A. The Indian Subcontinent
1. India has three topographical zones: (1) the northern mountainous
zone; (2) the Indus and Ganges Basins; and (3) the peninsula. The
Vindhya Mountains and the Deccan plateau divide the peninsula from the
other two zones.
2. The peninsula itself includes further topographical sub-regions
including: (1) tropical Kerala coast in the west; (2) Coromandel Coast
in the east; (3) flat area of Tamil Nadu in the south; and (4) island of
3. Peninsular India and the Ganges Valley have a subtropical climate
and plentiful rainfall. The Indus Valley is dry and agriculture there
relies on irrigation. The staple crop of the Ganges Delta is rice;
elsewhere, the staple crops are wheat, millet, and barley.
4. This geographical diversity has made it very difficult for any
political power to unify all of India for any great length of time.
B. The Vedic Age
1. After the demise of the Indus Valley civilization, Indo-European
warriors migrated into India. They were organized in patriarchal
families and kinship groups, and at first, they herded cattle in the
northwest. After 1000 b.c.e. some of them began to push into the Ganges
Valley, using new iron tools to fell trees and cultivate the land. The
oral tradition of these light-skinned Arya tribes tells of a violent
struggle between themselves and the darker-skinned Dravidian-speaking
Dasas, whom they evidently pushed into southern India.
2. The struggle between Aryas and Dasas led to the development of the
system of varna, meaning "color" but equivalent to "class." Under this
system, people were born into one of four varna: (1) Brahmin
(priests/scholars); (2) Kshatriya (warriors); (3) Vaishya (merchants);
and (4) Shudra (peasant/laborer). A fifth group, Untouchables, was
outside the system and consisted of persons who did demeaning or
ritually polluting work such as work that involved contact with the dead
bodies of animals or humans.
3. The four varna were subdivided into hereditary occupational groups
called jati (also known by the Portuguese word caste). Jati were also
arranged in order of hierarchy; complex rules governed the appropriate
occupation, duties, and rituals of each jati and laid forth regulations
concerning interaction between people of different jati.
4. The systems of varna and jati were rationalized by belief in
reincarnation. According to this belief, each individual has an immortal
spirit (atman) that will be reborn in another body after death. One’s
station in the next life depends on one’s actions (karma) in this and
5. Vedic religion emphasized the worship of male deities through
sacrifice. Religious knowledge and practice was the monopoly of the
Brahmin priestly varna who memorized the rituals, prayers, and hymns and
may have opposed the introduction of writing in order to maintain their
monopoly in religious knowledge.
6. We do not know much about the status or roles of women in the
Vedic period. They could study lore and participate in rituals, they
could own land, and they married in their middle or late teens.
C. Challenges to the Old Order: Jainism and Buddhism
1. During the Vedic period, people who reacted against the rigid
social hierarchy and against the religious monopoly of the Brahmins
would withdraw into the forests where they pursued salvation through
yoga (spiritual and mental discipline), special diets, or meditation.
Their goal was to achieve moksha—liberation from the cycle of birth,
death, and rebirth. The ideas of these religious dissidents are
reflected in the Upanishads.
2. Jainism was founded by Mahavira (540–468 b.c.e.). Jains practiced
nonviolence and went to extremes in their attempts not to kill any
living thing. The most extreme went naked and starved themselves to
death. The less extreme devoted themselves to commerce and
banking—occupations that, unlike agriculture, do not require one to
3. Siddhartha Gautama founded Buddhism. His title, "Buddha," means
"Enlightened One." Alienated by both the extremes of a wealthy youth and
six years of asceticism, Siddhartha Gautama set forth his teaching of
the "Four Noble Truths" and of the Eightfold Path that would lead the
individual to enlightenment. Some of his followers took vows of
celibacy, nonviolence, and poverty.
4. The original form of Buddhism centered on the individual’s
attempts to gain enlightenment through moderate living, self-discipline,
and meditation. Their goal was to achieve nirvana—release from the cycle
of birth, death, and rebirth. According to Buddhist teaching, all things
are composite, including the individual. This stands in contrast to the
Vedic belief in the existence of an eternal soul (atman).
5. After the death of the Buddha, some of his followers organized
themselves into monasteries and nunneries and developed a complex,
hierarchical religion, complete with worship of the Buddha, reverence
for bodhisattvas, and artistic representations of the Buddha. The
religion broke into two major schools: Mahayana and Theravada. Mahayana
incorporated the new beliefs, while Theravada followed the original
teaching of the Buddha more closely.
D. The Rise of Hinduism
1. Pressure from new religious movements like Jainism and Buddhism
led to a reform of the old Vedic religion. As a result of this reform,
the foundational elements of Vedic religion incorporated the intense
personal religious devotion, fertility rituals, symbolism of the
southern Dravidian cultures, and elements of Buddhism. Sacrifice became
less important while the role of personal devotion to the gods
2. As a part of the reform, two formerly minor Vedic deities took the
places of honor in the Hindu pantheon. These deities were Vishnu, the
preserver and Shiva, the destroyer. Also prominent in the new religious
tradition was the goddess Devi. These and all the other countless gods
and goddesses were understood to be manifestations of a single divine
3. Hindu worship centered on temples and shrines and included puja
(service to a deity) and pilgrimage. The Ganges River became one of the
most popular pilgrimage sites.
4. The religious duties of an individual varied according to gender,
social status, and age.
5. The transformation from Vedic religion to Hinduism was so
successful that Hinduism became the dominant religion of India. Hinduism
appealed to common people’s need for personal deities with whom they
could have a direct connection. Theravada Buddhism was too austere to
have popular appeal, and Mahayana Buddhism was so close to Hinduism that
its beliefs could easily be absorbed by the larger religion.