Jainism and Buddhism – Alexander – The Maurya Empire
The historian finds no dynasty that he can accept until about 650 B.C.; and he must pas over another seventy years before he finds a king who is more than a shadow. Such a king is Bimbisara, who reigned in what is now Bihar, and built up by conquest the nucleus of what later became the first Indian Empire we know – the Maurya one. Tradition says that after reigning for twenty-eight years he was murdered by his son Ajatasatru, who succeeded him.
But this dawn of Indian history shows us figures more important than those of kings – Gotama Buddha and Vardhamana Mahavira. Mahavira was a contemporary, probably a relation, of King Bimbisara; he was the founder of Jainism as it is known today. Jainism believes some kind of consciousness to exist in every creature, even in fire and wind, and to the outside world is best known by its principle, its extreme emphasis on a doctrine that Buddhism as well as some forms of Hinduism cherishes – that of harmlessness to every living thing, however, minute. It has had no sort of influence outside India, and has long ago become a sect of Hinduism.
A far greater figure is that of Mahavira’s younger contemporary. Gotama Buddha. He was born probably about 560 B.C., among the Sakyas, a people living close to the Himalayas and within sight of their snow peaks. The armed invasions have reached India through the north-western passes; but from the east, and through the Himalayas, have filtered peaceful invasions of Mogolian settlers; probably the Sakyas were of partly Mongolian blood. Gotama’s father was a noble, by later tradition magnified into a king. His son led a sheltered and luxurious life; but late in young manhood his eyes were opened to the misery around him, and he made the great renunciation of wife and child and honoured estate, going to the six years of severe asceticism that brought him frame, which he tossed away in the moment of “enlightenment.” After enlightenment, for fifty years he wandered and taught, with infinite patience and compassion trying to guide men to his own peace. The records show a deeply human figure, sympathizing with all classes of his fellows; those whom he won included prostitutes, one of whom gave him the Deer-Park at Benares, for his followers to mediate in. His doctrines were those already familiar, except that he flung away caste and ritual and taught harmlessness which an emphasis impossible to the followers of a religion that practiced bloody sacrifice. He is commonly said to have been an atheist and to have meant by nirvana, the salvation he taught men to strive for – or, rather, to win by not striving, since re-birth is due to action, which proceeds from desire – extinction of being. It may be so; but it is better to say that Buddha simply did not trouble about God or the survival of self, but put these questions by, while he taught men to suppress the egoism that makes them so busy and futile and actively harmful. This may not be the best way; but its gift has been peace of spirit such as few outside Buddhism have won. Theoretically, Buddhism is a creed of pessimism, but the nations that have accepted it have been, and are, noticeably cheerful ones.
Buddhism made its way in the country lying south-east of the Panjab; the province of Bihar has its name from its former multitude of viharas, or monasteries. To the west, in the Panjab, were peoples of fiercer habits and ruled by warlike kings. Their chief city, Taxila, was a centre of Hindu learning and sentiment. The Panjab, then, as now, lying open to the virile races in the Central Asian mountains, was hospitable to alien influence and also armed against invasion. The Oxford History of India goes so far as to call Taxila a “half-foreign city.”
Somewhere about 500 B.C., Darius, the third of the great rulers who had made Persia into a vast empire, sent his admiral, Skylax, to the Indus valley. Skylax built a fleet and sailed down the river; after a two and a half years’ voyage he reached the Red Sea. We must assume annexation to have taken place before and not after the voyage. Indian archers fought against the Greeks at Plataea in 479 B.C., the first appearance of Indian troops on European battle-fields; their second was in Flanders in A.D. 1914.
The Indian conquests became a Persian satrapy, of which Herodotus, a hundred and fifty years later, said: “Its population is by far the greatest of all nations whom we know of, and they pay a tribute proportionately larger than all the rest, 360 talents of gold dust” (185 hundredweights). The satrapy included the districts round Kabul, as well as the whole Indus valley; indeed until India developed a strong administration from within, which was hardly ever before the reign of Akbar, it always tended to pivot politically on the Afghanistan highlands, which today we regard as definitely outside India.
When Alexander conquered Persia, he marched across Asia. In 327 B.C. he was in Afghanistan, in a campaign of ferocity unusual even for India subduing the hill tribes, who have cost England so many arduous wars. We read of desperate stormings, of the great leader’s own foolhardy prowess, a story vivid and entrancing. Readers will remember the interest excited a year or two ago, when Sir Aurel Stein claimed to have identified Aornos the fortress so lofty that no bird could fly over it. In this rugged border region, alone in India, the olive grows wild, the trees – whose berries are worthless – said (rather improbably) to have sprung from olive-stones tossed away by Alexander’s soldiers; and eight ruling frontier families claim descent from the son borne to the conqueror by Kleophis, Queen of the Assakenoi, in storming whose capital Alexander was wounded.
In February, 326 B.C., Alexander crossed the Indus. Taxila submitted, and he advanced to the Hydaspes (Jhelum), outmanouvered the giant king, Porus, who was guarding the opposite bank, and crossed. We have a record of the hard fight that followed, in a medal struck to celebrate it: on one side a Greek horseman drives before him an elephant and its riders. Twelve thousand of Porus’s, covered with wounds, was brought before Alexander. Asked how he expected to be treated he replied: “As a king!” Alexander made him his viceroy, and gained a friend.
Alexander marched eastward, fighting continually, till at the Hyphasis (Bias) his troops refused to go further. He built twelve huge altars – reverenced for centuries, but long since obliterated by a change in the river’s course – to mark the eastern limits of his astounding invasion. A fleet was made, and the army marched downstream, the ships sailing alongside. There were desperate battles, ending in the usual massacre; the people of one town, as Tajputs so often in later times, practised the jauchar, sending their women to the funeral pyres and killing themselves. A year later, in October, 325 B.C., Alexander marched home overland; in the deserts of Baluchistan he lost his booty, animals, and many of his men. His admiral, Nearchus, waited in the Indus river for favourable winds. Fleet and army met again miraculously in the Persian Gulf.
Alexander died in 323. His generals divided the empire, and warred among themselves. Their quarrels gave an opportunity in Chandragupta, a young exile from Magadha (Bihar). He had met Alexander, and the Macedonian army had shown him how weak was the Magadha kingdom from which he had fled. He returned and overthrew it, and then attacked the garrisons Alexander had felt. Seventeen years later, about 305 B.C., Seleucus, Alexander’s successors in the East, invading India, but was beaten and made peace, resigning India and Afghanistan. To Chandragupta’s court at Putaliputra (near Patna) he sent an ambassador named Megasthenes.
Strabo, who collected whatever statements of Alexander’s officers and soldiers he could, observed: “All the companions of Alexander preferred the marvellous to the true.” He was shocked by some of Magasthenes’ stories; but we can see that the latter was a reasonably reliable witness, even though he thought sugar-candy was a kind of rock and reported some things awry. He said many things that were, and are still, true of India. His book is preserved only in part-quotation by other authors; but we have further knowledge of the Maurya empire from the Arthasastra or “Science of Ruling,” a manual ascribed to Chanakya the famous minister that tradition has set up by Chandragupta’s side. Its genuineness is accepted by most scholars, but Professor Macdonell shows reason for refusing to regard it as nearer than five hundred years to its alleged date. Nevertheless, we may take it as a repository of early memory of the first Maurya emperor. It is a book that is generally called very wicked, since it is brutally cynical, recommending aggressive war whenever it seems profitable, and teaching an art of cruel, cunning statecraft.
If we put all our evidence together, we form an adequate impression of Chandragupta’s reign. His empire was vast, from the Ganges to Kandahar, his armies immense, his administration pitilessly severe, yet more civilian in character than Akbar’s, which never shook off the quality of a camp in a hostile land. If we ask what difference Alexander made to India, this is the reply; he not only left a mighty memory, as numerous place-names show (such as Secunderabad, Secunderabagh), but he convinced one Indian king that a mob and an army are different things. No doubt Chandraguta’s forces outnumbered those of Seleucus; but he defeated Seleucus, whereas Alexander routed enormous native armies repeatedly, and even in the fierce battle against Porus lost only 1,000 men. The effective armies that have operated in India have been invaders; Chandragupta’s and the Sikh army have been almost the only exceptions.
Chandragupta was succeeded about 298 B.C. by his son Bindusara, and he by Akoka, in 273 B.C. Asoka is known to us as few kings are, because of the change of character which overcame him. In 261 B.C. he conquered the Kalingas, who lived in Orissa, annexing their land, but the misery that he inflicted filled him with remorse, and he became an ardent Buddhist. He was left no less than thirty-five rock-carved edicts, widely scattered over India – so that we can see how extensive was the Maurya dominion, which must have been a great unifying force. These edicts breathe a deeply unselfish and benevolent purpose towards all living creatures. The two Kalinga edicts show a noble and profound sorrow. “Kalinga was conquered by His Sacred and Gracious Majesty when he had been consecrated eight years; 150,000 persons were thence carried away captive, 100,000 were there slain and many times that number perished. . . . Of all the people who were then slain, done to death, or carried away captive, if the hundredth or the thousandth part were to suffer the same fate, it would now be matter of regret to His Sacred Majesty. Moreover, should anyone do him wrong, that, too, must be borne with by His Sacred Majesty, if it can be possibly borne with. . . . His Sacred Majesty desires that all animate beings should have security, self-control, peace of mind, and joyousness.”
Asoka gave up hunting and flesh-eating. He was earnest in his missionary purpose, and Ceylon/Sri Lanka Buddhism was founded by his son and daughter, (perhaps his brother and sister) Mahendra and Sanghamitra. The rock-hewn “study” of Mahendra still exists, buried in deep jungle near the ruined city of Anuradhapura.
Asoka died in 232 B.C., still passed into legend almost as completely as King Solomon. More than four hundred years later a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim found Magadha full of the works that the demons had constructed for their master. A boulder-piled hill was ascribed to a feast he had given them, when he said: “I beg you to accept my invitation for tomorrow; but as there are no seats I must request you each to bring his own.” Each demon brought a massive stone, and these stones at Asoka’s wish they made into a mountain after the banquet. But, as with Buddha himself, the luxuriant efflorescence of myth does not for a moment conceal the vivid human reality. We can see the Master, on the sun-splashed Indian roads or in the leafy villages, expounding the Excellent Law; or it is the Rainy Season, and he is in some retreat with his disciples, the monsoon steadily spending itself outside that circle of quiet talk and study. And we can see the Royal Saint, unable to forget the miseries of that people whom he had slaughtered and enslaved, striving to bring peace and happiness to every living being, not men alone, but the wild lives of the forest. Away in Ceylon/Sri Lanka, his son and daughter, as gentle and devoted as himself, extend the wide circle of that superb benevolence. We cannot identify the hill that the demons built; but the Rocks have kept their testimony of Asoka’s remorse, and the cave where Mahendra taught is known today.