The number system which the world uses today originated in India in the first centuries CE. It is usually called the “Arabic numeral system” since the Europeans got it from the Arabs, but in the Middle East it is known as the “Indian system” since the Arabs got it from India. Mathematics emerged as a separate field already in the Vedic period but it was in the Gupta period that the greatest advances were made. The Indians learned from the Greeks, but 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, the Kerala school of mathematics developed ideas regarding trigonometric functions.

In India, mathematical knowledge always developed as a result of its application. Already the Harappa civilization, some 2,500 years BCE, used geometry in order to calculate the size of fields and in Vedic culture maths was used to calculate 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 dialogue of civilizations. The Indians learned from the Greeks, taught the Arab world, which in turn taught the Europeans. But 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, but above all it was a center of Buddhist learning which flourished under the Gupta empire, 240-590 CE, despite the Hindu commitments of the Gupta rulers. [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. He described the nine storey library as “soaring into the clouds.” 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 rigorous 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.

There is some discussion regarding which university that is the oldest in the world. The universities founded in Paris and Bologna in the thirteenth-century CE are often said to be the oldest. Yet this ignores the fact that European universities were modeled on similar institutions in Muslim Spain which, in turn, were modeled on an institution such as Al Quaraouiyine, in Fez, Morocco, founded in 859 CE. [Read more:Ibn Rushd and the challenge of reason“] Yet Nandala is older still, although Al Quaraouiyine has been in continuous operation since it was established. But in the Gupta period there were other universities in India too — at Pushpagiri, Taxila and Vikramashila.

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. 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 clearly took a 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 theology. Listening to these debates, Akbar concluded that no single religion captured the whole truth and that they consequently had to 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 ritual, 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 and no priests and it never had more than a handful of adherents — mainly the members of Akbar’s closest circle of advisors. 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 provide 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. According to rumors, the Muslim call to prayer, “Allahu akbar,” meaning “God is great” was interpreted by him as “God is Akbar.” 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 as a heretical doctrine. Although the new religion did not survive its founder, it triggered a strong fundamentalist reaction among India’s Muslims.

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 Mahal 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. As the legend has it, 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 his favorite wife. 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.

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 Persian themes. In front of the tomb is a raised water tank with a reflecting pool.

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 revenue. 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, and 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“] Elephants are common in Southeast Asia. In one famous battle in 1539, the king of Siam killed the king of Burma in one-on-one combat between their respective elephants.

In the third century BCE, elephants were introduced in the Mediterranean and used by Carthage in north Africa in its wars against Rome. In 218 BCE, in a daring maneuver, Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, took an army which included 38 elephants around the Mediterranean, across the Alps, and attacked Rome from the north. These were Asian elephants, not African, since African elephants cannot be trained.

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. An “elephantry” is a cavalry equipped with elephants instead of horses.

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. In general, 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. However, the arrival of battlefield cannons in the nineteenth-century quickly made them redundant. Against cannons you need far better protection. But elephants have been used for transporting military equipment and supplies to this day.

External links:

PRI, “War Elephants Still Exist”

One of the rituals described in the Vedas is ashvamedha, the horse sacrifice. The rituals were political and they 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 land of an enemy, that territory had to be occupied by the king. Any rival of the king was free to challenge the horse’s guardians, but if 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. The king was then the undisputed ruler of the land. 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. Remarkably, horse sacrifices have been carried out all over the Eurasian landmass — in China, Iran, Armenia, among the Greeks and the Romans, even in Ireland — indicating that we are dealing with a ritual shared by all Indo-European people. To the people of the steppe, the horse was a sacred animal, and they were often buried together with a dead king. 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 swam and drank 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 the horse can help you defeat enemies and clear debts. The first critics of the ashavamedha appeared already among members of the Carvaka school of philosophy in the seventh century BCE. The Carvaka philsophers were skeptics and atheists, and 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 written by Kautilya, also known as Chanakya. Kautilya was an adviser to 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 the ruler, and as such it is a contribution to the same genre as Sunzi’s Art of War and Machiavelli’s The Prince. All three books describe politics as a ruthless game of powerpolitics, yet the Arthashastra is be far the most cynical of the three. A king, Kautilya explained, has to be prepared 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-members. The economy should be tightly controlled and made to serve the king’s own ends. Ordinary people should be intimidated by displays of the king’s awesome power and he should surround himself with an aura of the divine.

The manuscript to the The Arthashastra was discovered only in 1905. The discovery produced a sensation since it showed a very different image of ancient India than the one common at the time. It is the only text from Vedic times which does not treat religious or philosophical matters. Kautilya’s society was thoroughly secular and ruled by people who worshiped martial virtues, not gods. This a description particularly appreciated by Hindu nationalists who advocated an 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. Much as Sunzi’s Art of War, The Arthashastra is today sold to middle-management as a manual on how to get ahead in business. [Read more: “Sunzi and modern management techniques“].

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 struggle 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 has two competing branches, the Kaurava and the Pandava. The struggle culminates in the battle of Kurukshetra in which the Pandavas are victorious.

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 too, tales of deceit and revenge, and great fighting scenes. The length of the story 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 for the cast.

The principal figure in the epic is Krishna who is the god of compassion, tenderness and love, but he is also 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 the driver of a chariot of war who gives a lecture to Arjuna, a disciple. Here 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 the moral struggle of human life.

The Mahabharata has had a profound influence on Indian culture and it continues to inspire playwrights and artists. 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 renounced violence, converted to Buddhism, and started a number of projects to improve the lot of the poor, the aged and the widowed. Another thing he did was to put up pillars all over his empire, often in city-squares and along major roads. Today there are 33 of them left. The pillars had messages engraved on them in which Ashoka explained his policies and his aspirations. 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 he was. Darius, the king of Persia, had put up similar pillars where he had boasted about the number of people he had killed. But Ashoka’s pillars invert this message. His pillars express his promise to rule his people with compassion and benevolence, to renounce violence and make sure that everyone is happy and well fed.

“I consider how I may bring happiness to the people. Not only to relatives of mine or residents of my capital city but also to those who are far removed from me. I act in the same manner with respect to all. I am concerned similarly with all classes.  Moreover, I have honored all religious sects with various offerings, but I consider it my principal duty to visit the people personally.”

Since ordinary people were unable to read, a public official was posted at each pillar, and his job was to explain what the pillar said. This was also a way for Ashoka to gather information of the state of the country and the grievances of the population. Along the borders of the empire there were pillars written in foreign languages such as Aramaic and Greek announcing 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”


People outside of India often regard its 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 life. It discusses the nature of love, family life, pleasure and desire, but also how to make oneself attractive to others, how to court and flirt.

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.

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, has excelled in evocative dance numbers, but traditionally refrained from undressing its actors. [Read more:Curries, Bollywood and the Beatles in India“] Prostitution as such is legal, but brothels and pimping are not. India has an estimated 657,829 prostitutes. Trafficking of young girls is an often reported problem, in particular for 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”