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Ancient History of India

Updated on February 5, 2017


Modern India is the world’s largest democracy and it is very likely to develop into an economic super-power. Before 1947, the parts of Pakistan and Bangladesh were also parts of Indian Territory. In ancient times, India was a big swathe of land encompassing the whole Indian subcontinent, including Baluchistan and Afghanistan.

The religious majority of India has been Hindu for thousands of years. Tracing the etymology of the word Hindu takes us to a Sanskrit word Sindhu which means river frontier. There is mentioned a land called Sapta-Sindhava which means the land of seven rivers. This land is modern Punjab and parts of its neighbors. Today five rivers flow across this land (two have dried down): Indus (Sindhu), Jhelam, Ravi, Satlaj, and Chinab. The dried rivers were Saraswati, and Dradasvati. In Pakistan, there is a province named Sindh and its inhabitants are called Sindhi. The main language of India is Hindi (from Sindhi). India is also called Hindustan (the place of Hindus).

When Alexander the great invaded India around 300 BC the Macedonians called it Indos. India has been called by various names over its thousands years of history and these names are mentioned in various ancient Hindu Scriptures – Bharat, Aryavart, Madhyadesa, and Jambudvipa. Bharat is still the “Hindi” name of India and INDIA its “English” name. Bharat is the official name of India according to its constitution.

Adivasis (Tribes-men) have been living in India from times immemorial; They lived the life of hunter-gatherers but in modern India they have been assimilated in the main stream.

Indus Valley Civilization

In 1861, The Archeological Survey of India under British rule started excavation across a region in the state of Punjab – now in Pakistan. The excavation went on till 1920. The result was the finding of relics of an ancient, bronze age civilization. Two cities, Harappa and MohenJo-daro, were found and the distance between them suggested that the civilization was wide spread over a large area. It was one of the three most ancient civilizations.

The study of relics revealed that it was a civilization far ahead of the other ancient civilizations. The Bronze Age is a period from 3300 BC to 1300 BC, and the Indus valley Civilization remained in existence from 2600 BC to 1700 BC. The relics showed that the cities were well designed and technically advanced, and its citizens lived a rich cultural and social life. The buildings were built of baked bricks. The drainage system was advanced. The historians speculate that these cities might have had a population of around 5 million. The civilization is named so because it flourished in the plains of the Indus (Sindhu) river. The central attraction was a community bath where many people could take baths at the same time. The pathways were narrow but well paved with baked bricks. The potteries were made of baked clay. Many artistic relics which were shaped in animals and human shapes were found. Historians speculate that apart from farming, pottery, and metallurgy, there was a rich class of traders who were involved in local as well as foreign trade.

Indus valley civilization came to end around 1700 BC. Historians were divided on the causes of its demise. Some said that the Aryans invaders uprooted it and pushed the citizens to the South of India. Most historians now deny this and infer the cause to be some natural calamity.

Coming of the Aryans

All the north Indian languages have developed from Sanskrit – an ancient language. Further, Sanskrit belongs to the group of Indo-Aryan languages which ultimately belongs to the Indo-European group. The South Indian languages are different. They are called Dravidian languages which have no relation to the other languages of the world. The south Indians are racially different from the north Indians; they are Dravidians.

About 1700 BC, nomadic groups from Afghanistan and east Iran started to migrate to India. The migration gained momentum with time and a group of these nomads—who called themselves Aryan—settled in north India. They addressed each other as Arya – gentleman. All the other groups blended with the Aryans. The Aryans brought with them the Rig-Veda: a collection of poems composed in an ancient form of Sanskrit.

Aryans flourished in India. Even today the whole of India’s Hindus are connected with each other with a common cultural and religious practices. Along with their rich philosophy and cultural values, the Aryans originated a malicious custom of dividing the people in varnas. They did it to retain the purity of their race but it never let the Hindus to form into a cohesive community. The varna system ended up into a caste system which is still prevalent in India and which has divided the Hindus into many castes. This ignoble system is so strong that even today the Indian polity revolves around it.


Buddhism is more a philosophy rather than a religion. It teaches to inculcate in oneself how to live a life that detaches him or her from sufferings and enjoyments of life. It is important to note that enjoyment is just another facet of suffering. When one is engaged in extracting pleasure from life, he or she fears to lose it and longs for it when it is absent; for whole of our lives we are trapped in a vicious circle of suffering.

Buddhism was very different from Aryans’ religion. There is no god or deity in Buddhism. Buddhism speaks of attaining a state of mind free from suffering through meditation. It is based on the teaching of Buddha, the knowledge of which he gained by detaching himself from the world and doing meditations.

Siddhartha Gautama—who later became Buddha—was born in Lumbini in modern Nepal around 500 BC. He was a prince of a kingdom. Gautama’s father provided all the pleasures to Buddha because he was warned by an astrologer that Gautama would turn into an ascetic and would renounce his kingdom – as the legend says. Buddha was married to Yasodhara and he had a son named Rahula. One night he left his wife and his son when they were sleeping and escaped his kingdom in the mid of the night. He went to Gaya – a small town in the modern day Indian state of Bihar. He meditated there and said to have attained enlightenment. He lived his life in present day Bihar and Uttar-Pradesh. Soon his name and his teachings spread all over India and beyond it. He became the most influential man in India and his followers became Buddhists. Buddhism reached to Srilanka, Myanmar, Thailand, and even to Japan. But its spread in India subsided with time and many hindus who had relinquished Hinduism, converted back to Hinduism.

Ashoka Temple at Bodhgaya


It is evident that the ancient Indian subcontinent was an amalgam of various religions and races, like today. India’s strength was in its plurality and its weakness was the caste system. It is an irony that the cradle of the Indian civilization is now in the Islamic state of Pakistan. Throughout its history, India has been invaded by various foreign armies but somehow that rich ancient Indian cultural heritage is still intact in India today.


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