History – Ancient India

Delhi Law Academy

India at a Glance

The history of India has been broadly divided into three distinct periods:

  1. Ancient India
  2. Medieval India
  3. Modern India

The history of modern India is further sub-divided into two major periods:

  1. The British Period
  2. The Indian Freedom Struggle and Partition of India


Indus Valley Civilization (2600-1900 BC)

This was the earliest civilization that flourished in India on the banks of the river Indus. The important sites connected with the Indus Valley civilization are: Lothal near Ahmedabad (in Gujarat); Kalibangan in Rajasthan; Banwali in district Hissar (in Haryana); Ropar near Chandigarh (in Punjab); Mohenjodaro in Larkana district of Sind (now in Pakistan); Harappa in Montgomery district of Punjab (now in Pakistan). The civilization seemed to have flourished at the maximum 1800 bc. Some of the characteristic features were:

  1. systematic town planning
  2. extensive brick work
  3. art of writing
  4. use of bronze tools
  5. red ware pottery painted with black designs

Vedic Period: The Aryans
Early Vedic Period (1500-1000 BC)

The Aryans were semi-nomadic, pastoral people who originally inhabited the area around the Caspian Sea in Central Asia and entered the country in around 1500 bc in search of pastures through the passes in the Hindu Kush mountains. They first settled down in Punjab and later moved eastwards and spread all over the Gangetic plains. Being lovers of nature, Aryans worshipped the sun, the water, the fire, etc. They are said to have been the originators of the Hindu civilization. There were six religious books of the Aryans which reveal their beliefs, customs and culture.

  1. The Vedas: There were four Vedas, viz.,
  • Rig Veda: It is oldest among the Vedas and contains 1017 hymns in the form of prayers to gods; Rig Veda is claimed to be the oldest book in the world.
  • Sama Veda: Deals with music.
  • Yajur Veda: Deals with sacrifices, rituals and formulae.
  • Atharva Veda: Deals with medicine.
  1. The Upanishads: The main source of Indian philosophy and theology; there are about 108 known Upanishads.
  2. The Brahamanas: Throw light on the socio-political life of the Aryans and form the basis of their religion.
  3. The Aranyakas: Forest books, are the concluding portion of the Brahmanas and are essentially treatises on mysticism and philosophy.
  4. Manu Smriti: Manu was the great law giver in the Aryan period and his book Manu Smriti deals with the laws of inheritance, duties of the kings and his subjects.
  5. The Puranas: They give religious and historical details of the Aryan civilization and contain discourses on legends, rituals, traditions and moral codes. They are 18 in number.

Concepts of Vedic Philosophy

  • Atma (Soul)—An atom of life, it is also called jeevatma or living soul. It is a part of Paramatma or the supreme soul (God). It is invisible and is liberated from the body after death.
  • Karma (Deeds)—These are good and bad actions a human commits during his life period.
  • Pap and Punya (Sins and Merits)—Pap is result of bad deeds and Punya is result of good ones. A human being is happy and satisfied if he earns more
    merits (punyas) and is full of sorrows if he commits more sins (pap) during his lifetime.
  • Punarjanma (Rebirth)—The soul never dies but is reborn after each life period is over. The soul enjoys the fruits of punya or pap of the previous life in the present life period.

Later Vedic Period (1000-600 BC)

More developed than the early Vedic period, the tiny tribal settlements were replaced by strong kingdoms. There was a growth of big cities like Ayodhya, Indraprastha and Mathura. This was also called the Brahmanical age and came very close to the modern form of Hinduism. The society was divided into four castes, initially based on occupation, but which later became hereditary.

  1. Brahmins (priestly class)
  2. Kshatriyas (military class)
  3. Vaishyas (business or trading class)
  4. Shudras (labour class)

Growth of Buddhism and Jainism (6th Century bc)

As a result of the revolt against the supremacy of Brahmanical priests, several schools of philosophy opposing Brahmanism developed. The movement was spearheaded by the Kshatriyas of the royal families of Magadha who later helped in the propagation of Buddhism and Jainism.


Founded by Gautama Siddhartha who was a Kshatriya prince of the Saka clan. He was born in 563 BC (or, 576 BC as is believed by some historians) at Lumbini in Nepal. He left his family at the age of 29 years in search of truth and wandered for about six years. He attained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya under a pipal tree. He spread his message for about 45 years and died at the age of 80 in 483 BC at Kushinagar. Buddhism received state patronage of kings such as Ashoka the Great and it spread to neighbouring countries.

Doctrine of Buddhism

  1. The four great truths: (i) The world is full of sorrow and misery, (ii) The cause of all pain and misery is desire, (iii) Pain and misery can be ended by killing or controlling desire and (iv) Desire can be controlled by following the eight-fold path.
  2. The eight-fold path consists of: right faith, right thought, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right speech, right remembrance and right concentration.
  3. Belief in Nirvana: When desire ceases, rebirth ceases and Nirvana is attained, i.e., freedom from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth is gained by following the eight-fold path.
  4. Belief in ahimsa.
  5. Law of karma.
  6. Existence of God.

Facts: Buddhism
♦ Father: Suddhodana, the king of Shakyas
♦ Mother: Mahamaya ♦ Wife: Yashodhara ♦ Son: Rahul
♦ Place of enlightenment Nirvana: Gaya in Magadha (at age of 35) ♦ Tree under which he attained enlightenment: Tree of Wisdom Bodhi Tree (Pipal)
♦ Gotra of Buddha (Siddhartha): Gautama Died at: Kushinagar (487 bc)
♦ First Buddhist Council (Rajagriha in Bihar) 483 bc (King-Ajatshatru; Chairman-Mahakassapa)
♦ Second Buddhist Council (Vaishali in Bihar) 383 bc (King Kalasoka; Chairman-Sabakami)
♦ Third Buddhist Council (Patliputra) 250 bc (King-Ashoka; Chairman-Mogaliputta Tissa)


A non-brahmanical religion like Buddhism, founded by Rishabha, father of King Bharata the first Chakravartin of India. Jainism became the major religion under Vardhamana Mahavira who was the 24th Tirthankara or prophet of Jainism. Vardhamana Mahavira was a great Kshatriya belonging to the royal family of Magadha. He was bom in 540 BC at Kundagrama (Vaishali) in Bihar. At the age of 42 he attained perfect knowledge— Kaivalya. He died at the age of 72 years in 468 bc.

Jain Councils

Two important Jain Councils were held in order to settle prevailing differences between the Jain scholars of respective era. The main difference in opinion was between the followers of Parsvanatha and those of Mahavira. However, the second council failed to solve the differences and thus, was the last council. It also marked the split in the religion and the advent of the two new sects within Jainism: Swethambaras and Digambaras. Swethambars are flexible in their approach, follow the teachings of the 23rd Thirthankara Parasvanatha and clad themselves in white garments. Digambaras are followers of the 24th Thirtankara Mahavira. They believe in rigid penance, which can be attained by punishment to self and body. They stress on nudity and do not allow the use of cloth to cover the body.

Facts: Jainism
Founded as a result of revolt against Brahmanism (sixth century bc)
♦ Mahavira’s original name: Vardhamana
♦ Date of birth: 540 bc
♦ Place of birth: Kundagrama (in Vaishali)
♦ Father: Siddhartha, head of the Inatrika tribe
♦ Mother: Trishala, Lichhhavi Princess
♦ Became a monk: At the age of 30 ♦ Period of ascetism: 12 years
♦ Attainment of Nirvana: At the age of 42
♦ Death: At the age of 72 (468 bc) Cause of death: Self-starvation at Pava, near Rajagriha

Doctrine of Jainism

  1. Attainment of Nirvana (release from rebirth) through TriRatna (three jewels) consisting of (i) right faith (ii) right knowledge and (iii) right conduct.
  2. Belief in ahimsa in word, thought or deed towards all living beings.
  3. Belief in karma through denying the existence of God and dismissal of rituals.

Both Buddhism and Jainism declined with the rise of the Rajputs as a military force. Muslim invasions in the 11th and 12th centuries also led to further disintegration.

Alexander’s Invasion (Greek Invasion)

Alexander, the son of Phillip of Macedonia (Greece) invaded India in 326 bc. His major battle was with Porus, the king of Punjab on the banks of river Jhelum. Alexander emerged victorious. It was the result of Alexander’s invasion that the link between India and the
West-countries was initiated.

Mauryan Empire (321-289 bc)

Chandragupta Maurya and Bindusara

Founded by Chandragupta Maurya when he overthrew the Nandas. His son Bindusara (298- 273 bc) succeeded him and annexed the south up to Mysore. He was the first Indian King who could be called a national ruler and who set up an administration with an autocratic and central- based system. Kautilya (Chanakya) a minister of Chandragupta, wrote the Arthashastra, a treatise on statecraft. Megasthenes was a Greek Ambassador to Chandragupta’s court who wrote the Indica detailing the Mauryan dynasty.

Ashoka, the Great (273-231 bc)

Ashoka was the grandson of Chandragupta and son of Bindusara and is regarded as one of the greatest kings of all times. He was the first ruler to maintain direct contact with the people and he ruled for over 40 years. He acceded to the throne in 273 BC but the formal consecration took place 4 years later in 268 BC. Therefore, there is a controversy regarding the first four years of his rule. During his first 13 years, he carried on the traditional policy of expansion within India and friendly relations with foreign powers. In the 13th year of his reign, he conquered Kalinga.

The Kalinga War: In 265 BC Ashoka invaded Kalinga (Orissa) and occupied it after widespread destruction and bloodshed. This lead to the conversion of Ashoka and he became a Buddhist. His occupation with Buddhism weakened and his administration led to the decline of the Mauryan empire.

Gupta Dynasty (ad 320-550)

The Gupta dynasty is called the Golden Age or the Classical Age of ancient India. During this period foreign rule was completely reversed and peace and prosperity prevailed. Kalidasa— poet and dramatist, Aryabhatta, Varahmihira and Brahmagupta—the great mathematician and astronomer, Dhanvantari—the great physician, all lived during this period.

The following were the important rulers of Gupta Dynasty:

  1. Chandragupta I:(ad 319-335/336)
  2. Samudragupta: (ad 350-370)
  3. Chandragupta II:(ad 376-413/415) (also described as Vikramaditya) During his rule,
    India was visited by Chinese traveller Fahien (ad 399—411) [1]

Facts: Guptas

Gupta Period The reunification of North India under the Imperial Guptas in ad 320 the reign of Harshavardhana of Kanauj comprised India’s classical age.

♦ The Guptas established their base of imperial power in Magadha, where they controlled rich veins of iron from the Barabar Hills.
♦ The peak of Gupta power and cultural glory was attained during the reign of Chandragupta II.
♦ Numismatic evidence attests to the final defeat of the Shakas by the Guptas after which the Gupta Empire had direct control over the ports of the Arabian Sea and the riches of Western trade.
♦ Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Sakuntalam was a major literary work of this period.
♦ During the Gupta era, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain faiths received royal support.
♦ The Gupta era also marked the apogee of cave art and sculpture.
♦ Yoga, one of the six schools of classical Hindu philosophy that emerged in this era, continues to be studied to this day.


Harshavardhana (ad 606-647)

Harshavardhana was the last Hindu king of northern India. He established a strong empire conquering Bengal, Malwa, eastern Rajasthan and the entire Gangetic plain up to Assam. Hieun Tsang was a Chinese traveller who stayed in India during this period (between ad 635-643) and wrote a detailed account of India. Banabhatta, one of the court poets of Harshavardhana, wrote Harshacharita, a biography of the king.

Ancient/Medevial Eras—Buddha Samvat: 544 bc; Mahavira Samvat: 528 bc; Vikram Samvat: 57 bc; (Chandragupta); Saka Samvat: ad 78 (Vikramaditya); Gupta Samvat: ad 319 (Chandragupta I); Valabhi Samvat: ad 319; Kalchuri Samvat: ad 248 (Isvarsena); Harsha Samvat: ad 606 (Harshavardhan); Hijarai Samvat: ad 622 (Prophet Muhammad); Laxman Samvat: ad 1119 (Laxmansena of Bengal); llahi Samvat: ad 1584 (Solar calendar of Akbar).

Rajputs (ad 650-1200)

The Chalukyas (6th century ad to 12th century ad:

Pulakesin I (ad 543-567), Pulakesin II (ad 610— 642), Vinyaditya (ad 681-696), Vikramaditya II (ad 733-745) are its important rulers.

The Chola Dynasty: Founded by Rajaraja I (ad 985-1014) who ruled over Madras and parts of Karnataka with Tanjore as his capital. The last ruler of the Chola dynasty was Rajendra III (ad 1246-79). He was a weak ruler and surrendered to Pandyas.

Rashtrakutas (ad 735-973): Descendants of the nobles who governed under the Andhras. They overthrew the Chalukyas and ruled up to ad 973.