The Mar Ngok Summer Teachings 2021
25 August 2021
The Gyalwang Karmapa began the second day’s teaching by illustrating how the physical geography of India has shaped its history and culture.
India is like a natural fortress. The Hindu Kush and Himalayas lie to the north. Their high peaks and all-year-round snow are a formidable barrier and limit contact with the outside world. It is surrounded by oceans: to the west is the Arabian Sea, to the south is the Indian Ocean, and to the east is the Bay of Bengal. In the north-east, there are gorges in the mountains that separate Assam from Burma, and though there are passes, it is also very difficult terrain. The only navigable passes are on the northwest border. Successive foreign invasions and emigrations in ancient Indian history mostly came from this direction, through the Khyber Pass [between modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan] and into Punjab.
Hence, it is important to understand that in ancient times India was able to preserve its culture because it was so difficult for Indians to have contact with the outside world and it was equally difficult for outsiders to come in.
The Indus River also plays a major role in the history of India. It springs from the western side of Mt. Kailash in Tibet, where it is called the “Flow from the Lion’s Mouth”. In Sanskrit it is called “Sindhu”. It joins with five major tributaries in the upper part of the Indus River Valley in Punjab, and the name “Punjab” [Land of Five Rivers] derives from this. Eventually, it flows into the Arabian Sea. The Indus River Valley is a very fertile agricultural area, an important area for the source of ancient Indian culture, and a point of contact with outsiders, as this was the route which invaders took. They first seized this region and then continued eastwards into the Ganges River Valley. This too is an important area as the Ganges is the longest river in India, at some 3000 kilometers in length. Its source is in the Himalayas. There are many tributaries to the Ganges, of which the Yamuna is the largest, so the Ganges River Valley is the most fertile region in India, and its confluence with the Yamuna became an important economic and political hub in ancient India. The highlands to the west of the present-day capital of Delhi are the divide between the watersheds of the Indus and Ganges, so Delhi is a strategic site in the Ganges River Basin; it is situated on the only route of travel between the Ganges and the Indus. In ancient India, when different kingdoms were at war, it became an important location in terms of military strategy. It was the hub of power controlling both the Indus and Ganges River Valleys. Consequently, in the 13th century [under the Delhi Sultanate], it became the capital of India.
The Karmapa then turned to further effects of India’s topography, those affecting India internally. Within India, regions were separated by mountain ranges, difficult terrain or rivers, and, as shown by sacred texts, this contributed to regional and political divisions. On the other hand, these natural boundaries facilitated the development and preservation of distinct cultures and languages. However, this proliferation of distinct ethnic groups, culture, political systems, and languages also created many difficulties for the unification of India.
The Stone Age
The earliest evidence of humans arriving on the Indian subcontinent are from the Paleolithic period. There is evidence of paleolithic settlements in the northern Indus River Valley, from a period ranging from 400,000 BCE to 100,000 or 50,000 BCE. Then in the Mesolithic era, there is a larger area where archeological remains have been found. The dates are roughly from 40,000 to 5000 BCE.
The Neolithic era in India began c. 5000 BCE, and archaeological finds are spread out over an even larger area. The most well-known Neolithic sites are in South India. Agriculture began at the end of this period. Stone tools were still the main tools; they lacked the technology to use bronze or iron. They also discovered how to spin, weave, and make rope. Then people began to use both stone and bronze tools. Archaeologists have unearthed many artifacts including lapis lazuli, steatite, and emeralds from Central Asia, which indicates that a trade network existed. This evidence shows how human knowledge was increasing. Archaeologists refer to this period as the Early Harappan Phase; a new chapter in Indian history had begun.
The first period in Indian History: The Indus Valley Civilisation
The Indus Valley Civilisation is also known as the Harappan Civilisation, after the name of one of the cities. This period in Indian history can be divided into two:
A. Indus Valley Civilisation (3300 BCE – 1700 BCE)
B. Post Indus Valley Civilisation (1700 BCE – 1500 BCE)
Recent studies by some scholars and archaeologists have dated the earliest stage or beginnings of the Indus Valley Civilisation—the Early Harappan Phase—to c. 3300 BCE. At that point, people began to use both stone and bronze tools. It is one of the oldest and most impressive civilisations in the history of the world, a matter of pride for Indians.
The Indus Valley civilisation was entirely unknown prior to the excavation of the ruins of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro in 1921 – 1922 during British rule in India.
After the independence of India and Pakistan, research continued and found that in fact the scope of this civilisation extended far beyond the Indus River Basin. The total area covered by the Indus River Valley civilisation was larger than the civilisations of Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. In this vast area, hundreds of large and small sites have been discovered. Among them, there are five or six ancient cities. The largest of these city sites is Mohenjo-daro, which had an estimated population of around 30,000.
His Holiness illustrated this point with photos of the extensive ruins at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro.
Scholars have posited different dates for the main phase of the Indus Valley civilization [The Mature Harappan Phase]. In recent years, the dates determined by carbon dating suggest 2300 BCE to 1750 BCE. There have also been different theories about the origins of the civilisation. Did it originate and develop in India or was it transplanted from outside? On the basis of more extensive research, scholars now accept that it was created by an indigenous culture. But who were these people? Several ethnic groups had migrated to Indian thousands of years before, including the Dravidian, Kolarian, and Munda. Scholars believe that it was probably the Dravidians who developed the Indus Valley civilisation.
The most significant aspect of the civilisation is that it was urbanised. Based on the ruins, scholars have reconstructed what the buildings looked like. The cities exhibit a high degree of planning, and the design and architecture are of a considerable level. There are brick walls, buildings, meeting rooms, barns, smithies, houses, and tombs.
The cities were supported by handicrafts and trade. The artifacts which have been unearthed such as pottery, seals, and statues, are of high quality and finely crafted. It seems the people were skilled artisans. The stone tools are also very fine. Most of the thousands of seals which have been discovered bear inscriptions as well as images. Some pottery and metal products also have inscriptions. This proves that the civilisation had an ancient form of writing, but so far no one has deciphered the script.
Further, His Holiness explained, we can deduce that the Indus Valley civilisation had a tradition of worshiping gods. This is because many religious artefacts have been excavated and many of the seals and stone statues seem to be related to religion and worship. It seems that they worshiped many different gods, some with human forms and some with animal forms. The image of one god looks very similar to the god Indra who appears later in the Vedas. There are many female statues and female images on the seals, so we can deduce that they also worshiped goddesses.
The Japanese scholar Yukei Matsunaga, an authority on secret mantra, proposes that this non-Aryan civilisation had a great influence on later Indian culture, and many elements of non-Aryan culture were incorporated into the Secret Mantra Vajrayana.
After the break, the Karmapa concluded his description of the Indus Valley civilisation. It seems that their society had developed a high level of development and a degree of social organization. There was probably a leader, a king, and below him, military figures and ranks of nobility, so there may have been different ranks and social classes. Scholars view this civilization as the first form of a state in India. However, information is so sparse—we only have artefacts which have been unearthed and there are no historical records—that we cannot know any real details.
In the end, the Indus Valley civilization vanished very quickly. Previously, some scholars linked the disappearance of the Indus Valley civilisation with the arrival of the Aryans, but recent archaeological finds and research by many scholars, has not found evidence to support that position. It is now clear that the Aryans did not arrive in India until several hundred years after the Harrappan civilisation disappeared. Further, if there had been conflict between the two groups, one would expect to find evidence of this conflict in the ruins, but there is none.
The Indus Valley civilisation lasted for about 600 years and then it declined sometime around 1750 BCE. We still do not know what caused its demise. Some maintain that because the cities were destroyed commerce ceased, handcrafts declined, and the population dispersed to other areas. However, it seems that their culture continued for some time at one place, Lothar, before disappearing.
Many contemporary scholars suggest that evidence points to climate change as the cause—there are signs of floods in some cities. It is also possible that there was famine or a drought that destroyed the crops. Whatever happened, it caused the people to flee the region. Others believe that natural disasters and foreign invasions combined, but no one knows who these invaders might have been. However, these are all hypotheses, and there is nothing conclusive. It does seem as though a natural disaster of some kind caused many difficulties.
Although the Indus Valley civilisation declined, it exerted a great influence on the later development of Indian culture. Its achievements continued, including the varieties of crops planted, animal husbandry and livestock, weaving, and many craft skills. Similarly, some elements of their religion, such as worshiping goddesses and a god similar to Indra, were absorbed into the Brahmanic religion. Thus, the Indus Valley civilisation was not entirely lost when it declined. It highly influenced later Indian culture.
B. Post Indus Valley Civilisation
In the period following the decline of the Indus Valley civilisation (c.1500 BCE), a new culture arose. Technological advances were lost and everything reverted back to the Neolithic age. This new culture was no longer urban; it was a village culture using stone tools. Its origins are uncertain. Some suggest that people came from north-west India, others suggest it developed from an earlier influx of Aryans.
Meanwhile, in other parts of India, independent civilisations were developing in the West, South, and East. They were all founded by different ethnic groups and reached different levels of development with different levels of technology. They were very different from the urban, highly-developed Indus Valley civilization.
The second period: The Vedic Period (16th c. to 6th c. BCE)
This is a time when human thought developed greatly, due to which many philosophies developed. There are two divisions to this period:
A. The Early Vedic Period, also called the Punjab period (1400 – 1000 BCE)
B. The Later Vedic Period, also called the period of the development of philosophy (1000 – 500 BCE)
How the Aryan peoples arrived in India
About two to three hundred years after the disappearance of the Indus Valley civilization, from the 15th century BCE onwards, the Aryan peoples entered the Indian subcontinent in stages from the northwest. A large percentage of the present-day population of India are descended from these people. The name Aryan comes from the word arya meaning ‘noble’ or ‘superior’. This word first appears in the Vedic texts and is also the name they gave themselves. Some scholars dispute this interpretation and hold that the word means something very different: it means “obedient” or “faithful”, because the Aryans had devotion to the gods. In the past, some European scholars maintained that the Aryans were an ethnic group, but this view is no longer supported. It seems the Aryans may have been from different ethnic groups but shared a common language, which belonged to the Indo-European family of languages. They were originally a nomadic people from Central Asia who divided into two groups. One group moved west and north into Europe. Another group went to the east and came to the Hindu Kush and Afghanistan where they split again, with one group travelling to Iran and the other to Punjab. This latter group is known as the “Indo-Aryan” people.
The Aryans first occupied the five river basins in the upper reaches of the Indus, which is Punjab. Here, they encountered fierce resistance from the indigenous people. The Aryans called them dasa, which means “enemy” or “opponents”. According to the Aryans, the Dasa were dark-skinned, spoke a coarse language, had flat noses, and did not offer sacrifices to the gods. Thus, scholars often infer that these enemies were Draviḍians. The Aryans were tall, accomplished horsemen, who also drove chariots. They had superior weaponry and tactics so they easily subdued the indigenous inhabitants and those who were conquered in battle, were enslaved.
With population growth, approximately during the 12th to 11th century BCE, the Aryans gradually expanded eastward to the Ganges River basin. In each successive area, they conquered the indigenous peoples, yet, at the same time, they also adopted the best aspects of the indigenous culture and integrated them into Aryan culture. The Japanese scholar Matsunaga Yūkēi has suggested that as the Aryan culture further developed from the upper reaches of the Ganges to the east and south, it strengthened contact, integration, and reorganization with the indigenous culture. Out of this mixing there grew a new syncretistic culture.
In Tantra, there are many examples of this. For example, the wrathful deities of secret mantra did not come from Aryan culture. The five great wrathful deities originated in the Draviḍian culture and were incorporated into tantra during the Gupta dynasty in the 5th century. Some deities such as Vajra Yakshini have similar appearances to Indus Valley civilisation goddesses. Others such as Parna Shavari and Vaishravana are not found in Aryan culture. We talk about Maha Mayūra, but this name comes from the word “mora” in the Munda language. Likewise, the nāga do not exist in Aryan culture. This word is Indian in origin. It is a colloquial term from the aboriginal people who have the totem of the cobra (naga).
When we examine the depiction and accoutrements of wrathful female deities in Vajrayana—the dripping blood, the appetite for human flesh, the bracelets made of snakes, and the necklaces made of human skulls—these are characteristics of the goddesses worshiped by the Dravidian people. In secret mantra there are goddesses as well as gods, but the Aryans originally did not worship goddesses, but, as they incorporated the cultures of the non-Aryan tribes that they conquered into their own culture, it seems that they began to do so.
There are extremely significant traces of non-Aryan culture in tantric Buddhism, but this is an area requiring further research through sociology, linguistics, archaeology, and ethnology.
The Gyalwang Karmapa drew the session to a close by emphasising the need to recognize and understand the contribution of ancient Indian culture to the practice of the secret mantra Vajrayana. The secret mantra Vajrayana combines the influences of many different cultures, he said. It is like a treasury of ancient Indian culture, containing many of the essential elements of ancient Indian culture. When we talk about the secret mantra, usually we think of it in terms of religion, faith, and devotion, and we fail to see how it has preserved ancient Indian traditions and practices.
It is particularly important for Tibetans to take an interest in the secret mantra Vajrayana because, though it has spread widely in Tibet, and there are some histories of the individual tantras, there is no history of tantra itself. Research into tantra is being led mainly by Western academics, so, if Tibetans want their voice to be heard in discussions about the Vajrayana, it was crucial to study its history.
Outsiders have examined and criticized Tibetan traditions of the secret mantra claiming that it is not a true tradition of Vajrayana, he warned. Tibetans need to be able to reply to those criticisms. In order to do so, they must study and research and have reasons based on fact.