The Indian Subcontinent

After the Mauryan Empire fell, no one major power held control over a substantial part of India until the rise of the Gupta Empire in the fourth century CE. For five hundred years, from c. 200 BCE to 300 CE, India saw a fairly rapid turnover of numerous, competing regional monarchies. Most of these were small, while the larger ones were only loosely integrated. Some developed along the Ganges. Others were of Central Asian origins, the product of invasions from the northwest. Also, for the first time, states formed in southern India. Yet, in spite of the political instability, India was economically dynamic, as trade within and without the subcontinent flourished, and India was increasingly linked to other parts of the world in networks of exchange. And new trends appeared in India’s major religious traditions. A popular, devotional form of worship was added to Buddhism and also became a defining element of Hinduism.

The Kushan Empire (30-375 CE)

One of the most powerful states during this time was the Kushan Kingdom, whose origins take us far away to the north of China. The Yuezhi were described by the Chinese Han as living in what is today the northwest of modern-day China, until their King was beheaded by the Xiongnu who were also at war with China. This eventually forced them to migrate west where they displaced another group in the Hellenic kingdom of Greco-Bactria (in northern Afghanistan and Uzbekistan) around 135 BC. Those peoples are known as the Yuezhi (yew-eh-jer), and they were made up of several tribes.

In the first century CE, a warrior chieftain from one Yuezhi tribe, the Kushans, united them, invaded northwest India, and assumed exalted titles befitting a king. His successor, ruling from Afghanistan, gained control over the Punjab and reached into the plains of the upper Ganges River.

Yuezhi nobleman over a fire altar.
Yuezhi nobleman over a fire altar

The Kushans “adopted many local beliefs and customs, including Zoroastrianism and the two rising religions in the region, the Greek cults and Buddhism”. Many Kushans started adopting aspects of Buddhist culture, and like the Egyptians, they absorbed the strong remnants of the Greek culture of the Hellenistic Kingdoms, becoming at least partly Hellenised.

For a time, the Kushan Empire was the center point of the major civilizations and there is evidence that they had cultural exchanges with both the Roman Empire and China.

The summer capital of the Kushan Empire in Begram has yielded a considerable amount of goods imported from the Roman Empire—in particular, various types of glassware. The Chinese described the presence of Roman goods in the Kushan realm:

“Precious things from Da Qin [the Roman Empire] can be found there [in Tianzhu or Northwestern India], as well as fine cotton cloths, fine wool carpets, perfumes of all sorts, sugar candy, pepper, ginger, and black salt.”

The Kushan Empire fragmented into semi-independent kingdoms in the 3rd century AD, which fell to the Sasanians invading from the west. In the 4th century, the Guptas, an Indian dynasty also pressed from the east. The last of the Kushan and Kushano-Sasanian kingdoms were eventually overwhelmed by invaders from the north.

Religious Transformations: Buddhism and Hinduism into the Common Era

Buddhism thrived after the Buddha died in c. 480 BCE, all the more so during this period of regional states and the early centuries of the Common Era, at the very moment Christianity was spreading through the Roman Empire. The communities of monks and nuns (sangha – which means community or assembly) that formed after Buddha’s time lived in monasteries built along trade routes, near towns, or in caves. To build these and survive, the sangha needed much support, which often came in the form of royal patronage and some Indian kings offered lavish support for Buddhist institutions. Over time, the contributions of merchants, women, and people from lower varnas became just as important. Unlike Vedic Brahmanism, which privileges the Brahmin varna, Buddhism was more inclusive and less concerned with birth and social class. After all, in theory, anyone could become a Buddha.

Buddhism also emphasized the importance of attaining good karma for better rebirths and a future enlightenment; one didn’t need to be a monk to work at this. Rather, any ordinary layperson, regardless of their religious beliefs, could also take Buddhist vows and practice Buddhist ways. That meant not only leading a moral life but also supporting the sangha. By so doing, the good karma of the monks and nuns would be transferred to the community and oneself. This practice served to not only make the world a better place and to ensure a better future, but also to allow opportunities for publicly displaying one’s piety. That is why kings, rich merchants, and ordinary people donated to the sangha and gave monks food.

With so much support and participation, Buddhism also changed. Every major world religion has different branches. Christianity, for example, has three major ones: the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant churches. These branches share a common root but diverge in some matters of belief and practice. Buddhism has two major branches: Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism is early Buddhism, the Buddhism of the early sangha, and is based on the earliest records of the Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths. A practitioner of this form of Buddhism sought to end suffering and attain nirvana by engaging the Eight-Fold Path, a program of study, moral conduct, and meditation. Ideally, the practitioner pursued this program as a monk or nun in a monastic setting, and eventually became an “arhat,” that is, a perfected person who is nearly or fully enlightened.

Mahayana Buddhism came later, during the early centuries of the Common Era. Mahayana means “Great Vehicle,” pointing to the fact that this form of Buddhism offers multiple paths to enlightenment for people from all walks of life. This branch has no single founder and consists of a set of ideas elaborated upon in new Buddhist scriptures dating to this time. In one of these new paths, the Buddha becomes a god who can be worshipped, and by anyone. A monk or lay follower is welcome to make an offering before an image of the Buddha placed in a shrine. By so doing, they demonstrate their desire to end suffering and seek salvation through faith in the Buddha.

Furthermore, with the “Great Vehicle,” the universe becomes populated with numerous Buddhas. Practitioners developed the idea that if anyone can become a Buddha over the course of many lifetimes of practice, then other Buddhas must exist. Also, the belief arose that some individuals had tread the path to Buddhahood but chose to forego a final enlightenment where they would leave the world behind so that they could, out of great compassion for all suffering people, work for their deliverance.

These holy beings are known as Bodhisattvas, that is, enlightened persons who seek nirvana solely out of their desire to benefit all humanity. Buddhists also believed that the universe consisted of multiple worlds with multiple heavenly realms. Some of these Buddhas and Bodhisattvas created their own heavenly realms and, from there, offer grace to those seeking salvation through them. Through veneration and worship, the follower hopes to be reborn in that heavenly realm, where they can then finish the path to liberation. Seeking to become a Bodhisattva through a path of devotion was one of the new paths outlined by Mahayana scriptures.

A bodhisattva statue
A bodhisattva statue

Buddhism traveled out of India and had an impact on other parts of the world, making it a major world religion. This expansion resulted from the efforts of Buddhist missionaries and merchants, as well as kings who supported its propagation. Theravada Buddhism was carried to Sri Lanka and parts of Southeast Asia, where it remains a dominant religious tradition. Mahayana Buddhism spread to Central and East Asia, a process that was facilitated by the Silk Road and the support of kings like Kanishka of the Kushan Empire. However, Buddhism eventually declined in India, especially after the first millennium BCE. From that time, Hinduism and Islam increasingly won over the religious imagination of the peoples of India, with royal patronage and lay support following.

Hinduism also saw new developments during this period and throughout the first millennium CE. In fact, many scholars see these centuries as the time during which Hinduism first took shape and prefer using the term Vedic Brahmanism for the prior history of this religious tradition. Vedic Brahmanism was the sacrifice-centered religion of the Vedas where, in exchange for gifts, Brahmins performed rituals for kings and householders in order to ensure the favor of the gods. It also included the speculative world of the Upanishads, where renunciants went out in search of spiritual liberation.

But something important happened during these later centuries. An additional religious literature was compiled and shrines and temples with images of deities were constructed, pointing to the emergence of new, popular forms of devotion and an effort to define a good life and society according to the idea of dharma. With this transition, we can speak more formally of Hinduism.

One important set of texts is the Dharma Scriptures, ethical and legal works whose authority derived from their attribution to ancient sages. Dharma means “duty” or proper human conduct and so, true to their title, these scriptures define the rules each person must follow in order to lead a righteous and devout life and contribute to a good society. Most importantly, these rules were determined by the role assigned to an individual by the varna system of social classes, the caste system, and gender. For example, for a male, dharma meant following the rules for their caste and varna while passing through four stages in life: student, householder, hermit, and renunciant. In his youth, a man must study to prepare for his occupation and, as a householder, he must support his family and contribute to society. Late in life, after achieving these goals, he should renounce material desires and withdraw from society, first living as a hermit on the margins of society and then as a wandering renunciant whose sole devotion is to god.

The word renunciant comes from the Latin renuntiare, meaning to protest against.

A renunciant rejects or abandons something.

A woman’s roles, on the other hand, were defined as obedience to her father in youth and faithful service to her husband as an adult. For this reason, historians see a trend in ancient Indian history whereby women became increasingly subservient and subordinate. Although women were to be honored and supported, the ideal society and family were defined in patriarchal terms. That meant men dominated public life, were the authority figures at home, and usually inherited the property. Also, women were increasingly expected to marry at a very young age—even prior to puberty—and to remain celibate as widows. In later centuries, some widows even observed the practice of burning themselves upon the funeral pyre of the deceased husband. This practice is called sati (or suttee). Sati was banned in 1829, but isolated incidences continue into the late 20th century.

A painting depicting sati
A painting depicting sati

Famous Indian epics also illustrated the theme of duty. The Ramayana (“Rama’s Journey”) tells the story of Prince Rama and his wife Sita. Rama’s parents—the king and queen—wished for him to take the throne, but a second queen plotted against him and forced him into exile for years. Sita accompanied him, but was abducted by a demon-king, leading to a battle in consequence. With the help of a loyal monkey god, Rama defeated the demon, recovered his wife, and returned with her to his father’s kingdom, where they were crowned king and queen. In brief, throughout this long story, Rama exemplified the virtues of a king and Sita exemplified the virtues of a daughter and wife. They both followed their dharma.

An illustration from the Ramayana

A similar theme dominates the Bhagavad-Gita (“Song of the Lord”). This classic of Hindu scripture is included as a chapter in another Indian epic, the Mahabharata (The Great Bharata). It tells of wars between cousins who are fighting over the title to their kingdom’s throne. As a battle was poised to commence, one of these cousins—Prince Arjuna—threw down his weapons and refused to fight because he did not wish to harm his kinsmen. But Krishna, his mentor and charioteer, delivered a speech on the nature of duty for a warrior like himself, one that illustrated the religious basis for observing dharma. Arjuna was thus moved to action.

Note: There is a curse word in text in the following video.

Religious texts and temples also signal the rise of a powerful devotional Hinduism centered upon a few supreme deities. Stone temples were erected for the purpose of housing representations of a god or goddess . Peoples of all classes could go to the temple to view the deity, pray, and offer fruits and flowers. By so doing, they showed their love for this lord and their desire to be saved by his or her grace. The most popular deities were Shiva and Vishnu.

Growing up, devotees of these supreme deities would hear countless myths and legends about their origins, exploits, and powers from Brahmins at the temples or story-tellers in their hometown. Vishnu preserves the universe and watches over it; in times of unbridled evil, he assumes the form of an avatar to remove it and return the world to righteousness. King Rama of the Ramayana and Krishna of the Bhagavad-Gita are in fact two such incarnations of Vishnu. Shiva is both benevolent and protective but also destroys all things. Whereas Vishnu preserves the universe, Shiva destroys it at the end of a cycle. A third deity, Brahma, then recreates it. Combined, this Hindu trinity— Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer—represent different facets of the one divine reality behind the great cosmic cycles and also life and death. They each have female counterparts. Shiva’s wife Parvati, for instance, is a goddess of love and devotion.

In sum, during this period and the first millennium CE, several elements come together to make up the religion outsiders later labeled Hinduism. These elements include the sacrificial religion of the Brahmins, the renunciants’ spiritual pursuit of Self and divine reality (atman and brahman), a social order shaped by the varna and caste system, notions of law and duty embodied in each individual’s dharma, and devotion to supreme deities and their avatars. Hinduism thus thoroughly shaped the social and spiritual life of the peoples of India and of Indian society. Therefore, the rulers of ancient India supported the Brahmins, built temples, upheld the varna system, and assumed titles declaring their devotion to the supreme deities. Hinduism became part of the king’s dharma, and fulfilling that dharma brought the approval of his subjects.

The Gupta Empire (320-550 CE)

Approximate extent of the Gupta territories (purple) in 450 CE
Approximate extent of the Gupta territories (purple) in 450 CE

The Gupta Empire was an ancient Indian empire existing from the mid-to-late 3rd century CE to 543 CE. This period is considered as the Golden Age of India because of the considerable achievements of Indians in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, science, religion and philosophy. The peace and prosperity created under the leadership of the Guptas enabled the pursuit of scientific and artistic endeavors in India.

Art flourished during India's Golden Age
Art flourished during India’s Golden Age

Strong trade ties also made the region an important cultural center and set the region up as a base that would influence nearby kingdoms in south and Southeast Asia.

The Golden Age of India saw achievements that are in many regards similar to those of the Greco-Roman world. Guptas made advances in the sciences as their philosophers proposed that the earth was not flat, but was instead round and rotated on an axis by viewing lunar eclipses. They also made discoveries about gravity and the planets of the solar system, which they used to tell the horoscopes. The decimal numeral system, including the concept of zero, was invented in India during this period as were chess and the sine function used in trigonometry.

Literature, architecture, and religion all made advances during the reign of the Guptas.

A temple built during the Gupta period
A temple built during the Gupta period

Faxian (or Fa Hsien etc.), a Chinese Buddhist, was one of the pilgrims who visited India during the reign of the Gupta emperor Chandragupta II. He wrote the following about the empire:

“The snow and heat are finely tempered, and there is neither hoarfrost nor snow. The people are numerous and happy. They have not to register their households. Only those who cultivate the royal land have to pay (a portion of) the gain from it. If they want to go, they go. If they want to stay on, they stay on. The king governs without decapitation or (other) corporal punishments. Criminals are simply fined according to circumstances. Even in cases of repeated attempts at wicked rebellion, they only have their right-hand cut off. The king’s bodyguards & attendants all have salaries. Throughout the whole country, the people do not kill any living creature, not drink any intoxicating liquor, nor eat onions or garlic.”

In contrast to the Mauryan Empire, the Guptas introduced several military innovations to Indian warfare. Chief amongst these was the use of Siege engines, heavy cavalry archers and heavy sword cavalry. The heavy cavalry formed the core of the Gupta army and were supported by the traditional Indian army elements of elephants and light infantry.

The Guptas were traditionally a Hindu dynasty. They were orthodox Hindus, but did not force their beliefs on the rest of the population. Some later rulers seem to have especially promoted Buddhism.

In the sixth century, decline set in. A series of weaker rulers faced internal dissension at home and foreign invasion from abroad. A great nomadic power known as the Huns emerged out of Central Asia and invaded the northwest, destabilizing Gupta rule. Subordinate rulers then began to break away, and smaller kingdoms replaced the empire. After the sixth century, India entered a new stage in its history.


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Kushan Empire map: By SY – This file has been extracted from another file: Eurasia in 2nd Century.png, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82577924

Kushan Empire info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kushan_Empire

Yuezhi man: By M. Vlasenko (Novosibirsk) – Science First HandPD-Art: Non-creative photograph of a two-dimensional work of art in the Public Domain (1st century BCE -1st century BCE), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=95045829

Gupta info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gupta_Empire

Chandragupta: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chandragupta_I

Golden Age info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Age_of_India

Gupta Empire map: By Woudloper – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35019850

Gupta temple: By byron aihara – originally posted to Flickr as deogarh01, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8617319

Gupta sculpture: By This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=97501024

Bodhisattva: By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France – Bodhisattva Maitreya (musée Guimet), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24669916

Sati: By Unknown (production) – https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O15842/painting-sati-ceremony/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18728486

Ramayana illustration: By Indian artist – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=153185

This text was adapted (with permission) from:

  • Western Civilization: A Concise History – Volumes 1-3
    by Dr. Christopher Brooks
    CC BY-NC-SA
  • World History Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500
    by Eugene Berger, Ph.D, George L. Israel, Ph.D., Charlotte Miller, Ph.D., Brian Parkinson, Ph.D., Andrew Reeves, Ph.D, and Nadejda Williams, Ph.D.
    CC BY-SA
  • Modern World History
    by Dan Allosso, Bemidji State University and Tom Williford, Southwest Minnesota State University
    CC BY-NC-SA

I’ve taken excerpts from the above-mentioned resources and heavily edited and added to them for my intended audience. While I’ve received permission to use/adapt these books, none of the above endorses Guest Hollow or my use of their materials.

Information was also taken from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License and other resources (listed in the individual page credits).

This online book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Beowulf the Fox Terrier dog and the Greek & Latin roots graphic © Jennifer Guest

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