Tag Archives: religion

The Vertical Integration of Religion

Covering in the past few lectures was the Indus Valley Civilization.  As someone from the region, it is extremely interesting for me to hear how these particular ancient people lived.  The extremely organized city-state (the civilization’s most identifiable quality) we studied made me think of the island I come from in India, Sri Rangam.  The differences in infrastructure and public institutions between India and Western countries are so stark now.  Why is this?  What pivotal event(s) or state policy made it so; was it economic or institutional?  The island itself is extremely agricultural focused, and known internationally for being home to a relatively large, old Hindu temple.  And there apparent social stratification between not only socioeconomic levels, not only between gender but also between sex and gender.  Unlike most Western civilizations, culture in the Indian Subcontinent (ancient & modern) has impressions of religious rhetoric ingrained in it.  And its vertical integration into the Indus Valley Civilization is what led to the eventual collapse.

A perfect example of this, the story that Ethan talked about in the Rig-Veda that led the the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization.  It was often was to me as a bedtime story, and like most traditions, was only passed down orally.  This oral nature of reciting history further reinforces the influence of religion on culture, as exemplified when Hindus call the Rig-Veda the “breath of Bhraman”.  This is one of the main reasons I think anthropologists are so unclear as to the true nature of collapse in the Indus Valley.

The predominately auditory characteristic could be why the civilization died out: no meticulous agricultural records or weather patterns by the state (or other institutional authority).  Assuming the state placed some sort of tariff/tax on agricultural utility, citizens must have realized that the land had gone over usual yield.  If this is the case, then the “State” does not seem that powerful: a perfect explanation for why smaller settlements became a more popular form of community rather than urbanism.

Coming back to Sri Rangam’s infrastructure, architectural design of the community is in direct correlation with that of the temple.  A sanctum sanatorium surrounded by bands that decrease in importance.  Thus, socioeconomic stratums are literally built (along with the caste system which came much later).  But does this drive competition, which is necessary for social innovation and cultural progressivism.  How long is it before this civilization collapses upon itself?

Shang Dynasty and Oracle Bones

Our recent discussion on the Shang Dynasty got me thinking about an East Asian Religion course I took, where we also discussed the Shang Dynasty and its connection to oracle bones.  The Shang Dynasty of China is considered the first civilization to leave written records and solid archaeological evidence.  It is believed that the Shang Dynasty was the second of the Three Dynasties Period, although many dispute the existence of an earlier dynasty.  The proposed earlier dynasty, the Xia Dynasty, is only referenced in legends and later writings.

Previously, Shang history was based on historical accounts that were written long after the Shang Dynasty.  There were bronze inscriptions found, but those were short and did not provide much detail.  This lack of information all changed when the oracle bones were discovered.  The inscriptions on oracle bones matched the information about the Shang Dynasty written hundreds of years after its end.  This information provided an important key to proof for the existence of the Shang Dynasty.  These oracle bones and bronze inscriptions helped legitimize the Shang Dynasty. More evidence was then gathered, examined, and connected to the Shang Dynasty (like archaeological sites and other artifacts).

Oracle bones are usually scapula of large animals or turtle shells, that were used by kings and diviners to answer questions and tell the future.  A diviner would carve the question into one side, then small pits would be carved out of the other side.  They would use the art of pyromancy (using fire) to tell the fortune, or divine the answer from the bone or shell.  A red-hot poker would be pressed into the pits, causing the bone or shell to crack.  It is these resulting cracks that the diviner would interpret, and the answer was then carved into the oracle bone as well.  An interesting point here is that all of the writings for the Shang Dynasty are religious text, since they are all dealing with oracle bones and bronze inscriptions.

In the latter years of the Shang Dynasty, the banks of the Huan river saw a royal ritual center established by the kings.  This center housed a group of diviners who specialized in the dealing and communicating with the complex spirit world.  They were in service to the king, and responsible for conducting the rituals with the oracle bones, asking the questions, and interpreting the answers.  These questions could range anywhere from the outcome of a war, how plentiful a harvest would be, or even the cause of a king’s headache.

It is interesting to note the variety of topics that were dealt with using oracle bones, yet all the writings are religious in nature (since the oracle bone ritual is religious).  This is in drastic comparison to Mesopotamia’s earliest writings/forms of writing, which are commercial or economic in nature.