1.5 Ancient India


Year(s) Event(s)
c. 2600 – 1700 BCE Harappan/Indus Valley Civilization
c. 1800 – 1500 BCE Aryan Invasion
c. 1500 BCE – 200 CE Vedic Age
c. 800 – 400 BCE The Upanishadic Period
324 – 185 BCE Mauryan Empire


India’s dynamic history alternated between periods when the subcontinent was partially unified by empires and periods when it was composed of a shifting mosaic of regional states. This history was also impacted by influxes of migrants and invaders. In thinking about the reasons for these patterns, historians highlight the size of India and its diverse geography and peoples.

It is important to remember that “India” can mean different things. Today, India usually designates the nation-state of India. But modern India only formed in 1947 and includes much less territory than India did in ancient times. As a term, India was first invented by the ancient Greeks to refer to the Indus River and the lands and people beyond it. When used in this sense, India also includes today’s nation of Pakistan. In fact, for the purpose of studying earlier history, India can be thought of as the territory that includes at least seven countries today: India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. This territory is also referred to as South Asia or the Indian subcontinent.

Map 3.1 | South Asia Author: Larry Israel Source: Original Work License: CC BY-SA 4.0
The Indian subcontinent is where Indian civilization took shape. But that civilization was not created by one people, race, or ethnic group, and it doesn’t make sense to see India’s history as the history of one Indian people. Rather, the history of this region was shaped by a multitude of ethnic groups who spoke many different languages and lived and moved about on a diverse terrain suited to many different kinds of livelihood.

The Harrapan Civilization, c. 2600 – 1700 BCE

Figure 3.1 | Archaeological Site for Harappa | Excavation of this ancient city began in 1920. Author: Hassan Nasir Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0
Our knowledge of the ancient world has been radically altered by impressive archaeological discoveries over the last two centuries. Prior to the twentieth century, for instance, historians believed that India’s history began in the second millennium BCE, when a people known as Indo-Aryans migrated into the Indian subcontinent and created a new civilization. Yet, even during the nineteenth century British explorers and officials were curious about brick mounds dotting the landscape of northwest India, where Pakistan is today. A large one was located in a village named Harappa. A British army engineer, Sir Alexander Cunningham, sensed its importance because he also found other artifacts among the bricks, such as a seal with an inscription. He was, therefore, quite dismayed that railway contractors were pilfering these bricks for ballast. When he became the director of Great Britain’s Archaeological Survey in 1872, he ordered protection for these ruins. But the excavation of Harappa did not begin until 1920, and neither the Archaeological Survey nor Indian archaeologists understood their significance until this time. Harappa, it turned out, was an ancient city dating back to the third millennium BCE, and only one part of a much larger civilization sprawling over northwest India. With the discovery of this lost civilization, the timeline for India’s history was pushed back over one thousand years.

Map 3.2 | Indus Valley (Harappan) Civilization | Map of important Indus Valley (Harappan) Civilization cities and towns during its most developed period. Author: User “Avantiputra7” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0
The Indus Valley, (or Harrapan) civilization (2600 – 1700 BCE) now stands at the beginning of India’s long history. Much like the states of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, the foundations for that history were established by Paleolithic foragers who migrated to and populated the region, and then Neolithic agriculturalists who settled into villages. During the third millennium BCE, building on these foundations, urban centers emerged along the Indus River, along with other elements that contribute to making a civilization.

The ruins of Indus cities dating from 2600 BCE suggest a vibrant society thriving in competently planned and managed urban areas. Some of the principal purposes of these urban settlements included coordinating the distribution of local surplus resources, obtaining desired goods from more distant places, and turning raw materials into commodities for trade. These urban centers were conveniently built amidst an abundance of resources: fertile flood plains for agriculture, pasture for grazing domesticated animals, and waters for fishing and fowling. The city itself consisted of several mounds—elevated areas upon which structures and roads were built. A larger mound served as a core, fortified area where public functions likely took place. It contained a wall and large buildings, including what archaeologists call a Great Bath and Great Hall. Other mounds were the location of the residential and commercial sectors of the city. Major avenues laid out on a grid created city blocks. Within a block, multistory dwellings opening up to interior courtyards were constructed out of mudbricks or bricks baked in kilns. Particular attention was paid to public sanitation. Residences not only had private wells and baths, but also toilets drained by earthenware pipes that ushered the sewage into covered drains located under the streets.

Artifacts tell of city life. Farmers and pastoralists brought their grain and stock to the city for trade or to place it in warehouses managed by the authorities. Laborers dug the wells and collected trash from rectangular bins sitting beneath rubbish chutes. Craftsmen worked copper and tin into bronze tools, fired ceramics, and manufactured jewelry and beads out of gold, copper, semi-precious stones, and ivory. Merchants travelling near and far carried raw materials and finished goods by bullock carts or boats to the dozens of towns and cities throughout the region.

Figure 3.3 | Seals from Indus Valley cities | These were made from fired steatite and used to imprint the identity of owners on goods. Author: User “MrABlair23” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public DomainFigure 3.4 | Indus Priest/King Statue | 17.5 cm tall sculpture found at MohenjoDaro. The dignified appearance and headband and cloak of this man suggest that he was an important political or religious leader in the city. Author: Mamoon Mengal Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 1.0

The Harrapan culture thrived in the area for several centuries, leaving behind a language written on the seals and copper tablets. Unfortunately,  scholars have been unable to decipher this language. What we can determine from the evidence is that the cities of the Harappan were highly developed for their time period. They practiced a thriving agricultural and trade-based economy using the numerous rivers surrounding them to their advantage.

The Harappan civilization was quite large, extending across an area twice as large as ancient Egypt or Sumer, but we know that they somehow were able to share their knowledge across this vast distance because archeological evidence has found uniformity in building practices, art and in other endeavors from one end of the civilization to the other.

Key Questions

  • How did the Indus Civilization share their information?
  • Where did the Harappan civilization come from and where did they go?
  • Why did the Harrapans use over 400 symbols in their written language? What topics were they writing about?


“India’s Indus Valley Civilization.” Indus to Independence: A Journey Through Indian History. 2000. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=10627&loid=51735. 3:49.

The Aryan Invasion, c. 1800 – 1500 BCE

The Harrapan Civilization, however, faded away by 1700 BCE, and was followed by a new stage in India’s history. While it declined, India saw waves of migration from the mountainous northwest, by a people who referred to themselves as Aryans. The Aryans brought a distinctive language and way of life to the northern half of India and, after first migrating into the Punjab and Indus Valley, pushed east along the Ganges River and settled down into a life of farming and pastoralism. The Aryans spoke an Indo-European language and thus are related linguistically to Persian, Latin, Greek and Celtic. It has been suggested that rather than the Aryans coming into the region from outside, they simply descended from Harappan roots.

The Indo-Aryans were pastoralists who migrated to India in waves beginning c. 1800 BCE. They referred to themselves as Aryans, a term meaning “noble” or “respectable.” They spoke Sanskrit, and used it to transmit their sacred hymns. At first, in search of land, they settled along the hills and plains of the upper reaches of the Indus River and its tributaries, bringing with them their pastoral and farming way of life. In their hymns, the Aryans beseech the gods to bless them with cattle, bounteous harvests, rain, friends, wealth, fame, and sons. From these, it is clear that herding was the principal occupation and cows were especially prized. But the Aryans also farmed, as apparent in hymns that speak of plough teams and the cutting and threshing of grain.

Map 3.4 | Early Vedic Culture (1700-1000 BCE) | The early Vedic Age, showing the Aryan’s migration routes and the areas where they first resided in the Punjab. Author: User “Avantiputra7” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0During these early centuries, led by their pastoral chiefs, some Aryans retained a semi- nomadic way of life, living in temporary dwellings and then moving about with their herds or migrating further. Others settled down in villages. In both cases, kinship was especially valued. At the simplest level, society consisted of extended families of three generations. Fathers were expected to lead the family as patriarchal heads, while sons were expected to care for the herds, bring honor through success in battle, and sacrifice for the well-being of their fathers’ souls after death. They also inherited the property and family name. This suggests that, as is so often the case for ancient societies, men were dominant and women were subordinate. Yet, women’s roles weren’t as rigidly defined as they would be in later times, and they had some choice in marriage and could remarry.

Several extended families, in turn, made up clans, and the members of a clan shared land and herds. Groups of larger clans also constituted tribes. The Vedas speak of rajas who, at this point, are best understood as clan or tribal chieftains. These men protected their people and led in times of battle, for the clans and tribes fought with each other and with the indigenous villagers living in the northwest prior to the Aryan migrations. In times of war, these chiefs would rely on priests who ensured the support of the gods by reciting hymns and sacrificing to them. At assemblies of kinsmen and other wealthy and worthy men from the clan, the rajas distributed war booty.

More than anything else, the Rig Veda reveals the Aryan’s religious ideas. For them, the universe was composed of the sky, earth, and netherworld. These realms were populated by a host of divinities and demons responsible for the good and evil and order and disorder blessing and afflicting the human world. Although one Vedic hymn gives a total of thirty-three gods, many more are mentioned. That means early Vedic religion was polytheistic. These human-like powers lying behind all those natural phenomena so close to a people living out on the plains were associated with the forces of light, good, and order. By chanting hymns to them and sacrificing in the correct way, the Aryan priests might secure blessings for the people or prevent the demons and spirits on earth from causing sickness and death. They might also ensure that the souls of the dead would successfully reach the netherworld, where the spirits of righteous Fathers feasted with King Yama, the first man to die.

Approaching the gods required neither temples nor images. Rather, a fire was lit in a specially prepared sacrificial altar. This might take place in a home when the family patriarch was hoping for a son or on an open plot of land when the clan chieftain wished to secure the welfare of his people. Priests were called in to perform the ceremony. They would imbibe a hallucinogenic beverage squeezed from a plant of uncertain identity and chant hymns while oblations of butter, fruit, and meat were placed in the fire. The gods, it was believed, would descend onto grass strewn about for them and could partake of the offerings once they were transmuted by the fire.

Indra was among the most beloved of the Vedic gods. As a god of war and the storm, and as king of the gods, Indra exemplified traits men sought to embody in their lives. He is a great warrior who smites demons and enemies but who also provides generously for the weak. Agni, another favorite, was god of fire and the household hearth. Agni summons the gods to the sacrifice and, as intermediary between gods and humans, brings the sacrificial offering to them.


“The Aryans and India’s Vedic Age.” Indus to Independence: A Journey Through Indian History. 2000. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=10627&loid=51736. 3:01.

The Vedic Civilization, c. 1500 BCE – 200 CE

As the Aryans interacted with indigenous peoples, a new period in India’s history took shape. That period is known as the Vedic Age. During the long course of the Vedic Age, states formed in northern India. The surplus from farming and pastoralism allowed people to engage in a multitude of other occupations and made for a lively trade. Villages thus grew in number and some became towns. Consequently, there was a need for greater leadership, something that was provided by chieftains of the many Aryan clans. Over time, higher levels of political organization developed, and these chieftains became kings or the leaders of clan assemblies. By the end of the Vedic Age, northern India was divided up by sixteen major kingdoms and oligarchies.

The first source of information about the Aryans is the Rig Veda, the earliest of the Vedas. The Vedas, similar to Homer’s epic poems in Greece, were originally orally communicated stories that were then written down. The Rig Veda describes the Aryans as a group of warrior tribes who revered military skill and bravery.  This military skill is probably key to their domination of India.


“Aryans Move Into India.” Ancient India. 1996. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=8689&loid=13412. 3:02.

During the early centuries of the Vedic Age, the world of the Aryan tribes was the rural setting of the Punjab. Some settlers, however, migrated east to the upper reaches of the Ganges River, setting the stage for the next period in India’s history, the later Vedic Age. The later Vedic Age differs from the early Vedic Age in that during these centuries lands along the Ganges River were colonized by the Aryans and their political, economic, social, and religious life became more complex.

Over the course of four centuries from 1000 – 600 BCE, Aryan tribes, with horses harnessed to chariots and wagons drawn by oxen, drove their herds east, migrating along and colonizing the plains surrounding the Ganges. Historians debate whether this happened through conquest and warfare or intermittent migration led by traders and people seeking land and opportunity. Regardless, by 600 BCE the Aryans had reached the lower reaches of the Ganges and as far south as the Vindhya Range and the Deccan Plateau. Most of northern India would therefore be shaped by the Aryan way of life. But in addition, as they moved into these areas, the Aryans encountered indigenous peoples and interacted with them, eventually imposing their way of life on them but also adopting many elements of their languages and customs.

During this time, agriculture became more important and occupations more diverse. As the lands were cleared, village communities formed. Two new resources made farming more productive: iron tools and rice. Implements such as iron axes and ploughs made clearing wilderness and sowing fields easier, and rice paddy agriculture produced more calories per unit of land. Consequently, population began to grow and people could more easily engage in other occupations. By the end of this period, the earliest towns had started to form.

Political changes accompanied economic developments. Looking ahead at sixth-century northern India, the landscape was dominated by kingdoms and oligarchies. That raises the question of the origins of these two different kinds of states, where different types of central authority formally governed a defined territory. Clearly, these states began to emerge during the later Vedic Age, especially after the eighth century.

Prior to this state formation, chiefs (rajas) and their assemblies, with the assistance of priests, saw to the well-being of their clans. This clan-based method of governing persisted and evolved into oligarchies. As the Aryans colonized new territory, clans or confederacies of clan would claim it as their possession, and name it after the ruling family. The heads of clan families or chiefs of each clan in a confederacy then jointly governed the territory by convening periodically in assembly halls. A smaller group of leaders managed the deliberations and voting, and carried out the tasks of day-to-day governing. These kinds of states have been called oligarchies because the heads of the most powerful families governed. They have also been called republics because these elites governed by assembly.

But in other territories clan chiefs became kings. These kings elevated themselves over kinsmen and the assemblies and served as the pivot of an embryonic administrative system. Their chief priests conducted grand rituals that demonstrated the king’s special relation with the gods, putting the people in awe of him and giving them the sense that they would be protected. Treasurers managed the obligatory gifts kings expected in return. Most importantly, kingship became hereditary, and dynasties started to rule.

Map 3.6 | The Late Vedic Age (1000-600 BCE) | The area highlighted in pink, lying between the Black and Caspian Seas, is the suggested homeland for Indo-Europeans in the third millennium BCE. Arrows show the movement of speakers of Indo-European languages in the second millennium. The arrow showing movement to the southeast into India designates the Indo-Aryans, who began entering the Indo-Gangetic Plains from c. 1700 BCE. Author: User “Avantiputra7” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0Society changed too. In earlier times, Aryan society was organized as a fluid three-class social structure consisting of priests, warriors, and commoners. But during the later Vedic Age, this social structure became more hierarchical and rigid. A system for classifying people based on broad occupational categories was developed by the religious and political leaders in society. These categories are known as varnas, and there were four of them: Brahmins, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra. The Brahmins were the priests, whose duty was to memorize and orally transmit the Vedas and perform sacrifices so as to maintain good relations with the gods. The Kshatriya were the chiefs and warriors, whose duty was to govern well and fight. The Vaishya were commoners who traded and farmed. They were responsible for society’s material prosperity. The Shudras were servants who labored for others, usually as artisans or by performing menial tasks.

Varnas became hereditary social classes. That means a person was born into one of these and usually remained there for life, pursuing an occupation included in and marrying someone belonging to that varna. Varna has also been translated as ritual status. Your varna determined how pure or polluted you were, and thus what level of participation in rituals you would be allowed and also who you could associate with. Varna thus defined a social hierarchy. The Brahmins were the purest and most honored. Warriors were respected for their leadership and supported the Brahmins, who affirmed their authority by carrying out royal ceremonies. Together, they dominated society. The Shudras (servants) were the most polluted and could not participate in any sacrifice or speak freely to members of other varnas. Over time, this way of organizing society came to be viewed as normal and natural.

The Caste System

In ancient India, one measure of identity and the way people imagined their social life and how they fit together with others was the varna system of four social classes. Another was caste. Like the varnas, castes were hereditary social classifications; unlike them, they were far more distinct social groups. The four-fold varna system was more theoretical and important for establishing clearly who the powerful spiritual and political elites in society were: the Brahmins and Kshatriya. But others were more conscious of their caste. There were thousands of these, and each was defined by occupation, residence, marriage, customs, and language. In other words, because “I” was born into such-and-such a caste, my role in society is to perform this kind of work. “I” will be largely confined to interacting with and marrying members of this same group. Our caste members reside in this area, speak this language, hold these beliefs, and are governed by this assembly of elders. “I” will also be well aware of who belongs to other castes, and whether or not “I” am of a higher or lower status in relation to them, or more or less pure. On that basis, “I” may or may not be able, for instance, to dine with them. That is how caste defined an individual’s life.

The lowest castes were the untouchables. These were peoples who engaged in occupations considered highly impure, usually because they were associated with taking life; such occupations include corpse removers, cremators, and sweepers. So those who practiced such occupations were despised and pushed to the margins of society. Because members of higher castes believed touching or seeing them was polluting, untouchables were forced to live outside villages and towns, in separate settlements.

The Upanishadic Period, c. 800 – 400 BCE

In the late Vedic period, the priestly caste (the Brahmins) began dominating northern Indian society. By the sixth century BCE, this was an exclusive cult that practiced rituals and interpreted the old Vedic texts for the people.

The Brahmins weren’t content with the 1028 hymns of the Rig Veda. Later Vedas set the hymns to music, added prose formulas that were to be uttered in the course of sacrificing to the divinities, and offered spells and incantations for achieving such goals as warding off disease and winning a battle. The Brahmanas were primarily handbooks of ritual for the Brahmins. They explained the meaning of the sacrifices and how to carry them out. Clearly, the Brahmins were becoming ever more conscious of their role in keeping the universe in good working order by pleasing and assisting the gods and consecrating kings. Their sacrificial observances became all the more elaborate, and an essential component of good kingship.

The Upanishads composed during this period are philosophical treatises looking into mysticism and the meaning of life.  Associated with this shift to a more mystical worldview is a movement toward self-denial and self-discipline. According to the sages, human beings face a predicament. The universe they live in is created and destroyed repeatedly over the course of immense cycles of time, and humans wander through it in an endless succession of deaths and rebirths. This wandering is known as transmigration, a process that isn’t random, but rather determined by the law of karma. According to this law, good acts bring a better rebirth, and bad acts a worse one. It may not happen in this lifetime, but one day virtue will be rewarded and evil punished.

Ultimately, however, the goal is to be liberated from the cycle of death and rebirth. According to Hindu traditions, the Upanishads reflect spiritual knowledge that was revealed to sages who undertook an inward journey through withdrawal from the world and meditation. What they discovered is that one divine reality underlies the universe. They called this ultimate reality brahman. They also discovered that deep within the heart of each person lies the eternal soul. They called this soul atman. Through quieting the mind and inquiry, the individual can discover atman and its identity with brahman: the soul is the divine reality. That is how a person is liberated from the illusion of endless wandering.

Look for the answers to the Key Questions as you complete the readings and watch the videos on the development of the caste system and the creation of the Upanishads.

Key Questions

  • How does Hinduism during the Vedic period and the Upanishadic period differ?How does it remain the same?
  • How do the Indian religions compare to those of Mesopotamia? Egypt? The Hebrews?


“The Vedas and the Upanishads.” Hinduism: Faith, Festivals, and Rituals. 1995. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=10938&loid=86631. 1:23.


“Upanishads and Epics.” Hinduism: An Introduction. 1999. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=9205&loid=19702. 2:26.

Buddha and Buddhism, c. 566 – 486 BCE

Some individuals became dissatisfied with life and chose to leave the everyday world behind. Much like the sages of the Upanishads, these renunciants, as they were known, were people who chose to renounce social life and material things in order that they might gain deeper insight into the meaning of life. Some of them altogether rejected Brahmanism and established their own belief systems.  The most renowned example of this was Siddhartha Guatama.

Siddhartha Gautama is best known as the Buddha.  He was born the son of a warrior chief.  He grew unsatisfied with his comfortable life and troubled by the suffering of the majority of the people around him and he left home seeking enlightenment. According to tradition, after six years of travels and meditations, Siddhartha reached enlightenment and began preaching his message – the “middle way” – that became what we know as Buddhism today.

The principal teaching of the Buddha, presented at his first sermon, is called the Four Noble Truths. The first is the noble truth of suffering. Based on his own experiences, the Buddha concluded that life is characterized by suffering not only in an obvious physical and mental sense, but also because everything that promises pleasure and happiness is ultimately unsatisfactory and impermanent. The second noble truth states that the origin of suffering is an unquenchable thirst. People are always thirsting for something more, making for a life of restlessness with no end in sight. The third noble truth is that there is a cure for this thirst and the suffering it brings: nirvana. Nirvana means “blowing out,” implying extinction of the thirst and the end of suffering. No longer striving to quell the restlessness with temporary enjoyments, people can awaken to “the city of nirvana, the place of highest happiness, peaceful, lovely, without suffering, without fear, without sickness, free from old age and death.”[1] The fourth noble truth is the Eight-Fold Path, a set of practices that leads the individual to this liberating knowledge. The Buddha taught that through a program of study of Buddhist teachings (right understanding, right attitude), moral conduct (right speech, right action, right livelihood), and meditation (right effort, right concentration, right mindfulness), anyone could become a Buddha. Everyone has the potential to awaken, but each must rely on his or her own determination.

Key Questions

  • How does Hinduism compare to Buddhism? What are the similarities and differences?


“Siddhartha Gautama.” Age of Empire: History of the World. 2012. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=57507&loid=258174. 3:06


“Four Noble Truths.” Buddhism: The Great Wheel of Being. 1995. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=10937&loid=189396. 3:21.

After the Buddha died c. 480 BCE, his students established monastic communities known as the Buddhist sangha. Regardless of their varna or caste, both men and women could choose to leave home and enter a monastery as a monk or nun. They would shave their heads, wear ochre-colored robes, and vow to take refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. Doing so meant following the example of the Buddha and his teachings on morality and meditation, as well as living a simple life with like-minded others in pursuit of nirvana and an end to suffering.

The Jain Tradition, c. 540 – 468 BCE

Vardhamana Mahavira lived sometime in the sixth century BCE.  He was the son of a warrior chief, and he was an ascetic.  As an ascetic, he decided to become a holy man.  He traveled throughout the Ganges Valley until he found enlightenment. Following his enlightenment, Mahavira spent the next thirty years or so teaching his doctrines to others.

Mahavira accepted the doctrine of karma and reincarnation, but he argued that all things – humans, animals, plants, and even inanimate objects – have living souls and thus are subject to karma. Jainism is the formalization of Mahavira’s teaching.

Key Questions

  • How does Hinduism compare to Jainism? What are the similarities and differences?
  • How did Vedic culture respond to Jainism? Was it accommodated?

The Mauryans, c. 324 – 185 BCE


Map 3.10 | Mauryan Empire during the reign of King Ashoka | Note the location of the capital, Pataliputra. Author: User “Vastu” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

India became involved in the conflicts of the western world in the sixth century BCE when the Persian king, Darius, conquered the Indus Valley and Kashmir about 513 BCE.  This conquest fostered contact between India and Western Europe and led to the introduction of new ideas, technologies and goods into India. The ensuing centuries were a time of transition. These states fought with each other over territory. The most successful state was the one that could most effectively administer its land, mobilize its resources and, by so doing, field the largest armies. That state was the kingdom of Magadha which, by the fourth century BCE, had gained control of much of northern India along the Ganges River.

Among the things the Indians learned from the Persians was how to mint silver coins, and how to rule vast pieces of land and a large population. The Mauryans also spread the culture of India during their rule, including Buddhism and the flourishing of art and literature.  In time, Persia fell to Alexander the Great of Macedonia. In 326 BCE, Alexander led his army into India. Alexander was able to conquer India with relative ease because he found an India made up of many rival states and no central government. As was Alexander’s wont, he found Indian culture fascinating, especially the philosophies of India; but Alexander’s men rebelled and refused to continue on and Alexander was forced to begin the long journey home to Macedonia. When he left, Alexander left his general Seleucus in charge. The one to benefit the most from Alexander’s invasion was a ruler in the Ganges Valley named Chandragupta.

In 321 BCE, the last king of Magadha was overthrown by one of his subjects, Chandragupta Maurya, and a new period in India’s history began. Through war and diplomacy, he and his two successors established control over most of India, forging the first major empire in the history of South Asia: the Mauryan Empire (321 – 184 BCE). Chandragupta’s grandson, King Ashoka, ended the military conquests and sought to rule his land through Buddhist principles of non-violence and tolerance. But after his time, the empire rapidly declined, and India entered a new stage in its history.


“The Rise of Indian States: The Mauryan Empire.” Indus to Independence: A Journey Through Indian History. 2000. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=10627&loid=51738. 3:07.


“Ashokan Empire Influence.” Buddhism: The Great Wheel of Being. 1995. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=10937&loid=189397. 4:02.


“Mauryan Empire Tolerance.” The Word and the Sword: History of the World. 2012. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=57508&loid=258525. 3:45.

After Ashoka’s death about 232 BCE, the Mauryan Empire went into decline and broke apart into smaller states. Agriculture flourished and was the basis of the Indian economy, but in addition to the farmer, this period saw the rise of a strong merchant class. The road system built by the Mauryans kept India united and facilitated trade. During these centuries there were also significant advances in science, mathematics, and philosophy. This period also saw the codification of Indian law.

[1] Rupert Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 1998), 79.