Ancient Indian Civilization

India and South Asia in 200 BCE: The Mauryan empire

As well as religious writings, ancient India produced works on mathematics, medicine, and politics. TheArthashastraof the famous statesman Kautilya anticipates Machiavelli by almost 2,000 years.

The evolution of a religious culture in ancient India, out of 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 Indian subcontinent (where, curiously, it has become a minority religion), and has had a deep impact upon societies inChina, Japan, Korea, Tibet andSouth East Asia. It is now spreading fast amongst peoples in the West, where by some counts it is the fastest growing religion.

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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 emperor, Asoka.

TheAryan belief-systemrevolved 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 creature (including both animals and humans) to another. Later, the idea of thematerial world being an illusionbecame widespread. Such ideas were emphasised more strongly in the new teachings of Jainism and Buddhism, which both also had their origins in ancient India, in the years around 500 BCE.

The detail of the Alexander Mosaic showing Alexander the Great.

251 BCE: a mission led by Mahinda, Asokas son,introduces Buddhism to the island of Sri Lanka

The rise of the Mauryan empire to cover most of ancient India involved the creation of aprovincial administrationwhich spanned much of the subcontinent. 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 ancient world.

A medical treatise called theSushruta Samhita(6th century BCE) 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 ancient Indian physicians, and was performed with a specially designed curved needle to loosen the lens and push the cataract out of the field of vision.

The tribal chiefs of early Aryan society were the ancestors of the princes and kings we encounter in later Indian history. The re-emergence of cities enabled properly organized states to appear. Most of these were kingdoms, but uniquely in the ancient world outsidethe Mediterranean, some were republics.

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269 BCE:Ashokabecomes the Mauryan emperor

232 BCE: Asoka dies; shortly after, thedecline of the Mauryan empiresets in

Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro, with the Great Bath in the front.

History map of the Indus Valley civilization

Painting of Indra on his elephant mount, Airavata.

Fifty years or so after Ashokas death the hugeMauryan empire began to crumble. Outlying provinces fell away, and by the mid-2nd century BCE the empire had shrunk to its core areas.

c.2800 BCE: theIndus Valley civilizationbegins to emerge

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India and South Asia in 500 BCE: The India of the Buddha

Reconstructing theIndus Valley civilizations religionis impossible, but there is strong evidence that it had a major impact on the subsequent religious history of India. In any case, the next period of ancient Indian history, the Vedic age, saw the rise of early Hinduism, from which all other Indian religious systems arose.

Apart from figurines from the Indus Valley civilization, the earliest examples of the art of ancient India which have come down to us are from magnificent cave temples in 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 times have come down to us, the earliest dating from the Mauryan empire, or just after. The most famous early cave-temples are found at Ellora, in central India.

India and South Asia in 1000 BCE: The Vedic Age

In the earliest times, many hunter-gatherer groups inhabited much of the Indian sub-continent. However, the economic history of ancient India is one of agricultural advance. The use of iron spread from theMiddle Eastfrom around 800 BCE, making farming more productive, and populations grew. At first, this occurred on 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 being incorporated into Aryan society as new castes.

All these works were written in Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Aryans. This is an Indo-European language distantly related to Persian, Greek, Latin, German and other tongues. The Sanskrit script was based on the Aramaic alphabet, which came to India from the Middle East some time before 500 BCE. 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 briefsutrasin ancient Indian scriptures embody this principle. The influence of Paninis work on the history of Indian high culture is incalculable. Much Indian education came to be based on its principles, even if not in Sanskrit; they trained Indian scholars in a rigorous logic which acted as a major stimulus to intellectual thought and debate.

c.1500 BCE:Aryan tribesbegin to infiltrate into northern India from central Asia

Sources and further reading on ancient and medieval India

India and South Asia in 2500 BCE: Indus Valley Civilization

c. 500 BCE: two new religions,Buddhism and Jainism, are founded

Both Buddhism and Jainism flourished under the Mauryan empire. Some scholars believe that it was in this period, especially underAsoka, that Buddhism became established as a major religion within ancient India.

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 BCE), this kingdom dramatically expanded to cover a large part of northern India; and under the following Maurya dynasty, the empire went on the coverall of north and central India.

The spread of iron-age farming was a crucial development in the history of ancient India as it led tothe rebirth of urban civilizationin the subcontinent. Cities grew up; trade expanded; metal currency appeared, and an alphabetical script came into use.

Later in ancient Indias history, religious and other ideas came to be expressed in short texts calledsutras. 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 tradition of elaborate epic poetry. The most famous examples are theRamayanaand theMahabharata. These retell famous incidents in semi-mythological history, far back in the Vedic age.

The most famous of the Maurya emperors, in fact the most famous ruler in ancient Indias history and one of the most notable in the entire ancient world, wasAshoka(also spelt Asoka reigned 272-232 BCE). He was a remarkable and attractive ruler: compassionate, tolerant, firm, seeking justice and well-being for all his subjects.

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A statue dedicated to Sushruta at the Patanjali Yogpeeth institute in Haridwar.

Timeline of the history of ancient India:

This period of ancient India ended with the rise of the first great imperial state in ancient India, theMauryan empire, after 320 BCE.

India was one of the great seats of ancient civilization.

The civilization of ancient India was an astonishing seedbed of religious innovation.

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 Western mathematics, and therefore for modern Western science.

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India and South Asia in 3500 BCE: Prehistory

Jainism was founded by Mahariva (The Great Hero, lived c. 540-468 BCE). 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.

In mathematics, the scholars of ancient India 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 contain 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.

Urban civilization first appeared in ancient India with theIndus Valley civilizationin the early third millennium BCE, in what is todayPakistan and north-west India. This was contemporary with other early civilizations of the ancient world, in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, and is one of the earliest civilizations in world history. It is famous for its large and well-planned cities.

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

A page from the manuscript Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India

India and South Asia in 1500 BCE: The Aryan Migrations

The tribal society of the early Aryans gave way to the more complex society of theClassic Ageof Ancient India. This period saw therebirth of urban civilizationin the Indian subcontinent, and with it, a literate culture. It was one of the most creative ages in the history of India, and saw the emergence of two new religions, Jainism and Buddhism.

As early Aryan society evolved into the more settled and more urban society of ancient India, these caste divisions persisted. New religious movements, theJains 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 has endured right up to the present day.

TheVedic agewas a dark age in Indian history, in that it was a time of violent upheaval, and no written records from that period have survived to shed light on it. It was, however, one of the most formative eras of ancient Indian civilization. So far as society is concerned, the coming of Aryans into ancient India, and their establishing themselves as the dominant group, gave rise to thecaste system. This divided Indian society into rigid layers, underpinned by religious rules. Originally there were just four castes, the priestly caste, the warrior caste, the farmers and traders, and the menial workers. Outside the caste system altogether, excluded from Aryan-dominated society, were the Untouchables.

The establishment of provinces, with strong centres of state power distributed in key locations throughout much of the subcontinent, set the stage for the next chapter in Indias history. As Mauryan power weakened, these provinces became powerful regional kingdoms, covering a territory far greater than the ancient Aryan homeland of northern India and reaching down into southern India.

Strongly linked to these religious developments, ancient India produced a fantastically rich literature. In the centuries after coming into northern India, the Aryans developed a great abundance of poems, tales, hymns, spells and so on, in an oral tradition known as theVedas. They were written down long after the Vedic age. Another body of literature that was composed towards the end of the Vedic age were theUpanishads, a collection of works of prose and poetry which explore deep religious and philosophical concepts, including the idea that the material world is an illusion, and the implications of this idea for the individual soul.

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

290 BCE: Chandraguptas successor, Bindusara, extends the Mauryan conquests into central India

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

c. 800 BCE: The use ofiron and alphabeticwriting begin to spread to northern India from the Middle East

Buddhism was founded by Gautama Siddharta, the Buddha (The Enlightened One, lived c. 565 to 485 BCE). 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.

This period of ancient Indian history is known as theVedic age, as it was depicted in the earliest Indian writings, called the Vedas. It is also theformative periodin 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.

327 BCE:Alexander the Greatconquers the Indus Valley; this leads to king Chandragupta Maurya of Maghada conquering the Indus Valley from Alexander the Greats successor (304 BCE)

c.1700 BCE: theIndus Valley civilization vanishes

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