India was one of the great seats of ancient civilization.
For the purposes of this article, the term Ancient India refers to that period of Indian history which began in the early 3rd millennium BCE, when a literate, city-based culture first emerged, to the end of the brilliant Gupta dynasty, in 500 CE.
By this time all the essential foundations of Indian civilization had been laid down. As such, Ancient India plays a key role in world history. Its achievements can still be powerfully felt today, in a modern India and its growing influence around the world.
Timeline of the history of ancient India:
c.2800 BCE: the Indus Valley civilization begins to emerge
c.1700 BCE: the Indus Valley civilization vanishes
c.1500 BCE: Aryan tribes begin to infiltrate into northern India from central Asia
c. 800 BCE: The use of iron and alphabetic writing begin to spread to northern India from the Middle East
c. 500 BCE: two new religions, Buddhism and Jainism, are founded
327 BCE: Alexander the Great conquers the Indus Valley; this leads to king Chandragupta Maurya of Maghada conquering the Indus Valley from Alexander the Great’s successor (304 BCE)
The detail of the Alexander Mosaic showing Alexander the Great.
290 BCE: Chandragupta’s successor, Bindusara, extends the Mauryan conquests into central India
269 BCE: Ashoka becomes the Mauryan emperor
251 BCE: a mission led by Mahinda, Asoka’s son, introduces Buddhism to the island of Sri Lanka
232 BCE: Asoka dies; shortly after, the decline of the Mauryan empire sets in
Urban civilization first appeared in ancient India with the Indus Valley civilization in the early third millennium BCE, in what is today Pakistan and north-west India. This was contemporary with other early civilizations of the ancient world, in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, and is one of the earliest civilizations in world history. It is famous for its large and well-planned cities.
The Indus Valley civilization vanished in the mid-2nd millennium BCE. In the following thousand years, a people known as the Aryans, speaking an Indo-European language, moved into northern India from central Asia. They came into India as pastoral, semi-nomadic tribes led by warrior chieftains. Over time, they settled down as rulers over the native Dravidian populations they found there, and formed tribal kingdoms.
This period of ancient Indian history is known as the Vedic age, as it was depicted in the earliest Indian writings, called the Vedas. It is also the formative period in which most of the basic features of traditional Indian civilization were laid down. These include the emergence of early Hinduism as the foundational religion of India, and the social/religious phenomenon known as caste.
A page from the manuscript Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India
The period lasted from around 1500 BCE through to 500 BCE; that is, from the early days of the Aryan migrations through to the age of the Buddha.
The tribal society of the early Aryans gave way to the more complex society of the Classic Age of Ancient India. This period saw the rebirth of urban civilization in the Indian subcontinent, and with it, a literate culture. It was one of the most creative ages in the history of India, and saw the emergence of two new religions, Jainism and Buddhism.
Painting of Indra on his elephant mount, Airavata.>
This period of ancient India ended with the rise of the first great imperial state in ancient India, the Mauryan empire, after 320 BCE.
The Maurya empire was in effect an outgrowth of the kingdom of Magadha. Under a line of kings of the Nanda dynasty (reigned c. 424-322 BCE), this kingdom dramatically expanded to cover a large part of northern India; and under the following Maurya dynasty, the empire went on the cover all of north and central India.
The most famous of the Maurya emperors, in fact the most famous ruler in ancient India’s history and one of the most notable in the entire ancient world, was Ashoka (also spelt Asoka – reigned 272-232 BCE). He was a remarkable and attractive ruler: compassionate, tolerant, firm, seeking justice and well-being for all his subjects.
Fifty years or so after Ashoka’s death the huge Mauryan empire began to crumble. Outlying provinces fell away, and by the mid-2nd century BCE the empire had shrunk to its core areas.
The Vedic Age was a “dark age” in Indian history, in that it was a time of violent upheaval, and no written records from that period have survived to shed light on it. It was, however, one of the most formative eras of ancient Indian civilization. So far as society is concerned, the coming of Aryans into ancient India, and their establishing themselves as the dominant group, gave rise to the caste system. This divided Indian society into rigid layers, underpinned by religious rules. Originally there were just four castes, the priestly caste, the warrior caste, the farmers and traders, and the menial workers. Outside the caste system altogether, excluded from Aryan-dominated society, were the “Untouchables”.
As early Aryan society evolved into the more settled and more urban society of ancient India, these caste divisions persisted. New religious movements, the Jains and Buddhists, rebelled against it, preaching that all men are equal. However, caste was never overthrown. As time went on, indeed, it became more complex, and more rigid. It has endured right up to the present day.
In the earliest times, many hunter-gatherer groups inhabited much of the Indian sub-continent. However, the economic history of ancient India is one of agricultural advance. The use of iron spread from the Middle East from around 800 BCE, making farming more productive, and populations grew. At first, this occurred on the plains of northern India. However, iron-age farming gradually spread throughout the entire subcontinent. The hunter-gatherers were squeezed more and more into the forests and hills of India, eventually to take up farming themselves and being incorporated into Aryan society as new castes.
The spread of iron-age farming was a crucial development in the history of ancient India as it led to the rebirth of urban civilization in the subcontinent. Cities grew up; trade expanded; metal currency appeared, and an alphabetical script came into use.
The tribal chiefs of early Aryan society were the ancestors of the princes and kings we encounter in later Indian history. The re-emergence of cities enabled properly organized states to appear. Most of these were kingdoms, but uniquely in the ancient world outside the Mediterranean, some were republics.
The rise of the Mauryan empire to cover most of ancient India involved the creation of a provincial administration which spanned much of the subcontinent. The empire was divided into provinces, and an empire-wide tax-gathering organization was developed. Also created was an extensive espionage system. A network of roads running from south and north and east to west was maintained. Mauryan power rested ultimately on its formidable army, which seems to have been one of the largest in the ancient world.
The establishment of provinces, with strong centres of state power distributed in key locations throughout much of the subcontinent, set the stage for the next chapter in India’s history. As Mauryan power weakened, these provinces became powerful regional kingdoms, covering a territory far greater than the ancient Aryan homeland of northern India and reaching down into southern India.
The civilization of ancient India was an astonishing seedbed of religious innovation.
Reconstructing the Indus Valley civilization’s religion is impossible, but there is strong evidence that it had a major impact on the subsequent religious history of India. In any case, the next period of ancient Indian history, the Vedic age, saw the rise of early Hinduism, from which all other Indian religious systems arose.
Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro, with the Great Bath in the front.
Reproduced under Creative Commons license 1.0
The Aryan belief-system revolved around a pantheon of gods and goddesses. It also came to include the concept of the “Cycle of Life” – reincarnation of the soul from one creature (including both animals and humans) to another. Later, the idea of the material world being an illusion became widespread. Such ideas were emphasised more strongly in the new teachings of Jainism and Buddhism, which both also had their origins in ancient India, in the years around 500 BCE.
Jainism was founded by Mahariva (“The Great Hero”, lived c. 540-468 BCE). He emphasised an aspect already present in early Hinduism, non-violence to all living things. He also promoted the renunciation of worldly desires and an ascetic way of life.
Buddhism was founded by Gautama Siddharta, the Buddha (“The Enlightened One”, lived c. 565 to 485 BCE). He came to believe that extreme asceticism was not a fruitful basis for a spiritual life. However, like Jains, he believed that the release from worldly desires was the way to salvation. In daily life, Buddhists emphasised the importance of ethical behaviour.
Both Buddhism and Jainism flourished under the Mauryan empire. Some scholars believe that it was in this period, especially under Ashoka, that Buddhism became established as a major religion within ancient India.
Strongly linked to these religious developments, ancient India produced a fantastically rich literature. In the centuries after coming into northern India, the Aryans developed a great abundance of poems, tales, hymns, spells and so on, in an oral tradition known as the Vedas. They were written down long after the “Vedic age”. Another body of literature that was composed towards the end of the Vedic age were the Upanishads, a collection of works of prose and poetry which explore deep religious and philosophical concepts, including the idea that the material world is an illusion, and the implications of this idea for the individual soul.
Later in ancient India’s history, religious and other ideas came to be expressed in short texts called sutras. The earliest Jain and Buddhist scriptures were in this form, setting out the sayings of their founders in a brief, pithy way. Alongside these arose a tradition of elaborate epic poetry. The most famous examples are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These retell famous incidents in semi-mythological history, far back in the Vedic age.
As well as religious writings, ancient India produced works on mathematics, medicine, and politics. The Arthashastra of the famous statesman Kautilya anticipates Machiavelli by almost 2,000 years.
All these works were written in Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Aryans. This is an Indo-European language distantly related to Persian, Greek, Latin, German and other tongues. The Sanskrit script was based on the Aramaic alphabet, which came to India from the Middle East some time before 500 BCE. One of the greatest linguists in world history flourished sometime in the following centuries. This was Panini. He set out highly logical rules of grammar, which formed the basis of classical Sanskrit. His underlying idea was that words should express meaning as efficiently as possible – the brief sutras in ancient Indian scriptures embody this principle. The influence of Panini’s work on the history of Indian high culture is incalculable. Much Indian education came to be based on its principles, even if not in Sanskrit; they trained Indian scholars in a rigorous logic which acted as a major stimulus to intellectual thought and debate.
Apart from figurines from the Indus Valley civilization, the earliest examples of the art of ancient India which have come down to us are from magnificent cave temples in central India. The spread of such temples – either located in natural caves which have been shaped to create a religious space, or entirely carved from rock – was originally a Buddhist innovation, which Hindus later adopted. Here, stone carvings and painted frescoes dating from ancient times have come down to us, the earliest dating from the Mauryan empire, or just after. The most famous early cave-temples are found at Ellora, in central India.
Another Buddhist innovation was the stupa, a dome-shaped monument in which religious relics were stored. The earliest of these date from Mauryan times, with the Great Stupa at Sanchi being the most famous.
Apart from cave temples, ancient Indian buildings – secular and religious – were largely made of wood and bricks. Unfortunately none have survived from this early period of India’s history. Apparently they incorporated rounded arches atop their windows and doors – in which case they preceded arched architecture in the West by several centuries.
In mathematics, the scholars of ancient India clearly understood the Pythagorean theorem, that the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. The religious texts of the Vedic period contain examples of simple Pythagorean triples, such as, “The rope stretched along the length of the diagonal of a rectangle makes an area which the vertical and horizontal sides make together.”
A medical treatise called the Sushruta Samhita (6th century BCE) describes 1120 illnesses, 700 medicinal plants, a detailed study on anatomy, 64 preparations from mineral sources and 57 preparations based on animal sources. Cataract surgery was known to ancient Indian physicians, and was performed with a specially designed curved needle to loosen the lens and push the cataract out of the field of vision.
A statue dedicated to Sushruta at the Patanjali Yogpeeth institute in Haridwar.
Reproduced under Creative Commons 3.0
The evolution of a religious culture in ancient India, out of which Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism emerged as three distinct religions, was a development of great importance in world history. Between them, these religions today have the allegiance of billions of people. Buddhism has spread far and wide outside the Indian subcontinent (where, curiously, it has become a minority religion), and has had a deep impact upon societies in China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and South East Asia. It is now spreading fast amongst peoples in the West, where by some counts it is the fastest growing religion.
The interaction between three rival but closely related faiths produced a rich and tolerant intellectual environment. This would give rise to achievements of world significance. Indian developments in mathematics laid the foundation for modern Western mathematics, and therefore for modern Western science.
The Mauryan empire played a key role in the spread of Buddhism. The fact that China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia all now have large Buddhist populations is in some part owing to the great Maurya emperor, Asoka.
For the broad context in which Ancient India flourished, see Maps of the Ancient World.
The main sources I have used for the history of ancient and medieval India are:
Thapar, R., The Penguin History of Early India, Penguin, 2002, is a full and scholarly overview of the subject, from origins up to 1300 AD, for the general reader.
Keay, J., A History of India, Harper Collins, 2000, is an accessible introduction to Indian history.
Auboyer, J., Daily Life in Ancient India, Phoenix, 1965, is a highly readable look at life in ancient and early medieval India from 200 BC to 700 AD.
Schmidt, K.J., An Atlas and Survey of South Asian History, Sharpe, 1995, provides a clear map-based approach to Indian history, invaluable for the Western reader who is unclear on Indian geography.
A lavishly illustrated work on archaeology for the general reader which includes good coverage of ancient India and the roots of Indian civilization, is Renfrew, C. (ed.), Past Worlds: The Times Atlas of Archaeology, Times Books, 1995, p. 88-9; 130-1; 188-9.
A work on general archaeology aimed more at students, but readable and with very good coverage of ancient India, is Scarre, C. (ed.), The Human Past, Thames & Hudson, 2005, p. 518ff.
The British Museum’s beautiful series on ancient civilizations includes their website Ancient India.
Wikipedia has its usual vast amount of information on the History of India
The Ancient History Encyclopedia has a good section on the Indus Valley – Ancient India – but is a bit sketchy on the rest of ancient Indian history.