Before the Raj

Updated 12 September 2013

In some ways, Indian (and Pakistani) history goes further back than the Chinese

to archaeological sites such as the Indus Valley Civilisations: Mohenjo-Daro in Sind and Harappa, now in Pakistan, dating to 3,000 BCE. In fact only in recent years a new site Mehrgarh has been discovered, deemed to be even older than that of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa – carbon dating puts it at possibly 7,000 BCE.

But keeping meticulous and accurate records was not deemed to be important.  After all, if life is only transitory and according to some Hindu philosophers it may even be an illusion [curiously, very recent cosmology suggests that reality is but a 3-D hologram projected from the edge of the universe!], why bother. Historical knowledge per se is a kind of unnecessary baggage.  Much more important to record the happenings of the past in so far as there are lessons for the present and future.

India has over the centuries, unlike China, experienced a more fragmented past. More often than not, different rajas or sultans ruled over parts of India, even during the height of the British Raj, which at peak ruled over some 75% of the Indian sub-continent. Again, unlike China, invaders were not absorbed into the local culture and practices. Rather, they often grafted their ‘brand’ onto the existing – such as Urdu on top of Hindi; and British civil and military processes replacing earlier forms.

Despite the long period of colonial rule, most Indians do not regard the British (or the West) with any animosity. And English is probably spoken by more Indians than Hindi.

Ancient Hindu records

One of India’s most ancient records – and some would say the world’s – is the Ramayana epic (c 1,000 BCE), part of the Hindu itihāsa (“it was like this” or history). In a nutshell, it is about the hero Lord Rama and his wife Sita, fighting and defeating a demon king, Ravana, who was chased to what is probably Sri Lanka. A classical story about good versus evil; when after many trials and tribulations good overcomes evil. However, when one delves into its contents which include monkey troops under Hanuman and so forth, we realise it is more a ‘legend’ than what one would today regard as ‘history’. However, modern archaeologists have traced the itinerary of Rama from northern India to today’s Sri Lanka and found evidence that, at least, many of the places do exist and some have fragments of Indian Iron Age artefacts.

Similarly the Mahabharata epic (c 800 BCE) is another part of the Hindu itihāsa. A basis of Hindu mythology and a major text of Hinduism because, in particular, it contains the hymn Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Blessed Lord), it is immensely important to Indian culture. With about one hundred thousand verses, long prose passages, and about 1.8 million words in total, the Mahabharata is the longest epic poem in the world. It is roughly four times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined and about four times the length of the Ramayana. Again, it refers to demons and mythical beings. So, it is not regarded as history by today’s standards. Again, modern archaeologists have tried to trace the events which include many battles and, once again, there is geographic evidence that seems to support the story.

Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are part of the Puranas. As per Wikipedia: “the Puranas (Sanskrit: पुराण purāṇa, “of ancient times”) are a genre of important HinduJain and Buddhist religious texts, notably consisting of narratives of the history of the universe from creation to destruction, genealogies of kings, heroes, sages, and demigods, and descriptions of Hindu cosmology, philosophy, and geography.

Puranas usually give prominence to a particular deity, employing an abundance of religious and philosophical concepts. They are usually written in the form of stories related by one person to another. The Puranas are available in vernacular translations and are disseminated by Brahmin scholars, who read from them and tell their stories, usually in Katha sessions (in which a traveling Brahmin settles for a few weeks in a temple and narrates parts of a Purana, usually with a Bhakti perspective).”

First recorded Indian history

Between ancient archaeological ruins (3,000 BCE) and the epics and formal recorded history (300 BCE), historians believe that a central Indo-European race called Aryans (the noble ones) migrated into India. These people came from the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.  Some of them stopped in today’s Iran, while others continued south-east to today’s Pakistan and India. The slow migration did not arrive in northern India until about 1,500 BC.

The written records of the Sanskrit, the language these people brought with them can be read today, and we can see that many words in Sanskrit are basically the same as in other Indo-European languages.

In addition to Sanskrit, the Aryans brought their gods with them to India. These gods form the basis of the Rig Veda and other sagas which were first written down in Sanskrit. They settle down, probably in the Indus Valley, from about 1,500 BC to about 800 BC. It seems to be at this time that the caste system got started. Then they pushed further into India. As a result the indigenous people, the Dravidians, were pushed south into the Deccan plateau and beyond.

Although the majority of historians in India and abroad subscribe to the (simplified) pre-history noted above, there is controversy about the Aryan-Dravidian divide, and even some doubt that the Aryans invaded India.

Further Indian records

We then have a Grecian record of the battle between Alexander the Great and PorusKing of Punjab with his war elephants in 326 BCE.

But the first history of India as one would regard it today is that of the Maurya Dynasty. This was a geographically extensive and powerful empire in India (321 to 185 BCE) with Chandragupta and Asoka as the most famous rulers. Amongst other achievements of statecraft, Asoka bequeathed his famous non-rust iron pillars, wonders of metallurgy not yet understood today. He also supported Buddhism and some would argue that Buddhism survived because Asoka supported its spread out of India into south east Asia as well as to today’s Afghanistan and along the Silk Road as it practically disappeared in India several centuries later. The lions atop his pillars were adopted as the national emblem and the chakra is in the middle of the national flag. Incidentally, this dynasty was noted by the Greek traveller Megasthenes in his Indica, which provided the earliest datable accounts.

Even so, it was not until the British looked into the records that they realised that Chandragupta was the name of two very different kings, the first a Mauryan and the second from the Gupta Dynasty (320 – 550 AD) some six-seven centuries later. Like the Tang Dynasty, the Gupta Dynasty is often referred to as a ‘golden age’.

Between the Mauryan and the Gupta period, there was a period of 200 years when northern India and Afghanistan, Persia stretching c3,000 miles along the Silk Road were ruled by a central Asian group the Kushans, centred on Peshawar. Their greatest king Kanishka has been recorded in Chinese history.

One of the earliest historical records of India is by Alberuni who wrote about India c1,000 CE. From then on there are records of different empires and dynasties. But only from time to time did a single empire rule the majority of India, such as at height of the Mughal era under Akbar the Great grandson of Babur the Mughal who conquered India. Babur was a descendant of Timurlane and of Genghis Khan on the maternal side. Abu al-Fazl, the grand vizier of Akbar, was author of the Akbarnama, the official history of Akbar’s reign in three volumes, and also a Persian translation of the Bible.

Most of the historical interest has been centred on northern India. In the meanwhile, south India had a series of kingdoms, such as Cholas, Pandyas, Pallavas, Hoysalas, Cheras, Wodeyars, Chalukyas and the Vijayanagar Empire. The most famous being the Cholas who ruled between the 9th and 13th centuries.

Even at the height of British Raj some 25% of the Indian sub-continent was outside of British rule – see excellent illustrated Indian history timeline by Vikas Kamat. By the bye, it is surprising to many that at the peak, 20,000 British (and many more local) administrators managed the lives of 300 million Indians. Only at Independence did a single authority rule all of India. But by then the North West had been lopped off into West Pakistan and East Bengal had been designated East Pakistan.

Ancient Indian inventions and discoveries

Whereas the Chinese have been credited with many physical inventions, India is credited with many as well including: bangles, buttons, fabrics such as calico (imported by Europeans together with spices’ which gave rise to the search for a fast sea route to the ‘East Indies’ resulting in Columbus ‘discovering’ the Americas!), chintz and muslin.

In addition there were many inventions or discoveries in astronomy and mathematics – pointing to the intellectual nature of Indians.

In astronomy, Indians discovered or invented:
·         Precise celestial calculations: An Indian mathematician, Aryabhata (c500 CE), accurately calculated celestial constants like the earth’s rotation: days per solar orbit, and days per lunar orbit.

·         Earth goes round the Sun: Aryabhata was sceptical of the widely-held doctrines about eclipses and also the belief that the Sun goes round the Earth. As early as the sixth century, he talked of the diurnal motion of the Earth and the appearance of the Sun going round it.

In mathematics, apart from algebra, trigonometry and calculus which originated in India, Indians also invented or discovered:
·         Zero: Although ancient Babylonians used ‘place holders’ to distinguish between numbers like 507 and 57, these were no more than blank spaces or sometimes two wedges. The first use of zero as a number and its uses have been found in ancient Indian mathematical treatise.
·         Value of π: The value of “pi” was first calculated by the Indian mathematician Budhayana, and he also explained the concept of what is known as the Pythagoras Theorem.
·         Binary number representation: Another Indian mathematician, Pingala (c100 BCE), developed a
system of binary enumeration convertible to decimal numerals. The system he described is quite similar to
that of Leibnitz in the 17th century.
·         ‘Algorithm’: Al-Khwarizmi‘s work, De numero indorum (the Indian Art of Reckoning), was based on an Arabic translation of Brahmagupta. The new notation came to be known as that of al-Khwarizmi, or loosely phonetically translated to algorismi. Eventually it came to be called algorithm.
·         Representing large numbers: In his book Cosmos, astronomer/physicist Carl Sagan writes: “A millennium before Europeans were willing to divest themselves of the Biblical idea that the world was a few thousand years old, the Mayans were thinking of millions and the Hindus billions.”

See also: For the Indian Father of the ‘God Particle,’ a Long Journey from Dhaka



Just as the Chinese have their ancient five classics, the Indians (or rather the Hindus) have their ancient classics:

The Vedas (Sanskrit वेदाः véda, “knowledge”) are a large body of texts originating in ancient India. Composed in Vedic Sanskrit, the texts constitute the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature and the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. The Vedas are apauruṣeya (“not of human agency”). They are supposed to have been directly revealed, and thus are called śruti (“what is heard”), distinguishing them from other religious texts, which are called smṛti (“what is remembered”).

The Vedic texts or śruti are organized around four canonical collections of metrical material known as Saṃhitās, of which the first three are related to the performance of yajna (sacrifice) in historical Vedic religion:

  1. The Rigveda, containing hymns to be recited by the hotṛ;
  2. The Yajurveda, containing formulas to be recited by the adhvaryu or officiating priest;
  3. The Samaveda, containing formulas to be sung by the udgātṛ.
  4. The fourth is the Atharvaveda, a collection of spells and incantations, apotropaic charms and speculative hymns.

The individual verses contained in these compilations are known as mantras. Some selected Vedic mantras are still recited at prayers, religious functions and other auspicious occasions in contemporary Hinduism.

from: The Vedas

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8 Responses to “Before the Raj”

  1. No machinery of gvnnremeot can save thee from the law of thy being. The solution, as you correctly observe, lies in the spiritual evolution of man. Very little evidence is available that this is happening, even in India. Perhaps there are in India great Rishis, hidden from public view, meditating in caves and upholding the cosmic order. Let us hope that this is the case.

  2. 2 biggest cnesuoqts of India the moghuls and the europeans can be root-causes for most of the questions you may still pose. Why were the portuguese most aggresive in converting Hindus to catholics much much more than the british. How they threatened the use of force or usurping poor Hindu farm-lands if not agreeing to such conversion. Why such Hindus were not even allowed to keep their Hindu names after conversion. What happened in Bangladesh? How the 2-nation theory was a sick joke conceived by fair-skin pakistanis in hand with british. Why, despite also being muslims, pakistanis ill-treated bangladeshis like third-grade citizens, if not cattle.

  3. The rationalist-intellectual Rome and Greece was cnequerod by Judea, a region under the heal of the Romans and the birthplace of Christianity. Like Judea, India came under the heal of the British. Rationality has made deep inroads in India under foregin rule. It is tempting to conclude that India will play Judea’s role, i.e. conquer the conquerer. This may indeed come about in the long run. Who knows? Presently, India is slipping ever more thoroughly into materialism and under the glitter of the Western civilization. Talk to young Indian college students and you will notice the deep alienation they manifest from their own culture and admiration of the West. I met recently a very bright Engineering student graduated from a leading institution in India. She had read more than once, according to her proud report, the Harry Potter set of books. But she had not read any portion of the Ramayana, Mahabharata or Shakuntala. She is not alone in having neglected her own cultural edifice.

    • Hadool – thank you for your comments. Would you believe, I get several hundred a day. But almost all are ‘spam’ ion that they contain not content. I am sure many of them mean it when they say “great blog” or “I enjoyed it”. But I don’t want the comments section filled with these compliments. I’d rather have content like yours.

      BTW – I agree with your second point about materialism striking INdia (and China) rather than India taking a leading role in spirituality despite its deep entrenchment. See –

      All the best to you.


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