Traditions and Trajectories in
Ancient India
Jeffrey L. Richey, Ph.D.
REL 231
Religions of India and Tibet
Berea College
Fall 2005
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THE INDUS RIVER VALLEY
CIVILIZATION
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Original inhabitants of
northwestern India-Pakistan
(c. 2500 BCE)
Indus society:
Agricultural
Urban
Mercantile
Indus religion:
Polytheistic (esp. goddesses)
Fertility-oriented
By 1500 BCE, on brink of
collapse, perhaps due to
combination of natural and
human disasters
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THE “ARYAN INVASION”
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Around 1500 BCE, “Aryan”
peoples from southern Russia
enter Indus region
Aryan society:
Pastoral
Nomadic
Equestrian
Aryan religion:
Polytheistic
Patriarchal
Aryan language was ancestral
to Sanskrit, oldest known in
Indo-European family
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INDO-EUROPEAN
LANGUAGE & MYTHOLOGY
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Words in Indo-European
languages share common
ancestors:
English -- father
German -- Vater
Latin -- pater
Greek -- pater
Sanskrit – pitar
Other examples:
English – divinity / ritual
Latin – divus / ritus
Sanskrit – deva / ŗta
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Deities in Indo-European
traditions share common
origins:
Norse -- Alfodr (“All Father,”
i.e., Odin)
Latin – Diespiter (“Day
Father,” i.e., Jupiter)
Greek – Zeuspater (“Father
Zeus”)
Sanskrit – Dyauspitar (“Sky
Father”)
Thus, Sanskrit reveals deep
links between ancient Indian
and Western cultures
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INDO-ARYAN SOCIETY
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Divided into 4 hereditary occupational
divisions (varņas = colors):
1. Brāhman (priest)
2. Kşatriya/Rājanya (warrior)
3. Vaiśya (merchant/artisan)
4. Śūdra (peasant)
On margins of fourfold society are
Dalits (so-called “untouchables”),
who perform menial and polluting
tasks:
1. Corpse handlers
2. Executioners
3. Hunters and fishermen
4. Leatherworkers
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THE VEDAS
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Concerned with orthopraxy (proper
action) in ritual
Brāhman authors edit oral liturgical
traditions, producing Vedas
(“knowledges”), c. 1200-600 BCE
By 600 BCE, sūtras (“threads,”
commentaries), or summaries of
Vedas, become popular
4 collections (samhitās) of Vedas:
1. Ŗigveda (ŗic = praise stanzas
sung by priests in ritual)
2. Sāmaveda (sāman = songs
sung by priestly entourage)
3. Yajurveda (yajus = short
incantations uttered by priests’
assistants in ritual)
4. Atharvaveda (therapeutic
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spells and hymns used by
atharvans = healers)
KARMAMARGA:
THE WAY OF ACTION
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Ātman (“breath”) =
Essential element of person
Coexistent with body
Separable at death, when it
ideally rejoins ancestors
Ŗta (“right, rite”) =
Correct pattern
Cosmic order
Accomplished by orthopraxy
Dharma (“law”) =
Fixed principles
Social order
Accomplished by obedience to
varņa-specific obligations
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Ashramas (“stages of life”) for males
of of three upper varņas:
1. Brahmaçarya (study with guru
or master)
2. Grihastha (marriage, family,
career)
3. Vānaprastha (partial withdrawal
from social life)
4. Sannyāsa (complete
renunciation of society, devotion
to spiritual life)
Women participate only in
householder stage, with two likely
fates:
1. Marginalization as widow
2. Predeceasing husband
Gradually, goal of improved
reincarnation through right action
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(karma) replaces reunion with
ancestors
TRANSCENDING THE VEDAS
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Later Vedic texts (c. 1000-800 BCE)
show interest in inner truth
underlying outer ritual
Contemplation of Brahman
(omnipresent, immaterial, ineffable
source of all) supersedes sacrifices to
deities
Upanişads (“sitting down close at
hand,” c. 600 BCE) record masterdisciple dialogues related to quest to
overcome avidya (ignorance) and
gain jñana (knowledge)
Levels of jñana:
Pratibhasika – grasping complete
illusion (vaita, dualistic)
Vyavaharika – grasping conventional
illusion (vaita, dualistic)
Paramarthika – grasping ultimate
reality (advaita, nondualistic)
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UPANISHADIC
ANTHROPOLOGY
• Ātman = the self’s 3 “bodies”:
1. Causal (innermost, where
karma accumulates)
2. Subtle (middlemost, where
sensory impressions are stored)
3. Gross (outermost, which houses
other elements as physical form)
• Gross body disintegrates at
death, but causal and subtle
bodies are eternal and pass on
in samsara (cycle of rebirth
conditioned by karmic
retribution)
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UPANISHADIC
PSYCHOLOGY
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3 psychic organs:
Çitta (subconscious – transmits
sensory stimuli)
Manas (conscious mind –
receives sensory stimuli)
Buddhi (intellect or will –
evaluates sensory stimuli)
4 levels of consciousness:
Waking (dominated by material
concerns and self-awareness)
Dreaming (dominated by
material concerns and selfawareness)
Dreamless (free of material
concerns but not self-awareness)
Meditative (free of material
concerns and self-awareness)
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THE PATH TO JÑANA
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Householder preparation (study
of Upanişads, fulfillment of
dharma, moral rectitude)
Renunciation of society and
adoption of mendicant status
Discipleship with guru
Yoga (“work,” “union”):
Hatha-yoga -- gymnastic
Kundalini-yoga -- sexual
Patanjali-yoga – combination of
meditative, physical, and moral
disciplines
Yogic self-cultivation eventually
leads to samadhi (experience of
undifferentiated unity with
Brahman)
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JÑANAMARGA: THE WAY OF
KNOWLEDGE
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Overcome maya (illusion,
especially the illusion of
separation between ātman and
Brahman)
Realize unity of Brahman and
ātman: “That is the Real: That is
the Self: That you are!”
Avoid actions (karma) that
promote selfishness and maximize
selflessness
Through knowledge of one’s true
self and positive karma, attain
mokşa (liberation from samsara
and full union with Brahman)
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