Lessons from India


May 2015
Ivan Obolensky

The world has become interlinked globally, yet we in the West generally know little about the history of foreign countries other than those of Europe. For example, India is the second most populous country in the world and the largest democracy, but beyond learning about Gandhi and the movement for Indian independence from the British and the founding of Pakistan, the history of India before British rule has remained little studied in Western schools. India’s history predates that of Europe by thousands of years and is in every way as exciting and instructive as our own.1

Its birth place was the Indo-Gangetic plain that stretches across the North of India for over 1,500 miles.  It is made up of two rivers: the Indus that flows west and empties into the Arabian Sea and the Ganges that flows east into the Indian Ocean. As with the Tigris-Euphrates and the Nile, the fertile land along the rivers led to agricultural societies that developed into urban communities long before recorded history. The communities became cities and then kingdoms. By the third century BCE (Before Common Era), these had been transformed and united into an empire whose size at its height eclipsed even that of the Roman world at its height, some three hundred years in the future. It was called the Maurya Empire.

To place this civilization in its historical context, Sumer, Babylon, and Assyria had come and gone over 1,500 years before. Athens had reached its golden age two hundred years earlier, and Alexander the Great had rolled over the remnants of the Achaemenids (Persia) and conquered as far as modern Pakistan one hundred years before. In 264 BCE, Rome was about to engage Carthage in the first Punic War in order to settle who would dominate the Mediterranean.

While European culture has remained fascinated with all things Mediterranean, the civilizations of India had remained virtually unknown to the Western mind. Up until the 20th century, historians still believed that India had been simply a seething mass of barbarism until the Aryans, the progenitors of Indo-European language, travelled west from the Caspian Sea around 2000 BCE, invaded the Indus valley, and moved inexorably toward the Ganges and that was all.

In the 1920s archeologists were surprised when they discovered the ancient city of Mohenjo-daro on the western bank of the lower Indus in modern day Pakistan. It was 3,000 to 4,000 years old and demonstrated that a highly developed city life had sprung up in the area with jewelry and artifacts of such extraordinary quality and finish that they surpassed in sophistication those of Babylon and Sumer, whose culture was thought to reign supreme during that time. 2

The society that produced these items has been named the Harappan Civilization after Harappa, the first site to be excavated. It is one of the oldest on earth. We do know that it began to decline around 1800 BCE. As to its causes, we do not know with certainty. Climate change may have played a part.

The discovery of the Harappan civilization has adjusted the theory of the Aryan invasion in that there may have been an Aryan migration instead.

History, as in economics, politics, and even the sciences, is a complex mass of competing theories and explanations that change depending on newly-discovered evidence. If what is recorded only two years ago is often found to be incorrect, what really transpired several thousand years ago is much more a matter of which story seems to fit the pieces.

The Harrapan civilization may have had far more influence on what follows than what has been thought.3

What is believed to have occurred is that the Aryans, a warrior culture, moved into Northern India around 2000 BCE. By 1200, a group of learned Aryan families had collected the hymns they sang before, during, and after battle and put them together with the wisdom of their forbears to create a collection of works called the Rig Veda.

From the Vedas the Hindu religion developed, which channeled the Aryan warrior ethos into more peaceful and introspective avenues. From Hinduism came the caste system of Brahmans (priests), who formed the top tier followed by the military caste, the Kshatriyas. The Vaishyas were the merchants and farmers, and under them came the Shudras who served the other three.

In 321 BCE, a man named Chandragupta Maurya organized a small army, overcame the remnants of Alexander’s garrison that remained in Pakistan, declared India free, and marched west to subdue by revolt and insurrection the largest kingdom on the Ganges. Relying on his subtle and conniving advisor, Kautilya Chanakya, Chandragupta established the Maurayan dynasty that ruled for 137 years.

Little is known of his early life. Some sources say Chandragupta was from the lowest caste, the shudras, while others say he was from the Kshatriyas but an exile. Still another reports he had been a slave at one time. In spite of such a lowly beginning, the empire he founded and maintained was the largest and most prosperous of the period bar none at that time.

Much of our information about his kingdom comes from the Greek explorer and ethnographer, Megasthenes, who reported back to a stunned Greek world that there existed a civilization that was entirely equal to their own in sophistication, size, prosperity, and culture.

Although Chandragupta ruled as a despot, he was smart enough to leave much of the behind-the-scenes machinations to his crafty advisor, Kautilya. The government he founded was a model of efficiency. Always wary of the need for force of arms, he kept a standing army of some 600,000 and an extensive network of spies and courtesans that reported back to him. The administration was divided into many departments: internal revenue, customs, frontiers, passports, communications, excise taxes, mines, agriculture, cattle, commerce, warehouses, navigation, forests, public games (gambling), prostitution, and the mint. All professions, industries, and occupations were taxed, and nobles who grew overly wealthy were convinced to make significant donatives. As an example of the level of achievement and degree of efficiency, the Department of Communication built and repaired roads throughout the empire. Imperial roads were 64 feet wide while commercial roads were 32 feet in width. Village roads were mandated to be the width of a wagon. (In comparison a modern four lane highway in the United States is made up of lanes that are 12 feet in width, or 48 feet wide not including the median.) At every mile, roads were marked with pillars indicating direction and distances. Shade trees were planted, wells dug, and hotels situated and staffed at convenient distances. Police stations were set up at regular distances along the way to maintain order and the safety of travelers.

Towards the end of his reign a great famine struck the land. Tradition says that Chandragupta grew so despondent at his failure to feed his people that he abdicated his throne to become a follower of Jainism, a religion founded at about the same time as Buddhism in 600 BCE. Jains believe that the way to liberation and bliss is to live a life of renunciation and harmlessness. Jina means conqueror, one who has subdued his inner enemies such as attachment, anger, pride, and greed.

Chandragupta lived as a Jain for twelve years before he starved himself to death. He was succeeded by his son, Bidusara, who ruled well for thirty years, but his reign was overshadowed by that of his son, Ashoka Vardhana, one of the greatest figures of Indian history.

Ashoka was to transform India as much as the Buddha, whose faith he advocated.

It is typical of Buddhist lore that one who undergoes a profound transformation should initially be portrayed as evil. Ashoka is said to have murdered two of his brothers and was no stranger to violence. He inherited an empire in which he held sway over 30 million subjects. At first he ruled with cruelty and severity. When the city of Kalinga revolted, he met the rebel army in battle and was victorious. Over 100,000 Kalinga soldiers died during the fighting and many more from wounds and the disease that followed. Of those remaining in the city, 150,000 were deported to the farthest reaches of the empire.

Afterwards he had a profound transformation.

In one version, following the battle a Buddhist saint was imprisoned without cause in a dungeon where Ashoka had decreed that no one was to come out alive. The saint was thrown into a cauldron of hot water, but the water refused to boil. The jailer sent word to Ashoka who came down to see for himself and marveled at what he saw. When the jailer reminded Ashoka that he must not leave the dungeon alive, he had the jailer thrown into the cauldron for good measure demonstrating once again that flippancy towards authority is tolerated sometimes, but not always.

After returning to the palace, Ashoka had a transformation and ordered the prison destroyed and the penal code made more lenient. He went on to restore the lands to the Kalingas and sent them an abject message of apology which is probably the first and last time in history that such a gesture has ever been done by one wielding such power.4

In another version, he looked over the vast destruction he had created in suppressing the revolt and was filled with remorse. He wrote on a massive rock to mark the event, not about the numbers killed and his conquest but instead:

“The slaughter, death, and deportation is extremely grievous to Devanampiya (beloved of the gods) and weighs heavily on his mind.”5

Whichever version one believes one thing is certain: from this point forward his reign changes to one which could only be one called enlightened.

Ashoka forwarded a new policy on military restraint and announced this fact on giant pillars, cliff faces, and other edifices. He enacted rules to stop the aristocratic sport of hunting, created veterinary hospitals. He urged his people to set aside greed and extravagance. He became a patron of Buddhism and founded some 84,000 monasteries and sent missionaries to Tibet, Ceylon, even Syria and Greece, perhaps paving the way for the pacifism of Christianity in the next couple of centuries.6

He did not relinquish his grip on his empire until the end of his life. He must have known that if he was to abdicate to pursue his personal spiritual fulfillment, others would take his place and rule badly, which in fact they did. He could not bring back those he deported to remote locations without creating the rebellion he had to deal with in the first place. Nor could he reduce taxes to the minimum and hope to afford the administrative machinery that kept it all going and allow those who lived in it to live without fear of invasion and conquest. Still he pined for the ability to rule without harshness but found it difficult if not impossible. Force was required more often than not.7

Ashoka ruled for some forty years. Within a generation his empire had crumbled, but his Buddhist legacy remains today having spread throughout Asia and the world.8

What is most instructive about Ashoka’s reign is that before the Enlightenment, the rise of democracy in the West, organized labor, and the disparity of wealth, he confronted the conundrum of civilization, itself: How do we live well with each other? The question is not just about individuals living with individuals, but viable relationships between government and citizens, heads of corporations and their employees, leaders and followers. How is this to be done?

Historically, civilizations and all that entails have risen as a result of extracting labor of the many to be used by a few to create the buildings, the temples, the gardens, and the arts. They are built on a tradition of warfare and conquest and maintained by laws that are enforced with violence9; yet, just like Ashoka, we all wish for peace and harmonious living amongst each other and the environment. We wish government to provide the playing field on which we all can succeed, and that rules are applied uniformly to all. But we do not want to be hemmed in by government intrusion, forgo our privacy, and abdicate our freedoms to choose. Where is that balance?

History, even one as long as India’s, has remained mute other than pointing out that Golden Ages do happen but are usually preceded by periods of turmoil and great change. Heads of state must sometimes use force to maintain an environment in which people can live freely; but restraint, clemency, and a profound empathy for all is not only necessary for leaders to live with their followers, but with themselves as well.



  1. (N.A.), (N.D.) India, The New York Times. Retrieved on May 17, 2015 from http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/india/index.html
  2. Durant, W. (1963) Our Oriental Heritage. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster
  3. Frawley, D. (N.D.) The Myth of the Aryan Invasion of India. Retrieved May 17, 2015 from http://www.indiaforum.org/india/hinduism/aryan/page3.html
  4. Durant, cit.
  5. Armstrong, K. (2014). Fields of Blood, Religion and the History of Violence. Alfred A. Knopf, Canada.
  6. Durant, cit.
  7. Armstrong, cit.
  8. Durant, cit.
  9. Armstrong, cit.


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© 2015 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.

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