Indian History – a lesson in diversity, tolerance and faith

Over the weekend I was fortunate enough to receive detailed and extremely informative talks about India’s ancient history and religions (particularly Jain and Hinduism) and it’s political and economic story (since colonial rule).
To have any chance at understanding India it’s essential to know these things as a bare minimum, as they combine to create the context of what can otherwise come across as a bizarre, illogical and incomprehensible land. I’ll do my best to give a summary of what I have recently learnt as it would be greedy to keep all this wonderful new knowledge to myself. Also how insightful this information is, is important to note as this wasn’t information you can simply get from the Internet. My friends’ mother has her Masters in world Religions and their father is a very successful and respected Businessman from a prominent business family. On top of that my friends are also both extremely intelligent and are working with the family business after years of study in the US. One just finished a business degree specialising in finance and the other has 2 degrees (business and bio-chemical engineering), a masters and is about to start working towards a PhD! It’s therefore understandable that im in awe of everything they say and have tremendous respect for their knowledge and opinions. There really is nothing like the feeling of helpless naivety and of being a dodo amongst peacocks to get you motivated to learn!

Ancient History

The history of India begins with evidence of human activity of Homo sapiens as long as 75,000 years ago. The first Indian civilisation arose in the Indus valley about 7000 BC. It actually straddled modern India and Pakistan. By 6,500 BC the people of the area had begun farming and by 5,500 BC they had invented pottery. By about 2,600 BC a prosperous farming society had grown up which used sophisticated used bronze tools . They grew wheat, barley and peas, raised cattle, goats and sheep and used water buffalo to pull carts. The people spun cotton and they traded with other cultures such as modern day Iraq. Some of the people of the Indus Valley began to live in towns.

Indus valley seal

The Indus Valley civilisation had a form of writing but unfortunately it has not been deciphered so nothing is known of their political system or their religion. However many engraved seals and terracotta figurines have been found. Some Indus valley seals show swastikas which are found in later religions and mythologies, especially in Indian religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The Indus Valley civilisation was at its peak in the years 2,300-1,700 BC. Then after 1,700 BC it declined. As society grew less prosperous people would return to a simpler way of life and the invention of writing would disappear. The Indus Valley civilisation vanished and it was forgotten. It was not rediscovered until the 1920s. After the collapse of the Indus Valley civilisation a new wave of people entered India. The Aryans who were a pale skinned semi-nomadic race of pastoralists. Today Indian people are still divided as Northern with pale complexions and Southern with dark, african like skin tones.

The Aryans came from central Asia and they probably entered India through Afghanistan after 1500 BC. There were probably waves of invasions over a period of time rather than just one. In time the Aryans settled down and became farmers and slowly a more ordered and settled society evolved with tribes becoming kingdoms. The Aryans became the priests, rulers and warriors, free peasants and merchants. The subdued people became the slaves, labourers and artisans. In time this stratified society crystallised into the caste system. The Hindu religion also evolved at this time and the sacred literature called The Vedas was created.


By 600 BC a highly civilised society had emerged in India. Although Buddha was born in India about 483 BC the religion he founded failed to take root in the country. At approximately the same time the Persians captured the extreme North-west of India. Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire and penetrated the far North-west of India. The various Indian kingdoms had begun to conquer one another and after 322 BC the first great empire arose, the Mauryan Empire. Its capital was one of the largest cities in the ancient world and the Empire lasted until the last Mauryan ruler was assassinated in 185 BC.

From this time until 1564 India went through a long series of Empires and prospered both commercially and in disciplines like mathematics, astronomy, medicine, literature and art in accordance with the rise and decline of each. These empires included the Shunga, Kanva, Indo-Greeks, Kushan (which did a lot of trade with the Roman Empire) , Gupta, the Huns, the Harshavardhana, the Cholas, the Turks, the Dehli Sultanate and then the Vijayangar.

After these came the renowned Mughal Empire, founded by Babur a descendant of Genghis Khan who first raided India in 1517. His grandson Akbar 1556-1605 was, perhaps, the greatest Mughal ruler. From 1574-1595 he successively took Gujarat, Bengal, Kashmir, Orissa and Baluchistan. Akbar also reorganised the government, created an efficient civil service and admiring Persian culture, let it flourish. Akbar was a Muslim but he was tolerant in matters of religion, abolishing a previous discriminatory tax on non-Muslims and giving Hindus high office. Under his son the Mughal influence increased throughout the South of India and elaborate paintings schools and architecture flourished.

The Mughal Empire reached its zenith in the 17th century when Shah Jahan became ruler. He is famous for building the Taj Mahal, one of the most beautiful buildings in the world which was erected as a memorial to his queen Mumatz Mahal in 1631.

By the 18th century cracks were appearing in the empire. A decline in religious tolerance and oppressive taxation caused more and more rebellions. In 1712 powerful nobles in the empire began to break away and form virtually independent states. Dehli was sacked first by the Persians and then by the Afghans and the empires power continued to rapidly decline. The vaccum left by the moguls was soon filled by the Europeans. The first Europeans to reach India by sea were the Portuguese who arrived in 1498 and began importing spices from India. They formed a base at Goa in 1510. However in the 17th century the Portuguese declined and the English and Dutch and sometime late French, took their place.

The English East India Company was formed in 1600 to trade with India. In 1662 the English king married a Portuguese princess and he was given Bombay, which was sold to the East India Company in 1668. But I must save the intriguing story that follows for a bit later!

So throughout that little summary I briefly mentioned a variety of religions but i am going to go into a bit more detail as it is something that has greatly shaped the country and continues to play a MAJOR role in Indian Society.

Rituals, worship, and other religious activities are very prominent in an individual’s daily life; it is also a principal organizer of social life. The degree of religiosity varies among individuals; in recent decades, like in many countries, religious orthodoxy and observances have become less common in Indian society, particularly among young urban-dwellers. The sheer diversity of religious belief systems existing in India today is a result of, (besides existence and birth of native religions like Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism) assimilation and social integration of religions brought to the region by traders, travelers, immigrants, and even invaders and conquerors. Such religions include, Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.


Born in India it often regarded as the oldest religion in the world and oldest surviving text of Hinduism is the Rigveda, produced during the Vedic period and dated to 1700–1100 BCE. The earliest versions of the epic poems Ramayana and Mahabharata were written roughly from 500–100 BCE, although these were orally transmitted for centuries prior to this period. (No mean feat considering the Mahabharata at 1.8 million words in total, is roughly ten times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined, and four times the length of the Rāmāyaṇa!)

In INDIA: Hinduism is the largest and indigenous religious tradition of India, with 80.5% of the population identifying themselves as Hindus. Hinduism has had a profound impact on India’s history, culture and philosophy.The name India itself is derived from Greek Ἰνδία for Indus, which is derived from the Old Persian word Hindu, from Sanskrit Sindhu, the historic local appellation for the Indus River. Another popular alternative name of India is Hindustān, meaning the “land of Hindus

Trimurti (The Holy Trinity) Whilst Hinduism has thousands of gods, there Trimurti promotes three Absolute Gods: Brahma - the Creator, Vishnu - the Preserver, Shiva - the Destroyer.

Hinduism worships one Supreme Reality and teaches that all souls ultimately realize Truth. There is no eternal hell, no damnation. Each soul is free to find his own way, whether by devotion, austerity, meditation (yoga) or selfless service. Stress is placed on temple worship, scripture and the guru-disciple tradition. Festivals, pilgrimage, chanting of holy hymns and home worship are dynamic practices. Love, nonviolence, good conduct and the law of dharma define the Hindu path. Hinduism explains that the soul reincarnates until all karmas are resolved and God Realization is attained. The magnificent holy temples, the peaceful piety of the Hindu home, the subtle metaphysics and the science of yoga all play their part.

The Bhakti movement

The bhakti movement swept through Central and Northern India, initiated by a loosely associated group of teachers. They taught that people could cast aside the heavy burdens of ritual and caste, and the subtle complexities of philosophy, and simply express their overwhelming love for God. This period was also characterized by a spate of devotional literature in vernacular prose and poetry in the ethnic languages of the various Indian states or provinces


In INDIA: Despite originating in India, the practice of Buddhism as a distinct and organized religion declined from the land of its origin around the 13th century. Due to the formerly close proximity of the 2 religions, Hindus continued to absorb Buddhist practices and teachings, such as meditation and the renunciation of the material world (most common in Himalayan areas). Buddhism has reemerged as a major faith in India in the past century, thanks to its adoption by many Indian intellectuals, the migration of Tibetan Buddhists displaced by the Chinese invasion, and the mass conversion of hundreds of thousands of Hindu untouchables

The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama (566 BCE–486 BCE), known as the Buddha meaning "enlightened one"

Life’s goal is nirvana.Buddha’s teachings are capsulized in the Four Noble Truths
1.SUFFERING: The central fact of life.
2.THE ORIGIN OF SUFFERING: The cause of suffering is the desire, craving or thirst for sensual pleasures, for existence and experience, for worldly possessions and power.
3. THE CESSATION OF SUFFERING: Suffering can be brought to an end only by the complete cessation of desires
4. THE PATH TO ENDING SUFFERING: The means to the end of suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path, right belief, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right meditation.

The primary goal of the Buddhists is nirvana, synonymous with release from the bonds of desire, ego, suffering and rebirth. Nirvana is not a state of annihilation, but of peace and reality. As with Jainism, Buddhism has no creator God and thus no union with Him.


The hand with a wheel on the palm symbolizes the Jain Vow of Ahimsa, meaning non-violence. The word in the middle is "Ahimsa." The wheel represents the dharmacakra, to halt the cycle of reincarnation through the pursuit of truth.

Jainism strives for the realization of the highest perfection of man, which in its original purity is free from all pain and the bondage of birth and death. The term Jain is derived from the Sanskrit jina, “conqueror,” and implies conquest over this bondage imposed by the phenomenal world. Jainism does not consider it necessary to recognize a God or any being higher than the perfect man. Souls are beginningless and endless, eternally individual. It classes souls into three broad categories: those that are not yet evolved; those in the process of evolution and those that are liberated, free from rebirth. Jainism has strong monastic-ascetic leanings, even for householders. Its supreme ideal is ahimsa, equal kindness and reverence for all life. The Jain Agamas teach great reverence for all forms of life, strict codes of vegetarianism, asceticism, nonviolence even in self-defense, and opposition to war.

The Shwetambar (White Clad) Priests

Jainism is, above all, a religion of love and compassion.

ADHERENTS: About six million, almost exclusively in Central and South India, especially in Mumbai.
SECTS: There are two sects. The Digambara (“Sky-clad”) sect holds that a saint should own nothing, not even clothes, thus their practice of wearing only a loincloth. They believe that salvation in this birth is not possible for women. The Svetambara (“White-robed”) sect disagrees with these points.


In INDIA: Islam is second-most practiced religion in the Republic of India after Hinduism, with more than 13.4% of the country’s population (over 138 million as per 2001 census and 160.9 million per 2009 estimate) identifying themselves as Muslims. India’s Muslim population is the world’s third largest and the world’s largest Muslim-minority population. Though Islam came to India in the early 7th century with the advent of Arab traders, it started to become a major religion during the Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent. Islam’s spread in India mostly took place under the Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526) and the Mughal Empire

Matters of jurisdiction involving Muslims in India related to marriage, inheritance and wakf properties are governed by the Muslim Personal Law, and the courts have ruled that Sharia or Muslim law, holds precedence for Muslims over Indian civil law.

Islam means “submission,” surrender to the will of God, called Allah. Those who submit are called Muslims. Islam is based upon five “pillars,” to which every Muslim in the world adheres. 1) Faith in Allah 2) Praying five times daily 3) Giving of alms: a share of each Muslim’s income is given to support the mosque and the poor. 4) Fasting: throughout Ramadan, the faithful fast from sunrise to sunset. 5) Pilgrimage: At least once in life every believer, physically and materially able to do so, must go to Mecca, the holy city.


In INDIA: There are just 125,000 follows and most live near Mumbai, where they are called Parsis. Zoroastrians are primarily descendants of tenth-century immigrants from Persia who preserved the religion of Zoroaster, a prophet of Iran who taught probably in the sixth century B.C. Although the number of Parsis steadily declined during the twentieth century as a result of emigration and low birth rates, their religion is significant because of the financial influence wielded by this mostly trading community and because they represent the world’s largest surviving group of believers in this ancient faith.

Parsi Family

Originally, the Parsis were shipbuilders and traders located in the ports and towns of Gujarat. Their freedom from food or occupational restrictions based on caste affiliation enabled them to take advantage of the numerous commercial opportunities that accompanied the colonial expansion of trade and control. In contemporary India, Parsis are the most urban, elite, and wealthy of any of the nation’s religious groups. Their role in the development of trade, industry, finance, and philanthropy has earned them an important place in the country’s social and economic life, and several have achieved high rank in government.

This symbol, known as the faravahar, represents the immortal human soul, and by extension the Zoroastrian religion. Its human face indicates its connection to humankind.

Two principles form the basis of Zoroastrian ethics: the maintenance of life and the struggle against evil. In order to maintain life, one must till the soil, raise cattle, marry and have children. Asceticism and celibacy are condemned; purity and avoidance of defilement (from death, demons, etc.) are valued.


Guru Nanak (1469–1539) was the founder of Sikhism in India, the religion that draws its elements from both Hinduism & Islam. The religion came about to reconcile the differences between the existing religious beliefs and to alleviate the society of the ills of the existing religious superstitions and practices. Sikhism advocates the pursuit of salvation through disciplined, personal meditation on the name and message of God. A key distinctive feature of Sikhism is a non-anthropomorphic concept of God, to the extent that one can interpret God as the Universe itself. The followers of Sikhism are ordained to follow the teachings of the ten Sikh gurus, or enlightened leaders, as well as the holy scripture entitled the Gurū Granth Sāhib, which, along with the writings of six of the ten Sikh Gurus, includes selected works of many devotees from diverse socio-economic and religious backgrounds. Sikhism’s traditions and teachings are distinctively associated with the history, society and culture of the Punjab. Adherents of Sikhism are known as Sikhs (students or disciples) and number over 26 million across the world. Most Sikhs live in Punjab in India.


Communalism has played a key role in shaping the religious history of modern India. As an adverse result of the British Raj’s divide and rule policy, British India was partitioned along religious lines into two states—the Muslim-majority Dominion of Pakistan (comprising what is now the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh) and the Hindu-majority Union of India (later the Republic of India). The 1947 Partition of India instigated rioting among Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in Punjab, Bengal, Delhi, and other parts of India; 500,000 died as a result of the violence. The twelve million refugees that moved between the newly founded nations of India and Pakistan composed one of the largest mass migrations in modern history. Since its independence, India has periodically witnessed large-scale violence sparked by underlying tensions between sections of its majority Hindu and minority Muslim communities. The Republic of India is secular, its government recognises no official religion. In recent decades, communal tensions and religion-based politics have become more prominen

The Constitution of India declares the nation to be a secular republic that must uphold the right of citizens to freely worship and propagate any religion or faith (with activities subject to reasonable restrictions for the sake of morality, law and order, etc.) Citizens of India are generally tolerant of each other’s religions and retain a secular outlook, although inter-religious marriage is not widely practiced. Inter-community clashes have found little support in the social mainstream, and it is generally perceived that the causes of religious conflicts are political rather than ideological in nature

I was hoping to tell you about the political and economic history of India in this post but i am EXHAUSTED – you probably are too!- stay tuned as i’ll try and do another post on what i’ve been getting up to before i plunge into the sticky subject of Indian Politics!


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