Ancient Civilizations: India

Ancient Civilizations: India

India has been home to major civilizations since around 2600 B.C.E. Examples include the Indus Valley civilization, the Vedic Age, the Mauryan Empire, and the Gupta Empire. All of these civilizations contributed and utilized many advancements in the worlds of science, technology, art, and culture.


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World History, Archaeology, Anthropology

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Starting around 2600 BCE, major ancient civilizations began developing in India. These civilizations had networks of trade and communication across organized cities, and the people of these civilizations contributed and utilized many advancements in the worlds of science, technology, art, and culture.

Indus Valley Civilization

The earliest known major civilization in ancient India was the Indus Valley civilization that became more organized around 2600 BCE. However, its development started earlier than that, with some evidence of cultural and technological developments going back to 5000 B.C.E. But by 2600 B.C.E., the Indus Valley civilization had planned cities with complex public work projects like a sewage and drainage system. Its people had a shared written language, which has still not been deciphered. They established and regulated trade with other civilizations, including Egypt and Mesopotamia. There were advances in technology like standardized systems of weights and the use of various crafts like metalworking.

Despite its achievements, the Indus Valley civilization declined around 1900 B.C.E. Some experts believe that this was because of changes to the climate that made it harder to farm. There is evidence that people left the cities and spread out over large areas of land again.

The Vedic Age

The era that followed the Indus Valley civilization was the Vedic or Indo-Aryan Age from 1500 BCE to 500 BCE. During this time, Indian society was characterized by independent tribal kingdoms, so overall it was less structured, with its people less connected and unified. There were fewer technological advancements made during this time as well. But major changes in religion, particularly the beginning of Hinduism, made this a notable era in the history of Ancient India.

As the Indus Valley civilization was declining, people from central Asia called Aryans were beginning to migrate to the area. Some scholars think that the migration of the Aryans contributed to the fall of the Indus Valley civilization through a series of violent invasions, while others think that they migrated largely peacefully. There are also modern-day Indians and others that reject the idea of Aryans having influence in the Indus Valley at all, arguing that new ideas and languages that were later attributed to the Aryans by white colonizers are actually indigenous. However, most scholars agree that Aryans came into the Indus Valley and took control at around the same time the Indus Valley civilization was breaking up. Though the Aryans were nomadic at the beginning of the era, they would later form tribal kingdoms throughout the Indus Valley. Therefore, the structure of society of this time was not urban as it had been during the Indus Valley civilization.

The major contribution to Indian society to come out of the Vedic age is the early development of Hinduism. Hinduism is a collection of traditions and beliefs all centered around rebirth and karma, which says that a person’s behavior in one life will affect the next one. It is considered the oldest religion in the world that is still being practiced. Important early Hindu texts called the Veda were written during this time. The Veda explained a ritual system that is largely believed to come from the Indo-Aryans. This system also included belief in many gods, which became an aspect of Hinduism. As Hinduism has no official founder, and instead is based on many different rituals and writings, these texts would later form an important base of the religion.

The Vedas were also the source of the caste system, which would have major influence on Indian society that continues today. Today, the caste system is a social hierarchy that relates to social status and perceived purity and determines someone’s social standing from birth. The caste system breaks society into five groups: the priests at the top, then the warriors, then the merchants and farmers, the laborers, and the Dalits, the so-called “untouchables,” or those who were perform menial tasks and were excluded from society. Though the caste system was originally based on occupations, because jobs were handed down from fathers to sons, the system became based on birth rather than chosen profession. Later during the Vedic age, other important Hindu religious texts like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana came from this period.

End of Vedic Age and Transition

The Vedic Age ended in the middle of the last millennium B.C.E when ancient India began to be organized into larger empires with networks of cities again. As the Vedic Age ended and the region transitioned into bigger empires again, trade, art, culture, and the sciences flourished. Some of the major religions that developed were Buddhism and Jainism. Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha, in the 6th century B.C.E. It is a religion focused on achieving enlightenment, or a state of being completely at peace and wisdom, through meditation and learning. Jainism was founded by Vardhamana Mahavira, also in the 6th century BCE. Jainism focuses on non-violence and working towards an all-knowing state called moksha through causing as little harm to the world as possible. Both of these religions had some tenets of Hinduism, but rejected certain aspects of the Vedas and caste system. They were also part of a general societal upheaval that was happening at the time that challenged the social system of the Vedas and eventually fueled the growth of cities.

An event that happened at the end of the Vedic Age that would influence the future indigenous civilizations was Alexander the Great’s making a campaign of conquest, which began in Greece and swept east until he reached India. Before Alexander, a Macedonian king, entered India, Persians were in control of large parts of Northern India. Alexander the Great made a campaign across it starting in 330 B.C.E. During his two-year quest, Alexander the Great brought aspects of Greek culture to India in the form of art and dress. However, Alexander died suddenly a few years after leaving India, leaving his lands vulnerable to conquest. He helped break up the Persians’ hold on Northern India, which would help later rulers expand their own indigenous empires.

The Mauryan Empire

The Mauryan Empire (322-185 BCE) rose after Alexander the Great took over areas formerly controlled by the Aryans and destabilized the region. This allowed the first ruler of the Mauryan Empire, Chandragupta, to take over land strategically. The Mauryan Empire was a very large empire that covered most of the Indian subcontinent at its peak. It is mostly known for spreading Buddhism through one of its most famous leaders, Ashoka, who was Chandragupta’s grandson.

Acknowledged as one of the most well-known Indian leaders in history, Ashoka spread his control south and took over all of central India and some of southern India, before renouncing the violence that secured him his land and becoming a Buddhist. From there, Ashoka spread Buddhism to all of the areas he ruled, converting a large group of people. He did this through commissioning pillars inscribed with edicts based on Buddhism and his personal belief in non-violence and harmony. These pillars, many of which have been found in modern times, are also why modern people know about his reign and beliefs. After Ashoka’s death and without his strong leadership, the empire quickly fell, and again broke up into smaller kingdoms.

The Gupta Empire

The Gupta Empire began to rise in the late 4th century C.E., after the end of the Mauryan Empire. It was another time of significant achievements in literature, science, technology, and art. Some scholars refer to this time as the Classical Age of India because of the remarkable achievements of the time.

The many advancements of the Gupta Empire happened in part because of a string of strong leaders that allowed its citizens to thrive. Chandragupta I (reigned 318-30 CE) is considered the first leader of the Gupta Empire. After inheriting a smaller piece of land, he extended his territory through marriage and conquering other lands. A later leader, Chandragupta II (375-415 CE), grew the empire to its widest. Under his rule, the empire was made up of two types of territories: one that was directly governed by the emperor, and ones that had their own kings who had pledged loyalty to the Gupta king. These areas paid taxes to the Gupta ruler but were otherwise free to manage their own lands, which made the conquered territories more open to Gupta rule for a time.

The Gupta Empire had cultural and technological features that are still a part of Indian and world culture today. Multiple Hindu texts were incorporated together to form a cohesive religious canon, shaping Hinduism into the religion that we know it as today. The caste system also became stricter during this time. Scholars think that in earlier times, there was more social mobility between castes, but, during this era, they became more restrictive and prescriptive. There were also significant works of art made during this time. The relief sculptures at the Dashavatara Temple to the Hindu god Vishnu are a celebrated example of the refinement of Indian art.

Fine arts such as sculpture and painting flourished. Frescos and statues made during this time often focused on the life of Buddha and were commissioned by the emperor as well as other elites. Significant works of poetry and drama were also written during this time. For example, the playwright Kalidasa wrote both poetry and drama, which are considered the apex of literature in Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hinduism.

There were also significant advances in mathematics during this period. These included the concept of the number zero and the successful calculation of pi to the order of four decimal places. Mathematician Aryabhata made many astronomical discoveries and was able to calculate the length of the solar year.

The fall of the Gupta empire started in the 6th century after a series of weak rulers left the lands vulnerable to conquest. Muslim invaders took control of the region piece by piece, broken up into smaller city-states, until the Islamic Mughal Empire in the 1500s C.E. united the region under a common ruler again. The Muslim faith was spread throughout India, though Hindus remain the majority.

The last Mughal ruler was deposed by the British in 1858.

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Last Updated

May 7, 2024

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