Instruction 5-1


Origins of India | Buddhism in India | Indian Empires

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Origins of India
CCSTD History Grade 6 6.5.1, 6.5.2, 6.5.4

All of the great early civilizations arose in river valleys.

Mesopotamian civilization began between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The country of Iraq is located there today.

Egyptian civilization began along the Nile.

Chinese civilization began along the Yellow River (Huang He). We'll tell you about it in our next Lesson.

Indian civilization began along the Indus River -- in what is now Pakistan.

Indus Valley civilization flourished between 3250 and 1500 BC. It is a fascinating civilization. Nobody even knew it existed until 1922, when archeologists discovered the remains of an ancient city called Harappa. That's why the Indus Valley civilization is also called the Harappan Civilization.

Soon another city was found 400 miles southwest of Harappa. This city is called Mohenjo-Daro. Eventually, over 1400 different towns or cities from this period have been discovered -- and there are probably more.

Harappa and Mohenjo-Dara appear to have had about 35,000 inhabitants each. They were laid out in intersecting straight lines called grids. Each city contained a number of large buildings. These buildings are thought to have been communal bathhouses and government or religious centers.

Individual homes were well built and even had private bathrooms. Clay pipes led from the bathrooms down to sewers underneath the streets.


Trade with Egypt and Mesopotamia? 

This was a highly advanced society. It had marvelous craftsmen. Exquisite jewelry, pottery, bronze and silver bowls, and small statues and animal figures have been found.

The Indus people must have engaged in trade, since they had no metal. So the metal to make these bowls, jewelry, and statues had to come from somewhere else.

Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations were flourishing at the same time. Were those their trading partners? We don't know.


A Continuing Mystery 

We also don't know how to decipher their written language.

From what archeologists can tell, however, the Indus people appear to have been excellent farmers. They grew barley, peas, melons, wheat, and dates. They kept sheep, pigs, zebus (cows), and water buffalo. They caught fish in the river.

Each town had a central storage building for grain.

Both men and women wore colorful robes made of cotton, which they grew. Women wore jewelry of gold and precious stones. They also wore lipstick.

Children had whistles shaped like small birds. They played with wooden carts and carved monkeys that slid up and down on strings.

In about 1500 BC, their civilization disappeared without a trace.


The Aryans 

Soon, however, the Indus River Valley had new inhabitants.

These new people were called Aryans. Aryan means pure --- and these Aryans tried hard to keep their ethnic traditions intact and avoid mixing with other people.

The Aryans came from Central Asia (modern-day Russia). They were nomads, who raised livestock, rode chariots and loved to gamble. The lived in clans and were ruled by warrior chiefs called rajahs. These clans were constantly at war with one another.
They spoke an early form of Sanskrit, and they told wonderful stories.

Those stories are why we know so much about them.

The Vedas 

Aryan beliefs and life are described in a collection of poems and sacred hymns called Vedas. Veda means knowledge. There are four Vedas – the Rig, Sama, Eager and Atharva Vedas. They were composed in about 1500 BC, which is why the period from 1500 BC to 1000 BC is called the Vedic Period.

There were also commentaries on the Vedas called the Brahmanas and the Upanishads and mythic-historical works called the Puranas. All of these texts were, and are, considered sacred. They form the basis for the main religion of India, Hinduism.

They were passed down over thousands of years through an unbroken oral tradition. They are part of India's living Hindu tradition to this day.

And they give us a terrific insight into Aryan beliefs and daily life.

Aryan (Hindu) Beliefs

The Aryans had a large pantheon (collection) of anthropomorphic (human-like) gods. They also had a patriarchal (father-based) family system and a fixed social order. This social order was built on:

  • Varna – social class
  • Ashrama – stage of life (youth, family life, etc.)
  • Dharma – duty, righteousness or sacred cosmic law

For the Aryans, happiness and salvation depended on a person's ethical or moral conduct, depending on a person's birth, age, and station in life.

The Caste System

There were four main social classes (castes). In order of status, these castes (or varnas) were:

  • Brahman – priest
  • Kshatriya – warrior
  • Vaishya – commoner
  • Shuda – servant

There was also a group of people below this list. They used to be called untouchables and had almost no rights. The use of the word untouchable is illegal today. Now, one uses the words dalit or harijan.

One was untouchable if one's activities or job made him or her too "filthy" to be touched by the higher classes. These jobs include taking life for a living, like fishing, or touching human emissions like sweat or spittle, which street sweepers and washermen do.

Daily Life
(Daily Life in Ancient India)

The Aryans slowly evolved from nomads into settled agriculturists, but this didn't keep them from fighting with everybody in sight. Their skill with horse-drawn chariots, astronomy, and mathematics gave them a technological edge over their enemies.

These enemies were often quick to accept Aryan social customs and religious beliefs.

Family Life

The basic unit of Aryan society was the extended family.  Families lived in straw or wood huts.

Children were taught by a guru (teacher). Even the chief's sons had to obey their guru. Writing was done on bark and leaves, which meant it was perishable. Originally they wore animal skins, but eventually they grew cotton and made clothes from it.

A cluster of families made up a village. Several villages made up a tribe.

Village life focused on a central fireplace called a Yagna. Dinnertime was the social time when everyone came together. The Aryans ate meat, vegetables, fruit, fish, bread, and milk. Widespread vegetarianism in India didn't come until later.

Those who tended the Yagna cooked for the tribe, which was a very special job. It was like a being a go-between between the Fire God and the people.

Eventually, the fire-tenders (Yagna-tenders) became the priests.

Marriage, Children, and Dharma

Child marriage was not common, although it would become so in later times. Parents arranged marriages.

As part of the marriage ceremony, a groom applied a spot of his blood to his wife's forehead, between her eyes. This signified wedlock (like a wedding ring).

To this day, a married woman can wear a red dot (called a tilak or bindi) on her forehead if she chooses. A single, divorced, or widowed woman cannot.

In Vedic times, a wife was expected to commit ritual suicide when her husband died. This may have been how the practice of sati began. Sati is when a widow burns herself to death by throwing herself on her husband's funeral pyre (fire).
It is illegal today.

Male babies were considered more valuable than females. That was because a man could tend the herds, bring honor in battle, and offer sacrifices to the gods. These duties were called dharmas.

A man could also inherit property and pass on the family name.

The Power of Religion

As lands along the Ganga (the Ganges River) were cleared, the river became a trade route. Cattle were the primary units of trade. Barter was the common method.

Custom was the law of the land, and the rajah, or chief priest, was the arbiter.

Rajahs, as we said, were military leaders (tribal chieftains).

Rajahs often went to great lengths, and compromised their own interests, to avoid conflict with the Brahmans (priests). This shows the power of religion in ancient India.

We'll tell you more about it in our next Instruction.

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