Sometimes described as the Shakespeare of India, Kālidāsa mastered various literary genres in his lifetime and continued to thrive, even in Western translations, into modern times. He composed three plays, two epic poems, and a series of shorter poems. Among these is the Meghadūta, or The Cloud Messenger, in which a man asks a passing cloud to carry a message to his beloved wife, who is awaiting him in the Himalayas. Translated from the Sanskrit into English in the early nineteenth century, The Cloud Messenger served as the inspiration for composer Gustav Holsts 19091910 choral work The Cloud Messenger.
The Code of Manu deals with many different features of Hindu life, such as the proper behavior of different castes and methods for ritual purification. The “Manu” referred to in the title is the legendary “first man” of Hindu culture, also recognized as the first lawgiver. Thus, the Code of Manu is thought of within Hinduism as a text based on human traditions (smriti), but it is also believed to be consistent with the values included in texts that are divinely revealed (shruti), such as the “Purusha Hymn.” As a result, it restates and reaffirms traditional values and structures, but it does so on the basis of religious authority.
The responsibilities described for women in the Code of Manu need to be understood within the context of Hinduism. A central component of Hinduism is the concept of dharma (“that which is firm”). Hindus believe that by living up to the religious and social responsibilities attached to one’s social position (caste and gender), one sustains the proper order of the universe and gains good karma, moving up the scale of reincarnation toward unity with the brahman, or World Soul. Composed following a period of unrest, the Code of Manu represents a vigorous attempt to reestablish order within the Hindu world.
The Law of Manu, in The Sacred Books of the East, vol. 25, trans. G. Bühler (Oxford: Clarendon, 1886), 194–197, 328–330, 332, 335, 344–345.
This head, crafted from copper alloy, is all that remains of an impressive image found in central Vietnam. It depicts the Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of Buddhist compassion, and the Amitabha Buddha is perched on the crown. It points to the emergence of a pan–southeast Asian bodhisattva type in the eighth and ninth centuries, as well as to the superb metal-casting skills of artisans in the Cham territories of Vietnam.
Photo: Thierry Ollivier. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY
This is an inscribed rendering of some of the major male and female characters of the Mahabharata. According to this legend, a king surrenders power to his blind brother and has five sons (the Pandava) by his queen, Kunti. The five brothers are collectively married to the beautiful princess Draupadi. In Indian tradition, her role is analogous to the way the palm of a hand holds together the hand’s five fingers.
Courtesy of Ed Sentner
Harsha Vardhana, one of the better known monarchs of India, controlled a wide swath of territory in the northern subcontinent between 606 and 647 CE. Harsha was visited during his reign by the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuan Zang, who described his court and government, and the poet Bana wrote a biography of the king called the Harshacarita. However, Harsha himself also wrote at least three plays, two of which were dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and incorporated actual incidents from his court. While the plays are ostensibly fictional, the scene below draws on a real event, reported by Xuan Zang, in which Harsha saved an image of Buddha from a fire that had broken out in his palace. His plays reflect the cosmopolitan and religiously eclectic nature of his court, as well as his view of the status of the advisors and women in his orbit.
Harsha Vardhana, The Lady of the Jewel Necklace, trans. Wendy Doniger (New York: NYU Press, 2006), 259–265.
Buddhism had begun to spread widely within India after the conversion of Asoka in the third century BCE, and his promotion of the religion as part of a syncretic (a combination of elements from different beliefs) emphasis on dharma (sacred duty) as the bond between his government and his subjects. It may have been these efforts at popularizing the religion that gave impetus to tendencies within the religion that eventually carried it in a new direction. By the first century CE, these tendencies had begun to come together into a self-conscious new school of Buddhism, described by its practitioners as Mahayana, or the Greater Vehicle—meaning that this sect promised to carry far more people to salvation than the older version could. Followers of Mahayana Buddhism referred to the older version as Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicle. The followers of the older version, though, preferred to refer to their religion as Theravada, or the Teaching of the Elders. This religion continued to exist and itself spread to parts of southeast Asia. It was the Mahayana version of Buddhism that first became widely popular in India and then, during the early centuries CE, spread all over central and East Asia.
In Mahayana belief, the Buddha has become an all-knowing being, somewhere between a divine person—a mortal man who achieves immortality— and a god, to whom even Hindu gods offer respect. His wisdom surpasses that of the other gods, because he recognizes the uncreated and infinite nature of the universe, whereas some of them imagine themselves as creators.
Accompanying the belief in the Buddha’s divinity is a belief in a class of beings known as bodhisattvas, or Wise Beings. Essentially these are people who had reached the edge of nirvana, release from the cycle of death and rebirth, only to compassionately turn back to help others cross over into bliss. Nirvana itself evolved from the somewhat abstract notion of “extinguishment”—of the soul becoming one with the cosmos and escaping the illusion of individuality—to a notion of a heavenly paradise. The image often used to explain the role of the bodhisattva is of a ferryman who repeatedly carries masses of devout worshippers over to salvation on his giant barge, while Theravada Buddhists cross the river one at a time and each one only once.
One of the most popular of the bodhisattvas was Avalokitesvara, or “Perceiver of the World’s Sounds,” who first shows up in a book called The Lotus Sutra, one of the earliest and most influential of the sacred texts of Mahayana Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra describes the ten cosmic levels of existence, from hell up to nirvana, with bodhisattvas on the ninth level working to remove the suffering of the world and to carry people to the highest level. Avalokitesvara is prominent among the bodhisattvas of The Lotus Sutra, and his cult spread with the dissemination of the text. The work was first translated into Chinese in 255 CE, and a Chinese translation made in 406 is the basis for this English translation. One interesting note about the transmission of Buddhism to China is that in later centuries Avalokitesvara, called Guanyin in China, was transformed into a female. In either form, “Perceiver of the World’s Sounds” illustrates the central characteristics of Mahayana Buddhism’s encounter with the transcendent.
The Lotus Sutra, trans. Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press (1993): 298–303. Copyright © 1993 Columbia University Press.
Faxien (circa 334-415 CE) was a Chinese monk who, with several companions, traveled the Silk Road to India and returned via the Indian Ocean trade route between 399 and 413 CE. Their successful quest to obtain Buddhist scriptures helped to disseminate the religion throughout East Asia. Faxien also recorded his travels, which provide a comprehensive geography of central and south Asia of the time.
Faxien, A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms: Being an Account by the Chinese Monk Faxien of His Travels in India and Ceylon, trans. by James Legge, 1886.
Gandhara became the center of a vibrant artistic tradition for several centuries. As Greek Bactrians merged their cultural values with Buddhists, Hellenistic artistic techniques fused with the practices of Mahayana Buddhism, yielding a renaissance of daring, boldly innovative sculpture. Among the products of this cultural synthesis was a seated Buddha which incorporates both Hellenistic and Indian aesthetic elements.
©The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.
The development of Mahayana Buddhism represented a serious challenge to Hinduism’s position as the predominant form of religion in India. Hinduism met that challenge with the development of a form of worship called bhakti, or devotion, meaning unconditional devotion to a god. Devotional Hinduism built on the yoga, or discipline, of devotion, which was already one of its central practices. For example, the discipline of devotion was revealed to the warrior Arjuna by his charioteer Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita. Krishna was in reality an avatar, or incarnation, of the god Vishnu. Unlike the Yoga of Action, which required strict and selfless attention to duty at all times, and the Yoga of Knowledge, which required the leisure and temperament for extended study and meditation, the Yoga of Devotion offered salvation to anyone who would worship a god unconditionally. In Devotional Hinduism, the form of that salvation was moksha, or release from the cycle of death and rebirth and reunion with Brahman, the universal soul. Because of the salvation that it promised and because it was accessible to everyone, it appealed to many of the same groups as Mahayana Buddhism did, including members of lower castes, women, and others to whom the more traditional, priestly paths toward salvation were largely closed. Bhakti spread rapidly in the period after 300 CE, and by 1500 the combination of resurgent Hinduism and the inroads made by Islam had reduced Buddhism in India to a few scattered outposts.
Accompanying the development of the new practice of devotionalism was the rise, between 300 and 100 BCE, of a new body of sacred literature that explained and promoted that practice. These works, known as puranas, are compilations of myth, folklore, simplified teachings, and other stories aimed at popular audiences. They were probably meant to be read or recited aloud. Their central message was that unconditional devotion to the worship of a single god would bring salvation. They are long, sometimes disjointed, but full of colorful images and easy-to-grasp ideas. There are eighteen major puranas; the Vishnu Purana, which recounts the ten incarnations of the great Vishnu, is one of the oldest and most important of the set. It probably dates to as early as the second century CE. This selection comes from the last chapter of the Purana and is in the form of a dialogue between a teacher, Parasara, and his disciple Maitreya. Because of its ideas and its antiquity, it is one of the most important texts for understanding the specific ways that Devotional Hinduism addressed the encounter with transcendence.
The Vishnu Purana, trans. H. H. Wilson, vol. 5. London: Trübner & Co. (1870).