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THE later Brahman literature which, whatever may be the age of its representative works in their present form, undoubtedly had its roots in a period at least as early as the rise of Jainism and Buddhism, may be classified under the four headings—Sutras, Epic poems, Law-books, and Puranas. These belong to two distinct species of literary composition, the Sutras being broadly distinguished from the others both in form and object.

The purpose of the Sutras, so called from the word sutra which means ‘a thread’, is to afford a clue through the mazes of Brahmanical learning contained in the Brahmanas. In the form of a series of short sentences they codify and systematize the various branches of knowledge sacred and secular. They are intended to satisfy the needs of a system of oral instruction, so that each step in the exposition of a subject may be learnt progressively and a convenient analysis of the whole committed to memory by the student. The earliest Sutras are in the priestly language and represent a phase which is transitional between the language of the Brahmanas and Classical Sanskrit as fixed by the grammarians.

The Epics supply the model both for language and form which is followed by the Law-books and the Puranas. Their source is to be traced to the traditional recitations of bards who were neither priests nor scholars. Their language is thus naturally more popular in character and less regular than Classical Sanskrit. In many respects it does not conform to the laws laid down by the grammarians, and is ignored by them. This became the conventional language of epic poetry, which was used also in the Law-books, the subject-matter of which was taken to a great extent from the Sutras, and in the Puranas, which, as they stand at present, belong to a period not earlier than the fourth century A.D. The metres of the Law-books and the Puranas are also substantially those of the Epic poems.

The period of the Sutras, Epics, and Law-books thus overlaps that of Buddhist India on the one hand, and reaches well into the period of the extant Puranas on the other. The earliest known Purana precedes the later law-books probably by centuries, as the Sutras precede the earliest works of Buddhism. Nevertheless it is not only new matter which is offered by the literature, whether legal or epic, but virtually a new phase, a fresh point of view, the life of India as it shows itself under the dominion of the Brahmans, who have been the real masters of Indian thought for more than three millenniums. It is in fact the continuation under new conditions of the history depicted above, before Jain and Buddhist had arisen.

As we read the works of these important sects we receive the impression that the world of India was one in which the ancient priestly caste had lost its authority; that nobles and wealthy merchants were more regarded than Brahmans. But it must be remembered that, despite the wide reach of Buddhism when in its full power, it influenced at first only that part of the country where it arose, and that the earlier writings depicting the life and teaching of Buddha represent chiefly the circumstances found in a very circumscribed area, in fact just the area where Brahmanism was weakest. The elements of social life were the same here as elsewhere, but they were not arranged in the same way. The stronghold of Brahmanism lay to the West, and there the priest had had his say and built up his power among clans boasting direct descent from Vedic heroes and more inclined to bow to the mysterious Vedic word of which the only custodian was the Brahman priest. In short, as Brahmanism exaggerates the power of the priest, so Buddhism belittles it unduly, not because it sets out to do so but because each represents a special point of view based more or less upon geographical position. Owing, however, to a still later interpretation of caste, our modern ideas on the subject are apt to be peculiarly confused. To understand the social order into which we enter as we begin the study of the Sutras, epics, and law-books, we must renounce altogether the notion of caste in its strict modern sense, as on the other hand we must free ourselves from the thought that the whole caste-system is merely a priestly hypothesis disproved by the conditions revealed in Buddhistic writings.

In point of fact, even the Buddhist writings recognize the formal castes; and it is simply impossible that a social structure so widely pervading as that of the so-called castes, a structure revealed not by didactic works alone but implicitly as well as explicitly presented to us in every body of writings whether orthodox or heterodox, should have been made out of whole cloth. What we loosely call by this name today are later refinements; and we do not need to turn to Buddhist works to show that in ancient times the castes were merely orders socially distinct but not very strictly separated or ramified into such sub-divisional castes as obtain at the present time.

Yet before giving the proof of this in detail, it will be well to consider briefly the chronology of the works to be reviewed in relation to the general character and history of the states in which they arose. The legal literature which begins with the Sutras and is represented in the epics does not really end at all, as works of this nature continue to be written down to modern times, chiefly by eminent jurists who comment on older works. But, after eliminating the modern jurists and confining ourselves to the law-books which may be called classic, we still find that the terminus falls well into the middle of the first millennium of our era; and as the beginning of this literature in Sutra style reaches back at least as far as this before the beginning of our era, the whole period is rather more than a thousand years, about the middle of which must be set the time to which the epic poems are to be assigned as works already known and perhaps nearly completed.

Outlines of Chronology 

The cycle thus designated as a millennium is one of very varied political fortunes; and the social, political, and religious material of the legal and epical literature must necessarily be explained in accordance with the outward changes. What these changes were is described in detail in other chapters of this work. For our present purpose it is necessary only to recount them in outline. At the end of the sixth century BC, early in the period to which the Sutras belong, the Persian Empire held two provinces in N.W. India—Gandhara, the present districts of Peshawar and Rawalpindi, and the Indian province, that is to say, the country of the Lower Indus: and the northern part of India generally was dominated by peoples of the Aryan race who had descended from the Punjab and spread eastward for centuries, but not so that the recently acquired territory was thoroughly assimilated to the cults and culture of the invaders, nor so that any one of these invaders had established an empire. Long before the end of this same period, Buddha, Mahavira, and other reformers had broken with the cult derived from the Vedic age, and the great empire of Asoka had made a new epoch in political life. This alteration, however, had been introduced, though adventitiously, through outer rather than inner conditions. After the short campaign in the Punjab, made by Alexander as the conqueror of the Persian Empire, his Indian dominions were, within a few years, absorbed by the growing power of Magadha (S. Bihar) then under the sway of a usurper, Chandragupta (c. 321-297 BC) the low-born son of Mura and the founder of the Maurya empire. This empire extended from Pataliputra (Patna) to Herat and was maintained by an army of approximately 700,000 men, the first real empire in India. His successors, Bindusara and Asoka, enlarged the empire, annexing Kalinga on the eastern coast and ruling as far south as Madras. This dynasty continued in power till the end of the Sutra period; and under it, during the reign of Asoka (c. 274-236 BC) Buddhism became the court-religion. Asoka’s period is determined by the mention in his edicts of certain Hellenic princes who were his contemporaries, but after his reign there comes a period of less chronological certainty. The different versions of the Puranas are not in agreement as to the exact number of his successors; but they are unanimous in asserting that the Maurya dynasty lasted for 137 years; that is to say, it is supposed to have come to an end c. 184 BC. For over a century after its fall the Sunga dynasty, whose founder, Pushyamitra, had slain Brihadratha Maurya and usurped his throne, held sway, despite forcible inroads of the Yavanas (Greeks) and the Andhras; and we learn that both Pushyamitra and the Andhra king, Chatakarni, performed the famous horse-sacrifice, in accordance with the ancient Vedic rite, thus challenging all opponents of their authority. The son of this Pushyamitra was Agnimitra, who conquered Vidarbha (Berar), then a province of the Andhra Empire of S. India, and the grandson, who guarded the horse, was Vasumitra. These names, as also the re-establishment of the horse-sacrifice, are highly significant in that they show a renascence of the Vedic religion and a consequent decline in Buddhism. The same thing is indicated by the fact that Kharavela, a king of Kalinga, who boasts of having invaded the Andhra dominions as well as Northern India, was a Jain. Sumitra, the son of Agnimitra, was, according to Bana's historical romance, the Harshacharita, miserably slain by Mitradeva, who may perhaps have been a Brahman of the Kanva family which eventually gained the chief power in the state. The account given by the Puranas states that the minister Vasudeva slew the tenth and last of the Sunga kings and inaugurated a new dynasty, called the Kanva dynasty, which lasted for about half a century; but, since the Kanvas are definitely styled ‘servants of the Sungas’ and for other reasons, it seems more probable that the later Sunga kings had been reduced to subjection by their Brahman ministers, and that the lists of these contemporary rulers nominal and actual were wrongly regarded by some late editor of the Puranas as successive. It is further related that one of the Andhra kings' slew Sucarman, the last of the Kanvas, and thus brought Magadha under the sway of the sovereigns, whose names and titles, as well as their sacrificial inscriptions, show them to have been followers of the ancient Vedic religion. But here again it appears that dynastic lists have been brought together and arranged in an unreal sequence. There can be little doubt that the first of the Andhra kings was earlier in date than the first of the Sungas, and not 167 years later as would appear from the Puranas. It is indeed doubtful if the Andhras ever ruled in Magadha: but their sway in Central and Southern India lasted until the middle of the third century A.D.

In the meantime, on the decline of the Maurya empire which must have set in soon after the death of the Emperor Asoka (c. 236 BC), the Punjab passed into the hands of foreign invaders—first, Greeks from the kingdom of Bactria to the north, and subsequently Scythians (Shakas) and Parthians (Pahlavas) from the kingdom of Parthia to the west. The kingdoms established by these new-comers in the Punjab were overwhelmed by still another wave of invasion from the north. The Kushapas, a people from the region of China who had driven the shakas out of Bactria, began their Indian conquests with the overthrow of the kingdom of Kabul about the middle of the first century AD, and extended their power until, in the reign of Kanishka (probably 78 AD), the patron of that branch of the Buddhist Church which is called the Mahayana, the Kushapa empire was paramount in N. India.

In Western India we can to some extent trace from inscriptions and coins the varying fortunes in the conflict between the Andhras and the invaders of N. India, and the establishment in Kathiawar and Cutch of a dynasty of shaka satraps, originally no doubt feudatories of the Kashapas, which lasted till c. 390 AD when it was overthrown by the Guptas.

The period of the Gupta empire which dates from 319 AD is a most important epoch in the history of Sanskrit literature. It is the golden age of Classical Sanskrit; and in it most of the Puranas and the works belonging to the later legal literature appear to have assumed their present form.

Wider Political Outlook 

This brief conspectus of the conditions obtaining in India during the time to which we have to assign the Sutras, epics, and legal works will show that other influences than those with which we have been dealing hitherto are to be expected; and these are indeed found, but not to such an extent as might have been anticipated. These influences are indeed to be traced rather in the general enlargement of vision of the writers than in specific details. The simple village life with which for the most part the Sutras are concerned, the government of a circumscribed district by a local raja, are gradually exchanged for the life reflected from large towns and imperial power. Though this is more noticeable in the epics, it may be detected in the later Sutras and again in the still later law-books. During this period the power of Buddhism increased and then, reaching its culmination, began to wane. The world of India by the second century before Christ was already becoming indifferent to the teaching of Buddhism and was being reabsorbed into the great permanent cults of Vishnu and Shiva, with which in spirit Buddhism itself began to be amalgamated. The Brahman priests reasserted themselves; animal sacrifices, forbidden by Asoka, were no longer under the royal ban; and with this open expression of the older cult the whole system of Brahmanism revived, fostered alike by the temple priests and their ritualism and by the philosophers, who regarded Buddhism as both a detestable heresy and a false interpretation of life.

But there is little apparent influence from outside, despite the wider political outlook; and where such influence might be looked for with greatest certainty, namely in the effect of Greek domination, it is practically nil. Only the Yavanas, literally Ionians, a people or peoples of Greek descent who may be traced in Indian literature and inscriptions from the third century BC to the second century AD, and who were manifestly a factor of no small importance in the political history of Northern and Western India—they are celebrated as great fighters in the Mahabharata and other literature—remain to show that the conquest of Alexander and the Greek invasion from Bactria had any result. Other indications point rather to Persia than to Hellas. Thus the title Satrap, which was continued in use by Alexander, still remains under Shakas and Kushanas to testify to the long Persian dominion in N.W. India. Apart from this, political and social relations do not appear to be affected at all either by Hellenic or by Persian influence. The native army remains of the same sort, though greatly enlarged. The social theory remains practically the same, save that a place among degraded ‘outcastes’ is given to Yavanas as to other barbarians. Architecture and the arts of sculpture, gem-engraving and coinage do indeed bear witness, especially in the N.W. region of India to the influence of Persia and Greece during this period, just as, at a later date, native astronomy was affected, and indeed practically superseded by the system of Alexandria. But the period with which we are dealing at present does not make it necessary to inquire into the relation between India and the outer world in respect to science. The idea that Indian epic poetry itself is due to Hellenic influence has indeed been suggested; but as a theory this idea depends on so nebulous a parallel of plot that it has received no support.