Chapter 3: Ancient India, From Origins to 300 CE

Together, modern China and India are home to one third of the world’s people. Ancient India generated two of the major world religions: Hinduism & Buddhism. Ancient China was unified super-state many centuries before the modern great powers.

Ancient India 2500 BCE – 300 CE

1500 BCE to 300 CE formative age of Indian civilization, basic institutions and cultural patterns of an emerging Hindu synthesis gave subcontinent a general cultural unity similar to that which Confucianism afforded China after the 5th century BCE and Christianity afforded Europe after the 1st millennium BCE. India here refers to the entire subcontinent including the modern nations of Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. India is comprised of numerous ethic groups, however, the regions and peoples of India are roughly divided into two major language groups: Indo-European in the north, Dravidian in the south.

Social and Economic Organization: village-based agriculture, caste system
Religion: three major religious traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism

2500-1500 BCE: 1st civilizations in India along Indus River: Harappa and Mohenjodaro
Highly developed, Dravidian speaking, agriculture based, system of dykes and drains to cultivate wheat, barley, cotton, chickens used copper, bronze, stone, planned cities with rectilinear streets, underground drains and sewers, granaries, public pools, citadels for defense, merchants traded with Mesopotamia, Harappans worshipped female mother goddess, animals, used pictographic script, no clear picture why this civilization ended.


1500-500 BCE: Vedic Age Aryan Invasion (or Migration?)
Indo-European pastoralists from area of present Iran migrate into Indus valley over several centuries with chariots and iron weapons. Info about Aryans comes from Vedas (four collections of hymns to gods, figurative language, begins to be compiled during this period, later compilation of four Vedas: Rig-Veda, foundational text of Hinduism). Aryan-dominated northern India returned to Neolithic culture, distinction between Aryans and Dasas (Dravidians) later becomes rigid caste system.

500 BCE: Urban culture reemerges, Aryans go east to Ganges river clearing forest with iron tools, Alexander the Great of Greece crosses Indus.

RELIGION: Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism


Varnas (CASTES)

Brahmins: priests (not to be confused with BRAHMAN which is life energy, the spirit of all things, God)
Kshatriyas: warrior nobility
Vaishyas: landowners and merchants
Shudras: common workers and peasants

Later subdivisions by occupation (jatis) increase. Castes cannot eat together much less marry.

Untouchables were considered to be so low that their presence, even their shadow, was considered to be contaminating.

Untouchability is among the most racist ideologies/practices in human history.

Religious Texts:

Rig-Veda stresses priests superior, social stratification, castes, important for Hinduism
Upanishads discusses ways to immerse into Brahman, important for all three religions

Mahavira and Buddha rebel against casteism, patriarchy, and the Vedas. All three religions stress ahimsa (non-violence), dharma (duty, moral law of karma), samsara (cycle of rebirth or reincarnation), moksha (escape from samsara and immersion into Brahman)

Jainsim: Mahavira founder, stresses extreme ahimsa (nonviolence) and asceticism to achieve moksha (escpape from cycle of rebirth, immersion into Brahman) cannot kill anything, including micro-organisms, cannot farm, so they often became merchants, and they often become wealthy enough to build libraries and centers of study for their religion.

Buddhism: Gautama Buddha founder, rejected extreme asceticism, believed anyone regardless of caste could achieve nirvana (like moksha), Buddhism splits into two sects: Mahayana (bodhisattva postpones own nirvana to help others, prevalent in China, Japan, Tibet, Korea) and Theravada (older doctrine of elders, prevalent in SE Asia & Sri Lanka)



321-185 BCE: Mauryan Dynasty 1st to bring India under a single government, 1st time the peoples living throughout Indian subcontinent unified into a single state under a single ruler

Chandragupta Maurya: legend: son of a concubine who seized throne with help of evil genius brahmin friend Kautilya, planned to take control of a vast area. Led an army to Indus to confront Alexander’s heir Seleucus (Hellenistic state) who ceded the Indus, the five rivers of the Punjab and much of contemporary Afghanistan to Chandragupta without a fight. Then he pushed his control east to the mouth of the Ganges river. His rule was very autocratic and he relied on a secret police force and was heavily guarded.

Bindusara pushed empire almost to southern tip of continent.

Asoka: like the Age of Pericles (Greece) or Augustus (Rome), the Age of Asoka was a high point in human governance. The horrors of his expansion campaign eastward (Kalinga) that he witnessed prompted his conversion to Buddhism (a religion 250 yearss old at that time) He was dedicated to dharma, ahimsa, public services, tolerance.

Epic Age: three literary peaks of ancient Indian civilization, these texts continue to be very important in Indian culture

Mahabharata: longest poem in world history (2.5 million words, over 4 times longer than the bible), like Homeric saga, struggle between two clans, chapter Bhagavadgita most sacred of all Hindu texts.
Ramayana: adventures of Rama and Sita, still Indian culture’s ideal man and woman.Today Feast of Diwali, celebrates Rama and Sita, like Christmas with candy & toys for children.
Arthashastra treatise on state-building by Kautilya

After Mauryan Dynasty declined five centuries of anarchy followed and several foreign invaders.
183 BCE Bactrian Greeks descended from Alexander’s army set up kingdom in North. 150 BCE Scythians invade.
40 CE Kushans: trade routes link India, China, and West, multicultural coinage