Over the millennia various invasions have added great diversity and complexity to the cultures of the Indian subcontinent; the gradual incorporation of various cultural elements into its own complex civilization has been a continuing feature of India's history.
One of the world's oldest and greatest civilizations took shape between about 3000 and 2500 BC in the valley of the Indus River, from which the name of the Indian subcontinent is taken. Sites of this INDUS CIVILIZATION at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro--both in present-day Pakistan--have been extensively excavated; other sites have been uncovered in India in the far east and far south as well as the coast of the Gujarat region. The Indus, or Harappa, civilization, one of the most advanced of ancient times, was similar in many ways to contemporary cultures in Mesopotamia. Harappans lived in towns with two- and three-story brick houses, and well-laid-out streets and drainage systems; they employed tools of copper, bronze, and stone; they wore clothing of cotton; and they used rather sophisticated pottery and other kinds of cooking and serving utensils. Harappa script, which appears on innumerable seals and art works, has not yet been deciphered.
Harappa culture thrived until about 1500 BC, when the Indus Valley was overrun by ARYAN invaders from the Iranian plateau. The seminomadic Aryans spoke an archaic form of Sanskrit and left no remains of cities, burials, arts, or crafts. What is known about the Aryans has been passed down through religious texts--the VEDAS, especially the Rig Veda ("Verses of Knowledge"). Originally transmitted orally, the Vedas describe a highly ritualistic worship with innumerable deities, a rich mythology, and an elaborate fire sacrifice. They also mention the system of varnas, or classes, from which evolved the CASTE system. The four varnas were the Brahmins, or priests; the Kshatriya, political rulers or warriors; Vaishya, traders and cultivators; and Shudra, artisans. The Vedas and the caste system remain central to the Indian socioreligious system, HINDUISM. Thus the Aryans gave to India many of its basic institutions and cultural habits.
A scheme of the Aryan-Dravidian Society
Early Cultural Cleavages
According to one theory, the Aryans, a warlike people who rode on horseback, pushed southward many of northern India's darker-skinned and shorter inhabitants, whom they called dasas. This theory, yet to be proven, is sometimes used to explain the origins of the division between the Aryan linguistic groups in the North and the DRAVIDIAN LANGUAGES of the South. Some modern southern separatists have claimed that the Dravidian speakers predate the Aryan invaders, but there is not yet sufficient linguistic evidence to date the arrival of Dravidian speakers in southern India. Cultural distinctions between North and South remain, however, in modern India. Aryan religious texts indicate that the Aryans viewed themselves as racially and culturally superior and despised the dasas. In the north, the area of Aryan dominance, the name dasa eventually came to mean "slave" or "bondsman." The dasas probably performed many of the unpleasant but necessary tasks in the segmented society that was developing under Aryan influence.
The epic Mahabharata is the story about the important battle of the Aryans, the Bharata war, in the area between the two watersheds of the Indus and Ganges. The sense of space particularly sacred because this history is very important to Indian thought as shown in the epic. Composed of 75.000 stanzas it is the longest work of literature in the world. Based on a war between two rival cousins is ultimately construed as a cosmic struggle between evil and virtue. It has been edited and added to over time. One of the most famous additions is the Bhagavad-Gita, the Lord’s song.
Challenges to Brahman Ascendancy
Over the centuries pre-Aryan and Aryan cultures gradually fused in northern India as the Aryans expanded slowly eastward into the Gangetic plain, where the second of ancient India's great urban civilizations developed. Such cities as PATALIPUTRA (near modern Patna), Kasi (modern VARANASI), and Ajodhya rose in importance. In the Bihar region in the 6th century BC a wealthy merchant class (largely Vaishyas) began to support speculation challenging orthodox beliefs. For example, that era's UPANISHADS (scriptural texts that were part of the Vedas but attempted to go beyond them) began to challenge the traditional authority of the Brahmans. In the northeast, where Aryan influence was relatively weak, the religious systems known as JAINISM and BUDDHISM were founded around 500 BC. Both were widely supported by the merchant and landowning aristocracies of eastern India, and both can be viewed in part as revolts against Brahmanism.