Lecture 17: Ancient India, 3000 BC - 380/330 BC

India boasts some of history’s most ancient and complicated societies, some of them dating back almost to 3000 BC. Yet the study of Indian history presents a major problem: until at least the sixth century BC we have relatively little idea when things happened. Unlike in Egypt and Mesopotamia, India’s ancient civilizations in India left few records of specific events. Most of the information historians have for understanding India’s past comes from ancient literary works known as Vedas. These texts mostly date from the first millennium BC, however, and they are unreliable for anything that happened before the second millennium, since the people who wrote the Vedas arrived in India only after 1750 BC, and probably later. Luckily archeology and numismatics has helped to fill the gap, as historians now know much more about India’s history between 3000 BC and 1750 BC.
India’s ancient past was only discovered in the 1920s, when Indian and British archeologists discovered an ancient city called Harappa ten meters below the soil next to one of the Indus River’s tributaries. Originally they named this civilization the Indus Valley Civilization, but it is now called Harappan in honor of the city’s size and apparent importance. Harappan civilization is one of the most remarkable that we have encountered thus far. Around 3000 BC signs of settled life began to appear in the Indus Valley, as pottery wheels and copper tools came into common use. By 2600 BC, with a growing agricultural surplus, the various towns on the Indus system coalesced into early Harappan civilization, and this moment can only be described as a cultural explosion. Large, well-planned cities began to appear and Harappan civilization became an economic center, engaging in extensive trade. By 2300 BC Harappan civilization entered its mature phase, with other cities—major and minor—appearing all around the Indus Valley and beyond. Another large city comparable to Harappa was Mohenjo-Daro, which was also large and well planned, probably having as many as 50,000 inhabitants at its height.
Harappan civilization is remarkable for two things. The first is that the Harappans built their civilization from the ground up. Construction-grade wood and stone are not plentiful in that part of the world. In response the Harappans developed a technique of kiln firing bricks at high temperatures. These bricks were uniform in size and shape and were used everywhere. Firing the bricks made them much stronger than the sun-baked bricks that the Mesopotamians used, and this allowed the Harappans to construct large cities and extensive river works. Herein lays, however, the main reason that human beings forgot about the Harappans: Harappan bricks were not strong enough to last forever, which meant that nothing beyond the bottom few feet of Harappan cities was left over. Moreover, these few feet remained 10 meters below the soil. Nonetheless, archeologists have now excavated dozens of Harappan settlements and the picture that has emerged is unique in many ways.
The leads me to the second startling aspect of Harappan life: the incredible standardization and uniformity that defined it. Harappan cities were laid out on a north/south grid, with city streets being two times as large as side lanes and main arteries being two times as large as city streets. These cities were also “zoned.” In contrast to the disorganization of many other ancient cities, Harappan cities had commercial/residential zones as well as a separate citadel on which defenses and great public buildings were built. In addition, Harappan cities had extensive drainage systems, with some streets boasting a bathroom in every house. Tools and utensils were also uniform, built to certain standards that had been set by a central authority. Harappa also had a uniform system of weights and measures that aided the movement of goods such as tools and utensils through the empire, and there was a common currency, of which many examples survive. And we should recall that the Harappans did all this across an area larger than either Egypt or Mesopotamia.
Harappan civilization’s advantages made it a powerful economic force not only on the Indian Ocean but also in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. Sumerian records from Sargon I’s time mention trade with Meluhha, which scholars believe refers to the Harappans. Other domestic evidence also indicates lively trade. Archeologists have uncovered thousands of seals that the Harappans used to finalize economic transactions. These seals indicate that Harappan civilization was centrally organized, with some kind of political authority controlling basic aspects of economic life, though it remains unclear how the controls worked.
The economic power and central control of Harappan civilization makes its decline and disappearance all the more puzzling. For reasons that historians do not understand Harappan civilization collapsed some time around 1750. Its cities were abandoned, decayed, and then buried so deeply that all traces of the Harappans’ existence disappeared. There is one tantalizing bit of evidence in an appendix to one of the early Vedas, the Satapatha Brahmana, where the Aryan poet speaks of a great flood:
When Manu was washing his hands one morning, a small fish came into his hands along with the water. The fish begged protection from Manu saying, “Rear me. I will save thee.” The reason stated was that the small fish was liable to be devoured by the larger ones, and it required protection until it grew up. It asked to be kept in a jar, and later on, when it outgrew that, in a pond, and finally the sea. Manu acted accordingly. [One day] the fish forewarned Manu of a forthcoming flood, and advised him to prepare a ship and enter into it when the flood came. The flood began to rise at the appointed hour, and Manu entered the ship. The fish then swam up to him, and he tied the rope of the ship to its horn, and thus passed swiftly to yonder northern mountain. There Manu was directed to ascend the mountain after fastening the ship to a tree, and to disembark only after the water had subsided. Accordingly he gradually descended, and hence the slope of the northern mountain is called Manoravataranam, or Manu’s descent. The waters swept away all the three heavens, and Manu alone was saved.
This story sounds much like the story of the great flood that we have seen in the Epic of Gilgamesh, but it need not have come from Mesopotamia. Floods are normal in India during the monsoon season, and so a flood story is hardly out of the ordinary. Archeological evidence does point to some kind of flood after 1750 BC, and this story was written after Harappan civilization had already died. It may well be that this flood tale is an echo of a world that was only recently gone when the next people arrived in India.
That next people were Aryans. The Aryans came to India some time between 1500 BC and 1300 BC, probably from the area now known as the Hindu Kush. It used to be believed that the Aryans destroyed the Harappan civilization, but the archeological evidence does not support this position. As I have already discussed in other lectures, the term Aryan is a linguistic designation, and the language that these Aryans spoke, Sanskrit, is related to Persian as well as almost all the other languages spoken in Europe. Thus, Sanskrit is part of the family of languages we now call Indo-European.
The Aryans were a pastoral, nomadic folk, good at riding horses and raising animals. They also knew how use chariots, which made them particularly formidable in a fight. From about 1500 BC on the Aryans arrived in waves, heading south and east, eventually reaching the Ganga Valley. If the Vedas, which the Aryans wrote, are to be believed they were also a violent people. Their main gods were Agni the God of fire and Indra the god of lightning, and they extolled military prowess and great battles. This may be an overstatement. When the Aryans entered India there probably were some great battles and much thievery, but it also seems that there was a good deal of cooperation and coexistence between peoples.
What is clear from the Vedas, however, is that the Aryans felt themselves to be wholly different from and superior to the native populations. After subduing them the Aryans gave the native the pejorative name of dasa or, alternately, dasyu. For the Aryans these terms described people who were short, dark-skinned, flat-nosed, uncouth, and spoke no intelligible language. The Aryans, in contrast, were tall, fair, fine-featured, and had better gods and horses. This is not the first time that a pastoral people have felt superior to a settled, agricultural one. The same was true in the Arabian Peninsula until the coming of Islam. In fact, nomads often have a pronounced disdain for city folk and farmers. The Aryans originally settled in the Panjab, an area that is now part of Pakistan. The Rig-Veda seems to indicate this with a reference to the Sapta-Sindhu, or land of the seven rivers. Subsequently, they moved further to the east and began to settle in the Ganga river valley. Other Vedas such as the Brahmanas and the Upanisads tell of this great move to the east. What is important about this move is that slowly Aryan culture and social forms spread among the native populations. Thus, began India’s long association with three Aryan emphases, the priesthood, social hierarchy, and the Sanskrit language.
In order to understand the effects this dispersion on India had we can look to the Rig-Veda, which was first composed around 1100 BC. The Rig-Veda reports on Aryan experiences after the tribe’s arrival in India. (There are no Aryan reports on anything before that time.) The setting is the territory that stretches between the Indus Valley and the Ganga, and according to the text there are only two kinds of people, the Aryans and all the dark-skinned peoples. Aryan social structures were based on the warrior mentality. The highest caste was, of course, the warriors, or skatriyas. The next highest was the priests, or brahmans, followed by farmers, or vaishyas. The only unbridgeable divide was between the Aryans and non-Aryans. This basic caste structure grew ever more elaborate over the years, with the lowest caste the unclean, or shudra marking that original divide between the Aryans and others.
One important point to keep in mind about the Vedas is the connection between them and the later rise of the Brahmans. The Vedas were a poetic backdrop to state religious rituals, and each ritual was a plea to the gods for some kind of favor. One flaw in the intonation or a word forgotten could, thus, be disastrous for the entire state. (And not to mention the person making the error!) This put a great premium on knowing the Vedic texts and the exact forms for all rituals. Thus, it was that the Brahmans slowly rose to the top of Indian society. As Aryan society became more settled and wars became less, the ksatriyas began to look to the Brahmans for legitimacy. Clan leaders, known as rajanya, became great patrons of Brahmans, offering them cattle, horses, gold, slave girls and ritual orgies inspired by the hallucinogenic drink called soma. Eventually, such munificence became obligatory for all kings not merely as a sign of their wealth but also as proof of their continued power. What was important about this from our perspective is that this pursuit of divine favor via the Brahmans became a path to legitimizing territorial sovereignty and the ideology of kingship. Slowly clan leaders ceased to be clan leaders and became kings. This would have important consequences after the sixth century.
The Aryan influence on northern India became clear by about 900 BC, for between this year and about 520 BC, the social structures and cultural unity that we commonly associate with India became especially clear. Two great Vedic epics help us understand these changes, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Each of these Vedas concerns Aryan heroes who were denied their rightful kingdoms and were forced into exile before returning to power. What we see in these epics is how a clan-based society dealt with the problem of succession. In a clan society kinship is more important that direct succession, as succession was based on a host of factors that went beyond primogeniture. As clans became less important, a complicated world was left in which alternate notions of kingship competed. Some areas of India developed “elected” kingships, which historians loosely call republics. Other areas, following the royal stories that began with Manu, developed full-blown royal ideologies and kings. Slowly, the kings won out in daily competition, probably because they were better organized than the republics and less susceptible to political crises. The kings also had access to more money, as royal ideology took clan-based taxes on war spoils and morphed them into regular taxes on produce. But the Vedas show us a complicated process that stretched out over centuries before its final resolution.
By 600 BC, with the rise of Aryan kings and the expansion of Aryan culture an urban renaissance occurred that had not been seen in India since the Harappans. This renaissance appeared most heavily in the east, as the Aryans had shifted India’s center of gravity to the Ganga. There were still cities in the Indus valley, but the impetus now lay elsewhere. Earthen ramparts appeared in the east that protected individual cities. The Aryans seem, however, to have lost the kiln-fired brick method, as these new cities were built with mud and timber. Nonetheless, new forms of pottery began to emerge and trade increased dramatically. This rise in trade even affected the shape of the caste system. Now the raja and his retainers were at the top. The brahmans (ksatriya) were next. Then the merchants joined the rank of the farmers, known as Vaisya. Finally, the bottom two categories were rearranged. There were, of course, the sudra, or the unclean. But the sudra had become an intermediary category that existed just above the dasa, who were now simply slaves. The Indian economy was never as dependent on slaves as was the case in ancient Greece or Rome, but this was due mostly to the fact that labor had already been organized in other ways. Farmers were, for instance, not able to leave their caste position as farmers. This did not tie them to the land in the manner of medieval European peasants, but it did not leave many other options either.
By 520 BC, we can talk about India in the sense that we now have of it, both externally and internally. Externally, it is during this period that the word for India actually appears. The Sanskrit term of the Indus Valley area was, as I have noted Sapta-Sindhu. In Persian the ‘S’ in Sindhu became and ‘H,’ leaving the word Hindhu. When this term moved from Persian to Greek the ‘H’ dropped off entirely, leaving the root Ind, which eventually became India. Around 520 BC, the Persian king Darius I, whom we have already mentioned with reference to the ancient Greeks, conquered the Panjab, referring to the area as Hidu. Darius attests to this in an inscription in Persepolis dated around 518 BC. Thus was another connection born between the Mediterranean World and the World of the Indian Ocean, for Indian soldiers fought in Xerxes’ armies, participating in the battles at Thermopylae and Plataea. Moreover, Darius’ acquisition of the Panjab also provides the first real date in Indian history. Internally, we see that the Indian caste system has reached its mature form. From this point forth, the basic divisions that first appeared with the Aryans over 1000 years before became fundamental to Indian life and culture. Indeed, the caste system still dominates daily life in India, even if much has already changed.
If we step back for a moment, one thing that we can say about the sixth century is that northern India underwent important changes. The economy was grew, foreign powers invaded, the caste system was hardened, and various native kingdoms appeared that competed with each other for power and glory. One example of the ferment that began here is the small city of Taxila, which is located 30 km outside of today’s Islamabad. Taxila’s wealth derived from trade, since it was situated on a trade route that went through Afghanistan. This city became a major entry point for ideas from western powers, such as Persia. One example of this is the importation of an Aramaic script for the Sanskrit language. Taxila was also a revered place of learning, as students traveled there to learn Sanskrit. Taxila boasted famous thinkers, such as Kautilya, who wrote the classic Indian text on statecraft in the 3rd century BC, and Panini who wrote the fundamental Sanskrit grammar in the 4th century BC. His work was considered so profound that it was called Samskrta, or “perfected,” whence derived the name Sanskrit.
Seeking a connection with Taxila became part of the search for political legitimacy for Indian states. One example is the Kingdom of Magadha, which was located further to the east, between the Ganga and the Chota Nagpur forests. During the sixth century, this little kingdom expanded, attacking neighboring kingdoms such as the Licchavis, whose capital was Vaisali. Over time this kingdom expanded south to the Bay of Bengal, north to Nepal, and along the Ganga. The kingdom began with King Bisambara, who was later succeeded by his son Ajatashatru. Ajatashatru moved the kingdom’s capital to Pataligrima, expending huge sums of money on beautifying his city. His successor then continued this work, though for how long we do not know. Ajatashatru died anywhere between 380 BC and 330 BC, and we know that eventually, a sudra named Mahapadma Nanda usurped the throne, gathering a massive army that he used to extend Magadha’s borders. According to contemporary reports, Nanda’s army consisted of 200,000 infantry, 20,000 cavalry, 2,000 four-horse chariots, and 6,000 war elephants. By 326 BC, Nanda used this army to extend Magadha to include much of the Ganga basin and central India.
The Magadha kingdom’s history is important for two reasons. First, it was later eclipsed by India’s first great universal dynasty the Mauryas, whose reign began in 320 BC. Second, it was the kingdom of Magadha that shaped the destiny of one of India’s most important historical figures. This person the great religious thinker Siddharta Gautama, you have probably heard of him as the Buddha, or enlightened one. Thus, from the intellectual and political ferment of the sixth and fifth centuries BC came India’s first great empire and one of the world’s great religions. We will pursue these two themes next time.