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A brief history of ancient India – generations of Indian religious culture

A summary of Indian history can be provided by dividing it into three parts: ancient Indian history, medieval Indian history, and modern Indian history. It is said that when the prehistoric humans on Earth just started to live a civilized life, India’s ancient people already have had a continuous civilization. Most likely, the people who first lived in India came from Africa. At first, they lived in the northern part of India, and their only job was hunting. In 4000 BC, however, they relocated to the Indus river valley and adopted agriculture as their primary occupation.

The famous Stone Chariot monument at Hampi India. © Anubhav Raikar/Shutterstock

Then, around 2500 BC, they started to live better and built many beautiful cities and homes. Harappa and Mohenjodaro were the two biggest cities. Both cities are located in Pakistan today. People in these cities lived in homes made of stone blocks and used tools made of bronze. Like the Egyptians, the people of Harappa used an early form of writing based on hieroglyphs. The Harappan civilization fell apart around 2000 BC.

The civilization in the Indus Valley

Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro, with the Great Bath in the foreground and the granary mound in the background. © Wikimedia Commons

The civilization in the Indus Valley is one of the oldest in the world. It showed where the western part of South Asia was around 3000 BCE. It covered an area of 1,260,000 square kilometers, including Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan. More than five million people may have lived in the Indus Valley Civilization, and more than 1,052 cities have been found in this area. We don’t know what language the people were speaking. One of the most important cities was Harappa, and another was Mohenjo-Daro. Lothal, Dholavira, Ganweriwala, Kalibanga, and Rakhigarhi were also important.


India’s first independent population was thought to be Dravidians. The Dravidian culture was very diverse, with some groups keeping very old ways of doing things. Even though there have been many contacts, the Dravidian language has mostly stayed the same. Dravidian languages are now the fourth largest group of languages in the world. Most Dravidians were Hindu, but they kept their languages untouched and authentic. Tamil was the first Dravidian language to show signs of being influenced by Hinduism.

Aryans in India

Tablet with an image of Aryan warriors. © Justin Gaurav Murgai/flickr

Around 1500 BC, a group of aggressive people moved from middle Asia to India. Today they are known as Aryans who probably came from Ural mountains. They took up farming like their ancestors did and set up small farming communities all over the ancient Valley of Indus (today’s Punjab region). Step by step, the Aryans took over the Dravidians and sent some of them south. Ultimately, the Aryans took over all of India except for the south. The Aryans took care of horses, sheep, goats, and cows. The Aryans built several towns. There was a leader or committee in charge of each village or group of villages. The Aryan culture was mostly built on the Vedic Sanskrit language. The Aryans didn’t have a written language but a rich culture and sophisticated living standards.

The culture of the Vedas

The Vedas are the origin of integral wisdom, science, tradition and culture of a wonderful civilization. © Wikimedia Commons

The history of a country is the main factor that shapes its culture and traditions. Ancient Vedic culture is still alive in some ways in India, where people are the descendants of the original Vedic people. There were two different parts of the culture: the Dravidians and the Aryans. We know about India’s culture because of two great books, the Vedas and the Upanishads, which have been orally transmitted since the 2nd millennium BCE. These books greatly impacted the country’s culture, traditions, and religious beliefs. From 1500 BC to 500 BC, Vedic culture kept going in the north and northwest of India. Between 1500 BC and 1000 BC, there was the Vedic period, followed by the Later Vedic period, between 1000 BC and 600 BC.

The book Vedas, also known as “Chaturvedas”, had four parts. The Rig-Veda was the first of the Chaturvedas to be written. It is composed of religious hymns written in verse, and many of its parts may have come from Indo-Iranian society before the Vedas. The Andronovo culture, the Mitanni kingdoms, and early Iranians have a lot in common with the Rig-Vedic Aryans.

Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda are the names of the other three Vedas. The Yajurveda tells about how to make sacrifices. People think that Indian songs and music come from the Samaveda. The Atharvaveda is a philosophy book and a list of solutions to everyday worries and problems. It also has details about medicines and herbs. Upanishad was another piece of writing. It talks about how the universe was made, what God is like, and where people came from.

Indian Buddhism

Seated Buddha from India. © Wikimedia Commons

Buddhism’s most important goal is to reach “Nirvana,” which means spiritual freedom from the cycle of birth and death. Buddhism is a religion that doesn’t believe in god, worship images, put down women, or put Brahmins above everyone else. It is based on the idea that everyone is the same and that nothing lasts forever or is a coincidence. Hinayana, which means “travelers by a smaller vehicle,” and Mahayana are the two main Buddhist groups (travelers by a greater vehicle). Hinayana Buddhism grew in Sri Lanka, Burma, and South East Asia, while Mahayana Buddhism grew in India, China, Japan, Tibet, and Central Asia.

Hindus believe that the god Vishnu took the form of Gautama Buddha to save the “untouchable” people of the Hindu caste system. Buddha is god Vishnu’s ninth incarnation on Earth. Siddhartha was a prince from the small Shakya Kingdom in Nepal. This kingdom was at the foothills of the Himalayas. He lived from 563 BC to 483 BC. One day, he gives up his kingdom and family to become a religious beggar and tries to discover what life is all about. He finally stopped to rest under a tree in the Gaya forests (in modern Bihar).

He decided not to move again until he realized what life was all about. At least he learned what later became known as the Four Noble Truths: 1. All of life is suffering. 2. Desire is the cause of suffering. 3. When desire ends, suffering ends. 4. A path of self-control and meditation is the way to end desire.

Jainism in India

Bhagwan Mahavira Vardhamana Jainism, Goa India. © Wikimedia Commons

Mahavir was born into a wealthy family. He was given all the comforts of life, but he didn’t seem interested in them. He was very devoted and wanted to help distressed people, so he strongly desired to reject earthly affections. Spiritualism and rejection got to him so much that on November 11, 570 BC, when he was 30 years old, he left the place and went to a park near Kundapur called Jnatrkhanda-Vana. There, he gave away all of his jewelry and clothes.

He cut his hair out with his hands and became a Digamber Jain monk. He fasted for three days (Upvas) and then dove into meditation. After that, he went on a trip across the country. He lived in a garden park, but once a day, as required by his vows and fast, he went into a town or village and ate the food. This is how Jain ascetics are supposed to live.

Invasion of India by Alexander

A painting by Charles Le Brun depicting Alexander and Porus (Puru) during the Battle of the Hydaspes. © Wikimedia Commons

In 327 BC, Alexander, the great king of the Greeks, led his army to the borders of India to fight the great eastern continent of India. Alexander found that India was full of things to own, and its people were ready to fight. Even though they had won some battles and made a good deal with the powerful king Poros. India finally beat the Greek army of Macedonia, which had never been beaten. After that, in 325 BC, Alexander pushed into Punjab, but his tired troops, afraid of what they had heard about the strong king of Magadha, rebelled on the bank of the Hyphasis River. At least the Macedonian king had to go back west, and most of India was still not taken.