II. Ancient and Classical Periods, 3500 B.C.E.–500 C.E. > C. Early Civilizations and Classical Empires of South and East Asia
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
C. Early Civilizations and Classical Empires of South and East Asia
1. South Asia, to 72 B.C.E.
An early urban civilization in the Indus Valley produced the polished stone, metals, incised seals, and pictographs excavated since 1920 at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. Harappan civilization began in the middle of the third millennium B.C.E. It generated a writing system that has yet to be deciphered. It was anchored in two great cities along the Indus River, Harappa itself and Mohenjo-Daro, each carefully laid out in a gridlike pattern. Extensive building suggests a strong governing elite capable of organizing forts, city walls, and extensive urban sewage systems. Trade was conducted with the Middle East, China and Southeast Asia, but military technology lagged, with scant use of bronze. Priests figured prominently in a polytheistic religion, with abundant artistic expression of goddesses and sacred animals. The civilization declined by the second millennium B.C.E. and was thereafter open to nomadic invasions.  1
A good deal more is known about the civilization that emerged much later with invasion from the Iranian plateau by Aryans of uncertain antecedents, who gradually conquered, pushed back, or absorbed the earlier Dravidian and Austro-Asiatic Munda populations. The conquest is variously placed at 2000–1200 B.C.E.  2
1200–c. 800
The Indian Aryans worshiped nature-gods. The chief gods were Indra, god of the air and of the storm; Agni, the sacrificial fire; and Soma, the intoxicant used for libations. Varuna was worshiped as guardian of cosmic regularity, including individual human acts. The oldest sacrificial hymns, composed in north India west of the Ganges (perhaps 1200), are contained in the Rigveda, which dates from c. 1000 B.C.E., possibly two centuries prior to the related Gathas in the Avesta of Iran; the Samaveda, which contains antiphonal selections from the Rig; the Yajurveda, hymns and sacrificial prose; and the Atharvaveda, a repertory of magical formulae. The Rigveda reveals an Indo-European hieratic literary language remarkable for clarity of structure and wealth of inflection, which was originally transmitted orally. This normative text depicts a patriarchal society, engaged in cattle raising and agriculture, characterized by usual monogamy, adult marriage, and normal widowhood. The Aryan tribes were frequently at war among themselves and with indigenous tribes. Their attitude toward life was vigorous and objective; the doctrine of reincarnation and the correlated aspiration to release are absent.  3
800–c. 550
A transition period during which the Aryans expanded eastward through Magadha (modern Bihar) is known chiefly from the Brahmanas, prose commentaries upon the Vedas (c. 800–600), and the earlier Upanishads or confidential teachings (c. 600–300). These texts include the first religious justifications for a hierarchical structuring of society, asserting the Vedic division of Aryan society into three honorable classes: priests (brahman), noble warriors (kshatriya), and commonalty (vaisya), including both farmers and artisans. These “twice-born” castes were augmented by a fourth group, the slaves (sudra), consisting of non-Aryans with whom the twice-born classes had no ritual community. Progressive evolution of the concept of caste in these normative texts may be traced to desire of priest and noble to perpetuate supremacy, to diversification of specialized occupation, to indigenous rules of endogamy, and to absorption of the sudras, many of whom improved their servile status. The relationship between normative prescriptions and actual social practice is, however, debatable. It is clear that successful military campaigns brought to power men with varied social antecedents who then claimed kshatriya status. Significant social mobility made the textual definition of the caste hierarchy more theoretical than real. Continual elaboration by the priesthood of an already laborious ritual had become devoid of religious significance. The doctrine of continuous rebirth (samsara), conditioned by the inescapable results of former acts (karma), was first expressed in the early Upanishads (c. 600–550). The Upanishads, too, teach that the soul may escape from the suffering inherent in individual existence only by the realization of its identity with an impersonal cosmic soul. Union with the latter is possible through knowledge, but not through Brahman ritual.  4
The north Indian area was divided among many petty states. These divisions suggest a much larger pattern characteristic of the subcontinent throughout much of its history: an ongoing tension between localized rule (increasingly clustered around distinct regional cultures) and larger kingdoms or empires. Sixteen small states are enumerated in an early list. Kosala (King Prasenajit, contemporary of the Buddha) was the largest, extending from Nepal to the Ganges, including modern Oudh. Magadha was its small neighbor on the east, south of the Ganges. The King of Avanti ruled at Ujjain. The capital of the Vamsas (King Sedayama) was at Kosambi (on the Jumna below Agra). Ten tribal republics are named in the oldest Pali records.  5
A general estimate of population at the end of the 4th century B.C.E. puts it around 100 million, a figure calculated partly from the size of the Indian army as described in Greek sources discussing Alexander of Macedon's campaign in north India. (Another estimate for the early 17th century C.E. uses the same figure, suggesting relatively little absolute population growth before the modern period, although there would have been important ebbs and flows in the intervening centuries, brought on by famine, drought, and disease and countered during periods of good trade and agrarian production, as well as immigration patterns.)  6
Dissent from Brahmanism, to abolish authority of its scriptures and rites, was found in many schools, among them the Jains, followers of the Jina (“Victorious”); Vardhamana Mahavira (?540–468?), who elaborated the doctrines of an earlier prophet Parsya; and in Magadha under Kings Bimbisara (?543–491?) and his parricide son Ajatasatru (?491–459?). Parsya had enjoined four vows: to injure no life, to be truthful, not to steal, and to possess no property. Mahavira added chastity and rigid asceticism as a means to a free man's immortal soul from bondage to the material world.  7
BUDDHISM was founded in the same period and region by Siddhartha (?563–483?) of the clan of Gautama and the hill tribe of Sakya, who attained “illumination” (bodhi) at Bodh-Gaya after he had convinced himself that Brahman doctrine and asceticism were alike ineffective. He taught the means of escape from the world of suffering and rebirth to Nirvana, a state of peaceful release from rebirth, through a twofold way of life, withdrawal for meditation and personal religiousexperience, combined with strict morality and self-sacrificial altruism. Shortly after the Buddha's death, 500 disciples met at Rajagriha to rehearse together his doctrine (dharma) and his code of discipline (sangha) which he founded. That community served as the instrument for propagation of his religion, which, like Christianity, offers salvation to all who accept the simple doctrine and ethics and seek for personal religious experience. A second council at Vaisali a century after the Buddha's death was concerned with the vinaya. About this time were formed the four Nikayas, earliest extant anthologies from more primitive collections (Pratimoksa, and so on).  8
Darius I of Achaemenid Persia seized Gandhara from the disunited Aryans and sent his Greek admiral Skylax to explore the Indus. Kharoshthi script, used in northwestern India (5th century), is based on Aramaic of the Persian scribes. It remained confined to the northwest.  9
The Sutras (c. 6th–2nd century B.C.E.), “Threads” through the Brahmanas, compendious manuals designed to be learned by heart, prescribe rules of conduct of various Vedic schools, regions, and periods, for sacrifice and incidentally, for daily life and describe a society in which plural marriage is permitted and child marriage recommended, while numerous taboos mark the beginning of an elaborate theory of caste defilement. Panini (c. 400) gives in his Sutra the earliest extant Sanskrit grammar, with a wealth of illustration which is augmented by the Varttikas or supplementary rules of Katyayana (c. 180) and the rich Mahabhashya (Great Commentary) of Patanjali (c. 150).  10
Alexander the Great (See 325) invaded the Punjab, crossed the Indus (Feb. 326), was welcomed to the rich and cultured city of Takshasila (Taxila), won a battle on the banks of the Jhelum, and withdrew on demand of his troops, sending Nearchus with a fleet by sea. Important cultural contacts took place between Hellenistic and Indian civilizations.  11
c. 321–c. 184
The MAURYA DYNASTY was founded by Chandragupta (c. 321–c. 297), who first united north India from Herat to the Ganges Delta with his capital at Pataliputra (Patna) and who defended it against Seleucus Nicator (c. 305). The emperor ruled with aid of a privy council and an elaborate official hierarchy, paid army, and secret service. Administration of public works embraced highways and irrigation, important underpinnings for the expanded trade characteristic of this period.  12
A Jain high priest Bhadrabahu led a portion of his community south into the Carnatic to escape a 12-year famine in Bengal. On their return (c. 300) the still resident monks in church council at Pataliputra undertook to collect the Jain scriptures but were unable to record some of the older purvas. The canon of the Svetambara sect, the Siddhanta, written in its present form at the council of Valabhi (5th or early 6th century C.E.), is consequently incomplete. The returning monks maintained a stricter rule, avoided the council, and, as the Digambara sect, have steadily maintained that the true canon is lost. The Jain community had then already begun a westward migration to Ujjain and Mathura.  13
Despite the vagaries of political rule, a continuity of strong trading relationships provided coherence and consistency for society. In particular, merchants became increasingly wealthy, powerful, and influential. Indeed, it was merchant patronage that ensured the expansion of both Jainism and Buddhism in this period. Merchant guilds shaped much of urban life, influencing public opinion and organizing production.  14
Artisans, too, participated in guilds that set standards for quality and rules for work. The guilds had to be registered in the locality; some of the leading guilds including potters, metalworkers, and carpenters. (Given the fact that sons usually followed the trade of their fathers, guilds also became associated with caste. If an occupation underwent a transition, however, this triangulated relationship between work, social status, and economic organization was disrupted.)  15
c. 274–c. 236
ASHOKA'S EMPIRE, extended by conquest of Kalinga (Orissa with the Circars, c. 262), embraced two-thirds of the peninsula. As a devout convert he ruled at home and abroad in accordance with Buddhist law. This ideological connection between kingship and religion also served Ashoka well in positioning his kingdom to support trade and merchants, and the strong political support he received from traders was an important aspect of his rule.  16
Besides many pious foundations, he engraved on rocks and pillars throughout his empire in true Achaemenid-style edicts in vernacular Prakrit exhorting respect for animal life, reverence, and truth, and appointed censors to enforce these injunctions. He sent Buddhist missions to Syria, Egypt, Cyrene, Macedonia, and Epirus, and with much greater success to Burma and Ceylon (c. 251–246; Aryan conquest of Ceylon, traditional date 485 B.C.E.). The Punjab and Gandhara became a stronghold of the liberal Mahasanghikas, who developed a canonical tradition enriched by legends to bring the life of the Buddha into that region. The canon was then or in the 2nd century expanded in Kausambhi, Sanchi, and Malwa and fixed in Pali to form the Tripitaka (“Three Baskets”): stura (doctrine), vinaya (monastic code), and abhidharma (philosophical discussion). The Pali tradition, which was carried to Ceylon and there preserved intact, says a third church council was held at Pataliputra under Ashoka.  17
The west remained the chief stronghold of Brahman doctrine which now reasserted itself. The gradual absorption of substratum cults within the formal brahmanistic framework under the tutelage of the Brahmans gave rise to the complex system of beliefs and practices, characterized as the two main sects of Saivism (worship of Siva) and Vaishnavism (worship of Visnu and his avatars or incarnations). Major gods arose: Siva, personification of cosmic forces of destruction and reproduction implicit in all change; Vishnu, god of the sacrifice who was recognized as incarnate in Krishna, a hero presented by popular legend at Mathura as romantic lover of cowherd-girls, and on the west coast as a somber warrior. A second avatar or reincarnation of Vishnu was Rama, symbol of conjugal devotion. To Vishnu as Preserver and Siva as Destroyer was added Brahma the Creator, a personification of the Brahman principle of the Upanishads.  18
The Mahabharata, an epic poem composed by several generations of bards, seems to have taken form about the 4th century B.C.E., although probably revised early in our era. The original 9,000 verses were swelled to 100,000 by later accretions, including myths, legends, popular philosophy, and moralizing narratives. It recounts a feud between the wily Kurus and the fierce Pandus. Krishna takes prominent part in the struggle as counselor of Arjuna, the Pandu chief. Noteworthy within the epic is the Bhagavadgita (“Song of the Lord”), which first urges personal love and devotion (bhakti) to Krishna. The Ramayana, although traditionally ascribed to Valmiki (?6th century B.C.E.), is, in its present form, later than the Mahabharata. It recounts the trials of Rama in rescuing, with an army of apes, his wife, Sita, from a fiend. Both epics are composed in a popular form of Sanskrit.  19
The increasing prosperity and resulting influence of merchants suggests a society that departed from the normative theories put forward in these texts. Indeed, Ashoka's pleas for social harmony suggest that those labeled vaisyas and placed third in the hierarchy persistently challenged Brahmans and kshatriya through their patronage of the heterodox sects of Buddhism and Jainism and through their support of the ruler. Social and economic tension undoubtedly was mirrored in religious life.  20
One way to ease this tension lay in giving the king increasing power by seeing him as the connecting point for various communities in the realm. Ashoka elaborated this connection through a new interpretation of dhamma (or dharma), which assigned to the king the duty of enabling each caste to fulfill its own dharma. The polity thus was seen as a congeries of distinct groups, each with its own duties or social responsibilities to fulfill, integrated by the figure of the king. To effect such a political theory, Mauryan government created a centralized bureaucracy, dependent especially on the treasurer and chief (tax revenue) collector; Mauryan fiscal accounts were carefully kept. Ashoka also traveled extensively to stay in touch with, and to influence, public opinion. He elaborated, as well, the use of spies into an espionage system that brought him regular news of his far-flung empire.  21
Antiochus III of Syria occupied Gandhara but shortly lost it to the Greek (Yavana) King Demetrius of Bactria, who (c. 185) seized the Punjab also. Eastward expansion of the Yavanas was halted (after c. 162) by civil war between the houses of Euthydemus, represented especially by the warrior-philosopher Menander, and Eucratides.  22
c. 184–c. 72
The SUNGA DYNASTY was founded in the Ganges Valley and in Malwa by Pushyamitra, who overthrew the Maurya and repulsed the Yavanas under Menander, and by a Brahman reaction that may have stimulated Buddhist emigration to Bharhut, Sanchi, and Mathura. The dynasty in its later years was overshadowed if not actually displaced by its line of Brahman advisers, the Kanvas.  23
At the same time (c. 100 B.C.E.–50 C.E.) flourished in Gandhara a school of sculpture which created a Buddha image based on the Greek Apollo. Only a few decadent monuments (mostly 1st century C.E.) bear dates (318, 356, 384 with coin of Kadphises, 399) by reference to a Mauryan era (?322 B.C.E.) or more probably the Seleucid era of 312 B.C.E. Stylistic influence of the art of Gandhara was exerted chiefly in Afghanistan (frescoes of Bamiyan and Dukhtar-i-Nushirwan), where it was fused with Sassanian influences, eastern Turkestan, China of the North Wei dynasty, and Japan. But its iconographic formulae were accepted by the entire Buddhist world. Meanwhile, in western India (near Bombay) were cut in rocky cliffs Buddhist chaityas or temple halls, of which the earliest (c. 125–100 B.C.E.) are at Bhaja, Kondane, Pitalkhora, and Ajanta (cave 10); the largest, finest, and latest (1st century C.E.) at Karli. Jain caves in the Udayagiri hills of Orissa are of similar date.  24
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.