The number system which the world uses today originated in India in the first centuries CE. The numbers are usually referred to as “Arabic” since the Europeans obtained them from the Arabs, but in the Middle East they are known as “Indian” since the Arabs obtained them from India. Mathematics emerged as a separate field of study already in Vedic times but it was in the Gupta period that the greatest advances were made. Indians learned from Greek mathematicians but they made seminal contributions of their own. They were the first to make use of decimals and the number zero. They used negative numbers too and they beat Pythagoras to his famous theorem. Indian mathematicians calculated the value of π, pi, with a very high decree of precision, and determined the circumference of the earth and the timing of lunar and solar eclipses. In the 15th century CE, Kerala, in the very south, was home to a school of mathematics which developed trigonometric functions.

In India, mathematical knowledge always developed in conjunction with its practical application. Already the Harappa civilization, some 2,500 years BCE, used geometry in order to calculate the size of fields. In Vedic culture maths was used to determine the size of altars and for deciding when to engage in various religious rituals. Likewise, notion of zero and infinity both have their origin in religious speculations. The world as we know it contains no nothing; everything we see around us is something. Yet in Buddhist philosophy, nothingness is a key concept and the goal of mediation is to empty one’s mind. Nothingness, to a Buddhist, is real. Meanwhile, the Jains were fascinated by very large numbers. They told stories of gods who appeared millions of times with millions of years apart. The better you can understand the infinite, they argued, the better you can understand the divine.

The history of mathematics is a great example of a civilizational exchange. The Indians learned math from the Greeks, taught the Arab world, which in turn taught the Europeans. At each stage, the knowledge was transformed and improved on. To this day only some ten percent of all the manuscripts on Sanskrit science have been published and much remains to be properly studied. There may be many surprising discoveries to be made.

External links:

Incarnations, “Ramanujan: The Elbow of Genius”

Incarnations, “Aryabhata: The Boat of Intellect”

In Our Time, “Indian mathematics”

The Buddhist monastery complex at Nalanda, in today’s Indian state of Bihar, was a center of learning founded in the fifth century CE. Archaeological excavations which begun in 1915 has revealed temples, lecture and meditation halls, libraries and gardens, together with a trove of sculptures, coins, seals and inscriptions. Subjects taught here included the Vedas, logic, Sanskrit grammar, medicine, fine arts, astronomy, mathematics, politics and epistemology. Above all, however, it was a center of Buddhist learning which flourished under the Gupta empire, 240-590 CE. [Read more:Indian mathematics“] Much of our knowledge of Nalanda comes from the writings of Chinese monks who came here to study in the seventh century. At the height of its prominence the university had some 2,000 professors and 10,000 students who all were accommodated in dormitories. Nalanda was the first educational institution to conduct entrance exams. The fortunes of the university declined after the Gupta rulers and in the 1190s it was destroyed by invading armies from Central Asia.

Al Quaraouiyine, in Fez, Morocco, is sometimes said to be the oldest university in the world, founded in 859 CE. [Read more:Ibn Rushd and the challenge of reason“] The oldest universities in Europe – Paris and Bologna, founded in the thirteenth-century CE – are far younger. Nalanda is older than all of them. However, while Nalanda was destroyed, Al Quaraouiyine has been in continuous operation for close to 1,200 years. Yet since 2014 Nandala University is once again accepting students. Led by Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize winning economist, and with economic support from various Asian countries, its aim is to once again to become Asia’s leading center of learning. Subjects taught here include ecology, history economics and languages. Buddhism is taught too but features less prominently on the curriculum than once was the case. The hope is that Nandala University can help contribute to the economic development of Bihar which is one of India’s poorest regions.

External links:

15 Minute History, “The era between the empires of ancient India”

Din-i Ilahi “the religion of God,” was a system of religious beliefs introduced by the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1582 CE. His idea was to combine Islam and Hinduism into one faith, but also to add aspects of Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Jainism. Akbar took a deep personal interest in religious matters. He founded an academy, the Ibadat Khana, “the House of Worship,” in 1575, where representatives of all major faiths could meet to discuss questions of theology. Listening to these debates, Akbar concluded that no single religion captured the whole truth and that they instead should be combined.

Din-e Ilahi emphasized morality, piety and kindness. Just like Sufi Islam it regarded the yearning for God as a key feature of spirituality; just like Catholicism it took celibacy to be a virtue and just like Jainism it condemned the killing of animals. As for its rituals, it borrowed heavily from Zoroastrianism, making fire and the sun objects of divine worship. [Read more:Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism“] The new religion had no scriptures, no priests, and in fact it never had more than a handful of followers – mainly the members of Akbar’s closest circle of advisers. The most prominent person among them was Abul-Fazl ibn Mubarak, the emperor’s vizier or prime minister. Abul Fazl was the author of the Akbarnama, “the Book of Akbar,” a history of Akbar’s reign written in three volumes, which provides a rich description of India at the height of the Mughal’s power.

Din-e Ilahi is best viewed as a state religion with the emperor himself at its center. As the single authority on all religious matters, Akbar was not only going to interpret and apply the religious law, but to actually make it. In the end, the new faith had more to do with politics than with religion. Din-e Ilahi was his solution to the thorny problem of how a Muslim ruler could govern a predominantly Hindu state. Yet the Din-e Ilahi was fiercely opposed by many Muslims clerics who declared it a heretical doctrine. Although the new religion did not survive its founder, it triggered a strong fundamentalist reaction among India’s Muslims. According to rumors, the Muslim call to prayer, “Allahu akbar,” meaning “God is great,” was interpreted by Akbar himself as “God is Akbar.”

External links:

Incarnations, “Akbar, the World and the Bridge”

History of Philosophy, “Subcontinental Drift: Philosophy in Islamic India”

Taj Mahal, located on the south-bank of the Yamuna river in the city of Agra, just south of New Delhi, is one of India’s main tourist attractions. It was commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, the grandson of Akbar the Great, and completed in 1653. The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum built to house the grave of Shah Jahan’s favorite wife, Mumtaz, who lost her life at the age of 38 while giving birth to the couple’s fourteenth child. Shah Jahan never recovered from the loss and dedicated the Taj Mahal to her memory. Her grave is found in a crypt under the building. Apparently Shah Jahan had planned to build a black version of the mausoleum as tomb for himself on the other side of the river. A bridge would have connected the two monuments. Yet no black Taj Mahal was ever built and after his death, Shah Jahan was instead buried beside Mumtaz.

Some 20,000 craftsmen from all over India are said to have worked on the site, and it took twenty years to complete. It is a masterpiece of Mughal architecture, incorporating many Persian influences, and elaborately decorated throughout – apart from the graves themselves which, according to Muslim custom, are left unadorned. Around the mausoleum is a vast garden which it too picks up on Persian themes. In front of the tomb is a raised water tank with a reflecting pool. As the tourist guides never tire of repeating, the Taj Mahal is a monument dedicated to love. For good measure, two more of Shah Jahan’s wives are also buried on the premises.

The Taj Mahal was famously described by the Indian author Rabindranath Tagore as “the tear-drop on the cheek of time.” The buildings have recently turned yellow as a result of acid rain but various attempts are made to restrict environmental pollution in the area. If nothing else, the Taj Mahal is a great source of income. It is annually visited by some 8 million tourists, not least by couples who like to pose for photos in front of the iconic facade.

External links:

History of the World in a Hundred Objects, “Miniature of a Mughal Prince”

Video clips:

Elephants have been used for military purposes since antiquity, first in India and China. The Indian epic, the Mahabharata, from the fourth century BCE, mentions war elephants and elephants were employed by the Persians in their wars with Alexander the Great. [Read more:The Mahabharata“] In one famous battle in 1539 CE, the king of Siam killed the king of Burma in one-on-one combat between their respective elephants.

An “elephantry” is a cavalry equipped with elephants instead of horses. In battle elephants with their enormous bulk are useful for charging the enemy, for breaking the enemy’s ranks, and in general for instilling terror. Generals would often place themselves on top of an elephant in order to get a better view of the battlefield, and archers would sometimes put platforms on the elephants’ backs from which they could assault the enemy. Both male and female elephants can be used in battle, but the male is more useful since female elephants tend to run away from males.

The standard tactic for fighting an elephantry is to dodge their charge and attack the mahout, the elephant-keeper, with arrows and javelins from behind. The Mongols, who never used elephants themselves, would fight the elephantry of their enemies by setting light to straw tied to the backs of camels. When the burning camels charged, the enemy’s elephants would get scared and turn on their masters. Elephants have their limits as a military force since they have a tendency to panic, especially when wounded.

The introduction of muskets in the sixteenth century had only a limited impact on elephants who were protected by their thick hide. The Mughals continued to rely on them in their conquest of the sub-continent. Akbar had a famous elephantry. Yet the arrival of battlefield cannons in the nineteenth-century quickly made them redundant. Against cannons you need far better protection. To this day elephants are used for other military tasks such as transporting equipment and supplies.

External links:

PRI, “War Elephants Still Exist”

One of the rituals described in the Vedas is ashvamedha, the horse sacrifice. This was a political ritual and it concerned the king’s right to rule. First a horse, always a stallion, would be allowed to wander around freely for a year, accompanied by members of the king’s retinue. If the horse wandered off into the lands of an enemy, that territory had to be occupied by the king. Meanwhile any of the king’s rivals was free to challenge the horse’s attendants to a fight. If they did, and the horse was killed, the king would lose his right to rule. If, on the other hand, the horse still was alive after a year, it was taken back to the king’s court. Here it was bathed, anointed with butter, decorated with golden ornaments and then sacrificed. Once this ritual was completed the king was considered as the undisputed ruler of all the land the horse had covered. All kings in Vedic India performed the ashvamedha, and the ritual declined only in the latter part of the Gupta period.

Central Asia, not India, is where the horse originates and the ashvamedha is one piece of evidence which locates the Indo-Europeans outside of India. Horse sacrifices have been carried out all over the Eurasian landmass – in China, Iran, Armenia, among the Greeks and the Romans, even in Ireland. To the people of the steppe, the horse was a sacred animal, and horses were often buried together with dead kings. In the Irish ritual, the king had sexual intercourse with a mare who then was killed, dismembered and cooked in a cauldron in which the king proceeded to swim and drink from the broth.

New-age Hindu spiritualists have recently tried to revive the ashavamedha ritual, but they use a statue of a horse rather than an actual animal. In other contemporary rituals, live horses are worshiped rather than killed. Apparently devotion to the horse can help you defeat enemies and clear debts. The first critics of the ashavamedha appeared already among members of the Charvaka school of philosophy in the seventh century BCE. The Charvakas were skeptics and atheists. They had no doubt that horse sacrifices were invented by “buffons, knaves and demons.”

External links:

In Our Time: “The Upanishads”

History of the World in 100 Objects, “Gold coin of Kumuragupta I”

History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps: “Vedic India: Kingdom for a Horse”


The Arthashastra is a manual on statecraft allegedly written by Kautilya, also known as Chanakya. Kautilya was an adviser to Chandragupta, the first king of the Maurya empire, in the third century BCE. The Arthashastra is a “mirror of princes,” a book of secret advice given directly to a ruler by one of his advisers. As such it is a contribution to the same genre as Sunzi’s Art of War and Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince. [Read more: Sunzi and modern management techniques”] All three books describe politics as a ruthless game of power, yet the Arthashastra is by far the most cynical of the three. A king, Kautilya explained, has to lie and deceive, torture, imprison and kill, and these acts must sometimes be carried out also against the innocent and for no other reason than to intimidate others. Friend and family-members are targets too – in fact, one should be particularly suspicious of friends and family. It was better to be feared than loved.

The manuscript to the The Arthashastra was rediscovered only in 1905. The find produced a sensation since it showed a very different image of ancient India than the one commonly held at the time. It is the only text from Vedic period which does not deal with religious or philosophical matters. Kautilya’s society was thoroughly secular and ruled by people who worshiped martial virtues, not gods. In the early part of the twentieth-century this was a description particularly appreciated by Hindu nationalists who advocated armed resistance against the British. It is said that The Arthashastra is taught in military academies in Pakistan to this day – as a way to better understand the mind-set of Indian politicians. And much as Sunzi’s Art of War, the advice contained in the Arthashastra has been peddled by manuals on “how to get ahead in business.”

External links:

BBC, Incarnations: “Kautilya, the Circle of Power”

History of Philosophy without Any Gaps: “Kautilya and Ashoka”

The Mahabharata is an epic poem which recounts the story of the dynastic struggles over the throne of Hastinapur, a kingdom in northern India, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries BCE. Hastinapur was ruled by the Kuru clan but it had two competing branches, the Kaurava and the Pandava. The struggle culminates in the battle of Kurukshetra in which the Pandavas are victorious. The length of the epic is extraordinary – more than 200,000 verses and a total of 1.8 million words. Despite its format the Mahabharata is regularly performed all over India, with sleep and food breaks both for the audience and the cast. The Mahabharata is regarded as a historical account, as a moral tale, but also as a basic statement of the principles of Hinduism. There are love stories here too, tales of deceit and revenge, and great fighting scenes.

The principal figure in the epic is Krishna who is the god of compassion, tenderness and love, but he is also an embodiment of the supreme, universal, being. The way he is depicted reflects these varying roles – sometimes he is a god-child playing a flute, sometimes a prankster stealing butter, or a lover surrounded by adoring women. In a part of the Mahabharata known as the Bhavad Gita, Krishna is a chariot-driver who gives a lecture to Arjuna, a disciple, in which he explains the difference between just and unjust warfare and the importance of loyalty to one’s family. But there are religious themes too, concerning the relationship between the soul of each individual and the soul of the world. Indeed, the warlike setting is itself interpreted allegorically – the relevant battle concerns not political power but the moral struggles of human life.

The Mahabharata has had a profound influence on Indian culture and it continues to inspire playwrights and artists to this day. It has had an impact on the Bollywood film industry too. [Read more:Curries, Bollywood and the Beatles in India“] This is obvious, for example, in the narrative techniques used in Indian movies with an abundance of side-stories, back-stories and stories-within-stories. Indian movies too are rather long-winded and they make heavy demands on the ability of the audience to follow an elaborate plot.

External links:

History of Philosophy, “Grand Illusion: Dharma and Deception in the Mahabharata”

History of Philosophy, “The Bhavad-gita”

In Our Time: “The Bhagavad Gita”:


Ashoka the Great, 304-232 BCE, renounced violence, converted to Buddhism, and started a number of projects to improve the lot of the poor, the aged and the widowed. In addition he put up pillars all over his empire, often in city-squares or along major thoroughfares, on which he explained his policies and his aspirations. Today there are still 33 of these pillars left. Darius, the king of Persia, had put up similar monuments where he had boasted about the battles he had won and the number of enemies he had killed. But Ashoka invert this message. His pillars express his promise to rule his people with compassion and benevolence, to renounce violence and make sure that everyone of his subjects was happy and well fed. The text is written in a colloquial style, using local languages instead of the Sanskrit employed at court. The pillars were also a way of spreading his presence throughout the empire, uniting it, and making every subject aware of who their ruler was.

This way of communicating with his subjects was quite ambitious not least since Ashoka also is credited with being the first Indian ruler to make use of a written script. People in general were not able to read. To make them understand what the pillars said, a public official was posted at each one of them. The officials explained the message which the pillar conveyed but they also gathered information about the state of the country and the grievances of the population. Along the borders of empire there were pillars written in foreign languages such as Aramaic and Greek. They announced that who ever was traveling this way now had entered the lands governed by the benevolent king Ashoka.

External links:

History of Philosophy without Any Gaps: “Kautilya and Ashoka”

BBC Radio 4, Excess Baggage: “Ashoka’s India”

In Our Time: “Ashoka the Great”

History of the World in a Hundred Objects: “The Pillar of Ashoka”

Incarnations, “Ashoka: Power and Persuasion”


Foreigners often regard Indian culture as “spiritual,” but many of its cultural practices, such as meditation and yoga, concern the body rather than the soul. This is true also of the wisdom contained in the Kama Sutra which is known as a sex manual, but which above all is a manual on how to lead a complete and satisfying human life. It discusses the nature of love, family life, pleasure and desire, but also how to make oneself attractive to others and how to court members of the opposite sex.

The author of the Kama Sutra, Vatsyayana, was a philosopher who lived in the second or third century BCE, but next to nothing is known about him. Clearly sex is important, he tells us, but other things are important too. It is when you are young that you should seek pleasure but as the years pass you should concentrate on living virtuously in order to escape the cycle of endless rebirths. Yet, sexuality can be given a religious interpretation too. A man and a woman in a close embrace symbolizes moksa, “liberation,” the final release from the dualities which characterizes human life. If nothing else, this interpretation provides an excuse for reading the book.

The teaching conveyed by the Kama Sutra is depicted in the thousands of statues that decorate the temples in Khajuraho, in Madhya Pradesh in central India. The statues show men and women in various sexual positions but also scenes from everyday life – women putting on makeup, musicians making music and farmers going about their daily chores. Sexuality, the collection of statues tell us, is a regular part of human life.

Today the production and distribution of pornography is a punishable crime in India. Bollywood, the Indian film industry, excels in evocative dance numbers, but has traditionally refrained from taking the clothes off actors and actresses. [Read more:Curries, Bollywood and the Beatles in India“] Prostitution as such is legal in the country, but brothels and pimping are not. India is estimated to have over half a million prostitutes. Trafficking of young girls is an often reported problem, in particular among members of vulnerable minority groups.

External links:

History of the World in a Hundred Objects: “Shiva and Parvati”

In Our Time: “The Kama Sutra”

Librivox: “Kama Sutra”