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Classical Civilization: India



Ajanta and Ellora

Cave temples

Constructed in stages last centuries B.C.E. through the 8th century C.E.

Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism coexisting


Nature of society, everyday life, and popular culture

Visualize more than a millennium of history

Brahman-dominated society which emerged in the kingdoms of Aryan migrants

Rise of Buddhism in the 6th century B.C.E

Rise and political fragmentation of Maurya dynasty

Competition among different schools of Buddhism, Brahmanism, and other sects

Breakthroughs of Gupta empire 4th to the mid-6th centuries C.E

India a core civilizations of the preindustrial world

Chapter Focus

Collapse of Harappa around 1500 B.C.E.

Aryans, new foundation between 1500 and 500 B.C.E.

Kingdoms of the Gangetic Plains

Kings claim divine descent

Cultivation and cleared forests affected climate change

Complex ritual divisions, restrictions, social hierarchy, Vedic priests dominant force

6th century B.C.E. many dissenters, Buddhist challenge

I. The Framework for Indian History: Geography and a Formative Period

Buddhist, Brahmin rivalry shaped social hierarchies and gender roles

Mauryan Empire, India’s first empire, shaped by Buddhist teaching

Invasion, political fragmentation until Gupta empire in 4th c. C.E.

Gupta reasserted Brahmin control, Hinduism

Period of scientific, artistic, literary, philosophical, and architectural achievement

Contrast with China

Indian focus on religion, social structure, Hindu way of life

Political structure less cohesive, less important

Unique cultural developments: religion, science, economics, family life

Similarities with China

Agricultural imperative: survival, village life, local allegiance, patriarchy

Great cities, extensive trade, social and economic complexity

Formal intellectual life, schools and academies

A. Formative Influences


Closer to other civilizations than China

Influences from Middle East, Mediterranean, Persia


Himalayan barrier to East Asia

Passes in northwest link to Middle East

Divisions in subcontinent:

Two river regions: Indus and Ganges (agriculture)

Mountainous north (herding)

Mid-continent mountains and Deccan plateau

Southern coastal rim (trading, seafaring)

Considerable economic, racial, linguistic diversity


Most of India, especially river plains semitropical

Monsoon rains variable

Sometimes flooding, drought, starvation

Good years supported two harvests and large population

B. The Great Epics

Formative period between Indus River Valley civilization and revival of full civilization

Called Vedic and Epic Ages

Vedic Age between 1500 and 1000 B.C.E.

Nomadic Aryans increasingly turn to agriculture

Extend to Ganges River valley

Literary epics, sacred texts called Vedas form the historical record

Began orally, then written in Sanskrit

“Veda” means “knowledge” in Sanskrit

First epic, Riga-Veda, 1028 hymns dedicated to Aryan gods

Epic Age between 1000 and 600 B.C.E.




Mahabharata and Ramayana deal with real and imagined battles

Upanishads more mystical and religious

Epics demonstrate increased settlements, political structure

Village chiefs, patriarchal and extended family structure

Caste system emerged, “Varna” means Aryan social class, in order:

Kshatriyas (warrior, governing class)

Brahmans (priestly class)

Vaisyas (traders and farmers)

Sudras (common laborers)

Untouchables (performed reviled tasks, became a reviled people)

At first, Kshatriyas top class, during Epic Age Brahmans replaced them

Gradually, caste hereditary, intermarriage punishable by death

Jati, subgroups, also tied to occupation and social station by birth

Aryan gods and goddesses

Regulated nature, possessed human qualities

Similar to other Indo-European traditions, but developed into lasting religion

Nature not just set of gods but a divine force

By end of Epic period, religion combination of rituals, beliefs, and mysticism

Gautama Buddha built a religion on this mysticism

II. Patterns in Classical India

By 600 B.C.E. formative period at an end

Cities and trade grew

Sanskrit furthered literary culture

Irregular pattern to political eras

Northwest border allowed for landmark invasions

16 major states in the plains of northern India

One empire of size: Magadha

327 B.C.E., Alexander the Great invaded, created border state of Bactria

A. The Rise and Decline of the Mauryas

322 B.C.E. Chandragupta Maurya seizes power

He and successors build unified empire

Not sure what he borrowed from Persia or Alexander


Large armies, thousands of chariots and elephant-borne troops

Substantial bureaucracy

Postal system


Became an religious ascetic

Passed empire to son

Ashoka (269—232 B.C.E.)

Grandson of Chandragupta

Bloody extension of empire

Conversion to Buddhism

Dharma, law of moral consequences, ethical guide to unify empire

Promoted Buddhism

Honored Hinduism, built shrines

Buddhist missionaries to Middle East Hellenistic kingdoms, Sri Lanka

Instructed officials in humane treatment, goal of moral welfare

Trade and communication improvements: roads, inns, wells

After Ashoka

Ashoka’s style of government of limited impact

Buddhist current persisted

Regional kingdoms resurfaced

Kushans, invaders from northwest, adopted Buddhism

Foreign association discouraged Indians from the religion

By 185 b.c.e., empire ended

B. The Guptas

Kushan state collapsed by 220 B.C.E.

Gupta built empire by 4th century c.e.

Allowed autonomy of elites

Two centuries of political stability

Overturned by Huns in 535 B.C.E.

Basic political pattern of classical age:

Empires alternating with regional rule

Economic, cultural advance without interruption

III. Political Institutions

Persistent political features


Diverse political forms

Autocratic kings and emperors

Aristocratic assemblies

Political base of empires shaky

Mauryan rulers

Depended on armies, feared betrayal

Gupta Empire

Claimed Hindu gods appointed them

Established tax system

Locally ruled with deference to Gupta Empire

Gupta representative at each ruler’s court

No single language imposed

Sanskrit promoted among educated classes, but no effect locally

Little bureaucracy

Promoted some public works like roads

Spread uniform law codes

Sponsored universities, art, literature

Gupta golden age of achievement

Gupta age not singular for political theory or institutions

Kautilya, Chandragupta’s minister, wrote a political treatise

On efficient authority

No political theory of value or service like Confucianism

No political ethics like Greece or Rome

Why no political theory or ethical system in India?

Importance of local units of organization

Caste rules


Interpreted by priests

Regulated social relationships

Regulated work roles

Same function as government structures in other cultures

Basis of public order

After Epic Age, more and more complex subgroups

Defined groups one could eat with or marry within

Hereditary principle

Not possible to rise above one’s caste

Could drop, if marrying down or working below level

Upward mobility possible within a caste

Means of integrating diverse populations without integrating their cultures

Promoted tolerance

Avoided slavery, untouchables scorned and poor but not owned

Politically, loyalty was to caste

Caste regulated details of behavior

Detailed political administration rendered less necessary

IV. Religion and Culture

Indian civilization rested largely on widely shared cultural values

Hinduism gained ground on Buddhism under Guptas

Provided cultural cement across languages and castes

Incorporated variety

Did not displace minority religions

Still major religion of India

Prominent cultural tradition independent of political systems or regimes

Rational scientific cultural legacy

A. The Formation of Hinduism

Gradual development

Origin in Vedic and Epic Ages

Melding of polytheism, ritual, and mystic divine principles

Some developments in reaction to Buddhism and Islam

Hinduism incorporated:

Ritual, ceremony

Unity of individuals with all-embracing divine

Political and economic goals (artha)

Worldly pleasures (karma)

Many paths of worship, tolerance, fluidity

Early Hinduism called “Brahmanism” due to emphasis on brahman leadership, ritual

Hindus call their religion “Dharma” meaning, moral path

Gods changed from natural to abstract representations

Varuna was god of the sky and became guardian of ideas of right and wrong

Increased emphasis on gentle, generous behavior

Upanishads: shallowness of worldliness, favored contemplation of world spirit

Each creature’s soul part of universal spirit

Attacked brahman focus on correct practices, rituals, ceremonies, rewards

Hinduism embraced tension between mystical and prosaic

By 1st century C.E., Hinduism a more formal religion

Shared doctrines of brahman priests and mystics (gurus)

Holy essence or divine principle (brahma) incorporates all living things

Several gods are divine aspects of brahma

Vishnu: the preserver

Shiva, the destroyer

Divine soul more important than world of the senses

Life’s quest: seeking union with divine soul

May take many lifetimes, reincarnation

Bodies die, souls do not, they pass to other humans or animals

The caste trajectory depends on goodness of life

Many good lives earn the soul full union with brahma

Suffering ceases

Channels for a good life:

Renouncement of the world, practice of mediation and yoga (means “union”)

Rituals and rules of the brahmans

Proper ceremonies


Dietary habits

Treating cows as sacred

Devotions to lesser gods and local deities

Symbolic sacrifices

Epic poems key texts and shared ethics:

Moral law of dharma guide for worldly and spiritual goals

Focus on consequences

Need to act: serving family, making a living, armed duties

Honor, duty, pleasure, compatible with spirituality

Less prescriptive than Christianity and Islam

Hinduism accommodated variety of expressions, practices, beliefs

Consistent distinction between good and evil behavior

Reinforced castes, promising hope for each to achieve a higher level

Sustained through priests, and gurus

B. Buddhism

Prince Siddharta Gautama, born 563 B.C.E.

Questioned the fairness of life in context of poverty and suffering

Lived as Hindu mystic

After 6 years, felt he found the truth

Took to wandering life, asceticism

Beliefs regarding Hinduism

Accepted spiritual truth like reincarnation

Denied other beliefs such as caste

Truth as he saw it: Buddhism

Material world a snare warping human relationships and causing pain

All things decay, holding to youth, health, life itself, source of suffering

Salvation from release from self, door to nirvana

Self-regulation and pursuit of holy life, individual effort

Contrast with Hinduism

Denied spiritual value of castes, rituals, priests

Spread of Buddhism

Example and teaching of monks

Monks organized in monasteries but preached throughout world

Growth in India spurred by Ashoka

Buddha increasingly seen as divine

Focus on contemplation, charity, piety

Brahman opposition in India, especially under Guptas

Ashoka and Kushan missionary success

Sri Lanka, China, Korea, Japan

Other religions dissenting from Hinduism emerged too

Religion not the only intellectual development in classical age

Legal writing prominent

Kamasutra “laws of love” written in 4th century C.E.

C. Arts and Sciences


Gupta period

Epics written down in Gupta period

Story collections, Panchatranta

Sinbad the Sailor and other well known adventure stories

Classical stories often secular

Emphasis on imagination and excitement

Sometimes included gods


Romantic adventures

Contemporary films follow this tradition


Gupta period

University center of Nalanda

Attracted students across Asia and Indian brahmans

Lecture halls, libraries, observatory, model dairy

Religion, philosophy, medicine, architecture, agriculture

The Greek Interlude, Alexander the Great, 327 b.c.e.

Contact with Hellenistic world improved mathematics and astronomy


Aryabhatta, important astronomer

Length of solar year

Mathematical measurements

Accurate circumference of the earth—and indicated it is round

Daily rotation of earth on axis

Predicted, explained eclipses

Developed a theory of gravity

Telescopic proof of seven planets


Bone settings

Plastic surgery

Inoculation against smallpox, using cowpox serum

Stress on cleanliness in hospitals, including sterilization of wounds

Promotion of ethical standards

Understanding of astronomy, medicine, similar in West only in modern times


“Arabic” numbering (West learned of Indian system through Arabs)



Negative numbers

Square roots

Table of sines

Value of pi, more accurate than Greeks


Stupas, shrines to Buddha sponsored by Ashoka

Move to stylized representations of human form under Guptas

Sculpture, painting

People, animals, nature

Religious values

Spontaneity and imagination more prominent than in China or West

V. Economy and Society

Effect of caste system

Low-castes few rights, servants easily abused

Upper-castes constrained largely by ethics rather than law

Village leaders charged to limit interference from landlords

Family life


Rights of women increasingly limited

As agricultural technologies improve, women’s roles circumscribed

Hindu debate if women had to be reincarnated as men before advancing

Marriage unions, economic arrangements arranged by parents

Women also recognized

Epics recognized women’s independent contributions

Stories of strong-willed women and goddesses

Stories celebrated female emotion and beauty

Emphasis on loving relationships and sexual pleasure

Expectation that husband and wife enjoy mutual support

Marabharata epic called a man’s wife his truest friend


Indulged in early years

With increased age, expected to participate as a worker

General expectation of aid to older family members

Family emotional as well as economic unit


Rivaled China in technology

Briefly surpassed China’s upper-classes in prosperity

Developments in chemistry

Best steel in the world

Most superior iron making until a few centuries ago

First to manufacture textiles: cotton, calico, cashmere

Artisan guilds and shops


Greater emphasis on merchants, trade than China or Mediterranean


High caste status

In North, wide travel across Asia, Middle East

In South, Tamil sea trade with Middle East, Roman Empire

Traded silks, cotton, dyes, drugs, gold, ivory

Brought back pottery, wine, metals, gold, some slaves

Southern trade with Southeast Asia like Malaysia

Manufactured goods and culture

Caravan trade developed with China

Gupta Empire known for its wealth as well as religious and intellectual life

Wealth relegated to small upper class

Most people lived on margins of subsistence

VI. Indian Influence and Comparative Features

Classical India huge influence on other parts of the world

Comparatively the greatest of influencing civilizations

Dominated Indian Ocean, waters of southern Asia, much travel

Not political domination

Influence by way of goods, intermarriage, cultural ideas and artifacts

Thailand, Burma, parts of Indonesia, Vietnam

Buddhism and Indian art expanded into China

Buddhist missionaries in the Middle East introduced ideas

Affected Greeks and Roman Stoics

Through them, affected Christianity

Classical civilization in India lasted longer than in China or Rome

After Gupta fall, enduring religion, culture, social and family network

Civilization could survive long periods of foreign domination

A. China and India Compared

Contrasts demonstrate diversity, vitality of classical age

Art and poetry

China: restrained

India: dynamic, sensual style

China: religion and philosophy, separate spheres

India: unified religion, tolerant of minority beliefs
Political, social structure

China: centralized governance, bureaucratic

India: organized through strict caste system

Cultural emphasis

China: more materialist, despite Daoist influence

India: more otherworldly


China: practical orientation

India: practical too, but went further in mathematics

Similarities between China and India

Agricultural societies

Large peasant class

Close-knit villages

Cities, merchant activity secondary role

Political power in hands of estate owners

Taxed peasantry

Patriarchal family structure
Differences other than the political, cultural, artistic


Emphasis on restraint, etiquette in family life

Village control often succumbed to estate owner pressure

Trade advanced by government


More emotional expectations in family interactions

Village control over land stronger than China

Trade advanced by merchants

Global Connections

A. India and the Wider World

Most open to influence

Most central to cross-cultural exchanges

Produced some of world’s highest forms






Urban centers

Population only second to China

Buddhism as world religion

Mainland and island southeast Asia

Political forms




Civilizations like Angor Wat (Cambodia), Majapahit (Java)


Artistic techniques

Philosophy (Stoicism)

Ideas affecting Christianity

Coastal India

Core of expanding trade network over most of Eastern Hemisphere

Direct trade or to Silk Road emporiums

Spread of cultural, scientific, religious legacies and manufactures across globe


Ajanta and Ellora

The monumental religious edifices at Ajanta and Ellora are witness to developments in India over one thousand years, ending in the 8th century c.e. They reflect Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain traditions, which coexisted on the subcontinent, essentially without conflict. The exquisite sculptures and paintings depict the life of Buddha and scenes from the Ramayana; they also tell us about the nature of society, everyday life, and popular culture. Ajanta and Ellora help us to visualize more than a millennium of history from the brahman-dominated society which emerged in the kingdoms Aryan migrants established to the rise of Buddhism, the Mauryan dynasty, competition among different schools of Buddhism, Brahmanism, and a wide variety of other religious sects, as well as the remarkable breakthroughs of the Gupta empire. Taken as a whole, the complexes are remarkable records of a millennium of Indian culture and development.

Chapter Summary. After the long period of disruption following Harappa’s fall—around 1500 B.C.E.—a new civilization arose in India. India became the third great center of classical civilization. The basis for Indian civilization after 1500 b.c.e. was laid by Aryan invaders who ended Harappan civilization. By 500 b.c.e., states ruled by kings claiming divine descent controlled much of the Ganges Plains. Its settlement resulted in the clearing of forest lands and contributed to broad climatic changes. Rigid social castes developed, with brahmans emerging as dominant because of their literary and religious functions. Discontented with empty rituals, ascetic holy men offered new religious ideas. One of these thinkers, now known as the Buddha, founded one of the great world religions—a religion that provided a powerful challenge to the brahmans and many of the ancient Vedic beliefs and practices.

The Framework for Indian History: Geography and a Formative Period.

In the centuries that followed the Aryan incursions, the rivalry between Buddhists and brahmans played a major role in shaping gender relationships and the nature of social hierarchies as a whole in south Asia. The Buddha’s teachings also contributed to what would become the first and largest empire in premodern India, but the Mauryan Empire was short-lived. After a period of nomadic invasions and political fragmentation, the Gupta dynasty sponsored the flowering of Hinduism, and achievements in architecture, painting, sculpture, philosophy, literature, and the sciences. India’s unique development contrasted with that of China, especially in regard to politics. Whereas China relied on its political structure to maintain peace and order, in India, Hinduism supplied the primary social glue. Both agricultural societies, held certain traits in common such as the importance of village life and patriarchy. They also built great cities and engaged in extensive trade.

Formative Influences. India’s distinctive culture was born of its geography and early historical experience. It was open to influences from the Middle East and even the Mediterranean world; Persia spilled into India, Alexander the Great invaded, periodic influences from the Middle East continued after the classical age. India had to react and adapt in ways that China largely avoided because it was more isolated. India traded with China in the late classical age, but China was more affected.

India’s topography and climate played a major role in its history. The Himalaya mountains were a formidable barrier to East Asia whereas passes across the mountains in the northwest linked India to the Middle East. The subcontinent itself was divided into distinct geographical regions that encouraged the development of economic, cultural, linguistic, and racial diversity. The two river regions of the Indus and Ganges allowed for substantial agriculture whereas the mountainous north consisted mostly of herders. Mountains and the Deccan plateau cut across mid-continent India. Its southern coastal rim became known for trading and seafaring. The semitropical climate and the variable droughts and monsoon floods that came with it, informed a culture in need to come to terms with a climate that could produce abundance one year and grim starvation the next. In a year with favorable monsoons, Indian farmers could plant and harvest two crops and thus support a sizeable population.

The Great Epics. Indian civilization was shaped not only by its physical environment but also by a formative period, lasting several centuries, between the destruction of the Indus River civilization and the revival of full civilization elsewhere on the subcontinent. Called the Vedic and Epic ages, Aryan (Indo-European) migrants gradually extended agriculture from the Indus River valley to the more fertile Ganges valley. Initially passed down orally, later written in Sanskrit, Aryan epics developed the first literary language of the new culture. The first of these Vedas, the Riga-Veda consists of 1028 hymns dedicated to the Aryan gods and composed by various priests. New stories of battles, real and imagined, developed during the Epic Age between 1000 and 600 B.C.E., include the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the more mystical Upanishads.

As Aryan peoples became increasingly sedentary during the Vedic and Epic ages, village chiefs took on the role of supervising defense and property relationships among village families, and the caste system developed, regulating the social order. Initially, castes represented four hierarchical social classes (Varnas): the warriors (Kshatriyas) and priests (Brahmans) at the top, then traders and farmers (Vaisyas), and lastly, common laborers (Sudras). The Epic Age saw the addition of a fifth class, the Untouchables, named as such because it was widely believed that they were literally untouchable due to the reviled work they performed. Gradually, the caste system expanded to include occupational subgroups, the brahman class asserted its superior position, and intermarriage became punishable by death. Caste had become rigidly hereditary and intermingled with religious meaning. The Aryan gods and goddesses regulated nature and behaved like humans not unlike other Indo-European polytheistic constructs, however, unlike the gods of the Greeks or Scandinavians, India developed a complex and enduring religion around their gods and goddesses. The brahman priestly class specified and enforced prayers, ceremonies, and rituals. However, the religion also produced a more mystical strand through its belief in a unifying divine force and the desirability of seeking union with this force. Toward the end of the Epic period one religious leader, Gautama Buddha, built on this mysticism to create what became Buddhism, another major world religion.

Patterns in Classical India. By 600 B.C.E., India had passed through its formative phase. Regional political units grew in size, cities and trade expanded, and the development of the Sanskrit language, although dominated by the priestly brahman class, furthered an elaborate literary culture. For nearly 300 years, India would be ruled by independent monarchies or republics that were intermittently at war or invaded by those who poured in through the mountain passes of the subcontinent’s northwestern border. In 327 B.C.E., Alexander the Great, having conquered Greece and much of the Middle East, pushed into northwestern India, establishing a small border state called Bactria.

The Mauryan Dynasty. Chandragupta Maurya, a regional ruler in the Ganges Plain, created the first and largest empire in northern India. Chandragupta, possibly borrowing Persian and Hellenistic forms, ruled as an absolute monarch with the support of an enormous army. His successors developed a sizeable bureaucracy as well, even a postal system. Having consolidated Mauryan authority, Chandragupta ceded control to his son and became a religious ascetic, dying peacefully at an advanced age. Ashoka, Chandragupta’s grandson, actively extended his empire in the early years of his reign. He radically changed course following conversion to Buddhism, believing that dharma, or the law of moral consequences, could function as an ethical guide that might unite and discipline the diverse people under his rule. Ashoka vigorously propagated Buddhism throughout India while also honoring Hinduism, sponsoring shrines for its worshippers. Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries to the Hellenistic kingdoms in the Middle East, and also to Sri Lanka to the south. The “new” Ashoka urged humane behavior on the part of his officials and insisted that they oversee the moral welfare of his empire by developing roads, hospitals, wells, and rest houses. Stability and the sheer expansion of the empire’s territory encouraged growing commerce. After Ashoka, the empire began to fall apart, and regional kingdoms surfaced once again. New invaders, the Kushans, pushed into central India from the northwest. The greatest Kushan king, Kanishka, converted to Buddhism but actually hurt this religion’s popularity in India by associating it with foreign rule.

The Guptas. The collapse of the Kushan state ushered in another hundred years of political instability. Then a new line of kings, the Guptas, established a large empire, beginning in 320 C.E. and lasting until 535 C.E. when it was overturned by a new invasion of nomadic warriors, the Huns. The Guptas established their ruled through negotiation and intermarriage, which expanded their influence without constant fighting. Two centuries of Gupta rule gave classical India its greatest period of political stability.

Classical India thus alternated between widespread empires and a network of smaller kingdoms. Periods of regional rule did not necessarily suggest great instability, and both economic and cultural life advanced in these periods as well as under the Mauryas and Guptas.

Political Institutions. The most persistent political features of India, in the classical period and beyond, involved regionalism, plus considerable diversity in political forms, whether autocratic or republican. As a result of India’s diversity and regionalism, even some of the great empires had a rather shaky base. Early Mauryan rulers depended heavily on the power of their large armies. The Guptas consolidated support by claiming that they had been appointed by the gods to rule, and, they favored the Hindu religion over Buddhism because the Hindus believed in such gods. The Guptas managed to create a demanding taxation system, but did not create an extensive bureaucracy, preferring to work with local rulers from whom they expected deference. The great empire’s loose structure was the fact that no single language was imposed. The Guptas promoted Sanskrit, but this made no dent in the diversity of popular, regional languages. The Guptas did spread uniform law codes, sponsor services such as road building, and patronize much cultural activity, including university life as well as art and literature. These achievements were more than enough to qualify the Gupta period as a golden age in Indian history. The fact remains, however, that the political culture of India was not very elaborate. Classical India did not develop a political theory or set of political values and institutions like the Chinese or Greeks. Kautilya, Chandragupta’s chief minister, wrote an important treatise on politics, but it was devoted to efficient governance not ethics. Ashoka used Buddhism to inspire his politics but Buddhist leaders in the long run were not greatly interested in affairs of state. The limitations on the political traditions developed during this period of Indian history can be explained partly by the importance of local units of government—the tightly organized villages—and particularly by the caste system. Caste rules, governing marriages and permissible jobs, and social habits such as eating and drinking, interpreted by priests, did for Indian life what more conventional government structures did in many other cultures, in promoting public order. India’s caste system became steadily more complex after the Epic Age Hereditary principles grew ever stronger. In its origins, the caste system provided a way for India’s various races, the conquerors and the conquered, to live together without perpetual conflict and without full integration of cultures and values. In an odd way, castes promoted tolerance, and this was useful, given India’s varied peoples and beliefs.

Religion and Culture. Religion, particularly the Hindu religion, was the clearest cultural cement of this society, cutting across political and language barriers and across the castes. Hinduism embraced variety, tolerated minority religions, and gave rise to important religious dissent. It is this kind of tradition that illustrates how classical India, although not the source of enduring political institutions beyond the local level, produced a civilization that would retain clear continuity and cultural cohesiveness—even though the subcontinent was rarely politically united, at least under indigenous rulers. Along with religion, an important tradition of rational scientific inquiry emerged. Indian governments might support religious missionaries, but they also established an openness to religious diversity and supported scientific and intellectual inquiry.

The Formation of Hinduism. Unlike all other world religions, Hinduism had no single founder from whom the basic religious beliefs stemmed. This fact helps explain why the religion unfolded so gradually, sometimes in reaction to competing religions such as Buddhism or Islam. Moreover, Hinduism pursued a number of religious approaches, from the strictly ritualistic and ceremonial approach many brahmans preferred, to the high-soaring mysticism that sought to unite individual humans with an all-embracing divine principle. Part of Hinduism’s success, was the result of its tolerance, and ability to adapt to the needs of various groups and circumstances. Over time, the original gods of nature were altered to represent more abstract concepts, and the great poems increasingly emphasized gentle, generous behavior as well as the validity of a life devoted to concentration on the Supreme Spirit. From the Epic Age onward, Hinduism embraced this clear tension between a religion of rituals, with fixed ceremonies and rules of conduct, and the religion of mystical holy men, or gurus, seeking communion with the divine soul.

By the 1st century of the common era, brahmans and gurus agreed on certain doctrines. The basic holy essence, called brahma, formed part of everything in this world. The divine aspects of brahma are manifested in the forms of several gods. The world of our senses is far less important than the world of the divine soul, and a proper life is one devoted to seeking union with this soul. However, this quest may take many lifetimes, and Hindus stressed the principle of reincarnation, in which souls do not die when bodies do but pass into other beings, either human or animal. Where the soul goes, whether it rises to a higher-caste person or falls perhaps to an animal, depends on how good a life the person has led. Ultimately, after many good lives, the soul reaches full union with the soul of brahma, and worldly suffering ceases. Hinduism provided several channels for the good life. For some people, there was the meditation and self-discipline of yoga, for others, there were the rituals and rules of the brahmans. Many Hindus also continued the idea of lesser gods represented in the spirits of nature, or purely local divinities. Hinduism provided a basic, if complex, ethic that helped supply some unity amid the various forms of worship. The epic poems, richly symbolic, formed the key texts. They illustrated a central emphasis on the moral law of dharma as a guide to living in this world and simultaneously pursuing higher, spiritual goals. This ethic urged that honorable behavior, even pleasure seeking, is compatible with spirituality and can lead to a final release from the life cycle and to unity with the divine essence.

The spread of Hinduism through India, and at least briefly to some other parts of Asia, had many sources. The religion accommodated extreme spirituality. It also provided satisfying rules of conduct for ordinary life, including rituals and a firm emphasis on the distinction between good and evil behavior. The religion allowed many people to retain older beliefs and ceremonies. It also reinforced the caste system, giving people in lower castes hope for a better future and giving upper-caste people, including the brahmans, the satisfaction that if they behaved well, they might be rewarded by communion with the divine soul. Even though Hindu beliefs took shape only gradually and contained many ambiguities, the religion was sustained by a strong cadre of priests and through the efforts of individual gurus and mystics.

Buddhism. In the 6th century B.C.E. an Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, came to question the fairness of earthly life in which so much suffering abounded. Gautama, later called Buddha or “enlightened one,” lived as a Hindu mystic. After six years, he felt that he had found truth, then spent his life traveling and gathering disciples to spread his ideas. Buddha accepted the spiritual truth behind many Hindu beliefs, such as reincarnation, but he denied the validity of others, such as caste. He held the material world to be a snare that warped human relations and caused pain via the frustrations inherent in it: all worldly things decay, but men and women suffer and harm others as they struggle to hold onto youth, health, and life itself, though all are destined to pass away. Buddha saw salvation as arising from the destruction of the self, whose annihilation opens the door to a realm where suffering and decay are no more, literally a world beyond existence itself: nirvana. Individuals could regulate their lives and aspirations toward this goal without elaborate ceremonies. Buddhism denied the spiritual value not only of caste and the performance of rituals, but also of priests.

The spread of Buddhism occurred primarily outside of India. Brahman opposition, aided by the influence of the Gupta emperors, demonstrated Hinduism was able to compete by emphasizing its mystical side, thus retaining the loyalties of many Indians. Buddhism’s greatest successes, aided by the missionary encouragement of Ashoka and later the Kushan emperors, came in other parts of southeast Asia, including the island of Sri Lanka, off the south coast of India, and in China, Korea, and Japan. Still, pockets of Buddhists remained in India. If Hinduism, along with the caste system, formed the most distinctive and durable products of the classical period of Indian history, they were certainly not the only ones. Hinduism itself encouraged many wider pursuits. Indian thinkers wrote actively about various aspects of human life. Although political theory was sparse, a great deal of legal writing occurred. The theme of love was important also such as appeared in the 4th century C.E., manual of the “laws of love,” the Kamasutra.

Arts and Sciences. Indian literature, stressed lively story lines. The epics were written down during the Gupta period, and other story collections, like the Panchatantra, which includes Sinbad the Sailor produced adventurous yarns now known all over the world. Classical stories were often secular, but they sometimes included the gods and also share with Hinduism an emphasis on imagination and excitement. Indian drama flourished also and stressed themes of romantic adventure. This literary tradition created a cultural framework that still survives in India.

Classical India also produced important work in science and mathematics. The Guptas supported a vast university center—one of the world’s first—in the town of Nalanda that attracted students from other parts of Asia as well as Indian brahmans. Hindu scholars made major discoveries in mathematics, the sciences, and medicine. The great astronomer Aryabhatta calculated the length of the solar year and improved mathematical measurements. He also calculated the circumference of the earth with remarkable accuracy—which also indicates that he believed it to be round. Indian astronomers understood and calculated the daily rotation of the earth on its axis, predicted and explained eclipses, and developed a theory of gravity, and through telescopic observation they identified seven planets. They devised the concepts of zero, decimals, and the “Arabic” number system, and computed the value of pi. Medical advances included hospitals and surgery. Inoculation against smallpox was introduced.

Finally, classical India produced lively art, although much of it perished under later invasions. Ashoka sponsored many spherical shrines to Buddha, called stupas, and statues honoring Buddha were also common. Under the Guptas, sculpture and painting moved away from realistic portrayals of the human form toward more stylized representation. Indian painters, working on the walls of buildings and caves, filled their work with forms of people and animals, captured in lively color. In various cultural expressions, Indians developed an interest in spontaneity and imagination, whether in fleshly pleasures or a mystical union with the divine essence.

Economy and Society. The caste system described many key features of Indian social and economic life, as it assigned people to occupations and regulated marriages. Low-caste individuals had few legal rights, and servants were often abused by their masters, who were restrained only by the ethical promptings of religion toward kindly treatment. Village leaders were charged with trying to protect peasants from too much interference by landlords and rulers. Family life also emphasized the theme of hierarchy and tight organization. The dominance of husbands and fathers remained strong. The limits imposed on women were reflected in laws and literary references. A system of arranged marriage evolved in which parents contracted unions for children, particularly daughters, at quite early ages, to spouses they had never even met. However, the rigidities of family life and male dominance over women were often greater in theory than they usually turned out to be in practice. The emphasis on loving relations and sexual pleasure in Indian culture modified family life. The Mahabharata epic called a man’s wife his truest friend. Indian culture often featured clever and strong-willed women and goddesses, and this contributed to women’s status as wives and mothers. Stories also celebrated women’s emotions and beauty. Families thus served an important and explicit emotional function as well as a role in supporting the structure of society and its institutions. They also, as in all agricultural societies, formed economic units. Children, after early years of indulgence, were expected to work hard. Adults were obligated to assist older relatives. The purpose of arranged marriages was to promote a family’s economic well-being, and almost everyone lived in a family setting.

The economy of India in the classical period became extremely vigorous, rivaling China in technological sophistication and probably briefly surpassing China in the prosperity of its upper classes. India was particularly advanced in manufacturing, chemistry, steel production, and ironmaking, outdistancing European levels until a few centuries ago. Indian techniques in textiles were also advanced. Indian emphasis on trade and merchant activity was far greater than in China and the classical Mediterranean world. From the Middle East and the Roman Empire, the seafaring peoples along the southern coast, brought back pottery, wine, metals, some slaves, and above all gold. Their trade with southeast Asia was even more active. In addition, caravan trade developed with China. As with other classical civilizations, the Indian economy remained firmly agricultural at its base, its wealth divided between the very few wealthy at the top and the vast majority of the population living at the margins of subsistence.

Indian Influence and Comparative Features. Classical India had a considerable influence on other parts of the world. In many ways, the Indian Ocean, dominated at this point by Indian merchants and missionaries, was the most active linkage point among cultures. Indian dominance of the waters of southern Asia, and the impressive creativity of Indian civilization itself, resulted in goods and influence traveling well beyond the subcontinent’s borders into Burma, Thailand, parts of Indonesia, and Vietnam. Indian influence had affected China, through Buddhism and art, by the end of the classical period. Earlier, Buddhist emissaries to the Middle East stimulated new ethical thinking that informed Greek and Roman groups like the Stoics and through them aspects of Christianity later on. The ability of this civilization to survive, even under long periods of foreign domination, was testimony to the meaning and variety it offered to many Indians themselves.

China and India Compared. The thrusts of classical civilization in China and India reveal the diversity generated during the classical age. Whereas Chinese art and poetry is known for restraint and its politics structure shaped its history, India depended on a strict caste system to regulate life and enjoyed dynamic, sensual art and poetry. Even in science, where there was similar interest in pragmatic discoveries, the Chinese placed greater stress on purely practical findings, whereas the Indians ventured further into the mathematical arena.

Beyond the realm of formal culture and the institutions of government, India and China may seem more similar. As agricultural societies, both civilizations relied on a large peasant class, organized in close-knit villages with much mutual cooperation. Cities and merchant activity, although vital, played a secondary role. Political power rested primarily with those who controlled the land, through ownership of large estates and the ability to tax the peasant class. On a more personal level, the power of husbands and fathers in the family—the basic fact of patriarchy—encompassed Indian and Chinese families alike.

However, Indian and Chinese societies differed in more than their religion, philosophy, art, and politics. Ordinary people had cultures along with elites. Hindu peasants placed less emphasis on personal emotional restraint and were less constrained than were the Chinese by recurrent efforts by large landlords to gain control of their land. Indian merchants played a greater role than their Chinese counterparts. Revealingly, India’s expanding cultural influence was due to merchant activity, whereas Chinese expansion involved government initiatives. India and China, the two giants of classical Asia, remain subjects of comparison to our own time, because they have continued to build distinctively on their particular traditions, established before 500 C.E.

GLOBAL CONNECTIONS: India and the Wider World. India was more open to outside influences than other classical civilizations. Indian civilization produced major contributions in art, philosophy, science, technology, mathematics, urban development, and commercial organization. It was able to support one of the world’s largest populations. Buddhism was one of a few truly world religions. Indian civilization fundamentally influenced mainland and island southeast Asia, and made important contributions to Mediterranean culture.

Himalayan Mountains: region marking the northern border of the Indian subcontinent.
Varnas: the categories organizing Indian society into a functional hierarchy.
Untouchables: lowest caste in Indian society; performed tasks that were considered polluting (street sweeping, removal of human waste, tanning).
Karma: the sum of merits accumulated by an individual; determined the caste one would be born into in the next life.
Reincarnation: the successive rebirth of the soul according to merits earned in previous lives.
Mahabharata, Ramayana: Indian epics, deeply imbued with Hindu teachings.
Buddha: creator of a major Indian and Asian religion; born in the 6th century b.c.e.; taught that enlightenment could be achieved only by abandoning desires for earthly things.
Nirvana: the Buddhist state of enlightenment; a state of tranquility.
Maurya dynasty: established in Indian subcontinent in 4th century b.c.e. following the invasion of Alexander the Great.
Chandragupta Maurya: founder of the Mauryan dynasty, the first empire in the Indian subcontinent; first centralized government since Harappan civilization.
Kautilya: political advisor to Chandragupta Maurya; wrote political treatise.
Ashoka: grandson of Chandragupta Maurya; extended conquests of the dynasty; converted to Buddhism and sponsored its spread throughout his empire.
Stupas: stone shrines built to house relics of the Buddha; preserved Buddhist architectural forms.
Upanishads: later books of the Vedas; combined sophisticated and sublime philosophical ideas.

Shiva, Vishnu: the most important Hindu deities.
Gupta dynasty: built an empire in the 3rd century c.e. that included all but southern Indian regions; less centralized than Mauryan Empire.
Sanskrit: the classical and sacred Indian language.

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