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
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
"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
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
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.