Recognizing our Limits: c. 500 BCE to c. 550 CE as our period of enquiry

In a recent meeting, Naomi and I gave some consideration to our sources. In particular, we have been looking for ways to delimit the period within which we will focus our inquiries. In so doing, we hope to reduce both the number of textual sources that we will have to survey and make it easier to cross-reference those sources, where possible, with material culture (including epigraphic materials, by which I refer to writing that has been inscribed on stone, clay, metal or wooden items). We decided, to this end, that we would come up with both a historical starting point and a finishing point (or as scholars like to call them a terminus post and a terminus ante quem).

We started with our point of departure. Our thinking is, we hope, based on common sense; in order for us to engage in comparative inquires, it must be possible that Brahminical Hindus, Buddhist and Jains were in contact with one another. This makes the approximate date of origin of the youngest of the three traditions our logical starting point (in fact, given that religious traditions take a little time to become established and to socially and textually consolidate themselves, we are in all probability looking to a date somewhat after the ‘beginning’). Buddhism is the youngest of our three traditions (in scholarly terms, though all three traditions view themselves as belonging to an endless past in their respective cosmo-histories). The Buddha is thought by scholars to have lived from c.563 BCE- c.483 BCE. The Jains are contemporaries of the Buddhists, but are considered, both in traditional and scholarly terms, to slightly predate them; Mahāvīra is thought to have lived between c.597 and 522 BCE.   Given that we are not concerned with the precise moment of the  ‘foundation’ of Buddhism or Jainism (and acknowledge only the heuristic value of these, and other, ‘isms’) and are instead concerned with the point at which they became sufficiently consolidated both to absorb cultural influences and to influence others (the latter more than likely occurring after the former), we may take our historical starting point to be around 500 BCE (and more than likely somewhat later than this). This also means we do not have to place undue emphasis on such long-standing emic and etic controversies as the gap between the mahāparinirvāṇa of the Buddha and  the coronation of Aśoka Maurya (369-232 BCE), the great emperor of the majority of South Asia, who was inclined to Buddhism.

If we take this date as our historical starting point, we thus find ourselves with a South Asia that contains a wide variety of tribal communities and which features varied internal, and external, trade roots and fairly well-developed urban settlements (from Taxila in Peshawar in the North West to Kodumanal in Chera country in the South).  By the mid-third century BCE, we also have our first evidence of an indisputably literate South Asia in the form of the emperor Aśoka’s pillar and rock edicts. More than this, we have evidence of a degree of awareness of issues surrounding religious texts and authority in the form of the Bairat (Bhabru) stone inscription, in which Aśoka provides a list of his preferred sources of Buddhist tradition (none of which can be tied with any certainty to extant Buddhist sources).

As well as developments in literacy, by the second century BCE, we begin to find substantial art historical bodies of evidence, such as the ‘narrative’ art of the sanctuaries of Bharhut, Sañci and Bodhgaya. Both the development of writing and these developments in the art of sculpture and architecture suggest a complex pre-history. This makes our chronological starting point an exciting one.

While the beginning of our period of enquiry was fairly easy to establish (based on the idea that a three-way comparison requires all of the three things to be compared to be in existence). Its end point is much less easy to decide upon.  The problem is that Indian textual history is so difficult to order chronologically and that, even if one accepts a chronology, it is difficult – in the absence of much in the way of extant manuscripts for early South Asia – to pin any given chronology to historical ‘anchor points’. Much hangs on the inscriptional record (the language used in inscriptions, the works and people mentioned in them and their dates) and on the existence of commentaries (when a text explicitly mentions or is based upon another text, one at least has a relative chronology, i.e. you know that the ‘mentioner’ came after the ‘mentionee’, unless something very strange is going on). Important sects of the Buddhist and Jain tradition consider the C5th to have been pivotal in the development of their respective canons. For the Theravādins, the commentaries of Buddhaghoṣa (said to have lived in the C5th in Śri Laṅka) on a large part of the Pāli canon mark a watershed (and, for our purposes, help to delineate in detail the content of the canon). For the Śvetāmbara Jains, the council of Valabhī, also in the C5th, is said to be where a canon of 71 works were accepted (though that canon is decidedly non-identical to what is preserved to this day, as the Jains themselves acknowledge).  Brahminical literature presents itself as a series of commentaries and departures from earlier works from the period of the Brāhmaṇas, onwards, but the mid-part of the first millennium is considered to have been critical in the elaboration of new religious syntheses (particularly in the Purāṇa literature, which, even by Indian standards, is notoriously difficult to date; though we do find a list of eighteen major Purāṇas and also a list of minor Purāṇas in Al-Bīrūnī’s C10th Tarikh Al-Hind, which, while not fixing the content of these texts by any means, does at least confirm their importance by the close of the first millennium). The C6th marks the passing of a major, and distinctly Hindu focussed, imperial formation in Northern and Central India: that of the Guptas.  In the South, we have, in the same broad period, the emergence and consolidation of the Pallava dynasty, as well as the rule of the Kadambas (in what is now modern-day Karnataka) and the mysterious- and anti-Brahminical – Kalabhras – who vyed with the Pallavas (not to mention the somewhat reduced – from their historic heights – Pāṇḍyas, Cholas and Cheras).

I will explore our proposed historical end point in more detail: The Guptan emperor Budhagupta (c. 500 C.E.) leaves us some vocally Viṣṇu-focussed inscriptions (such as the one found on a pillar inscription in Eran, Madhya Pradesh). His reign does, however, find mention in Buddhist donative inscriptions (such as the one found on the pedestal of a Buddha image in Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh). Earlier Guptan monarchs are mentioned in Jain donative inscriptions (for example, the emperor Kumāragupta is mentioned in the dedication of a Jain image in Mathurā, which is dated to 432 C.E.). After the reign of Budhagupta, the Guptan empire began to fragment. This was a consequence of a combination of factors: struggles over the succession; rebellious feudatories (by which I refer to regional royal families who no longer wished to accept, or at least wished to renegotiate, the overlordship of the imperial Guptan dynasty); and the depredations of the Hūṇas, who were Central Asian tribal peoples. The Guptan heartlands were Magadha (which roughly coincides with that part of modern-day Bihar that is south of the Ganges). The first Magadhan land grant that does not mention the imperial Guptas dates to 551-2 C.E. (found in Gayā). While the dynasty seems to have persisted somewhat beyond this point, this is a convenient marker, if not a failsafe guarantee, of the effective end of the dynasty as a ruling power. A date around the middle of the sixth century is thus a convenient end point for our project’s activities because it precedes the political uncertainties, and complexities, of the fragmentation of the Gupta empire.

As well as the aforementioned developments in Brahminical ideology, the Guptan period is also associated with a wide variety of achievements in science, philosophy and literature (from the zero and heliocentric models of the solar system to that most famous manual of courtly life, amongst other things, the Kāmasūtra and the works of the great Sanskrit playwright, Kālidāsa). The period also includes the development of temple-based Hindu practice; perhaps the most striking early monument to this development is the Daśāvatāra temple in Deogarh, which was built c. 500 C.E. There are also considerable developments in Buddhist and Jain art and architecture.

The Guptas never conquered the deep south of the Indian subcontinent. The South of India, around 550 C.E. was largely under the control of the Pallava dynasty (to whom, by the C6th, the Kadambas were subordinates). Our period of interest takes us to the rule of Siṃhavarman III (550-560 C.E.). It is also worth noting that Cosmas Indicopleustes – the C6th Byzantine geographer – attests to the presence of Christianity in Kerala – in   522 C.E (so while we are considering a pre-Islamic South Asia, the subcontinent is not entirely pre-Christian).

The early Pallavas are known for their patronage of Jain, Buddhist and Brahminical traditions, though they are best known for their inclination to Śaivism. Notwithstanding this propensity, the Pallava centre of Kāñcīpura was a hub of Pāli Buddhism (but equally is thought to have been the original home of Dignāga, the great – Yogacāra – Buddhist logician, as well as the famous Jain author, Samantabhadra). In addition another noted Jain, Sarvanandin, is said to have composed his Prākrit work, the Lokavibhāga in 458 C.E. in Kāñcī (at least according to a later Sanskrit translation of it). Xuanzang, writing just after our period of enquiry, leaves us of picture of Kāñcī as a thriving Buddhist centre. Our period also encompasses the period of composition of the extraordinarily rich Śaṅgam literature and several epic compositions in Tamil that take up Hindu, Buddhist and Jain themes and issues, which I will not list here.

Linguistically, it is worth noting that, in the period we intend to focus upon, Brahminical tradition is largely transmitted in Sanskrit while Jain literature is restricted for the most part to Prākrits (such as Ardha-Māgadhī and Māhārāṣṭrī, which were learned forms of languages that were closer to vernacular speech than Sanskrit, as is attested by the variation in their phonology/orthography). Buddhist literature is – if we focus only on South Asia – circulating in both Pāli (a learned Prākrit used only for Buddhist sources) and Sanskrit. We also find material pertaining to all three traditions in Tamil (there is nothing extant for our period in old Kannaḍa, but it is likely that works were circulating by the C6th). Our period of enquiry largely predates the production of Jain literature in Sanskrit or their subsequent return to Prākrit and, in particular, to the later dialect of Apabrahmśa. However, the various rulers of India in the period in question used Sanskrit, the Prākrits, Tamil and the languages of their regions of origin, if they were from outside South Asia e.g. the Kuṣāṇas, who ruled large parts of North India from the early first to the third century C.E., used  Bactrian, Sogdian (both of which are Eastern Iranian languages) and Gāndhārī (a Prākrit) not to mention both the Greek and Kharoṣṭī writing systems. Manuscripts from our period of enquiry are extremely rare and mostly Buddhist. They are known only from repositories of texts in arid regions of Central Asia. The South Asian climate, sadly, does not conduce to the survival of works written on leaf, bark or paper.

Moving to palaeography (the study of ancient writing systems), our period encompasses the emergence, early development and large-scale consolidation of the art of writing in South Asia. At centre stage, we find Aśokan Brāhmī and its derivatives. However, it is important to note that, although the Aśokan inscriptions are largely in Brāhmī, we also find, in the North-West of India, Aśokan inscriptions in another early Indic script, Kharoṣṭī, as well as in Greek and Aramiaic. Brāhmī develops differently in the North and the South; Under the Pallavas, a distinct form of Southern Brāhmī develops, from which proto-Kannada develops (which further develops into the Kadamba script during our period of enquiry). Also derived from Southern Brāhmī is proto, or Pallava, Grantha (c. C6th). In the north, the Kuśānas and the Guptas also developed their own distinctive forms of writing, both of which are named after them and both of which are derived from Brāhmī. Perhaps following its own line of development from Brāhmī – and mentioned by, amongst others, Al-Bīrūnī, but dating to the c. C5/6th – is Siddhamatṛka, which was an important forerunner of the Nāgarī script; the latter, however post-dates are period of enquiry. These developments are known from the epigraphic record.

I will not even attempt to list the extraordinary range of works in the fields of religious literature, scientific speculation, philosophy, theology, grammar, poetics, metrics, poetry and drama, which are dated to this period, but I will say, in closing that, notwithstanding our historical ‘bookends’ – the rise of Buddhism and the fall of the imperial Guptas – Naomi and I have our work cut out for us!

All ‘periods’ are either somewhat arbitrary, or somewhat self-serving; ours is without doubt both of these things. However, our intention is to narrow down our field of enquiry to the point that we can meaningfully focus on the canonical and early commentarial literature of the Buddhists and Jains, as well as Brahminicial works from the Upaniṣads to the Purāṇas (and sundry other works in Sanskrit and the Prākrits) and have a hope of reading these with some reference to the encompassing historical context (which is so richly delineated in the inscriptions, architecture and material culture of the period in question, not to mention through its evocations in the literary, religious and scientific works – both Indian and non-Indian that are dated to, and after, it). It is a period that encompasses two major imperial formations (the Mauryan and the Guptan), waves of invasion (Greek and Central Asian), colonial expansion (into South East Asia) and, of course, the formative period of Buddhism, Jainism and post-Vedic Brahminical Hinduism. I doubt we will run out of things to do.

One thought on “Recognizing our Limits: c. 500 BCE to c. 550 CE as our period of enquiry

  1. Pingback: Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade | The Story of Story in South Asia

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