This chapter has been published in the book INDIA & Southeast Asia to 1800.
For ordering information, please click here.
So far most of our knowledge about the ethics of ancient India has come to us from the religious writings of the Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, Jainism, and Buddhism. These are the oldest sources, as there were no significant historians of ancient India except for the Greek and Roman accounts of Alexander's conquests. Later we shall see what epic poetry revealed about Indian civilization. This chapter will review what we do know about the history of ancient India and then examine the writings about dharma (law, duty), politics, and pleasure.
As we learned from the Vedas, ancient India was ruled by kings and councils of prominent men in varying degrees of monarchy and republican influence. Megasthenes, a Greek ambassador to India shortly after Alexander's death, wrote a book on India stating that monarchies were dissolved and democratic governments were set up in the cities. Jainism and Buddhism flourished particularly in the independent clans. According to Buddhist texts, in the sixth century BC there were sixteen major states in northern India of which Magadha, Kosala, and Vatsa were the most powerful. Our last chapter recounted how Kosala massacred the Shakya clan; after the Buddha's death, Kosala also took over Kashi.
Vatsa was a prosperous country known for its fine cotton; its capital was Kaushambi. Their heroic king, Udayana, was descended from the Kurus of Bharata and was the subject of several poems and dramas. He was captured by the cruel king Pradyota of Avanti, but he contrived to escape with the help of Pradyota's daughter. Interested in Buddhism, Udayana was converted by Pindola, but not before he had tortured Pindola with brown ants while in a drunken rage.
Magadha rose to imperial power during the long reigns of Bimbisara (c. 544-491) and his son Ajatashatru (c. 491-460); their relations with the Buddha have been told. Only fifteen years old when he was anointed king by his father, Bimbisara conquered Anga, which had defeated his father. His son was installed in its powerful capital at Champa, and his diplomatic and matrimonial relations with Pradyota of Avanti also enhanced his power with the annexation of Kashi. The Magadha empire included republican communities such as Rajakumara. Villages had their own assemblies under their local chiefs called Gramakas. Their administrations were divided into executive, judicial, and military functions. Bimbisara was friendly to both Jainism and Buddhism and suspended tolls at the river ferries for all ascetics after the Buddha was once stopped at the Ganga River for lack of money.
After the death of Bimbisara at the hands of his son, Ajatashatru, the widowed princess of Kosala also died of grief, causing King Prasenajit to revoke the gift of Kashi and triggering a war between Kosala and Magadha. Ajatashatru was trapped by an ambush and captured with his army; but in a peace treaty he, his army, and Kashi were restored to Magadha, and he married Prasenajit's daughter.
Jain and Buddhist accounts differ slightly as to the cause of Ajatashatru's war with the Licchavi republic, but precious gems figured in both accounts. This conflict would determine the fate of eastern India and drew the attention of the Buddha, who suggested to the democratic Licchavis that they strengthen themselves by holding full and frequent assemblies while maintaining internal concord and efficient administration honoring elders, institutions, shrines, saints, and women.
However, Ajatashatru sent a minister, who for three years worked to undermine the unity of the Licchavis at Vaishali. To launch his attack across the Ganga River Ajatashatru had to build a fort at a new capital called Pataliputra, which the Buddha prophesied would become a great center of commerce. Torn by disagreements the Licchavis were easily defeated once the fort was constructed. Jain texts tell how Ajatashatru used two new weapons - a catapult and a covered chariot with swinging mace that has been compared to modern tanks.
Approaching the Buddha's assembly of monks to ask forgiveness for ending the life of his father, Ajatashatru could not understand how at night it could be so quiet near an assembly of more than a thousand people and exclaimed, "Would that my son Udayi Bhadda might have such calm as this assembly of the brothers has!"1 This conversation with the Buddha was a turning point in the life of Ajatashatru, and after the Buddha's death the chief disciple, Mahakassapa, entrusted the bulk of the relics to Ajatashatru. The king also repaired the facilities at Rajagriha used by the Buddhists and sponsored the first Buddhist council by providing clothing, food, residences, and medicine for about five hundred monks and elders.
According to Buddhist texts the four kings, who ruled Magadha after Ajatashatru, all killed their fathers, though Jain texts claim that his first successor was an adherent of their religion who was assassinated by his political rival, Palaka, the son of the Avanti king Pradyota, who had become powerful by conquering Kaushambi. Finally the people rose up against being ruled by murderers and elected Sishunaga king of Magadha; he destroyed the power of the Pradyotas and took over Avanti as well as Vatsa and Kosala. His son, Kalashoka, succeeded to a powerful empire, but he was murdered by a low-caste barber named Ugrasena, who founded the Nanda dynasty, which ended the traditional Kshatriyas' rule by exterminating their principalities. The last king of the Nandas was overthrown shortly after Alexander's Greek invaders left India in 326 BC because he was hated by his people for his wickedness, miserliness, and low origin.
Although the Persians extended their rule over the western edge of India under Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes, the only major threat of foreign conquest came when Alexander of Macedonia invaded India in 326 BC. According to Greek historians, "None of the Indians ever marched out of their own country for war, being actuated by a respect for justice."2 Arrian also added that all the inhabitants were free, since no Indian was a slave, though he did describe seven castes as the naked wise men, farmers, animal herders, artisans, warriors, supervisors, and royal officials. Tillers of the soil were so respected that even when a war raged nearby, they plowed and gathered their crops in peace.
After conquering Bactria Alexander crossed the Hindu Kush mountains. Taking advantage of rivalries between kingdoms, Alexander gained in advance the allegiance of Shashigupta and eventually Ambhi, king of Taxila. Alexander sent Hephaestion and Perdiccas with half his forces through the Khyber Pass, and they laid siege to the Astenoi for thirty days before their king Astes fell fighting. Alexander also met opposition from the free peoples, and in one of these skirmishes he was wounded while scaling the walls. An Athenian quoted Homer that Ichor flows from the blessed gods, but the conqueror denied this divine implication, declaring flatly that it was blood. Because their glorious leader had been wounded, the Greeks massacred the entire population of that tribe. Forty thousand Aspasians were taken prisoner, and the 230,000 oxen captured indicates the prosperity of the area.
The Assakenoi resisted Alexander with tens of thousands of cavalry and infantry in a fortress at Massaga. After the king was killed, the army was led by his mother, Queen Cleophes, and included the local women. After several days of heroic fighting, Alexander offered these brave people their lives if the mercenaries would agree to join his army; the city capitulated. But not wanting to fight other Indians, the seven thousand mercenaries tried to run away from the camp and were slaughtered by Alexander's soldiers.
Next the town of Nysa surrendered, and the Greeks celebrated with Bacchic revels the taking of a town they thought was founded by Dionysus. Then Alexander delighted in taking the town of Aornus, because he heard that Heracles had failed to do so. These incidents indicate that the motive for these conquests was the glory of mythic renown, since there was no other known provocation or rationale for the invasion of another country so far from home except perhaps to steal their wealth or the propaganda they were spreading Greek culture.
King Ambhi of Taxila responded to Alexander's messengers with gifts and agreed to surrender his prosperous dominions with the following argument:
To what purpose should we make war upon one another,
if the design of your coming into these parts
be not to rob us of our water or our necessary food,
which are the only things
that wise men are indispensably obliged to fight for?
As for other riches and possessions,
as they are accounted in the eye of the world,
if I am better provided of them than you,
I am ready to let you share with me;
but if fortune has been more liberal to you than me,
I have no objection to be obliged to you.3
Alexander, not wanting to be outdone by this generosity, gave Ambhi even greater gifts, plus one thousand talents in money. However, a Macedonian military governor was appointed over Taxila, and Ambhi provided military support to help the Greeks fight his Indian enemies.
A naval officer named Onesicritus heard a lecture on ethics from the wise teachers, who received free food in the Taxila marketplace. They admired Alexander's love of wisdom even though he ruled a vast empire; they said he was the only philosopher in arms they had seen. They asked about Socrates, Pythagoras, and Diogenes, but they felt they paid too much attention to the customs and laws of their country, an illuminating insight from one of the earliest cross-cultural discussions. One of the naked sages, Calanus, refused to talk with Onesicritus because he would not strip off his clothes; but he did show Alexander an analogy of his government by trying to stand on a shriveled hide, which when trod on its edges would not stay flat; but when he stood in the middle, it did. This was similar to the point Dandamis had made when he had asked Onesicritus why Alexander had undertaken such a long journey. A young man named Pyrrho, who went on to found the skeptical school of Greek philosophy, also talked with these sages, causing his entire outlook to change.
Alexander tried to negotiate with the other two major Indian kings, Abhisara and Poros. Abhisara sent gifts and promised to submit, but Poros said that he would meet Alexander on the field of battle. Alexander drafted five thousand Indian troops into his infantry, had a bridge of boats built to cross the Indus River, and met Poros on the banks of the Jhelum River, which his soldiers were finally able to sneak across at night to avoid confrontation with the elephants of Poros. This strategic battle fought in the rainy season was won by Alexander using flanking movements around the elephants. Thousands were slain, and after receiving nine wounds himself King Poros surrendered. When Alexander asked the defeated king what treatment he wanted to receive, Poros asked only to be treated in a kingly way. Winning Alexander's respect and friendship, Poros was granted the rule over his own people and later additional territory equal to his own that Alexander also annexed.
Alexander took Sangala by storm, killing 17,000 Indians and capturing 70,000, while only one hundred of his own men were killed, though more than twelve hundred were wounded. Once again Alexander offered to spare independent Indians; but when they fled, about five hundred were caught and killed. He ordered Sangala razed to the ground. He could see no end to war as long as some were hostile to his conquering. Alexander was enthusiastic when he learned of prosperous farmland on the other side of the Hyphasis River, but that July Alexander's officers and soldiers, seeing the vast plains that stretched to the east, refused to invade any further, having already traveled 11,000 miles in seven years. When Alexander could not persuade them to follow him, he had to admit that the omens had changed. Arranging for Arsaces to pay tribute to the king of Abhisara, he left his conquered territory under this king Ambhi and Poros, then planned his voyage back to the sea.
Having built a fleet of a thousand boats and expropriating another eight hundred, in November 326 BC Alexander began the voyage down the rivers to the sea. Hearing of opposition at the confluence of the Jhelum and the Chenab, Alexander marched his army forty-eight miles across the desert to attack the Mallians by surprise. Alexander led the attack personally, and the Greeks killed about five thousand Indians. Impatient with the slowness of those climbing the ladders into the enemy fort, Alexander jumped down into the fort almost alone where he was shot by an arrow through his breastplate into his ribs. Fighting until he fainted from loss of blood, he was then protected by bodyguards, and the arrow was eventually removed. Alexander recovered, but in revenge all the Indians in the fort were massacred, including the women and children.
Other independent cities of Brahmins revolted; 80,000 Indians were slain by the Greeks, and many captives were auctioned as slaves. After this bloody detour Alexander and his men returned to their ships and sailed down the Indus to the sea and returned to Babylon. On his boat Alexander questioned ten of the naked sages he captured for persuading Sabbas to revolt. Known for their pertinent answers to questions, Alexander threatened to kill those who gave inadequate responses. According to Plutarch these philosophers declared that the cunningest animal is the one people have not found out, that to be most loved one must be very powerful without making oneself too much feared, and that a decent person ought to live until death appears more desirable than life.
Alexander had entered India with an army of 120,000 with 15,000 horses but returned with not much more than a quarter of them, mostly because of disease and famine. Although this conquest did open up communication between the Greeks and the Indians, it seems to me that this could have been done much better without all the killing and plunder.
Alexander's conquests affected only the westernmost portion of India, as most of the empire of the Nandas remained intact. However, within a year or two of Alexander's departure this great empire was overthrown, not by the Greeks but by Chandragupta, the founder of the Mauryan dynasty. According to Greek historians the young Chandragupta met Alexander, angered him, and was ordered to be killed but fled. A Pali work describes how Chandragupta and his minister Chanakya recruited an army from the disaffected people of the Punjab who had resisted Alexander and then overthrew the existing government of India.
The Greek satraps Nicanor and Philippus were killed; when Alexander's empire was divided up after his death in 323 BC, the Indus valley had already been lost to Chandragupta; Eudemus left India in 317 BC. Seleucus, the ruler of the eastern portion of the Greek empire, encountered Chandragupta in 305 BC and had to cede the Hindu Kush mountain area for 500 elephants, which enabled him to defeat Antigonus at Ipsus.
Megasthenes was sent as the Greek ambassador to the court at Pataliputra, where he wrote a book on India. A royal road of more than a thousand miles connected the northwest territory with this capital. Megasthenes described how this vast empire was ruled by Chandragupta, who conducted public business and judged causes throughout his waking day. Provinces were ruled by governors and viceroys and the Emperor himself with the help of his council. An intelligence system, which included courtesans, reported to the king. Irrigation was regulated, and the army had more than 600,000 men; but they were outnumbered by the farmers, whose work was respected even in wartime.
Literary legends portray Chanakya as the genius behind the throne and the author of Kautilya's Arthashastra. Jain tradition claims that in the last days of his life Chandragupta was converted and joined their migration led by Bhadrabahu. Chandgragupta ruled for a quarter of a century and was succeeded by his son Bindusara, who ruled for about 27 years. According to a Tibetan source, Chanakya also helped Bindusara destroy sixteen towns and master all the territory between the eastern and western seas. Bindusara corresponded with the Syrian king Antiochus I, offering to buy wine, figs, and a sophist; but Greek law prohibited the selling of a sophist. Bindusara appointed his son Ashoka viceroy of Avanti, and about 273 BC Ashoka became emperor of India.
Buddhist texts portray Ashoka consolidating his empire by killing ninety-nine of his brothers; but some consider this an exaggeration to set off the contrast after his conversion because some of his rock edicts indicate loving care of his brothers. With a sense of his historic mission Ashoka had these rock edicts and stone pillars carved all over India with descriptions of his intentions and actions. These tell a remarkable story of the philosopher king H. G. Wells called the greatest of kings.
Ashoka admitted in Rock Edict 13 that eight years after his consecration as king when "Kalinga was conquered, 150,000 people were deported, 100,000 were killed, and many times that number died."4 Yet after that, he was converted to justice (dharma), loved it, and taught it. With great remorse Ashoka transformed himself and attempted to transform his kingdom and the world, though he warned offenders that they might be executed if they disobey. Eliminating capital punishment was not one of his reforms, although he did often delay executions. Ashoka expressed his main concern for the next world.
Ashoka renounced the violence of war, stating that he would have to bear all that could be borne. He refused to conquer weaker and smaller states, allowing even forest tribes an equal sovereignty. He wanted all people to enjoy the benefits of non-injury, self-control, fair conduct, and gentleness. As a benevolent monarch he declared all people his children and expressed his desire that all his children obtain welfare and happiness both in this world and the next. He thus engaged in preaching but also worked hard to serve his people. Instead of organizing military expeditions, he sent out peace missions throughout his kingdom and beyond to teach virtue and conversion to a moral life by love.
In another rock edict Ashoka said he had been an open follower of the Buddha for two and a half years. He abolished royal hunting and animal sacrifices in the capital, reducing the palace's killing of animals for food from several thousand a day to two peacocks and an occasional deer, and he promised to eliminate even those three. He banned sports involving the killing of animals and cruel animal fighting. In the 26th year of his reign he restricted the killing and injury of parrots, wild geese, bats, ants, tortoises, squirrels, porcupines, lizards, rhinos, pigeons, and all quadrupeds that were neither used nor eaten.
Ashoka provided medicinal plants for people and animals to neighboring kings as well as throughout his own kingdom, seeing no more important work than acting for the welfare of the whole world. He appointed governors who would serve the happiness and welfare of the people, and he insisted on justice and consistent punishments. He commanded that reports be made to him at any hour of the day and at any place, so intent was he in working for the good of all. To protect people and beasts Ashoka had trees planted and shelters built at regular intervals along the roads. Mango groves were planted, and wells were dug.
Although he followed Buddhist dharma, Ashoka respected all the religious sects and also encouraged his people to do so by guarding their speech in neither praising one's own sect nor blaming other sects except in moderation. He believed that whoever praises one's own sect and disparages another's does one's own sect the greatest possible harm. "Therefore concord alone is meritorious, that they should both hear and obey each other's morals (dharma)."5 He wanted all sects to be full of learning and teach virtue, and he promoted the essence of all religions, their unity in practice, their coming together in religious assemblies, and learning the scriptures of different religions.
Ashoka's emphasis was on ethical action rather than ritual and ceremonies, which he found of little use. The ceremonies of dharma that he found useful were "the good treatment of slaves and servants, respect for elders, self-mastery in one's relations with living beings, gifts to Brahmins and ascetics, and so on."6 For thirty-seven years Ashoka ruled a large empire that included most of India except the southern tip. Yet his efforts were to bring justice and virtue to the whole world. Thanks to his rock edicts and human memory, his admirable intentions will never be forgotten.
Little is known of Ashoka's successors, but it took about fifty years before the Mauryan dynasty came to an end about 187 BC with the assassination of Brihadratha by his general Pushyamitra and the invasion of the Bactrian Greeks. Pushyamitra was able to drive out the Greeks and ruled for about 36 years, but Buddhists complained that he was a cruel persecutor of their religion who offered gold coins for the killing of monks. The Shunga kings ruled for more than a century and were followed by the Kanvas, whose dynasty in Magadha lasted 45 years and was overthrown in 30 BC. By this point the empire was broken up, and little is known of this history except of some of the Greek rulers in Bactria, such as Demetrius II who conquered the Punjab and northwest India between 180 and 165 BC, Eucratides who was murdered by his son about 150 BC, and Menander who ruled for about 25 years in the late second century BC and was said to have become a follower of the Buddha.
Ashoka recognized three neighboring kingdoms in southern India as Chola, Pandya, and Chera, where the Tamil language was spoken. Legends indicate Dravidian and Aryan tribes coming in from the northwest; Agastya was said to have brought farmers from the homeland of Krishna. The Chola ascendancy over the Tamil states began in the first century BC when King Karikala escaped from prison and eventually defeated the combined forces of the Pandya and Chola kings with the help of eleven minor chieftains. King Karikala also invaded the island of Sri Lanka and removed 12,000 inhabitants to work building a fortification at the seaport Puhar. He also had irrigation channels built there at the River Kaveri.
A Buddhist monastery at Mahavihara recorded in the Mahavamsa
the early history of Sri Lanka. The pre-Dravidian aborigines were
called Nagas and Yakshas. About the fourth century BC they were
colonized by people from Bengal led by Vijaya, who had been banished
by his father for evil conduct; he invaded the island with seven
hundred men followed by the importation of a thousand families
and many maidens. A century later King Devanampiya Tissa sent
an embassy to Emperor Ashoka, who sent back envoys to consecrate
this king. Ashoka's brother Mahendra went to Sri Lanka to convert
them to Buddhism, and a branch of the Bodhi tree was planted in
the capital Anuradhapura. Devanampiya Tissa ruled Sri Lanka for
forty years until about 210 BC, and he was succeeded by his three
brothers. Then two brothers from southern India named Sena and
Guttika usurped the throne and ruled for twenty years.
The noble Elara from Chola overcame Asela and ruled the island for many years with justice for friends and enemies. Legend records that he even had his own son executed for accidentally running over a calf and killing it. Elara introduced their tradition of the bell of justice. However, he was considered a Tamil usurper, and after fifteen years of war he was defeated and killed by King Dutthagamani (r. 161-137 BC), who battled thirty-two chiefs to establish a united kingdom in Sri Lanka. He was succeeded by his brother Saddhatissa (r. 137-119 BC). Upon his death his younger son Thulatthana was chosen king by counselors and Buddhist monks, but the elder son Lanjatissa defeated the younger brother and held the throne for ten years. He was succeeded by his younger brother Khallatanaga, who was killed by rebels after ruling for six years. The rebel king was soon killed by another brother Vattagamani, who married the widowed queen in 103 BC. However, the same year King Vattagamani faced a Tamil invasion and a rebellion by one of his governors. He tried to quell the rebellion by using the invaders, but then the seven invaders drove him out of the country. His queen and the Buddha's alms-bowl were taken back to India by two invaders while the other five invaders ruled Sri Lanka 103-89 BC. Vattagamani recovered his kingdom from the Tamil invasion in 89 BC and governed for twelve years during which the extensive Buddhist Tripitaka was written down along with the Atthakatha. Vattagamani was succeeded by two sons, but the second, Choranaga (r. 63-51 BC), had Buddhist sanctuaries destroyed. He and several succeeding kings were poisoned by his wife Anula; then she was killed by Kutkannatissa, who ruled for 22 years until about 20 BC.
In ancient Indian culture political and social ethics were focused around the three goals of dharma (justice, duty, virtue), artha (success, prosperity), and kama (pleasure). The fourth goal of moksha (liberation) was considered the highest goal sought through spiritual and religious endeavor. Ways of attaining this spiritual release from the cycle of rebirth have been discussed in the chapters on the Upanishads, Jainism, and Buddhism, and will also be discussed in the next chapter on Hinduism.
The era of the sutras in Hindu culture slightly preceded the development of Jainism and Buddhism in the sixth century BC and lasted until the law codes began to become more formalized in the Laws of Manu starting around the 2nd century BC. Each school of the Brahmins had their own collection of duties with the Shrauta Sutras on the Vedic sacrifices, the Grihya Sutras on domestic ceremonies, and the Dharma Sutras on personal and social conduct. All of these follow the sacred traditions of the Aryan Vedas and distinguish the various duties, obligations, and privileges of the four castes. The Grihya Sutras delineate detailed rules for the householder in regard to marriage and household customs, manners, and rituals.
The Dharma Sutras cover broader areas of social customs and offer specific rules for almost every aspect of life. The four castes of the Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (rulers), Vaishyas (farmers and merchants), and Sudras (workers) were a strict hierarchy with each preceding caste superior by birth to the one following. The twice-born top three are ordained through initiation to study the Vedas and kindle the sacred fire, but the Sudras were only ordained to serve the other three superior castes. Brahmins were initiated in the eighth year after conception in the spring, Kshatriyas in the eleventh year in the summer, and Vaishyas in the twelfth in the autumn. The one initiating them became their teacher and must be served loyally according to strict rules. Initiates were not supposed to associate with those families that were not initiated called "slayers of Brahman."
Respect was to be shown to those in a superior caste and to those of the same caste venerable for their learning and virtue. Belief in the caste system was based on the idea of karma that those who act well in this life will be born in better circumstances or a higher caste next time, and those who do not fulfill their duties will be born in a lower caste and worse circumstances. Nevertheless this arbitrary system based on birth does tend to violate the principles of justice and equal opportunity for all.
The student phase of life was quite strict and celibate. These youths were not allowed to look at dancing, attend festivals or gambling halls, gossip, be indiscreet, talk with women unnecessarily, nor find any pleasure where one's teacher could be found. Students were to restrain their organs, be forgiving, modest, self-possessed, energetic, and free of anger and envy. The teacher was to love the youth as his own son and give him full attention in teaching the sacred knowledge without hiding anything in the law; teachers were not allowed to use students for their own purposes to the detriment of their studies except in times of distress.
The syllable Aum was chanted prior to studying the Vedas, and twelve years were considered necessary for the study of each of the four Vedas, although not everyone studied all four, as family traditions tended to focus on one of the Vedas. Meditation was practiced to gain wisdom and recognize the soul (atman) in all creatures as well as the eternal being within oneself. The eradication of faults such as anger, exultation, grumbling, covetousness, perplexity, doing injury, hypocrisy, lying, gluttony, calumny, envy, lust, secret hatred, and neglecting to control the senses or mind was accomplished by means of yoga. Detailed rules of penance are described for numerous offenses.
When adequate knowledge of the Veda has been gained by the student, he goes through a bathing ceremony and is henceforth known as a snataka. Rules for the snataka are detailed as are the duties of the householder after marriage. Rules of inheritance are defined, and funeral ceremonies are described. Beyond student and householder are two more stages of life available to spiritual seekers, who leave their home to become a chaste hermit in the forest, possibly to be followed by the final stage of renouncing everything as an ascetic (sannyasin) who must
live without a fire, without a house,
without pleasures, without protection.
Remaining silent and uttering speech only
on the occasion of the daily recitation of the Veda,
begging so much food only in the village
as will sustain his life,
he shall wander about neither caring for this world
nor for heaven."7
Such a person is clearly seeking spiritual liberation (moksha).
The beginnings of criminal and civil law are also outlined in the Dharma Sutras, but punishments are differentiated according to the perpetrator's caste and also the victim's. Neither capital nor corporal punishment were to be inflicted on Brahmins. A Brahmin might be exiled, but he was allowed to take his things. The Apastamba Sutra concludes with the idea that duties not taught in the text must be learned from women and men of all castes.
Based on earlier Dharma Sutras, the most influential and first great law code of the Hindus, the Laws of Manu, was written between the second century BC and the second century CE. The sage Manu begins by describing the creation from the divine self-existent reality, which can be perceived by the internal organ. The best of the created beings are those animated ones who subsist by their intelligence, and of those humans the best are the Brahmins who learn the Vedas and know God (Brahman). Manu declared the sacred law as it pertains to the four castes (varna meaning color).
Though action from a desire for rewards is not laudable, there is no exception in this world. The study of the Veda is based on the idea of action (karma) - that acts, sacrifices, and the keeping of vows and laws are kept on the belief that they will bear fruit. Those who obey the revealed laws and the sacred tradition gain fame in life and after death unsurpassable bliss. The sacred law comes from four sources: the Vedas, the sacred tradition, the customs of the virtuous, and one's own conscience. The Vedas represent the revealed truth (sruti), and on them are based the Sutras and these laws which define the sacred tradition (smriti). Thus study of the Vedas is still primary for the three castes who are initiated.
The best way to restrain oneself from sensual pleasures is by constant pursuit of knowledge. The student is to abstain from honey, meat, perfumes, garlands, spices, women, any acid, and from doing injury to living creatures. Students especially must watch out for women, because it is their nature to seduce men, and they can lead astray even a learned man, causing him to become a slave of desire and anger. Originally the castes and laws may not have been as rigid as they later became. With faith, says the Laws of Manu (2:238), one may receive pure learning even from a person of lower caste, the highest law from the lowest, and an excellent wife may come from a base family.
Many of the rules for students and snatakas follow those in the Dharma Sutras. There is the deeper belief that injustice practiced in this world may not bear fruit at once; but eventually it will cut off one's roots, and it may even fall on one's sons or grandsons, though one may prosper for a while through injustice. The following advice is given to the twice-born:
Let him always delight in truthfulness,
the sacred law, conduct worthy of an Aryan, and purity;
let him chastise his pupils according to the sacred law;
let him keep his speech, his arms,
and his belly under control.
Let him avoid wealth and desires,
if they are opposed to the sacred law,
and even lawful acts which may cause pain in the future
or are offensive to people.
Let him not be uselessly active with his hands and feet,
or with his eyes, nor crooked nor talk idly,
nor injure others by deeds or even think of it.8
Though one may be entitled to accept presents, one should not get attached to accepting them lest the divine light in one be extinguished. The Brahmin, who accepts gifts without performing austerities or studying the Veda, sinks like a boat made of stone.
Everyone is born single and dies the same way. Single, one enjoys virtue or sin, for in the next world neither father, mother, wife, nor sons stay to be one's companions; only spiritual merit alone remains. The persevering, gentle, and patient shun the company of the cruel, and doing no injury gains heavenly bliss by controlling one's organs and by liberality. To lie to the virtuous is the most sinful thing as it steals away one's own self. What is most salutary for the soul is to meditate constantly in solitude in order to attain supreme bliss.
Noninjury (ahimsa) is essential to this ethic. Those who injure beings in giving themselves pleasure never find happiness in life or death, but those who do not cause suffering to living creatures and desire the good of all obtain endless bliss.
Whoever does not injure any
attains without effort what one thinks of,
what one understands,
and what one fixes one's mind on.
Meat can never be obtained
without injury to living creatures,
and injury to sentient beings
is detrimental to heavenly bliss;
let one therefore shun meat.
Having well considered the origin of flesh
and the fettering and slaying of corporeal beings,
let one entirely abstain from eating flesh.9
In spite of these thoughts animals were still sacrificed.
Though where women are honored, the gods are pleased, females were to be subordinate to men throughout their lives - the child to her father, the woman to her husband, and after his death to her sons. They apparently believed that the child was completely determined by the seed of the man and that the womb was only like the soil of the field. Yet the law also held that what was sown in someone else's field belonged to the (owner of the) field.
A wife may accompany her husband in the third stage of life as a hermit in the forest. There one meditates and studies the Upanishads in order to attain complete union with the soul. After studying the Vedas, having sons, and offering sacrifices, in the fourth stage one may direct one's mind to the final liberation. The ascetic gives up all worldly things, bearing patiently hard words, anger, and curses without returning anger, drinking purified water, and uttering only speech purified by the truth. Abstaining from all sensual enjoyments, one sits alone delighting in the soul. In deep meditation indifferent to all objects one may recognize the supreme soul that is present in all organisms.
The ten-fold law of all four stages of life is contentment, forgiveness, self-control, non-stealing, purification, control of the organs, wisdom, knowledge, truthfulness, and abstention from anger. The Kshatriya, whose highest model is the king, has the sacred duty to protect everyone and must also act as judge, prescribing proper punishment for those who commit wrongs. If the king did not punish those who needed it, the stronger would roast the weaker. The king was to be just to his own subjects, chastise enemies, be honest with friends, and lenient toward Brahmins.
The main vices the king must watch out for come from the love of pleasure and wrath. Vice is to be feared more than death, because the vicious sink down while the one who dies free from vice ascends to heaven. Here we also find for perhaps the first time the atrocious belief that a warrior who fights hard in battle goes to heaven if killed. In spite of the concept of non-injury, warfare was still socially acceptable. However, the wise king arranges everything so that no ally or neutral or foe may injure him, and this is considered the sum of political wisdom. Foes may be conquered by conciliation, by gifts, and by creating dissension, but never by fighting.
Civil and ceremonial laws fall into the following eighteen categories: non-payment of debts, deposit and pledge, sale without ownership, concerns among partners, resumption of gifts, non-payment of wages, non-performance of agreements, rescission of sale and purchase, disputes between owner and servants, boundary disputes, assault, defamation, theft, robbery and violence, adultery, duties of husband and wife, inheritance partition, and gambling.
Justice violated destroys, but preserved justice preserves. Justice is the only friend one has after death, for everything else is lost. Yet the soul is the witness of the soul and the refuge of the soul. The wicked may think no one sees them, but the gods see them distinctly. Those who commit violence are considered the worst offenders, and the king who pardons the perpetrators of violence incurs hatred and quickly perishes.
The Laws of Manu are summarized as non-injury, truthfulness, non-stealing, purity, and control of the organs. The main duty of the Brahmin is to teach, the Kshatriya to protect, the Vaishya to trade, and the Sudra to serve. Penances are detailed but can be summarized as by confession, repentance, austerity, and by reciting (Vedas), or by liberality. In proportion as one confesses and loathes the wrong, one is freed from guilt; one is purified by stopping the sin and thinking, "I will do so no more." Austerities are to be repeated until one's conscience is satisfied.
Realizing what comes after death, one will always be good in thoughts, speech, and actions. Mental faults are coveting the property of others, thinking what is undesirable, and adhering to false doctrines. Wrong speech comes from untruth, detracting from the merits of others, abuse, and talking idly. Bad actions are taking what has not been given, injuring, and intercourse with another's wife.
The doctrine of reincarnation helps people to realize that the consequences of their actions may occur in another life. All actions are good (sattva), passionate (rajas), or dark (tamas). Goodness comes from knowledge, darkness from ignorance, and passion from love and hate. Goodness results in bliss, calm, and pure light; passion ever draws one towards pleasure and pain; and darkness leads to delusion, cowardice, and cruelty. The good in their next life are more divine; the passionate are human; and the dark more animalistic. Ultimately knowledge of the soul is the first science, because by self-knowledge immortality is attained.
The classic work on the goal of material success is the Artha Shastra by Kautilya, who is identified with Chanakya, the advisor of Chandragupta, first king of the Mauryan dynasty. This treatise is a collection of political, legal, and economic advice from earlier sources put together and commented on by Kautilya. Unfortunately it is another step down ethically from the Dharma Sutras and traditional law codes to a worldly strategy of how to enhance one's own kingdom often at the expense of others. The complete text of this work was discovered in 1905 and has been translated into English.
In the third chapter Kautilya repeated the traditional views of the Vedas, the caste system, the four stages of life, and lists the duties common to all as harmlessness, truthfulness, purity, freedom from spite, abstinence from cruelty, and forgiveness. However, he then goes on to analyze government as the art of punishment based on discipline. Kautilya saw his work as the science of politics, which deals with the means of acquiring and maintaining the Earth. The study of any science depends on the mental faculties of obedience, hearing, perception, memory, discrimination, inference, and deliberation.
Princes were to be celibate until they came of age at sixteen, at which time they were expected to marry; girls came of age at twelve. Restraining the senses depends upon abandoning lust, anger, greed, vanity, haughtiness, and overjoy. Kautilya begins to reveal his value system when he places wealth above charity and desire, because these two depend on wealth. He seemed to forget truthfulness and harmlessness when he recommended the institution of spies using fraud and duplicity.
Although Kautilya declared that the prince should be taught only justice (dharma) and wealth (artha) and that he should do what pleases his subjects, to his rational mind this may mean warfare and treachery against their enemies. After describing the villages, land, and forts, Kautilya goes on to delineate the duties of the chamberlain, the collector general, account keepers, and the superintendents of gold, storehouse, commerce, forest produce, armory, weights and measures, tolls, weaving, agriculture, liquor, slaughterhouse, prostitutes, ships, cows, horses, elephants, chariots, infantry, passports, pasture land, and the city.
Brahmins, ascetics, children, the aged, the afflicted, royal messengers, and pregnant women are to be given free passes to cross rivers. Diplomatic negotiation is to be carried out by praising the other's qualities, discussing mutual benefits, future prospects, and the identity of interests. Law is based on justice, evidence, history, and the edicts of kings; but for Kautilya the royal will is the most important, though the justice of the sacred law takes precedent over history when they disagree. Marriage cannot be dissolved by the husband or wife against the will of the other; but if there is mutual enmity, divorce may be obtained. Neighborhood elders may be consulted to settle disputes about fields.
Kautilya recommended cooperation with public projects and suggested, "The order of any person attempting to do a work beneficial to all shall be obeyed,"10 and those disobeying may be punished. The native Mlecchas, who were considered barbarians, may sell their offspring into slavery, but Aryans may not. A person who has voluntarily enslaved oneself and runs away is to be enslaved for life, and one who has been mortgaged into slavery is enslaved for life for running away twice. Violation of female servants, cooks, and nurses earns them their liberty at once. If a master fathers a child with a slave, both the child and the mother are to be recognized as free. Slaves can buy back their freedom for their sale price, and Aryans captured in war can also purchase their freedom.
Kautilya described the various punishments for offenses, which can include torture, mutilation, and capital punishment, though fines were most often applied. Verbal abuse was punished with a fine, whether it was true or false, and the penalties for assault were halved if the offense was due to carelessness, intoxication, or loss of sense. Fines generally varied according to the rank of the person and the seriousness of the offense. "No man shall have sexual intercourse with any woman against her will."11 Mercy was to be shown to pilgrims, ascetics doing penance, those suffering disease, hunger, thirst, or fatigue, rustic villagers, those suffering punishment, and paupers. People were to be honored for their learning, intelligence, courage, high birth, and magnificent works.
Revenues were to be collected like fruits, only when they were ripe; to try to collect revenue when unripe may injure the source and cause immense trouble. In addition to the usual services, artists, and musicians, the court also supported a foreteller of the future, a reader of omens, an astrologer, a reader of the Puranas, a story-teller, and a bard. Advisors are to tell the king what is good and pleasing but not what is bad; though when the king is ready to listen, he may be told secretly what is unpleasant but good.
For Kautilya the elements of sovereignty were the king, the minister, the country, the fort, the treasury, the army and its ally, and the enemy. A good king was described as born of a high family, godly, virtuous, courageous, truthful, grateful, ambitious, enthusiastic, not addicted to procrastination, powerful in controlling neighbor kings, resolute, with a good assembly, having a taste for discipline, with a sharp intellect and memory, trained in various arts, dignified, with foresight, discerning the need for war, not haughty, free of passions and bad habits, and observing traditional customs.
The acquisition of wealth and its security was dependent on peace and industry. Kautilya defined three kinds of strength as the ability to deliberate being intellectual strength, a prosperous treasury being strength of sovereignty, and martial power being physical strength. The traditional six forms of state policy were peace, war, neutrality, marching (preparing), alliance, and the double policy of making peace with one and waging war against another. Although Kautilya was not reluctant to use warfare, at least he did recognize that if the situation is equal, peace is preferable, because war involves loss of power and wealth, traveling, and sin. Kautilya used rational calculations of self-interest in deciding whether to march against enemies.
In my opinion Kautilya is to be severely criticized for recommending the use of war as a political instrument in disregard of human welfare. His position can clearly be seen as a degeneration from his own teacher's more humane views in the following passage:
My teacher says that in an open war, both sides suffer
by sustaining a heavy loss of men and money;
and that even the king who wins a victory will appear
as defeated in consequence of the loss of men and money.
No, says Kautilya,
even at considerable loss of men and money,
the destruction of an enemy is desirable.12
Kautilya believed that peace, dependent on honesty or an oath, is more immutable in this world and the next than that based on security or a hostage, which is for this world only. Kautilya thought that he and those who know the interdependence of the six forms of policy can play at pleasure with kings bound round with chains skillfully devised by himself; but I would submit that those chains based on human violence and suffering bind such an advisor as well and cause untold misery.
Once again Kautilya valued wealth most of all, for with money one can buy treasure and an army. Kautilya, who has been compared to Machiavelli, believed that the skill of intrigue is more important than enthusiasm and power when invading another country. He coldly calculated whether the expected profit will outweigh the loss of trained men and diminution of gold and grains when deciding whether to march. By conciliation and gifts the conqueror should use corporations (mercenaries) against an enemy; but if they oppose him, he should sow seeds of dissension among them and secretly punish them. He may also use rewards for those who help him fulfill his promises to his people. Kautilya did believe the king should follow the will of the people.
Whoever acts against the will of the people
will also become unreliable.
He should adopt the same mode of life, the same dress,
language, and customs as those of the people.
He should follow the people in their faith
with which they celebrate their national, religious
and congregational festivals or amusements.12
He then went on to recommend that spies be used to persuade the local leaders of the hurt inflicted on enemies in contrast to the good treatment they receive from their conqueror. He advised the extensive use of spies even in the guise of ascetic holy men. Various descriptions of magical remedies and superstitions are based on traditional folklore. Though worldly wise, the ethics of Kautilya leaves much to be desired.
The fourth aim of life to be discussed is kama, which means pleasure. The main aspect of pleasure discussed in the Kama Shastra is sexual love. Like the Artha Shastra these ideas on erotic techniques and methods were passed down through an oral tradition from the ancients. The legendary founder is Nandi, Shiva's companion, and about the eighth century BC Shvetaketu known to us from the Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya Upanishads, is said to have summarized them. This extensive work was passed down through the family of Babhru, and between the third and first centuries BC several authors wrote shorter works on different aspects of eroticism, including Suvarnanabha on erotic approaches, Ghotakamukha on the art of seducing girls, Gonardiya on the wife's duties and rights, Gonikaputra on relations with other men's women, Kuchamara on occult practices, and Dattaka who wrote on courtesans with the help of a famous courtesan of Pataliputra.
These were combined together in the oldest text we have today, the Kama Sutra by Vatsyayana, who probably lived in the fourth century CE. In style and language the Kama Sutra is considered quite similar to Kautilya's Artha Shastra. Famous as the world's oldest and the most detailed sex manual prior to our century, the Kama Sutra reveals the life-style and sexual morals of ancient India.
Vatsyayana declared that everyone in life must pursue three aims successively. Childhood is dedicated to acquiring knowledge and is a celibate phase; the erotic predominates in adulthood; and old age is dedicated to the practice of virtue (dharma) and spiritual liberation (moksha). Vatsyayana defined artha as material goods or wealth and said that it "consists of acquiring and increasing, within the limits of dharma, knowledge, land, gold, cattle, patrimony, crockery, furniture, friends, clothing, etc."14
Kama is the mental inclination toward the pleasures of the senses and is particularly connected to the erotic. Sexual behavior may be learned with the aid of this text and the counsel of worthy experts in the arts of pleasure. Nevertheless Vatsyayana acknowledged that money and social success are more important than love and that virtue is more important than success and fortune. With money one can realize the three aims of life, even in the case of prostitutes.
Since sex is natural to all animals why does it need to be studied? The preliminary acts between a man and a woman can benefit from rules of conduct. Among animals the female is driven by instinct with little consciousness during the sexual season. Although Vatsyayana said he is a fatalist, he recognized that success depends on human effort. The pursuit of pleasure must be coordinated with virtue and material goods. The lewd man is vain and scorned, and exaggerated emphasis on the sexual life can be self-destructive as well as ruining others. Nevertheless sexuality is essential to human survival. The one accomplished in wealth, love, and virtue attains the greatest happiness in this world and the next. The art of loving so pleasing to women, which allows children to be born, has been described by sages in sacred books.
The erotic science should be studied along with other subjects even before adolescence and after marriage with one's mate. A girl may learn from a woman who has had sexual experience. Vatsyayana listed 64 arts which include music, dance, drawing, carpets, flower bouquets, mosaics, bed arrangement, games, charms, garlands, ornaments, dressing, perfumes, jewelry, conjuring, magic, manicure, cooking, needlework, lacemaking, quoting, riddles, bookbinding, storytelling, basketmaking, woodwork, furnishing, gems, metals, stones, arboriculture, stockbreeding, teaching parrots, massage and hair care, sign language, foreign languages, decorating, observing omens, using memory, reciting, puns, poetry, cheating, disguise, manners, rules of success, and physical culture.
There are also 64 erotic arts from Panchala country. Prostitutes who are beautiful, intelligent, and well educated in these arts are honored in society and called courtesans. A man who is expert in the 64 arts is much appreciated by women. It is recommended that sexuality be satisfied within the caste, and marrying one's son to a virgin gained a good reputation, though Gandharva marriages based on mutual affection were generally considered the happiest. Exceptions to caste were made for prostitutes or widows, provided that it was only for pleasure. Young girls were also considered suitable for love affairs, and Gonikaputra recognized a consenting married woman as a fourth category.
An atrocious statement was made about a pair of lovers murdering the husband and taking his goods once the wife has fallen in love. The author also found nothing wrong with a poor man having a love affair to become rich. However, he must not show indifference to her, or she will ruin his reputation with accusations. Yet generally the seduction of another man's wife was considered an avoidable risk.
There follows detailed chapters on how to stimulate erotic desire, embraces, petting and caressing, scratching, biting, copulation, blows and sighs. Although a woman may be submissive or reticent, she is quick to learn the games of love. Vatsyayana declared that passion knows no rules nor place nor time, and variety fosters mutual attraction. "Whether they continue having sexual relations, or live chastely together, true love never decreases, even after one hundred years."15 Vatsyayana believed that suffering is not the Aryan way and is not suitable for respectable people. An educated man knows how to check the violence of his impulses and knows the limits of the girl's endurance. Amorous practices vary according to the place, the country, and the moment.
Oral sex is described but not recommended by some teachers as defiling of the face, though it was popular in some regions. Female and male homosexuality are both described. A man should respect the woman and consider her pure as a matter of principle even though she may appear guilty by her behavior. Since moral codes and local customs differ, one should behave according to one's own inclinations. Vatsyayana asked rhetorically, "Practiced according to his fantasy and in secret, who can know who, when, how, and why he does it?"16 After making love one should be affectionate so that a solid attachment may be established through friendly conversation.
Courting and seduction are discussed in chapters on how to relax the girl and on ways of obtaining the girl. Those who gain each other's trust end up becoming attached to one another out of habit. The totally trusting wife considers her husband a god and is completely devoted to him. She takes responsibility for the household. Widows may remarry and begin a new existence, and according to the ancient tradition an unsatisfied woman may leave her husband and choose another to her taste. Vatsyayana recognized the ethical marriage as the best and said that some men do not pursue adulterous relationships for reasons of ethics. The man who is educated in this erotic art cannot be deceived by his own wives, according to Vatsyayana. "Reasonable people, aware of the importance of virtue, money, and pleasure, as well as social convention, will not let themselves be led astray by passion."17
What is refreshing in this treatise is the openness to sexual pleasure and its naturalness without the shame and puritanical guilt so well developed in other cultures which have invaded modern India as well. The erotic is treated as an important aspect of human life and as the sacrament of marriage which unites the couple closer than anything else can, though relations outside of marriage are not forbidden. Instead of being burdened by inhibitions in ancient India people were encouraged to learn about their sexuality and develop the art of loving through education and practice. Only now in the late twentieth century does the world seem to be acknowledging the wisdom of these techniques and this highly skilled art.
1. Samanna-phala Suttanta 12 (Digha 1:50).
2. Arrian, Indica tr. E. J. Chinnock, 9.
3. Plutarch, Alexander, tr. J. Dryden, p. 569.
4. Sources of Indian Tradition ed. DeBary, p. 143.
5. The Age of the Nandas and Mauryas ed. Sastri, p. 236.
6. Sources of Indian Tradition ed. DeBary, p. 149.
7. Apastamba Dharma Sutra 2:9:21:10 in The Sacred Laws of the Aryas tr. Georg Bühler, Part 1, p. 154.
8. Laws of Manu tr. Georg Bühler, 4:175-177.
9. Ibid. 5:47-49.
10. Kautilya, Arthashastra tr. R. Shamasastry, 3:10:173, p. 199.
11. Ibid. 4:12:231, p. 261.
12. Ibid. 7:13:303-304, p. 335.
13. Ibid. 13:5:409, p. 438.
14. Vatsyayana Kama Sutra 1:2:9 in Danielou, p. 28.
15. Ibid. 2:5:43, p. 144.
16. Ibid. 2:9:45, p. 194.
17. Ibid. 7:2:53, p. 520.
This chapter has been published in the book INDIA & Southeast Asia to 1800.
For ordering information, please click here.