Lecture 18: Classical and Post-Classical India, 320 BC - AD 1000

Last time we discussed how the Aryan invasions led to the development of small kingdoms that promptly turned on each other in war. By the sixth century AD the various smaller kingdoms had been reduced to regional powers, all of which tried to expand their territory at the expense of their neighbors. I ended last time by mentioning the first truly national dynasty the Maurya. Their state dates back to the late 320s BC, when a military man named Chandragupta Maurya assumed control of the old Magadha state’s outlying regions along the Ganges. By 321 BC he had taken over the entire state and moved troops through northern India into the Panjab. From there, he moved to the other side of the Indus Valley and subdued a Greek kingdom known as Bactria. By 300 BC Chandragupta’s empire included all of northern India.
The most remarkable aspect of this kingdom is the quality of its government. Chandragupta’s administration was highly centralized and streamlined. Kautilya, the Indian thinker whom I mentioned last time, constructed many of the procedures that dominated this realm. Some of his ideas survive in the Arthashastra, which outlined the proper methods for administering an empire. This included collecting taxes and fostering trade, as well as manipulating other states and fighting wars. Kautilya also recommended using spies to report on domestic opposition. Together with Kautilya Chandragupta built a large administrative apparatus that reached across India.
Chandragupta’s son and grandson succeeded him, in turn. His son, Bindusara, came to the throne in 297 BC. The most important Maurya was, however, Ashoka (268-232 BC), who became one of India’s great conquerors. When Ashoka became king the only major independent kingdom left in India was the Kalinga, which was located in east-central India. Ashoka and the Kalinga fought over trade routes, and in 260 BC Ashoka conquered Kalinga in a campaign that killed at least 100,000 people. After his victory Ashoka was the undisputed ruler over most of the Indian subcontinent, and this is where he made his real name, for Ashoka became one of the great administrators of Indian history. Building on the work of his grandfather and Kautilya, Ashoka cultivated an organized and efficient bureaucracy that developed policies for the entire empire. First, he kept a central treasury that collected money from his subjects and paid it to the clerks, scribes, and other assorted officials that a bureaucracy needs. Second, Ashoka made sure that his orders were published throughout his empire, having his most important decrees carved into stone pillars or natural rock formations. The pillars were then spread around to empire for all to read.
Ashoka’s administration integrated many of India’s outlying regions into a single state. Central to this process was Ashoka’s encouragement of trade and agriculture. Ashoka invested heavily in roads and irrigation systems, which encouraged farmers to produce goods and allowed those goods to move throughout the empire. One example was a highway Ashoka had built between his capital Pataliputra and Taxila, which was 1,000 miles long. Ashoka made travel along these roads easier by planting shade trees, and building wells and inns.
This great empire did not long outlive Ashoka himself. Ashoka died in 232 BC and his successors were unable to pay for such a large state. Administrative costs exceeded income and Mauryan emperors resorted to debasing their currency to meet expenses, which only exacerbated the dynasty’s decline, and by 185 BC it had all but disappeared. From this point until the next great empire was founded in AD 320 India was in flux, as many kingdoms rose and fell. We won’t go into the details of this turbulent period but will now look back for a moment to the role that religion played in this emerging empire. As I mentioned last time, the kingdom of Magadha brought us one of the world’s great religions, Buddhism, and we will now consider how the religious ferment of the fifth century BC contributed to later dynastic stability.
Siddharta Gautama was born around 450 BC into India’s ksatriya class, son of Suddhodana, who was the raja Sakya, of one India’s republics. Gautama had some experience in trade and lived an early life of comfort. For reasons unknown, however, he rejected this life and took to India’s roads, visiting Vaisali, the Licchavi capital, Sravasti, a major city in Koshalan, and Rajagriha in Magadha. Gautama studied under a variety of teachers, though he found their ideas unsatisfying. Around 400 BC Gautama met the king of Magadha Bimbisara, who told him that he should return to his proper station, and even offered to set him up in business. Gautama declined and pursued his study of meditation and self-abnegation. After prolonged meditation under a tree Gautama finally isolated the nature of suffering and formulated a scheme to overcome it. He was now Buddha, the “Enlightened One,” and preached his doctrines. Buddhism was not originally a religious revelation, but a system of heightened insight. The Buddha’s basic teaching was that by mastering desire, though without extreme asceticism, human life became bearable. Those who mastered themselves reached nirvana, which was a release from the continuous cycle of re-birth on which Hinduism was based.
Buddhism became an important political current, as the Buddha’s teachings soon found favor among India’s leaders, especially the king of Magadha. As Magadha grew, Buddhism grew with it, becoming a religious force in India, before being exported to China and the rest of Asia. At this moment Buddhism became the first world religion to leave the political borders of its home culture. Now, however, to return to the earlier narrative, Buddhism remained important throughout the Maurya dynasty as well, as Ashoka in particular became a great supporter of Buddhist traditions. In fact, Ashoka was so horrified by the death and destruction caused by his war against Kalinga that he adopted Buddhism’s basic precepts, especially its association with non-violence. Ashoka did not become a saint, of course, but his remorse at the great slaughter seems to have changed his politics. In this way, Buddhism became a central part of Indian culture, even though it never eclipsed Hinduism as India’s majority religion.
After the Mauryas’ fall the next centralized empire to appear in India was that of the Guptas. The Guptas also originated in Magadha, which was India’s most crucial region due to its wealth and location on the Ganga. The Gupta Empire began with Chandra Gupta (unrelated to Chandragupta Maurya), who established a powerful kingdom through a system of alliances with powerful families about AD 320. His successors, Samudra Gupta (335-375) and Chandra Gupta II (375-415), rebuilt the old Magadhan Empire with its capital at Pataliputra, and attacked their neighbors in an attempt to reconstitute the old empire. They were extremely successful, though the Deccan, India’s southernmost region, remained outside their grasp. The Gupta Empire never reached the same extent as the Mauryan, nor was it as well organized. Whereas Ashoka had been a master administrator, keeping track of all sorts of regional issues, the Guptas decentralized power, allowing local governments to manage most of their own affairs. This system of benevolent oversight worked well, bringing stability to an India that had not known it for close to 500 years. In many ways this was a golden age, as the country was well managed. A Chinese Buddhist named Faxian wrote in an account of his travels through India during Chandra Gupta II’s reign that the country was prosperous and had very little crime.
The Gupta’s recipe for peace and stability reached its limits, however, when foreign invaders came. The White Huns, a nomadic people, arrived from central Asia at the end of the fourth century AD. The Guptas fend off the Huns off for a while, but the costs were too much and the Huns entered India in the fifth century, setting up their own kingdoms in the north. Power once again began to devolve, and the local administrators who had already had significant autonomy under the Guptas slowly became local rulers. By the middle of the sixth century the Gupta Empire was gone. India had to wait for the establishment of the Mughal Empire before imperial authority returned.
The Gupta collapse marked the start of an important trend in Indian history: for the time being the north and the south followed different paths. The north became a political mess, as kingdoms fought each other and Turkish peoples used the chaos to enter India and make their own settlements. However, the dream of Imperial rule never disappeared. During the seventh century a King Harsha (606-648 AD) managed to reunify most of northern India through military action by 612. Harsha enjoyed a reputation as something of an ideal ruler. Though a Buddhist, he tolerated other faiths. He built hospitals and provided free medical care for his subjects, though it is not exactly clear what this meant, given the state of medicine at the time. Harsha was also generous to his subjects, showering them with gifts and resources, in what seems to have been a continuation of old Aryan traditions of clan leadership. But even Harsha could not build a state strong enough to survive him. Too much power had devolved to local kings for Harsha to take it all back, and although he toured his empire constantly to keep local rulers in line, the fact was that these were still local rulers who did only what they thought was in their interests. When Harsha was assassinated in 648 there was no legal heir and no other such personality came forward. The empire disintegrated again.
Political turmoil in northern India opened the door for Islam. Arab forces entered the Panjab as early as the mid-seventh century, though these were only raids. In 711, a major expedition conquered the Sind, the Indus Valley, and much of northwestern India. These areas were ruled as part of the Umayyad Caliphate, and later also became an Abbasid possession. The Sind was never fully incorporated into Islam. Much of the population remained Hindu, or Buddhist, while those people who converted to Islam cultivated heterodox versions. For the most part, Arab political authority in the region was limited and this allowed much of northwestern India to remain as it was, though officially it was under Abbasid control until 1258, when the Mongols deposed the last Caliph.
Overall, Islam was not spread in India by political authority. Much as was the case in northern Africa and the Middle East, Islam moved with trade, as pious merchants and preachers took their religion to new areas. In this way Islam moved through northern and southern India. Muslim merchants formed small communities along the Indian coast and often married into the local aristocracy. Muslims, thus, slowly entered Indian society and by 1000 AD large Muslim communities emerged all around the coasts.
Still, Islam also came to India via another path, namely Turkish invasions of the eleventh century. Between 1001 and 1027 a Muslim leader in Afghanistan named Mahmud Ghazni engaged in multiple punitive raids in northern India. He then used local political unrest to annex much of northwestern India and the Panjab. Mahmud’s reign is not remembered fondly by Indians, as it was essentially organized plunder. Mahmud and his forces plundered hundreds of religious sites associated with the infidel Hindus and Buddhists, often destroying temples so that mosques could be built on top of them. In fact, in 1025, after sacking the sacred city of Somnath in the Ganga Valley, he took pieces of the great temple back to Afghanistan, where they were put into the steps of the Jami Masjid mosque, so that the believers’ feet could defile the Hindu faith each time they went to pray. During the late twelfth century, Mahmud’s successors conquered rather than simply plundered northern India. By the thirteenth century most of northern India was under Islamic rule and the resulting Islamic state became known as the Sultanate of Delhi, which ruled northern India from 1206 to 1526. This rule was loose at best, however, as the Sultan’s authority seldom extended beyond Delhi. He had to rely on Hindu kings to manage local affairs. Indeed, most of the population remained Hindu, in spite of the Islamic veneer.
While invasions and political chaos reigned in the north, southern India continued on its own path. Southern India remained politically fractured, but almost uniformly Hindu. On occasion there were regional wars between powers, but they happened less often and were not as intense as the wars of the north. The south had two important kingdoms during much of the Islamic period. In the Deep South the Chola Kingdom appeared in the ninth century. Centered on the Coromandel Coast, it dominated politics in the southeast from 850 to 1267. At its height, the Chola Empire reached into parts of Southeast Asia, even conquering the island of Ceylon. A trading power, Chola used its wealth to patrol the ocean from the South China Sea to the Arabian Sea. The second state, the Kingdom of Vijayanagar, appeared in 1336, with the renunciation of Islam by two brothers whom the Sultans of Delhi had sent to manage affairs in the Deccan. This Hindu state became the dominant state in southern India until it fell to the rising Mughal Empire in 1565.
Having mentioned the competition between Hinduism and Islam, it is best that we consider them together for a moment. I have already discussed how Buddhism rose and spread among Indians in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Although Buddhism was not originally a divine religion, it slowly became so with the rise of Mahayana Buddhism, which amounted to essentially the conversion of the Buddha and his greatest followers into objects of divine veneration. When Arab and later Turkish invaders came to India, however, Mahayana Buddhism proved to be incompatible with their aggressive form of Islam. Thus the Islamic invaders routinely looted and burned Buddhist shrines and monasteries. One example is the attack in 1196 on the city of Nalanda, which was a pilgrimage site. Many Chinese Buddhists went there to study with the world’s leading Buddhist philosophers and theologians. The attackers torched the libraries and killed or exiled all the monks. Indian Buddhism never recovered from this attack and soon became a minority religion in the land from which it sprang.
Buddhism’s decline in India was, however, Hinduism’s gain. Hinduism is a capacious religion, having much space for local cults and objects of veneration. In the twelfth century Hinduism became popular through the spread of two cults that venerated Vishnu and Shiva. Vishnu was venerated as preserver of the world, a god who oversaw the world and occasionally came down to it in human form to fight evil. Shiva was a god of fertility and destruction. He brought life in season and took it away when the season had passed. As the veneration of these two gods spread, Hinduism spread with it. Indeed, one of these cults’ secrets was that both came to be identified with all sorts of local gods. Thus, each god has many faces and even names. If you travel around India, you will find that though different regions may worship Vishnu, he looks different in every case. These cults became popular, because they promised eternal salvation. The worshippers hoped that by placating these two gods with food and drink they could gain a mystical union with them and be saved.
Islam, for its part, grew only slowly among the Indians. It began to spread, as I have noted, through merchant communities, but it was hampered by the politics of invading armies. First, the religion of the conquerors is hardly likely to become popular. Second, the conquerors were not very generous to Indians, even those who had converted. The top jobs in the new administration were almost always reserved for Arabs, Persians, or Turks, giving Indians little political incentive to convert. Nonetheless, many did convert. By 1500 there were about 25 million Muslims in India. Some Indians tried to use Islam to break the traditional caste system. Hindus of lower caste could become Muslim and, thereby, escape from traditional forms of discrimination. At least that was the theory. In fact, caste outlived Islam, as Muslim converts still performed their caste functions even after joining the new faith.
To conclude, by the twelfth century’s end India evolved to the point where broad outlines of today’s structures appear. That part of India that is now Pakistan is Muslim. India proper is largely Hindu. The imperial and other cultural traditions that I have discussed continued from the year 1000 right to the arrival of the English at the end of the seventeenth century. Slowly, the English imperial tradition took over India, culminating in Benjamin Disraeli’s naming of Queen Victoria as Empress of India in 1876. Nonetheless, the basic cultural continuity that has marked so much of India’s history persists into the current day. India outlasted Muslim Arab rulers and Protestant English ones and well.