The History of India: From the Mysterious Vedas to the World’s Largest Democracy

Gain an understanding of the major figures, events, and periods of Indian History.

The Shudras

Urbanization begins in the Indus River Valley (5500 - 1300 BCE)

Advanced civilization in India began in 5500 BCE, with the formation of several major cities in the Indus River Valley. The Indus Valley Civilization, also known as the Harappan or the Indus Civilization, took a leap from the preceding semi-nomadic herding cultures. Thanks to the addition of wheat and barley agriculture, the civilization moved toward the formation of major cities and a vast maritime trade network connecting Mesopotamia to China.

The Indus Valley civilization is thought to be the largest of the ‘Ancient Four’ Civilizations of India, China, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. It had 2 major cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, and huge swathes of territory in modern east India and Pakistan. They developed one of the first and most accurate systems of weight and measurement down to units as small as 1.6 mm. They created sculptures, seals, pottery, and jewelry from materials such as terracotta, metals, and stone. They also had a distinct writing system, the mysterious “Indus Script,” which includes 600 unique characters that have yet to be fully deciphered.

The Vedic Age (1500 - 500 BCE)

Around 1500 BCE began a series of migrations by nomadic central Asians known as the Aryans, whose religion was recorded in oral collections called the Vedas. The Aryans conquered fiefdoms out of India and instituted their religious beliefs into the culture. These, combined with the epic poem, Mahabharata, and a different collection of poems called the Upanishads, formed the religion known as Hinduism.


The caste system was set up in such a way that kept people rigidly trapped from birth, with marriage between castes forbidden. The top caste was the priests, or ‘Brahmins,’ followed by the warriors, or ‘Kshatriyas,’ then common tradesmen or farmers known as ‘Vaishyas,’ and finally the menial workers and laborers, the ‘Shudras.’ Existing outside the caste system altogether and often completely shunned were the ‘Untouchables,’ who performed the most degrading tasks of all, like dealing with human waste.

The rise of Buddhism (5th Century BCE)

Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, who is known as the Buddha. Gautama began as a prince in what is now Nepal. While he led a privileged life, he was profoundly impacted by the suffering he saw in the world and chose to endure poverty. When that did not fulfill him, he began pursuing a ‘Middle Way’ between overindulgence and deprivation. After 6 years, he reached enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree, and dedicated the rest of his life to teaching his followers how to reach this spiritual state through his lessons, called the ‘dharma.’


The goal of Buddhism is to reach enlightenment, a kind of ‘spiritual Nirvana.’ They do not acknowledge any specific deity, and believe in both “karma” and reincarnation. Central to the religion are the “4 Noble Truths” that explain why humans suffer. According to Buddhism, the way to overcome this suffering is through following the moral philosophy of “The Eightfold Path,” which encourages moral conduct, mental discipline, and the achievement of wisdom.

The Mauryan Empire (321 BCE - 185 BCE)

The Mauryan was the first pan-Indian empire. It covered central and northern India, as well as parts of modern-day Iran. It was founded by Chandragupta Maurya, who took advantage of the death of Alexander the Great to strike at Magadha, and then expanded from there. His chief minister, Kautilya, became immortalized by writing the ‘Arthashastra,’ a treatise on leadership and government. He takes a decidedly pessimistic view of human nature, including strongly recommending vast networks of spies.


Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka, would profoundly alter the course of the empire after a bloody campaign of expansion against the rival kingdom of Kalinga. He decided to convert to Buddhism, invoking strict policies of non-violence for himself and his people. He immortalized his edicts on large stone pillars. After this change, the Mauryans continued to rule but the empire slowly fell apart until the last emperor was assassinated in 185 BCE.

India would be divided during the next few centuries into multiple states until the start of the ‘Golden Age of India,’ with the Gupta Empire.

The Gupta Empire and the “Golden Age of India” (400 CE - 600 CE)

By the 4th century CE, India had splintered into hundreds of rival kingdoms. Chandragupta I took the throne in the kingdom of Magadha and began ruthlessly consolidating power through military conquests and marriage alliances in an effort to reunite the nation. Chandragupta II brought the Gupta to the height of its power by allowing conquered kings to retain their thrones, as long as they were loyal and sent tribute. However, the rise of the Huns and their increasing attacks would topple the Guptas by the end of 6th century CE.

Huge cultural developments took place during the Gupta Age, including the invention of the decimal system, the calculation of pi to 4 decimal places, and the mathematical concept of zero. The scholar Aryabhata showed the Earth was sphere, demonstrating how it revolved around its axis each day and orbited the Sun. Sanskrit was used by Indian scholars and the legendary playwright, Kalidasa, wrote plays and poems to make it a vital period for Indian literature.

Early medieval India (600 CE - 1200 CE)

The collapse of the Guptas saw centuries of fractured states at war, none able to regain the size or glory of the Mauryan or Guptan empires. The attacks by the Huns were slowly replaced by invasions of Muslim forces. By the 9th and 10th centuries, three powerful states conquered large territories: the Gurjara-Pratiharas in the northwest, the Palas in the northeast, and the Rashtrakutas in the south. These three struggled with one another, leading the era to be branded with the title, ‘The Tripartite Struggle.’

In this era, throughout India, a class of warlord princes called “Rajputs” rose to power over small fiefdoms.

Hinduism came to dominate India as other religions nearly disappeared. An interesting development was the adoption of Buddhist beliefs, like karma, into Hinduism, further increasing the religion’s popularity. In addition, the increasing attacks by Muslims, who were unified by religion, encouraged Indians to band together around a ‘state’ religion, further hastening the decline of Buddhism.

Late medieval period and the Delhi Sultanate (1200 CE - 1526 CE)

Muhammed of Gur began a systematic conquest of the sub-continent at the end of the 12th century, conquering most of northern India and establishing Delhi as the capital. His successor took the title of Sultan and continued the expansion. The Delhi Sultanate was ruled by several different dynasties during its lifespan, all of which were Muslim.

This had lasting effects as it tied India more closely economically and culturally to other parts of the Muslim world and set the stage for the eventual rule of the Mughals in 1526. The use of waterwheels with gears and pulleys, as well as the manufacture of paper, became widespread during the Delhi Sultanate’s time in India.

The Sultanate existed in near-constant fear of Mongol invasion. These fears would come true in 1398 when the conqueror, Timur, originally from modern-day Uzbekistan, marched on Delhi. He claimed the Sultanate was too lenient with their Hindu subjects and defeated the Delhi army, reducing the capital to rubble before returning to his empire. The Sultanate would remain a small state until being subjugated by the Mughals.

Mughal Empire (1526 - 1857)

The Mughal Empire would come to unite and dominate all of India. It was founded by Babur, the great-grandson of Timur, who returned to India to finish what his ancestor had started. He did so by defeating a much larger force with the use of just 20 cannons, making the Mughal one of history’s 3 ‘Gunpowder Empires,’ along with the Ottoman Empire and the Safavid Empire.

Babur’s grandson, Akbar the Great, would forge the Mughal legacy. A workaholic who rarely slept more than 3 hours a night, his policies included graduated income tax and religious toleration that allowed a population that was majority Hindu to be ruled by Muslims. Mughal India became one the richest countries in the world, trading cloth goods and spices to Europeans who began arriving in droves seeking trade in the 17th century.

The leader most credited with the demise of the Mughals was Aurangzeb. He was a religious zealot who instituted Sharia law and waged nearly constant war against both his neighbors and subjects. In fact, every ruler before him is considered to be among the ‘Great Mughals,’ and every ruler after, a ‘Lesser Mughal.’

The British Raj (1857 - 1948)

The British relationship with India changed drastically in 1757. During the Battle of Plassey, the British defeated a Bengali force and took control of Bengal, becoming ‘neighbors’ with the Mughals. In 1857, Indian troops serving in the British army started a massive rebellion and pledged allegiance to the Mughal emperor. After a year-long struggle, the British captured and exiled the Mughal emperor to Burma, and executed his family. This is seen as the official start of the British Raj.

India would become the ‘Jewel’ of the British empire as they exploited its vast natural resources to fuel industrialization. English became the common language and Indian students were taught the British curriculum.

1.5 million Indians served in the British army in World War I, as calls for independence grew louder at home. Mahatma Gandhi began leading protests against British rule that would occupy him for the remainder of his life. In 1948, Britain announced its withdrawal from India, as well as its plans to divide the subcontinent along religious lines into 2 main new independent countries: Pakistan and India.

Modern India (Post 1947)

India experienced turmoil during its transition to self-rule. Violence between Muslims and Hindus led to the death of up to 1 million people, as 10 million fled across the new border between Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan to escape persecution.


Disagreement about the Kashmir region, which was designated as part of India but had a large Muslim population, led to the ‘1st Kashmir War,’ one of 4 conflicts that occurred between India and Pakistan over control of the region from 1947-1999. Mahatma Gandhi led demonstrations against Muslim/Hindu violence until he was assassinated by a Hindu extremist in 1948 for being too tolerant of Muslims. The tension between the two countries’ faiths is still present to this day.

The 1960s saw several wars with China over disputed borders in the Himalayas, without any lasting resolutions. India remained neutral in the Cold War but would institute many socialist policies until massive economic reforms in 1991 ignited a new period of growth. Since that point, India has emerged as one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing economies.

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