Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Sixty-One

Kingdoms and Reformers

Between 560 and 500 BC, India divides into kingdoms and alliances, and the kingdom of Magadha begins its rise

BETWEEN THE MYTHICAL BATTLE of the Mahabharata and the middle of the sixth century BC, the warlike clans of India had battled, negotiated, and treatied their way into a semistable arrangement of kingdoms.

Sixteen of these kingdoms are mentioned in tales preserved by Buddhist oral tradition and later set down in writing.165 Among them are the states of Kuru, Gandhara, and Pancala, kingdoms grown from the roots of the ancient clans that had fought in the Bharata War; the far southern state of Ashuaka, down below the Vindhya and Satpura mountain ranges, on the dry plateau now known as the Deccan; and the state of Magadha, below the curve of the Ganga.166

The sixteen kingdoms were called mahajanapadas, a word rooted in much older times. The early nomadic Aryan warrior clans had called themselves jana (Sanskrit for “tribe”); the warrior clans that had settled in the Ganga river valley and claimed land for themselves extended this word and called themselves janapada, tribes with land. The sixteen mahajanapada, or “great janapada,” were tribes with land who had absorbed other tribes and become kingdoms. In these kingdoms, the king himself, his relatives, and his warriors remained the ruling clan. To be born into the ruling clan was to be kshatriya and to belong, by right, to the elite and powerful.

The kshatriya held political power, but the priests wielded a peculiar power of their own. Sacrifices and offerings had been part of the daily life of the Aryans since their journey south into India: “Indra helps, by his aid, the one occupied with sacrifice,” reads one of the earliest hymns in the Rig Veda, “the one who chants hymns, who cooks the sacrificial food, who is strengthened by holy utterance…and by the gifts to the officiating priests. He, O people, is Indra.”1 Wound together with elements from the Harappan peoples and the other indigenous tribes, the old Aryan practices became the core of the most ancient form of practices later known as Hinduism. The priests who performed the sacrifices had been the first aristocracy of Indian society, and they continued to hold their influence in the sixteen mahajanapas. Like the ruling kshatriya, the priests had their own clans: to be born into a priestly family was to be brahman and to inherit the privilege of sacrifice.

This three-way division of society—priests, warrior-chiefs, and everyone else (the “everyone else” families were vaishyas, common people)—was far from unknown in ancient times. But in India, the priests dominated the rest. In most other ancient societies, the kings and warriors were at the top of the power heap; even those who paid lip service to the importance of the gods were likely to throw their prophets and priests in jail, or even execute them. And in almost every other ancient society, the king was able to carry out certain sacred functions, and sometimes held the highest religious office in the land.

But the brahman had an unshared power. During the days of the sixteen kingdoms, a man who had not been born kshatriya could still become king if the priests carried out a ritual to bestow sacred power upon him, but no one who was not born brahman could take up the job of a priest.2 The brahman was, according to the later Hindu text The Laws of Manu, “the lord” of all other created orders, the most excellent of men: “born as the highest on earth, the lord of all created beings, for the protection of the treasury of the law; whatever exists in the world is the property of the brahman…the brahman is, indeed, entitled to all.”3


61.1 Indian Kingdoms

By the time of the sixteen kingdoms, the animal sacrifices which had been so important to the wandering nomadic tribes had slowly fallen out of favor with the growing urban populations of India. But a power awarded by the universe itself to those “born as the highest on earth” could hardly be abridged. The importance of the priests was so built into the entire consciousness of the warrior clans that the brahmans—far from losing their job—kept their central role. Rather than sacrificing, they governed the proper performance of the bloodless rituals which now occupied the place of offerings: rituals carried out to honor the flame of the hearth, to acknowledge the coming of dusk, to honor deities by caring for their images, to mark marriages and funerals.4

AROUND THE EDGES of the sixteen states lay a ring of tribes who still resisted being enfolded into any one of the sixteen mahajanapada. Instead of coalescing into kingdoms, these tribes formed independent alliances, called gana-sanghas.

It seems likely that the tribes of the gana-sanghas were not primarily of Aryan descent, but rather had their roots in the inhabitants of the Ganga valley who had been there before the warrior clans arrived. Intermarriage between the newcomers and the tribes (as illustrated by the alliance of the Pandava clan with the Pancala, back in the story of the Bharata War) had probably broken down any hard and fast racial divisions. But there is one strong proof that the gana-sanghas were, overwhelmingly, non-Aryan: they did not share the ritual practices so central to the lives of the Indians in the mahajanapada.

There were only two kinds of people in the gana-sanghas: the ruling families who claimed most of the land, and the hired servants and slaves who worked on it. The decisions (to go to war, to trade with another clan, to divert water from irrigation systems over particular fields) were made by the heads of the ruling families, and in these decisions, the laborers had no voice at all.5

The mahajanapada too had voiceless servants. They were a fourth kind of people: not ruling kshatriyas, or priestly brahmans, nor even common vaishyas who worked as farmers, potters, carpenters, and bricklayers. A late song of the Rig Veda, describing the mythical origin of each order, assigns pride of place to the brahman, who were born from the mouth of the huge, preexisting cosmic giant Purusha, whose death gave rise to the entire universe:

The brahman was his mouth,

his two arms became the kshatriya

his two thighs are the vaishya

and from his two feet the shudra was produced.6

The shudra were slaves and servants, the fourth and subordinate class of people. They were voiceless and powerless, unable to free themselves from servitude, allowed by law to be killed or exiled at any whim of their masters, barred from even hearing the sacred vedas read (the penalty was to have boiling lead poured into the offending ears).167 They were not part of the society of the mahajanapada; they were other, something else. Their origin is not clear, but perhaps the shudra were originally a conquered people.168 7

In such highly stratified societies, someone was bound to be discontent.

The first objections to all of this hierarchy came from the gana-sanghas. Around 599 BC, the reformer Nataputta Vardhamana was born into a gana-sangha in the northeast of the Ganga valley: a confederacy of tribes known as the Vrijji.8 His own particular tribe was the Jnatrika, and he was a prince and rich man, the son of a ruler.

According to his followers, his reforms began in 569, when he was thirty years old. At first he rejected the wealth and privilege of his birth, divested himself of all possessions except for a single garment, and spent twelve years in silence and meditation. At the end of this period, he had reached a vision of a life free from any priests: there were no brahmans in his universe. The goal of human existence was not to communicate with the gods through the agency of the priests. Nor was it to please gods by carrying out the duties to which one was born, as the Hindu scriptures taught.169 Rather, man should free himself from the chains of the material universe by rejecting the passions (greed, lust, appetite) that chain him to the material world.

Around 567, he began to walk barefoot through India, teaching five principles: ahisma, nonviolence against all living things (the first systematic explanation of why animals have rights); satya, truthfulness; asteya, refraining from theft of any kind; brahmacharya, the rejection of sexual pleasure; and aparigraha, detachment from all material things (a commitment which the Mahavira illustrated by doing away with his single garment and going naked instead). Followers gathered behind him, and as a great teacher, Nataputta Vardhamana became known as the “Mahavira” (the Great Hero).9

None of these were brand new ideas. Mainstream Hinduism also taught the freeing of the self from the material world in various ways. The Mahavira was less an innovator than a reformer of already existing practices. But his explanations of the need for extreme self-denial, and the obligation to respect all life, were compelling enough to gather a following. His doctrines became known as Jainism, his followers as Jains.170

A few years later, another innovator appeared from outside the mahajanapadas, also born into a gana-sangha. Like Nataputta Vardhamana, he was born to power and money. He too rejected the privileges of his life around the age of thirty and walked away into a self-imposed exile. He too came to the conclusion that freedom could only be found by those who were able to reject their passions and desires.

This innovator was Siddhartha Gautama, a prince of the Shakya clan, which lay north of the Mahavira’s native Vrijji alliance. According to the traditional tales of his enlightenment, he lived his earlier years surrounded by family and by comfort: he had a wife and a young daughter, and his father the king kept him in luxury within the walls of a huge palace, cut off from the lives of ordinary men.

But one day Siddhartha ordered his charioteer to take him for a drive in the park. There he saw an ancient man, “broken-toothed, gray-haired, crooked and bent of body, leaning on a staff, and trembling.” Shocked by this extreme old age, he returned to his palace: “Shame on birth,” he thought to himself, “since to everyone that is born, old age must come.” He pushed the thought away, but on his next journey to the park, he saw a man riddled with disease, and after that a corpse. This cast him into even greater trouble of mind.

But the crowning revelation happened at a party some time later. He was entertained by the dancing and singing of beautiful women, but as the evening wore on, they grew weary, sat down, and fell asleep. The prince, looking around the room,

perceived these women lying asleep, with their musical instruments scattered about them on the floor—some with their bodies wet with trickling phlegm and spittle; some grinding their teeth, and muttering and talking in their sleep; some with their mouths open; and some with their dress fallen apart so as plainly to disclose their loathsome nakedness. This great alteration in their appearance still further increased his aversion for sensual pleasures. To him that magnificent apartment…began to seem like a cemetery filled with dead bodies impaled and left to rot.10

It was in response to this that he set out on his own self-imposed exile. The year, according to tradition, was 534 BC.171

Siddhartha spent years wandering, trying to come to peace with the inevitability of decay and corruption. He tried meditation, but when his period of meditation was done, he was still faced with the reality of approaching suffering and death. He tried the Jain method of asceticism, starving himself to weaken his ties with the earth until, as a later text tells us, his “spine stood out like a corded rope,” his ribs like “the jutting rafters of an old roofless cowshed,” and his eyes were so sunken into their sockets that they seemed “like the gleam of water sunk in a deep well.”11 Yet this self-denial did not move him an inch beyond the common human condition.

Finally, he came to the answer that he had been searching for. It is not just desires that trap men and women, but existence itself, which is “bound up with impassioned appetite,” and which always desires: “thirst for sensual pleasures, thirst for existence, thirst for non-existence.”12 The only freedom from desire was a freedom from existence itself.

The realization of this truth was Siddhartha’s enlightenment, and from this point on he was known not as Siddhartha Gautama, but as a Buddha: an enlightened one who has achieved nirvana, the knowledge of a truth which is caused by nothing, dependent on nothing, and leads to nothing, a way of existence impossible to define in words.172

This was not merely a spiritual discovery, but (despite claims of detachment) a political position. It was both anti-brahman and anti-caste. The emphasis in brahmanical Hinduism on rebirth meant that most Indians faced a future of weary life after weary life after weary life, with no hope of leaving their strictly circumscribed lives except through rebirth, which might face them with yet another long lifetime of similar or worse suffering. It was an existence which, in Karen Armstrong’s phrase, did not so much promise the hope of rebirth as threaten with “the horror of redeath…[B]ad enough to have to endure the process of becoming senile or chronically sick and undergoing a frightening, painful death once, but to be forced to go through all this again and again seemed intolerable and utterly pointless.”13 In a world where death was no release, another kind of escape must be found.

Equally anti-brahman (and anti-kshatriya) was the Buddha’s teaching that each man must rely on himself, not on the power of a single strong leader who will solve all of his problems. Much later, a ninth-century Buddhist master coined the command “If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha!” in order to emphasize to his students just how important it was not to submit to a single authority figure—even one who claims a divine mandate, whether king or priest.14

Soon the Buddha too had his followers, disciples drawn from all castes.

While Mahavira and the Buddha preached the relinquishment of material possessions, the kings of the mahajanapadas were fighting to gain as much territory as possible. Kashi and Kosal, just north of the Ganga, and Magadha to the south were prime enemies in the wars for land. They fought over the Ganga valley, and were joined in this competition by the gana-sangha Vrijji, home confederacy of the Mahavira.

Kashi and Kosal traded off power with each other, neither keeping dominance for long. But Magadha, below the Ganges, grew steadily stronger. The king Bimbisara came to the throne of Magadha in 544 BC, and became the first Indian empire-builder, albeit in a minor way. As the Buddha was reaching enlightenment, Bimbisara was rallying his armies against the delta kingdom of Anga, which controlled the river’s access to the ocean (by way of the Bay of Bengal), and which contained the important city of Campa, the primary port from which ships sailed out for trade and down the coast to the south.15 He marched against it, conquered it, and kept it.

This was not a huge conquest. But Anga was the first of the sixteen kingdoms to be permanently absorbed into another, which was a portent of things to come. And military campaigns were not Bimbisara’s only victory. He treatied his way, by marriage, into control over part of Kosol, and by another marriage into friendship with the gana-sangha on his western border.16 He built roads all across his kingdom, so that he could easily travel around it and call its village leaders together into conference. These roads also made it possible for him to collect (and police) the payment of taxes. He welcomed the Buddha, who had wandered down from the north; any doctrine which reduced the power of the brahmans was bound to increase the power of the king. He was well on his way to making Magadha not a set of warrior clans that held uncomfortably together, but a little empire. India, so long on an entirely different path of development than the empires to the west, was drawing closer to them.


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