Updated: Dec 31, 2020
India is a country in South Asia whose name comes from the Indus River. The name 'Bharata' is used as a designation for the country in their constitution referencing the ancient mythological emperor, Bharata, whose story is told, in part, in the Indian epic Mahabharata. According to the writings known as the Puranas (religious/historical texts written down in the 5th century AD), Bharata conquered the whole subcontinent of India and ruled the land in peace and harmony. The land was, therefore, known as Bharatavarsha (the subcontinent of Bharata). Hominid activity in the Indian subcontinent stretches back over 250,000 years, and it is, therefore, one of the oldest inhabited regions on the planet.
The Indus Valley Civilization dates to 5000 BC and grew steadily throughout the lower Gangetic Valley region southwards and northwards to Malwa. The most famous sites of this period are the great cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. This civilization is usually divided into Early, Middle, and Mature periods corresponding roughly to 5000-4000 BC (Early), 4000-2900 BC (Middle), and 2900-1900 BC (Mature). Harappa dates from the Middle period (c. 3000 BC) while Mohenjo-Daro was built in the Mature period (c. 2600 BC).
At about this same time (c. 1700-1500 BC) the Harappan culture began to decline. Other scholars cite the Aryan migration as more of an invasion of the land which brought about a vast displacement of the populace. The Aryan influence, some scholars claim, gave rise to what is known as the Vedic Period in India (c. 1700-150 BC) characterized by a pastoral lifestyle and adherence to the religious texts known as The Vedas. Society became divided into four classes (the Varnas) popularly known as `the caste system’ which were comprised of the Brahmana at the top (priests and scholars), the Kshatriya next (the warriors), the Vaishya (farmers and merchants), and the Shudra (laborers). The lowest caste was the Dalits, the untouchables, who handled meat and waste. It was during this time that they became systematized as the religion of Sanatan Dharma (which means `Eternal Order’) known today as Hinduism (this name deriving from the Indus (or Sindus) River where worshippers were known to gather, hence, `Sindus’, and then `Hindus’). In the 6th century BC, the religious reformers Vardhaman Mahavira (549-477 BC) and Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BC) broke away from mainstream Sanatan Dharma to eventually create their own religions of Jainism and Buddhism.
Persia held dominance in northern India until the conquest of Alexander the Great in 327 BC. One year later, Alexander had defeated the Achaemenid Empire and firmly conquered the Indian subcontinent. Again, foreign influences were brought to bear on the region giving rise to the Greco-Buddhist culture which impacted all areas of culture in northern India from art to religion to dress. Statues and reliefs from this period depict Buddha, and other figures, as distinctly Hellenic in dress and pose (known as the Gandhara School of Art). Following Alexander’s departure from India, the Mauryan Empire (322-185 BC) rose under the reign of Chandragupta Maurya (322-298) until, by the end of the third century BC, it ruled over almost all of northern India. Chandragupta’s son, Bindusara reigned between 298-272 BCE and extended the empire throughout the whole of India. His son was Ashoka the Great (lived 304-232, reigned 269-232 BC) under whose rule the empire flourished at its height.
Emperor Ashoka the Great (sometimes spelt Aśoka) lived from 304 to 232 BC and was the third ruler of the Indian Mauryan Empire, the largest ever in the Indian subcontinent and one of the world's largest empires at its time. He ruled form 268 BC to 232 BC and became a model of kingship in the Buddhist tradition. Under Ashoka India had an estimated population of 30 million, much higher than any of the contemporary Hellenistic kingdoms. After Ashoka’s death, however, the Mauryan dynasty came to an end and its empire dissolved.
Ashoka controlled the entire Indian subcontinent except for the extreme southern part and he could have easily controlled that remaining part as well, but he decided not to. Some versions say that Ashoka was sickened by the slaughter of the war and refused to keep on fighting. The myths and stories about Ashoka propagating Buddhism, distributing wealth, building monasteries, sponsoring festivals, and looking after peace and prosperity served as an inspiring model of a righteous and tolerant ruler that influenced monarchs from Sri Lanka to Japan. A particular story tells that Ashoka built 84,000 stupas (commemorative Buddhists buildings used as a place of meditation), served as an example to many Chinese and Japanese rulers who imitated Ashoka’s initiative.
By the end of Ashoka’s reign, the government treasury was severely depleted through his regular religious donations and, after his death, the empire declined rapidly. The country splintered into many small kingdoms and empires (such as the Kushan Empire) in what has come to be called the Middle Period. It finally flourished in what is considered the Golden Age of India under the reign of the Gupta Empire (320-550 AD).
The Gupta Empire stretched across northern and central parts of southern India between c. 320 and 550 AD. The period is noted for its achievements in the arts, architecture, sciences, religion, and philosophy. Chandragupta I (320 – 335 AD) started a rapid expansion of the Gupta Empire and soon established himself as the first sovereign ruler of the empire. It marked the end of 500 hundred years of domination of the provincial powers and resulting disquiet that began with the fall of the Mauryas. Even more importantly, it began a period of overall prosperity and growth that continued for the next two and half centuries which came to be known as a “Golden Age” in India’s history.
The Gupta Empire is thought to have been founded by one Sri Gupta (`Sri’ means `Lord’) who probably ruled between 240-280 AD. As Sri Gupta is thought to have been of the Vaishya (merchant) class, his rise to power in defiance of the caste system is unprecedented. He laid the foundation for the government which would so stabilize India that virtually every aspect of culture reached its height under the reign of the Guptas. Philosophy, literature, science, mathematics, architecture, astronomy, technology, art, engineering, religion, and astronomy, among other fields, all flourished during this period, resulting in some of the greatest of human achievements. The empire declined slowly under a succession of weak rulers until it collapsed around 550 AD. The Gupta Empire was then replaced by the rule of Harshavardhan (590-647 AD) who ruled the region for 42 years.