Chapter 6 The Growth of Asian Civilizations 500 b.c.–a.d. 550

Section 2 The Beginnings of Imperial India

By the 500s b.c., the kingdom of Magadha rose above the other Indian states.[30] However, India did not experience a true empire until invasions by the Persians and Greeks inspired Chandragupta Maurya to unite most of India into the Mauryan Empire. After the decline of this empire and centuries of fragmentation, the Gupta empire arose and India enjoyed a classical age.

Powerful Kings and Outside Invasions

By the early 500s b.c., 16 kingdoms had emerged in northern India.[31] In 540 b.c. the kingdom of Magadha emerged as the strongest under its king Bimbisara.[32] Bimbisara[33] became a patron of Buddhism.[34]  Raising money for imperial expansion by collecting taxes from local village leaders, he annexed the state of Anga[35] on the Ganges Delta. This gave him access to the valuable trade in the Bay of Bengal. Further expanding under Ajatasatru, Bimbisara’s son, Magadha dominated the east until the 300s b.c.[36]

            Meanwhile, northwestern India faced conquest and occupation. In 518 b.c. Darius of Persia exerted power over the northwest Indian region of Gandhara[37]—principally the Indus Valley and the Punjab—that probably had been conquered by his predecessor, Cyrus the Great.[38] For nearly 200 years the Persians ruled the region, exacting tributes or taxes of gold dust.[39] Under Persian rule, it became a center of learning, drawing young men from all over India, including Magadha.[40]

            Persian control ended in 326 b.c., however, when Alexander the Great invaded with more than 25,000 soldiers in search of riches. Although he easily defeated Indian forces sent against him, using flaming arrows to terrorize the Indians’ great war elephants,[41] Alexander was unable to sustain the morale of his own men so far from home. Eventually he withdrew from India, leaving little trace of his presence.

The Mauryan Empire

While Alexander was in northwestern India, he met a man called "Sandrocottos," who turned out to be Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the first Indian empire. Chandragupta may have been inspired by Alexander’s example. At any rate, a few years after Alexander retreated from India Chandragupta[42] seized the throne of Magadha.

Chandragupta Maurya. Under the Mauryan Empire, northern India came under strong centralized rule for the first time. Chandragupta was an efficient ruler who established a rigid bureaucracy to carry out his commands. He modified Bimbisara's taxation system to collect up to one-half the value of all crops grown on royal lands.[43] Highly concerned about security, he also established a spy network that kept close watch over his suspected enemies.[44]

            Chandragupta spent the last part of his life building his empire. In 305 b.c., he signed a treaty with Seleucus Nikator, Alexander's Greek heir to western Asia, which fixed the borders between their empires and established diplomatic relations.[45] Under Chandragupta, the government also cleared forests for cultivation,[46] operated mines and weapon-making centers, established quality standards for physicians, and set standards for weights and measures.[47]

            In 301 b.c., Chandragupta gave up power to lead the life of a Jainist monk.[48] He ceded the throne to his son, Bindusara, who expanded the empire further south. Although little is known about Bindusara's reign, he is best remembered for a request he made to Antiochus I, Seleucus's successor. Bindusara asked for some Greek wine, figs, and a philosopher. Antiochus sent the wine and figs—but politely replied that there was no market in philosophers yet.[49]

Asoka. Bindusara's successor, Asoka, was one of India's most powerful and enlightened emperors.[50] Initially he continued the ruthless expansionist policies of his grandfather, Chandragupta, conquering all of India except the southern tip of the subcontinent. The conquest of the tribal kingdom of Kalinga, southeast of the Mauryan Empire, was exceedingly brutal, and apparently it caused Asoka not only to abandon his policy of conquest but also to become a Buddhist. Engraved stone pillars scattered throughout his territory recorded his decision: “But after the conquest of Kalinga, the Beloved of the Gods [Asoka] began to follow Righteousness. . . , to love Righteousness, and to give instruction in Righteousness.”[51]

            Asoka urged religious toleration and nonviolence.[52] On another pillar he had inscribed his beliefs toward other religions:  

“The Beloved of the Gods. . . honors members of all sects. . . .Whoever honors his own sect and disparages another man's...does his own sect the greatest possible harm. Concord is best, with each hearing and respecting the other's teachings.”[53]

Asoka improved living conditions for his people. One edict explained, “on the roads I have had banyan trees planted which will give shade to man and beast.”[54] He dug wells and built rest houses along trade routes. To spread Buddhism, he sent missionaries to Ceylon and Burma.[55]

            In 232 b.c., Asoka died and the strength of the Mauryan Empire began to erode. Imperial sons fought each other for the throne, and invaders attacked the northern provinces.[56] Finally, in 184 B.C., the last Mauryan emperor was killed by one of his Brahmin generals, who began his own dynasty. The Mauryan Empire, which had lasted 140 years, collapsed.

  Invasions and Cultural Development

As the Mauryan Empire collapsed, many regional kingdoms sprang up in its place. These kingdoms often fought among themselves, while successive waves of invaders from Central Asia imposed their own rule over northwest India.[57] The most important were the Kushans, who established a vast empire based on present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, at the hub of overland trade routes among India, China, and the Mediterranean. Even as the imperial traditions of the Mauryas became a memory, however, India continued to experience remarkable cultural creativity and vitality, as well as economic development.

The Kushan Empire, from

            Overseas trade blossomed, as the demand for Indian goods grew in both the Roman and Chinese empires.[58] Merchant sailors discovered the patterns of the monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean that aided them in making regular voyages from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf to the coast of India and back again. New cities sprang up along the trade routes, bustling with activity. As the use of money for exchange became more commonplace, a new class of Indian bankers and moneylenders emerged in the cities. India’s growing wealth and increased trade contacts also stimulated dynamic religious and social developments. In particular, in the centuries after Mauryan collapse important changes began to occur in both Buddhism and Brahminism.[59]

  Changes in Buddhism.  It was in this period, for example, particularly due to the growing cultural interactions between India and Central Asia under the Kushan Empire, that Mahayana Buddhism developed and spread. Mahayana Buddhism was able to incorporate elements of other religions into itself by arguing that their deities were Bodhisattvas—those who had attained enlightenment like Buddha, but had turned back from Nirvana in order to help the rest of humanity achieve salvation.

            Yet while Buddhism remained an important feature of Indian life, by the 300s ad its influence had begun to decline. It became a monastic religion, with priests and nuns living in great monasteries and dependent on the patronage of rulers and wealthy contributors.

  The development of Hinduism.  In part, the decline of Buddhism was due to changes in the older Indian religion of the Brahmins. It was in this period of political upheaval and disunity that the old Vedic Brahminism was transformed into what we know today as Hinduism. The old emphasis on ritual fire sacrifices gave way to a new emphasis on the worship of one of the major gods—generally either Vishnu, the Preserver of the universe, or Shiva, whose divine cosmic dance both destroyed the old and cleared the way for the new in the endless process of birth, life, death, and rebirth. Many people also worshipped some form of a Mother Goddess—each of the Hindu gods had a female counterpart.

            A new popular literature emerged, known as the Puranas, or “Ancient Tales”—myths and fables about the gods. Vishnu in particular was presented as the great savior of humanity. Through special incarnations he would appear on earth to fight the forces of darkness and evil. The most popular of Vishnu’s incarnations were actually found in the two great epics: Krishna in the Mahabharata, and Rama in the Ramayana.

            Perhaps in an effort to cope with the growing insecurity after the fall of the Mauryan Empire, Brahmin priests also began to compile Hindu legal codes defining the duties and requirements expected of people. For example, the sacred laws of dharma were codified in the Law Code of Manu. The laws differed according to a person’s station in life.[60] The untouchables, for example,

“shall not walk about in villages and towns [at night]. . . . By day. . . they shall carry out the corpses of persons who have no relatives. . . they shall take for themselves the clothes, the beds, and the ornaments of such criminals.”[61]

            The Law of Manu also described the duties of women. They could not study the Vedas, nor could they own property. Women should obey the men in their families: their fathers during childhood, their husbands during marriage, and their sons during widowhood.[62]  At the same time, men should treat their female relatives with respect: “Where the female relations live in grief, the family soon wholly perishes; but that family where they are not unhappy ever prospers.”[63] Such rules, however, represented the ideal of the Brahmins and were not universally observed.

            In addition to law codes, people also began to seek security through a closer, more personal connection with the gods. The concept of bhakti, or “devotion” to a particular god, which had first appeared in the Bhagavad Gita, gained in popularity. The Bhagavad Gita expressed the intensity of this worship in Krishna’s appeal for devotion: "Give me thy heart! adore me! serve me! cling in faith and love and reverence to me!"[64] In times of instability and uncertainty, many people preferred this emotionalism to the more impersonal tone of early Brahminism.

The Gupta Empire

The rise of a new dynasty also contributed to the relative decline of Buddhism and the growth of Hinduism in India. In the ad 300s the Gupta family came to power in Magadha, the old capital of the Mauryans. Chandragupta I, the founder of the Gupta Empire, took power in ad 320 and soon began to expand his kingdom. Expansion continued under his successors, and by around ad 400 the Gupta Empire stretched from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea. Like the Mauryans, the Guptas eventually united all of northern India under their rule. Unlike the Buddhist Mauryans, however, the Guptas embraced Hinduism. Although they continued to patronize Buddhism, building some of the most spectacular Buddhist temples, as well as Jainism, they most actively promoted Hindu culture.

            During the reign of Chandragupta II (ad 375-415) the Hindu arts flourished and Indian society prospered. After Chandragupta II, however, the Gupta Empire weakened. The political system, which was less centralized than the Mauryan government, gave considerable power to local leaders. Also, invading Huns from Central Asia forced Skanda Gupta, the last great Gupta king, to drain his treasury in an attempt to defend the empire. Soon after his death, the Huns gained control of the Punjab. By a.d. 535, they had destroyed the Gupta Empire.

The Flowering of Hindu Culture

The Gupta dynasty's support for Hinduism stimulated an explosion of religious art and culture. The Gupta period was India's classical age[65]—a time of great innovation in art, literature, and science.

  Art and literature. The Gupta era produced extraordinary works of art and literature that combined religious images with scenes of everyday life. Sculptors produced beautiful stone and bronze statues, and painters created elaborate murals, such as the Buddhist cave paintings at Ajanta. Architects constructed ornate, symbolic Hindu temples, which were meant to represent the universe in stone. The inner sanctum of the temple was a square, the imagined shape of the universe. Above was a tall spire connecting heaven and earth. Intricate carvings of spiritual and earthly subjects covered the temple—which thus became a complete representation of the Hindu worldview. Indians believed that the creation of religious art, combined with proper rituals, was itself an act of worship.

            The Gupta age was also a time of great literary achievement. One work to appear at this time was a book of fables called the Panchatantra. This book, which contains stories about well-known characters such as Sinbad the Sailor and Jack the Giant Killer, later became very popular in Southwest Asia and Europe.  Gupta writers also produced sophisticated poetry and drama. Plays were never tragic, but always ended on a happy note. Despite such formal constraints, however, Gupta literature was quite imaginative. The greatest writer of the era was Kalidasa,[66] often called the "Shakespeare of India."[67] His plays and poems captured the beauty and refinement of Gupta culture.

Science and mathematics. Under the Guptas Indian scholars also made great strides in science and mathematics. Indian mathematicians developed numerals (later introduced to the West as the Arabic numeral system)[68] and the decimal system.[69] Astronomers calculated π to 3.1416 and discovered that the earth was spherical and rotated on an axis.[70]  Many of these advances took place at universities such as the one at Nalanda, a Buddhist center of learning in northeastern India that drew students from all parts of Asia. In medicine, Gupta physicians made important discoveries about human anatomy and disease. They set bones and pioneered the use of sterilization in surgery. They also used inoculation to prevent disease.

Gupta Society

Along with the growth of Hindu culture came an expansion of the jati system. There were now hundreds of jati in Indian society, each with its own rules and customs. Relations among the various jati were also becoming formalized in a kind of patron-client system. In the villages, for example, every craftsman or artisan, such as a blacksmith or barber, would have a peasant patron. The peasant would retain the services of the artisan by providing enough rice to feed the artisan’s family throughout the year.[71]

            At the top level of society, the Brahmins established an idealized scheme of conduct for themselves to follow. They divided life into four stages—student, householder, hermit, and wanderer. After a period of study and learning about life in general, a man was expected to settle down and raise a family. Thereafter he would gradually withdraw from the world in stages three and four, in an effort to purify himself and attain moksha, or liberation from the wheel of reincarnation. Such a plan was only an ideal, however, and confined to the upper level varnas. Few observed it strictly.

            Life for women was far more restrictive than for men. A Gupta legal treatise recommended that a wife worship her husband as a god. Polygamy, or marriage to more than one person, became common. So did sati, a practice in which a wife committed suicide after the death of her husband by throwing herself on his funeral pyre.

            For lower-caste Indians, life under Gupta rule varied little from previous centuries. Most people eked out a living as farmers or artisans, enjoying few comforts—much like most people everywhere else at the time. Even for the poor, however, the vitality of Hindu culture provided welcome diversions—as it does today:  

“It is a day of festival. . . . The streets are broad rivers of people, folk of every race, buying and selling in the market-place or singing to the music of wandering minstrels. . . . A drum beats, and a royal procession passes down the street, with elephants leading . . . Chariots follow, with prancing horsemen and fierce-looking footmen.”[72]


Section 2 Review

IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:


Chandragupta Maurya



Chandragupta II

Skanda Gupta


LOCATE and explain the importance of the following: