A brief Historical Survey Background Essay

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Background Essay

A Brief Historical Survey


A major Hindu deity associated with asceticism and yogic practice. He is regarded as the ‘Destroyer’ and often portrayed in relation to Brahma, the ‘Creator,’ and Vishnu, the ‘Preserver.’

India’s more than a billion citizens are heirs to at least five thousand years of urbanized history and several more millennia of historical traditions. Although we may think of India as one united people, the modern Indian state is composed of hundreds of groups, dozens of languages, and many different ethnic and cultural traditions. People have repeatedly migrated into the subcontinent through the passes in the Hindu Kush Mountains and come by sea. Because of the interaction among the various peoples and the trading and sharing of ideas, over the centuries certain concepts emerged as aspects of an all-Indian form of civilization.

By the third millennium B.C.E. people settled around the major rivers of the Punjab were growing enough agricultural surplus to support the subcontinent’s first cities. More than 1,500 Indus-period towns and cities have now been identified, suggesting that the Indus civilization covered half a million square miles, equal to a triangular area with 1,000-mile sides. The Indus civilization appears to have extended from the border of present-day Iran to Meerut, near the modern city of New Delhi, north to the Himalayan Mountains and south almost to Mumbai (Bombay). No ancient civilization spanned as much territory until the Roman Empire, 2,500 years later.

The cities of the Indus flourished in about 2500 B.C.E. and the two impressive cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro were each home to some 50,000 people. The urban population relied on farmers who grew barley and wheat as well as cotton for the textile industry. Large granaries served both as tax collection and distribution centers to feed the city dwellers. The cities were divided into sections where various craftsmen and other specialized groups lived. The Indus people smelted bronze and domesticated bullocks to haul their loads.

The cities are justly famous for their complex drainage and sanitation systems, which suggests that the civilization valued hygiene and purity. In fact, Mohenjo-daro is the site of a huge structure called the Great Bath, a large step tank that may have been used for ritual bathing. These complex drainage systems were unique in the ancient world and illustrate the Indus people’s ability for large-scale organization.

Archaeological evidence suggests that there were neither extremely rich nor poor classes. The Indus people did not construct huge monuments to kings or lavish homes for the rich. Moreover, few weapons of war have been found among the Indus ruins. When the port city of Lothal was excavated in 1959, there was proof of the Indus peoples’ lively trade with Sumer and Egypt.

Archaeologists have found only a few representations of human beings in the Indus excavations. One shows the bust of an aristocratic-looking man with eyes half shut, possibly a priest-king or, because trade was important, a prosperous merchant.

One intriguing seal shows a man wrapped in a tiger skin and wearing an animal headdress. He is seated with legs crossed and hands relaxed over his thighs, a

posture commonly associated with yoga. Yoga, a spiritual practice of intense concentration aimed at uniting the body, mind, and soul, originated in the Indian subcontinent, and the seal suggests that perhaps this important religious practice is 4,500 years old. If the seal indeed depicts the first yogi, then the figure on the seal may be the earliest known representation of the great Indian god Shiva, who is often shown as a meditating yogi seated on a tiger skin. Bulls, also pictured on several Indus seals, are associated with the worship of Shiva as well.

Objects that look very much like modern lingam-yoni symbols have also been unearthed. The lingam and yoni are symbolic representations of male and female creative power. When displayed together, they represent the union of male and female divine strength. (The lingam is the major form in which Shiva is worshiped in India today and may be the oldest continuing religious sacred symbol in the world.)

Archaeologists have discovered thousands of small figurines throughout the Indus valley that are unmistakably mother goddess figures, and demonstrate her importance in Indus religion. Trees, also associated with the goddess, were significant. Some seals picture sacred trees with horned figures, which might represent deities, sitting in or near them. Since no permanent altars have been identified, perhaps worship took place at the foot of sacred trees or in sacred groves.

Some historians think the Indus civilization may have been composed of semi-autonomous city-states (not unlike Sumer), ruled by local elite groups of merchants, landowners, or religious leaders. There is no evidence that any one individual had power for any period of time and no images that look like kings have been discovered. Historians have little knowledge of everyday life. Many carefully designed toys, including tiny two-wheel toy carts pulled by miniature clay cattle with moving heads, have been found. The Indus civilization also had dice and a board game that might have been an ancient form of chess.

But sometime between 1900 and 1700 B.C.E., life in the Indus cities appears to have changed dramatically. Houses became smaller, and the cities’ drainage systems deteriorated. Streets were no longer laid out in the careful grid pattern so characteristic of earlier building. Excavations suggest many people started moving from the countryside into the cities, crowding into buildings and perhaps overwhelming the urban centers. Unburied skeletons found on the top layer of Mohenjo-daro probably belonged to people who died from disease and were thrown into abandoned alleyways in run-down sections of the city. If so, they attest to the breakdown of city services.

What caused the great influx of people into urban centers and the destruction of the Indus way of life? For one thing, trade in the region seems to have decreased after 1900 B.C.E. Perhaps the climate changed because people had cut down so many trees to bake the bricks. Sometime around 1700 great floods and other geologic changes occurred in the Indus and related river systems. One river seems to have dried up entirely, and the Indus changed its course and could no longer support the rich farmland that had made city life possible. Towns that had been on the seacoast were no longer ports, further disrupting trade. Without surplus grain, it was impossible to support artisans, and traders lost their

economic base. Many people were forced back into subsistence farming, and a once-proud civilization lost its political and economic power.

The Aryan Migrations

The Aryans were one of the Indo-European pastoral nomadic groups living in the steppes of southern Russia. They began to move into present-day Iran around 1700 B.C.E., about the same time the Hyksos invaded Egypt and the Babylonians invaded Mesopotamia. Some Aryan tribes continued through passes in the Hindu Kush Mountains and reached the fertile plain of the Indus River where they encountered the decaying Indus cities. Equipped with horse and chariot and driving their herds of cattle, they easily subdued the people they met and destroyed what was left of the sophisticated urban society.

Aryans settled in the valleys of the Indus and its tributaries and gradually mixed with the indigenous people. After 1000 B.C.E. they moved more rapidly down the Ganges River plain, eastward to the present state of Bihar. Searching for iron to make axes and other tools, and for new land, they proceeded in a steady march down the Gangetic plain, slashing and burning forests and gradually settling down.


From the Sanskrit root vid, ‘to know.’ An ancient collection of sacred hymns that were revealed to meditating sages over hundreds of years; considered the first religious texts of Hinduism.


The second class in the Hindu caste hierarchy, made up of warriors and rulers.


The first class in the Hindu caste hierarchy, made up of priests who were responsible for transmitting Vedic knowledge and performing ritual sacrifices.

What the Veda Reveal

The Aryans, who took over the Indus valley and Gangetic plain, left few artifacts. The major source of information about them is a collection of sacred hymns known as the Veda. Because Aryans had no written language when they came into India, they passed the Veda down orally from generation to generation, often chanting and singing them. As years passed, the Veda were written and compiled into four books. These books include hymns to the gods, instructions on how to perform rituals, and speculation about the meaning of the universe. The Veda were so important that historians call the period in India from 1500 to 1000 B.C.E. the Vedic Age.

Although the Veda record no kings or battles, historians use them to piece together a fairly vivid picture of Aryan life. Aryans appear as fun-loving, vigorous people who enjoyed gambling, horsemanship, and fighting. ‘Aryan’ means the pure or noble ones, and probably indicates their self-image. The Veda reveal a hierarchical, male dominated society, in which the father performed rituals and presided over an extended family composed of his sons, their wives and children. Fathers performed sacrifices and other rituals in the home and only called on priests for special occasions. Some women may have enjoyed societal power as religious figures, as they are credited with receiving certain Vedic hymns.

In the early days of the Vedic Age, political and military leaders fought, raided, and ruled. Rājas—chiefs or princes who ruled the many Aryan groups—called upon male elders for advice, but led their tribes into battle and had a great deal of power. One of the strongest Aryan tribes was the Bharata; many Indians call their country Bhārat after this group.
However, sometime around 1000 B.C.E., as Aryan tribes began to settle down into farming communities and warfare decreased, fighting became less important than growing crops and looking after cattle. Power gradually shifted from the Kshatriya to the Brahmin.

In order to ensure that their harvests were bountiful and that the universe continued, Brahmin priests staged public fire sacrifices. Fire sacrifices involved offering various fruits, flowers, and foods into a sacred fire, called agni, which was believed to carry the valuable offerings to the gods in the worlds above. These public rituals became increasingly elaborate and expensive and soon replaced other forms of worship. The latter books of the Veda contain detailed instructions on how to conduct sacrifices. Only Brahmin priests had access to the Veda, so they were the only ones who knew how the sacrifices should be performed or which sacred chants to recite. They carefully performed each sacrifice with exactly the right words and actions, making sure every ingredient and instrument had been properly blessed.

Performing sacrifices gave the Brahmins enormous power, because as long as the sacrifices were done correctly, society believed the gods had to answer prayers and keep the universe going. That meant the community’s safety and security rested on the priests and their knowledge about sacrifices and other rituals. Even kings, when they wanted to go to war, had to consult their Brahmin advisors and get their blessing. The priestly caste also began to teach the royal children and serve as spiritual teachers for various kings.


Texts that consist of philosophical dialogues between spiritual teachers and their students on the nature of the soul, the cosmos, and life and death. Major Hindu concepts such as Brahman, karma, samsara, moksha, and yoga are explicated in these texts.


The accumulated effect of one’s actions over lifetimes that determine one’s quality of life and next birth.


Wheel of worldly existence; the cycle of rebirth.


‘Liberation’ from the cycle of rebirth; the goal of salvation to which orthodox Hindus aspire.


Religion based on the teachings of the Buddha, ‘the Enlightened One,’ on how to transcend samsara ‘cycle of rebirth,’ and gain nirvana, ‘enlightenment.’


A religion based on the lives and teachings of 24 spiritual figures called tirthankaras, saviors who transcended the cycle of samsara through intense austerities and meditation.


An enlightened compassionate being who forgoes nirvana in order to save others.

Sanskritic culture

The culture of the Aryans that was based on texts written in Sanskrit, a classical language read and recited by the Brahmins. Modern-day Hinduism is an amalgam of Sanskritic culture and indigenous Indian cultural traditions.

Bhagavad Gita

‘Song of the Lord.’

One of Hinduism’s core scriptures in which Lord Krishna advises Arjuna, a warrior, about life and death.


A treatise on rules, codes, and duties for Hindu societies.


Ancient tales; stories of the lives of Hindu gods.


Monotheistic religion based on the revelations received by Prophet Muhammad during the seventh century and later complied into the holy text, al-Qur’an.


A north Indian religion, founded by Guru Nanak in the 15th century, combining beliefs from Hinduism and Islam.


‘To hold fast to the truth.’ Mahatma Gandhi’s method of nonviolent noncooperation.

The Reurbanization of the Subcontinent

Using iron to cut down the forests and plow the land, the nomadic Aryans gradually settled down along the great Gangetic plain. By 700 B.C.E. they began to produce an agricultural surplus that enabled people once again to build great cities. Gradually tribal chieftains began to unify larger groups of people into larger political units. The leaders of these groups were called maharājas, or kings. By the sixth century some seventeen kingdoms and republics governed by tribal assemblies covered most of northern India.

With the new urbanization in cities like Ujjain, Kashi, and Magadha, people grew discontented with the lavish Brahmin sacrifices and looked for more complex understandings of the growing capriciousness of life. Into this time of flux moved hundreds of teachers offering solutions to new life issues. The first major new teachings were compiled into a collection of texts called the Upanishads, composed between (mid-first millennium B.C.E. to 200 C.E.). Later charismatic teachers such as Mahavira (circa 540-468 B.C.E.) and the Buddha (circa 563-483 B.C.E.) rejected the ritualistic Vedic world view, but accepted many of the assumptions espoused in the Upanishads such as karma, samsāra, and moksha, and made these insights available to all people, including lower castes and women. Later Brahmin scholars began to synthesize and systematize these reforms into texts that began to define what we now call Hinduism.

By the fifth century B.C.E. Magadha was the most powerful of the north Indian kingdoms and its power extended over most of north India. In 324 Chandragupta

Maurya (d. 301) solidified India’s first real empire. Perhaps copying the invading Alexander’s style, the Mauryan kings ruthlessly suppressed their neighbors and ruled by force and clever tactics so well described in Kautilya’s classic book the Arthashāstra, a treatise on government and power.

King Ashoka (ruled 269-232 B.C.E.) is the best known of the Mauryan kings and is justly famous for his radical conversion after the war against Kalinga (260 B.C.E.). After the bloody battles, Ashoka seems to have had a transformation of values. He accepted Buddhism and proceeded to preach nonviolence and tolerance and to spread his message all over India via inscriptions on pillars and rocks. The emperor convened the first Buddhist council and sent missionaries abroad to spread its message. Ashoka launched a program of public works, ordered roads built, trees planted, and wells dug. He is considered one of the greatest leaders in Indian history and the nation’s first 747 airplane was named in his honor.

After Ashoka, the Mauryan Empire began to collapse and for five hundred years a collection of smaller states provided the political structure for most of the subcontinent. As new dynasties emerged in southern India, new waves of nomadic conquerors streamed into the north. However, the political disunity did not inhibit the rapid expansion of the middle classes and artisans. Trade expanded all the way to China and Rome.

During this period, Buddhism and Jainism became widely popular and Buddhism was also spreading to China via the Silk Roads, and to Southeast Asia by sea. Brahmin scholars, struggling to retain their own influence and promote a synthesis of their own worldview, accepted many Jain and Buddhist insights. For example, ahimsa, or nonviolence, which is a central tenet of Buddhism and Jainism, became valued in Hinduism as well.

In the first century C.E., the Kushans, a nomadic group from the north, established an empire that included north India. The best known of the Kushan leaders was Kanishka who patronized Buddhism and promoted a flourishing trade both east and west. During this time Mahayana Buddhism developed and promoted the idea of transcendent deities and bodhisattvas who could absorb individual karma and offer an extended life in heaven. As Mahayana Buddhism spread to China, it was becoming one of the first world religions.

Meanwhile in south India Brahmins from the north were being accepted as advisors to the king and Sanskritic culture was infusing southern life, especially among the elite classes. Southern kings, seeking legitimacy for their expansion, welcomed the Brahmins and gave them privileges to tax huge areas that financed the construction of great Hindu temples.

The Andhra dynasty between 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E. was expanding its control over the central Deccan plateau. Further to the south, Tamil-speaking people were also developing their own distinctive culture and composing some of the world’s great literature, especially poetry. The Tamils were divided into three political kingdoms: the Cheras in the west, the Pandyas in the center, and the Cholas on the east coast. These kingdoms were theater states that depended more on their colossal architecture and luxurious courts than on direct military control. Court and temple life offered musicians, beautiful devotional songs, and

classical dancers called devadāsīs, or temple courtesans. The Tamil kingdoms were also active traders in the Indian Ocean and with Southeast Asia and China.

During this period the great religious text, the Bhagavad Gītā, was composed and other Brahmanic texts such as the Dharmashāstras and the Purānas were compiled, further synthesizing an eclectic Hinduism. Bhakti or devotional faith in a personal god, first emanating from Tamil culture in the south, was also growing into the dominant form of popular worship throughout the sub-continent.

By 320 C.E., the Guptas, a north Indian dynasty, had gained control of most of the area north of the Vindhya Mountains. Ruling from 320–550, they moved India into the forefront of world civilization. At a time when Rome was weakening and Han rule in China had collapsed, Gupta India was the scene of great scientific advances, enduring literature such as Kalidasa’s plays and poetry, and striking mathematical achievements such as the decimal system, zero, and quadratic equations. People came from across the hemisphere to visit Gupta India, including pilgrims from China seeking knowledge of Buddhism and visitors from Central Asia and Persia in search of trading opportunities.

Following the Guptas, the nomadic Huns invaded and fragmented the subcontinent into the familiar pattern of regional states. Gujarat in the west, Bengal in the east, and the Cholas in the south continued to dominate trade in the Indian Ocean, and India emerged as the major exporter of cotton cloth in the world. These trading states also exported exotic animals, ivory, jewels, smelted iron, wooden crafts, and other manufactured goods, guaranteeing them consistent favorable trade balances. Creative people of this period opened new frontiers of science, advanced philosophy, and designed and built enduring architectural treasures.

The Arrival of Islam

During this era of regional states, India encountered the dynamic new faith of Islam, first in the form of merchant communities along the Malabar Coast and then as neighbors in Sindh, which became part of the Umayyad Empire in 711. However, the major infusion of Islam came with Turkish invasions beginning in the eleventh century, coming from present-day Afghanistan. These raids destroyed almost all of the major north Indian temples, except the remaining complex at Khajuraho, which may have been too far off the trade routes for looters. Two Turkish kingdoms sent detachments of soldiers to raid the rich temples along the Gangetic plain; the Indian armies plodding with their elephant corps were no match for the Turkish horsemen armed with bows and cross bows.

By 1206 one of the Turkish generals established a sultanate at Delhi. Five successive dynasties exerted nominal rule from Delhi, Agra, Lahore, and other centers of power. After 300 years of hegemony, Babur, another Turkish general, defeated the Sultanate and Rajput armies in 1526 and began the glorious age of Mughal rule in north India.

Mughal power, which lasted from 1526 until 1707, reached its fullest flower

under Akbar, Jahanghir, and Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal. Because Mughal nobility lived off taxes from assigned lands and could not pass their wealth down to their sons, many engaged in colossal building projects, especially

tombs to ensure their own immortality. The gradual synthesis of Hindu and Muslim art and architecture led to new Hindu-Islamic architectural styles, which are among the most beautiful in the world.

The interaction of Hinduism and Islam, a continuing experience spanning more than a thousand years, offers a dramatic example of both conflict and consensus.

Under Akbar, who practiced wide acceptance of Hindu practices, both faiths enjoyed freedom of expression and worship. Akbar even tried to begin a new faith that included elements of both religions. Earlier, Guru Nanak had also combined many features of both faiths into his new religion of Sikhism.

However, under rulers such as Aurangzeb, who discouraged any efforts at ecumenism and persecuted both Hindus and Sikhs, conflict became far more pronounced. This vacillation between harmony and open hostility has continued to punctuate Hindu-Muslim relations in the subcontinent.

India as a British Colony

With the decline of the Mughal Empire after Aurangzeb, no single power dominated the subcontinent. Into that vacuum moved European powers, especially the French and English. The British East India Company had come to the subcontinent for trade, but taking advantage of the political instability, managed to raise armies, defeat Bengali rulers, and eventually gain the right to tax peasants. Many in the company grew rich while north India was ravaged by famine and misrule.

Even though the British had sought trade and not empire, after 1764, due to the misgoverning of the East India Company, the British Parliament began sending Governor-Generals to rule. From this time until 1857, British rule persistently spread until England directly governed about half the subcontinent. After 1857 the British government took direct control of India, ended the East India Company’s monopoly on trade, and was able to control India with about four thousand civil servants and a small core of military officers who relied on indigenous troops.

Under the British, India was turned into an agricultural country and was forced to buy English manufactured goods churned out by the new machines of the Industrial Revolution. Meanwhile, the British introduced English education, built railroads, and grudgingly allowed some Indian representation in various legislative bodies.

Stirrings of nationalism began in the second half of the nineteenth century with major reform movements in both Hinduism and Islam. Regional groups of the emerging Indian middle class, especially in Bengal, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu, launched new literature and political protests, intended to build a new national consciousness and drive out the British.

The Indian nationalist movement embraced a wide spectrum of activists from the militant Tilak to the legally minded Ghokhale. However, the major figure was Mohandas Gandhi (known as Mahātma, the Great Soul) who returned from South Africa in 1915, where he had developed an innovative nonviolent political protest he called satyāgraha. Gandhi and other leaders were able to build a mass movement that gained wide support among all of India’s various peoples.

By 1947, the British, exhausted by losses in World War II, agreed to grant freedom to the people of the subcontinent. However, Hindu-Muslim tensions led to Partition and the creation of two new nations carved out of the former British Empire: India, a secular democratic republic, and Pakistan, an Islamic republic. Partition led to the largest human migration in history—and caused widespread religious violence between Hindus and Muslims, resulting in over half a million deaths and 13 million refugees.

Post-Independence India

Contemporary India remains home to more than 150 million Muslims, making it the second largest Muslim country in the world. Since Partition and the separation of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) from Pakistan in 1971, Hindu-Muslim relations have often been strained and India’s early commitment to secular politics has often been tested.

At first the Congress Party went out of its way to welcome Muslim participation and offered a degree of security to India’s Muslim communities. However, even from the beginning of independent India, political parties, such as the Jan Sangh and their sponsoring organization the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), often appealed to anti-Muslim feelings. With the rise of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its call for Hindutva or Hindu India, Hindu fundamentalism increased in the 1990s and even orchestrated the destruction of a mosque at Ayodhya in 1992, which, they claimed, had originally been a Hindu temple. Hindutva politics has received support from many Hindus who have become disillusioned with what they feel is a government that favors minority religious groups. Proponents of Hindutva believe that Hindus, the majority in India, should receive more rights and political support than they have received in the past.

In the aftermath of Ayodhya, riots broke out in Mumbai (Bombay) and other cities throughout India. With the election of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1998, for the first time a party advocating a Hindu India came to power. Although Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has considerably backed off from the party’s earlier pronouncements, millions of Muslims in India, as well as others who champion a secular polity, are considerably more worried than at any time since Indian independence.

India’s success in maintaining a democratic electoral system perhaps has been her major achievement since independence. Despite sporadic violence and government takeover of certain states, India, unlike all her neighbors, as well as other former British colonies, has clung to democratic principles.

From the outset in 1947, India pursued an economic policy of synthesis, attempting to combine the socialist planning of the Soviet Union and free market principles of the west. Under Prime Minister Nehru, Indians built an impressive industrial base, often at the expense of agricultural development. With her closed markets, India achieved self-sufficiency in most manufactured goods, but government-owned industries grew slowly, and bureaucratic red tape imposed by centralized planning often stultified entrepreneurs’ chances for innovation and profit. Growth had slowed almost to a standstill and foreign reserves were nearly depleted.

By 1991, as many questioned the planned economy, Indian leaders decided to

embrace an open market-oriented system and the economy responded with
several years of rapid growth. The new economic environment stimulated a number of new, prosperous technology companies that began to induce talented Indians, who had formerly sought employment abroad, to remain in India.

Indian democracy continues to function. Corruption in government remains an enduring problem, even after the Congress Party was replaced with a more Hinduized BJP that had promised clean government. The democratic tradition

has moved from Indira Gandhi’s commitment to centralism to a more regional political culture. Even with major portions of the population still mired in poverty, India’s middle class is the largest in the world. At the same time lower caste and class groups are vigorously mobilizing and becoming important players in India’s ever-expanding democratic polity.

India: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives Teacher’s Guide

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