Ancient India

Our library has two recent surveys on Indian history:  Hermann Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund, A History of India (Routledge, 2010) and Burjor Avari, India:  The Ancient Past - A history of the Indian subcontinent from c. 7000 BC to AD 1200 Routledge, 2007).   You may also freely download and  access the entire 22 volume set in 4 series of the New Cambridge History of India from the Internet Archive.  Another work that may be dowloaded from the ebrary is the impressive and informative philological-historical work of Sheldon Pollock, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India (2009) Berkeley:  University of California Press.

Indian Prehistory
Genetic and other evidence strongly suggests that India was settled by migrations of peoples from Africa, first by Homo erectus around 400-500,000 years ago, and then by Homo sapiens around 30-50,000 years ago. See, Spencer Wells, The Journey of Man:  A Genetic Odyssey (2003) and Ian Tattersall, "Out of Africa Again ... and Again," Scientific American, 276, April 1997, 60-67.  The study of Indian history based on archaeological evidence dates to around 7000 BC when evidence of settled agriculture on the northern river plains and deltas appears.  The earliest sites of settlement appear at Mehrgahr and other sites on upper tributaries of the Indus River and date from around 7000-4700 BC.  The cultivation of early grains in the deltas allowed for the growth of the earliest settlements and eventually the sophisticated development of the urban centers of the Harappan civilization from the 3rd millenium BC.  For those of you in the Western Civilization course (HST 101) there is a good chapter in Charles Gates, Ancient Cities, on Mohenjo Daro, the major city complex that arose along the lower Indus River. Use the Global Heritage Network website to examine these sites in detailThe cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro were discovered through extensive archaeological work in the 1920s around the same time that Howard Carter was uncovering the tombs of Tutenkhamen at Luxor in Egypt.  The cities are unique for their social organization and innovations in water systems with large open public baths and individual wells for houses.  Collectively, the urban cities of the lower Indus are called the Harappan Civilization (2600-1700 BC).  Reasons for the decline or relative abandonment of these cities include speculations about environmental change (Kulke and Rothermund, 10-11).  Certain tectonic shifts in the delta may have led to a build up of flooding may have led to malaria and other problems that led to abandonment.  Other evidence suggests that rainfall patterns changed (Kulke and Rothermund, 11).

These discoveries in the 1920s and 1930s came into confrontation with a Eurocentric historiography that had upheld the rise of Indian civilization as a product of Aryan civilization, a supposed invasion of peoples from Central Asia in around 1500 BC.  The political ramifications of the discovery of a pre-Aryan phase potentially undermined the upholding of Aryan origins that were a staple of Nazi and fascist ideology of the 1930s and early 1940s.  The notion of the Aryans as a source of a pure race of Indo-European origins  and the source of Indian civilization had roots in 19th century historiography, including Georg Hegel, The Philosophy of History.  

Harappan Civilization c. 2600-1700 BC

The Harappan Civilization, also called the Indus Civilization, was a cluster of urban and agricultural areas that spread along the major river valleys of the Indus River that is today mostly located in modern Pakistan and Northwest India.  The archaeological discoveries and continued work at Mahrgarh and Mohenjo Daro provide our sources for material life and evidence of substantial urban development, trade and culture.  These archaeological discoveries discounted the Aryan thesis, then prevalent among European nationalists, who Indian civilization began around 1500 BC (see above).  These cities exhibit considerable evidence of urban planning and cooperative civic life.  Ultimately it may have been a combination of environmental changes, and perhaps the buildup of silts and deposits and changing courses of the river that made a number of these cities obsolete or unsustainable.

The Vedic Age (1700-600 BC)
The actual arrival into India of Indo-Aryans and Indo-Iranian peoples occurred around 1700 BC and influenced Indian subcontinent cultural development through 600 BC, the so-called Vedic Age. In this period we find the rise of a specialized class of priests or brahmins.  These brahmins became interpreters of a series of written texts, called Vedas, and an early form of political and religious ideology that will much later be recognized as Hinduism. With the development of writing systems these Vedic texts allowed the Brahmins special claims as an elite with exclusive knowledge of their interpretation.  In this period we find a great deal of rivalry between rival aristocrats who establish various competing princely kingdoms.  This led to a great deal of rivalry and local civil wars and strife.  Wealth was dependent on surplus derived from agricultural production and labor and the use and wealth derived from iron technology.

Pre-Mauryan Era (600 BC - 320 BC)

In this period, India continued to develop in a more or less decentralized manner with a complex system of clusters of princely states.   The proximity of India to the major Western Asian empires of the Persians and Greeks directly impacted this area.  Northern and northwest India in particular was vulnerable to pressures of supporting or resisting the Persian Empire and at the end of this period, Alexander the Great's invasion.  One may well argue that Alexander was outright defeated in India and was forced to withdraw entirely due to military defeat and disease.  This is also the period when Buddhism and the Jain religions are formed as rivals to Hinduism.  Buddha and his revolutionary influence begins.  The best estimate for Buddha's life is placed at around 563-483 BC.

Mauryan Empire (321 BC - 184 BC)

The Mauryan empire becomes the most powerful empire of South Asia, and is a rival to Roman power in this same period.  The term "Mauryan" is derived from the name of the empire's founder, Chandragupta Maurya who ruled from around 321-297 BC.  His grandson, Ashoka (r. 269-232 BC) consolidated power, adopted Buddhism as an official state religion and promoted the aggressive expansion of his kingdom into an empire through the use of Buddhist missionaries and merchants.  But this was also a period when private land ownership was instituted through the state policies of Kautalya, who was a minister to both Chandragupta Maurya and to Ashoka (Avari, p. 117).

Post-Mauryan Period (185 BC - 320 AD)

After the Mauryan collapse in about 185 BC we find another period of decentralization and the rise of regionalism.  In this period the southern region becomes prominent and Tamil literature becomes prominent.  In the Ganges region the Shunga dynasty is a local dynasty who encounter a great rivalry with the Kharavela dynasty.  In Northwest India, there is evidence of continued Indo-Greek influence and contacts where Greek governors dominate the border regions of Bactria.  The Indo-Greek monarchs however were pressured and removed by around the 1st century BC.  During this period Central Asia comes under influence of the Kushans, a trans-Asiatic empire that is situated between the emergent Christian and Buddhist influenced regions and trade routes.

Gupta Empire (320-550 AD)

The Gupta Empire is associated with the consolidation of power of its third ruler, Chandragupta I who expanded his power in around 320 AD.   The Gupta rulers however adopted Bhahmanic notions of kingship rule, which led to a deemphasis on Buddhism and the consolidation of power around large landholding and wealthy families.  Their decentralization of state apparatuses begun in the Mauryan period allowed local landlords and elites to claim titles and power as local princes.

Key Texts in  Buddhist Chinese and Indian History:  

Faxien (337-422 CE) and his travel accounts of his visit from China to India is one of the key primary sources of history and life in India and along the Silk Road in the Gupta Empire period.  It offers much insight into the nature of freedom of movement for merchants and monks between India and China in the period 399-420.  An older translation in PDF format is available for download here.

Xuanzang (Chinese: 玄奘; Wade–Giles: Hsüan-tsang; c. 602 – 664) was a later Chinese Buddhist monk, traveler and scholar who traveled from China to India to study the origins of Buddhism at it source.  A  and summary of his life is found here in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Indian Literature and Historical Epics

Among the most developed in length of narrative and in chronological literature are the literary epics from the Indian subcontinent.  Sheldon Pollock’s study of the origins and development of Sanskrit literature as both an administrative language and as an ideology is a pioneering work (Pollock 2006). The rise of the Veda and Vedic literature dates to the end of the BCE period and among its successors, is the Mahābharāta historical epic of conquest and battle and the later Rāmāyana literature and other texts based on the Sanskrit language and writing system introduced by the landowning elite and their court society who dominated power (Pollock, 78).

Several studies note that before the codification of laws, the warrior class or caste developed their sense of ideology and ethics from stories and epics (McGrath 2004)

Fordham Internet Sourcebook - India Vedic Age
South Asia
Indic Texts
South Asia Studies Libraries
For a collection of translated Hindu texts
For the Laws of Manu from the Vedic period (1500-400 BCE)
McGrath, Kevin. 2004. Sanskrit Hero: Karna in Epic Mahabharata. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers.

Pollock, Sheldon. 2006. The Language of the Gods in the World of Men. Berkeley: University of California Press.