India, just as China, is not only a country but a world onto itself. Indeed it is often referred to as a “sub-continent” which includes not only India but today’s Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka too. The history of India is long, as long as China’s. The first human settlements here go back at least 9,000 years; in the valley of the Indus river the first organized states were established some 5,000 years ago. The ancient city of Harappa, in today’s Pakistan, traded with Egypt and Mesopotamia, made goods in copper and bronze, and used a primitive form of writing. India is the origin of two world religions: Hinduism and Buddhism, and of smaller religions too, such as Jainism and Sikhism. India has always surprised visitors with the enormous size of its population. There are more than two thousand separate ethnic groups here, often with their own language, customs, and sometimes even religion. By 2024, it is estimated that India will overtake China as the country with the largest population in the world.
Although both China and India have a long history, China’s is easier to summarize. From the third century BCE, China called itself an empire and although various dynasties have replaced one another, it is nevertheless possible to tell the history of China as a story of one specific political entity. In the case of India, there is no such continuity. There is no single political subject about which a story can be told. Instead various political entities have replaced each other in the course of the millennia. These different units have been independent of each other, often at war with each other, although there also have been periods when most, or at least much, of the sub-continent has been united under one ruler. Today India is a country, but throughout most of its history it would best be described as an international system of its own. At the same time, it was an international system which was held together by a strong sense of shared identity — based above all on Hindu practices and beliefs.
Another similarity with China is that India constantly has been menaced by invasions. The invaders have typically swept down from the north-west, across the mountain passes of what now is Afghanistan and Pakistan. The reason for the invasions was always the same: the extraordinary wealth of the Indian sub-continent. In India everything grew in great abundance and in the fertile rice-fields of the south it was possible to gather two, sometimes three, harvests per year. The surplus which the agriculture produced paid for an elaborate hierarchy of social classes and for powerful states with rulers famous for their ostentatious displays of wealth. In the Classical period — roughly during the first millennium CE — India was the richest country in the world, with a wealth approximating perhaps half of the world’s total. And well after that — during the Mughal period — India continued to be known as the emporium mundi, the world’s greatest hub for trade and manufacturing. In India it was possible to find whatever one wanted and this was why everyone tried to get here. And those who had nothing to sell, like the invading armies coming from the north-west, took what they wanted by force.
The Mughals were one of these invaders. Originating in the region which is today’s Uzbekistan, they established themselves in India in 1526 CE. They were to rule next to all of the sub-continent during the following three hundred years. The Mughals were Muslims and their culture was to have a profound impact on Indian society. Yet Hindu traditions remained strong. Even the most powerful of foreign armies have had to make compromises with Indian ways of life, eventually blending in with the indigenous culture. In addition, India has exercised a powerful influence over the rest of Asia, over Southeast Asia in particular. Starting in the first centuries CE, Indian cultural practices, and ideas regarding society and religious beliefs, were disseminated all around the Indian Ocean, leading to new cultural combinations. We can talk about this as a process of “indianization.” It is because of indianization that today’s Thailand is a Buddhist country, that Angkor Wat in Cambodia originally was built as a Hindu temple complex, and why a majority of people in Indonesia are Muslims. Indeed the very name of the country — “Indonesia” — reveals some of this history, as does the designation “Indo-China” for the three countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The influence of Indian culture remains strong to this day — although the impact now is felt on a world-wide scale. Today people everywhere are eating curries, practicing yoga and watching Indian movies.
The first written records of Indian history are the Vedas, dating from around 1,500 BCE. The text of the Vedas are based on secret oral teachings provided by gurus, religious teachers, and there is a heavy emphasis on rituals, including sacrifices of various kinds. Because of the importance of the Vedas, this early stage in the history of the sub-continent is often known as the “Vedic period.” The Vedas are written in a concise and rather cryptic language and are for that reason difficult to decipher. The Upanishads, commentaries on the Vedas, which were written some time around 500 BCE, provide far more comprehensive statements of this early version of Hinduism.
The followers of the Vedas were the Indo-Europeans, sometimes known as “Aryans.” The Indo-Europeans, at least according to one prominent theory, came from Central Asia some time around 2,000 BCE and established themselves in northern India, along the plains of the river Ganges as well as on the Deccan plateau in central and southern parts of the sub-continent. The Indo-Europeans were originally nomads and even once they increasingly turned to farming, cattle-breeding continued to be important in their lives. The cow was already at this time a sacred animal. Not that much is known about the Indo-Europeans, but the Vedas contain traces of their rituals. Their kings sacrificed horses and they drank soma, a potion with magical properties. [Read more: “Horse sacrifices“]
During the first millennium BCE there were a large number of different ethnic groups and tribes located on the plains of the Ganges river in northern India. They formed janapada, or “nations,” which gradually came to be associated with a particular piece of territory. All major geographical regions of contemporary India can be traced back to these Vedic nations. Already these early societies were divided into distinct social classes. The priests, or brahmins, formed the leading class; the warriors or kshatriya, came next, then craftsmen and merchants, and finally the class of servants. These four main groups were later subdivided into a multitude of different castes, each one responsible for a certain task and governed by its respective rules. The caste system as a whole was maintained through religious sanctions. You were born into a certain caste, into a certain job and a social position, and there was basically nothing you could do about it. This was the world which the gods had ordained. Later indigenous religions, such as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, won adherents by rejecting the caste system.
Around 600 BCE, the large number of janapada had been reduced to sixteen major ones, known as mahajanapada, “great nations.” The military competition between them forced each state to protect itself against its neighbors and this required more powerful armies. But more powerful armies, in turn, required a more powerful economic base and a more efficient state machinery. This is how – much as in China, and roughly at the same time – military competition came to encourage economic and political change. But, and again much as in China, the competition also produced something akin to a philosophical revolution. The courts of the ruler of each mahajanapada became centers of scholarship and learning, visited by wandering teachers eager to offer advice. Religion was discussed but many philosophical schools developed too, including rationalists, materialists and atheists, and advances were made in sciences like astronomy and mathematics. [Read more: “Indian mathematics“] It was also now — in the late Vedic period, between 500 and 200 BCE — that the great epic poems, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, were composed. [Read more: “The Mahabharata“] In addition, the leaders of the mahajanapadas needed advice for how to rule their respective states and for how to defeat their enemies. One early work on politics is the Arthashastra. [Read more: “Arthashastra“] Politics, its author suggested, is a dog-eat-dog world in which only the most ruthless survive. Another text from this period is the Manusmriti, the “Code of Manu.” It describes the institutions required in a state, how officials should be appointed, how legal contracts are concluded and enforced, and the role and limits on the power of the ruler. Daughters should obey their fathers, and wives their husbands, but the Manusmriti also explains how abusive marriages can be annulled and what happens when a woman gets pregnant with a man to whom she is not married.
As far as religious thought is concerned, two quite different traditions developed. In the western part of the Ganges river valley — towards today’s Pakistan — a priest-led culture flourished, as originally described in the Vedas, which focused on rituals and on the secrets teachings conveyed by gurus. Here the emphasis was on the sacrifices which the gods required and the rewards you might get if you performed them correctly. This is the religious tradition which later came to be known as Hinduism. The leading social class, the brahmins, were the keepers of these rituals and the wisdom the traditions contained constituted the spiritual basis of their secular power. In the eastern part of the Ganges plains — towards today’s Bangladesh — the emphasis was rather on ascetic practices, on meditation and the religious development of each individual. Much debated questions here included the nature of consciousness and the self. There is a brahman, a “world-soul,” some teachers argued, but there is an atman too, the soul of each individual. The question was how the two related to each other. How can the self remain the same from one moment to the next or from one lifetime to another? In order to investigate such questions, ascetics engaged in practices which later developed into yoga and meditation.
It was in this environment that two schools arose which later were to become full-fledged religions — Jainism and Buddhism. The Jains are famous for their doctrine of ahimsa, or “non-violence,” which not only made them renounce war but also turned them into vegetarians. Jain monks even refuse to eat root vegetables since small creatures living in the earth may be harmed when they are pulled up. Jainism preaches universal love, non-attachment to worldly possessions, and it emphasizes the importance of devotional practices. Much later, in the twentieth-century, the idea of ahimsa would inspire the methods employed by Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement. There are still between four and five million Jains in India today.
Buddhism was founded by Siddharta Gautama, a prince born in the small kingdom of Shakya, in today’s Nepal, most likely in the fifth century BCE. At first he lived the regular, pleasure-seeking, life of a prince; he married and had children. Yet at the age of 29, legend has it, he one day left his palace and encountered first an old man, then a sick man and finally a decaying corpse. Realizing that sickness, old age and death awaited also him, he decided to change his way of life. He engaged in various strenuous ascetic practices before he eventually settled for a “middle way,” a life of moderation and detachment, which finally brought him to enlightenment. Siddharta became a “Buddha,” meaning “the awakened one.” The world is an illusion, the Buddha taught, and through our desires and ceaseless striving we make ourselves unhappy. In fact, the self is an illusion too. Enlightenment is a matter of being released from suffering and from our notion of a self. This way we will no longer have to be reborn.
Soon the Buddha started telling others about his spiritual discoveries and this is how the religion which bears his name came to be established. Buddhism quickly spread along the trade routes of inner Asia and across the Indian Ocean. [Read more: “Buddhas of Bamiyan”] Before long there were Buddhists from Afghanistan in the west to Japan in the east. Today Buddhism is a world religion with an estimated 500 million followers, including a growing number in Europe and North America. There are many kinds of Buddhism and many kinds of Buddhists. Some engage in spiritual techniques designed to bring about enlightenment but most are content to engage in pious practices – bringing food to Buddhist monks and praying and burning incense at temples. Curiously for a religion, Buddhism has no notion of a god. It is also a very egalitarian faith. Buddhism acknowledges no separate social classes, no castes, and few distinctions are made between the roles of men and of women. This egalitarian ethos has always been a part of its appeal.
One invasion which was to have a profound impact on India was one that never took place. In 326 BCE, Alexander the Great and his armies moved into the Punjab, in the north-western corner of today’s India. He was poised to take over the entire sub-continent. Alexander was a Greek statesman and general who already successfully had fought the Persian empire and then continued eastward. He created a vast, if short-lived, empire which stretched from Europe all the way to India. India, the Greeks believed, was where the world ended and by conquering it, Alexander would come to rule the whole world. Once in Punjab, however, his troops rebelled and he was forced to turn back. Alexander died in Babylon shortly afterwards, only 33 years old. Yet remnants of his army lingered on in the valleys of what today is Afghanistan. They founded Greek speaking communities here where Greek culture and arts came to blend in with locals traditions.
The chaos left by Alexander’s non-invasion provided an opportunity for others to assert themselves. This is how the first India-wide state, the Mauryan empire, came to be established. The Mauryans overthrew the various mahapadayana kingdoms and between 322 and 180 BCE, they ruled an empire which for the first time encompassed next to all of India — only the southern tip of the sub-continent remained outside of their control. At the time the Mauryan empire was one of the largest political entities in the world. Yet the most famous of the Mauryan kings was Ashoka, 304-232 BCE, the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, also known as “Ashoka the Great.” Ashoka too was a ruthless ruler, or rather, this was how he began his career. In order to make himself heir to the throne, legend has it, he killed no fewer than 99 of his brothers, and once he had assumed power he continued to be both selfish and cruel. Yet he eventually came to regret his behavior. Above all it was the spectacular bloodshed which took place at the battle of Kalinga, 260 BCE, in which, reputedly, no fewer than a quarter of a million soldiers died, that made him change his ways. Remorseful and disgusted with his previous way of life, Ashoka converted to Buddhism, gave away his possessions to the poor and took up vegetarianism.
Ashoka proceeded to reform the Maurya state in line with his new Buddhist beliefs. He planted trees along the roads, dug wells and canals for irrigation, built rest-houses for travelers and hospitals for the sick. He instructed his officials to keep an eye out for the welfare of the poor, the aged and the widowed. He replaced the traditional hunting parties — a favorite past-time of all previous Indian kings — with religious pilgrimages. Ashoka also introduced writing to India and put up a large number of pillars made in stone on which he declared himself to be the ruler of the country and explained his policies and aspirations to his people. [Read more: “Pillars of Ashoka“] Ashoka’s religious conversion was crucial for the dissemination of Buddhism not only in India itself but throughout Asia. He sent missionaries to remote parts of the empire, but also to kingdoms abroad. His own son is said to have been the first Buddhist missionary to Sri Lanka. Yet the state that Ashoka created barely outlived him. After his death, the sub-continent was once again invaded by various armies coming from Central Asia. In 185 BCE, the Maryuan empire was no more.
After the Mauryan empire, new waves of invaders swept in from the north-west. The most successful of these were the Kushans who established a kingdom in northern India during the first four centuries CE. The Kushan empire stretched into Central Asia too and it included Bactria, in today’s Afghanistan. Bactrian culture at the time was a curious mixture of Buddhist influences, Zoroastrianism and the Greek traditions which the army of Alexander the Great had left behind. The Kushans produced works of art in the Greek tradition. Gold coins were minted with Greek text and enormous statues were erected in which the Buddha was wearing a Greek toga. [Read more: “The Buddhas of Bamiyan“] During the Kushan empire, trade flourished with Central Asia, but also with places much further afield – Egypt, the Aksumite kingdom and Rome. [Read more: “The Ark of the Convenant”] In the second century CE, the Kushans brought tributary gifts to the emperor in China. They sent Buddhist missionaries too who helped translate Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. Much of what we know about the Kushan empire is contained in eyewitness accounts left by visitors and merchants coming from China. One such traveler, Xuanzang, was a Chinese monk, scholar and translator who traveled to India early in the seventh century in order to find more authentic version of Buddhist texts. [Read more: “Journey to the West“] He returned home with many precious manuscripts but also with the Bactrian version of the images of the Buddha. This is how Buddha statues everywhere came to wear Greek clothes.
In the fourth century CE, the rulers of the Gupta dynasty, 319–605 CE, came to dominate the northern parts of the Indian sub-continent. The Gupta empire was a proper state, with a bureaucracy, a tax system and salaried government officials. The Gupta kings issued coins with their pictures on them, thus spreading their images throughout the kingdom and informing ordinary people who their ruler was. The economy was flourishing — metallurgy in particular, and at the time India was the world-leader in iron production. Enormous iron pillars were cast together with Buddha statues in copper. The sciences made great strides too. It was now that Indian mathematicians invented the number zero. Zero is of course not very much, but it was to revolutionize mathematics. They also determined that π, pi, was equal to 3.14, plus a long string of digits. Indian astronomers calculated the exact number of days in a year and also the circumference of the earth with astonishing precision. [Read more: “Indian mathematics“]
It was during the Gupta period that many of the things we today think of as quintessentially “Indian” first came to be established, including Indian music, architecture, sculpture and paintings. It was now that Hinduism came to be institutionalized and given set texts, rituals and prayers. And it was now that the images of the Hindu gods received their iconic forms – Vishnu with his four arms; the dancing Shiva; Ganesh, the elephant god; Hanuman, the monkey god, and so on. The power of the Gupta empire assured that these new images would be propagated over a vast area. The Kama Sutra was also compiled at this time, notorious as a manual on sexual practices but also a discussion of love and relationships. [Read more: “Kama Sutra“] Yet the Gupta rulers were not exclusively Hindu but quite happy to support other faiths. They not only built Hindu temples but performed ancient horse sacrifices too and supported Buddhist learning. The large Buddhist monastery at Nalanda, founded in the Gupta period, attracted students from as far away as Tibet, China, Korea and Central Asia. [Read more: “Nalanda, a very old university“]
When the Gupta empire began to decline early in the seventh-century CE, it was replaced by a number of competing kingdoms, yet none of them was able to conquer the sub-continent as a whole. Contemporary writers described the political situation as one of “fish justice,” a world in which the big fish eat the small. From this state of anarchy two empires eventually arose, albeit in different parts of the sub-continent — the Pala and the Chola. The Pala empire, ruled in Bengal and today’s Bangladesh, from the eighth- to the twelfth-century CE. The Pala were Buddhists but they were far more war-like than once Ashoka. Their army was particularly famous for its war elephants. The Pala had skilled diplomats and traded with communities as far away as in China. This was how Islam for the first time was introduced into India and it was now that Indian science and mathematics was exported to the Muslim world. [Read more: “The translation movement“] The Pala rulers were patrons of architecture, the arts and they took over from the Guptas as sponsors of the Buddhist university in Nalanda. The Pala empire is considered as the “golden age” of Bengal. When it declined in the twelfth-century CE it meant the end of the last Buddhist rulers in the sub-continent.
The Chola dynasty, meanwhile, dominated the eastern coast of the sub-continent, where a substantial part of of the population are Tamil speaking. Although the Chola kingdom dates from the third century BCE, it was only in the latter half of the ninth-century CE that it became a vast empire. The Chola kings, much as the Guptas before them, were the leaders of a centralized state with a professional and disciplined bureaucracy. They constructed great buildings, including many temples, and they too were patrons of the arts. It was now that a body of literature written in Tamil first came to be developed. Ordinary people in the Chola empire were fishermen, seafarers and traders who maintained close contacts with lands beyond the sub-continent – from the islands of the Maldives in the south to the Indonesian archipelago in the east. The Indian influences which reached Southeast Asia during this period was more than anything the Chola version of Indian culture. In the tenth century CE, the Chola invaded Sri Lanka. Today’s ethnic division of Sri Lanka — where Tamils constitute some 11 percent of the population — dates from the Chola period. The Chola declined in the thirteenth-century. Tamils still look back on it as their version of a “golden age.”
Although India repeatedly was invaded by various foreign armies, Indian empires themselves never expanded beyond the sub-continent. Despite this fact, India has had a profound impact on societies elsewhere. This power has been civilizational rather than political and it has relied on exchange rather than on the force of arms. This process is often referred to as “indianization.” Indianization, in other words, refers to the process whereby the cultural practices of the Indian sub-continent, together with aspects of its political and social system, came to influence the rest of Asia — Southeast Asia most directly, but China, Japan and Central Asia too. Since indianization never was a matter of an official policy, it is difficult to say exactly when the process began and how it developed. But it is clear that Indian influences spread above all along trade-routes, both those in Central Asia and in the Indian Ocean. In the Indian Ocean you traveled by boat, and thanks to the monsoons – the so called “trade winds” – it was quite easy to cover even large distances. Since the winds changed with the seasons, a trader in southern India could set sail for, say, the Malacca peninsula in the summer and then return home in the winter when the direction of the winds changed.
In the third century CE there were already well-established contacts between ports all around the Indian Ocean and this was where Indian merchants came to settle. Together with the trade and the traders came various Indian religious practices but also ideas regarding politics and society together with some of the institutions required to implement them. In Southeast Asia, a strong influence from India is detectable from the eighth century CE, and it was to continue for at least some five hundred years. This was when Hinduism spread, followed by Buddhism and then Islam. But this was also how the Pali and Sanskrit languages were exported, together with Indian music, theater and dance, food, ways of dressing, and much else. [Read more: “Thaipusam“] Many aspects of Indian society were highly elaborate and urbane and thereby quite alien to the agricultural, and rather rustic, traditions which characterized Southeast Asia. Not surprisingly competition ensued regarding who among the locals that would become the most Indian. This logic mattered in particular for Southeast Asian rulers. A king who could surround himself with the trappings of Indian civilization was quite automatically regarded as both powerful and legitimate. As such he would stand out from his competitors – at least as long as they did not copy the same Indian models. In addition the local rulers were eager to adopt any institution or technique than might help them strengthen their hold on power. This included Indian manuals on statecraft, political institutions and the Indian legal system. The Arthashastra and the Manusmriti were both read by Southeast Asia rulers.
There were many indianized states throughout East Asia. This is a small sample:
Langkasuka, 200s-1500s CE, the oldest kingdom in the Malay Peninsula thought to have been created by descendants of Ashoka the Great. Mixing Hindu, Buddhist and Malay culture, Langkasuka was a part of the Chinese international system and their tribute bearers are mentioned in imperial Chinese records. [Read more: “China and East Asia“]
Srivijaya, 650-1377 CE, a kingdom on the island of Sumatra in today’s Indonesia, heavily influenced by Indian culture. Srivijaya was a thalassocracy, an empire stretching across the ocean, with strong connections to the Malacca peninsula and societies bordering on the South China Sea. Srivijaya attracted pilgrims from other parts of Asia and was home to more than a thousand Buddhist scholars.
Medang, 800s-1100s CE, was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom on Java in today’s Indonesia. They built the Borobudur, a Buddhist temple complex, and the Prambanan, a Hindu temple complex. The Medang rulers oversaw the translation of Indian texts but the culture included distinct Javanese influences. Medang buildings are known for their bas-reliefs which often contain quotations from Buddhist sutras.
Champa, 192 to 1832 CE, was a kingdom located in southern and central Vietnam which adopted Sanskrit as a scholarly language and made Hinduism into a state religion, although Indian influences here too were heavily mixed with local religious lore. In 1832 the Champa were conquered by the Viet, a society with far closer cultural ties to China. There are still people in Vietnam today who speak Chamic, a language related to Malay.
The Khmer was a Hindu empire which existed between the 9th and 13th centuries CE in today’s Cambodia. Its political and religious center was the Angkor Wat, an enormous complex of more than 900 temples. The kings were considered as incarnations of Vishnu, the Hindu god. [Read more: “Angkor Wat“]
Kingdom of Tondo, 900s to 1589 CE, was an Indianized kingdom in today’s Philippines. They traded with China and participated in the Chinese international system.
Pagan, 849-1297 CE, was a kingdom in central Burma, predominantly Buddhist but also incorporating Hindu beliefs. They were invaded by the Mongols in 1297 and never recovered.
Ayutthaya, 1351-1767 CE, a kingdom in today’s Thailand. They engaged in extensive trade, sent ambassadors to foreign courts, and expanded into the Malay peninsula. The Ayutthaya kings combined Hinduism and Buddhism and were considered semi-divine rulers. Their armies made extensive use of war elephants. [Read more: “War elephants“]
Majapahit, 1293-1527 CE, was another thalassocratic empire, based in Java in today’s Indonesia. They had some 98 states paying tribute to them from areas including Malaysia, southern Thailand, the Philippines and New Guinea. Majapahit rose to power in the wake of the Mongol invasion. [Read more: “The Mongol khanates“] The Majapahit built stupas in red brick, statues in terracotta, and figurines in gold. They made no real difference between Hinduism and Buddhism.
Bali, in today’s Indonesia, an island strongly influenced by Hindu culture from the first century CE. Unusually for Southeast Asia, an Indian-style caste-system was in place here, although it was greatly simplified. Hinduism is practiced in Bali to this day but it is combined with many Buddhist beliefs and indigenous religious practices.
It is at the same time clear that the indigenous populations of Southeast Asia were far more than the passive recipients of these influences. For one thing, they often traveled to southern India themselves and they were active importers both of goods and cultural practices. Southeast Asian rulers would place orders for specific goods with Indian producers or they would convince Indian craftsmen to settle at their courts. Before long they produced their own versions of Indian products. Cultural practices too were first adopted and then adapted to suit local needs. For example: although the local rulers often were keen on the idea of castes, they were not, with the exception of Bali, able to impose the system on society at large. In the Khmer kingdom, for example, the caste system was only implemented within the temple compound of Angkor Wat itself. Clearly this way of organizing social relations, with its many fine-tuned gradations between social classes and professional groups, fit badly in Southeast Asian societies where next to everybody was a farmer. This also shows that there were limits to how far Indian cultural references could spread. In many cases, it was only the local elite that was thoroughly steeped in Hinduism.
We see the same mixing of cultural references when it comes to religious practices. For one thing, the nuclear family was always more powerful in Southeast Asia than in Indian society. Thus in Bali reincarnation was thought to happen within the family lineage and not randomly in society at large. Women have also played a more prominent role than they did, or do, in India, and the adoption of Indian cultural practices did not change this fact. Or consider the use of Sanskrit. Today languages such as Thai and Burmese are written with letters that may remind us of Indian letters, but they have been thoroughly modified and the writing systems are entirely different. [Read more: “Shadow puppets“]. This mixing of religions was further facilitated by the fact that neither Hinduism nor Buddhism are monotheistic faiths. A religion with only one, omnipotent, god will always reject the possibility of there being other competing divinities. As a result the deity in question has problems accepting claims put forward by other gods. For Buddhism and Hinduism, there were no such problems, and both religions happily borrowed references from each other. You could be a Buddhist part of the day, or part of your life, and a Hindu the rest of the time. Or, more likely, you would not make a sharp distinction between the two.
“Indianization” is consequently a somewhat contested term. Indeed, the first ones to use it were Indian nationalists in Bengal in the 1920s, at the time when India itself still was a British colony. Inspired by French excavations of Angkor Wat and other ancient temple sites, they began to speculate regarding the existence of an ancient “greater India” which had spread out over much of East Asia. [Read more: “Angkor Wat“] This had not been an empire, they explained, but a civilization. India had brought progress and prosperity to its neighbors but not, like the British, through military conquest but instead through trade and peaceful exchange. Yet as we have seen, while Indian traditions certainly were widely disseminated they were often diluted, or completely reconfigured, in the process. On other occasions they maintained their original form while being filled with entirely different cultural content. If we go on using the term, we should think of indianization as a process of hybridization — such as when two plants interbreed to form a unique combination of the two. Indianization is not the spread of Indian culture as much as the creation of new species of culture which draws heavily from India itself but which at the same time is adapted to local traditions and needs. Indian culture has continued to have a profound impact on other societies, but in the twenty-first century its influence is nothing short of global. [Read more: “Curries, the Beatles in India and Bollywoodization“]
Between the tenth and the twelfth centuries CE, another great wave of invasions swept down on northern parts of the Indian sub-continent. Once again it was a question of nomads coming from Central Asia, but this time around they were Muslims who spoke a Turkic language. Between 1206 and 1526, a Muslim regime — the Sultanate of Delhi — dominated much of northern India. Here Indian traditions mixed with Islam and new contacts developed between India and the thriving, if politically fragmented, Abbasid caliphate. [Read more: “The Umayyads and the Abbasids”] The Delhi sultanate was one of the few states who successfully defended themselves against the Mongols. As former raiders on horseback themselves, they clearly knew how to deal with Mongol tactics. Interestingly, the rulers of the Delhi sultanate include a woman, Razia Sultana, who ruled for four years in the thirteenth-century.
The Sultanate of Delhi was weakened by uprisings and eventually it was overthrown. Yet the new rulers too had their origin on the steppes of Central Asia. The Mughal empire, 1519-1857, was a Muslim kingdom which started out in today’s Uzbekistan. Its first ruler, Babur, 1483-1530, was a 13th generation descendant of Genghis Khan’s son Chagatai, and also a relative of Timur Lenk, who had created a vast, if short-lived, empire in Central Asia in the fourteenth-century. Babur tried his best to live up to his family traditions. Born in the fertile Fergana valley in today’s Uzbekistan, he settled in Samarkand where he surrounded himself with a small band of retainers. Pushed out of Samarkand by the advancing Uzbeks, he moved on to Afghanistan and eventually settled in Kabul. From here his armies began making incursions into northern India where he gradually established more of a foothold. The Mughal soldiers used guns to great effect. Historians sometimes talk about the “gunpowder empires” of Asia – which in addition to the Mughals included the Ottomans and the Safavids of Persia. [Read more: “The Ottoman empire”] But Babur’s battle tactics also explain much of his success. While guns had been used in India before, they had never been combined with a rapidly moving cavalry. The Indian defenders were amused at our muskets, Babur recalled in his autobiography, but they soon stopped making jokes when they saw what they could do. Although his generals would have preferred to loot India and then return home to Central Asia, Babur decided to stay. Already from the beginning he treated Indians as his subjects rather than as his prey. And yet, as he confessed in his autobiography, he remained homesick for Samarkand to the end of his day.
There were eighteen subsequent rulers of the Mughal empire. Babur was succeeded by his son, Humayun, 1508-1556. His name means “the lucky one,” but he was clearly quite inappropriately named. He temporarily lost the Mughal throne and was exiled to Iran, but with Persian support he reconquered it in 1555. Humayun died, only 48 years old, when falling down a staircase — according to one version, while running to get to Friday prayer on time. After his unexpected death, it was unclear who would succeed him, but eventually his son Akbar, 1542-1605, did. He was 13 years old at the time and he was to rule India for the next 50 years. Akbar was the Mughal ruler who more than all others put his mark on the empire. When he captured the state of Gujarat in 1573, he was still only 31 years old. He loved hunting, horse-riding and archery, and although he remained illiterate all his life, he had a library of some 24,000 volumes written in Sanskrit, Urdu, Persia, Greek, Latin and Arabic. Persian culture was influential at Akbar’s court, with Persian-style music, poetry and illuminated manuscripts as primary art forms. During his reign trade and manufacturing flourished and the country grew rich. This was a time of great expansion in world trade, and Mughal India was its hub. [Read more: “A mountain of silver”]
Akbar also strengthened the institutions of the Mughal state. He embarked on far-reaching administrative reforms and imposed uniform rules on the bureaucracy. He reformed the military too, organizing the cavalry into the same units of ten soldiers which had been a feature of Genghis Khan’s armies. He also established an elephantry, military units made up of war elephants. [Read more: “War elephants“] Akbar made a serious attempt to conquer all of the Indian sub-continent. He was constantly on the move, and much as Genghis Khan before him, he took his bureaucrats with him wherever he went. In the end only a small tip in the very south of India remained outside of his grasp. Akbar had a strong personal interest in questions of religion. He held religious disputations at his court where Muslim scholars debated theological matters with Hindus, Jews and Christians. He even tried, if unsuccessfully, to amalgamate the faiths of the country into one state religion. [Read more: “Din-e Ilahi“] In order to improve relations with his Hindu subjects, he abolished the jizya, the tax imposed on all non-Muslims. He moved closer to the Shia than to the Sunni version of Islam, and he took several Hindu wives.
Akbar’s oldest son Jahangir, 1569-1627, replaced him in 1605. Jahangir means “conqueror of the world” and he tried his best to live up to the name, although to posterity he is more remembered for his active love life. The economy of the country remained strong and so did the Mughal administration. He too encouraged religious debates and tolerance of other faiths. Shah Jahan, 1592-1666, was Akbar’s grandson. He took a great interest in architecture and left a number of prominent buildings to posterity. He constructed the Red Fort in Delhi and made Agra into his capital. It was also he who commissioned the Taj Mahal as a monument to commemorate his beloved wife. [Read more: “Taj Mahal“] In addition, Shah Jahan is famous for the Peacock Throne and the Koh-i-Noor diamond. It was on the Peacock Throne, in the Red Fort, that the Mughal emperors were seated on ceremonial occasions. The throne was an extravagant affair even for the Mughals. It was covered in gold and diamonds — of which the Koh-i-Noor, one of the largest diamonds ever discovered, was the most striking. The Peacock Throne cost twice as much as the construction of Taj Mahal itself.
The fourteen subsequent emperors were less distinguished and less colorful. A particularly controversial ruler was Aurangzeb, 1618-1707, who ruled for close to fifty years. The empire continued to expand during his reign and the economy flourished. The Mughal empire at the time had some 150 million subjects and the largest economy in the world, larger than China’s, and perhaps equivalent to a quarter of world output. But relations between the Muslim rulers and their Hindu subjects deteriorated. Aurangzeb reintroduced the jizya and he was notorious for destroying Hindu temples. During subsequent rulers the Mughal hold on the country weakened considerably. There were revolts against higher taxes and discontent regarding religious matters. Various regional rulers emerged to compete with the imperial center. This was also when the next wave of invaders appeared in the country, this time traveling by boat. The first Europeans to arrive were the Portuguese, then came Holland, France and eventually the agents of the English East India Company. This, however, is a story which we will return to in our last chapter. [Read more: “The European expansion“] As a result of internal divisions and foreign pressure, the Mughal empire gradually fell apart, even though it formally lasted until 1857.
But the Europeans did not conquer India right away. In 1799, the Sikhs, led by its king Ranjit Singh, established an empire based in the Punjab, in the north-west, which for a few decades became a dominant force on the sub-continent. Sikhism is yet another domestic religion which, much like Buddhism, sought to break with the Hindu caste system. The Sikhs were egalitarian, emphasizing self-help and the pursuit of social justice. They were also quite ready to use military force in order to fight for their beliefs. They are famous for their swords, their uncut hair and their turbans. The Golden Temple in Amritsar is the center of Sikh worship and a place of pilgrimage to this day. As for Ranjit Singh, the first ruler of the Sikh empire, his physical appearance was far from impressive. He was short and had lost sight in one of his eyes already as a child. Yet he was generally known as “the Lion of Punjab” and at the time of his first military successes he was only 18 years old. When he died in 1839, we are told, his four wives and seven concubines voluntarily threw themselves on his funeral pyre. Yet after his death, the empire he created soon fell apart. It was only now that Great Britain came to colonize the entirety of the Indian sub-continent.
India as an international system
India, we said, is not a country as much as an international system in its own right. It contains a vast number of ethnic groups, almost as many languages, and separate religions that count millions of adherents. There has always been great political diversity too with many independent states competing with each other. During some periods one state managed to conquer much, or most, of the sub-continent. This is what the Maurya did, the Guptas, and later the Mughals. Yet they all had to make allowances for the diversity of cultures and ethnic groups. And even the most powerful rulers had little power over what was going on in India’s hundreds of thousands of villages. The diversity and political fragmentation becomes even more obvious if we include Southeast Asia in the Indian international system. Southeast Asian societies were really quite different from Indian and Indian rulers never made any attempts to control them. At the same time, the Indian international system has been held together by shared traditions. This has often been identified as a “Hindu” legacy, but Hinduism itself is a broad church which incorporates many gods, religious practices and ways life. Hinduism is an ongoing interaction rather than a set of fixed practices and beliefs. This has made Hinduism into a rather indistinct religion but it has also made it highly persuasive. It has been easy to mix Hinduism with other traditions. Thus Buddhists could form a new religion without quite breaking with the old and Islam could make converts among people who maintained much of their traditional ways of life. This explains India’s strong influence on Southeast Asia and it explains its influence in the world at large today. As soon as people elsewhere find out what Indians are up to, their curiosity is aroused.
Today many Indian nationalists take a different view of Hinduism. Indian nationalism was formed at the end of the nineteenth-century as a movement to oust the British occupiers. [Read more: “Chesterton and Gandhi on Indian nationalism”] For this to be possible, Indian nationalists claimed, the country must be united. Yet unity, some of them continued, could never be achieved in a society as diverse as India. These nationalists wanted a much less complex society – a society only for and by Hindus. And Hinduism, moreover, should be strictly defined, not as an ongoing interaction but in terms of a definite set of practices and beliefs. This notion is known as Hindutva. Not surprisingly, nationalists of a Hindutvapersuasion have their own interpretation of Indian history. They see Vedic myths as accurate accounts of the past and they insist that the Indo-Europeans were not invaders from Central Asia but indigenous to the sub-continent. Other cultures and religions are regarded as foreign impositions and times when they were prominent wereperiods of division and weakness. This includes a ruler such as Ashoka the Great. While the young Ashoka was a tough guy and a person to admire, the old, post-Kalinga, Ashoka was far too meek. Indian nationalistsalso dislike him for his conversion to Buddhism and for his rejection of the caste system. Over the years Indian history textbooks have been rewritten to downplay his achievements.
Much the same is true of the Hindutva view of the Sultanate of Delhi and the Mughal empire. The Mughals, Hindu nationalists explain, were foreign invaders who ruined the country and imposed a foreign religion on its people. The divisions created in this way made the country an easy prey for European colonializers. The half-century rule of emperor Aurangzeb is regarded as particularly disastrous. Aurangzeb, Indian school children are taught, “hated Hindus.” Instead it is the Gupta period which is identified as the age of Indian greatness. During the Gupta empire the country developed economically, it was politically centralized, and Hinduism was officially promoted. There are still Hindutva nationalists in India today. Indeed, the country is run by them. And history textbooks continue to be rewritten in order to make India less pluralistic and Hinduism into a less forgiving faith. The Hindutvavision for the future is of a new Gupta empire. One nation united under one set of Hindu gods.
There are many problems with this view of the history. Aurangzeb’s reign may have been a period of increased religious strife, but he employed many Hindus in his administration – many more in fact than any other Mughal rulers. While some Hindu temples may have been destroyed, others were built with government money. Indeed, the Hindutva nationalists are wrong about the Gupta period too. The Gupta rulers were Hindu to be sure, but they too supported other faiths, including Buddhist institutions. Clearly, the division between Hinduism and other religions which is so obvious to Indian nationalists today did not exist during much of Indian history. Indeed, the nationalists fail to understand the historical legacy of Hinduism and the reasons why Indian traditions have had a powerful impact other societies. Hinduism was never a culture as much as a civilization. That is, it never closed itself off from the rest of the world. It never built walls and it never sought to define itself in distinction to other traditions. Instead India society reached out to others, engaged them in trade and exchange, both along the caravan routes of Central Asia and between the ports in the Indian Ocean connected by the trade winds. Indian society was always open to the world and the world was always open to Indian civilization. This is how India grew rich and admired.