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History of International Relations: A Non-European Perspective
More info and resources at: https://doi.org/10.11647/obp.0074

Map of India from Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum orbis terrarum (Antverpiae: Apud Aegid. Coppenium Diesth, 1570), p. 211, https://archive.org/details/theatrumorbister00orte

3. India and Indianization

© 2019 Erik Ringmar, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0074.03

India, just as China, is not a country as much as a world in itself. Indeed, it is often referred to as a “subcontinent” which includes not only India, but today’s Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka as well. The history of India is long, as long as China’s. The first human settlements there 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 an early form of writing. 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 and customs. In addition, India is the origin of two world religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, and of smaller religions too, such as Jainism and Sikhism. 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, India’s is more difficult to summarize. From the third century BCE, China called itself an empire and although various dynasties replaced one another, it is possible to tell the history of China as a story of one specific political entity. In the case of India, there is no single political subject about which a story can be told. Instead, various states and empires have replaced one another in the course of the millennia. These different units have been independent and often at war with each other, although there have also been periods when most, or at least much, of the subcontinent has been united. Today India is a country, but throughout most of its history, it would best be described as an international system. 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.

A further similarity with China is that India too has constantly been menaced by invasions. The invaders have typically swept down from the northwest, across the mountain passes of what today are Afghanistan and Pakistan. The reason for the invasions was always the same: the extraordinary wealth of the Indian subcontinent. In India everything grew in great abundance; in the fertile rice fields of the south it was possible to gather two, sometimes three, harvests per year. The surplus agricultural goods financed an elaborate hierarchy of social classes and powerful states with rulers famous for their ostentatious displays of wealth. In the Classical period — roughly during the first millennium of the Common Era — India must have been the richest country in the world. 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 desired to be there. Those who had nothing to sell, like the invading armies coming from the northwest, took what they wanted by force.

The Mughals were one of these invaders. Originating in the region which today is Uzbekistan, they established themselves in India in 1526. During the following three hundred years they were to rule almost all of the subcontinent. 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 conquerors had to make compromises with Indian ways of life, and eventually they blended in with the traditional culture. In addition, India has exercised a powerful influence over the rest of Asia, and over Southeast Asia in particular. Starting in the first centuries of the Common Era, Indian cultural practices, and ideas regarding society and religion 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 this Indianization that today’s Thailand is a Buddhist country, that Angkor Wat in Cambodia was originally built as a Hindu temple complex, and why a majority of people in Indonesia are Muslims. The influence of Indian culture on non-Indians remains strong to this day — although the impact is now felt on a worldwide scale.

Vedic India

The first written records of Indian history are the Vedas, a large body of religious texts dating from around 1500 BCE. The Vedas are based on secret oral teachings provided by gurus (religious teachers) and they heavily emphasise rituals, including sacrifice of various kinds. Because of the importance of the Vedas, this early stage in the history of the subcontinent is often known as the “Vedic period.” The Vedas are written in a rather cryptic language and are difficult to decipher. The Upanishads, commentaries on the Vedas, which originated some time around 500 BCE, provide more comprehensive, and comprehensible, 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 2000 BCE and established themselves in northern India, along the plains of the Ganges River, as well as on the Deccan Plateau in central and southern parts of the subcontinent. The Indo-Europeans were originally pastoralists and even though 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.

Horse sacrifices
One of the rituals described in the Vedas is ashvamedha, horse-sacrifice. This was a political ritual and it concerned the king’s right to rule. First a horse, always a stallion, would be allowed to wander around freely for a year, accompanied by members of the king’s retinue. If the horse roamed off into the lands of an enemy, that territory had to be occupied by the king. Meanwhile, any of the king’s rivals were free to challenge the horse’s attendants to a fight. If they did, and the horse was killed, the king would lose his right to rule. If, on the other hand, the horse still was alive after a year, it was taken back to the king’s court. Here it was bathed, anointed with butter, decorated with golden ornaments and sacrificed. Once this ritual was completed, the king was considered as the undisputed ruler of all the land which the horse had covered. All kings in Vedic India performed the ashvamedha, and the ritual declined only in the latter part of the Gupta period.
Central Asia, not India, is where the horse originates and the ashvamedha is one piece of evidence which locates the Indo-Europeans outside of India. To the people of the steppe, the horse was a sacred animal, and horses were often buried together with dead kings. Horse sacrifices have been carried out all over the Eurasian landmass — in China, Iran, Armenia, among the Greeks and the Romans, even in Ireland. In the Irish ritual, the king had sexual intercourse with a mare who then was killed, dismembered and cooked in a cauldron in which the king proceeded to swim and drink from the broth.
New-age Hindu spiritualists have recently tried to revive the ashvamedha ritual, but they use a statue of a horse rather than an actual animal. In other contemporary rituals, live horses are worshiped rather than killed. Apparently, devotion to the horse can help you defeat enemies and clear debts. The first critics of the ashvamedha appeared among members of the Charvaka school of philosophy in the seventh century BCE. The Charvakas were skeptics and atheists. They had no doubt that horse sacrifices were invented by “buffoons, knaves, and demons.”

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/c84d3ad7

During the first millennium BCE there were a large number of different ethnic groups and tribes located on the plains of the Ganges River. 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 servant class. 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 caste, into a certain job, and a social position, and there was almost nothing you could do about it. This was the world which the gods had ordained. Later indigenous religions, such as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, gained adherents by rejecting this rigid view of society.

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. This, in turn, required more powerful armies. But more powerful armies required a more powerful economic base, and 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. 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. In addition, advances were made in sciences like astronomy and mathematics.

Indian mathematics
The number system which the world uses today originated in India in the first centuries of the Common Era. The numbers are usually referred to as “Arabic” since the Europeans obtained them from the Arabs, but in the Middle East, they are known as “Indian” since the Arabs obtained them from India. Mathematics emerged as a separate field of study in Vedic times, but it was in the Gupta period that the greatest advances were made. Indians learned from Greek mathematicians but they made seminal contributions of their own. They were the first to make use of decimals and the number zero. They used negative numbers too and they beat Pythagoras to his famous theorem. Indian mathematicians calculated the value of π, pi, with a very high degree of precision, and determined the circumference of the earth and the timing of lunar and solar eclipses. In the fifteenth century, Kerala, in the far south, was home to a school of mathematics which developed trigonometric functions.
In India, mathematical knowledge always developed in conjunction with its practical application. Already the Harappa civilization, some 2,500 years BCE, used geometry in order to calculate the size of fields. In Vedic culture, maths was used to determine the size of altars and for deciding when to engage in various religious rituals. Likewise, the notions of zero and infinity both have their origins in religious speculations. The world as we know it contains no “nothing”; everything we see around us is something. Yet in Buddhist philosophy, nothingness is a key concept and the goal of meditation is to empty one’s mind. Nothingness, to a Buddhist, is real. Meanwhile, the Jains were fascinated by very large numbers. They told stories of gods who appeared millions of times, millions of years apart. The better you can understand the infinite, they argued, the better you can understand the divine.
The history of mathematics is a great example of a civilizational exchange. The Indians learned maths from the Greeks and taught it to the Arab world, who in turn taught the Europeans. At each stage, the knowledge was transformed and improved upon. To this day only some 10 percent of all the manuscripts on Sanskrit science have been published and much remains to be properly studied. There may be many surprising discoveries to be made.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/df19743e

It was in the late Vedic period, between 500 and 200 BCE, that the great epic poems, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, were composed.

The Mahabharata
The Mahabharata is an epic poem that recounts the story of the dynastic struggles over the throne of Hastinapur, a kingdom in northern India, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries BCE. Hastinapur was ruled by the Kuru clan which had two competing branches, the Kaurava and the Pandava. The struggle culminated in the battle of Kurukshetra in which the Pandavas were victorious. The length of the epic is extraordinary — more than 200,000 verses and a total of 1.8 million words. Despite its format, the Mahabharata is regularly performed all over India, with sleep and food breaks both for the audience and the cast. The epic is regarded as a historical account, as a moral tale, but also as a basic statement of the principles of Hinduism. There are love stories here too, tales of deceit and revenge, and some great fight scenes.
The principal figure in the epic is Krishna, who is the god of compassion, tenderness, and love, but he is also an embodiment of the universal being. The way he is depicted reflects these varying roles — sometimes he is a god-child playing the flute, sometimes a prankster stealing butter, or a lover surrounded by adoring women. In a part of the Mahabharata known as the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna is a chariot-driver who gives a lecture to Arjuna, a disciple, in which he explains the difference between just and unjust wars and the importance of loyalty to one’s family. We also find religious themes concerning the relationship between the soul of each individual and the soul of the world. Indeed, the warlike setting can itself be interpreted allegorically — the relevant battle concerns not political power but the moral struggles of human life.
The Mahabharata has had a profound influence on Indian culture and it continues to inspire playwrights and artists to this day. It has had an impact on the Bollywood film industry too. Read more: Curries, Bollywood and the Beatles in India at p. 63. This is obvious, for example, in the narrative techniques used in Indian movies with their many side-stories, back-stories, and stories-within-stories. Indian movies too are rather long-winded and they make heavy demands on the ability of the audience to follow an elaborate plot.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/c4c2e1d2

The leaders of the mahajanapadas also needed political advice. This was provided in works such as the Arthashastra.

The Arthashastra is a manual on statecraft allegedly written by Kautilya, also known as Chanakya. Kautilya was an adviser to Chandragupta, the first king of the Maurya Empire, in the third century BCE. The Arthashastra is a “mirror of princes,” a book of secret advice given directly to a ruler by one of his advisers. As such it is a contribution to the same genre as Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince. Both books describe politics as a ruthless game of power, yet the Arthashastra is by far the more cynical. A king, Kautilya explained, has to lie and deceive, torture, imprison and kill, and these acts must sometimes be carried out also against the innocent and for no other reason than to intimidate others. Friends and family members are targets too — in fact, one should be particularly suspicious of friends and family. It is better to be feared than loved.
The manuscript of the Arthashastra was rediscovered only in 1905. The find produced a sensation since it showed a very different image of ancient India than the one commonly held at the time. It is the only text from the Vedic period which does not deal with religious or philosophical matters. Kautilya’s society was thoroughly secular and ruled by people who worshiped martial virtues, not gods. In the early part of the twentieth century, this was a description particularly appreciated by nationalists who advocated armed resistance against the British. It is said that the Arthashastra is taught in military academies in Pakistan to this day — as a way to better understand the mindset of Indian politicians. And much as Sunzi’s Art of War, the advice contained in the Arthashastra has been peddled by manuals on “how to get ahead in business.”

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/19306c71

Politics, its author suggested, is a dog-eat-dog world in which only the most ruthless rulers survive. Another text from this period is the Manusmriti, the “Code of Manu,” a legal code and manual of statecraft.

As far as religious thought is concerned, two quite distinct 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 secret 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. However, in the eastern part of the Ganges plains — towards today’s Bangladesh — the emphasis was rather on ascetic practices, on meditation and on the spiritual development of each individual. Much-debated questions here included the nature of consciousness and the notion of the self. 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. 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 living 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 twenty-nine, legend has it, he left his palace one day 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 ascetic practices before eventually settling on a “middle way,” a life of moderation and detachment, which eventually 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 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 spread quickly along the trade routes of inner Asia and across the Indian Ocean.

Buddhas of Bamiyan
In Bamiyan, a valley in central Afghanistan, two gigantic Buddha statues were constructed in the sixth century CE. Hewn directly out of the sandstone cliff, they were 35 and 53 meters tall respectively, and the largest standing Buddha statues in the world. The Bamiyan Buddhas were wonderful examples of the eclectic blend of cultural influences that characterized Bactria — the Buddhas were Indian enough, but they were wearing Greek clothing.
Introduced to Afghanistan in the fourth century BCE, Buddhism flourished during the Kushan Empire. At the time Bamiyan was a hub on the caravan routes which connected India, Central Asia, and China. From the monasteries constructed here, Buddhist influences spread far and wide. A Chinese pilgrim, Xuanzang, who visited Bamiyan in 630, mentioned “more than ten monasteries and more than a thousand monks” living here. Read more: Journey to the West at p. 23. The hermit monks had dug caves for themselves in the rock face, each one painted with brightly colored frescoes. Xuanzang also noted that two enormous Buddha statues were “decorated with gold and fine jewels.”
The statues were destroyed by the Taliban government in March 2001. To the Taliban they were “idols,” and they were angry that the international community allocated funds for maintaining the statues while the Afghans themselves were starving. The destruction was carried out in stages and it took weeks to complete. Initially, the statues were fired at using anti-aircraft guns and artillery but eventually, they were dynamited. Public opinion worldwide was outraged by this act of cultural vandalism.
Various proposals have been made for reconstructing the statues, using what can be recovered of the original stones. In 2013, the foot section of the smaller Buddha was rebuilt with iron rods, bricks, and concrete, but the work was halted after protests from UNESCO. Some have felt that the niches should be left empty as a monument to the fanaticism of the Taliban. In June 2015, the statues were temporarily recreated by means of hologram images projected onto the cliffs. There is no doubt what the Buddha would have said regarding the destruction of the statues. “Nothing in this world is forever,” he would have pointed out, “everything must pass.”

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/05553d6c

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. Yet there are many kinds of Buddhists. Some engage in spiritual techniques designed to achieve enlightenment, but most devotees are content to engage in various pious practices — bringing food to Buddhist monks or 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 women. This egalitarian ethos has always been part of its appeal.

Classical India

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 the Punjab, in the northwestern corner of the subcontinent. Alexander was a Greek statesman and general who had already successfully 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 afterwards, 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 failed 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 almost 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 become heir to the throne, legend has it, he killed no fewer than ninety-nine 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, the spectacular bloodshed which took place at the battle of Kalinga in 260 BCE, in which, reputedly, no fewer than a quarter of a million soldiers died, 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.

He proceeded to reform the Maurya state in line with his new Buddhist beliefs. Ashoka 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 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.

Pillars of Ashoka
Ashoka the Great, 268–232 BCE, renounced violence, converted to Buddhism, and started a number of projects to improve the lot of the poor, the aged and the widowed. In addition, he put up pillars all over his empire, often in city-squares or along major thoroughfares, on which he explained his policies and his aspirations. Today there are still thirty-three of these pillars in existence. Darius, the king of Persia, had put up similar monuments where he had boasted about the battles he had won and the number of enemies he had killed. Ashoka, however, inverted this message. His pillars express his promise to rule his people with compassion and benevolence, to renounce violence and make sure that every one of his subjects was happy and well-fed. The text is written in a colloquial style, using local languages instead of the Sanskrit employed at court. The pillars were also a way of spreading his presence throughout the empire, uniting it, and making every subject aware of who their ruler was.
The only problem was that people, in general, were unable to read. For that reason, to make them understand what the pillars said, a public official was posted at the foot of each one of them. The officials explained the message, but at the same time, they also gathered information about the state of the country and the grievances of the population. This information was then used by the government in devising new policies. Along the borders of Ashoka’s empire, there were pillars written in foreign languages such as Aramaic and Greek. They announced that whoever was traveling this way now had entered the lands governed by the great and benevolent king Ashoka.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/4dbf402d

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 of the 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 featuring Greek text were minted and enormous statues were erected in which the Buddha was wearing a Greek toga. Read more: Buddhas of Bamiyan at p. 51.

During the Kushan Empire, trade flourished with Central Asia, but also with places much further afield — Egypt, the Aksumite Kingdom and Rome.

The Ark of the Covenant
The Steven Spielberg movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981, finishes with a memorable scene. Throughout the movie, Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford, has been in pursuit of the Ark of the Covenant, the gold-covered wooden chest which, according to the Hebrew Bible, contains the stone tablets with the original version of the Ten Commandments (“Thou shalt not kill,” etc.). Avoiding capture by German soldiers and outsmarting a French competitor, Indiana Jones eventually brings the Ark back to the United States. Once there, however, it soon disappears into an enormous government warehouse where it will presumably never again be found.
Compare this story to the one Coptic Christians in Ethiopia tell. The Ark of the Covenant, they insist, is not at all lost, and it is not in a government warehouse in the United States. It can instead be found in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, in Axum, in the Tigray province of Ethiopia. It was brought here by Menelik I, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba after he had paid a visit to his father in Jerusalem. And the Ark of the Covenant has been there ever since. Since it is associated with such awesome powers, however, only one person — a guardian monk — is allowed to see it.
There are striking similarities between the Hollywood version of this tale and the Coptic version. In both cases, the Ark is a source of divine power. The divine object, moreover, has been appropriated by an imperial power and brought to the very center of the empire. This feat has in both cases been accomplished by a young hero. The Covenant is in both cases hidden from public view, yet this does not mean that it has stopped radiating its divine power. Whether the Ark in question actually exists is a far less important question. It is the myth, conveyed by the legend and the movie, which provides legitimacy to the empire.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/11e66a50

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 at p. 23.

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 stamped with their images, thus spreading their images throughout the kingdom and informing ordinary people who their ruler was. The economy was flourishing and so were 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 too. It was at this time that Indian mathematicians invented the number zero. Zero sounds as though it might be insignificant, 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 at p. 48.

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 then 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 ensured that these new images would be disseminated across a vast area. The Kama Sutra was also compiled at this time, notorious as a sex manual but also a discussion of social relationships and family life.

The Kama Sutra
Foreigners often regard Indian culture as “spiritual,” but many of its cultural practices, such as meditation and yoga, concern the body rather than the soul. This is true also of the wisdom contained in the Kama Sutra which is known as a sex manual, but which above all is a manual on how to lead a complete, long and satisfying life. It discusses sex to be sure, but also the nature of love and the requirements of family life.
The author of the Kama Sutra, Vatsyayana, was a philosopher who lived in the second or third century BCE, but next to nothing is known about him. It is when you are young, he tells us, that you should seek bodily pleasures but as the years pass you should concentrate on spiritual matters in order to escape the cycle of rebirths. Sexuality can be given a religious interpretation too. A man and a woman in a close embrace symbolize moksha, “liberation,” the final release from the dualities which characterize human life. If nothing else, this interpretation provides an excuse for reading the book.
The teaching conveyed by the Kama Sutra is depicted in the thousands of statues that decorate the temples of Khajuraho, in Madhya Pradesh in central India. The statues show men and women in various sexual positions but also scenes from everyday life — women putting on makeup, musicians making music and farmers going about their daily chores. Sexuality, the collection of statues tells us, is a regular part of human life.
Today the production and distribution of pornography is a punishable crime in India. Bollywood, the Indian film industry, excels in evocative dance numbers but has traditionally refrained from undressing actors and actresses. Read more: Curries, Bollywood and the Beatles in India at p. 63. Prostitution as such is legal in the country, but brothels and pimping are not. India is estimated to have over half a million prostitutes. The trafficking of young girls is an often-reported problem, in particular among members of vulnerable minority groups.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/8eecd7c7

Nalanda, a very old university
The Buddhist monastery complex at Nalanda, in today’s Indian state of Bihar, was a center of learning founded in the fifth century. Archaeological excavations which began in 1915 have revealed temples, lecture and meditation halls, libraries and gardens, together with a trove of sculptures, coins, seals and inscriptions. Subjects taught here included the Vedas, logic, Sanskrit grammar, medicine, fine arts, astronomy, mathematics, politics, and epistemology. Above all, however, it was a center of Buddhist learning which flourished under the Gupta Empire. Read more: Indian mathematics at p. 48. Much of our knowledge of Nalanda comes from the writings of Chinese monks who came here to study in the seventh century. At the height of its prominence, the university had some 2,000 professors and 10,000 students who all were accommodated in dormitories. Nalanda was the first educational institution to conduct entrance exams. The fortunes of the university declined after the Gupta rulers and in the 1190s it was destroyed by invading armies from Central Asia.
Al Quaraouiyine, in Fez, Morocco, is sometimes said to be the oldest university in the world, founded in 859. Read more: Ibn Rushd and the challenge of reason at p. 84. The oldest universities in Europe — Paris and Bologna, founded in the thirteenth century — are thus far younger. Nalanda, however, is the oldest of all. Since 2014 Nalanda University is once again accepting students. Led by Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, and with economic support from various Asian countries, its aim is to once again become Asia’s leading center of learning. Subjects taught here today include ecology, history, economics, and languages. Buddhism is taught too but features less prominently on the curriculum than once was the case. The hope is that Nalanda University will help contribute to the economic development of Bihar, one of India’s poorest regions.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/21c2a54a

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 ruled Bengal and today’s Bangladesh. The Pala were Buddhists but they were far more warlike than Ashoka the Great had become. Their army was particularly famous for its war elephants.

War elephants
An “elephantry” is a cavalry equipped with elephants instead of horses. Elephants have been used for military purposes since antiquity. For example, the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, from the fourth century BCE, mentions war elephants and elephants were employed by the Persians in their wars with Alexander the Great. Read more: The Mahabharata at p. 49. In one famous battle in 1539, the king of Siam killed the king of Burma in one-on-one combat between their respective elephants.
In battle, elephants with their enormous bulk are useful for charging at the enemy, for breaking the enemy’s ranks and in general for instilling terror. Generals would often place themselves on top of an elephant in order to get a better view of the battlefield, and archers would sometimes put platforms on the elephants’ backs from which they could assault the enemy. Both male and female elephants can be used in battle, but the male is more useful since female elephants tend to run away from males.
The standard tactic for fighting an elephantry is to dodge their charge and attack the mahout, the elephant-keeper from behind. Elephants have their limits as a military force since they have a tendency to panic, especially when wounded. The Mongols, who never used elephants themselves, would fight the elephantry of their enemies by setting light to straw tied to the backs of camels. When the burning camels charged, the enemy’s elephants would get scared and turn on their masters.
The introduction of muskets in the sixteenth century had only a limited impact on elephants, who were protected by their thick hides. The Mughals continued to rely on them in their conquest of the subcontinent, and Akbar had a famous elephantry. Yet the arrival of battlefield cannons in the nineteenth century made them redundant. Against cannons, you need far better protection. Today elephants are still used for other military tasks such as transporting equipment and supplies.

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The Pala had skilled diplomats and traded with communities as far away as in China and the Middle East. It was then that Islam was introduced into India and that Indian science and mathematics were exported to the Muslim world. Read more: The translation movement at p. 79.

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, where a substantial part of the population were 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. 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 then 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 subcontinent — from the Maldives islands 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.


Although India was repeatedly invaded by foreign armies, Indian empires themselves never expanded beyond the subcontinent. 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 subcontinent, 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 was never a matter of official policy, it is difficult to say exactly when the process began and how it developed. What is clear, however, is that Indian influences spread along trade routes, both in Central Asia and in the Indian Ocean. In the Indian Ocean, thanks to the monsoons, 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. This was where Indian merchants came to settle. 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 Indian influence is detectable from the eighth century, and it was to continue for at least five hundred years. This was when Hinduism spread, followed by Buddhism and then Islam. 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 besides.

Thaipusam is a religious festival celebrated by the Tamil community in India and by the Tamil diaspora worldwide. The festival commemorates the occasion when Parvati, the Indian goddess of fertility and love, gave her son Murugan, the god of war, a spear in order to defeat a fiendish demon. The festival thus celebrates the victory of good over evil, light over darkness, and wisdom over ignorance. Devotees pray to Murugan in order to overcome the obstacles they face in life.
To outsiders, Thaipusam is a gruesome spectacle. The people who participate in the festivities perform the kavadi aattam, the “burden dance,” in which they bring offerings to their god. In the most basic version, they carry a pot of milk to the temple, but many devotees take the sacrifice far further. They pierce the skin on their backs with hooks from which they hang bottles of milk, and some pull large carts by means of hooks attached to their bodies. Many also pierce their tongues and cheeks with skewers, reminders of the spear which Parvati gave to her son.
To withstand the pain, the devotees engage in all sorts of mind-altering activities — fasting, praying, chanting and drumming. In order to recuperate once the hooks and skewers have been removed, they rub their wounds with holy ash. Today ambulances are on standby during the ceremony, but remarkably few devotees need medical attention. The kavadi aattam is an endurance test by which the devotees demonstrate the power of their faith. Not surprisingly, the most demanding feats attract mainly young men, and you do not necessarily have to be a Tamil in order to participate. During Thaipusam celebrations in the Tamil diaspora in the United States, devotees undertake long walks on foot, carrying pots of milk, but no piercing or skewering is involved.

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Many aspects of Indian society were highly elaborate and urbane and thereby quite alien to the agricultural and rather rustic traditions of Southeast Asia. Not surprisingly, a local ruler who could surround himself with the trappings of Indian culture was quite automatically regarded as both powerful and legitimate. In addition, the rulers of Southeast Asia were eager to adopt any institution or technique that might help them strengthen their hold on power. This included Indian manuals on statecraft, political institutions, and the Indian legal system.

There were many Indianized states throughout East Asia. This is a small sample:

  • Langkasuka, 200s–1500s, 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 at p. 13.
  • Srivijaya, 650–1377, 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, 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, 192–1832, 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 that existed between the ninth and thirteenth centuries 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 at p. 61.
  • The Kingdom of Tondo, 900s–1589, was an Indianized kingdom in today’s Philippines. They traded with China and participated in the Chinese international system.
  • Pagan, 849–1297, 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, 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. Their armies made extensive use of war elephants. Read more: War elephants at p. 57.
  • Majapahit, 1293–1527, was another thalassocratic empire, based in Java in today’s Indonesia. They had some ninety-eight 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. The Majapahit built stupas in red brick, statues in terracotta and figurines in gold. Read more: The Mongol khanates at p. 101.
  • Bali, in today’s Indonesia, an island strongly influenced by Hindu culture from the first century. 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 native religious practices.
Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is a vast temple complex built by the kings of the Khmer Kingdom between 1113 and 1150. Khmer society as it emerged in the seventh century was originally based on maritime trade and it was from the beginning heavily influenced by Hindu culture. Angkor Wat was dedicated to the Indian god Vishnu, who was the divine sponsor of the kings, and the temple complex was built in accordance with Hindu cosmology. It had a 65-meter-tall tower at its center, replicating Mount Meru, the home of the gods. The tower was surrounded by vast reservoirs, modeled on the seven seas, and the complex as a whole was surrounded by a 5-kilometer-long moat. The temples are noted for their exquisite craftsmanship and their many statues and bas-reliefs depicting the lives of gods and ordinary people. In addition to Angkor Wat itself, there were thousands of smaller temples, scattered in a temple network that covered much of what today is Cambodia and eastern Thailand.
The city of Angkor was abandoned in the fifteenth century and a thick jungle vegetation quickly spread on the site. However, thanks to aerial laser photography, it is now possible to better understand how the city was laid out. Angkor had a vast grid system, with roads, temples, gardens, and squares which were home to some one million people. King Jayavarman VII, 1181–1218, fortified the city to better withstand military attacks. In addition, he built hospitals where medical treatment was free for all subjects. He also turned Angkor Wat into a Buddhist temple, or rather, a Buddhist temple filled with plenty of Hindu gods.
Angkor Wat is a symbol of today’s Cambodia. It appears on the country’s flag, stamps and money. The temple complex, which only had a few thousand annual visitors in 1993, now attracts some three million tourists. Concerns have been raised regarding the environmental impact of mass tourism.

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It is at the same time clear that the indigenous people of Southeast Asia were far more than the passive recipients of these influences. For one thing, they often traveled to southern India themselves. Southeast Asian rulers would place orders for specific goods with Indian producers or they would convince Indian craftsmen to come and 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 indigenous rulers were often 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 implemented only within the temple compound of Angkor Wat itself. Clearly this way of organizing social relations, with its many fine-tuned gradations between classes, was a poor fit 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 itself. 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 remind us of Indian letters, but they have been greatly modified and the writing systems are entirely different.

Shadow puppets
One of the arts spread through the Indianization of Southeast Asia is shadow puppetry. Shadow puppets have a long history in India and different parts of the subcontinent have their own versions of the art. The shows are usually staged during Hindu festivals and stories drawn from the Indian epics feature prominently. Read more: The Mahabharata at p. 49. Sometimes the shows are performed by families of itinerant puppeteers.
The art has been picked up all over Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, it is known as wayang or wayang kulit and is common in Java and Bali. In Javanese, wayang means “shadow,” “imagination” or “spirit,” and kulit means “skin” — the puppets here are usually made of leather. The flat puppets have movable joints that are animated by rods, and a skilled puppeteer can make the shadows walk, dance, fight, nod, and laugh. In Bali, the performance typically starts at night and continues until dawn. A complete troupe of wayang kulit performers also includes singers and gamelan players — the gamelan is an ensemble of musicians who play various traditional percussion instruments. Shadow puppets have been popular in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Malaysia too. Here the performances are staged during temple festivals and storylines from Indian epics are common. The shadows are cast using oil or halogen lights onto a cotton cloth background.
There is concern regarding the future of shadow puppetry. The art is well documented in museums, and it is commonly performed for tourists, but it is rather more uncertain whether it will survive as a genuinely popular form of entertainment. There is today a lot of competition from other forms of shadow plays — movies, television, YouTube clips. In 2003, UNESCO designated wayang kulit as an example of a “masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity.”

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/bf4e1a05

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. 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 contested term. Indeed, the first ones to use it were Indian nationalists in Bengal in the 1920s, at the time when India was still 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 at p. 61.

This had not been an empire, they explained, but rather 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. 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. Indianization is not the spread of Indian culture as much as the creation of a new species of culture which draws heavily from India 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.

Curries, Bollywood, and the Beatles in India
Indian culture continues to fascinate non-Indians to this day. Indian food provides one example. When the British colonial administrators returned home from India they often took recipes with them. The first reference to “currey” appeared in 1747, and in 1810 an Indian entrepreneur, Sake Dean Mahomed, opened the Hindoostanee Coffee House, the first curry house in London. Curries are now a staple of the British diet — more common than roast beef and tastier than pies and mash. Curries found their way to other parts of the British Empire too. In Jamaica, curried goat is a favorite dish and in Guyana they eat crab curry. In South Africa “bunny chow” is popular — a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with curry. Curries are eaten outside of the former empire too. In Japan, karee raisu — a thick curry stew of potatoes, carrots, onions and chicken — is common in school canteens.
Indian movies provide another example of the worldwide appeal of Indian culture. The Indian movie industry, with its center in Mumbai — the city the British called “Bombay” — is often referred to as “Bollywood.” It is the largest movie production center in the world with an output of close to two thousand movies per year. And it is not only Indians who are watching. Bollywood movies are popular throughout the subcontinent, in Southeast Asia, and they have a following in the Middle East and Africa too. Posters of Indian actresses can be seen at car repair garages in Nigeria and women in West Africa have been known to wear saris as a way to model themselves on the movie stars they are watching. In terms of global ticket sales, Bollywood far outsells Hollywood.
India has also had a strong spiritual influence on the rest of the world. Or rather, Europeans and North Americans have often considered Indian culture to be “spiritual.” As such the country has attracted people looking for religious experiences. In February 1968, the Beatles traveled to India to take part in a meditation course at the ashram (spiritual hermitage) of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an Indian guru. The Englishmen wrote a number of songs here. Following the Beatles’ lead, all rock stars of any stature for a while had to have their own gurus. Indian spiritual practices such as yoga and meditation have now entered the mainstream and are no longer identifiably Indian.

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The Mughal Empire

Between the tenth and the twelfth centuries, another great wave of invasions swept through northern parts of the Indian subcontinent. Once again these were led by nomads coming from Central Asia, but this time they were Muslims who spoke a Turkic language. Between 1206 and 1526, a Muslim state — 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 at p. 78.

The Delhi sultanate was one of the few states that successfully defended itself against the Mongols. As former raiders on horseback themselves, they clearly knew how to deal with them.

The Sultanate of Delhi was weakened by uprisings and eventually, it was overthrown. Yet the rulers who overthrew them also had their origin in Central Asia. The Mughal Empire, 1519–1857, was a Muslim kingdom that started out in today’s Uzbekistan. Its first ruler, Babur, 1526–1530, was a thirteenth-generation descendant of Genghis Khan’s son Chagatai and also a relative of Timur Lenk, who, in the fourteenth century, had created a vast, if short-lived, empire in Central Asia. Babur tried his best to live up to the traditions of his family. 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 in India. 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 at p. 91.

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 by our muskets,” Babur recalled in his autobiography, “but they stopped making jokes when they saw what our weapons could do.” From the beginning, Babur treated the people of India leniently, more as his subjects than as his prey. And yet, he remained homesick for Samarkand until the end of his life.

There were eighteen subsequent rulers of the Mughal Empire. Babur was succeeded by his son, Humayun, 1530–1540 and 1555–1556. His name means “the lucky one,” but he was clearly quite inappropriately named. He lost the Mughal throne and was exiled to Iran, but with Persian support he eventually reconquered it. Humayun died at only forty-eight 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, 1556–1605, did. Akbar was thirteen years old at the time of his accession and he was to rule India for the next fifty years. Akbar was the emperor who more than all others put his mark on the empire. When he captured the state of Gujarat in 1573 — a major victory — he was only thirty-one years old. This was a time of great expansion in world trade, and Mughal India was its hub. Read more: A mountain of silver at p. 184.

Akbar 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, Persian, Greek, Latin, and Arabic. Persian culture was influential at Akbar’s court, with Persian-style music, poetry and illuminated manuscripts as primary art forms.

Akbar also strengthened the institutions of the Mughal state. He embarked on far-reaching administrative reforms and imposed uniform rules on the bureaucratic systems. 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. Read more: War elephants at p. 57.

Akbar was constantly on the move, and much as his ancestor Genghis Khan before him, he took his bureaucrats with him wherever he went. He made a serious attempt to conquer all of the Indian subcontinent, and in the end, only a small tip in the very south of India remained outside of his control. Akbar took a strong interest in questions of religion. He held religious disputations at his court where Muslim scholars debated with Hindus, Jews, and Christians. He even tried, if unsuccessfully, to amalgamate the faiths of the country into one state religion.

Din-e Ilahi
Din-e Ilahi, “the religion of God,” was a system of religious beliefs introduced by the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1582. Akbar took a deep personal interest in religious matters. He founded an academy, the Ibadat Khana, “the House of Worship,” in 1575, where representatives of all major faiths could meet to discuss questions of theology. Listening to these debates, Akbar concluded that no single religion captured the whole truth. His idea was to combine Islam and Hinduism into one faith, but also to add aspects of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Jainism.
Din-e Ilahi emphasized morality, piety, and kindness. Just like Sufi Islam, it regarded the yearning for God as a key feature of spirituality, just like Catholicism it took celibacy to be a virtue, and just like Jainism, it condemned the killing of animals. As for its rituals, Din-e Ilahi borrowed heavily from Zoroastrianism, making fire and the sun objects of divine worship. Read more: Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism at p. 75. The new religion had no scriptures, no priests, and in fact it never had more than a handful of followers — mainly the members of Akbar’s closest circle of advisers.
Din-e Ilahi is best viewed as a state religion with the emperor himself at its center. As a single authority on all matters, Akbar was not only going to interpret and apply the religious law but to make it. Din-e Ilahi was his solution to the thorny problem of how a Muslim ruler could govern a predominantly Hindu society. Yet the Din-e Ilahi was fiercely opposed by many Muslims clerics who declared it a heretical doctrine. Although the new religion did not survive its founder, it triggered a strong fundamentalist reaction among India’s Muslims. According to rumors, the Muslim call to prayer, “Allahu akbar,” meaning “God is the greatest,” was interpreted by Akbar himself as “God is Akbar.”

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In order to improve relations with his Hindu subjects, he abolished the jizya, the tax imposed on all non-Muslims. He also took several Hindu wives.

Akbar’s oldest son Jahangir, 1605–1627, replaced him in 1605. Jahangir means “conqueror of the world” and he tried his best to live up to the name, although he is remembered more vividly by posterity for his active love life. The economy of the country remained strong, and so did the Mughal administration. Jahangir also encouraged religious debates and tolerance of other faiths. Shah Jahan, 1628–1658, was Akbar’s grandson. He took an 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. He also commissioned the Taj Mahal as a monument to commemorate his beloved wife.

Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal, located on the south bank of the Yamuna river in the city of Agra, just south of New Delhi, is one of India’s main tourist attractions. It was commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, the grandson of Akbar the Great, and completed in 1653. The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum built to house the grave of Shah Jahan’s favorite wife, Mumtaz, who lost her life at the age of thirty-eight while giving birth to the couple’s fourteenth child. Shah Jahan never recovered from the loss and dedicated the Taj Mahal to her memory. Her grave is found in a crypt under the building. Apparently, Shah Jahan had planned to build a black version of the mausoleum as a tomb for himself on the other side of the river. A bridge would have connected the two monuments. Yet no black Taj Mahal was ever built and after his death, Shah Jahan was instead buried beside Mumtaz. For good measure, two more of Shah Jahan’s wives are also buried on the premises.
Some 20,000 craftsmen from all over India are said to have worked on the site, and it took twenty years to complete. It is a masterpiece of Mughal architecture, incorporating many Persian influences, and elaborately decorated throughout — apart from the graves themselves which, in accordance with Muslim custom, are left unadorned. Around the mausoleum is a vast Persian-style garden, and in front of the tomb is a raised water tank with a reflecting pool. As the tourist guides never tire of repeating, it is a monument dedicated to love. The Taj Mahal was famously described by the Indian author Rabindranath Tagore as “the tear-drop on the cheek of time.”
If nothing else, the Taj Mahal is a great source of income. It is visited annually by some eight million tourists, not least by couples who like to pose for photos in front of the iconic facade. The buildings have recently turned yellow as a result of acid rain but various attempts have been made to restrict environmental pollution in the area.

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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 Peacock Throne is said to have cost twice as much as the construction of the Taj Mahal itself.

The fourteen subsequent emperors were less distinguished and less colorful. A particularly controversial ruler was Aurangzeb, 1658–1707. The empire continued to expand during his reign and the economy remained strong. The Mughal Empire at the time had some 150 million subjects and an economy responsible for perhaps a quarter of the world’s output. However, relations between the Muslim rulers and their Hindu subjects deteriorated. Aurangzeb reintroduced the jizya and he was notorious for destroying Hindu temples. During the rule of his descendants, the Mughal hold on the country weakened considerably. There were revolts against higher taxes and discontent regarding religious matters. Various regional rulers rose up to compete with the imperial center. This was also when the next wave of invaders appeared, this time traveling by boat. The first Europeans to arrive were the Portuguese; then came the Dutch, the French and eventually the agents of the British East India Company. This, however, is a story to which we will return in our last chapter. Read more: The European expansion at p. 179.

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 subcontinent. 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 become even more obvious if we include Southeast Asia in the Indian international system. Southeast Asian societies were really quite different from India and Indian rulers never made any attempts to control them. At the same time, the Indian international system was held together by shared practices and beliefs. This has often been identified as a “Hindu” legacy, but Hinduism itself is an ongoing interaction between diverse traditions 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 both India’s strong influence on Southeast Asia and its continuing influence in the world at large.

Today many Indian nationalists take a different view of Hinduism. Indian nationalism became a coherent movement at the end of the nineteenth century to oust the British occupiers. Read more: The European expansion at p. 179.

For this to be possible, Indian nationalists claimed, the country had to be united. Yet unity, some of them maintained, could never be achieved in a society as diverse as India. These nationalists envisioned a far simpler world — a society only by and for Hindus. And Hinduism, moreover, should be strictly defined, not as an ongoing interaction between diverse traditions, but as a definite set of practices and beliefs. This notion is often referred to as Hindutva. Not surprisingly, nationalists of a Hindutva persuasion have their own interpretation of Indian history. Other cultures and religions are regarded as foreign impositions, and times when they were prominent are considered to be periods of division and weakness. This even applies to a ruler such as Ashoka the Great whom Indian nationalists dislike since he converted to Buddhism and rejected the caste system.

Much the same is true of the Hindutva view of the Sultanate of Delhi and the Mughal Empire. The Mughals, Hindu nationalists explain, were 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 colonizers. The half-century rule of emperor Aurangzeb is regarded as particularly disastrous. Aurangzeb, Indian schoolchildren 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 Hindutva vision for the future is of a new Gupta Empire — one nation united under one set of Hindu gods.

Yet Hinduism was never a culture as much as a civilization. It never built walls or sought to define itself in distinction to other traditions. Instead, Indian society reached out to others and engaged them in trade and exchange, both along the caravan routes of Central Asia and between the ports in the Indian Ocean. Indian society was always open to the world and the world was always open to Indian civilization. This is how India became rich and admired.


1500 BCE

The Vedas are written.

500–200 BCE

Works such as the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Arthashastra, and Manusmriti are written.

480 BCE

Possible date of birth for Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha.

322 BCE

Chandragupta establishes the Mauryan Empire.

260 BCE

The Battle of Kalinga. King Ashoka converts to Buddhism.


The Gupta dynasty conquers most of the Indian subcontinent.


The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang visits Bamiyan.


Armies of the Chola Empire invade Sri Lanka.


Work begins on Angkor Wat in today’s Cambodia.


Sultanate of Delhi. Founded by invaders from Central Asia.


Babur establishes the Mughal Empire.


Akbar the Great becomes Mughal emperor.


The Taj Mahal is completed by Emperor Shah Jahan.


The first curry restaurant, the Hindoostanee Coffee House, opens in London.


The Indian Uprising is defeated by the British. The official end of the Mughal empire.

Short dictionary

ahimsa, Sanskrit

Literally, “not to injure.” The doctrine of non-violence and compassion associated with the Jain religion and with Mahatma Gandhi.

allahu akbar, Arabic

“God is the greatest.” Incantation featured in Muslim calls to prayer.


the Vedic version of horse sacrifices whereby a king came to be designated a legitimate ruler.

brahmin, Sanskrit

The priestly, and highest, cast in the Indian caste system.

Hindutva, Hindi

“Hinduness.” Name for Indian nationalists who emphasize Hindu traditions.

janapada, Sanskrit

Small kingdoms in northern India during Vedic times.

jizya, Arabic

The tax imposed by Muslim rulers on their non-Muslim subjects.

kavadi aattam, Tamil

Literally, the “burden dance.” Sacrificial offering and endurance test practiced among devotees of the Indian god Murugan.

kshatriya, Sanskrit

The military caste in the Indian caste system. Regarded as the second-highest cast after the brahmins.

mahajanapada, Sanskrit

Name for the sixteen large janapadas that emerged in northern India at the end of the Vedic period.

moksha, Sanskrit

“Liberation” from the cycles of rebirth. Cf. “nirvana” in Buddism.

wayang, Javanese

Literally, “shadow” or “imagination.” Term for shadow puppet theater. Also known as wayang kulit.

Think about

Vedic India

  • What were the Vedas and what do we know about their origin?
  • Compare the cultural flourishing of Vedic India with the Warring States Period in China.
  • Who was Siddharta Gautama and how did he acquire a world-wide following?

Classical India

  • Give an account of the career and achievements of Ashoka the Great.
  • Why has the Gupta dynasty come to be thought of as quintessentially “Indian”?
  • What characterizes the culture and history of Afghanistan?


  • What role has the Indian Ocean played in establishing trade relations?
  • Why did Indian culture have such a huge impact on Southeast Asia?
  • Why is “Indianization” a contested term?

The Mughal Empire

  • Why is Akbar often considered to be the greatest of the Mughal emperors?
  • How did the Mughals, who were Muslim, manage to rule a predominantly Hindu society?
  • Describe some of the cultural achievements of Mughal India.

India as an international system

  • How do Indian nationalists define their country?
  • Why is their definition considered as a threat by other ethnic and religious groups?
  • Why have many features of Indian culture had such a powerful impact on foreigners?