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Asia is a continent, the world’s largest; but India is commonly called a subcontinent because of its size, its varied terrain, and the high mountains that separate it from the Asian landmass. An area of more than 1.7 million square miles (4.4 million square kilometers), it contains the modern nations of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The highest mountain ranges in the world form its northern border: the Himalayas, which separate India from Nepal and other mountain kingdoms, as well as Tibet in China, to the northeast; the Karakorams, at the place where India and Pakistan meet in the north; and the Hindu Kush, which form the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan in the northwest. South of the mountains is a huge strip of fertile land created by the flood plains of the Indus River in the west and the Ganges River in the east. The overwhelming majority of the subcontinent’s people live in these river valleys, because much of India—in particular the Thar Desert, which reaches between the river valleys and the vast Deccan Plateau in central and south India—is extremely dry and hot. (The rest of India, except for its mountain regions, is extremely humid and hot.) The subcontinent juts out into the Indian Ocean, with the Arabian Sea to the west and the Bay of Bengal to the east. Off the coast is the island nation of Sri Lanka.

Though the Indian subcontinent is less than half the size of the United States, it contains about five times as many people, or one-fifth of the world’s population. From India came two of the world’s most prominent religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, which respectively claim the third- and fourthlargest numbers of believers after Christianity and Islam. In ancient times, the peoples of the Indus Valley civilization created a culture equal to, and in some ways more advanced than, those of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Geographically, theirs was the largest civilization of their time, and their cities the most impressive—not least because they possessed the world’s first drainage system. The Indo-Europeans who conquered the Indus Valley, cousins of the peoples who established the cultures of Europe, developed a highly complex civilization with an enormous literary and religious legacy. Under the later empires of ancient India, mathematicians developed the number system in use throughout the world today, and scientists made discoveries seldom equaled by Europeans before the Renaissance.

The Indus Valley Civilization

History of India EssayAs early as 6000 B.C., villages began appearing in the valley formed by the Indus River. The town of Mehrgarh, for instance, was a small settlement at the foot of the mountains separating the subcontinent from what is now Iran and Afghanistan. It appears that the people of Mehrgarh domesticated (tamed) sheep, goats, and cattle; grew various grains; used stone tools; and may have engaged in trade (exchange of goods) with peoples in surrounding areas.

Eventually these villagers moved southward, into the flood plains created by the Indus, where the soil was better for farming. This better physical environment made possible the establishment of walled cities containing thousands of people. Technology advanced: from making tools of stone, the craftsmen of the Indus Valley began creating knives, axes, and arrows from copper. They also produced pottery and small figures of male and female deities.

As to exactly who the people or peoples of the Indus Valley were—that is, their place of origin and their ethnicity—historians know little. The Indo-Europeans who later invaded the area described them primarily by the ways in which they differed from themselves. Whereas the Indo-Europeans were Caucasians (“white,” in everyday terms), they referred to the inhabitants of the Indus Valley as “people with a black skin.” It is also apparent that the Indus Valley peoples had flatter noses than those of the Indo-Europeans, who called them “noseless.”

These terms suggest that the peoples of the Indus Valley may have shared some racial characteristics with the people who lived south of the Sahara Desert in Africa, however, there is no clear evidence that they came from that part of the world. What is clear is that the Indo-Europeans looked down on the peoples they conquered. Yet the Indus Valley civilization was one of the most advanced in all of human history.

The Indo-Europeans

In modern times, it may not seem as though the peoples of India or Iran have much in common with the peoples of Europe or with the descendants of European peoples who live in the Americas. But in fact these groups are all related by race and language. Thus Asian Indians, though their coloring tends to be much darker than that of most Europeans, have facial features similar to those of their Western cousins.

More important, the languages of the Indian subcontinent, Europe, Iran, and surrounding areas are all part of the same Indo-European “family of languages.” Within this family, certain languages are more closely related than others— much as brothers and sisters are closer to one another than they are to cousins—but all are united by a common Indo- European thread. For instance, the name of the Indo-Europeans’ goddess of fire, Agni is related to the Latin word ignis, which also means “fire”; these words are in turn reflected in the English word ignite.

In studying most ancient groups, archaeologists are able to uncover ruins that provide a wealth of knowledge. The Indo-Europeans, however, were nomads and therefore left behind little physical evidence of their migration to India. Thus the real detective work concerning the Indo-Europeans has fallen to linguists, scholars who study language.

One can “dig” into a language just as archaeologists dig into a site. Just as there are deeper and deeper layers beneath the surface of the earth, so there are “layers” within a language. In English, for instance, there is a thick layer of Latin on top of an even thicker layer of German. At perhaps the deepest layer of all is the Indo-European root that unites English with the ancient languages of India, particularly Sanskrit.

Only in the A.D. 1800s did linguists such as the Grimm brothers of Germany (also famous for their fairy tales) become aware of the link between the various languages of the Indo- European family. This discovery greatly increased historians’ understanding of the migrations that occurred in the ancient world. From what they were able to uncover, it appears that in about 3000 B.C., a group of people began to spread out from what is now eastern Europe.

Because they ultimately conquered regions spanning from Europe to India, this group came to be known as “Indo- Europeans.” Some Indo-Europeans moved westward into Europe, whereas others spread into what is now Afghanistan. The latter tribes were called Aryans. It is important to stress that all Aryans were Indo-Europeans, but not all Indo-Europeans were Aryans. Even more significantly, both terms describe linguistic and cultural groups, not “races.”

Between 2000 and 1500 B.C., the Aryans split into two groups. Some moved westward into what is now Iran, while others ventured eastward into India. To do so, the invaders had to cross the high mountains of the Hindu Kush that separate the Indian subcontinent from Afghanistan, a difficult journey. Once they went down on the other side, however, they discovered a lush river valley containing dark-skinned groups of people, the descendants of the Harappan civilization.

Eventually the Indo-Europeans spread across the two great river valleys of India, some moving eastward into the valley of the Ganges, others settling in the Indus Valley. Because a number of rivers fed into the Indus, the latter area came to be known as Punjab, an Indo-Aryan term meaning “five rivers.”

The Caste System

The Rig Vega describes battles between the Indo-Europeans and the natives of India, but for the most part the invaders used the caste system to control them. The word “caste” is similar in meaning to class, a term for various levels in society—for instance, rich, poor, and middle class. But caste has much more far-reaching implications. A person was born into a caste and could never hope to change his or her status. Rules of caste dictated all kinds of social situations and even came to have a religious significance as well.

At the time of the invasion, warriors occupied the upper classes of Aryan society. In the caste system, priests outranked them—an interesting change, given the later religious significance of castes. Thus the top caste became the Brahmans, priests whose name was taken from the Sanskrit word for God. Next, but close in rank to the Brahmans, came the warriors, or Kshatriyas. Well below the Kshatriyas were the landowners and tradespeople, known as Vaisyas. Far below the Vaisyas were the Shudras, who were servants and workers.

But there was an even lower rank than the Shudras, one so low it was not even part of the caste system: the Untouchables. The Untouchables did jobs that nobody else wanted to do, such as hauling waste. The Indo-Europeans classified the native peoples they had conquered as Untouchables; no wonder, then, that many of the Harappans’ descendants escaped Indo-European rule. The ones who fled came to be known as Dravidians. The Dravidians ultimately moved to south India and the island of Ceylon, which in modern times is the nation of Sri Lanka. Though they initially adopted the religion brought by the Indo-Europeans, as Untouchables they had little reason to embrace Hinduism; therefore in time they accepted a new faith, one that rejected the caste system.

The Religions of India

The literature of the Aryans is full of religious importance. In fact, religion was a central fact of the ancient Indians’ lives. The faith that the Aryans brought with them to the Indian subcontinent is called Vedism to distinguish it from Hinduism, which developed from it in about 300 B.C. In fact, however, the two religions are closely linked. Likewise Buddhism developed out of Hinduism, and today the faiths stand side by side, much like Judaism and Christianity.

Though the Vedic and Hindu religions worshiped many gods, they retained a belief in a single, supreme figure: not so much a deity as a spirit or an idea that they called Brahman, sometimes personified as Krishna. All the other gods are part of Brahman, but separate as well. At the center of the Hindu pantheon, or group of gods, is the trinity, an inner circle of three gods: Brahma, the creator of the universe; Vishnu, the preserver of the universe; and Shiva, the destroyer of the universe.

The system of gods in the Hindu religion is exceedingly complicated. Although one can learn much about Hinduism from studying about them, to do so is a bit like trying to understand a tree simply by looking at its flowers. At the heart of Hinduism and other Eastern religions are certain core ideas that are at least as important as the gods themselves if one is to understand the religion embraced by the ancient Indians—and by the Indians of today.

Hundreds of millions of people in present-day India and elsewhere continue to uphold the basic beliefs of Hinduism, handed down by the Indo-Europeans more than 3,000 years ago. During the Middle Ages, various Hindu schools of thought evolved, and within the Hindu religion, there are many varieties of belief. Nonetheless, the basic system of belief has remained, making Hinduism—a faith with no specific founder—the world’s oldest religion.

One often hears people speak of Eastern and Western religions, though in fact the so-called Western religions—most notably Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—came from the Middle East. Western religions are sometimes called “revealed religions,” meaning that in each case, the deity has revealed his truths directly to humankind through a sacred book. Western religions place a high emphasis on the individual person, who must work out a personal relationship with God.

Eastern religions such as Hinduism, on the other hand, are not nearly so concerned with the individual. Instead, Hinduism views all living creatures as part of a vast circle of life. To a certain extent, Hindus believe that people cannot do much to affect their destiny. Nor is there an idea of Heaven and Hell, as in Christianity and Islam. In Hinduism, a person does not die once, but many times. Nor is he or she born once; rather, Hindus believe that a person is reincarnated thousands of times.

In the present life, a person may be rich and beautiful, but in the next life, they may find themselves in a lower caste. They may come back as an Untouchable or even as an animal. On the other hand, a member of a lower caste may be reincarnated as a member of a higher one. Because they believe that people can come back to life as animals, Hindus have a deep respect for animal life. For this reason, most of them are vege

The question of whether one reincarnates to a higher or lower level revolves around karma. Karma is a bit like the Western idea of destiny, but it is much harder to change one’s karma. Nonetheless, good actions generate good karma, increasing the possibility of a higher reincarnation, whereas bad actions generate bad karma. For this reason, Hindus, like people of many other religions, believe that it is good to give up a life of pleasure and worldly possessions in order to seek greater personal wisdom, or enlightenment.

Around the end of the Epic Age, a new religion sprang up in the northeastern part of the Indian subcontinent. Buddhism shared many of Hinduism’s beliefs, but it focused on ending the cycle of reincarnation and achieving Nirvana, a term that suggests the idea of blowing out a fire. The “fire” in this case was personal desire; by subduing all thoughts of self, Buddhists believe that an individual can become one with the Godhead.

Also unlike Hinduism, Buddhism had a definite founder, a young prince born c. 563 B.C. in northern India between the Ganges and the Himalayas. His name was Siddartha Gautama, but he is known to history simply as “the Buddha,” a term that means “The Enlightened One.” Raised in incredible luxury, the prince was never allowed to learn that suffering existed; but at the age of 29, his curiosity led him to sneak out from the palace of his father. Beyond its walls, he discovered a world of horrible disease and misery—the reality of life in ancient India and most other parts of the world.

Though Buddhism clearly shared many ideas with Hinduism— and in fact many Hindus believe that Buddha was the god Vishnu in human form—the differences between the two faiths are at least as important. Most notable, of course, is the Buddhist belief that one can escape the Hindus’ endless cycle of reincarnation. Another important difference is the Buddhists’ rejection of the Hindu gods and the rituals associated with them. (In fact, the concept of a “god” as such is not an important aspect of Buddhism.)

From a social standpoint, however, by far the most significant change presented by the Buddhists was their refusal to accept the caste system. Among the Buddha’s earliest followers were a barber, who of course was a member of a lower caste, and a king, who like Siddartha himself was a Kshatriya. Buddhists did not care about the social distinctions that were an important part of Hinduism. For that reason, their religion spread quickly among the lower castes.

The Mauryan Empire

In 324 B.C., a new king named Chandragupta Maurya (r. 324–301 B.C.) took the throne of Magadha and established a new dynasty. In his capital of Pataliputra, northwest of modern- day Calcutta on the Ganges River, he raised an army of 700,000 soldiers and 10,000 chariots, along with a force unique to the India: 9,000 elephants. Taking advantage of the power vacuum left by Alexander’s departure, Chandragupta created an empire that would grow to include virtually all of the Indian subcontinent, except for the Dravidian stronghold in the south.

Legend has it that Chandragupta had a brilliant advisor, a Brahman named Kautilya, who authored a book called the Arthashastra. The latter provided advice to rulers on how to govern. Although the book certainly existed, historians do not believe that Kautilya wrote the entire work. Nonetheless, the Arthashastra has aided scholars of India in understanding the organization of the Mauryan Empire. So have the writings of Megasthenes, a Greek who spent time in the court of Chandragupta.

The Mauryan Empire was a splendid one, and Pataliputra was said to be the greatest city of that time. Its size—8 miles (12.9 kilometers) long and 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) wide— shows the extent to which cities had grown since the time of the Indus Valley civilization. Around the city stood some 570 guard towers, and beyond them a moat 900 feet (274.3 meters) wide and 30 feet (9.1 meters) deep. Equally impressive was the level of organization in Chandragupta’s government. There was an extensive network of civil servants, including spies who reported to the emperor on any opposition to his rule.

Late in his reign, Chandragupta went up against Seleucus, who had taken control of Persia after Alexander’s death. By defeating the Seleucids, he secured his control over the western part of the subcontinent. But Chandragupta feared that one of his subjects would assassinate him. When a famine spread throughout the land, he decided to step down from the throne in 301 B.C. He became a Jain, adopting a lifestyle of fasting and later dying of starvation.

Just as Cyrus I of Persia was followed by the much less remarkable Cambyses, the next ruler, Chandragupta’s son Bindusara, was a minor figure. Bindusara died in about 270 B.C., and as with the Persians, a power struggle ensued. Some time in the 260s B.C., a unifying leader comparable to Persia’s Darius I took the throne; but whereas Darius came from outside the royal family, Asoka (c. 302-c. 202 B.C.) was the son of Bindusara and the grandson of Chandragupta.

In the beginning of his reign, Asoka behaved like a typical conqueror of ancient times. He fought many wars and spread his empire throughout the subcontinent in a series of victories that left many of his enemies dead. In the eighth year of his reign, however, after a particularly bloody battle, Asoka became disgusted when he realized how many lives he had destroyed. This led him to renounce warfare and convert to Buddhism.

With Asoka’s religious conversion, the entire character of the Mauryan Empire changed. He devoted himself to making life better for his subjects, and he commanded that his principles of government be carved onto large rocks that can still be viewed today. One such inscription reads: “There is no better work than promoting the welfare of the whole world. Whatever may be my great deeds, I have done them to discharge my debt to all beings.” These were remarkable words, particularly from an ancient monarch. Asoka reinforced them with deeds. He appointed officials he called “inspectors of morality” to ensure that people were being treated well. He instituted a number of public works projects such as the planting of trees to provide travelers with shady places to rest.

Asoka set out once again to conquer the world, only this time with faith and not the sword. He sent missionaries to bring the Buddhist message to far-flung places, including Egypt and Greece. Though Buddhism never took hold in those countries, it did spread to Ceylon, where it replaced Hinduism as the dominant religion. Both in Ceylon and in India, Buddhists built huge domed temples of stone called stupas.

After Asoka’s death in about 232 B.C., however, Buddhism in India began to decline. So did the Mauryan Empire. During his lifetime, a number of would-be emperors had vied for the throne, and their rivalries helped send the empire into a state of disarray. To rule such a vast state required a strong ruler such as Chandragupta or Asoka, but none appeared. By 186 B.C., the Mauryan Empire had ceased to exist.

The Gupta Empire

For many centuries, the Kushans and various other small principalities controlled the Gangetic Plain, but in about A.D. 320, a great ruler like Chandragupta arose to build a new empire based in Magadha. His name was also Chandra Gupta (r. A.D. 320–335), but the two parts of his name were separated, just like a modern person’s: Chandra—sometimes shown as Candra—was his personal name, and Gupta the name of his family, a title which attached to the dynasty he founded.

As for whether or not Chandra Gupta was actually descended from Chandragupta, historians are unclear on this point. What is clear is that Chandra Gupta built a great new empire that would usher in what is known as the “Golden Age” of ancient India. He extended his rule throughout the Gangetic Plain, and his son Samudra Gupta (sah-MOOD-rah; r. c. A.D. 335–376) broadened the reaches of the empire to include much of the subcontinent. In the south, Samudra defeated the Pallavas, a minor dynasty, and conquered the Punjab to the west with much bloodshed. By the time he died, the only other major force in northern India was the Sakas.

Chandra Gupta II (r. A.D. c. 380–c. 415) proved to be the greatest of the Gupta rulers. He dealt with the Sakas and spread his control over the areas of central India that had been ruled by a dynasty called the Vakatakas. His empire never reached the dimensions of Asoka’s because his authority over the Punjab and the Deccan was much less firm than that of the earlier conqueror; nevertheless, the Gupta Empire proved to be the greatest since that of the Mauryans.

India from the Middle Ages to Modern Times

For nearly 500 years, India remained in a state of disarray that made it ripe for conquest from outside. This came in about A.D. 1000, when the Muslim Turks swept in. For almost 400 years, they would control a wide swath of Indian territory from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, an area that included the river valleys of the Indus and the Ganges. This kingdom was called the Delhi Sultanate, a name that referred to the city of Delhi, where the sultan ruled.

In 1398, a Central Asian conqueror named Timur attacked the Delhi Sultanate. In 1526, a descendant of his named Babur established the Mogul Empire. The Moguls would rule for many years. Among their kings was Shah Jahan, who built the famous Taj Mahal as a tomb for his beloved wife. By the late 1600s, the Hindu Marathas were challenging the Muslim Moguls. Fighting between the two groups opened the way for Great Britain to conquer India.

The British began to acquire Indian territory beginning in 1765, and over the next 122 years, they fought numerous wars to extend their control. By 1887, the entire subcontinent belonged either to Britain or to local rulers subject to the British Crown. Though the British were not always kind to their Indian subjects, they also instituted a number of reforms, most notably in 1829, when they outlawed the Hindu custom of suttee. After death, a Hindu was cremated on a funeral pyre. By the rules of suttee, a man’s widow was expected to burn herself to death on the pyre.

British power weakened with the heavy losses it suffered in World War I (1914–1918). The period leading up to World War II (1939–1945) saw the rise of an independence movement led by Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948). Gandhi was sometimes called the Mahatma, which means “great soul.” He was both a powerful political and religious leader, and his movement gathered enormous strength. In 1947, Britain granted independence to India.

Fighting quickly broke out between Hindus and Muslims, and Gandhi himself was assassinated. The conflict led to the establishment of Pakistan as a separate state with a Muslim majority. The country was divided into two parts separated by more than 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) of Indian territory. India fought wars with China and later Pakistan, and a bloody 1971 clash with Pakistan resulted in the establishment of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) as an independent nation.

For the better part of fifty years, India was led by a single family. First came Jawarharlal Nehru (yah-wahr-hahr-LAHL NAY-roo; 1889–1964), a follower of Gandhi, who served as prime minister from 1947 to 1964. His daughter Indira Gandhi (1917–1984; no relation to Mohandas Gandhi) was an outspoken figure who led the nation from 1966 to 1977, and again from 1980 until her assassination in 1984. Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv (1944–1991) took her place as prime minister until he was voted out in 1989. Two years later, during an election campaign, he too was assassinated.

Political unrest has been far from the only problem that has plagued modern India. There are fifteen major languages in the country, and hundreds of ethnic groups live in uneasy relations with one another. Although the caste system was abolished in 1947, poverty is still widespread. In 1999 the average Indian earned $1,600 a year, compared with $28,600 for the average American. Nonetheless, the country has made massive efforts at reform and has done so while maintaining Hindu traditions that date back thousands of years. Western peoples, while possessing far greater material wealth than most Indians, have remained fascinated with the varied and exotic culture of India.


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  2. Dijkstra, Henk. History of the Ancient & Medieval World, Volume 3: Ancient Cultures. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1996, pp. 379-90.
  3. Due, Andrea, ed. The Atlas of Human History: Civilizations of Asia: India, China and the Peoples of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. Text by Renzo Rossi and Martina Veutro. New York: Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1996, pp. 16-23.
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  9. Martell, Hazel Mary. The Kingfisher Book of the Ancient World. New York: Kingfisher, 1995, pp. 52-61.
  10. Odijk, Pamela. The Indians. South Melbourne, Australia: Macmillan, 1989. Sarin, Amita Vohra. India: An Ancient Land, a New Nation. Minneapolis, MN: Dillon Press, 1984.
  11. Stewart, Melissa. Science in Ancient India. New York: F. Watts, 1999. Suthren-Hirst, Jacqueline. The Story of the Hindus. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

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