India and Southeast Asia, 1500 B.C.E.–1025 C.E.
I0. Foundations of Indian Civilization, 1500 B.C.E.–300 CE.
A0. The Indian Subcontinent
10. India has three topographical zones: (1) the northern mountainous zone; (2) the
Indus and Ganges Basins; and (3) the peninsula. The Vindhya Mountains and the
Deccan plateau divide the peninsula from the other two zones.
20. The peninsula itself includes further topographical sub-regions including: (1)
tropical Kerala coast in the west; (2) Coromandel Coast in the east; (3) flat area
of Tamil Nadu in the south; and (4) island of Sri Lanka.
30. Peninsular India and the Ganges Valley have a subtropical climate and plentiful
rainfall. The Indus Valley is dry and agriculture there relies on irrigation. The
staple crop of the Ganges Delta is rice; elsewhere, the staple crops are wheat,
millet, and barley.
40. This geographical diversity has made it very difficult for any political power to
unify all of India for any great length of time.
B0. The Vedic Age
10. After the demise of the Indus Valley civilization, Indo-European warriors
migrated into India. They were organized in patriarchal families and kinship
groups, and at first, they herded cattle in the northwest. After 1000 B.C.E. some of
them began to push into the Ganges Valley, using new iron tools to fell trees and
cultivate the land. The oral tradition of these light-skinned Arya tribes tells of a
violent struggle between themselves and the darker-skinned Dravidian-speaking
Dasas, whom they evidently pushed into southern India.
20. The struggle between Aryas and Dasas led to the development of the system of
varna, meaning “color” but equivalent to “class.” Under this system, people were
born into one of four varna: (1) Brahmin (priests/scholars); (2) Kshatriya
(warriors); (3) Vaishya (merchants); and (4) Shudra (peasant/laborer). A fifth
group, Untouchables, was outside the system and consisted of persons who did
demeaning or ritually polluting work such as work that involved contact with the
dead bodies of animals or humans.
30. The four varna were subdivided into hereditary occupational groups called jati
(also known by the Portuguese word caste). Jati were also arranged in order of
hierarchy; complex rules governed the appropriate occupation, duties, and rituals
of each jati and laid forth regulations concerning interaction between people of
40. The systems of varna and jati were rationalized by belief in reincarnation.
According to this belief, each individual has an immortal spirit (atman) that will
be reborn in another body after death. One’s station in the next life depends on
one’s actions (karma) in this and previous lives.
50. Vedic religion emphasized the worship of male deities through sacrifice.
Religious knowledge and practice was the monopoly of the Brahmin priestly
varna who memorized the rituals, prayers, and hymns and may have opposed the
introduction of writing in order to maintain their monopoly in religious
knowledge. 60. We do not know much about the status or roles of women in the Vedic period.
They could study lore and participate in rituals, they could own land, and they
married in their middle or late teens.
C0. Challenges to the Old Order: Jainism and Buddhism
10. During the Vedic period, people who reacted against the rigid social hierarchy
and against the religious monopoly of the Brahmins would withdraw into the
forests where they pursued salvation through yoga (spiritual and mental
discipline), special diets, or meditation. Their goal was to achieve moksha—
liberation from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The ideas of these religious
dissidents are reflected in the Upanishads.
20. Jainism was founded by Mahavira (540–468 B.C.E.). Jains practiced nonviolence
and went to extremes in their attempts not to kill any living thing. The most
extreme went naked and starved themselves to death. The less extreme devoted
themselves to commerce and banking—occupations that, unlike agriculture, do
not require one to kill.
30. Siddhartha Gautama founded Buddhism. His title, “Buddha,” means
“Enlightened One.” Alienated by both the extremes of a wealthy youth and six
years of asceticism, Siddhartha Gautama set forth his teaching of the “Four
Noble Truths” and of the Eightfold Path that would lead the individual to
enlightenment. Some of his followers took vows of celibacy, nonviolence, and
40. The original form of Buddhism centered on the individual’s attempts to gain
enlightenment through moderate living, self-discipline, and meditation. Their
goal was to achieve nirvana—release from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
According to Buddhist teaching, all things are composite, including the
individual. This stands in contrast to the Vedic belief in the existence of an
eternal soul (atman).
50. After the death of the Buddha, some of his followers organized themselves into
monasteries and nunneries and developed a complex, hierarchical religion,
complete with worship of the Buddha, reverence for bodhisattvas, and artistic
representations of the Buddha. The religion broke into two major schools:
Mahayana and Theravada. Mahayana incorporated the new beliefs, while
Theravada followed the original teaching of the Buddha more closely.
D0. The Rise of Hinduism
10. Pressure from new religious movements like Jainism and Buddhism led to a
reform of the old Vedic religion. As a result of this reform, the foundational
elements of Vedic religion incorporated the intense personal religious devotion,
fertility rituals, symbolism of the southern Dravidian cultures, and elements of
Buddhism. Sacrifice became less important while the role of personal devotion
to the gods increased.
20. As a part of the reform, two formerly minor Vedic deities took the places of
honor in the Hindu pantheon. These deities were Vishnu, the preserver and
Shiva, the destroyer. Also prominent in the new religious tradition was the
goddess Devi. These and all the other countless gods and goddesses were
understood to be manifestations of a single divine force.
30. Hindu worship centered on temples and shrines and included puja (service to a
deity) and pilgrimage. The Ganges River became one of the most popular
40. The religious duties of an individual varied according to gender, social status,
and age. 50. The transformation from Vedic religion to Hinduism was so successful that
Hinduism became the dominant religion of India. Hinduism appealed to common
people’s need for personal deities with whom they could have a direct
connection. Theravada Buddhism was too austere to have popular appeal, and
Mahayana Buddhism was so close to Hinduism that its beliefs could easily be
absorbed by the larger religion.
II0. Imperial Expansion and Collapse, 324 BC E .–650 C.E.
A0. The Mauryan Empire, 324 B.C.E.–184 BC E.
10. The core of the Mauryan Empire was the kingdom of Magadha, which benefited
from its strategic location and plentiful agricultural and iron resources. The
Mauryan Empire was founded by Chandragupta and expanded by himself and
his successors Bindusara and Ashoka until it included almost the entire
subcontinent. Tradition has it that a Machiavellian Brahmin, Kautilya, guided
20. The Mauryan government made its capital at the walled and moated city of
Pataliputra. The imperial establishment, including a large army, was supported