From River Valleys to Golden Ages
India – Harappa to Gupta – 3000 BC > 600 AD
To know the story of the world, you must first know the story of India. For over the course of its 5,000-year history, India has seen it all. It’s seen the rise and fall of the greatest early river civilization, one that dwarfed in scale the offerings of China, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Romania. It’s seen barbarians from the steppe invade its lands, both redefining what it means to be civilized while also enslaving its progeny to a class system that remains to this day. It’s seen golden ages of empires where leaders patronized the arts, science, education and new religions, but it’s also seen centuries of regional rule where princes and kings focused more on patronizing their own pockets. It’s seen its people embrace any one of 33,000 available gods, but it’s also seen its people follow the more logical spiritual journey outlined by the Buddha. It’s seen its people barely survive for thousands of years, trapped using the technology of the Stone Age, but it has also seen its people dedicated to the advancement of man’s knowledge of the world – bringing us geometry, pi, decimal points, zero and plastic surgery. It’s been the center of trade networks connecting Indonesia to Istanbul, Nepal to the Nile and Peking to Pisa. Conquerors have been awed by its majesty, missionaries have been entranced by its mysticism and ambassadors have been seduced by its riches. India is the home to the most diverse people in the world living across one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. It is the world in a nutshell.
To know India, we must first go back about 5,000 years to the Indus River Valley, an area of northwest India in what today is called Pakistan. Today this area is nothing but a desert. The dirt is dry, the rains rarely come and few people even attempt to survive the elements. But back around 3,000 BC, the world of the Indus River Valley painted an entirely different picture. Its forests were lush, its rivers were filled with the runoff of the Himalayan Mountains and its monsoon rains showered the valley. It was home to the largest civilization of the ancient world. Close to five million people called this valley home and it was ruled from the twin cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. Each of these cities housed more than 200,000 people, a testament to urban planning and to the complex systems of government and public assistance.
Yet before the 1920s, most of the world thought this Harappan civilization was merely the fodder of legends and that the story of India couldn’t have truly begun until invaders from the north came down and organized the awaiting hordes of nomads. However, with each passing decade, archeological digs have continued to shed light on this once-flourishing society. We haven’t yet figured out their writing system, but we have dug up their homes, their temples and their government buildings, and what we’ve found has forced archaeologists to rewrite the history books. Not only were the first Indians not uncivilized vagrants scavenging off nature’s leftovers, but they were instead the founders of a rich civilization that wouldn’t find its equal for a millennium. They grew wheat, cotton, rice and peas. They used wheeled wagons to transport their wares from town to town. They built ships that traded with China and Mesopotamia. They believed in fertility goddesses of nature and horned-man gods of power. Their leaders administered over a network of towns up and down the Indus River, coordinating infrastructure projects believed impossible of early man. In the main cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, they constructed walls to protect their grain storage from outside invaders, they built roads wider than today’s highways and they designed plumbing systems that brought water to every home and delivered the great caca to the sea. They were ahead of their time, but like the Romanian civilizations of the Black Sea, they too would vanish from history.
But how do five million people just vanish? How was an empire of cutting-edge cities lost to history, buried beneath mountains of dirt and forgotten until the 20th century? No one knows for sure. It could have been an epidemic like malaria that wiped everyone out. Or maybe it was a cataclysmic event – a flood or an earthquake or a tsunami. More than likely it wasn’t anything this fast or this dramatic. It probably just started getting hotter and drier. With each passing season, the monsoon rains probably came less and less, and as the farmers found it harder and harder to reap the crops that made it possible to survive in a city, they packed up and headed east, looking for a more consistent source of water. After generations of migrants left the Indus River Valley, the once metropolises of ancient Harappa became ghost towns. The river beds went completely dry and the last known survivors gave up on nature and joined their forefathers in the eastern lands, leaving the valley an abandoned wasteland.
At about the same time the Harappan refugees were heading eastward, another great people started arriving from the north – the Aryans. Now for many, the term “Aryan” has been eternally linked with the 20th century maniacal ramblings of Adolph Hitler, so for a moment you need to erase that image of Nazi delusions and accept that Hitler was an idiot. Aryans aren’t a race of blonde-haired, blue-eyed superhumans who blessed the world with their presence, forging every last achievement of the modern world.
But they were blue-eyed and blonde-haired (and also probably bearded, dirty and pretty darn hairy). They first lived in central Asia, in countries we today call Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. They were farmer nomads. They set up tents and wooden buildings, planted some crops and raised cattle, but every few seasons, they’d pack up their belongings in their wheeled wagons and head off to a new land. They were a warring people. They never fled from a fight and they had no problem kicking more settled people off their lands. They sat around fires chanting songs and telling tales of gods, goddesses and warrior-kings. And around 2000 BC, they started moving. Just as climate change forced the more civilized peoples of the ancient world to seek out new homes, so did Mother Nature force the Aryans to start their wandering expedition. This time, these Aryans didn’t merely move to the next valley, to the next fertile plain. They started spreading out all across Europe and Asia. They made it all the way through northern Europe, across the English Channel and into Britain and Ireland. They moved across Turkey and down into Greece, Italy and Spain. They put pressure on the Assyrian and the Persian Empires of the Levant. And they then headed down south into India, running into the race of Dravidians who had called the subcontinent their home since they first walked over from Africa, then Arabia some ten thousand years earlier.
Everywhere the Aryans went, they left their mark. We see the Aryan thunder god stories in Norway’s Thor, India’s Indra and Greece’s Zeus. We see the legacy of fireside chanting and epic storytelling in the Norse tales of Beowulf, the heroic poems of Homer and the poetic mythology of the Hindu Vedas. We see how the Aryans took the technology of Mesopotamia and spread it to Egypt and then into Europe. But above all, we see how the Aryan language is the root source of Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, German, English and Egyptian. So many words from Indian Sanskrit are almost exact matches with words from northern Europe and the Mediterranean. “King” is raja in Sanskrit and regem in Latin. “Snake” is sarpa in Sanskrit and serpens in Latin. The number “three” is trayas in Sanskrit and tres in Latin. And similarities between some common words like mother, father and brother can be seen all across Eurasia. The word “brother” is frère in French, frater in Latin, phrater in Greek, bruder in German, broeder in Dutch and bhratar in Sanskrit. There are thousands of similar links to be found between Indian Sanskrit and the languages of Europe, far too many to merely write off as a coincidence. There had to be one common connector, and that connector was the Aryans.
But in India, the Aryans did far more than merely introduce a language, a few gods and the tradition of storytelling. The Aryans completely transformed society. Unlike in Europe where the Aryans intermarried with the locals, in India, they chose to set up class distinctions when coming face to face with the Dravidians. In India, they established permanent laws to forever prevent the intermingling of the races, much like those laws written in the counties of the American Jim Crow South that prevented the miscegenation of blacks and whites. And like the segregated American South, the Aryans likewise divided their world based on color. They even called this system varna, meaning “color.” The Portuguese traders had another name for it – the caste system.
According to this caste system, the invading Aryans and their warriors and priests forever stood atop the social hierarchy, while the native Dravidians were relegated to the farming and artisan positions at the bottom of the ladder. As the Aryans moved further down the Indian sub-continent, the diverse, disunited peoples shared no common story and were difficult to subjugate. They needed the caste system to maintain order. The Aryans also started writing down their epic tales, combining their stories with the array of deity stories told in the towns and villages across India. These thousands of pages of hymns, chants and fables became known as the Vedas. Through these early texts, the Aryans imprinted the new order of society, one that warned against independent thought and championed the need for unquestioned obedience to the Rajayana (warriors) and Brahmans (priests). Two worlds came together, but these worlds would learn to live apart.
For the next thousand years, during what is called the Vedic Age, these traditions became more firmly entrenched, yet the kingdoms of India developed independently without any central authority. Divided into sixteen distinct provinces and ruled like the feudal kingdoms of medieval Europe, India remained a patchwork of diverse societies, locked in a world where your caste determined every element of your humanity – from choosing your profession to choosing your spouse to determining what would come of you in the afterlife. It was a world of rules and sacrifices, of priests and kings. It was a world of inequality and suffering, of haves and have-nots.
But four events would occur in the fifth and fourth centuries BC that would forever change the course of Indian history – each inspired by a different young man who had his own unique vision of a new world order.
The first young man to change India was a prince who lived a life of luxury in a small Himalayan hill town in a place we would today call Nepal. This young prince’s name was Siddhartha Gautama and he would become the Buddha. After a childhood of ambling between feasts and parties and horseback rides and picnics, Siddhartha started thinking his life was nothing more than one extended holiday. There had to be more to life than the gluttony that surrounded him behind the palace walls, but when he asked his father for a tour of the real world, his father was at first hesitant to reveal to his son the reality of the streets. Yet the young prince continued to hound his father until one day his father acquiesced, agreeing to have his most trusted advisors take Siddhartha on a guided tour of only the most sanitized parts of his kingdom. But all could not be hidden. Siddhartha Gautama saw the suffering of his people, saw the pitiful form of an elderly man, and saw the mourning and finality of life when he witnessed a funeral procession.
Life wasn’t the carefree existence he grew up around. Life was tragic. Life was filled with misery, pain and despair. He had to find out why this was the reality of humanity. He had to find out if there was another way.
So he packed a bag, said goodbye to his family and his wealth and started on a great walkabout. He wasn’t alone on the streets. In the 6th and 5th centuries BC, thousands of men took to the roads, wandering around, questioning the status quo, pondering the meaning of life. Some argued there were no gods and that we were all alone. Others, the Janes, believed we were all interconnected by a life force, somewhat like the mythical “force” that later linked Obi Won Kenobi, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader (but without the light sabers). Still others thought maybe we were all made up of millions of tiny atoms. Hundreds of these wandering thinkers offered anti-establishment possibilities, but none of these philosophies truly spoke to the travelling prince.
He thought maybe he needed to suffer more. After living a life of wealth and grandeur, maybe the answer would come through a life of poverty. He gave away the last of his worldly possessions, stopped eating and sat for months hoping for inspiration. Nothing came to him, but a perpetual empty stomach, skin ulcers and a protruding rib cage. It had to be something else. He continued to walk across India, agreeing to live a life of moderation – not too rich, not too poor.
Eventually he made his way to the town of Bodh Gaya and sat down under a fig tree. He closed his eyes and meditated and waited. He sat and sat and sat and 49 days later he arose and declared he had the answer. He had achieved Enlightenment. He had become the Buddha. He had discovered the path to Nirvana – freedom from all of life’s problems.
He claimed there were Four Noble Truths to man’s existence. First, life is full of suffering. Second, we suffer because we have unquenchable desires. We want more toys to put in our houses, we believe the grass is always greener in someone else’s lawn and we hope we can be immortal and somehow escape death through an afterlife in paradise. This leads to an endless cycle of longing and disappointment. We want what we can’t have and are surprisingly sad when we don’t get it. But, third, he believed, you CAN in fact teach yourself to stop this cycle of want. And, fourth, once you’ve learned to train your mind to not want, you can escape the endless human circle of birth, life, death and rebirth. You can escape the human world of suffering once and for all.
Unlike the other religions of the age, this path required no sacrifices, no recitation of thousand-year-old hymns and no blind following of a priest who interpreted spiritual texts written in long-forgotten languages. The journey towards enlightenment required you to wage war against yourself and rid yourself of the negativity in your life that prevents you from moving forward. Buddha spoke of the Eightfold Path where you would choose the right job, the right words, the right actions and the right thoughts. You would teach yourself to be kind to others, not hurt a living creature with words or with deed. You would teach yourself to recognize when your mind or your body went astray and immediately put yourself back on course. You’d become a heck of a lot nicer.
This logical method of self-improvement was a revolution of the mind. Man for the first time could take his fate into his own hands. He didn’t need to pray to a god, or listen to a priest, or sing a little medley, or perform some metaphoric ritual that required him to paint his face or kill a goat. He didn’t need to hope for heaven or worry about hell. He needed to just be a better person.
Buddha continued his journey across the Indian countryside, stopping to teach his musings, hoping others would follow the path to spiritual fulfillment. Many listened, but only a few actually embraced this radical ideology. There was too much to lose. To accept the teachings of Buddha meant denying the beliefs of your ancestors, your family, your society and also giving away all worldly possessions. That is why, when Buddha died at the age of 80, after over fifty years of learning and teaching across the Ganges River Valley, his revolutionary ideas had gained little traction aside from a few devoted disciples. This Buddhism was merely just another spiritual path espoused by a discontented messenger. Its chances of survival were not good.
But then our second young visionary entered India, yet this man didn’t come from the foothills of the Himalayas, and he definitely wasn’t one to sit under a tree and ponder the meaning of life. He was a warrior from the far off land of Greece (well, Macedonia to be exact). He was Alexander the Great. His tales of triumph and world domination will be explored further in a couple chapters, but for now, all you need to know was that in 326 BC an army of over 10,000 Greek, Macedonian and Persian invaders stood at the shores of the Hydaspes River, on the verge of defeating the allied Indian forces, threatening to vanquish the entire subcontinent. In the previous decade, Alexander had defeated everyone who stood in his way – the Persians, the Syrians, the Egyptians – bringing each under his rule, forging an empire that united the east with the west. Nothing could stop Alexander from continuing further east.
Nothing save for his own men. They’d had enough. They were rich. They were tired. They were thousands of miles away from home. They were done. They fought the Indians this one last time on the Hydaspes River. They were victorious, and then they turned around and left. But before Alexander’s reluctant return to the west, he was visited by a local lord, Chandragupta Maurya, the third young man of the ancient world to write a new chapter in India’s story.
Chandragupta was inspired. He saw the power, the glory, the possibilities of Alexander’s army and he dreamed of a united India. Alexander couldn’t help the young prince, but Chandragupta’s vision wouldn’t be squashed. If he couldn’t have Alexander’s army, he’d make his own. He sold his dream to the regional hillside tribes, promising them riches and territory beyond their imagination. In 320 BC, he had his army and with disorder that accompanied Alexander’s eventual death, the territories of western India were his for the taking. He spent the next two decades uniting the northern part of India, connecting the coastal cities of the Bay of Bengal in the east to the mountain peoples of Persia in the west. India had its first continental empire and the Mauryan Dynasty was born.
Accept for a small chunk at the southern tip, Chandragupta had consolidated much of the Indian continent, but it was his grandson, Ashoka the Great (borrowing the not-so-original title from Alexander) who decimated the last of the resisting kingdoms and truly brought all of India under one rule. Ashoka wasn’t always “the great.” In fact, his earliest nickname was Ashoka the Cruel. He was bloodthirsty in war and even more merciless in peace. He built a torture chamber where victims would be hacked into geometric shapes, have stakes driven into their hands and feet and have molten metal stuffed down their throats. He called this his “hell on earth” chamber and tales of his sadistic cruelty spread across the land.
But then one day he had a spiritual awakening and he realized the error of his ways. After the Battle of Kalinga in 255 BC, Ashoka walked the battlefield and was disgusted by what he saw. Hundreds of thousands lay on the battlefield, bodies shredded, limbs detached, organs oozing out of every orifice. Another 150,000 had been rounded up and would be taken away as prisoners. He didn’t know what was louder – the cries of agony from the fallen or the howling wales of their loved ones.
He thought to himself, “What have I done? If this is a victory, what’s a defeat then? Is this justice or injustice? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women?”
Ashoka already knew the answers. He threw down his sword and vowed to never take up arms against another. He would create not an empire of fear, but an empire of the spirit. He would throw all of his time and all of his empire’s money into making India a better place. He became the final piece necessary to transform India.
Buddha had conceived the philosophy. Alexander had provided the inspiration. Chandragupta had started the empire.
Now Ashoka would put all the pieces together. He would embrace the teachings of the Buddha and passionately push for its acceptance across his realm. He commissioned thousands of miles of roads for Buddhist missionaries to share the virtue of the Eightfold Path. He spent money not on frivolous additions to his palaces, but on improving the daily lives of his people. He dug wells, planted gardens and cleaned streets. He created the first welfare state – offering money to those in need and opening hospitals to those who couldn’t pay. He became the first animal activist of the ancient world, banning the killing of animals and building shelters to house the abused and ignored. He formalized the law code, inscribing the empire’s edicts on pillars for all to see, and increasing the size of the police force to ensure adherence of the legal code.
In trying to bring peace to this newly united empire, Ashoka established a common currency and a common taxation system. He demanded peace on the roads. Even Buddhist monks journeying into hostile lands were taught how to merely disarm bandits they might meet along the way. Violence was the last resort. With this newfound focus on maintaining order, trade flourished and ideas made their way from one corner of the subcontinent to the other.
Some cynics argued his motives were merely a convenient public relations ploy used to preserve his power and dissuade rivals to the throne, but regardless of the purity of his reasoning, Ashoka did in fact shift the values of the land (if only for a few decades) away from the idea that might makes right, and toward a more sympathetic, generous principle of human interaction. And all of his changes came under the banner of Buddhism, and by the time of his passing, the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama were no longer merely the isolated beliefs of a disenfranchised few, but had become a dogma that in many places supplanted the firmly entrenched Hindu beliefs of the era.
Like all powerful empires, this one too would end. No leader that followed Ashoka had the credibility, the foresight or the zeal to continue this transformation of Indian society. Within two generations of his death, India regressed to its natural state. For India is not a land meant to be ruled by a central power. Its villages and people are separated by forests, deserts, oceans, rivers, mountains, plains and the steppe. Their allegiance is not to the concept of a united India, but to their local lord, their local traditions and their family’s caste. A child grows up not caring about the edicts of a far-off ruler, but of the actions of her family, the expectations of her caste and the festivals of her village. A daughter is first the property of her father, then of her brother and then of the man she will marry. As she matures, she watches how her father performs his duties without hesitation – be it as a shoveler of dung, a molder of bricks or a scribe to a king. Her town’s festivals signal the passage of time, bringing families together and bonding each generation to the past. Rulers might come and go, but family and faith kept the society in harmony.
With the fall of the Mauryan Empire, India didn’t descend into chaos, it merely continued under the daily and seasonal rhythms defined by caste and community. For the next five hundred years, regional rule was the order of the day until 330 AD when the next great Indian empire appeared. While the Roman Empire was crumbling in Europe and as the Huns were sweeping across the steppe, a new Chandra Gupta (not the Mauryan prince from centuries earlier) married into the equally powerful Lichchhavis family, doubling his empire with one simple marriage vow. From here, the Gupta family continued to expand their holdings until they too controlled an empire stretching from the Bay of Bengal to the Hindu Kush mountain ranges. Yet, unlike the Mauryan Empire, the Guptas never tried to exert absolute authority, instead creating what was known as a “theater state.” The rules were simple – pay tribute to the Guptas and you’d maintain your autonomy. Give us your money, we’ll leave you alone. Deny us and we’ll kill you. Because of this loose political rule, the Gupta Empire was able to survive for nearly three centuries and with the money siphoned from the countryside, the capital city at Ayodhya became the cultural and scientific center of Eurasia.
The Guptas became patrons of the arts and sciences, providing the ideal environment for men of vision and imagination to reach their intellectual potential. No cost was spared – laboratories were built, studios were furnished with the latest tools and emissaries were sent across the continent, from Luoyang to Rome to Alexandria, to draw inspiration from the greatest works of antiquity. With this unprecedented support, the Indian elite made unparalleled contributions that continue to impact our lives to this day. Although many of these developments would later erroneously be credited to others (usually Westerners), the innovations of the Gupta Indians read like a laundry list of the greatest discoveries in the history of mankind
In astronomy, Aryabhata defended the geocentric theory, asserting that the earth revolved around the sun (1100 years before the findings of Copernicus and Galileo). He also contended that the earth was round and rotated around an axis (also about a thousand years before Columbus was credited with being the first to champion this unconventional idea).
In Physics, the theory of gravity was proposed, centuries before Sir Isaac Newton analyzed why an apple falls from a tree. Newton, in thanking his European predecessors, once said, “If I should see further it is only because I sit on the shoulders of other men.” Maybe he should have said, “…because I sit on the shoulders of other men from India.”
In numeration, Gupta scientists created the base-ten decimal system and the numbers we know as 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 and, yes…0 (these numbers were later named after the traders that shared them with Europe - thus we today call them Arabic numerals). Anyone who’s ever tried to calculate their height using inches or figure out how many cups are in a quart or remember how many feet are in a mile can appreciate the brilliance of the decimal system. Thank you India.
They also created chess. Yep, chess came from Gupta India. Though instead of a horse (knight), a castle (rook) and a bishop, the early Indian version – caturanga – had infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots.
They wrote the book Kama Sutra, one of the world’s first birds and the bees books, which shows how two humans could best pleasure each other. You should not read this text until you are 46 years old and have been married for multiple decades.
And in medicine, Gupta doctors succeeded where others rarely dared even journey. They grafted skin, reset broken bones, practiced caesarian births and even dabbled in plastic surgery.
The mathematicians, scientists, writers and artists of the era demonstrated what a people could accomplish when a united government becomes patrons of knowledge and creates a world where humans can develop without the constant fear of violence. The Guptas were by no means pacifists. They threatened, jailed, tortured, mutilated and killed just like other rulers who want to ensure allegiance from distant regions. But they used this violence for good.
For almost three centuries, India stood out as the most innovative region in the world, rivaling the contributions of Athenian Greece in the age of Socrates, and Renaissance Italy when Michelangelo, da Vinci and Raphael stunned the western world. For three hundred years, the center of learning was Asia, but this was not the first time. For there was another nation to the east who had already made its stamp on the world’s civilizations.
But that is for another chapter.