فصل 10

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فصل 10

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And now let us go to the opposite end of the world. To India and then to China, so that we can find out what was going on in these vast lands at the time of the Persian wars. Like Mesopotamia, India also had a very ancient civilisation, and at about the same time as the Sumerians were holding sway at Ur ­ that is, around 2500 BC ­ there was a mighty city in the valley of the Indus. (The Indus is a great river which flows through what is Pakistan today.) It had well-drained streets, canals, granaries and workshops, and was called Mohenjo Daro, and until its discovery in the 1920s nobody had even dreamt of its existence. When it was excavated, things came to light that were as remarkable as any found in the rubble mounds at Ur. Although we know almost nothing about the people who built Mohenjo Daro, we do know that different people arrived much later, and that they are ancestors of the people who inhabit northern India and Pakistan today. These people spoke a language similar not only to those spoken by the Persians and Greeks, but also to those of the Romans and the Teutons. An example of this is the word for ‘father’: in ancient Indian it was pitar, the Greek is patèr, the Latin, pلter.

Since both Indians and Europeans speak these languages, they are known as the Indo-European family of languages. Whether the fact that the languages are similar means that the people who speak them are actually distant relatives we don’t yet know for sure. But in any event, the people who spoke an Indo-European language invaded India much as the Dorians invaded Greece, and may have enslaved the native population just as they did.

In time, most of the continent was subdued by the descendants of these invaders, who, like the Spartans, maintained a distance between themselves and the peoples they had conquered. Traces of this division persist today in what is known as the ‘caste system’. In it, professions or occupations are strictly separated from each other. Men who were warriors had to remain warriors, and their sons had to be warriors too, because they belonged to the warrior caste. Other castes were similarly closed, like those of farmers and craftsmen. A farmer could never become a craftsman, or a craftsman a farmer ­ nor could their sons. Someone who was a member of one caste couldn’t marry a girl from another ­ or even share a meal with a member of another caste.

At the top were the priests, or Brahmins ­ even higher than the warriors. Their task was to perform sacrifices to the gods and look after the temples, and, as in Egypt, they were in charge of sacred knowledge. They had to learn all the chants and prayers off by heart so that they were preserved and handed down, unchanged. They did this for more than a thousand years until the texts were finally written down.

A tiny part of the population was excluded from any caste. They were pariahs ­ people who were given the dirtiest and most unpleasant tasks. Not even members of the lowest castes could associate with them ­ their very touch was thought to be defiling. So they became known as the ‘untouchables’. They weren’t allowed to fetch water from the streams that other Indians used, and had to make sure that their shadow never touched another person, because even that was thought to be defiling. People can be very cruel.

But it would be wrong to say that the Indians were a cruel people. On the contrary, their priests were serious and profound thinkers, who often withdrew into the forest to meditate, alone and undisturbed, on the most difficult questions. They meditated on their many fierce gods, and on Brahma, the Sublime, the highest divinity of all. They seemed to sense the breath of this one Supreme Being throughout the natural world ­ in gods as well as men, and in every animal and plant. They felt him active in all things: in the shining of the sun and in the sprouting of crops, in growing and in dying. He was everywhere, just as a little salt dropped in water makes all the water salty, down to the last drop. In all the variety of nature, in all her cycles and transformations, we only see the surface. A soul may inhabit the body of a man, and after his death, that of a tiger, or a cobra, or any other living creature ­ the cycle will only end when that soul has become so pure that it can at last become one with the Supreme Being. For the divine breath of Brahma is the essence of all things. To help their pupils understand this, Indian priests had a lovely formula which you may turn over in your mind. All they said was ‘This is you’, by which they meant that everything around you ­ all the animals and plants and your fellow human beings ­ are, with you yourself, part of the breath of God.

The priests had invented an extraordinary way of actually feeling this all-embracing unity. They would sit down somewhere in the depths of the ancient Indian forest and think about it, and nothing else, for hours, days, weeks, months, years. They sat on the ground, upright and still, their legs crossed and their eyes lowered. They breathed as little as possible and they ate as little as possible ­ indeed, some of them even tormented themselves in special ways to purify themselves and help them sense the divine breath within them.

Holy men like these penitents and hermits, were common in India three thousand years ago, and there are still many there today. But one of them was different from all the others. He was a nobleman called Gautama, and he lived about five hundred years before Christ.

The story goes that Gautama, whom they were later to call the ‘Enlightened One’, the ‘Buddha’, grew up in Eastern luxury and splendour. It is said that he had three palaces which he never left ­ one for summer, one for winter, and one for the rainy season ­ and that they were always filled with the most beautiful music. His father wouldn’t allow him to leave their lofty terraces because he wanted to keep him far away from all the sorrows of the world. And no one who was sick or unhappy was ever allowed near him. However, one day Gautama summoned his carriage and went out. On the way he caught sight of a man, bent with age, and he asked his driver what it was. The driver was forced to explain that this was an old man. Deep in thought, Gautama returned to his palace. On another occasion he saw someone who was sick. No one had ever told him about illness. Pondering even more deeply, he went home to his wife and his small son. The third time he went out he saw a dead man. This time he didn’t go home to his palace. Coming across a hermit in the road, he decided that he, too, would go into the wilderness, where he would meditate on the sufferings of this world which had been revealed to him in the forms of old age, sickness and death.

Later in his life Gautama told the story of his decision in a sermon: ‘And so it came about that, in the full freshness and enjoyment of my youth, in glowing health, my hair still black, and against the wishes of my weeping and imploring elders, I shaved my head and beard, dressed in coarse robes, and forsook the shelter of my home.’

For six years he led the life of a hermit and penitent. But his meditations were deeper and his sufferings greater than those of any other hermit. As he sat, he almost stopped breathing altogether, and endured the most terrible pains. He ate so little that he would often faint with weakness. And yet, in all those years, he found no inner peace. For he didn’t only reflect on the nature of the world, and whether all things were really one. He thought about its sadness, of all the pain and suffering of mankind ­ of old age, sickness and death. And no amount of penitence could help him there.

And so, gradually, he began to eat again. His strength returned, and he breathed like other people. Other hermits who had formerly admired him now despised him, but he took no notice of them. Then, one night, as he sat beneath a fig tree in a beautiful clearing in a wood, understanding came. Suddenly he realised what he had been seeking all those years. It was as if an inner light had made everything clear. Now, as the ‘Enlightened One’, the Buddha, he went out to proclaim his discovery to all men.

It wasn’t long before he found like-minded people who were soon convinced that he had found a way out of human suffering. And because these followers admired the Buddha, they formed what we would call an ‘order’ of monks and nuns. This order lived on after his death, and still exists today in many Eastern countries. You can recognise its members by their yellow robes and their austere way of life.

I imagine that you’d like to know exactly what happened to Gautama, as he sat under that fig tree ­ the Tree of Enlightenment, as it became known ­ that took away his doubts and brought him inner peace. But if you want me to try and explain it, you will have to do some hard thinking too. After all, Gautama spent six whole years thinking about this and nothing else. The idea that came to him, his great Enlightenment, the solution to human suffering, was this: if we want to avoid suffering, we must start with ourselves, because all suffering comes from our own desires. Think of it like this. If you are sad because you can’t have something you want ­ maybe a book or a toy ­ you can do one of two things: you can do your best to get it, or you can stop wanting it. Either way, if you succeed, you won’t be sad any more. This is what the Buddha taught. If we can stop ourselves wanting all the beautiful and pleasant things in life, and can learn to control our greed for happiness, comfort, recognition and affection, we shan’t feel sad any more when, as so often happens, we fail to get what we want. He who ceases to wish for anything ceases to feel sad. If the appetite goes, the pain goes with it.

I can already hear you saying: ‘That’s all very well, but people can’t help wanting things!’ The Buddha thought otherwise. He said that it is possible to control our desires, but to do so we need to work on ourselves, perhaps even for years, so that in the end we only have the desires we want to have. In other words, we can become masters of ourselves, in the same way that an elephant driver learns to control his elephant. A person’s highest achievement on earth is to reach the point at which he or she no longer has any desires. This is the Buddha’s ‘inner calm’, the blissful peace of someone who no longer has any wishes, someone who is kind to everyone and demands nothing. The Buddha also taught that a person who is master of all his wishes will no longer be reborn after his death. Only souls which cling to life are reborn ­ or so the Buddha’s followers believe. He who no longer clings to life is released from the unending cycle of birth and death, and is at last freed from all suffering. Buddhists call this state ‘Nirvana’.

So this was the Enlightenment that the Buddha experienced under the fig tree: the realisation that, instead of giving in to our wishes, we can break free from them ­ rather like when we are feeling thirsty and take no notice, and the feeling goes away. You can see that the way to do this is far from easy. The Buddha called it the ‘middle way’, because it lay between useless self-torment and thoughtless pleasure-seeking. The important thing is to find the right balance: in what we believe, in the decisions we make, in what we say and what we do, in the way we live, in our ambitions, in our conscience and our innermost thoughts.

That was the essential message of the Buddha’s sermons, and these sermons made such a deep impression on people that many followed him and worshipped him as a god. Today there are almost as many Buddhists in the world as there are Christians, especially in South East Asia, in Sri Lanka, Tibet, China and Japan. But not many of them are able to live their lives in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings, and so achieve that inner calm.

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