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India's civilisational expansion

By M.S.N. Menon

ONCE they lived together as brothers - the Aryans - on both sides of the Hindu Kush. They had a common language, common gods and common customs. Varuna, the sky god, was common to both. So were Indra and Mitra.

Yayati, from this side, married Sarmishta, daughter of a king from the other side, and from her line were born the heroes of Mahabharata. In the conflict between Vasishta and Viswamitra, the great Vedic sages, the Aryans, on the other side of the Hindu Kush, took the side of Viswamitra. Kaikeyi (Ramayana) and Gandhari (Mahabharata) also belonged to the frontier kingdoms. And Panini, the great Sanskrit grammarian, we are now told, belonged to modern Afghanistan. But the Indus people and the Iranians drifted apart, perhaps over the excessive addiction of the Vedic Aryans to soma (drink) and animal sacrifice.

Zoroaster called upon the Iranians to give up the Indo-Iranian gods in favour of one God-Ahura Mazda (Ahura means 'Lord', Mazda means 'to think'). The Vedic people put up Indra as their supreme God (in Iranian 'S' is pronounced as 'H'. So Ahura becomes Asura in Sanskrit). The way was thus open to regular migration of Iranian tribes to the land of Saptasindhu (Haptahindu).

The Achaemenians (one of the Iranian tribes) were the first to establish a universal empire. Darius conquered Punjab in 512 B.C. Punjab gave him a third of the empire's revenue and India provided cotton clothes for the soldiers of Darius.

India was also in contact with the civilizations of Sumeria and Assyria. The Sumerians remain a mystery to historians. The Old Testament says they came from the east. They were not Semitic. They contributed much to the civilisation of the entire region, including Egypt. The Epic of Gilgamesh has great similarity to our own story of Hrishyashringa. The Ziggurat, the Sumerian temple complex, was very similar to south Indian temples.

The Achaemenian power was finally destroyed by Alexander in 330 B.C. In the meantime, Buddhism, the first religion to enter Central Asia, was shaping the culture and civilisation of the region. Says Dr S. Radhakrishnan: "Buddhist ideas traveled to the shores of the Mediterranean. A strange mingling of ideas belonging to different traditions - Greek, Babylonian, Buddhist, Zoroastrian - was taking place in the centuries before the birth of Christ." It is said that Christianity reflects all these trends.

At the back of this expansion of Indian civilisation was the missionary zeal of Ashoka, the greatest emperor in history. Ashoka's rock edicts, found as far away as Kandahar, carried his message in Greek, Aramaic and Kharoshti. (Aramaic was the language of Christ and Kharoshti of Darius.)

Ashoka gave away Kashmir to the Buddhist fraternity along with 500 viharas (monasteries). Kashmir also emerged as a major center of Saivism. Central Asian students came to Kashmir and Taxila. Such was the case with Kumarajeeva, a native of Kucha (Central Asia). He became one of the most celebrated translators of China from Sanskrit and Pali into Chinese. Fa Hien, the Chinese pilgrim, was his student.

Two centuries before the birth of Christ, Indian missionaries were preaching Buddhism in Syria, says Mahaffy, a Christian chronicler. The Therapeuts (Theravadins) of Alexandria and the Essene of Palestine are said to be Buddhist communities. John the Baptist lived among the Essene and Jesus was closely associated with John. Pliny writes of the Essene: "They are a hermit people, one marvelous before all others in the whole world."

It was from Central Asia that Buddhism spread to China, Japan and Korea. Bamian, in Afghanistan, was a major centre of Buddhism, Saivism and Tantric cults. The Taliban will be remembered for one thing - for destroying the Bamian Buddhas.

The Kushan empire of Kanishka (Kushanas are said to have come from the region of Khotan) stretched from China to Yamuna. Kanishka became a Buddhist and held the Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir, which gave birth to the Mahayana School of Buddhism.

Charaka, the father of Indian medicine, lived in the court of Kanishka. Indian medical practices spread throughout Asia. Bukhara became a major centre of Indian education. It produced Avicenna, the greatest physician in Islam.

The Sassanians and the Guptas brought Golden Ages to their respective empires. But by A.D. 500, the Guptas were in decline and by 580 the Sassanians, too.

The Arabs, a nomadic people, conquered Iran in A.D. 651 and destroyed the Iranian civilisation. The Afghans resisted Islam for as long as three centuries. But they gave way in the end. With the advent of Islam in India, India's great quest for truth was arrested and its civilisation was almost destroyed.

Let history judge who have been helpful and who have been hurtful in history.

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