ndia, or Bharat, the fifth largest and the second most populated country in the world, is one of the few countries that can boast of an ancient, deep-rooted, and diverse culture, that stretches back to 5,000 years. In ancient times, India was known as ‘Bharata Varsha’, the country of the legendary king of Puranic times called Bharat, and was believed to be a part of the island continent called ‘Jambu Dvipa’. Geologically speaking, India formed part of the Gondwana land and was attached to Antarctica and Australia, before it was liberated from the Antarctica complex about 135 million years ago and drifted towards the north, and finally joined South Asia about 45 million years ago.
The Siwalik foothills of the north-western Himalayas served as home to the fossil primate genus known as Ramapithecus, which lived 14 million years ago. Researchers have also found that a species resembling the Australopithecus lived in India 2 million years ago. Some anthropologists believe that the Chotanagpur region saw the transformation of Homo Erectus to Homo Sapiens. This claim is based on the findings of hand axes and blades in the region of Pathalgarwa and the discovery of Harappan pottery in the nearby areas.
Extensive archaeological excavations carried out at Mohenjodaro in present-day Pakistan in 1922 brought to light the existence of a highly sophisticated and urbanized culture known as the Harappan Civilization in India, which dominated the north-western part of the Indian Subcontinent. It is believed this civilization covered an area of 1600 km from east to west and 1100 km from north to south, which exceeds the area occupied by contemporary civilizations like the Egyptian and Mesopotamian Civilisations. This civilization is generally dated from about 2600 to 2000 B.C. However, Carbon-14 analysis of the structures at Mehrgarh near the Bolan Pass has indicated that the people of this place were growing wheat and barley and tending sheep and goats as early as 5000 B.C. Archaeologists have now discovered over 800 sites related to the Harappan Civilization. Most scholars believe that the Harappan Civilisation decayed because of the “problems of ecology”.
The next most important phase in Indian history came centuries later with the advent of Aryans from the northwest of India. The Aryan migration to India was gradual and spread over many centuries. There is a difference of opinion about the original home of the Aryans. The different suggestions given by different scholars vary considerably in terms of geographic position in the world. Bal Gangadhar Tilak suggested that the Arctic region could be the home of Aryans. P. Giles suggested Hungary, Austria, Bohemia or the Valley of Danube as the possible home of Aryans, while Max Muller suggested Central Asia, Penka suggested Germany or Scandinavia, Edward Mayer suggested the Plateau of Pamir and Dr B.K. Ghosh and Gordon Childe suggested South Russia. There are others who vouch for the Indian origin of the Aryans, like Ganganath Jha (origin from Brahmarishi Desh), D.S.Kala (hilly region of Himalayas and Kashmir), Avinashchandra Das (Saptasindhu Pradesh) and Rajbali Pandey (Madhya Desh).
The Aryans developed a remarkable culture, popularly known as Vedic culture, which was markedly different from the Harappan Culture. The Vedic period is divided into the Rig Vedic Period (1500-1000 B.C.) and the Later Vedic Period (1000-600 B.C.). The Vedic period can be considered the foundation stone for the Indian culture in all its multitudinous aspects. It laid the foundation for the Hindu Dharma and produced a host of religious and secular texts, which are an important part of the religious heritage of India. The Vedas, Upavedas, Upanishads, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and the Dharmashastras were produced during these times. The institution of gotra and the caste system appeared in the later Vedic times.
From this period onwards, India functioned as a virtually self-contained political and cultural unit, which gave rise to a distinctive tradition associated primarily with Hinduism, although other religions, notably Buddhism and Jainism in the ancient times, Islam in the medieval period and Christianity in the modern times, made a strong impact on the socio-cultural aspects of India.
There is an endless diversity in India starting from its physical features to Geologic structure, fauna and flora, demographic structure, races, languages, religions, arts and crafts, and customs and traditions. India has been variously described as “the Mini World”, the “epitome of the world” and an “ethnological museum”. The diversities are so bewildering that for many people in the Western world, India remains a land full of mysteries and myths.
The diversity in India is unique in the sense that it binds the country in a common definition and identification. Underneath this diversity lies the continuity of Indian civilization and social structure from the earliest times until the present day. This concept of ‘Unity in Diversity’ is perhaps typical of India and has served as its strength during all ages and during the roughest times in its political and cultural history. It is amazing that different elements of Indian culture, particularly its drama and the arts, despite passing through different political phases, are characterized by unmistakable unity and continuity.
The successive waves of migration into India starting with the Indo-Greeks (2nd Century B.C.), the Kushans (First century A.D.), the incursions from the northwest by Arab, Turkish, Persian and others beginning in the early 8th century A.D., and finally the establishment of the Muslim empire by the 13th century A.D. and the advent of Europeans – the Portuguese, the Dutch, the English, the Danes, and the French – into India, have brought in new elements in arts, music, literature, customs, and traditions, which got absorbed into the Indian way of life, thus enriching the Indian culture.
From ancient times India not only absorbed foreign cultures into its composite fold, but it also spread the rich elements of its own unique culture in different parts of the world. It is historically recorded that the Chola rulers had cultural contacts with countries like Ilamandalam (Sri Lanka), Sri Vijaya (Sumatra), Chavakam (Java), Kamboja (Cambodia) and Kadaram (Malay Peninsula). Evidence of these early Indian contacts are still found in the art and architecture of these countries. The Southeast Asian countries formed a stronghold of Indian culture from the early centuries of the Christian era. The Southeast Asian languages show strong influence of Sanskrit. Many earlier kingdoms of these countries had adopted Hinduism as their religion, whose influence is perceptible even today.
India presents a picture of unity in diversity to which history provides no parallel. There is complete harmony in India in each of its cultural elements. Religion and philosophy, which form the bedrock of any civilization, are evident in India in the form of all major religions in the world — Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism. Several unique philosophical thoughts like Kapila’s Sankhya Philosophy, Patanjali’s Yoga, Gautami’s Nyaya, Kananada’s Vaisheshika and Jaimini’s Purva Mimamsa developed in India and attracted the attention of the outside world. Religious tolerance has been the characteristic of Indian civilization right from the ancient days. Hindu sages declare there is no single religion that teaches ways leading to an exclusive path to salvation. All genuine spiritual paths are valid and all great religions are like the branches of a tree – the tree of religion. This doctrine lays the foundation for the Hindu ideal of universal harmony. This tradition was carried forward in medieval times by the Sufi and Bhakti saints like Ramananda, Kabir, Guru Nanak, Baba Farid, Baba Malukadasa, Baba Dharinidasa and Garibadasa. Indeed, the framers of the Indian Constitution ensured the continuance of these glorious traditions when they declared India as a “Sovereign, Socialist, Secular and Democratic Republic”.
Regional Diversity: Each state of India has its own language and set of tribes, festivals, arts and crafts, and customs and traditions. While there are the Chenchus tribes in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, Bhils and Gonds in Central India, Dogris, Gujjars, and Ladakhis in the Jammu and Kashmir and Nagas, Bodos, Mishmis, Gharos and Khasis in the Northeast, there are tribes like the Jarewas, Onges, Andamanis and Sentinelese in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. There are some festivals, which are typical of particular states, towns, or villages like the Bonnalu of Andhra Pradesh, Pushkar of Rajasthan, Rajrani of Orissa, Teej of Rajasthan, and Bogali Bihu of Assam. Each region is also identified with its typical folk and tribal dance forms, like Puli Vesham of Andhra Pradesh, Keli Gopal of Assam, Chhau of Bihar, Dandia of Gujarat, Bhangra of Punjab and Otthanthulal of Kerala. A similar distinction can also be established in the folk drama, theatre, and puppetry forms, as well as the arts and crafts.
Development of Arts and Fine Arts
There was a continuous evolution of drama, music, dance, painting, and folk art forms under the different political rules in India that ultimately led to the development of the definite ‘Indian’ element in each of these forms. Thus, within the ambiance of Indian culture, one can identify ‘Indian Music’, ‘Indian Dance’, ‘Indian Theatre’, ‘Indian Literature’, ‘Indian Fairs and Festivals’, and so on.
Indian music has a long and unbroken tradition, which is an accumulated heritage of centuries and traces its roots to Vedic days. Bharata’s Natyashastra (4th Century A.D.) is a great, comprehensive work on the science and technique of Indian drama, dance, and music. The advent of Muslim rule in India brought a changed perspective in the style of Northern Indian music. The traditional Hindu devotional music form of dhruvapad got transformed into the classical dhrupad form of singing under Muslim rule. The khayal developed as a new form of singing in the 18th century A.D. and became equally popular among the Hindus and Muslims. Different ragas began to be introduced from the medieval times. Tansen created many new ragas like Darbari Kanada, Darbari Todi, Miyan Ki Todi, Miya ki Malhar, and Miya ki Sarang, which until now, are regarded as the foremost ragas of Northern India. Sultan Hussain Sarki of Jaunpur introduced ragas like Jaunpuri tori and Hussaini Kanada. Amir Khusro is credited with the creation of the Hemant, Prabhat Kali, and Hem Behag ragas. A large variety of foreign musical instruments like Harmonium, Sarod, Shehnai, Sitar, Tabla, and Violin were introduced in India to supplement the ancient musical instruments like Flute, Nadaswaram, Veena, Gootuvadhyam, Thavil, Mridangam and Plain drum.
The six outstanding Sanskrit playwrights of all time, Shudraka, Harsha, Visakhadatta, Bhasa, Kalidasa, and Bhavabhuti have made tremendous contributions to the field of dramatics. Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, King Harsha’s Ratnavali, Bhasa’s Swapna-vasavadatta, Bhavabhuti’s Uttara-rama-charita and Mahavira-charita, Visakhadatta’s Mudrarakshasa are some of the outstanding Sanskrit plays, which indicate that India had a highly sophisticated theatre tradition in ancient times when in most other countries it was still in its infancy.
Again, in the field of literature, the earliest writing can be traced to the Rig Vedic poetry in Sanskrit. The Rigveda consists of 1028 suktas or hymns distributed in ten books called mandalas. This is perhaps, the earliest poetry in the world. The two great Sanskrit epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata composed by Valmiki and Vyasa respectively, along with the Puranas, constitute the pillars of Indian literature. The Manu Smriti (1st century B.C.) is the best illustrator of the Dharma-sastras or Smritis or the Hindu religious laws. Kalidasa, Bairavi, Sudraka, Vishnu Sharma, Dandin and others composed several literary masterpieces in ancient times.
India’s contribution to the world was also immense in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. Aryabhatta was the first to state that the earth moves around the sun and that the eclipses are caused by the shadow of the earth falling on the moon. Aryabhatta’s Aryabhatiya, Dasagitika-Sutra and Aryastasata belonging to the 5th century, Varahamihira’s Pancha-siddhantika, Brahmagupta’s Brahmasphuta-Siddhanta and Khanda-khadyaka, Bhaskaracharya’s Siddhanta-Shiromani and Karana-kutuhala and Bhoja’s Raja-mriganka are important ancient Indian texts on astronomy.
Ayurveda is the earliest school of medicine known to humans, which was consolidated 2500 years ago by Charaka, who was described as the ‘Father of Medicine’. Another ancient Indian Sushruta, regarded as the ‘Father of Surgery’, is believed to have conducted complicated surgeries using over 125 different surgical equipment. The usage of anesthesia was also well-known in ancient India. Like-wise deep knowledge of anatomy, physiology, aetiology, embryology, digestion, metabolism, genetics, and immunity is also found in many ancient Indian texts.
India’s most precious gift to the world is zero (0), which was referred to as Shunya in the ancient texts. Algebra, trigonometry and calculus also came from India. One of the best-known achievements of the Indian mathematics is the decimal system. Its first occurrence was on a plate of the year 595 A.D. where the date 346 A.D. was written in decimal place-value notation. Aryabhatta, who calculated the value of π as 3.1416, is also credited with the creation of Algebraic analysis. Budhayana explained the concept of the Pythagorean Theorem way back in the 6th century. Brahmagupta’s Brahma-Sphuta-Siddhanta has two chapters devoted to arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. Bhaskara’s Lilavati was for many centuries a standard work on arithmetic and Mensuration in the East.
The world’s first university was established in Takshila in 700 B.C., where over 10,500 students from all over the world studied over sixty different subjects. The University of Nalanda established in the 5th century B.C. was one of the greatest achievements of ancient India in education. Described as “The Oxford University of Mahayana Buddhism”, it offered a wide range of subjects like literature, logic, grammar, medicine, philosophy, and astronomy. Sanskrit is the mother of all the European languages. A report in the Forbes magazine of July 1987 described Sanskrit is the most suitable language for computer software. Vaishali, in modern Bihar, is often described as the World’s First Republic, as it had a duly elected assembly of representatives and efficient Administration as early as the 6th century B.C.
The British rule in India, despite its several excesses and oppressive features, had made several useful and lasting contributions to the Indian culture. Several social and administrative reforms were introduced during the British period. Warren Hastings brought about a reorganization of judicial institutions and re-codification of the Hindu law. He established courts of appeal for civil and criminal cases at Calcutta and a Supreme Court at Calcutta (now Kolkata). He also encouraged the formation of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Lord Cornwallis laid the foundation for the present Indian constitution. He also brought about judicial reforms by replacing the Shariat law with the English law. William Bentick abolished evil practices prevailing in Indian society like Sati and female infanticide and introduced modern western education in India. He also established the Calcutta Medical College and the Elphinstone Institution in Bombay (now Mumbai). Lord Dalhousie set up the Public Works Department to look after the construction and maintenance of roads. He also set up the Post & Telegraphs Department and issued the first postage stamp in 1852 at Karachi (now in Pakistan). He opened the first Railway line on April 16, 1853, between Bombay and Thane. He also legalized the marriages of Hindu widows. The British introduced the neo-colonial and Indo-Saracenic styles of Architecture in India. They were also instrumental in encouraging the development of modern theatre and cinema movements in India. The British enacted several laws and regulations, many of which are still followed in the Indian administrative set-up.
The positive outcome of English education was most felt when many Indian social reformers emerged on the scene to fight against social evils like the Caste system, untouchability, and emancipation of women and the downtrodden. Raja Ram Mohan Roy was the foremost among such social reformers, who established the Brahmo Samaj. Soon, other organizations like the Prarthana Samaj, Arya Samaj, Dev Samaj, Ramkrishna Mission, and the Theosophical Society of India were set up with similar aims and objectives. After Independence, the Indian Government enacted several legislations to tackle the prevailing social evils. Several steps were also initiated towards the emancipation of women and the protection of the weaker sections of society.
Economically and socially, India has made great strides since independence. It has a well-developed infrastructure and a highly diversified industrial base, its pool of scientific and engineering personnel is the third largest in the world, and the pace of its agricultural expansion has more than kept up with the growth in its population.
Rapid strides were also made in the field of Science and Technology and Research. India’s eminent scientists like C.V. Raman, Hargobind Khorana, and S. Chandrasekhar won Nobel Prizes for outstanding contributions in their respective fields. India has an advanced and well-developed Space Technology programme and the remote sensing data from its IRS series of satellites is much sought after all over the world. India has even launched satellites for advanced countries like Germany and South Korea. India is now a nuclear power, but its nuclear policy is not aimed at the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or threatening the security of any country. India’s foreign policy is based on ‘enlightened self-interest’, peaceful co-existence, and respect for international law and the United Nations Organization.
March into the Amrit Kaal
India marched into the Amrit Kaal as the fifth-biggest economy in the world and poised to enter the top three major economies in the world by 2047 when India would be celebrating its centenary of Independence. It is already a global player in geopolitics, technology, knowledge-based industries, space science, and the supply of qualified manpower. It has already become the country with the highest population which will still enjoy a demographic dividend in a few more decades while most countries in the world are facing an aging population.
India’s cultural heritage is so rich and deep-rooted that it may take several months or even years to understand all its dimensions. From time immemorial India has fascinated many world travellers like Fahien, Hiuen Tsang, Ibn Battuta, Alberuni, Ferishta, Vasco da Gama, Marco Polo, and several others. Albert Einstein once said: “We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made.” The great German Indologist Max Muller said: “If I were to look over the whole world to find out the country most richly endowed with all the wealth, power and beauty that nature can bestow – in some parts a very paradise on earth – I should point to India. If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed the choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions to some of them, which well deserve the attention even of those who have studied Plato and Kant – I should point to India.”
The following quotation from the great American philosopher and writer Will Durant sums up the divine land called India, thus “India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages; she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother, through the Buddha, of ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all.”