By the end of the Aryan period, around 500 B.C.E., fairly
large kingdoms arose along the Ganges River valley.
Urbanization emerged in the capitals of the kingdoms and near
major religious temples. The top of the Aryan social
hierarchy was occupied by priests, warriors, and merchants.
The Vedic priests, or brahmans, utilized an increasingly
rigid caste structure to cement their social dominance. By
the sixth century B.C.E., however, religious thinkers were
beginning to challenge the rituals on which the brahman elite
depended. The most important of these thinkers, the Buddha,
created a new religion that would have world-wide
significance. The rivalry between Buddhism and Vedic
religion helped to reshape Indian culture. The revived Vedic
religion that was the product of cultural change is called
Hinduism. The founding of Buddhism also contributed to the
establishment of the Mauryan Empire, India's first
centralized government since Harappa.
The Mauryan Empire was brief, and its collapse was followed
by another round of nomadic invasions. In the fourth century
B.C.E., the Guptas succeeded in creating another empire in
northern India. Unlike the Maurya, the Gupta were dedicated
to the restoration of brahman dominance. Indian history
during this period was defined by political disunity broken
only briefly by imperial unification.
- The Age of Brahman Dominance
In the millennium after 1500 B.C.E., the caste system with
the brahmans at its apex came to define the Indian social
order. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of
Harappan civilization, tribes of Aryans settled in the
foothills of the Himalayas. Here groups of Aryans formed
small states, often extending no farther than a single
mountain valley. Most of these states were republics ruled
through a council of free warriors. The councils elected
kings. The republics were frequently engaged in war with
other Aryan states, thus justifying the social position of
the warriors. Warriors within the hillside kingdoms kept the
authority of the brahmans in check to such an extent that
religious exploration began to take place. Buddha was from
one of the hillside republics, as were the founders of
- The Kingdoms of the Ganges Plains
As the Aryan settlement extended from the Himalayan foothills
to the Ganges plains, more powerful kingdoms supported by
brahman priests developed. In these river valley kingdoms,
the authority of kings was not checked by councils, and many
monarches claimed divine descent. Monarchies were often
hereditary. Lowland kings operated in cooperation with the
Vedic brahmans. The position of lowland kings was often
subject to challenge from rival monarches and internal
- Sources of Brahman Power
Brahmans, who educated royal heirs and advised reigning
monarches, exercised substantial authority in the lowland
kingdoms. As a literate group, they were the natural
candidates for royal administrative positions. Brahmans were
the only group who knew the rituals necessary to crown a new
monarch and to confer divine status on the ruler. The
position of the brahmans was due to their ability to mediate
between deities and humans through offering proper
sacrifices. Monopoly over ritual guaranteed the social and
political dominance of the brahmans. Not all brahmans served
the monarches. Some were private officials, others served in
local villages. Regardless of their position, brahmans were
exempt from taxation and protected from assault. Between
1200 and 900 B.C.E., the brahmans wrote down the sacred texts
of the Vedas in Sanskrit.
- An Era of Widespread Social Change
In addition to the development of stronger monarchies and the
establishment of brahman social dominance, there were other
changes in the lowland kingdoms. Towns developed around the
capitals of the new monarchies, and commercial centers arose
along the Ganges River. With urbanization, merchants and
artisans were recognized as separate social groups.
Merchants, because of their wealth, enjoyed a relatively high
place in the social hierarchy. The peasantry also assumed
some importance, as farming replaced herding as the primary
subsistence activity of the region. Farming villages,
irrigation networks, and technological advance permitted the
agricultural system to support a larger population. Only
with some resistance did peasants pay taxes to kings.
- The Caste System
Social diversification necessitated change in the tripartite
social hierarchy warriors, priests, and commoners of the
Aryans. Merchants and peasants were added to the social
system in broad categories called varnas. Each varna was
subdivided by occupation into castes, determined by the
degree to which the occupation was considered polluting. At
the top of the hierarchy were the warriors, brahmans, and
merchants. Most belonged to the artisan and peasant castes.
At the bottom of the social order were the untouchables, who
performed socially despicable tasks such as removing human
waste or tanning leather.
The social hierarchy hardened over time, with caste
determining diet, marriage patterns, and access to the Vedas.
Individuals were born into castes and could not rise above
their social status. Whole castes could rise in the social
hierarchy. Those who refused to accept their social status
were outcast. Rulers proclaimed that the caste system was
divinely ordained. The system theoretically provided for a
proper exchange of goods and services. The caste position
and career of individuals was determined by that person's
dharma. It was believed that each soul migrated from one
being to another after death. Merit earned during the
previous life determined one's karma, which in turn defined
the body to which the soul was assigned at the time of
rebirth. Failure to accept dharma was considered a great
- The Family and the Changing Status of Women
Two epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, provide evidence
for family life and household structure. The socially
preferred household structure was extended with all male
family members gathered under one roof. Lower-caste groups
lacked the wealth necessary to sustain extended-family
households. As a result, the greatest number of Indian
households were nuclear. Within households, women were
subject to patriarchal authority. In the earlier period,
women may have had greater freedom than in the last centuries
B.C.E. Sources suggest that some women were permitted to
read the Vedas. Women were known as teachers, poets,
musicians, and artists.
- The End of an Era
In the millennium after the Aryan migration, Indian
civilization was typified by sedentary agriculture which
supported urbanization, economic specialization, and social
stratification. In the last two centuries B.C.E., still
greater changes occurred in Indian civilization.
- Religious Ferment and the Rise of Buddhism
The growth of Buddhism challenged the traditional brahman
dominance of ritual and religion. The Buddhist challenge was
strengthened by the conversion of Mauryan rulers, who
established a centralized government in northern India. The
subsequent decline of the Mauryan empire made a brahman
counteroffensive against Buddhism possible. The period of
religious experimentation in India was contemporary with the
origins of Confucianism, Daoism, Zoroastrianism, and Greek
rationalism in other civilizations. Challenges to the Vedic
priests brought the Indian caste system into question and
proposed new types of religious experience. The most
profound of the religious thinkers was Buddha, who founded a
- The Making of a Religious Teacher
Buddha lived from the middle of the sixth century B.C.E. to
the second decade of the fifth century B.C.E. He was born
into the warrior class in one of the hillside republics,
where centralized authority was weak. Buddha left the royal
court as a young man, renounced claims to the throne, and
became a wandering ascetic. After a series of religious
experiments with various theologies and techniques,
meditation under a Bo tree led to enlightenment and the
discovery of the Four Noble Truths.
As all earthly things are transitory, one can escape
suffering only by ceasing to desire things of the world. The
complete departure from desire allows one to attain nirvana
an eternal state of tranquility. Once he understood the
means of achieving enlightenment, Buddha attempted to spread
this knowledge to all of humanity. He soon attracted a
following of students, who transformed his teachings into an
- The Emergence of Buddhism as a Religion
After Buddha's death, his followers became monks who
dedicated their lives to teaching and contemplation. Over
time, groups of monks developed somewhat different theologies
that coalesced into rival schools. In order to make their
religion more accessible to all men, the monks stressed
popular tales of Buddha's life, transformed the ascetic into
a deity, and the concept of nirvana as an attainable heaven.
Lay people were encouraged to perform good deeds, rather than
to spend their lives in meditation.
- The Buddhist Challenge
Buddhism mounted a successful challenge to brahman dominance.
Monastic organization proved successful as a foundation for
the new religion. Buddhists accepted the Vedic concepts of
karma and reincarnation, but opposed the scriptures of the
Vedas as divinely inspired. Buddhists criticized the
brahmans' emphasis on ritual and sacrifice. The Buddha
attempted to do away with the caste system and strict social
hierarchy, a teaching that was popular among the lower social
groups, including the untouchables. Buddhists also accepted
women as followers. Monasteries accepted women as members.
Thus in all areas, Buddhism sought to overturn the cultural
system on which the brahmans depended.
- The Greek Interlude
The cultural upheavals of northern India were magnified by
Alexander the Great's invasion of the region in 327 B.C.E.
Alexander's forces enjoyed military success in the northern
Indus River valley, but his soldiers refused to go farther.
His forces returned to Persia in 324 B.C.E. The impact of
the Alexandrian invasion was largely cultural. Greek
astronomical and mathematical ideas entered India. In
return, Indian religious ideas filtered back to the
Mediterranean. Combined motifs led to new styles of
- The Rise of the Mauryas
With the withdrawal of the Greeks, one of the indigenous
regional lords was able to create a northern Indian empire.
Chandragupta Maurya (322-298 B.C.E.) conquered the northern
Indus region and then carried his campaigns into the Ganges
River valley. Chandragupta created a magnificent court and
proclaimed himself an absolute ruler. He maintained a large
standing army and was able to replace some regional rulers
with imperial administrators. Chandragupta's conquests were
completed by his son, Bindusara, and his grandson, Ashoka.
- Ashoka's Conversion and the Flowering of Buddhism in the Mauryan Age
Regret for a violent early life led Ashoka (268-232 B.C.E.)
to convert to Buddhism. Following his conversion, the
emperor sought to build his empire through internal
improvements and social reforms based on Buddhist teachings.
He attempted to establish a centralized bureaucracy in order
to ensure uniform justice throughout his domain. Attempts to
politically unify India stirred resistance from displaced
brahmans and local rulers.
- Imperial Patronage and Social Change
India's economy benefited from new commercial relations with
Rome and the West to become a major preindustrial
manufacturing center. Merchants and artisans supported the
Mauryan program, leading to greater patronage of Buddhist
monasteries. Women also supported the Buddhist alternative.
Monastic complexes and shrines spread throughout the Indian
subcontinent. Buddhist missionaries carried the new religion
from India to Southeast Asia and into the central Asian
- Ashoka's Death and the Decline of the Mauryas
The unified government failed to survive Ashoka. Internal court factions and local rulers soon caused the empire to
disintegrate by 185 B.C.E. In this period of political
fragmentation, the brahmans were able to reassert their
- Brahmanical Recovery and the Splendors of the Gupta Age
After the fall of the Mauryas, Buddhism and Hinduism vied for
religious dominance in India. By the time of the
establishment of the Gupta empire in the fourth century
B.C.E., Hinduism had emerged as the strongest religious
practice. The patronage of the Gupta rulers resuscitated the
brahman cultural and political dominance. The political
collapse of the Mauryas opened India to new invasions. One
of these invaders established the Kushana dynasty in
northwestern India. Under the Kushanas, Buddhism temporarily
flourished once again. Kushana political influence did not
extend to the Ganges River valley or southern India. In
those areas, the brahmans were able to reestablish their
control among the regional kingdoms.
- Brahman Revival and Buddhist Decline
As Buddhism became more dependent on monasticism, it lost
some of its contacts with popular religion. As the Buddhist
monks became more remote, the brahmans attempted to introduce
religious reforms calculated to appeal to the masses. They
stressed the role of devotional worship and small, personal
sacrifices. Various groups were associated with specific
deities. Temples were established to provide focal points
for popular worship. Women and lower caste members were
allowed to participate in religious cults. The number of
popular festivals was increased. Buddha, himself, was
absorbed into the Hindu pantheon.
Brahman thinkers placed greater emphasis on the salvationist
aspects of the Upanishads, the later books of the Vedas.
Buddhism was weakened by the decline of commercial ties to
the West, which undermined the position of merchant groups
who had traditionally supported the Buddhist monasteries.
The collapse of the Mauryan and Kushana monarchies further
weakened Buddhist patronage and support. The rise of the
Guptas, enthusiastic supporters of Hinduism, led to the final
demise of Buddhism in India.
- The Gupta Empire
The Gupta family rose to power in the Ganges River valley in
the last decades of the third century C.E. The Guptas built
an empire that never extended as far as that of the Mauryas,
nor was the dynasty able to establish much administrative
centralization. Former regional rulers continued to govern,
but were required to send tribute to the Gupta emperors.
Although internal disputes continued to occur, foreign
invasion was minimized until the fifth century C.E.
- A Hindu Renaissance
The Guptas were staunch patrons and defenders of Hinduism and
brahmanic privilege. The Gupta era was a period of Hindu
temple building in Indian cities. The temples were covered
with sculpture and decoration, which stressed symbolism
rather than realism. The temples served as massive mandalas,
or cosmic diagrams.
- Achievements in Literature and the Sciences
The Gupta era was a creative period for Sanskrit and Tamil
literature. The poet Kalidasa, a Sanskrit writer, was active
during this era. Advances were also made in science and
mathematics. Gupta mathematicians calculated the value of p,
utilized the zero, invented the Arabic number system, and
used decimals. Indians were also advanced in medical
- Intensifying Caste and Gender Inequities
With brahman resurgence, the caste system was revived as the
basis of the social hierarchy. Social distinctions were more
rigorously observed, particularly against lower caste people.
Women also suffered a reduction in status. They were
strictly subject to patriarchal authority within their
households and deprived of the ability to read the Vedas.
Women were unable to inherit property and were increasingly
seen as a social liability for families. Widows were unable
to remarry, and a women's value was calculated by the number
of sons born. Outside of marriage there were few occupations
open to women.
- The Pleasures of Elite Life
Elite families lived in large compounds with numerous
servants. Males from upper castes were expected to pass
through four stages of life: students, householders and
husbands, hermitage and meditation, and wandering ascetism.
Few actually passed beyond the householder stage. Life for
wealthy males was luxurious and pleasurable.
- Lifestyles of the Ordinary People
Men and women of the lower castes had little leisure time
other than that permitted to attend popular festivals. Most
time was spent in work. Lower castes were supposed to show
deference to members of higher social groups. The
proficiency of Indian agriculture produced sufficient food to
support the lower castes without difficulty. Commerce with
Southeast Asia and West Asia continued to play a significant
role during the Gupta era.
- Gupta Decline and a Return to Political Fragmentation
The appearance of the Huns distracted the Guptas from control
of their client kingdoms. By the middle of the fifth century
C.E., foreign invaders entered from the north and decimated
Gupta military strength. The empire fragmented into numerous
regional kingdoms and remained vulnerable to outside assault.
- Conclusion: The Legacy of the Classical Age in India
Although Indian civilization after 500 B.C.E. developed
several empires, the system of social hierarchy and Hinduism
remained the most prominent conservators of Indian culture.
Able to withstand the challenge of Buddhism, Hinduism and the
caste system was also capable of absorbing and transforming
numerous invaders of the Indian subcontinent. Despite its
social rigidity, the culture of the brahmans produced great
literary classics and innovated in science and mathematics.
India emerged as the center of a Eurasian trade system, a
source of great wealth and a means of exporting Indian