India: The Ancient Past: A History of the Indian Sub-Continent from c. 7000 BC to AD 1200
Ancient India evolved in many stages, and in this book the author discusses the very early stages from 7000 B.C. to 1200 A.D that includes the earliest known human settlements in the Northwest frontier. An examination of their society, the development of early Indo-European language and a proto-Vedic culture that grew into modern Hinduism is a fascinating story of human evolution. The book discusses social, political, and religious activities during various periods in India in separate chapters for a more focused discussion. This book also documents very recent discoveries about the origin of ancient Sanskrit, the Vedic Aryans and the beginnings of the earliest writings of the sacred scriptures of Rigveda in the cradles of Indus Valley Civilization. It is fascinating to read some of the proudest moments in the history due to its success in the development of religious, spiritual and metaphysical ideas. There was also a tremendous contribution in the area of business and economics, international trade, arts, sciences, mathematics, astronomy, and literature. In ancient world, most religions, like Vedic Brahmanism were polytheistic with the exception of Buddhism and Jainism.
The first section is devoted to the discussion of the history of Vedic Aryans and evolution of ancient Sanskrit and revelation of Rigveda to sages and rishis. In recent years, multidisciplinary studies in archeology, anthropology, genetics, classical philology and linguistics have shed much light into the origins of Indo-Europeans and the parent Indo-European language from two distinct groups of people; the hunter-gatherers, and the farmers/pastoralists. The author discusses some recent discoveries with regards to the origin of the Vedic Aryans and Rigveda.
A brief summary of this book is as follows: There is a general consensus among archeologists that the mature Harappan period (known as Indus Valley Civilization) lasted from about 2600 B.C. to 1900 B.C. The period 4500 to 3500 B.C is an age of transition; and 3500 to 2600 B.C is regarded as early Harappan period. The Vedic – Hindu culture began around 2000 B.C and spanned for about 1500 years unhindered, but then Buddhist and Jain teachings came to dominate the Indian society. Buddhism offered a serious challenge to the Vedic-Brahmanic culture until Adi Shankara appeared (788 - 820 A.D.) to reform and revive Hinduism from possible extinction. In spite of religious and cultural tensions between various indigenous belief systems that sprang on Indian soil, the classical civilization grew unimpeded. Much of this was as a result of the partnership of Vedic-Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, the dissenters and atheists. In fact there were plenty of atheists in Vedic India. Dissent and atheism helped intellectual progress in a purely academic fashion that helped to strengthen various schools of Indian philosophy.
A decline around 1900 B.C. in the dynamics of Harappan economic system ended the civilization, and after 1700 B.C little remained of this culture. Until recently it was believed that invading Aryans destroyed the Indus culture but scholars now consider a combination of natural and socioeconomic factors led to the decline of Indus cities. This conclusion is based on geological and archeological studies. Rivers shifting the course and severe draught may have resulted in total collapse of the agriculture and affected the livelihood that depended on it.
The earliest hymns of Rig-Veda were written in 1700 B.C and it was orally transmitted with extreme fidelity. The caste system helped in this practice since the upper caste Brahmins passed on it on to their children. It was written down after 500 B.C. The sixth century B.C was a period that was watershed in the history of speculative ideas. By then the Vedic society had become highly stratified and gross inequality pervading its structure. There was a sense of injustice and dissent among ordinary populace. The emergence of Buddhism and Jainism is what was necessary to combat the growing power and authority of the priestly population. Both these religions rooted in renunciation of the worldly pleasures and wealth, was trying to bring justice and social equality among sudras and vaisya population of Vedic caste hierarchy.
With the fall of Mauryan Empire was accompanied by the loss of pan-Indian authority exercised from Pataliputra to Magadha. A number of competing power centers in different regions of India came into existence. The political diffusion in the post Mauryan period and the emergence of monarchies with foreign roots is interesting since historians have a huge scale of available evidence. From Royal inscriptions, the shastras, the secular literature, Buddhist religious and secular texts and the Tamil anthologies, foreign literary sources from China, Syria, Greece, Persia and Egypt gives credence to the political and commercial setting of this period. From about 200 B.C. the transition from proto-historical to historical period is clearly evident. Kushans maintained a powerful dominion over North India until at least up to 250 A.D. and their trans-Asian empire, from Aral Sea to Kashi, Eastern Iran, Afghanistan and North Western part of India, was great expanse of land and the great conduits for India’s international trade.
During the post-Mauryan period, in several kingdoms, Vedic Brahmanism was brought back but with some reforms in its teachings. This led to the beginning of two forms of modern Hinduism in the form of Vaishnavism and Saivism. They centered around three concepts; the supreme deity is either Vishnu or Siva and the salvation is through Lord Vishnu and Siva respectively. This is said to be achieved by the intense devotion (bhakti) of the godhead. The two traditions did not break away from Vedic Brahmanism but rejected some practices such as animal sacrifices and expressed more tolerance to lower castes.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in ancient history, Indus Valley Civilization, the beginnings of Indo-European language and evolution of modern Hinduism. It is fascinating to read about the vast period the author focuses in his discussion with significant details. You will come across some of the proudest moments in the history of India.