After an incredible journey with Michael Wood in the first episode of ‘The Story of India’, today I watched the second episode of this BBC documentary series. Last time it was mainly a tour from the first few men who arrived in India till the growth of a civilisation in this great Indian subcontinent. In this episode we celebrate the power of thought and a few great thinkers with some most amazing ideas that shaped the history of mankind. The beauty of Indian history is that it is not just written by the men of war – but also of by great people seeking enlightenment and truth and some amazing empires founded on the values of peace and nonviolence.
Again with the assumption that Michael Wood and his team’s research is authentic (because unfotunately I couldnt manage to have the time to do the follow-up reading), here I note down the five most important things that I guess are worth sharing –
1. A glance of the Past : We start today’s journey from a city founded around 500BC – the Religious Capital of India – Varanasi. Rich with culture and heritage and hosting a diverse community, here we find a living continuity of Indian rituals from the very past. There is one thing that was followed very religiously then and that is the Caste system – the system of dividing people by birth – by fixing their job and their place in society from the day he is born. Michael Wood takes us to the sacred fire in Varanasi which have been kept lit for thousands of years and is used to incinerate deadbodies in the sacred way to guide the soul of the dead to salvation. We meet the present generation of the family which has been doing the cremation duties since ages and are considered to be low caste people, though their duties and the rituals they perform make them extremely needed at least among the religious lots of the society.
2. The Buddha : Anyways, nothing stays!! People, long ago, started questioning the old systems. And the most intense questionings gave birth to many thinkers in India – strong, logical yet diverse thoughts flowing through some powerful minds. Undoubtedly the most influencial of these thinkers was the Buddha!
Buddha was born with a silver spoon in his mouth – he was a prince in a rich family with all the comforts of the world. But disturbed by the reality of human life – suffering and death; he left his family and wealth to seek the truth of life. After roaming for six years, he reaches Bodh Gaya. As legend says, this is where he sat under a peepal tree seeking enlightenment and experienced the supreme bliss. Buddha realised the four nobel truths – that the nature of the human condition is suffering, this suffering is caused by human desire and attachment, if we can free ourselves from these desires we can be a liberated human being, but that can come only from the within and there certainly is a path to emerge out of it.
He travels from Bodhgaya to Sarnath where he picks up five of his friends and tries his ideas on them – they become his first disciples and Buddha gave the first sermon here in Sarnath where the stupa is now built. The next 45 years he never stayed at one place – Buddha wandered everywhere, meeting people, sharing his thoughts and the ideas of truth. When he was almost 80, he moved back across the plains to the Himalayas – heading north towards the place of his childhood. It was in a small city called Kushinagar where buddha’s life story ends.
This is amazing how human mind from so long ago can speak his ideas and mean something to us even now when so many things have changed. It is wonderful how the eternal truth is literally eternal.
3. The West meets The East: Well, meanwhile things were changing in the west too – the changes were fast.. and furious – and in one of the events, the Europe finally meets asia – not in a peaceful way but in the battlefield of Gaugamela, Iraq where an army marching from Greece under the great young general Alexander fought the Persians – a battle that influenced the next chapter of India’s history. Invasion of the east by Alexander was a true clash of civilization. Alexander’s guru Aristotle – another great thinker and seeker of truth – had a view on the World equally strong but completely different from that of the Buddha. ‘The greek has the strength’, he said ‘and hence its right that they should rule the world’. So Alexander went on crossing mountains and rivers till he reached India.
This was the first time india was meeting the west.
4. Chandragupta Maurya: Alexander stopped in what we today call as Amritsar. People were terrified by his very presence, but there was a young fearless Indian who was thrilled by the glamour of Alexander’s violence and deeply impressed by this spectacle of imperialism. This young man went on to became one of the greatest figure of Indian history and created the greatest Indian empire before modern time. He is Chandragupta Morya. In time he drove Alexander’s success out of india and ruled what was then the world’s greatest empire and which is till now the largest ever empire in the entire Indian Subcontinent.
The Greek sent their ambassador led by Megasthenes here who gave the first account of India from outside – they were immensely impressed by the hundreds of nations, the rich and fertile land, sacred wide rivers, big cities stretching for miles along the river Ganges, the imperial city of Chandragupta (Patna being the capital) with big gorgeous palaces and pleasure gardens! Megasthenes describes it as the ‘greatest city in the world at that time’.
Along with Wood, we travel then to the remains of a temple from Chandragupta’s time which is one of the witness of the incredible turn in this great ruler’s life. At the height of his power, Chandragupta renounced his empire, left his throne and headed south in penance where according to the myth even lord Bahubali attained moksha after renouncing his kingdom. But before leaving to seek liberation through knowledge, Chandragupta created an amazing city, a powerful empire.
5. Ashoka – the Great! : 20 years after Chandragupta Maurya’s death, his grandson picked up his secular ideas, joined them to the ethics of the Jain and the Buddhists and successfully used them to rule the empire. He was Ashoka – the great Indian king who ruled from the Northern Himalayas till the Southern-most part of india, from Bay of Bengal till Afghanistan. Ashoka’s is another incredible turn-around story!
According to the legend, Ashoka had a torture house – a well called the ‘hell on earth’ where he used to punish everyone who was against his wishes. He was known as ‘Ashoka – the cruel’. Power-hungry and ruthless Ashoka was extending his empire and with the motive of conquering the east, he fought a brutal war in Kalinga (which is now in Orissa). He won the war but many people died. Kalinga was crushed – and from the ruins of that city emerged a reformed Ashoka, with a regret for his conquest and a yearning for justice. He was hit by one of the most powerful ideas – the one of nonviolence. Legend says that Ashoka then turns to buddhism. Asoka goes on a pilgrimage, meets the common men, consults with the local people about good governance and transformed from ‘The Cruel’ to ‘The Great’. He carved his readings on gigantic pillars all over India.
He took ideas of compassion, love, nonviolence, religious tolerance and made them not only the core of his personal morality but also of politics.
And then… the video :
Whether you are an Indian or not, take one hour out of your busy life and watch this video – I promise it will be worth it!!