Early Civilizations of the Indian Subcontinent



The Great Stupa of Sanchi / Creative Commons


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 03.07.2018
Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


1 – The Indus River Valley Civilizations

1.1 – Introduction

1.1.1 – Overview

Map of the Indus Valley Civilization: The major sites of the Indus Valley Civilization.

The Indus Valley Civilization existed through its early years of 3300-1300 BCE, and its mature period of 2600-1900 BCE. The area of this civilization extended along the Indus River from what today is northeast Afghanistan, into Pakistan and northwest India. The Indus Civilization was the most widespread of the three early civilizations of the ancient world, along with Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Harappa and Mohenjo-daro were thought to be the two great cities of the Indus Valley Civilization, emerging around 2600 BCE along the Indus River Valley in the Sindh and Punjab provinces of Pakistan. Their discovery and excavation in the 19th and 20th centuries provided important archaeological data about ancient cultures.

1.1.2 – Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Valley Civilization was one of the three “Ancient East” societies that are considered to be the cradles of civilization of the old world of man, and are among the most widespread; the other two “Ancient East” societies are Mesopotamia and Pharonic Egypt. The lifespan of the Indus Valley Civilization is often separated into three phases: Early Harappan Phase (3300-2600 BCE), Mature Harappan Phase (2600-1900 BCE) and Late Harappan Phase (1900-1300 BCE).

At its peak, the Indus Valley Civilization may had a population of over five million people. It is considered a Bronze Age society, and inhabitants of the ancient Indus River Valley developed new techniques in metallurgy—the science of working with copper, bronze, lead, and tin. They also performed intricate handicraft, especially using products made of the semi-precious gemstone Carnelian, as well as seal carving— the cutting
of patterns into the bottom face of a seal used for stamping. The Indus cities are noted for their urban planning, baked brick houses, elaborate drainage systems, water supply systems, and clusters of large, non-residential buildings.

The Indus Valley Civilization is also known as the Harappan Civilization, after Harappa, the first of its sites to be excavated in the 1920s, in what was then the Punjab province of British India and is now in Pakistan. The discoveries of Harappa, and the site of its fellow Indus city Mohenjo-daro, were the culmination of work beginning in 1861 with the founding of the Archaeological Survey of India in the British Raj, the common name for British imperial rule over the Indian subcontinent from 1858 through 1947.

1.1.3 – Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro

Harappa was a fortified city in modern-day Pakistan that is believed to have been home to as many as 23,500 residents living in sculpted houses with flat roofs made of red sand and clay. The city spread over 150 hectares (370 acres) and had fortified administrative and religious centers of the same type used in Mohenjo-daro. The modern village of Harappa, used as a railway station during the Raj, is six kilometers (3.7 miles) from the ancient city site, which suffered heavy damage during the British period of rule.

Mohenjo-daro is thought to have been built in the 26th century BCE and became not only the largest city of the Indus Valley Civilization but one of the world’s earliest, major urban centers. Located west of the Indus River in the Larkana District, Mohenjo-daro was one of the most sophisticated cities of the period, with sophisticated engineering and urban planning. Cock-fighting was thought to have religious and ritual significance, with domesticated chickens bred for religion rather than food (although the city may have been a point of origin for the worldwide domestication of chickens). Mohenjo-daro was abandoned around 1900 BCE when the Indus Civilization went into sudden decline.

The ruins of Harappa were first described in 1842 by Charles Masson in his book, Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab, & Kalât. In 1856, British engineers John and William Brunton were laying the East Indian Railway Company line connecting the cities of Karachi and Lahore, when their crew discovered hard, well-burnt bricks in the area and used them for ballast for the railroad track, unwittingly dismantling the ruins of the ancient city of Brahminabad.

1.1.4 – Excavations

In 1912, John Faithfull Fleet, an English civil servant working with the Indian Civil Services, discovered several Harappan seals. This prompted an excavation campaign from 1921-1922 by Sir John Hubert Marshall, Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, which resulted in the discovery of Harappa. By 1931, much of Mohenjo-Daro had been excavated, while the next director of the Archaeological Survey of India, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, led additional excavations.

Excavated Ruins of Mohenjo-daro: The Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro, a city in the Indus River Valley Civilization.

The Partition of India, in 1947, divided the country to create the new nation of Pakistan. The bulk of the archaeological finds that followed were inherited by Pakistan. By 1999, over 1,056 cities and settlements had been found, of which 96 have been excavated.

1.2 – Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization

1.2.1 – Introduction

The Indus River Valley Civilization (IVC) contained urban centers with well-conceived and organized infrastructure, architecture, and systems of governance.

By 2600 BCE, the small Early Harappan communities had become large urban centers. These cities include Harappa, Ganeriwala, and Mohenjo-daro in modern-day Pakistan, and Dholavira, Kalibangan, Rakhigarhi, Rupar, and Lothal in modern-day India. In total, more than 1,052 cities and settlements have been found, mainly in the general region of the Indus River and its tributaries. The population of the Indus Valley Civilization may have once been as large as five million.

Indus Valley Civilization Sites: This map shows a cluster of Indus Valley Civilization cities and excavation sites along the course of the Indus River in Pakistan.

The remains of the Indus Valley Civilization cities indicate remarkable organization; there were well-ordered wastewater drainage and trash collection systems, and possibly even public granaries and baths. Most city-dwellers were artisans and merchants grouped together in distinct neighborhoods. The quality of urban planning suggests efficient municipal governments that placed a high priority on hygiene or religious ritual.

1.2.2 – Infrastructure

Harappa, Mohenjo-daro, and the recently, partially-excavated Rakhigarhi demonstrate the world’s first known urban sanitation systems. The ancient Indus systems of sewerage and drainage developed and used in cities throughout the Indus region were far more advanced than any found in contemporary urban sites in the Middle East, and even more efficient than those in many areas of Pakistan and India today. Individual homes drew water from wells, while waste water was directed to covered drains on the main streets. Houses opened only to inner courtyards and smaller lanes, and even the smallest homes on the city outskirts were believed to have been connected to the system, further supporting the conclusion that cleanliness was a matter of great importance.

1.2.3 – Architecture

Sokhta Koh: Sokhta Koh, a Harappan coastal settlement near Pasni, Pakistan, is depicted in a computer reconstruction. Sokhta Koh means “burnt hill,” and corresponds to the browned-out earth due to extensive firing of pottery in open pit ovens.

Harappans demonstrated advanced architecture with dockyards, granaries, warehouses, brick platforms, and protective walls. These massive walls likely protected the Harappans from floods and may have dissuaded military conflicts. Unlike Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, the inhabitants of the Indus Valley Civilization did not build large, monumental structures. There is no conclusive evidence of palaces or temples (or even of kings, armies, or priests), and the largest structures may be granaries. The city of Mohenjo-daro contains the “Great Bath,” which may have been a large, public bathing and social area.

1.2.4 – Authority and Governance

Archaeological records provide no immediate answers regarding a center of authority, or depictions of people in power in Harappan society. The extraordinary uniformity of Harappan artifacts is evident in pottery, seals, weights, and bricks with standardized sizes and weights, suggesting some form of authority and governance.

Over time, three major theories have developed concerning Harappan governance or system of rule. The first is that there was a single state encompassing all the communities of the civilization, given the similarity in artifacts, the evidence of planned settlements, the standardized ratio of brick size, and the apparent establishment of settlements near sources of raw material. The second theory posits that there was no single ruler, but a number of them representing each of the urban centers, including Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, and other communities. Finally, experts have theorized that the Indus Valley Civilization had no rulers as we understand them, with everyone enjoying equal status.

1.3 – Harappan Culture

1.3.1 – Introduction

The Indus River Valley Civilization, also known as Harappan, included its own advanced technology, economy, and culture.

The Indus Valley Civilization is the earliest known culture of the Indian subcontinent of the kind now called “urban” (or centered on large municipalities), and the largest of the four ancient civilizations, which also included Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China. The society of the Indus River Valley has been dated from the Bronze Age, the time period from approximately 3300-1300 BCE. It was located in modern-day India and Pakistan, and covered an area as large as Western Europe.

Harappa and Mohenjo-daro were the two great cities of the Indus Valley Civilization, emerging around 2600 BCE along the Indus River Valley in the Sindh and Punjab provinces of Pakistan. Their discovery and excavation in the 19th and 20th centuries provided important archaeological data regarding the civilization’s technology, art, trade, transportation, writing, and religion.

1.3.2 – Technology

The people of the Indus Valley, also known as Harappan (Harappa was the first city in the region found by archaeologists), achieved many notable advances in technology, including great accuracy in their systems and tools for measuring length and mass.

Harappans were among the first to develop a system of uniform weights and measures that conformed to a successive scale. The smallest division, approximately 1.6 mm, was marked on an ivory scale found in Lothal, a prominent Indus Valley city in the modern Indian state of Gujarat. It stands as the smallest division ever recorded on a Bronze Age scale. Another indication of an advanced measurement system is the fact that the bricks used to build Indus cities were uniform in size.

Harappans demonstrated advanced architecture with dockyards, granaries, warehouses, brick platforms, and protective walls. The ancient Indus systems of sewerage and drainage developed and used in cities throughout the region were far more advanced than any found in contemporary urban sites in the Middle East, and even more efficient than those in many areas of Pakistan and India today.

Harappans were thought to have been proficient in seal carving, the cutting of patterns into the bottom face of a seal, and used distinctive seals for the identification of property and to stamp clay on trade goods. Seals have been one of the most commonly discovered artifacts in Indus Valley cities, decorated with animal figures, such as elephants, tigers, and water buffalos.

Harappans also developed new techniques in metallurgy—the science of working with copper, bronze, lead, and tin—and performed intricate handicraft using products made of the semi-precious gemstone, Carnelian.

1.3.3 – Art

Miniature Votive Images or Toy Models from Harappa, c. 2500 BCE: The Indus River Valley Civilization created figurines from terracotta, as well as bronze and steatite. It is still unknown whether these figurines have religious significance.

Indus Valley excavation sites have revealed a number of distinct examples of the culture’s art, including sculptures, seals, pottery, gold jewelry, and anatomically detailed figurines in terracotta, bronze, and steatite—more commonly known as Soapstone.

Among the various gold, terracotta, and stone figurines found, a figure of a “Priest-King” displayed a beard and patterned robe. Another figurine in bronze, known as the “Dancing Girl,” is only 11 cm. high and shows a female figure in a pose that suggests the presence of some choreographed dance form enjoyed by members of the civilization. Terracotta works also included cows, bears, monkeys, and dogs. In addition to figurines, the Indus River Valley people are believed to have created necklaces, bangles, and other ornaments.

1.3.4 – Trade and Transportation

The civilization’s economy appears to have depended significantly on trade, which was facilitated by major advances in transport technology. The Harappan Civilization may have been the first to use wheeled transport, in the form of bullock carts that are identical to those seen throughout South Asia today. It also appears they built boats and watercraft—a claim supported by archaeological discoveries of a massive, dredged canal, and what is regarded as a docking facility at the coastal city of Lothal.

The docks and canal in the ancient city of Lothal, located in modern India: Archaeological evidence suggests that the Indus River Valley Civilization constructed boats and may have participated in an extensive maritime trade network.

Trade focused on importing raw materials to be used in Harappan city workshops, including minerals from Iran and Afghanistan, lead and copper from other parts of India, jade from China, and cedar wood floated down rivers from the Himalayas and Kashmir. Other trade goods included terracotta pots, gold, silver, metals, beads, flints for making tools, seashells, pearls, and colored gem stones, such as lapis lazuli and turquoise.

There was an extensive maritime trade network operating between the Harappan and Mesopotamian civilizations. Harappan seals and jewelry have been found at archaeological sites in regions of Mesopotamia, which includes most of modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Syria. Long-distance sea trade over bodies of water, such as the Arabian Sea, Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, may have become feasible with the development of plank watercraft that was equipped with a single central mast supporting a sail of woven rushes or cloth.

During 4300-3200 BCE of the Chalcolithic period, also known as the Copper Age, the Indus Valley Civilization area shows ceramic similarities with
southern Turkmenistan and northern Iran. During the Early Harappan period (about 3200-2600 BCE), cultural similarities in pottery, seals, figurines, and ornaments document caravan trade with Central Asia and the Iranian plateau.

1.3.5 – Writing

Harappans are believed to have used Indus Script, a language consisting of symbols. A collection of written texts on clay and stone tablets unearthed at Harappa, which have been carbon dated 3300-3200 BCE, contain trident-shaped, plant-like markings. This Indus Script suggests that writing developed independently in the Indus River Valley Civilization from the script employed in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt.

Indus Script: These ten Indus Script symbols were found on a “sign board” in the ancient city of Dholavira.

As many as 600 distinct Indus symbols have been found on seals, small tablets, ceramic pots, and more than a dozen other materials. Typical Indus inscriptions are no more than four or five characters in length, most of which are very small. The longest on a single surface, which is less than 1 inch (or 2.54 cm.) square, is 17 signs long. The characters are largely pictorial, but include many abstract signs that do not appear to have changed over time.

A Rosetta Stone for the Indus script, lecture by Rajesh Rao: Rajesh Rao is fascinated by “the mother of all crossword puzzles,” how to decipher the 4,000-year-old Indus script. At TED 2011, he explained how he was enlisting modern computational techniques to read the Indus language. View full lesson: http://ed.ted.com/lessons/a-rosetta-stone-for-the-indus-script-rajesh-rao

The inscriptions are thought to have been primarily written from right to left, but it is unclear whether this script constitutes a complete language. Without a “Rosetta Stone” to use as a comparison with other writing systems, the symbols have remained indecipherable to linguists and archaeologists.

1.3.6 – Religion

The “Shiva Pashupati” seal: This seal was excavated in Mohenjo-daro and depicts a seated and possibly ithyphallic figure, surrounded by animals.

The Harappan religion remains a topic of speculation. It has been widely suggested that the Harappans worshipped a mother goddess who symbolized fertility. In contrast to Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations, the Indus Valley Civilization seems to have lacked any temples or palaces that would give clear evidence of religious rites or specific deities. Some Indus Valley seals show a swastika symbol, which was included in later Indian religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

Many Indus Valley seals also include the forms of animals, with some depicting them being carried in processions, while others showing chimeric creations, leading scholars to speculate about the role of animals in Indus Valley religions. One seal from Mohenjo-daro shows a half-human, half-buffalo monster attacking a tiger. This may be a reference to the Sumerian myth of a monster created by Aruru, the Sumerian earth and fertility goddess, to fight Gilgamesh, the hero of an ancient Mesopotamian epic poem. This is a further suggestion of international trade in Harappan culture.

1.4 – Disappearance of the Indus Valley Civilization

1.4.1 – Introduction

The great Indus Valley Civilization, located in modern-day India and Pakistan, began to decline around 1800 BCE. The civilization eventually disappeared along with its two great cities, Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. Harappa lends its name to the Indus Valley people because it was the civilization’s first city to be discovered by modern archaeologists.

Archaeological evidence indicates that trade with Mesopotamia, located largely in modern Iraq, seemed to have ended. The advanced drainage system and baths of the great cities were built over or blocked. Writing began to disappear and the standardized weights and measures used for trade and taxation fell out of use.

Scholars have put forth differing theories to explain the disappearance of the Harappans, including an Aryan Invasion and climate change marked by overwhelming monsoons.

1.4.2 – The Aryan Invasion Theory (c.1800-1500 BCE)

Aryans in India: An early 20th-century depiction of Aryan people settling in agricultural villages in India.

The Indus Valley Civilization may have met its demise due to invasion. According to one theory by British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler, a nomadic, Indo-European tribe, called the Aryans, suddenly overwhelmed and conquered the Indus River Valley.

Wheeler, who was Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1944 to 1948, posited that many unburied corpses found in the top levels of the Mohenjo-daro archaeological site were victims of war. The theory suggested that by using horses and more advanced weapons against the peaceful Harappan people, the Aryans may have easily defeated them.

Yet shortly after Wheeler proposed his theory, other scholars dismissed it by explaining that the skeletons were not victims of invasion massacres, but rather the remains of hasty burials. Wheeler himself eventually admitted that the theory could not be proven and the skeletons indicated only a final phase of human occupation, with the decay of the city structures likely a result of it becoming uninhabited.

Later opponents of the invasion theory went so far as to state that adherents to the idea put forth in the 1940s were subtly justifying the British government’s policy of intrusion into, and subsequent colonial rule over, India.

Various elements of the Indus Civilization are found in later cultures, suggesting the civilization did not disappear suddenly due to an invasion. Many scholars came to believe in an Indo-Aryan Migration theory stating that the Harappan culture was assimilated during a migration of the Aryan people into northwest India.

1.4.3 – The Climate Change Theory (c.1800-1500 BCE)

Other scholarship suggests the collapse of Harappan society resulted from climate change. Some experts believe the drying of the Saraswati River, which began around 1900 BCE, was the main cause for climate change, while others conclude that a great flood struck the area.

Any major environmental change, such as deforestation, flooding or droughts due to a river changing course, could have had disastrous effects on Harappan society, such as crop failures, starvation, and disease. Skeletal evidence suggests many people died from malaria, which is most often spread by mosquitoes. This also would have caused a breakdown in the economy and civic order within the urban areas.

Another disastrous change in the Harappan climate might have been eastward-moving monsoons, or winds that bring heavy rains. Monsoons can be both helpful and detrimental to a climate, depending on whether they support or destroy vegetation and agriculture. The monsoons that came to the Indus River Valley aided the growth of agricultural surpluses, which supported the development of cities, such as Harappa. The population came to rely on seasonal monsoons rather than irrigation, and as the monsoons shifted eastward, the water supply would have dried up.

Ruins of the city of Lothal: Archaeological evidence shows that the site, which had been a major city before the downfall of the Indus Valley Civilization, continued to be inhabited by a much smaller population after the collapse. The few people who remained in Lothal did not repair the city, but lived in poorly-built houses and reed huts instead.

By 1800 BCE, the Indus Valley climate grew cooler and drier, and a tectonic event may have diverted the Ghaggar Hakra river system toward the Ganges Plain. The Harappans may have migrated toward the Ganges basin in the east, where they established villages and isolated farms.

These small communities could not produce the same agricultural surpluses to support large cities. With the reduced production of goods, there was a decline in trade with Egypt and Mesopotamia. By around 1700 BCE, most of the Indus Valley Civilization cities had been abandoned.

2 – Indo-European Civilizations

2.1 – The Indo-Aryan Migration and the Vedic Period

2.1.1 – Introduction

Different theories explain the Vedic Period, c. 1200 BCE, when Indo-Aryan people on the Indian subcontinent migrated to the Ganges Plain.

Scholars debate the origin of Indo-Aryan peoples in northern India. Many have rejected the claim of Indo-Aryan origin outside of India entirely, claiming the Indo-Aryan people and languages originated in India. Other origin hypotheses include an Indo-Aryan Migration in the period 1800-1500 BCE, and a fusion of the nomadic people known as Kurgans. Most history of this period is derived from the Vedas, the oldest scriptures in Hinduism, which help chart the timeline of an era from 1750-500 BCE, known as the Vedic Period.

2.1.2 – The Indo-Aryan Migration (1800-1500 BCE)

Foreigners from the north are believed to have migrated to India and settled in the Indus Valley and Ganges Plain from 1800-1500 BCE. The most prominent of these groups spoke Indo-European languages and were called Aryans, or “noble people” in the Sanskrit language. These Indo-Aryans were a branch of the Indo-Iranians, who originated in present-day northern Afghanistan. By 1500 BCE, the Indo-Aryans had created small herding and agricultural communities across northern India.

These migrations took place over several centuries and likely did not involve an invasion, as hypothesized by British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler in the mid-1940s. Wheeler, who was Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1944 to 1948, suggested that a nomadic, Indo-European tribe, called the Aryans, suddenly overwhelmed and conquered the Indus River Valley. He based his conclusions on the remains of unburied corpses found in the top levels of the archaeological site of Mohenjo-daro, one of the great cities of the Indus Valley Civilization, whom he said were victims of war. Yet shortly after Wheeler proposed his theory, other scholars dismissed it by explaining that the skeletons were not those of victims of invasion massacres, but rather the remains of hasty burials. Wheeler himself eventually admitted that the theory could not be proven.

2.1.3 – The Kurgan Hypothesis

The Kurgan Hypothesis is the most widely accepted scenario of Indo-European origins. It postulates that people of a so-called Kurgan Culture, a grouping of the Yamna or Pit Grave culture and its predecessors, of the Pontic Steppe were the speakers of the Proto- Indo-European language. According to this theory, these nomadic pastoralists expanded throughout the Pontic-Caspian steppe and into Eastern Europe by early 3000 BCE. The Kurgan people may have been mobile because of their domestication of horses and later use of the chariot.

2.1.4 – The Vedic Period (c.1750-500 BCE)

The Ganges Plain (Indo-Gangetic Plain): The Ganges Plain is supported by the Indus and Ganges river systems. The Indo-Aryans settled various parts of the plain during their migration and the Vedic Period.

The Vedic Period refers to the time in history from approximately 1750-500 BCE, during which Indo-Aryans settled into northern India, bringing with them specific religious traditions. Most history of this period is derived from the Vedas, the oldest scriptures in the Hindu religion, which were composed by the Aryans in Sanskrit.

Vedic Civilization is believed to have been centered in the northwestern parts of the Indian subcontinent and spread around 1200 to the Ganges Plain, a 255-million hectare area (630 million acres) of flat, fertile land named after the Ganges River and covering most of what is now northern and eastern India, eastern parts of Pakistan, and most of Bangladesh. Many scholars believe Vedic Civilization was a composite of the Indo-Aryan and Harappan, or Indus Valley, cultures.

2.1.4.1 – Early Vedic Period (c.1750-1000 BCE)

The Indo-Aryans in the Early Vedic Period, approximately 1750-1000 BCE, relied heavily on a pastoral, semi-nomadic economy with limited agriculture. They raised sheep, goats, and cattle, which became symbols of wealth.

The Indo-Aryans also preserved collections of religious and literary works by memorizing and reciting them, and handing them down from one generation to the next in their sacred language, Sanskrit. The Rigveda, which was likely composed during this time, contains several mythological and poetical accounts of the origins of the world, hymns praising the gods, and ancient prayers for life and prosperity.

Organized into tribes, the Vedic Aryans regularly clashed over land and resources. The Rigveda describes the most notable of these conflicts, the Battle of the Ten Kings, between the Bharatas tribe and a confederation of ten competing tribes on the banks of what is now the Ravi River in northwestern India and eastern Pakistan. Led by their king, Sudas, the Bharatas claimed victory and merged with the defeated Purus tribe to form the Kuru, a Vedic tribal union in northern India.

2.1.4.2 – Late Vedic Period (c.1000-500 BCE)

After the 12th century BCE, Vedic society transitioned from semi-nomadic to settled agriculture. From approximately 1000-500 BCE, the development of iron axes and ploughs enabled the Indo-Aryans to settle the thick forests on the western Ganges Plain.

This agricultural expansion led to an increase in trade and competition for resources, and many of the old tribes coalesced to form larger political units. The Indo-Aryans cultivated wheat, rice and barley and implemented new crafts, such as carpentry, leather work, tanning, pottery, jewelry crafting, textile dying, and wine making.

 

Ceramic goblet from Navdatoli, Malwa, c. 1300 BCE: As the Indo-Aryans developed an agricultural society during the Later Vedic Period (c. 1000-500), they further developed crafts, such as pottery.

Economic exchanges were conducted through gift giving, particularly between kings and priests, and barter using cattle as a unit of currency. While gold, silver, bronze, copper, tin, and lead are mentioned in some hymns as trade items, there is no indication of the use of coins.

The invasion of Darius I (a Persian ruler of the vast Achaemenid Empire that stretched into the Indus Valley) in the early 6th century BCE marked the beginning of outside influence in Vedic society. This continued into what became the Indo-Greek Kingdom, which covered various parts of South Asia and was centered mainly in modern Afghanistan and Pakistan.

2.2 – The Caste System

2.2.1 – Introduction

A caste system developed among Indo-Aryans of the Vedic Period, splitting society into four major groups.

Caste systems through which social status was inherited developed independently in ancient societies all over the world, including the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. The caste system in ancient India was used to establish separate classes of inhabitants based upon their social positions and employment functions in the community. These roles and their importance, including the levels of power and significance based on patriarchy, were influenced by stories of the gods in the Rig-Veda epic.

2.2.2 – Origins

The Rig-Veda: A page of the Rig-Veda, one of the four sacred Veda texts, which described the origins of the world and the stories of the gods. The Rig-Veda influenced the development of the patriarchal society and the caste systems in Aryan India.

The caste system in India may have several origins, possibly starting with the well-defined social orders of the Indo-Aryans in the Vedic Period, c. 1750-500 BCE. The Vedas were ancient scriptures, written in the Sanskrit language, which contained hymns, philosophies, and rituals handed down to the priests of the Vedic religion. One of these four sacred canonical texts, the Rig-Veda, described the origins of the world and points to the gods for the origin of the caste system.

The castes were a form of social stratification in Aryan India characterized by the hereditary transmission of lifestyle, occupation, ritual status, and social status. These social distinctions may have been more fluid in ancient Aryan civilizations than in modern India, where castes still exist but sociologists are observing inter-caste marriages and interactions becoming more fluid and less rigid.

2.2.3 – Structure

The classes, known as  varnas, enforced divisions in the populations that still affect this area of the world today. By around 1000 BCE, the Indo-Aryans developed four main caste distinctions: Brahamin, consisting of priests, scholars, and teachers; Kshatriyas, the kings, governors, and warriors; Vaishyas, comprising agriculturists, artisans, and merchants; and Sudras, the service providers and artisans who were originally non-Aryans but were admitted to Vedic society.

Each varna was divided into  jatis, or sub-castes, which identified the individual’s occupation and imposed marriage restrictions. Marriage was only possible between members of the same jati or two that were very close. Both varnas and jatis determined a person’s purity level. Members of higher varnas or jatis had higher purity levels, and if contaminated by members of lower social groups, even by touch, they would have to undergo extensive cleansing rites.

2.2.4 – Development of Patriarchy

Society during the Vedic Period (c.1750-500 BCE) was patriarchal and patrilineal, meaning to trace ancestral heritage through the male line. Marriage and childbearing were especially important to maintain male lineage. The institution of marriage was important, and different types of marriages—monogamy, polygyny and polyandry are mentioned in the Rig Veda. All priests, warriors, and tribal chiefs were men, and descent was always through the male line.

In other parts of society, women had no public authority; they only were able to influence affairs within their own homes. Women were to remain subject to the guidance of males in their lives, beginning with their father, then husband, and lastly their sons. Male gods were considered more important than female gods. These distinct gender roles may have contributed to the social stratification of the caste system.

2.2.5 – Enduring Influence

Gandhi at Madras, 1933: Mahatma Gandhi visits Madras, now Chennai, during a tour of India in 1933. As leader of the Indian independence movement, Gandhi frequently spoke out against discrimination created by the caste system.

The caste system that influenced the social structure of Aryan India has been maintained to some degree into modern-day India. The caste system survived for over two millennia, becoming one of the basic features of traditional Hindu society. Although the Constitution of India, the supreme law document of the Republic of India, formally abolished the caste system in 1950, some people maintain prejudices against members of lower social classes.

2.3 – Sanskrit

2.3.1 – Introduction

Vedic Sanskrit evolved to Classical Sanskrit, which has influenced modern Indian languages and is used in religious rites.

Sanskrit is the primary sacred language of Hinduism, and has been used as a philosophical language in the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Sanskrit is a standardized dialect of Old Indo- Aryan, originating as Vedic Sanskrit as early as 170001200 BCE.

One of the oldest Indo-European languages for which substantial documentation exists, Sanskrit is believed to have been the general language of the greater Indian Subcontinent in ancient times. It is still used today in Hindu religious rituals, Buddhist hymns and chants, and Jain texts.

2.3.2 – Origins

Sanskrit traces its linguistic ancestry to Proto-Indo-Iranian and ultimately to Proto-Indo-European languages, meaning that it can be traced historically back to the people who spoke Indo-Iranian, also called the Aryan languages, as well as the Indo-European languages, a family of several hundred related languages and dialects. Today, an estimated 46% of humans speak some form of Indo-European language. The most widely-spoken Indo-European languages are English, Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian, each with over 100 million speakers.

Sanskrit manuscript on palm-leaf, in Bihar or Nepal, 11th century: Sanskrit evolved from Proto-Indo-European languages and was used to write the Vedas, the Hindu religious texts compiled between 1500-500 BCE.

Vedic Sanskrit is the language of the Vedas, the most ancient Hindu scripts, compiled c. 1500-500 BCE. The Vedas contain hymns, incantations called Samhitas, and theological and philosophical guidance for priests of the Vedic religion. Believed to be direct revelations to seers among the early Aryan people of India, the four chief collections are the Rig Veda, Sam Veda, Yajur Vedia, and Atharva Veda. (Depending on the source consulted, these are spelled, for example, either Rig Veda or Rigveda.)

Vedic Sanskrit was orally preserved as a part of the Vedic chanting tradition, predating alphabetic writing in India by several centuries. Modern linguists consider the metrical hymns of the Rigveda Samhita, the most ancient layer of text in the Vedas, to have been composed by many authors over several centuries of oral tradition.

2.3.3 – Sanskrit Literature

Sanskrit Literature began with the spoken or sung literature of the Vedas from c. 1500 BCE, and continued with the oral tradition of the Sanskrit Epics of Iron Age India, the period after the Bronze Age began, around 1200 BCE. At approximately 1000 BCE, Vedic Sanskrit began the transition from a first language to a second language of religion and learning.

Around 500 BCE, the ancient scholar Panini standardized the grammar of Vedic Sanskrit, including 3,959 rules of syntax, semantics, and morphology (the study of words and how they are formed and relate to each other). Panini’s Astadhyayi is the most important of the surviving texts of Vyakarana, the linguistic analysis of Sanskrit, consisting of eight chapters laying out his rules and their sources. Through this standardization, Panini helped create what is now known as Classical Sanskrit.

A 2004 Indian stamp honoring Panini, the great Sanskrit grammarian: The scholar Panini standardized the grammar of Vedic Sanskrit to create Classical Sanskrit. With this standardization, Sanskrit became a language of religion and learning.

The classical period of Sanskrit literature dates to the Gupta period and the successive pre-Islamic middle kingdoms of India, spanning approximately the 3rd to 8th centuries CE. Hindu Puranas, a genre of Indian literature that includes myths and legends, fall into the period of Classical Sanskrit.

Drama as a distinct genre of Sanskrit literature emerged in the final centuries BCE, influenced partly by Vedic mythology. Famous Sanskrit dramatists include Shudraka, Bhasa, Asvaghosa, and Kalidasa; their numerous plays are still available, although little is known about the authors themselves. Kalidasa’s play, Abhijnanasakuntalam, is generally regarded as a masterpiece and was among the first Sanskrit works to be translated into English, as well as numerous other languages.

Works of Sanskrit literature, such as the Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali, which are still consulted by practitioners of yoga today, and the Upanishads, a series of sacred Hindu treatises, were translated into Arabic and Persian. Sanskrit fairy tales and fables were characterized by ethical reflections and proverbial philosophy, with a particular style making its way into Persian and Arabic literature and exerting influence over such famed tales as One Thousand and One Nights, better known in English as Arabian Nights.

Poetry was also a key feature of this period of the language. Kalidasa was the foremost Classical Sanskrit poet, with a simple but beautiful style, while later poetry shifted toward more intricate techniques including stanzas that read the same backwards and forwards, words that could be split to produce different meanings, and sophisticated metaphors.

2.3.4 – Importance

Sanskrit is vital to Indian culture because of its extensive use in religious literature, primarily in Hinduism, and because most modern Indian languages have been directly derived from, or strongly influenced by, Sanskrit.

Knowledge of Sanskrit was a marker of social class and educational attainment in ancient India, and it was taught mainly to members of the higher castes (social groups based on birth and employment status). In the medieval era, Sanskrit continued to be spoken and written, particularly by Brahmins (the name for Hindu priests of the highest caste) for scholarly communication.

Today, Sanskrit is still used on the Indian Subcontinent. More than 3,000 Sanskrit works have been composed since India became independent in 1947, while more than 90 weekly, biweekly, and quarterly publications are published in Sanskrit. Sudharma, a daily newspaper written in Sanskrit, has been published in India since 1970. Sanskrit is used extensively in the Carnatic and Hindustani branches of classical music, and it continues to be used during worship in Hindu temples as well as in Buddhist and Jain religious practices.

Sanskrit is a major feature of the academic linguistic field of Indo-European studies, which focuses on both extinct and current Indo-European languages, and can be studied in major universities around the world.

2.4 – The Vedas

2.4.1 – Introduction

The Vedas are the oldest texts of the Hindu religion and contain hymns, myths and rituals that still resonate in India today.

The Indo-Aryan Vedas remain the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, which is considered one of the oldest religions in the world. Vedic ritualism, a composite of ancient Indo-Aryan and Harappan culture, contributed to the deities and traditions of Hinduism over time. The Vedas are split into four major texts and contain hymns, mythological accounts, poems, prayers, and formulas considered sacred to the Vedic religion.

2.4.2 – Structure of the Vedas

Vedas, meaning “knowledge,” were written in Vedic Sanskrit between 1500 and 500 BCE in the northwestern region the Indian Subcontinent. The Vedas were transmitted orally during the course of numerous subsequent generations before finally being archived in written form. Not much is known about the authors of the Vedas, as the focus is placed on the ideas found in Vedic tradition rather than those who originated the ideas. The oldest of the texts is the Rig Veda, and while it is not possible to establish precise dates for each of the ancient texts, it is believed the collection was completed by the end of the 2nd millennium BCE (Before Common Era).

There are four Indo-Aryan Vedas: the Rig Veda contains hymns about their mythology; the Sama Veda consists mainly of hymns about religious rituals; the Yajur Veda contains instructions for religious rituals; and the Atharva Veda consists of spells against enemies, sorcerers, and diseases. (Depending on the source consulted, these are spelled, for example, either Rig Veda or Rigveda.)

Rigveda Manuscript: A manuscript copy of the Rigveda, the oldest and most important of the four Vedas of the Vedic religion, from the early 19th century.

The Rig Veda is the largest and considered the most important of the collection, containing 1,028 hymns divided into 10 books called mandalas. The verses of the Sam Veda are taken almost completely from the Rig Veda, but arranged differently so they may be chanted. The Yajur Veda is divided into the White and Black halves and contains prose commentaries on how religious and sacrifices should be performed. The Atharva Veda includes charms and magic incantations written in the style of folklore.

Each Veda was further divided in two sections: the Brahmanas, instructions for religious rituals, and the Samhitas, mantras or hymns in praise of various deities. Modern linguists consider the metrical hymns of the Rigveda Samhita, the most ancient layer of text in the Vedas, to have been composed by many authors over several centuries of oral tradition.

Although the focus of the Vedas is on the message rather than the messengers, such as Buddha or Jesus Christ in their respective religions, the Vedic religion still held gods in high regard.

2.4.3 – Vedic Religion

Agni, God of Fire: Agni, the Indian God of Fire from the ancient Vedic religion, shown riding a ram.

The Aryan pantheon of gods is described in great detail in the Rig Veda. However, the religious practices and deities are not uniformly consistent in these sacred texts, probably because the Aryans themselves were not a homogenous group. While spreading through the Indian Subcontinent, it is probable that their initial religious beliefs and practices were shaped by the absorption of local religious traditions.

According to the hymns of the Rig Veda, the most important deities were Agni, the god of Fire, intermediary between the gods and humans; Indra, the god of Heavens and War, protector of the Aryans against their enemies; Surya, the Sun god; Vayu, the god of Wind; and Prthivi, the goddess of Earth.

2.4.4 – Vedas and Castes

Gandhi at Madras, 1933: Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi visits Madras, now Chennai, on a tour of India in 1933. During his appearances Gandhi frequently spoke out against the discrimination of the Indian caste system.

The Caste System, or groups based on birth or employment status, has been part of the social fabric of the Indian Subcontinent since ancient times. The castes are thought to have derived from a hymn found in the Vedas to the deity Purusha, who is believed to have been sacrificed by the other gods. Afterward Purusha’s mind became the Moon, his eyes became the Sun, his head the Sky, and his feet the Earth.

The passage describing the classes of people derived from the sacrifice of Purusha is the first indication of a caste system. The Brahmins, or priests, came from Purusha’s mouth; the Kshatriyas, or warrior rulers, came from Purusha’s arms; the Vaishyas, or commoners such as landowners and merchants, came from Purusha’s thighs; and the Shudras, or laborers and servants, came from Purusha’s feet.

Today the castes still exist in the form of varna, or class system, based on the original four castes described in the Vedas. A fifth group known as Dalits, historically excluded from the varna system, are ostracized and called untouchables. The caste system as it exists today is thought to be a product of developments following the collapse of British colonial rule in India. The system is frowned upon by many people in Indian society and was a focus of social justice campaigns during the 20th century by prominent progressive activists such as B. R. Ambedkar, an architect of the Indian Constitution, and Mahatma Gandhi, the revered leader of the nonviolent Indian independence movement.

3 – Religion of the Indian Subcontinent

3.1 – The Rise of Hinduism

3.1.1 – Introduction

Hinduism evolved as a synthesis of cultures and traditions, including the Indo-Aryan Vedic religion.

Hinduism is considered one of the oldest religions in the world. Western scholars regard Hinduism as a synthesis, or fusion, of various Indian cultures and traditions, with diverse roots and no stated founder. This synthesis is believed to have developed after Vedic times, between 500 BCE and 300 CE. However, Vedic ritualism, a composite of Indo-Aryan and Harappan culture, contributed to the deities and traditions of Hinduism. The Indo-Aryan Vedas remain the oldest scriptures of the Hindu religion, which has grown culturally and geographically through modern times to become one of the world’s four major religions.

3.1.2 – The Vedas

Modern Hindu representation of Agni, god of fire: The Rig Veda describes the varied deities of Vedic religion. These gods persisted as Vedic religion was assimilated into Hinduism.

Vedas, meaning “knowledge,” were written in Vedic Sanskrit between 1500 and 500 BCE in the northwestern region of the Indian Subcontinent. There are four Indo-Aryan Vedas: the Rig Veda contains hymns about mythology; the Sama Veda consists mainly of hymns about religious rituals; the Yajur Veda contains instructions for religious rituals; and the Atharva Veda consists of spells against enemies, sorcerers and diseases. (Depending on the source consulted, these are spelled, for example, either Sama Veda or Samaveda.) The Rig Veda is the largest and considered the most important of the collection, containing 1,028 hymns divided into ten books, called mandalas.

The Aryan pantheon of gods is described in great detail in the Rig Veda. However, the religious practices and deities are not uniformly consistent in these sacred texts, probably because the Aryans themselves were not a homogenous group. While spreading through the Indian subcontinent, it is probable their initial religious beliefs and practices were shaped by the absorption of local religious traditions.

According to the hymns of the Rig Veda, the most important deities were Agni, the god of Fire, and the intermediary between the gods and humans; Indra, the god of Heavens and War, protector of the Aryans against their enemies; Surya, the Sun god; Vayu, the god of Wind; and Prthivi, the goddess of Earth.

3.1.3 – The Upanishads

The Upanishads are a collection of Vedic texts that contain the earliest emergence of some of the central religious concepts of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Also known as Vedanta, “the end of the Veda,” the collection is one of the sacred texts of Hinduism thought to contain revealed truths concerning the nature of ultimate reality, or brahman, and describing the character and form of human salvation, called moksha. The Upanishads are found in the conclusion of the commentaries on the Vedas, and have been passed down by oral tradition.

3.1.4 – Hindu Synthesis

Sramana, meaning “seeker,” refers to several Indian religious movements, including Buddhism and Jainism, that existed alongside the Vedic religion—the historical predecessor of modern Hinduism. The Sramana traditions drove the so-called Hindu synthesis after the Vedic period that spread to southern Indian and parts of Southeast Asia. As it spread, this new Hinduism assimilated popular non-Vedic gods and other traditions from local cultures, and integrated societal divisions, called the caste system. It is also thought to have included both Buddhist and Sramana influences.

3.1.5 – Splinter and Rise of Hinduism

During the reign of the Gupta Empire (between 320-550 CE), which included the period known as the Golden Age of India, the first known stone and cave temples dedicated to Hindu deities were built. After the Gupta period, central power disintegrated and religion became regionalized to an extent, with variants arising within Hinduism and competing with each other, as well as sects of Buddhism and Jainism. Over time, Buddhism declined but some of its practices were integrated into Hinduism, with large Hindu temples being built in South and Southeast Asia.

The Swaminarayan Akshardham Temple in Delhi, the world’s largest Hindu temple: Hinduism evolved as a combination of various cultures and traditions, including Vedic religion and the Upanishads.

The Hindu religion maintained its presence and continued to grow despite a long period of Muslim rule in India, from 1200-1750 CE, during which Hindus endured violence as Islam grew to become what is now the second largest religion in India, behind Hinduism. Akbar I, emperor of the ruling Mughal Dynasty in India from 1556-1605 CE, ended official persecution of non-Muslims and recognized Hinduism, protected Hindu temples, and abolished discriminatory taxes against Hindus.

3.1.6 – Hindu Prominence

Singapore Diwali Decorations: Diwali decorations in Little India are part of an annual Hindu celebration in Singapore, where there are over 260,000 Hindus.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the Hindu Vijayanagar Empire had arisen and served as a barrier against invasion by Muslim rulers to the north, fostering a reconstruction of Hindu life and administration. Vidyaranya, a minister and mentor to three generations of kings in the Vijayanagar Empire beginning around 1336, helped spread the historical and cultural influence of Shankara—an Indian philosopher of the 8th century CE credited with unifying and establishing the main currents of thought in Hinduism.

The Hindu Maratha Confederacy rose to power in the 18th century and eventually overthrew Muslim rule in India. In the 19th century, the Indian subcontinent became a western colony during the period of the British Raj (the name of the British ruling government) beginning in 1858.

Through the period of the Raj, until its end in 1947, there was a Hindu resurgence, known as the Bengali Renaissance, in the Bengal region of India. It included a cultural, social, intellectual, and artistic movement. Indology, an academic study of Indian culture, was also established in the 19th century, and spread knowledge of Vedic philosophy and literature and promoted western interest in Hinduism.

In the 20th century, Hinduism gained prominence as a political force and source of national identity in India. According to the 2011 census, Hindus account for almost 80% of India’s population of 1.21 billion people, with 960 million practitioners. Other nations with large Hindu populations include Nepal, with 23 million followers, and Bangladesh, with 15 million. Hinduism counts over 1 billion adherents across the globe, or approximately 15% of the world’s population.

3.2 – The Sramana Movement

3.2.1 – Introduction

Sramana broke with Vedic Hinduism over the authority of the Brahmins and the need to follow ascetic lives.

Sramana was an ancient Indian religious movement that began as an offshoot of the Vedic religion and gave rise to other similar but varying movements, including Buddhism and Jainism. Sramana, meaning “seeker,” was a tradition that began around 800-600 BCE when new philosophical groups, who believed in a more austere path to spiritual freedom, rejected the authority of the Brahmins (the priests of Vedic Hinduism ). Modern Hinduism can be regarded as a combination of Vedic and Sramana traditions; it is substantially influenced by both.

3.2.2 – Vedic Roots

The Vedic Religion was the historical predecessor of modern Hinduism. The Vedic Period refers to the time period from approximately 1750-500 BCE, during which Indo- Aryans settled into northern India, bringing with them specific religious traditions. Most history of this period is derived from the Vedas, the oldest scriptures in the Hindu religion. Vedas, meaning “knowledge,” were composed by the Aryans in Vedic Sanskrit between 1500 and 500 BCE, in the northwestern region the Indian subcontinent.

There are four Indo-Aryan Vedas: the Rig Veda contains hymns about their mythology; the Sama Veda consists mainly of hymns about religious rituals; the Yajur Veda contains instructions for religious rituals; and the Atharva Veda consists of spells against enemies, sorcerers, and diseases. (Depending on the source consulted, these are spelled, for example, either Rig Veda or Rigveda.)

3.2.3 – Sramana Origins

Several Sramana movements are known to have existed in India before the 6th century BCE. Sramana existed in parallel to, but separate from, Vedic Hinduism. The dominant Vedic ritualism contrasted with the beliefs of the Sramanas followers who renounced married and domestic life and adopted an ascetic path, one of severe self-discipline and abstention from all indulgence, in order to achieve spiritual liberation. The Sramanas rejected the authority of the Brahmins, who were considered the protectors of the sacred learning found in the Vedas.

Brahmin is a caste, or social group, in Vedic Hinduism consisting of priests and teachers who are held as intermediaries between deities and followers. Brahmins are traditionally responsible for religious rituals in temples, and for reciting hymns and prayers during rite of passage rituals, such as weddings.

In India, Sramana originally referred to any ascetic, recluse, or religious practitioner who renounced secular life and society in order to focus solely on finding religious truth. Sramana evolved in India over two phases: the Paccekabuddha, the tradition of the individual ascetic, the “lone Buddha” who leaves the world behind; and the Savaka, the phase of disciples, or those who gather together as a community, such as a sect of monks.

3.2.4 – Sramana Traditions

A “tradition” is a belief or behavior passed down within a group or society, with symbolic meaning or special significance. Sramana traditions drew upon established Brahmin concepts to formulate their own doctrines.

The Sramana traditions subscribe to diverse philosophies,  and at times significantly disagree with each other, as well as with orthodox Hinduism and its six schools of Hindu philosophy. The differences range from a belief that every individual has a soul, to the assertion that there is no soul. In terms of lifestyle, Sramana traditions include a wide range of beliefs that can vary, from vegetarianism to meat eating, and from family life to extreme asceticism denying all worldly pleasures.

The varied Sramana movements arose in the same circles of ancient India that led to the development of Yogic practices, which include the Hindu philosophy of following a course of physical and mental discipline in order to attain liberation from the material world, and a union between the self and a supreme being or principle.

The Sramana traditions drove the so-called Hindu synthesis after the Vedic period, which spread to southern Indian and parts of Southeast Asia. As it spread, this new Hinduism assimilated popular non-Vedic gods and other traditions from local cultures, as well as the integrated societal divisions, called the caste system.

Sramaṇa traditions later gave rise to Yoga, Jainism, Buddhism, and some schools of Hinduism. They also led to popular concepts in all major Indian religions, such as saṃsāra, the cycle of birth and death, and mokshaliberation from that cycle.

3.3 – Buddhism

3.3.1 – Introduction

After attaining Enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama became known as the Buddha, and taught a Middle Way that became a major world religion, known as Buddhism.

Buddhism arose between 500-300 BCE, when Siddhartha Gautama, a young man from an aristocratic family, left behind his worldly comforts to seek spiritual enlightenment. He became a teacher commonly known as the Buddha, meaning “the awakened one,” and Buddhism spread to become a non-theistic religion that encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs, and practices largely based on his teachings.

3.3.2 – Sramana Origins

Buddhism is based on an ancient Indian religious philosophy called Sramana, which began as an offshoot of the Vedic religion. Several Sramana movements are known to have existed in India before the 6th century BCE. Sramana existed in parallel to, but separate from, Vedic Hinduism, which followed the teachings and rituals found in the Vedas, the most ancient texts of the Vedic religion. Sramana, meaning “seeker,” was a tradition that began when new philosophical groups who believed in a more austere path to spiritual freedom rejected the authority of the Vedas and the Brahmins, the priests of Vedic Hinduism, around 800-600 BCE.

Sramana promoted spiritual concepts that became popular in all major Indian religions, such as saṃsāra, the cycle of birth and death, and moksha liberation from that cycle. The Sramanas renounced married and domestic life, and adopted an ascetic path— one of severe self-discipline and abstention from all indulgence—in order to achieve spiritual liberation. Sramaṇa traditions (or its religious and moral practices) later gave rise to varying schools of Hinduism, as well as Yoga, Jainism, and Buddhism.

3.3.3 – Origins of Buddhism

Early texts suggest Siddhartha Gautama was born into the Shakya Clan, a community on the eastern edge of the Indian subcontinent in the 5th century BCE. His father was an elected chieftain, or oligarch, of the small republic. Gautama is thought to have been born in modern-day Nepal, and raised in the Shakya capital of Kapilvastu, which may have been in Nepal or India. Most scholars agree that he taught and founded a monastic order during the reign of the Magadha Empire. In addition to the Vedic Brahmins, the Buddha’s lifetime coincided with the flourishing of influential Sramana schools of thought, including Jainism.

Buddhist teachings explain that Siddhartha was a young man from a respected family, who renounced his family and left his father’s palace at age 29 in search of truth and enlightenment through Sramana. Siddhartha began this quest through a period of starvation and, according to legend, grew so thin he could feel his hands if he placed one on his back and the other on his stomach. This explains statues that depict Buddha as thin and withered, rather than the better known depiction of him seated with a large belly.

Emaciated Fasting Buddha: This statue in Chiang Mai, Thailand, depicts the Buddha practicing severe asceticism before his Enlightenment.

Buddha lived as a Sramana ascetic for approximately six years until he had an “awakening” in a place called Bodh Gaya, in the Gaya district of the modern Indian state of Bihar. Sitting under what became known as the Bodhi Tree, Siddhartha discovered what Buddhists call the Noble Eightfold Path, and attained Buddhatva, or Enlightenment, which is said to be a state of being completely free of lust (raga), hatred (dosa), and delusion (moha).

Siddhartha, thereafter known as Buddha, or “awakened one,” was recognized by his followers, called Buddhists, as an enlightened teacher. He taught what he called the Middle Way or Middle Path, the character of the Noble Eightfold Path. This includes eight concepts to be sought after: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi (the state of intense concentration brought on through meditation).

His insights were intended to help sentient beings end their suffering through the elimination of ignorance and craving. This could be achieved through understanding the noble path, which is the way to achieve the sublime state of Nirvana. The literal meaning of Nirvana in the Sanskrit language is “blowing out” or “quenching,” and is the ultimate spiritual goal of Buddhism. It marks the release from the cycle of rebirths, known in the Sramana tradition as samsara.

Bodhisattva: Clay sculpture of a bodhisattva, Afghanistan, 7th century.

Another important Buddhist concept is Bodhisattva, a Sanskrit word for anyone who has been motivated by great compassion and a wish to attain buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings—those who have a conscious awareness of the self but are in contrast with buddhahood. Sentient beings are characteristically not yet enlightened and are thus confined to the death, rebirth and dukkha (suffering) found in the cycle of samsara. Bodhisattvas, therefore, are those who have set themselves on the path toward enlightenment and hope to benefit others through their journey. Depictions of the bodhisattva path are a popular subject in Buddhist art.

3.3.4 – Rise of Buddhism

Buddha is thought to have died around 483 BCE, after 45 years of travel and teaching. Buddhists believe he passed into a state of Nirvana. Small communities of monks and nuns, known as bhikkus, sprung up along the routes Buddha traveled. Buddhism was overshadowed by the more dominant Hindu religion, but this began to change in the 3rd century BCE; this was when one of the Indian subcontinent’s great rulers, Ashoka I of the Maurya Empire, renounced wars, despite having waged war to build his own kingdom. In a major break from others rulers of the time, he converted to Buddhism.

Ashoka promoted the religion’s expansion by deploying monks to spread Buddha’s teaching. This began a wave of conversion throughout India as well as in surrounding nations, such as Nepal, Tibet, and Burma, but also further afield in Asia, including in China and Japan. Over time Buddhism grew, as greater numbers of people became aware of its teachings, including those in western nations, eventually becoming one of the major religions practiced around the world.

Today, Buddhism is practiced by an estimated 488 million people. China is the nation with the largest number of Buddhists, approximately 244 million followers, or more than 18% of its total population. Other countries that have a large number of Buddhists among their populations include Myanmar with 48.4 million, Japan with 45.8 million, Sri Lanka with 14.2 million, Cambodia with 13.7 million, South Korea with 11 million, Thailand, Laos, Singapore, Taiwan, and Nepal. The United States is home to an estimated 1.2 million Buddhists, or 1.2% of the American population.

3.4 – Jainism

3.4.1 – Introduction

Jainism is a pre-Buddhist religion with roots in the Sramana tradition. It focuses on karma.

Jainism, one of the world’s major religions, is believed to have roots in the Indus Valley Civilization, and follows aspects of the Sramana traditions of asceticism—self-denial and control in order to achieve a higher level of spirituality. Although Jainism is considered pre-Buddhist, the two religions have a link through a focus on karma—the concept that good deeds in one life will lead to a better existence in the next life. The ultimate aim of Jainism is to achieve liberation of the soul.

3.4.2 – Sramana Origins

Jainism is based on an ancient Indian religious philosophy called Sramana, which began as an offshoot of the Vedic religion. Several Sramana movements are known to have existed in India before the 6th century BCE. Sramana existed in parallel to, but separate from, Vedic Hinduism, which followed the teachings and rituals found in the Vedas, the most ancient texts of the Vedic religion. Sramana, meaning “seeker,” was a tradition that began around 800-600 BCE, when new philosophical groups, who believed in a more austere path to spiritual freedom, rejected the authority of the Vedas and the Brahmins (the priests of Vedic Hinduism).

Sramana promoted spiritual concepts that became popular in all major Indian religions, such as saṃsāra, the cycle of birth and death, and moksha liberation from that cycle. The Sramanas renounced married and domestic life and adopted an ascetic path (one of severe self-discipline and abstention from all indulgence) in order to achieve spiritual liberation. Sramaṇa traditions (or religious and moral practices) later gave rise to varying schools of Hinduism, as well as Yoga, Buddhism, and Jainism.

3.4.3 – Origins of Jainism

An Elaborate Mirpur Jain Temple Wall: The Jain Temple in Mirpur, India, was built c. 800 CE.

Jainism is considered an independent, pre-Buddhist religion that began c. 700 BCE, although its origins are disputed. Some scholars claim Jainism has its roots in the Indus Valley Civilization, reflecting native spirituality prior to the Indo-Aryan migration into India.

Various seals from Indus Valley Civilizations bear resemblance to Rishabha, the first Jain as the visual representation of Vishnu. Many relics depict Jain symbols, including standing nude male figures, images with serpent-heads, and the bull symbol of Vrshabadeva. However, other scholars believe the Sramana traditions were separate and contemporaneous with Indo-Aryan religious practices of the historical Vedic religion.

3.4.4 – Jainism Beliefs

Jain Monk: An image of a Jain monk meditating over religious texts.

The distinguishing features of Jain philosophy are its belief in the independent existence of soul and matter; the denial of a creative and omnipotent God, combined with a belief in an eternal universe; and a strong emphasis on non-violence, morality, and ethics. The word Jain derives from the Sanskrit word jina, meaning conqueror, and the ultimate aim of Jain life is to achieve liberation of the soul.

The predominance of karma is one of the key features of Jainism. Karma is the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous lives that determine his or her fate in future existences. A Sanskrit word, karma means action, word, or deed. Its focus is on the spiritual principle of cause and effect, with individual actions influencing individual effects. Good intent and good deeds contribute to good karma and future happiness, while bad intent and deeds produce bad karma and future suffering. Karma is a concept associated with rebirth, or the idea that death is the beginning of a new existence. This idea also appears in other Asian religions, including Buddhism.

The motto of Jainism is Parasparopagraho Jivanam, meaning “the function of souls is to help one another.” This is associated with the idea of good deeds, and is incorporated into the main principles of Jainism: ahimsa, non-violence; anekantavada, non-absolutism; and aparigraha, non-possessiveness or non-attachment. Followers take five main vows that include ahimsa and aparigraha, as well as satya, not lying; asteya, not stealing; and brahmacharya, chastity. Jain monks and nuns adhere to these vows absolutely, placing Jainism squarely in the ascetic and self-discipline traditions of Sramana.

3.4.5 – Jainism Followers

Paryushana Celebrations: Followers of Jainism celebrate Paryushana at the Jain Center of America in New York City.

The majority of Jains live in India, which counts between 4 and 6 million followers. Some of the largest Jain communities outside India are in the United States, which has more than 79,000 followers; Kenya, which has nearly 69,000 adherents; the United Kingdom, which counts nearly 17,000 followers; and Canada, with approximately 12,000 followers. Other countries with notable Jain populations include Tanzania, Nepal, Uganda, Burma, Malaysia, South Africa, Fiji, Australia, and Japan.

Contemporary Jainism is divided into two major schools, or sects, called Digambara and Svetambara. The Svetambara, meaning “white clad,” describes its ascetic adherents’ practice of wearing white clothes, while the monks of the “sky clad” Digambara do not wear clothing at all, a practice upon which they disagree.

The most important religious festival of Jainism is Mahavir Jayanti, which celebrates the birth of Mahavira—the 24th and last Tirthankara, or teaching god. Other important festivals include Diwali, marking the Nirvana, or liberation, of Mahavira’s soul; and the holy event of Paryushana, also known as Das Lakshana, which is a period of between eight and ten days in August or September of fasting, prayer, and meditation.

4 – The Persian Empire

4.1 – The Achaemenid Empire

4.1.1 – Introduction

Under Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great, the Achaemenid Empire became the first global empire.

The Achaemenid Empire, c. 550-330 BCE, or First Persian Empire, was founded in the 6th century BCE by Cyrus the Great, in Western and Central Asia. The dynasty drew its name from Achaemenes, who, from 705-675 BCE, ruled Persis, which was land bounded on the west by the Tigris River and on the south by the Persian Gulf. It was the first centralized nation-state, and during expansion in approximately 550-500 BCE, it became the first global empire and eventually ruled over significant portions of the ancient world.

4.1.2 – Empire Beginnings

Relief of Cyrus the Great: Cyrus II of Persia, better known as Cyrus the Great, was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire. Under his rule, the empire assimilated all the civilized states of the ancient Near East, and eventually conquered most of Southwest Asia and much of Central Asia and the Caucasus.

By the 7th century BCE, a group of ancient Iranian people had established the Median Empire, a vassal state under the Assyrian Empire that later tried to gain its independence in the 8th century BCE. After Assyria fell in 605 BCE, Cyaxares, king of the Medes, extended his rule west across Iran.

Around 550 BCE, Cyrus II of Persia, who became known as Cyrus the Great, rose in rebellion against the Median Empire, eventually conquering the Medes to create the first Persian Empire, also known as the Achaemenid Empire. Cyrus utilized his tactical genius, as well as his understanding of the socio-political conditions governing his territories, to eventually assimilate the neighboring Lydian and Neo-Babylonian empires into the new Persian Empire.

4.1.3 – Achaemenid Expansion

The empire was ruled by a series of monarchs who joined its disparate tribes by constructing a complex network of roads. The unified form of the empire came in the form of a central administration around the city of Pasargadae, which was erected by Cyrus c. 550 BCE. After his death in 530 BCE, Cyrus was succeeded by his son Cambyses II, who conquered Egypt, Nubia, and Cyrenaica in 525 BCE; he died in 522 BCE during a revolt.

During the king’s long absence during his expansion campaign, a Zoarastrian priest, named Guamata, staged a coup by impersonating Cambryses II’s younger brother, Bardiya, and seized the throne. Yet in 522 BCE, Darius I, also known as Darius the Great, overthrew Gaumata and solidified control of the territories of the Achaemenid Empire, beginning what would be a historic consolidation of lands.

Achaemenid Empire in the time of Darius and Xerxes: At its height, the Achaemenid Empire ruled over 44% of the world’s population, the highest figure for any empire in history.

Between c. 500-400 BCE, Darius the Great and his son, Xerxe I, ruled the Persian Plateau and all of the territories formerly held by the Assyrian Empire, including Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Cyprus. It eventually came to control Egypt, as well. This expansion continued even further afield with Anatolia and the Armenian Plateau, much of the Southern Caucasus, Macedonia, parts of Greece and Thrace, Central Asia as far as the Aral Sea, the Oxus and Jaxartes areas, the Hindu Kush and the western Indus basin, and parts of northern Arabia and northern Libya.

This unprecedented area of control under a single ruler stretched from the Indus Valley in the east to Thrace and Macedon on the northeastern border of Greece. At its height, the Achaemenid Empire ruled over 44% of the world’s population, the highest such figure for any empire in history.

4.2 – Government and Trade in the Achaemenid Empire

4.2.1 – Introduction

Emperors Cyrus II and Darius I created a centralized government and extensive trade network in the Achaemenid Empire.

The Achaemenid Empire reached enormous size under the leadership of Cyrus II of Persia (576-530 BCE), commonly known as Cyrus the Great, who created a multi-state empire. Called Cyrus the Elder by the Greeks, he founded an empire initially comprising all the previous civilized states of the ancient Near East and eventually most of Southwest and Central Asia and the Caucus region, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus River. Control of this large territory involved a centralized government, territorial monarchs who served as proxy rulers for the emperor, and an extensive system of commerce and trade.

4.2.2 – Government Organization

Cyrus, whose rule lasted between 29 and 31 years, until his death in battle in 530 BCE, controlled the vast Achaemenid Empire through the use of regional monarchs, called satrap, who each oversaw a territory called a satrapy. The basic rule of governance was based upon the loyalty and obedience of the satrapy to the central power, the king, and compliance with tax laws. Cyrus also connected the various regions of the empire through an innovative postal system that made use of an extensive roadway and relay stations.

Cyrus the Great was recognized for achievements in human rights and politics, having influenced both Eastern and Western Civilization. The ancient Babylonians called him “The Liberator,” while the modern nation of Iran calls Cyrus its “father.”

4.2.3 – Cyrus Cylinder

The Cyrus Cylinder is an ancient clay artifact, now broken into several fragments, that has been called the oldest-known charter of universal human rights and a symbol of his humanitarian rule.

The cylinder dates from the 6th century BCE, and was discovered in the ruins of Babylon in Mesopotamia, now Iraq, in 1879. In addition to describing the genealogy of Cyrus, the declaration in Akkadian cuneiform script on the cylinder is considered by many Biblical scholars to be evidence of Cyrus’s policy of repatriation of the Jewish people following their captivity in Babylon.

The historical nature of the cylinder has been debated, with some scholars arguing that Cyrus did not make a specific decree, but rather that the cylinder articulated his general policy allowing exiles to return to their homelands and rebuild their temples.

In fact, the policies of Cyrus with respect to treatment of minority religions were well documented in Babylonian texts, as well as in Jewish sources. Cyrus was known to have an overall attitude of religious tolerance throughout the empire, although it has been debated whether this was by his own implementation or a continuation of Babylonian and Assyrian policies.

4.2.4 – Darius Improvements

Persian reliefs in the city of Persepolis: Darius the Great moved the capital of the Achaemenid Empire to Persepolis c. 522 BCE. He initiated several major architectural projects, including the construction of a palace and a treasure house.

When Darius I (550-486 BCE), also known as Darius the Great, ascended the throne of the Achaemenid Empire in 522 BCE, he established Aramaic as the official language and devised a codification of laws for Egypt. Darius also sponsored work on construction projects throughout the empire, focusing on improvement of the cities of Susa, Pasargadae, Persepolis, Babylon, and various municipalities in Egypt.

When Darius moved his capital from Pasargadae to Persepolis, he revolutionized the economy by placing it on a silver and gold coinage and introducing a regulated and sustainable tax system. This structure precisely tailored the taxes of each satrapy based on its projected productivity and economic potential. For example, Babylon was assessed for the highest amount of silver taxes, while Egypt owed grain in addition to silver taxes.

4.2.5 – Behistun Inscription

Behistun Inscription: A section of the Behistun Inscription on a limestone cliff of Mount Behistun in western Iran, which became a key in deciphering cuneiform script.

Sometime after his coronation, Darius ordered an inscription to be carved on a limestone cliff of Mount Behistun in modern Iran. The Behistun Inscription, the text of which Darius wrote, came to have great linguistic significance as a crucial clue in deciphering cuneiform script.

The inscription begins by tracing the ancestry of Darius, followed by a description of a sequence of events following the deaths of the previous two Achaemenid emperors, Cyrus the Great and Cyrus’s son, Cambyses II, in which Darius fought 19 battles in one year to put down numerous rebellions throughout the Persian lands.

The inscription, which is approximately 15 meters high and 25 meters wide, includes three versions of the text in three different cuneiform languages: Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian, which was a version of Akkadian. Researchers were able to compare the scripts and use it to help decipher ancient languages, in this way making the Behistun Inscription as valuable to cuneiform as the Rosetta Stone is to Egyptian hieroglyphs.

4.2.6 – Commerce and Trade

Achaemenid golden bowl with lion imagery: Trade in the Achaemenid Empire was extensive. Infrastructure, including the Royal Road, standardized language, and a postal service facilitated the exchange of commodities in the far reaches of the empire.

Under the Achaemenids, trade was extensive and there was an efficient infrastructure that facilitated the exchange of commodities in the far reaches of the empire. Tariffs on trade were one of the empire’s main sources of revenue, in addition to agriculture and tribute.

The satrapies were linked by a 2,500-kilometer highway, the most impressive stretch of which was the Royal Road, from Susa to Sardis. The relays of mounted couriers could reach the most remote areas in 15 days. Despite the relative local independence afforded by the satrapy system, royal inspectors regularly toured the empire and reported on local conditions using this route.

4.2.7 – Military

Cyrus the Great created an organized army to enforce national authority, despite the ethno-cultural diversity among the subject nations, the empire’s enormous geographic size, and the constant struggle for power by regional competitors.

This professional army included the Immortals unit, comprising 10,000 highly trained heavy infantry. Under Darius the Great, Persia would become the first empire to inaugurate and deploy an imperial navy, with personnel that included Phoenicians, Egyptians, Cypriots, and Greeks.

4.3 – Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion, had a major influence on the culture and religion of all other monotheistic religions in the region.

4.3.1 – Overview and Theology

Zoroastrian Priest: Painted clay and alabaster head of a Zoroastrian priest wearing a distinctive Bactrian-style headdress, Takhti-Sangin, Tajikistan, Greco-Bactrian kingdom, 3rd-2nd century BCE.

Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest religions. It ascribed to the teachings of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra), and exalted their deity of wisdom, Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord), as its Supreme Being. Leading characteristics, such as messianism, heaven and hell, and free will are said to have influenced other religious systems, including Second Temple Judaism, Gnosticism, Christianity, and Islam. With possible roots dating back to the second millennium BCE, Zoroastrianism enters recorded history in the 5th-century BCE. It served as the state religion of the pre-Islamic Iranian empires from around 600 BCE to 650 CE. Zoroastrianism was suppressed from the 7th century onwards, following the Muslim conquest of Persia. Recent estimates place the current number of Zoroastrians at around 2.6 million, with most living in India and Iran.

The most important texts of the religion are those of the Avesta, which includes the writings of Zoroaster, known as the Gathas and the Yasna. The Gathas are enigmatic poems that define the religion’s precepts, while the Yasna is the scripture. The full name by which Zoroaster addressed the deity is: Ahura, The Lord Creator, and Mazda, Supremely Wise. He proclaimed that there is only one God, the singularly creative and sustaining force of the Universe. He also stated that human beings are given a right of choice, and because of cause and effect are also responsible for the consequences of their choices. The contesting force to Ahura Mazda was called Angra Mainyu, or angry spirit. Post-Zoroastrian scripture introduced the concept of Ahriman, the Devil, which was effectively a personification of Angra Mainyu.

In Zoroastrianism, water (apo, aban) and fire (atar, azar) are agents of ritual purity, and the associated purification ceremonies are considered the basis of ritual life. In Zoroastrian cosmogony, water and fire are respectively the second and last primordial elements to have been created, and scripture considers fire to have its origin in the waters. Both water and fire are considered life-sustaining, and both water and fire are represented within the precinct of a fire temple. Zoroastrians usually pray in the presence of some form of fire (which can be considered evident in any source of light), and the culminating rite of the principle act of worship constitutes a “strengthening of the waters.” Fire is considered a medium through which spiritual insight and wisdom is gained, and water is considered the source of that wisdom.

The religion states that active participation in life through good deeds is necessary to ensure happiness and to keep chaos at bay. This active participation is a central element in Zoroaster’s concept of free will, and Zoroastrianism rejects all forms of monasticism. Ahura Mazda will ultimately prevail over the evil Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, at which point the universe will undergo a cosmic renovation and time will end. In the final renovation, all of creation—even the souls of the dead that were initially banished to “darkness”—will be reunited in Ahura Mazda, returning to life in the undead form. At the end of time, a savior-figure (a Saoshyant) will bring about a final renovation of the world (frashokereti), in which the dead will be revived.

4.3.2 – History

The roots of Zoroastrianism are thought to have emerged from a common prehistoric Indo-Iranian religious system dating back to the early 2nd millennium BCE. The prophet Zoroaster himself, though traditionally dated to the 6th century BCE, is thought by many modern historians to have been a reformer of the polytheistic Iranian religion who lived in the 10th century BCE. Zoroastrianism as a religion was not firmly established until several centuries later. Zoroastrianism enters recorded history in the mid-5th century BCE. Herodotus’ The Histories (completed c. 440 BCE) includes a description of Greater Iranian society with what may be recognizably Zoroastrian features, including exposure of the dead.

The Histories is a primary source of information on the early period of the Achaemenid era (648-330 BCE), in particular with respect to the role of the Magi. According to Herodotus i.101, the Magi were the sixth tribe of the Medians (until the unification of the Persian empire under Cyrus the Great, all Iranians were referred to as “Mede” or “Mada” by the peoples of the Ancient World). The Magi appear to have been the priestly caste of the Mesopotamian-influenced branch of Zoroastrianism today known as Zurvanism, and they wielded considerable influence at the courts of the Median emperors.

Darius I, and later Achaemenid emperors, acknowledged their devotion to Ahura Mazda in inscriptions (as attested to several times in the Behistun inscription), and appear to have continued the model of coexistence with other religions. Whether Darius was a follower of Zoroaster has not been conclusively established, since devotion to Ahura Mazda was (at the time) not necessarily an indication of an adherence to Zoroaster’s teaching. A number of the Zoroastrian texts that today are part of the greater compendium of the Avesta have been attributed to that period.

The religion would be professed many centuries following the demise of the Achaemenids in mainland Persia and the core regions of the former Achaemenid Empire—most notably Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and the Caucasus. In the Cappadocian kingdom (whose territory was formerly an Achaemenid possession), Persian colonists who were cut off from their co-religionists in Iran proper continued to practice the Zoroastrianism of their forefathers. There, Strabo, observing in the first century BCE, records that these “fire kindlers” possessed many “holy places of the Persian Gods,” as well as fire temples. Strabo furthermore relates, that they were “noteworthy enclosures; and in their midst there is an altar, on which there is a large quantity of ashes and where the magi keep the fire ever burning.” Throughout, and after, the Hellenistic periods in the aforementioned regions, the religion would be strongly revived.

As late as the Parthian period, a form of Zoroastrianism was without a doubt the dominant religion in the Armenian lands. The Sassanids aggressively promoted the Zurvanite form of Zoroastrianism, often building fire temples in captured territories to promote the religion. During the period of their centuries long suzerainty over the Caucasus, the Sassanids made attempts to promote Zoroastrianism there with considerable successes. It was also prominent in the pre-Christian Caucasus (especially modern-day Azerbaijan).

5 – The Maurya Empire

5.1 – Rise of the Maurya Empire

5.1.1 – Introduction

Chandragupta Maurya founded the Maurya Empire in 322 BCE when he conquered the kingdom of Magadha and the northwestern Macedonian satrapies.

The Maurya Empire was a geographically extensive Iron Age historical power in ancient India, ruled by the Maurya dynasty from 322-185 BCE. Originating from the kingdom of Magadha in the Indo-Gangetic Plain (modern Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh) in the eastern side of the Indian subcontinent, the empire had its capital city at Pataliputra (modern Patna). The empire was the largest to have ever existed in the Indian subcontinent, spanning over 5 million square kilometres at its zenith under Ashoka.

The Empire was founded in 322 BCE by Chandragupta Maurya, who had overthrown the Nanda Dynasty, and rapidly expanded his power,with Chanakya’s help, westward across central and western India. His expansion took advantage of the disruptions of local powers in the wake of the withdrawal westward by Alexander the Great’s armies. By 316 BCE, the empire had fully occupied Northwestern India, defeating and conquering the satraps left by Alexander. Chandragupta then defeated the invasion led by Seleucus I, a Macedonian general from Alexander’s army, and gained additional territory west of the Indus River.

In its time, the Maurya Empire was one of the largest empires of the world. At its greatest extent, the empire stretched to the north along the natural boundaries of the Himalayas, to the east into Assam, to the west into Balochistan (southwest Pakistan and southeast Iran) and into the Hindu Kush mountains of what is now Afghanistan. The Empire was expanded into India’s central and southern regions by the emperors Chandragupta and Bindusara, but it excluded a small portion of unexplored tribal and forested regions near Kalinga (modern Odisha), until it was conquered by Ashoka. It declined for about 50 years after Ashoka’s rule ended, and it dissolved in 185 BCE with the foundation of the Shunga Dynasty in Magadha.

5.1.2 – Conquest of Magadha and Foundation of the Maurya Empire (c.321 BCE)

Statue of Chandragupta Maurya at the Birla Mandir Hindu temple, Delhi: Chandragupta Maurya conquered the kingdom of Magadha to found the Maurya Empire in 231 BCE, at the age of 21.

According to several legends, Chanakya traveled to Magadha, a kingdom that was large and militarily powerful and feared by its neighbors, but was insulted by its king Dhana Nanda, of the Nanda Dynasty. Chanakya swore revenge and vowed to destroy the Nanda Empire.

The Nanda Empire originated from the region of Magadha in ancient India during the 4th century BCE, and lasted until between 345-321 BCE. At its greatest extent, the empire ruled by the Nanda Dynasty extended from Bengal in the east, to the Punjab region in the west, and as far south as the Vindhya Range. The rulers of this dynasty were famed for the great wealth that they accumulated.

Chanakya encouraged the young Chandragupta Maurya and his army to take over the throne of Magadha. Using his intelligence network, Chandragupta gathered many young men from across Magadha and other provinces, who were upset over the corrupt and oppressive rule of King Dhana, as well as the resources necessary for his army to fight a long series of battles. These men included the former general of Taxila, accomplished students of Chanakya, the representative of King Porus of Kakayee, his son Malayketu, and the rulers of small states.

Maurya devised a strategy to invade Pataliputra, the capital of the Nanda Empire. A battle was announced and the Magadhan army was drawn from the city to a distant battlefield in order to engage Maurya’s forces. Meanwhile, Maurya’s general and spies bribed the Nanda’s corrupt general, and created an atmosphere of civil war in the kingdom, which culminated in the death of the heir to the throne.

Upon the civil unrest in the kingdom, Nanda resigned and disappeared into exile. Chanakya contacted the prime minister, Rakshasa, and convinced him that his loyalty was to Magadha, not to the Nanda Dynasty, and that he should remain in office. Chanakya reiterated that choosing to resist would start a war that would severely affect Magadha and destroy the city. Rakshasa accepted Chanakya’s reasoning, and Chandragupta Maurya was legitimately installed as the new King of Magadha in 321 BCE, at the age of 21. Rakshasa became Chandragupta’s chief advisor, and Chanakya assumed the position of an elder statesman.

5.1.3 – Northwest Expansion

The Maurya Empire c. 320 BCE: The Maurya Empire when it was first founded by Chandragupta Maurya c. 320 BCE, after conquering the Nanda Empire when he was only about 20 years old.

With his new seat of power in Magadha, Chandragupta Maurya defeated the remaining Macedonian satraps, and consolidated his reign of the new Maurya Empire. He rapidly expanded his power westward across central and western India, taking advantage of the disruptions of local powers in the wake of the withdrawal westward by Alexander the Great’s Greek armies. By 320 BCE, the empire had fully occupied Northwestern India. Chandragupta Maurya would become the first emperor to unify India into one state, creating one of the world’s largest empires in its time, and the largest ever in the Indian subcontinent.

5.2 – Expansion of the Maurya Empire

After winning the Seleucid-Mauryan war, the Maurya Empire expanded into the southern Indian subcontinent under the rule of Ashoka the Great.

5.2.1 – The Seleucid-Mauryan War

In 305 BCE, Emperor Chandragupta Maurya led a series of campaigns to retake the satrapies left behind by Alexander the Great when he returned westward. Seleucus I fought to defend these territories, but both sides made peace in 303 BCE.

Seleucus, one of Alexander’s generals, received Babylonia and, from there, expanded his dominions to include much of Alexander’s near eastern territories. Seleucus established himself in Babylon in 312 BC, the year used as the foundation date of the Seleucid Empire. He ruled not only Babylonia, but the entire enormous eastern part of Alexander’s empire. The Seleucid Empire was a major center of Hellenistic culture. In the areas where a Greek-Macedonian political elite dominated (mostly urban), it maintained the preeminence of Greek customs.

In 305 BCE, Seleucus I tried to reconquer the northwestern parts of India in order to claim them for the growing Seleucid Empire. Little is known of the campaign in which Chandragupta fought with Seleucus over the Indus Valley and the region of Gandhara—
a very wealthy kingdom that had submitted decades earlier to Alexander the Great.

Seleucus lost the Seleucid-Mauryan War, and the two rulers reconciled with a peace treaty. The Greeks offered a Macedonian princess for marriage to Chandragupta, and several territories, including the satrapies of Paropamisade (modern-day Kamboja and Gandhara), Arachosia (modern-day Kandhahar), and Gedrosia (modern-day Balochistan). In return, Chandragupta sent 500 war elephants, a military asset which would play a decisive role in Seleucus’ victory against western Hellenistic kings at the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BCE.

The Maurya Empire c. 305 BCE: Chandragupta extended the borders of the Maurya Empire toward Seleucid Persia, after defeating Seleucus c. 305 BCE.

In addition to this treaty, Seleucus dispatched two Greek ambassadors, Megasthenes and, later, Deimakos, to the Mauryan court at Pataliputra. Later, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt, sent an ambassador named Dionysius to the Mauryan court. Thus, continuing ties between the Hellenistic world and the Mauryan Empire.

5.2.2 – Expansion under Bindusara

The Maurya Empire c. 290 BCE: Bindausara (ruler 298-272 BCE) extended the borders of the empire southward into the Deccan Plateau c. 290 BCE.

Chandragupta Maurya ruled from 322 BCE until his voluntary retirement and abdication, in favor of his son, Bindusara, in 298 BCE. Bindusara (320-272 BCE) was the son of Maurya and his queen, Durdhara. During his reign, Bindusara expanded the Maurya Empire southward, with Chanakya as his advisor. He brought 16 states under the Maurya Empire and thus conquered almost all of the Indian peninsula. Bindusara ignored the friendly Dravidian kingdoms of the Cholas, ruled by King Ilamcetcenni, the Pandyas, and Cheras. Apart from these southern states, Kalinga (modern-day Odisha) was the only kingdom in India independent from Bindusara’s empire.

5.2.3 – Ashoka the Great

Bindusara died in 272 BCE, and was succeeded by his son, Ashoka the Great (304-232 BCE). As a young prince, Ashoka (r. 272-232 BCE) was a brilliant commander who crushed revolts in Ujjain and Taxila. As monarch, he was ambitious and aggressive, reasserting the Empire’s superiority in southern and western India. But it was his conquest of Kalinga (262-261 BCE) that proved to be the pivotal event of his life. Although Ashoka’s army succeeded in overwhelming Kalinga forces of royal soldiers and civilian units, an estimated 100,000 soldiers and civilians were killed in the furious warfare, including over 10,000 of Ashoka’s own men. Hundreds of thousands of people were adversely affected by the destruction and fallout of war. When he personally witnessed the devastation, Ashoka began feeling remorse. Although the annexation of Kalinga was completed, Ashoka embraced the teachings of Buddhism, and renounced war and violence. He sent out missionaries to travel around Asia and spread Buddhism to other countries.

Extent of the Maurya Empire at its height in 265 BCE: Ashoka the Great extended into Kalinga during the Kalinga War c. 265 BCE, and established superiority over the southern kingdoms.

As ruler, Ashoka implemented principles of ahimsa (the principle of “to not injure”) by banning hunting and violent sports activities, and ending indentured and forced labor (many thousands of people in war-ravaged Kalinga had been forced into hard labor and servitude). While he maintained a large and powerful army to keep the peace, Ashoka expanded friendly relations with states across Asia and Europe, and sponsored Buddhist missions. He undertook a massive public works building campaign across the country. Among these works were the construction of stupas, or Buddhist religious structures, containing relics. One notable stupas created during the reign of Ashoka was The Great Stupa, which stands in Sanchi, India. Over 40 years of peace, harmony, and prosperity made Ashoka one of the most successful and famous monarchs in Indian history. He remains an idealized figure of inspiration in modern India.

5.2.4.1 – The Edicts of Ashoka

An Edict of Asoka: Bilingual inscription (Greek and Aramaic) by king Asoka, from Kandahar. Kabul Museum

Perhaps one of the greatest-known accomplishments of Ashoka was his creation of his edicts, which were erected between 269 BCE and 232 BCE. The Edicts of Ashoka, set in stone, are found throughout the Subcontinent. Ranging from as far west as Afghanistan, and as far south as Andhra (Nellore District), Ashoka’s edicts state his policies and accomplishments. Although predominantly written in Prakrit, two of them were written in Greek, and one in both Greek and Aramaic. Ashoka’s edicts refer to the Greeks, Kambojas, and Gandharas as peoples forming a frontier region of his empire. They also attest to Ashoka’s envoys’ travels to the Greek rulers in the west as far as the Mediterranean. Ashoka’s edicts also mentioned social and cultural attributes of his empire, emphasizing Buddhism, though not condemning other religions. For this, the Edicts of Ashoka are known as an early document that promoted religious tolerance.

5.3 – Centralization in the Maurya Empire

5.3.1 – Introduction

The Mauryan Empire encouraged economic prosperity through political stability and a unified central government.

Employing a carefully organized bureaucratic system, the Maurya Empire was able to maintain security and political unity across large parts of western and southern Asia. This included a common economic system supporting stable agriculture in its vast landholdings, as well as successful trade and commerce. Through this centralized authority, which included a powerful military, the rulers of the empire bound together the previously fractured regions of the Indian Subcontinent.

5.3.2 – Unification and Military

Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Maurya Empire, ruled from 324-297 BCE, before voluntarily abdicating in favor of his son, Bindusara, who ruled from 297 BCE until his death in 272 BCE. This led to a war of succession in which Bindusara’s son, Ashoka, defeated his brother, Susima, and rose to the throne in 268 BCE, eventually becoming the greatest ruler of the Maurya Dynasty.

Before the Mauryan Empire, the Indian subcontinent was fragmented into hundreds of kingdoms. These were ruled by powerful regional chieftains with small armies that engaged in internecine warfare. The Mauryan Army eliminated regional chieftains, private armies, and even gangs of bandits, who sought to impose their own supremacy in small areas.

The Mauryan Army, the largest standing military force of its time, supported the expansion and defense of the empire. According to scholars, the empire wielded 600,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry, and 9,000 war elephants, while a vast espionage system collected intelligence for both internal and external security purposes. Although Emperor Ashoka renounced offensive warfare and expansionism, he maintained this standing army to protect the empire from external threats and maintain stability and peace across Western and Southern Asia.

5.3.3 – Administration

Maurya Empire at its greatest extent (dark orange), including vassal kingdoms (light orange), 265 BCE: The Maurya Empire provided political stability with a unified central government, which in turn encouraged economic prosperity.

The Mauryan Empire was divided into four provinces, with the imperial capital at Pataliputra, near the Ganges River in the modern state of Bihar in India. The Edicts of Ashoka, a collection of inscriptions made during Ashoka’s reign from 268-232 BCE, give the names of the Maurya Empire’s four provincial capitals: Tosali in the east, Ujjain in the west, Suvarnagiri in the south, and Taxila in the north.

The organizational structure began at the imperial level with the emperor and his Mantriparishad, or Council of Ministers. The head of the provincial administration was the Kumara, or royal prince, who governed the provinces as the king’s representative, with the assistance of Mahamatyas, who were essentially regional prime ministers. Through this sophisticated system of bureaucracy, the empire governed all aspects of government at every level, from municipal hygiene to international trade.

5.3.4 – Centralization and Taxation

Coins of the Maurya Empire: Chandragupta Maurya established a single currency across India, including these silver punch mark coins with symbols of wheel and elephant, 3rd century BCE

Chandragupta Maurya, the father of the dynasty, established a single currency across India, a network of regional governors and administrators, and a civil service to provide justice and security for merchants, farmers, and traders.

Through the disciplined central authority of the Mauryan Empire, farmers were freed of tax and crop collection burdens from regional kings. Instead, they paid a nationally administered system of taxation that was strict but fair. The system operated under the principles of the Arthashastra, an ancient Indian treatise on economic policy, statecraft, and military strategy. Written in Sanskrit and adhering to Hindu philosophies, the Arthashastra includes books on the nature of government, law, civil and criminal courts, ethics, and economic topics, including markets and trade, agriculture, mineralogy, mining and metals, forestry, and others.

Although regimental in revenue collection, the Mauryan Empire funded numerous public works projects to enhance productivity. Like his father and grandfather, Ashoka sponsored the construction of thousands of roads, waterways, canals, rest houses, hospitals, and other types of infrastructure.

Under continued Mauryan rule, political unity and military security encouraged a common economic system, increased agricultural productivity, and enhanced widespread trade and commerce for the first time in West and South Asia.

5.3.5 – Trade and Commerce

The Maurya Empire’s political unity and internal peace encouraged the expansion of trade in India. Under the Indo-Greek friendship treaty during Ashoka’s reign, the Mauryan international network of trade saw great expansion.

The Khyber Pass, on the modern boundary of Pakistan and Afghanistan, became a strategically important point of trade and interaction with the outside world. Greek states and Hellenic kingdoms in West Asia became trading partners. Trade also extended through the Malay Peninsula into
Southeast Asia. India’s exports included silk, textiles, spices, and exotic foods. The outside world gained new scientific knowledge and technology through expanded trade with the Mauryan Empire.

5.4 – Ashoka’s Conversion

Mauryan emperor Ashoka embraced Buddhism after witnessing the mass deaths of the Kalinga War, which he himself had waged out of a desire for conquest.

5.4.1 – Background: Conquest of Kalinga

While the early part of Ashoka’s reign was apparently quite bloodthirsty, he became a follower of the Buddha’s teachings after his conquest of Kalinga on the east coast of India in the present-day states of Odisha and North Coastal Andhra Pradesh. Kalinga was a state that prided itself on its sovereignty and democracy. With its monarchical parliamentary democracy, it was quite an exception in ancient Bharata where there existed the concept of Rajdharma. Rajdharma means the duty of the rulers, which was intrinsically entwined with the concept of bravery and dharma. The Kalinga War happened eight years after his coronation. From Ashoka’s 13th inscription, we come to know that the battle was a massive one and caused the deaths of more than 100,000 soldiers and many civilians who rose up in defence; over 150,000 were deported. When he was walking through the grounds of Kalinga after his conquest, rejoicing in his victory, he was moved by the number of bodies strewn there and the wails of the bereaved.

5.4.2 – Conversion to Buddhism

Edict 13 on the Edicts of Ashoka Rock Inscriptions reflect the great remorse the king felt after observing the destruction of Kalinga:

His Majesty felt remorse on account of the conquest of Kalinga because, during the subjugation of a previously unconquered country, slaughter, death, and taking away captive of the people necessarily occur, whereas His Majesty feels profound sorrow and regret.

The edict goes on to address the even greater degree of sorrow and regret resulting from Ashoka’s understanding that the friends and families of deceased would suffer greatly too.

Legend says that one day after the war was over, Ashoka ventured out to roam the city and all he could see were burnt houses and scattered corpses. The lethal war with Kalinga transformed the vengeful Emperor Ashoka into a stable and peaceful emperor, and he became a patron of Buddhism. According to the prominent Indologist, A. L. Basham, Ashoka’s personal religion became Buddhism, if not before, then certainly after the Kalinga War. However, according to Basham, the Dharma officially propagated by Ashoka was not Buddhism at all. Nevertheless, his patronage led to the expansion of Buddhism in the Mauryan empire and other kingdoms during his rule, and worldwide from about 250 BCE.

After the Kalinga War and Ashoka’s conversion, the Empire experienced nearly half a century of peace and security. Mauryan India also enjoyed an era of social harmony, religious transformation, and expansion of the sciences and of knowledge. Chandragupta Maurya ‘s embrace of Jainism increased social and religious renewal and reform across his society, while Ashoka’s embrace of Buddhism has been said to have been the foundation of the reign of social and political peace and non-violence across all of India.

5.4.3 – Buddhist Kingship

Stupa: Great Stupa (3rd century BC), Sanchi, India. Ashoka ordered the construction of 84,000 stupas to house the Buddhas relics.

One of the more enduring legacies of Ashoka Maurya was the model that he provided for the relationship between Buddhism and the state. Throughout Theravada Southeastern Asia, the model of rulership embodied by Ashoka replaced the notion of divine kingship that had previously dominated (in the Angkor kingdom, for instance). Under this model of “Buddhist kingship,” the king sought to legitimize his rule, not through descent from a divine source, but by supporting and earning the approval of the Buddhist sangha. Following Ashoka’s example, kings established monasteries, funded the construction of stupas, and supported the ordination of monks in their kingdom. Many rulers also took an active role in resolving disputes over the status and regulation of the sangha, as Ashoka had by calling a conclave to settle a number of contentious issues during his reign. This development ultimately led to a close association in many Southeast Asian countries between the monarchy and the religious hierarchy, an association that can still be seen today in the state-supported Buddhism of Thailand, and the traditional role of the Thai king as both a religious and secular leader. Ashoka also said that his courtiers always governed the people in a moral manner.

As a Buddhist emperor, Ashoka believed that Buddhism is beneficial for all human beings, as well as animals and plants, so he built a number of stupas, Sangharama, viharas, chaitya, and residences for Buddhist monks all over South Asia and Central Asia. According to the Ashokavadana, he ordered the construction of 84,000 stupas to house the Buddhas relics. In the Aryamanjusrimulakalpa, Ashoka takes offerings to each of these stupas, traveling in a chariot adorned with precious metals. He gave donations to viharas and mathas. He sent his only daughter, Sanghamitra, and son, Mahindra, to spread Buddhism in Sri Lanka (then known as Tamraparni).

5.4.4 – Debate about Ashoka’s Conversion and Rule

The use of Buddhist sources in reconstructing the life of Ashoka has had a strong influence on perceptions of Ashoka, as well as the interpretations of his Edicts. Building on traditional accounts, early scholars regarded Ashoka as a primarily Buddhist monarch who underwent a conversion to Buddhism and was actively engaged in sponsoring and supporting the Buddhist monastic institution. Some scholars have tended to question this assessment. The only source of information not attributable to Buddhist sources are the Ashokan Edicts, and these do not explicitly state that Ashoka was a Buddhist. In his edicts, Ashoka expresses support for all the major religions of his time: Buddhism, Brahmanism, Jainism, and Ajivikaism. His edicts addressed to the population at large (there are some addressed specifically to Buddhists, which is not the case for the other religions) generally focus on moral themes that members of all the religions would accept.

However, the edicts alone strongly indicate that he was a Buddhist. In one edict he belittles rituals, and he banned Vedic animal sacrifices; these strongly suggest that he at least did not look to the Vedic tradition for guidance. Furthermore, many edicts are expressed to Buddhists alone; in one, Ashoka declares himself to be an “upasaka,” and in another he demonstrates a close familiarity with Buddhist texts. He erected rock pillars at Buddhist holy sites, but did not do so for the sites of other religions. He also used the word “dhamma” to refer to qualities of the heart that underlie moral action; this was an exclusively Buddhist use of the word. Finally, he promoted ideals that correspond to the first three steps of the Buddha’s graduated discourse.

Interestingly, the Ashokavadana, presents an alternate view of the familiar Ashoka. In this source, his conversion has nothing to do with the Kalinga War or his descent from the Maurya dynasty. Instead, Ashoka’s reason for adopting non-violence appears much more personal. The Ashokavadana shows that the main source of Ashoka’s conversion, and the acts of welfare that followed, are rooted instead in intense personal anguish, from a wellspring inside himself rather than spurred by a specific event. It thereby illuminates Ashoka as more humanly ambitious and passionate, with both greatness and flaws. This Ashoka is very different from the “shadowy do-gooder” of later Pali chronicles.

5.5 – Decline of the Maurya Empire

5.5.1 – Introduction

The Sunga Dynasty usurped the Maurya Dynasty, and parts of the empire were incorporated into the Indo-Greek Kingdom.

A 50-year succession of weak kings followed the reign of Ashoka the Great, the Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty who died in 232 BCE. As Ashoka’s highly centralized government lost power, the Maurya Empire lost control over its territories. The different cultures and economies began to break apart, although the kings maintained Buddhism as the state religion.

5.5.2 – Sunga Coup and Rule

Sunga Royal Family, c. 150 BCE: Art and learning prospered under Sunga patronage, as seen in this terracotta tablet of the Sunga Royal family.

Brihadratha, the last ruler of the Maurya Dynasty, was assassinated in 185 BCE. The commander-in-chief of his guard, Brahmin General Pusyamitra Sunga, killed Brihadratha during a military parade and ascended the throne. He established the Sunga Dynasty, which prospered from approximately 187 to 78 BCE. Pusyamitra was succeeded after 36 years by his son, Agnimitra, beginning the dynasty of ten Sunga rulers overall. They conducted wars with both foreign and indigenous powers, including the Kalinga, the Satavahana Dynasty, and the Indo-Greek Kingdom. The Sungas were succeeded by the Kanva Dynasty around 73 BCE.

Sunga rulers helped establish the tradition of royal sponsorship of education and the arts at a time when some of the most important developments in Hindu thought were taking place. The Mathura art style took hold during this time, and many small terracotta images, larger stone sculptures, and architectural monuments from the Sunga period are still in existence.

5.5.3 – Sunga and Buddhism

Sunga Empire, c. 185 BCE: The Sunga Dynasty was established following a coup by General Pusyamitra Sunga, marking the end of the Maurya Empire.

The Sungas favored Hinduism over Buddhism. Buddhist sources, such as the Ashokavadana, an Indian Sanskrit text describing the birth and reign of Ashoka the Great, mention that Pusyamitra was hostile towards Buddhists and allegedly persecuted members of the Buddhist faith. A large number of Buddhist monasteries, called viharas, were allegedly converted to Hindu temples in such places as Nalanda, Bodhgaya, Sarnath, or Mathura. Some historians argue, however, that Buddhist accounts of Sunga persecution are largely exaggerated.

5.5.4 – Indo-Greek Kingdom

In the east, the fall of the Mauryas left the Khyber Pass unguarded, and a wave of foreign invasion followed. The Greco-Bactrian king, Demetrius, capitalized on the break-up and conquered southern Afghanistan and parts of northwestern India around 180 BCE, forming the Indo-Greek Kingdom. The Indo-Greeks maintained territorial holdings for about a century in the Trans-Indus Region, in what is now Pakistan and parts of central India.

Demetrius, who lived from 175 to 140 BCE, founded the city of Sirkap, combining Greek and Indian influences without signs of segregation between the
two cultures. The Greek expansion into Indian territory may have been intended to protect Greek populations in India, as well as to protect the Buddhist faith from the alleged religious persecutions of the Sungas.

Seated Buddha statue showing Greek influences: Buddhism was favored in the Indo-Greek Kingdom. Many statues of Buddha from this period display Greek stylistic elements including Greek clothing.

Demetrius was succeeded by Menander, who conquered the largest territory and was one of the most successful Indo-Greek kings. His coins that have been discovered are the most numerous and widespread of all the Indo-Greek kings. According to Buddhist literature, Menander converted to Buddhism and is sometimes described as the Milinda Panha. He helped Buddhism flourish and established the new capital of Sagala.

Coin depicting Menander I: Described in both Greek and Indian accounts, Menander I became the most important of the Indo-Greek rulers. He converted to Buddhism and expanded the Indo-Greek Kingdom.

In Indian literature, the Indo-Greeks are described as “Yavanas” in Sanskrit, or “Yonas” in Pali, which are both thought to be transliterations of “Ionians.” The Buddhist scripture, Majjhima Nikaya, explains that in contrast with the numerous Indian castes, there were only two classes of people in Indo-Greek culture: the Aryas, translated as the masters; and Dasas, the servants.

5.5.5 – Indo-Greek Fall

Throughout the first century BCE, the Indo-Greeks progressively lost ground to the Indians in the East, and the Scythians, the Yuezhi, and the Parthians in the West. About 20 Indo-Greek kings are known during this period, including last known Indo-Greek ruler, Strato II, who ruled in the Punjab region until around 55 BCE.

6 – The Kushan Empire

6.1 – Expansion and Decline of the Kushan Empire

6.1.1 – Introduction

The Kushan Empire expanded from Greco-Bactrian lands into China and India, until its collapse in 375 CE.

The Kushan Empire in South Asia originally formed in the early 1st century CE, in the territories of ancient Bactria, around the Oxus River in Central Asia. The Kushans spread from the Kabul River Valley to defeat other Central Asian tribes. These conquests included parts of the northern central Iranian Plateau, once ruled by the Parthian Empire— a major political and cultural power in ancient Iran and Iraq. The Kushans reached their peak under Emperor Kanishka (127-151 CE), a Buddhist whose realm stretched from China to northern and eastern India and parts of Pakistan.

6.1.2 – Kushan Origins (30-375 CE)

The Kushans were one of five branches of the Yuezhi confederation, an Indo-European nomadic people. The Yuezhi lived in the grasslands of eastern Central Asia’s Tarim Basin, in modern-day Xinjiang, China (possibly speaking varieties of Indo-European languages), until they were driven west by the Xiongnu in 176-160 BCE.

The Yuezhi reached the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, located in northern Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, around 135 BCE, and displaced the Greek dynasties that resettled to the southeast in areas of the Hindu Kush and the Indus basin, in present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Kushans spread out from Bactria to defeat other Central Asian tribes.

6.1.3 – Kushan Expansion

As they wrested territories from the Scythian tribes, the Kushans expanded south into the region traditionally known as Gandhara, establishing the twin capitals Kapisa and Pushklavati, near modern-day Kabul and Peshawar, respectively. During the 1st and early 2nd centuries CE, the Kushans expanded across the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent. Around 152 CE, Emperor Kanishka, a Buddhist, sent his armies north of the Karakoram Mountains to capture additional territories, and subsequently opened a direct road from Gandhara to China that remained under Kushan control for more than a century.

6.1.4 – Diplomacy and Trade

At the height of the dynasty, the Kushans loosely ruled a territory that extended to the Aral Sea through present-day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, into northern India. They had diplomatic contacts with the Roman Empire, Sassanid Persia, Aksumite Empire, and Han China. The Kushan Empire linked the seagoing trade of the Indian Ocean with the commerce of the Silk Road, via the Indus Valley, while providing security that encouraged travel across the Khunjerab Pass and facilitated the spread of Mahayana Buddhism to China.

6.1.5 – Culture and Religion

Kushan worshipper with Zeus/Serapis/Ohrmazd, 3rd century CE: The Kushans were influenced by the Hellenistic kingdoms and maintained a wide variety of faiths, including Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

Although philosophy, art, and science developed within its borders, the only textual record we have of the Kushan Empire’s history comes from inscriptions and accounts in other languages, particularly Chinese. The Kushans are believed to have been predominantly practitioners of Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions founded by the Prophet Zoroaster in ancient Iran approximately 3,500 years ago. Yet, the Kushans also adopted aspects of Buddhist culture and, like the Egyptians, absorbed remnants of the Greek culture of the Hellenistic kingdoms. Kushan emperors represented a wide variety of faiths, including Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and possibly Saivism, a sect of Hinduism.

6.1.6 – Kushan Decline

After the death of Emperor Vasudeva I in 225, the Kushan Empire split into western and eastern halves. The western Kushans in Afghanistan were soon conquered by the Persian Sassanid Empire. In 248 CE, they were defeated again by Persians, who deposed the western dynasty and replaced them with Persian vassals— cities or kingdoms that forfeited foreign policy independence, in exchange for full autonomy and, in some cases, formal tribute—known as the Indo-Sassanids, or Kushanshas.

The eastern Kushan kingdom was based in the Punjab. Around 270 CE, their territories on the Gangetic Plain became independent under local dynasties, such as the Yaudheyas. In the mid-4th century they were subjugated by the Gupta Empire under its leader, Samudragupta. The last of the Kushan and Sassanian kingdoms were eventually overwhelmed by the Hepthalites, another Indo-European people from the north.

7 – The Gupta Empire

7.1 – Rise of the Gupta Empire

7.1.1 – Introduction

From 320-550 CE, the Gupta Empire assimilated neighboring kingdoms, through conquest or political alliances.

The Gupta Empire, founded by Maharaja Sri Gupta, was an ancient Indian realm that covered much of the Indian Subcontinent from approximately 320-550 CE. Gupta rule, while solidified by territorial expansion through war, began a period of peace and prosperity marked by advancements in science, technology, engineering, art, dialectics, literature, logic, mathematics, astronomy, religion, and philosophy.

7.1.2 – Gupta Empire Origins

Queen Kumaradevi and King Chandragupta I: A coin from the period of Indian Emperor Samudragupta, 335-380 CE, depicting his parents, King Chandragupta and Queen Kumaradevi.

The Gupta Empire was believed to be a dynasty of the Vaishya caste, the third of the four Hindu castes representing merchants and farmers. Founded by Sri Gupta c. 240-280 CE, there are contradictory theories regarding the original homeland of the Guptas. Historians believe Sri Gupta and his son may have been Kushan vassals, or rulers who swore allegiance to the Kushan Empire. Sri Gupta’s son and successor, Ghatotkacha, ruled from c. 280-319 CE, while his son, Chandragupta, ascended the throne around 319 and ruled until 335 CE.

Chandragupta married princess Kumaradevi from the Kingdom of Magadha, which was one of the Mahajanapadas (or great countries) of ancient India during the 4th century CE. With a dowry and political alliance from the marriage, Chandragupta conquered or assimilated the kingdoms of Magadha, Prayaga, and Saketa. By 321 CE, he established a realm stretching along the Ganges River to Prayag, the modern-day city of Allahabad, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Hindus believe the god Brahma offered his first sacrifice after creating the world at Prayag.

7.1.3 – Gupta Empire Expansion

Gupta Empire, 320-600 CE: The Gupta Empire expanded through conquest and political alliances until 395 CE, when it extended across the entire Indian subcontinent.

Samudragupta succeeded his father, Chandragupta I, in 335 CE, and ruled for about 45 years. He conquered the kingdoms of Ahichchhatra and Padmavati early in his reign, then attacked neighboring tribes, including the Malwas, Yaudheyas, Arjunayanas, Maduras, and Abhiras. By his death in 380 CE, Samudragupta had incorporated over 20 kingdoms into his realm, and extended the Gupta Empire from the Himalayas to the Narmada River in central India, and from the Brahmaputra River that cuts through four modern Asian nations to the Yamuna— the longest tributary of the Ganges River in northern India.

To celebrate his conquest, Samudragupta performed the royal Vedic ritual of Ashwamedha, or horse sacrifice. Special coins were minted to commemorate the Ashvamedha, and the king took the title of Maharajadhiraja (or “King of Kings”) even higher than the traditional ruler’s title of Maharaja.

According to the Gupta records, Samudragupta nominated his son, Prince Chandragupta II, born of Queen Dattadevi, as his successor. However, his eldest son, Ramagupta, may have been his immediate successor until he was dethroned by Chandragupta II in 380 CE.

7.1.4 – Gupta Empire of Chandragupta II

After gaining power, Chandragupta II expanded the Gupta Empire through conquest and political marriages until the end of his reign in 413 CE. By 395 CE, his control over India extended coast-to-coast. At the high point of his rule, Chandragupta II established a second capital at Ujjain, the largest city in the modern state of Madhya Pradesh in central India. Ujjain, on the eastern bank of the Kshipra River, remained an important political, commercial, and cultural hub through the early 19th century.

Vikramaditya is the name of an emperor of ancient Indian legend, characterized as the ideal king known for generosity, courage, and as a patron of scholars. A number of historians believe that some of these legends are based on Chandragupta II, who is thought to have adopted the title of Vikramaditya.

In the legends, Vikramaditya is said to have thwarted an invasion by the Saka, a group of eastern Iranian nomadic tribes, also known as Scythians, and gained the title of Sakari, or Enemy of the Saka. Chandragupta II conquered the western Indian region of Malwa after defeating the Western Kshatrapas, a branch of the Sakas, as well as expelling the Kushana Empire from the northern Indian city state Mathura. These victories were likely transposed onto the legendary character of Vikramaditya.

Chandragupta II issued gold coin types introduced by his father, Samudragupta, but also introduced several new types of coins, differentiated by the designs on the face of each coin line, such as the Archer or the Tiger-Slayer. He was also the first Gupta king to issue silver coins.

One of the most curious structures in Delhi, India (an iron pillar dating back to the 4th century CE) bears an inscription stating that it was erected as a flagstaff in honor of the Hindu god Vishnu, and in memory of Chandragupta II. The pillar, made of 98% wrought iron, is considered a highlight of ancient Indian achievements in metallurgy; it has stood more than 1,600 years without rusting or decomposing.

Iron Pillar of Delhi: The Iron Pillar of Delhi, India, erected by Chandragupta II to honor the Hindu god Vishnu, in the 4th century CE.

Despite the expansion of the Gupta Empire through war, there were numerous examples of cultural sophistication during the Gupta era, with architecture, sculptures and paintings surviving as reminders of the creativity of the time. Under Gupta rule, a number of notable scholars thrived, including Kalidasa, considered the greatest poet and dramatist of the Sanskrit language; Aryabhata, the first of the Indian mathematician-astronomers who worked on the approximation for Pi; Vishnu Sharma, thought to be the author of the Panchatantra fables, one of the most widely-translated, non-religious books in history; and the Hindu philosopher Vatsyayana, author of the Kama Sutra.

The period of Gupta rule, especially the reign of Chandragupta II, is still remembered as the Golden Age of India.

7.2 – The Golden Age of India

7.2.1 – Introduction

The prosperity of the Gupta Empire produced a golden age of cultural and scientific advancements.

The prosperity created under the leadership of the Gupta Empire, which covered much of the Indian subcontinent from approximately 320-550 CE, enabled the wide pursuit of scientific and artistic endeavors. This period became known as the Golden Age of India because it was marked by extensive inventions and discoveries in science, technology, engineering, art, dialectic, literature, logic, mathematics, astronomy, religion, and philosophy. These discoveries crystallized elements of what is generally considered Hindu culture.

7.2.2 – Science, Literature, and Art

Although Chandragupta I and his son, Samudragupta, were prominent rulers, the reign of Chandragupta II included the greatest promotion of science, art, philosophy, and religion by the government. Chandragupta’s court was even more influential than those that came before or after because it contained the Navaratnas, or the Nine Jewels, a group of nine scholars who produced advancements in many academic fields.

These scholars included Aryabhata, who is believed to have envisioned the concept of zero, as well as working on the approximation for the long-form number Pi. Aryabhata is also believed to be the first of the Indian mathematician-astronomers who postulated the theory that the Earth moves round the Sun and is not flat, but instead is round and rotates on its own axis. He also may have discovered that the moon and planets shine due to reflected sunlight.

Varahamihira was an astronomer, astrologer, and mathematician, whose main work is a treatise on mathematical astronomy. Sushruta, a famed Indian physician of the Gupta period, wrote the Samhita, a Sanskrit text on all of the major concepts of ayurvedic medicine, with innovative chapters on surgery. Other scholars of the Golden Age helped create the first Indian numeral systems with a base of ten. The game of chess also likely originated during this period, where its early form, Chaturanga, contained game pieces for infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots, each of which would evolve into the modern pawn, knight, rook, and bishop, respectively.

Krishna and Radha playing Chaturanga: Scholars during the reign of Chandragupta II contributed many scientific advancements in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, and medicine.

Kalidasa, considered the greatest poet and dramatist of the Sanskrit language, also belonged primarily to this period. He wrote plays, such as Shakuntala, which is said to have inspired the famed German writer and statesman, Johann von Goethe, centuries later. Kalidasa also became renowned for his study of the shringara, or romantic, element of literature. The Indian scholar and Hindu philosopher Vatsyayana, authored the Kama Sutra, which became a standard work on human sexual behavior, while Vishnu Sharma was thought to be the author of the Panchatantra fables, one of the most widely-translated, non-religious books in history.

The Dashavatara Temple: The Golden Age of India produced many temples, decorated with various sculptures and paintings, such as the Dashavatara Temple, also known as the Vishnu Temple, in central India.

The cultural creativity of the Golden Age of India produced magnificent architecture, including palaces and temples, as well as sculptures and paintings of the highest quality. The walls of Buddhist shrines and monasteries were decorated with colorful frescoes, a type of wall paintings. These showed scenes from the life of the Buddha, the ascetic and philosopher, who lived in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent sometime between 6th and 4th centuries, on whose teachings the Buddhist religion is based. Some shrines were cut out of the cliffs, and although dark, they were also decorated with sculptures and paintings.

7.2.3 – Influence on East and Southeast Asia

The Gupta Dynasty promoted Hinduism, but supported Buddhist and Jain cultures as well. Gupta Buddhist art influenced East and Southeast Asia as trade between regions increased. The Gupta Empire became an important cultural center and influenced nearby kingdoms and regions in Burma, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia. Classical forms of Indian music and dance, created under the Guptas, are still practiced all over Asia today.

Fa Xian was one of the first Chinese travelers to visit India during the reign of Gupta Emperor Chandragupta II. He started his journey from China in 399 CE, and reached India in 405 CE. He recorded all of his observations in a journal that was eventually published.

During his stay in India, until c. 411 CE, Fa Xian went on a pilgrimage to Mathura, Kanauj, Kapilavastu, Kushinagar, Vaishali, Pataliputra, Kashi and
Rajgriha. His writings express pleasure in the mildness of the administrations in these places.

7.3 – Decline of the Gupta Empire

7.3.1 – Introduction

After many years of dominance, the Gupta Empire collapsed in 550 CE, due to invasions and weak leadership of successive rulers.

In 415 CE, Chandragupta II was succeeded by his second son, Kumaragupta I, who ruled successfully until 455 CE. The late years of his reign, however, faced difficulties. The Pushyamitras, a tribe of central India, rose up in rebellion against Kumaragupta, while Gupta territories were invaded by the Western Huna people, also known as White Huns.

Kumaragupta defeated both groups and celebrated his victory by performing the royal Vedic ritual of Ashwamedha, or horse sacrifice, which had previously been performed by his grandfather, Emperor Samudragupta, to celebrate his own great military victories.

Coin of Kumaragupta I: A silver coin from the reign of Gupta Emperor Kumaragupta I, c. 415-455 CE.

As his grandfather and father did before him, Kumaragupta also issued news coins to mark his reign. They were stamped with images of his namesake god, Lord Kumara, regarded by Hindus as Regent of Earth.

7.3.2 – Skandagupta

Coin of Skandagupta: A coin emblazoned with the image of Gupta Dynasty Emperor Skandagupta, who ruled c. 455-467 CE.

Upon Kumaragupta’s death in 455 CE, his son, Skandagupta, assumed the throne and ruled until c. 467 CE. He is considered the last of the great Gupta rulers prior to the collapse of the empire.

Skandagupta, who was celebrated as a great warrior for his victorious clashes with the Huns during his father’s reign, defeated several rebellions and external threats from the Huna people, notably an invasion in 455 CE. Although victorious, the expenses of the wars against the Hunas drained the empire’s resources. The value of the coinage issued under Skandagupta becoming severely reduced.

7.3.3 – The Huna and Gupta’s Demise

The Huna were a Central Asian Xionite tribe that consisted of four hordes: Northern Huna, also known as the Black Huns; Southern Huna, the Red Huns; Eastern Huna, the Celestial Huns; and the White Huns, the Western Huna. The White Huns, those who invaded the Gupta Empire during the reign of Kumaragupta, were also known as the Hephthalites, and caused great damage to the failing Gupta Empire. Skandagupta died in 467 CE, and was followed onto the throne by his half-brother, Purugupta, who ruled from 467-473 CE.

Thereafter came a succession of weak kings, beginning with Kumaragupta II from 473-476 CE, followed by Budhagupta, the son of Purugupta. The Hephthalites broke through the Gupta military defenses in the northwest in the 480s, during the reign of Budhagupta, and by 500 CE much of the empire in northwest was overrun by the Huna.

The empire thereafter disintegrated into numerous regional kingdoms, ruled by chieftains. A minor line of the Gupta Clan continued to rule Magadha, one of the 16 Indian Mahajanapadas, or “Great Countries,” but the Gupta Empire fell by 550 CE.


Originally published by Lumen Learning – Boundless World History under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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