The Indus Valley civilization that spanned modern northeastern Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northwestern India, dates back to 3,000 BC. It developed in parallel with the Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations.
This culture has little resemblance to the western one. Our civilization opted for the ideals of individualism, materialism, rationality and masculinity; the tradition in India is based on non-violence, renunciation, the inner life and the feminine as pillars of its civil life. They created an empire of the spirit.
The sacred language of India is Sanskrit, the root of all the dialects in the north of the country. It is similar to Avestan, an Iranian language, and entered the territory with the Aryan invasion in the second millennium BC. The Aryans were Scythians from the steppes of Central Asia, excellent horsemen whose language was Iranian. As equestrian nomads they moved through an area that stretched from the Caspian Sea through Afghanistan to China.
Information about Sanskrit and the beliefs of its people comes from its literature, a collection of sacred texts known as the Veda. The oldest, the Rig-veda, has songs and hymns dating back to before the written Iliad and Odyssey and were, like them, preserved by oral tradition for centuries. They tell the story of the migration of white-skinned people who spoke Sanskrit and who came through the Kyber pass from Afghanistan to northern India. They called themselves Aryans. They found a prosperous civilization with cities, towns, and forts, rich in livestock and treasure.
From the beginning rivers were sacred in Indian culture because, as in Sumer and Egypt, they were literally sources of life. The first Indian cities grew on the alluvial lands from the Indus floods. In the 1920s indications in the Rig-veda led archaeologists to the Sindh plain (now Karachi), in Pakistan, to find what until then was an unknown civilization. It was an empire that had traded with Babylonia and Ur of the Chaldees. Its center was called Mohenjo-daro and during the age of pyramids in Egypt it was the largest city in the world. The reason for its decline is not yet known.
The village has been the basis of Indian life for millennia and two-thirds of its population still live in villages. Thus they were able to maintain the essential values of their culture despite Aryan or British invasions. The key to these values is the deep belief that all life is sacred. In the West the concept of a sacred car may be meaningless but here, for poor people, the cow can pull a cart and give food in the form of milk. Killing her is sacrilege. In the sanctuaries of the towns there is a prayer in Sanskrit on an icon in black stone, a copy of the phallic stones of Mohenjo-daro and a symbol of the god Shiva, the strength of the world. There still exists, albeit illegally, a social system of segregation, called castes, possibly originating from the separation between the light-skinned Aryan invaders and the dark-skinned conquered Indians. In any case, the fusion of both cultures in the first millennium of our era gave fruit to great spiritual works such as the Mahabharata, a heroic tale. In it, Krishna reminds us that obsession with the senses and materialism is the ruin of reason and destroys the human.
Around 500 B.C. life in the city revived in Varanasi on the Ganges River. The Shiva festival is celebrated here. The city, which for believers exists timelessly, outside of history, is a place of redemption. The Mahabharata in the first millennium BC conceived India as a land united by pilgrimage. It is this vast circulation of people, ideas and money that gave unity to the country.
About 6 kilometers from Varanasi, around 500 BC, the young Buddha preached a sermon that would change the world. He said that the answer to human suffering was simple: it is the material senses and desires that are at the root of human unhappiness. If one gets rid of these, you will find the way of salvation, nirvana.
The period that includes the life of Buddha, the 6th and 5th centuries BC, is part of the Axis Age, according to Karl Jaspers, because many ideas of this time were revolutionary: Buddha, the Socratics in Greece, the Hebrew prophets and Confucius in China. Early civilizations were experiencing a crisis that raised questions about the nature of God, the meaning of life, the authority of kings, and the moral foundations of life in common. Each civilization gave answers in its own way. The Middle East took the path of monotheism that would be central to the ideology of the West and Islam. Confucianism promoted the role of the individual, the family and the State in a perfectible moral order. Instead, in India the great tradition insisted that earthly and material life is an illusion and that true enlightenment can only be achieved by renouncing desire. It is the opposite of the modern Western consumer ideal.
Kerala, a cosmopolitan place on the southwest coast of India, was on the Sea Silk Roads from the first century AD. Here the important trade was in the spices, especially black pepper and ginger, both words from the south of India. This business contact helped engender a society tolerant of the ideal of civilization as plurality. Here Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Jews still live together.
Our popular idea of India was created by the Mughal Empire which in the 16th century created art and architecture that still defines it. (The Taj Mahal is Mughal, for example.) Its emperor, Akbar the Great, tried to find a synthesis of all the religions in his Empire. Akbar was a Muslim but, perhaps motivated by political considerations, brought together holy men from Hindus, Christians, Jews, Zoriastrians, Shiite Muslims, and Sunnis. From the discussions he tried to formulate a simple belief in a common God, a doctrine of moral conduct. This pluralistic view was an exquisite solution to the divisive religious diversity in the country, but it was destined to fail in India with its highly conflicting spiritual expressions. The capital of the Mughal Empire, today Uttar Pradesh, was left deserted for lack of water but the values of religious tolerance inspired Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi in their fight for independence from the British Empire.
In southern India the Tamils escaped Muslim impact and the ancient Hindu vision survived. The Tamil coast was frequented by Greek and Roman traders in search of species. Here we also find Shiva, the god of prehistory, made in bronze, 400 years before Donatello in Florence. The Tamils are examples of the Indian quest for unity in diversity. They are different from the peoples of the north in race, language, religion, and architecture. However the Tamil culture is united to Mother India through its search for the Dharma, the moral law. They are loyal to the maternal roots of India. In the capital, Madurai, they tworship the Great Goddess, the feminine principle of Creation changed in the West to the masculine God of monotheism.
Possibly here, among the Tamils, one can find the answer to the mystery of Mohenjo-daro and the Indus cities whose reasons for decline are not yet known. Could it be that the Tamils with their dark skin are descendants of that civilization? A relationship between the two can be seen in their ancestral rites and prayers. (The word 'mantra' is Sanskrit.) Once a year the Tamils bring the image of the Goddess to the shores of a sacred lake to celebrate her wedding to Shiva. They sing hymns in Tamil, perhaps the descendant of the Indus Valley languages.