birth, growth and decay, revolve like the wheels (of a chariot). It was to be his sole occupation of life. How did he discharge his obligation in this respect? Let us see how he performed his duties in those ancient times.

  Writing around the year 300 of the Christian era, one Porphyrios (233 – 305 AD), who had been a student of Plotinus in Rome, wrote in the fourth book of his ‘Abstinence from Animal Food’ about Indian sages thus: “But since we have already made mention of one of the foreign nations which are known to fame and righteous and believed to be pious towards the gods, we shall proceed to further particulars regarding them.

  ‘’For since in India the body politic has many divisions, one of them is the order of holy sages, whom the Greeks are wont to call the Gymnosophists, and of whom there are two sects – the Brahmans and the Sramans. The Brahman forms the leading sect, and succeeds by right of birth to this kind of divine wisdom as to priesthood… Of these philosophers, some live on the mountains and others on the banks of the river Ganges… They inculcate the duty of worshiping the deity with pious reverence.

  “The whole day and greater part of the night they set apart for hymns and prayers to the gods. Each of them has a hut of his own in which he passes as much time as possible in solitude. For the Brahmans have an aversion to society and much discourse, and when either occurs, they withdraw and observe silence for many days and they even frequently fast… Both classes (of Brahmans and Sramanas) take such a view of death that they endure life unwillingly, as being a hard duty extracted by nature, and accelerate the release of their souls from their bodies; and frequently, when their health is good and no evil assails or forces them, they take their leave of life.”

  Strabo (21 AD) in his book ‘Geography’ has preserved the observation of Megasthenes, which reads thus: “He (Megasthenes) says that the population of India is divided into seven castes. The first in rank but smallest in number are the philosophers. Persons who wish to offer sacrifices or perform other sacred rites employ their services on their private account, but the kings employ them on the public account, at what is called the Great Assembly, where at the beginning of the New Year all the philosophers repair to the king at the gates. Here any of them who may have committed anything useful to writing, or observed any means for improving the crops and the cattle, or anything of advantage to the state, declares it publicly. If anyone is detected giving false information, thrice the law enjoins him to be silent for the rest of his life, but he who proves to have been correct in his observations is exempted from paying any taxes or contributions.”

  Strabo further writes: “As we have mentioned what Megasthenes and other writers have told us about the hunters and about the wild beasts, we must add some more particulars… (Snake) charmers go about the country, who is supposed to be able to cure snake-bites, and their art of medicine is all but entirely restricted to this, for they are seldom attacked by disease, as they live frugally and abstain from wine. Ktesias, as quoted by Photios, writes to the same effect: “The Indians are not afflicted with headache or toothache or ophthalmia, nor have they mouth sores or ulcers in any part of their body.”

  He (Strabo) goes on to say: “The Indians all live frugally, especially when in camp. They care not to congregate in large unruly masses, and they consequently observe good order. Theft is a thing of very rare occurrence. Megasthenes, who was in the camp of Sandrokottos (that is, Chandragupta Maurya; Megasthenes was Greek ambassador in the Chandragupta Maurya’s court) which consisted of 400,000 men, says he found that the thefts reported on anyone day did not exceed the value of 200 drachmai (the drachma was a silver coin nearly equal in value to the Roman denarius or a franc = 9%d.), and this among a people who have no written laws, but are ignorant of writing, and conduct all matters by memory. (Megasthenes could not possibly have been ignorant of the fact that the art of writing was known to the Indians. What he said must have been that the Indians in their judicial transactions did not employ written laws because the judges knew the laws by heart.). They lead nevertheless happy lives, being simple in their manners and frugal. They never drink wine except at sacrifices. Their beverage is prepared from rice instead of barley, and their food is principally a rice-pottage. The simplicity of their laws and their contracts appears from the fact that they seldom go to law. They have no suits about pledges or deposits, nor do they require either seals or witnesses, but make their deposits and confide in one another. Their houses and property are for the most part unguarded. These things show their moderation and good sense, but other things they do which one cannot approve that they always eat alone, and that they have no fixed hours when all take their meals in common, but each one eats when it pleases himself. The contrary custom would be better for the interests of social and political life.”

  Plutarch (45 AD) in his book ‘The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans’ says of Porus and his character thus: “The king of Taxila was a very wise man. He had a great country under his control, as big as all Egypt, and that was full of good pasture and fruits as any country in the world. He came to salute Alexander and said to him: – “why should we fight, Alexander, and make war with one another, if you come here not to take away waters and other commodities that are necessary for life; for these are the things for which sensible persons may fight with each other. So far as other things are concerned, if I am richer than you, I am ready to give of mine to you and if I have less then I will not mind to thank you, if you give me some of yours to me”.

  Plutarch further says:  “Porus was four cubits and a shaft length higher and bigger than the elephant on which he was ridding although the elephant was very big. Moreover, the elephant showed great wit and care to save his master king Porus. While the elephant perceived that his master was strong enough, he repulsed those who came to assail him but when he found that he began to faint, having many wounds on his body, and arrows sticking in it, then being afraid lest his master should fall down his back, he softly fell on his knees and gently taking his darts and arrows with his trunk, which he had in his body, he plucked them all from him one by one.”

  Plutarch further states a very significant aspect of history that is often, intentionally or otherwise, glossed over by most of the historians of ancient India when he observes:  “This battle against Porus was the last one and it killed the Macedonians’ hearts and made them that they had no desire to go any further to conquer India.”

  Q. Curtius Rufus (probably around 41 to 56 AD) in his ‘History of Alexander the Great’ says of Indian Yogis (whom he calls philosophers) thus: “Notwithstanding, they have men whom they call philosophers, of whom one class lives in the woods and fields, and is extremely uncouth. These think it glorious to anticipate the hour of destiny, and arrange to have themselves burned alive when age has destroyed their activity, or the failure of health has made life burdensome.

  “They regard death if waited for as a disgrace to their life, and when dissolution is simply the effect of old age funeral honors are denied to the dead body. They think that the fire is polluted unless the pyre receives the body before the breath has yet left it. Those philosophers again who lead a civilized life in cities are said to observe the motions of the heavenly bodies, and to predict future events on scientific principles. These believe that no one accelerates the day of his death and one can without fear await its coming. They regard as gods whatever objects they value, especially trees, to violate which is a capital offence.”

  McCrindle in his note ‘W – Indian Sages’ to his ‘Ancient India as Described by Arrian etc.’ says thus: “According to Megasthenes the Indian sages were divided into two sects, Brahmans and Sramanas. There was besides a third sect, described as quarrelsome, fond of wrangling, foolish and boastful. The Brahmans, he says, were held in higher esteem than the Sramanas because there was more agreement in their doctrines. Among the Sramanas the Hylobioi (living in woods) were held in most honor, and next to them the physicians, who were mendicants and also ascetics, like the class above them and the class below them, which consisted of sorcerers and fortune-tellers. Megasthenes has related at some length the nature of the opinions and practices of these sects, and Duncker considers that in all essential points his accounts agree with the native authorities, though the view taken may be here and there favorable, in some points too advanced, in others not sufficiently discriminating. “It is true” he says, “that the Brahmans and the initiated of the Enlightened (Buddhists), the Sramanas, are confounded in the order of the sages; this is shown by the statement that anyone could enter into this order… In the description of the life of the ascetics and wandering sages, the Brahmans and Bhishus (mendicants) are again confounded, and if the Greeks tell us that the severe sages of the forest were too proud to go to the court at the request of the king, the statement holds good according to the evidence of the Epos of the Brahmanic saints, and the Sutras of the great teachers among the Buddhists. In the examination of the doctrines of the Indian sages, Megasthenes distinguished the Brahmans and the Buddhists, inasmuch as he opposes the less honored sects to the first, and declares the Brahmans to be the most important. From this whole account it is clear that at his date, i.e., about the year 300 BC, the Brahmans had distinctly the upper hand. But according to him, the Sramanas took the next place to the Brahmans among the less-honored sects. Among the Buddhists Sramana is the ordinary name for their clergy.”

  McCrindle further says in his note ‘Hh – Indian Philosophers’ thus: “Arrian has given the account here promised of the Indian sages, whom he calls Sophists, in the eleventh chapter of his Indika. They formed the highest and most honored of the seven castes, into which, he says, Indian society was divided. His account is, however, very meager compared with that which Strabo, quoting from the same authority, Megasthenes, has given in the fifteenth book of his Geography. We may subjoin a notice of the more important points. The philosophers were of two kinds, the Brachmanes and the Germanes (Sramanas, i.e. Buddhists ascetics). The Brachmanes were held in greater repute, as they agreed more exactly in their opinions. They lived in a grove outside the city, lay upon pallets of straw and on skins, abstained from animal food and sexual intercourse. After living thirty-seven years in this manner each individual retired to his own possessions, led a life of greater freedom, and married as many wives as he pleased. They discoursed much upon death, which they held to be for philosophers a birth into a real and happy life. They maintained that nothing that happens to a man is bad or good, opinions being merely dreams. On many points their notions coincided with those of Greeks. They said, for instance, that the world was created and liable to destruction, that it was of a spheroid figure, and that its Creator governed it and was diffused through all its parts. They invented fables also, after the manner of Plato, on the immortality of the soul, punishments in Hades, and similar topics. Of the Sramanas the most honorable were the Hylobioi. These, as their name imports, lived in woods, where they subsisted on leaves and wild fruits. They were clothed with garments made of the bark of trees, and abstained from commerce with women and from wine. The kings held communication with them by messengers and through them worshipped the divinity. Next in honor to the Hylobioi were the physicians, who cured diseases by diet rather than by medicinal remedies, which were chiefly unguents and cataplasms. Arrian, in the opening chapter of the seventh book of his Anabasis, gives an account of Alexander’s dealings with the Gymnosophists of Taxila which agrees in substance with that given by Strabo based on the authority both of Aristoboulos and Onesikritos, the latter of whom was sent by Alexander to converse with the gymnosophists.”

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