In Dec, 2017, I travelled to Nalanda (Bihar, India) with my colleagues to see an ancient Buddhist monastery built around 5th century AD. I knew I wasn’t fond of visiting historical places, but this place dragged more of my attention. The reason was not irrational though. The land where I stepped in, was once a homeland for greatest empires in India – Maurya Empire and Gupta Empire. It was once walked by greatest personalties – Buddha and Mahavir. As long as I spend time over there, I tried to recollect what I’ve learned about India’s history during my school. After my trip, I was thirsting to study more about India’s past than ever. This book, India’s Ancient Past authored by R. S. Sharma was my first pick up. I thoroughly enjoyed this one and it was like a pathway for me, directing what I knew so far and what I needed to dig deep further.
In India’s Ancient Past, R. S. Sharma gives us an overview of historical progression in the Indian subcontinent starting from the Harappan civilization (3000 BC) to the Empire of Harsha (600 AD). It’s quite intriguing when he explains the reason behind falling of empires and rising of the another. He even wrote down the impact of an empire on social, economical, religious and artistic development in those societies.
The book opens with the early settlements of Homosapiens to Indian subcontinent, which took place around 50,000 BC along the coastal migrations in South. Permanent settlements and agriculture appeared after Ice age (10,000 BC) and the first major civilisation in Indian subcontinent was found in Harappa, which was famous for its town planning and grandeur. During its decline, Indo-Iranians (Indo-Aryans and Iranians) started moving towards India from central Asia. I think the advent of Aryan people from Central Asian parts to India was really a remarkable phase in Indian history. Their culture, rituals, language, writings (Vedas and Upanishads), social organisation and religious thinking became foundation stones for Indian society.
I keenly read the chapter on Varna system which divided the society into four classes- Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras. This division was more complicated than what I thought. At some stage, the ritualistic domination of Brahmanas offended Kshatriyas, which was one of reasons for the uprise of two new religious movements by them. Buddhism by Siddhartha Gautama (563 BC-483 BC) and Jainism by Mahavira (497 BC-425 BC). Although the varna system started for assigning specific functions to different clans, it’s fundamental motive was departed very early. It is an undeniable fact that this system was deep rooted into Hindu society from Vedic period.
The book further talks about post Vedic period and the rise of territorial states by Kshatriya rulers. Magadha Kingdom was a major of them. The kingdom rose under the leadership of Haryanka dynasty ruler Bimbisara, a contemporary of Buddha and later succeeded by Shishunaga and Nanda dynasties. In 322 BC, Chandragupta Maurya overthrew Nanda dynasty and founded Mauryan empire. It was the largest empire ever existed in Indian subcontinent. Under the rule of Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka, Mauryan empire extended virtually all over the subcontinent. Ashoka later embraced Buddhism and promoted its non violent/non-sacrifice policies after Kalinga war. This had infuriated Brahmanas and resulted in the rise of Brahman rulers who later destroyed Mauryan empire in 185 BC. Along with this, financial crisis and oppressive rule of bureaucrats also led to the fall of this largest empire.
“In 4th century BC, Alexander the Great, started invasion to Central Asian states with his army, conquering one after the other and finally marching towards Indian subcontinent. After defeating minor rulers in the west, Alexander continued to move towards eastward, which was the homeland of Magadha, under the rule of Nandas that time. But Alexander’s soldiers, who grew weary by continuous campaigning and having been tasted with the fighting skills of Indian rulers, refused to accompany him. Alexander reluctantly returned back by leaving his dream of conquering eastern India. I wonder what would have happened if he invade Magadha. Would he be able to succeed ? “
Post Mauryan period saw the invasion of Indo-Greeks, Shakas, Parthians and Kushans in north, while the Deccan was ruled by Satavahanas. It seems that the contacts with central Asia have impacted in commerce, trade, urbanisation, economical and technological development from first century. In 240 A.D, another prominent dynasty arose in northern region, overthrowing Kushans. It was the empire of Gupta, founded by Vaishyas. Today scholars credit Gupta empire as the Golden age of Ancient India for its impact in art, literature, religion and architecture. Hinduism found its final shape in this era as Guptas promoted Bhagavatism and composed final written form of epics Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavadgita. Gupta empire prospered till 590 AD and was later succeeded by Harsha Kingdom. The final chapters of the book discusses about the rise of landlords, rise in regional identities, changes in Varna system, developments in philosophy and cultural interaction with Asian countries paving a pathway to Medieval India.
Although this book covers the overall history, it is in no way a complete set of ancient India. It neither addresses the evolution of languages in Indian subcontinent nor it focusses on the history of southern India. Most of the pages deal with the early settlements, Aryan migrations, Vedic period, new religions, Mauryan empire and Gupta period. Still it engages the readers into the prolonged history of ancient India without missing the major phases. I have learned much about the past, particularly the Varna system and am looking forward to study more on this subject.
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