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Ancient India's Contribution to



"In religion, India is the only millionaire ....
The One land that all men desire to see and
having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not
give that glimpse for all the shows of
all the rest of the globe combined".

- Mark Twain
- American Author 1835-1910


Philosophy, logic, theology are areas which have become typecast with India. To a person from outside India, this culture has nothing to offer other than the knowledge about these areas. As far as material culture goes, India had nothing to contribute, is the popular impression among people from the rest of our globe today as also among most Indians. The foregoing chapters have thrown light on the advances made by this country in the material sciences and the transmission of these advances abroad.

This image of Buddha
from Kashmir dates back to the
8th Century.
Through Buddhism
and Hinduism Indian values
such as non-violence (Ahimsa),
renunciation (Tyaga),
piety (Shraddha),
charity (Dana and Dakshina)
influenced other cultures
especially early Christianity

Originally the plan of this author was to talk only about the advances in the material sciences and arts that had existed in India. This objective had been set to dispel the notion that India is only a land of Sages, Seers, saints and Philosophers. But after having spoken at length about the achievements of Indians in the physical sciences, this chapter on Philosophy has been included only to complete the discussion on the topic 'India's Contribution to Our World's Culture'.

Table of Contents






Chapter 1:

Production Technology and
Mechanical Engineering


Chapter 2

Shipbuilding and Navigation


Chapter 3

Architecture and Civil Engineering


Chapter 4



Chapter 5



Chapter 6

Physics and Chemistry


Chapter 7

Medical Science


Chapter 8

Fine Arts


Chapter 9

Sports and Games


You are currently viewing Chapter 10 on Philosophy


Chapter 11

Summing Up



Sanskrit-English Glossary


Next Book

A Search for Our Present
in History


In this chapter we shall examine India's contribution in mainly three areas viz. Non-violence, Renunciation and Religious Tolerance.


Indian religions,(Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism) are replete with philosophies that advocate renunciation. The Hindu Philosophy of Advaita-Vedanta looks upon the visible material world as an illusion (Maya) and considers the supreme reality (Brahmam) to lie beyond it, not visible to humans. This approach is characteristically expressed in the dictum; 'Jagat Mithya Brahman Satya' wherein Jagat means world, Mitya means illusion, Brahman means supreme and Satya means truth. The concept of Maya that has been made part of the Advaita-Vedanta school of Philosophy, also has a similar connotation. Sadhus and Rishis (ascetics) and hermits have propagated this approach to life.

Traditionally, Hindu philosophy divides life for male members of society in four parts (Ashramas). The first part is Brahmacharya i.e. childhood and celibate youth, the second is Grihasta i.e. householder, the third is Vanaprasta i.e. householder, devoted to spiritual pursuits and finally Sanyasa i.e. householder who has given up worldly pleasures and roams the world, seeking spiritual solace and spreads the message of righteousness. The last stage Sanyasa, was glorified, and many householders gave up their family responsibilities prematurely and took up the life of a Sanyasi. Some persons took up this form of life right since their boyhood and lived like Sanyasis throughout their lives.

Today the situation is vastly different but the crass day-to-day material life does create a yearning to go away from it all and retire to an environment which is devoid of material considerations. This is one reason why an increasing number of well to do westerners are turning towards oriental philosophies and orange-robed westerners with shaven heads on which is perched a tuft and pig tail are a common sight in India and in many Western cities.


Most of us are familiar with the terms Nonviolence and Ahimsa. In the recent past i.e. during India's freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi had forged Non-violence into a political weapon to peacefully push out British imperialism. While, how far this attitude was effective in throwing off the colonial yoke would remain a matter of debate, it can indisputably be said that the technique of non-violent political agitation did obtain a mass base for India's freedom struggle without attracting extreme penalties from the British administration. Non-violent agitation also enabled nationalist Indian leaders to keep alive the. struggle for independence in the absence of an armed insurrection. The roots of our attitude of non-violence go deep into our history. It has been integrated with almost all religions originating in ancient times in the Indian sub-continent viz. Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.

But contrary to popular belief it has not been part of Indian culture since time immemorial. Our Vedic literature is silent on this concept. The Rigveda talks of wars, struggles, victories, etc., even animal sacrifices and meat eating was allowed. The concept of ahimsa could have first developed in Jainism, which as we know split from the mainstream of Vedic beliefs very early in Indian history. Jainism disapproves Vedic rituals of animal sacrifice.

The concept of Jivadaya i.e. equal respect for all life forms seems to have been first enunciated ih Jainism. But ahimsa is more popularly associated with Buddhism perhaps because this religion was more widespread. This concept was also absorbed into Hinduism where it took the form of worship of the cow and bull, ban on animal sacrifices and vegetarianism.

In ancient times, the values of non-violence and vegetarianism were transmitted outside India via Buddhism. This was so because unlike Hinduism, Buddhism had a tradition of diffusion of its beliefs though persistent missionary activity. Along with this, Buddhism received the unstinted support of powerful Indian kings like Samrat Ashoka, Kanishka and Harsha. These kings presided over large empires and apart from encourag ing the spread of Buddhism all over their empires, they also encouraged missionaries to visit other countries to spread the message of the Buddha. Buddhism which itself is a significant contribution of India to world culture also acted as a vehicle for promoting the philosophy of non-violence.

This religion was at one time, spread over vast areas from the Volga to Japan. Buddhism continues to be the religion of a majority of the peoples of the far east. And though Buddhism has acquired a local character in different countries for instance, Zen Buddhism and Shintoism (which is an amalgam of Buddhism with local beliefs) in Japan, Lamaism in Tibet, etc., it has retained the principal features like non-violence, meditation and renunciation which were a part of the parent religion.

The people of central Asia also professed Buddhism before the advent of Islam, the official support given to Buddhist missionary activity was the reason which enabled the philosophy of non-violence to cross the frontiers of India and exercise a sobering effect over minds of people for a long time. It is worth recounting the episode in the life of emperor-Ashoka Maurya which made him turn to Buddhism and become its first major royal patron.

Emperor Ashoka who ruled from Pataliputra (modern Patna) was the third ascendant to the Maurya throne. He had inherited the vast Maurya empire whose foundations were laid by his illustrious grandfather Chandragupta Maurya who had driven the Greeks out of India and had politically united the country for the first time. Only tiny nitches of the country had remained untouched by Chandragupta's truculent armies. Among these nitches were the extreme southern tip of the Indian peninsula and the kingdom of Kalinga (modern Orissa) to the east. When emperor Ashoka came to the thorne he wanted to complete the task left unfinished by his grandfather. Towards this end he harnessed all the military resources available in his mighty empire and began to take survey by visiting every province.

All petty kings and chieftains who had been reduced to vassals came and paid tribute to the mighty emperor. Used as he had been to unchallenged submission, Emperor Ashoka was amazed when he saw that Kumara the king of a small but independent province of Kalinga chose to meet the emperor not with tributes but with an army ranged in battle formation. The brave but arrogant king of Kalinga proved no match for the strength of the imperial armies of emperor Ashoka and after a furious battle, the army of Kalinga was reduced to tatters. Kumara the obsti nate king was captured alive and brought before emperor Ashoka. Victory was com plete but the price of victory was the thousands of dead among whom were Ashoka's famous generals and his kith and kin.

The magnitude of victory was not enough to drown the remorse felt by the emperor. In solitude, Ashoka reflected on the suffering his ambition had brought on the thousands of slain, wounded and orphaned who bore him no evil. To overcome his deep sense of guilt, Ashoka summoned a Buddhist monk to show him the right path. In keeping with Buddhist philosophy, the monk advised Ashoka to conquer himself before setting out to conquer the world.

The conquest of another person was not be had by defeating him but by winning him over.

Piety and charity were the tools for such conquest. Convinced on this point, emperor Ashoka, thenceforth forsook the path of conquest by subjugation and set out to conquer by good will and charity. He proclaimed this mes sage over all parts of his empire by carving rock edicts on pillars which carried his ensign, the triple lions. He sent forth mission aries to all parts of the known world. Even his own son Mahendra, he sent to Sri Lanka to spread the gospel of Buddhism.

And in India he established what can be termed the first welfare state. To guard against the excesses of regal power he pro vided for constitutional checks to be respected by an emperor. Ashoka's liberalising reforms touched all facets of the nation's life. Till then there had not been an emperor, who immortalised his name in history with charity, piety and goodwill as his only weapons. Today after nearly 2500 years Ashoka's memory is still alive. His wheel of righteousness (Dharmachakra) adorns our national flag and his triple lions are out national ensign.

This philosophy of non-violence which also nourished our attitude of religious tolerance was not unique to Buddhism. It pervaded over Jainism and Hinduism. In Jainism where perhaps it was born, it was carried to extreme limits in the concepts of Jivadaya i.e. respect for all living forms whereby a Jaina apart from not indulging in killing or harming any living creature, must observe restrictions such as covering the mouth to prevent himself from swallowing living creatures that exist in the air, for the same reason he should not ignite a fire, etc.

Even amongst the Hindus this attitude of respect for all living beings (Jivadaya or Bhootadaya) is prevalent as also are vegetarianism and worship of bovine creatures (cow and bull). All these traits in our cultures have been nourished by the philosophy of Non-violence which in earlier times we gave to the world along with the Buddhist religion.


The constitution of modern India has granted the freedom of worship to members of all faiths. India is a 'Soverign, Socialist, Secular Democratic Republic. The term 'secular' means for us 'religious tolerance'. Religious tolerance in India is not a gift of modern times, it has existed in ancient India, though it suffered an eclipse during the medieval ages under hostile alien rule and later under colonial rule.

The colonial British administration followed a policy of divide and rule by pitting one religious community against another. That this policy culminated in the tragic surgery of partition and its bloody aftermath is well known and does not call for elaboration here. The question that could haunt the minds of an average Indian is, why did India opt for a policy of equality of all religions in the post partition period when the partition itself was undertaken on communal lines with the object of carving out a separate state for the members of one particular religion?

Varanasi or Kashi has been one of the
most sacred Indian pilgrimage centers
for over Three thousand years

The answer perhaps lies in the nature of Hinduism which is the religion of the majority in India. The pantheistic character of Hinduism is condusive to pluralism and religions tolerance. Absorption of a deity or belief from another religion does not affect its pluralistic character. Hence it is assimilative, unlike monotheistic religions where the consciousness about identity and purity are much more strict, as the acceptance of a deity or beliefs from another religion would alter the character of a monotheistic religion. To prevent its identity from being diluted, a monotheistic religion tends to be singularistic and exclusive and does not tolerate the existence of other forms of worship within itself or around itself. Rather than tolerating other forms of worship it attempts to convert members of other faiths to itself. When such a religion has the support of the force of arms, it normally follows a policy of presecuting members of other religions to compel them to convert to it.

Such a religion builds up a theocratic state to ensure its existence. The history of India under Muslim occupation from the 13th century to roughly the end of the 18th century and of Pakistan since 1947 till today are evidences of this.

The pantheistic character of Hinduism which is a fertile base for a polity that tolerates different religions has been with us since ancient times. Many foreigners who came to India as invaders were themselves absorbed into Indian culture so much so that they lost their position of being foreigners and many ancient Indian kings whom we look upon as Indians were actually of. foreign descent.

Notable among such kings are Kanishka who was a Kushana (Mongol) and Milinda who was a Greek. Many an Hindu Kingdom gave refuge to foreigners who came to India to escape persecution in their home country. In this context the episode of the Parsis is worth recalling:

In the 7th century, Persia which had been a powerful empire under the Sassanian rulers had been subjugated by the Arabs. The Sassanians were patrons of Zoroastrianism and had held the stage for nearly four hundred years, when out of the blue, the Arabs broke in, spurred on by their new found zeal in Islam. The victory of the Arabs had reversed the balance of power in the region and the Persians who had till then reigned supreme over many peoples including the Arabs, found themselves subjugated by a race whose masters they once where.

The Arabs did not stop at military subjugation-of the territories-they overran but in accordance with their concept of Jihad (holy war) they systematically set about converting the local population to Islam. All non-Islamic people were looked upon as heretics (Kafirs) and who, unless they consented to embrace the true faith, were no better than chattel. That, Zoroastrianism was not able to survive the rude shock of Arab rule is evident from the near total extinction of that religion in the land of its birth. But to preserve the religion of their birth, a group of enterprising Zoroastrians decided to flee their mother country and come to India by the sea route around 700 A.D. Though there are various accounts of their emigration, a group of Zoroastrians are re ported to have landed at a place called San jan on the coast of Gujarat in western India.

They approached the local king Jadi Rana (Yadav Rana), to ask for refuge.

On seeing their plight the king was moved, but before assenting, he asked his minister as to the possible reprecussions of their absorption into his kingdom. After interrogating the refugees, the minister was convinced of their bonafides. While recommending their case to his king the enlightened minis ter placed before the king a bowl of milk and stirred it after adding a lump of sugar. He then asked the king to separate the sugar from the milk. The puzzled king asked him the reason for this demonstration In reply the minister remarked that the Zoroastrians may be absorbed into the king dom but they should merge with the local populace in a manner that they become an inseparable part of society, the way sugar had merged with milk.

To ensure what his minister had said the king granted refuge to these people who had come from a foreign land and followed an unfamiliar religion. And to ensure their merger into the local populace he decreed that these new citizens lay down their arms, they adopt the local language (Gujarati) and the local dress (Sari). These Zoroastrians from Iran have since then constituted a small but cohesive and dynamic community in Indian society.

The spirit of religious tolerance is one feature that post-independence India has sought to revive, and it forms part of our polity today.




Next Chapter

Summing Up


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