6 The Growth of Asian Civilizations 500 b.c.–a.d.
Beginnings of Imperial India
The Beginnings of Imperial India
the 500s b.c.,
the kingdom of Magadha rose above the other Indian states.
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.
Kings and Outside Invasions
the early 500s b.c.,
16 kingdoms had emerged in northern India.
In 540 b.c. the
kingdom of Magadha emerged as the strongest under its king Bimbisara.
became a patron of Buddhism.
Raising money for imperial expansion by collecting taxes from local
village leaders, he annexed the state of Anga
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.
Meanwhile, northwestern India faced conquest and occupation. In 518 b.c.
Darius of Persia exerted power over the northwest Indian region of
the Indus Valley and the Punjab—that probably had been conquered by his
predecessor, Cyrus the Great.
For nearly 200 years the Persians ruled the region, exacting tributes
or taxes of gold dust.
Under Persian rule, it became a center of learning, drawing young men from
all over India, including Magadha.
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
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
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
seized the throne of Magadha.
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.
Highly concerned about security, he also established a spy network that
kept close watch over his suspected enemies.
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
Under Chandragupta, the government also cleared forests for cultivation,
operated mines and weapon-making centers, established quality standards
for physicians, and set standards for weights and measures.
In 301 b.c.,
Chandragupta gave up power to lead the life of a Jainist monk.
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.
Bindusara's successor, Asoka, was one of India's most powerful and
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.”
Asoka urged religious toleration and nonviolence.
On another pillar he had inscribed his beliefs toward other religions:
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
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
He dug wells and built rest houses along trade routes. To spread Buddhism,
he sent missionaries to Ceylon and Burma.
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
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.
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. 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 http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/e/e5/Kushanmap.jpg/250px-Kushanmap.jpg
Overseas trade blossomed, as the demand for Indian goods grew in
both the Roman and Chinese empires.
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.
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
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.
The untouchables, for example,
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
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.
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
Such rules, however, represented the ideal of the Brahmins and were not
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!"
In times of instability and uncertainty, many people preferred this
emotionalism to the more impersonal tone of early Brahminism.
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.
Flowering of Hindu Culture
Gupta dynasty's support for Hinduism stimulated an explosion of religious
art and culture. The Gupta period was India's classical age—a
time of great innovation in art, literature, and science.
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
often called the "Shakespeare of India."
His plays and poems captured the beauty and refinement of Gupta culture.
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)
and the decimal system.
Astronomers calculated π to 3.1416 and discovered that the earth was
spherical and rotated on an axis.
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.
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
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
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:
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.”
explain the significance of the following:
explain the importance of the following: