Editor’s Note: As promised last week, we take readers back to the glory days of India in this article. We do so by borrowing from the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan series The History and Culture of the Indian People. At the dawn of India’s Independence, Dr. Munshi, the founder of the Bhavan, put together a committee comprised of the who’s who of Indologists, historians of scholarship and repute. This committee wrote the series. Much of what we write below is taken from the first three volumes of this series. The first two were published in 1951 and the 3rd in 1954. The foreword of all three volumes were written personally by Dr. Munshi. These volumes, actually the entire series, should be in the library of each Indian and each person interested in India. To that end, we hereby publicly request the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan to republish this entire series in an e-book format.
India is absolutely unique in the history of the world. Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria live today as mere names in history. Today’s Greece, Rome, Persia (Iran) show no sign of yesterday’s culture or glory. These countries are mere geographical remnants of their glorious past.
India is unique in that it still remains the same in spirit, culture and language. The Vedic Hymns first uttered on the banks of the Sindhu (Indus) river are still recited in Indian households worldwide. The Gods & Goddesses that were worshiped in Mohenjo-Daro are still worshiped today. As Dr. Munshi writes, “Indian history and institutions form an unbroken chain by which the past is indissolubly linked up with the present.” As we shall see, Indian Civilization has cast influence on every major civilization that came after it, whether it be Greece, Rome, China or the Middle East.
Our main purpose in this article is to describe the Golden Age of India. But before we get there, we need to discuss the first two great periods.
1. The Vedic Age (until 600 BCE)
This is the period during which Indian culture developed on the banks of the mighty Sindhu (Indus) river. The first major event of this period was the Great Flood. The one who survived this Great Flood in a boat was Manu, son of Viwasvaan. This is why the word Manav (Sons of Manu) is used for man.
In the centuries following the Flood, we see a period in which an unshakable collective consciousness took deep roots. In this period, the
Indians opened up jungles, established large-scale settlements and
founded cities. The founding sages went forth in all directions to teach
the Indian Dharma to far away regions. Where the sages found resistance
to verbal teaching, the Kings followed with armor. But the Kings were
not all-supreme. They were entrusted with the protection of Dharma; they
had to rule within its framework and under the watchful eye of
Parishad, or committees of scholars and administrators.
The greatest defining event of this period was the Maha-Bharat war around 1,500 BCE. This was a civil war in which every king of the known world took part. This destructive war saw a generation of kings, warriors and leaders perish. This Great War has left a tremendous impression on the collective consciousness of Indian people. To this day, the story of this War is told in every Indian household and the ethics of this War are debated with urgency and emotion. When Disney made its first animated Indian film this year, they chose to tell the tale of Arjun, the hero of the Maha-Bharat War.
If the pre-MahaBharat period was one of conquest, the post-Mahabharat period was the birth of Gan-Rajya, what we call today as democracy. The Indian homeland became a collection of sixteen Jan-Pad or republics in which people chose leaders and committees of administrators to rule & govern. In the spirit of this period, the official name of today’s India is Bharatiya Gana-Rajya or the Republic of India (Bharat).
The period between 1500 BCE to 600 BCE was a period of great upheaval of human spirit. The early Upa-Ni-Sad were written in this period. The Indian economy became as much an economy of merchants as of scholars and warriors. This was the period when Zoraster gave a new religion to Persia, when Confucius and Lao-Tse taught in China, when Greece emerged as the pioneer of European culture.
II. The Age of Imperial Unity (600 BCE – 320 CE)
The early period of this age saw the birth of two great religions, Jain and Buddhist. The greatest of Jain Tirthankar was Mahavir. Recently the Dalai Lama acknowledged debt of Buddhism to Mahavir. About a hundred years after Mahavir, came Gautam Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. These two non-violence based religions had substantial influence on Indian society. The renunciation preached by these religions continues to be a major force in Indian philosophical traditions.
(Mahavir statue – src wikipedia) (Buddha statue at Sarnath – 4th century CE – src wikipedia)
The period of Jain-Buddhist emergence also saw the formation of an Imperial regime in Magadh (today’s Bihar) beginning with King Bimbisar (545-493 BCE). His successor Ajatsatru (493 – 462BCE) , the king who built the city of Pataliputra, was a conqueror who established an empire in Magadh. But the man who can truly be called the first great historical emperor of Northern India was Mahapadma Nanda (364-324 BCE), the founder of the Nanda dynasty. But this dawn of Imperial Age was still restricted to the Gangetic plain.
As Bimbisar was building his empire in the Gangetic plain, Cyrus of Iran invaded the northwestern frontiers of India. About 200 years later, came Alexander. His venture in India began with a celebrated victory over a peripheral King of today’s Peshawar. But it ended in a disastrous retreat from India in 325 BCE.
Despite the presence of Mahavir, Buddha, Cyrus and Alexander, the central event of this period is the Maurya Empire of Magadh, founded by Chandra-Gupt Maurya. The Maurya Empire reached its zenith in the reign of his grandson Ashok, recognized as one of the greatest emperors in the history of the world. The chakra of Ashok adorns the center of the flag of today’s India.
The scale, the pomp, the grandeur of the Mauryan empire remained unmatched until Curzon’s British India expanded Indian reach up to the Straits of Hormuz and the Straits of Malacca.
(Maurya Empire – src –wikipedia)
India’s contact with the outside world exploded with the Mauryan empire. Trade and maritime enterprise began the contact and Indian missionaries, especially Buddhist missionaries sent by Ashok, developed it. Indians spread over a great part of the known world, as far as Syria and China, to Africa and Europe on the west to Indo-China and Java, Sumatra in the far east.
III. The Classical Age (320 – 740 CE)
The central event of this period is the Gupt Empire. Indian culture, civilization and society reached their zenith in this period and that is why this period is often and appropriately called the Golden Age of India. Philosophy, Literature, Sculpture, Commerce, Global trade flourished in this period. Politically, this was the age of integration in India. As Dr. Munshi writes in his foreword to The Classical Age:
- “The Gupta emperors became the symbols of a tremendous national upsurge. Life was never happier, our culture never more creative than during the Golden Prime of India.”
III.1 – Samudra-Gupt
The founder of the Gupt dynasty is regarded to be Chandra-Gupt I (not to be confused with Chandra-Gupt of the Maurya Empire of the preceding age). But the Gupt empire was created by the military campaigns of his son Samudra-Gupt. He built a an irresistible military machine. A victor in about 100 battles, his empire stretched from Bengal in the east to Panjab in the west. His southern campaigns over long distances were confirmation of his powers of leadership and organization. His march along the coastal regions and dominion ove
r islands in the sea suggests that possession of a navy.
(gold coins issued by Samudra-Gupt – src wikipedia)
As Dr. Munshi writes:
- “There can be no doubt that Samudra-Gupt was a striking, almost unique, personality; and he ushered in a new age in India.”
III.2 – Chandra-Gupt II
Samudra-Gupt was succeeded by his brilliant son, Chandra-Gupt II. Under his leadership, the Gupt eagles flew over Balkh (Vahik) across the Hindu Kush. The sway of the Gupt empire extended from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea. Chandra-Gupt II is widely regarded as the greatest of Gupt emperors. He is also known as Vikram-Aditya. His allies, the Vakatak and Pallav, ruled South India in his reign.
(Gupt Empire – src – wikipedia)
The military might of the Gupt Empire was assisted by India’s metallurgy expertise. Witness the iron pillar erected in Delhi by Chandra-Gupt II in 4th century CE. The pillar has stood there for 1,700 years without a any rust. A British plaque at this pillar states that this metallurgy technology was not seen in Europe until 1700 CE.
(Chandra-Gupt pillar in Delhi – wikipedia) (gold coin issued by Chandra-Gupt – wikipedia)
III. 3 – Skanda-Gupt and the Hun invasion
Just as the defeat of Alexander’s Greek army was the main foreign event of the Mauryan empire, the massacre of the Huns was the main foreign event of the Gupt empire. Shortly before Skanda-Gupt, the grandson of Chandra-Gupt II, ascended to the throne, the Huns had established their supremacy in Europe and the Roman empire quailed before them. Wherever they went, they carried death and destruction.
The Huns invaded India’s periphery in the middle of the 5th century CE and occupied Gandhar (a kingdom based in today’s Peshawar). Crown Prince Skanda-Gupt took an army to meet them. The campaign was long, arduous and the victory was complete.
III.4 – The Golden Age
In the Gupt Empire, physical prowess was combined with intellectual vigor and martial spirit was harmonized with literary and artistic temperament. Indian intellect reached its pinnacle in most branches of arts, science and literature. It was the age of Kalidas, the greatest of all poets, the age of Dandin, Subandhu and Banabhatta, greatest writers of Samskrut prose. The six systems of Indian philosophy took shape in this period.
In science, Aryabhatta, Varahamihir, Brahmagupta produced spectacular works in Mathematics and Astronomy. The decimal system on which all modern systems are based was formulated by Aryabhatta. He was also the first to discover that the earth rotates on its axis and moves around the sun, several centuries prior to Galileo.
If Taksh-Shila was the greatest university on earth during the Mauryan period, Nalanda was the greatest university in the world during the Gupt period. It attracted students from all over the world, including far away Greece and China. The great library at Nalanda was so vast that it reportedly burned for 3 months when Turko-Afghan invaders set fire to it.
(Ruins of Nalanda University- src wikipedia)
A number of nations including India, China, Japan and Singapore are currently working on a billion dollar plan to revive Nalanda as Nalanda International University.
III.5 – Dharma & Society
The Gupt emperors upheld Dharma in all its aspects and in consequence its contents were enriched and its scope enlarged. Historical continuity and conscious unity were preserved by a faith in the Ved as the source of all knowledge and inspiration. This period saw the completion of numerous Puraan, which sang of sacred legends, of rivers, mountains, cities, the past remained a glorious heritage to inspire the future.
Samskrut was the living embodiment of Dharma and a powerful integrating force. Jains and Buddhists gave up Pali and Prakrut to begin writing in Samskrut. Once Buddhists began writing in Samskrut, the Chinese began to study it as well. According to Dr. Munshi, “the cultural unity that was thus secured by popularization of Samskrut was more deep-rooted than the one that is secured today by English.”
Dr. Munshi further writes:
- “The MahaBharat acquired a unique position as an integrating psychological force. It immortalized the proud and joyous manhood of Bharat-Varsha and provided a common source of inspiration in courts, schools and in society as a whole.”
Society was a hierarchy of groups ranged according to the standard of culture attained by each. This hierarchy was cultural not a racial or hereditary one. Outsiders were allowed to enter and benefit by it. Mixed marriages between ‘castes’ were common. Opportunity was given to those who were alien to Indian culture to rise on the scale of life.
IV . Today’s India
By 900 CE, the conquering spirit of the Classical Age had faded into narrower, more local vision. The thirst of conquest metamorphosed into the thirst for eternal salvation of the soul. The glory of renunciation became the preferred trait. Invasions and conquests were considered passe and immoral. India slowly turned into a soft, nonbelligerent, rich society that was ripe for plucking. And by 1000 CE, the raids began and India began living under foreign occupation.
Unfortunately, these traits remain dominant in today’s India. Indian society is still stuck in narrow, locally ethnic preoccupations. It still doesn’t understand the importance of military might, of punishing invaders so hard that they dare not attack again. In fact, many ‘educated’ Indians believe that wars are a thing of the past and societies will compete in the future in economics and technology. An Indian minister recently argued that India could build 1,000 toilets for the price of one fighter jet. Indian politics is still disgustingly selfish and divisive. The political parties have become family businesses and corruption is rampant.
But amidst the gloom, we see signs of a resurgence in India’s middle class. Still nascent, it gives hope of an Indian society that goes back to its universal doctrines, of upward mobility and martial spirit. That this continues to gather strength & thrive is our wish, our prayer for India’s Independence Day.
Editor’s PS: Anything good in the article above comes from the following sources. Anything mediocre or bad is our fault.
- The Vedic Age – Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Series
- The Age of Imperial Unity – Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Series
- The Classical Age – Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Series
- The Vakataka-Gupta Age – R.C. Majumdar & A.S. Altekar
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