This is the first episode in my “Buddhist History and Seminal Texts” series. I discuss the historical and religious context for the beginnings of Buddhism in India around 500 BCE. I give you a brief overview of the history of civilization in India, and a sense of the dominant religious traditions of northern India from around 2000 BCE through the time of the Buddha. Then I describe the period of social and economic changes starting around 800 BCE that apparently paved the way for new schools of religious thought and practice, including Buddhism.

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:

Ancient Civilizations in Northern India [2:25]
The Religion of the Aryans and the Vedas [4:49]
Vedic Brahmanism [9:39]
The Upanishads [12:26]
A Time of Great Social, Economic, and Political Change: 800-500 BCE [17:30]
The Doctrine of Transmigration [19:08]
The Growth and Proliferation of Alternative Religious Sects [24:22]

Ancient Civilizations in Northern India

Buddhism arose in north-central India in the 500s BCE, and there had probably been human civilization in the region for couple thousand years. In northwestern India, archeological evidence from what’s called the “Indus Valley Civilization” suggests these ancient peoples employed agriculture, trade, and the domestication of animals to form large, highly organized cities. The items left from this civilization that are assumed to have religious significance include many fertility symbols, and as a whole they suggest the people worshiped many deities.

The Indus Valley Civilization appeared to have lasted for over a thousand years, but eventually entered a period of decline around 1700 BCE. The decline may have been due to changing environmental conditions that decreased the productivity of their agriculture and therefore made the large cities less viable, but it probably also had something to do with the arrival of the Aryans, beginning as early as 2000 BCE.

The Aryans were nomadic, cattle-herding tribes from central Asia, who may have been wandering in search of good grazing land. “Aryan” was the term they used to identify themselves, and probably referred to the kingdom or area from which they originated. (Although the Aryans were lighter-skinned than the natives they encountered when they arrived in India, it’s only in recent history that this term has been appropriated by some to refer to race as opposed to a specific ethnicity.)

Over the course of several hundred years, successive waves of emigrating Aryan tribes came to dominate northern India. Many historians believe they held an advantage when they inevitably clashed with native peoples because the Aryans had developed the battle chariot. The Aryans also brought with them a three-part system of hereditary social classes – priests, warriors, and cultivators – that defined one’s role in the society. These three divisions eventually evolved into the 4-part Indian caste system.

The Religion of the Aryans and the Vedas

The Aryans also brought their highly-developed religion. They worshipped a pantheon of gods similar in some ways to ancient Greek and Roman ones. Aryan gods included Indra (warrior and king), Agni (fire god, priest of the gods, and the god of priests), and Varuna (administrator of cosmic law).

We know about the Aryan religion because of the religious texts they composed called the “Vedas.” “Veda” meant “knowledge,” and this collection of texts included mythical stories of the gods and hymns in their praise, instructions for elaborate ritual, and philosophical treatises. The Vedas are a vast and varied body of work composed between 1500 and around 600 BCE, so clearly many of them originated on Indian soil.

To give you a taste of the older Vedas, I’ll share part of a creation myth from Rig Veda, as translated by R.N. Dandekar in Embree’s Sources of Indian Tradition. In it, a celestial being called Purusha offers himself for ritual sacrifice, and all of creation arises out of his body. Sacrifice and ritual was central to the Vedic religion, so it seems appropriate that this is what occurs in their creation myth. Also, note this is the earliest textual reference to four social classes: the brahman (or brahmin – priests, or literally pray-ers), the rajanya (warriors or rulers, later known as ksatriya), the vaishyas (merchants and landowners), and the shudra (laborers or servants). In this scriptural story, each social class arises from a different part of Purusha’s body. This myth had a great influence on the evolution of the caste system, because it states there are real, fundamental differences between the classes based on mystical provenance and physical lineage – and of course, the higher your origin on Purusha’s body, the better:

“The sacrificial victim, namely, Purusha, born at the very beginning, [the gods] sprinkled with sacred water upon the sacrificial grass. With him as oblation, the gods performed the sacrifice…

From that wholly offered sacrificial oblation were born the verses and the sacred chants; from it were born the meters; the sacrificial formula was born from it.

From it horses were born and also those animals who have double rows of teeth; cows were born from it, from it were born goats and sheep…

His mouth became the brahman; his two arms were made into the rajanya; his two thighs the vaishyas; from his two feet the shudra were born.

The moon was born from the mind, from the eye the sun was born; from the mouth Indra and Agni, from the breath the wind was born.

From the navel was the atmosphere created, from the head the heaven issued forth, from the two feet was born the earth and the [cardinal directions] from the ear. Thus did they fashion the worlds…” (From Rg Veda 10.90, translated by R.N. Dandekar, in Embree 1988)

Vedic texts were memorized and passed down orally by men in the priestly social class. Brahmins also conducted the requisite rituals, often involving fire and animal sacrifice, in order to intercede with the gods on behalf of their clients. These rituals and other priestly rites were also passed from father to son.

Vedic Brahmanism

The Vedic-based religion of the Aryans continued to develop on Indian soil, and eventually evolved into what historians call “Vedic Brahmanism.” New texts continued to be added to the Vedas as late as first century BCE, although some the newer texts added after about 600 or 500 BCE as adjuncts to the more ancient, core Vedas.

Over time, Vedic Brahmanism began to emphasize a particular aspect of the older Vedas: the idea that there is a cosmic law governing the whole universe, including gods, nature, and humankind. Vedic ritual reflected and harnessed that cosmic law – which meant properly performed ritual actually had power. Rather than simply appeasing gods, ritual and sacrifice could actually coerce them into behaving the way you wanted them to, because even the gods had to obey cosmic law. Naturally, this inspired the brahmans to emphasize the magical potency of their prayers, rituals, and spells – and thereby increase their own wealth and power.

Fascination with this kind of ritual power was probably part of the motivation behind the composition of new Vedic texts, Brahmanas, starting around 800 BCE. These were speculative and ritual texts, most of which were concerned with orthopraxy, or rules for correct liturgical and ethical conduct.

Eventually, curiosity about the cosmic principle underlying everything led to even newer philosophical texts. Of particular interest was the fact that ritually “naming” something – which required you to know its true name, or nature – was believed to give you access to it, or power over it. Therefore, if you knew the nature of the cosmic principle, it could give you immense power. Significantly, the next group of texts composed were the Aranyakas, or “forest books” – so named because they were probably the work of world-renouncing hermits who lived in the forest. The Aranyakas discussed the symbolic meaning of rituals, and implied that awareness of the meaning of a ritual was, in some ways, more important than its physical enactment.

The Upanishads

After the Aranyakas came the Upanishads, the last body of texts associated with the Vedic tradition. The Upanishads were composed over a long period between about 800 BCE and the first century BCE. Religious sects developed that were based primarily on the Upanishads, and they continue to this day. They view the Upanishads as being the final stage, or culmination, of the Vedic teachings, and therefore call their practice Vedanta, or “end of the Veda.”

The word “upanishad” meant “to sit near,” implying that these teachings were passed in-person from spiritual masters to their students. The Upanishads contain a wide variety of teachings, a diversity of opinions, and numerous contradictions. However, R.N. Dandekar (in Embree’s Sources of Indian Tradition) writes that many of the texts examine older Vedic ideas and try to create “a more coherent view of the universe and man.”

Describing several themes that occur in the Upanishads will give you a sense of them, and of the religious tradition that grew out of them:

  1. There exists a Unity or Oneness out of which everything arose, which is referred to as Brahman (written with a capital B, not the same as the word for priest)
  2. Within the person is a true Self, called atman, which at advanced levels of spiritual mastery one realizes is identical with Brahman
  3. The apparent duality and separation the world is, in a certain sense, illusory
  4. “Spiritual” or “inner” sacrifice matters as much, if not more, than “material” or “outer” sacrifice
  5. Spiritual knowledge and understanding were more important than external behaviors, particularly the enactment of ritual and other orthopraxy

In this history series, I always like to give you an experience of the seminal – or important and influential – texts we encounter along the way, so here’s a brief excerpt from the Chandogya Upanishad. In it, a young man named Shvetaketu “lived the disciplined life of a student of sacred knowledge” for over ten years, but still didn’t understand the nature of the true Self. He returns home – and it turns out his father knew the answer all the time. Shvetaketu’s father explains:

“…in the beginning this world was being alone, one only, without a second. Being thought to itself: ‘May I be many; may I procreate.’ It produced fire. That fire thought to itself: ‘May I be many, may I procreate.’ It produced water… That water thought to itself: ‘May I be many; may I procreate.’ It produced food… That divinity [Being] thought to itself: ‘Well, having entered into these three divinities [fire, water, and food] by means of this living Self, let me develop names and forms.” [the phenomenal world]

Then Shvetaketu’s father demonstrates why his son can’t directly perceive that divinity, or Being, which produced everything. The father instructs the son to dissolve salt in water, and then asks the son to bring him the salt. The son answers that he can’t, because the salt has been dissolved. However, when asked to take a sip of the water, the son admits it tastes salty, and he thinks to himself, “That salt, though unperceived, persists in the water.” His father explains:

“‘Verily, my dear, you do not perceive Being in this world; but it is, indeed, here only: That which is the subtle essence – this whole world has that essence for its Self. That is the Real. That is the Self. That are thou, Shvetaketu.’” (From Chandogya Upanishad, 6.1-3, 12-14, translated by R.N. Dandekar, in Embree 1988)

A Time of Great Social, Economic, and Political Change: 800-500 BCE

The next stage in the development of Indian religion takes place within a society experiencing significant social, economic, and political change. Iron age technology appeared as early as 800 BCE. This technology allowed efficient clearing of wide tracts of land for agriculture, and a significant increase in agricultural productivity with use of the iron plow. Fewer people had to devote themselves to farming, leading to the development of more and larger cities, increased trade, and a prosperous merchant class. The general prosperity meant even the peasants and laborers probably enjoyed lives that were relatively comfortable compared with those of the lower classes at other times in Indian history.

Traditional tribal structures began to break down, and the age-old reverence for older forms of authority were questioned. Whereas Indian society has previously been divided into smaller tribes or clans ruled by aristocratic or religious elites, ambitious kings supported by the merchant class, property owners, bureaucracies, and armies began absorbing smaller groups and consolidating their power. By the time of the Buddha in the 500s BCE, countless tribes and clans in central and northwestern India had been incorporated into approximately 16 city-states.

The Doctrine of Transmigration

These social, economic, and political changes in northern India between the 700s and 500s BCE were more or less concurrent with the spread of the doctrine of transmigration. This teaching first appeared in the early Upanishads, and subsequently had a profound influence on almost all native Indian religious traditions. The doctrine of transmigration held that beings are reborn in the world after they die. Some soul or essence of individuality passes from a dying body into a new embryo or fetus, and is born into another life. This process of birth, death, and rebirth was believed to extend into the past and future for incalculably long periods of time. Previously, people in most religious traditions believed in various kinds of permanent afterlife conditions you would experience after only one lifetime.

When the teaching of transmigration first appeared, it was presented as an esoteric instruction for advanced disciples, and was presented in a mostly positive light. However, the idea of transmigration quickly became fairly pessimistic: Everything you gain in this lifetime will eventually be lost, and upon rebirth you’ll have to start all over again. Because of your ignorance of past lives, you repeat the same mistakes over and over. Your circumstances may be favorable in this lifetime, but you might end up extremely miserable and unlucky in the next. You’ll have to experience all the difficult aspects of human existence – disease, old age, death, loss – over and over again, infinitely many times.

Why did the doctrine of transmigration arise? As mentioned earlier, social upheavals of the time may have led to existential unease that was reflected in the transitory, unstable worldview of transmigration. Alternatively, or in addition, transmigration may have been part of a deliberate departure from the strict Brahmanical tradition, or it may have been an idea long present in the lower classes that eventually caught on with the elites. My favorite theory is that belief in transmigration coincided with the birth of Indian astronomy: After observing the movements of planets, astronomers recognized incomprehensibly long, repetitive cycles. Perhaps this shifted the society’s view of time and space, and human beings suddenly seemed relatively small and powerless within the inexorable heavenly revolutions?

Whatever brought about the concept of transmigration, the teaching caught on quickly and spread. By the time Buddhism arose in the 500s BCE, transmigration was widely assumed to be the way the world worked. Non-Brahmanical religions became obsessed with understanding the mechanisms of rebirth and how to influence the kind of circumstances you could expect to experience in your next life. The process of causation affecting your fortune in this life and the next was called karma, which literally means “action” or “deed.” Negative karma contributed to an unfortunate rebirth, while positive karma helped ensure you would be reborn in circumstances conducive to happiness.

Spiritual teachers and seekers of the time also began to conceive of a permanent, timeless state of being that could be attained through rigorous spiritual practice. In other words, escape from the cycle of transmigration entirely was presented as a higher – and ultimately more desirable – spiritual goal than simply working for a good rebirth. For example, later Upanishadic teachings focused on practices that would cleanse, overcome, or destroy your karma entirely and allow you to fully realize and internalize the unity of atman (the true Self within) and Brahman (the One, or Ultimate Reality, from which everything arose). Once you realized this, you would be liberated from the cycle of transmigration.

(Note: The practices employed by followers of the Upanishads to achieve realization or liberation were called yoga, which literally meant “yoke,” “bond,” or “restraint.” The term described a mental or physical discipline undertaken for spiritual development. In the West, the term “yoga” is primarily associated with practice of physical postures for health, but in the yogic tradition such posture are just one of many kinds of disciplines.)

The Growth and Proliferation of Alternative Religious Sects

Part of the religious response to changing social conditions at this time in India was the growth and proliferation of alternative religious movements, or sects. I will describe these movements in the next episode, but as a teaser I’ll tell you the four main spiritual questions they were concerned with:

  • Did the individual transmigrate through multiple lifetimes?
  • If individuals did transmigrate, could they affect their future rebirths? In other words, was there such a thing as karma, or the law of moral cause and effect?
  • If there was such a thing as karma, how did it work, and what could people do to increase their chances of happiness in future lives?
  • Assuming both transmigration and karma, is there anything people could do to liberate themselves from the cycle of rebirth entirely?

Each new religious sect had their own answers to these questions, and learning about them will help give you context for the Buddha’s take on transmigration, karma, and liberation. See the next episode for the continuation of the story!



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Skilton, Andrew. A Concise History of Buddhism. Cambridge, UK: Windhorse Publications, 1994.
Snelling, John.  The Buddhist Handbook.  Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1991.
Thanissaro, Bhikku. The Wings to Awakening: An Anthology of the Pali Canon. Barre, Massachusetts: Dhamma Dana Publications, 1996.