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Thinkers, Beliefs & Buildings | Class 12 History Notes

The chapter introduces students to the various cultural developments and the spread of Buddhism and Jainism. The chapter talks about various stupas: why they were built and their relevance and also their great architecture. We also highlight the growth of puranic Hinduism.


Cultural Developments

What are the sources to reconstruct Cultural Developments?

To re-construct the cultural developments there are various sources:

  • Buddhists, Jaina & Brahmanical Text written in various languages.

  • Large and Impressive Material remains Including monuments & Inscriptions.

Why is the first millennium BCE often regarded as a turning point in world history?

  • This period saw the emergence of thinkers such as Zarathustrian Iran, Kong Zi in China, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in Greece, and Mahavira and Gautama Buddha, in India.

  • They tried to understand the mysteries of existence and the relationship between human beings and the cosmic order.

  • New kingdoms and cities were also developing and social and economic life was changing in a variety of ways in the Ganga valley.

The Sacrificial Tradition

  • The early Vedic tradition was one of the pre-existing traditions of thought, religious belief and practice, known from the Rigveda.

  • The Rigveda consists of hymns in praise of a variety of deities (Agni, Indra and Soma.)

  • These hymns were chanted when sacrifices were performed, where people prayed for cattle, sons, good health, long life, etc.

  • Sacrifices were performed collectively, some of these were performed by the head of the family for the well-being of the domestic unit.

  • Sacrifices like Rajasuya & Ashvamedha were performed by chiefs and kings who depended on Brahmana priests to conduct the ritual.

New Questions

  • The people were curious about the meaning of life, the possibility of life after death, and re-birth.

  • These were hotly debated. Thinkers were concerned with understanding and expressing the nature of the ultimate reality.

Debates & Discussion

There were 64 different sects/schools of thought to choose from. Teachers from various schools of thought engaged in lively debates and discussions.

Teachers such as Buddha and Mahavira travelled from place to place, attempting to persuade one another as well as lay people of the validity of their philosophy or worldview.

Debates were held in kutagarashalas (pointed-roof huts) and in groves where travelling mendicants rested.

If a philosopher was successful in persuading one of his opponents, his followers became his disciples as well. As a result, support for a specific sect may fluctuate over time. The Vedas' authority was questioned by Mahavira and the Buddha. Individuals are also liberated from the pains and sorrows of earthly living, according to them.

Who were the Fatalists & Materialists?

Fatalists, also known as Ajivikas, are those who think that everything happens for a reason.

Makkhail Gosala, a Fatalists teacher, claims that the wise and the fool cannot be distinguished because both will take their course and bring an end to pain.

Materialists, often known as lokayatas, believe that nothing is predetermined.

Ajita Kesakambalin, a materialist teacher, claims that a human being is made up of four elements. When he dies, the earthy part of him returns to the earth, the fluid part to water, the heat part to fire, the windy part to air, and the senses part to calm in space.

Gift-giving is a fool's creed, an empty fiction. Both the clever and the foolish are cut off and perish. They don't come back after they've died.

Philosophy of Jainism

  • The most important idea in Jainism is that the entire world is animated: even stones, rocks and water have life.

  • Non-injury to living beings, especially to humans, animals, plants and insects, is central to Jaina philosophy.

  • In fact, the principle of ahimsa, emphasised within Jainism, has left its mark on Indian thinking as a whole.

  • According to Jaina teachings, the cycle of birth and rebirth is shaped through karma.

  • Asceticism and penance are required to free oneself from the cycle of karma. This can be achieved only by renouncing the world.

Rules for Jain Monks

  • Jaina monks and nuns took five vows:

  • To abstain from killing, stealing and lying.

  • To observe celibacy.

  • To abstain from possessing property.

Jain literature & Spread of Jainism

The teachings of Mahavira were recorded by his Disciples in the form of stories that could appeal to ordinary people.

A wealth of literature was produced by the Jaina Scholars in the Variety of languages such as Prakrit, Sanskrit & Tamil.

Manuscripts of these texts were carefully preserved in the libraries attached to temples.

Jainism got spread in many parts of India, including Maharashtra, Karnataka & Tamil Nadu.

The Devotees of the Jaina Tirthankaras made many stone sculptures, which has been recovered from several sites throughout the subcontinent.

E.g: Gopalchal rock-cut Jain Mountain is situated in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh.

Spread of Buddhism

Buddhism grew rapidly during the lifetime of the Buddha even after his death, he was one of the most influential teachers.

Buddha’s message Metta (fellow feeling) and Karuna (compassion) spread across the subcontinent and beyond through Central Asia to China, Korea and Japan, and through Sri Lanka, across the seas to Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia.

The teachings of Buddha have been re-constructed by carefully editing, translating & analysing the Buddhist text.

Historians have also tried to reconstruct details of his life from hagiographies or biography of a saint.

Many of these were written down at least a century after the death of Buddha.

Life of Buddha

Siddhanta was a Sakya chief's son. He grew up in a palace, protected from the harsh facts of life. Persuading his charioteer to carry him into town His first experience outside was awful.

He was distressed to see an old man, a sick man, and a corpse. He realised then that the human body would deteriorate and die.

He also met a homeless man who had found peace with age, disease, and death. Siddhartha chose the same path.

He soon left the palace in search of his own truth. Siddhartha studied several paths, including bodily mortification, which nearly killed him. He renounced drastic measures and meditated for days, finally achieving enlightenment.

So he became known as the Buddha, or Enlightened One. He spent the rest of his life teaching dhamma, or ethical living.

What were the teachings of Buddha?

The main source from which the Buddha's teachings were rebuilt was the Sutta Pitaka. The world is fleeting (anicca) and always changing; it is also soulless (anatta) because it contains nothing permanent or eternal.

Suffering (dukkha) is an inextricable part of life in the fleeting universe. Humans can rise above their problems by treading a middle road between extreme penance and self-indulgence.

In its earlier iterations, the existence of god was irrelevant.

The Buddha saw the social world as a human creation rather than a divine creation. He encouraged monarchs and gahapatis to be compassionate and ethical.

Individual agency and righteous action, according to the Buddha, are the only ways to break the cycle of rebirth and achieve self-realisation.

Followers of Buddha

“Be lamps unto yourselves as all of you must work out your own liberation.”

  • The body of the disciples of the Buddha or an organisation of monks was called the sangha. The monks too became the teachers of dhamma.

  • They lived a simple life by possessing only the essential requisites for survival, such as a bowl to receive food once a day from the laity.

  • They were known as bhikkhus.

  • Only men were allowed into the sangha, but later women also came to be admitted. This was made possible through the mediation of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s dearest disciples, who persuaded him to allow women into the sangha.

  • The Buddha’s foster mother, Mahapajapati Gotami was the first woman to be ordained as a bhikkhuni. Many women who entered the sangha became teachers of dhamma.

  • The followers came from many social groups. They included kings, wealthy men and gahapatis, and also humbler folk: workers, slaves and craftspeople.

  • All were regarded as equal within the sangha, having shed their earlier social identities on becoming bhikkhus and bhikkhunis.

  • The internal functioning of the sangha was based on the traditions where decisions were taken through voting.

Rules for Monks and Nuns

There are some of the rules laid down in the Vinay Pitaka:

  • When a new blanket has been made by a bhikkhu, it has to be kept for six years.

  • The permission of other bhikkhus was required to use the blanket before six years.

  • In this case, if a Bikkhu accepts more meals from a house, he is to share them among other bhikkhus.

  • Any bhikkhu who is leaving and lodging which belongs to sangha must inform other bhikkhus.


The sites with special trees or unique rocks or sites of awe-inspiring natural beauty were regarded as sacred.

The sites with small shrines attached were sometimes described as Chaityas.

Chaityas were also mentioned in the Buddhist literature, it describes the name as having been derived from the word Chita (Funeral pyre).


Where were stupas built?

Stupas were built in the places associated with Buddha’s life:

  • Lumbini (The place of birth)

  • Bodh Gaya (Attained enlightenment)

  • Sarnath ( He gave his first sermon)

  • Kusinagara (Death)

Each of these places was regarded as sacred, by the second century BCE, a number of stupas have been built including Bharut, Sanchi & Sarnath.

Why were stupas built?

Stupa construction may have been a pre-Buddhist tradition, but it became connected with Buddhism.

Stupas were constructed to house the Buddha's relics, such as his body remains or things used by him.

Asoka delivered pieces of the Buddha's relics to every important town and commanded stupas to be built over them, according to the Buddhist scripture Ashokavadana.

How were the Stupas built?

The inscription on the pillars contained a record of donations made for the construction and decoration of the stupas.

Donations were also donated by kings, such as the Satavahanas; others were made by guilds, such as the ivory workers' guild, which funded part of one of Sanchi's gateways.

Hundreds of donations were made by women and men who included their names, as well as their jobs and the names of their family, and sometimes included the name of the place from where they came.

These monuments were also built with the help of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis.

The Structure of The Stupa

The inscription on the pillars contained a record of donations made for the construction and decoration of the stupas.

Donations were also donated by kings, such as the Satavahanas; others were made by guilds, such as the ivory workers' guild, which funded part of one of Sanchi's gateways.

Hundreds of donations were made by women and men who included their names, as well as their jobs and the names of their family, and sometimes included the name of the place from where they came.

These monuments were also built with the help of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis.

The Fate of Amaravati Stupa

The remnants of the stupa at Amaravati were discovered in 1796 by a local king who wished to build a temple. He decided to make use of the stone and reasoned that there might be wealth buried in what appeared to be a hill.

Colin Mackenzie, a British officer, paid a visit to the site afterwards. He discovered several sculptures and created comprehensive drawings of them that were never published.

Walter Elliot, the commissioner of Guntur (Andhra Pradesh), came to Amaravati in 1854 and gathered many sculptural panels, which he took to Madras. (They were dubbed the Elliot marbles after him.)

He also discovered the remnants of the western gateway and concluded that the edifice at Amaravati was one of the largest and most magnificent Buddhist stupas ever erected.

Some of the slabs from Amaravati had begun to be transported to other locations by the 1850s:

Some even went to London, to the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta, the India Office in Madras, and the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta.

These sculptures were commonly found in the gardens of British authorities. Every new authority in the area continued to remove sculptures from the site, claiming that previous officials had done so as well.

View of H.H. Cole

“It appears to be a suicidal and indefensible policy to tolerate the looting of original works of ancient art,” he stated.

He thought that museums should have plaster-cast replicas of sculptures, but that the originals should be left where they were discovered.

Cole was unable to persuade the authorities in the case of Amaravati, but his request for in situ preservation was accepted in the case of Sanchi.

Why Sanchi survived and Amaravati did not?

Amaravati was discovered before researchers realised the significance of the discovery and realised how important it was to leave things where they were discovered rather than removing them.

Three of Sanchi's four gateways were still intact when it was discovered in 1818, the fourth was lying on the location where it had fallen, and the mound was in fair condition.

It was suggested that the gateway be moved to either Paris or London; nevertheless, a multitude of factors contributed to Sanchi's preservation.

The mahachaitya at Amaravati has been reduced to a little mound, devoid of its original splendour.


The sculptures were removed from stupas and transported all the way to Europe. This happened partly because those who saw them considered them to be beautiful and valuable, and wanted to keep them for themselves

Stories in Stone

With thatched homes and trees, the artwork appears to reflect a rural landscape. It was identified as a scene from the Vessantara Jataka by art historians who researched the sculpture at Sanchi closely.

This is the story of a benevolent prince who left everything to a Brahmana and moved into the jungle with his wife and children.

Symbol of Worship

According to hagiographies, the Buddha attained enlightenment while meditating under a tree. Rather than showing the Buddha in his actual form, many early sculptors decided to depict him using symbols.

The empty seat represented the Buddha's concentration.

The stupa was designed to depict the Mahaparinibbana (Death). Another sign that was frequently utilised was the wheel. This was a reference to the Buddha's very first sermon, which he gave in Sarnath.

Popular Traditions

  • Sanchi's sculptures may not have been directly inspired by Buddhist concepts. Beautiful women swinging from the gateway's edge while clinging to a tree are among them.

  • They realised it could be a representation of what is known in Sanskrit as a shalabhanjika after looking at various literary traditions.

  • This was a woman, according to legend, whose touch caused trees to bloom and give fruit.

  • Sanchi has some of the most beautiful animal images. Elephants, horses, monkeys, and cattle are among these creatures.

  • While the Jatakas feature various animal stories presented at Sanchi, many of these creatures were most likely carved to create vibrant scenarios to attract people.

  • Elephants have long been associated with power and wisdom.

  • Another theme depicts a woman surrounded by lotuses and elephants who appear to be performing an abhisheka or consecration on her by sprinkling water on her.

While some historians believe the figure to be Maya, the Buddha's mother, others believe she is Gajalakshmi, the goddess of good fortune who is associated with elephants.

Division of Buddhism into Mahayana & Hinayana

  • There is evidence of changes in Buddhist ideas and practices.

  • Early Buddhist teachings had given great importance to self-effort in achieving Nibbana.

  • Besides, the Buddha was regarded as a human being who attained enlightenment through his own efforts.

  • Gradually, the idea of a saviour emerged. It was believed that he was the one who could ensure salvation.

Those who adopted these beliefs were described as Mahayana or “the greater vehicle”.

Simultaneously, the concept of the Bodhisatta(Buddha in the previous birth) also developed.

Bodhisattvas were perceived as deeply compassionate beings who accumulated merit through their efforts but used this not to attain Nibbana and thereby abandon the world, but to help others.

The worship of images of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas became an important part of this tradition.

The Growth of Puranic Hinduism

  • Vaishnavism is a branch of Hinduism in which Vishnu is revered as the supreme deity.

  • Shaivism is a religion in which Shiva is revered as the supreme god.

  • The link between the devotee and the god was imagined as one of love and devotion, or bhakti, in such worship.

  • Many cults arose within Vaishnavism, centred on the deity's different avatars or incarnations. Within the custom, ten avatars were recognised.

  • Avatars were believed to be several shapes that the god took in order to preserve the world from evil powers.

  • Different avatars were probably popular in different sections of the country. One strategy to create a more united religious tradition was to recognise each of these local deities as a version of Vishnu.

  • The linga, for example, was used to represent Shiva, though he was also depicted in human form on occasion.

  • Through symbols such as headdresses, ornaments, and ayudhas - weapons or fortunate objects the deities hold in their hands – such images portrayed a complex set of concepts about the deities and their characteristics, as well as how they are seated.

  • Historians must be aware of the stories behind these sculptures in order to comprehend their meanings, many of which are included in the Puranas, which were composed by Brahmanas.

  • Puranas held a wealth of information, including stories about gods and goddesses, that had been written and circulated for generations.

They were usually written in plain Sanskrit verse and intended to be read aloud to everyone, including women and Shudras who did not have access to Vedic education.

Building Temples

A small square room called the garbhagriha served as the earliest temple, and it had only one door through which a worshipper could enter and offer offerings to an image there.

Built on top of the central shrine, the Shikara is an impressive structure. Decoration of temple walls with sculptures was quite common.

Temples evolved over time, adding gathering halls, massive walls and entrances, and elaborate water supply systems.

It was not uncommon for early temples to contain caves dug out of enormous boulders. Fake caverns have been constructed for a long time.

Some of the earliest were constructed in the third century BCE by order of Asoka for Ajivika renunciants.

In the ninth century, the Kailashnatha Temple was completed by carving out a complete temple as part of this rite (the name of Shiva).

Sculptures from India Confuse European Researchers

In the nineteenth century, when European scholars first saw sculptures of gods and goddesses, they had no idea what they were looking at.

Their jaws dropped as they stared in horror at what they perceived as monstrous beings with multiple arms and heads, or hybrids of human and animal form.

Ancient Greek sculpture was used to help these early researchers make sense of the strange images.

For the most part, they viewed early Indian sculpture as inferior to that of Greek masters. Studies of Buddha and Bodhisattva images found in Europe that were clearly based on Greek models thrilled scholars.

The majority of these artefacts were found in the northwest, in places like Taxila and Peshawar, where second-century BCE Indo-Greek monarchs established kingdoms.

Early Indian art experts revered these images because they looked so much like Greek sculptures they'd seen before.

In other words, these researchers took the same approach we all do when trying to make sense of the mysterious: they developed yardsticks based on the well-known to help them understand the strange.


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