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Buddha and India's Golden Age

Another branch of the Indo-European family had migrated (about 1500 B.C.) from the plains of central Asia into the valley of the Indus, and so they became known as Hindus. They found the country already occupied by the people whose descendants are still living in the south of the vast Indian peninsula.

The early Hindus had a very beautiful Nature worship, which found expression in a great literature of hymns, known as the Vedas, long before the time of Homer. Before writing was known, their priests learnt the hymns by heart, and so handed them down from generation to generation.

These priests were called Brahmins, after their god Brahma, the Creator. They were highly civilized, and in time they made great discoveries in medicine and in mathematics (e.g. the decimal system), which later on were passed on to Europe through other peoples of the East. Hindu society was strictly divided into castes or classes, and these were not allowed to mix or intermarry. There were four castes -- priests, soldiers, peasants and craftsmen, slaves.

In the sixth century B.C. one of the greatest religious teachers of the world was living in India at the foot of the Himalayas. This was Gautama, or Siddartha, the son of a wealthy landowner. In his early days he could write from memory all the old Hindu hymns. At first he lived the luxurious life of a prince. Then, in his twenty-ninth year, His eyes were opened to the sadness of life, and he decided to devote himself to fasting and meditation.

So he became the Buddha, or the Enlightened One, and he preached at Benares and elsewhere till his death at eighty. He taught the great lesson that the secret of life and happiness is to conquer self and to pursue holiness, He opposed the system of castes, and taught that between a Brahmin and a man of another caste there was no difference. He sent missionaries to Ceylon, Tibet, Burma, and China. From China his teaching passed to Japan.

Today, in eastern Asia, many millions of the human race still profess his faith. At his death, says an old Hindu story, "a terrible earthquake shook the whole world; the sun and moon were darkened, meteors flashed, and funeral music sounded from the heavens."

The next landmark in India's story was the coming of Alexander the Great, of whom we shall read more later. Like so many invaders, he marched down the Khyber Pass, and he found India already a civilized land.

In the next century the greatest of India's early kings ruled the whole of the vast peninsula. He is known as Asoka (250 B.C.), and he was a devout follower of Buddha.

In his time India was as highly disciplined and civilized as the great empire of Rome, and far more deeply religious. It is no wonder that the modern Hindu still regards these early centuries of religion and culture as the Golden Age of India.