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Ancient Indian Civilization

Urban civilization first appeared in the Indian sub-continent with the Indus Valley civilization in the early third millennium BC, in what is today Pakistan and north-west India. This was contemporary with the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, and is famous for its large and well-planned cities.
This civilization vanished again in the mid-2nd millennium BC. In the following thousand years, a people known as the Aryans, speaking an Indo-European language, moved into northern India from central Asia. They came into India as pastoral, semi-nomadic tribes led by warrior chieftains. Over time, they settled down as rulers over the native Dravidian populations they found there, and formed tribal kingdoms.

This period of Indian history is known as the Vedic age, as it was depicted in the earliest Indian writings, called the Vedas. It is also the formative period in which most of the basic features of traditional Indian civilization were laid down. These include the emergence of early Hinduism as the foundational religion of India, and the social/religious phenomenon known as caste.

The period lasted from around 1500 BC through to 500 BC; that is, from the early days of the Aryan migrations through to the age of the Buddha.

The tribal society of the early Aryans gave way to the more complex society of the Classic Age of Ancient India. This period saw the rebirth of urban civilization in the Indian subcontinent, and with it, a literate culture. It was an age of amazing religious creativity, which saw the emergence of two new religions, Jainism and Buddhism.

This period of Indian history ended with the rise of the first great imperial state in South Asia, the Maurya empire, after 320 BC.

The Maurya empire was in effect an outgrowth of the kingdom of Magadha. Under a line of kings of the Nanda dynasty (reigned c. 424-322 BC), this kingdom dramatically expanded, to cover a large part of northern India; and under the following Maurya dynasty, the empire went on the cover all of north and central India.

The most famous of the Maurya emperors was Asoka (reigned 272-232 BC), a remarkable and attractive ruler: compassionate, tolerant, firm, seeking justice and well-being for all his subjects.

Fifty years or so after Asoka's death the huge empire began to crumble. Outlying provinces fell away, and by the mid-2nd century BC the empire had shrunk to its core areas.

Society and economy

The coming of Aryans into India, and their establishment themselves as the dominant group, gave rise to the caste system, which divided society into rigid layers, underpinned by religious rules. At the top was the priestly caste - the Brahmins; below them came the warrior caste, the Kshatryas. Then came the Vaishyas, the ordinary Aryan tribesmen, and then the Shudras, the menial workers. Outside the caste system altogether, excluded from Aryan-dominated society, were the "Untouchables".

As early Aryan society evolved into the more settled and more urban society of classical India, these caste divisions persisted. The Jains and Buddhists rebelled against it, preaching that all men are equal. However, caste was never overthrown. As time went on, indeed, it became more complex, and more rigid. It had endured right up to the present day.

In the earliest times, many hunter-gatherer groups inhabited much of the land. However, the economy story of ancient India is one of agricultural advance. The use of iron spread from the west from around 800 BC. This made agriculture more productive, and farming populations grew. At first, this was in the plains of northern India. However, iron-age farming gradually spread throughout the entire subcontinent. The hunter-gatherers were squeezed more and more into the forests and hills of India, eventually to take up farming themselves and to be incorporated into Aryan society as new castes.

Within the expanding farming area, many great cities grew up. Trade networks gradually extended throughout India, and far beyond. They crossed the mountain passes in the west to central Asia and the Middle East; they ran along the Iranian coast to the Gulf; and by the probed outwards across the Indian Ocean to Arabia and east Africa. To the east, the went down the coast to the island of Sri Lanka; along the coasts of Burma and Thailand, and on into South East Asia. Metal currency was minted in India before the 5th century BC, a sure sign of the importance of trade.


The tribal chiefs of early Aryan society became the princes and kings of classical India. By 500 BC 16 large states covered northern and north-central India. Most of these were kingdoms, but some were ruled by groups of nobles. Modern scholars have labelled them "republics". They were governed by councils of nobles, and formed the only republics to flourish in the ancient world outside the Mediterranean.

The rise of the Mauryan empire involved the creation of an effective administration. The empire was divided into provinces, and an empire-wide tax-gathering organization was developed. Also created was an extensive espionage system. A network of roads running from south and north and east to west was maintained. Mauryan power rested ultimately on its formidable army, which seems to have been one of the largest in the world at that time.


Reconstruction of the Indus valley religion is impossible, but there is strong evidence that it had a major impact on the subsequent religious history of the subcontinent. In any case, the Vedic age which came next saw the rise of an early form of Hinduism, from which all other Indian religious systems arose.

The Aryan belief-system revolved around a pantheon of gods and goddesses. It also came to include the concept of the "Cycle of Life" - reincarnation of the soul from one earthly life to another. Later, the idea of the material world being an illusion became widespread. Such ideas were emphasised more strongly in the new teachings of Jainism and Buddhism, which both had their origins in the years around 500 BC.

Jainism was founded by Mahariva ("The Great Hero", lived c. 540-468 BC). He emphasised an aspect already present in early Hinduism, non-violence to all living things. He also promoted the renunciation of worldly desires and an ascetic way of life.

Buddhism was founded by Gautama Siddharta, the Buddha ("The Enlightened One", lived c. 565 to 485 BC). He came to believe that extreme asceticism was not a fruitful basis for a spiritual life. However, like Jains, he believed that the release from worldly desires was the way to salvation. In daily life, Buddhists emphasised the importance of ethical behaviour.

Both Buddhism and Jainism flourished under the Maurya. Some scholars believe that it was in this period, especially under Asoka, that Buddhism became established as a major religion within the Indian sub-continent.


In the centuries after coming into northern India, the Aryans developed a rich oral literature known as the "Vedas" - a huge collection of poems, tales, hymns, spells and so on. They were written down long after the "Vedic age". Another body of literature that was composed towards the end of the Vedic age were the "Upanishads", a collection of prose and poetry which explore deep religious and philosophical concepts, including the idea that the material world is unreal - indeed, it is an illusion - and the implications of this for the individual soul.

In the Classical age of India, religious and other ideas came to be expressed in short texts called sutras. The earliest Jain and Buddhist scriptures were in this form, setting out the sayings of their founders in a brief, pithy way. Alongside these arose a rich tradition of epic poetry. The most famous examples are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These retell famous incidents in semi-mythological history, far back in the Vedic age.

As well as religious writings, Ancient India produced works on mathematics, medicine, and politics - the "Arthashastra" of the famous statesman Kautilya anticipates Machiavelli by almost 2,000 years.

All these works were written in Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Aryans, distantly related to other Indo-European tongues such as Persian, Greek and German. The Sanskrit script was based on the Aramaic alphabet, which came to India from the Middle East some time before 500 BC. One of the greatest linguists in world history flourished sometime in the following centuries. This was Panini. He set out highly logical rules of grammar, which formed the basis of classical Sanskrit. His underlying idea was that words should express meaning as efficiently as possible - the brief sutras in the Indian scriptures embody this principle. The influence of Panini's work on Indian high culture is incalculable. All later Indian curricula were based on its principles (even if not in Sanskrit), and trained Indian scholars in a rigorous logic which acted as a major stimulus to intellectual thought and debate.

Art and Architecture

Apart from figurines from the Indus Valley civilization, the earliest examples of ancient Indian art which have come down to us are from the cave temples of central India. The spread of such temples - either located in natural caves which have been shaped to create a religious space, or entirely carved from rock - was originally a Buddhist innovation, which Hindus later adopted. Here, stone carvings and painted frescoes dating from ancient time have come down to us, the earliest dating from Maurya times, or just after. The most famous early cave-temples are found at Ellora, in central India.

Another Buddhist innovation was the stupa, a dome-shaped monument in which religious relics were stored. The earliest of these date from Maurya times, with the Great Stupa at Sanchi being the most famous.

Apart from cave temples, ancient Indian buildings - secular and religious - were largely made of wood and bricks, and none have survived. Apparently they incorporated rounded arches atop their windows and doors - in which case they preceded arched architecture in the west by several centuries.

Science and Technology

In mathematics, the ancient Indians clearly understood the Pythagorean theorem, that the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. The religious texts of the Vedic Period contains examples of simple Pythagorean triples, such as, "The rope stretched along the length of the diagonal of a rectangle makes an area which the vertical and horizontal sides make together."

A medical treatise called the "Sushruta Samhita" (6th century BC) describes 1120 illnesses, 700 medicinal plants, a detailed study on Anatomy, 64 preparations from mineral sources and 57 preparations based on animal sources. Cataract surgery was known to Indian physicians, and cataract surgery was performed with a specially designed curved needle to loosen the lens and push the cataract out of the field of vision.

The legacy of Ancient India

The evolution of a religious culture in which Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism emerged as three distinct religions was a development of great importance in world history. Between them, these religions today have the allegiance of billions of people. Buddhism has spread far and wide outside the subcontinent (where, curiously, it has become a minority religion). It has had a deep impact upon societies in China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and South East Asia. It is now spreading fast amongst peoples in the West, where by some counts it is the fastest growing religion.

The interaction between three rival but closely related faiths produced a rich and tolerant intellectual environment. This would give rise to achievements of world significance. Indian developments in mathematics laid the foundation for modern mathematics, and therefore science.

The Mauryan empire played a key role in the spread of Buddhism. The fact that China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia all now have large Buddhist populations is in some part owing to the great Maurya king, Asoka.

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