LESSON 5: Early Civilizations in India
India is called a subcontinent because it is so large and is isolated from the rest of Asia by natural barriers. It is shaped like a triangle and extends south into the Indian Ocean. The Arabian Sea is on its West Coast and the Bay of Bengal on its East Coast. India lies north of the equator, but the lower region falls within the tropical zone and has a warm tropical climate. In the north, the Himalayan Mountains and the Hindu Kush Mountains
surround India. However, throughout its history, it has been invaded by other civilizations that reached India by going through the Khyber Pass in the Hindu Kush Mountains. The Indus River and the Ganges River flow from these mountains across the northern plains of India. The Indus River flows southwest to the Arabian Sea, and the Ganges River flows southeast to the Bay of Bengal. These two great rivers water this fertile region. The Indus Plain attracted many invaders to India. Many of them came into
India through the northwest mountain passes.
South of the plains is a region known as the Deccan, which forms most of India’s peninsula. The Deccan is a plateau that includes mountain ranges, tropical forests, and rocky soil. The many mountain ranges have isolated population groups from one another throughout India’s history. Life in India also depends on the seasonal winds known as the monsoons. These seasonal winds blow consistently over India. The summer monsoons from June to October come from the southwest and bring moisture from the Indian Ocean and provide India with much needed rainfall that waters the farmers’ fields. If summer monsoons are late or do not contain enough moisture, they can cause crop failures that lead to famine.
Indus Valley Civilization
The Nile River in Egypt and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia provided the ideal environment for early civilizations to develop and prosper. The first Indian civilization began in the Indus River valley. Two important cities developed along the Indus River by 2200 B.C. - Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. These ancient cities were among the most modern in the ancient world. They had paved streets, brick houses, and public buildings. Most homes were large, with some standing two stories high. They had indoor bathrooms and sewer systems. City dwellers included artisans and city workers. Many skilled craftsmen made pottery and jewelry, and built furniture. Ancient Indians were the first people to make cotton cloth. Outside the city, most people were farmers. They used irrigation to bring water to their fields during the dry season. They raised a variety of crops including grain, fruit, and cotton. The ancient Indians domesticated many animals, including elephants, sheep, goats, cats, and dogs. Merchants and traders sailed along the coast and traded with such far away places as Sumer in Mesopotamia.
A Mystery in History
Much of what we know of the early Indian civilizations comes from the work of archeologists. Many clay tablets with pictograms or picture symbols have been found on clay seals, but archeologists have not been able to decipher this ancient language. About 1500 B.C., the Indus River Valley civilization suddenly ended. There could be many reasons for their disappearance. Some historians think that a natural disaster like a flood or an earthquake may have weakened the Indus Valley cities. Other historians believe that the Aryans conquered and killed many of the people or drove them away.
Arts and Crafts, Metalworking, and Measuring
The people of the Indus Valley developed many techniques similar to those developed in the Middle East. They used the potter’s wheel to shape cups and other pottery and then decorated, glazed, and baked them. Smiths worked with copper and bronze to make ornaments, fishhooks, and spears. Indus Valley artisans decorated wooden furniture with inlays of bone, shell, and ivory. The artisans and merchants of Harappa developed a uniform system of weights and measures. They used balance scales with weights of varying size to ensure fair trade practices. They measured with a ruler precisely marked .264 inches or about .66 centimeters.
Aryans were light-skinned people from central Asia who crossed the mountain passes of northwestern India and invaded the Indus plain. The Aryans were a nomadic, warlike people. They had bronze weapons and horse-drawn chariots. The Aryans were much more powerful than the Dravidians who lived in the Indus Valley. They soon conquered the dark-skinned Dravidians, enslaved them, and drove many of them to the south. Eventually the Aryans controlled all the fertile plains of northern India. In the Ganges Valley, they settled and developed India’s second great civilization.
The Vedic Age
The Aryan period is called the Vedic Age. During this time Indian civilization began to develop important customs and traditions. All that is known about the Aryan history and culture of this thousand-year period comes from the sacred literature known as the Vedas. The Vedas are four collections of prayers and rituals. The most important part of the collection is the Rig-Veda. The Rig-Veda contains many hymns and poems devoted to the Aryan gods. The Aryans had no writing system, so priests memorized and recited the Vedas for thousands of years before they were written down. The Aryan hymns and poems were in the Aryan language, an early form of Sanskrit. Sanskrit is the oldest literary language of the Indo-European family of languages. Even English is closely related to Sanskrit.
Aryan Society and Religion
The Vedas tell us that Aryans divided people by occupation. This division was the beginning of the caste or class system. Under this system, Aryan society was divided into several separate groups by occupation. The three basic groups were Brahmins or priests; the Kshatriyas or warriors; and the Vaisyas or farmers, merchants, and artisans. The class that particular Aryans belonged to was determined by who their parents were. This, in return, also determined their role in society. Non-Aryans, mostly Dravidians workers and laborers, made up a fourth and lowest class known as the Shudras. To prevent intermarriage and maintain their superiority, the Aryans put the Dravidians into a separate and inferior class. There was also a classless element, the outcasts or untouchables, who performed the lowest tasks. For the lowest-ranked outcasts, life was harsh and restricted. They were outside the caste system for such reasons as being foreign born, committing a crime, breaking cultural rules, or being non-Hindu. These class divisions among the Aryans grew more complex throughout time. The Aryans were polytheistic. They worshipped nature gods and goddesses. The Brahmins, or priests, offered sacrifices of food, rituals, and prayers to their gods. They believed that their gods would give them good health, victory in war, and wealth. The Aryan religion began to change. The Aryan religion gradually changed into Hinduism, which became the major religion in India. Unlike most major religions, Hinduism has no single founder and no single sacred text. Hinduism grew out of the combination of beliefs of the diverse groups of people who settled in India.
As their civilization advanced, the Aryans gave up their nomadic ways and formed independent states that were ruled by rajahs or chiefs. A rajah was the most skilled warrior and elected to this position by a council of warriors. These independent states eventually became small kingdoms with self-governing farming villages. Aryans eventually interacted with the people that they conquered as they migrated further into the Ganges basin. By 500 B.C., a new Indian civilization was created. There were many
rival kingdoms, but they shared many common Aryan and Dravidians cultural traditions.
Aryan language and literature; ideas about government, law, social classes; and religious traditions had far-reaching effects on India’s future. Their ideas and religious traditions became strong influences in Indian life.
The Maurya Empire
The Maurya were an Indian family that created India’s first great empire. Their kingdom included most of northern and central India. Chandragupta Maurya established a centralized government with a well-organized bureaucracy. Government officials loyal to the emperor collected taxes, supervised the building of roads and harbors, and managed the government-controlled factories. Chandragupta’s rule was harsh. He used a powerful army and a network of spies to control his huge empire.
Asoka, Chandragupta’s grandson, continued the Mauryan conquest of India. His armies migrated southward, fighting a bloody war to conquer the Deccan region of India. His conquests continued until he controlled more than two-thirds of India. Sickened by the killing of 100,000 people during his bloody conquests, Asoka turned his back on further conquests. He rejected war and violence. He vowed to rule by moral example. Asoka had become a devout convert to a new religion known as Buddhism, which taught nonviolence. Asoka had written on stone pillars and large rocks his new beliefs and sent missionaries out to spread his new faith. He restricted the killing of animals and encouraged others to become vegetarians. As a benevolent emperor, he followed a code of conduct that emphasized truth, justice, and religious tolerance. Asoka’s rule brought peace and prosperity to India. He was considered to be one of the greatest rulers in the world. After his death, the Maurya Empire declined. Five centuries of invasions, wars, and disorder followed. At about A.D. 320, northern India was again united under one ruler, Chandra Gupta I. (He was no relation to the long-dead Chandragupta Maurya.) He and his successors brought a Golden Age to India. Science and learning thrived during the Gupta Period. The Gupta Empire would rule India during the 4th and 5th centuries A.D.
1. How did the geography and climate of India affect the development of early civilizations?
2. Why do we know so little about the Indus Valley Civilization? What evidence do we have that the Indus Valley people were an advanced civilization?
3. Describe how the Aryan invasions affected Indian culture.
4. What do the Vedas tell us about Aryan society? The Aryan religion?
5. Describe the government of the Maurya Empire. Give details.