Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro, with the Great Bath in the foreground and the Buddhist Stupa in the background at Sindh, Pakistan / Photo by Saqib Qayyum, Wikimedia Commons
Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 01.20.2017
The coins of India’s Gupta period reflect the people and beliefs of the era. They show ancient rulers, gods and goddesses, and symbols. Their weight and composition even give evidence of trade with other ancient civilizations.
Peaceful coexistence of diverse ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups has historically been a hallmark of South Asian cultures. For this reason, many have referred to the region as a “salad bowl” of culture: a hodgepodge of different peoples, beliefs, and behaviors.
In South Asia — which includes the land that makes up the modern-day nations of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka — colorful distinctions are apparent and even celebrated.
When India crashed into Asia 50 million years ago, the collision created the Himalayan Mountains and made India a subcontinent.
Under the layers of diversity lies a solid core of South Asian tradition. Traditions have endured for over 5,000 years — from the earliest known Indian civilization to the present day.
The Indus Valley civilization dates back to about 3000 B.C.E. The archaeological evidence from this period provides exemplary evidence that many aspects of South Asian culture have endured through changing times.
Remnants of ancient bathhouses and sophisticated sanitation systems point to the long history of South Asian culture — admiration of purity and cleanliness, and abhorrence of all things polluted. Ancient statues representing the god Shiva are proof that the religious traditions of today’s South Asia, too, have been around for millennia.
The Soul of South Asia
To understand the history and cultures of ancient South Asia, it is essential to consider the development of Hinduism and Buddhism. These two religions encompassed far more than spirituality. They became the lifeblood of the people and the backbone of social, political, and economic structures. These religions pervaded all aspects of life and shaped the evolution of the region.
The ancient Indians built religious monuments dedicated to many faiths. Many are visited by pilgrims today, such as this Buddhist temple in Nalanda.
Some have called Hinduism the “soul of India.” One of the most powerful and influential developments of ancient Hinduism was the institution of the caste system. The caste system became deeply incorporated into Hindu tradition and created an enduring framework of ascribed social status.
Buddhism emerged as a rejection of the injustices created by caste system sanctioned by Hinduism. It was a response to discontentment and a search for new answers to the mysterious and complex questions that define human experience.
Organized power structures arose from the conflict and confusion that followed the growth of new religions and the challenging of social structures. These power structures led to the formation of state systems and even triggered the development of vast empires.
Few regions in the world have histories as ancient and diverse as South Asia’s. And few people realize that South Asia’s roots can be traced to the beginnings of human civilization. Marked by integration, intellectualism, and spirituality, South Asia’s ancient history begs to be explored.
Early Civilization in the Indus Valley
Aryans probably used the Khyber Pass to cross the mountains during their Indian invasion. Located in present day Pakistan, the pass is about 16 yards wide at its narrowest point.
The phrase “early civilizations” usually conjures up images of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and their pyramids, mummies, and golden tombs.
But in the 1920s, a huge discovery in South Asia proved that Egypt and Mesopotamia were not the only “early civilizations.” In the vast Indus River plains (located in what is today Pakistan and western India), under layers of land and mounds of dirt, archaeologists discovered the remains of a 4,600 year-old city. A thriving, urban civilization had existed at the same time as Egyptian and Mesopotamian states — in an area twice each of their sizes.
The people of this Indus Valley civilization did not build massive monuments like their contemporaries, nor did they bury riches among their dead in golden tombs. There were no mummies, no emperors, and no violent wars or bloody battles in their territory.
Remarkably, the lack of all these is what makes the Indus Valley civilization so exciting and unique. While others civilizations were devoting huge amounts of time and resources to the rich, the supernatural, and the dead, Indus Valley inhabitants were taking a practical approach to supporting the common, secular, living people. Sure, they believed in an afterlife and employed a system of social divisions. But they also believed resources were more valuable in circulation among the living than on display or buried underground.
The “Great Bath” of Mohenjo-Daro is the earliest known public water tank of the ancient world. Most scholars believe that this tank would have been used in conjunction with religious ceremonies. / Copyright J.M. Kenoyer
Amazingly, the Indus Valley civilization appears to have been a peaceful one. Very few weapons have been found and no evidence of an army has been discovered.
Excavated human bones reveal no signs of violence, and building remains show no indication of battle. All evidence points to a preference for peace and success in achieving it.
So how did such a practical and peaceful civilization become so successful?
The Twin Cities
Seals such as these were used by merchants in the Harappan civilization. Many experts believe that they signified names. / Photo courtesy of Carolyn Brown Heinz
The ruins of two ancient cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro (both in modern-day Pakistan), and the remnants of many other settlements, have revealed great clues to this mystery. Harappa was, in fact, such a rich discovery that the Indus Valley Civilization is also called the Harappan civilization.
The first artifact uncovered in Harappa was a unique stone seal carved with a unicorn and an inscription. Similar seals with different animal symbols and writings have since been found throughout the region. Although the writing has not yet been deciphered, the evidence suggests they belonged to the same language system. Apparently, Mesopotamia’s cuneiform system had some competition in the race for the world’s first script.
The discovery of the seals prompted archaeologists to dig further. Amazing urban architecture was soon uncovered across the valley and into the western plains. The findings clearly show that Harappan societies were well organized and very sanitary.
This copy of the Rig Veda was written after the Vedic Age. The Aryans had no form of writing at the time they invaded India. Instead, these religious scripts would have been memorized and passed down orally by Brahman priests.
For protection from seasonal floods and polluted waters, the settlements were built on giant platforms and elevated grounds. Upon these foundations, networks of streets were laid out in neat patterns of straight lines and right angles. The buildings along the roads were all constructed of bricks that were uniform in size.
The brick houses of all city dwellers were equipped with bathing areas supplied with water from neighborhood wells. Sophisticated drainage systems throughout the city carried dirty water and sewage outside of living spaces. Even the smallest houses on the edges of the towns were connected to the systems — cleanliness was obviously of utmost importance.
The Fall of Harappan Culture
No doubt, these cities were engineering masterpieces of their time. The remains of their walls yield clues about the culture that thrived in the Indus Valley. Clay figurines of goddesses, for example, are proof that religion was important. Toys and games show that even in 3000 B.C.E., kids — and maybe even adults — liked to play. Pottery, textiles, and beads are evidence of skilled craftsmanship and thriving trade.
The swastika was a sacred symbol for the Aryans signifying prosperity. The word comes from the Sanskrit for “good fortune.” Hitler borrowed the symbol, changed the angle and direction of the arms, and used it to represent the Nazis.
It was this intensive devotion to craftsmanship and trade that allowed the Harappan culture to spread widely and prosper greatly. Each time goods were traded or neighbors entered the gates of the cities to barter, Indus culture was spread.
Eventually, though, around 1900 B.C.E, this prosperity came to an end. The integrated cultural network collapsed, and the civilization became fragmented into smaller regional cultures. Trade, writing, and seals all but disappeared from the area.
Many believe that the decline of the Harappan civilization was a result of Aryan invasions from the north. This theory seems logical because the Aryans came to power in the Ganges Valley shortly after the Indus demise of the Indus Valley Civilization. Because there is little evidence of any type of invasion though, numerous historians claim that it was an environmental disaster that led to the civilization’s demise. They argue that changing river patterns disrupted the farming and trading systems and eventually led to irreparable flooding.
Although the intricate details of the early Indus Valley culture might never be fully known, many pieces of the ancient puzzle have been discovered. The remains of the Indus Valley cities continue to be unearthed and interpreted today. With each new artifact, the history of early Indian civilization is strengthened and the legacy of this ingenious and diverse metropolis is made richer.
The Caste System
These girls, who belong to the Untouchable caste, make dung patties which are used for fuel and heat by members of all the castes. This job was considered so unclean that other castes did not associate with the members of society that performed it. / Photo courtesy of Carolyn Brown Heinz
If a Hindu person were asked to explain the nature of the caste system, he or she might start to tell the story of Brahma — the four-headed, four-handed deity worshipped as the creator of the universe.
According to an ancient text known as the Rigveda, the division of Indian society was based on Brahma’s divine manifestation of four groups.
Priests and teachers were cast from his mouth, rulers and warriors from his arms, merchants and traders from his thighs, and workers and peasants from his feet.
What does “Caste” Mean?
Even today, most Indian languages use the term “jati” for the system of hereditary social structures in South Asia. When Portuguese travelers to 16th-century India first encountered what appeared to them to be race-based social stratification, they used the Portuguese term “casta” — which means “race” — to describe what they saw. Today, the term “caste” is used to describe stratified societies based on hereditary groups not only in South Asia but throughout the world.
Although born into the Kshatriya caste, Mahatma Gandhi spent much of his life working to bring the Untouchables equality. It was Gandhi who first named the Untouchables “Harijans,” meaning “children of God.”
Others might present a biological explanation of India’s stratification system, based on the notion that all living things inherit a particular set of qualities. Some inherit wisdom and intelligence, some get pride and passion, and others are stuck with less fortunate traits. Proponents of this theory attribute all aspects of one’s lifestyle — social status, occupation, and even diet — to these inherent qualities and thus use them to explain the foundation of the caste system.
The Origins of the Caste System
According to one long-held theory about the origins of South Asia’s caste system, Aryans from central Asia invaded South Asia and introduced the caste system as a means of controlling the local populations. The Aryans defined key roles in society, then assigned groups of people to them. Individuals were born into, worked, married, ate, and died within those groups. There was no social mobility.
This Indian immigrant is still conscious of his Brahman heritage. Here he is shown standing in front of an altar in his home in the United States.
The Aryan Myth
The idea of an “Aryan” group of people was not proposed until the 19th century. After identifying a language called Aryan from which Indo-European languages are descended, several European linguists claimed that the speakers of this language (named Aryans by the linguists) had come from the north — from Europe.
Thus, according to this theory, European languages and cultures came first and were therefore superior to others. This idea was later widely promoted by Adolf Hilter in his attempts to assert the “racial superiority” of so-called light-skinned people from Europe over so-called dark-skinned people from the rest of the world — and thus provide justification for genocide.
But 20th-century scholarship has thoroughly disproved this theory. Most scholars believe that there was no Aryan invasion from the north. In fact, some even believe that the Aryans — if they did exist — actually originated in South Asia and spread from there to Europe. Regardless of who the Aryans were or where they lived, it is generally agreed that they did not single-handedly create South Asia’s caste system.
Thus, it has been impossible to determine the exact origins of the caste system in South Asia. In the midst of the debate, only one thing is certain: South Asia’s caste system has been around for several millennia and, until the second half of the 20th century, has changed very little during all of that time.
Time for Class
In ancient India, the ranked occupational groups were referred to as varnas, and the hereditary occupational groups within the varnas were known as jatis. Many have immediately assumed that ascribed social groups and rules prohibiting intermarriage among the groups signify the existence of a racist culture. But this assumption is false. Varnas are not racial groups but rather classes.
Four varna categories were constructed to organize society along economic and occupational lines. Spiritual leaders and teachers were called Brahmins. Warriors and nobility were called Kshatriyas. Merchants and producers were called Vaishyas. Laborers were called Sudras.
In addition to the varnas, there is a fifth class in Hinduism. It encompassed outcasts who, literally, did all the dirty work. They were referred to as “untouchables” because they carried out the miserable tasks associated with disease and pollution, such as cleaning up after funerals, dealing with sewage, and working with animal skin.
Brahmins were considered the embodiment of purity, and untouchables the embodiment of pollution. Physical contact between the two groups was absolutely prohibited. Brahmins adhered so strongly to this rule that they felt obliged to bathe if even the shadow of an untouchable fell across them.
Struggling against Tradition
Although the political and social force of the caste system has not disappeared completely, the Indian government has officially outlawed caste discrimination and made widespread reforms. Particularly through the efforts of Indian nationalists such as Mohandas Gandhi, rules preventing social mobility and cross-caste mingling have been loosened.
Gandhi renamed the untouchables Harijans, which means “the people of God.” Adopted in 1949, the Indian Constitution provided a legal framework for the emancipation of untouchables and for the equality of all citizens.
In recent years, the Untouchables have become a politically active group and have adopted for themselves the name Dalits, which means “those who have been broken.”
The Rise of Hinduism
Each of the three main Hindu deities represents a part of the life cycle: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. Upon destruction, Hindus believe that the cycle of creation, preservation, and destruction begins again.
Dharma. Karma. Reincarnation.
Brahma. Shiva. Vishnu.
Not many things have endured without interruption or major transformation for over 5,000 years. Hindu traditions such as these are great exceptions. Arguably, Hinduism is the oldest religion on Earth.
To understand how Hinduism has withstood the tests of time, it is important to know the principles upon which it is grounded. And to understand the principles, it is necessary to know their historical foundations.
Archaeologists have determined that highly developed civilizations flourished throughout the Indus Valley between 4000 and 1500 B.C.E. But for still unknown reasons, the valley’s inhabitants appear to have moved out rather suddenly. They resettled among new neighbors in northwestern India and encountered a group of people from central Asia who brought with them warrior ethics and a religion called Vedism.
Within the ruins of the ancient Indus Valley civilization, archaeologists have discovered many artifacts of modern Hinduism that were not found in any Vedic civilizations. These include statues and amulets of gods and goddesses, huge temple tanks for bathing, and sculptures of people in yoga postures.
Based on this evidence, it seems that when the people from central Asia settled in India, their Vedic beliefs were mingled with the beliefs of indigenous Indians. Thus, it is likely that the Indus Valley tradition and Vedic gods and beliefs combined to form the foundations of Hinduism.
There is a trinity for Hindu goddesses as well as for gods. Laxmi, the second goddess of the trinity (shown here) is the goddess of wealth. The consort of Vishnu, she was incarnated on earth as the wife of each one of his avatars, exemplifying the devotion of a Hindu wife.
One Faith, Many Paths
Hinduism stands apart from all other religions for several reasons. It has no single founder, no single book of theological law and truth, no central religious organization, and no definition of absolute beginning and end.
Hinduism is a code of life — a collection of attitudes, personal experiences, and spiritual practices. It is, in essence, defined by behaviors rather than beliefs.
According to Hindu philosophy, there is one divine reality, and all religions are simply various interpretations of it. Because of this, Hinduism allows and even encourages individuals to choose a religious path that best suits their social, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual needs.
One Hindu devotee might worship well-known gods such as Vishnu and Shiva in a large, public temple, whereas another might worship less common deities in a private shrine within his or her own home. Yet they would both be considered good Hindus, provided that they honored each other’s choices.
This tolerance makes Hinduism difficult to understand and define, but it does explain why so many gods, goddesses, and rituals are described in the numerous Hindu scriptures.
The Vedas and the Upanishads
The Ramayana, a classic epic in the Hindu religion, tells the story of Rama and the 7th avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu, the preserver of life. This picture shows Rama breaking the bow of Shiva, winning a contest as well as his wife Sita’s hand in marriage.
Despite the fact that Hindus characteristically believe and do different things, several concepts and traditions bind them together. Many of these beliefs were compiled in a set of scriptures written around 1300 B.C.E. known as the Vedas. It is believed that the Vedas are the eternal truths that were heard, then written down by holy seers.
According to the Vedas, time and life are cyclical. After death, one’s soul leaves the body and is reborn, or reincarnated, into a new form.
The constant cycle of birth and rebirth is known as samsara and the measurement by which the quality of new birth is determined is known as karma. Karma, the accumulated result of one’s actions in various lives, can be good or bad. Righteous and moral conduct, known as dharma, is the road to good karma.
Examples of traditional good conduct included marrying within one’s caste, revering upper castes, doing good deeds, and abstaining from meat, particularly that of cows.
The writings known as the Upanishads appeared six to eight hundred years after the Vedas and focus mostly on how to escape the cycle of rebirth. The Upanishads explain how to leave Samsara through a release and ultimate enlightenment known as moksha. The appearance of the Upanishads marked the beginning of a period known as the Vedantic Age.
The End of the Vedas?
Literally, ‘Vedantic” means “end of the Vedas.” But the Vedic beliefs never really disappeared. Gods of the Vedic tradition became less commonly worshipped, but the Vedic philosophies recorded in the books were surely not forgotten. The principles of karma and dharma were too popular (especially among members of the lower castes) to fade away.
Scholars continue to debate over the beginning of Hinduism, but most agree that during the Vedantic Age (between 800 and 400 B.C.E.) there was a shift to the widespread worship of the gods Vishnu and Shiva. They also agree that this shift coincided with the emergence of new religions in India that sought enlightenment, such as Buddhism and Jainism.
In the years to come, Hinduism became divided into many sects. But true to the foundations of Hinduism, the new sects’ beliefs and practices were accepted. Because of such tolerance, Hinduism thrives today, millennia after it began.
The Birth and Spread of Buddhism
The Buddha preached his first sermon at Sarnath, shown here. He believed that freedom from desires set people free from the cycle of rebirth.
What is humanity’s place within the universe?
For millennia, people around the world have asked this question. In 6th-century South Asia, this question stirred up a small revolution.
The answers provided by traditional Hindu teachings and practices made Indian philosophers and religious sages increasingly upset. Many members of the Vaishya class spoke against the injustices of the Hindu caste system and the overwhelming power of the priestly class, known as the Brahmins.
Many Brahmin priests were considered corrupt because they performed animal sacrifices and practiced other Vedic rituals. Resentment of such rituals and continued anger about unbalanced social power prompted the development of new intellectual teachings and philosophies. These new ideas maintained that some aspects of Hindu tradition and ritual had merit. They never directly challenged Vedic gods or beliefs.
But Siddharta Gautama did.
Buddha: Spiritual Revelation
Siddharta was born about 563 B.C.E. in the foothills of the Himalayas. A prince, he lived a sheltered life amid luxury, wealth, and comfort. But at age 29, Siddharta fled from his palace and discovered something new.
For the first time, he saw poverty, misery, and illness. At home, he soon felt discontented with his materialistic life and the conditions that surrounded him. In response to the emotions triggered by his experience outside the palace, he gave away all his belongings and searched for enlightenment through the abandonment of basic needs.
Siddharta began his quest with a period of starvation. According to legend, he grew so thin during this time that he could feel his hands if he placed one on the small of his back and the other on his stomach. These methods of self-denial eventually led him to a revelation.
Siddharta Gautama was a prince in a kingdom near the present day border of India and Nepal. Upon his enlightenment, his followers began to call him Buddha, which means, “Enlightened One”.
Siddharta discovered that he needed to find another way — something in between his rich and impoverished lifestyles. He resolved to follow the Middle Path.
Siddharta sought enlightenment through concentration. He sat under a pipal tree, practiced intense meditation, and fought off all worldly temptations. After 40 days, he reached the ultimate goal — nirvana.
He came to understand his previous lives and finally gained release from the cycle of suffering. When he attained Enlightenment he became known by the title of Buddha, or “Awakened One.”
The Buddha set out to share his experience and to teach others to follow the Middle Path. He traveled throughout northeastern India for several decades, spreading his philosophy to anyone who was interested, regardless of gender or caste. Even Brahmins and members of the nobility were converted.
The Buddha died in 483 B.C.E., after 45 years of traveling and teaching. Upon his death, the Buddha passed into a state of nirvana, the ultimate release from suffering in which the self no longer exists and salvation is achieved. Included in his last breaths were four words of inspiration: “Strive on with awareness.” And his followers did.
Buddhism: Spiritual Revolution
Small communities of monks and nuns, known as bhikkus, sprung up along the roads that Buddha traveled. Devoted to his teachings, they dressed in yellow robes and wandered the countryside to meditate quietly. For almost 200 years, these humble disciples were overshadowed by the dominant Hindu believers. But the rise of a great empire changed all that.
In the 3rd century B.C.E., several ambitious leaders built the expansive Mauryan empire and fought many bloody battles were fought to extend its boundaries of control. One king, named Ashoka, was so troubled by the effects of the conquests on humanity that he converted to Buddhism. Adopting a code of nonviolence, he renounced all warfare and incorporated principles of Buddhism in his ruling practices.
Ashoka promoted Buddhist expansion by sending monks to surrounding territories to share the teachings of the Buddha. A wave of conversion began, and Buddhism spread not only through India, but also internationally. Ceylon, Burma, Nepal, Tibet, central Asia, China, and Japan are just some of the regions where the Middle Path was widely accepted.
With the great spread of Buddhism, it traditional practices and philosophies became redefined and regionally distinct. Only a small minority practiced the earliest forms of Buddhism, and Buddhist influence as a whole began to fade within India. Some scholars believe that many Buddhist practices were simply absorbed into the tolerant Hindu faith.
Today there are approximately 350 million Buddhists in the world.
The Gupta Period of India
The Ajanta and Ellora caves were created during the Golden Age. They were decorated with paintings of religious figures; some Hindu and some Buddhist.
The Gupta Period of India was not characterized by enormous material wealth or by elaborate trade activity.
It was defined by creativity. Flourishing arts, fabulous literature, and stupendous scholars are just a few of the things that marked the period.
In 185 B.C.E., the Mauryan empire collapsed when the last of the Mauryan kings was assassinated. In its place, small kingdoms arose throughout India.
For nearly 500 years, the various states warred with each other. In the northern territories, a new empire arose when a ruler named Chandragupta I ascended the throne in 320 C.E. He revived many principles of Mauryan government and paved the way for his son, Samudragupta, to develop an extensive empire.
Victory at Any Cost
Samudragupta was a great warrior and conquest was his passion. He sought to unite all of India under his rule and quickly set out to achieve this goal by waging wars across much of the Indian subcontinent.
Hoping for mercy, many potential victims offered tribute and presents to Samudragupta as he swept through the territories. But little mercy was granted. One by one, he defeated nine kings in the north and twelve in the south. In addition to the human devastation countless horses were slaughtered to celebrate his victories.
The Gupta territories expanded so greatly under Samudragupta’s reign that he has often been compared to great conquerors such as Alexander the Great and Napoleon. But of course he did not achieve military success singlehandedly. Local squads — which each consisted of one elephant, one chariot, three armed cavalrymen, and five foot soldiers — protected Gupta villages from raids and revolts. In times of war, the squads joined together to form a powerful royal army.
But Samudragupta was more than a fighter; he was also a lover of the arts. Engraved coins and inscribed pillars from the time of his reign provide evidence of both his artistic talent and his patronage. He set the stage for the emergence of classical art, which occurred under the rule of his son and successor Chandragupta II.
Chandragupta II gave great support to the arts. Artists were so highly valued under his rule that they were paid for their work — a rare phenomenon in ancient civilizations. Perhaps it is due to this monetary compensation that such considerable progress was made in literature and science during the period.
Nalanda University was founded during India’s Golden Age. This center of Buddhist learning was built in a place that the Buddha himself had visited a number of times, and was patronized by the Gupta kings.
Much of the literature produced during the Gupta dynasty was poetry and drama. Narrative histories, religious and meditative writing, and lyric poetry emerged to enrich, educate, and entertain the people. Formal essays were composed on subjects ranging from grammar and medicine to math and astronomy. The best-known essay of the period is the Kamasutra, which provides rules about the art of love and marriage according to Hindu laws.
Two of the most famous scholars of the era were Kalidasa and Aryabhatta. Kalidasa, the greatest writer of the empire, brought plays to new heights by filling them with humor and epic heroism. Aryabhatta, a scientist ahead of his time, went out on a limb and proposed that earth was a rotating sphere centuries before Columbus made his famous voyage. Aryabhatta also calculated the length of the solar year as 365.358 days — only three hours over the figure calculated by modern scientists.
Alongside these scholarly achievements, magnificent architecture, sculpture, and painting also developed. Among the greatest paintings of this period are those that were found on the walls of the Ajanta Caves in the plains of southern India. The paintings illustrate the various lives of the Buddha. An 18-foot statue of the Hindu god Shiva was also found within a Gupta-dynasty rock temple near Bombay.
A Lasting Inspiration
Although the Gupta rulers practiced Hindu rituals and traditions, it is clear from these discoveries that the empire was characterized by religious freedom. Evidence of a Buddhist university within the region is further proof of the peaceful coexistence between Hindus and Buddhists.
The Gupta dynasty flourished immensely under Chandragupta II, but rapidly weakened during the reign of his two successors. A wave of invasions launched by the Huns, a nomadic group from central Asia, started in 480 C.E. Two decades later, Gupta kings had little territory left under their control. Around 550 C.E., the empire perished completely.
Though India was not truly unified again until the coming of the Muslims, the classical culture of the Guptas did not disappear. The flourishing arts of the region, which were unrivaled in their time, left more than a legacy. They left descendants of the Guptas with continuous inspiration to create.