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Thinkers, Beliefs and Buildings Cultural Developments (c. 600 BCE -600 CE)

  1. The sources that historians use to reconstruct this
    exciting world of ideas and beliefs include Buddhist, Jaina
    and Brahmanical texts, as well as a large and impressive
    body of material remains including monuments and
  2. A Glimpse of Sanchi 
    Sanchi in the nineteenth century

    The most wonderful ancient buildings in the state of Bhopal
    are at Sanchi Kanakhera, a small village under the brow
    of a hill some 20 miles north-east of Bhopal which we
    visited yesterday. We inspected the stone sculptures and
    statues of the Buddha and an ancient gateway … The ruins
    appear to be the object of great interest to European
    gentlemen. Major Alexander Cunningham … stayed several
    weeks in this neighbourhood and examined these ruins
    most carefully. He took drawings of the place, deciphered
    the inscription, and bored shafts down these domes. The
    results of his investigations were described by him in an
    English work …
  3. what is the significance of this monument?
    Why was the mound built and what did it contain?
    Why is there a stone railing around it? Who built
    the complex or paid for its construction? When was
    it “discovered”?
  4. The mid-first millennium BCE is often regarded as a
    turning point in world history: it saw the emergence
    of thinkers such as Zarathustra in Iran, Kong Zi in
    China, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in Greece, and
    Mahavira and Gautama Buddha, among many
    others, in India. They tried to understand the
    mysteries of existence and the relationship between
    human beings and the cosmic order. This was also
    the time when new kingdoms and cities were
    developing and social and economic life was changing
    in a variety of ways in the Ganga valley
  5. The sacrificial tradition
    There were several pre-existing traditions of thought,
    religious belief and practice, including the early Vedic
    tradition, known from the Rigveda, compiled between
    c.1500 and 1000 BCE. The Rigveda consists of hymns
    in praise of a variety of deities, especially Agni, Indra
    and Soma. Many of these hymns were chanted when
    sacrifices were performed, where people prayed for
    cattle, sons, good health, long life, etc.
    At first, sacrifices were performed collectively.
    Later (c. 1000 BCE-500 BCE onwards) some were
    performed by the heads of households for the wellbeing
    of the domestic unit. More elaborate sacrifices,
    such as the rajasuya and ashvamedha, were
    performed by chiefs and kings who depended on
    Brahmana priests to conduct the ritual
  6. The Message of Mahavira
    The basic philosophy of the Jainas was already in
    existence in north India before the birth of
    Vardhamana, who came to be known as Mahavira,
    in the sixth century BCE. According to Jaina tradition,
    Mahavira was preceded by 23 other teachers or
    tirthankaras – literally, those who guide men and
    women across the river of existence.
    The most important idea in Jainism is that the
    entire world is animated: even stones, rocks and
    water have life. Non-injury to living beings, especially
    to humans, animals, plants and insects, is central
    to Jaina philosophy. In fact the principle of ahimsa,
    emphasised within Jainism, has left its mark on
    Indian thinking as a whole. According to Jaina
    teachings, the cycle of birth and rebirth is shaped
    through karma. Asceticism and penance are required
    to free oneself from the cycle of karma. This can be
    achieved only by renouncing the world; therefore,
    monastic existence is a necessary condition of
    salvation. Jaina monks and nuns took five vows: to
    abstain from killing, stealing and lying; to observe
    celibacy; and to abstain from possessing property
  7. The spread of Jainism
    Gradually, Jainism spread to many parts of India. Like
    the Buddhists, Jaina scholars produced a wealth of
    literature in a variety of languages – Prakrit, Sanskrit
    and Tamil. For centuries, manuscripts of these texts
    were carefully preserved in libraries attached to
    Some of the earliest stone sculptures associated
    with religious traditions were produced by devotees
    of the Jaina tirthankaras, and have been recovered
    from several sites throughout the subcontinent.
  8. The Buddha and the Quest
    for Enlightenment
    One of the most influential teachers of the time was
    the Buddha. Over the centuries, his message spread
    across the subcontinent and beyond – through
    Central Asia to China, Korea and Japan, and through
    Sri Lanka, across the seas to Myanmar, Thailand
    and Indonesia.
    How do we know about the Buddha’s teachings?
    These have been reconstructed by carefully editing,
    translating and analysing the Buddhist texts
    mentioned earlier. Historians have also tried to
    reconstruct details of his life from hagiographies.
    Many of these were written down at least a century
    after the time of the Buddha, in an attempt to
    preserve memories of the great teacher.
  9. Hagiography is a biography of
    a saint or religious leader.
    Hagiographies often praise the
    saint’s achievements, and may
    not always be literally accurate.
    They are important because
    they tell us about the beliefs of
    the followers of that particular
  10. The Teachings of the Buddha
    The Buddha’s teachings have been reconstructed
    from stories, found mainly in the Sutta Pitaka.
    Although some stories describe his miraculous
    powers, others suggest that the Buddha tried to
    convince people through reason and persuasion
    rather than through displays of supernatural power.
    For instance, when a grief-stricken woman whose
    child had died came to the Buddha, he gently
    convinced her about the inevitability of death rather
    than bring her son back to life. These stories were
    narrated in the language spoken by ordinary people
    so that these could be easily understood.
    According to Buddhist philosophy, the world is
    transient (anicca) and constantly changing; it is
    also soulless (anatta) as there is nothing
    permanent or eternal in it. Within this transient
    world, sorrow (dukkha) is intrinsic to human
    existence. It is by following the path of moderation
    between severe penance and self-indulgence
    that human beings can rise above these worldly
    troubles. In the earliest forms of Buddhism,
    whether or not god existed was irrelevant.
    The Buddha regarded the social world as the
    creation of humans rather than of divine origin.
    Therefore, he advised kings and gahapatis (see also
    Chapter 2) to be humane and ethical. Individual effort
    was expected to transform social relations.
    The Buddha emphasised individual agency and
    righteous action as the means to escape from the
    cycle of rebirth and attain self-realisation and
    nibbana, literally the extinguishing of the ego and
    desire – and thus end the cycle of suffering for those
    who renounced the world. According to Buddhist
    tradition, his last words to his followers were: “Be
    lamps unto yourselves as all of you must work out
    your own liberation.”
  11. Stupas
    We have seen that Buddhist ideas and practices
    emerged out of a process of dialogue with other
    traditions – including those of the Brahmanas, Jainas
    and several others, not all of whose ideas and
    practices were preserved in texts. Some of these
    interactions can be seen in the ways in which sacred
    places came to be identified.
    From earliest times, people tended to regard
    certain places as sacred. These included sites
    with special trees or unique rocks, or sites of aweinspiring
    natural beauty. These sites, with small
    shrines attached to them, were sometimes
    described as chaityas.
    Buddhist literature mentions several chaityas.
    It also describes places associated with the
    Buddha’s life – where he was born (Lumbini), where
    he attained enlightenment (Bodh Gaya), where he
    gave his first sermon (Sarnath) and where he
    attained nibbana (Kusinagara). Gradually, each of
    these places came to be regarded as sacred. We
    know that about 200 years after the time of the
    Buddha, Asoka erected a pillar at Lumbini to mark
    the fact that he had visited the place
  12. “Discovering” Stupas
    The Fate of Amaravati and Sanchi
    Each stupa has a history of its own – as we have
    just seen, some of these are histories of how they
    were built. But there are histories of discoveries as
    well, and let us now turn to some of these. In 1796,
    a local raja who wanted to build a temple stumbled
    upon the ruins of the stupa at Amaravati. He
    decided to use the stone, and thought there might
    be some treasure buried in what seemed to be a
    hill. Some years later, a British official named Colin
    Mackenzie (see also Chapter 7) visited the site.
    Although he found several pieces of sculpture and
    made detailed drawings of them, these reports were
    never published.
    In 1854, Walter Elliot, the commissioner
    of Guntur (Andhra Pradesh), visited
    Amaravati and collected several
    sculpture panels and took them away
    to Madras. (These came to be called the
    Elliot marbles after him.) He also
    discovered the remains of the western
    gateway and came to the conclusion that
    the structure at Amaravati was one of
    the largest and most magnificent
    Buddhist stupas ever built. By the
    1850s, some of the slabs from Amaravati
    had begun to be taken to different
    places: to the Asiatic Society of Bengal
    at Calcutta, to the India Office in
    Madras and some even to London. It was
    not unusual to find these sculptures
    adorning the gardens of British
    administrators. In fact, any new official
    in the area continued to remove
    sculptures from the site on the grounds
    that earlier officials had done the same.
  13. Chaitya may also have been
    derived from the word chita,
    meaning a funeral pyre, and by
    extension a funerary mound.
  14. The development of Mahayana
    By the first century CE, there is evidence of
    changes in Buddhist ideas and practices. Early
    Buddhist teachings had given great importance
    to self-effort in achieving nibbana. Besides, the
    Buddha was regarded as a human being who
    attained enlightenment and nibbana through
    his own efforts. However, gradually the idea of
    a saviour emerged. It was believed that he
    was the one who could ensure salvation.
    Simultaneously, the concept of the Bodhisatta
    also developed. Bodhisattas were perceived as
    deeply compassionate beings who accumulated
    merit through their efforts but used this not to
    attain nibbana and thereby abandon the world,
    but to help others. The worship of images of the
    Buddha and Bodhisattas became an important
    part of this tradition.
    This new way of thinking was called Mahayana
    – literally, the “great vehicle”. Those who adopted
    these beliefs described the older tradition as
    Hinayana or the “lesser vehicle”.
  15. Major Religious Developments
    c. 1500-1000 BCE Early Vedic traditions
    c. 1000-500 BCE Later Vedic traditions
    c. sixth century BCE Early Upanishads; Jainism, Buddhism
    c. third century BCE First stupas
    c. second century Development of Mahayana Buddhism, Vaishnavism,
               BCE onwards Shaivism and goddess cults
    c. third century CE Earliest temples
  16. Landmarks in the Discovery and Preservation of Early
    Monuments and Sculpture
    Nineteenth century
    1814 Founding of the Indian Museum, Calcutta
    1834 Publication of Essay on the Architecture of the Hindus,
    by Ram Raja; Cunningham explores the stupa at Sarnath
    1835 -1842 James Fergusson surveys major archaeological sites
    1851 Establishment of the Government Museum, Madras
    1854 Alexander Cunningham publishes Bhilsa Topes, one of the
    earliest works on Sanchi
    1878 Rajendra Lala Mitra publishes Buddha Gaya: The Heritage
    of Sakya Muni
    1880 H.H. Cole appointed Curator of Ancient Monuments
    1888 Passing of the Treasure Trove Act, giving the government
    the right to acquire all objects of archaeological interest
  17. Twentieth century
    1914 John Marshall and Alfred Foucher publish The Monuments
    of Sanchi
    1923 John Marshall publishes the Conservation Manual
    1955 Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru lays the foundation stone
    of the National Museum, New Delhi
    1989 Sanchi declared a World Heritage Site

Answer in 100-150 words
1. Were the ideas of the Upanishadic thinkers
different from those of the fatalists and
materialists? Give reasons for your answer.
2. Summarise the central teachings of Jainism.
3. Discuss the role of the begums of Bhopal in
preserving the stupa at Sanchi.
4. Read this short inscription and answer:
In the year 33 of the maharaja Huvishka (a
Kushana ruler), in the first month of the hot
season on the eighth day, a Bodhisatta was set
up at Madhuvanaka by the bhikkhuni Dhanavati,
the sister’s daughter of the bhikkhuni
Buddhamita, who knows the Tipitaka, the female
pupil of the bhikkhu Bala, who knows the
Tipitaka, together with her father and mother.
(a) How did Dhanavati date her inscription?
(b) Why do you think she installed an image of the
(c) Who were the relatives she mentioned?
(d) What Buddhist text did she know?
(e) From whom did she learn this text?
5. Why do you think women and men joined the

Write a short essay (about
500 words) on the following:

6. To what extent does knowledge of Buddhist
literature help in understanding the sculpture
at Sanchi?
7. Figs. 4.32 and 4.33 are two scenes from Sanchi.
Describe what you see in each of them, focusing
on the architecture, plants and animals, and the
activities. Identify which one shows a rural
scene and which an urban scene, giving reasons
for your answer.
8. Discuss the development in sculpture and
architecture associated with the rise of
Vaishnavism and Shaivism.
9. Discuss how and why stupas were built.

Map work
10. On an outline world map, mark the areas to which
Buddhism spread. Trace the land and sea routes
from the subcontinent to these areas.


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