India is a country in South Asia whose name comes from the Indus River. The name
Bharata’ is used as a designation for the country in their constitution referencing the ancient mythological emperor, Bharata, whose story is told, in part, in the Indian epic Mahabharata. According to the writings known as the Puranas (religious/historical texts written down in the 5th century CE) Bharata conquered the whole sub-continent of India and ruled the land in peace and harmony. The land was, therefore, known as Bharatavarsha (the sub-continent of Bharata’). Homonid activity in the Indian sub-continent stretches back over 250,000 years and it is, therefore, one of the oldest inhabited regions on the planet.
Archaeological excavations have discovered artifacts used by early humans, including stone tools, which suggest an extremely early date for human habitation and technology in the area. While the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt have long been recognized for their celebrated contributions to civilization, India has often been overlooked, especially in the West, though her history and culture is just as rich.
THE GREAT EMPIRES OF ANCIENT INDIA
Persia held dominance in northern India until the conquest of Alexander the Great in 327 BCE. One year later, Alexander had defeated the Achaemenid Empire and firmly conquered the Indian subcontinent. Again, foreign influences were brought to bear on the region giving rise to the Greco-Buddhist culture which impacted all areas of culture in northern India from art to religion to dress. Statues and reliefs from this period depict Buddha, and other figures, as distinctly Hellenic in dress and pose (known as the Gandhara School of Art). Following Alexander’s departure from India, the Maurya Empire (322-185 BCE) rose under the reign of Chandragupta Maurya (322-298) until, by the end of the third century BCE, it ruled over almost all of northern India.
Chandragupta’s son, Bindusara reigned between 298-272 BCE and extended the empire throughout the whole of India. His son was Ashoka the Great (lived 304-232, reigned 269-232 BCE) under whose rule the empire flourished at its height. Eight years into his reign, Ashoka conquered the eastern city-state of Kalinga which resulted in a death toll numbering over 100,000. Shocked at the destruction and death, Ashoka embraced the teachings of the Buddha and embarked on a systematic programme advocating Buddhist thought and principles. He established many monasteries and gave lavishly to Buddhist communities. His ardent support of Buddhist values eventually caused a strain on the government both financially and politically as even his grandson, Sampadi, heir to the throne, opposed his policies. By the end of Ashoka’s reign the government treasury was severely depleted through his regular religious donations and, after his death, the empire declined rapidly.