Ancient India started around 1 500 BCE to 500 BCE, and their greatest innovations are still used today. From architecture to science, the adapted methods shape many aspects of modern society.
Just as any civilization, the beginning of India’s history started in the Prehistoric Age. Traced back to 400 000 to 200 000 BCE, the discovery of cave paintings and stone tools show the first signs of human activity. It gave details on the living conditions and other information during this time period. There were great rulers who expanded their kingdoms to what makes up India today. On the other hand, there were also leaders who proved incapable of maintaining a kingdom. Religions and their practices were formed, giving Ancient Indian society a transformed structure.
Changes made in the passing times only strengthened the greatest empires known in history.
The history of ancient civilization is just like any other. There were great rulers and malicious rulers. With wars and battles came victories and defeats. Society brought on social classes. Ancient education set the foundations for modern education.
All in all, just like any mark in history, we obtain a greater understanding of the world.
Indus Valley Civilization
The earliest known urban Indian population was near the Indus River, lasting between 3 300 and 1 300 BCE. Also known as ‘Harappan’, this civilization grew in three stages.
Between 3 300 to 2 600 BCE, early settlers started farming communities and pastoral camps. Among their duties were crop cultivation and domesticating animals. Within those small communities, effective trade networks established connections with other settlements further away. Additionally, copper working became a form of technological advancement.
In their final stages, they built large-walled settlements and expanded their trade networks. In the very end, the increased integration of regional communities led to a material culture.
From 2 600 to 1 900 BCE, the early setters evolved into the Indus Valley Civilization. It became widely known as such upon its future discovery.
The slow migration of monsoons allowed the villages to further develop. By taming the floods and their tributaries, they obtained an abundance of agriculture. This aided in the development of cities. However, without an irrigation system, farmers depended on monsoons and summer floods.
Over the years, the communities of Early Harappan became large urban cities. Further excavations proved that the early settlers had their own writing system, as well as the development of social and economic systems.
Although the Indus Valley Civilization thrives with the natural elements, between 1 900 and 1 300 BCE, the early settlers slowly declined. The changes in building structure and methods of production proved another civilization inhabited the land after some time. Nevertheless, uncertainty surrounds the reason behind the decline, with many plausible ones given. For instance:
- The scarcity of natural resources forced the settlers to relocate.
- Aryan invaders attacked and destroyed the cities. However, there is no evidence of destruction or killing at the site.
- Floods and other natural disasters became too common.
Aryans from central Asia inhabited the land that once belonged to the early settlers, lasting 1 500 to 500 BCE. They spoke an Indo-European language, an early form of Sanskrit. Tribal and nomadic, Aryans were tough, fierce, and war-like, as well as determined to stay true to their tribal identity.
Starting as small communities, they brought a religion based on the worship of gods and goddesses.
Also known as the Vedic people, they followed four sacred texts, the Vedas. The Vedas provide a look into their lives and beliefs.
Spreading their culture, a large portion of India soon followed their beliefs by 1 000 BCE. The Aryans saw the formation of various kingdoms at that time. Bringing their philosophical beliefs, they shared that happiness and salvation comes from a person’s morals and ethics. Additionally, one’s path should be based on their place in life but should be right and good.
In sharing their beliefs, they brought a societal caste system:
- Brahmins (priests, teachers, and intellectuals).
- Kshatriyas (warriors, police, and administrators).
- Vaishyas (farmers, merchants, and businesspeople).
- Shudras (artisans and workers).
As their tribal settlements spread across India, their civilization grew and flourished in culture and trade. As a result, this led to the creation of 16 larger settlements across northern India: Anga, Assaka, Avanti, Chedi, Gandhara, Kamboja, Kasi, Kosala, Kuru, Machcha, Magadha, Malla, Panchala, Surasena, Vajji, and Vatsa.
The changes in linguistics, culture, and politics contributed to the end of an era. However, the Vedic Age led to a complex change in society. Along with an abundance of agriculture, trade expanded. The written verbal traditions of the Aryans show the Vedic Period as the heart of urban civilization’s rebirth.
In short, the Vedic Age brought forth Ancient Indian civilization.
Dynasties of Ancient India
A total of 20 dynasties ruled through Ancient India. Each made their effective contribution towards India’s growth and prosperity. The focus is on those labeled as the most important in Ancient Indian History.
The ‘Mahajanapadas‘, 16 large states that served as republics and kingdoms during the Vedic period. Kings ruled the majority. Others, known as ganas or sanghas, were oligarchies. In an oligarchy, several men known as rajas shared power.
Magadha, Koshala, Vatsa, and Avanti seemed the most powerful. In a battle of supremacy, however, Magadha emerged the most powerful. In addition to being rich in natural resources, iron ores created Magadha’s weapons. Its jungles provided wood and elephants, which proved useful to their armies. Their fields grew enough crops to feed its people and their entire army.
Magadha became the first empire of India (544 – 322 BCE), with its growth seen through three dynasties. First, the Haryanka Dynasty. Then, the Shishunga Dynastry. Finally, the Nanda Dynasty.
Following the Magadha Empire was the Mauryan Empire. Years later, the Gupta Empire progressed into Ancient India’s Golden Age.
The Haryanka Dynasty
Three rulers reigned in the Haryanka Dynasty between 544 and 412 BCE.
Bimbisara, founder of the Magadha Empire, reigned from 544 to 492 BCE. His kingdom’s boundaries expanded through marriages and conquests.
His first marriage to Kosala Devi, daughter of the Koshlan King, brought a dowry of a Koshi village. Additionally, this calmed hostilities between the two rulers. The second marriage to Chellan, a Lichcchavi princess from Vaishali, gave him a son and secured the northern frontier. His third marriage to Khema, daughter of a chief of the Madra clan of Punja, secured their alliance.
He expanded his territory by conquering Anga, placing his son as vice-royal. Following his continuous conquests and alliances, the Magadha Empire became large enough to hold 80 000 villages.
However, he was killed by his son, Ajatashatru, who later ascended to the throne.
Ajatashatru’s reign lasted between 492 and 460 BCE. Following his father’s footsteps, he became an aggressive expansionist.
Although allied with Koshala, he wanted to conquer it, along with Kashi. It brought a war between the two rulers. In the end, the war forced the Koshala King to give his daughter to Ajatashatru for peace. After that, the King of Kashi gave his daughter.
Udayin succeeded his father from 460 to 444 BCE, playing an important role in the junction of the Ganges and Son.
At this time, Magadha extended from the Himalays (north) to Chotanagpur (south).
Just as his grandfather, his son killed him and ascended to the throne. The cycle of patricide continued, angering the common people. They lost faith in their leaders. As a result, the common people revolted and disposed of the last ruler of the dynasty.
Soon after, they imposed the most qualified official to be their leader, Shishunga, a viceroy of Kashi.
The Shishunga Dynasty
The dynasty ruled the Magadha Empire from 412 to 344 BCE.
Shishunga ruled from 413 to 395 BCE. Destroying the power of Avanti became his greatest military achievement, surpassing his predecessors. Therefore, the 100-year rivalry between Avanti and Magadha came to an end, resulting in Avanti becoming part of the Empire.
Kalashoka, son of Shishunga, succeeded his father from 395 to 344 BCE. He ruled just as his father did, maintaining the empire as before. As for his military achievements, little is known.
Although he had ten sons, he was the last ruler of the Shishunga Dynasty.
His ten sons divided the kingdom amongst themselves instead of choosing a suitable brother. However, this weakened the empire through the later years, leading to a quick downfall.
The Nanda Dynasty
The kings of the Nanda Dynasty were the last to rule the Magadha Empire from 344 to 322 BCE.
The dynasty reached new levels of power and supremacy for Magadha. It grew in geographical expanse, wealth, and military conquests.
Mahapadma Nanda was not only the first ruler of the dynasty, but the first non-Kshatriya ruler, from 344 to 319 BCE. After killing Kalashoka and becoming king, he proved to be the most powerful. He extended the empire by conquering Kalinga.
Dhana Nanda, the last ruler of the Nanda Dynastry, succeeded his father from 319 to 322 BCE. The extent of his power proved so great that Alexander the Great did not dare move near his territory. However, his power proved nothing against his unpopularity with his people. This unpopularity is a result of his anti-kshatriya policy, shudra origin, oppressive methods of collecting taxes, and poor management of the kingdom’s finances.
He proved to be a weak and unable leader.
When faced with the threat of possible foreign invasion, the common people looked to their king for a plan. His selfishness and arrogance made him belittle those who advised him.
While he lived in denial, Chandragupta Maurya trained with his guru, Chanakya. They worked on a plan to strike the Magadha Empire. Additionally, Alexander the Great’s death left a power vacuum, of which Chandragupta took advantage of.
Thrown off guard by the Mauryan attack, Dhana prepared his army for an unanticipated war. Chandragupta led his small army to victory using his knowledge and military expertise.
Overthrowing Dhana Nanda led to the start of Maurya rule and the end of the Magadha Empire.
The Mauryan Empire
The Mauryan Empire, the first Indian imperial empire, started in 321 BCE and ended in 185 BCE. It covered most of the Indian region: across central and northern India, as well as parts of Persia.
Chandragupta, named king in 323 BCE, took additional lands through force and formed alliances.
Chanakya advised and contributed to the empire’s legacy. As well as being a political strategist, he wrote the Arthashastra. This focused on leadership and government, how a state should organize its economy while maintaining power.
The Empire expanded to all 16 states.
Chanakya recommended a network of spies, a focused element in the Arthashastra. They acted as a surveillance force for the ruler. Their focus on deception reflected their practical and pessimistic view of human nature.
Moreover, the Empire constructed extraordinary temples, libraries, palaces, and a university. Their trade system grew impressively, all while maintaining a strong governmental system and army.
Bindusara succeeded his father around 300 BCE, peacefully maintaining the lands as his father did.
After succeeding his father between 268 and 232 BCE, Ashoka led a bloody battle against the Kingdom of Kalinga. This battle caused him to re-evaluate his commitment to the Empire’s expansion. Therefore, in taking a step towards non-violence, he turned to Buddhism.
His mark in history was the creation of pillars inscribed with his official decress on Buddhism. They promoted non-violence and living in peace with each other.
Unlike Ashoka and his predecessors, his successors failed to hold the Empire. Eventually, it broke apart. The public’s unwillingness to follow Buddhism brought conflict throughout the Mauryan Empire.
The last of the line, Brihadratha, was assassinated by his commander-in-chief, Pushyamitra Shunga. Thus, the Shunga Dynasty rose.
The Gupta Empire
From 320 to 550 CE, the Gupta Empire became known for its exquisite art, architecture, sciences, religions, and philosophy.
Known as the ‘Golden Age’, the Gupta Empire was a period of prosperity and growth.
Not much is known about the early years. Travelling Buddhists, however, were trustworthy sources for information.
During the rule of Sri Gupta (240 – 280 CE), the empire comprised only Magadha and a part of Bengal. His son, Ghatotkacha, succeeded him and learned the benefit of maintaining an army.
Chandragupta I, son of Ghatotkacha, started with a rapid expansion of the empire. Established as the first sovereign ruler, his reign continued from 320 to 335 CE. Marrying the Lichcchavi princess, Dumaradevi, allowed him ownership of mines rich in iron ore. These mines met internal demand and became a valuable trade commodity.
Territorial heads of other parts of India surrendered to Chandragupta I, seeing the sovereign ruler as unmatched.
Samudragupta ruled from 335 to 375 CE. As a military genius, he continued the empire’s growth. He conquered the remaining areas of northern India and a portion of southern India.
From then on, India spanned from the Himalayas (north) to the mouth of Krishna and Godavari rivers (south); from Balkh, Afghanistan (west) to the Brahmaputra River (east).
After Samudragupta’s reign, there was a short power struggle.
His eldest son, Ramagupta, became the next king. However, the Scythian King of Mathura overcame his power. Seeing the king’s interest in his wife, Ramagupta gave his wife, Queen Dhruvadevi, to the Scythian Kin to maintain peace.
Chandragupta II rescued Dhruvadevi and assassinated the Scythian King. After Dhruvadevi publicly condemned her husband, Chandragupta killed him. Then, after being named king, he spent his first years putting an end to the rebellions amongst the subordinate rulers. Some time later, he married Dhruvadevi.
A skilled and able leader, he defeated the provincial governor of Saurashtra, further expanding his kingdom to the coastline of the Arabian Sea. He then earned the title, Vikramaditya, meaning emperor of Ancient India. Across history, this progress is well known.
In other words, the Gupta Empire reached its pinnacle.
The last sovereign ruler, Skandagupta, reigned from 455 to 467 CE. He prevented the invasion of the Huns. Unfortunately, after his death, the dynasty faced domestic conflicts. His successors failed to maintain the large kingdom, resulting in a decline in law and order.
Continuously, the Huns and foreign powers attacked them, tarnishing the kingdom’s economic well-being. The final attack of the Huns in 550 CE ended what remained of the empire.
Ancient Indian Society
Society in Ancient India divided into four varnas (social classes or castes), giving society order and structure. At first, it seemed a reflection of occupation. On the other hand, interpretations show it was determined by one’s birth.
There were no changes allowed in the castes, as well as marriage outside of one’s own caste.
Brahmin in Ancient India
The highest varna focused on the duties of priests, teachers, and intellectuals. Their duties centered around knowledge. Firstly, they provided education and spiritual leadership. Secondly, they studied and taught the Vedas. Thirdly, they performed and taught sacred rituals. Fourthly, they developed ideal qualities. Among these ideal qualities are honesty, integrity, purity, and austerity.
Along with Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, they are ‘twice born’. They accepted the sacred thread (spiritual initiation) and performed certain rituals and rites of passage.
Kshatriyas in Ancient India
Warriors, police, and administrators were of nobility, protectors of society. Displaying the strength of the body and its character, they ensured the citizens’ performance of their duties. As well, they dealt uncompromisingly with crime and lawlessness. They conquered their own minds and senses.
Vaishyas in Ancient India
The productive class of farmers, merchants, and businesspeople protected animals (especially cows) and the land. They created wealth and prosperity, maintained work with food, clothes, etc., and traded ethically.
Shudras in Ancient India
Artisans and workers, the only class allowed to accept another’s employment. The three varnas above, however, were occupationally and financially self-sufficient.
Rendering services to others and following moral principles, they remained loyal and took pride in their work.
The fifth and lowest varna, Chandala, handled jobs in society that no one wanted to do. Also known as ‘the untouchables’, it is unclear if they were truly mentioned in the caste system.
Ancient Indian Literature
The earliest known work, the Rig Veda, contains 1 028 hymns in Vedic Sanskrit. Most of the surviving works are religious texts, but attention is placed on everything linked to ‘literature’. This includes epics and lyrics, dramatic and didactic poetry, narrative and scientific prose, and verbal poetry and songs.
Yajur Veda held directions for performances of the rituals.
Sama Veda prescribed tunes for recitation of the hymns.
Athora Veda prescribed rites and rituals.
Ancient Indian Philosophical Literature
Brahmanas gave detailed explanations of Vedic literature.
Aryankas explains the rituals, going into philosophical discussion of the Brahmanas. It holds records of transitions between the Brahmanas’ ritualistic symbolism and the Upanishads’ philosophical aspects.
Upanishads deal with the concepts of the origin of the universe, birth, and death, as well as the material and spiritual worlds. Written in poetry or prose, these are expressions of philosophical concepts.
The Puranas aided in the development of the early Vedic religion of Hinduism. Meaning ‘to renew the old’, they explain philosophical and religious truths through legends and mythical stories.
Shastras contain works of philosophy and science, covering art, mathematics, and other sciences. For example, the Arthashastra is the science of governance.
Smritis focus on the performance of duties, customs, and laws according to Dharma.
In early Buddhist literature, Suta Pitaka includes dialogues between Buddha and his followers. Vinaya Pitaka holds the rules of organization of the monasteries.
The Great Epics
The Ramayana contains 2 400 verses in seven books, the Khandos. Written in poetry form, it tells the story of Rama and how to achieve the four objectives of human life:
- Dharma – righteous behavior or religion.
- Artha – achievement of worldly wealth and prosperity.
- Kama – the fulfillment of desires.
- Maliska – ultimate liberation.
Mahabharata contains 100 000 verses in ten books, making it the longest poem in the world. Considered mythical history, it mentions events that will always happen and repeat.
Art and Architecture Of Ancient India
Ancient Indian Architecture
Evidence of planned cities in Harappan indicates highly developed architecture.
During the Vedic Period, fire altars, along with mathematical and astronomical significance, played a part in the evolution of temple architecture. The development of rock cut-out caves soon followed, evolving to suit social and religious contexts, and regional differences.
Originally, Buddhism led to a spread of temples. Later, it adopted into Hinduism.
Ancient Indian Art
Ancient Indian art begins in the Prehistoric Age, with cave paintings depicting different events at the time.
Paintings and sculptures evolved, transforming folk and tribal art traditions. It represented people belonging to different cultural and social groups of Ancient India. A depiction of their lives in sync with nature, how they connect with natural energy, is shown.
Through years of study, their art shows open-mindedness in the portrayal of myths, legends, and gods out of dreams and fantasies.
Mathematics and Science in Ancient India
Ancient Indian findings show a solid link between science and religion.
In astronomy, planets were considered gods, resulting in close observation of their movements. Additionally, this was also due to their connection to changes in seasons and weather.
In the science of grammar and linguistics, Brahmanas stressed that Vedic prayers and mantras must be recited with preciseness and accuracy.
Around the 3rd century BCE, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine developed differently.
Ancient Indian mathematics made three contributions: the notion system, the decimal system, and the use of zero. The introduction of zero led to a higher level of study in mathematical mechanics.
Above all, Brahmic numbers served as the foundations for modern, Indian or Hindu, and Arabic number systems used today.
The Legacy of Ancient India
For centuries, the culture and religions of Ancient India influenced the world. Not only did the religions gain followers, but the philosophical practices influence many. Hinduism and Buddhism are two of the world’s major religions. Indian literature, architecture, and art shaped cultures, influencing the respective fields till this day, with inspiring stories told. They strongly influenced the world, as seen from the many translations of the Bhagavad Gita. People from other religions meditate and practice yoga. Proving the legacy of ancient practices, it welcomes any who choose to follow its steps to self-realisation.
Events occurring years after Ancient India prove its living legacy. Mohandas Gandhi used non-violence against British rule in the 1900s. Inspired, Martin Luther King Jr. led non-violent protests to gain rights for African-Americans in the 50s and 60s. In northwestern India, the styles of Greek and Persian combined with Ancient Indian, resulting in the Gandhara culture. These rich fusions demonstrate the ongoing evolution of India.
The practices bring self-reflection onto the individual, including some of the most powerful people in the world, continuing their growth and self-awareness.
“To keep your mind and nature free from impurities, build a hut in your backyard for critics and keep it closed.”