Ancient India | Civilization and History
History of India
Ancient India: Ancient Indian history feels like the halfway point between a fairy tale and a Lovecraft story. On the one hand, there are tales of princes seeking enlightenment in the wild, and guilt-ridden emperors swearing off conquest and becoming legendary peacemakers, but there are also entire cosmologies simply spoken into existence and a Bronze Age civilization about a millennium ahead of the rest of the world that fades into oblivion.
This is also true of the rest of Indian history! It’s enormous and diversified, but, like a jigsaw puzzle, each piece fits together to form a unified whole. And we can see the outlines of this enormous image of Ancient India way back when civilization was just getting started. So, to wind back the clock and see where India got it’s start, let’s do some history.
Indus Valley Civilisation
Ancient India: Indus Valley Civilisation– Our earliest evidence of Indian civilization is a string of settlements along the Indus River Valley in the two and three thousand B.C.And as far as Bronze Age civilizations go, the Indus Valley is by *FAR* the raddest. Because the flood plain was easy to farm and build on, the resulting culture was astonishingly urbanized.
In the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, (Excavated by the British in the 1800 and 1900s) We found standardized building bricks, streets laid out on a grid system to catch the breeze and cool down the city, with built-in sewage systems, and massive public baths. Centuries before the Pyramids of Giza, Ancient India had urban planning that wouldn’t be beaten until the Greeks and Romans some 2,000 years later.
The construction quality seems to show that the people of the Indus Valley had been refining this system for a while! As the rest of the Bronze Age civilizations were blowing money on temples and palaces, the Indus Valley had long since made great Public Works and figured out zoning laws! And they weren’t an insular civilization either: Their trade networks with Mesopotamia were so speedy, that they could import fish from the Arabian Sea.
Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa aren’t exactly neighbors, so the parallels between them imply a kind of overarching government, but we’re clueless as to what, partially because we can’t decipher their writing. And the craziest part is that we’ve hardly found any weapons anywhere. As far as we can tell, they were totally peaceful. But that’s the Bronze Age for you! Everything feels confusing, a temporal land kind of Lovecraftian, and it all goes *poof* just as weirdly as it first appears. So at some point between the 1700 and 1500s,
The Indus Valley civilisation slowly disappeared for reasons that we can really only guess at. The two most likely options are that the soil eventually lost its nutrients and stopped yielding crops after a millennium or so or that an earthquake altered the course of the river and dried up several tributaries.
Whatever the case, it seems that the people of the Indus Valley ventured further into the peninsula and eventually settled in the far south. As a result, the valley’s ruins remained buried until the 1800s, when British tomb thieves arrived and used the stones as ballast for a railway project. Stay classy, Britain. But our story continues in the centuries after the Indus Valley civilization with the slow migration of the Indo-Aryans from Central Asia.
Quick aside, that label’s become kind of controversial in the past century for reasons that are *WHOLLY* unrelated to Indian history, so I’ll be using that term for its intended historical meaning. Instead of prolific builders, the Aryans were storytellers, and they’re often known as the Vedic peoples after their holy scriptures called the Vedas. These were a series of stories including everything from big cosmology, down to aspects of their own daily life. And they were all retold as hymns being memorized and perfected to the very syllables.
These divine hymns form much of the basis of Hinduism both as a religion, and more broadly, as a foundation of ancient Indian culture Historically, Hinduism is quite unique because of its continuity from ancient origins to widespread modern practice. That’s cool, but also extremely nuanced and complex. So I’m gonna move right along to the next core aspect of Indo-Aryan culture:
Caste System in India – Origin, Features, and Problems
Ancient India Castle System: The caste.. system…Great… When the Aryans came across the native Adivasi people, they maintained political stability via a strict social hierarchy. With the Aryans at the top, and everybody else below them. A story we’ve seen many times on this channel. But as the Aryans and the Adivasi mixed over the centuries, the system was later stratified by profession rather than by ethnic group.
At the top were the Brahmin priests, then the Kshatriya lords and warriors, the Vaishya merchants and farmers, the Shudra laborers, and the sub-caste Untouchables, who are fully ostracized by society. The big yikes here is that a social hierarchy based on class rather than race is malleable to whoever is in charge. So the caste system has survived the rise and fall of empires to systematically oppress the Indian people for… Eh… Basically three thousand years? So, just keep that in the back of your minds for the *ENTIRETY* of Indian history, and let’s swiftly move along. As the Vedic tradition grew and evolved in the first millennium BC.
A new wave of philosophical thinking cropped up, via a series of texts called the Upanishads. Its name comes from the Sanskrit for “Sitting down near” as a student would sit by their mentor while receiving divine knowledge through a discussion of Philosophy. Similar to the Analects of Confucius or the Daodejing, the Upanishads are presented as a series of brief teachings.
The earlier ones appear along with the four Vedas, but many Upanishads were composed and added later. So areas the Vedas form the basis of Indian religion and mythology, the Upanishads are the core of Indian philosophy. It’s here that we get the first mentions of topics from the cycle of reincarnation, to our duties as people and the consequences of our actions, as well as our sense of self within the greater totality of the universe.
It’s… A lot of terms, I know, but the Upanishads are as broad as they are dense, and there is a *LOT* to unpack there. The big mind melt at the end, Is that our localized self, Atman, is really made up of the same stuff as the big cosmic everything of Brahman. And when we realize that we are all the same, our Atman returns to Brahman like a drop of water returning to an ocean.
(Your mind going kaboom) Aside from the big metaphysics, there’s so much to learn from the Upanishads, and Philosophers from across time have lavished praise for both their sincerity of tone and their depth of wisdom. So let’s see: Theology, Philosophy… Aha! We also need to discuss the epics.
Indian Epics: Epic Stories of Mahabharata and Ramayana
The Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Much like the Iliad and the Odyssey, these two big Indian epics blend fact and myth in a way that isn’t historical, but is indicative of the world as the ancients envisioned it It’s a neat switch of perspectives. The truth here isn’t in facts and dates of the wars being recorded, but rather the divine elements of the stories help frame the human philosophical truths of the core of both of these epics. Now, that said, if some long books are doorstops, than the Mahabharata is the entire door.
It’s the story of a great succession crisis and the subsequent war sometime around the 14th century BC. And it is just *LOADED* with deities front to back. But the most famous section of the story, the Bhagavad Gita, (The Song of God) narrows in on the internal struggle of the hero Arjuna to do his duty even when it’s difficult.
None of us will fight alongside literal gods in a giant succession crisis, (I mean, well, y’know, probably.) but all of us will struggle to do the right thing, likely a lot of times. I, for instance know that it’s irresponsible to monopolize this channel for Roman history memes, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not tempted. I’m getting off-topic.
The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are clearly some of humanity’s most influential literature. Between the epics, the Upanishads, and the Vedas, it’s evident just how much of Ancient Indian culture derives from these core texts.
we lack in most other forms of historical documentation for a good several centuries. But the picture gets a lot clearer once we hit the 600 through 300’s BC, as we have archaeological and written evidence for a loose collection of independent states and kingdoms across northeast India.
Researchers have found large cities and dense fortifications, as well as new forms of poetry and metallurgy and the development of Brahmi writing. Among these sixteen Mahajanapadas, (As they are snappily known, and as I’m sure I’ve horribly mispronounced) there seems to have been some intense competition, as well as interstate trade.
Still, not a whole lot to go on, but if it’s anything like the other clusters of small independent states that we’ve seen in history, whether it’s the Greeks and the Italians, or the Maya and the Chinese warring states, it was probably pretty cool. What we *DO* have from this political climate, is a famous story of one Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama. For his entire life this prince was kept secluded in a palace by his parents, knowing nothing but luxury, health, and joy.
But one day he asked to leave his palace and go see the outside world, and was horrified to see people who were sick, (gross) And worse, dying So he flipped out over the sudden and devastating realization of humanity’s suffering and of his own impending mortality, and he camped out in the middle of the woods for a month, refusing to leave until he either died or figured out a way to end all human suffering. Luckily for him, he actually got the desired outcome and achieved the enlightened state of Nirvana.
Prince Siddhartha, now called Buddha, realized that the ideal life was the middle path between extravagance and asceticism, where all outward suffering could be conquered solely through a complete mastery of the self. And just like that, Bada-Bing, Badda-Eightfold Path, we’ve got a shiny new religion! But before we wrap this story up, we’ve got to talk about some wars. After Alexander the Far-from-Home failed to push past the Indus River and decided to call it quits and go home, an exiled Kshatriya named Chandragupta took advantage of the kerfuffle and conquered across northern India to found the Maurya Empire, India’s first large properly centralized state.
The New Empire established diplomatic ties with Hellenistic Greece as well as China, and built up considerable infrastructure within the Empire itself. Chandragupta was by all accounts a solid ruler, keeping a hands-off approach for his two decades in power and letting his people be.
He died fasting in the woods, his son was pretty meh, and there was an interregnum afterwards, but then his grandson Ashoka was one of the coolest cats in history. Ascending to the throne in 273 BC, he conquered eastward to the coast of Kalinga, and the result was an absolute bloodbath, with hundreds of thousands dead on both sides. When he heard the news, he felt really, really bad about it. So he issued a full apology throughout his empire, and abandoned warfare entirely to become a Buddhist.
He then worked to build trade relations and improve the lives of his people, he was super tolerant of other faiths, and he wrote extensively about his own journey to inner peace through Buddhism. That has got to be the single *BIGGEST* Heel-Face turn in history! His life seems almost surreal, but.. There it is! A conqueror who felt remorse and changed his ways.
Unfortunately, his successors were far less able than him, and soon pockets of the Empire slipped away, before the assassination of Emperor Brihadnatha extinguished the Maurya Empire for good in 180 BC. And that’s ancient India! From the Indus River Valley to Ashoka the Great. What I find most amazing is the massive catalogue of literature that took shape at such an early stage! It’s an incredibly strong foundation that’s at once diverse and cohesive, and so exquisitely preserved after nearly 3,000 years! And speaking of 3,000 years, because if I seriously tried to summarize that all at once, I may actually burst.