After the long period of disruption following Harappa’s fall—around 1500 B.C.E.—a new civilization arose in India. India became the third great center of classical civilization. The basis for Indian civilization after 1500 B.C.E. was laid by Aryan invaders who ended Harappan civilization. By 500 B.C.E., states ruled by kings claiming divine descent controlled much of the Ganges Plains. Its settlement resulted in the clearing of forest lands and contributed to broad climatic changes. Rigid social castes developed, with brahmans emerging as dominant because of their literary and religious functions. Discontented with empty rituals, ascetic holy men offered new religious ideas. One of these thinkers, now known as the Buddha, founded one of the great world religions—a religion that provided a powerful challenge to the brahmans and many of the ancient Vedic beliefs and practices.
The Framework for Indian History: Geography and Culture
In the centuries that followed the Aryan incursions, the rivalry between Buddhists and brahmans played a major role in shaping gender relationships and the nature of social hierarchies as a whole in south Asia. The Buddha’s teachings also contributed to what would become the first and largest empire in premodern India, but the Mauryan Empire was short-lived. After a period of nomadic invasions and political fragmentation, the Gupta dynasty sponsored the flowering of Hinduism, and achievements in architecture, painting, sculpture, philosophy, literature, and the sciences. India’s unique development contrasted with that of China, especially in regard to politics. Whereas China relied on its political structure to maintain peace and order, in India, Hinduism supplied the primary social glue. Both agricultural societies held certain traits in common, such as the importance of village life and patriarchy. They also built great cities and engaged in extensive trade.
Formative Influences. India’s distinctive culture was born of its geography and early historical experience. It was open to influences from the Middle East and even the Mediterranean world; Persia spilled into India, Alexander the Great invaded, periodic influences from the Middle East continued after the classical age. India had to react and adapt in ways that China largely avoided because it was more isolated. India traded with China in the late classical age, but China was more affected.
India’s topography and climate played a major role in its history. The Himalaya mountains were a formidable barrier to East Asia, whereas passes across the mountains in the northwest linked India to the Middle East. The subcontinent itself was divided into distinct geographical regions that encouraged the development of economic, cultural, linguistic, and racial diversity. The two river regions of the Indus and Ganges allowed for substantial agriculture, whereas the mountainous north consisted mostly of herders. Mountains and the Deccan plateau cut across mid-continent India. Its southern coastal rim became known for trading and seafaring. The semitropical climate, and the variable droughts and monsoon floods that came with it, informed a culture in need to come to terms with a climate that could produce abundance one year and grim starvation the next. In a year with favorable monsoons, Indian farmers could plant and harvest two crops and thus support a sizeable population.
Brahman Culture. Indian civilization was shaped not only by its physical environment but also by a formative period, lasting several centuries, between the destruction of the Indus River civilization and the revival of full civilization elsewhere on the subcontinent. Called the Vedic and Epic ages, Aryan (Indo-European) migrants gradually extended agriculture from the Indus River valley to the more fertile Ganges valley. Initially passed down orally, later written in Sanskrit, Aryan epics developed the first literary language of the new culture. The first of these Vedas, the Riga-Veda, consists of 1028 hymns dedicated to the Aryan gods and composed by various priests. New stories of battles, real and imagined, developed during the Epic Age between 1000 and 600 B.C.E., include the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the more mystical Upanishads.
As Aryan peoples became increasingly sedentary during the Vedic and Epic ages, village chiefs took on the role of supervising defense and property relationships among village families, and the caste system developed, regulating the social order. Initially, castes represented four hierarchical social classes (Varnas): the warriors (Kshatriyas) and priests (Brahmans) at the top, then traders and farmers (Vaisyas), and lastly, common laborers (Sudras). The Epic Age saw the addition of a fifth class, the Untouchables, named as such because it was widely believed that they were literally untouchable due to the reviled work they performed. Gradually, the caste system expanded to include occupational subgroups, the brahman class asserted its superior position, and intermarriage became punishable by death. Caste had become rigidly hereditary and intermingled with religious meaning. The Aryan gods and goddesses regulated nature and behaved like humans, not unlike other Indo-European polytheistic constructs; however, unlike the gods of the Greeks or Scandinavians, India developed a complex and enduring religion around their gods and goddesses. The brahman priestly class specified and enforced prayers, ceremonies, and rituals. However, the religion also produced a more mystical strand through its belief in a unifying divine force and the desirability of seeking union with this force. Toward the end of the Epic period, one religious leader, Gautama Buddha, built on this mysticism to create what became Buddhism, another major world religion.
Patterns in Classical India. By 600 B.C.E., India had passed through its formative phase. Regional political units grew in size, cities and trade expanded, and the development of the Sanskrit language, although dominated by the priestly brahman class, furthered an elaborate literary culture. For nearly 300 years, India would be ruled by independent monarchies or republics that were intermittently at war, or invaded by those who poured in through the mountain passes of the subcontinent’s northwestern border. In 327 B.C.E., Alexander the Great, having conquered Greece and much of the Middle East, pushed into northwestern India, establishing a small border state called Bactria.
The Mauryan Dynasty. Chandragupta Maurya, a regional ruler in the Ganges Plain, created the first and largest empire in northern India. Chandragupta, possibly borrowing Persian and Hellenistic forms, ruled as an absolute monarch with the support of an enormous army. His successors developed a sizeable bureaucracy as well, even a postal system. Having consolidated Mauryan authority, Chandragupta ceded control to his son and became a religious ascetic, dying peacefully at an advanced age. Ashoka, Chandragupta’s grandson, actively extended his empire in the early years of his reign. He radically changed course following conversion to Buddhism, believing that dharma, or the law of moral consequences, could function as an ethical guide that might unite and discipline the diverse people under his rule. Ashoka vigorously propagated Buddhism throughout India while also honoring Hinduism, sponsoring shrines for its worshippers. Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries to the Hellenistic kingdoms in the Middle East, and also to Sri Lanka to the south. The “new” Ashoka urged humane behavior on the part of his officials and insisted that they oversee the moral welfare of his empire by developing roads, hospitals, wells, and rest houses.Stability and the sheer expansion of the empire’s territory encouraged growing commerce. After Ashoka, the empire began to fall apart, and regional kingdoms surfaced once again. New invaders, the Kushans, pushed into central India from the northwest. The greatest Kushan king, Kanishka, converted to Buddhism but actually hurt this religion’s popularity in India by associating it with foreign rule.
The Guptas. The collapse of the Kushan state ushered in another hundred years of political instability. Then a new line of kings, the Guptas, established a large empire, beginning in 320 C.E. and lasting until 535 C.E. when it was overturned by a new invasion of nomadic warriors, the Huns. The Guptas established their rule through negotiation and intermarriage, which expanded their influence without constant fighting. Two centuries of Gupta rule gave classical India its greatest period of political stability.
Classical India thus alternated between widespread empires and a network of smaller kingdoms. Periods of regional rule did not necessarily suggest great instability, and both economic and cultural life advanced in these periods as well as under the Mauryas and Guptas.
Political Institutions. The most persistent political features of India, in the classical period and beyond, involved regionalism, plus considerable diversity in political forms, whether autocratic or republican. As a result of India’s diversity and regionalism, even some of the great empires had a rather shaky base. Early Mauryan rulers depended heavily on the power of their large armies. The Guptas consolidated support by claiming that they had been appointed by the gods to rule, and they favored the Hindu religion over Buddhism because the Hindus believed in such gods. The Guptas managed to create a demanding taxation system, but did not create an extensive bureaucracy, preferring to work with local rulers from whom they expected deference. The great empire’s loose structure was the fact that no single language was imposed. The Guptas promoted Sanskrit, but this made no dent in the diversity of popular, regional languages. The Guptas did spread uniform law codes, sponsor services such as road building, and patronize much cultural activity, including university life as well as art and literature. These achievements were more than enough to qualify the Gupta period as a golden age in Indian history. The fact remains, however, that the political culture of India was not very elaborate. Classical India did not develop a political theory or set of political values and institutions like the Chinese or Greeks. Kautilya, Chandragupta’s chief minister, wrote an important treatise on politics, but it was devoted to efficient governance, not ethics. Ashoka used Buddhism to inspire his politics but Buddhist leaders in the long run were not greatly interested in affairs of state. The limitations on the political traditions developed during this period of Indian history can be explained partly by the importance of local units of government—the tightly organized villages—and particularly by the caste system. Caste rules, governing marriages and permissible jobs, and social habits such as eating and drinking, interpreted by priests, did for Indian life what more conventional government structures did in many other cultures, in promoting public order. India’s caste system became steadily more complex after the Epic Age Hereditary principles grew ever stronger. In its origins, the caste system provided a way for India’s various races, the conquerors and the conquered, to live together without perpetual conflict and without full integration of cultures and values. In an odd way, castes promoted tolerance, and this was useful, given India’s varied peoples and beliefs.
Religion and Culture. Religion, particularly the Hindu religion, was the clearest cultural cement of this society, cutting across political and language barriers and across the castes. Hinduism embraced variety, tolerated minority religions, and gave rise to important religious dissent. It is this kind of tradition that illustrates how classical India, although not the source of enduring political institutions beyond the local level, produced a civilization that would retain clear continuity and cultural cohesiveness—even though the subcontinent was rarely politically united, at least under indigenous rulers. Along with religion, an important tradition of rational scientific inquiry emerged. Indian governments might support religious missionaries, but they also established an openness to religious diversity and supported scientific and intellectual inquiry.
The Formation of Hinduism. Unlike all other world religions, Hinduism had no single founder from whom the basic religious beliefs stemmed. This fact helps explain why the religion unfolded so gradually, sometimes in reaction to competing religions such as Buddhism or Islam. Moreover, Hinduism pursued a number of religious approaches, from the strictly ritualistic and ceremonial approach many brahmans preferred, to the high-soaring mysticism that sought to unite individual humans with an all-embracing divine principle. Part of Hinduism’s success was the result of its tolerance, and ability to adapt to the needs of various groups and circumstances. Over time, the original gods of nature were altered to represent more abstract concepts, and the great poems increasingly emphasized gentle, generous behavior as well as the validity of a life devoted to concentration on the Supreme Spirit. From the Epic Age onward, Hinduism embraced this clear tension between a religion of rituals, with fixed ceremonies and rules of conduct, and the religion of mystical holy men, or gurus, seeking communion with the divine soul.
By the 1st century of the common era, brahmans and gurus agreed on certain doctrines. The basic holy essence, called brahma, formed part of everything in this world. The divine aspects of brahma are manifested in the forms of several gods. The world of our senses is far less important than the world of the divine soul, and a proper life is one devoted to seeking union with this soul. However, this quest may take many lifetimes, and Hindus stressed the principle of reincarnation, in which souls do not die when bodies do, but pass into other beings, either human or animal. Where the soul goes, whether it rises to a higher-caste person or falls perhaps to an animal, depends on how good a life the person has led. Ultimately, after many good lives, the soul reaches full union with the soul of brahma, and worldly suffering ceases. Hinduism provided several channels for the good life. For some people, there was the meditation and self-discipline of yoga; for others, there were the rituals and rules of the brahmans. Many Hindus also continued the idea of lesser gods represented in the spirits of nature, or purely local divinities. Hinduism provided a basic, if complex, ethic that helped supply some unity amid the various forms of worship. The epic poems, richly symbolic, formed the key texts. They illustrated a central emphasis on the moral law of dharma as a guide to living in this world and simultaneously pursuing higher, spiritual goals. This ethic urged that honorable behavior, even pleasure seeking, is compatible with spirituality and can lead to a final release from the life cycle and to unity with the divine essence.
The spread of Hinduism through India, and at least briefly to some other parts of Asia, had many sources. The religion accommodated extreme spirituality. It also provided satisfying rules of conduct for ordinary life, including rituals and a firm emphasis on the distinction between good and evil behavior. The religion allowed many people to retain older beliefs and ceremonies. It also reinforced the caste system, giving people in lower castes hope for a better future and giving upper-caste people, including the brahmans, the satisfaction that if they behaved well, they might be rewarded by communion with the divine soul. Even though Hindu beliefs took shape only gradually and contained many ambiguities, the religion was sustained by a strong cadre of priests and through the efforts of individual gurus and mystics.
Buddhism. In the 6th century B.C.E. an Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, came to question the fairness of earthly life in which so much suffering abounded. Gautama, later called Buddha or “enlightened one,” lived as a Hindu mystic. After six years, he felt that he had found truth, then spent his life traveling and gathering disciples to spread his ideas. Buddha accepted the spiritual truth behind many Hindu beliefs, such as reincarnation, but he denied the validity of others, such as caste. He held the material world to be a snare that warped human relations and caused pain via the frustrations inherent in it: all worldly things decay, but men and women suffer and harm others as they struggle to hold onto youth, health, and life itself, though all are destined to pass away. Buddha saw salvation as arising from the destruction of the self, whose annihilation opens the door to a realm where suffering and decay are no more, literally a world beyond existence itself: nirvana. Individuals could regulate their lives and aspirations toward this goal without elaborate ceremonies. Buddhism denied the spiritual value not only of caste and the performance of rituals, but also of priests.
The spread of Buddhism occurred primarily outside of India. Brahman opposition, aided by the influence of the Gupta emperors, demonstrated that Hinduism was able to compete by emphasizing its mystical side, thus retaining the loyalties of many Indians. Buddhism’s greatest successes, aided by the missionary encouragement of Ashoka and later the Kushan emperors, came in other parts of southeast Asia, including the island of Sri Lanka, off the south coast of India, and in China, Korea, and Japan. Still, pockets of Buddhists remained in India. If Hinduism, along with the caste system, formed the most distinctive and durable products of the classical period of Indian history, they were certainly not the only ones. Hinduism itself encouraged many wider pursuits. Indian thinkers wrote actively about various aspects of human life. Although political theory was sparse, a great deal of legal writing occurred. The theme of love was important also, such as appeared in the 4th century C.E., manual of the “laws of love,” the Kamasutra.
Arts and Sciences. Indian literature stressed lively story lines. The epics were written down during the Gupta period, and other story collections, like the Panchatantra, which includes Sinbad the Sailor, produced adventurous yarns now known all over the world. Classical stories were often secular, but they sometimes included the gods and also share with Hinduism an emphasis on imagination and excitement. Indian drama flourished also and stressed themes of romantic adventure. This literary tradition created a cultural framework that still survives in India.
Classical India also produced important work in science and mathematics. The Guptas supported a vast university center—one of the world’s first—in the town of Nalanda, which attracted students from other parts of Asia as well as Indian brahmans. Hindu scholars made major discoveries in mathematics, the sciences, and medicine. The great astronomer Aryabhatta calculated the length of the solar year and improved mathematical measurements. He also calculated the circumference of the earth with remarkable accuracy—which also indicates that he believed it to be round. Indian astronomers understood and calculated the daily rotation of the earth on its axis, predicted and explained eclipses, and developed a theory of gravity, and through telescopic observation they identified seven planets. They devised the concepts of zero, decimals, and the “Arabic” number system, and computed the value of pi. Medical advances included hospitals and surgery. Inoculation against smallpox was introduced.
Finally, classical India produced lively art, although much of it perished under later invasions. Ashoka sponsored many spherical shrines to Buddha, called stupas, and statues honoring Buddha were also common. Under the Guptas, sculpture and painting moved away from realistic portrayals of the human form toward more stylized representation. Indian painters, working on the walls of buildings and caves, filled their work with forms of people and animals, captured in lively color. In various cultural expressions, Indians developed an interest in spontaneity and imagination, whether in fleshly pleasures or a mystical union with the divine essence.
Economy and Society. The caste system described many key features of Indian social and economic life, as it assigned people to occupations and regulated marriages. Low-caste individuals had few legal rights, and servants were often abused by their masters, who were restrained only by the ethical promptings of religion toward kindly treatment. Village leaders were charged with trying to protect peasants from too much interference by landlords and rulers. Family life also emphasized the theme of hierarchy and tight organization. The dominance of husbands and fathers remained strong. The limits imposed on women were reflected in laws and literary references. A system of arranged marriage evolved in which parents contracted unions for children, particularly daughters, at quite early ages, to spouses they had never even met. However, the rigidities of family life and male dominance over women were often greater in theory than they usually turned out to be in practice. The emphasis on loving relations and sexual pleasure in Indian culture modified family life. The Mahabharata epic called a man’s wife his truest friend. Indian culture often featured clever and strong-willed women and goddesses, and this contributed to women’s status as wives and mothers. Stories also celebrated women’s emotions and beauty. Families thus served an important and explicit emotional function as well as a role in supporting the structure of society and its institutions. They also, as in all agricultural societies, formed economic units. Children, after early years of indulgence, were expected to work hard. Adults were obligated to assist older relatives. The purpose of arranged marriages was to promote a family’s economic well-being, and almost everyone lived in a family setting.
The economy of India in the classical period became extremely vigorous, rivaling China in technological sophistication and probably briefly surpassing China in the prosperity of its upper classes. India was particularly advanced in manufacturing, chemistry, steel production, and ironmaking, outdistancing European levels until a few centuries ago. Indian techniques in textiles were also advanced. Indian emphasis on trade and merchant activity was far greater than in China and the classical Mediterranean world. From the Middle East and the Roman Empire, the seafaring peoples along the southern coast brought back pottery, wine, metals, some slaves, and above all gold. Their trade with southeast Asia was even more active. In addition, caravan trade developed with China. As with other classical civilizations, the Indian economy remained firmly agricultural at its base, its wealth divided between the very few wealthy at the top and the vast majority of the population living at the margins of subsistence.
Indian Influence and Comparative Features. Classical India had a considerable influence on other parts of the world. In many ways, the Indian Ocean, dominated at this point by Indian merchants and missionaries, was the most active linkage point among cultures. Indian dominance of the waters of southern Asia, and the impressive creativity of Indian civilization itself, resulted in goods and influence traveling well beyond the subcontinent’s borders into Burma, Thailand, parts of Indonesia, and Vietnam. Indian influence had affected China, through Buddhism and art, by the end of the classical period. Earlier, Buddhist emissaries to the Middle East stimulated new ethical thinking that informed Greek and Roman groups like the Stoics, and through them aspects of Christianity later on. The ability of this civilization to survive, even under long periods of foreign domination, was testimony to the meaning and variety it offered to many Indians themselves.
China and India Compared. The thrusts of classical civilization in China and India reveal the diversity generated during the classical age. Whereas Chinese art and poetry is known for restraint, and its political structure shaped its history, India depended on a strict caste system to regulate life and enjoyed dynamic, sensual art and poetry. Even in science, where there was similar interest in pragmatic discoveries, the Chinese placed greater stress on purely practical findings, whereas the Indians ventured further into the mathematical arena.
Beyond the realm of formal culture and the institutions of government, India and China may seem more similar. As agricultural societies, both civilizations relied on a large peasant class, organized in close-knit villages with much mutual cooperation. Cities and merchant activity, although vital, played a secondary role. Political power rested primarily with those who controlled the land, through ownership of large estates and the ability to tax the peasant class. On a more personal level, the power of husbands and fathers in the family—the basic fact of patriarchy—encompassed Indian and Chinese families alike.
However, Indian and Chinese societies differed in more than their religion, philosophy, art, and politics. Ordinary people had cultures along with elites. Hindu peasants placed less emphasis on personal emotional restraint and were less constrained than were the Chinese by recurrent efforts by large landlords to gain control of their land. Indian merchants played a greater role than their Chinese counterparts. Revealingly, India’s expanding cultural influence was due to merchant activity, whereas Chinese expansion involved government initiatives. India and China, the two giants of classical Asia, remain subjects of comparison to our own time, because they have continued to build distinctively on their particular traditions, established before 500 C.E.