Religious Studies, Premodern Asia September 24, 2013
Overview: Common Era
New religious ideas (karma, samsara, moksa).
The appearance of Buddhism.
Looking at sub-continent known as India today.
Heartland of oldest form of Hindu religion.
History leading up to 500 BCE
c. 1700 BCE beginning of migrations into the subcontinent of peoples who brought Vedia
religion with them into the subcontinent.
c. 1500-800 BCE – oral composition of the Rgveda, the oldest of the Vedic texts.
c. 1000-500 BCE – transformation of Vedic religion into Brahmanic (called Hinduism
Referred to as sruti „heard‟ – i.e. the texts are considered to record knowledge revealed to
Vedic seers (rsis).
4 Vedas (Rgveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, Atharvaveda).
To which were later added layers of supplementary texts (ritual manuals, philosophical
texts, guides for behavior).
Hinduism and Buddhism do not have a set text they have multiple texts to read.
Composed in Sanskrit (Indo-European language) c.1500-800 BCE.
1028 hymns in 10 books that are recited/sung during religious sacrifices.
The hymns praise the Vedic gods, describe their activities, while alluding to aspects of
Vedic culture and geography.
Who are the gods in the Rgveda – Polytheism
Indra – the ideal warrior (289 hymns) Leader.
Agni – god of fire, messenger god (218 hymns).
Soma – a god, a plant, and the drink that is derived from that plant (123 hymns).
Visnu – associated with light (6 hymns).
Rudra – fierce, wild god (5 hymns).
Yama – god of the afterlife
About 50 different deities mentioned in total.
How are the gods served?
The sacrifice – typically animals, their products and vegetables:
Conducted by priests (Brahmins).
At which hymns are recited.
At which offerings are made.
Varied in complexity from very simple (domestic) to extraordinarily elaborate (royal).
Society is divided into four classes in 500 BCE – politicians/warriors, priests,
merchants/farmers, serfs. New ideas and traditions are emerging.
Samsara – first concept Rebirth is unknown to the early Vedic period, but later Vedic texts begin to express the
idea that one is born again and again.
This endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth is called samsara.
Some religious texts started to express dissatisfaction with Vedic religious ideas: “The
fools who delight in this sacrificial ritual as the highest spiritual good go again and again
through the cycle of old age and death” (Mundaka Upanisad)
Karma – second concept
Karma was reinterpreted to include the totality of one‟s actions, not just specifically ritual
The concern for proper ritual action developed a moral dimension: “A man turns into
something good by good action, and into something bad by bad action” (Brhadaranyaka
Moksa – third concept
Also emerging about this time was the idea that the mundane world could be transcended,
that one was not „stuck‟ forever in the endless round of rebirths.
This release from samsara is called moksa.
Attaining this release from samsara was achieved not through sacrificial action.
This pursuit of moksa often involved ascetic practices – sacrifices of animals and people;
deny yourself things, meditate, fast, maintain uncomfortable posture.
Indian time is infinite in past and future, but there is no beginning or end – it is seen as a
negative thing. You want to escape it – Moksa is outside of the cycle.
To obtain Moksa, you have to be a man – a woman can possibly obtain moksa; hope to
be reborn as a man to obtain moksa.
Dharma – fourth concept
Dharma is the prescribed duty dependent on one‟s status, gender and age.
It is variously translated as “duty, law, proper conduct”.
Dharma is different for different people at different times in their lives.
If you faithfully complete your duty, you will get your way out.
Sramana traditions c. 450 BCE
Although Hindu was dominate, there were other religions – most other groups did not
survive except Buddhism and
Sramana = “striver”, a wandering ascetic.
Within Buddhist texts there are lists of six other groups of sramanas (teacher, followers,
and defined philosophy) in addition to Buddhsts.
Some of these schools are also mentioned in Hindu texts.
It is generally accepted that the Buddha was a historical person who lived about the 5 th
century BCE (563-483 or 480-400 BCE).
His partial biography is founded in texts that appear some centuries later (2 / 3 century
His full biography is told many times in different texts from different Buddhist traditions,
texts which date to the first couple of centuries of the common era.
Traditional Buddha Biography
His father, Suddhodana, was the king in a city called Kapilavastu.
His mother, Maya, dreamt of a white elephant entering her womb from the right side.
He was born in Lumbini (modern Nepal), a prince in a ksatriya, or warrior family. He was born from his mother‟s right side.
He was given the name Siddhartha Gautama.
His mother died seven days after he was born and Siddhartha was raised by his aunt
The Buddha‟s Youth.
Based on the presence of the 32 great marks on his body, it was prophesied that he would
become either a great king or a great religious leader. Suddhodana did not want him to go
His father Suddhodana was determined that his son would be king.
His father kept the young prince sequestered in the palace, surrounded by all luxuries.
He was married at 16 to Yasodhara and had a son named Rahula.
The Four Sights
When Siddhartha left the palace his father made sure the streets were cleared of any
unpleasant sight, but on four successive trips the young prince saw an old man, a sick
man, a dead man and then someone who had renounced the world.
At the age of 29, the prince became dissatisfied with the impermanence of worldly life
and decided to renounce the world and seek spiritual knowledge.
Buddha had no idea that their was old age, sickness and death – the world was
unsatisfactory to him, because it would is a repetitive cycle.
His Life as Sramana
For the next six years the future Buddha wandered the Gangetic plain.
First, he studied with established teachers.
He mastered their meditative techniques, but rejected them as not leading to full
He undertook extreme asceticism, but rejected this practice as well.
After rejecting the meditative and ascetic practices of other schools, the future Buddha
developed his own meditative techniques.
At the age of 35, he achieved full enlightenment at Bodhgaya.
Part of that enlightenment was remembering all of his previous lives and the previous and
future births of all beings.
Another part was knowing the cause of rebirth and the means by which it can be
As a result of his spiritual achievements, the Buddha developed supernatural abilities as
Life as a Teacher
He preached his first sermon at the Deer Park in Sarnath to five of his former
They were converted and the first Buddhist community was formed.
For the next 45 years the Buddha (the Awakened One) wandered northern India, teaching
and building the Buddhist community.
The Buddha “died” – entered nirvana, at the age of 80.
The Four Noble Truths
All life entails suffering.
The cause of suffering is desire.
Removing desire removes suffering.
The way for removing desire is to follow the Eightfold Path. Premodern East Asia Overview
Early Chinese history
Confucius and the Analects.
Laozi and the Daodejing.
The Shang Dynasty
The Shang dynasty (c. 1600BCE to c. 1045BCE) was China‟s first historical dynasty.
The Xia dynasty (ended c. 1600BCE) is listed in traditional records as preceding the
The Shang dynasty was centered around Anyang, in northern Henan.
Shang Oracle Bones
In addition to the remains mentioned above, a large number of oracle bone fragments,
numbering over a hundred thousand, have been found (an unknown number lost before
they were recognized).
They are usually either the scapula of an ox or the plastron (lower shell) of a tortoise.
Late Shang Royal Religion
It was a sacrificial religion in which offerings were made to a variety of supernatural
entities, including ancestors, prior earthly lords, nature powers, and also the high god Di.
These supernatural entities were thought to have influence over the natural world.
Their advice, approval and explanation was sought by the king via divination.
Charges were addressed to the different members of the Shang pantheon.
Zhou Dynasty History
c. 1046 BCE the Shang dynasty ended.
Its armies were defeated in the battle of Muye by the armies of Zhou.
The Zhou dynasty was in power from c. 1046 BCE to the 3 century BCE.
Although these dates make the Zhou the lo