One invasion which was to have a profound impact on India was one that never happened. In 326 BCE, Alexander the Great and his armies moved into Punjab, in the northwestern corner of the subcontinent. Alexander was a Greek statesman and general who already successfully had fought the Persians and continued eastward from there. In this way, 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 afterward, only thirty-three years old. Yet remnants of his army lingered on in the valleys of what today is Afghanistan. They founded communities here where Greek culture, language, and arts came to blend in with local 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 mahajanapada 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 subcontinent remained outside of their control. The most famous of the Mauryan kings was Ashoka, 304-232 BCE, also known as “Ashoka the Great.” Ashoka 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 ninety-nine of his brothers. 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 pastime of all previous Indian rulers — with religious pilgrimages. Ashoka also introduced writing to India and put up numerous 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. Ashoka’s religious conversion was crucial for the dissemination of Buddhism not only in India but throughout Asia. 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 subcontinent was once again invaded by various armies coming from Central Asia. In 185 BCE, the Mauryan Empire was no more.
The most successful of the new wave of invaders were the Kushans who established themselves 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. During the Kushan Empire, trade flourished with Central Asia, but also with places much further afield — Egypt, the Aksumite Kingdom, and Rome. In the second century, the Kushans brought tributary gifts to the emperor in China, and they sent missionaries who helped translate Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. Much of what we know about the Kushan Empire is contained in eyewitness accounts left by Chinese visitors. One such traveler, Xuanzang, was a Chinese monk who traveled to India early in the seventh century in order to find more authentic versions of Buddhist texts.[Read more: “Journey to the West”] He returned home with many manuscripts but also with the Bactrian version of the images of the Buddha. This is how Buddha statues everywhere came to wear Greek togas.
In the fourth century, the rulers of the Gupta dynasty, 319-605, came to dominate the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent. The Gupta Empire was a proper state, with a bureaucracy, a tax system, and salaried officials. The Gupta kings issued coins with their pictures on them, thus informing ordinary people who their rulers were. The economy developed during the Gupta period and so did new production techniques — metallurgy in particular. At the time India was the world’s largest producer of iron. Enormous iron pillars were cast together with Buddha statues in copper. The sciences made great strides as well. 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.
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 also now that Hinduism came to be institutionalized and given set texts, rituals, and prayers. And it was during the Gupta period 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 across a vast area. The Kama Sutra was also compiled at this time, notorious as a sex manual but it is also a discussion of social relationships and family life. Yet the Gupta rulers were quite happy to support other than Hindu faiths. They performed ancient horse sacrifices, much like the Indo-Europeans, and encouraged 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.
When the Gupta Empire began to decline early in the seventh century, it was replaced by a number of competing kingdoms, yet none of them was able to conquer the subcontinent 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 subcontinent — the Pala and the Chola. The Pala Empire, 8th-12th centuries, ruled in Bengal and today’s Bangladesh. The Pala were Buddhists, but they were far more war-like than once Ashoka the Great. Their army was particularly famous for its war elephants. The Pala had skilled diplomats and traded with communities as far away as in China and the Middle East. It was now that Islam was introduced into India and that Indian science and mathematics were exported to the Muslim world.[Read more: “The translation movement”] The Pala rulers were patrons of architecture, and they took over from the Guptas as sponsors of the Buddhist university in Nalanda. When their empire declined in the twelfth century, it meant the end of the last Buddhist rulers in the subcontinent.
The Chola dynasty, 300 BCE-1279, meanwhile, dominated the entirety of the eastern coast of the subcontinent. Here, a substantial part of the population was Tamil-speakers. Although the Chola Kingdom dates from the third century BCE, it was only in the latter half of the ninth century that it became an empire properly speaking. 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 developed. Ordinary people in the Chola Empire were fishermen, seafarers and traders who maintained close contacts with lands beyond the Indian peninsula — 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 were more than anything the Chola version of Indian culture. In the tenth century, 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.