World History 1 187 - 12.1.2 A Multicultural South Asia

Throughout the decline of the independent principalities of northern India and, ultimately, the conquest of the Delhi Sultanate, the north slowly became increasingly Muslim, while the south retained Hindu cultural beliefs and ideas. By the thirteenth century, Buddhism had diminished as a popular form of worship in India and Hinduism had evolved from a religion in which only priests offered sacrifices to one in which a wider array of people could actively participate. With this change came increased personal devotion to the individual gods, including Vishnu and Shiva (Figure 12.5). Each village usually had a temple in which they were enshrined and worshipped, and various incarnations of the gods developed from these numerous local beliefs. For example, Krishna was an incarnation of Vishnu. Eventually, Vishnu and Shiva came to have consort wives, and their powers could not be activated except through union. Thus, many female deities also came to be worshipped. In contrast, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Confucianism all feature male-centered systems.

An image of a painting is shown with a green background and a sliver of blue and white sky at the top. An open building is shown with a pink and red decorated roof, and red, black, and yellow decorated awning. The side walls are black and the bottom border is pale orange with décor. Inside, in the middle, a blue figure with four arms sits cross legged with the right foot atop the other on a white rug with red scalloped edges. He wears orange flowy pants, a large gold and black crown with three red and white feathers, earrings, necklaces, and bracelets. His eyes are large, his lips are red, and short black hair shows under his crown. One arm rests in his lap while the other three hold objects in the air: a large gold ring, a long gold scepter, and a white and gold shell. He faces to the left where a pale figure stands on his right foot with hands folded in front of his forehead, bowing, with his left foot crossed over his right leg. He is bald except for a small mound of black hair atop his head, has large eyes, a small moustache, wears earrings, necklaces, and bracelets, and yellow flowy pants. He stands on a square pink mat. In front of him on the floor are four gold objects in various shapes, one a white and gold shell. To the right of the figures is a green and white patterned rectangle with a red rug rolled up on top. The background is blue with faded scenes drawn in blue across the upper top.
Figure 12.5 This eighteenth-century painting on paper shows the poet Jayadeva (left) bowing to Vishnu, the beneficent preserver. Vishnu is one of three major Hindu gods; the others are Brahma (creator of the universe) and Shiva (giver and destroyer of life). (credit: “Jaydev worshipping lord Vishnu” by The Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The Hindu religion evolved to become the dominant religion likely because it was a belief system with broader appeal than Buddhism. Originating in the period following the Vedic Age (c. 1500–500 BCE) and evolving over centuries, Hinduism developed from much older traditions, especially those of the Aryan peoples who arrived in India beginning in the third millennium BCE. One particularly distinctive facet of Hindu tradition that originated among these peoples was the Indian caste system. At its origin, the caste system was limited, and all of society was organized into four categories known as varnas. The four major varnas were Brahman (priests), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (merchants and farmers), and Shudra (servile people). In these early days of the system, a person’s varna was determined by their profession but also their dharma—their adherence to proper behaviors for their caste as stipulated by cosmic law, including avoiding contact with lower castes—and the karma they accrued by virtue of their dharma (Figure 12.6).

An image of a painting is shown on a richly decorated gold, red, green, black, and green background. Black script is cut off on the right and left sides and the frame is gold squares with alternating green and red dots inside. In the middle, a pale white figure sits on a highly decorated gold and black tiered throne with richly decorated blue pillows and white flowers. She wears elaborate gold and red decorations in her black hair which hangs down to her armpits. Necklaces, earrings, and bracelets cover her body and her legs are both decorated with designs. She is bare chested and wears short red cloths at her pelvic region. Her hands are in front of her chest and the thumbs and pointer fingers are touching. Her eyes are thin and wide and she looks down at a figure sitting at her feet and smiles. The woman sitting cross legged on the floor is gold colored and her body is adorned in jewelry and designs as well. She has long black hair and elaborate décor in her hair as well. She has her hands raised at her sides and looks up at the throned figure with a smile and open, almond shaped eyes. In the background a small, stacked, gold building can be seen and vegetation is displayed in the top two corners.
Figure 12.6 In Buddhism, bodhisattvas are people who are seen as spiritually advanced and on the path toward Buddhahood. This detail of a twelfth-century manuscript painting depicts Maitreya, a bodhisattva who, according to Indian tradition, is the teacher of dharma. (credit: “Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Maitreya Detail” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Karma worked both ways: A believer’s failure to follow their dharma resulted in negative residue, whereas faithful obedience resulted in positive residue. At the personal level, the incentive behind amassing karma was samsara, the continuance of the soul after death and the soul’s transformation. The more positive karma someone built up, the greater the chances of being reincarnated in a higher varna in the next life—with the ultimate goal being the attainment of moksha, or release from the karmic cycle and the achievement of a complete understanding of the world. If too much bad karma accumulated, on the other hand, the opposite occurred: reincarnation at a lower varna.

Yet the ramifications of the caste system went far beyond the personal. Nothing less than the continued existence of the universe was at stake. Adherence to dharma helped ensure the universe remained in balance, while failure to do so risked chaos and destruction. A rigidly hierarchical system of social segregation maintained this belief system. However, the varna communities created by the caste system also provided social support to their members and a vital stabilizing element in an Indian society otherwise rocked by political upheaval, foreign invasion, and war (Figure 12.7).

Two columns of rectangles are shown. The left column is light blue inside with a darker blue border and black print. The rectangles are smaller at the top and larger at the bottom. Inside, the rectangles are labelled, from top to bottom, with: Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra. The rectangles are connected with a red vertical line between them. The right column is all the same sized rectangles with these labels inside, from top to bottom: “Priests,” “Rulers, warriors, landholders,” “Skilled workers, artisans, traders,” and “Laborers, servants.”
Figure 12.7 The Indian caste system was a hierarchical one, with ranked varnas that, in the system’s earliest days, related to a person’s profession. Someone could move up or down within this hierarchy depending on their dharma and their accrual of karma during their lifetime. Still, such mobility came primarily through reincarnation at the end of a person’s life. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The basic social unit of Indian society and the focus of life was the extended family, which included parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and in-laws. Most peasant families lived in villages and worked as farmers. Farming was more important than cattle raising for several reasons, not least the prohibition against eating cows. Hindus believe these animals to be sacred but also used them as draft animals on farms. Their manure helped fertilize crops, and their milk was a sustaining element of the Hindu diet. Key crops were rice, millet, wheat, barley, lentils, and peas. The extended family’s large web of relationships encouraged everyone to work together for the betterment of the community. Villages were usually walled, with gates that were shut at night after the farmers returned from the fields.

Like Confucianism in China, Hinduism fostered a patriarchal family structure in which women were subservient. Men were viewed as stronger than women and less governed by their emotions, while older men, due to age and presumed experience, were thought to be wiser than younger men and thus superior to all others. Male domination of Hindu family life was reinforced by the fact that the oldest male was head of the household and might have several wives, who generally came to live with their husband’s parents.

Although children often assisted the family in daily work such as farming, in wealthier homes the basics such as reading, writing, and arithmetic might be taught. Daughters were often married at a young age, and finding the ideal husband—who could provide for the family financially—was a key concern. A wife had no life apart from her husband, and if widowed, she might shave her head, sleep on the floor, eat only a single meal a day, and avoid attending family festivals. A wealthier widow, particularly from the Kshatriya or warrior caste, might throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre in an act of ritual suicide known as sati.

In Their Own Words

Crime and Punishment in Tenth-Century India

Abu Zayd al-Sirafi was a sailor from Sirafi, a center of the spice trade, who traveled throughout the Indian Ocean during the tenth century. The following is his account of how Indians used ordeal by fire to allow the gods to decide whether an accused person was guilty. As you read, note whether Abu Zayd felt this was an effective system and consider what biases may exist in his account.

Moving now to India, if a man accuses another of an offense for which the mandatory penalty is death, the accuser is asked, “Will you subject the person you have accused to ordeal by fire?” If he agrees to this, a piece of iron is first heated to such a high temperature that it becomes red-hot. The accused man is told to hold out his hand, palm up, and on it are placed seven leaves from a particular tree of theirs; the red-hot iron is then placed on his hand, on top of the leaves. Next, the accused has to walk up and down holding the iron, until he can bear it no longer and has to drop it. At this point, a leather bag is brought out: the man has to put his hand inside this, then the bag is sealed with the ruler’s seal. When three days have passed, some unhusked rice is brought, and the accused man is told to husk it by rubbing it between his palms. If after this no mark is found on his hand, he is deemed to have got the better of his accuser, and he escapes execution. Moreover, his accuser is fined a maund [about 82 pounds] of gold, which the ruler appropriates for himself. On some occasions, they heat water in an iron or copper cauldron until it boils so furiously that no one can go near it. An iron finger-ring is then dropped into the water, and the accused man is told to put his hand in and retrieve the ring. I have seen a man put his hand in and bring it out unharmed. In such a case, too, his accuser is fined a maund of gold.

Abu Zayd al-Sirafi, Accounts of China and India

  • What biases do you see in this account?
  • Does Abu Zayd feel ordeal by fire is an effective system? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think ordeal by fire was once a common method of identifying guilt around the globe?

Toward the end of the Gupta period, in the sixth century, rulers began giving land grants to officials and Brahman priests to help stimulate local economies. Often entire villages were included in the gifts, and their inhabitants came under the control of the grantees. Eventually, land grants were also awarded to temples and monasteries, in the hope that this could encourage wider economic growth and lessen dependence on the central state.

Although this was a politically chaotic period, new ideas and belief systems spread and many cultural and technological advances occurred. Improvements in shipbuilding and textile manufacturing stimulated coastal trade, for example, especially in Southeast Asia. Paradoxically, many such developments were the result of the same forces that destabilized India’s politics, for the continual invasions and migrations of foreigners in the north cross-fertilized the region’s cultural base, producing new ideas and practical innovations. The diffusion of ideas was enhanced by India’s annual monsoon winds, which lengthened maritime traders’ exposure to Indian society and culture by preventing those who arrived in summer from returning home until the winter monsoon season.

One of the most influential and enduring effects of trade was the spread of Buddhism, which began to take hold elsewhere as it competed with, and in some ways reshaped, Hinduism. Many Southeast Asian regions adopted it, from what is now Thailand up to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and down to Java. By the first century BCE, there were two branches of Buddhism: Theravada (“the path of the elders,” the oldest extant form of Buddhism) and Mahayana (“the greater vehicle”). Mahayana, the larger branch, spread along the great trade routes of Asia into the borderlands of the Parthian Empire, eventually reaching China, Korea, and Japan, where it was gradually infused with local ideas. Theravada Buddhism established itself in Sri Lanka, southern India, and parts of Southeast Asia. Unlike Hinduism, Buddhism did not emphasize the caste system and in many instances opposed it, thus strengthening its influence abroad. It therefore appealed to lower-caste individuals as well. Nonetheless, Hinduism influenced many monarchies, particularly through the concept of dharma. Sanskrit, the written language of India, also spread to many southeast Asian courts, cementing the broad influence of Indian culture.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax