During the first thousand years of the Christian era, there are many ups and downs in India, many conflicts with invading elements and internal troubles. Yet it is a period of a vigorous national life, bubbling over with energy and spreading out in all directions. Culture develops into a rich civilization flowering out in philosophy, literature, drama, art, science, and mathematics.India’s economy expands, the Indian horizon widens and other countries come within its scope. Contacts grow with Iran, China,the Hellenic world, central Asia, and above all, there is a powerful urge towards the eastern seas which leads to the establishment of Indian colonies and the spread of Indian culture far beyond India’s boundaries. During the middle period of this millennium, from
Quoted in ‘History of Hindu Mathematics’ by B. Datta and A. JV. Singh (1933). /am indebted to this book for much information on this subject.
early in the fourth to the sixth century, the Gupta Empire flourishes and becomes the patron and symbol of this widespread intellectual and artistic activity. It is called the Golden or Classical Age of India and the writings of that period, which are classics in Sanskrit literature, reveal a serenity, a quiet confidence of the people in themselves, and a glow of pride at being privileged to be alive in that high noon of civilization, and with it the urge to use their great intellectual and artistic powers to the utmost.
Yet even before that Golden Age had come to a close, signs of weakness and decay become visible. The White Huns come from the north-west in successive hordes and are repeatedly pushed back. But they come again and again and eat their way slowly into North India. For a half-century they even establish themselves as a ruling power all over the north. But then, with a great effort, the last of the great Guptas, joining up in a confederacy with Yashovarman, a ruler of Central India, drives out the Huns.
This long-drawn-out conflict weakened India politically and militarily, and probably the settlement of large numbers of these Huns all over northern India gradually produced an inner change in the people. They were absorbed as all foreign elements had so far been absorbed, but they left their impress and weakened the old ideals of the Indo-Aryan races. Old accounts of the Huns are full of their excessive cruelty and barbarous behaviour which were so foreign to Indian standards of warfare and government.
In the seventh century there was a revival and renascence under Harsha, both political and cultural. Ujjayini (modern Ujjain), which had been the brilliant capital of the Guptas, again became a centre of art and culture and the seat of a powerful kingdom.But in the centuries that followed, this too weakens and fades off. In the ninth century Mihira Bhoja, of Gujrat, consolidates a unified state in North and Central India with his capital at Kanauj. There is another literary revival of which the central figure is Rajashekhara. Again, at the beginning of the eleventh century, another Bhoja stands out as a powerful and attractive figure, and Ujjayini again becomes a great capital. This Bhoja was a remarkable man who distinguished himself in many fields.He was a grammarian and a lexicographer, and interested in medicine and astronomy. He was a builder and a patron of art and literature, and was himself a poet and a writer to whom many works are attributed. His name has become a part of popular fable and legend as a symbol of greatness, learning, and generosity.
And yet for all these bright patches, an inner weakness seems to seize India, which affects not only her political status but her creative activities. There is no date for this, for the process was a slow and creeping one, and it affected north India earlier than the south. The south indeed becomes more important both politically and culturally. Perhaps this was due to the south having escaped the continuous strain of fighting waves of invaders; perhaps many of the writers and artists and master-builders migrated to the south to escape from the unsettled conditions in the north. The powerful kingdoms of the south, with their brilliant courts, must have attracted these people and given them opportunities for creative work which they lacked elsewhere.
But though the north did not dominate India, as it had often done in the past, and was split up into small states, life was still rich there and there were many centres of cultural and philosophic activity. Benares, as ever, was the heart of religious and philosophical thought, and every person who advanced a new theory or a new interpretation of an old theory, had to come there to justify himself. Kashmir was for long a great Sanskrit centre of Buddhist and Brahminical learning. The great universities flourished; of these, Nalanda, the most famous of all, was respected for its scholarship all over India. To have been to Nalanda was a hallmark of culture. It was not easy to enter that university, for admission was restricted to those who had already attained a certain standard. It specialized in postgraduate study and attracted students from China, Japan, and Tibet, and even it is said, from Korea and Mongolia and Bokhara. Apart from religious and philosophical subjects (both Buddhist and Brahminical), secular and practical subjects were also taught. There was a school of art and a department for architecture; a medical school; an agricultural department; dairy farms and cattle. The intellectual life of the university is said to have been one of animated debates and discussions. The spread of Indian culture abroad was largely the work of scholars from Nalanda.
Then there was the Vikramshila university, near modern Bhagalpur in Bihar, and Vallabhi in Kathiawar. During the period of the Guptas, the Ujjayini university rose into prominence. In the south there was the Amravati university.
Yet, as the millennium approached its end, all this appears to be the afternoon of a civilization; the glow of the morning had long faded away, high noon was past. In the south there was still vitality and vigour and this lasted for some centuries more; in the Indian colonies abroad there was aggressive and full-blooded life right up to the middle of the next millennium. But the heart seems to petrify, its beats are slower, and gradually this petrification and decay spread to the limbs. There is no great figure in philosophy after Shankara in the eighth century, though there is a long succession of commentators and dialecticians. Even Shankara came from the south. The sense of curiosity and the spirit of mental adventure give place to a hard and formal logic and a sterile dialectic. Both Brahminism and Buddhism deteriorate and degraded forms of worship grow up, especially some varieties of Tantric worship and perversions of the Yoga system.
In literature,. Bhavabhuti (eighth century) is the last great figure. Many books continued to be written, but their style becomes more and more involved and intricate; there is neither freshness of thought nor of expression. In mathematics, Bhaskara II (twelfth century) is the last great name. In art, E. B. Havell takes us rather beyond this period. He says that the form of expression was not artistically perfected until about the seventh and eighth centuries, when most of the great sculpture and painting in India was produced. From the seventh or eighth to the fourteenth century, according to him, was the great period of Indian art, corresponding to the highest development of Gothic art in Europe. He adds that it was in the sixteenth century that the creative impulse of the old Indian art began markedly to diminish. How far this judgment is correct I do not know, but I imagine that even in the field of art it was South India that carried on the old tradition for a longer period than the north.
The last of the major emigrations for colonial settlement took place from South India in the ninth century, but the Cholas in the south continued to be a great sea power till the eleventh century,when they defeated and conquered Srivijaya.
We thus see that India was drying up and losing her creative genius and vitality. The process was a slow one and lasted several centuries, beginning in the north and finally reaching the south.What were the causes of this political decline and cultural stagnation?Was this due to age alone, that seems to attack civilizations as it does individuals, or to a kind of tidal wave with its forward and backward motion? or were external causes and invasions responsible for it? Radhakrishnan says that Indian philosophy lost its vigour with the loss of political freedom. Sylvain Levi writes: ‘La culture sanscrite a fini avec la liberte de l’lnde; des languesnouvelles, des litteratures nouvelles ont envahi la territoire aryenneet l’en ont chasse; elle s’est refugiee dans les colleges et ya pris un air pedantesque.’
All this is true, for the loss of political freedom lead inevitably to cultural decay. But why should political freedom be lost unless some kind of decay has preceded it ? A small country might easily be overwhelmed by superior power, but a huge, well-developed and highly civilized country like India cannot succumb to external attack unless there is internal decay, or the invader possesses a higher technique of warfare. That internal decay is clearly evident in India at the close of these thousand years.
There are repeatedly periods of decay and disruption in the life of every civilization, and there had been such periods in Indian history previously; but India had survived them and rejuvenated herself afresh, sometimes retiring into her shell fora while and emerging again with fresh vigour. There always remained a dynamic core which could renew itself with fresh contacts and develop again, something different from the past and yet intimately connected with it. Had that capacity for adaptation, that flexibility of mind which had saved India so often in the past left her now? Had her fixed beliefs and the growing rigidity of her social structure made her mind also rigid? For if life ceases to grow and evolve, the evolution of thought also ceases. India had all along been a curious combination of conservatism in practice and explosive thought. Inevitably that thought affected the practice, though it did so in its own way without irreverence for the past. ‘Mais si leurs yeux suivaient les mots anciens, leur intelligence y voyait des idees nouvelles. L’Inde s’est transformee a son insu.’ But when thought lost its explosiveness and creative power and became a tame attendant on an outworn and meaningless practice, mumbling old phrases and fearful of everything new, then life became stagnant and tied and constrained in a prison of its own making.
We have many examples of the collapse of a civilization, and perhaps the most notable of these is that of the European classical civilization which ended with the fall of Rome. Long before Rome fell to the invaders from the north, it had been on the verge of collapse from its own internal weaknesses. Its economy, once expanding, had shrunk and brought all manner of difficulties in its train. Urban industries decayed, flourishing cities grew progressively smaller and impoverished, and even fertility rapidly declined. The Emperors tried many expedients to overcome their ever-increasing difficulties. There was compulsory state regulation of merchants, craftsmen, and workers, who were tied down to particular employments. Many kinds of employment were forbidden to those outside certain groups of workers. Thus some occupations were practically converted into castes. The peasantry became serfs. But all these superficial attempts to check the decline failed and even worsened conditions; and the Roman Empire collapsed.
There was and has been no such dramatic collapse of Indian civilization, and it has shown an amazing staying power despite all that has happened; but a progressive decline is visible. It is difficult to specify in any detail what the social conditions in India were at the end of the first millennium after Christ; but it may be said with some assurance that the expanding economy of India had ended and there was a strong tendency to shrink. Probably this was the inevitable result of the growing rigidity and exclusive-ness of the Indian social structure as represented chiefly by the caste system. Where Indians had gone abroad, as in south-east Asia, they were not so rigid in mind or customs or in their economy, and they had opportunities for growth and expansion. For another four or five hundred years they flourished in these colonies and displayed energy and creative vigour; but in India herself the spirit of exclusiveness sapped the creative faculty and developed a narrow, small-group, and parochial outlook. Life became cut up into set frames, where each man’s job was fixed and permanent and he had little concern with others. It was the Kshatriya’s business to fight in defence of the country, and others were not interested or were not even allowed to do so. The Brahmin and the Kshatriya looked down on trade and commerce. Education and opportunities of growth were withheld from the lower castes, who were taught to be submissive” to those higher up in the scale. In spite of a well-developed urban economy and industries, the structure of the state was in many ways feudal. Probably even in the technique of warfare India had fallen behind. No marked progress was possible under these conditions without changing that structure and releasing fresh sources of talent and energy. The caste system was a barrier to such a change. For all its virtues and the stability it had given to Indian society, it carried within it the seeds of destruction.
The Indian social structure (and I shall consider this more fully later) had given amazing stability to Indian civilization. It had given strength and cohesion to the group, but this came in the way of expansion and a larger cohesion. It developed crafts and skill and trade and commerce, but always within each group separately. Thus particular types of activity became hereditary and there was a tendency to avoid new types of work and activity and to confine oneself to the old groove, to restrict initiative and the spirit of innovation. It gave a measure of freedom within a certain limited sphere, but at the expense of the growth of a larger freedom and at the heavy price of keeping large numbers of people permanently at the bottom of the social ladder, deprived of the opportunities of growth. So long as that structure afforded avenues for growth and expansion, it was progressive; when it reached the limits of expansion open to it, it became stationary, un-progressive, and, later, inevitably regressive.
Because of this there was decline all along the line—intellectual, philosophical, political, in technique and methods of warfare, in knowledge of and contacts with the outside world, and there was a growth of local sentiments and feudal, small-group feeling at the expense of the larger conception of India as a whole, and a shrinking economy. Yet, as later ages were to show, there was yet vitality in the old structure and an amazing tenacity, as well as some flexibility and capacity for adaptation. Because of this it managed to survive and to profit by new contacts and waves of thought, and even progress in some ways. But that progress was always tied down to and hampered by far too many relics of the past.