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Book Review: The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism

The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism by A.L.Basham, Oxford University Press, USA, 208 pages

The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism

Excluding the first chapter which contains the preliminary narrative, the Bhagavad Gītā contains 650 verses. A sloka takes at least twelve seconds to narrate which means that if Krishna spoke without a pause it would have taken him over two hours to complete his sermon to Arjuna. Considering the fact that a great war about to commence it seems unlikely that the entire Bhagavad Gītā as we know it today was delivered by Krishna on the battle field according to A.L.Basham.

Basham, known more popularly for his work, The Wonder That Was India was a  historian with the Australian National University in Canberra.  He was considered as an important scholar on ancient Indian culture and religion.

Coming back to the lack  of proportion in Gītā, Basham says that Arjuna’s quandary is settled within the 38th verse of the second chapter, but still Krishna turns to other matters which are irrelevant to the main theme. The rest of the the Gita was added later, at least by two hands. One of them was a philosopher of the Upanisisadic type interested in the Brahman and the other was a theist, a devotee of Vishnu.

His theory comes by the analysis of a later interpolation into the Mahabharata known as Anugita which occurs in the seventeenth book, the Asvamedha Parvan. At that time the war is over and Arjuna reminds Krishna of what he taught him in the battle field and admits that he has forgotten Krishna’s words. Krishna talks again about Brahman, early forms of Samkhya and Yoga philosophy, but there is no reference to bhakti or Krishna’s divinity from which Basham concludes that the Anugita was inserted into the Mahabharata when Bhagavad Gītā was devoid of its theistic passages.

He has many other revelations as well. For him there was no trace of Hinduism in the Indus Valley Civilization which is where the book starts. The pashupathi seal  which shows a horned god sitting in a yogic posture known as utkatikasana, discovered in Mohenjo-daro according to many resemble a proto-Shiva, but not for Basham. The full face of the god is closer to a tiger than a man and it is not clear if the god is ithyphallic.  He also dismisses evidence for ritual temple prostitution and the inducements of calm or trance states called yoga as dubious. 

Instead the beginnings of religion for him started between 1500 and 900 B.C.E when the Rg-veda was composed – not by indigenous people, but by Aryans who entered India after the decline of the Indus cities. The authors of the hymns could not have been the residents of the Indus civilization for they do not make any mention of those cities. Also, the Vedic hymns mention horses which did not exist in Indus cities. He does not wonder why the authors of the Rg-veda mention life on the shore of sapta-sindhu rivers even though they arrived in the region after two of the rivers had dried up.

Unlike the Eminent Historians, Basham finds various admirable concepts in Hinduism. He notes various theories on the creation of evolution of the universe as wondered by Cyrus Spitama in Gore Vidal’s Creation, like the Golden Embryo (Hiranyagarbha) from which the universe emanated according to the Rig-Veda. Basham is very impressed with the development of thought in Vedic literature and mentions Rg-Veda (10.129) for its picture of the universe evolving out of the primal condition that was neither being nor nonbeing, neither cosmos nor chaos. This hymn according to him is the oldest expression of philosophic doubt in the literature of the world and forms a landmark in the history of Indian thought.

Besides these he also notes the Purusasukta (Rg-veda 10.90) which is beautiful from a literary point of view as well as a verse found in Brhadaranya Upanishad (1.4) which informs us that the mating of Purusa and Viraj produced a second Purusa and then the Gods. In Brhadaranya Upanishad he also finds new accounts for the theory on creation which ascribes primacy to Death, Brahman and a personal self showing the richness and variety of Upanisadic literature. 

In Brhadaranya Upanishad (3.2) the sage Yajnavalkya comes to the court of King Janaka of Videha (northern Bihar) and he is questioned by another sage, Jaratkarava Artabhaga on what happens to a man after his death. Yajnavalkya does not answer it in public, but  they both walk alone and talk to each other and Jaratkarava becomes silent. What Yajnavalkya told him was the theory of transmigration of the soul which was held in secret initially, but later was made public.

This concept alongwith the ideas of samsara and karma were all products of great intellectual thought according to Basham. These concepts of transmigration and karma was adopted by heterodox leaders like the Buddha and Mahavira as well. Other concepts introduced by the ascetics include the atman and the Brahman and he is fascinated by a debate on if the absolute and ultimate entity is “without characteristics” (nirguna) or “with characteristics” (saguna).

Basham also questions the Marxist theories which connect the rise of heterodoxies such as Buddhism and Jainism as a revolt against the class system. According to him, Brahmins formed the largest group of both monks and lay supporters of Buddhism. In its early form Buddhism appealed mainly to intellectuals and rulers and very few members of the lower orders supported it.

Besides the Vedic literature, Basham is impressed with the two epics as well. He thinks that there was nothing religious in the Mahabharata originally, but religious content was added later by the Brahmins. Seeing the popularity of the original poem, the Brahmins took over the transmission of it from the royal bards and crudely sandwiched many doctrinal, mythological and theological passages into it. He blames the gotra of the Bhargavas for this crime. In fact the original poem did not even have Krishna according to him.

While most of us believe that Ramayana is older than Mahabharata since Rama is the seventh avatar and Krishna the eight, Basham says it need not be so. According to him the list of avatars was produced much later than either books. Also there is evidence that Mahabharata was finally edited in 500 C.E and by that time Ramayana was well known and was interpolated into Mahabharata. He also thinks that Mahabharata had a rugged beauty without high finish or intellectual style while Ramayana was the work in ornate and classical style of Sanskrit.

Basham traces the religious and philosophical life of India from the Indus Valley civilization to the crystallization of classical Hinduism in the first centuries. This book is short and on a flight from San Francisco to Washington D.C. this book can be completed in the time the flight goes over Denver. Basham’s writing echoes the theories of the eminent historians and considering the fact that he was the the doctoral guide for the likes of Romila Thapar, it is not a surprise.

The book is available in the varnam book store

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