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The Story of India

The Power of Ideas


500 BCE 200 BCE

60,000 BCE–500 BCE

Scale: 1 column = 100 years

200 BCE–300 CE


Statue of Gomateshvara, Sravanabelagola

Derived from the Sanskrit word "jina," meaning "to conquer," Jainism teaches that all life forms have an eternal soul bound by karma in a never-ending cycle of rebirth. Through nonviolence or ahimsa, the soul can break free of this cycle and achieve kaivalya. Traditions and ideas central to Jainism can be traced to the 7th century BCE, but Mahavira, the last of Jainism's 24 great spiritual teachers, formalized them into the Jain religion in the 6th century. Some scholars see the roots of the faith as far back as the Indus civilization in Gujarat.

Central to Jainism are five vows: nonviolence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), chastity (brahmacharya), and non-possession or non-attachment (aparigraha). As a manifestation of ahimsa, Jain monks wear nets over their mouths and sweep the street with their clothing so as to avoid harming insects, thereby accruing karma from not injuring even the smallest life forms. Mahavira, whose teachings are recorded in the Agamas texts, taught liberation through the three principles of right faith (samyak darshana), right knowledge (samyak jnana), and right conduct (samyak charitra).

Between the first and second centuries BCE, the Jains divided into an orthodox sect Digambara ("sky–clad") in which followers claimed adherence to Mahavira's philosophy by going without clothes, and the Shvetambara ("white–clad") sect. Approximately four million Jains practice the religion worldwide, and important places of pilgrimage among observers include Mt. Abu in Rajasthan, site of five ornate Jain temples, and Sravanabelagola, site of a 57.5 foot statue of Gomateshvara (Bahubali), Jainism's first spiritual leader or tirthankara. Today Sravanabelagola is the site of the Mahamastak Abhishek, the biggest Jain religious festival which takes place every 12 years, the last one in 2007.



Video: The Mahabharata, India's most famous epic
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Video: The Mahabharata, India's most famous epic, and its relationship to Hastinapur

The Mahabharata ("The Great Tale of the Bharatas") is one of two major epics in ancient Indian literature, the other being the Ramayana. The story first began in the oral tradition during the first millennium BCE and was composed in Sanskrit over centuries, beginning perhaps as early as 800 or 900 BCE, and reaching its final written form around the fourth century BCE. Attributed to the poet Vyasa, the epic is composed of nearly 100,000 verses divided into 18 books. The sixth book contains the central text of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita ("Song of the Bountiful Lord"), which discusses the four goals of life or purushartas—artha (worldly wealth and success), kama (pleasure and desire), dharma (righteousness), and moksha (knowledge and liberation from the cycle of birth and death). A dialogue between the warrior Arjuna and Krishna, the Bhagavad Gita makes dharma its central lesson: hesitating before the prospect of war, Krishna reminds the hero Arjuna of his selfless duty or dharma.

Set in the kingdom of Kurukshetra on India's northern plains, the epic narrates a succession struggle among members of the Bharata ruling family that results in a ruinous civil war. The Pandava brothers are pitted against their rival cousins, the Kauravas, who divest the eldest Pandava brother of his kingdom and his wife in a fixed gambling match. The brothers are forced into exile for 13 years during which time they prepare for war with their cousins. The Pandavas prevail in an 18-day battle that causes great loss of life on both sides. In contrast with the Vedas, which are considered "sruti" or divine revelation, the epics are considered smrti ("that which is remembered") or of human origin.


Bharata Natyam

Video: Bharata natyam and the thousand year old tradition of Indian dance
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Video: Bharata natyam and the thousand year old tradition of Indian dance

Bharata natyam is an Indian classical dance that originated in Hindu temples and is now one of India's most popular dance forms, taught and performed across the country and abroad. It was developed and fostered in Tamil Nadu, especially during the reign of the Chola kings, whose great temples maintained hundreds of devadasis (temple dancers). Development of the dance was continued by the rulers of succeeding dynasties into the 19th century CE. The devadasis were young women who were "married" to a particular deity and performed dances for the gods represented in the temple and for the enjoyment of the Brahmin priests. During the British Raj, the devadasis came into disrepute and their dances viewed as licentious. Temple dancing was legally banned in the state of Madras (now Tamil Nadu), but bharata natyam continues as a theatrical dance form starting in the mid-1930s and is now taught widely across India and the outside world.

A solo dance performed mainly by young women, bharata natyam's choreography features an extensive vocabulary of formalized hand gestures (mudras), which carry distinctive meanings, accompanied by energetic rhythmic footwork, sculptural poses, and animated facial expressions. It incorporates three basic components of Indian dance: nritta (pure, rhythmic dance), nritya (expressive dance that conveys mood through facial expressions and hand gestures), and natya (pure storytelling that combines song and dance). The female dancer performs in bare feet with a large, wide anklet of bells and she wears an elaborate sari draped to form a cascade of pleats in the front, which fan out between the legs with her movements. A typical recital consists of six sections: the alarippu, an invocation to the deity and audience greeting; the jatisvaram, a technical piece that uses nritta; the sabdam that introduces nritya; varnam, the most complex piece that uses both nritta and nritya; padam, a piece expressing love and devotion through natya; and the final section, the tillana (or thillana), a fast-paced, rhythmic piece that showcases the dancer's mastery of intricate footwork and beautiful poses.


Alexander the Great

After conquering Anatolia (334-3 BCE), Phoenicia, Egypt and Libya (333-2 BCE) and finally Persia (331-330 BCE), Alexander the Great from Macedonia set his sights on the lands in northern India conquered by Darius I of Persia 200 years earlier. Alexander sent his main army through the Khyber Pass, and brought the rest himself on a more northerly route. He met with resistance and battles from some local rulers, while others feared his reputation and met him with gifts and supplies. His expedition reached its most easterly point in September 326 BCE at the Beas river in the Punjab when his army—now weary of long years spent on the march—came close to mutiny. Alexander then turned back heading southwards down the Indus to the sea, fighting and besieging Indian cities all the way. There he divided his men again, sending a fleet from the mouth of the Indus back to the Persian Gulf, dispatching one army corps over the Bolan Pass, and taking the rest along the inhospitable Makran coast into Iran and back to Babylon.

Alexander's invasion itself left no long lasting impression on India (though he may have influenced the young Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Mauryan Empire), but his campaigns cemented his reputation as one of the great conquerors of the ancient world. Later Greek leaders however conquered much of northwest India; the most famous, Menander (ruled c. 155-130 BCE), struck down the Ganges as far as Patna and according to legend later became a Buddhist.


Chandragupta Maurya

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Video about Chandragupta Maurya

In 320 BCE, the Nanda dynasty was overthrown by an officer in its army, Chandragupta Maurya (c. 320-298 BCE), who became the founder of the Mauryan Empire. By the end of the century, Chandragupta's empire ranged from the Himalayas to the Deccan plateau in Southern India and united the Indus and Gangetic valleys under a central administration that would thrive for 140 years. Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to Chandragupta's court, marveled at the wealth and splendor of the Mauryan capital at Pataliputra (Patna), and his portrait of the king reveals a masterful and suspicious ruler who was constantly vigilant, fearing attempts on his life. A manual about statecraft, Arthasastra, written in part by Chandragupta's head minister, Kautilya (other authors made subsequent additions in later centuries), is a revealing study of Mauryan bureaucracy. The book, which is often compared to Machiavelli's The Prince, discusses practical advice for rulers about how to run a kingdom, including ways to cultivate spies and become popular in conquered territories.

Legends of Chandragupta's life abound; some claim his family was related to the Buddha while others say that he met Alexander the Great and was imprisoned for offending him. Most versions of his death recount that Chandragupta abdicated his throne to become a Jain monk and fasted until he died. After Chandragupta's death, his son Bindasara and grandson Ashoka the Great increased the empire's power and consolidated its lands.


Mauryan Empire

Ashokan Pillar
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Silhouette of top of Ashokan Pillar

In 320 BCE, the Nanda dynasty was overthrown by an officer in its army, Chandragupta Maurya (c. 320-298 BCE), and thus began the Mauryan Empire. By around 300 BCE, Chandragupta's empire included India south of the Hindu Kush and most of northern India as far south as the Narmada River. Writings of a Greek ambassador, Megasthenes, provide insights into the wealth and splendor of the Mauryan capital at Pataliputra (Patna), India's caste system, and the king, who Megasthenes wrote was constantly vigilant, fearing attempts on his life. A book about statecraft, Arthasastra, written in part by Chandragupta's head minister (additions were added in later centuries), discusses practical advice for rulers about how to run a kingdom and provides a window into Mauryan bureaucracy. Legends about Chandragupta are many and claim his family was related to the Buddha, that he met Alexander the Great, and that he resigned his kingship to become a Jain monk.

Ashoka the Great (c. 269-233 BCE) is largely considered the greatest Mauryan emperor and ruled over a territory stretching from the northern Himalayas into peninsular India and across the widest part of the subcontinent. Known for his principles of non-violence and religious tolerance, Ashoka modeled himself as a cakravartin, the Buddhist term for a "universal ruler," whose rule was based on the principle of dharma or conquest not by war but righteousness. To advance this principle, Ashoka had edicts based on the dharma carved on rocks, pillars, and caves throughout his kingdom and sent emissaries abroad to disseminate his views.

After Ashoka's death, the empire declined and lost territory under a series of weak rulers about whom little is known. In 185 BCE, Pushyamitra Shunga, a general, assassinated the last king of the Mauryan dynasty, Brihadratha.



Megasthenes was a Greek ambassador sent, in about 300 BCE, to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Mauryan Empire. Megasthenes represented Seleucus Nicator (lived 358-281 BCE), ruler of the eastern part of the Hellenistic Greek empire after Alexander the Great's death. Megasthenes' account of his visit (which survives only in fragments) has provided scholars with an understanding of the nature of Mauryan rule under Chandragupta. Megasthenes described the Indian caste system, the absolute rule of the Mauryan king and the sophisticated bureaucracy that had been developed to enforce this rule. He also discussed the standing army that he says comprised 60,000 professional soldiers. Megasthenes' accounts of more mundane Indian produce such as sugarcane and cotton plants drew disbelief among his readers back in Greece who could not believe in plants that produced "sugar syrup" and "wool."



Tamil family
Tamil Family

An official language of India belonging to the Dravidian family, Tamil is not related to the Indo-Aryan family of languages. Tamil, spoken by more than 60 million people, is the official language of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and an official language of Sri Lanka. Malaysia, Singapore, and certain African nations that have sizeable Tamil-speaking populations. One of Ashoka the Great's edicts identifies his southern neighbors as the Cholas and Pandyas, both Tamil-speaking peoples.

Tamil literature is over 2,000 years old, and Tamil poetry and grammar reveal much about southern India around the time of Christ. Tamil poetry recited by both men and women at marathon arts festivals, called sangam, describes a caste society and extensive foreign trade with the Roman Empire that extended into southern India from Egypt, which had come under Roman rule in 30 BCE. Dialects within Tamil are numerous, and the language is characterized by a sharp division between a literary or classical style and a colloquial variant.



Emperor Ashoka

Ashoka (Asoka), the third emperor of the Mauryan Empire, reigned from c. 269-233 BCE, and his exemplary story remains popular in folk plays and legends across southern Asia. The emperor ruled a vast territory that stretched from the Bay of Bengal to Kandahar and from the North-West Frontier of Pakistan to below the Krishna River in southern India. The year 261 BCE marks a turning point in Ashoka's reign when, in part to increase access to the Ganges River, he conquered the east coast kingdom of Kalinga. By Ashoka's account, more than 250,000 people were killed, made captive or later died of starvation. Feeling remorseful about this massive suffering and loss, the emperor converted to Buddhism and made dharma, or dhamma, the central foundation of his personal and political life.

Throughout his kingdom, the emperor inscribed laws and injunctions inspired by dharma on rocks and pillars, some of them crowned with elaborate sculptures. Many of these edicts begin "Thus speaks Devanampiya Piyadassi [Beloved of the Gods]" and counsel good behavior including decency, piety, honoring parents and teachers and protection of the environment and natural world. Guided by this principle, Ashoka abolished practices that caused unnecessary suffering to men and animals and advanced religious toleration. To further the influence of dharma, he sent his son, a Buddhist monk, to Sri Lanka, and emissaries to countries including Greece and Syria. To some historians, the edicts unified an extended empire, one that was organized into five parts governed by Ashoka and four governors. After his reign, Ashoka has become an enduring symbol of enlightened rule, non-violence, and religious tolerance. In 1950, the Lion Capital of Ashoka, a sandstone sculpture erected in 250 BCE, was adopted as India's official emblem by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.


Battle of Kalinga

Artifacts from the Battle of Kalinga
Archaeological artifacts from the Battle of Kalinga

The Battle of Kalinga, an east coast kingdom in modern Orissa, marked a turning point in the rule of the Mauryan emperor, Ashoka the Great (c. 269–233 BCE). In about 261 BCE, Ashoka fought a bloody war for the kingdom, a conquest he records in the thirteenth and most important of his Fourteen Rock Edicts. In the edict, he numbered the conflict's casualties and prisoners at more than 200,000 and expressed remorse for this massive loss of life and freedom. He renounced war for conquest through righteousness, dharma: "They should only consider conquest by dharma to be a true conquest, and delight in dharma should be their whole delight, for this is of value in both this world and the next." Dharma became the organizing principle of Ashoka's personal and public life and shaped his policies of non-violence and religious tolerance.