Chapter 4

Ancient and Classic India

In This Chapter

• The geography of India

• The Indus River valley civilization

• The Aryans

• Hinduism and Buddhism

• The Mauryan and Gupta Empires

Several culturally strong civilizations arose in the Indian subcontinent. First to develop was the Indus River valley civilization, of which little is known. They were followed by the Aryans, who formed the foundations of later empires of the Indian subcontinent, the Mauryan and Gupta. During this period in India, several important religions came into being, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

The Safety of the Indian Subcontinent

Several civilizations were rooted in theIndus River valley, located in modern-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. But what made this region and the area around it, sometimes referred to as the subcontinent of India, so central to civilizations of south Asia?

In part, like the early civilizations of western Asia and Africa, it was because of a river or rivers. In the western region of the Indian subcontinent, the Indus River begins in the Hindu Kush Mountains and drains into the Arabian Sea, providing fertile land along the banks and a steady supply of water. The Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, which start in the Himalaya Mountains and empty into the Bay of Bengal, also providefertile farmland and a supply of water.

But it wasn’t all about the rivers. The Indian subcontinent has some natural barriers that helped to protect civilizations from outsiders. The Himalaya and Hindu Kush Mountains in the North are the home to some of the largest mountains in the world (Mount Everest comes to mind). In the South is the Indian Ocean, with its tricky wind and ocean currents created in part by the monsoons, or seasonal winds, that bring rain and drought to India. All of these factors made the Indian subcontinent an excellent region for civilizations to start.

Early Indus River Valley Civilization

Little is truly known about the first Indus River valley civilization. Groups of humans settled in the region in the 2500s B.C.E., eventually developing two major cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. Historians sometimes refer to this as the Harappan civilization, after the larger city.

Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro

Archaeologists have excavated and examined the ruins of both cities, but the ruins of Harappa best demonstrate the sophistication of the civilization’s urban planning. All of the streets were perfectly straight and intersected throughout the city at right angles. The city had a sewer system, because each house had at least one indoor bathroom.(Indoor plumbing wasn’t universal in the United States until the mid-twentieth century!) The houses themselves were sturdy and, making use of the natural resources in the region, were constructed of oven-baked bricks. Finally, a citadel or fortress built on a brick platform overlooked the city to protect the inhabitants.

Harappan Culture and Collapse

The clues left of the Harappan way of life also provide the sense that this civilization was very advanced. Most of the people were farmers who developed the cultivation of a wide variety of crops including wheat, barley, and rice for food and cotton for clothing. The artisan class made elaborate jewelry that has been found as far away as the Fertile Crescent. The Harappans also created writing in the form of ideographic pictograms, but historians have not yet been able to decipher their meaning because there are few examples. The writings do show that the Indus River valley civilization worshipped many gods associated with natural forces.

For all that historians do not know about Harappan civilization, they have concluded that it declined and then collapsed during the 1500s B.C.E. But most historians cannot agree on why. Some have argued that invaders destroyed the Harappans; others have argued that it may have been environmental problems associated with flooding from the Indus River.

The Aryans

The Aryans were the next group to take advantage of the Indus River valley. They migrated to the Indian subcontinent from the Black and Caspian Sea regions, perhaps destroying the Harappans during the 1500s B.C.E.

The Aryans were a male-dominated, nomadic, tribal society, usually led by a rajah or chief, but once they settled into the Indus River valley, the Aryans adopted an agricultural way of life. Politically, the Aryans never consolidated beyond small petty kingdoms ruled by princes. These independent, small kingdoms warred with each other constantly, causing a great deal of instability, but the Aryan cultural influence upon the Indian subcontinent has lasted through modern times.

What in the World

Hitler used the word "Aryan” to justify his aggressive racist policies toward minorities in Germany. He interpreted the Aryan race as ancient Greeks and Romans and modern-day Germans and Scandinavians. Hitler wrongly believed that the Aryans were a superior race that once ruled the world and were destined to do so again.

Language and Traditions

The Aryan language, called Sanskrit, was very important to their culture. First developedby warriors during their nomadic period to recite epic poems celebrating Aryan heroes, Sanskrit later became a written language. From 1200 B.C.E. to 500 B.C.E., the

Notable Quotable

"Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force was covered with emptiness.”


epic poems that were once recited were collected into holy books called vedas. The oldest of the vedas, called the Rig-Veda, was compiled around 1000 B.C.E. The vedas also included legends and religious rituals that the Aryans knew and practiced, all of which made them an important teaching tool. The vedas were so important, in fact, that this period is called the Vedic Age.

The Caste System

The Aryans developed a strict social system based on caste. In a caste system, people were born into the class of their birth parents and could not change their caste or class through any means.

At the top of the Aryan caste system were the brahmans, or priests, followed by the kshatriyas, or rulers, and warriors. Other important groups of the system were the vaisyas, or common people, and the pariahs, or slaves. The system was reinforced with a set of strict rules and the concept of dharma, in which each class was encouragedto perform only its set of duties.

The Aryan Religion

The Aryan religion was very typical of early civilizations. Only later did it develop into one of the largest religions in the world today. The Aryans were polytheistic like many other early civilizations. They believed in several gods including Agni, god of fire; Indra, god of thunder and war; and Usha, goddess of the dawn or rebirth. These gods controlled the natural forces. The Aryan vedas detail some of the rituals that were performed to appease the gods.

Some Aryan religious thinkers became discontented with this religion of appeasement.They eventually wrote their ideas and beliefs down in the religious writings called the Upanishads.


The Upanishads advanced the religious belief that there is one eternal spirit called Brahman Nerguna. To become part of the eternal spirit, a person needs to have a pure soul. If someone dies before his or her soul is pure, it will be reincarnated.

Into what living thing or caste of Aryan society a person’s soul is reincarnated depends on the person’s karma in the previous life. Through self-denial such as fastingand meditation such as yoga, a person can be released from reincarnation, or moksa. Hinduism’s cycle of reincarnation created a society that tried to practice non-violencetoward all living things, or ahimsa. But the religious ideas that grew from the original Aryan belief system did not end with Hinduism.


Karma is a Hindu belief that actions performed in one stage of a person’s existence determines the fate of the next stage of existence.

Yoga is a system of physical and mental exercises that separate the soul from the mind and body and help to bring it union with the universal spirit. Yoga translates into the word “discipline” in Sanskrit.

Buddha and Buddhism

The transformation of Aryan religious beliefs started with the birth of a prince and member of the kshatriya caste named Siddhartha Gautama, in 566 B.C.E. Siddhartha became disenchanted with the world and the suffering he witnessed among people. At the age of 29, the prince left his wife and title and wandered for seven years throughout India to look for the meaning of life and suffering. At the end of this time, Siddhartha received the meaning of life and began to share his “enlightenment” with a group of followers. His followers then called him Buddha, or the “Enlightened One.”

So what was the meaning of life according to Buddha? Buddha taught that there were Four Noble Truths:

First, all people suffer and know sorrow.

Second, people suffer because of their desires.

Third, they can end their suffering by eliminating these desires.

And fourth, to eliminate those desires, people should follow the Buddha’s Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path includes knowing the truth, resisting evil, saying nothing to hurt others, respecting life, working for the good of others, freeing the mind from evil, controlling thoughts, and practicing meditation. Following the Eightfold Path, a person can reach nirvana, a state of freedom from the cycle of rebirth or the state of extinction. Also Buddha taught his followers to reject the caste system of India because of its inequalities.

Buddha traveled and taught across India for 45 years, converting thousands of students into disciples who helped spread his teachings throughout Asia. Buddhism later split into two different sects. The Theravada sect regards Buddha to be a great teacher to be read and understood. The Mahayana sect worships Buddha as a savior of the people and believes he is a god.

Notable Quotable

"Let a man overcome anger by love, let him overcome evil by good; let him overcome the greedy by liberality, the liar by truth ….”


Regardless of the split, the religion Buddha founded did not fare so well in his country of birth. Probably his rejection of the caste system made it unpopular with the priests and ruling castes who could have promoted it. Today a majority of Indians follow the religion of Hinduism.

Another Religion?

Buddha was not the only one who was dissatisfied with the injustice of the caste systemand the pessimism of the cycle of death and reincarnation found in Hinduism. Mahavira, who lived from 540 to 468 B.C.E., also developed an alternative religious view. Mahavira taught that the universe was composed of souls and matter. The way for the soul to achieve oneness with Brahama Nerguna was to rid oneself of matter in order to be able to rise to the top of the universe.

Mahavira’s doctrine of Jainism, as it is called, taught that all life has a soul, so all life is sacred and should not be destroyed. To do this, one must be a vegetarian and disavow material possessions in a form of extreme self-denial. These extreme practices did not make it very popular with the people, so it became more of a religion of the fringe.

In spite of its fringe status, Jainism influenced many proponents of nonviolent protest, including the twentieth-century leaders Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

After the Vedic Age

At the close of the Vedic Age, the kingdom of Magadha, under the leadership of King Bimbisara from 542 to 495 B.C.E., consolidated power and expanded its territory through marriage and conquest. His kingdom became the center of India’s first true empire.


The Mauryan and Gupta Empires in India.

The Mauryan Empire

In 321 B.C.E., an ambitious man named Chandragupta Maurya overthrew the king of the declining kingdom of Magadha. Once in power, King Maurya created a strong kingdom with the use of a tough and efficient army and administrative structures. After his death, the Mauryan Empire continued to gain power, territory, and influencein the Indian subcontinent.

The strongest ruler of the empire was King Asoka, whose rule started in 274 B.C.E. Oddly, his rule was not punctuated entirely with war and conquest. Like most kings of the Mauryan Empire, he conquered many territories. But after one particularly brutal battle, Asoka became a pacifist, very concernedwith the value of human life and the problem of human suffering.

What in the World

The people of India admire and revere the leadership of Asoka to this day, so much so that the official Indian governmentalseal features one of the pillars that Asoka erected.

His concerns led him to the Buddhist religion, which he promoted through his laws and government administration. To promote peace in the empire, Asoka created the “High Commissioners of Equity.” This group traveled throughout the empire investigating the complaints and needs of minority groups. Despite being an ardent follower of Buddha, Asoka also allowed its rival religion, Hinduism, to be practiced in the empire. With Asoka’s death, the Mauryan Empire began to decline; the rule of the last Mauryan ended in 184 B.C.E.

Between the end of the Mauryan Empire and 310 C.E. (C.E. is standard for Common Era, which has replaced A.D.), the subcontinent fell into disarray as various kingdoms fought to gain political control and different invaders migrated into India. The invaderswere generally assimilated into Indian culture.

The first invaders were the remnants of a Hellenistic Greek army led by King Demetrius. His army pushed into northwestern India during the 200s B.C.E. King Demetrius transformed his capital city of Gandhara into a Hellenistic city that also blended with Indian culture.

The Greek hold on India did not last long. A new group of invaders, named the Kushans, migrated into India in the 100s B.C.E. The Kushans were absorbed into Indian society and eventually became the kshatriya caste, or warrior class. Their most influential ruler was Kanishka, who was a convert to Buddhism. He assembled a great council of Buddhist monks to help regulate the teachings of Buddha. Mahayana Buddhism, discussed earlier in this chapter, originated from this council and was exported through missionaries along trade routes to China.

The Gupta Empire

In 310 C.E., Chandragupta I, a determined ruler from the kingdom of Magadha who was tired of the rule of outsiders, centralized power and started to expand his kingdom,beginning the Gupta Empire. This empire reached the height of its power and influence over the Indian subcontinent under Chandragupta II, who ruled from 375 to 415 C.E. Although the empire only lasted for about 200 years, it was considered India’s Golden Age.

What in the World

The Gupta Empire was the home of several universities.One, the university at Nalanda, had eight colleges and three libraries and attracted students from across the Asian continent.

The society of India thrived under the short-lived Gupta Empire. Hinduism was the dominant religion of the India and also the official religion of the empire. The stability provided by the Gupta Empire allowed Hinduism to flourish. Many new temples were built to the different sub-gods of the religion. The empire also gave the people many freedoms, which permitted the growth of learning.

As a result, during this time of the Gupta Empire, most of the concepts of algebra were created, the concept of zero explained, and the numerals one through nine were identified. Astronomers of the empire knew the world was round. Their doctors reset broken bones in their patients. The stability of the empire brought prosperity. The Gupta Empire’s trade expanded to the far-off regions of Arabia, central Asia, China, and Rome.

Eventually India’s Golden Age did come to an end. The prosperity of the empire attracted more invaders, the White Huns of Asia for one, which weakened the administration and army. By 600 C.E., the Gupta Empire dissolved into many small petty kingdoms, which again fought for control of the Indian subcontinent. But the culture of the Gupta Empire survived to influence India for centuries to come.

The Least You Need to Know

• Several culturally strong civilizations arose in the Indian subcontinent.

• The Aryans formed the foundations of the empires that emerged in India.

• The Hindu religion developed from discontentment with the Aryan religion.

• The teachings of Buddhism and Jainism grew out of unhappiness with tenets of Hinduism.

• Many of the cultural achievements of India came during the rules of the Mauryan and Gupta Empires.

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