What is history? Does the dictionary tell us everything about it?
History is the branch of knowledge dealing with past events; a continuous, systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular people, country, period, person, etc., usually written as a chronological account; the aggregate of past events.
While such definitions are important, especially for students and for others to have a basic idea about this field of study, but surely history is more than just a record book.
History tells us about the unapproachable yet important past for generations have lived this life we are now living, on this very planet before we were born and to understand how they succeeded, failed, survived or thrived is a piece of valuable information as then we can prepare well for what is coming in the future.
Talking about future, what will be the future of India, this great country that was once called the golden bird and was the centre of worldwide trade, that was once colonized and had to struggle hard for its freedom, that is now developing into becoming one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and an emerging superpower, what does the future hold for it?
Let us go back in time and see how this land managed so well with its rise and fall to become the India of the present times.
Indus Valley Civilisation is the first name that comes to our minds when we turn to the ancient past of our country, but what is not known to everyone is the fact that there lived people long before the Harappan and Mohanjo-Daro cities were even conceived.
Archaeological studies have proved that human species were present in the Indian sub-continent since over 250,000 years ago and it is, therefore, one of the oldest inhabited regions on the planet.
The earliest records of the Indian history exist in the form of the Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh (9000 BCE to 7000 BCE) from the prehistoric Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods, as well as the historic period. Another site belongs to the Neolithic Age, Mehrgarh (7000 BCE to 3300 BCE), Pakistan. Archaeologists have not only found Stone Age weapons here but also cave paintings depicting hunters, animals and people dancing.
It was around 5000 BCE that Indus Valley Civilization started shaping throughout the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra river valleys (now in Pakistan), along with the northwestern parts of India, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.
The well-developed cities of this period, especially the Harappa, Ganeriwala and Mohenjo-Daro, with houses built of kiln-fired mud bricks, the streets laid out evenly at right angles and a sophisticated drainage system, the Great Bath (it may have been a public bath), bronze and copper items like the statue of the Dancing Girl, of Indra (the god of storm and war), terracotta pieces depicting the Shakti (the Mother Goddess) and the cultivation of barley, wheat, peas, sesame and cotton, show how successful a civilization it was.
Also, seals belonging to Indus Valley Civilization have been found at sites in Mesopotamia (another one of the oldest civilizations), meaning that trade was an important source of commerce.
Such details not only highlights the fact that we are a very old civilization that had flourishing art and culture, but it also tells us that our land is ideally located for people to thrive, geographically India is more of a mini world – we have oceans, rivers, deserts, islands and mountains; rich flora and fauna that is supported by six seasons (while there are only four in most of the other countries) – and these favourable conditions were majorly responsible for the early hunters and gatherers to survive.
Knowing then the fact that India’s land is very fertile, that the present situation where our oceans are polluted, rivers dried up, deserts have become harsher, islands are frequently under tsunami threats and mountains are getting much populated, it becomes the duty of every Indian to not exploit, but value the gifts of this land.
After the Indus Valley Civilisation ended, a group of small settlements of different tribes appeared in the North-Western regions of India until the arrival of the Aryans who become responsible for ushering the new age in Indian History – the Vedic Age.
In this period, along with the archaeological legacy, India also got a source of literary legacy – The Vedas (collections of hymns, prayers, and liturgy) are the earliest record of Indian culture. These texts composed in Sanskrit comprises of four major texts – the Rigveda, the Samveda, the Yajurveda and the Atharvaveda. Also, the great religious and literary works of The Upanishads (commentaries on Vedic rituals and philosophical treatises), The Puranas (traditional mythical works), and the two epics – The Mahabharata and The Ramayana – all come from this period.
The Vedas put forth the concept of varnashramadharma, the bedrock of Indian traditional social organization, is built on these three fundamental ideas: varna (social class), ashrama (stages of life), and dharma (duty or righteousness).
The Varna system divided the society into four classes – Brahmana at the top (priests and scholars), the Kshatriya next (the warriors), then the Vaishya (farmers and merchants), and last, the Shudra (labourers). Initially, this system proved good for all as everyone worked according to their capability, but gradually it degenerated to become a corrupt, biased, rigid and false law.
Then came two religious reformers Vardhaman Mahavira (549-477 BCE) and Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BCE) who completely rejected the orthodox, repressive ideas that Hinduism had then started fostering. Both these belief systems emphasised on renouncing the world and opposed the ritualistic Brahmanic schools that enjoyed the exclusive status of being the interpreters of the ancient Sanskrit texts.
Jainism and Buddhism, formed by the followers of these two reformers, promoted asceticism, the abandonment of ritual, domestic and social action, and the attainment of spiritual illumination in an attempt to win, through one’s efforts, freedom from repeated rebirth.
Not only religion was undergoing such changes, the society as a whole was facing many alterations then like the rise of many powerful kingdoms; while urbanization and wealth of these kingdoms multiplied, it also started attracting attention from the outside.
Cyrus, ruler of the Persian Empire invaded India in 530 BCE and also tried to spread his religious ideas. In 327 BCE came Alexander the Great, who continued his winning streak by conquering some regions of Northern India before his army mutinied. Again, Greek culture influenced all areas of culture in Northern India from art to religion to attire.
With Alexander’s departure from India, the Mauryan Empire (322-185 BCE) rose under the reign of Chandragupta Maurya (322-298 BCE), a significant period in Indian History as it became the first pan-Indian empire. The Mauryan dynasty ruled almost the entire subcontinent (except the area south of present-day Karnataka; Chera, Chola and Pandya dynasties were ruling the south), as well as substantial parts of present-day Afghanistan.
In the 100 years of the successful Mauryan imperial system, the one king who is the most popular even today is Ashoka the Great (269-232 BCE), under whose rule the empire flourished at its height. After the bloody battle of Kalinga, in which more than 100,000 people died, Ashoka had a change of heart; he accepted Buddhism and focused on maintaining peace in his kingdom. He also sent missionaries to spread the teachings of Buddhism in far North, South and even overseas.
With years passing by India saw new empires rising and facing a downfall. In the 3rd century CE to 590 CE, arose the glorious Gupta Empire and under their rule, India witnessed its Golden Age. Philosophy, literature, science, mathematics, architecture, technology, art, engineering, religion, and astronomy, among other fields, all flourished during the Gupta rule, resulting in some of the greatest of human achievements.
Aryabhatta, Kalidasa, Varahamihira and Vatsyayana were some of the many scholars who made a significant contribution during this age; decimal system, the concept of zero and chess came into existence. The Gupta philosophers also discovered that the Earth is not flat but round and that it rotates on its own axis causing lunar eclipse; discoveries regarding gravity and the planets were also made during this period.
The famous caves of Ajanta and Ellora, with their elaborate carvings and vaulted rooms, belong to this age. The Gupta rulers advocated and propagated Buddhism as the national belief and this is the reason for the plentitude of Buddhist works of art, as opposed to Hindu, at sites such as Ajanta and Ellora.
The empire declined slowly under a succession of weak rulers until it collapsed around 550 CE. After this period various dynasties ruled different regions, all contributing to social, economic and cultural changes.
With such a lengthy list of invasions and battles, the Indian battleground had just been prepared for what was yet to come.
The Muslim general Muhammed bin Qasim, in 712 CE, conquered northern India (modern-day Pakistan) and thus, ushered the beginning of Mughal rule in India – invasion by Mahmud of Ghazni, the battle of Tarain between Mohammed Ghori & Prithivi Raj Chauhan, the establishment of the Khilji Dynasty, the seven main Mughal rulers: Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jehangir, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb and Bahadur Shah – that lasted for 331 years, modifying the Indian society to a great scale, merging their culture in the heart and soul of this land and making it a truly diverse country.
While the Mughals ruled and expanded their reign, explorers from the West like Marco Polo and Vasco-da-Gama also visited this country and empires like the Vijayanagar Empire and Maratha Empire saw many successful decades. Many battles were fought by each to expand and save their respective kingdoms, but what ultimately beat them all was the coming of British East India Company.
European countries all scuffled for a piece of rich Asia and thus, originally arriving as traders (of silk, cotton, tea and opium) the British soon started functioning as the military authority in growing sections of India.
From the battle of Plassey (1757) to the revolt of 1857, the British had established themselves rather comfortably in India. Though Queen Victoria promised that the British government would work to “better” its Indian subjects, the British successfully tried to ‘divide and rule’ this diverse country.
Independence movement started and great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi demanded the British government to ‘quit India’. And as it became difficult for the British officials to handle the violent outbreaks that took place in between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, they decided to leave the country once and for all.
India, in 1947, became a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic. From the year of Independence to the present times, India has been fighting its way through communal riots, poverty, famines, unemployment, corruption, illiteracy, population, pollution, gender inequality, terrorism and more such issues.
And yet, its booming economy, geographical location suitable for world trade, young population, good foreign relations, advancement in science and technology, a strong military force are some of the factors that make it a strong contender to become a superpower in future.
History proves that Indian civilization has stood the test of time and survived against all odds. This fact in itself is an indicator that the future holds good things for this country, but what history also shows is that more than often we have been conquered, sometimes by weapons and sometimes by ruses.
We need to remember this lesson from our Modern History class – ‘united we stand, divided we fall’.
Rather than falling prey to the ideas that lead to communal unrest and disputes, today’s India needs to be tolerant and broad-minded, its leaders should not worry about power, but should work for the public interest, its industrialists should enforce transparency and generosity, and its public should become aware, responsible and hardworking citizens, for this ancient land has nurtured those who have valued it.
History is a guidebook, it shows the magnificent rise and tragic fall of civilizations, for both are a possibility at any given period of time.