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INDIA, EMPIRE and CHAOS (3 of 10)

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Hinduism in 500s BCE

During the 500s, seeking spiritual attainment through knowledge grew. Many seeking spiritual fulfillment were uninterested in metaphysical complexities. They continued to worship gods such as Indra and Agni but they also found satisfaction in devotion to gods that were parental figures, gods with whom they could have a personal relationship. In the northwest of India, people worshiped a personal god called Shiva, a god who embodied a reconciliation between the extremes of passionate eroticism and ascetic renunciation, and between frenzy and serenity. Shiva was believed to dwell in the Himalayas, to have a benevolent goddess counterpart called Parvati, and to have many brides and numerous children.

Some Hindus turned from the complexities of the Upanishads to a more simple spiritual benefit by way of good behavior, which they claimed was more important than whatever god one worshiped. This good behavior included proper eating, restrictions on drinking, keeping oneself in godly cleanliness, performing one's duties and behaving in a manner appropriate for one's class (or caste) and stage in life – all described as good for one's soul.

In the latter half of the 500s BCE, more people were trying to achieve spirituality through asceticism. These were times of insecurity and misery, and a greater number of young men were giving up on the material world and searching for eternal bliss. Orthodox Brahmins felt obliged to exercise some authority in the direction of social engineering. They attempted to keep in check the loss of youthful manpower to asceticism. They tried to confine asceticism to men beyond middle age. To this end they invented four stages in life regarding duties of a Hindu: the celibate religious student; the married Hindu, including priests; the forest hermit, who was older than the students; and the elderly wandering ascetic.

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