Ancient India

Home of the ancient Indus Valley civilizations, the Indian subcontinent could possibly be where the earliest civilizations originated.

Indian Dancer and Noble via Costumes de Différents Pays (1797)
The Ancient Civilizations of India

Head of the Buddha, Gandhara style, Stucco, 5th Century

Around five thousand years ago, an important civilization developed on the Indus River floodplain. From about 2600 B.C. to 1700 B.C. a vast number of settlements were built on the banks of the Indus River and surrounding areas. These settlements cover a remarkable region, almost 1.25 million kilometers of land which is today part of Afghanistan, Pakistan and north-western India. The cities of the Indus Valley Civilization were well-organized Pot shards from Harappa and solidly built out of brick and stone. Their drainage systems, wells and water storage systems were the most sophisticated in the ancient world. They also developed systems of weights and trade. They made jewelery and game pieces and toys for their children. From looking at the structures and objects which survive we are able to learn about the people who lived and worked in these cities so long ago. The people of the Indus Valley Civilization also developed a writing system which was used for several hundred years. However, unlike some other ancient civilizations, we are still unable to read the words that they wrote.

Harrapa, an early civilization

Pottery from Harappa, 3rd Millennium BCE

The Indus Valley civilization (also known as Harappan culture) appeared around 2500 BCE along the Indus River valley in Punjab and Sindh. The civilization, with a writing system, urban centers, and diversified social and economic system, was rediscovered in the 1920s after excavations at Mohenjo-daro (which means “mound of the dead”) in Sindh near Sukkur, and Harappa, in Punjab south of Lahore.

A number of other sites stretching from the Himalayan foothills in Punjab, India in the north, to Gujarat in the south and east, and to Balochistan in the west have also been discovered and studied. Although the archaeological site at Harrappa was partially damaged in 1857 when engineers constructing the Lahore-Multan railroad used brick from the Harrappa ruins for track ballast, an abundance of artifacts have nevertheless been found.

A map of the early Indus Valley

A map of the early Indus Valley

Indus Valley civilization was mainly an urban culture sustained by surplus agricultural production and commerce, the latter including trade with Sumer in southern Mesopotamia. Both Mohenjo-daro and Harappa were built according to similar plans of well-laid-out streets, “differentiated living quarters, flat-roofed brick houses, and fortified administrative or religious centers”. Weights and measures were standardized throughout the area and distinctive seals were used for identification of property and shipment of goods. Although Copper and bronze were in use, iron was unknown. “Cotton was woven and dyed for clothing; wheat, rice, and a variety of vegetables and fruits were cultivated; and a number of animals, including the humped bull, were domesticated.” Wheel-made pottery—some of it adorned with animal and geometric motifs—has been found in profusion at all the major Indus sites. A centralized administration has been inferred from the revealed cultural uniformity; however, it remains uncertain whether authority lay with a priestly- or a commercial oligarchy.

By far the most exquisite but most obscure artifacts unearthed to date are the small, square steatite seals engraved with human or animal motifs. Large numbers of the seals have been found at Mohenjo-daro, many bearing pictographic inscriptions generally thought to be a kind of script. Despite the efforts of philologists from all parts of the world, however, and despite the use of computers, the script remains undecipherable, and it is unknown if it is proto-Dravidian or proto-Sanskrit. Nevertheless, extensive research on the Indus Valley sites, which has led to speculations on both the archaeological and the linguistic contributions of the pre–Aryan population to Hinduism’s subsequent development, has offered new insights into the cultural heritage of the Dravidian population still dominant in southern India.

A clay seal from Harappa with a still as yet to be deciphered script

A clay seal from Harappa with a still as yet to be deciphered script

Artifacts with motifs relating to asceticism and fertility rites suggest that these concepts entered Hinduism from the earlier civilization. Although historians agree that the civilization ceased abruptly, at least in Mohenjo-daro and Harappa there is disagreement on the possible causes for its end. Invaders from central and western Asia are considered by some historians to have been “destroyers” of Indus Valley civilization, but this view is open to reinterpretation. More plausible explanations are recurrent floods caused by tectonic earth movement, soil salinity, and desertification.

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Mohenjo Daro

The excavations at Mohenjo-daro

Mohenjo-daro (English: Mound of the dead) was a city of the Indus Valley Civilization built around 2600 BC and is located in the Sindh Province of Pakistan. This ancient five thousand year old city is the largest of Indus Valley and is widely recognized as one of the most important early cities of South Asia and the Indus Valley Civilization. Mohenjo Daro was one of the world’s first cities and contemporaneous with ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations. It is sometimes referred to as “An Ancient Indus Valley Metropolis”.

Mohenjo-daro, Harappa and their civilization, vanished without trace from history until discovered in the 1920s. It was extensively excavated in the 1920s, but no in-depth excavations have been carried out since the 1960s.

Mohenjo-daro is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The most extensive recent work at the site has focused on attempts at conservation of the standing structures, undertaken by UNESCO in collaboration with the Department of Archaeology and Museums, as well as various foreign consultants. In December 1996, preservation work at the 500-acre site suspended after funding from the government and international organizations ran out, according to a resident archaeologist. However in April 1997, the UN Educational, Scientific and Culture Organization (UNESCO) funded $10 million to a project to be conducted over two decades in order to protect the Mohenjo-daro ruins from flooding. This project has been a success so far. UNESCO’s efforts to save Mohenjo-daro was one of the key events that led the organization to establish World Heritage Sites.

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The Vedas

The most ancient sacred literature of Hinduism is called the Vedas. This collection of hymns, poems, and ceremonial formulas represent the beliefs of several Aryan tribes. Initially the Vedas were considered so sacred that they were only transmitted orally from one generation of brâhmans to the next. The passages of the Vedas were eventually written in Sanskrit, we believe, near the end of the third century BC, and primarily consist of four collections called the Rig-Veda, the Sama-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, and the Atharva-Veda. Collectively, these are referred to as the Samhitas. The first three Samhitas were used in the Vedic period by the priestly class as ritual handbooks. Containing 1,028 poetic hymns, the Rig-Veda was used by the hotri who called on the gods by reciting the hymns aloud. The hymns vary in style and length, and praise a pantheon of gods. Although Indra, the god of war and weather, is the most frequently mentioned, there appears to be no hierarchy. Agni, the god of fire, is the second most prominently mentioned deity.

The Hindu goddess Saraswati

The Hindu goddess Saraswati

The Sama-Veda consisted of various portions taken from the Rig-Veda and were utilized by the udgatri chanters. The Yajur-Vedas was used by the adhvaryu priests. This work contains specific sacrificial formulas which were recited during that form of ceremony. The final Veda, the Atharva-Veda, is attributed to a sage, or rishi, named Atharvan, and consists of a number of hymns and magical incantations. Some scholars believe that this scripture may have originated with the original pre-Aryan culture of indigenous peoples, and because it deviated form the other Vedas, it was not at first readily accepted. Eventually it too was adopted as a ritual handbook by the Brahmans, the higest class of priests. Although the Rig-Veda is still considered the most important of these ancient texts, it was still never very popular. Much of this comes from the fact of its composition by and for a religious aristocracy. In contrast, the Atharva-Veda, compiled perhaps as late as 500 BC, frequently refers to many lesser functional gods considered useful in the daily lives and simple rituals of the ordinary Aryan that did not need the mediation of priests.

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The Vedic Age

A statue of the god Vishnu

What little we know of the Vedic Age comes from the Rig-Veda. By the time the oral tradition of the Aryan religion was committed to Sanskrit, however, some of the gods mentioned had already begun to lose their importance.

Nevertheless, The Rig-Veda represented a blend of beliefs held by several Aryan tribes. Each of the gods, of the Vedic Period, had a primary function, or Vrata. Usually these functions were closely connected to the forces of nature such as light, fire, and heaven which in turn followed the cosmic order (rta) of the universe. The demons of darkness and chaos, headquartered under the earth, arrayed their power against the righteousness of the gods. In this dualistic approach, the demons sought to disrupt the system of nature, therefore practicing anrta.

During a later period, rta gave way to the concept of dharma, which could be translated as “virtue.” Although the deities of the Rig-Veda are not organized hierarchically, each could, in its own right, be looked upon as the supreme god. Nevertheless, Indra, the god of war and weather, receives the most attention in the ancient Vedic text, and is frequently referred to as the eka deva, or “one god.” According to the Rig-Veda (6.7), creation began once Indra slew Vritra, the serpent demon, who had locked up the waters necessary for human existence in mountain caves. With the waters now released, he then placed the sun in the sky thus establishing the cosmic order (rta) under the god Varuna. Varuna, then, sits in the palace of heaven and oversees the world below. As the guardian of the moral order, both earthly and cosmic, Varuna punishes the sinner with disease, or for all time by condemning them to the House of Clay following death. Aryans who practiced right deeds, or performed the proper ritual would forever celebrate happiness after death. Varuna is aided in his efforts by many spies who fly through the cosmos at his command. Less important than Indra, but still held in high regard among the numerous deities of the Aryan religion, was Agni, the fire god. Agni descends from the darkened clouds as lightning, shines on the world as the sun, and manifests in the flame of the sacrifice. Through the sacrificial offering, Agni served as the intermediary between the gods and man, and the correct performance of this important ritual could beneficially reward the devotee. Rituals based on the fire sacrifice could be as personal as dumping clarified butter in the family hearth, to the production of soma juice. As part of the sacrificial ritual, parts of the soma plant were pressed between stones, mixed with milk, and filtered through a sheepskin. An hallucinogen, soma consumed during sacrifices supposedly produced a sense of superhuman strength and visions of the gods. Soma would later become the moon god.

The Hindu God Shiva

The Hindu God Shiva

The cosmic order of the Aryan universe remained fairly simple. The heavens served as the residence of the major gods and the souls of the righteous. The region between heaven and earth was called the antariksa. This region, where the birds flew and the clouds crossed the sky, was also home to the demigods. Below the earth, in the darkness of the House of Clay, was the dwelling of the spirits of the unrighteousness and the demons that sought to disrupt rta. The concept of birth and rebirth had not yet become part of the Indian cosmology that would later be indicative of all Indian religion. Religion during the Vedic Age revolved around the sacrifice. Within the home, the patriarch of the family daily sacrificed at the domestic hearth while the brahmans performed great rituals slaughtering numerous animals to the gods. In each case, the idea was to communicate with the gods who would descend from the heavens granting the devotees health, happiness, and success. Over time, these rituals became so complex that the brahmans, who knew the correct ritual, became indispensable

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The Vedantic Age

The Hindu god Vishnu

Between 800 and 400 BC, significant changes began to occur in the lives of religious peoples in all of the civilized parts of the world. Independent thinkers, discontented with the traditional explanations of the cosmic order, and specifically man’s place within that cosmos, began to develop new, more simple and rational, doctrines. Scholars frequently refer to this period as the Axial Age.

There is, however, no solid explanation why such dramatic religious changes would occur throughout the world during the same period. Prominent among the rising sages were the Greek philosophers led by Socrates. In Persia, Zarathustra extracted the elements of the supernatural from religion and created a new faith, Zoroastrianism. In China, Confucius devoted himself to teaching moral persuasion and good government, which would become the mainstay of Chinese thought. The Hebrew prophets formulated a monotheistic religious tradition notably different from the polytheistic religions of Greece, China, Mesopotamia, and India. While all of this was happening in the rest of the world, kshatriya ascetics, throughout India, began to challenge the proliferation of brahmin ritual that personified the Aryan religion of the Vedic Age.

During this time, the Vedas were still held in high regard, but this new generation of seekers sought a more enlightened meaning to life. This period is commonly referred to as the Vedantic Age. The collection of teachings generated by the ascetics who meditated on the mysteries of human existence became known as the Upanishads, and the seekers who produced the writings were called Upanishads, which literally means “sitting near” the gurus. Over a hundred Upanishads have survived, but only a dozen, or so, are considered authentic. To lend credibility to the teachings, they were invariably compiled as appendages to the Vedas. Vedanta, then, means the “end of the Vedas.” In this respect, the Vedas are considered the foundation of the faith while the Upanishads are considered the vehicle whereby the devotee may attain enlightenment as to the nature of god and man’s role in the cosmos. Scholars continue to debate over the beginning of Hinduism. Some insists that this tradition began with the Indus civilization and its proto-Shiva personified by the horned god. Others point to the development of the Aryan religion of the Vedic Age as the genesis of the Hindu tradition. Still others point to the Vedantic Age, with the development of karma (deed), and the doctrine of samsara or the transmigration of birth and rebirth, as the fundamental beginning. Unfortunately, unlike many other religions, Hinduism can not be attributed to the teachings of any single individual. This sort of ambiguity naturally lends itself to debate and speculation. Although we are unable to accurately date the beginning of Hinduism, we can point to the Vedantic Age as the period in Indian history where the Hindu religious tradition began to solidify.

The principles of karma and samsara directly appealed to a populace caught in the stranglehold of the rigidity of the caste system. In this respect, one’s deeds in the present life would directly effect their future as the soul passes form life to life. Interestingly, the Upanishads, nor the thinkers responsible for the new orthodoxy of the Hindu religion, ever directly challenged the Vedic beliefs, the existing gods, or the practice of sacrifice. Instead, a quiet transformation gradually occurred that formulated a new system of thought that became the cornerstone of Hinduism. Increasingly, the common people directed their faith toward lesser deities that filled their specific needs. Rising to the top of the nonexistent hierarchy of the gods, the religious practices, although still based in the Vedic scripture, decidedly shifted from Indra and Varuna to the two current sects of Hinduism which worship Vishnu and Shiva.

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Hindu Mythology & Religion

The Goddess Kali, the personification of death

Hinduism has been one of the main religions in India for over 2000 years.The earliest records of Hindu gods, goddesses and Hindu beliefs were first written down in about the fourth century A.D. However, by this time, there was already a strong oral tradition which supported these beliefs. The early Hindu epics and myths help us to understand the evolution of the gods and goddesses and the development of beliefs which form the basis of the modern Hindu religion.

Very little is known about the religion of the Indus civilization because no written records exit. There is, however, an assumption that parts of the Harappan tradition were held in common by ancient religions of the Middle East as well as the later Hinduism. Prominent among the evidence discovered are the many seals discovered at the sites along the Indus River, as well as in Mesopotamia.

Some of these seals clearly indicate the sacredness of the bull which later became a common tradition in Hinduism. Other features are the horned god. These seals have two faces in profile, and one facing forward. The figure is surrounded by a tiger, an elephant, a rhinoceros, and a buffalo. His legs are bent with his feet pressed together in a yoga position which has led some to believe that this god is most likely a proto-Shiva. Shiva is the three-faced Hindu god of death, destruction, and fertility. Some of these sites have also yielded terracotta figurines. Similar, in many respects, to evidence discovered in Egypt and Iran, some of these figurines are of broad-hipped pregnant-looking females. Representative of the Great Mother or nature, these types of deities, as well as the bull, are common among early agricultural societies of Eurasia.

Lord Krishna

Lord Krishna

Excavations of Indus cities have not revealed any buildings that can positively be identified as temples. No large statues or monumental sculptures, similar to those found in Egypt, have been discovered. This lack of temples and statuary has resulted in the belief that the focus of religious life was primarily centered in the home. Anthropologists are relatively certain that the peoples of the Indus civilization emphasized ritual purity. Much of this is evidenced by the presence of drainage baths in most of the residences, as well as a great bath or pool surrounded by a pillared hall with small cell-like rooms. Scholars have surmised that washing and bathing were integral to the preservation of purity and that cleanliness was considered necessary to ward off evil spirits. Similar to the culture of Egypt, it appears that the Indus religion recognized some type of life after death. Unlike later Indians, who practiced cremation, this civilization carefully buried their dead with their heads facing north and the feet pointing south. Included in the graves were pottery jars containing food and weapons for use in the afterlife. – Richard K. Hines

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The Maurya Empire

The Taj Mahal, the most famous structure in India

The Maurya Empire, ruled by the Mauryan dynasty, was the largest and most powerful political and military empire of ancient India. Originating from the kingdom of Magadha in the Indo-Gangetic plains of modern Bihar and Bengal, and with its capital city of Pataliputra (near modern Patna), the Empire was founded in 322 BCE by Chandragupta Maurya, who had overthrown the Nanda Dynasty and begun expanding his power across central and western India. The Empire stretched to the north along the natural boundaries of the Himalayas, and to the east stretching into what is now Assam. To the west, it reached beyond modern Pakistan and included Baluchistan in Persia and significant portions of what is now Afghanistan, including the modern Herat and Kandahar provinces. The Empire was expanded into India’s central and southern regions by Emperor Bindusara, but it excluded a small portion of unexplored tribal and forested regions near Kalinga.

Following the conquest of Kalinga in a major war, Ashoka the Great ended the military expansion of the empire. The kingdoms of Pandya and Cheras in southern India thus preserved their independence, accepting the supremacy of the Mauryan emperor. The Mauryan Empire was perhaps the greatest empire to rule the Indian subcontinent until the arrival of the British. Its decline began fifty years after Ashoka’s rule ended, and it dissolved in 185 BCE with the foundation of the Sunga Dynasty in Magadha.

Under Chandragupta, the Mauryan Empire liberated the trans-indus region, which was under Macedonian occupation. Chandragupta then defeated the invasion led by Seleucus I, a Greek general from Alexander’s army. Under Chandragupta and his successors, both internal and external trade, and agriculture and economic activities, all thrived and expanded across India thanks to the creation of a single and efficient system of finance, administration and security. After the Kalinga War, the Empire experienced half a century of peace and security under Ashoka: India was a prosperous and stable empire of great economic and military power whose political influence and trade extended across Western and Central Asia and Europe. 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 was the foundation of the reign of social and political peace and non-violence across all of India. Ashoka sponsored the spreading of Buddhist ideals into Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, West Asia and Mediterranean Europe.

Chandragupta’s minister Kautilya Chanakya wrote the Arthashastra, one of the greatest treatises on economics, politics, foreign affairs, administration, military arts, war, and religion ever produced in the East. Archaeologically, the period of Mauryan rule in South Asia falls into the era of Northern Black Polished Ware. The Arthashastra and the Edicts of Ashoka are primary sources of written records of the Mauryan times. The Mauryan empire is considered one of the most significant periods in Indian history. The Lion Capital of Asoka at Sarnath, is the emblem of India.

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Satavahana Empire

The Hindu god Indra, on the back of a sacred elephant

The Satavahanas, also known as the Andhras, were a dynasty which ruled from Junnar, Pune over Southern and Central India starting from around 230 BCE. Although there is some controversy about when the dynasty came to an end, the most liberal estimates suggest that it lasted about 450 years. The satavahanas are credited for establishing peace in the country from the onslaught of foreigners after the decline of Mauryan empire.

The first mention of the Andhras is in the Aitareya Brahmana, dating back to the 8th century BCE. In the Puranas and on their coins the dynasty is variously referred to as the Andhras, Andhrabhrityas, Satakarnis and Satavahanas. There is a reference about the Andhras by the Greek traveller Megasthanes, indicating that they possessed 100,000 infantry, 1,000 elephants, and had more than 30 well built fortified towns: “Next come the Andarae, a still more powerful race, which possesses numerous villages, and thirty towns defended by walls and towers, and which supplies its king with an army of 100,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry, and 1,000 elephants.” Plin. Hist. Nat. VI. 21. 8-23. 11., quoting Megasthenes. The Andhras ruled the biggest and most powerful empire of that time in Asia and this was evidenced by establishment of Indian colonies in southeast Asia for the first time in history. The Satavahanas started out as feudatories to the Mauryan Empire but declared independence soon after the death of Ashoka (232 BCE).

After becoming independent around 230 BCE, Simuka, the founder of the dynasty, conquered Maharashtra, Malwa and part of Madhya Pradesh. He was succeeded by his brother Kanha (or Krishna) (r. 207-189 BCE), who further extended his kingdom to the west and the south.

His successor Satakarni I defeated the Sunga dynasty of North India, and performed several Vedic sacrifices at huge cost, including the Horse Sacrifice. By this time the dynasty was well established, with its capital at Pratishthanapura (Paithan) in Maharashtra, and its power spreading into all of South India. The Puranas list 30 rulers of this line. Many are known from their coins and inscriptions as well.

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The Conquest of Alexander

Bust of Alexander the Great

In 331 BC, Alexander the Great of Macedon began one of the greatest conquests in human history. After conquering Egypt and defeating the Persian Empire Alexander had pushed his army to the very limits of the world as the Greeks knew it. But he wanted more; he saw that the world extended further. By conquering the ancient lands of the Mesopotamians, he came into contact with cultures to the east, such as Pakistan and India. After almost a millennium and a half, from the period of Harappa (2500-1750 BC), to the end of the Brahmanic period, the peoples of India entered into no commerce or trade with the Mesopotamians.

But starting around 700 BC, the Indians began to trade again with the Mesopotamian cities, and by the time of Alexander, that trade was dynamic. Partly out of curiosity, and partly out of a desire to conquer the entire world within the boundaries of the river Ocean (the Greeks believed that a great river, called Ocean, encircled all the land of the world), Alexander and his army pushed east, through northern Iran and all the way to Pakistan and India. He had conquered Bactria at the foot of the western Himalayas, gained a huge Bactrian army, and married a Bactrian princess, Roxane. But when he tried to push on past Pakistan, his army grew tired, and he abandoned the eastward conquest in 327 BC.

Alexander only made it as far as the region of Gandhara, the plain which lies directly west of the Indus River. Alexander himself seems to have had literally no effect on Indian history, for he left as soon as he reached the Indus. Two important results, however, arose because of Alexander’s conquests: first, from this point onwards Greek and Indian culture would intermix. But most importantly, the conquest of Alexander may have set the stage for the first great conqueror of Indian history, Chandragupta Maurya (reigned 321-297 BC), who, shortly after Alexander left, united all the kingdoms of northern India into a single empire.

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