The history of ancient
Indus Valley Civilization 3000-1900 BC
Vedic Era – 1200-1000 BC
Epic Era 1000-600 BC
Magadha Empire 500-300 BC
Mauryan Dynasty 300-200 BC
Kushan Empire 50 BC -200 AD
Gupta Dynasty 300-500 AD
The Indian subcontinent
furnishes an array of tightly clustered ecological zones ranging from alpine
tundra at the base of the Himalaya Mts. in the north to subtropical rain
forests in the southeast. The Indus Valley in modern Pakistan sits primarily in
an arid zone (the Thar desert), but draws its water resources from snowmelt in
the Himalayas, numerous fresh water springs in the surrounding mountains, and
not least from the annual monsoon season (June to September) that brings
massive downpours to the region. Using irrigation techniques (primarily retaining
dams) two crops per year were possible in the
From The Bronze Age to the Epic Era
By ca. 1850 BC Indo European (Aryan) invasions destroyed and submerged this culture so thoroughly that it is impossible to determine to what degree later Hindu culture was derived from this earlier Bronze Age civilization and what part was imported by the invaders. Undoubtedly it was a mixture of both. The Aryan invaders brought with them a Vedic oral tradition which was eventually preserved in Sanskrit. This evolved into the sacred literature of the Vedic Era, 1200-1000 BC. Sacred texts include the Rg Veda, consisting of 1028 hymns dedicated to Aryan gods and composed by various priests. The Rg Veda dealt with religious traditions kept by the priestly class, the Brahmans, who memorized these texts and recited them. Rg veda is cognate with oida, video, to see and to know. It meant sacred knowledge and existed as a collection of hymns to various gods of the highly polytheistic Vedic pantheon. It furnished the definition of godhead and its various powers. It expressed a sense that millions of gods existed, the true count being impossible to determine. It contained a great deal of mythological lore as well. It displayed no evidence of an existing caste system. Religious practices included intoxication with a drug called soma, hints of which exist in the Vedas. The hymns refer to gods, drugs, and sacrifice. How you do the sacrifice was very important, hence, ritual was emphasized and remained a dominant component of emerging Brahman culture. Brought in by the Aryans, the closest linguistic match to Vedic is Sanskrit in Persian.
Over time the Aryan invaders
extended their dominance across the northern regions of the
Although the tribal
composition of the pastoral Aryan invaders was inherently multi-ethnic, the
newcomers appear to have had extreme difficulty assimilating to native culture
as well as to the racially different (Dravidian) populations they had
conquered. During the Epic Era,
1000-600 BC, they organized a strictly ordered caste system of social
hierarchy, for which there was no precedent in the Vedic hymns. The caste
system originally recognized the supremacy of the warrior caste, the Kshatriyas, followed by priests or the Brahman caste (who also served as
teachers, judges, assessors, and ministers), merchants and farmers (Vaisyas), and subsistence laborers (Sudras). A fifth group, the Dasyas or
untouchables, gradually evolved outside the recognized orders. The Dasyas consisted of autochthonous Dravidian populations
that failed to merge successfully with the Aryan invaders. They were not
allowed to live in villages but rather resided principally as hunter gathers in
the forests. Enslavement of Dasyas is recorded in the
The literature of the Epic Era reflects advances from primitive Vedic polytheism to genuine philosophical contemplation. The hymns or epic poems, known as the Upanishads, exhibit a highly mystical aura. The Upanishads formed a wisdom tradition as much as a popular tradition; there are no names associated with either religion, and thus, no known prophets. The hymns arose from an immense oral traditions borne by singers with prodigious memories. Despite being illiterate they were able to recite epic poems that went on for days. The comparison with Homer seems self evident. Many hymns existed in a dialogue format and thus formed the beginning of a dialectical tradition. The message of the Upanishids became sufficiently popularized that it reached beyond the exclusive control of the Brahmans. In the Upanishads there is open speculation as to what was god. The philosophy consisted in the belief in a grand cosmic essence, Brahman, or ultimate reality. The Human individual was the atman (mahatma = great atman). The Atman or Self, endured cycles of rebirth. This philosophical innovation, the belief in reincarnation, was totally absent in the earlier Vedas. The belief in the transmigration of the soul ultimately formed the basis to Hindu philosophy, with the Upanishads representing the philosophy’s first real texts. As the most powerful example, one can turn to the Bhagavad Gita, or the lord's song, a hymn devoted to the Hindu god Krishna. Krishna was one of the great gods of the Hindu pantheon very close to mankind, much like the Greek god Hermes. The epic relates the story of a king who fell into conflict with his relatives. He hesitated on the battlefield, unwilling to take their lives. Krishna served as his charioteer, however, and convinced him to attack, furnishing divine justification for acts of violence. In Hindu philosophy, when immense consequences hung in the balance it was morally better to resolve on a course of action and proceed. The Bhagavad Gita offered a rejection of nonviolence, therefore, or at least a legitimization of the necessity to act. It furnished moral support to the rulers of various warring states during the Epic Era.
The ultimate statement of Upanishad philosophy, c 800-500 BC, is that Brahman equaled Atman. "That art thou; Thou art that." Atman thus is at the same time Brahman; the great essence and the self are one. This view presupposed an entity that passed from one life to the next. The Atman thus was one of many possibilities that the soul of the self passed through. Ultimately one became liberated after 84000 or 100000 reincarnations to achieve union with the divine essence. Hindu philosophy likewise entailed a meditative component. The Yogi, or Hindu devotee was required to look within himself to determine the causes of pain and suffering. He also relied on the recital of mantras or sounds and rhythms believed to control the etheric vibrations that permeated space and represented the first knowable source of creation. Personal synchronism with the harmonics of the universe was believed to produce beneficial effects on the persons or objects concerned. The self-discipline of the Yogi and his contemplation of an ultimate reality would eventually enable him to attain oneness with the divine essence. This Hindu world view gradually supplanted the minimalist world view of the Vedic tradition while reinvigorating it at the same time with complex concepts filled with high spiritual content. Hinduism also furnished a moral system to legitimize the social caste system (that is, reincarnation implied that one could eventually rise to higher caste levels through rebirth). Moral ascendancy in Indian society derived from knowledge of Hindu philosophy and the essential Brahman rituals. The wisdom, philosophical confidence, and selfless demeanor of the ascetic eventually enabled members of the Brahman caste to supplant the warriors in Indian hierarchy. On the other hand, Brahman corruption and an obsession with ritual (usually accompanied by fees) caused the Kshatriyas to challenge Brahman ascendancy, particularly in the Ganges where it was customary for the ruling class to send its youths to be educated at Brahman seats of learning in the Indus Valley. Each element had their doubts about the other, in other words. Prior to the rise of the Gupta dynasty (320-535 AD) there was considerable movement between the Brahman and Kshatriya castes.
Political Developments in the Classical Era (500 BC to 300 AD)
At same time that these
philosophical and social transformations were occurring, state formation in
both the Indus and the Ganges basins led to the rise of dozens of competing
polities. More than 70 tribal entities are recorded. The historical tradition records
heightened levels of violence as local rajas vied for supremacy in each river
basin. Since the polities along the
The prevailing levels of violence during the Epic Era led to the rise of shramanic or reactionary philosophical movements such as Jainism and Buddhism. While the former challenged the Hindu world view, the latter blended and adapted it to form one of the world's most significant philosophical schools. By about 600 BC, the era of great doctrine started by individuals began, the so-called the Classic Axial Age. The central question was one of self and ultimate essence. Jainism appears to have marked a reaction to the rising threshhold of violence in the Epic era. Jains imposed a standard of non violence that was immediately incorporated into Buddhism as well. Jainists were strictly nonviolent; they renounced the Vedas and the Upanishads as sacred texts, and as such they were heterodox. Jainists drank only through nets and filters and carried brooms to sweep the ground, partly because they believed that it felt pain when they walked on it and partly to protect crawling insects from harm. The most orthodox went about completely naked. These were the celebrated Gymnosophists who traveled with Alexander’s army back to the Mediterranean world. They claimed to be “sky clad,” that is, dressed in the ether of the sky. One particular Buddhist sutta, or dialogue, rejects 61 points of view, offering a possible indication of just how many schools of thought existed at this time. Dozens of philosophical leaders traveled about in the company of thousands of followers. These religious leaders or “gurus,” would journey throughout the kingdoms of India in large tent cities, setting up on the outskirts of towns. According to one tradition, Parsvanath, the 23rd prophet of Jainism who lived in 8th century BC, possessed a following of 28,000 nuns 164,000 men and 327,000 women. These philosophers would meet in large “conferences” to debate concepts of reality and wisdom, by this means perfecting skills in dialectical argumentation. The rejection of worldly things and the acceptance of wisdom were both deeply rooted in this “itinerant” philosophical culture.
The identity of the Buddha, Gautama (ca. 567-487 BC), is shrouded in legend, but the tradition holds that he was a young Kshatriya of the warrior caste. He was born to his royal father under various omens. Either he would become the greatest ruler or the wisest philosopher in the world. This was the canonical legend. His father decided to shield him from all evil sights so that he would remain happy and assume the throne. He did not want him to seek wisdom. Gautama was carefully assigned servants his own age who were replaced when they grew too old. Eventually he escaped from the palace to witness firsthand the horrors of sickness, old age, death, as well as the presence of holy men. He came to the realization that he must go off in search of answers to these problems. Despite having a family of his own, he left the palace to become a holy man and to follow the leading philosophers of his day. Legend relates that at his first “conference” he vanquished the two greatest meditation teachers in debate. Although his skills at argumentation were incomparable, he found little spiritual satisfaction in this, so he took to an ascetic way of life, starving himself by reducing his food intake to the consumption of a single sesame seed a day. This left him emaciated and caused him one day to pass out. He awoke to find a cow girl offering him milk and he accepted her gift. The other ascetics in his presence grew disgusted at the sight of his indulgence and abandoned him. However, the Buddha discovered that by not tormenting himself he had found the answer, namely, what he called the middle way. To the Buddha extreme asceticism was not required; like other yogis he continued to pursue an ascetic life by wandering, debating, and living off alms from the people. He and his entourage of 1200 devotees wandered throughout the Ganges finding popularity among common people along their route. He was invited to live at various royal palaces, but he preferred to remain among the remote villagers of the rain forest, lending them guidance and hearing their complaints. Eventually somewhere in his meditations he fell into an ultimate trance under the bodhi tree (the bodhi meant great tree of knowledge; the words budda, bodhi are related). In this prolonged trance he believed that he was tempted by demons as he endured four meditative states and five transcendental experiences. Ultimately, he broke through to the divine essence, then awoke and became the Buddha.
The Classic statement of Buddhism is, we do not talk about atman, but anatman, or no self. In Pauli this was called anatta. The Pauli language of Buddhist texts was devised precisely for the purpose of disseminating this philosophy; it is not directly related to Sanskrit. Buddhism contains Three basic doctrinal principles.
1. Self? No, there is no self.
2. No self means that there
that is, trouble, pain, and suffering.
3. There is impermanence to all life.
Buddhists wrote dialogues with
numbers in them, to furnish a mnemonic system of memorization. Thus there are
the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path. The Four noble truths are that
1. Life is dukkha, suffering, pain, trouble, toil.
2. Cause of dukkha is desire.
3. Cessation of desire results in the cessation of suffering.
4. The way to the cessation of suffering is the eight-fold path.
Attributes of the eight-fold path include:
1. right view
2 right intention
3 right speech
4 right action
5 right living
6 right effort
7 right mindfulness
8 right concentration
The Buddha confirmed the belief in the cycle of lives. In Buddhism moral actions add positive and/or negative values to one's existence and determine one's place in the next life. Dharma or Kharma represented the law of moral consequences. Too many negative actions sent one's soul to a lower state of existence in the next life (lower caste level, lower form of life altogether). Positive acts pushed one forward. The Buddha’s conception of religion was purely ethical, with little attention to worship or rituals. He placed all his emphasis on conduct. He paid no attention to the caste system and was ready to welcome anyone into the Buddhist sangha, or monastic order, although he was uncomfortable with the idea of admitting women. His energy and charisma were unparalleled, traveling widely, always on move, spreading his teachings, and organizing sanghas of monks and nuns to spread the faith. He and his followers were supported by the common people but also obtained donations from the wealthy including royal patronage. He urged his disciples to go out into the lands to preach his gospel, namely that the rich and the poor were all one. This world view provided a moral code and a spiritual basis for ordered society that eliminated the need for more complex political hierarchy. Indian society tended more to focus on more intimate, localized family and village systems of organization. It relied on the moral systems of mainstream Hindu culture and various "protestant" strains, such as Jainism, Buddhism, to maintain social stability. Even kings were accountable to the judgments of wandering holy men and through them the population developed councils of elders at the village and tribal levels (the sabha, the vidhara) to whom the kings became answerable. Kings could not violate the traditional laws of their kingdoms, for example, and at their accession they had to obtain the approval of the sabha or tribal council as well as that of existing ministers of state (the ratnin). The king’s duty was to protect the traditional “laws” handed down from Vedic literature.
Indian Trade with Rome
Indians played a crucial role in the development of the ancient global world system, particularly the prominent maritime trading polities of south coastal India. Indian inhabitants manufactured cotton textiles, pearls, and high quality steel, and traded these for goods from East Africa, the Persian Gulf, Southeast Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam), and China. By the end of the second century BC at the latest, they were in commercial contact with the Mediterranean. Unquestionably, the most spectacular finds of Mediterranean trade with India arise from the excavations undertaken in 1941-50 and resumed in 1989-92 at Arikamedu near Pondicherry on the southeast Indian coast. Likely identified as the ancient port of Poduke, the site has revealed a trading settlement of the late Hellenistic and early Roman eras. Large quantities of Roman pottery, beads, intaglios, lamps, glass, and coins point to a continuous occupation by merchants of Mediterranean origin as well as to a healthy appetite for Mediterranean finished goods among Tamil inhabitants.
While most of the finds (including Roman coins and Arretine fineware from Italy) point to the settlement's peak occupation during the Julio-Claudian era (27 BC - 68 AD), the amphora data indicates that the foreign trading presence began much earlier, about the time of the Ptolemaic discovery of the monsoon winds of the Arabian Sea (mid second century BC). The bulk of the excavated materials -- transport amphoras weighing as much as 50 kilograms when filled and sealed and large quantities of relatively heavy finewares -- are the kinds of goods most frequently characterized as Mediterranean staple goods, not luxuries. Even the wines conveyed to Arikamedu are more properly identified as common table wines. Only a sea-going commerce of significant scale and sustained duration can explain such finds. The presence of these commonplace amphoras at Arikamedu raises important questions, therefore, about the characterization of Roman trade with India.
Evidence for maritime commerce between India and China remains less substantial during the Classical era. Documentation is scarce and largely dependent on anecdotal accounts of journeys to Central Asia and India by Chinese emissaries of the Han Dynasty or by Buddhist monks seeking manuscripts to be translated at Chinese monasteries. By and large, when journeying to south central Asia travelers pursued the overland route through Central Asia at least until the fifth century AD.
OTHER ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF INDIAN CULTURE
Apart from religion and
spirituality, Classical India accomplished a number of material and scientific