3.IV: Ancient Asia

Lord Shiva, one of the great gods of the Hindu pantheon. Hinduism and its offshoots, including Buddhism, are now practiced by two billion adherents in southern and eastern Asia. 1

A.  India

B.  China

C.  Citations

A.  India

1.  Hinduism

2.  Buddhism

3.  Empires

1.  Hinduism

By 1000 BCE, Indian civilization had migrated from the Indus River to the Ganges.  The texts that form the core of today’s Hinduism were added to the Vedas in the 1st millennium BCE.

The Indus and Ganges Rivers. 2

Two central Hindu principles are reincarnation and the caste system.  Castes are social classes.  The priests or Brahmins are highest, then the warriors or Kshatriya, followed by the working classes.  Each caste has its own dharma, or proper way of life.  Karma is the moral law of action and consequences:  when a person acts lovingly, she will earn good fortune in return, and when she acts with evil intent, it will come back to harm her.  Karma outlasts a human lifetime.  When a person dies, her soul returns in a new body.  Depending on her karma, she can be reincarnated into a higher or lower caste.  Karmic justice justifies caste-based discrimination in mortal life.   

The Hindu concept of enlightenment is moksha, connecting one’s soul to a universal consciousness.  Moksha requires humility and a simple, healthy lifestyle.  At the end of life, it can break the cycle of reincarnation.  

The most important Hindu gods are Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver), and Shiva (destroyer).  Other popular deities include Kali, the goddess of death, and Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of beginnings.  These gods are not jealous; Hindus have great flexibility in choosing whom to worship.  Animal sacrifices were traditionally important as tributes to the gods. 

2.  Buddhism

A Buddha is a teacher who has learned his own path to moksha.  Buddha Siddhartha Gautama lived in northern India or Nepal in the mid-1st millennium BCE. 1 He is remembered for his spiritual and philosophical teachings.  However, there were many buddhas, and Gautama’s message probably would not have attracted attention unless it had immediate political impact.

Gautama was a prominent Kshatriya, which was the dominant caste at that place and time while Brahmins were on the rise. 3 Brahmin priests had monopolized sacrificial rites, charging high fees that fostered corruption. 42 Gautama rejected animal sacrifice and downplayed the caste system.  Buddhism thus had the effect of reducing Brahmins’ influence.  Some historians argue this was not his intent. 5 Nevertheless, Gautama was an influential proselytizer who personally converted kings. 6 

Buddhism had populist appeal.  It was rapidly institutionalized with a hierarchy of temples and monks.  This brought about a Hindu counter-reaction, wherein the caste system was enforced more strongly.  This was also the time that the Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu became more popular.  Hinduism offered personal relationships with gods, which improved its appeal versus Buddhism’s. 7

Gautama is now remembered for his spiritual vision, motivated by a quest for liberation from suffering.  Buddhist cosmology borrows from Hinduism.  There are numerous levels of spiritual beings, including gods, humans, animals, and lost souls.  All are mortal.  Gautama taught an unintuitive form of reincarnation without a continuous soul.  Rather, the karmic energy of each deceased being “conditions” the birth of another, acting as a third parent during conception. 8 The most useful metaphor is as one flame igniting another.  A being who learns to eliminate fear, hatred, and delusion reaches a state of nirvana (extinguishment).  When she dies, her spirit will not condition another birth.  After all, with no life there is no suffering!  Gautama’s advice for the peace of mind to achieve nirvana is his greatest enduring legacy.

3.  Empires

The Mauryan Empire was the first state to unify most of what we now think of as India.  Emperor Chandragupta Maurya spread his Magadha kingdom west around 320 BCE to fill a void left by the evacuation of Alexander the Great.  Chandragupta’s grandson Ashoka expanded the empire to its greatest extent.  After his final battle, Ashoka felt great remorse for the death and destruction.  He embraced Buddhism and committed to “conquest by dharma” rather than by violence. 9 By building temples, convening councils, and sending out missionaries, Ashoka made Buddhism a major religion through the entire Indian subcontinent and into Southeast Asia. 10

After Ashoka, India relapsed into fragmentation for centuries.  The Gupta Dynasty, again from the wealthy Magadha Kingdom, reunited northern India in the 4th – 6th centuries.  The Guptas were Hindus who tolerated Buddhism.  Although not as large or powerful as the Mauryans, the Gupta Empire ruled peacefully, helping to cultivate great advances in civilization.  This was the highwater mark of ancient Indian art, science, medicine, architecture, and secular literature.  Perhaps the most influential innovation was the Hindu numeral system, the first to use place values and the “0” digit.  Chess and the love / sex treatise Kama Sutra were also popularized in this period.  Besides its ancient empires, India’s history was also shaped by its unique position in the center of Eurasia.  Indians had extensive interchange with Mediterranean and East Asian cultures alike.

B.  China

1.  Warring states and Chinese philosophy

2.  The Qin and Han empires

1.  Warring states and Chinese philosophy

The Zhou Dynasty wrested control of Shang territory, the historic heartland of China, shortly before 1000 BCE.  An early Zhou leader justified his family’s takeover by formulating the Mandate of Heaven 11 .  The Shang leaders had become corrupt and ineffective, he said, so the gods empowered the Zhou to take the throne.  Most succeeding emperors would claim the same mandate.

The Zhou Dynasty maintained control over some territory for an astonishing reign of eight centuries, though its heyday only spanned the first 10% of that period.  In a uniquely Chinese form of feudalism, early Zhou kings appointed family and loyal officers to govern regional territories and offered them a high degree of autonomy, including hereditary title.  Over the generations, these regional leaders became more distantly related to the Zhou Dynasty and more tied to their own localities.  The Zhou dominion shrank to the capital while the vassals’ spheres of influence grew around it.  As several independent states formed, they engaged in fierce competition for control of the whole region.  The turbulent 8th to 3rd centuries BCE are now known as the Eastern Zhou Period, 3 an incredibly long phase of constant warfare that kept getting worse.

The warring states of the Eastern Zhou period as they appeared in the -5th century.

Competition between the warring states spurred innovation.  Local leaders found it ineffective to rely on advisors who had inherited their positions, so they recruited the best minds instead.  In this environment, engineers invented cast iron and designed sophisticated canals and dams. 

Most influential were the philosophers, court advisors who debated “100 Schools of Thought” on how to reform society, win war, or find peace.  Legalism (prominent in the Qin state) started with the premise that each person’s self-interest is harmful to the public good.  Therefore, the law must restrict individual free will for the benefit of society.  Laws must apply equally to everyone and must be enforced strictly. 

Confucius, alive in 500 BCE in Lu, proposed a model of society almost opposite of legalism.   He taught that ethical standards were more important than strict rule of law.  A virtuous leader who taught by example, and rituals that reinforced a sense of community, would inspire men to act righteously.  Confucius died relatively unknown, finding no audience with kings consumed by war. 13 His devoted disciples carried on his wisdom in collected sayings.  His best known is the “silver rule” of decency: “Do not do to others what you would not wish done to you.” 14 Other key Confucian values were respect for parents and authority.

2.  The Qin and Han empires

Qin chancellor Shang Yang instituted a sweeping program of bureaucratic reforms in the 4th century BCE.  He organized local governments around a strong central court, privatized and taxed land, and created a rank system through society.  For most male commoners, land and promotions were tied to military achievements.  Thus, the entire state became a military machine.  Qin is a strong early example of a society where the ideal of “rule of law” was taken too far.  Crime was low and the state was stronger than its neighbors, but the people had little freedom to do much else besides serve the state. 15

Ying Zheng became king of Qin in 235 BCE.  With a particularly fierce ambition and an aggressive military commandant, he decided that the time was right for Qin to subdue all the warring states.  Amazingly, he did so in just nine years of campaigns.  Zheng became Shi Huang, the first emperor (and god) of unified China.  The name China is itself taken from Qin. 4 It is fair to call this new China an empire, because Qin had already expanded into non-Zhou lands.

Shi Huang expanded the Qin legalist system through all of China.  Qin bureaucracy still provides the framework of Chinese government today.  Huang’s government standardized the empire’s written language, which helped to unite and maintain Chinese identity for millennia. 16  

The emperor died young shortly after unification.  He had many enemies and his heirs were weak; his death was immediately followed by revolts.  His grave was “defended” by the now-famous army of thousands of terra cotta soldiers, an elaborate but vain gesture.  Within just five years, the Han Dynasty assumed the throne.   

Hans adopted the Qin style of government and culture, with one major innovation: they tempered it with Confucianism.  A court advisor convinced the first Han emperor that maintaining the empire required a different approach than conquering it. 17 A Confucian system stabilized peace internally so that the emperor could focus on defending the borders.   By the 2nd century BCE, government jobs required exams on Confucius’ philosophy and similar classics. 

The Han Dynasty presided over a golden age for four centuries.  It was a Han envoy that opened the Silk Road through Central Asia.  Chinese silk, spices, and ceramics were valued to the west, while China imported resources such as jade and horses.  The Roman and Han Empires flourished at the same time, creating a trading bloc across half the northern hemisphere.    


Back to Section 3.III: The Ancient Mediterranean

Top of this page, Section 3.IV: Ancient Asia

Continue to Section 3.V: The “Middle Ages”

C.  Citations

  1. Shiva statue photographed by Scot Fagerland in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
  2. Map by Jeroen (CC 0), public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Indo-Gangetic_Plain.en.png
  3. Hans Wolfgang Schumann, The Historical Buddha, Penguin / Arkana books (German, 1982, translated by  M.O. Walshe, 1989), p. 192.
  4. Schumann, ibid. at 33 and 79.
  5. Yujrav Krishan, “Buddhism and the Caste System”, The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 9(1):71-83 (1986), https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:bzGUv731GvcJ:https://journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/jiabs/article/download/8676/2583  (accessed and saved 9/15/19, archived 10/13/19).
  6. Two well-known examples are Kings Bimbisara and Pasenadi.
  7. Richard W. Bulliet et al., “The Evolution of Hinduism”, The Earth and its Peoples: A Global History, Vol. I: to 1550, Cengage Learning (6th edition, 2013), pp. 175 – 176, https://books.google.com/books?id=vSu6CAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover (accessed and saved 9/15/19).
  8. Schumann, op. cit. at 139 – 144.
  9. 13th Edict of Ashoka (-3rd century, probably his own words), trans. Ven. S. Dhammika, Buddhist Publication Society (1993), https://www.cs.colostate.edu/~malaiya/ashoka.html (accessed, saved, and archived 9/15/19).
  10. J.F. Horrabin, “Areas to which Buddhist missions were sent” (map, 1961) appearing in Anuradha Seneviratna, ed., King Asoka and Buddhism, Buddhist Publication Society (Sri Lanka, 1994), http://www.urbandharma.org/pdf/king_asoka.pdf , PDF p. 249 (accessed and saved 9/15/19, archived 10/13/19).
  11. Charles Hucker, China to 1850: A Short History (Stanford University Press, 1978), p. 33.
  12. China map by Yug (CC BY-SA 3.0), https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chinese_plain_5c._BC-en.svg
  13. Daniel K. Gardner, Confucianism: A Very Brief Introduction, Oxford University Press (Kindle eBook edition, 2014), Location 461.
  14. Confucius, Analects, 12.2.  See e.g. Robert Eno, transl., The Analects of Confucius:  An Online Teaching Translation, p. 59, https://archive.org/details/AnalectsOfConfucius_201606/page/n73 (accessed and saved 9/22/19).
  15. Most of the facts in this paragraph are from Li Feng, Early China: A Social and Cultural History, Cambridge University Press (2013), Chapter 11.
  16. Gray L. Dorsey, Jurisculture Vol. 3: China, Transaction Publishers (New Brunswick, NJ, 1993), https://books.google.com/books?id=b_tA54IOeZAC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false , pp. 131 – 132 (accessed and saved 9/22/19).
  17. Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian of China, (1st century BCE) translated by Burton Watson (1961, Columbia University Press), Han Dynasty Vol. 1, https://books.google.com/books?id=wDDLb8LjlNAC , pp. 226-227 (accessed and saved 9/22/19).
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