Ancient India

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Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Ancient India

Geography played a major role in the isolation of ancient India. The Himalayas, which include some of the world’s tallest mountains, blocked access from the north; the other two sides of the triangular peninsula border on the Indian Ocean. This unique geographical location ensured that India could be invaded only from the northwest, through present-day Pakistan; such invasion in the ancient world was rarely successful. The Persian Empire extended only as far east as the Indus River that gave the nation of India its name; even Alexander the Great halted at the Indus River.

The oldest Indian civilization is the Indus Valley or Harappan civilization. The people of Harappan were literate, although archaeologists are unable to decipher most of their writing. However, writing seems to have temporarily disappeared from India about 1500 BC, when the Harappan civilization gave way to the Indo-Aryan civilization. Under the Aryans, literacy would not return to India until about 400 BC.

The Aryans (the word means “freeborn” or “noble”) originated in Eastern Europe. Many of them settled on the Iranian plateau and would later be identified as Medes and Persians; others pushed farther eastward into the Indus valley. The Aryans were skilled horsemen, equipped with weapons and chariots; it is possible that they deliberately destroyed the Harappan civilization. Since the Harappan civilization seems to have been peaceful, its people would have been no match for an invading race of warriors.

The lack of written Indian sources from 1500 to 400 BC means that much of ancient Indian history is a matter of conjecture. One written source that tells historians something about ancient India is the four collections of hymns and religious rituals collectively known as the Vedas. These texts came into existence in oral form and were collected over the centuries, from about 1500 to 500 BC. Because the exact wording of the Vedas was of great religious importance, scholars believe that the surviving written version is a very accurate reflection of the original text.

Based on information in the Vedas, historians believe that the Aryans eventually expanded as far as the Ganges River, dividing the land mass into a number of small tribal kingdoms. Each one had a tribal leader, or raja, and a council of advisors. As this form of government gave way to monarchies, the rajas consolidated their power, eventually becoming autocrats.


The Aryans made two major, linked contributions to Indian culture—the set of religious beliefs and the system of social organization that, together, constitute what eventually became known as Hinduism. To this day, Hinduism is the basis of much of Indian life. Historians believe that Hinduism includes elements that are native to India, mixed with the ideas and beliefs of the invading Aryans. For instance, archaeological evidence suggests that the origins of the Hindu god Siva may lie in the Harappan civilization.

The Vedic religious beliefs that evolved into the Hindu religion are based on concepts of sacrifice. Like most ancient peoples, the Aryans believed in many gods rather than just one. The importance of sacrifice helps explain why Agni, the god of fire, was one of the major Vedic gods; in the ancient world, ceremonial sacrifices were made by fire. In time, Hinduism evolved into a belief in three major gods, or rather three aspects of one god: Vishnu, the god of love; Siva, the god of both protection and wrath; and Brahma, the creator. Hindus also believe in a cycle of rebirth and reincarnation along the path to enlightenment.

The Vedic religious system evolved over time into Brahmanism, which differs from its Vedic roots mainly in its emphasis on the importance of the priests and their role in religious rituals. The major text of Brahmanism is the Upanishads , a collection of philosophical meditations on the nature of the universe and the self. It describes Siva as the creator and protector of the universe.

The second aspect of Hinduism is the caste system—the division of every member of society into specific social classes. Like the Aryan religious beliefs, the caste system pervades Indian society to this day. The rules today are less rigid, but the tradition is so ingrained that it maintains immense power over the people.

Originally there were four castes. The first included rulers and warriors; the second comprised only priests; the third included a mix of artisans, merchants, and farmers; and the last was made up of servants and slaves. When the caste system first took shape, mobility between castes seems to have been possible, except for an absolute ban on intermarriage between Aryans and non-Aryans.

Over time, the caste system became more and more detailed, with many more levels being added. Each caste had its own assigned occupations and duties, and contact between members of different castes became more and more rigidly controlled by law. Not only intermarriage, but eating together or even the simplest physical contact was forbidden. A person was born into his or her caste and could not rise into a higher one.

A religion based on sacrifice and a caste system based on duty went hand in hand. These tenets demonstrate that ancient Indian society cared much more for the stability of the community than for the rights of the individual. The caste system did not define rights; it defined god-given responsibilities that each person must carry out so that society would continue to function smoothly. This emphasis on the sacrifice of personal importance in two major human institutions—religion and society—accounts for the fact that lower-caste Indians did not rise up in rebellion as the peasants and slaves in other world cultures so often did. Their religion assured them that at the end of a harsh and thankless low-caste existence, they might well be reborn into a better situation.

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