[Partly revised 2/8/15 and 2/8/17]


Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken is a favorite poem for many people, partly because it speaks so well of a universal human question, the question of what things might have been like had we made a slightly different decision at some point earlier in our lives.  In history, too, we ask such questions.  Historians frequently play that "what if" game, and sometimes asking students to join them in guessing what history would have been like "if only...."  What if Lee had only adopted a different strategy at Gettysburg?  What would things have been like had the Persians won at Marathon?

Sometimes, the "what if" questions can be partly answered by looking at societies that made different choices at similar history turning points, and it seems to me that, in looking at Western civilization, it's useful to exam civilizations that made different kinds of choices.

It's particularly useful to look at the great civilization of India and China, two civilizations that, in many ways, mark roads not taken by Western civilization.

The people of India developed one of the world's first great civilizations.  At roughly same time great civilizations developing in Egypt and Mesopotamia, an equally strong civilization was developing in the Indus valley (what we usually call Harappan civilization).  Now here is a strange thing. All of you have heard of Egypt and Mesopotamia as "cradles of civilization," but no one hears about Harappan civilization.  Partly this is because we can't decipher their writing.  We can read hieroglypics and cuneiform, but not Harrapan script.  Nevertheless, archaeologists have discovered enough to know that, in many ways, Harappan civilization was like that of Egypt and Mesoptamia (see these excellent links to Harappan sites).

Around 1500 B.C. Harappan civilization came to an end.  We don't know for sure exactly how and why (since we have no written records), but many historians believe that the arrival of a new people into India, the Aryans, played an important role in disruppting Harappan civilization. These Aryans, already dominating Media and Persia, now moved on to India as well (c. 1500 BC). The Aryans were apparently illiterate at this point, and we have no contemporary records of their conquest--if conquest it was..

Ultimately, these Aryans ended up establishing one of the world's greatest civilizations. The next 1000 years of Indian history (1500-500 BC), what we call the Vedic age, was a great creative period (see these  Aryan /Vedic Age links). During this time, India produced some of the world's most impressive art and architecture.  In addition, this period saw the beginning of Indian mathematics, and, for hundreds of years, India continued to be the the greatest center of mathematics in the world.  Only in the 17th century did Europeans catch up, and even today many of the world's top mathematicians are from India.  India also was probably the original home of the world's greatest game, chess--invented, so the legend says, by and Indian queen to distract her overly-amorous husband.

In chess and in mathematics, India does not mark a road not taken: the Western world copied much from Indian society. But in other ways, India does mark a road not taken, particularly in India's areas of greatest areas of achievement, literature and religion.  India produced some of the greatest epics in all of human history, poems full of exciting stories and impressive insights into human nature.  And yet Indian literature, works like the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Ramayana, and the Bhagavad Gita, are little known in the West and have had very little impact on Western civilization.

One reason for this is that the great works of Indian literature are all religious works, works dominated by the ideas of one of the world's most fascinating religions, Hinduism.  And it is in the area of religion that Indian society most clearly marks a road not taken by Western civilization.

Hinduism is a complex religion and, as the Hindus themselves admit, a contradictory religion.  In the Hindu view, however, these contradictions are not at all a bad thing.  Reality is contradictory, and a religion ought to reflect the contradictory nature of human experience.  This is a very different attitude than that of Western religion!  Christians, Moslems, and Jews are all disturbed by any apparent contradictions in their religions, and work hard to show that their religious beliefs are consistent.  Not so the Hindus.

This attitude toward contradiction is a great strength of Hinduism.  It enables Hinduism able to absorb any new religious impulses.  You've got a new religious idea?  Great!  We'll believe that...too!

Hindu religion is also different from Western religion in its continued embrace of polytheism.  The West was once polytheistic, but ultimately monotheism almost entirely replaced polytheistic beliefs.  TheHindus instead developed polytheism to perfection.

Of the many Hindu gods, the most important are Brahma, (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destoryer).

In some ways, Hindu religious writings on Brahma (e.g., the Upanishads) sound very much like the Bible in their theology. Reading the Upanishads is in some ways like reading the Psalms.  Brahma, the Upanishads tell us) is the source of everything, including, especially, love.  The ultimate goal is union with Brahma. 

But what the Upanishads teach isn't really monotheism.  It is, instead, what we call pantheism, the idea that everything is God.  In order to experience union in God, one must overcome the world of "maya," illusion.  This physical world is not only less important than the spiritual, it isn't even real!   The ultimate goal for the worshipper of Brahma is to attain Nirvana: "heaven," in a certain sense, but perhaps better understood as  "nothingness," or, at least, as obliteration of personal identity.

Another much worshipped god is Shiva (the destroyer god).   Shiva destroys ignorance, supersitition, and (particularly) maya. [In the lecture, I tell the story of Iswara, Paravati, Manmata and the demon Taraka]

Perhaps most useful in seeing the contrasts between Hinduism and the more familiar religions of the West is to look at Vishnu, the preserver god.  Vishnu, in his reole as preserver, takes on human flesh (avatars) to fight against demons.  Like Christ?  Well, not quite as one sees from the stories told about Vishnus in two of his incarnations, Krishna and Rama.

 1.  The stories of Krishna represent him as both a kind of mischievous figure (not unlike Loki) and as a superhero. The story I tell in class about Krishna hiding the clothes of the young women of his hometown until he gets his kiss from each of them shows the contrast between the sacred stories of India and those of the West.  There is a serious side to Krishna as well.  In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna helps the warrior Arjuna through the latter's struggle through a particularly difficult ethtical dilemma.  The solution shows a major difference between Hinduisma and Western religion.  Arjuna is told that, in fighting his relatives, he isn't really killing them.  The spirit is eternal, migrating into another body.  The physical is unreal--part of the world of Maya, illusion.

2.  Another incarnation of Vishnu is Rama whose story is told in what is possibly the greatest (and certainly the longest) poem in human history, the Ramayana.  The story of Rama and his wife Sita is a beautiful love story, and it's the kind of hero-story common enough in the West.  But in the West, we've separated such stories from our religious tradition.

Stories like those of Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana constantly remind one of differences between Hinduism and Christianity.  One of most important is the very different attitudes toward ritual.  Rituals, particularly religious austerities like the tapas, give spiritual power quite apart from good and evil.   Taraka (the demon of the Krishna story told in class) gained his power through his tapas.  Viswamitra (one of the Ramayana characters) became a sage through austerities--and a sage powerful enough to create an alternative heaven!  This idea is very different from that of  Christians, Jews and Moslems: religious ritual in these religions is important, but not nearly as important as in Hinduism.

To Western eyes, Hindu rituals seem inconsistent.  Within Hinduism, their is temple prostitution and often great emphasis on sex as the way to spiritual progress (e.g., tantraism).   On the other hand, their is equally high regard for abstinence (e.g. Ghandi and his women).  Why such seemingly contradictory ideas?  Perhaps because the ultimate virtue is to see that physical things make no difference.  But, interestingly enough, these same seemingly contradictory attitudes about sex and religion once prevailed in Western societies before the advent of the monotheistic religions.  Temple prostitution was prevalent Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian polytheism.  But, at the same time, extreme abstinance from worldly pleasures sometimes featured as well.

Hinduism dominates every area of life in India, including the political and social system.  Indian society: caste system.   There are four principle castes and thousands of sub-castes.  Caste in India determines your whole life: where you can live, what you can eat, what profession you will follow, what you can wear, and who you will marry.

For the top castes, this works out quite well.  "Brahman is by right the Lord of this whole creation.  A Brahman is born hightest on earth, the lord of all created beings.  Whatever exists in the world is the property of Brahman," says the Code of Manu, the most important of the Hindu law codes.

For the lower castes, things are not nearly so good.   They must live outside the villages.  For clothing: the garments of dead.  For eating utensiles: broken dishes.  For jewelry: iron.   They can be killed for simply walking on a public road or entering the house of Brahman.

The caste system is very different from what we're use to in the West, but it has some advantages.  It produces a very stable society.  Why?  It takes away a lot of worry.

The social status of women is also very different from what we're used to in the West.  Since marriage determined by caste, arranged by parents at very young age.  Perhaps this is not so bad--arranged marriages more successful than ours!  But the marriages are hardly equal.

The Code of Manu says, "A husband must be constantly worshipped as a God by a faithful wife.  day and Night women must be kept in dependence by the males of their families."

Women are expected to be faithful to husbands (a Western value) but (unlike the West) fidelity continues even after the husband is dead.  Some women are expected to prove their fidelity by casting themselves onto their husbands funeral pyres, burning themselves alive.  This practice is  known as "sati" (suttee in some texts), and a woman who sacrifices herself is said to be "sati" (pure).

Another major difference between Hinduism and Western societies is its acceptance of infanticide.   It is perfectly acceptable in Hindu society to kill an unwanted baby.  You have a girl when you wanted a boy?  Kill it, and try again.

 This was once the practice in the West as well.  The Greeks and Romans considered infanticide acceptable.  But ultimately, we came to view baby-killing as one of the worst of crimes.  Or at least we did until 1973.

 Why would women jump on pyres?  How can people kill their own babies?

A lot of it has to do with Hindu belief in reincarnation.  Hinduism teaches that this life not all there is: you will later come back in another form.  What form you get depends on your karma.  If your karma is good, you will come back as something better, a Kshatriya or a Brahman, perhaps.  If you are bad, you'll come back as something worse, as a member of lower caste, or as a woman perhaps. And if you're particularly bad, you'll come back as a rat--reincarnation is not limited to human forms.

Reincarnation is an idea the West toyed with.  Plato and the Pythagorians believed in reincarnation (probably influenced by  the  Hindus).  But the West basically gave up the idea while India held onto it.   The result: very different attitudes to all sorts of thing, particularly suffering.  In the  West, one automatically feels obligated to help those suffering if one can.  In India, one is not so quick--because you know why they are suffering, and there is not much you can do if someone's karma is bad.

Important also is the Hindu view of time/history.  The Hindu believes human events move through a cycle of four "yugas," eras, each with a different mixture of good and evil.  Unfortunatley for us, we are in the midst of Kaliyuga, the age of evil.  Wikepedia's summary of the principle charactistics of this age:

Kaliyuga will last for a long, long time--maybe for 400,000 years!  Not much hope in changing society, and the best one can hope for is to live one's own life by the rules, hoping to advance to a higher level in one's next incarnation.

This is obviously not an entirely satisfactory answer to the problem of evil and suffering, and it's not surprising that, within India itself, there were some important reform movements, movements designed to help understand and reduce suffering.

Two of these movements, Jainism and Buddhism, both started around the 6th century BC.   Jainism I don't talk about much in class anymore.  The Jains are an extreme attempt to minimize the harm one does to other living things.

Buddhism takes a different approach, the approach advocated by Siddhartha Guatama, better known as the Buddha, the Englightened One.

[See this short account of the story of the Buddha and this summary of Buddhist belief].

Buddha was born into a noble family, living a very sheltered life with every good thing a man could want.  Not until his early adulthood did he encounter the evils of this world: suffering, disease, and death.  These things so troubled him, that he left his privileges behind and went into the world to seek an answer to the problem of suffering and evil.  His answer: the Four Noble Truths, and the Eight-Fold Path.  These beliefs form the core of Buddhist philosophy:

The Four Noble Truths are these:

1.  There is suffering in the world.
2.  Suffering comes from unfulfilled desire
3.  To cease from suffering, cease from desire
4. To cease from desire, one must follow the eight-fold path

Note how different Buddha's solution is from that we generally take in the West.  In the West, we try to end suffering by giving people what they want.  Buddha thinks this won't work: no matter how much you give people, they will always want more, they will always have unfulfilled desires.  Only by ceasing from desire can one end suffering.

The steps along the Eight-fold Path are these:

1. Right knowledge: one must know the Four Noble Truths
2. Right purpose: you have to *want* to give up your desires
3. Right speech: you must be truthful, or you will make no progress on the 8-fold path
4. Right behavior: be chaste, temperate, etc.
5. Right livelihood: some professions really get in the way, while others (e.g., becoming a Buddhist monk) can really help in following the path
6. Right effort (one must try hard!)
7. Right awareness: know *why* you want things and it wil be easier to cease from desire
8. Right meditation

Now some of this, particularly the idea of good moral conduct and the importance of meditation, is part of Western tradition as well.  But the end goal is very different.  One follows the 8-fold path to become enlightened, to cease from desire, and to escape from the cycle of birth and death.  No more incarnations for you!  Instead, enlightenment leads to Nirvana, oneness with the universe.

Buddhist belief spread rapidly in India, and for a time (under Asoka), Buddhism looked as if it might replace Hinduism.  But the great strenght of Hinduism is that it can so easily absorb new religious impulses.  Hindus simply added Buddhist teaching to the mix.  Buddha himself they began to regard as yet another avatar of Vishnu, so pure Buddhism tended to diappear in India.

But Buddhism is a missionary religion: Buddhists want to share their beliefs and help other escape from this world of suffering.  Buddhist missionaries travelled to Tibet, China, and eventually Japan--and it is in these countries that (today) one is more likely to find the teaching of Buddha himself emphasized rather than in Buddha's native India.