Ancient India Ancient India’s religion, culture, science evolved and spread to other religions through trade, while its first empires, established by the Mauryas and the Guptas, did not unify India permanently. The influence of Indian culture and religions is very evident throughout Southeast Asia. The diversity, cultures, beliefs, and languages, in India continues to pose challenges to Indian unification today. Jamie Cooper, Becky Mitnik and Romy Smith
India is the birthplace of religions that date back to the before Christ era. The religions of ancient India affected the culture in ancient India due to the beliefs each religion had, whether it was the lifestyle choices made by Jainists and Buddhists or the social beliefs of Hindus.
Hinduism is a polytheistic religion. Hindus believe in three major gods: Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva. Hindus believe in karma which is the accumulation of a person’s good and bad deeds in their life. samsara is the belief in reincarnation and your Karma affects how you will live in your next life.
Theravada: the traditional form of Buddhism that follows the teachings of the Buddha.
Mahayana: was created to “bring Buddhism” to the people who found it difficult to come to terms with the teachings that monks adhered to so strictly. It was more of a religion, where people worshipped the Buddha.
The 500 years between the Mauryan and Gupta Empires was an time of invasion and turmoil for Indian society. During the reign of the first three Guptas, India experienced a period of great achievement in the art, literature, religious thought, science, and mathematics. After Asoka’s death in 232 B.C., the Mauryan Empire began to break up. During the next 500 years, The Andhra Dynasty ruled the region and profited from the extensive trade between north and South India, Rome, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia. During this time, northern India was becoming flooded with new people fleeing from different regions of Asia because of political troubles at home. The Greeks, Persians, and Central Asians disrupted Indian society and also introduces new languages and customs that enriched Indian culture even more so. During the reign of the first three Guptas, India experienced a period of great achievement in the arts, literature, religious thought, science, and mathematics.
One of India’s greatest writers, Kalidasa, may have been the court poet for Chandra Gupta II, who reigned from A.D. 375 to 415.
Kalidasa’s most famous play is Shakuntala . Shakuntala tells the story of a beautiful girl who falls in love with and marries a middle-aged king. After they are separated, they suffer tragically because of a curse that prevents the king from recognizing his wife when they meet again.
Generations of Indians have continued to enjoy and admire Kalidasa’s plays for the skillful writing and poignant qualities.
Southern India also has rich literary tradition. In the second century A.D., the city of Madurai began holding writing academies; more than 2,000 Tamil poems from this period still exist.
Drama was also very popular; in southern India, traveling acting troupes put on performances in cities across the region. Men and women combined dance and drama. Many of the classical dance forms used in India are based on techniques explained in a book written between the first century B.C. and the first century A.D.
The expansion of trade initiated the advance of science; sailors on trading ships used stars for navigation at sea, and therefore, knowledge of astronomy increased. Greek invaders brought Western methods of keeping time; Indians adapted a calendar based on cycles of the sun instead of the moon, adopted a seven-day week, and divided each day into hours.
During the Gupta Empire (A.D 320 to about 500), knowledge of astronomy increased further; almost 1,000 years before Columbus, Indian astronomers proved that the earth was round by observing a lunar eclipse. During this eclipse, the earth’s shadow fell across the face of the moon, and Indian astronomers noted the earth’s shadow to be curved, indicating the earth itself was round.
Indian mathematics was among the most advanced in the world; modern numerals, the zero, and the decimal system were all invented in India. Circa A.D. 500, an Indian scientist named Aryabhata calculated the value of pi (∏) to four decimal places and also calculated the length of the solar year to be 365.3586805 days. This calculation is very close to modern calculations made with an atomic clock!
Two important medical guides were compiled in Indian medicine; more than 1,000 diseases were classified and more than 500 medical plants were described in these works. Hindu physicians had the knowledge of how to perform surgery (including plastic surgery), and possibly gave inoculations (the introduction of a serum, a vaccine, or an antigenic substance into the body of a person or an animal, especially as a means to produce or boost immunity to a specific disease. Source: dictionary.com ).
FUN FACT: Sushruta is regarded as the Father of Surgery. Over 2600 years ago Sushrata & his team conducted complicated surgeries like cataract, artificial limbs, cesareans, fractures, urinary stones, plastic surgery, and brain surgeries.
FUN FACT: Usage of anesthesia was well known in ancient Indian medicine. Detailed knowledge of anatomy, embryology, digestion, metabolism, physiology, etiology, genetics and immunity is also found in many ancient Indian texts.
India has always been rich in precious resources; spices, diamonds, sapphires, gold, pearls, and beautiful woods (ebony, teak, and fragrant sandalwood). These have always been valuable items of exchange.
Regions as distant as Africa and Sumeria began to trade with India more than 4,000 years ago.
Trade continued to expand even after the end of the Mauryan Empire around 185 B.C.
FUN FACT: Until 1896, India was the only source of diamonds in the world ( Source: Gemological Institute of America ).
Groups who invaded India after the end of Mauryan rule helped to expand India’s trade to new regions. For example, Central Asian nomads brought Indians information about the caravan routes that crisscrossed central Asia.
The caravan routes were known as Silk Roads because traders used them to bring silk from China to Western China and onto Rome.
Once they learned of the Silk Roads, Indians realized that they could make great profits by acting as middlemen (go-betweens in business transactions). For example, Indian traders would buy goods form traders coming out of China and sell those goods to traders who were traveling to Rome.
Indians built trading stations at oases (watering places in a desert) all along Silk Roads.
Sea trade also increased; traders used coastal routes around the rim of the Arabian Sea and up the Persian Gulf to bring goods from India to Rome.
Traders from southeast India would sail to Southeast Asia to collect spices. The bought the spices back to India and sold them to merchants from Rome.
Archaeologists uncovered hoards of Roman gold coins in Southern India; records show that some Romans were upset by the amounts of gold their countrymen spent on Indian luxuries (they believed that a state with a healthy economy must collect gold rather than spend it).
India imported African ivory and gold and exported cotton cloth.
India traded rice and wheat with Arabia in exchange for dates and horses.
After trade with Rome declined around the third century A.D., India’s sea trade with China increased; the Chinese imported India cotton cloth, monkeys, parrots, and elephants and sent India silk.
FUN FACT: The Art of Navigation & Navigating was born in the river Sindh over 6000 years ago. The very word Navigation is derived from the Sanskrit word 'NAVGATIH'. The word navy is also derived from the Sanskrit word 'Nou'.
Increased trade led to the rise of banking in India; commerce was quite profitable, bankers were willing to lend money to merchants and charge them interest on the loans.
Interest rates varied, depending on how risky business was. During Mauryan times, the annual interest rate on loans used for overseas trade had been 240 percent!
During the Gupta Empire, bankers no longer considered sea trade so dangerous, so they charged only 15 to 20 percent interest a year.
Indian merchants went to live abroad and brought Indian culture with them, resulting in the spread of Indian culture. People throughout Asia picked up and adapted a variety of Indian traditions. For example, Indian culture affected styles in art, architecture, and dance throughout Southeast Asia.
Indian influence was especially strong in Thailand, Cambodia, and on the Indonesian island of Java.
Traders also brought Indian religions to new regions; Hinduism spread to Nepal (a region northeast of India), to Sri Lanka (an island off southeastern India), and to Borneo (an island in Indonesia). Buddhism spread because of traveling Buddhist merchants and monks and in time, Buddhism even influenced China.