What are the Four Main Cradles of Civilization?



There are four main cradles of civilization, from which elements of culture have spread to other parts of the world. These are, moving from east to west, China, the Indian subcontinent, the 'Fertile Crescent', and the Mediter­ranean, especially Greece and Italy. Of these four areas India deserves a larger share of the credit than she is usually given, because, on a minimal assessment, she has deeply affected the religious life of most of Asia and has provided very important elements in the culture of the whole of South-East Asia, as well as extending her influence, directly and indirectly, to other parts of the world.

It has been commonly believed in the West that before the impact of European learning, science, and technology 'the East' changed little if at all over many centuries. The 'wisdom of the East', unchanging over the millen­nia, it was thought, preserved eternal verities which Western civilization had almost forgotten. On the other hand' the East' was not ready to enter into the rough and tumble of the modern world without the guidance for an indefinite period of more developed Western countries.

These ideas were no doubt held in good faith by many well-informed people of earlier generations, and there may have been a grain of truth in them from the point of view of the nineteenth century.

But there is no reason to believe that the rate of change in India in earlier times was any slower than that of other parts of the world. It was only from the sixteenth century on­wards, when a combination of many factors led to increasingly rapid techno­logical and scientific advances in Europe that the myth of the changelessness of Asia began to appear.

In fact India has always been steadily changing. The civilization of the Guptas was different from that of the Mauryas, and that of medieval times was different again. The Muslims altered conditions considerably, and the high flowering of Indian Muslim civilization under the four great Mughal's brought yet more changes. The religious life of India, for all her 'ancient wisdom', has changed greatly over the centuries.

Between the time of the early Greek philosophers and that of St. Thomas Aquinas, Buddhism developed into a great religious movement in India, changed its outlook almost completely, declined, and finally sank back into the Hinduism from which it had emerged, but only after Buddhist missionaries had spread their message throughout half of Asia.

The Athenian Acropolis was at least 500 years old before the first surviving stone Hindu temple was built. Some of the most popular gods of Hinduism, for instance, Ganesa and Hanuman, are not attested until well after the time of Christ.

Certain other features of Hinduism also, for instance the cult of the divine Rama and the complex and difficult system of physical training known as hatha yoga, are centuries later than Christianity.

Yet the older strata of India's cultural life go back far beyond anything we have in the West. The whole of the Rig Veda had been composed long before the Iliad, and there is hardly anything in the Old Testament in its present form which is as old even as the latest Rig Vedic hymns.

Some practices and beliefs of popular Hinduism, for instance the cults of the sacred bull and the pipal tree, are as old as the prehistoric Harappa culture, and probably even older. In fact every generation in India, for over 4,000 years, has bequeathed some­thing, if only a very little, to posterity.

No land on earth has such a long cultural continuity as India, since, though there were more ancient civilizations, notably in Egypt and Iraq, these were virtually forgotten by the inhabitants of those lands, and were overlaid by new intrusive cultures, until nobody remembered the Book of the Dead or the Epic of Gilgamesh, and great kings such as Ramesses II or Hammurabi were not recorded in any living tradition.

Only nineteenth-century scholarship resur­rected them from oblivion, and if they are now national heroes, remembered by every school-child in their respective lands, this is not thanks either to the historical genius or to the retentive folk-memory of the countries con­cerned.

On the other hand in India the Brahman still repeats in his daily worship Vedic hymns composed over 3,000 years ago, and tradition recalls heroic chieftains and the great battles fought by them at about the same time. In re­spect of the length of continuous tradition China comes second to India and Greece makes a poor third.

The pre-Vedic Harappa culture bequeathed to later times sacred animals and trees, the Mother Goddess, the preoccupation with personal cleanliness, and, less certainly, other aspects of Indian culture. From the Vedic Aryans came many of the gods, the Vedic hymns, some of the most important per­sonal rituals of Hinduism, the patriarchal and patrilineal family system, and the horse.

Later Vedic times (c. 1000-600 B.C.) brought the passion for specula­tion on ultimate causes, the quest for the Absolute, the doctrine of trans­migration, the search for release from the round of rebirth, and mystical gnosis.

In social life and material culture the same period saw the crystalliza­tion of the four classes (varnas) of Hindu society, the introduction of iron from western Asia, the domestication of the elephant, the development of kingdoms out of tribal chieftainships.

In the 300 following years coined money became common, and writing, known in the time of the Harappa culture and later apparently forgotten, be­came widespread. Heterodox teachers, chief of whom was the Buddha, spread new doctrines which bypassed the gods, the Vedas, and the Brahmans, and the area of civilization steadily expanded into the remote parts of the subcon­tinent.

Political developments over the preceding period led to the first great empire of India, that of the Mauryas, when for the first time most of the sub­continent was united under a single government. This period (c. 320-185 b.C.) produced the Machiavellian system of statecraft associated with the name of the minister Kautilya, the reputed author of the famous Arthasastra.

From the Mauryas also come the earliest surviving stone sculpture of India, the oldest artificial caves, and the most ancient Buddhist stupas. Under Asoka (c. 272-232 B.C.) Buddhism increased its influence, and was taken to Ceylon.

The 500 years between the Mauryas and the Guptas (c. 184 B.C.-A.D. 320) saw tremendous developments in Indian civilization, partly due to fresh in­fluences brought in by various invaders and traders, and partly the result of internal developments. New forms-of devotional religion emerged, centring round the gods Vishnu and Siva, and these led to the composition of the Bhagavad Gita, now the most influential text of Hinduism.

Buddhism de­veloped a theology, the Mahayana, which was carried to China. Schools of law appeared, codifying in written form earlier traditions. The two great epics of India, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, were edited in something like their present form. Courtly literature began developing out of vanished proto­types: drama, ranging from the heroic to the sentimental, and verse, wonderful in its polish and ingenuity yet often filled with deep and sincere feeling. Logically reasoned philosophical schools emerged, as distinct from the older religious teachers, most of whose arguments were analogical.

Contact with South-East Asia became closer with the spread of trade, and that region began to adopt many features of the religion and culture of India. These are only a few of the many innovations of this, perhaps the most formative period of Indian history before the nineteenth century.

The period from the rise of the Guptas to the death of Harshavardhana (320-647) can truly be called the classical period of Indian civilization. In this age the greatest sculpture of ancient India was produced, and the finest literature written, in the poems and plays of Kalidasa.

This was the time of the best surviving ancient Indian mural painting, typified by Ajanta. Know­ledge grew also in this period. India's most important practical contribution to the world, the system of place notation of numerals, with nine digits and a zero, was known by A.D. 500, and led to the great development of Indian mathematics and astronomy.

The recording of ancient legends and tradition's in the Puranas began. The Mother Goddess, after centuries of neglect, became an important object of worship again. Stone-built temples appeared through­out the land.

Between the death of Harshavardhana and the coming of Islam (647- c. 1200) the ecstatic devotional religion (bhakti), associated with the singing of hymns in the common tongue, appeared in Tamilnadu, later to spread all over the subcontinent. Temples became larger and grander, with spiring towers.

The system of hatha yoga was developed, and tantrism, with its sacramentalization of sex, spread in both Hinduism and Buddhism. In Sankara and Ramanuja Hindu religious philosophy saw its greatest teachers. Some of the finest schools of bronze-casting in the world appeared in Bengal and Tamilnadu. The former region also developed a fine school of miniature painting.

With the coming of Islam fresh cultural influences made themselves felt. The sultanate period (1192-1526) saw the introduction of new styles of archi­tecture, bringing the dome and arch. New schools of miniature painting, both Muslim and Hindu, emerged. Sufi teachers disseminated the doctrines of Islam and helped to make the religious climate of northern India favourable to the spread of popular devotional Hinduism from the south.

Paper was in­troduced, slowly replacing the traditional Indian writing materials-palm-leaf
and birch-bark. The Urdu language began to appear as the lingua franca of northern India, and poets began to compose in the everyday languages instead of classical Sanskrit.

The great days of the Mughal Empire (1526-1707) witnessed the perfection of the schools of Muslim architecture and miniature painting, with the pro­duction of such splendid buildings as the Taj Mahal at Agra. Cannon and smaller fire-arms began to be used in warfare.

Europeans established trading stations at various ports, and through them, especially the Portuguese, new crops were introduced into India, among them the potato, tobacco, the pine­apple, and, surprisingly, the spice which nowadays is commonly thought typical of India, the chilli pepper.

The Sikh religion was born just as this period began, as a small devotional sect, and at about the time when the period concluded it was reborn as a martial brotherhood, to play an important part in the confused political life of the following century.