Ancient History

The Indus Valley Civilisation (prior to 1500 BCE)

Initially, little was known about the people living in the Indus valley before the supposed Aryan migration. Then, in the 1920s, archaeologists found the remains of two walled cities, Mohenjodaro and Harappa, now both in Pakistan. Scholars assumed that the invaders destroyed these cities and forced the people to adopt the Aryan culture. Recent aerial photographs, however, suggest that by this time (1500 BCE) the Indus civilisation was already extinct due to the drying up of the river Sarasvati, a tributary of the Indus.

The ancient Indus-Sarasvati society appears to have been relatively civilised, with detailed town planning and sophisticated drainage systems.The inhabitants even developed a form of writing, depicted on various seals excavated from the site. To date, no one has been able to decode the script. Little is known about the people’s religion, but scholars suggest that there was much emphasis on fertility rites and goddess worship, which may have been adopted by the migrating Aryans. There is also one seal (above) that appears to resemble Shiva as Pashupati, Lord of the Beasts.

The Vedic Period (1500–500 BCE)

Information about the Vedic religion apparently introduced by the Aryans is gleaned largely from the Vedas. Focus was on yajna, ritualistic performance of sacrifice, and on joining the ancestors in heaven.The pre-eminent doctrine was Purva Mimamsa, largely non-theistic and with some strands trying to prove that God is non-existent, or at least redundant. Uttara Mimamsa (Vedanta) emerged towards the latter part of the period with the compilation of the Upanishads. Scholars say that there was no clearly enunciated doctrine of reincarnation at this time. The predominant deities, different from those in later Hinduism, represented the forces of nature and were headed by Indra, god of rain. The central story of his killing the giant, Vrita, comes down in numerous versions up to the present. The migrating Aryans are accredited with introducing Sanskrit, and with the system of varnashrama-dharma, though perhaps in a relatively simple form.

Epic, Puranic and Classical Periods (500 BCE–500 CE)

From 500 BCE onwards, veneration of Indra, the main deity of the Rig Veda, was replaced by the worship of Vishnu, Shiva and Devi. Vedic yajna was largely superseded by puja, and the ritualistic Mimamsa darshan was pushed from centre-stage by the speculative philosophies of Vedanta. The emphasis shifted from the Vedas to the development of the Epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, both written during this period. Although Vishnu was already a Vedic deity, only now his importance emerged. Shiva replaced his form as Rudra, and Devi replaced the fertility goddesses of the Vedic and pre-Vedic ages. This period also saw the rise of the Mauryan Empire founded by King Chandra Gupta, and extended by Ashok to include much of India. Under Ashok’s patronage Buddhism spread throughout large portions of the sub-continent, and Jainism similarly flourished. The second Gupta Empire (circa 319–490) united large portions of the country, and nurtured a cultural renaissance within Hinduism and, a golden era for the traditional arts and sciences.