The Mar Ngok Summer Teachings 2021
3 September 2021
The Karmapa continued his discourse on the early history of India as a background to understanding the life and thought of Buddha Shakyamuni.
The Age of Philosophy is the third part of the Later Vedic Period. The Indo-Aryans had continued to expand from the Punjab to the Ganges River Valley and beyond. Some consider the traces left by the politics and literature of that time to be the greatest in the history of Indian civilisation. Using a map, the Karmapa indicated the six great kingdoms that arose during the Later Vedic Period. One of these was Magadha and, from the beginning to the end of the Brahmanical period, everyone knew of this kingdom. In Magadha, advances were occurring at a rapid pace during the Age of Philosophy. Eventually, it gained control over all of Northern India and became a cultural and political hub. When the Buddhist teachings appeared, they were established in Magadha, and the great emperor Chandragupta Maurya, renowned as a chakravarti (universal emperor), came from this kingdom.
In South India, the Andhra kingdom also became a political and cultural hub, and there was some interaction between the cultures of Andhra and Magadha. Likewise, there were connections with the Dravidian civilisation, a third great kingdom, from lands even further to the south. So, at that time, there were three powerful kingdoms, each with its own tradition. Thus, civilisation was able to spread throughout all the geographical areas of India.
The Kingdom of Magadha
This was the most important ancient Indian kingdom. It was an important centre not only during the Age of Philosophy but also later in the time of Buddhism. In terms of Buddhism, Magadha is one of the most well-known regions and played an important part. The Lord Buddha spent half of his life in Magadha, and the early Buddhist councils were convened in Magadha at Shravasti and Pāṭaliputra.
The kingdom of Magadha was located on the lower reaches of the Ganges River Valley, and most of the areas of present-day eastern India were formerly regions in Magadha. Several different dynasties ruled Magadha, and the size of the area it controlled fluctuated—at times, all of Northern India and some parts of Southern India came under its control, so it was a vast kingdom and very significant in the history of India.
The Karmapa referred back to the Pūraṇa history texts, which he had mentioned on Day 7. He explained that this was the name for a genre of Indian literature that includes many different texts. Their content is quite extensive, but primarily they describe how the universe was formed, how the various gods appeared, the history of the kings, religious movements and so forth. They include myths and legends, philosophy, religion and so on. There are many extant Pūraṇas, which probably date to a time not long after the Buddha passed away. Thus, they are a later genre of literature and important historical sources for the Age of Philosophy.
The Pūraṇas record the following dynasties in Magadha:
- The Haryanka dynasty. The kingdom of Magahda probably predated this dynasty but there’s a lack of historical evidence. This dynasty reigned in Magadha for over 200 years. There were ten kings. This period included the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha, and it was also the time of the 16 powerful kingdoms—the Mahajanapadas.
- The Saiśhunāga dynasty reigned for 60 years and had two kings. However, this is disputed by scholars. This also was during the time of the 16 powerful kingdoms.
- The Nanda dynasty reigned for 100 years and had ten kings.
- The Maurya dynasty, which displaced the Nanda dynasty. Chandragupta Maurya conquered Magadha. His grandson was the Emperor Ashoka.
After the Upanishads appeared, the Brahmans continued to preserve their ancient forms and customs, and their mainstay was performing sacrificial offerings. Likewise, the common people had become habituated to performing rituals and regarded them as part of their way of life. However, the newly emerging philosophies raised doubts and threw these rituals into question. In order to preserve their own function and status and ensure that future generations were educated in the ancient traditions, the Brahmans codified the hierarchies, procedures, and rituals, detailing the different responsibilities of the four castes. These rules were compiled into textbooks or manuals for study. This produced a new genre of literature, mainly in verse and extremely concise, called sutra. The word sūtra means ‘thread’; it is derived from the word siv, to sew. A thread is like the string in a garland of flowers. Thus, the original meaning of the word is “condensing vast meanings into a few words”. The purpose was to teach definitions and customs in as few words as possible that could be memorised easily.
The earliest sutras are thought to have been completed in the 6th c. BCE, and the latest around the turn of the millennium, i.e. the beginning of the Common Era. The sutras are a reiteration of the content of the Brāhmanas, though there is some new content. Thus, they are not all that different from earlier Vedic literature. However, unlike the Brāhmanas, the sutras are concise, the words are simple, and they use verse. Intended as primers for young students, they were made easy to memorise.
At the time, different traditions existed, each of which had its own sutras. Sadly, most of the sutras have been lost—only a few have survived. The extant sutras can be differentiated into three traditions or genres.
A. The first tradition is the Six Branches of Veda. This genre spread in order to preserve Vedic literature and traditions.
- Ritual (kalpa)
- Phonetics and Phonology (śikṣā)
- Poetics (chanda)
- Etymology (nirukta)
- Grammar (vyākaraṇa)
- Astrology (jyotiṣa)
B. The second sutra tradition is that of the Six Darshana—the Indian philosophical schools—which have become well-known in Buddhist literature.
C. The third sutra tradition is that of Jainism and Buddhism. The seeds of both the Jain and the Buddhist religions are found in the philosophical texts in the Upanishads. However, there is also a high degree of freedom in their way of thinking. They both appeared after the completion of the earlier traditions, and neither accepted the Vedic traditions or the Vedic texts. Both Jainism and Buddhism were taught in the form of sutras and preserved in that fashion, but the teachings were not recorded in written form during the Vedic period. The words of the Buddha, for example, were not written down during the Buddha’s lifetime.
A. The Six Branches of Veda
1. Ritual (kalpa)
This word ‘kalpa’ is translated as ‘ritual’ in Tibetan texts. There are three categories of text: Śrautasūtra, [Sutra of Listening], Dharmasūtra, [Sutra of Dharma], and Gṛhyasūtra [Sutra of Household Life]. The first category, the Śrautasūtra, are called the ‘listening’ sutras because they explain Vedic ritual very simply. The Dharmasūtraa are significant texts which speak about the customs and laws of that time, so they have become an important historical source. Many points in the Dharmasūtras became an integral part of the Manusmṛiti. At that time in India, children would memorise these laws from a young age, and once they grew older put them into practice as the basis for fulfilling their own various responsibilities. Nowadays, only fragments of the original dharmasūtras have survived.
Whether a son, husband, or father, all had to fulfil roles in the family, and these are explained clearly and in detail in the Gṛhyasūtra, for example, the responsibilities of the eldest son. It speaks about rituals related to marriage, having children, breastfeeding, education, and so forth, and also about rituals that must be practised in the household—it describes each of the religious rituals. When researching the Gṛhyasūtra, we can see clearly how people led their lives at that time.
Originally there were separate sutras of different traditions and regions, but now only a few fragments remain. [More details of these genres are provided below.]
2. Phonetics and Phonology (śikṣā)
Sikṣā provide detailed instructions on correct pronunciation when reciting or reading the Vedas: which sounds are strong, which are soft, the nature of the vowels, the point of origin of the sounds, the position of the tongue, labials, gutturals, etc. The Vedas had been memorised for generations and recited from memory, but if the pronunciation of even one word was mistaken, it was thought to be offensive to the gods. Thus several areas of knowledge developed around this.
There are many texts in Tibetan on how to recite the mantras, but no one studies them anymore, the Karmapa commented. Yet, it is crucial to know how to pronounce them correctly so that they do not decline.
3. Poetics (chanda)
There are many points about poetics made in the Veda, Āraṇyaka, and Upanishads. Later they became an independent area of knowledge. [There were seven major metres. Each had its own rhythm, movements and aesthetics. Sanskrit metres include those based on a fixed number of syllables per verse, and those based on a fixed number of phonological units per verse.]
4. Etymology (nirukta)
These are explanations of difficult words in the Vedas. Around 400 BCE there was a celebrated Indian grammarian named Yaska. Earlier Sanskrit grammarians could not compare to him, so they lost all their influence and their texts on syntax were lost. Yaska’s work Nirukta was a new explanation of words found in ancient texts.
5. Grammar (vyākaraṇa)
These Sanskrit texts on grammar are primarily an examination of the grammar of the Vedas. Originally there were many texts on grammar, but they became redundant following the work of the great scholar Pāṇini and were completely lost. Only Pāṇini’s great text on grammar remains. He lived in the northwest of India, and there are different assertions about when he lived, but roughly it was 4th to 3rd centuries BCE.
The German Indologist Friedrich Max Müller states that there are only two ancient traditions about grammar, one Indian and one Greek, but compared to the depth of knowledge shown in the work of Pāṇini, the Greek grammatical texts are worthless. Thus, the textual tradition founded by this great sage was ground-breaking and unique.
One of the important focuses of modern grammarians and linguists has been the hypothesis of a single, common origin of world languages, but Pāṇini suggested the same 2000 years ago in India. This demonstrates the amazing advances in grammar and linguistics Indians were making at that time.
6. Astrology (jyotiṣa)
Astrology was necessary in order to determine when to perform sacrificial rituals and which dates would be auspicious or inauspicious.
An introduction to the Dharmasūtras
The Dharmasūtras primarily discuss the various responsibilities in rituals and how to pay respects daily. It sets the standards for people to live their lives according to their dharma; it describes the powers and responsibilities of different groups in society; and explains how to handle conflicts between people and how to deal with criminals. They are like the rulebooks in Tibetan monasteries. Taking the Vedas as the basis, the traditions and customs of the Indo-Aryans were systematised in the Dharmasūtras. As to caste divisions, these were codified in the Dharmasūtras.
However, in order to codify caste divisions, the classifications of the castes must be clearly defined. At that time, this created great difficulties for the people who were writing the laws, because many castes did not fit within the classification of the four castes. It was impossible to create more castes because the stipulation in the texts was that there could be no more and no fewer than four castes. In order to explain this clearly, the authors of the law texts used their ingenuity to create their own rationales. This is supported by the evidence; there were three very influential scholars compiling law texts at that time, and when we compare their texts, there is not a single area of agreement among them. The Karmapa provided an example—a table of lineages from the Gautama Dharmasutra which provides the caste status for children born from mixed caste parents e.g. a Kshatriya father with a Brahman mother. But, the Karmapa explained, it is not supported by the other law texts, which demonstrates how explanations of the four castes were without a consensus and arbitrary.
During this period, the two most powerful kingdoms in the Ganges River Valley were Videha and Magadha. The populace in these two kingdoms however, were not pure Indo-Aryans and possibly not even Indo-Aryan. The logic was that all humans had to be included within the caste system and, as they were aware of the existence of the ancient Greeks, even though there was no connection at that time between Indian and Greek society, they included the ancient Greeks within the four-caste system.
Although they talked of four castes—Brahmans, Kshatriyas, and so forth—it was very difficult to establish pure caste lineages since there had been so much inter-mixing between castes beforehand. In addition, there was no authoritative source for the system. Modern scholars say that the educational levels of the ordinary people were not that high, and the educated Brahmans contrived things and used contradictory analogies, so people were easily convinced that the caste system was the natural order decreed by the gods.
The Dharmasutras cover many other topics. They speak of governance, taxation, administration, trade, farming, military strategy, criminal law and punishment, and civil law. People of that time would memorise them. Thus lawyers would recite the Dharmasutras from memory, and cases would be decided based on this.
An introduction to the Gṛhyasūtras: the sutras for householders
Of the four castes, the Brahman, Kshatriya, and Vaishya were considered to be “twice born” and had specific religious responsibilities. They divided their lives into four stages [Skt. Ashrama] that all males were supposed to follow.
- The stage of celibacy (stage of study)
- The stage of household life (the stage of running a household)
- The stage of forest life (practicing the path)
- The stage of going forth (wandering through the land)
The stage of celibacy [Skt. Brahmacarin] was the time when young boys were students: from the age of 8 to 16 for Brahman boys, 11 to 21 for Kshatriya, and 12 to 24 for Vaishya. As a sign of being twice-born, they would wear the white Brahman thread, and live as students [Skt.śiṣya]. Students would stay in their teacher or guru’s home. Then they could choose to study for the duration of 12, 24, 36, 48 or however many years they wished. The main topic of study was memorisation of the Vedas.
There was a strict code of conduct during that time. Students could not inhale smoke or wear jewellery. They had to wear linen/hemp clothes and wear their hair in a top knot. They were not allowed to engage in any desires and had to be obedient and respectful towards the guru. Every morning they would go on alms rounds in the surrounding villages and give all they received to the guru. Only after the guru had finished eating were the students allowed to eat. They also had to gather firewood, fetch water, sweep in the morning, and tend the Brahma fire. In the evening they had to wash the guru’s feat and prepare his bed; they were only allowed to go to sleep after the guru had gone to sleep. The students would join the guru’s household and become his servant, and they believed that, through their efforts, they would receive some understanding of the ancient wisdom passed down from the ancestors. Students would study in this way with one or several gurus, and after completing the education they would make large offerings to the gurus. Then they would return home.
Once the student returned home, he was expected to marry and begin the second stage of life as a householder [Skt.gṛhasta]. This period of household life was considered the most important of the four stages because the majority of people lived as householders, and there were innumerable rituals for them to perform, some daily, some monthly, and some annually.
The third stage was forest living [vanaprastha]; people would leave home and go to live in the forest, subsisting on meagre food such as roots and bark. There were many religious practices to be done at dawn, in the morning, and in the evening. The Brahman fire had to be lit and there were also prostrations and particularly meditation practice on the profound meaning. In short, the third stage focused on practice.
The fourth stage, that of going forth [Skt.samyasin], was called the stage of the yogi. The practitioner shaved their head, abandoned everything, and went forth. This was a time of asceticism: giving up food, having only one robe, and gleaning one meal per day from alms. You had no fixed location—you were not allowed to stay longer than one night in a town; you wandered from place to place. It was not necessary to do many rituals, but you had always to recite the Vedas. The practitioner had to meditate on dhyana to try to see the true nature of world and separate themselves from the samsara of birth and death. The aim was to become one in taste with Brahman—the Supreme Self—and reach the happiness of liberation [Skt. moksha].
The Karmapa drew comparisons between these practices and those that exist in Buddhism, such as ‘going forth’ [Tib.rabjung] and living on alms. Some scholars have suggested that the tradition of begging for alms arose in India at that time because there was an abundance of food.
It was not necessary to go through all four stages sequentially. Those with a great desire to free themselves from samsara could go from study directly to samyasin. Usually, those who ‘went forth’ were older people, in their sixties or seventies, who had completed the life of a householder. Later, people who finished all four stages were seen as examples of people who had led a complete life.
This concept of the four stages of life was unique to India and had a powerful impact on Indian civilization.
The Development of Ancient Indian Areas of Knowledge
India’s distinctive development of areas of knowledge such as astrology, grammar, poetics, and philosophy was interconnected with religion. The motivation to study stars and planets was to know exactly the auspicious time and date for rituals. The purpose of studying phonetics and phonology was to ensure perfect pronunciation when reading the Vedas. By studying poetics and grammar, one could unmistakably know the meaning of ancient literature. Through the study of philosophy, one could realise the suchness of god. These areas of knowledge developed within India itself; they weren’t imported by scholars from other countries.
Indian medicine is another case in point. As they had to offer specific parts of animals, such as the liver or the heart, as sacrifices to the gods, they developed a knowledge of anatomy. Thus medicine had already developed to a certain degree when sutras appeared.
Mathematics developed indigenously too. The decimal system originated in India. The European number system was derived from Arabic numerals that originated in India, it is said. Indian mathematicians invented zero; it originated from the Sanskrit word śūnya meaning “empty”. Geometry developed independently in India, because it was necessary to measure mandalas accurately for sacrifices.
In the early Vedic era, the age of Rigveda, there was no writing in India. Later they developed writing, which led to the development of Sanskrit. Due to this, traditions of literature could be passed down. In terms of writing, the earliest Sanskrit writing was the Brāhmī script. Other than the undeciphered writing of the Indus Valley Civilisation, Brāhmī is the oldest written form in India; it probably appeared in the 6th century BCE. At the time of the emperor Ashoka, in the 3rd century BCE, there were two widespread scripts: Kharosthi, read right to left, and Brāhmī, read left to right.
By 400 CE, the Brahmi script had developed into the Gupta script, but that script disappeared in the 7th century. In the 8th century, the Nagari script appeared. The Nagari script was reformed and improved around the 13th century and the prefix deva, meaning ‘god’ or ‘divine’ was added, and it became the Devanagari. This is the script used to write Sanskrit and other Indian languages to this day.
In terms of language, as the Indo-Aryans spread throughout India, they encountered various indigenous languages and, as a result, many different colloquial languages developed. These were known as Prakrit or “natural languages”. His Holiness compared this to the existence of many dialects and colloquial languages across Tibet. Later as a method to make a single language, the Brahmans used the Vedas, Brāhmanas, and Upanishads as the source for a new, standardised grammar. During the time of Yaksa in the 5th century BCE and Panini in the 4th century BCE the grammar of the Sanskrit language was settled and it was accepted throughout India. Its name derives from the adjective sáṃskṛta which means “well-formed” or “perfected”, in comparison to the colloquial languages.
Comparing the Vedas, Brāhmanas, and Sutras
Each has its own unique style. In the early Vedic period in the Punjab, when the Vedas appeared, the Indo-Aryans worshipped aspects of the natural environment as gods. They were principally in verse form and said to have come from the blessings of the gods. The Brāhmanas were written after the Indo-Aryans had migrated to the Ganges Valley, and they were composed in prose form. Their focus is ritual in order to come to a better understanding of them, and they too are said to have come from the blessings of the gods. As the Indo-Aryans spread further along the Ganges River Valley and beyond, the Brāhmanas became common but they were very long, complex, and difficult, so in order to make them more concise and easier to understand, they produced the sutras which were basically textbooks, written in verse.