The Crisis of Vedic Civilization and the Upanishads


The Crisis of Vedic Civilization 


1.    Vedic civilization spreading south-east along the Ganga.

a.    Wars between Vedic tribes

b.    6th Century BCE – new political and religious forms emerge in middle Ganga basin.  New directions.

c.    Eastern kingdoms of Kosala, Kashi, Videha – wealthy kings founding new states, attracted Brahmin philosphers and sponsored philosophical debate.

d.    Maghada (further east) emerged as the strongest, absorbed them into its empire.  Least Brahmanized.

e.    Emergence of new anti-vedic religions: Jainism, Buddhism, Ajivikism

2.    The crisis in Vedic civilization:

a.    Extinction of the Western Kuru Panchala kingdom – challenge to tribal states with warrior elites.  Emphasis on the householder and one’s obligations to the world and society.

b.    Rise of Eastern kingdoms with new style – creation of armies that were supported by and so dependent on the king (professional); acquisition of rich land and creation of docile, tax-paying peasants; keeping peace between tribal groups and so drawing them together into a diverse supra-tribal state.

c.    This produced a heterogeneous population, all in direct relation to the throne through taxation of their produce (and this fed the growth of mercenary armies).

d.    Emphasis on stateship (new texts), formation of criminal and contract law

e.    New statecraft was ruthless and dispassionate, gobbled up Vedic tribal states by its superior power.

f.     In the east: A crumbling social matrix.   Old heroic ideals fell away, as well as the tremendous emphasis on Vedic custom and the ideal of society and the moral code as extensions of the cosmic order.

g.    People found themselves isolated, bereft of their customs and sense of belonging and order in the universe.

h.    New individuals lamenting their situation, abandoned the glory of the Vedic past


Upanishads and the Way of Mystical Knowledge


1.    From external to Internal Sacrifice:

a.    Vedic religion – Many gods; humans need to benefit from gods’ powers, right relations b/gods and humans through ritual

b.    No notion of liberation, karma, rebirth. Goals of religion focused on this world, this life; divine-human reciprocity

c.    Sacrifice, by priestly class, for the maintenance of universe


2.    Jnanamarga = the way of knowledge.  First appears in the Upanishads. Jnana (like gnosis) implies a religion based on secret wisdom – taught by forest sages, based in mystical experience, esoteric sources.

                                     i.     Dominant metaphor is the “internal sacrifice” = an abstract, mystical reading of the earlier Vedas.

3.    The Upanishads = “secret teaching,”  “sitting at the feet of,” “connection or equivalence”

a.    100s of Upanishads, 13 principle Upanishads = shruti

b.    Reaction against tradition, criticism of priestly trads.

c.    A stratified caste system in place, supported by notions of karma and rebirth.