Ancient India

Map of the Indus Valley Civilization as a part of the overall Indian Subcontinent.
Map of the Indus Valley Civilization as a part of the overall Indian Subcontinent.

South Asia consists of the areas that we now call Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka. This territory is delimited by the Himalaya Mountains in its northeast (the "Roof of the World") and the Hindu Kush range on the Northwest, and by the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. It is very diverse geographically and has many different weather patterns, and thus there was little to unify it in history but its people.

The oldest civilization to be found in India, the Indus Valley, or Harappan Civilization was discovered in the 1920's. These discoveries have allowed archaeologists to add physical evidence to the limited written evidence that had survived down to the twentieth century. This has meant that much of what was considered mythical has been shown to have basis in fact. The discovery that the Sanskrit text of the Rig Veda is actually linguistically related to Latin, gave new impetus to the study of Indian civilization.

Indian history began between 3100 and 3000 BCE. During that time, a neolithic society in the area of the Indus River, between the areas of Sind, near the coast, and Punjab, inland, coalesced into a highly organized civilization. This civilization covered an area much greater than that of the Mesopotamian or Egyptian civilizations we've seen so far, and was roughly concurrent with them chronologically. Like Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley Civilization developed in a river valley, and spread to other river valleys. The two best-known and most extensively dug sites are Harappa, in the Punjab, and Mohenjo-Daro, in the Sind, near the coast in what is now Pakistan.

Like the Egyptians and the Sumerians, the Indus Valley civilization used the floods of the of a river, in this case the Indus River to create and sustain a powerful agriculture-based society that had a surplus. Like Mesopotamia and Egypt, this surplus allowed for the building of large cities, the creation of a powerful ruling class, and enough food that workers could be pared away for major road-building and engineering projects. These building projects were so technologically advanced that no equal appeared afterward until 2500 years after the fall of the Indus Valley civilization. This society traded with Sumer, and ancient Egypt. This led to cultural exchange. But India, within itself, was also multicultural. South Asia (the Indian subcontinent) was subject to numerous cultural influences from inside and outside.

Skeletal remains of Indus Civilization people show them to be from a wide variety of different races. That suggests that the Indus Valley culture was the product of ideas and collaboration of many different peoples who likely came from varied neolithic experiences. What is more remarkable, and is in fact the point most startling to archaeologists working Indus sites, is the degree of standardization reached by this civilization. Regardless of population size, Indus towns and cities were built according to the same template, with streets running in a carefully planned grid pattern on a north-south axis. external image Harappa_04.jpgThe size of homes in each city was standardized, and those standards varied with the class of the inhabitants. The cities were planned so that various professions lived within the same district and neighborhood, and shared communal conveniences. In each town and city is a central artificially constructed hill on which brick walls enclose a defensive citadel with standard armaments. Millenia before the Qin in China, weights and measures were standardized throughout the entire Indus Valleycivilization so that, uniquely among civilizations of this age, trade could be carried on smoothly from city to city without meticulous conversion of values. Streets and roads are of standard width throughout, and nearly every major town or city that has been excavated also shows remarkable commitment to hygiene and some very high technology. Every city had running water available in private homes, and private toilet and bathroom facilities (often up to two bathrooms in some homes) that connected to extensive sewer systems which in turn went to soaking pools, carrying the waste out of the house, out of town, and back into the environment in a very sanitary way. Most cities had a central bath or pool of some sort in the center of the citadel made with several layers of sealed mud bricks that probably served as ritual centers for bathing and purification before certain rituals were performed.

The problem that historians have with the Indus Civilization, though, is that we cannot read their writing. Even if we could, th longest extant inscription found so far is only 25 characters long - hardly enough to give any in depth historical information. We are left to guessing. We can see, for example. evidence of the fire alters that figure so prominently in later Indian religion. We have personal seals that depict a god that looks much like the later images made of Shiva. At the same time, we don't know why, by 1500 BCE, as your textbook makes clear, the Indus Civilization had disappeared. There are a number of factors which probably contributed. Sometime around 2000 - 1500 BCE a series of major movements of the earth's crust, which were felt in Mesopotamia, and probably caused the explosion of the Island of Thera in the Mediterranean Sea, resulted in shifts in the course of the Indus River, probably devastating the irrigation and agricultural systems of the Indus Valley Civilization. In addition, these geological events also apparently lifted the coastline of the Sind, leaving cities that had been ports high and dry. Changes in the courses of rivers also meant destruction of major transportation arteries for the extensive trade in the Indus Valley, likely making food distribution a nightmare. Over farming of the land, and in an ironic twist the same techniques that led to destruction of much of the Sumerian agriculture appear to be a factor here, as well. Extensive irrigation with waters from the Indus brought salts and lye from the mountains into the fields, and likely increased the salinity baseness of the soil to a point where agriculture became increasingly untenable prior to 1500 BCE. Decreased rainfall, dessication of the Sind, and attacks from outside the civilization also apparently contributed.

At roughly the same time, India was being invaded.

What I am referring to is what has been termed the "Aryan Invasion" of the Indian Subcontinent, which was underway by about 1500 BCE. The Aryans, as far as we can tell, were a group of Indo-European speaking people. Probably the Aryans were not all from the same ethnic group, and did not all speak the same dialect. They were herders, gatherers, and fighters, and they did have superior weapons to those used by the Indus Valley people. Over a period of nearly 1,000 years, they moved in small groups of from 50 to several hundred across the Hindu Kush and into the Indus Valley, where they found a farmed-out, dying or dead civilization. Looking for better digs, they then pushed on to the Ganges River Valley, where they began to settle in various parts of the heavily forested and fertile region. They met people there who had been there before the Aryans came. They called the indigenous people Dasas, for their dark skin. They fought battles with them, and consistent with their own perception of themselves, often won, and in the process made the Dasas their servants. They called themselves Aryas - the noble ones. They had relatives all over the Near East and Europe: the local name for Persia, "Iran" is the same word as Aryas, in a different Indo-European dialect, as is the name that the locals gave to the emerald isles: Ireland.

Over the course of centuries, one village at a time, the Aryans came to dominate the Ganges valley and its earlier inhabitants. As they conquered, they created large numbers of small, independent kingdoms, none of which was able to gain enough power to dominate the others. They left virtually no record of themselves, however, so we know little about them. The Ganges River Valley is not conducive to the preservation biodegradable material. The humidity, acidity in the soil, heat, and seasonal monsoon rains tend to destroy anything that nature can degrade very quickly. To make the situation worse, the Aryans were not what we have so far identified as "civilized" - they did not build in stone, they did not live in large cities, and they did not write. In fact, all we have that tells us anything about them is their poetry, passed down orally for hundreds of years after their arrival in the subcontinent, and not put into written form until sometime after 1,000 BCE. The earliest and most complete of these is known as the Rig Veda. It probably predates the entry of the Aryans into the subcontinent, so to some extent it gives us a window on a culture before it was changed by the place and people it had become a part of. That is not to say the Aryans were "pure" before they arrived in India - probably not at all. But the culture they had evolved was changed again after their arrival.

The Rig Veda is a fascinating document. It is a sacred text of Hinduism (though the Hindu religious system was not in existence in 1500 BCE). Yet it also contains what appear to be drinking songs, and poems about everyday life, interspersed with discussions about how the Aryans believed the world was formed, how it worked, and why people were here in the first place. In the Rig VedaI are hints that Aryan society was divided into three different classes at the time they arrived inIndia. This is also supported by the creation myths that the Aryans told themselves in the Rig Veda and other Vedas composed between 1500 and 1000 BC. They believed that the universe was created through the self-sacrifice of a single pre-existing human, and that as a result of that sacrifice, everything in the world was created from a section of his body- the head, the torso, or the feet. Each thing, then, is ranked in the vedas according to which section of the body it supposedly comes from. That included humans, and gods, as well as all other beings that live here. The human divisions were based on what a person did for the tribe - their job, or, in the Aryan language, jati. The Jati was an inescapable fact of one's life. You could not change the jati you were born into, and each came with its particular rules and realites that eventually came to be very rigid. A ruler, known as a raja, was in charge of leading the village in warfare, and presiding over a council of decision-makers. He was responsible for financing defense, and so had the right, eventually, to tax. He was responsible for finding a priest to take care of the proper rituals to be sure that the community was in tune with nature. The priest was responsible to know the Vedas (there were more than just the Rig), and the rituals and ceremonies to keep things working just right. The commoners were responsible for producing the food and tools that the community needed. In early Vedic society (between 1500 and 1000 BCE) those roles were not set in stone, and, it seems, could change even over the course of one's life. The lowest on the social totem pole, so to speak, were the conquered, darker skinned natives - the dasas. They were usually made to do the jobs that no one else would do, and were denied many of the priveledges that Aryans of every class enjoyed.

Over time, and certainly by 500 BCE, these jati or caste differences came to be part of even greater hierarchical social organization in the form of hereditary classes. One was born into one's father's caste, and could not hope to move out of it except by death. One was morally and legally restrained from associating with members of other castes, or learning to do what they did. In the same way, each class contained a large number of jati or castes, movement between which was impossible, but which were interdependent. As far as the classes go, we know that the priests, or brahmans came to be the most important in society, because of their link with nature and the gods. The kshatriyas, the ruling and fighting class, came to have great powers themselves, and ranked second on the scale. The Vaisyas were the working, trading, and building class. The sudras were the serving caste. Initially, the sudra caste was composed entirely of the darker skinned conquered people. However, this social system was popular as an organizing principal in other areas as well, where the Aryans had not yet penetrated, and castes eventually became racially mixed through various social processes.

The mutual influences among Indian people can be seen in the existence of gods that were adapted into the Aryan pantheon, apparently, from the Indus Valley Civilization. The resemblance, for example, of images of Shiva to a god commonly found on seals in Harappa and Mohejo-Daro is uncanny. The Vedic Age fire alters built by the Aryans are nearly exact copies of those found in the Indus Valley as well. The Aryans thus may have been influence by the earlier defunct civilization.

There is no doubt, as Aryan society spread, that the Aryans both influenced, and were influenced by, other groups of people. These groups were no doubt responsible for some of the ideas that influenced the movement of Aryan religion of the late Vedic age, from 1000 to about 500 BCE, towards a less sacrifice and ritual-centered one. This occurred gradually. The earliest Aryan religion that we know of posited 33 gods - eleven from each of the three regions of the body of the creator. These gods were initially conceived of as having been created at the same time, and in the same reality, as humans - thus we call Aryan religion monistic (NOT monotheistic, monistic) because it conceives of only one sphere of creation where the gods and humans are subject to the same reality, and the creators are not separate from their creation. There is no "waters and firmament" here, as there is in a duallist system like Judaism or Christianity. The question remains, then, how did the gods become all powerful, omniscient, and especially, immortal? According to the vedas, it was through contests of strength with each other, and the drinking of massive quantities of an herbal drug the Aryans came to call Soma. This provided them with eternal life. These gods, in Indian mythology, are relatively benign, and sometimes downright helpful. The Aryans came to conceive of them as beings who could be addressed b humans, and hosted in humans' homes. At these events, the humans would provide the gods with sacrifices, the energy from which helped them in their constant battle against evil. The idea was an exchange - in a way very much like the Greeks had conceived of their gods. Humans provide the gods with lasting or wonderful sacrifices, and so early Aryans carried out these sacrifices in their homes - there were no large temples or any such thing.

Eventually, though, as the brahmin class grew, and sacrifices became more elaborate, groups of brahmans began to believe, and write about, the idea that this wasn't a deal with the gods, as the ancients had conceived it, but rather, the rituals that accompanied the sacrifices themselves were about nothing less than cosmic order. The rituals themselves were seen as reflecting, and even maintaining cosmic order. The gods did not disappear from the picture altogether, but rather than the ritual acting as the system of interaction between god and human, the ritual came to be seen as the way to control the gods. If a ritual was performed flawlessly, it conferred nothing less than control of the god to the performer, thus obligating the god to do as he was bidden.

This increasing, and moreover rigid dependence on elaborate ritual had two major effects prior to 500BC. First, it acted as the foundation of a growing power within the brahman class, who were the only members of society with access to the religious texts, and eventually to writing. Second, it had the effect of hollowing out the religious ideas of the Aryans - making the ceremonies and rituals dry, though elaborate, sets of instructions to be followed for their own sake, with little sense of humanity or divinity. This led, eventually, to a group of brahmans opposed to the rigid ritualization of belief, who created a series of philosophical and legal texts known as the Upanishads sometime before 500 BC. The goal of theUpanishads writers was to emphasize substance over form, or to be more precise, to suggest that true understanding of the world and our place in it would come from searching for truth, and studying life, rather than repeating vast numbers of complex rituals whose meaning was often unclear and unsuited for the times. The Upanishads was a set of writings (essays, legal treatises, parables) that promoted morality, and encouraged people to think about why they had to behave as they did. The goal was to understand life.

In a famous Upanishadic episode, a young boy asks his father what it means to be alive. His father directs him to get a bowl of saltwater and see what's in it. The boy, of course, says it is saltwater. The next morning, his father asks him to bring back the bowl after leaving it out all night. He, of course, finds no water, but the salt crusted along the sides is clearly visible. His father tells him that such is the meaning of life.

This cryptic explanation of existence is also full of meaning, but gives the reader a chance to grasp that meaning for herself. It requires thought, but not carefully prepared ritual or vast knowledge of the vedas to come up with a satisfactory answer - and that answer will have meaning beyond the immediate question. That is the point of the Upanishads - to give control of eternal destiny and truth, to some extent, back to the masses by suggesting that they are capable of understanding, and taking, their place in the universe, as long as they try. These moral messages began the process of leading Vedic religion toward what would eventually be known as Hinduism.

Cultural influences thus create the environment for cultures to influence each other, and the result is always change, and synthesis, until the mixed cultures become a new culture, which we identify today as that of the Indian Subcontinent. To come back to my point, what is critical here to understand any culture, at any point in its existence, is the process of change which it has gone through. We do not want to take snippets of time and look at a culture like a dead speciment under a microscope - that will deprive it of all meaning for us. Instead, we want to catch cultures in action - this makes it harder to see all the constituent parts, but it makes it easier to get a bigger picture of the culture's relevance to us, and products of its development.

The Mauryan Empire 321BCE - 181BCE


The Mauryan empire was unknown to historians and archaeologists until the early 1800's, when British and Indian historians began to uncover records that allowed them to do some comparative dating. It is for this reason that we usually start the story of the Mauryan Empire by talking first about the conquests of the Macedonian leader Alexander the Great. In other words, Alexander's association with the beginning of this empire, as far as we can tell at the moment, is really only by accident. Chandragupta Maurya may or may not have met the great general and king, and even had they known each other, it appears that Chandragupta was already in the process of plotting to usurp the Nanda throne at Magadha when Alexander's armies first appeared on the scene. In the same sense, while your book mentions a king with whom Alexander made several agreements, etc., this king Poros is most definitely not Chandragupta, and his role in the overthrow of the Nanda emperors was likely instrumental only in the sense that he provided Chandragupta with a place to hide while he built his army (still a considerable and important activity).

Chandragupta Maurya 321BCE-297BCE

The first king of the Mauryan Empire, appears to have been Chandragupta, who probably began his fight to become ruler between 326 (when Alexander's Macedonian/Greek army arrived). Chandragupta was not of the Kshatriya caste - that is he was not a member of the ruling caste. He did, however, apparently have an excellent advisor in the form of a man we now call Kautilya.

Kautilya is a historical figure from the same period to which we have been able to date the life of Chandragupta. Beyond that. little is really known about him. He is said to have been a brahman, and according to several texts and monographs, was expelled from the Nanda court - probably for a deformity of some kind (maybe as small as a few missing teeth). He must have held a grudge, because some current theories suggest that he was the mastermind behind Chandragupta's enthronement, with his brahmin credentials he had access to nearly any place or person he needed.

Chandragupta himself conquered a large chunk of Northern India, and ruled from the Nanda capitol at Pataliputra until about 297 BCE, when, it has been said, he retired to a Jain community, and eventually starved himself to death there, in the way of the Jain saints. In fact, it seems a bit of a stretch that this materialistic, ambitious, and by many accounts ruthless man accustomed to the comforts of the court would simply leave the kingdome he had carved out of the world to his son, and go and become a Jain ascetic. However, less likely things have happened, and the Jains still tell stories about Chandragupta's piety and dedication.

Ashoka 268 BCE

Chandragupta left his kingdom to his son, Bindusara. Little is known about this ruler, as well. He probably took the throne in a controlled way, with his father, who was abdicating in his favor, having made sure of the succession. His name itself means, as your text explains on page 146, "Slayer of Foes." He may, therefore, have been a conqueror in his own right. Bidusara is understood to have been a follower of a separate religious sect, and to have been as devoted to that ideal as was his father to the Jains. In any case, though, this seems irrelevant in Indian history, since it was rare for anyone to "convert" to any belief in the sense of renouncing all other belief to follow a single faith. Rather, most indians at this time accepted the idea that one's life was an endless round of life and death (samsara ) and that there were several possible ways to escape this cycle. It is no surprise, then, and really not at all inconsistent, to see Chandragupta a Jain, his son Bindusara follow the Ajivika ideals, and his son Ashoka be, in his actions at least, a Buddhist.

It is likely that he expanded the size of the empire to some extent. How far has been lost to history. The expansion, and his relatively long life, though, gave Ashoka time to govern two different provinces (one in present-day Pakistan/Sind, the other slightly to the south of that). Here Ashoka was able to gain experience, and through a relationship with a local merchan't daughter. They never married, but she gave him a son and a daughter whom he acknowledged. The son from this marriage would go on to become an important Buddhist missionary in Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

Ashoka apparently proved himself capable, because he was able, after his own father died in 272 BCE, to secure the throne for himself. He apparently had to be ruthless about this. Though we only know the names of four brothers of Ashoka, Indian tradition suggests there were at least one hundred male children of Bidusara. Ashoka was not the eldest, and he probably fought his way to the top by poisoning and murdering his rivals. One brother that we know of apparently joined a Buddhist monaster, and renounced all claim to the throne. He is the only one for whom we have even a hint of survival of the throne wars.

In any case, after 4 years of inconsistency, Ashoka became emperor of the Mauryan Empire in 268 BCE. He immediately began to do what, apparently, he did best. Lead a large conquering army. He expanded the size of the empire to its largest before the modern state that formed in 1947. It ranged from Nepal to the Sind and the Indus Delta, from Kandahar in modern Afghanistan to the Deccan Plateau in southern India. Economically, politically, legally, it was an integrated, centralized state that was governed by a complex and powerful bureaucracy.

Like the Roman empire, and the Han empire, the Mauryan state, especially under Ashoka, achieved a rare standardization of weights, measures, transportation systems, and laws, and attempted a standardization of behavior.

Ashoka demanded that roads be straight, paved, and usable, and lined by shade trees to protect the weary traveller. He caused more than thirty monuments - some carved and polished pillars, some huge rocks, others in cliffs - to be carved with the law, and with behaviors that he sought to promote as healthy for the society. These stelae are virtually identical wherever in india they are found.

Ashoka himself is said to have converted (we know what little meaning that has) to Buddhism after learning the results of the Battle of Kalinga, in which, as the story on some of the pillars goes, he was brought to tears and mourning for the people on both sides who died, lost loved ones, or were hurt in the conflictand forced to leave their homes. Ashoka, who had apparently been familiar with Buddhism for some time, is said to have decided on the spot that what he called dhamma, a principle of kindness, should be the ruling concept of his empire, and from that time on, many historians have said, he renounced war altogether.

The picture that is now emerging, however, makes Ashoka a complex figure. He never mentioned in the stelae, in administrative texts that are extant, or anywhere else that we can find, anything about Siddhartha Gautama - the Buddha, nor anything about his Four Noble Truths or Sacred Eightfold Path. Ashoka thus appears to be less a theological Buddhist than a behavior modifier. His stone pillars, rock edicts, etc., make it plain that he expected all his subjects to behave according to his principle of dhamma. That is, while he did spend time and money on a kind of evangelical Buddhism, and we know he sent one of his sons to Ceylon as a missionary, rather than as a governor, his primary interest appears to have been an extension of the creation of law and other standards - a promotion of consistent, humane behavior patterns.

During his lifetime, Ashoka never gave up his army, or even reduced it in size. It thus functioned as an effective deterrent against international aggression should any appear. His stelae never mention directly a conversion to Buddhism specifically, but deal only with the principle of dhamma . In other areas, his willingness to leave his subjects to their own faiths and ideologies is remarkably tolerant.

As with the Roman Empire then, Ashoka's primary contribution to Indian history was to create a vast collective space, a group of societies and villages unified by one law, one written language, one set of imperial roads, one group of rules for trade, and even, as your text also makes clear, in a parallel with the Roman emperor Constantine, a religious leader for the rejuvenation of the masses and to create a single, unified faith through which a more integrated legal system based on a single moral code, could be administered by a central government more easily than taking into account the legal beliefs of various groups in making decisions.