The Framework for Indian History: Geography and a Formative Period:
Important reasons for India’s distinctive path lie in geography and early historical experience. India’s topography shaped a number of vital features of its civilization. The vast Indian subcontinent is partially separated from the rest of Asia (and particularly from East Asia) by northern mountain ranges. Mountain passes linked India to civilizations in the Middle East. Though it was not as isolated as China, the subcontinent was nevertheless set apart within Asia. The most important agricultural regions are along the two great rivers, the Ganges and the Indus. During its formative period, called the Vedic and Epic ages, the Aryans (Indo-Europeans), originally from central Asia, impressed their own stamp on Indian culture. During these ages, the caste system, Sanskrit, and various belief systems were introduced.
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By 600 B.C.E., India had passed through its formative stage. Indian development during its classical era did not take on the structure of rising and falling dynasties, as in China. Patterns in Indian history were irregular and often consisted of invasions through the subcontinent’s northwestern mountain passes. As a result, classical India alternated between widespread empires and a network of smaller kingdoms. Even during the rule of the smaller kingdoms, both economic and cultural life advanced. The Maurya and Gupta dynasties were the most successful in India, run entirely by Indians and not by outside rulers. The greatest of the Mauryan emperors was Ashoka (269 – 232 B.C.E.). The Guptas did not produce as dynamic a leader as Ashoka, but they did provide classical India with its greatest period of stability.
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Classical India did not develop the solid political and cultural institutions the Chinese experienced, nor the high level of political interest of Greece and Rome. Its great features, still observable today, were political diversity and regionalism. The Guptas, for example, did not require a single language for all their subjects. The development of a rigid caste system lies at the heart of this characteristic. In its own way, the caste system promoted tolerance, allowing widely different social classes to live next to each other, separated by social structures. Loyalty to caste superseded loyalty to any overall ruler. Religion, particularly Hinduism, was the only uniting influence in Indian culture.
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Two major religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, marked classical India, Hinduism, the religion of India’s majority, is unique among world religions in that no central figure is credited for developing it. Hinduism encouraged both worldly and mystical pursuits and was highly adaptable to varying groups. Buddhism was founded on the teachings of an Indian prince, Gautama, later called Buddha, or “enlightened one.” Buddha accepted many Hindu beliefs but rejected its priests and the caste system it supported. Buddhism spread through missionaries into Sri Lanka, China, Korea, and Japan. Classical India also produced important work in science and mathematics. The Gupta-supported university in Nalanda taught religion, medicine, and architecture, as well as other disciplines. Indian scientists, borrowing ideas from Greek learning provided by Alexander the Great, made important discoveries. Still more important were the mathematical advancements, including the concept of zero, “Arabic” numerals, and the decimal system. Indian artists created shrines to Buddha called stupas and pained in lively colors.
India developed extensive trade both within the subcontinent and on the ocean to is south. The caste system described many key features of Indian society and its economy. The rights of women became increasingly limited as Indian civilization developed, however, male dominance over women was usually greater in theory than in practice. The economy in this era was extremely vigorous, especially in trade, surpassing that in China and the Mediterranean world. Merchants traded from the Roman Empire to Indonesia to China.
In Depth: Inequality as the Social Norm.
The Indian caste system, like the Egyptian division between noble and commoner and the Greco-Roman division between free and slave, rests on the assumption that humans are inherently unequal. All classical social systems (with the partial exception of Athens’ democracy) played down the importance of the individual and emphasized obligations to family, group, and government. This runs counter to modern Western notions about equality. Classical China and Greece probably came closest to modern views about individuality, but in both civilizations, it was largely expected that rulers should come from society’s elites. In nearly all societies throughout most human history, few challenged the “natural order” of social hierarchy and fewer still proposed alternatives.
Because of its extensive trading network, Indian cultural influence spread widely, especially in Southeast Asia. Buddhism was leading cultural export. Indian merchants often married into royal families in other areas. Political dominance of outside peoples was not a characteristic of Indian governments.
China and India.
China and India offer important contrasts in politics and society, yet they resembled each other in that both built stable structures over large areas and used culture to justify social inequality. The restraint of Chinese are contrasted with the more dynamic style of India. The latter developed a primary religion, Hinduism, while the former opted for separate religious and philosophical systems. Chinese technological advancements stressed practicality, while Indians ventured into mathematics for its own sake. Indian merchants played a greater societal role than their Chinese counterparts. Both, however, relied on large peasant classes in agrarian settings; both accepted political power based on land ownership.
No classical civilization was more open to outside influences than India. None were more central to cross-cultural exchanges in the common era. Important innovations in mathematics and science came from classical India. Buddhism is one of the few truly world religions. Indian influence was especially important in Southeast Asia. Placed between the great empires and trading networks of the Mediterranean and of China, India was ideally situated for its culture to influence both East and West.
Checking for Knowledge
Fill in the blank
The vast Indian subcontinent is partially separated from the rest of Asia by northern mountain ranges, most notably the ______________________________
During the Vedic and Epic ages, the _____________________________ conquerors impressed their tamp on Indian society.
Early literary epics developed by the Aryans were passed on orally and written down in the language called ______________________________
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