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The Historical Perspective - From the Indus Valley People to the Time of the Buddha

The Indus Valley Civilisation was one of the earliest sophisticated societies in the world. It was a Bronze Age civilisation and flourished from 3300 to 1300 BCE. Centred around the Indus River basin and extending into what is now Pakistan, the mature phase of this civilisation (2600-1900 BCE) is known as the Harappan Period. Harappa was the first of a number of ancient cities to be excavated in the 1920s revealing a sophisticated and technologically advanced urban culture with emphasis on town planning and a high priority on hygiene that included the first known urban sanitation system. Many items, including seals, sculptures and pottery have been found that attest to significant scientific knowledge and impressive artistic skills. Indus Valley trade extended to Afghanistan, Persia, western India and Mesopotamia. Large numbers of Harappan seals have been unearthed in the Arabian Gulf region. The unique Harappan script has yet to be deciphered.
In the Middle to Late Bronze Age (1800-1500 BCE) the Indus Valley was invaded from the northwest and conquered by nomadic light-skinned Indo-European (Aryan) tribes from Eastern Europe. The Indus Valley civilisation fell into decline at this time. It is not clear if this was due to some natural disaster or a direct result of the Aryan invasion. The Aryans soon became dominant. A new culture emerged in India during 1500-600 BCE known as the Vedic Period. During this time the Vedas, the oldest sacred texts of the Indo-Aryans, were composed. The Vedic Civilization flourished in the region that now comprises the states of Haryana and Punjab. The transition from the early to the later Vedic period was marked by the emergence of agriculture as the dominant economic force. The increasing importance of land and its protection gave birth to several large kingdoms. Vedic religious and spiritual thought is the precursor to modern Hinduism.

3300 BCE
Indus Valley Civilization
1800 - 1500 BCE
Aryan Invasion
1800 - 1500 BCE
Aryan Invasion
circa 560 BCE
Birth of Siddhartha

Elements of Aryan Society

Elements of Indus Valley Society

It is believed that the Aryan people originated from the vast steppe region of Eurasia, stretching from Hungary to Mongolia. They were highly mobile nomads and their rapid expansion is strongly associated with horse training and the use of chariots. Their religion resembled the ancient Greek pantheon. Gods were personifications of natural phenomena such as thunder, lightning, fire and water. The priest was the pre-emminent figure in society conducting ritual sacrifices that were seen as communication with the gods. Heaven was imagined as a kind of perfected world. Society’s emphasis was on family and progeny, especially on sons. Loyalty was towards the group not the individual. Cohesion of the tribe was all important. Power, wealth and progress were central to the Aryan view. Society was divided into strata and a strict caste system. Belief in authority was absolute. The Vedas were regarded as the books of infallible revelation.
The Indus Valley society was sedentary, urban and agrarian using a sophisticated script, as yet not decoded. The culture had a profoundly spiritual emphasis. There is archeological evidence of meditation, mind training, and yoga practice. Symbols that are now associated with Buddhism appear on artefacts, including the pipal tree, elephant, deer and swastika. Mathematics, science, detailed urban planning and architecture were highly developed. There was no caste system and no books of revelation. Responsibility extended beyond the present life. The notion of karma was understood. The spiritual goal was ultimate liberation from the birth/rebirth cycle. Renunciation was valued and wandering ascetics respected. There was no emphasis on progeny. Trade rather than military strength supported the economy. Excavations have not yet revealed any indications of warfare or weapons that may have been used.

The Merging of the Two Opposing Societies and Traditions

Once the Aryan expansion came to an end, significant social, economic and political changes followed. The two apposing cultures merged somewhat. For the Aryans life changed to a more sedentary, agrarian and urban existence. In time commerce flourished and the merchant class became powerful. Raw tribal influences diminished and territorial states began to emerge. Over time the Aryans energy and the spiritual ideas of the Indus Valley people merged into the heterogeneous Vedic Culture that lasted over a thousand years. It is probable that the origins of Buddhism have their roots in the Indus Valley civilization. They are not an off-shoot of Hinduism or a protest against Hinduism as is sometimes stated.