Archive for the 'Hinduism' Category

William Dalrymple

December 31 2014

One of Dalrymple’s heroes is Leigh Fermor. WD’s a fine historian, but not PLF’s literary equal.


In Xanadu (1989), following the path taken by Marco Polo from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to the site of Shangdu, Xanadu, in Inner Mongolia, the summer seat of Kublai Khan. Posts here: Xanadu and JeholThe Silk Road and Summer capitals, summer palaces.

City of Djinns (1994), about Delhi, where he lives.

From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (1997), about eastern Christianity. Posts here: Indian churches, Christians and Yazidi, and work back from links in latter.

The Age of Kali (1998), about trouble in modern India. Kali Yuga is the fourth age in Hindu cosmology.

Editor, Lonely Planet Sacred India (1999).

White Mughals (2002), about a love affair in early-nineteenth-century Hyderabad between James Achilles Kirkpatrick and a Muslim noblewoman, Khair-un-Nissa Begum.

Begums, Thugs and White Mughals – The Journals of Fanny Parkes (2002), an edition of the travel journals of Fanny Parkes, who travelled in India from 1822 to ’46 and wrote Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque.

The Last Mughal, The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857 (2006).

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India (2009).

Return of a King – The Battle for Afghanistan (2012), about the first Anglo-Afghan War, 1839-42.

Editor, with Yuthika Sharma, Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857 (2012). After Aurangzeb.

TV, radio, journalism.


Links to podcasts this year in the BBC Radio 4 Point of View series, with my comments:

A Lenten reflection, April 4. About the discovery, by a British hunting party in 1819, of the painted caves at Ajanta, in the western Ghats in central Maharashtra. “Along with the frescoes of Pompeii, […] the greatest picture gallery to survive from the ancient world.” The caves were inhabited by Buddhist monks, but show the sensual life of the court in which the Buddha grew up, not the austerities of the religious life. They were probably painted in the 2nd century BC, with a later group from the 5th century CE. There was no conflict between the sacred and the sensual in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, says Dalrymple; he does not dwell on Hindu traditions of mortifying the flesh.

Later: Buddhist, Jain and Hindu carvings and fragments of paintings in caves at Ellora in Maharashtra. Buddhist and Hindu carvings in caves on Elephanta Island in Mumbai harbour. Erotic Jain and Hindu carvings at temples in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh.

The puritanical break in India, he suggests, came not with Islam, but with the British, with effects still felt today in a false reinterpretation of their history by Hindus. Africans and Muslims are doing the same thing with theirs. What is rejected as unMuslim and unAfrican is often nineteenth-century unWestern.

A classic instance in modern Western art of wild eroticism united with religious sensibility is Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. Its original inspiration wasn’t Indian, but its title is a composite of two Sanskrit words, turanga and lîla, which, apparently, roughly mean “love song and hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death”. How odd that Bernstein, who conducted the premiere in Boston, never returned to it or recorded it. Or is it kitsch?

A tale of two elections, April 11. About the 2014 elections in India and Afghanistan.

Travel-writing giants, April 18. About Peter Matthieson, who had just died, and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Last year in the same series, we had Islamo-Christian heritage, December 20 2013, about the old sharing of sacred space in Egpyt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, India by Christians, Muslims and Jews. I quoted from it here.

Islam did not tolerate Christianity: it showed great tenderness towards it. Dalrymple quotes examples from Akbar’s abortive capital at Fatehpur Sikri. Mary is mentioned more often in the Quran than in the Gospels. Many apocryphal sayings of Jesus were and are current in Islam.

Contested sites and the failure to share: Jerusalem and Ayodhya, the Temple Mount and Ram Janmabhoomi. Though the Israeli occupiers of the Temple Mount do enforce a ban on prayer by non-Muslims at its Umayyad structures, a ban which some orthodox Zionists would like to defy and nearly all Muslims demand.

Dalrymple on Akbar and Christianity, New Statesman, December 19 2005. Post here mentioning Akbar’s attempt to start a new syncretic religion, the Dīn IIāhī.

The crucible of the Mahayana

December 28 2014

I  Alexander

Gautama Buddha and the founder of Jainism, Mahavira, both lived in a period of wars between local states in northern India in the 6th century BC. Gautama was born in what is now Nepal, Mahavira in Bihar.

What was the extent of Buddhism’s early influence in the Afghan or other domains of Achaemenid Persia?

In 326 BC Alexander the Great crossed the Indus (which the Persians had never done) and then the Jhelum or Hydaspes, the most western of the five rivers of the Punjab. At the Hydaspes Alexander defeated King Porus of Pauravas, an ancient country that soon afterwards fell to the Mauryans.

Another ruler, King Ambhi of Taxila, surrendered his city, already a Buddhist centre.

Alexander’s troops refused to advance further than the Beas, a tributary of the Sutlej, the easternmost of the five rivers.

II  Chandragupta

A Buddhist great power, the Mauryan Empire, emerged in India as the Achaemenid Empire fell.

After Alexander’s death in 323, Chandragupta Maurya (ruled 322-298) conquered Alexander’s briefly-held east-of-Indus satrapies with the help of a largely Persian army. Bactria, between the Hindu Kush and the Oxus, and Transoxiana, remained Greek. Both had belonged to the Achaemenids.

Chandragupta’s capital: Pataliputra (Patna).

III  Seleucus

Seleucus I Nicator, a Macedonian satrap of Alexander, established his authority as far as Bactria and the Indus and in 305 BC he fought Chandragupta. Seleucus appears to have fared poorly, ceding large territories west of the Indus to Chandragupta: Arachosia (Kandahar), Gedrosia (Baluchistan), the Paropamisadae (Hindu Kush), but not Bactria or Transoxiana. Post here on the Paropamisadae.

Chandragupta then sold Seleucus 500 war-elephants (who used them to fight Antigonus I) and married Seleucus’s daughter to formalise an alliance. Seleucus sent an ambassador, Megasthenes, to Chandragupta’s court. Relations continued between their successors.

Chandragupta was Jain. His successor Bindusara belonged to the Ajivika sect.

IV  Ashoka

Bindusara’s successor, Ashoka (reigned 269-32), embraced Buddhism and became a proselytiser of the traditional Theravada Pali canon.

His edicts, carved on pillars and rocks in various places in his empire, in the Kharoshti, Greek, Aramaic (Achaemenid) and Brahmi scripts, record the missions which he sent to Greeks and others.

V  Greek Bactrians

Meanwhile, the Seleucids were losing control of Bactria. It became the centre of an independent Greco-Bactrian kingdom c 256 BC, which extended into Transoxiana.

Capitals: Bactra (Balkh), Alexandria-on-the-Oxus (possibly Ai-Khanoum).

After the Brahmanical Sunga dynasty overthrew the Mauryans in 185 BC, the Greco-Bactrians invaded and conquered northwestern India with an army led by Demetrius.

VI  Indo-Greeks

The resulting Indo-Greek Kingdom lasted until AD 10 and was opposed in the east for its first century by the Sunga. Buddhism prospered, and it has been suggested that the Greek invasion of India was intended to protect the Buddhist faith from the persecutions of the Sunga.

Capitals: Alexandria-in-the-Caucasus (Kapisa or Bagram, Hindu Kush, north of Kabul), Sirkap (Taxila, Punjab), Sagala (Sialkot, Punjab), Pushkalavati (Charsadda, NWFP).

King Menander (reigned c 160-130 BC) became a student and patron of Buddhism. Were any Greco-Bactrian or Indo-Greek kings before him personally sympathetic to Buddhism?

VII  Greeks and Buddhism

The philosophers Pyrrho, Anaxarchus and Onesicritus are said to have accompanied Alexander. During the eighteen months they were in India, they were able to interact with Indian ascetics, described as Gymnosophists, naked philosophers.

At Sirkap, Buddhist stupas stand side-by-side with Hindu and Greek temples, suggesting religious tolerance and syncretism.

Early Mahayana theories of reality and knowledge may be related to Greek philosophical schools of thought.

The Milinda Panha is a Buddhist discourse in the platonic style, held between Menander and the Buddhist sage Nagasena.

The Mahavamsa records that during Menander’s reign, a Greek Buddhist abbot named Mahadharmaraksita led 30,000 monks from Alexandria (possibly in-the-Caucasus) to Sri Lanka for the dedication of a stupa.

There are Buddhist inscriptions by Greeks in India, such as that of the provincial governor Theodorus, describing in the Kharoshti script (and Pali language?) how he enshrined relics of the Buddha.

Coins of Menander and some of his successors show Buddhist symbols.

Buddhist tradition recognises Menander as one of the benefactors of the faith, together with Ashoka and Kanishka (below).

The first anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha are often considered a result of Greco-Buddhist interaction. The earliest Buddhist art was aniconic: the Buddha was only represented through his symbols (an empty throne, the Bodhi tree, his footprints, the Dharma wheel, the triratna).

It was natural for the Greeks also to create a single common divinity by combining the image of a Greek God-King (Apollo, or possibly the deified founder of the Indo-Greek Kingdom, Demetrius) with the attributes of the Buddha.

Stylistic elements in these representations point to Greek influence: the Greco-Roman toga-like wavy robe covering both shoulders (more exactly, its lighter version, the Greek himation), the contrapposto stance of the upright figures, the stylised curly hair and topknot (ushnisha) apparently derived from the Apollo of the Belvedere (c 335 BC), the measured quality of the faces.

During the following centuries, this anthropomorphic representation of the Buddha evolved to incorporate more Indian and Asian elements.

Several Buddhist deities may have been influenced by Greek gods. There are links between Greco-Persian and Buddhist cosmology.

The Buddha was known to the Church fathers. Buddhist gravestones from the Ptolemaic period have been found in Alexandria in Egypt, decorated with depictions of the Dharma wheel. The presence of Buddhists in Alexandria at this time is important, since it was to be an intellectual centre of Christianity.

VIII  Successors of the Indo-Greeks

Greek rule in Bactria was extinguished c 125 BC by southward-migrating Sakas or Scythians and Yuezhi, both Indo-European speaking. The Yuezhi are later called Kushan.

At the beginning of the first century, the Yuezhi invaded the northern parts of Pakistan and India and founded the Kushan Empire, a contemporary of the Roman Empire.

The Kushan rulers (30-375) displaced the Indo-Greek kings, but their culture was Greek-influenced. They used the Greek script to write their Indo-European language. Their absorption of Greek historical and mythological culture is suggested by Kushan sculptures representing Dionysiac scenes and even the story of the Trojan horse and it is likely that Greek communities remained in India under Kushan rule. Capitals: Purushpura (Peshawar, main capital), Bagram, Taxila, Mathura.

The Greek-influenced Indo-European-speaking successors of the Indo-Greeks:

Indo-Scythian/Saka kingdoms, 110 BC-400 (final extinction)

Indo-Parthian Kingdom, 12 BC-before 100

Yuezhi/Kushan Empire, 30-375

Indo-Sasanians, 3rd century-410

Ephthalite or White Hun Empire, 5th-7th century; they belonged to the Central Asian Xionite hordes and were enemies of the Gupta and of the Sasanians

The Ephthalites controlled present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and territories to the north and are probably the ancestors of modern Pashtuns. Their power was broken by the Sasanians (Khosrau I) in and after 557 and by the Turkic steppe-dwellers.

The full religious mix before Islam has to take account of Buddhism, Greek paganism, Hinduism, Jainism, Manichaeism, Shamanism, Zoroastrianism. Even Judaism and Nestorianism.

IX  The Mahayana

The Kushan king Kanishka was famous for his religious syncretism and honoured Zoroastrian, Greek and Brahmanic deities as well as the Buddha. He convened the Fourth Buddhist Council c AD 100 in Kashmir. His reign sees the earliest representations of the Buddha on a coin (c AD 120), and in a Hellenistic style. Kanishka also had the earliest Gandhari vernacular, or Prakrit, Mahayana Buddhist texts translated into the literary language of Sanskrit.

The sacred texts of Theravada Buddhism are written in Pali, a Prakrit or vernacular which is closely related to Sanskrit and to the language the Buddha spoke. The sacred texts of the Mahayana were translated from Sanskrit into local languages.

Buddhism expanded into East Asia soon after this. The Kushan monk Lokaksema visited the Han Chinese court at Luoyang in AD 178, and worked there for ten years to make the first known translations of Mahayana texts into Chinese. This was also the great age of Gandharan art (area around Taxila, northern Pakistan): subjects Buddhist, motifs Hellenistic. (Gandhara was originally the name of an ancient Vedic kingdom.)

Buddhism probably reached China from the Kushan Empire in the first century CE: from north India via the Punjab, Gandhara, the Hindu Kush, Bactria, Transoxiana/Sogdiana, and the Fergana valley (Kokand, Anijan). Then across the Tien Shan and into the Tarim basin (Kashgar, Khotan, Turfan). In other words, by linking to the Silk Road. A minority view is that it came to China by sea, entering by the Yellow and Huai rivers.

It entered by land via a region which had been partly hellenised. The interaction of Greek culture with Buddhism may have helped to determine the forms which Buddhism took in China. The Mahayana was eventually adopted in China, Siberia, Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The Mahayana goes beyond (or does it retreat from?) the ideal of the release from suffering, and the Nirvaṇa of the arhats, to elevate the Buddha to a God-like status and to create a pantheon of quasi-divine bodhisattvas devoting themselves to the salvation of their fellow human beings.

X  Decline of Buddhism

The interaction of Greek and Buddhist cultures operated over several centuries until it ended in the 5th century with the invasions of the anti-Buddhist Ephthalite or White Huns and later the expansion of Islam. In the Ephthalite empire Buddhism and Hinduism were still widespread, over a layer of Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism.

In India proper, the decline of Buddhism is usually attributed to a steady Brahmanical reaction, which gathered pace late in the Gupta era. Invasions by Ephthalites and later by Muslims must have hastened it.

Has the Greek influence been exaggerated by western historians? Have they shown undue interest in it because it is easier for them to understand than complicated autochthonous Buddhist movements and schools?

XI  Arrival of Islam

The Arabs completed their conquest of Persia in 651. In Persia and up to the Indus, the Caliphs’ power was gradually lost to local rulers, mainly Sunni, who distantly acknowledged the Caliphate until the fall of Baghdad.

In 661-71 the Arab armies conquered Bactria (by now called Tokharistan), which had passed from the Greeks to the Scythians, Yuezhi (Kushans), Sasanians, Ephthalite Huns and Sasanians again (or had the post-Ephthalite settlement there been Turkish rather than Persian?). 

Transoxiana, where the post-Ephthalite settlement had been Turkish, followed in 706-15; here they suffered a setback, but in 739-41 they conquered Transoxiana definitively.

This put the Islamic state astride the overland route between India and China via the Oxus-Jaxartes basin.

The Arabs conquered, further

Baluchistan after Persia

Sindh and the Indus valley in 711 (Muhammad bin Qasim); capital: Mansura; Sindh later came under local dynasties (Habbari, then Soomro)

Southern Punjab from a base in Sindh, occupying Multan in 712.

They failed to occupy the Kandahar-Ghazni-Kabul route to the Khyber Pass. Two small Hindu states in southern Afghanistan, mentioned below, stubbornly defended the approach to the Hindu Kush.

Their foothold even in the Punjab was precarious. A number of Hindu powers resisted them there. The area was eventually controlled by the Turkic Mamluk Ghaznavids and Persian Ghorids.

They tried to invade India, but were defeated by a coalition of post-Gupta Rajput dynasties in 738.

At the Talas River in 751 the newly-installed Abbasids came head to head with the Tang Chinese. If the Chinese had won the battle, they might have captured the Oxus-Jaxartes basin and reclaimed it from Islam or Zoroastrianism for Buddhism. But they lost, and their influence this far west subsided. They did not return to the Tarim basin until the Qing or Manchu; not even the Yuan governed it.

Before the Islamic conquest, Afghanistan was a religious mixture of Zoroastrianism, paganism, Buddhism, Hinduism (near Kabul) and others. There is no reliable information on when Hinduism began in Afghanistan, but the territory south of the Hindu Kush was probably culturally connected with the Indus Valley civilisation in ancient times.

Herat province, near Persia, was Islamised early on, but the Arabs dealt with a number of post-Sasanian, post-Ephthalite rulers who resisted them. South of the Hindu Kush were the Hindu Zunbil and Buddhist (later Hindu) Kabul Shahi dynasties.

We don’t know how much of the Afghan population accepted Islam immediately, but the Shahi rulers remained non-Muslim until they lost Kabul in 870 to the Persianate (old post) Saffarid Muslims of Sistan, capital: Zaranj. Later, the Persian Samanids (old post) from Bukhara in Transoxiana extended their Islamic influence into Afghanistan. Muslims and non-Muslims still lived side by side in Kabul before the arrival of Ghaznavids from Ghazni in the late 10th century.

The Persian Samanids (819-999) presided over a revival of Persian civilisation in Samarkand and later Bukhara. They sponsored the first complete translation of the Quran into Persian.

The Persian Saffarids ruled in Persia and Afghanistan from 891 to 1003. Capital: Zaranj in Sistan, Persia/Afghanistan. They were eventually reduced to vassals of the Samanids.

By the 11th century, the entire population of Afghanistan was Muslim, except in Kafiristan, or Nuristan, in the east, whose inhabitants continued to practise an ancient form of Hinduism until Nuristan was conquered by the Emirate of Afghanistan in 1895.

The Turkic Ghaznavids controlled large parts of Persia, much of Transoxania, and the northern parts of India from 977 to 1186. Capitals: Ghazni in Afghanistan, Lahore in Pakistan. Their most famous ruler, Mahmud of Ghazni (reigned 998-1002), invaded and plundered India east of the Indus seventeen times. Capitals: Ghazni in Afghanistan, then Lahore.

They and the Muslim rulers in India mentioned in the rest of this note were mostly Sunni.

The Tajik Ghorids (before 879-1215), originally central Afghanistan pagan, Sunni from 1011, were later the first Muslim power in Delhi and further east as far as Bengal: Muhammad of Ghor invaded the Indo-Gangetic plain in 1194, conquering in succession Ghazni, Multan, Sindh, Lahore, Delhi. Ghorid capitals: Firozkoh, Herat, Ghazni, those three now in Afghanistan, Lahore as winter capital.

In 1206 a former slave of Muhammad established the Sultanate of Delhi. His Mamluk (slave) dynasty was the first there. The Sultanate ended with the accession of the Timurid Babur, the first Mughal, in 1526. When the Mughals first arrived in India, they spoke a Turkic language. In adopting Persian, they inherited the language of the Perso-Turkic Delhi Sultanate.

Genghis Khan invaded Transoxiana and Bactria in 1219-20. Before his death in 1227, he assigned the lands of western central Asia to his second son Chagatai, and this region became known as the Chagatai Khanate. In 1369 Timur, of the Barlas tribe, became the effective ruler while continuing the ceremonial authority of Chagatai Khan’s dynasty, and made Samarkand the capital of his empire (1370-1507).

The first independent Islamic Kingdom in South India was the Bahmanid Sultanate (1347-1527). It broke up into five states known as the Deccan Sultanates.

The Arab conquests brought the demise of Buddhism in eastern Persia and greater Afghanistan, but in some places in Afghanistan, such as Bamiyan (Bamiyan province) and Hadda (site near Jalalabad), it survived until the 8th or 9th century. The Taliban dynamited two monumental Buddhas carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan valley (6th and 7th centuries) in March 2001.

XII  Old posts:

Persian capitals before Islam

Transoxiana and Bactria

Indic and Hindu

Buddhism and Persia

Persia, 651-present

Toynbee and Ikeda 3

The Old World’s eastern roundabout

The Silk Road

NWFP, 1901-2010


Maps of Central Asia

Near Jalalabad

Picture credit: AfghaniDan; near Jalalabad

Silk Road

Picture credit: Luciana Di Floriano; Silk Road, probably Tien Shan mountains

Dread of birth

September 12 2014

Among people who have believed in the reality of rebirth, the dread of it has always been stronger than the dread of death.

Surviving the Future, OUP, 1971

The Hindu forest

January 27 2014

“Hinduism has often and justly been compared to a jungle. As in the jungle every particle of soil seems to put forth its spirit in vegetable life and plants grow on plants, creepers and parasites on their more stalwart brethren, so in India art, commerce, warfare, and crime, every human interest and aspiration seek for a manifestation in religion, and since men and women of all classes and occupations, all stages of education and civilization, have contributed to Hinduism, much of it seems low, foolish and even immoral. The jungle is not a park or garden. Whatever can grow in it, does grow. The Brahmans are not gardeners but forest officers. To attempt a history or description of Indian creeds seems an enterprise as vast, hopeless and pathless as a general account of European politics. As for many centuries the life of Europe has expressed itself in politics, so for even longer ages the life of India, which has more inhabitants than Western Europe, [footnote: The population of India (about 315 millions) is larger than that of Europe without Russia.] [This would now be true even if you included all of Russia.] has found expression in religion, speculation, and philosophy, and has left of all this thought a voluminous record, mighty in bulk if wanting in dates and events. And why should it chronicle them? The truly religious mind does not care for the history of religion, just as among us the scientific mind does not dwell on the history of science.” [Footnote: Eliot, Sir Charles: op. cit. […].] [Referring to Eliot, Sir Charles: Hinduism and Buddhism (London 1921, Arnold, 3 vols.) […].]

A Study of History, Vol III, OUP, 1934

Eastern Christianity and sacred space

January 19 2014

Transcript of a good piece by William Dalrymple, BBC Radio 4, December 20 2013. There’s also a podcast (BBC A Point of View series).

“There used to be widespread sharing of sacred space. I have seen Syrian Christians coming to sacrifice sheep at the Muslim [Sufi] shrine of Nebi Uri. While at the nearby Christian convent of Seidnaya, I found the congregation in the church consisted not principally of Christians but instead of heavily bearded Muslim men and their shrouded wives. As the priest circled the altar with his thurible, the men prayed as if in the middle of Friday prayers at a great mosque. Their women, some dressed in full black chador, mouthed prayers from the shadows of the narthex. A few, closely watching the Christian women, went up to the icons and kissed them. They had come, so they told me, to Our Lady of Seidnaya, to ask her for children. Now that precious multi-ethnic and multi-religious patchwork is in danger of being destroyed forever.”

My links. (Is Nebi Uri near Seidnaya?) Similar patchworks have been destroyed, or seriously damaged, in the Balkans.

In India, sacred space is still sometimes shared. I have been with a young Hindu in Chennai who took me into the San Thome Basilica and said a prayer there. He said he went into mosques too. This isn’t rare in India.

Some Palestinian Christians give their children names like Omar. Old post [and see comment below]. It would be nice if European Christians did, too, but it might sound rather pretentious and Beckhamish.

I love Malaysia, but it contains some peculiarly small-minded Muslims. Last October, a court there ruled that non-Muslims would be prohibited from using the word Allah, even though Christians and Hindus had been using it for centuries to refer to their gods.

One should speak of christianities, not Christianity:

Ottoman people and Orthodox churches (old post).

Essence and accidents

May 26 2013

How, in an Oikoumenê that was being united on a literally world-wide range within a Western framework, were Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus to make further progress in disengaging the essence of Religion from the accidents? The only way open to these fellow seekers after spiritual light was the hard road of spiritual travail along which their predecessors, with God’s help, had arrived at the degree of religious enlightenment represented by the living higher religions at the stage in which they found themselves at this crucial moment in Mankind’s history. By comparison with the stage embodied in Primitive Paganism, the state of relative enlightenment to which the adherents of the higher religions had attained by a date midway through the twentieth century of the Christian Era manifestly represented a marvellous spiritual advance; yet, marvellous though it might be, they had now become aware that they could no longer go on living parasitically on God’s past mercies to their forefathers and on their own forefathers’ past spiritual endeavours to win a fuller vision of God, and a closer communion with Him, for themselves and for their children. They knew that they could no longer rest on their predecessors’ spiritual labours because, in their generation, they were being racked by a conflict between heart and head which they could not leave unresolved with impunity, and which could be resolved only by a fresh spiritual move forward.

As the pilgrims girded themselves to take the hard road again, they might draw some encouragement from divers past successes of Mankind in discarding veils which had served as windows in their time. In default of fuller light, there had been a glimmer of spiritual enlightenment in the faint translucency of Man’s vision of God through the animal creation. In the demonic physical energies of untamed wild beasts Man had caught a glimpse of a divine power surpassing Man’s own strength; in the hunter’s game and in the shepherd’s flock he had caught a glimpse of God’s beneficence as the giver and sustainer of life; and a primitive worship of God in animal form had lived on to play a leading role in the religion of the Egyptiac Civilization. Yet, in the World as it was in A.D. 1952, this dim “theriomorphic” vision of God, though still a living reality for unsophisticated souls at the lower levels of Hinduism, was on the whole on the wane. In the Christian consciousness the lamb, the dove, and the fish stood, not for literal likenesses of God, but for poetic images of His ineffable nature – just as the rock on which the Church was built according to the Roman Catholic Christian belief was not a literal stone like the stone that had once embodied the Emesan divinity Elagabalus or the stone that still supported the wall of a Meccan Kaʿbah.

There were, however, some relics of past stages of enlightenment which might not prove so easy to purge away. The Muslims, who had resolutely rejected all visual representations of God in the physical likeness of living creatures, including “the human form divine” [Blake, The Divine Image], had not yet summoned up the resolution to break with that older and cruder phase of idolatry which had been embedded in Islam by the founder Muhammad himself – against the grain of his own prophetic mission – when he had given his sanction to the adoration of the Black Stone as part of a compromise with the vested interests of an ancien régime at Mecca. [Would Muslims say “revere” rather than “adore”?] Even the puritanical Wahhābī reformers, who had twice entered Mecca as conquerors pledged to purge Islam of idolatrous accretions, had left the Black Stone untouched both in A.D. 1804 and in A.D. 1924. To Christian minds the Muslims’ reluctance to part with the Black Stone seemed a quaint anachronism in glaring contradiction with the abhorrence of idolatry and devotion to monotheism that were the twin beacon-lights of Islam; and, conversely, Muslim minds found stumbling-blocks in the idolatry and the polytheism which, as they saw it, were still being practised by Christians, as well as by Buddhists and Hindus. In Muslim eyes the Christians’ persistent idolatry betrayed itself in the visual representation of God in the forms of a man, a bird, and an animal, and their persistent polytheism in their doctrine of the Trinity and their cults of the saints, while in a Protestant Christian’s eyes the sacrament of the pagan mysteries survived in the Catholic “Sacrifice of the Mass”, and the worship of the Great Mother had been withdrawn from Ishtar, Astarte, Isis, Cybele, and Inanna only to be paid, by Catholic devotees, to the same Mother of God under the name of Mary. [Footnote: […] Catholic Christians, of course, did not admit the Protestant allegation that their adoration of Mary amounted to the worship of a goddess. According to the Catholic Christian doctrine, Mary was one of God’s creatures, and the qualities that Catholics adored in her were gifts to her from her Creator.]


This was the challenge that confronted the followers of the historic higher religions in a world in which they had suddenly been brought to close quarters with one another and with a Modern Western Science owing to the rapid spread of a secularized Western Civilization over the whole habitable and traversable surface of the planet. In the year A.D. 1952 the living generation of Mankind did not yet know how they were going to negotiate this next stage of their present “climbers’ pitch”; still less did they know whether they would succeed in scaling it; but they could see that they stood no chance of succeeding unless they could settle their latter-day conflict between Heart and Head, and that therefore a sincere and earnest attempt to recapture a lost spiritual harmony was an indispensable prelude to grappling with the formidable precipice that towered above them.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Akbar and the Hindus

January 14 2013

Akbar recognized that a Muslim regime in India could not survive for long if it failed to win the assent of its Hindu subjects. In 1564 he abolished the poll-tax on non-Muslims. He demonstrated his power to the Rajput descendants of the Huns and Gurjaras by taking Chitor in 1567-8 (this once impregnable rock was not proof against artillery), but, having intimidated the Rajputs, Akbar conciliated them, and this was wise, since they were the most martial of the Hindu peoples before the rise of the Marathas and the Sikhs, and Rajasthan, where the Rajputs had congregated since the Muslim conquest of the Jumna-Ganges basin in the twelfth century, was the nearest to Delhi of all the regions in India in which the Hindus had preserved their autonomy.

However, Akbar’s conciliatoriness to his Hindu subjects was not prompted solely by political considerations; it was partly inspired by an ambition to break down the traditional barriers between the historic higher religions. Akbar initiated a series of debates between representatives of Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Roman Catholic Christianity, and in 1582 he promulgated a new religion of his own, the Din-i-Ilahi (“the Divine Religion”), which, so he hoped, would unite all the older religions by transcending each of them.

Mughal mnemonic

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

Religious categories in India

July 11 2012

Harsha (last post) was a convert to Buddhism and was the last Indian Buddhist ever to rule an empire. Had any of the Guptas been personally Buddhist? Which of the Kushan emperors were Zoroastrian? Were all the Indo-Greek kings personally Buddhist? Were all the Mauryan emperors after Ashoka personally Buddhist?

Wikipedia, slightly edited: “The distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism in India was purely sectarian and never more than the difference between saivism and vaishnavism [Buddha was an avatar of Vishnu] [my bracket]. The exclusiveness of religious doctrines is a Semitic conception, which was unknown to India for a long time. Buddha himself was looked upon in his lifetime and afterwards as a Hindu saint and avatar and his followers were but another sect in the great Aryan tradition. Ashoka was a Buddhist in the same way as Harsha was a Buddhist. But in the view of the people of the day he was a Hindu monarch following one of the recognized sects. His own inscriptions bear ample witness to the fact. While his doctrines follow the middle path, his gifts are to the brahmins, Buddhist priests and others equally. His own name of adoption is Devanam Priya, the beloved of the gods. Which gods? Surely the gods of the Aryan religion. Buddhism had no gods of its own. The idea that Ashoka was a kind of Buddhist Constantine declaring himself against paganism is a complete misreading of Indian conditions. Ashoka was essentially a Hindu, as indeed was the founder of the sect to which he belonged.”

Interesting, though not in the style of an encyclopaedia. Indian writers (I notice) often storm into Wikipedia and write or rewrite tendentiously and without citations.

Sirkap, Purushapura, Sthanesvara

July 11 2012

The Mauryas and the Guptas alike retained their seat of government at Pataliputra (the latter-day Patna), which had previously been Magadha’s parochial capital. [Magadha was ancient Bihar.] Standing, as it did, at the junction of the Ganges with the Jumna and with two other tributaries, Pataliputra was the natural administrative centre for the Ganges Basin […].

After the derelict domain of an enfeebled Mauryan Empire had been overrun by the Euthydemid Bactrian Greek prince Demetrius in the second decade of the second century B.C., the conqueror transferred the seat of government from Pataliputra to a new site far along the Great North-West Road connecting the former Mauryan capital with Demetrius’s own former capital at Bactra (Balkh) on the Central Asian side of the Hindu Kush. Demetrius’s New Taxila [it was called Sirkap] lay near the old city of the same name, in the neighbourhood of the latter-day Rawalpindi, which, before the foundation of the Mauryan Empire, had been the capital of a parochial Indian state; and it commanded the approaches, on the Indian side, to the difficult section of the highway in which a traveller had to negotiate the three successive obstacles of the River Indus, the Khyber Pass, and the main chain of the Hindu Kush.

This neighbourhood was the natural location for the capital of a Power which was seeking to “abolish the Hindu Kush” by uniting the Ganges-Jumna Basin with the Oxus-Jaxartes Basin. The Greek warlord Demetrius’s pioneering essay in this audacious defiance of physical geography proved ephemeral. The Bactrian Greek Power had no sooner overrun the Mauryan Empire than it was broken up by fratricidal warfare which opened the way for Nomad invasions of its dominions on the Indian as well as the Central Asian side of the Hindu Kush; but, when, after more than two centuries of kaleidoscopic political changes, the momentary achievement of the Greek empire-builder Demetrius was repeated in the first century of the Christian Era by the Kushan empire-builder Kadphises I and was perpetuated by Kadphises’ successors, the seat of government of this reconstituted political union of North-Western India with Central Asia came to rest not far from the spot originally selected for it by Demetrius. The capital of the Kushan Empire was planted at Peshāwar [then called Purushapura], on the Great North-West Road between the Indus and the Khyber Pass.

After the Mauryan Empire had been re-established by the Guptas, history repeated itself. The Guptas, like their predecessors, ruled the Indic World from Pataliputra; but, when the Guptan Empire collapsed in its turn and was momentarily restored by the Emperor Harsha (imperabat A.D. 606-47), this last of all the rulers of the Indic universal state [after this, in Toynbee’s terminology, the society is no longer Indic, but Hindu] placed his seat of government, not at Pataliputra, but at Sthanesvara [now called Thanesar] on the banks of the Upper Jumna, above the site of Delhi, covering the north-western approaches to the Ganges Basin from the quarter from which Hun and Gurjara Nomad invaders had swept down on the Guptan Empire from the Eurasian Steppe in the preceding chapter of Indic history.

Pataliputra – Patna

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Ritual, reason and revelation

April 14 2012

In the encounter between a dawning philosophy and a traditional paganism there had been no problem of reconciling Heart and Head because there had been no common ground on which the two organs could have come into collision. The pith of Primitive Religion is not belief but action, and the test of conformity is not assent to a theological creed but participation in ritual performances. For the vast majority of the faithful, the correct and alert execution of their ritual duties is the alpha and omega of Religion; primitive religious practice is an end in itself, and it does not occur to the practitioners to look, beyond the rites which they perform, for a truth which these rites convey. The truth is that the rites have no meaning beyond the practical effect which their correct execution is believed to have upon the human performers’ social and physical environment. The so-called “aetiological myths”, which purport to explain a traditional practice’s historical origin, are not taken as statements concerning matter[s] of fact that can be labelled “true” or “false”; they are taken in the spirit in which, in a more sophisticated state of society, a child takes a fairy-story or a grown-up person takes poetry. Accordingly, when, in this primitive religious setting, philosophers arise who do set out to make a chart of Man’s environment in intellectual terms to which the labels “true” and “false” apply, no collision occurs so long as the philosopher continues to carry out his hereditary religious duties – and there can be nothing in his philosophy to inhibit him from doing this, because there is nothing in the traditional rites that could be incompatible with any philosophy.

Awkward situations do, no doubt, occasionally arise, as when, in a ritually conservative Athens, the intellectually adventurous Ionian philosopher Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (vivebat 500-428 B.C.) got into trouble for having made public his opinion that the heavenly bodies were not living gods but inanimate material objects. A more celebrated case was the prosecution, conviction, and judicial murder of Socrates by his Athenian fellow countrymen in 399 B.C. on three charges, [footnote: Plato: Apologia Socratis, 24 B.] of which the second was that Socrates did not pay due worship to the gods who were the official objects of worship at Athens, and the third was that he paid worship to other divinities who were strange gods. Yet it may be doubted whether legal proceedings involving Anaxagoras would have been taken, some twenty years after the Clazomenian philosopher had ceased to reside in Athens, if these had not served the current political purpose of “smearing” Pericles; and it may equally be doubted whether Socrates would have suffered the death-penalty that Anaxagoras escaped if Socrates’ attitude towards religion had been all that his enemies had had against him. Socrates was – and remained to the last – a scrupulous performer of his ritual duties; and, on the religious counts, Aristophanes’ malicious caricature of him in The Clouds might have remained the limit of the penalty exacted from him, if he had not also been under fire in 399 B.C. on another count – the political charge of “corrupting the young” – which, significantly, figured first in the indictment. Socrates was the victim, not so much of conservative Athenian religious fanaticism, as of democratic Athenian resentment over the final defeat of Athens in the long-drawn-out Atheno-Peloponnesian war and democratic Athenian vindictiveness towards a fascist-minded Athenian minority who had seized the opportunity opened to them by the discrediting of the democratic régime through military defeat in order to overthrow the democratic constitution. Socrates’ past personal association with Critias, the moving spirit among “the Thirty Tyrants”, was the offence that the restored democratic régime could neither forget nor forgive. It was Politics, not Religion, that cost Socrates his life.

Where the issue was not confused, as it was in Socrates’ case, by political animus, Philosophy and Primitive Religion encountered one another without colliding. The death of Socrates was an exception to a rule of which the life of Confucius was a classical example. Confucius reconciled a conservative reverence for the traditional rites of primitive Sinic religion with a new moral philosophy of his own making by presenting his personal ideas as the meaning which the rites had been intended to convey. Fortunately for himself, Confucius found no Sinic Critias to be his political pupil in his own lifetime; and – thanks to this failure, which was the great disappointment of his life – he died peacefully in his bed. Confucius’s attitude and experience were characteristic of the normal relations between Philosophy and Primitive Religion; but a new situation arose when the higher religions came on the scene.

The higher religions did, indeed, sweep up and carry along with them a heavy freight of traditional rites that happened to be current in the religious milieux in which the new faiths made their first appearance; but this religious flotsam was not, of course, their essence. The distinctive new feature of the higher religions was that they based their claim to allegiance, and their test of conformity, on personal revelations received by their prophets; [footnote: This was true in some degree in practice even if not in theory of the “Indistic” higher religions as well as the “Judaistic”. Ipse dixit came to be a criterion of truth, not only for the followers of Jesus and Muhammad, but also for the followers of Siddhārtha Gautama and of the philosophic prophets of a post-Buddhaic Hinduism.] and these deliveries of the prophets were presented, like the propositions of the philosophers, as statements of fact, to be labelled either “true” or “false”. Therewith, Truth became a disputed mental territory; for thenceforward there were two independent authorities – on the one hand prophetic Revelation and on the other hand philosophical or scientific Reason – each of which claimed sovereign jurisdiction over the Intellect’s whole field of action; and, when once the hypothesis that the spheres of Revelation and Reason were even partially coincident had been accepted – and both parties did accept this as axiomatic – it became impossible for Reason and Revelation to live and let live on the auspicious precedent of the amicable symbiosis of Reason and Ritual. “There is a peculiar agony in the paradox that Truth has two forms, each of them indisputable, yet each antagonistic to the other.” [Footnote: Gosse, E.: Father and Son, chap. 5.] In this new and excruciating situation, there were only two alternative possibilities. Either the two rival exponents of a supposedly one and indivisible Truth must convert their rivalry into a partnership by agreeing that their expositions were mutually consistent, or, finding themselves unable to agree, they must decide the ownership of an apparently unpartitionable disputed territory in an ordeal by battle that would have to be fought out until one or other party had been driven right off the field.

The Hellenic world and China have been the only two places where advanced philosophy has preceded “higher religion” (if we regard the Vedic origins of Hinduism as belonging to that category).

Where did the conflict occur in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions? Is there even a serious gulf between philosophical/scientific and religious thought in the Indian tradition? In Hinduism, revelation is implied in the terms Apaurusheyatva and Śruti. Can one speak of revelation in Buddhism?

Anaxagoras, young crater near the lunar north pole

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Indonesian shadows

October 17 2011

Toynbee is sparing with references to Spengler in the Study and doesn’t mention him in the Acknowledgements and Thanks.

A four-page annex in Volume XII deals with one of his ideas.

Spengler’s concept of “pseudomorphosis” (“Deceptive Cultural Formation”) is one of the most illuminating of his intuitions. It throws light, for instance, on the relation between a satellite civilization and the society into whose field it has been drawn.

In essence the idea is a simple one. When two civilizations are interacting with each other, their meeting may be on an unequal footing. At the moment one of the two may be the more powerful, the other the more creative. In this situation the more creative civilization will be constrained to conform outwardly to the more powerful civilization’s cultural configuration, like a hermit crab who fits himself into a shell that is not his own. But an observer would be allowing himself to be misled if here he were to take appearances at their face value. He must look below the surface, study what underlies it, and take due note of the difference between the two. “The hands are the hands of Esau”, [footnote: 2 Gen. xxvii. 22.] but only because they have been disguised in order to deceive. “The voice is Jacob’s voice.” That is authentic, and it is therefore telltale, provided that the listener is not bent upon being deceived.


Didn’t Spengler’s conception of pseudomorphosis often imply the constraining of a vital new culture by an ingrained older one, with the creativity on the new rather than the old side?

Since the fifteenth century of the Christian Era, Islam has captured (sic) Indonesia. In this case the conversion has been accomplished by peaceful missionary enterprise, not by force of arms, and therefore has not provoked the militant opposition that it did arouse among Hindus in India. Nevertheless, Islam in Indonesia has not succeeded in supplanting, below the surface, the Indian culture – Hindu and Buddhist – which had been paramount in Indonesia for more than a thousand years before Islam’s arrival there. A present-day Indonesian Muslim reminds himself of his Hindu cultural heritage by assuming a Sanskrit name in conjunction with his Arabic one; and he celebrates the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (the Mawlid) by entertaining himself with puppet-plays [wayang kulit or shadow plays] in which the characters are the heroes of the Mahabharata. Here we can watch the Indian culture, which the Indonesians have never ceased to cherish, breaking through an Islamic veneer. The Islamic surface of present-day Indonesian culture is, in fact, a “pseudomorphosis”. But so, too, was the Indian culture which preceded Islam in Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula and which, in the Hinayanian [roughly, Theravada] Buddhist version of it, is still paramount on the South-East Asian mainland in Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia. [Vietnam follows the Mahāyāna, or Northern Buddhism, which it took from China.] In South-East Asia the dissemination of Indian culture, like the later dissemination of Islam in the insular and peninsular parts of the region, was a peaceful process. But the Indian Civilization in South-East Asia experienced the same fortune that Islam experienced there later. The Indian Civilization, too, failed to supplant the previously prevailing local cultures. Below the surface these continued to hold their own. In South-East Asia the exotic forms of Indian architecture, art, and religion have been adapted to express a native South-East Asian content. [Footnote: See D. G. E. Hall: A History of South-East Asia (London 1955, Macmillan), passim.]


“In many parts of Indonesia, the celebration of the Mawlid al-nabi ‘seems to surpass in importance, liveliness, and splendour’ the two official Islamic holidays of Eid ul-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.”

Quotation from Herman Beck, Islamic Purity at Odds with Javanese Identity: The Muhammadiyah and the Celebration of the Garebeg Maulud Ritual in Yogyakarta in Jan Platvoet and Karel van der Toorn, editors, Pluralism and Identity: Studies in Ritual Behaviour, Leiden, Brill, 1995.

Garebeg Maulud in Yogyakarta (and elsewhere?) commemorates the Prophet’s birthday. The Muhammadiyah is the second-largest Islamic organisation in Indonesia. The largest is the Nahdlatul Ulama.

Balinese wayang performance, image from Gustavo Thomas Theatre; Bali is Hindu anyway: Islam didn’t penetrate there, but wayang kulit is popular in Java too

There is almost nothing about Southeast Asia in the first ten volumes of the Study. Toynbee may have acquired Hall’s book as background reading for his journey round the world of 1956-57. I bought it as a 1,000-page paperback in Bangkok c 1990.

A Study of History, Vol XII: Reconsiderations, OUP, 1961

Ashoka and Akbar

October 1 2011

Chandragupta Maurya 322-298 BC

Bindusara 297-272 BC

Ashoka the Great 273-232 BC

Dasaratha 232-224 BC

Samprati 224-215 BC

Salisuka 215-202 BC

Devavarman 202-195 BC

Satadhanvan 195-187 BC

Brihadratha 187-185 BC

In Hellenic terms, the Mauryan Empire comes between Alexander and the Indo-Greek Kingdom. Capital: Pataliputra (post here) or modern Patna.

I could do a mnemonic for the Great Mughals, but don’t think I can manage the Mauryans.

Ashoka is famous because he was an emperor who […] put into practice our common human sense of fraternity. He is justly recognised as being a morally outstanding figure, because the sovereign power that gives such an unusual opportunity for treating one’s fellow creatures as one’s brothers also makes it unusually tempting to disobey one’s conscience and unusually difficult to act in accordance with it, even if one has the will.

Ashoka will continue to be remembered because he put conscience into practice in the exercise of his political power. This is all the more notable considering that, unlike ourselves, Ashoka lived in the Pre-Atomic Age and therefore did not have the obvious urgent utilitarian incentive, that our generation of mankind has, to renounce the use of war as an instrument of national policy. Waging war with even the deadliest of the weapons then at Man’s disposal, Ashoka would have run no risk of getting his own subjects exterminated, not to speak of bringing annihilation upon the human race as a whole. He could have been sure of enjoying this material kind of impunity if, for instance, he had chosen to follow up his conquest of Kalinga by going on to conquer the southern tip of the Indian peninsula and the adjacent island of Ceylon [neither of which the Mauryans reached, though Chandragupta is considered the first unifier of India]. To seize opportunities of rounding off their dominions by pushing forward to so-called “natural frontiers” is one of the standing temptations besetting the rulers of states. And in this case, Ashoka could have plausibly represented to himself that he would be waging war in the cause of peace. He would be bestowing on a whole subcontinent the peace that comes from political unification.

Instead of thinking and acting on these conventional lines of raison d’etat, Ashoka, as we know, was moved to action of a very different kind. He was moved – and this for the rest of his life – by a moral revulsion against his crime of having incorporated Kalinga in the Maurya Empire by an aggressive war of conquest. He was horrified at the spectacle of the wickedness and the suffering that he had let loose by his act of aggression. He stood convicted, in his conscience, of having sinned against his sense of brotherhood, and he responded by making a complete break with his dynasty’s and every dynasty’s traditional policy. Ashoka’s break with tradition was the more remarkable considering that the criminal policy of using war as an instrument for empire-building had not been peculiar to the Mauryas. It had been common form for every ruler, anywhere in the World, who had had the power to practise it. Ashoka’s grandfather Chandragupta had had Alexander’s bad example to incite him; Alexander had had Cyrus’s bad example, and so on, in a regressive chain of Karma, back to the Egyptian and Sumerian empire-builders in the third millennium B.C. In contrast to these predecessors of his, Ashoka devoted the rest of his life, and the whole of his political power, to putting his sense of brotherhood into action.

He was a chakravartin.

In renouncing war, Ashoka did not abandon the aim of unifying mankind, but he pursued this aim thenceforth by missionary, instead of military, methods. He did intervene in Ceylon, and not only there but also in the vast tracts, west of his empire’s western frontiers, that were being fought over, in Ashoka’s time, by Alexander’s pugnacious Macedonian Greek successors. Ashoka intervened outside his empire’s political frontiers by spreading knowledge of the beliefs and practices of Buddhism, and he recognised no “natural frontiers” for his missionary activities, short of the limits of the inhabited portion of the Earth’s surface. Today, Buddhism has adherents all over Eastern Asia; and the spiritual brotherhood among Buddhists has been, and still is, one of the great unifying forces in the World. The sense of Buddhist brotherhood seems to be growing in strength today. At least, this is the impression made on me, three years ago, when I visited what are, I suppose, the two chief Buddhist holy places on Indian soil: Sarnath and Bodh Gaya. The ubiquity and vitality of Buddhism can, of course, be traced to a number of causes, but one of these causes is certainly Ashoka’s change of heart in the third century B.C. – his change of heart and his translation of this experience into action.

Ashoka’s actions also illustrate the point that, in India, the human sense of fraternity is not limited to a fellow feeling for other human beings. If I am right, Ashoka abolished the Imperial Hunt, placed his court on a vegetarian diet, and made the slaughtering of animals illegal for his subjects on fifty-six days in the year. The strength of this large-hearted tradition in India is attested by the extraordinary fact that, 1800 years after Ashoka’s day, the self-same three measures – all reflecting an Indian recognition of a brotherhood with non-human forms of life – were enacted by another emperor of India, Akbar.

Akbar had been a great huntsman himself. He became a vegetarian in deference to Hindu sensibilities.

The Indian religious influence that moved Akbar to take these measures appears to have come from a Jain, not a Buddhist, source (Buddhism had lost its last foothold in India not much less than 400 years before Akbar’s time). All the same, it was an Indian influence; and what one might perhaps call the “Indianisation” of Turkish Akbar’s spirit in the course of his life in India is an impressive illustration of the Indian spiritual tradition’s power to captivate foreigners when they come within its range. Except for Timur’s transitory raid, Akbar’s forebears had not set foot on Indian soil till Akbar’s own grandfather, Babur, had invaded India. Babur himself had spent too large a part of his life west of the Khyber Pass ever to be able to feel at home on Indian ground. As for Babur’s grandson, Akbar had been brought up as a Muslim; and Islam, like the other two religions, of the Judaic family, is exclusive-minded and intolerant by comparison with the religions and philosophies of Indian origin. Yet the influence of India on Akbar went so deep that he worked out for himself a religion of his own. Akbar’s Din Ilabi was characteristically Indian in its large-hearted catholicity.

Though Akbar, like Ashoka, renounced war on animals, he did not also make Ashoka’s renunciation of war against human beings. No doubt this would have been harder, from a practical point of view, for Akbar than it was for Ashoka. Ashoka had inherited an empire whose authority was well established. Akbar had refounded an empire which his father had lost after his grandfather had won it. A renunciation of war against human beings would probably have cost Akbar his throne, and might have cost him his life as well. Yet we may guess that Ashoka would still have done what he did do if the accident of birth had put him in Akbar’s place instead of in his own.

In the Atomic Age, the spirit that we need in our statesmen is surely Ashoka’s spirit. We can no longer do without unity. But we can also no longer afford to pursue this indispensable objective by methods of coercion. Conversion, not coercion, is, in our day, the only means that we can employ for uniting mankind. In the Atomic Age, the use of force would result, not in union, but in self-destruction. In this age, fear, as well as conscience, commands a policy that Ashoka, in his time, was inspired to follow by conscience alone.

Chakravartin, possibly Ashoka, plus or minus year 1; Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh; Musée Guimet, Paris; Wikimedia Commons

One World and India, New Delhi, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Orient Longmans Private Ltd, February 1960

East and West

May 27 2011

Though, in all persecutions, there are, no doubt, always many weaker vessels who […] fail to stand the ordeal, the followers of the higher religions have been conspicuous, on the whole, for their steadfastness and courage when put to the test.

The Christian Church was put to this test by the Roman Empire; the Mahāyāna by the Chinese Empire in its avatar in the age of the T’ang Dynasty. Both churches responded by producing martyrs; but the Christians in the Roman Empire seem to have been more steadfast than the Mahayanian Buddhists in China in standing a more severe ordeal; and this apparent preeminence of the Christians in a common heroism is, indeed, what was to be expected. We should expect both the Mahāyāna and Christianity to shine in facing persecution, since the distinguishing mark of the higher religions is, as we have seen, their voluntary acceptance of Suffering as an opportunity for active service. At the same time we should expect the persecution itself to be sharper, and the endurance of it more heroic, in the western than in the eastern half of the Old World because the temper of life in South-West Asia and in the Graeco-Roman Society was more tragic and more intransigent than the temper in either India or China. In appraising both the comparative mildness of the T’ang imperial government and the comparative softness of its Buddhist victims, we must make the allowance for this general difference in psychological climate. It would be unwarrantable to assume that the T’ang régime was more virtuous than the Roman régime was, or that the Buddhist martyrs were less heroic than the Christian martyrs were.

The same difference in temper between the two halves of the Old World comes out in other historical parallels as well. For example, Christianity and Buddhism were, each, expelled from its homeland by a rival younger religion which had derived its inspiration from the older religion that it was opposing and evicting. Christianity was expelled from South-West Asia by Islam; Buddhism was expelled from India by a post-Buddhaic Hinduism whose philosophy bears indelible marks of its Buddhist origin. But the advance of Hinduism at Buddhism’s expense in India in the age of the Gupta Dynasty was accomplished as peacefully as the previous advance of Buddhism at the expense of a pre-Buddhist Indian paganism in the age of the Maurya Emperor Açoka. By contrast with this Indian record, the supplanting of Christianity by Islam in South-West Asia and Egypt in the age of the Arab Caliphate was a story of pressure and penalization – though, by contrast with the treatment of subject Jews and Muslims in Christendom, the treatment of subject “People of the Book” in Dār-al-Islām has been honourably distinguished by its comparative tolerance.

The Chinese nurse

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

Sanskrit, prakrits, modern vernaculars

February 4 2011

The earliest inscriptions in the prakrit vernaculars of northern India appeared under the Buddhist Mauryan emperor Ashoka (third century BC). These vernaculars declined as literary vehicles early in the Christian era.

Sanskrit’s Cronos-like feat of devouring its own children, the prākrits, in a post-Açokan Age of Indic history had endowed
the cannibal tongue with such an irrepressible vitality that in the history of a Hindu Civilization, affiliated to the Indic, there was never any question of a renaissance of Sanskrit, because the successfully reinstated archaic Indic language and literature had never tasted death [footnote: Matt. xvi. 28; Mark ix. 1; Luke ix. 27.] […].

Old post on Indic and Hindu.


In seeking to account for the difference in the respective literary fortunes of the prākrits – which, save for the survival of Pālī as the medium of the Hinayanian Buddhist scriptures, were driven off the field of literary usage by their Sanskrit parent’s counter-offensive – and of the latter-day parochial vernacular languages of a Hindu World which were fertilized by their encounter with the Sanskrit language and literature, instead of being blighted by it, we have to allow for one pertinent consideration of a linguistic, not a literary, order. The prākrits’ chances of victory in their competition with their Sanskrit parent were no doubt compromised by the linguistic fact that the degree of their differentiation from a common Sanskrit stock was slight enough to allow anyone who was literate in any prākrit to take to reading and writing Sanskrit, instead, with little difficulty. In departing from the pattern of Sanskrit, the prākrits had not gone so far as to break with the habit of expressing relations by the inflexion of the verbs and nouns that were the vehicles of meaning, instead of hitting upon the use of separate auxiliary words. The prākrits, like their Sanskrit parent, were inflective languages of the primitive Indo-European type. On the other hand the vernaculars of the next generation, derived from the prākrits, did sharply differentiate themselves from their parents by taking the revolutionary step that was taken by the Romance languages when they broke out of Latin, and by English when it broke out of Anglian […]. In crossing this great linguistic “divide”, these Indo-Aryan languages of the third generation had cut themselves off from their prākrit parents and their Sanskrit grandparent alike, and had thereby ensured their hold, more effectively than the prākrits had ever ensured theirs, against the risk of an attempt on the part of Sanskrit to capture for itself exclusively the entire literary allegiance of the peoples speaking these derivative languages as their mother tongues. A fortiori it was difficult for Sanskrit to deprive of their literary birthright the Dravidian languages of Southern India which, like the Ugro-Finnish languages in Hungary, Finland, and the domain of the Soviet Union, were non-Indo-European. The Hindu devotional poetry in the Dravidian languages was even less in danger than a Hindi Rāmcharit Mānas was of ever being supplanted by a classical Sanskrit equivalent.

From T Burrow, The Sanskrit Language, London, Faber and Faber, 1955, revised 1973, quoted in MW Sugathapala De Silva, Diglossia and Literacy, Mysore, Central Institute of Indian Languages, 1976 and online:

“The growing predominance of Sanskrit as opposed to Prakrit in the period succeeding the Christian era can be attributed to two reasons, one ideological and one practical. In the Maurya period the heterodox religions of Buddhism and Jainism had attained such influence as to threaten the existence of the old Brahmanical order. In the succeeding period, beginning with the usurpation of Pusyamitra (c. 188 B.C.), a reaction set in and there began a gradual decline of these systems in the face of victorious orthodoxy. This change in the religious atmosphere was reflected in language, and Sanskrit, associated with the traditional Vedic religion gained ground at the expense of Prakrit … The practical reason was that Sanskrit offered a united language for the whole of India [north of the Vindhya Range]. In the early Middle Indian period the differences between the various local vernaculars were not so great as to preclude mutual understanding, but even at this period Asoka found it necessary to engrave his edicts in three different dialects. With the progress of time the differences between the local dialects grew greater, so that Sanskrit became a necessary bond for the cultural unity of India. Furthermore the Prakrits were unstable and subject to continual change through the centuries. Any literary language established on the basis of a vernacular rapidly became obsolete. The traditional Prakrits in the latter period were as artificial as Sanskrit, and did not have the advantage of its universal appeal and utility. For such reasons alone Sanskrit was the only form of language which could serve as a national language in Ancient India, whose cultural unity, far more influential and important than its political disunity, rendered such a language essential.”

Was there a connection between the post-Mauryan Brahmanical revival and the later eclipse of Buddhism itself?

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

Arts of Asia

August 7 2010

Just a nod to one of my favourite magazines, published from Hong Kong since 1971. Ideal bathroom reading.

Higher religions

January 23 2010

By higher religions I mean religions designed to bring human beings into direct communion with absolute spiritual Reality as individuals, in contrast to earlier forms of religion that have brought them only into indirect communion with It through the medium of the particular society in which they have happened to be participants. Religion, in these earlier forms, is an integral part of the culture of some particular society. On the other hand the higher religions have broken – some partially, some completely – out of the configuration of the particular cultures in which they originated. They have become separate systems of specifically religious culture, in a state of tension with the systems of secular culture with which they have parted company. The advent of a higher religion thus brings with it the distinction – previously unknown – between “religious” and “secular”, “spiritual” and “temporal”, “sacred” and “profane”.

A religion cannot be extricated from the non-religious elements in culture without being divorced from the society that carries these non-religious elements on its network of relations between people. But no form of culture, secular or religious, can subsist without a social setting; and therefore the adherents of a higher religion cannot assert its independence of secular culture without at the same time incorporating it in an independent society. Every higher religion is carried on a network of social relations of its own. This is a specific form of society, distinct from both civilizations and pre-civilizational societies. A name is needed for a society of this religious species, and it would be convenient if we could label it “a church”. I have sometimes used the word “church” in this wide sense; but this usage has been contested by several of my critics, and they are, I think, right. The word “church” implies a unified ecclesiastical government, and this is possessed by perhaps no more than two of the extant higher religions: the Tantric Mahayana and the Roman Catholic denomination of Christianity. The Christian churches of the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Protestant Episcopalian denomination are respectively in communion with each other without having any common organs of ecclesiastical government. The ecclesiastical organization of most other extant higher religions is still less formal and more loose.

A Study of History, Vol XII: Reconsiderations, OUP, 1961

The city and the pillar

January 14 2010

… or The descent of Daniel

The harmony which Frazer denies [harmony between the service of God and the service of Man] is exemplified in practice in the lives of the Christian anchorites – a Saint Antony in his desert in Egypt or a Saint Symeon on his pillar in Syria – in an age when the Roman Empire, and the Hellenic Society embodied in it, were approaching their final dissolution. It is manifest that, in insulating themselves physically from their fellow men, these saints were entering into a far more active relation with a far wider circle than any that would have centred round them if they had remained “in the World” and had spent their lives in some secular occupation. They swayed the world from their retreats to greater effect than the Emperor in the city or than the master of the soldiers in the cantonment, because their personal pursuit of holiness through seeking communion with God was a form of social action that moved their fellow men more powerfully than any secular social service on the military or the political plane. The anchorites were recognized by their contemporaries to be pursuing the highest social aim on behalf of all Mankind with complete single-mindedness and disinterestedness; and this spectacle of their self-realization through self-surrender struck their contemporaries’ imaginations and touched their hearts and thereby played its part in the forging of a social bond of a spiritual order which held firm when Society dissolved on the political and economic levels.

Until recently it was considered to be beneficial to society for certain people to sit alone in rooms studying Latin and Greek texts.

Stylite comes from the ecclesiastical Greek stulitēs, from stulos, pillar. Stylites would sit for years on the tops of pillars in contemplation and prayer. St Simeon Stylites (c 390-459) lived near Aleppo, St Daniel (c 409-93) at Anaplus on the west side of the Bosphorus, St Simeon the Younger (521-97) near Antioch, St Alypius (522-640, dying apparently at the age of 118) in Paphlagonia. There are later examples in the Orthodox world, including in Russia.

“It has sometimes been said that the ascetic ideal of the East Roman was a barren withdrawal from the world of his day; the biography of John the Almsgiver [footnote (I presume Toynbee): John the Almsgiver [not a stylite] was Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria from A.D. 611 to A.D. 619. During these years Syria was under Persian military occupation while Egypt was still in Roman hands, and the Patriarch had to cope with an influx of Syrian refugees.] may suggest why it was that the Byzantine in his hour of need turned instinctively for aid and comfort to the ascete in the full assurance of his sympathy and succour. … One of the outstanding features of early Byzantine asceticism is its passion for social justice and its championship of the poor and oppressed.” [Footnote: Dawes, E., and Baynes, N. H.: Three Byzantine Saints (Oxford 1948, Blackwell), pp. 198 and 197.]

The anchorites’ concern and travail for the welfare of their fellow men would still have been recognized without question by their contemporaries if the anchorites themselves had never departed from their chosen and approved way of performing the opus Dei. But there were occasions on which the anchorites showed their love for Man and their humility towards God by breaking the regime of insulation that they had imposed on themselves and returning to the World to intervene in a secular crisis.

Thus [footnote: An English translation of the original Greek text narrating the following story will be found in Dawes and Baynes, op. cit., pp. 49-59. The anonymous author was one of the Saint’s personal attendants.] in A.D. 475-6 Saint Daniel the Stylite, at the instance of the emissaries of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, consented to descend from his pillar at Anaplus, up the Bosphorus, in order to save Orthodoxy from the Monophysite proclivities of the usurping Emperor Basiliscus. [Footnote: Monophysitism versus Orthodoxy was a secular as well as a religious issue at this date, since Monophysitism was becoming the theological expression of the resurgent national consciousness of the non-Hellenic peoples of the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire – particularly the Copts, Syrians, and Armenians – as against the [Chalcedonian] Orthodoxy of the “Melchite” Greek-speaking supporters of the Roman Imperial régime […].] The mere news of the holy man’s epiphany in the cathedral church of the Apostles in the Imperial City frightened the Emperor into evacuating his own capital and retreating to the imperial palace at the seventh milestone. It was indeed a crushing indictment of his conduct of public affairs that the report of his people’s affliction should have moved the saint to re-emerge from a physical isolation in which, by that time, he had been living already for twenty-four years [footnote: For the first nine years of these twenty-four, Saint Daniel had immured himself in an ex-pagan temple; for the last fifteen he had marooned himself on the top of a pillar.] and which was to have lasted unbroken till his death. Working spiritual acts of psychical and physical healing on his way, Saint Daniel led the clergy and people of Constantinople to beard the truant prince in his suburban asylum; and, when the guards refused the crowd admission to the imperial presence, the saint directed the people to follow him in the scriptural symbolic act of shaking the dust of the palace precincts off their garments [there are references in both Testaments to the gesture of shaking dust off garments or feet] – which they did with such a thunderous reverberation that most of the guards on duty were moved to desert their imperial master and follow in the stylite’s train. In vain the Emperor sent messages after the departing saint to beg him to return to the Hebdomon [the suburb to which he had retreated]; in vain he returned to Constantinople himself and besought Daniel to visit him in his palace there. In the end the Emperor was constrained to present himself before the Saint in the Cathedral and prostrate himself at his feet; and a public profession of Orthodoxy was the price that he eventually had to pay in order to save his throne by setting Daniel at liberty to resume his station on his pillar-top.

This was the sole occasion on which Saint Daniel issued from his physical seclusion during a period of forty-two years (A.D. 451-93) which saw the Roman Empire founder in the West while in the East it escaped shipwreck under the spiritual pilotage of the stylite’s “distant control”.

“For three and thirty years [in total] (A.D. 460-93) he stood for varying periods on the three columns. … During these he was deemed worthy to receive ‘the prize of his high calling’; [footnote (Toynbee or Dawes and Baynes?): Phil. iii. 14.] he blessed all men, he prayed on behalf of all, he counselled all not to be covetous, he instructed all in the things necessary to salvation, he showed hospitality to all [on the top of the column?], yet he possessed nothing on Earth beyond the confines of the spot on which the enclosure and religious houses had been built.” [Footnote: Dawes and Baynes, op. cit., pp. 70-71.]

On the face of it, Saint Daniel’s return to the World in order to rescue his fellow men from political oppression is the same story as the return of Purun Baghat [footnote: Kipling, Rudyard: “The Miracle of Purun Baghat” in The Second Jungle Book […].] to give warning, to the village below this Hindu hermit’s cave, of an impending landslide that would otherwise have engulfed the villagers unawares. The point is, indeed, the same in the legend of the Christian saint and in the Western storyteller’s version of a Hindu theme. The historic Christian and the imaginary Hindu hermit each rises to his highest spiritual flight by breaking away, for the love of God and Man, from a settled course of physical withdrawal from the World along which he had been seeking spiritual perfection. Yet, though both responded in the same way to the same illumination, there is a difference between their spiritual histories in the crucial point of the relation of the new light that had dawned on them to their previous spiritual outlook. The Christian saint had been led into his physical retreat from the World by the same love of God and Man that eventually moved him to descend from his pillar, whereas the Hindu sage, when he yielded to the impulse of love and pity that sent his feet hastening down the mountainside from the cave to the village, was not fulfilling his philosophy but was flying in its face – and who can say whether he would have brought himself to make this sacrifice “in real life”, if he had been an historical character authentically brought up in a philosophical tradition inherited by Hinduism from a Primitive Buddhist School, instead of having been created, as he was, by the imagination of a Western man of letters brought up in the religious tradition of Christianity?

The truth is that Frazer’s strictures, which miss their mark when he directs them against the saints, find a legitimate target in the philosophers, be they of the Indic or of the Hellenic school, who cultivate a detachment in which the withdrawal leads to no return. The Hinayanian, Stoic, and Epicurean ideal of the sage goes astray through casting Man for a superhuman role of godlike self-sufficiency and thereby condemning the adept to seek a way out of an impossible position by restricting himself to a sub-human performance. This philosophy attempts to make of Man, not a saint inspired by God’s grace, but a very god in himself; and, since this is too heavy a burden for a human soul to bear, the philosopher cannot make even a pretence of carrying it off unless he lightens his self-imposed load by casting out his God-given feelings of love and pity for the rest of God’s creatures.

Stephen Marsh, I suspect, would disagree with what seems to be the thrust of the last section as it concerns the detachment of the Greeks, having written in response to something here, and believing Toynbee to be anyway out of his depth in matters of philosophy: “Stoicism contains a great deal of ethical concern about the world outside the self including the claim that the world is the polis of good men” and “the ideal of euergetism [helping a community through patronage] makes even Epicureans like Diogenes of Oenanda concerned with promoting a good, ie happy, life for their fellow citizens”.

For similarly brilliant references to Kipling, see Mowgli’s finger and Gallicus Tumultus.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Krishna and Arjuna

December 31 2009

Review of Juan Mascaró, translation and Introduction, The Bhagavad Gita, Penguin Classics, 1962.

The Gita, part of the Mahabharata, one of the two Hindu epics (along with the earlier Ramayana), was composed early in the Christian era or late in the pre-Christian and was first translated into English by Charles Wilkins in 1785.

Namaste’s negative review of Mascaró on Amazon (“biblification”) sounds penetrating. Even I had questioned Mascaró’s translation of “dharmakshetra” or field of dharma as “field of truth” when I compared the first page on Amazon with the newer Penguin translation there by Laurie L Patton. Both are available, among many others. The square brackets here are mine.

The Bhagavad Gita has been translated repeatedly into English and other modern languages, and it is improbable that Mr. Mascaró’s translation will be the last. The Gita is one of the supreme religious poems. It deals with crucial spiritual problems, and its treatment of them is profound. This is why successive students of the Gita constantly discover new depths of meaning in it.

Translations inspired by such new insights are not superfluous, even if they have had predecessors, and the present translation is welcome because it is illuminating. It is sensitive and at the same time straightforward. Moreover, Mr. Mascaró, in his preface, has managed to put the Gita in its setting in the history of Indian religion, philosophy and literature.

Like the Gospels, the Gita resorts to paradox, and this for the same purpose. The reader is to be shocked into opening his heart and mind to teachings to which he might otherwise have been obtuse because of their difficulty or just because of their sheer novelty.

The poem opens on what is ostensibly a literal battlefield. The hero Arjuna is in revolt at the prospect of killing opponents, who are his kinsmen, in order to win a kingdom for himself, and he seeks counsel from his charioteer, who is Almighty God, incarnate as Krishna [an avatar of the supreme deity Vishnu]. God tells Arjuna that it is his duty to fight. He will be doing no wrong so long as he is spiritually detached from what he is doing; and, even if he kills an opponent’s body, it is impossible to kill his soul.

In giving this counsel, God seems to be preaching moral irresponsibility as an anodyne for a human being’s moral scruples. This is shocking enough to move the reader to look below the surface; and, at every subsequent stage of spiritual exploration, the poem opens the way for the reader to go deeper.

The issue is between renunciation and detachment on the one side and un-self-seeking dedicated action on the other. Arjuna, in his spiritual travail, asks Krishna which of the two is the higher path. Krishna’s answer is that “both renunciation and holy work are a path to the Supreme, but better than the surrender [abandonment] of work is the Yoga of holy work”. Action is unavoidable, and “no work stains a man who is pure, who is in harmony, whose soul is one with the soul of all.”

This is Saint Augustine’s “Love God and then do what you like.” If one does truly love God one will, no doubt, do what God likes. But is God’s will invariably good when judged by human moral standards?

Christianity assumes that the answer to this question can only be in the affirmative. This Christian assumption is impugned by some, at any rate, of the aspects of God in the Old Testament, and Hindu minds do not flinch, as Christian minds do, from facing the hard truth that, if God is omnipotent, he must be the author of all the evil in the universe, besides being the author of all the good in it. When Krishna, at Arjuna’s importunate request, gives this human being a momentary vision of his supreme self, the divine glory is not only terrifying but horrifying. “In a vision,” Arjuna exclaims, “I have seen what no man has seen before; I rejoice in exultation, and yet my heart trembles with fear. … Show me again thine own human form. … When I see thy gentle human face, Krishna, I return to my own nature, and my heart has peace.”

The reason why Arjuna’s heart again has peace is because now again, as usual, he is not having to face the nature of ultimate reality. Is God purely good? Ought a human being to obey God’s commands unquestioningly? Is it in his power to disobey them, supposing that his conscience tells him that he ought to? These agonising questions are not answered in the Gita. Perhaps they are beyond human powers of understanding. The Gita at least presents them with incomparable force and clarity.

Krishna’s name means dark, and he is usually shown with dark, often blue, skin

Hindu Testament, The Observer, April 15 1962

A casual affair

November 13 2009

Hindu worship is a casual, disorderly affair […].

East to West, A Journey Round the World, OUP, 1958

Islam in India and the Balkans

July 28 2009

While a vast majority of the Hindu ra‘īyeh of the Timurid Mughal Muslim emperors of India and their Afghan and Turkish Muslim forerunners emulated the Orthodox Christian ra‘īyeh of the ‘Osmanlis in zealously resisting the temptation presented by potent social and political inducements to apostasize, there were local mass-conversions to Islam – particularly among the socially-depressed ci-devant pagan converts to Hinduism in Eastern Bengal – that would appear to have been on a greater scale, not only absolutely, but also relatively to the total head of population in question in either case, than the corresponding local mass-conversions to Islam among the Albanian, the Epirot [ie Epirot Greek] and Cretan Greek, and the Pomak Bulgar Orthodox Christians and among the Bosniak Bogomils. Moreover, the Brahmans showed the same alacrity as the Phanariots in entering a Muslim Power’s public service as unconverted freemen, and the same facility in adopting their Muslim masters’ language and dress.

Was the word Pomak applied to any Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria? Isn’t it only applied after they had been converted to Islam?

A Study of History, Vol VIII, OUP, 1954

Lakshmi Narayan Mandir

March 8 2009


Click to enlarge. From Wikimedia Commons and the Wikipedia page for the Bihari city of Rajgir, a holy city in Buddhism and Jainism.

“The pink-hued Hindu temple called the Lakshmi Narayan Mandir has within its grounds the ancient hot springs. The temple is (as the name indicates), dedicated to Lord Vishnu and his consort, Goddess Lakshmi. [The] springs used to be the site of the Tapodarama, a Buddhist monastery at the time of Gautama Buddha.” (Wikipedia.)

A macédoine

February 6 2009

Unkind critics might apply that word to A Study of History and this blog. How the English applied civil law in India.

The civil province of law can be divided into two departments, one concerned with what, in laymen’s language, may be described as the “business relations” between private individuals, and the other with what, in the language of the art, is known as “personal statute”. “Business relations” are a broad field in which the pocket is touched without deeply affecting the heart; “personal statute” is a relatively narrow field, but it touches the quick, for its agenda are the intimacies of social life – marriage, wills, inheritance, wardship, and the like. The Osmanlis, as we have seen, consigned both these departments of the civil province of law to be dealt with in the separate communal courts of the Muslim community and of the non-Muslim millets of the Ottoman Empire in accordance with their respective communal laws. In the derelict domain of a defunct Mughal Empire in India, the British found a macédoine of religions, cultures, and peoples closely resembling the contemporary hotch-potch in the Ottoman dominions, but they worked out a different solution for a similar problem. They gave jurisdiction over the whole field to their own newly instituted British Indian courts, but, in prescribing the law that was to be applied in these courts, they confined the application of the English “Common Law” and its British Indian derivatives to the department of “business relations”, and laid down that cases concerning “personal statute” should continue to be governed by the communal law of the parties. [Footnote: This was done, not by drawing up any general definition of the field covered by “personal statute”, but by enumerating in each case the subjects in respect of which the existing communal law of the parties was to be applied in the British Indian courts. The area of the field was different in different cases. The legal institution enabling an owner of property, by making a will which, if valid, is recognized and made enforceable by the law, to determine during his lifetime how his property shall be disposed of after his death, was a feature of Islamic Law, as it was of Western Law, but was unknown to Hindu Law. As a consequence of this historical fact, the testamentary province of personal law came, for Hindus, to fall within the field of the English “Common Law” or its British Indian derivatives, while for British Indian Muslims it continued to be administered in accordance with the Sharī‘ah.]

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Chinese pilgrims

January 6 2009


Baoguosi, a temple on Mount Emei

After the propagation of the Mahāyāna into the domain of a disintegrating Sinic Civilization, the converts to this oecumenical higher religion in a nascent Far Eastern World [Far Eastern follows Sinic in Toynbeean terminology; the Mahayana was the church through which the Sinic Society came to be apparented to the modern Far Eastern Society] were inspired with a zeal to visit the scenes of the Buddha’s life and work in Northern India; and surviving records of journeys made by Chinese pilgrims to the holy land of Buddhism in the course of a span of years beginning in A.D. 259 and ending circa A.D. 1050 [footnote: See Goodrich, L. C.: A Short History of the Chinese People (London 1948, Allen & Unwin), pp. 64 and 156.] showed that the practice had been at its height in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries of the Christian Era. This floruit is surprising at first sight, considering that the more frequented pilgrims’ way was not the sea-route from the south-east coast of China to the Bay of Bengal but the land-route via the Tarim Basin and the Oxus-Jaxartes Basin and the passes into the Indus Basin over the Hindu Kush; for the period during which the overland pilgrimage from China to India was enjoying its floruit approximately coincided with a period, running from circa A.D. 375 to circa A.D. 675, when the Eurasian Nomads were in a state of effervescence, and when the perils braved by pilgrims on the overland route were consequently at a maximum.

Why should this route have been frequented by Chinese pilgrims during these particularly hazardous centuries, and deserted in the course of the next three hundred years, though these were times in which the Nomads were relatively quiescent? No doubt, one element in the answer is that the incentive of the merit to be earned by making the pilgrimage counted for more in Chinese Buddhist minds than the deterrent of the dangers that had to be faced. On this reckoning, the greater the peril, the greater the virtue of braving it; and accordingly the pilgrimage from China to India flourished, in spite, or perhaps rather because, of its hazardousness, so long as a distant holy land in Bihār was the only pilgrimage-resort where the Chinese pilgrim could hope to earn the merit that was the object of his quest. From the same angle of vision, we can also see that the stream of Chinese pilgrims to Bodh Gayā [the present name of the place in Bihar in which the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment] would be likely to dwindle, and finally to run dry, when a Mahāyāna that had long since taken root on Chinese soil begat there, in the fullness of time, a number of local Far Eastern Buddhist holy places – Wu-T’ai Shan in Shansi [Shanxi], Omei [Emei] in Szechwan, and the like – whose gradually accumulated mana [footnote: Wu-t’ai Shan, for instance, had already acquired such sanctity by the time of the great persecution of Buddhism in China in A.D. 845 that it was rehabilitated thereafter as early as A.D. 857 (Goodrich, op. cit., p. 127)] eventually came to rival in the Chinese Buddhist community’s estimation the mana of a Bodh Gayā in a once Buddhist Hindustan where in the meantime Buddhism had been progressively giving place to Hinduism.

Ennin: a Japanese pilgrim in China.


Wutai Shan temple grounds

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

Indian temples

December 22 2008

January 1957.

No “Works of Man” ever have played or can play so important a part in India’s history as her god-given rivers. If the sub-continent were not watered by rivers, it could not support life. So the rivers have been enshrined in Indian myth and ritual, and they have never been more important than they are in this secular-minded age, when they are being tapped scientifically for irrigation. A time may come when every river in India will have been drained dry to feed India’s rapidly growing network of irrigation canals, and when the storage capacity of India’s reservoirs will have become vast enough to hold the whole volume of the monsoon rain. But, if that time does come, the empty beds of Nature’s superseded waterways will bear witness to the rivers’ enduring value for the country.

Prescient words, though reservoirs (a controversial matter in India) will not replace rivers.

By comparison with the rivers of India, her temples are a recent and minor innovation in her life. This may sound surprising in a sub-continent where religion has always loomed so large; yet history bears out this apparently paradoxical statement. In the earliest centres of Man’s civilization, ‘Iraq and Egypt, the temples were the veritable seeds of the cities. The god in the temple was the owner of the irrigated land; his servitors became the administrators of the country; and their headquarters became the nuclei of urban settlement. There are cities in the south of India today in which the temple occupies the same central and dominating position. At Chidambaram [in Tamil Nadu], for instance, the city lies four-square round the four-square temple enclosure with its quartet of tower-crowned gates; and at Madura [Tamil Nadu], I am told, the relation between city and temple is the same. As I circumambulated the temple of Chidambaram, and gazed at the god’s gigantic processional cars laid up, outside the temenos [Greek, meaning temple precinct], to await the annual festival, I fancied myself in ancient Ur or Babylon. Perhaps the Babylonians may have influenced the religious architecture of Southern India (their Sumerian predecessors are known to have been in touch with the ancient civilization of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa in the Indus valley). The temple towers of Southern India are certainly reminiscent of Babylonian ziggurats. Yet, if we ventured to credit them with a Babylonian origin, we should be in danger of falling foul of the experts in Indian archaeology.

Not the Babylonian ziggurat but the Buddhist stupa is the prototype of the Indian temple according to current archaeological doctrine. Archaeological theories have a disconcerting way of boxing the compass; but at least it seems to be securely established that, in India, Buddhism was the mother of ecclesiastical architecture.

He is arguing that Indian temples came late in the day, out of another higher religion, whereas Babylonian ziggurats were present, and centres of earthly power, at the beginning.

The Aryan barbarians who destroyed the ancient Indus culture probably worshipped their gods under the open sky [the Indus culture also has left no large religious monuments]. It was the Buddhists who designed the first substantial religious buildings on Indian soil: reliquaries, called stupas, to hold relics of the Buddha; and monasteries, called viharas, to house the monks who were seeking a happy issue out of this life in accordance with the Buddha’s precepts. The primitive stupa was a round barrow of earth surmounted by a pole that was garnished with a series of umbrella-shaped disks. When this structure was translated into stone, Indian ecclesiastical architecture was born.

The Buddhists acquired a habit of carving stupas and viharas out of the living rock inside caves driven into a mountain-side. You can see some of these at Karli [Maharashtra], on the rim of the Maharashtrian plateau, on the road up the ghat to Poona from Bombay. And at Ellora [Maharashtra] you can see how the Buddhist cave was taken over by the Jains and the Hindus; for, at Ellora, caves hewn by followers of all three religions are ranged, in a titanic row, side by side.

I need not describe the mighty Hindu temple at Ellora that has been created, not by laying stone on stone, but by cutting away the living rock till the pattern, conceived in the architect’s mind, has been laid bare in a single solid block. This marvellous achievement of human genius and industry is familiar. But there is more beauty in the earlier, smaller, and simpler rock-hewn temples at Mahabalipuram [Tamil Nadu], on the Coromandel Coast between Madras and Pondichéry [French until 1954]. In fact, the history of the Hindu temple is a story of increasing elaboration. Mahabalipuram, hewn in about the seventh century of the Christian Era, is almost Greek in the restraint of its conception and in the gracefulness of its lines. But, as century follows century, and the rock-carved temple increases in stature and eventually turns into a pile of intricately carved stones, the beauty ebbs away. In the latest [latest?] and biggest examples, which date from the age when the Empire of Vijayanagar [fourteenth to sixteenth centuries] was providing a citadel for Hinduism in the South against the assaults of Islam, the decoration quite overwhelms the design.

The Hindu temple may be a failure as a work of art, but it is a magnificently successful expression of the feelings of a religion that glories in the prodigality of Nature, the great mother of both life and death. From Chidambaram they took us to Gangaicholapuram [Tamil Nadu]. Night had fallen before we arrived, and the great tower soared aloft into the black sky, with the figures of the gods lit up for an instant here and there by the wavering light of our electric torches. As we groped our way along a pillared corridor towards the holy of holies, the strident temple music struck up, and the priest performed his ministrations to the god resident in the principal idol. For a moment, under the spell of the darkness and the din, the Western visitor could participate in the ecstasy of the Hindu worshippers. The next moment, the second Commandment in the Decalogue had re-established its sway over his Judaic conscience. But that moment of communion with Hinduism was illuminating. It taught the inquirer something about the part that the Hindu temple plays in Indian life.

East to West, A Journey Round the World, OUP, 1958

The Old World’s eastern roundabout

July 1 2008

Maps of Central Asia (category link).

Anyone who, unlike me, already knows something about Afghanistan or Central Asia, or has read the posts here back to only June 26, should be able to understand the next passage.

Europeans have a saying that “all roads lead to Rome”. From a European standpoint they may look as if they do. But Europe is one of the fringes of the Old World, and eccentric positions produce distorted views. Plant yourself, not in Europe, but in ‘Iraq, which is the historic centre of our Oikoumenê. Seen from this central position, the road-map of the Old World will assume a very different pattern. It will become evident that half the roads of the Old World lead to Aleppo, and half to Begrám. The second of these two names marks the site of the historic city of Kapisha-Kanish, at the southern foot of the Central Hindu Kush, where three roads meet after crossing the mountains.

Why particularly Aleppo and Begrám? I referred to the geopolitical significance of Aleppo in this post. Begrám is a staging-post en route to India. Cyrus the Great and his successor Darius captured it, though they did not cross the Indus. Alexander established a colony nearby named Alexandria of the Caucasus. Caucasus Indicus was an ancient name for the Hindu Kush. Another name for Begrám has been Kapisa.

After Alexander’s death, Begrám passed to his general Seleucus, who traded it to the Mauryan Dynasty of India in 305 BC. Bactria, to the north of Begrám, became part of the Seleucid Empire, and then, from the middle of the third century, an independent Greco-Bactrian kingdom.

After the Mauryans (322-185) were overthrown by the Sunga Dynasty (185-73), the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom invaded and conquered northwestern India with an army led by Demetrius. It is then called Indo-Greek. Alexandria of the Caucasus became a capital of the Indo-Greek Kingdom after the Yuezhi and Scythians (Sakas) attacked the Greco-Bactrians in the north c 160-140 BC.

Begrám became the summer capital of the Kushan Empire in the first century CE, its other capitals being Peshawar, Taxila, and, in central India, Mathura.

Civilization in the Old World seems to have started in ‘Iraq about 5,000 years ago, and in the meantime it has spread from ‘Iraq both eastwards and westwards. Eastwards it has spread to Persia, Afghanistan, the Indo-Pakistani Sub-continent, Central Asia, Eastern Asia. Westwards it has spread to Egypt, Anatolia, the Aegean, North-West Africa, Europe, Russia. This progressive spread of civilization from its birth-place in ‘Iraq to the ends of the Earth has turned the Oikoumenê into a house of many mansions. Civilization has become plural instead of singular; and the civilized world has diversified itself into a festoon of regional civilizations, trailing from Japan at the north-eastern end to Ireland at the north-western end and dipping below the Equator in Java. The younger provinces of civilization, on either side of ‘Iraq, do not all stand in the same relation to each other or to the Oikoumenê as a whole. The differences between their geographical situations sort them out into two classes. Some of them are “culs-de-sac” and some of them are “roundabouts”. The culs-de-sac are regions on the fringe of the Oikoumenê that have received successive influences from the centre but have not been able to pass these influences on to regions farther afield. The roundabouts are regions on which routes converge from all quarters of the compass and from which routes radiate out to all quarters of the compass again.

Java is the only place in the Old World south of the Equator that Toynbee brings into the Oikoumenê. He uses that word here to mean the “civilised” world, or rather the world in process of civilisation, but in a later book, Mankind and Mother Earth, he acknowledges that its literal Greek meaning is wider: “the Inhabited (Part of the World)”. We joined him a few weeks ago in Java in a post on Borobudur.

Classical examples of culs-de-sac are Japan at the north-eastern corner of the Oikoumenê, Java at its southernmost bulge, and Morocco, the British Isles, and Scandinavia at its north-western corner. Classical examples of roundabouts are two regions flanking ‘Iraq on either side. Syria (in the broadest geographical meaning of the name) is the roundabout to the west of ‘Iraq, and North-Eastern Iran (the present-day Afghanistan) is the one to the east of her. Syria has been the link between South-West Asia, Africa, Anatolia, and Europe. Afghanistan has been the link between South-West Asia, the Indo-Pakistani Sub-continent, Central Asia, and Eastern Asia.

The vicissitudes of history can turn a cul-de-sac into a roundabout and a roundabout into a cul-de-sac. Western Europe was a cul-de-sac for about 1,700 years, dating from its incorporation in the Oikoumenê in the third century B.C. During those seventeen centuries the Atlantic was a barrier to any farther westward expansion of the civilization of the Old World. But the Spanish-born Roman poet Seneca had prophesied that, one day, this barrier would give way to human enterprise, and, after 1,400 years, this prophecy came true. In the fifteenth century the Portuguese invented a new kind of sailing-ship that could keep the sea continuously for months on end. This invention suddenly gave the West European peoples the command of the oceans, and that achievement temporarily turned Western Europe into the World’s central roundabout from which all sea-routes radiated and on which all sea-routes converged. This revolutionary change in the nature of the key-instruments of communication temporarily put both Afghanistan and Syria out of business; for the traffic that had made the fortunes of these two historic roundabouts had been mainly overland traffic on the backs of domesticated animals. The carriers had been donkeys, horses, and camels. Technology, however, is always reluctant to stand still. In our day we have been seeing a further series of technological inventions: mechanized rail and road vehicles, followed up by aircraft. These latest inventions have been deposing Western Europe from her temporary ascendancy in the World and have been reinstating Syria and Afghanistan.

On some of this, see the post here called Babur’s horizon. The idea, now developed, that the old “roundabouts” were being “reinstated” in 1960, when he was writing, seems a little dated or premature.

Both these historic roundabouts would have recaptured their traditional role as focuses of communication still faster than they are doing if their economic recovery were not being handicapped by disputes over political frontiers. These can be as formidable obstacles as any physical barrier. All the same, Beirut is already one of the World’s most important international airports, and Qandahar is making a bid to become another of them. As for mechanized transport on the ground, the new roads that are being built for Afghanistan by Russian and American civil engineers promise to turn her, once again, into the international thoroughfare that she used to be in the Donkey-and-Camel Age.

The Russians are building a new road from Qandahar northward to Kushka, the southernmost rail-head of the railway-network of Soviet Central Asia [now in Turkmenistan]. The Americans are building a new road from Qandahar south-eastward to Chaman, the terminus of the road and railway in Pakistan that run north-westward from Quetta to the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier. [It is on the border of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan and Qandahar province in Afghanistan.] The Russians are building another new road from Kabul northward to Qyzyl Qala, a river-port that they have already built for Afghanistan on the Afghan bank of the River Oxus. This road will be carried through the Central Hindu Kush by a tunnel under the Salang Pass. This is the most direct, but also the highest, of three passes – Salang, Shibar, and Khawak – that cross this section of the Hindu Kush and link the Indo-Pakistani Sub-continent with Central Asia. The Americans are building another new road from Kabul eastward to Torkham, the western terminus of the road and railway in Pakistan that clamber over the hump of the Khyber Pass.

These new roads promise to reinstate Afghanistan in her traditional position in the World. They are her economic bonus from the present political competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. The bonus is valuable, but the accompanying risk is high. Roundabouts are strategic as well as economic assets, and strategic assets are tempting political prizes.

It will be obvious that Afghanistan is intensely interesting today for a student of contemporary international affairs. It is of equal interest for a student of the history of civilization in the Old World during these last five thousand years. As he follows the main threads of history – economic, political, demographic, artistic, religious – he finds his attention being drawn again and again to the Old World’s eastern roundabout, as well as to its western one. Afghanistan has been a highway for migrating peoples and for expanding civilizations and religions, and it has been a key-point in the structure of empires. The examples of Afghanistan’s role as a roundabout in each of these aspects are so numerous that an exhaustive catalogue would fill a volume and would quite overload a chapter. A few illustrations will be enough to make the point.

A long procession of nomadic or ex-nomadic migrant peoples have passed through Afghanistan from Central Asia en route for the Indo-Pakistani Sub-continent. The Aryas, who passed through at some date during the second half of the second millennium B.C., brought the Sanskrit language to India. They were the fathers of the Hindu civilization that supplanted the pre-Aryan culture which is represented in the Indus valley by the sites at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. A swarm of Iranian-speaking nomadic invaders who occupied the Helmand River basin and the Panjab in the seventh century B.C. deserves mention because one of the participating tribes bore the name Pactyes according to the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus. Is the name that has come down to us in this Ancient Greek version identical with the present-day name Pakhtuns (alias Pathans)? If it is, we have here a clue to the date at which the ancestors of the present-day Pathans first established themselves in the Helmand basin.

A second swarm of Iranian-speaking nomads, the Sakas, invaded Afghanistan in the second century B.C. Some of these settled in the delta of the Helmand River, as is witnessed by the name Seistan which this country still bears today instead of its previous name Sarangia. [In Afghanistan, this corresponds now to Nimruz province, on the border with Iran.] Others pushed on far into the Sub-continent. Some of their blood, and still more of their spirit, may have been inherited from them by the present-day Marathas in the highland hinterland of Bombay. Another Central Asian nomadic people, the Yüechi, following close at the Sakas’ heels, settled in the country between the Oxus and the Hindu Kush which had previously been known as Bactria and which is now included in the Kingdom of Afghanistan. In the first century of the Christian Era one of the Yüechi tribes, the Kushans, built up an empire [60 BC-AD 375] that straddled the Hindu Kush and stretched from the south bank of the Oxus to the west bank of the Jumna. In the course of the last nineteen centuries the Kushan Empire has had more than one avatar. Approximately the same area was ruled in the eleventh century of the Christian Era by the Turkish empire-builder Mahmud of Ghazni [who established the Ghaznavid Empire, which lasted from 975 to 1187] and again in the eighteenth century by the Afghan empire-builder Ahmad Shah Abdâli [who established the Durrani Empire, which lasted from 1747 to 1843].

In the fifth century of the Christian Era one wing of the Huns invaded the Sub-continent across Afghanistan [and overthrew the Hindu Gupta Empire] while Europe was being invaded by another wing of the same Central Asian nomadic people. The Huns were ferocious and destructive, but they were surpassed by the Mongols, who, in the thirteenth century, invaded Afghanistan as well as most of the rest of continental Eurasia. (On the mainland, only India and Western Europe escaped this calamity.) Finally, in the early years of the sixteenth century, a Turkish-speaking people from Western Siberia, the Uzbegs, occupied what is now Northern Afghanistan, as well as what is now the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan on the opposite side of the Oxus River. The Uzbegs did not succeed in crossing the Hindu Kush, but, indirectly, the Uzbegs did, nevertheless, change the course of history in the Sub-continent. They changed it by propelling across the Hindu Kush the survivors of the Timurids [a Turkicised Mongol rump], who had been the previous Turkish rulers of the Central Asian region that the Uzbegs conquered. These fugitive Timurids became the founders of the Mughal Empire in India.

The peoples of Afghanistan themselves were not always passive spectators of the migrations that passed through their country. They, too, took an active part in the game of invading India. The Ghoris, who supplanted the Turkish rulers of Ghazni in the twelfth century of the Christian Era, were natives of the central highlands of Afghanistan. They extended the area of Muslim rule in India from the Indus to the Ganges basin. The Ghoris’ Turkish successors at Delhi were supplanted by the Afghan Lodis, before these, in their turn, were supplanted by the Mughals. The Mughal Emperor Babur’s conquest of Hindustan was successfully challenged, after Babur’s death, by a Bengali Muslim of Afghan descent, Sher Shah Sur. So long as Sher Shah lived, Babur’s son Humayun remained an exile; and, though Sher Shah’s reign over Hindustan was brief [the Mughals were quickly reinstated], he found time to organize a system of imperial communications and land-taxation. This system was so good that it was taken over by the Mughals after their return, and then by the Mughals’ successors the British. In the interval of anarchy in Hindustan, when the Mughal regime was already declining and the British regime had not yet taken its place, another swarm of Afghan invaders, the Rohillas, established themselves in a choice piece of territory that is now included in [the state of] Uttar Pradesh (formerly the United Provinces and still the U.P.).

Migrations of peoples, such as those that have just been passed in review, can change the course of history, but still greater effects can be produced by the spread of civilizations and religions, and the history of Afghanistan bears witness also to this.

The Achaemenid Persian Empire, which expanded across Afghanistan into the Indus valley in and after the sixth century B.C., brought with it, as one of its official languages, Aramaic written in an alphabet derived from the Phoenician. The use of the Aramaic language as an international medium of communication did not long survive the overthrow of the First Persian Empire by Alexander the Great – though a bi-lingual inscription in Aramaic and Greek, set up by the [Mauryan] Indian Emperor Ashoka in the third century B.C., has recently been discovered at Qandahar. On the other hand the Aramaic alphabet made conquests after the fall of the Persian Empire that put even Chingis Khan’s conquests in the shade. It is not surprising that in Western Iran this alphabet should have been used for writing a local Iranian language: Pahlavi. It is more remarkable that from Afghanistan the use of the Aramaic alphabet should have spread south-eastwards into the Sub-continent and north-eastwards across the whole breadth of Asia. On the north-western border of the Sub-continent the Aramaic alphabet became the parent of the Kharoshthi, which was used for writing some of the Indian dialects stemming from Sanskrit. Travelling north-eastward across the Oxus, the Aramaic alphabet was used successively for writing a Central Asian Iranian language, Soghdian, a Central Asian Turkish language, Uighur, and eventually also Mongol and Manchu. Visit the Temple of Heaven at Peking, which was built in the Manchu imperial dynasty’s time, and look at the trilingual inscriptions on it. The Chinese version is, of course, written in Chinese characters, but the Manchu and Mongol versions are written in the Aramaic alphabet.

After the overthrow of the First Persian Empire by Alexander, the Greek invaders felt themselves at home again when they reached the vine-clad country of the Paropanisadae, at the southern approach to the passes leading northwards over the Central Hindu Kush; and in Bactria, north of the passes and between the Hindu Kush and the Oxus, they planted their civilization so successfully that its influence lasted here for centuries.

About the year 183 B.C. a Greek king of Bactria, Demetrius [the founder of the Indo-Greek Kingdom], seized an opportunity that was offered him in India by the fall there of the Maurya dynasty’s empire. Demetrius crossed the Hindu Kush and conquered what are now Southern Afghanistan and the Panjab. After that, Greek rule lasted for half a century more in Bactria [before it was supplanted by the Yüechi] and for two centuries south of the Hindu Kush. The chief surviving witnesses to it are the Greek princes’ splendid coins. But in this region Greek civilization outlasted Greek rule; for the Greeks’ successors the Kushans, whose empire was larger and longer-lived than the Bactrian Greek empire had been, were – as they claimed to be – Philhellenes. Though they adopted the local Iranian language of Bactria, instead of Greek, to serve as the official language of their empire, the Kushans wrote their Bactrian in the Greek alphabet. This has been proved by the discovery of a Bactrian inscription, in Greek letters, at the Kushan Emperor Kanishka’s fire-temple at Surkh Kotal, on the road to Balkh from the passes over the Central Hindu Kush. [But are there similar Greek inscriptions further east?] And there is, of course, a powerful Greek ingredient in the visual art of the so-called Gandhara School, which flourished, in the age of the Kushan Empire, in and around the empire’s capital cities: Begrám, Peshawar, Taxila.

Greek artistic influences may have played upon Kushan Gandhara from two directions: over the Hindu Kush from Bactria and over the Indian Ocean from Alexandria in Egypt. By the time when the Kushan Empire was established in the first century of the Christian Era, Greek seamen, plying in the Indian Ocean from ports on Egypt’s Red-Sea coast, had discovered how to make use of the monsoons for sailing direct across the Indian Ocean to the delta of the Indus, instead of hugging the coasts of Arabia and Baluchistan. This notable shortening of the length of the voyage gave a stimulus to trade between the valleys of the Indus and the Nile; and so, in Kushan Gandhara, the Greek influence from Bactria over the Hindu Kush may have been reinforced by a Greek influence from Alexandria via the Indus valley.

History repeated itself in the Old World’s eastern roundabout after the overthrow of the Sasanid Persian Empire by the Muslim Arabs in the seventh century of the Christian Era. Like the Greeks nearly a thousand years earlier, the Arabs planted themselves firmly in the country between the Oxus and the Hindu Kush that had once been known as Bactria; and, like their Greek predecessors again, the Muslims eventually forced their way over the Central Hindu Kush and invaded the Sub-continent. Afghanistan was the thoroughfare along which Islam, like Hellenism before it, made its way into India.

All the movements of peoples, empires, civilizations, and religions that have been mentioned in this chapter up to this point were movements across Afghanistan into the Sub-continent from regions outside India. But there have also been movements across Afghanistan from India into other parts of the World; and one of these – the propagation of Buddhism into Eastern Asia – is an outstanding event in mankind’s history up to date.

When the First Persian Empire’s carcass was divided up, after Alexander’s death, among a number of rival competitors for the prize, one of these was an Indian empire-builder, Chandragupta Maurya. Chandragupta began by annexing Alexander’s ephemeral conquests in the Indus valley and uniting them with the ancient Kingdom of Magadha in the Ganges basin. He then went on to extend his empire still farther westward by doing a deal with the Macedonian war-lord Seleucus “the Victor”. Chandragupta gave Seleucus 500 Indian war-elephants for use against Seleucus’s most formidable Macedonian rival, Antigonus “One-Eye”. In exchange, Seleucus ceded to Chandragupta a large zone of former Persian territory west of the Indus and south of the Hindu Kush. The recently discovered bilingual inscription set up by Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka, at Qandahar shows that Qandahar must have lain on the Mauryan side of the new frontier between the Mauryan and the Seleucid dominions.

Chandragupta Maurya’s success in extending his empire westward was merely an achievement on the political surface of life; and, on this superficial plane, it was more than undone when, some hundred and fifty years later, the Maurya Empire fell to pieces and the Bactrian Greeks [under Demetrius] pushed their way farther into India than Alexander’s limit. But the spread of Indian influence beyond the bounds of the Sub-continent took a more significant and enduring form when Chandragupta’s grandson, the Emperor Ashoka, became a convert to Buddhism. We know, from one of Ashoka’s own inscriptions, that he sent missionaries to preach Buddhism in the realms of the contemporary rulers of the Persian Empire’s Greek successor-states. We do not know what results, if any, were produced by this Buddhist missionary enterprise in the Hellenic World; but it is certain that, in India itself, Ashoka’s conversion placed Buddhism in a strong position for the next six hundred years at least. It was strong enough to influence successive waves of invaders from beyond the Hindu Kush after the Maurya Empire’s fall. Menander, one of the most important of the Bactrian Greek rulers in India in the second century B.C., figures in the Buddhist scriptures as a participant in a dialogue called The Questions of Milinda; and, round about the turn of the first and second centuries of the Christian Era, the greatest of the Kushan emperors, Kanishka, became a patron of Buddhism, if not an outright convert to it.

The Kushan Empire was the thoroughfare along which Buddhism made its way from India, through what are now Soviet Central Asia and Sinkiang, to the north-west corner of China. From there it spread to the whole of the rest of China and on into Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Afghanistan’s role as a roundabout has never been played to greater effect.

This route from India to China via Afghanistan, which is the route by which Buddhism actually travelled, looks strangely circuitous on the map. Why travel round three sides of Tibet? Why not short-circuit this rambling route by travelling straight from Bengal to Yunnan? The answer is, of course, that South-East Asia – where India and China have so sensitive and sore a common frontier today – was still outside the pale of civilization when Buddhism was on the march. In Kanishka’s day, Indian culture was only just acquiring its first footholds in what are now Cambodia and Annam; and it was not till the close of the thirteenth century of the Christian Era that Yunnan was redeemed from barbarism and incorporated in China by China’s Mongol conquerors. The route through Afghanistan, circuitous though this was, was the earliest route along which India and China made contact with each other. This was the route followed in the transmission of Buddhism; and that is the most important transaction that has ever taken place between India and China so far.

Between Oxus and Jumna, OUP, 1961

Michael Wood’s India

June 26 2008

I watched the first part of Michael Wood’s 6-part BBC series The Story of India the other day. A good idea, and I suspect the book is quite good, but I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the fact that the producers seemed contemptuously uninterested whether anyone actually understood anything. It didn’t matter. Communication was subordinated to visual sensation.

The camera is moral. All kinds of Edward-Saidian instincts about Orientalism were aroused in me. Shots were selected because they confirmed an idea of India. The colour was exaggerated and doctored, no doubt to take advantage of the horrible colour-world of flat screen television. As in the cinematography favoured by Anthony Minghella, every shot was a lie.

The historical narrative was obscured by digressions, such as one about a “search” for the Soma drink. The film was about Michael Wood placing himself, smugly, casually and, it must be said, scruffily and with a kind of cultural sycophancy, in settings which were wonderful because India was wonderful and that was all we needed to take away or understand.


May 8 2008

Early in the Christian era, Indonesia came under the influence of Indian civilisation through the influx of Indian traders and monks. Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms appeared in Sumatra and Java.

The seat of the Buddhist kingdom of Sri Vijaya (seventh century or earlier–thirteenth century) was Sumatra. The Sri Vijayan Buddhist temples of Borobudur in central Java were founded c 800.

Then, in the late thirteenth century, power shifted southeast to Java, where the Hindu kingdom of Majapahit (1293-1527) had arisen; for two centuries Majapahit controlled Indonesia and parts of the Malay Peninsula.

Arab traders (or were many of them Indian?) arrived in large numbers in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They established Islamic sultanates. By the end of the sixteenth century, Islam had replaced Buddhism and Hinduism as the dominant religion in the islands. Today, Hinduism survives mainly on Bali.

The Anglo-Dutch Java War (1810-11) brought Java under British administration (1811-16). The governor, Lieutenant Governor-General Thomas Stamford Raffles, collected Javanese antiques. On a tour of inspection in 1814, he was informed about a monument deep in the jungle near the village of Bumisegoro. He sent HC Cornelius, a Dutch engineer, to investigate.

In two months, Cornelius and his two hundred men cut down trees, burned down vegetation and dug away the earth to reveal the monument. Hartmann, a Dutch administrator, continued Cornelius’s work, and by 1835 the whole complex was revealed.

There, there it is – that consummate work of Buddhist art which I have so often gazed upon longingly in photographs. The obliging pilot of the Garuda plane has gone out of his way to wheel round the stupa-crowned hill of Borobudur en route from Djakarta to Jogja. Though he is travelling as slowly as he can, the vision has come and gone in a flash; yet, even if I had been condemned to enjoy no more than this single Pisgah-sight, that would have repaid me for having come more than half-way round the World. Thanks, however, to the hospitality of the Gadjah Mada University at Jogjakarta, I am to see this Wonder of the World again, and this time from the ground; and when, two mornings later, we take the northward road by car, I find myself keyed up to a more thrilling sense of expectancy than at any moment on my present pilgrimage since my approach to Cuzco over the Andean watershed.

For the first four-fifths of our forty-kilometre drive, the cottages, nestling among cocoa-nut palms, jostle one another so closely along both sides of the road that one can hardly catch a glimpse even of the rice-fields behind their backyards. But at last we swerve leftwards out of the great north road that runs on to Semarang. The plain begins to undulate; and we are heading towards a range of mountains that rivals anything in Central Australia or in Greece for the beauty of its outline. The professor who is conducting us suddenly points towards the middle distance. And there is Borobudur again, standing in its natural setting, which neither air-view nor photograph can display, though the harmony between Man’s architecture and Nature’s landscape is the making of this masterpiece of artistry.

Borobudur is a four-sided pyramid, built up in tiers of balustraded terraces round a natural eminence. Each terrace runs between two continuous bands of reliefs, depicting scenes from the legend of the Buddha. Some of these are old and familiar friends – for instance, that square-rigged ship scudding before the breeze. But the reliefs must wait. Before I pore over them I must mount to the summit and view the whole monument as the architect meant it to be viewed, with the green lawns at its foot, the forest-clad mountain for a drop scene at the back, and the glassy rice-fields embroidering the fertile plain to the east. Wild Nature; Nature tamed by Man; the genius of the architect and the sculptor; the earthly life of the blessed Redeemer of all sentient beings: here is a comprehensive poem about the mystery of the Universe, a symphony of the inaudible music of the spheres.

How am I to convey this ineffable poetry to your mind’s eye? If your native city is Peking, try to imagine the Altar of Heaven magnified manifold without forfeiting any of its beauty. If you are a Londoner you must attempt a more difficult feat of imagination. You must transfigure the Albert Memorial by magnifying it, too, manifold and also transfiguring its hideousness into loveliness. [How hideous is the Albert Memorial?] Yet, do what one will, no prescription of mine can convey to you the interplay between the monument and the landscape. If only I could exchange soul and body with one of those Hindu-minded Javanese Muslims who spend night after night here in contemplation. Then I might be able to incorporate Borobudur into my innermost being and carry it with me as “a possession for ever” [Thucydides] – in defiance of the precepts of the Buddhist philosophy that Borobudur expresses. Which shall I choose? The detail of the reliefs or the panoramic view? Well, I can always go on studying the reliefs in a picture-book in my study in Kensington, so I will spend the rest of this all too brief half-morning in gazing alternately, from the summit of the stupa, at the rising mountain and the reclining plain.

Do you challenge my adoration of Borobudur? Do you tell me that its rhythm is ultra-baroque? Do you prefer the classic severity of the neighbouring Buddhist shrine at Mendut, or the animation of the reliefs round the Shaiva temple at Prambanan, where the hero is, not Gautama, but Rama? You might perhaps convince my mind, but you could never change my feelings. Borobudur holds my heart: it is a holy of holies for me, on a par with the Sacro Speco [St Benedict’s cave in Subiaco] and the Sainte Chapelle. As the stupa-crowned hill disappears behind the palm groves, I crane my neck round to take a wistful farewell look at it. In a trice I am engulfed among the 8,000 university students and the 40,000 secondary schoolchildren of Jogjakarta, all mounted, Dutch-wise, on bicycles. “Fled is that music: Do I wake or sleep?”

Keats, Ode to a Nightingale.

Toynbee visited Indonesia in August and September 1956.

Left to right: Borobudur by Isidore van Kinsbergen c 1873; two images where I have put the source in the title of the image; one from Wikipedia

East to West, A Journey Round the World, OUP, 1958

Revolts against caste

April 18 2008

The impact of Religiosity upon Caste in India has begotten the unparalleled social abuse of “Untouchability”; and since there has never been any effective move to abolish or even mitigate “Untouchability” on the part of the Brahmans – the hieratic caste which has become master of the ceremonies of the whole caste-system and has assigned to itself the highest place in it – the enormity survives, except in so far as it has been assailed by revolution.

The euphemism “Scheduled Castes” came from the Government of India Act 1935.

The earliest known revolts against Caste are those of Mahavira, the founder of Jainism (occubuit prae 500 B.C.) and Siddhārtha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism (vivebat circa 567-487 B.C.): two creative personalities who were non-Brahmans themselves and who ignored the established barriers of Caste in recruiting the bands of disciples whom they gathered round them to wrestle with the moral problems of the Indic “Time of Troubles”. If either Buddhism or Jainism had succeeded in captivating the Indic World, then conceivably the institution of Caste might have been sloughed off with the rest of the social debris of a disintegrating Indic Society, and an affiliated Hindu Civilization might have started life free from this incubus. As it turned out, however, the role of universal church in the last chapter of the Indic decline and fall was played not by Buddhism but by Hinduism – a parvenu archaistic syncretism of things new and old; and one of the old things which Hinduism resuscitated was Caste. Not content with resuscitating this old abuse, it embroidered upon it. The Hindu Civilization has been handicapped from the outset by a considerably heavier burden of Caste (a veritable load of karma) than the burden that once weighed upon its predecessor; and accordingly the series of revolts against Caste has run over from Indic into Hindu history.

In the Hindu Age these revolts have no longer taken the form of creative philosophical movements of indigenous origin like Buddhism or Jainism, but have expressed themselves in definite secessions from Hinduism under the attraction of some alien religious system. Some of these secessions have been led by Hindu reformers who have founded new churches in order to combine an expurgated version of Hinduism with certain elements borrowed from alien sources. Thus, for example, Kabīr (vivebat saeculo quinto decimo aevi Christiani) and the founder of Sikhism, Nanak (vivebat A.D. 1469-1538), created their syncretisms out of a combination between Hinduism and Islam, while Ram Mohan Roy (vivebat A.D. 1772-1833) created the Brahmō Samāj out of a combination between Hinduism and Christianity. It is noteworthy that, in all these three syncretisms alike, the institution of Caste is one of the features of Hinduism that have been rejected. In other cases the secessionists have not stopped at any half-way house but have shaken the dust of Hinduism off their feet altogether and have entered outright into the Islamic or the Christian fold; and such conversions have taken place on the largest scale in districts in which there had previously been a high proportion of members of low castes or depressed classes in the local Hindu population. The classic instance is the latter-day religious history of Eastern Bengal, where the descendants of former barbarians who had been admitted just within the pale of Hinduism on sufferance, with an extremely low status, have become converts to Islam en masse.

This is the revolutionary retort to the enormity of “Untouchability” which has been evoked by the impact of Religiosity upon Caste; and, as the masses of the population of India are progressively stirred by the economic and intellectual and moral ferment of Westernization, the trickle of conversions among the outcasts seems likely to swell into a flood, unless the abolition of the stigma of “Untouchability” is achieved at the eleventh hour by the non-Brahman majority of the Caste-Hindus themselves, in the teeth of Brahman opposition, under the leadership of the Banya Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi belonged to the Banya or Bania or Vanika caste of traders or merchants.

The idea of using Latin phrases to introduce dates came to Toynbee from a memory of a puppet show in Osaka in November 1929.

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939

Indic and Hindu

April 17 2008

The Indic Society:

Period of the Vedas, from c 1500 BC

Achaemenid Empire, covering much of northwestern Indian subcontinent (present-day eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan) for two centuries from c 520 BC, during the reign of Darius

Beyond, a “Time of Troubles” in which, in the sixth century BC, the Buddha and Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, lived: a period of destructive wars between local states

Mauryan Empire, 323-185 BC, a Buddhist universal state made illustrious by the reign of Ashoka

Hellenic intrusion, not with Alexander’s transitory campaign, but with the invasion of Demetrius, the Greek king of Bactria, c 183-2 BC; leading to the Indo-Greek Kingdom in northern India, 180 BC-10; the Greeks were opposed in the east by the Brahmanical Sunga Empire, florebat 185-73 BC

Their Greek-influenced Indo-European-speaking successors:

Indo-Scythian/Saka kingdoms, 110 BC-400 (final extinction)

Indo-Parthian Kingdom, 12 BC-before 100

Yuezhi/Kushan Empire, 30-375

Indo-Sasanians, 3rd century-410

Ephthalite or White Hun Empire, 5th-7th century; they belonged to the Central Asian Xionite horde sand were enemies of the Gupta and of the Sasanians

Establishment of a Hindu universal state, the Gupta Empire, AD c 375-550

– all this, including (why including?) the Hindu Gupta Empire itself, Toynbee calls the Indic Society.

[Footnote: The Gupta Empire was actually founded about A.D. 350 and did not collapse till the fall of Skandagupta in A.D. 480; but the Empire did not […] acquire the dimensions of a universal state until A.D. 390, and it had ceased to perform the functions of such a state before the second Hun invasion of India began in A.D. 470.]

Hinduism attained supremacy in India in the age of the Guptas, and eventually supplanted Buddhism. The Gupta Empire was overthrown by Huns from the Eurasian steppe, who were assailing the Roman and Sasanian Empires at the same time. The interregnum occupied by their activities and by the successor states of the Gupta Empire lies approximately within the dates 475-775. Thereafter, there began to emerge what Toynbee calls, in the first volume of the Study, the Hindu Society, which is still alive. Sankara, the father of Hindu philosophy, flourished around 800. In the ninth century, India began to articulate itself into states on a pattern which could still be discerned on the political map in 1934.

[Footnote: The break in tradition in India at the time of the Hun and Gujara invasions is emphasized by Mr. Vincent Smith in The Early History of India (3rd edition, Oxford 1914, Clarendon Press), p. 408. A number of facts which bear out Mr. Vincent Smith’s view are mentioned by Mr. C. V. Vaidya in The History of Mediaeval India, vol. ii (Poona 1924, Oriental Book Supplying Agency). For example, by about the year 800 of the Christian era, both Buddhism and the pre-Buddhist Indian ritual of the Vedic sacrifices had become extinct throughout the greater part of India (op. cit., p. 1). The ancient vernaculars (the so-called “prakrits”) had ceased to be spoken, and the modern vernaculars – Hindi, Bengali, Marati, Gujarati, Panjabi, and so on – were already full-fledged (p. 3). The Rājput dynasties of the modern Rājputāna can mostly trace their genealogies back to this epoch but not beyond (p. 46). Pace Mr. Vaidya, this last facts supports Mr. Vincent Smith’s view that the Rājputs are descended from the Huns and Gujaras who entered India in the post-Gupta Völkerwanderung and were converted to Hinduism.]

Is AD 800 really a new start?

Much of the modern “Hindu Society” has been ruled, for long stretches of time, by Muslims.

We can now observe that Hinduism – the universal church [of the Guptas] through which this Indic Society came to be “apparented” to the Hindu Society of to-day – resembles Islam and differs from Christianity, inasmuch as the germ of life in which it originated was native to, and not alien from, the society in whose history it played its part. No doubt, certain non-Indic accretions can be detected in Hinduism. The most prominent of these is the worship of deities in iconic form – a feature which is of the essence of Hinduism, though it was lacking in the primitive religion of the Indic Society as this is mirrored in the Vedas, and was lacking, likewise, in primitive Buddhism. It must [must?] therefore have been borrowed from the religion of some alien society – most probably from Hellenism through the medium of the modified Buddhism of the Mahayana. However, the chief differences between Hinduism and the Indic religion of the Vedas – and these differences are striking – are due to elements in Hinduism which were borrowed from Buddhism: that is, from a religion which was a reaction against the primitive Indic religion of the Vedas but a reaction of an entirely indigenous Indic origin. The most important elements, lacking in the Vedas, which Hinduism borrowed from Buddhism, were its monasticism and its philosophy.

The original home of the Indic Society [which does not include the Indus Valley civilisation which was being disinterred as he wrote], as we know from its records, was in the valleys of the Indus and the Ganges; and from this base the society had expanded over the whole sub-continent of India before it came to the end of its universal state. [Footnote: The Maurya Empire at its greatest extent – at which it stood when Açoka renounced War after the conquest of Kalinga – was practically conterminous with the present British-Indian Empire except that it did not include Burma but did include the greater part of what is now Afghanistan. It covered not only the whole basin of the Indus and Ganges but also the whole of India south of the Vindya Range except for the extreme tip of the peninsula. The Gupta Empire, which had the same capital as the Maurya Empire (at Pataliputra [modern Patna], in the present province of Bihar), never, at its largest, attained the same extension. Yet it exercised a hegemony over all India; and, thanks to the Mauryas’ work, all India, North and South, constituted a social though not a political unity in the Gupta Age.] The area which the Indic Society had thus come to cover at the close of its history was all embraced in the original home of the “affiliated” Hindu Society, which occupied the whole sub-continent from the outset and afterwards expanded eastward overseas into Indonesia and Indo-China.

A Study of History, Vol I, OUP, 1934

Calcutta 1969

February 10 2008

The Times, Saturday, February 1


Columba Cary-Elwes wrote to Toynbee from Tanzania on February 4:

I saw with much pain the account of the violent reactions to your article on Mahomet; you cannot be held responsible for this fanaticism. Truth is paramount; and I’m sure you expressed it with moderation.

Toynbee replied to Cary-Elwes from Chatham House on February 10:

I am much distressed that there have been deaths in Calcutta as a result of my contribution to Dr. Radhakrishnan’s symposium volume commemorating the centenary of Gandhi’s birth. Of course there was nothing in my reference to the Prophet Muhammad that would reasonably have given offence. The furore is, I think, a symptom of the present sense of frustration among Indian Muslims and Muslims in general. Islam, though noble and rational, is another historic way of life that finds it difficult to accommodate itself to the modern world.

He had just compared the Kenyan pastoral Masai with the more adaptable agricultural Kikuyu.

His article appears in S Radhakrishnan, editor, Mahatma Gandhi: 100 Years, New Delhi, Gandhi Peace Foundation, Under the auspices of the National Committee for the Gandhi Centenary, 1968. It is entitled A Tribute, with as a subtitle, according to Peper, Relevance of Gandhian Creed in the Atomic Age, the local editor probably dropping the definite article. In it, according to The Times, Toynbee wrote that

Muhammad gladly seized the opportunity of becoming a political leader


suffered spiritually from his political success.

A perceived insult by a nominal Christian to Muslims turned into a riot between Muslims and Hindus, whose special hero was being celebrated. (1969 was a year of riots: student protests, demonstrations against the Vietnam War, riots in the Bogside inaugurating the new Irish Troubles, serious Sino-Malay riots in Kuala Lumpur, the Stonewall riot in New York, race riots in York, Pennsylvania. Calcutta had seen disturbances on independence, when large numbers of Muslims left for East Pakistan and hundreds of thousands of Hindus fled into the city, and in the ’60s and ’70s, provoked by violent Marxist-Maoists, the Naxalites. In 1971, war between India and Pakistan produced further refugees.)

The book had, apparently, already been published when Toynbee’s article was given a wider circulation in Calcutta’s newspaper The Statesman. Though it’s possible that its publication in The Statesman’s Gandhi centenary supplement – on January 26 – preceded the book.

The Statesman was one of the most outspoken national papers. It was established, in this most passionate and political part of India, as The Statesman and New Friend of India, in 1875. Today it is published simultaneously in Calcutta, New Delhi, Siliguri and Bhubaneshwar. Its headquarters are at Statesman House, Chowringhee Square in Calcutta. Its national editorial office is at Statesman House, Connaught Place in New Delhi. The demonstrations in 1969 began in front of Statesman House in Calcutta.

The Telegraph, to which I linked here, for its series on getaway weekends from Calcutta, has only been published since 1982. It is more regional, but now has the largest circulation of any English daily published from Calcutta.

According to Wikipedia, The Statesman opposed the shifting, at last, of India’s capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911 in the following resonant terms:

“The British have gone to the city of graveyards to be buried there.”

1969 was pre-Rushdie, and there was no CNN. The night did not draw in. Toynbee’s biographer McNeill says nothing about the riots. Incidents like them were perhaps not rare in the first nine tenths of the twentieth century, but they sputtered out locally. The Khilafat movement in 1919-24, however, had been sustained.

Toynbee often made this point about Muhammad. We’ve had it here, from a year before, in a letter to Cary-Elwes in which he writes of Muhammad’s

spiritually disastrous call to take on a political job at Yathrib.

Yathrib was the original name of Medina. He would be in worse trouble today from what he wrote here.

Christian B Peper, editor, An Historian’s Conscience, The Correspondence of Arnold J. Toynbee and Columba Cary-Elwes, Monk of Ampleforth, with a Foreword by Lawrence L Toynbee, OUP, by arrangement with Beacon Press, Boston, 1986, posthumous

Toynbee and Ikeda 3

January 28 2008

A Soka Gakkai member in Japan has put six files on YouTube of excerpts from the recordings of Toynbee’s conversations with Daisaku Ikeda, President of Soka Gakkai International, a lay movement of Nichiren Buddhists in Japan. The words are accompanied by stills. [The files have been taken off YouTube and put back at least once since I published this post.]

He (or she) doesn’t say what his source is, but he refers to Side A and Side B, so the sound, about 20 minutes per “side”, probably comes from an LP or cassette circulated by Soka Gakkai.

The conversations took place in London (at Toynbee’s flat?) over several days in 1972 and 1973. Some of the material in the excerpts is not in the 1976 book. Record them with WireTap, put them into an iPod and listen to them as a continuous radio documentary. You’ll hear Ikeda, who speaks in Japanese, his interpreter, who has been edited in and is not physically present, and Toynbee. At the time, there seem to have been simultaneous interpreters, who can barely be heard here.

Ikeda asks Toynbee about his earliest memory, about what made him become a historian-philosopher, and whether he likes songs – or sings.

He asks him about the first Paris peace conference. Toynbee points out that he attended both peace conferences in Paris, in 1919 and 1946.

[…] At a peace conference, I think inevitably, everything goes wrong, and to watch this happening after you’ve already lived through the war is a very tragic experience […].

He asks him what his motto is.

In one Latin word, because I was educated in Latin and Greek: laboremus. Let us do our work. In the year 211 the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus died in the city of York in the north of England. A Roman emperor had every day to give a watchword to his troops, and on the day on which Septimius Severus died in York he gave the watchword laboremus. Let us do our work. He was a very sick man at the time. Also, he was a native of Libya, which is a warm country, and he was on campaign, military campaign, in a very cold country, the north of Britain. But though he was dying, he wanted to go on doing his work till the very end of his life, so this watchword he gave on the last day of his life I take as my motto. […] He felt his responsibilities, at the head of this great empire.

Much and guttural appreciation from the Japanese.

When and where would he most like to have been born? The answer: what is now Chinese Central Asia in the second century of the Christian Era. Kashgar or Khotan, where many civilisations were coming together.

What does he want to do most at the present?

I would like to continue doing what we are doing at this moment in this room. I think that what we are doing here is to help to bring the whole human race together into a single family. I think this is a good thing to do in itself. I also think that if the human race is to survive we must become a single family.

“A world state, a world federation … this is the most correct thing,” says Ikeda. I’ve touched on the idea before, which was born, for practical purposes, in 1919, survived in a few minds until the ’70s, and sounds at best illiberal today.

In the next and longest part of these extracts Ikeda expounds some Buddhist principles. Whatever Polly Toynbee and others think of him, he is, as far as I can judge, at least a competent exponent and his motives in engaging with Toynbee seem sincere as you listen. Polly Toynbee might disagree even on this. On the other hand, religion is beyond Polly Toynbee’s understanding. This section contains some of the material in the section of the published dialogue called The Buddhist Approach. It is easier to follow if you have read that first.

Nichiren Buddhism is a Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana is the branch of Buddhism that prevails in Tibet, China, Mongolia, Korea and Japan. The main school in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia is Theravada, but both Ikeda and Toynbee refer to the Southern Buddhist schools, of which Theravada is the main one, as the Hinayana. Mahayana is obviously an Indo-European Sanskrit word related to major. Hinayana has a derogatory sound and is not much used nowadays. The published version of these dialogues rightly substitutes Southern Buddhism for Hinayana, but it goes further and substitutes Northern Buddhism for Mahayana.

Here, I will quote Toynbee exactly from the published book, not the tape, and summarise Ikeda mainly from the book. Many of the words are the same.

Ikeda lists the Ten States of life in Buddhism. He says that the theory can be likened in some respects to the concepts of hell, purgatory and heaven described by Dante in the Divine Comedy. But there are differences. The number of categories is not the same and, in contrast to Dante’s realms, which are worlds to be entered after death, the Buddhist states represent actual conditions and levels of happiness in this life.

From dark to light, the states are jigoku (hell, the state of suffering), gaki (rapacity, the state of being under the sway of desires), chikushō (animality, the state of fearing someone or something stronger than oneself), shura (anger, the state of constant competition or conflict in which one tries arrogantly to surpass others), nin (tranquility, the common tranquil state one may sometimes observe in human society), ten (rapture, the fragile state of being overjoyed at the gratification of a desire), shōmon (learning, or literally, hearing voices, the state of life in which one learns from the philosophers and feels joy in the pursuit of immortal truths), engaku (finding joy in a kind of enlightenment by observing universal or natural phenomena), bosatsu (the state of a bodhisattva) and butsu (Buddhahood).

The first four comprise the Four Evils. The six states from jigoku to ten are collectively called the Six Paths. Because man’s activities usually remain within these, Buddhism calls ordinary human life transmigration within the Six Paths. Toynbee:

And one of the practical aims of Buddhist teaching is to halt this transmigration within the Six Paths?

Yes, says Ikeda. Transcending unhappy states of life and attaining permanent happiness is the essence of Buddhist practice. But the Six Paths are inherent in life, therefore there is no intention to eliminate or confront them. (On confrontation, see Ikeda’s remarks on Socrates in this earlier post.) Instead, Buddhism strives to find the way to permanent happiness by concentrating on higher goals.

But the joys of shōmon and engaku are still self-centred. By contrast, bosatsu, the state of a bodhisattva, one on the verge of supreme enlightenment, is the state of altruism – the joy of helping others. This Buddhist compassion is like Christian love. Lastly, butsu or Buddhahood is the state attained only as a result of practice as a bodhisattva, an absolute happiness available to one who has penetrated to the ultimate truths underlying the universe (the truths attained in shōmon and engaku being only partial) and who achieves identity with the universe and all-embracing, eternal life. Toynbee:

Buddhism has made a subtler psychological analysis than any that has been made, so far, in the West. Shōmon and Engaku seem to me to be the goals of Southern Buddhism. These are grand and difficult goals, but Bosatsu goes beyond them. The Southern Buddhist goals are perhaps the highest attainable by the individual self, but in Bosatsu the individual self opens its heart to expand itself spiritually into the universal self.

When I look for Christian equivalents of Northern Buddhist conceptions and ideals, I see an affinity between the bodhisattva, who [in order to help others] voluntarily postpones his exit into Nirvana, and the second member of the Christian trinity, who emptied himself temporarily of his divinity in order to redeem his fellow human beings (the bodhisattvas redeem nonhuman sentient beings too). Like a bodhisattva, Christ incarnate suffered (according to the Christian story) by exposing himself to the painfulness of life, and his compelling motive was the same as a bodhisattva’s: compassion. […] Does the Butsu state of a bodhisattva resemble Christ’s state after his ascension?

Ikeda replies that Christ, in his role as a saviour, is a manifestation of the bodhisattva state. In both instances, the aim is altruistic. Southern Buddhism is not rich in the concept of altruism. For Southern Buddhists, the aim is self-extinction: something unrelated to the practical sphere. As to whether the state of the bodhisattva who has made his exit into Nirvana resembles that of Christ after his ascension, the Buddha state, at least in the Mahayana tradition, is not removed from this world but resides always in individual human lives and in the universal life. Toynbee:

I think I understand what Butsu means for a Southern Buddhist. If I am right, early Buddhism, before it had adopted Greek iconography, represented the Buddha in Nirvana by a blank, and not by an anthropomorphic image inspired by the Greek image of the god Apollo. The blank symbolizes the extinguishedness of Nirvana.

Ikeda replies that Southern Buddhism strives to merge the individual self with the universal self by rejecting and destroying the individual self. This is the highest thing possible of attainment within the limitations of the individual self.

In contrast, Northern Buddhism teaches not that the individual self must be destroyed, but that it must be expanded toward the universal self. The bodhisattva in Northern Buddhism is himself a bridge, helping to bring others to the Buddha state. In Northern Buddhism, bodhisattvas, like the Buddha himself, have postponed their exit into Nirvana out of compassion for other sentient beings. This is explained in the Lotus Sutra, one of the most important of the early Mahayana texts. Later, a Chinese priest, Chih-i (538-97), who founded T’ien Tai Buddhism, analysed the bodhisattva world into fifty-two stages, the fifty-second of which is the enlightenment and absolute happiness of the Buddha.

Northern Buddhism emphasises the possibility of the awakening to Buddhahood of each human being. The realm of butsu is an internal condition brought about by a perception of the true nature of life. Instead of advocating self-extinction, it requires that greedy desire be turned into altruistic desire, so that desire may become one with the Law that is the fundamental entity of the universal self. All life includes the Ten States of life. Consequently all life has concealed within it the supremely worthy universal life force. This means that all life deserves respect. All human beings, by practising the Buddhist Law, can manifest the life of the Buddha state: a human revolution.

Ikeda asks Toynbee for his suggestions for mankind in the twenty-first century. I will go back to quoting the tapes, not the book.

In the twentieth century, we have been intoxicated, almost, by our technological power and by the constant possibility of producing wealth. I think the future need is to return to some virtues that are very old which the twentieth century has rejected. In the past, it was a virtue to be ascetic, abstemious, self-disciplined, self-denying.

He compares St Francis with his rich father. Similar figures have existed in all civilisations

… the Buddha himself, many Hindu saints. This is a common ancient piece of general human wisdom and virtue. We ought to revive this, something of the spirit of self-denial, self-restraint, self-sacrifice. I hope this will be the spirit and the ideal of the twenty-first century.

“A highly important and pertinent suggestion,” says Ikeda. He asks for advice for the young, for women, and for himself, Daisaku Ikeda.

For the young his advice is patience and non-violence, because now

human beings have such terrible weapons in their hands that even the slightest violence is very dangerous.

“Extremely important, vital advice.” The advice to women isn’t worth quoting. Toynbee says it would be impertinent of him to give personal advice to Ikeda. But

I think dialogues like this can play quite an important part in bringing the people of the world and the different religions together, and now we are having a Japanese-British dialogue. I would like to see a Japanese-Russian dialogue, a Russian-American dialogue, or a Chinese-Russian dialogue. If we can arrange this, this would help very much to bring things together. Perhaps Soka Gakkai can start some of these other [inaudible].

I said that Toynbee should have been at Davos. Ikeda, in any case, took his advice, at least by organising dialogues between himself and Chinese, Russians and others. I am surprised that he has not worked his way into Davos. I assume that a word in Klaus Schwab’s ear from someone (probably Yu Serizawa) prevented that from happening.

Some years after Toynbee met Ikeda, Soka Gakkai ceased to be affiliated to Nichiren Buddhism and became an organisation entirely in its own right.

The page here called Cv links to all easily-available recordings, broadcasts or film footage of Toynbee of which I am aware.

The earlier Soka Gakkai posts are:

Soka Gakkai and Polly Toynbee

Toynbee and Ikeda

Toynbee and Ikeda 2

For a history of Soka Gakkai, including its role in Japanese politics, see David Machacek and Bryan Wilson, editors, Global Citizens: The Soka Gakkai Buddhist Movement in the World, New York, OUP, 2001.

Taped conversation between Arnold Toynbee and Daisaku Ikeda, London, May 1972 and probably also May 1973

Its published version was

Arnold Toynbee and Daisaku Ikeda; Richard L Gage, editor; Choose Life, A Dialogue, OUP, 1976, posthumous

Relations between religions

December 27 2007

The Royal Institute of International Affairs
Chatham House
10, St James’s Square
London S.W.1

3 July 1963

Dear Columba,

We are now just getting our heads above water again, so I have been able to make for you the following list of books on the relations between the several higher religions. Smith and King are both notable.

1. Zaehner, R. C.: The Convergent Spirit: Discourses on Dialectics of Religion (London 1963, Routledge).

2. Smith, W. Cantwell: The Meaning and End of Religion: A New Approach to the Religious Traditions of Mankind (New York 1963, Macmillan).

3. Tillich, Paul: Christianity and the Encounter of World Religions (New York 1963, Columbia University Press).

4. Parrinder, G.: Upanishads, Gita, and Bible (London 1963, Faber).

5. Parrinder, G.: Comparative Religion (London 1963, Allen and Unwin).

6. Brandon, S. G. F.: Man and his Destiny in the Great Religions (Manchester 1963, University Press).

7. Van Dusen, M. P.: One Great Ground of Hope: Christian Missions and Christian Unity (Philadelphia 1961, Westminster Press).

8. Kraemer, H.: World Cultures and World Religions: the Coming Dialogue (London 1960, Butterworth Press).

9. Bhaganan Das: The Essential Unity of All Religions (Wheaton, Ill., 1946, Theosophical Press).

10. Neutigin, J. E. L.: A Faith for this One World? (London 1961, S.C.M. Press).

11. King, W. L.: Buddhism and Christianity: Some Bridges of Understanding (Philadelphia, 1963, Westminster Press).

12. Smart, N.: A Dialogue of Religions (London, 1960, S.C.M. Press).

13. Neill, S.: Christian Faith and Other Faiths: The Christian Dialogue with Other Religions (London, 1961, O.U.P.).

Bhaganan Das and Kraemer are at the opposite ends of the gamut. I hope this may be of some use.

Yours affectionately,


He adds:

Encounter of Religions,
J. A. Cuttat
Desdée & Co. (New York)

Some mistakes (beyond inconsistent use of commas) look as if they were made by someone at a typewriter in 1963, or a typewriter or screen c 1987, copying handwriting (in either case Peper should have picked them up): Van Dusen, M. P. should be Van Dusen, H. P., Bhaganan should probably be Bhagavan (but nowadays is usually Bhagwan), Neutigin should be Newbigin. I have not checked the publishing details for the books.

On Toynbee’s allegedly sloppy comparisons between religions in a previous letter to Columba, see the last post.

Christian B Peper, editor, An Historian’s Conscience, The Correspondence of Arnold J. Toynbee and Columba Cary-Elwes, Monk of Ampleforth, with a Foreword by Lawrence L Toynbee, OUP, by arrangement with Beacon Press, Boston, 1986, posthumous

The Chinese nurse revisited

December 26 2007

What happens when someone less instinctively sympathetic to Toynbee engages with someone more sympathetic.

Toynbee did not, I feel, dash off his letters to Cary-Elwes with publication in mind. Perhaps the big guns should be trained on the Study of History, not a mere letter. See the Comments after this post:

Rama’s Bridge 2

September 16 2007

When I did a post recently on Rama’s (or Adam’s) Bridge, I didn’t know that this was about to become a live political issue. That post followed an earlier one on Sri Lanka.

Rama’s Bridge – the sunken causeway between India and Sri Lanka – is supposed to have once been a bridge, built by Lord Rama and an army of monkeys. The Ramayana tells the story of the Hindu conquest of Sri Lanka, about half a millennium BC, with the help of this bridge, by the Indo-European Singhalese. The aboriginal population had been hunter-gatherers.

Buddhism was introduced into Sri Lanka in the third century BC. Nowadays, the main Hindu minority are the Tamils, who had established a permanent presence in the north of the island by the twelfth century.

India wants to build a shipping canal through the shallow waters, so that ships can pass between India and Sri Lanka instead of having to sail round Sri Lanka. Hindus have objected.

BBC: “On Wednesday the Archaeological Survey of India told the Supreme Court that the religious texts were not evidence that Lord Ram [BBC spelling] ever existed. […] Hardline Hindu opponents of the government accused the administration of blasphemy and protesters carried out demonstrations in the area and in Delhi, Bhopal, and on a number of key highways.” India’s Minister of Culture has offered to resign.

BBC: “Massive traffic jams were reported in many places and trains delayed in many parts of the country. […] Commuters in the capital, Delhi, were stuck in traffic jams for hours as Hindu hard-line groups, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and Bajrang Dal, blocked roads at various places. A large number of policemen were deployed in the city to maintain order and a number of protesters were detained. Road blocks were also held in Bhopal, the capital of the central state of Madhya Pradesh, on the Delhi-Agra highway and on the Jaipur-Agra highway. Protests against the Sethusamudram project in Bhopal Roads were blocked in many places. Train services were disrupted in many places across northern India.”

Note the lazy journalistic phrases “hardline Hindu opponents”, “hardline Hindu groups”. Most people would not recognise this word hardline. They just have strong feelings.

Insulting religion

Optimism about Karachi

Rama’s Bridge

August 31 2007



Rama’s or Adam’s Bridge is a series of limestone reefs and low islands between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. North of it is the Palk Strait, named after Robert Palk, President of Madras from 1763 to ’67, which connects the Bay of Bengal with the Gulf of Mannar. The Bridge begins at Rameswaram island off Tamil Nadu (which is linked to the Indian mainland by the Pamban Bridge) and ends at Mannar island in Sri Lanka. The ferry service between these two points has often been suspended because of fighting in Sri Lanka.

The earliest map that calls this area Adam’s Bridge was prepared by a British cartographer in 1804, probably referring to an Islamic legend, according to which Adam used the bridge to reach Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, where he stood repentant on one foot for 1,000 years, leaving a large hollow mark resembling a footprint.

The shallow water makes it impossible for large ships to pass through. Fishing boats and small craft carrying coastal trade cross the line, but large ships must travel around Sri Lanka. The British first considered a shipping canal through the strait in 1860. The most recent study of the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project, as it is now called, was an environmental impact assessment and technical feasibility study commissioned by the Tamil Nadu government in 2004. Sethusamudram is the Tamil/Sanskrit name for the sea between India and Sri Lanka.

The Ramayana recounts how Rama, with the help of an army of vanaras – humans with the tails of monkeys – built a bridge of stones across the sea to Lanka to rescue his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana. There is an Indian movement which argues that the Bridge was a human construction, and there is some evidence that it might have been passable on foot until the fifteenth century.

Buddhism was introduced into Sri Lanka in the third century BC. Nowadays, the main Hindu minority are the Tamils, who had established a permanent presence in the north of the island by the twelfth century.

Under the direction of Ravana’s mermaid daughter, fish and mermaids carry away stones from Rama’s bridge: detail of a painting at the Emerald Buddha temple in Bangkok


The Chinese nurse

August 1 2007

The Australian Institute of International Affairs
177 Collins St.
Melbourne, C.I. Victoria, Australia

(This will reach me till 17 August)

15 July 1956

Dear Columba,

I have just had your letter of 6 July (? or 7 June) [parenthesis in original], following one of 24 May, and your card from Florida. Once one is in the U.S.A., one gets on the move in a big way. You must have been nearly as hot in Florida as we were in Panama. I am so glad that Sheepfold and Shepherd [no obvious mention of this on Abebooks] is out and the China book [China and the Cross] so nearly out at last. I am also delighted that you are reviewing my Religio Historici in “Books on Trial”. [Footnote: C.C.E.’s review appeared in Books on Trial (October 1956), pp. 63-64).]

The reference is to An Historian’s Approach to Religion, where he writes:

There is, for instance, the doctor’s approach to the mystery of the Universe (religio medici); and there is the mathematician’s, the sailor’s, the farmer’s, the miner’s, the business man’s, the shepherd’s, the carpenter’s, and a host of others, among which the historian’s (religio historici) is one.

Religio medici comes from Sir Thomas Browne. The phrase religio historici is Toynbee’s. Returning to the letter:

In the present state of the World we cannot, I think, expect agreement, but we can try to understand one another’s different approaches. Your explanation, to Catholics, of my approach will be made with the patience and charity that are the saving virtues for the World in our time (perhaps for the World in all times). Where Pascal makes the same points as his secular-minded contemporaries, it is interesting, because it tells us what were the common problems that were exercising all the greater minds in Western Christendom in the late seventeenth century. [Though Pascal died in 1662.] As for the Indian religions and the Judaic ones, I think one has to equate our Judaic God with the impersonal Indian Brahma and Nirvana, and the Indian (and Greek) gods with the order of beings with whom, in the Christian hierarchy, exorcists are expected to be able to cope. The two facets of ultimate reality – personal and impersonal – that the Jews and the Hindus have perceived are, I am sure, only two out of an infinite number. They are to be equated, not only with each other, but with all those others that are beyond the horizon of our finite human minds. What are we turning to now? One has to look back behind our 17th century revolution, and to discover the causes of that, if one is to be able to look into our own future and – what is more important – to have a chance of influencing it. I think history will be important in this next chapter, because learning each other’s history is an essential part of getting to understand each other better. But, as we approach towards mutual understanding, I believe our outlook will be less relativist, because I believe we shall begin to see some of the underlying common ground between us.

For now, less relativism means less understanding.

Boddhisattvas (sic) seem less heroic than Christ and the martyrs. But then the Indian and Chinese experience of life has been less violent than ours at the Western end of the civilized world. Do you know the story of the Chinese nurse who took service with a cultivated and devout Christian family, whose house was full of reproductions of Italian old masters. She burst out one day that she could not understand how good and responsible parents, like these, could bring themselves to expose their children to these horrible pictures of a criminal being put to death by a form of torture that was happily unknown in the civilized world from which she came! The milder key of the Indian and Chinese part of the World has to be allowed for always.

Yours affectionately,


Shusaku Endo in his Preface (1978) to the American edition of his Life of Jesus:

“The religious mentality of the Japanese is – just as it was at the time when the people accepted Buddhism – responsive to one who ‘suffers with us’ and who ‘allows for our weakness,’ but their mentality has little tolerance for any kind of transcendent being who judges humans harshly, then punishes them. In brief, the Japanese tend to seek in their gods and buddhas a warm-hearted mother rather than a stern father. With this fact always in mind I tried not so much to depict God in the father-image that tends to characterize Christianity, but rather to depict the kind-hearted maternal aspect of God revealed to us in the personality of Jesus.”

Christian B Peper, editor, An Historian’s Conscience, The Correspondence of Arnold J. Toynbee and Columba Cary-Elwes, Monk of Ampleforth, with a Foreword by Lawrence L Toynbee, OUP, by arrangement with Beacon Press, Boston, 1986, posthumous

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956


July 9 2007

A Scythian exhibition in Berlin.

Today’s summary of the feuilletons suggests why I recommend the Scythians, Hindu bigotry, Imre Kertesz on Europe, the Pope’s call for the reintroduction of the Latin mass.

Paul VI’s travels

April 29 2007

There were some Hindus who demurred when Pope Paul VI announced his intention of attending the Eucharistic Congress that was held in Bombay in 1965. [The date was actually November 28-December 8 1964, according to the Vatican’s website.] These Hindus suspected the Pope of designing to win converts at Hinduism’s expense. The suspicion was a relic of a past phase in the relations between the historic religions. The Government and people of India, however, recognized that the Pope’s motive for wishing to visit India was not a design to promote the sectional interests of his church but was a concern for the welfare of all his fellow human beings, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. The warmness of the welcome that the Pope received when he landed showed that a majority of the Hindu community had not only understood what his feelings towards them were but had been moved to respond in kind. Already, on his previous pilgrimage to the Christian holy places in Palestine [in January 1964], Pope Paul VI had been welcomed, with the same enthusiasm, on landing at the airport at ’Ammān. For a Pope to visit countries in which an overwhelming majority of the population was non-Catholic and non-Christian would have been impracticable till within a few years of these two dates. That the Pope should have been welcomed enthusiastically by a Muslim crowd and by a Hindu crowd would have been inconceivable. These two events are historic, and they may mark a turn in the tide of the higher religions’ fortunes. […] A union of hearts among their followers could do more than anything else to win back allegiance to each of them.

Paul VI began papal travelling. John Paul II continued on a greater scale. Benedict XVI has travelled less. In the first two years of his pontificate, he has left Europe only once: for his visit to Turkey.

Change and Habit, The Challenge of Our Time, OUP, 1966

The range of love

December 27 2006

Man’s sociality is not confined within the narrow compass of personal relations that was adequate for pre-civilizational human societies. A human being does have a sense of compassion for any other human being whom he finds in distress, even if, in tribal parlance, this fellow human being is an “alien”. A human being will take pity on any sick person and on any lost child, and will come to the sufferer’s aid. In empires, such as the Chinese Empire and the Roman Empire, whose rulers equated their dominions with the whole of the Oikoumenê, the rulers’ subjects came, in the course of time, to look upon themselves as being, not victims of alien conquerors, but citizens of an ecumenical state. The missionary religions set out to evangelize the whole of mankind, and the Chinese philosopher Mo-tzu held that a human being ought to love and serve all his fellow human beings with an impartial devotion. Confucius’ most authoritative interpreter, Mencius, rejected Mo-tzu’s precept as being impracticable; he stood for the Confucian ideal of a graduated order of loyalties; but experience shows that love inspired by personal acquaintance and love for all fellow human beings simply in virtue of a common humanity need not be mutually exclusive expressions of sociality. In India the range of love has been restricted by the barriers of caste, but it has also been extended to include Man’s fellow living beings of every species. In the Oikoumenê in the Age of the Industrial Revolution, human love needs to be extended to include all components of the biosphere, inanimate as well as animate.

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous