The Marvellous Millennium

B.C. 1000 to A.D. 1

A millennium indeed! A thousand years of Time which (despite many

purely historical events in its latter half, to which return will be

made in the next chapter) must be treated, as a whole, as perhaps the

most wonderful period in the history of the world. For, just as in the

fifteenth and sixteenth centuries humanity appears to have set its

mind on art, and such names as
hakspeare, Dante, Rafael, Leonardo da

Vinci, Palestrina, Cervantes, and a hundred others are to be found

jostling each other in history, so, during these thousand years, the

mind of man throughout the whole world appears to have been set on

solving the great secret of Life and Death.

The answer was given in many ways by the Greek and Roman philosophers,

by Confucius in China, by Christ in Judea, by Buddha and the great

systems of Indian philosophy in Hindustan; and yet the question is

still being asked with the old intensity, the old keen desire for


Now, since these thousand years have, in India, left behind them a

very remarkable literature which, even in these latter days, is the

root of all life and thought in that vast peninsula, it is as well to

attempt a slight sketch of the time, as a whole, before embarking on

actual history; though to do the latter we shall, after treating of

the religious age, have to hark back to the year 620 B.C.

At the commencement, then, of this thousand years, the Aryans were

still pushing their way westwards and southwards from the alluvial

plains of Northern India.

It seems likely that the tide of their conquest followed that of the

retreating sea. However that may be, certain it is that they found

before them dark, almost impenetrable, swampy forests, swarming with

enemies of all kinds. Who or what these were we have at first small

record. Doubtless the human foes belonged to the aboriginal tribes

which are still to be found clinging to the far mountain uplands and

inaccessible fastnesses which the Aryans did not care to annex. But in

the literature of which mention has been made, all and sundry are

disdainfully dismissed with the epithet "Rakshas," or evil demons.

Behind this shrinking verge of devildom, however, we know that "the

children of light" were settling down; towns were springing up, waste

land was being cleared and cultivated, schools were being established,

and many principalities rising into power. But of all this we have as

yet no record at all, until about one-half of the millennium was over.

On the other hand, we have exhaustive literary evidence of what the

minds of men were busying themselves about, first in the Upanishads,

and then in the myriad Sutras or Aphorisms, on every subject,

apparently, under the sun, which are still extant.

Regarding the former--of which the German philosopher, Schopenhauer,

wrote: "They have been the solace of my life; they will be the solace

of my death"--though some of these treatises or essays belong,

undoubtedly, to the dying years of the Epic age, they fall far more

naturally into place during the opening years of this, the succeeding

one. Their bold hypotheses covering all things were the first reaction

against the soul-stifling formalisms of the Brahmanas; these, again,

being due to the development of the dignity of the priestly class,

which followed naturally on the excessive militarism so noticeable in

the Mahabharata. Of a truth, its stalwart warriors, for ever engaged

in deadly combat and stirring adventures, could as heads of households

have had little time for the due performance of domestic ceremonials

after the customs of their fathers. Hence the rapid growth of the

professional priesthood.

The fatal facility, however, with which speculative thought, after

throwing off the shackles of canon and dogma, finds fresh slavery for

itself in scientific formalism, is shown by the succeeding Sutra

literature, in which every department of thought and action is

crystallised and codified into cut-and-dried form.

A reaction from this, again, is to be found in the succeeding

philosophy of Kapila and his disciples, which must have been

promulgated a century or so before the birth of Gautama Buddha.

Frankly agnostic, many of the conclusions of this Sankhya system are

to be found in the works of the latest German philosophers. Like

theirs it is cold, and appeals not to the masses, but to speculative

scholars. Still, it is strange that the very first recorded system of

philosophy in the world, the very first attempt to solve the Great

Question by the light of reason alone, should differ scarcely at all

from the last. The human brain fails now, as it failed then; for

Kapila's doctrine never really overset those of the Upanishads, though

the system of philosophy founded upon these last (and therefore called

the Vedanta) was not to come for many years. But what, indeed, can or

could overset the doctrine laid down in these same Upanishads, of a

Universal Soul, a Universal Self, which is--to use the very words of

the text:--

"Myself within the heart smaller than a corn of rice, smaller than a

mustard seed, smaller than the kernel of a canary seed: myself within

the heart greater than the earth, greater than the sky, greater than

heaven. Lo! He who beholds all beings in this Self, and Self in all

beings, he never turns away from it. When to a man who understands,

the Self has become all things, what sorrow, what trouble can there be

to him who has once beheld that unity? He, the Self, encircles all,

bright, incorporeal, scatheless, pure, untouched by evil; a seer,

wise, omnipresent, self-existent, he disposed all things rightly for

eternal years. He therefore who knows this, after having become quiet,

subdued, satisfied, patient and collected, sees Self in Self, sees all

in Self. Evil does not overcome him, he overcomes all evil. Free from

evil, free from stain, free from doubt, he becomes True Brahman. The

wise who, meditating on this Self, recognises the Ancient who dwells

for ever in the abyss, as God--he indeed leaves joy and sorrow far

behind; having reached the subtle Being, he rejoices because he has

obtained the cause of rejoicing."

Such words as these live for ever, a veritable Light in the Darkness

of many philosophies.

Yet even the Vedanta teaching failed to satisfy the masses; its

atmosphere was too rarefied for them. So about the middle of the

millennium a new Teacher arose. Gautama Buddha was born about the year

B.C. 560 at Kapilavastu, and the followers of the religion of which he

was the founder number at this present day nearly one-third of the

whole human race.

A magnificent work truly, look at it how we may! Yet it becomes the

more astounding when we enquire into the religion itself; for it holds

out no bait to humanity. It neither gives the immediate and certain

grip on a spiritual and therefore eternal life which the Vedanta

promises, neither does it proclaim the personal individual immortality

for which the Christian is taught to look.

Yet it holds its place firmly as first favourite with humanity. There

are some five hundred million Buddhists, as against some three hundred

million Christians; while about the tenth century of our era fully

one-half the world's inhabitants followed the teaching of Gautama.

Why is this? Wherein lies the charm? Possibly in its pessimism, in the

declaration that all is, must be, suffering.

"Hear! O Bhikkhus! the Noble Truth of Suffering. Birth is suffering,

decay is suffering, illness is suffering, Death is suffering.

"Hear! O Bhikkhus! the Noble Truth of the cause of suffering. Thirst

for pleasure, thirst for life, thirst for prosperity, thirst that

leads to new birth.

"Hear! O Bhikkhus! the Noble Truth of the cessation of Suffering. It

is the destruction of desire, the extinction of thirst.

"Hear! O Bhikkhus! the Noble Truth of the Pathway which leads

to the cessation of suffering. Right Belief, Right Aspirations, Right

Speech, Right Conduct, Right Means of Livelihood, Right Exertion,

Right-mindedness, Right Meditation."

In these few words lies the whole teaching of Buddhism. To king and

beggar alike, the world is evil; there is but one road to freedom, and

that must be trodden alike by all. In that road none is before or

after others.

Now to the poor, to the oppressed, there is balm in this thought.

Lazarus does not yearn for Abraham's bosom! Before all lies

forgetfulness, peace, personal annihilation.

This, then, was the teaching which Gautama Buddha, the son of a king,

gave as a gift to his world; and his world, wearied yet once more with

formalism, with the ever-growing terrorism of caste and creed,

welcomed it with open arms. The progress of the Buddhistic faith was

fairly astounding, and half India was converted in the twinkling of an

eye. Of the life led by the founder himself much has been written.

Many of the incidents bear a strange resemblance to those in the life

of Christ. Perhaps none is more beautiful than the story of the woman

who applied to Gautama, begging him to restore her dead child to life.

As given in Sir Edwin Arnold's Light of Asia, it runs so:--

"Whom, when they came unto the river side,

A woman--dove-eyed, young, with tearful face

And lifted hands saluted, bending low:

'Lord! thou art he,' she said, 'who yesterday

Had pity on me ...

* * * * *

when I came

Trembling to thee whose brow is like a god's.

And wept, and drew the face-cloth from my babe,

Praying thee tell what simples might be good.' ...

'Yea! little sister, there is that might heal

Thee first and him, if thou couldst fetch the thing.

Black mustard-seed a tola; only mark

Thou take it not from any hand or house

Where father, mother, child or slave hath died.'

'Thus didst thou speak, my Lord.

... I went, Lord, clasping to my breast

The babe grown colder, asking at each hut:

"I pray you, give me mustard, of your grace

A tola, black," and each who had it gave.

But when I asked: "In my friend's household here

Hath any, peradventure, ever died?

Husband or wife or child or slave?" they said:

"Oh, Sister! what is this you ask? The dead

Are very many, and the living few." ...

Ah sir! I could not find a single house

Where there was mustard seed, and none had died.'

* * * * *

"'My sister! thou hast found,' the Master said,

'Searching for what none finds that better balm

I had to give thee....

Lo! I would pour my blood if it could stay

Thy tears, and win the secret of that curse

Which makes sweet love our anguish ...

I seek that secret: bury thou thy child.'"

Buddha, it will be observed, answered no questions. He left the

insoluble alone. He simply preached that holiness meant peace and

love, that peace and love meant pure earthly happiness.

So, even while they accepted the morality of Buddhism, and acquiesced

in its negation, the keener speculative minds were still busy trying

to find some key to fit the Great Lock.

The Yoga system of philosophy followed on the Sankhya, the Nyaya and

the Vaisasika on the Yoga; finally, the two Mimamsa or Vedanta

philosophies. Of these the Yoga is merely a repetition, with some

alteration, of the Sankhya; the Nyaya--which is to the Hindu what the

Aristotelian system was to the Greek, and which is still the school of

logic--finds its complement in the scientific and atomic theories of

the Vaisasika. This last, which is the first effort made in India to

enquire into the laws of physics, is curiously provocative of thought.

A Rip-van-Winklish feeling creeps into the mind as the eyes read that

all material substances are aggregates of atoms, that the ultimate

atom must be simple, that the mote visible in the sunbeam, though the

smallest perceptible object, must yet be a substance, therefore a

thing composed of things smaller than itself.

Once again the question arises, "How much further have we gone towards


Of the Vedanta system enough has already been said. It is pure Monism,

matter being but a manifestation of the Supreme Energy, the Supreme

Soul, the Supreme Self which comprises all things, holds all things,

is all things.

So much for the speculative thought of this remarkable age. But when

we turn to other subjects, we find the same truly marvellous acumen

displayed in almost every field of enquiry.

Panini, whom Max Muller called the greatest grammarian the world has

ever seen, lived in the middle of this millennium, and by resolving

Sanskrit to its simple roots, paved the way for the Science of

Languages. It is strange, indeed, to think of him in the dawn of days

discovering what was to be rediscovered more than two thousand years

afterwards, and adopting half the philological formulas of the present


So with geometry, a science which certainly developed from the strict

rules concerning the erection of altars, as the science of phonetics

grew from the study necessary to ensure absolutely accurate

intonations of the sacred text. Of the former science much is to be

found in the Sulva Sutras; amongst other things, the celebrated

theorem that the square of the hypothenuse is equal to the square of

the two other sides of a rectangular triangle. This proposition is

ascribed by the Greeks to Pythagoras, but it was known in India long

before his time, and it is supposed that he learnt it while on his

travels, which included Hindustan.

Geometry, however, was not destined to take hold of the Indian mind.

The cognate science of numbers speedily took its place, and the acute

Asiatic intellect soon evolved Algebra out of the arithmetic which

they had rendered of practical use by the adoption of the decimal

system of notation.

For all these many discoveries the world is indebted to this

marvellous millennium.

Regarding the social life of this time the Dharma Sutras give us

endless laws--which are the originals of later and codified

laws--concerning almost every subject under the sun. As every Hindu

student (and every Hindu had to be student for a definite number of

years) had to learn these Sutras by heart, it may safely be predicted

that they faithfully reflect the general conduct of affairs. They are

extraordinarily minute in particular, and from them it may be gathered

that life had become much more artificial. Amongst the king's duties

is that of "guarding household weights and measures from

falsification." It may also be noticed that "the taxes payable by

those who support themselves by personal labour differ materially from

those paid by mere possessors of property." Any injury, also, to a

cultivator's land or to an artisan's trade was punished with great

severity, and violence in defence of them was held justifiable. A

legal rate of interest was settled, and the laws of inheritance were

laid down minutely, as also were those of marriage. Indeed, as Mr R.

C. Dutt puts it:--

"Everything that was confused during the Epic period was brought to

order--everything that was discursive was condemned; opinions were

arranged and codified into bodies of laws, and the whole social system

of the Hindus underwent a similar rigid treatment."

Briefly, it was at once an age of keen speculation and rapid

crystallisation almost unequalled in the history of any nation. Nor

have we to found this estimate of it solely by inference from the

literature which it has left behind it. We have other evidence on

which to draw. True, the earliest foreign notice of India is that of

Hekataios of Miletus, who wrote about B.C. 520, but he seems only to

have been aware of its existence. The next is that of some

inscriptions of the Persian king, Darius, which may be dated about

B.C. 486, while Ktesias of Knidos, who collected travellers' tales

about the East, wrote a little later. But Alexander's Indian campaign,

which began in the year B.C. 327, brought many Western eyes to wonder

at what they saw, and from this time Greece practically gives us the

chronology of Hindustan.

Of what these Western eyes saw we gain glimpses in the few fragments

of the works of Megasthenes which have withstood the destruction of

time. Living, as he did, in the fourth century B.C. as Ambassador at

the court of Paliputra, he gives us a picture of the times well worth

reading, with a few extracts from which this chapter may well


"The inhabitants, having abundant means of subsistence, exceed, in

consequence, the ordinary stature, and are distinguished by their

proud bearing. They are also found to be well skilled in the arts, as

might be expected of men who inhale a pure air and drink the very

finest water ... they almost always gather in two harvests annually;

and even should one of the sowings prove more or less abortive, they

are always sure of the other crop. It is accordingly affirmed that

famine has never visited India, and that there has never been any

general scarcity in the supply of nourishing food.... But, further,

there are usages observed by the Indians which contribute to prevent

the occurrence of famine among them; for whereas amongst other nations

it is usual, in the contests of war, to ravage the soil, and thus to

reduce it to an uncultivated waste, among the Indians, on the

contrary, by whom husbandmen are regarded as a class that is sacred

and inviolable, the tillers of the soil, even when battle is raging in

their neighbourhood, are undisturbed by any sense of danger, since the

combatants allow them to remain quite unmolested. Neither do they

ravage a land with fire nor cut down its trees.... The Indians do not

raise monuments to the dead, but consider the virtues which men have

displayed in life and the songs in which their praises are celebrated,

sufficient to preserve their memory.... All the Indians are free, and

not one of them is a slave. The Indians do not even use aliens as

slaves, and much less one of their own countrymen.... They live

frugally and observe very good order. Theft is of very rare

occurrence. The simplicity of their laws and their contracts is proved

by the fact that they seldom appeal to law. They have no suits about

pledges or deposits, nor do they require either seals or witnesses,

but make their deposits and confide in each other. They neither put

out money at usury or know how to borrow.... Truth and virtue they

hold alike in esteem.... In contrast to the general simplicity of

their style, they love finery and ornaments. Their robes are worked in

gold, adorned with precious stones, and they wear flowered garments of

the finest muslin. Attendants walking behind hold umbrellas over them;

for they have a high regard for beauty, and avail themselves of every

device to improve their looks....

"Of the great officers of state, some have charge of the market,

others of the city, others of the soldiers, while some superintend the

canals and measure the land, some collect the taxes, and some

construct roads and set up pillars to show the by-roads and the


"Those who have charge of the city are divided into six bodies of five

each. The first body looks after industrial art. The second attends to

the entertainments of strangers, taking care of them, well or ill,

and, in the event of their dying, burying them and forwarding their

property to their relatives. The third enquires of births and deaths,

so that these among both high and low may not escape the cognisance of

Government. The fourth deals with trade and commerce, and has charge

of weights and measures. The fifth supervises the sale of manufactured

articles which are sold by public notice, and the sixth collects the

tithe on such articles. There is, beside the city magistrates, a third

body, which directs military affairs. One division of this has charge

of the infantry, another of the cavalry, a third of the war chariots,

a fourth of the elephants; while one division is appointed to

co-operate with the admiral of the fleet and another with the

superintendent of the bullock trains used for transporting the

munitions of war."

So much for the East before it was gripped by the West. With a

full-blown War Office, and a statistical registration of births and

deaths, it appears to have gone far on the course of our civilisation.

Concerning the "Brahmanes," as the old writers term the Brahmans,

Megasthenes says of them that they live in groves, and

"spend their time in listening to sermons, discourses, and in

imparting knowledge to such as will listen to them. The hearer is not

allowed to speak, or even to cough, and much less to spit, and if he

offends in any of these ways, he is cast out from their society that

very day, as being a man who is wanting in self-restraint. Death is

with them a very frequent subject of discourse. They regard this life

as, so to speak, the time when the child within the womb matures, and

death as the birth into a new and happy life. They go about naked,

saying that God has given the body as sufficient covering for the


One may still hear this teaching given in the mango groves, or in the

shade of a banyan tree, throughout this India of the twentieth


And it still satisfies the hearers.