Thank God for Sanskrit | Classical India

We weren’t really able to talk much about India in the ancient era because their language still hasn’t been deciphered. We don’t have a Rosetta Stone for the Indus Valley like we did for Egyptian hieroglyphics and Mesopotamian cuneiform. But thanks to the Aryan invasion, we now have a written language that we can read – Sanskrit.

(Listen to the entire episode here!)

The aryan invasion

Briefly, the Aryans were a linguistic group who came from prehistoric Iran. Some Aryan groups became migrating east and eventually conquered the Indus Valley. They brought with them their language and they also were nice enough to set up a strict social hierarchy, or caste system, with themselves on top. How convenient.

Obviously Aryans normally bring to mind Adolf Hitler. The term Aryan became a general term that referred to an Indo-European group that populated western Europe and western Asia. It’s sort of right, but gets distorted. By the 20th century, Aryan just means “white” – and when they conquered the Indus Valley they were lighter skinned, which made India’s caste system highly racialized – with darker skinned people closer to the bottom. But they really have no connection to Hitler’s master race.

Side note: the Swastika was also an ancient Indian symbol for good luck that is important in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Over the centuries it had become a popular symbol found all over the world – there are some U.S. infantry divisions that used it as their symbol, before WWII of course. But, the Nazis, like they did with everything, ruined it.

The Vedic Age

Since the fall of the Indus Valley, India has been in a time period known as the Vedic Age – referring to one of the most important texts of Hinduism. Unlike most other religions, Hinduism doesn’t have a founding moment – it sort of just evolves over time. It’s probably a mixture of the ancient Indus Valley religion and the beliefs of the Aryans who invaded and took over.

There were powerful kingdoms scattered across India but not one overarching empire that controlled the subcontinent, until Alexander the Great shows up. The threat of being conquered – again – by a group from the west, provides the motivation for a family to expand its kingdom and eventually control most of India. Note: when I say India, I mean the entire Indian subcontinent – so Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.

AShoka and the Mauryan Empire

This empire is called the Mauryan Empire and its most famous ruler is Ashoka. Ashoka was a military commander who used brute force to conquer India. Supposedly, after witnessing one of the bloodiest battles in Indian history, he converted to Buddhism and followed its message of peace and enlightenment for the rest of his rule.

The Buddha, or Siddhartha Gautama, lived in ancient India in modern-day Nepal. Supposedly he was a wealthy prince who lived a sheltered life. One day, he took a page out of Princess Jasmine’s book and left his palace to see the real world. What he saw – death, illness, and poverty – shook him to his core, prompting him to leave behind his family and become an ascetic – someone who renounces all possessions and lives a life of extreme poverty. Eventually he came to a “Middle Way” between extreme deprivation and his former lavish lifestyle, which is Buddhism.

Back to Ashoka, once he adopts Buddhism he promotes tolerance and peace across the empire. He builds roads to connect and unify India and sets up rest stops and plants shade trees along the way for poor travelers who can’t afford a place to stay.

He also places pillars around the empire with his Edicts carved into them. These mostly proclaim his belief in the Buddhist philosophy of dharma (this idea is the same in Hinduism – so there’s not much conflict here.) His edicts focus on social and moral concepts and were placed near the rest stops for people to read. One of his big ideas is social welfare for both people and animals and, in general, to treat each other well. Pretty nice, huh? 

Ashoka was probably influenced by his grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya, who founded the empire. Supposedly Maurya was orphaned and abandoned at a young age, raised by another pastoral family, and eventually taught and mentored by a famous author. Pretty humble beginnings for a guy who’s going to create one of the largest empires ever in India. But Chandragupta Maurya was a Jain – an incredibly peaceful religion. So it’s not such a leap for Ashoka to adopt Buddhism – another religion focused on peace and tolerance.

But if I can be cynical for a second, there’s another way to understand Ashoka’s conversion. It’s very possible that he truly saw the violence of his conquests and decided to find another way. But it’s also equally possible that once he had conquered India with military force, he saw that he would need a more attractive platform for maintaining power and unity across the places he conquered.

Ashoka ruled about 100 years after Alexander the Great and maybe he learned a thing or two about the difference between building your empire – which is easy if you have a massive military – and maintaining that empire – which is way trickier. So maybe Buddhism was a way to promote new policies that would make the people he just conquered a little less likely to rebel against him? I don’t know. Whatever his motivation, it worked and Ashoka is seen as one of the most successful rulers in all of Indian history.

After he dies, the Mauryan Empire slowly falls apart and India goes back to being ruled by a variety of princes across the subcontinent. This is going to happen over and over again in India – relatively brief periods of unity followed by decades or even centuries of decentralized rule. It doesn’t mean it’s total anarchy but it just means that each province has its own local rule and local customs. Even today, Indian democracy is having problems because they have such a long history of local rule and different customs and languages around the country.

After almost 500 years of decentralized rule, another empire steps in. Their ruler is named Chandra Gupta. This is incredibly confusing, because remember, the founder of the earlier Mauryan Empire was named Chandragupta (no space) Maurya. This new guy was probably named after the founder of the Mauryan Empire, but it drives my students insane that they have to keep track of both of them. So, Chandra (space) Gupta conquers most of northern India – but he’s never able to conquer the whole subcontinent like the Mauryans were.

Although the Gupta Empire was never as large as the Mauryan, it ruled for 200 years of prosperity and growth and is considered a Golden Age of Indian achievement. Politically, they divided the empire into provinces that were headed by administrative leaders (thanks Persia!) and they had a uniform legal system that was tolerant and just. They exported precious materials like silk, cotton, and spices to other civilizations and had even developed steel more than 1000 years before the European Industrial Revolution.

Epic poetry flourished, as did astronomy, astrology, geometry and trigonometry. Their medicine was incredibly advanced for its time with doctors who were skilled in surgery and who inoculated the population against contagious diseases. Painting, sculpture and architecture were highly developed – intricate coins, jewelry, metal sculptures and other carvings have been found across the empire.1

They will eventually decline for the same reasons the other classical empires did – more on that later – and India will go back to decentralized rule until a new group called Muslims comes from the west.

Vishnu Anantasayana Panel, Dashavatara Temple, Deogarh By Bob King [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons