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flora annie steel
Copyright © 2017Flora Annie Steel
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INDIA THROUGH THE AGES
A Popular and Picturesque History of Hindustan
Map: India to the Present Day
AUTHOR OF "ON THE FACE OF THE WATERS," ETC.
POLITICAL DIVISIONS OF THE INDIAN EMPIRE
INDIA THROUGH THE AGES
A POPULAR AND PICTURESQUE
HISTORY OF HINDUSTAN
A history, above all one which claims to hold no original research, but simply to be a compilation of the work of others, needs no introduction save the compiler's thanks to many who have been consulted.
One word, however, may be said regarding the only accent used--the circumflex.
This is put always on the tone of stress; that is to say, on the syllable to be accented. Thus Mâlwa, Ambêr, Jeysulmêr, Himâlya, Vizigapatâm. Where no accent appears the syllables are of equal value.
F. A. STEEL.
INDIA THROUGH THE AGES
As the mind's eye travels backwards across the wide plains of Northern India, attempting to re-people it with the men of olden time, historical insight fails us at about the seventh century B.C. From that date to our own time the written Word steps in to pin protean legend down to inalterable form.
And yet before this seventh century there is no lack of evidence. The Word is still there, though, at the time, it lived only in the mouths of the people or of the priesthood. Even if we go so far back as B.C. 2000, the voices of men who have lived and died are still to be heard in the earlier hymns of the Rig-Veda.
And before that?
Who knows? The imaginative eye, looking out over the vast sea of young green wheat which in many parts of the Punjâb floods unbroken to the very foot of the hills, may gain from it an idea of the wide ocean whose tide undoubtedly once broke on the shores of the Himalayas.
The same eye may follow in fancy the gradual subsidence of that sea, the gradual deposit of sand, and loam brought by the great rivers from the high lands of Central Asia. It may rebuild the primeval huts of the first inhabitants of the new continent--those first invaders of the swampy haunts of crocodile and strange lizard-like beasts--but it has positively no data on which to work. The first record of a human word is to be found in the earliest hymn of the Aryan settlers when they streamed down into the Punjâb. When?
Even that is beyond proof. The consensus of opinion amongst learned men, however, gives the Vedic period--that is to say, the period during which the hymns of the Rig-Veda were composed--as approximately the years between B.C. 2000 and B.C. 1400.
But these same hymns tell us incidentally of a time before that. It is not only that these Aryan invaders were themselves in a state of civilisation which necessarily implies long centuries of culture, of separation from barbarian man; but besides this, they found a people in India civilised enough to have towns and disciplined troops, to have weapons and banners; women whose ornaments were of gold, poisoned arrows whose heads were of some metal that was probably iron.
All this, and much more, is to be gathered in the Rig-Veda concerning the Dâsyas or aboriginal inhabitants of India. Naturally enough, as inevitable foes, they are everywhere mentioned with abhorrence, and we are left with the impression of a "tawny race who utter fearful yells."
Who, then, were these people?
Are we to treat the monotonous singing voice which even now echoes out over the length and breadth of India, as in the sunsetting some Brahman recites the ancient hymns--are we to treat this as the first trace of Ancient India? Or, as we sit listening, are we to watch the distant horizon, so purple against the gold of the sky, and wonder if it is only our own unseeing eyes which prevent our tracing the low curve that may mark the site of a town, ancient when the Aryans swept it into nothingness?
"The fiction which resembles truth," said the Persian poet Nizâmi in the year 1250, "is better than the truth which is dissevered from the imagination"; so let us bring something of the latter quality into our answer.
Certain it is that for long centuries the reddish or tawny Dâsyas managed to resist the white-skinned Aryas, so that even as late as the period of that great epic, the Mâhâbhârata--that is, some thousand years later than the earliest voice which speaks in the Vedic hymns--the struggle was still going on. At least in those days the Aryan Pandâvas of whom we read in that poem appear to have dispossessed an aboriginal dynasty from the throne of Magadha. This dynasty belonged to the mysterious Nâga or Serpent race, which finally blocks the way in so many avenues of Indian research. They are not merely legendary; they cross the path of reality now and again, as when Alexander's invasion of India found some satrapies still held by Serpent-kings.
It is impossible, therefore, to avoid wondering whether the Aryans really found the rich plains of India a howling wilderness peopled by savages close in culture to the brutes, or whether, in parts of the vast continent at least, they found themselves pitted against another invading race, a Scythic race hailing from the north-east as the Aryan hails from north-west?
There is evidence even in the voice of the Rig-Veda for this. To begin with, there is the evidence of colour--colour which was hereafter to take form as caste. We have mention not of two, but of three divergent complexions. First, the "white-complexioned friends of Indra," who are palpably the Aryans; next, "the enemy who is flayed of his black skin"; and lastly, "those reddish in appearance, who utter fearful yells."
It seems, to say the least of it, unlikely that a single aboriginal race should be described in two such curiously different ways.
As for the fearful yells, that is palpably but another way of asserting that the utterers spoke a language which was not understood of the invaders. "Du'ye think th' Almighty would be understandin' siccan gibberish," said the old Scotch lady when, during the Napoleonic war, she was reminded that maybe many a French mother was praying as fervently for victory as she was herself. The same spirit breathes in many a Vedic hymn in which the Dâsyas are spoken of as barely human. "They are not men." "They do not perform sacrifices." "They do not believe in anything." These are the plaints which precede the ever-recurring prayer--"Oh! Destroyer of foes! Kill them!" And worse even than this comes the great cause of conflict--"Their rites are different."
So the story is told. These Dâsyas, "born to be cut in twain," have yet the audacity to have different dogma, conflicting canons of the law. Even in those early days religion was the great unfailing cause of strife.
These same hymns of the Rig-Veda, however, give us but scant information of the foes who are called generally Dâsyas, or "robbers." But here again divergence creeps in. It is impossible to class "the wealthy barbarian," the "neglecters of sacrifices," who, "decorated with gold and jewels," were "spreading over the circuit of the earth," whose "iron cities" were to be destroyed, who were to be "slain whether weeping or laughing, whether hand to hand or on horseback, whether arrayed in hosts or aided by missile-hurling heroes"--it is impossible, surely, to class these enemies with the mere robber brutes of whom it is written that they "were slain, and the kine made manifest."
Were then these tawny-hued foes, with the mention of whom wealth is invariably associated, in reality the ancestors of the treasure-holding Takshaks or Nâgas, that strange Snake race of which we read in the Mâhâbhârata, and of which we hear again during the invasion of Alexander?
At least there is nothing to prevent us dreaming that this is so; and while we listen to the voice of some Brahman chanting at sunset-time the oldest hymns in the world, there is nothing to hinder us from trying to imagine how strangely these must have fallen on the ears of the "neglecters of sacrifices, the dwellers in cities, rich in gold and beautiful women," of whom we catch a passing glimpse as the stately Sanskrit rhythm rolls on.
The sun sets, the voice ceases, and the far-away past is no nearer and no further from us than the present.
B.C. 2000 TO B.C. 1400
Before entering on its history it is necessary to grasp the size of the great continent with which we have to deal. Roughly speaking, India has fourteen and a half times the area of the British Isles. Of most of this country we have next to no history at all, and in the time which is now under consideration we have to deal only with the Punjâb, the "Land of the Five Rivers," the area of which about equals that of Great Britain. That such lack of information should exist is not wonderful, since, for all we know, this upper portion of India may then have been on the shores of a still-receding sea; indeed, colour is given to this suggestion by the remembrance that the five rivers of the Punjâb plain to this day act as huge drain-pipes which deprive the intervening country of surface moisture. Naturally, this fact, in the days when all India, save for its few isolated ranges of central mountains, must have been one vast swamp, was an immense boon to humanity.
The geographical area, therefore, with which we have to treat in the Vedic period is very limited. It is a mere patch on the present continent of India, bounded on the north by the snowy Himalayas, on the south by the Indus (and probably by the sea), on the west by the Suleimân Mountains, while on the east lay the unknown, and possibly marsh, land of the Ganges and Jumna Rivers.
Curiously enough, although we speak of this very tract nowadays as the "Land of the Five Rivers," in Vedic times the rivers were counted as seven. That is to say, the Indus was called the mother of the six--not five--streams which, as now, joined its vast volume. In those days this juncture was most probably in comparatively close proximity to the sea. Of these six rivers only five remain: the Jhelum, the Chenâb, the Râvi, the Beâs, the Sutlej. The bed of the sixth river, the "most sacred, the most impetuous of streams," which was worshipped as a direct manifestation of Sarâswati, the Goddess of Learning, is still to be traced near Thanêswar, where a pool of water remains to show where the displeased Goddess plunged into the earth and dispersed herself amongst the desert sands.
The stream never reappears; but its probable course is yet to be traced by the colonies of Sarâswata Brahmans, who still preserve, more rigidly than other Brahmans, the archaic rituals of the Vedas. The reason for this purity of rite being, it is affirmed, the grace-giving quality of Mother Sarâswati's water which, with curious quaint cries, is drawn in every village from the extraordinarily deep wells (many of which plunge over 400 feet into the desert sand), at whose bottom the lost river still flows.
Into this Land of the Seven Rivers, then, came--somewhere about two thousand years before Christ--wanderers who describe themselves as of a white complexion. That they had straight, well-bridged noses is also certain. To this day, as Mr Risley the great ethnologist puts it, "a man's social status in India varies in inverse ratio to the width of his nose"; that is to say, the nasal index, as it is called, is a safe guide to the amount of Aryan, as distinguished from aboriginal blood in his veins. One constant epithet given to the great cloud-god Indra--to whom, with the great fire-god Agni, the vast majority of the hymns in the Rig-Veda are addressed--is "handsome-chinned." But the Sanskrit word sipra, thus translated "chin," also means "nose"; and there can be no doubt that as the "handsome-nosed" one, Indra would be a more appropriate god for a people in whom, that feature was sufficiently marked to have impressed itself, as it has done, on countless generations.
Whence the Aryans came is a matter still under dispute. That they were a comparatively civilised people is certain. The hymns of the Rig-Veda, which were undoubtedly composed during the six hundred years following on the Aryans' first appearance in the Punjâb, prove this, as they prove many another point concerning these the first white invaders of India. How the idea ever passed current that they were a pastoral people is a mystery, since from the very first we read in these hymns of oxen, of the cultivation of corn, of ploughing, and sowing, and reaping.
"Oh! Lord of the Field!" reads one invocation. "We will cultivate this field with thee! May the plants be sweet to us; may the rains be full of sweetness; may the Lord of the Field be gracious to us! Let the oxen work merrily; let the man work merrily; let the plough move merrily! Fasten the traces merrily; ply the goad merrily.... Oh! Fortunate Furrow! speed on thy way, bestow on us an abundant crop--sow the seed on this field which has been prepared. Let the corn grow with our hymns, let the scythes fall on the ripe grain. Prepare troughs for the drinking of animals. Fasten the leathern string, and take out water from this deep and goodly well which never dries up. Refresh the horses, take up the corn stacked in the field, and make a cart to convey it easily."
Practically Indian agriculture has gone no further than this in close on four thousand years.
It is true that a hymn to the God of Shepherds finds occasional place in the Rig-Veda, but in these there is an archaic ring, which seems to point to the Aryan wanderings before India was reached. One of them begins thus: "Oh! Pushan, the Path-finder, help us to finish our journey!"
From purely religious hymns, naturally, one has no right to expect a full crop of information concerning the political and social life of the times in which they were composed, yet the light which the Rig-Veda throws upon these dark ages is luckily surprising; luckily, because we have absolutely no other source of knowledge.
From it we learn something of commerce, even to the extent of the laws regulating sale and usury. We learn also of ships and shipwrecks, of men who, "taking a boat, took her out to sea, and lived in the boat floating on the water, being happy in it rocking gracefully on the waves"; from which we may infer that our early Aryan brothers did not suffer from sea-sickness. There is also a phrase in fairly constant use, "the sea-born sun," which would lead us to suppose that these writers of hymns had often seen sunrise over an Eastern ocean.
Many kinds of grain were cultivated, but the chief ones seem to have been wheat and barley. Rice is not mentioned. Animals of all sorts were sacrificed, and their flesh eaten; and as we read of slaughter-houses set apart for the killing of cows, we may infer that the Aryan ancestors of India were not strict vegetarians.
But all mention of food, even sacrificial food, in the Rig-Veda fades into insignificance before its perfectly damnable iteration concerning a fermented drink called "Soma." Scarcely a hymn finds finish without some mention of it, and pages on pages are full of panegyrics of the "exhilarating juice," the "adorable libation," "the bright effused dew of the Soma, fit drink for gods." And apparently for men also, since we read that the "purifying Soma, like the sea rolling its waves, has poured out on men songs, and hymns, and thoughts." An apotheosis of intoxication, indeed!
It appears to have been the fermented juice of some asclepiad plant which was mixed with milk. The plant had to be gathered on moonshiny nights, and many ceremonials accompanied its tituration, and the expressing of its sap.
In later years, of course, the Soma ritual expanded into something very elaborate, and no less than sixteen priests were required for its proper fulfilment; but in the beginning, it is evident that each householder prepared the drink, and offered some of it, and of his food also, to Indra the cloud-god first, then to Agni the fire-god, and so by degrees (increasing with the years) to a host of smaller gods--the Winds, the Dawn, Day, Night, the Sun, the Earth.
For these ancient Aryans had not far to look for godhead. They found it simply, naturally, in themselves, and in all things about them, as the secret verse which to this day is held in sacred keeping by the twice-born amply shows. For there can be small doubt that the closest rendering to the original meaning runs thus:--
"Let us meditate on the Over-soul which is in all souls, which animates all, which illumines all understandings."
Mankind makes but small advance with the years in metaphysics, and it needed a Schopenhauer to reinvent the Over-soul--after how many generations? Who can say?
Only this we know, that a few centuries after Christ, a Chinese pilgrim to India committed himself to the assertion that "Soma is a very nasty drink!"
There is no trace in these Vedic hymns of the many deplorable beliefs, traditions and customs, which in later years have debased the religious and social life of India.
The Aryans worshipped "bright gods," and seem to have been themselves a bright and happy people. We hear nothing of temples or idols, of caste or enforced widowhood. Indeed, the fact that the language contains distinct, concrete, and not opprobrious terms for "the son of a woman who has taken a second husband," and for "a man who has married a widow," proves that such words were needed in the common tongues of the people. Neither is there any trace of, nor the faintest shred of authority for, either suttee or child-marriage.
So the ancient Aryan rises to the mind's eye as a big, stalwart, high-nosed, fair-skinned man, with a smile and a liking for exhilarating liquor, who, after long wanderings with his herds over the plains of Central Asia--where, reading the stars at night, he sang as he watched his flocks to Pushan the Path-finder--looked down one day from the heights of the Himalayas over a fair expanse of new-born land by the ripples of a receding sea, and found that it was good.
So for many a long year he lived, fighting, ploughing, and praying--with copious libations--to Indra, the God of Battles, and to Agni, the humble, homely God of Fire, who yet was the invoker of all Gods mysteriously connected with the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, the very Lightning.
And one of the prayers to the god who "comprehended all things," who "traversed the vast ethereal space, measuring days and nights and contemplating all that have birth," ran thus:--
"Take me to the immortal and imperishable abode where light dwells eternal."
We have not gone much further. The cry which rises in the Rig-Veda is the cry of to-day:--
"From earth is the breath and the blood; but whence is the soul? What or Who is that One who is ever alone; who forms the six spheres; who holds the unborn in His Hand?"
Yet the religious feeling of these primitive Aryans was not all tinged by doubt, by sadness; some of their hymns to the Dawn breathe the spirit of deep joy which is in those who recognise, however dimly, that the One of whom they question is no other than the Questioner.
So let us conclude this chapter with a few verses collated from these hymns.
"Many-tinted Dawn! Th' immortal daughter of Heaven!Young, white robed, come with thy purple steeds;Follow the path of the dawnings the world has been given,Follow the path of the dawn that the world still needs.
"Darkly shining Dusk, thy sister, has sought her abiding,Fear not to trouble her dreams; daughters, ye twain of the Sun,Dusk and dawn bringing birth! O Sisters! your path is unending;Dead are the first who have watched; when shall our waking be done?
"Bright, luminous Dawn; rose-red, radiant, rejoicing!Shew the traveller his road; the cattle their pastures new;Rouse the beasts of the Earth to their truthful myriad voicing,Leader of rightful days! softening the soil with dew.
"Wide-expanded Dawn! Open the gates of the morning;Waken the singing birds! Guide thou the truthful lightTo uttermost shade of the shadow, for--see you! the dawningIs born, white-shining, out of the gloom of the night."
Surely there is something in these phrases, taken truthfully from the original and strung together consecutively so as to give the spirit which animates the whole, that makes us of these later times feel closely akin to those who sang thus in the Dawn of Days.
ABOUT B.C. 1400 TO ABOUT B.C. 1000
The area of India which has now to be considered is much larger. Oudh, Northern Behar, and the country about Benares are comprised in it; but Southern India remains as ever, unknown, even if existent.
The sources of information concerning this period of six hundred years are also much larger, though in a measure less trustworthy; for the two great epics of India, the Mâhâbhârata and the Râmâyana, are avowedly imaginative, and not--as are the hymns of the Rig-Veda--the outcome of the daily life of a people, which, like the accretions of a coral reef, remain to show what manner of creature once lived in them.
Even the remaining Vedas, the Yajur, the Sâma and the Athârva, partake of the same purely literary spirit, although the first and second of these were probably in existence towards the end of the Vedic period. The last named is--at least in its recognition as a Sacred Text--of far later date. All three consist largely of transcripts from the Rig-Veda, and around each of them, as indeed around the Rig-Veda-Sanhita itself, there grew up a subsidiary literature called Brahmânas, the object of which was to explain, consolidate, and elaborate both the ritual and teaching of the Vedic age, as it became archaic under the pressure of a greater complexity in life.
It is to the epics and to the Brahmânas, then, that we must look for what sparse information is to be gleaned concerning India during this six hundred years or so. It should be remembered that even these books were to remain truly the "spoken word" for at least two centuries longer, until the art of writing became known about B.C. 800. As against this, however, we may set the undoubted fact that such was the marvellous memory of those early days, that by the close of the Epic period every syllable of the Rig-Veda had been counted with accuracy, and the whole carefully compiled, arranged, analysed as it now stands.
To tell the honest truth, the Brahmânas are but a barren field. Full of elaborate hair-splitting, cumbered with elaborate regulations for the performance of every rite; prolix, prosy, they reflect only a religion which was fast breaking down into canonical pomposity. It is true that towards the end of the Epic period matters improved a little, and in the teachings of the Ûpanishads--last of the so-called "revealed Scriptures" of India--we find a very different note; but as these seem to belong, by right of birth, more to the Philosophical period which follows on the Epic, we will reserve them for subsequent consideration.
It is, then, to the Mâhâbhârata and to the Râmâyana that we must look.
Not, however, for history as history; for the personages, the incidents in these two great poems are purely mythical.
But that a strong tribe called Bhâratas or Kurus who had settled near Delhi did for long years struggle with another strong tribe called the Panchâlas, who had settled near Kanauj, is more than likely. With this background, then, of truth, the story of the Mâhâbhârata is a fine romance, and throws incidentally many a side-light on Hindu society in these remote ages. But it is prodigiously long. In the only full English translation which exists it runs to over 7,500 pages of small type. Anything more discursive cannot be imagined. The introduction of a single proper name is sufficient to start an entirely new story concerning every one who was ever connected with it in the most remote degree. But it is a treasure house of folk-lore and folk tales, interspersed, quaintly, by keen intellectual reasonings on philosophical subjects, and still more remarkable efforts to pierce the great Riddle of the World by mystical speculations. It is, emphatically, in every line of it, fresh to the uttermost. It is the outcome of minds--for it is evidently an accretion of many men's imaginations--that still felt the first stimulus of wonder concerning all things, to whom nothing was common, nothing impossible.
A redaction even in brief of the Great Epic is beyond the power of any writer. To begin with, many of the side-issues are to the full as worthy transcription as those of the main thread of the story; and then it is almost impossible to make out what the latter really was in the beginning, before the endless additions and interpolations came to obscure the original idea.
To most critics this main thread presents itself as a prolonged war between the Kaurâvas and their first cousins the Pandâvas--in other words, between the hundred sons of Dhritarâshta, the blind king, and the five sons of his brother Pându--but to the writer the leit motif is the story of Bhishma. It is a curious one; in many ways well worthy of a wider knowledge than it has at present in the West.
Bhishma, then, was the heir of Shantânu, the King of Hastinapûr. His birth belongs to fairy tale, for he was the son of Ganga, the river goddess, who consented to be the wife of the love-struck Shantânu on condition that, no matter what he might see, or she might do, no question should be asked, no remark made. There is therefore a distinct flavour of the world-wide Undine myth in the tale. In this case the lover-husband is of the most forbearing type. It is not until he sees his eighth infant son being relentlessly consigned to the river that he cries: "Hold! Enough! Who art thou, witch?" In consequence of this, in truth, somewhat belated curiosity, the goddess leaves him, after assuring him that her purpose is accomplished. Seven Holy Ones condemned to fresh life by a venial fault have been released by early death, and this last child is his to keep as being, indeed, the pledge of mutual love.
So far good. Bhishma is brought up as the heir until he is adolescent. Then his father falls in love with a fisherman's daughter who is obdurate. She refuses to marry, except on the condition that her son, if one is born, shall inherit the kingdom. Even a promise that this shall be so is not sufficient for her. She claims that Bhishma must not only swear to resign his own claim to the throne in favour of her son, but must also take a solemn vow of perpetual celibacy, so closing the door against future claims on the part of his children. Devoted to his father, the boy, just entering on manhood, accedes to the proposal; his father marries, and dies, leaving a young heir to whom Bhishma becomes regent. An excellent one, too, as the following extract concerning his regency will show:--
"In these days the Earth gave abundant harvest and the crops were of good flavour. The clouds poured rain in season and the trees were full of fruit and flowers. The draught cattle were all happy, and the birds and other animals rejoiced exceedingly, while the flowers were fragrant. The cities and towns were full of merchants and traders and artists of all descriptions. And the people were brave, learned, honest and happy. And there were no robbers, nor any one who was sinful; but devoted to virtuous acts, sacrifices, truth, and regarding each other with love and affection, the people grew up in prosperity, rejoicing cheerfully in sports that were perfectly innocent on rivers, lakes and tanks, in fine groves and charming woods.
"And the capital of the Kurus (Hastinapûr), full as the ocean and teeming with hundreds of palaces and mansions, and possessing gates and arches dark as the clouds, looked like a second Amaravati (celestial town). And over all the delightful country whose prosperity was thus increased were no misers, nor any woman a widow, but the wells and lakes were ever full, full were the groves of trees, the houses with wealth, and the whole kingdom with festivities.
"So, the wheel of virtue being thus set in motion by Bhishma, the subjects of other kingdoms, leaving their homes, came to dwell in the golden age."
A golden age indeed! A millenium dating a thousand years before the Christ. And for this, Bhishma the Brother Regent and Sâtyavâti the Queen-Mother were responsible. The Boy-King appears to have been but a poor creature. Even Bhishma's famous exploit of carrying off the three beautiful daughters of the King of Benares--Amva, Amvîka and Amvalîka--as brides for the lad, does not seem to have kept him from evil courses. True, the elder of these three "slender-waisted maidens, of tapering hips and curling hair," cried off the match by bashfully telling the softhearted Bhishma that she had set her affections on some one else; whereupon he, holding that "a woman, whatever her offence, always deserveth pardon," bid her follow her own inclinations. Still the two remaining brides did not avail to prevent the young bridegroom from succumbing to disease, leaving them childless.
Here, then, was a situation. Bhishma and the Queen-Mother, both of an age, left without an heir! After Eastern fashion she urges him to take his half-brother's place, and raise up offspring to his father and to herself. But Bhishma is firm to his oath. "Earth," he says, "may renounce its scent, water its moisture, light its attribute of showing form, yea! even the sun may renounce its glory, the comet its heat, the moon its cool rays, and very space renounce its capacity for generating sound; but I cannot renounce Truth." Pressed to the uttermost he can only reiterate: "I will renounce the three worlds, the empire of heaven, and anything which may be greater than this, but Truth I will not renounce."
Poor Bhishma! One feels that he is a veritable Sir Galahad, beset by loving women, for when another father for possible heirs is found, Amvîka, who had expected Bhishma, refuses to look at his successor, the result being that her son Dhritarâshta is born blind, and being thus unfitted for kingship, Amvalîka's son Pandu becomes heir to the throne.
Hinc illæ lachrymal! Bhishma's vow of celibacy produces the rivals, and his part in the epic henceforward shows but dimly on the bloody background of the long quarrel between the hundred God-given sons of Dhritarâshta, and the five God-begotten sons of Pandu.
Yet, overlaid as it is by diffuse divergencies, the story of self-sacrifice, of a man whom all women love and none can gain, goes on. Bhishma, on Pandu's death, installs the blind Dhritarâshta as Regent King, and continues, as ever, faithful to his trust. Once or twice a ring of human pathos, human regret, is heard in the harmony of his good counsels, his unswerving loyalty, his fast determination to "pay the debt arising out of the food which has been given me."
Once when Arjuna, third of the five Pandus, climbs up on his knees, all dust-laden from some boyish game, and, full of pride and glee, claims him as father--"I am not thy father, O Bhârata!" is the gentle reply.
Again, when Amva, the eldest princess of the three maidens whom Bhishma had carried off as brides for his brother, returns in tears from seeking the lover he had allowed her to rejoin, saying that the prince will have none of Bhishma's leavings, there is human regret in the latter's refusal to accept the assertion that the carrying off was equal to a betrothal, and that he is bound in honour to marry the maiden himself! Yet of this refusal comes much. The injured girl calls on High Heaven for requital, and though her champion Râma is unable to conquer the invincible Bhishma, Fate intervenes finally.
Amva's penances, prayers, austerities, find fruit in revenge. She is born again as Chikandîni, the daughter of a great king whose wife conceals the child's sex for twenty-one years, until, according to the promise of the Gods, Chikandîni becomes in reality Chikandîn, the most beautiful, the most valiant of princes, who is destined in time to cause the death of Bhishma. For amongst the many confessions of a soldier's faith which the latter here makes is this: "With one who hath thrown away his sword, with one fallen, with one flying, with one yielding, with woman or one bearing the name of woman, or with a low, vulgar fellow--with all these I do not battle." So Chikandîn is beyond Bhishma's retaliation, and when in the final fight he "struck the great Bhârata full on the breast," the latter "only looked at him with eyes blazing with wrath; remembering his womanhood, Bhishma struck him not."
This, however, was not yet to come. Bhishma had as yet to bring up the five Pandu princes and the hundred sons of Dhritarâshta to be good warriors and true, and in the process we come across many quaint interludes. The story of Princess Drâupadt's Self-choice is charming, and the description of the ceremony worth giving as a picture of the times.
"The amphitheatre," we read, "was erected on an auspicious and level plain to the north-east of the town, surrounded on all sides by beautiful mansions, enclosed with high walls and a moat with arched doorways here and there. And the vast amphitheatre was also shaded by a canopy of various colours, and resounded with the notes of a thousand trumpets, and was scented with black aloes, and sprinkled with sandal wood water and adorned with flowers. The high mansions surrounding it, perfectly white, resembled the cloud-kissing peaks of Himalaya. And the windows of these mansions were covered with lattice of gold, and the walls thereof set with diamonds and precious stones. The staircases were easy of ascent, while the floors were covered with costly carpets and rugs. Now all these mansions were adorned with wreaths of flowers and rendered fragrant with excellent aloes. They were white and spotless as the necks of swans. And they were each furnished with a hundred doors wide enough to admit a crowd of persons. And in these seven-storied houses of various sizes, adorned with costly beds and carpets, lived the monarchs who were invited to the Self-choice, their persons adorned with every ornament, and possessed with the hope of excelling each other. Thus the denizens of the city and the surrounding country, taking their seats on the platforms, beheld these things.
"And the concourse of princes, gay with the performances of actors and dancers, increased daily, until on the sixteenth morning the daughter of the King entered the arena, richly attired and bearing in her hand a golden dish on which lay offerings to the gods, and a garland of flowers.
"Then a priest of the Moon race ignited the sacrificial fires and poured libations, uttering benedictions; and all the musical instruments that were playing, stopped, and in the whole amphitheatre was perfect stillness. Then the Princess' brother, taking his sister by the hand, cried in a voice low and deep as the kettledrums of the clouds: 'Hear all ye assembled Princes, hear! This is the bow, these are the arrows, yonder is the mark! Given Beauty, Strength, Lineage, he who achieveth the feat hath Princess Drâupadi to wife.' Then, for the sake of her unrivalled Beauty, the young Princes vied with each other in jealousy, and rising in their royal seats each exclaiming: 'Princess Drâupadi shall be mine!' began to exhibit their prowess."
It would take too long to give in extensor how one after the other the Princes failed to string the mighty bow. How Karna, the Disinherited Knight of the Romance--in reality uterine brother to the five Pandu princes, but passing as their deadliest Kuru enemy--strung it easily, but "turned aside with a laugh of vexation and a glance at the Sun, his real father," when Princess Drâupadi cried: "Hold! I will have none of mixed blood to my lord!"
How the young Arjuna, second of the five Pandu princes, "first of car-warriors and wielders of the bow," came disguised as a Brahman youth and achieved the feat; rousing no remonstrance, it may be remarked, as to admixture of race from the fair Princess Drâupadi.
Then follows the incident of Drâupadi marrying the whole five Pandu brothers, in obedience to their mother's mistaken command. She, when her five sons appeared in the dusk, "bringing their alms," bid them share it as ever; so, despite much heart-questioning, the fivefold wedding took place. It is an incident which is glozed over by ardent admirers of the Mâhâbhârata, and spoken of deprecatingly, as a mere myth. Why, it would be difficult to say, since it is palpably held up to honour as an instance of almost superhuman virtue. It is a voluntary self-abnegation on the part of the Five Princes, who swear to set aside jealousy for ever; an attempt on their part to right the relations between the sexes, and to return to the purer teaching of old times when, as we are distinctly told, "men and women followed their own inclinations without shame or sin." Certainly the record of this union of the Five Brothers to the devoted, almost divine Drâupadi, holds no suspicion of either the one or the other; surely, therefore, it requires neither disguise nor apology.
Thereinafter, amid ever-recurring sweep of furious blasts and counterblasts, ever-changing chances of fortune and misfortune, comes the great gambling scene which, deprived of disagreeable details and properly staged, should make the fortune of any dramatist who could really touch it. A fine scene, truly! Yudishthira, eldest of the Pandu princes, their ruling spirit, the brain, so to speak, of Bhima's strength, Arjuna's skill, Nakula's devotion, Sahadeva's obedience, had been challenged to a gambling bout by his chief enemy, Dhritarâshta's eldest son Duryôdhana. To this, according to the soldier's code of honour, there could be no refusal. But Yudishthira, gambler at heart, would not acknowledge himself beaten. He stakes his riches, his kingdom, his brothers, himself--last of all, his wife.
Losing her, she is sent for to the gambling saloon. She refuses to come. Finally, dragged thither by force, she pleads that Yudishthira, having first gambled away himself, was a slave, and so had no right to stake a free woman. Then ensues a scene of conflicting passions and protest which, once read of, lingers in the mind, rising superior to the certain disagreeable details which undoubtedly disfigure it in the original.
So the story sweeps on and on, ending really with Bhishma's death on the field of battle after a final encounter in which Arjûna, realising that victory is unattainable so long as "the Grandsire" lives, uses Chikandîn, the man-woman, as his shield, and so brings about the defeat of the otherwise invincible Bhishma. The latter, "lying on his bed of arrows," surrounded by all the princes, then proceeds to discourse for long days ("until the sun, entering its northern declension, permitted him to resign his life-breath") on the whole duty of mankind, and especially on the duties of kingship.
These discourses, which in the English translation run to over 2000 pages, are marvellously illuminating. When we read in them doctrines of kingly science which long centuries later were to be re-enunciated by Machiavelli, when we find in them many a theory of modern science forestalled by some bold, theoretical plunge into the Infinite, that Infinite to which "it is impossible to set limits since it is limitless," we may well pause to ask ourselves how much nearer we are to discovering the Great Secret than those were who, nearly three thousand years ago, puzzled themselves over the problem of consciousness, and why, "when the mind is otherwise engaged, the life-agent in the body heareth not."
Have we, even in science, gone much further than the assertion that "Space, which even the Gods cannot measure, is full of blazing and self-luminous worlds?"
Perhaps we have; but of a certainty we cannot outclass the Mâhâbhârata in the imagination with which it treats the Insoluble.
"In the Beginning," we read, "was infinite Space motionless, immoveable. Without Sun, Moon, or Stars, it seemed to be asleep. Then a darkness grew within the darkness, and water sprang to life."
So, gaining force as it goes like some giant wave, the vast epic sweeps on, gathering worthless pebbles and hopeless wreckage, with its thousand facets of bright bold sea, to leave us, after it has crashed over us, bewildered, storm-shaken on the shore, our heads whirling with wild memories of flashing, jewel-set cuirasses, "beautiful like the firmament of night bespangled with stars," of floating veils "like wind-tossed clouds," of celestial voices, "deep as the kettledrums of the skies," of "sparkling showers of keen arrows like the rays of the sun," of "tender, small-waisted maidens," and "mighty, high-souled car-warriors."
It is a marvellous dream, and as one reads it the ceaseless fall of seas upon a shore seems to fill the ear with the eternal message of indestructible life.
The Râmâyana, great though the epic is, and, in a way, more poetical, has none of this storm and stress. As R. C. Dutt, in his "Ancient India," says:--
"On reading it one feels that the real heroic age of India had passed. We miss the rude and sturdy manners and incidents which mark the Mâhâbhârata. The heroes of the Râmâyana are somewhat tame and commonplace personages, very respectful to priests, very anxious to conform to all the rules of decorum and duty, doing a vast amount of fighting work mechanically, but without the determination, the persistence of real fighters. A change has come over the spirit of the nation. It is more polished, more law-abiding, less sturdy, less heroic. In brief, the two epics give us the change which Hindu life and society underwent from the commencement to the close of the Epic age."
Griffiths, in the introduction to his metrical version of the Râmâyana, remarks that one of its most salient features is the complete absence of any mention of "that mystical devotion which absorbs all the faculties," to which we have constant reference in the Mâhâbhârata. The remark is full of critical acumen, and at once differentiates the varying planes on which the two dramas move.
That of Râma and his long-suffering wife Sîta, is, doubtless, the more human of the two; but there is a grandeur about the story of Bhishma before which the former crumbles to commonplace. Still, as R. C. Dutt asserts:--
"There is not a Hindu woman in the length and breadth of India to whom the story of Sîta is not known, and to whom her character is not a model to strive after and to emulate. Râma, also, though scarcely equal to Sîta in the worth of character, has been a model to man for his truth, his obedience, his piety. Thus the epic has been for the millions of India a means of moral education, the value of which can hardly be over-estimated."
Historically, there is little to be gleaned from it beyond the conquest of Southern India and Ceylon. Socially, it shows the accretion of custom, the consolidation of dogma, and the passing of power from the soldier to the priestly caste. Yet even here it is but a very modified Brahmanism of which we catch glimpses, and even caste itself is not as yet crystallised into hard and fast form.
So, with the Râmâyana and some few Purânas which, however, will be better considered in the next chapter, the Epic period closes.
Some few points in it may lay claims to distinct historical basis. The existence of Janaka, King of Kosâla, the father of Sîta, the befriender of wisdom, is so far attested by later writings and by legend, that his personality gains reality; but it is in the crashing, confused welter of the Mâhâbhârata that we must look for a just estimate of what India was like a thousand years before Christ.
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 Shakspeare, 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 answer!
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 Ûpanishads, and then in the myriad Sûtras 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 Brahmânas; 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 Mâhâbhârata. 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 Sûtra 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 Kapîla and his disciples, which must have been promulgated a century or so before the birth of Gâutama 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 Kapîla's doctrine never really overset those of the Ûpanishads, 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 Ûpanishads, 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. Gâutama Buddha was born about the year B.C. 560 at Kapilavâstu, 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 Gâutama.
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 Gâutama 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 Gâutama, 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 faceAnd lifted hands saluted, bending low:'Lord! thou art he,' she said, 'who yesterdayHad 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 healThee first and him, if thou couldst fetch the thing.Black mustard-seed a tola; only markThou take it not from any hand or houseWhere father, mother, child or slave hath died.''Thus didst thou speak, my Lord.... I went, Lord, clasping to my breastThe babe grown colder, asking at each hut:"I pray you, give me mustard, of your graceA tola, black," and each who had it gave.But when I asked: "In my friend's household hereHath any, peradventure, ever died?Husband or wife or child or slave?" they said:"Oh, Sister! what is this you ask? The deadAre very many, and the living few." ...Ah sir! I could not find a single houseWhere there was mustard seed, and none had died.'
* * * * *
"'My sister! thou hast found,' the Master said,'Searching for what none finds that better balmI had to give thee....Lo! I would pour my blood if it could stayThy tears, and win the secret of that curseWhich 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 solution?"
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 century.
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 Sûtras; 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.