India: Caste, Kings, and the Hindu World Order (1000 B.C.E.–700 C.E.)

A Brief History of India. Judith E. Walsh. 2nd edition. Brief History New York: Facts on File, 2011.

If the king fails to administer Punishment tirelessly on those who ought to be punished, the stronger would grill the weak like fish on a spit….

~ The Law Code of Manu (Olivelle 2004, 107)

Indo-Aryans spread into the upper Ganges River Valley between 1200 and 400 B.C.E. Their superior Iron Age technology enabled them to dominate the many different tribes and communities living in Pakistan and northern India in 1200 B.C.E. and develop a farming civilization in the Gangetic region with urban centers of trade and power. By the early centuries C.E. a Sanskrit-based Aryan culture in which competing Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religions vied for dominance had spread its cultural hegemony through all settled regions of the subcontinent.

India’s Second Urbanization

Iron Age technology gave Indo-Aryan tribes the ability to move into the heavily forested regions of the Ganges River Valley and enabled them to dominate the region. Many scholars now agree that the sites in the Indo-Gangetic region characterized by Painted Gray Ware (PGW) pottery (ca. 1200-400 B.C.E.) are those of the Indo-Aryans. This pottery—a fine, wheel-made pottery decorated with black or red geometric patterns—was first found at sites from ca. 1200 B.C.E. along the northern Indus and then increasingly in the Ganges River Valley. Population pressures and the increasing desiccation of the Indus region may have forced the Indo-Aryans to move farther east, clearing forests in the Gangetic region and settling in now mixed agricultural and pastoral communities, farming the land with teams of six and eight oxen. “Let the plough, lance-pointed, well lying with well smoothed handle turn up cow, sheep and on-going chariot frame and a plump wench. Let Indra hold down the furrow … let it, rich in milk, yield to us each further summer,” says a ritual hymn from the Atharva Veda (quoted in Thapar 2002, 116). New iron tools and technology, widespread at PGW sites by 800 B.C.E., allowed the Indo-Aryan tribes to move into what are today the regions of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. A finer, “luxury” pottery (Northern Black Polished Ware or NBPW, ca. 700-200 B.C.E.) marks the later spread of Aryan culture throughout the Gangetic region; it is this pottery that had also spread (perhaps through trade) as far south as the Deccan Plateau by 500 B.C.E.

All the later Vedic texts, as well as the core stories of the two great epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, were in existence by the fifth century B.C.E. (The epics, scholars believe, would continue to evolve and change well into the fourth century C.E.) Together, texts and excavations of the mid-first millennium B.C.E. show a western Gangetic plain dominated by Indo-Aryan tribal communities that had horses, iron tools, and weapons. These tribes had domesticated cattle, but they had now also become farmers, growing wheat, barley, and perhaps even rice. It is this PGW/Indo-Aryan society and its new way of life that spread throughout the Gangetic region.

Although the later Vedic texts rarely speak of towns, by ca. 500 B.C.E. India’s second urbanization was well under way. The fertile alluvial soil of the Ganges River Valley combined with Indo-Aryan Iron Age technology to produce crop surpluses that allowed both population growth and the emergence of new cities. Silver bent bar coins and both silver and copper punch-marked coins also came into use in this period (ca. fifth century B.C.E.). “The number [of cities] is so great,” reported a Greek envoy to the region in the late fourth century B.C.E., “that it cannot be stated with precision” (McCrindle 2000, 67). These new Gangetic towns and cities were built on the banks of rivers, enclosed by either a moat or rampart, and sometimes fortified. The city of Pataliputra (modern-day Patna), capital of the fourth-second century B.C.E. Mauryan Empire, enclosed an estimated 340 hectares (840 acres) within its moat and had, by one estimate, a population of 270,000 people (Allchin 1995, 69).

Urban settlements were not limited to the central Gangetic plains. Cities dotted trade routes through the northwest, Taxila below the Hindu Kush Mountains being the most famous. City sites have also been found to the east in the Gangetic delta, to the west on the Maharashtrian and Gujarat coasts, and along trade routes leading from the Gangetic valley into both central and peninsular India.

Vedic Hinduism

As the once-nomadic Indo-Aryans settled into agrarian life in the Gangetic region, the religion they had originally practiced changed and adapted. Key concepts of Hinduism, such as reincarnation, karma (actions, fate), dharma (obligations, duty), and the four varnas (classes) developed during this time. These new ideas were well adapted to agrarian (or even urban) settled life; they explained and justified the social and economic divisions of Gangetic society in terms of an individual’s good or bad conduct in former lives. Taken together, these concepts created the basic worldview assumed by all indigenous religions in India.

The Vedic Hinduism (or Brahmanism) that developed out of the religion of the Rig-Veda in this period (ca. 1200-400 B.C.E.) was as different from modern Hinduism as the ancient Old Testament Hebrew religion was from today’s Christianity. Vedic Hinduism centered on rituals addressed to Vedic gods, performed by Brahman priests around a sacred fire. Some gods represented the natural elements—Agni, the fire; Surya, the Sun; or Soma, the deified hallucinogenic plant used in rituals. Others had human characteristics or were associated with a moral or ethical principle: the god Indra was a mighty warrior, while Varuna stood for cosmic order (rita). In later Hinduism some of these Vedic gods (Indra, Agni, Surya) would become minor figures in the Hindu pantheon, while others, like Varuna, would disappear entirely. Gods barely mentioned in the Vedic texts—such as Vishnu—would later assume much greater importance.

Vedic fire rituals, from the simplest to the most elaborate, involved offerings of vegetable or meat foods or drink to the gods. In return the sponsor of the sacrifice might receive a powerful reign (if a king) or (if a householder) a good crop, a fruitful marriage, or a lifetime lasting a hundred years. Vedic rituals had no fixed place of worship—no temple, hall, or building was used—nor did they involve icons or images of the gods. Daily domestic rituals used a single fire and one priest, while public rituals—the accession of a king, the Horse Sacrifice—required at least three fires and many priests.

The Horse Sacrifice

The Asvamedha, or Horse Sacrifice, was a major ritual of Vedic times that continued in use well into the sixth and seventh centuries C.E. In this ritual a royal stallion wandered free for a year. The king’s armies followed behind, either demanding tribute from all whose territories the horse entered or fighting them. At the end of the year, the horse was sacrificed in a ritual that associated the power of the king with the animal. Part of the ritual involved a pantomiming of the sexual coupling of the (dead) horse and the chief queen. Here is a depiction of that part of the ritual, as described in the Shatapatha Brahmana attached to the Yajur Veda:

A cloth, an upper cloth, and gold is what they spread out for the horse, and on that they “quiet” [kill] him…. When the water for washing the feet is ready, they make the chief queen (Mahishi) lie down next to the horse and they cover the two of them up with the upper cloth as they say the verse, “Let the two of us cover ourselves in the world of heaven,” for the world of heaven is where they “quiet” the sacrificial animal. Then they draw out the penis of the horse and place it in the vagina of the chief queen, while she says, “May the vigorous male, the layer of seed, lay the seed”; this she says for sexual intercourse. (O’Flaherty 1988, 16)

Unity and Diversity in the Upanishads

It was in the major Upanishadic texts (composed by ca. 500 B.C.E.) that the literal ideas of the Vedic rituals took on abstract, metaphysical significance. The Upanishadic texts described secret sessions in which holy men gathered in the forest to speculate on human life and the cosmos. In the Upanishads, for instance, the ritual of the Horse Sacrifice became an extended metaphor linking the horse with the cosmos itself: “Verily the dawn is the head of the horse which is fit for sacrifice, the sun its eye, the wind its breath…. When the horse shakes itself, then it lightens; when it kicks, it thunders; when it makes water, it rains” (Macnicol 1963, 43).

Upanishadic sages sought to draw out the hidden connections between the essence of life in each living thing and the creative force that brings all life into existence. Atman (the self) was the name the Upanishadic texts gave to the spark of life in each creature; Brahman (a neuter noun in this use) was the name for the ultimate force behind creation—not the Vedic gods (they were part of the universe) but whatever enabled the universe and all its life-forms to come into existence. In the key insight of the Upanishads, atman and Brahman are understood to be one and the same: The essence of life in each being in the world (atman) is the same as the creative force (Brahman) that brings about all life. “As a spider sends forth its thread, and as tiny sparks spring forth from a fire,” said one Upanishad, “so indeed do all the vital functions, all the worlds, all the gods, and all beings spring from this self [atman]. Its hidden name [upanishad] is: ‘The real behind the real,’ …” (Olivelle 1996, 26). Underlying the wild diversity of the universe is a simple unity. Each living being has a different form but the same “subtle essence.” The differences—the forms, the changes— would be seen by later Hinduism as illusory and that illusion would be called maya. In the Upanishads the underlying unity is the point, the essential reality. “This whole world has that essence for its Self,” says one wise Upanishadic sage to his son Shvetaketu. “That is the Real. That is the Self. That art thou, Shvetaketu” (De Bary 1958, 35-36).

Karma and Reincarnation

All Vedic sacrifices, from daily domestic offerings to the great Horse Sacrifice, were predicated on the assumption that their rituals produced consequences. But it was in the Upanishads (ca. 500B.C.E.) that the belief took shape that humans also could experience the consequences of past acts through samsara (reincarnation, literally “the running around” “wandering”). At death, one Upanishadic passage explains, the most virtuous would go to “the worlds of brahman.” Others—after the effects of their good deeds on Earth were used up—would return to Earth and “take birth in the fire of woman … [and] circle around in the same way.” The least virtuous would “become worms, insects, or snakes” (Olivelle 1996, 83-84).

These new ideas of reincarnation and of karma (the effect of past actions on future lives) were also linked to the four classes, or varnas, of human society. These classes had first been mentioned in a late Rig-Vedic hymn. There they were created (as was the entire universe) out of the sacrifice of a primeval being, the “thousand-headed” “thousand-eyed” man (purusha): “His mouth became the brahman his two arms were made into the rajanyas [Kshatriyas], his two thighs the vaishyas; from his two feet the shudra was born” (Embree et al. 1988, 18-19).

In later Vedic texts (as in the Rig-Vedic verse) the four classes were both hierarchically ranked and occupationally defined. Brahmans performed the ritual sacrifices. They were the teachers, readers, and preservers of the sacred texts. Kshatriyas were the warriors and the kings, whose duty was to protect society. Vaishyas were the farmers and merchants. And Shudras were the servants. Rebirth into a higher class showed that one had been virtuous in past lives; rebirth at a lower level showed the opposite. Moksha, or escape from the cycle of reincarnation entirely, would become the ultimate goal of the Hindu religious tradition (as also of Buddhism, in which it is called “nirvana,” and of Jainism). But moksha was too difficult for most to achieve. For most Hindus the goal of life was the fulfillment of the religious and social duties (dharma) of one’s varna so as to acquire good karma and rebirth into a higher class: “Those whose conduct has been good,” says the Chandogya Upanishad, “will quickly attain some good birth, the birth of a Brahman, or a Kshatriya, or a Vaisya. But those whose conduct has been evil, will quickly attain an evil birth, the birth of a dog, or a hog, or a Chandala [an Untouchable]” (Macnicol 1963, 161).

In the Mahabharata and the Ramayana—the great epic poems whose core stories were in existence by the fifth century B.C.E.—these ideas form the moral backdrop against which human lives and events play out. The fulfillment of the duties (dharma) of one’s class determined what happened in future lives. “A Shudra,” says the old grandfather in the Mahabharata, “should never amass wealth…. By this he would incur sin” (Embree and De Bary 1972, 82). This outline of a social system—and the concepts associated with it—remained fundamental to both Vedic and later Hinduism, as well as to all the heterodox religions indigenous to India.

Heterodoxy in North India

Cyclical Time, Reincarnation, and Karma

The Brahman priests who composed the early Hindu texts often spoke as if their world was exclusively dominated by Vedic Hinduism. But religious life on the Gangetic plains was heterodox and competitive. Wandering holy men, monks, and religious teachers were the norm in the urban towns and cities along the Ganges, particularly in the eastern regions of modern-day Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Public rivalries and debates among contesting religious communities were common. Among the many heterodoxies of the period (ca. sixth-fifth century B.C.E.) Buddhist sources describe “six unorthodox teachers,” not counting themselves. Each of the six led a different religious community with distinctive answers to the religious questions of the day.

However bitterly these religions competed, they shared fundamental assumptions about the process of time itself and the nature of life in the world. These assumptions originated in Vedic and Upanishadic Hinduism but by 500 B.C.E. had been so naturalized within Indian society that they were unquestioningly assumed to be the functioning nature of the world. The Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain view of time was and is cyclical, setting human life into an infinite expanse. In one of many Hindu myths that explore the origins of the world, the god Brahma creates the universe when he awakes each morning. He does this, the myth explains, for “play” or “sport.” The universe he creates lasts for 4 billion 320 million years and then is destroyed. All of this occupies only one day in Brahma’s life, and at the end of the day (and at the destruction of the universe) he sleeps. Next morning he begins all over again, creating the universe once again. In this way the god lives to the comfortable age of 108. On his death, a new Brahma is born who continues the cycle.

Each time Brahma creates the universe, it cycles through four ages (called yugas). The first of these, the Krita Yuga, is the longest and most perfect, but over time, a process of degeneration and decay sets in. By the last age, the Kali Yuga (the Black Age), the world has reached a condition of dangerous corruption, chaos, and degeneracy. It is in this age that we find ourselves at present. The Kali Yuga is the shortest of the four periods but a time marked by increasing disharmony, disorder among beings, and the continued disintegration of the universe itself. The end of this age brings with it the destruction of the universe and all creatures in it.

Vedic orthodoxy and the heterodox religions not only assumed a world in which time was cyclical, they took as a given that the process of life within those cycles was one in which reincarnation occurred based on the inexorable law of karma. Where reincarnation had been a new and secret idea when first introduced in the Upanishads, by the fifth century B.C.E. it had become the axiomatic base on which all indigenous religions rested. Reincarnation was a uniquely painful process, one which subjected the self to the pain and suffering of not one but an infinite number of lives. “In every kind of existence,” sang the Jain poet, “I have suffered pains which have scarcely known reprieve for a moment” (De Bary 1958, 60). All teachers and religious schools of the period addressed the problems posed by karma and unending rebirth. One heterodox sect, the Ajivikas, argued that as karma was predestined, humans could do nothing to change it. Another—that of Ajita Keshakambalin (“Ajita of the Hair-blanket”)—took an atheistic position. The monks of this school did not believe in rebirth and considered the concept of karma irrelevant, since nothing at all remained after death: “When the body dies, both fool and wise alike are cut off and perish. They do not survive after death” (Basham 1954: 296).

Three religions survived from the intense competition of the North Indian plains into modern times: Vedic Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. The three were embedded in society in somewhat different ways. The Brahman priests of Vedic Hinduism were connected to both urban and rural society through their performance of rituals and their knowledge of (and monopoly over) the oral Hindu scriptures. Brahman holy men often lived outside urban centers in forest dwellings, alone or in small communities. Some even left society entirely, seeking spiritual salvation by adopting the life of a wandering sannyasi (ascetic).

Followers of the heterodox schools of Buddhism or Jainism, in contrast, were more likely to live together in monastic communities called sanghas (assemblies). Monks and nuns were supported by lay communities, especially by trading and merchant families. By tradition the founders of both religions came from the Kshatriya varna. Thus, both Buddhism and Jainism implicitly challenged the idea that Brahmans had a monopoly over religious life. Buddhism and Jainism were also explicitly critical of Vedic animal sacrifices; both religions encouraged their members to practice ahimsa (nonviolence) and to give up the eating of meat. Lay members of the Buddhist community were not allowed to work as either hunters or butchers, and religious Jains were even forbidden to farm (as that involved the killing of plants and living things in the soil). These heterodox criticisms and practices had a great influence on Indian society. Over the next centuries the practice of Vedic animal sacrifices slowly died out. By the Gupta period (ca. fifth century C.E.) a Buddhist traveler to India reported that vegetarianism was widely practiced among the higher Indian classes and that only the lower castes still ate meat.


The name of this major heterodox religion of North India was derived from the Sanskrit word jina, meaning “to conquer.” The Jain religion focused on the need to conquer or overcome the karmic influences that bound humans to the cycle of reincarnation. To escape this cycle, Jainism emphasized the unity of all life-forms and the religious, spiritual, and karmic dangers of violence against any of them.

The historical founder of Jainism was Mahavira (Great Hero) Vardhamana who lived during the sixth to fifth centuries B.C.E. Mahavira was said to be the 24th and last in a long line of “ford-makers” that stretched back, in the Jain worldview, through all history. (These ford-makers, or tirthankaras, were the Jain saints who created the means whereby humans could “ford the river” and achieve enlightenment.) According to Jain traditions, Mahavira was born into a warrior clan in the modern-day state of Bihar. He left home at age 30 to live the life of a homeless wanderer, begging for his food, at first wearing only a single garment that he never changed but later discarding this for complete nudity. In the 13th year of this ascetic life, Mahavira attained enlightenment. After that, it was said, he taught for 30 more years before dying at age 72 of ritual starvation in a village near the modern city of Patna. Traditionally, Jain sects have placed Mahavira’s death at either 527 B.C.E. or 510 B.C.E., but, as Mahavira was a contemporary of the Buddha, ongoing recalculations of the Buddha’s death (see below) will necessarily cause Mahavira’s death to be placed much later, at or around ca. 425 B.C.E. (Dundas 2002).

Jainism taught that a living soul (jiva) was imprisoned in each and every material object. The actions of life led to the accretion of more and more matter (ajiva, or karma) onto these souls, an accumulation that led to the soul’s continued rebirth within material forms. Only abstention from action—through a vow of nonviolence (ahimsa)—could decrease the matter adhering to the jiva and bring its release from reincarnation and (thus) the attainment of moksha. Once delivered from the physical body and all karma, the jiva rises to a realm of liberated jivas at the top of the universe where it will exist forever. All living forms—plants and animals as well as people—were believed to be inhabited by jivas and should not be harmed: “All breathing, existing, living, sentient creatures should not be slain nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away,” said an early Jain text. “This is the pure, unchangeable, eternal law which the clever ones, who understand the world, have proclaimed” (quoted in Dundas 2002, 41-42). Even in the modern era members of the Jain sect may cover their mouths with a fine mesh cloth as they walk in order to avoid breathing in insects or sweep the ground before them with a broom to avoid trampling any small creatures. Such actions may spring from a profound compassion for all living beings, but their religious justification lies in the fact that they enable the soul to escape the karma that might otherwise accrue from the death of these small beings. The ultimate logic of Jainism was the cessation of all life-sustaining activities, and in the past attempts to abstain completely from action led religious Jains (such as the founder Mahavira or, according to legend, the Mauryan emperor Chandragupta) to fast to death.

Monastic orders were necessary for such a strict life, and these orders were supported by a particularly devoted lay community whose members were encouraged to participate in the monastic experience as they could. Sectarian divisions within Jain communities arose gradually over the centuries following Mahavira’s death, largely in disputes over whether monks should be naked or clothed. Those who wished to follow their founder (Mahavira) and remain naked (the “Sky-clad” or Digambara sect) argued against the wearing of clothes; those who thought this practice extreme and unnecessary (the “White Clad” or Shvetambara sect) argued for it. A mid-fifth century C.E. council (attended only by clothed monks) codified the Jain tradition along Shvetambara lines and confirmed the sectarian division. Scholars debate whether much real theological difference lay behind this division, but on one point at least the sects were deeply divided: Both agreed that women could not achieve salvation unless they were nuns and that women could not be nuns if that required them to be naked. Therefore, the Digambara (or naked) Jains insisted that women were not able to achieve salvation, while the Shvetambara (clad) sect argued that they could.


Like the Jains, early Buddhists believed that the goal of life was escape from the cycle of reincarnation (moksha, or nirvana). The Buddhist story that best illustrated this was the traditional story told about the life of the Buddha himself, Siddhartha Gautama. Siddhartha was the son of a king of the Shakya clan from the foothills of the Himalayas. Fearing prophecies that his son would become a wandering ascetic, the king raised him in great luxury, taking care to protect him from all pain and sorrow. He married the boy to a beautiful wife, and she soon gave Siddhartha a son. But on rare trips outside his father’s palace Siddhartha was disturbed by a series of sights—an old man, a sick person, and a corpse—and by the realization that old age, illness, and death were the fate of everyone. When, on a fourth trip, he saw a holy man in the yellow robes of a wandering monk, Siddhartha realized that he too must leave home to seek a solution to the painfulness of life. During years of wandering he joined many different religious groups, but none helped solve his problem. Finally, sitting under the branches of a Bodhi tree (the tree of awakening), he resolved not to get up until he had found a solution. After 49 days, he arose. He had become the Buddha (the Enlightened one). In a deer park at Sarnath north of Varanasi he told an audience of five monks his solution. Life is sorrow, he said: “Birth is sorrow, age is sorrow, disease is sorrow, death is sorrow, contact with the unpleasant is sorrow, separation from the pleasant is sorrow, every wish unfulfilled is sorrow” (De Bary 1958, 102). The source of this sorrow is desire, the “craving which leads to rebirth.” Only by ending all desire can people find peace in this world and achieve enlightenment. By following the “Middle Way”—the practices and mental disciplines of Buddhism—a Buddhist achieves nirvana (a state of final bliss in life and after death) and escapes the cycle of reincarnation forever.

By tradition the Buddha lived to the age of 80, preaching his “Middle Way” to a collection of disciples until he died at Kushinagara, a small town (now Kashia) in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Earlier historians placed the date of the Buddha’s death at 483 B.C.E., but recent scholarship has concluded that a later date, between ca. 411-400 B.C.E., is more likely (Bechert et al 1996; Cousins 1996).

To become a Buddhist was to step outside the social classes of Hindu society and into a religious society whose obligations were defined by the Buddhist dharma (here used in the sense of “law” or “religion”). But the demands of this Buddhist dharma were not easy. A serious Buddhist had to remain celibate; refrain from harming living beings (that is, not eat meat); drink no wine; give up dancing, singing, and music (except for religious purposes); and abstain from sleeping in beds or receiving money. Such a severe discipline required monastic orders; committed Buddhists lived in monasteries or nunneries, endowed by wealthy lay Buddhists, or kings and rulers.

From Clan to King

Between ca. 1200 and 300 B.C.E. Indo-Aryan tribes cleared the forest regions of the northern Ganges River and settled down in farming communities prosperous enough to support cities throughout the region. From the Rig-Veda it is known that Aryan society was originally organized into tribal communities, clans dominated by elite warrior lineages. By the fifth century B.C.E., 16 large clans or tribes had consolidated claims over lands in the Gangetic region and begun to define themselves not by kinship but by the territories they claimed. Sources for the period called the lands of each of these clans a mahajanapada (great-clan’s territory). Among the 16, some governed themselves through kings and some through oligarchic assemblies of a ruling clan or clans. Their capitals were fortified cities, often located along strategic trade routes, surrounded by the agricultural villages and towns they controlled. Five out of the six largest cities in the Gangetic region in this period were the political capitals of such “great-clan territories.”

Political life in the Gangetic region, however, was just as volatile and competitive as religious life. Over the next century, these great-clan territories fought one another until only four remained. Magadha, located midway along the Ganges River, was the wealthiest of the four. In the mid-fourth century B.C.E., a soldier Mahapadma Nanda—said by some to be the son of a Shudra—seized power from the Magadha lineage and established his own kingdom. He made the Magadha capital city, Pataliputra (modern-day Patna), his capital and quickly brought most of the Gangetic region and the remaining great-clan territories under his control.

The core stories of both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana were initially composed in this period (ca. fifth century B.C.E.), and each may have something to say about the period’s violence and changes. The Mahabharata’s core story tells of the struggle for control of a kingdom between two branches of a Kshatriya lineage, the Kurus and the Pandavas. In the war that ensues, all of the evil Kurus are killed, as are many children and supporters of the virtuous Pandavas. The Ramayana tells of the banishment and long exile of Prince Rama, rightful heir to the kingdom of Ayodhya, his long search for his kidnapped wife, Sita; and the war he fights with the Sri Lankan demon-king Ravana to regain her. Today both epics are read as Hindu scriptures, texts that offer religious, moral, and exemplary stories. The violence of the epics, however, particularly the Mahabharata, may have had its origins in the violent clan warfare and struggles of the mahajanapada period. At the same time, the epics’ preoccupation with questions of kingly inheritance and legitimacy may reflect both the growth of new ideas about monarchy and the weakening hold clans had on political power at this time.

Yet even as didactic texts such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana insisted that kings came only from the Kshatriya varna, political events showed the opposite. Increasingly kingship was an ad hoc institution; that is, one defined as much by power and opportunity as by lineage or institutional sanctions. Kshatriya status (as historian Burton Stein suggested) was becoming an “achieved” status. The fact of seizing and holding power conferred royalty on whoever could successfully do it.

Alexander the Great

As the Nanda dynasty solidified its hold over the clan-dominated territories of the Ganges, to the north and west the ruler of a faraway empire prepared to invade India. In 331 B.C.E. Alexander of Macedon conquered the Persian Empire whose easternmost satrapy (province) included Gandhara and the northern Indus. Determined to assert control over all his Persian territories, Alexander and his army fought their way eastward. By 327 B.C.E. the Macedonians had subdued Bactria, come over the Hindu Kush Mountains, and crossed the Indus River. Alexander’s army—as described by later Greek and Roman historians—numbered 125,000 men. They defeated tribal kings throughout the Punjab, but at the Beas River (an eastern tributary of the Indus) the soldiers mutinied and refused to go farther. Turning south the emperor fought his way down the Indus. He sent some of his army back to Mesopotamia by sea, while he and the remainder made the difficult land journey along the Iranian coast. Alexander’s sudden death in Mesopotamia in 323 B.C.E. brought his campaigns to a sudden end.

Alexander’s invasion of India had little lasting political impact. After his death, the eastern end of his empire, beyond the Hindu Kush, came under the rule of the Seleucids, a dynasty founded by one of his generals. Along the Indus, within a century the settlements left behind to govern Alexander’s conquered lands disappeared, and the lands reverted to local control. Alexander’s invasion did, however, bring India to the attention of countries to the west. The literate Greek scribes who accompanied him wrote about the eastern land through which they traveled. Their writings—the earliest Western sources on India—provoked an interest in this eastern region that continued down through the Roman Empire.

The Mauryans

In 321 B.C.E. the Nanda dynasty was overthrown in its turn by an officer in its army, Chandragupta Maurya. Chandragupta seized the Nanda capital at Pataliputra and the rich Magadha region. A treaty with the northwestern Seleucids ceded all of India south of the Hindu Kush to Chandragupta. By the end of the century he had conquered most of northern India, from west to east, and as far south as the Narmada River.

A Greek ambassador, Megasthenes, sent to Chandragupta’s court by the Seleucid rulers in the north, left an account of his travels preserved by later Greek and Roman writers. Megasthenes was particularly impressed by Chandragupta’s capital at Pataliputra. “The greatest city in India,” he declared, it had 570 towers and 64 gates and was surrounded by a ditch “six hundred feet in breadth and thirty cubits in depth” (McCrindle 2000, 67). The emperor himself also impressed Megasthenes. “He … remains in court for the whole day,” the ambassador wrote, “without allowing the business to be interrupted” (McCrindle 2000, 71). He even continued to hear court cases while attendants massaged him with wooden cylinders. According to Megasthenes, Chandragupta was personally cared for by a large number of women slaves. When he hunted, the Greek noted, “crowds of women surround him … some are in chariots, some on horses, and some even on elephants, and they are equipped with weapons of every kind, as if they were going on a campaign” (McCrindle 2000, 70-71). Yet, however wealthy and powerful the king, his life was not easy. Fearing assassination, Megasthenes reported, Chandragupta never slept during the day and at night he changed where he slept periodically to defeat any plots against his life.

Many legends surrounded the origins of the Mauryan dynasty and Chandragupta’s life. Buddhist texts claimed that the Mauryans were descended from the Kshatriya Moriya clan, a clan related to the Shakyas (the Buddha’s hereditary lineage), while Brahmanical sources suggested that Mauryans were Shudras. Two classical writers claimed Chandragupta had met Alexander the Great during the latter’s invasion of the Punjab. Chandragupta, who, according to one source, wanted Alexander to attack the Nandas to the east, so offended Alexander that he briefly imprisoned the Mauryan. An even later Indian legend claimed that Chandragupta Maurya was just a weak and ordinary man and attributed his rise to power to the advice of a wily Brahman adviser Kautilya. Even Chandragupta’s death became the subject of legends. After ruling for 24 years, the Jain tradition says, the emperor abdicated, became a Jain monk, and traveled to the south where he fasted to death in the Karnataka region.

The Arthasastra

The clever minister Kautilya, who may have orchestrated Chandragupta Maurya’s rise to power, was also said to have written a book on statecraft: the Arthasastra (Treatise on material gain). The text describes the art of running a kingdom: how to appoint ministers, officials, and judges; how to collect and keep revenues; how to wage war; how to manipulate and/or make treaties with neighboring kings. Its pragmatic “the-ends-justify-the-means” suggestions have often been compared to the 16th-century writings of the Italian political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli.

The complex bureaucratic system that the Arthasastra described was probably more typical of the third-century C.E. Gupta period, during which the text was substantially revised and expanded, than of the fourth century B.C.E. But its practical and often brutal advice suited Indian political relations of many periods. “Make peace with the equal and the stronger … make war with the weaker” was its advice on political relations (Kangle 1972, 327). Create a network of spies, it advised, and include among them “secret agents in the disguise of holy men” (267). Eliminate treacherous ministers by poisoning the food they prepare for you, then have them put to death as traitors (194). The book explained in detail how a king in financial need might “replenish” his treasury: by taking more grain from farmers and more gold from traders or (this with several variations) by proclaiming a tree, a shrub, a house the site of a spectacular miracle and then living on the donations given by believers (296-301). In addition to all this, the book also included lists of magical potions and spells to be used against enemies or in case of a revolt. Among these were potions that could turn someone’s hair white or cause leprosy and spells that made people or animals invisible (499-511).


The greatest Mauryan emperor—some say the greatest emperor India ever had—was Chandragupta’s grandson, the emperor Ashoka (r. ca. 268-233 B.C.E.). Ashoka became emperor four years after his father Bindusara died and spent the early years of his reign solidifying and extending his empire. Scholars judge its size today by the edicts Ashoka had inscribed on rocks and pillars throughout India. Among these the Rock Edicts, inscribed on rock surfaces during the early part of Ashoka’s reign, stretch at least 1,500 miles from the northern Himalayas into peninsular India and 1,200 miles across the widest breadth of the subcontinent. The Pillar Edicts, carved sandstone pillars topped with animal capitals, come from later in Ashoka’s reign and most have been found in the Gangetic plain. The first Ashokan inscription was deciphered only in 1837, and even today additional inscriptions continue to be found.

These Ashokan edicts are not the first examples of writing from post-Harappan India but are very close to it. The earliest inscriptions found in India (after Harappa) are in kharoshti, a Persian script derived from Aramaic, and are from the Persian-ruled northwest of the late sixth century B.C.E. For the rest of India the earliest writing is in the Brahmi script, the script used in the Ashokan edicts and an ancient form of Indian writing from which all subsequent Indian scripts are believed to have developed.

Except for the edicts of the northwestern borderlands (which were written in Greek and Aramaic), the language of most Ashokan edicts was Prakrit, the general name for the spoken languages of northern India. The Brahmi script was commonly used to write North Indian Prakrits and even (in one example) to write the South Indian Tamil language. By medieval times, of course, both the Dravidian languages and the North Indian vernaculars were all developing separate, distinctive scripts. According to Buddhist traditions, Buddhist scriptures were written down as early as the first century B.C.E., but most Indian texts, secular and religious, were put into written form only in the early centuries C.E.

Ashoka’s edicts are the main sources of information about the emperor and the tumultuous events of his career. Ashoka converted to Buddhism after a violent campaign against the eastern region of Kalinga (modern-day Orissa). His rock edicts tell us this battle took more than 100,000 lives and left the ruler questioning the purpose of such violence. Like his grandfather, Chandragupta, Ashoka had a preference for the heterodox religions. Buddhist sources say he had a son, Mahinda, with a beautiful and devoutly Buddhist merchant’s daughter. When, according to Buddhist traditions, the Third Buddhist Council met at Pataliputra at Ashoka’s invitation, it adopted a plan to send Buddhist missionaries throughout India and the world; it was Ashoka’s son Mahinda, according to Buddhist traditions, who took Buddhism south to the island of Sri Lanka.

Nonviolence and tolerance were the heart of the Buddhist dharma, Ashoka proclaimed in his edicts. Disturbed by the violence of the military campaign in Kalinga, the emperor expressed his great regret at the loss of life and suffering through his edicts there. Ashoka banned animal sacrifices at his capital and encouraged vegetarianism, in part by regulating the slaughter of animals for food. Where his grandfather, Chandragupta, had gone on hunting expeditions, Ashoka made pilgrimages to Buddhist holy places. His edicts urged the different religions and peoples in his empire to be tolerant: “Honour the sect of another,” one inscription said, “for by doing so one increases the influence of one’s own sect and benefits that of the other” (Thapar 2002, 202).

Ashoka called himself a cakravartin—a “universal ruler,” the Sanskrit term for a ruler so powerful he established his righteous rule over all. In subsequent centuries this became a favorite title for kings large and small, regardless of religious affinity. Even as late as the eighth century C.E., Indian kings sometimes still combined their use of Vedic rituals with endowments to Buddhist or Jain monasteries or with donations for the building of Buddhist stupas—all to justify claims to the title of cakravartin.

How could a second-century B.C.E. ruler control an empire the size of Ashoka’s? Although Ashoka traveled frequently throughout his realm and consulted with local officials, he probably had direct control over only the center of his empire: the wealthy Magadha and Gangetic region. This area had grown even more prosperous under Mauryan rule; its population now built more brick homes, dug more wells, and used more iron implements than they had in earlier periods. On one Ashokan pillar the emperor described his many public works in the area:

On the roads I have had banyan trees planted, which will give shade to beasts and men. I have had mango groves planted and I have had wells dug and rest houses built every nine miles…. And I have had many watering places made everywhere for the use of beasts and men. (Thapar 2002, 203)

Outside this region and throughout their empire the Mauryans had certain core territories, important to them for trade or for crucial raw materials: cities such as Taxila in the north and Ujjain on the Indo-Gangetic Plain, regions such as Kalinga in the east and southern Karnataka in the west. The Mauryans ruled these areas through local governors, and trade routes linked them to the capital. Taxila in the northwest was the access point for trade beyond India’s borders, while the Karnatak region was a rich source of gold. Beyond these core regions lay the empire’s vast periphery: heavily forested regions or those that were less inhabited. Here the emperor or his ministers might travel safely—if accompanied by a large army—and they might leave behind an occasional inscription, but in most respects they had little control over these areas.

Ashoka died in 232 B.C.E. He was followed by a succession of weaker Mauryan rulers and the gradual shrinking of Mauryan territories. In 185 B.C.E. Pushyamitra Shunga, a Brahman general, overthrew the last Mauryan king and established the Shunga dynasty in a small segment of the earlier empire. Shunga rulers practiced an aggressive Vedic Hinduism. They restored Vedic animal sacrifices, including the Horse Sacrifice, and, according to Buddhist sources, they persecuted Buddhist monks.


By the end of the Mauryan period the Ganges River Valley was the hub for trade routes that ran north, south, east, and west through the Indian subcontinent. Some routes were initially created by migrating communities of Vedic Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains who traveled out of the Gangetic region to settle elsewhere. The Mauryan Empire had patronized these existing routes—and the communities that created them—and had also established additional routes of its own, particularly to core regions of the empire. The rock inscriptions of Ashoka (third-second centuries B.C.E.) indicate the extent of these Mauryan trading connections.

But more than trade traveled along these routes. Brahman communities (and Vedic Hinduism) had spread throughout much of the subcontinent by the early centuries C.E. Buddhist and Jain monks, missionaries, and trading communities had also spread Sanskrit and Gangetic culture to other regions over these same centuries. Some scholars have called this movement “Aryanization,” but while the culture spread by all these groups was certainly Sanskrit-based and may well have been derived from that of much earlier Indo-Aryans, it was not yet dominated by the Hindu religion.

To the north and west, the Gandharan region was known for its learned practitioners of Vedic Hinduism in the post-Mauryan centuries. But Gandhara also had large Buddhist communities that have left behind substantial archaeological remains. A famous second-century B.C.E. Buddhist text, The Questions of King Milinda, records the questioning of Buddhist monks by King Menander, an Indo-Greek (Bactrian) ruler and a convert to Buddhism in this region. Gandhara became a major Buddhist center again during the Kushan dynasty (first-third centuries C.E.). It was from this region that Buddhist monks traveled north out of the subcontinent and then east to take their religion across the Silk Road into eastern Asia.

Buddhist and Jain migrants and missionaries also traveled south and west. A Jain king named Kharavela ruled Kalinga (Orissa) in the midfirst century B.C.E. Trade routes that reached as far down the Narmada River as the Arabian Sea carried Jain communities into western regions, where they remained dominant through to the 10th and 11th centuries C.E. Buddhism also spread west into the Deccan hills; the caves at Ajanta, Ellora, and Elephanta had Buddhist orders settled in them through the early Christian centuries.

Buddhist missionaries from the Ganges region carried early Buddhism (Theravada Buddhism) into South India and on to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia where it has remained the dominant form of Buddhism to this day. Within India a newer form of Buddhism—Mahayana (the Great Vehicle) Buddhism—became dominant in the centuries after the Mauryans. It was this religion that northern monks took into China and from there to Korea and Japan.

Little is known about South India before the beginnings of this period of “Aryanization.” The region was peopled by pastoral or mixed agricultural pastoral communities beginning from the third to second millennia B.C.E., and its coastal regions developed urban civilizations in the late first millennium B.C.E. Its Dravidian languages—Tamil, Telegu, and Malayalam, among others—may have been indigenous to the south or may have been brought there, as some suggest, by migrants from the Harappan north. But from at least the Mauryan period, these south Indian languages coexisted with Sanskrit in the south. Early Jain cave inscriptions, dated to the second century B.C.E. are in the Tamil language but written in the Brahmi script, the same script used by the Mauryans. Tamil texts from the early centuries C.E. also show evidence of Sanskrit influences, although elite south Indians, whether migrant or indigenous, were probably literate in both Sanskrit and the Dravidian vernaculars.

Trade with Rome

By the first century C.E. trade routes throughout the subcontinent connected regional centers into both an interregional and an external trade: Iron came from mines in Rajasthan and other Indian regions; copper, from Rajasthan, the Deccan, and the Himalayas; precious and semiprecious stones, from peninsular India; salt, from the “salt range” of the Punjab; and spices, sandalwood, ebony, gold, and precious stones, from South India. These goods were traded within India and outside through trade with both the eastern Mediterranean and Southeast Asian regions.

Archaeological finds have documented the existence of trade between both the western and eastern coasts of India and the Roman Empire beginning as early as the first century B.C.E. and continuing through the seventh century C.E. Merchants who came to India were called yavanas. While this name may have originally been used for Indo-Greeks in the northwest (perhaps for Ionia in Greece), it quickly came to be used for all foreigners. Yavanas came from different parts of the Roman Empire and the Near East and from a wide range of ethnic populations: Greeks, Arabs, Egyptian Jews, and Armenians from western Asia, among others.

Black pepper was a major item of trade with the West along both the western and eastern coasts. This rich trade continued on the Malabar coast through the medieval period. Other items traded were spices, semiprecious stones, ivory, and textiles. Western products coming into India included wine, olive oil, and Roman coins—and in later centuries horses. The most popular Western commodity for Indians, however, were Roman coins. Hoards of such coins have been found throughout the Deccan and further south, most from the period of the Roman emperors Augustus (r. 27 B.C.E.-14 C.E.) and Tiberius (r. 14-37 C.E.). Indians had had a money economy and minted coins from as early as the fifth century B.C.E., but the Roman coins may have been hoarded for use as a high-value currency, since gold coins were largely missing from these areas.

Indian traders were active at both the Indian and the foreign ends of this maritime trade. Archaeological sites on the Red Sea have turned up potsherds with the names of Indians written in Tamil (in Brahmi script) and in Prakrit. In India archaeologists have identified the port of Arikamedu (near Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu) as the site of an ancient southeast Indian port mentioned in a mid-first-century C.E. Greek seafaring geography— The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. Excavations there revealed Roman pottery, beads, and evidence of wines imported from southern Italy and Greece. Arikamedu seems to have traded with the eastern Mediterranean region from as early as the first century B.C.E.

Both coasts of South India were also linked by trade with Southeast Asia. An impetus for this trade may have been the rich Roman trade— the profitability of goods sold to the West sent Indian traders farther east looking for additional sources for spices. Both trading settlements in Southeast Asia and trading connections that ran as far east as Java and Bali are known.

Post-Mauryan Dynasties

In the centuries after the Mauryan Empire the porous border of northwestern India became even more so. Traders, migrants, and invaders from Central Asia and Iran fought their way through the northwest mountains to settle in the subcontinent. The most prominent among these were the Indo-Bactrian-Greeks (or simply Indo-Greeks), the Scythians (Shakas), and the Kushans. While some of these tribal communities maintained their languages and ethnic identity through several centuries, others adapted their Indian kingdoms to local culture.

Indo-Greek kings ruled small kingdoms in northern India from ca. second to first centuries B.C.E. These Greeks had originally been settled as Persian tributaries in Bactria in Central Asia, but in the second century B.C.E. some kings moved south over the Hindu Kush to conquer lands in the subcontinent. Most of what is known of them comes from their multilingual coins—Greek on one side, Prakrit on the other. Their most famous ruler was the Buddhist convert King Menander (known in India as Milinda), who ruled ca. 155-130 B.C.E. The Scythians (Shakas) were Central Asian horsemen, a nomadic peoples forced to migrate south and west into Iran and India by stronger tribes to their east. In successive attacks in the late second-first centuries B.C.E. the Shakas defeated the northern Indo-Greek rulers and moved into Gandhara and then farther south. A later branch of the Shakas (called the Western Shakas) ruled over parts of Rajasthan and Sind through the fourth century C.E.

The Kushan, tribes of the people known to the Chinese as the Yuehzhih, migrated south from Central Asia in the first century C.E., defeating most of the Shaka kings and creating a unified empire that lasted into the third century C.E. Their most powerful king, Kanishka (whose reign began in C.E.78 or 144), ruled an empire that may have equaled Ashoka’s in size: It stretched from Bactria through northern India to Varanasi on the Ganges. Kanishka was also a great patron of Buddhism, which flourished under his rule in the Gandharan region.

In south India the Satavahana (or Andhra) dynasty ruled a Deccan kingdom below the Narmada River between the first to third centuries C.E. The Satavahanas allied themselves with Vedic Hinduism; their first major ruler even celebrated the Horse Sacrifice. Farther south were three lineages that Ashoka’s edicts once claimed to have defeated: the Cholas, the Cheras, and the Pandyas. Tamil cankam poetry (ca. first-third centuries C.E.) shows these lineages in constant combat with one another. The Chola lineage was associated with the Coromandel coast; the Cheras, with Kerala and the Malabar coast; and the Pandyas, with the southernmost tip of the subcontinent.

The Guptas

Historians often label the Gupta period as “classical” because it brings to fruition a Sanskrit-based culture begun in earlier centuries. By ca. 400 C.E., early in the Gupta period, Vedic Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism had spread throughout India. Brahman priests had composed most of the great Sanskrit texts and scriptures of Hinduism, most recently the Hindu law codes and the Puranas (Ancient tales), a collection of legends focused on key gods and goddesses. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana had reached their final forms. During the Gupta dynasty (ca. 320 C.E.-ca. mid-sixth century), this Sanskrit-based culture, now spread across India, reached a peak of creativity that included the production of secular literature, poetry, and art, of which the Sanskrit plays and poems of the court writer Kalidasa are the best-known example.

But the Gupta period also saw the reformulation of much of the earlier tradition. As much as it is “classical,” Gupta India should also be seen as the starting point for new forms of Hinduism, Hindu political relations, and Hindu social institutions.

The Gupta dynasty was founded in the Ganges River valley ca. 320 C.E. by a man who took the name of the founder of the Mauryan dynasty, Chandragupta. This proved prophetic, for the Guptas’ empire would reconquer much of the territory once held by earlier Mauryan kings. The base for the Guptas was (as it had been for the Mauryans) the Gangetic plains. The founder’s son, Samudragupta (reigned ca. 330-380), also made Pataliputra his capital. Samudragupta’s conquests created an empire that reached from Assam in the east through the Punjab and as far to the west as the territories of the Scythians (western Shakas) allowed. The third Gupta king, Chandragupta II (reigned ca. 380-415), became legendary in later centuries as King Vikramaditya, a wise and benevolent ruler about whom many tales and stories circulated. Chandragupta II extended Gupta territory to its greatest size. After his successful campaign against the Shakas, his dynasty controlled all of North India from the Indus in the west to Assam in the east and was acknowledged even by regional rulers south of the Narmada River. A Chinese Buddhist monk, Faxian, who lived in India for six years during Chandragupta II’s reign, commented on the peacefulness of Indian society in this period.

But where the Mauryans had favored heterodox religions, Gupta kings identified themselves and their dynasty more with elite Sanskrit culture and with the new devotional, temple-based Hinduism—even though the Guptas continued to endow Buddhist monasteries and stupas. The Guptas built and endowed Hindu temples, and they wrote inscriptions on these temples in Sanskrit (not Prakrit), now the elite written language of India. Samudragupta boasted of having performed the horse sacrifice and claimed the title of universal ruler (cakravartin). The Guptas also used Hindu rituals to formalize the incorporation of defeated tribes and kings into their empire. In a consecration ritual attended personally by the emperors, they reconsecrated defeated kings as tributary subordinates; the defeated ruler became a regional king of his land, paying tribute to and attending occasional audiences with the Gupta cakravartin but otherwise ruling independently in his land. Where the Mauryans had maintained control over only the center and a few core regions of their empire, the Guptas, through tributary relationships, attempted to control most of it.

The successors of Chandragupta II, however, were unable to maintain his vast empire. In the north, beginning in the mid-fifth century, the Hunas—a Central Asian tribe related to the White Huns—repeatedly attacked the empire and even occupied its western regions in the early decades of the sixth century. These attacks, combined with the dynasty’s failure to produce a strong ruler, weakened the Guptas. By the mid-sixth century, the Gupta successors were ruling only small fragments of the once great empire, the remainder having fallen back into the hands of regional and local rulers.

Puranic Hinduism

In the early centuries C.E. Hinduism developed into a temple-based, devotional religion. This new form of Hinduism maintained the sanctity of earlier Vedic texts and the preeminent position of the Brahman priest, even as the dominant forms of Hindu worship (puja) became devotional and focused more exclusively on the gods Shiva or Vishnu (and Vishnu’s incarnations) or on the worship of Devi (the Goddess).

Whereas Vedic Hinduism had placed rituals performed by Brahman priests at the center of human efforts to control the cosmos, both the Upanishads and the later heterodox religions saw the goal of life as attaining moksha—in Buddhism, nirvana—and escaping the cycle of reincarnation. Bhakti (the devotional worship of a god) developed out of these ideas. Its first mention is in the Bhagavad Gita (Song of the blessed one), a long addition to the Mahabharata dated to ca. the first century C.E.(Thompson 2008). In the Gita, the prince Arjuna stands in his chariot on the battlefield, beset by doubts about the morality of going to war against his own grandfather and cousins. Arjuna’s charioteer, the god Krishna in disguise, explains that even though such conduct may seem immoral, it is simply Arjuna’s Kshatriya dharma. But dharma is just one of many paths by which men can find liberation from rebirth. The best of all these paths, Krishna says, is that of bhakti. Then Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna in his true form—he is the universe itself, all the cosmos is incorporated within him. Krishna says, “Whatever you do—whatever you eat, whatever offering you make, whatever you give, whatever austerity you perform—Arjuna, do it all as an offering to me!” (Thompson 2008, 47). Through bhakti, Krishna explains, karma ends, and liberation from rebirth is achieved.

The idea of devotion to a god as the center of religious life was accompanied in the early centuriesC.E. by the rise in importance and centrality of the Hindu temple and of worship in that temple to its god.

Where ancient Vedic rituals had taken place in the open and without images, now an image (murti) believed to embody the god being worshipped was installed at the heart of large temple complexes. Where Vedic religious life had centered on the performance of rituals, now religious life—for both priests and individual worshippers—was based on tending and worshipping the temple deity. The new gods worshipped in this way were celebrated in a new collection of Hindu texts: the Puranas. Written down no earlier than the fourth century C.E., these texts retold myths and legends associated with gods such as Vishnu, Shiva, or Devi and described the correct ways to worship them. While older Vedic gods such as Agni, Surya, and Indra continued to have a place within the Hindu pantheon, it was Vishnu (and his nine avatars, or incarnations), Shiva, or the Goddess who were the focus of the stories and tales of the Puranas and of devotional, temple-based worship.

Kings and Emperors

For centuries Indian kings had fought one another, the loser forced to accept subordination (or often death) at the hands of the winner. “The big fish eats the small fish,” as the Indian proverb puts it. The Gupta dynasty, however, attempted to replace these older ad hoc relations with a more formal relationship, a tributary system. Under the Guptas such relations could stretch in a descending spiral from the great emperor himself down to the headman of a local village, with tribute passed up to each successive overlord. From the Gupta period onward rulers’ titles increasingly inflated their place in these graded rankings: Even the smallest vassal king might title himself “great king” (maharaja), while kings of any importance at all would insist on being called “Great King of Kings and Supreme Lord” (maharaja-adhiraja-paramabhattaraka).

In this system dharma was “king.” “This dharma is the sovereign power ruling over kshatra [royal power] itself,” explains an early Upanishad (De Bary 1958, 241). In the Laws of Manu, one of a number of Hindu law codes composed between ca. 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E., society is to be governed by the varna system, its duties and obligations overseen by Brahman priests. The king’s role was only the maintenance of these structures as they already existed: “The king was created as the protector of the classes [varnas] and the stages of life, that are appointed each to its own particular duty, in proper order” (Doniger and Smith 1991, 131). Whether he was as great as arajadhiraja (king of kings) or cakravartin or as “little” as the head of a small village, the ruler functioned to preserve dharmic order.

The set of regional tributary relations begun by the Guptas remained the model for Indian political relations through the medieval period. Within this system kings spent most of their time trying to survive. A 12th-century text chronicling the lives of the kings of Kashmir (the Rajatarangini) shows us the likely fate of a ruler. If ministers did not plot against him, relatives did not overthrow him, or his wives did not have him murdered, his own sons might cause his death. Sons, like crabs, the traditional warning goes, survive by destroying their fathers.

Another way to think of this political system, as anthropologist Bernard Cohn once suggested, is as a means for channeling the agricultural surplus of peasants up through the various levels of power to the ruler with the greatest force. Describing the 18th-century king of Varanasi, Cohn wrote,

Politically the Raja of Benares had to face in two directions. He fought a continuous and devious battle to be completely independent of the Nawab [a more powerful ruler and theoretically his overlord]. He also had to keep in check lineages and local chiefs and rajas who had power within his province. (1960, 422)

The central issue was tribute, and the measure of a superior’s success was the amount he could collect from his subordinates. Success for subordinates, on the other hand, lay in the degree to which they could elude payment. By tradition, the king owned the land and had the right to a portion of the crop. But these rights existed within a system in which collection signified superiority and willingness to pay signaled weakness.

Rulers could not dispense with the regional and local powers beneath them, however, because they lacked the ability to collect the tribute themselves. Therefore collection was delegated from superior to subordinate, from the “emperor” down through the various levels of political power to the level of the dominant caste in each village. Within this pyramid, village communities were the most stable units, the units most easily dominated and controlled by local clan or caste lineages over long periods of time. In some parts of the subcontinent, long-term regional control was also possible. Certain regional divisions—Bengal in the east, for instance, and the Deccan in the southwest—slip in and out of India’s history, held by one group, then by another. Unification of larger areas was hard to achieve—and even harder to maintain. As the territory of a king expanded, he became increasingly vulnerable to challenges from more stable regional and/or local kings below him.

If the origins of a regional tributary political system can be placed in the Gupta period, however, it should also be recognized that the Guptas, to some degree, simply put an institutional and ritual face on a system of political relations that had existed long before them. Even with their reconsecration of defeated rulers the Gupta dynasty still existed within a largely ad hoc system of kingship and empire. The skill of a ruler and/or the luck or circumstances in which he found himself had as much to do with his success as anything else. Whether an emperor or a “little king,” rulers spent their days protecting or extending their power over and against that of other rulers around them. Only with the Mughals in the medieval period and even later with the British are there political systems that attempt to challenge the tributary system.

Caste, Varna, and Jati

The term caste comes from the Portuguese word casta, first used during the 16th century to describe the Indian social system. Indigenous terms for social groups in both the ancient and modern periods were varna (class) and jati (birth group). The four varnas—Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra—appear as early as the Rig-Veda and in both Hindu and non-Hindu sources. Each varna was identified very early with a hereditary occupation—priest, warrior, farmer/merchant, and servant, respectively—and by the time of the early Upanishads the different and unequal duties of these groups were justified by karma and the individual’s acts in former lives. Jatis were lineages, clans, and/or families whose membership was determined by birth. Different jatis might interact economically, but their social contact was restricted; for instance, people married, shared meals, or participated in funerals only with members of their own birth group.

In contrast to the four varnas whose hierarchical order was universally known and acknowledged throughout the subcontinent, jatis were local or regional groups. Members of a village jati would know their status relative to other jatis in their immediate region, but there was no all-India hierarchy for these groups. Jati status changed from region to region—and over time. Village studies from North India in the 20th century have shown that jatis whose economic circumstances change can raise their varna status through a process sociologists call “Sanskritization”—the adoption of customs defined in Sanskrit texts as appropriate for a higher varna. If a jati can maintain such practices over several generations, their new varna status will be accepted. Conversely, groups that fall on hard times and are forced to adopt social customs associated with lower varnas—the eating of meat, for instance—can “lose caste” as a result. Untouchable communities in northern India, Bernard Cohn found, explained their low status in just such historical terms, as a loss of caste caused by poverty and the necessity of adopting practices associated with untouchability sometime in the ancient past.

If one thinks of the caste system in terms of jatis, varnas, and the connections between them, one can appreciate the complexity and flexibility of this social institution. Villages never remained “unchanged” over time. Instead, the caste system allowed frequent changes of social position, and jatis “lost caste” or raised it as their historical and economic circumstances changed. One example of a jati group whose status changed dramatically over time are the Kayasthas, a group from the Gangetic region that was classified as Shudra in the Gupta period. By the 11th century Kayastha status had improved dramatically as its members came increasingly to work as scribes and administrators for political rulers. Individual kings in ancient India, frequently came from non-Kshatriya origins; in the fourth century some Puranic texts try to fix these varna aberrations by providing non-Kshatriya kings with appropriate royal genealogies. Similarly the Hindu law codes (ca. 200 B.C.E.-200 C.E.) try to fix the shifting varna statuses of all these groups by offering elaborate classifications for groups that did not fit ordinary varna categories: a Brahman who marries a Shudra, for instance.

Birth groups were a way to give varna status to a wide range of peoples (and religions) who might otherwise not fit into varna classifications. From the mid-fifth century B.C.E. through the Gupta period, Indian society had to adjust to the presence of many new and/or non-Aryan groups: the heterodox followers of Buddhism and Jainism and also Indo-Greeks, any number of Central Asian tribes, and South Indian Dravidian-speaking communities, to name just a few. Local and regional societies could integrate these peoples by considering each of them as a separate jati and assigning a varna status appropriate to the group’s economic wealth or political power. In this sense jatis functioned as a way to bring a wide range of non-Hindu peoples under the rubric of a Hindu (Aryan) varna system that in origin had been a Brahman view of society, not historical reality.

Women in Ancient India

Day and night men should keep their women from acting independently; for, attached as they are to sensual pleasures, men should keep them under their control. Her father guards her in her childhood, her husband guards her in her youth, and her sons guard her in her old age; a woman is not qualified to act independently.

~ The Law Code of Manu (Olivelle 2004, 155)

Although this much quoted passage from the Laws of Manu illustrates women’s subordination to men in ancient India, other texts and sources give a more varied picture of how women lived and were expected to behave. Passages from the Rig-Veda suggest an early society in which unmarried girls and young men freely associated and in which women took part in public ceremonies such as the Horse Sacrifice. The Upanishads show two learned women (Maitreyi and Gargi) participating in philosophical speculations. By the early centuries C.E., however, knowledge of the Vedas had become forbidden to Hindu women (as also to Shudras), and women were described as an inferior class who could obtain moksha only after rebirth as men. Only in the heterodox sects of Buddhism and Jainism did women still have access to religious scriptures. In this same period the Arthasastra notes that the antahpur (women’s quarters) of a king’s harem was secluded and closely guarded and that wives who drank, gambled, or left home without permission were fined. A different impression, however, from the same period appears in stories describing young girls who visit temples without chaperones and in sculptures showing unveiled women watching processions from open balconies. Although it had long been customary for women’s literacy to be forbidden, a 10th-11th-century Khajuraho sculpture shows a woman holding her writing tablet.

Hindu religious scriptures reveal a deep ambivalence toward women. On the one hand, in the Laws of Manu a wife is the “lamp” of her husband’s home, and if she brings him children (preferably sons), she is called a Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune (Doniger and Smith 1991, 200). According to the Mahabharata,

The wife is half the man,
the best of friends,
the root of the three ends of life,
and of all that will help him in the other worlds. (Basham 1958, 181)

On the other hand, women and women’s sexuality are frequently portrayed as dangerous and uncontrollable. “Good looks do not matter to them, nor do they care about youth,” says Manu. “‘A man!’ they say, and enjoy sex with him, whether he is good-looking or ugly” (Doniger and Smith 1991, 198). Religious scriptures are unequivocal, however, about the need for a woman’s absolute duty to serve her husband “like a god.” As stated in the Laws of Manu, “A virtuous wife should constantly serve her husband like a god, even if he behaves badly, freely indulges his lust, and is devoid of any good qualities … it is because a wife obeys her husband that she is exalted in heaven” (Doniger and Smith 1991, 115).

By custom high-caste widows were not allowed to remarry, and a wife demonstrated her extreme devotion to her dead husband by becoming a sati (the one who is true), a woman who was burned or buried alive with her husband’s corpse. As late as Mauryan and Gupta times, widow remarriage was still possible, but by the medieval period the ban on widow remarriage extended even to child brides widowed before the marriage was consummated. Widows were expected to live lives of austerity, their atonement for having had the bad karma to survive their husbands. By custom widows were to shave their heads, wear only simple white saris and no jewelry, and eat only once a day a simple vegetarian meal with no condiments.


After the Gupta period and before the Muslim incursions of the 13th century, only one ruler was able to create a substantial North Indian empire. This was Harshavardhana (r. 606-647 C.E.). Harsha inherited his elder brother’s small Punjab kingdom at the age of 16 and soon after added to it the nearby lands of his widowed sister. Making his capital in the city of Kanauj, he expanded eastward, eventually controlling lands as far east as the Ganges delta and as far south as the Narmada River. Harsha claimed the title of cakravartin and, like the Guptas, controlled his empire by gifting lands and subordinate status to the kings he defeated. Later Buddhist texts claimed Harsha as a convert. The Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang, who visited India during Harsha’s reign, claimed that kings only took the throne after receiving permission to do so from a Buddhist semigod (a bodhisattva). When Harsha died without an heir in 647, his empire quickly fell back into the hands of local and regional powers.

By the seventh century elites who identified with a Sanskrit-based, Indo-Aryan culture dominated all regions of the Indian subcontinent. A revitalized, temple-based Hinduism was coming to dominance, particularly in the south. Invading tribes of the past centuries had been successfully incorporated into local and regional life, and relations among India’s political elites had attained a stasis of ever-present warfare and intrigue. Harsha, as it turned out, would be the last Hindu king to rule a great North Indian empire. All future imperial powers in India would govern with an eye on events and contexts far beyond India’s borders: on the court of the Baghdad caliph, for instance, or (eventually) on the Parliament of a British queen.