The Evolution of Culture in South Asia, c. 180 BCE – 300 CE
In which the Indians establish a precedent for cultural assimilation which becomes their brand image until 2014
When we last left the Subcontinent, the Mauryan Wheel of Law had ceased to turn as the Indo-Greek kingdoms began their conquest of the Punjab and Gangetic Valley, and local kingdoms and identities began to reassert themselves in former imperial territories.
This essay attempts to cover nearly five hundred years of history, almost triple the timescale of my older ones. In order to prevent my untimely demise at the hands of irate readers, therefore, I present instead of a dry, dynastic history of practically identical monarchs (with which the Internet abounds) a cultural history of the subcontinent, tracing the social intermingling and the intellectual diversity to which it was home. I begin chronologically with the Greeks and Scythians in the North and then examine the indigenous culture of the South, before returning to the Kushanas in the North and setting the stage for the Indian Golden Age under the Gupta emperors. Let’s begin!
Barbarians and Buddhism
As I’ve mentioned earlier, with the demise of Alexander the Great, his Persian, Afghan, and Baloch territories were disputed between the Mauryas and the Seleucids. After the death of Asoka Maurya, these territories were taken over by assorted Greek generals and administrators, who at various times were forced into a single mighty state (“The Indo-Greek Kingdom”), notably under the most interesting ruler King Menander I “Soter” (“The Saviour”), a Buddhist who is supposed to have converted after a stimulating debate with the teacher Nagasena.
Known as “Yavanas” in Sanskrit (from Persian Yona, Greek Ionia), the Greeks were a very important component of the consciousness of the subcontinent. Not only were they rulers and soldiers, but traders and artists as well. The Gandhara school of art, which I have mentioned earlier, was a result of the interaction and likely intermarriage of Greek and Indian artisanal families.
Indo-Greek art is thick with little symbols which are testament to the influence these two cultures had on each other. I could dig up hundreds of examples: Bodhisattvas and Buddhas with Greek bodies and flowing robes; Indian gods with Greek beards pursuing Indo-Greek apsara-nymphs, and so on. But I’ve chosen the below image in particular:
“Two Aristocratic Gandharan Ladies” is a masterpiece on many levels. It represents two ladies, evidently high-born and wealthy; sisters perhaps, or friends. Their features are a curious blend of Indian and Greek. Elegant hand gestures complement truly Indian proportions of breast and waist, their posture and brows delicately Greek. Their elaborately done-up hair is midway between the two but their jewellery and costumes are Indian; the drapery and folds of the cloth are again Greek. Imagine them in Menander’s capital, Sagala (Sialkot): a paradise of gardens, groves, lakes and tanks. The streets and squares are well-laid; the mansions of the aristocracy, to which they belong, are “aloft like the mountain peaks of the Himalayas”; there are hundreds of alm-halls for the monks; people throng the streets irrespective of caste, creed or colour; preachers from every sect and creed of the subcontinent debate and teach in the streets. Our ladies shop for muslin and silk; they inhale the scent of flowers and perfumes; they admire jewels set in warm gold, which glitter and glow in the sun, like the sun. The Buddhist Milinda-Panha (“Questions of Menander”) proclaims it an equal to Alakamanda, mythical capital of the god of wealth.
“Imagine them in Menander’s capital.. a paradise of gardens, groves, lakes and tanks.. the mansions of the aristocracy… are aloft like the mountain peaks of the Himalayas.”
It is difficult to underestimate the influence that the Indo-Greeks had on the culture of the subcontinent. Our aesthetic sense, the bedrock of everything from paintings to temple construction, is shaped by it; its idealised proportions, serene expressions, detailed folds of cloth, Indo-Corinthian columns, or even erotic courtship are reflected in one way or another in almost every subsequent production, usually by further refinement, idealisation, and elaboration.
Observe above the similarity in expression and the relative proportions of the facial features (eyes, brows, lips) between the former, a painting of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara from Ajanta, c. 6th century CE; and the latter, a Gandharan Buddha c. 1st century BCE/CE.
Scythians and Sakas
Roughly around the time the imperial Maurya dynasty finally collapsed in India, the imperial Han Dynasty in China sent a great military expedition against their barbarian neighbours. Though they could not have known it at the time, this event set off one of the greatest migrations in human history. A tidal wave of nomadic peoples, each fleeing from their neighbours to the east, headed to the West; the migration would end nearly 600 years later with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Gupta Empire in the Indian subcontinent, at a time when the Han Dynasty fell in chaos.
“The consequences of conquest come back to haunt us all in the end: the fabric of human history connects all peoples and races, and is too complex for us to ever comprehend or predict.” -Me
Of these many nomadic peoples, three are especially important to the story of India, and each of them will follow and topple the previous one, with interesting effects on Indian culture and economy. The first of these were the Scythian hordes or “Sakas”. They were fleeing the Kushanas (Yuezhi), and arrived at the borders of the Indo-Greek kingdoms around 80 BCE. Initially the Saka chiefs were overawed by the power of the kings, and swore fealty to them. But the tribes eventually swelled in numbers and ambition and began to unify and conquer their overlords. A few decades later, under King Azes I, they had conquered Gandhara and Punjab; they then headed to Gujarat and the Gangetic plain, supposedly even sacking the old Mauryan capital at Pataliputra.
The Scythians then settled down and became “Sakas” to their new Indian subjects. The kings established two major satrapies, in the Persian style: one at Mathura (ruled by the Northern Satrap or, as rendered in Indian languages, Kshatrapa), and another, much more prominent one at Gujarat under the Western Maha Kshatrapa, which became increasingly prominent as the King and then the Northern Satrapy were uprooted by the Yuezhi (“Kushanas”) who were hot on their tail. But more on that later.
Under the Sakas, there was of course the usual intermingling of races and costumes but in addition a patronage of indigenous art. Some Sakas were pagan, some Buddhist, and some Hindu; their ideas of nature-gods fused with and helped in the evolution of existing subcontinental religious observances. They inaugurated an era of timekeeping (the Saka era); their style of minting coins (copied from the Greeks) was further copied by many subsequent Indian rulers; their pastoral, horse-rearing culture is sure to have had an effect on the development of later militaristic castes. In addition, their close genealogical ties to the tribes who were by now masters of Central Asia further promoted Silk Road trade in the subcontinent, as did their development of the great port of Bhrigukachchha (Barygaza) in Gujarat, a major entrepot for Roman trade. Their complete assimilation in the subcontinent can be deduced from an inscription by the Western Maha Kshatrapa Rudradaman I, c. 130 CE, which he had carved on a great dam at Junagadh, constructed under Chandragupta Maurya about 400 years prior and finally restored by himself.
“Be it accomplished! The Mahakshatrapa Rudradaman.. he who was resorted to by all castes and chosen as their lord to protect them.. who has attained wide fame by studying and remembering, by the knowledge and practice of, grammar, music, logic and other great sciences; who..”
The list of Rudradaman’s most excellent qualities continues at length in true Indian style: he could be any Indian king were it not for the fact that he is, patrilineally, a Saka. Even more important: the inscription is in pure Sanskrit, of which Rudradaman was apparently a great scholar. Why is this important? Because, it seems, the Sakas turned to patronage of Brahmans and the culture of the elite to bolster their rule. Asoka Maurya had spoken to his subjects in Prakrit, for he had no need to pander to anyone, being immensely popular with the Buddhist masses. The Saka usage of Sanskrit is quite possibly an effort to seek legitimacy by hearkening back to traditions of language and art that had been the preserve of the upper castes. It is quite possible that this reflects the growing power, at last, of Brahmanism. The Saka precedent of “respecting” what was earlier a very amorphous caste system would be followed for hundreds of years, most damagingly by the British.
Satavahanas and Sanskritization
By the end of the reign of Asoka Maurya, urbanization had just taken off in South India, with the Tamil poets of the deep South beginning to compose the great corpus of poetry, the Sangam literature. Having come into contact with the North, South Indian urban centers grew in leaps and bounds, fuelled by the immense profits of trade with the East and the West. Thanks to the efforts of Asoka, Buddhism was quite popular. Despite the political uncertainty of the times, Indian artisanal goods consistently improved in quality over the next few centuries; penetration of trade links continued at a tremendous pace; merchant classes grew more and more influential. How did this happen?
Working professionals formed trading conglomerates to ensure quality standards and uniform pricing, and make consensual representations to a plurality of petty rulers. Within a few generations, guild families were intermarrying and providing cheap credit to such inductees to form new family businesses. Their economic power was sufficient for them to extend independent patronage to artists and religious institutions such as the Buddhist Sangha: notable examples of these are the Amaravati school of art, arguably one of the most influential art styles in human history, and the magnificent Amaravati Stupa.
Economic prosperity and political power developed apace. After suffering a shocking blow under the Saka hordes at the turn of the first millennium CE, the Satavahana tribe of Andhra had, under their greatest ruler, Gautamiputra Satakarni, unified most of the Deccan and defeated not only the Sakas but the Greeks (Yavanas) and Parthians (Pahlavas) as well. This unified kingdom was ruled by a central king-of-kings (rajaraja or rajadhiraja) who had subdued a number of petty local rajas and thus could not rely on the central bureaucracy to maintain power, as the Mauryas had. Thus the Satavahanas, like the Sakas, began to overawe their trembling vassals through immense Hindu ceremonies such as the Asvamedha or horse sacrifice, and trumpet their splendour by patronizing poor Brahmans. The powerful specialized guilds needed to be kept happy; thus they were turned into jati and eventually moved from Buddhism to a place in the caste system, a part of the edifice of royal power.
“This unified kingdom.. could not rely on the central bureaucracy to maintain power. Thus the Satavahanas… moved from Buddhism to a place in the caste system, a part of the edifice of royal power.”
But, just to clarify, the brutally oppressive system of later years was nowhere in sight yet. Caste was at this point still quite flexible as Sanskrit/Hindu culture began to spread through the subcontinent and reach accommodations with local traditions, cults, and elites (a process called “Sanskritization“). At this point Buddhism is still the religion of the majority: the socio-economic conditions are not yet ripe for rigidity, but the seeds have just been sown.
Kushanas and Cosmopolitanism
Let’s summarise the evolution of the subcontinent so far.
- North: Highly cosmopolitan, urbanized and religiously fluid owing to the multitude of foreign contacts; beginnings of Brahminical patronage and a shift to Hinduism. Buddhism still predominant; prosperity from land-based trade along the nascent Silk Road.
- South: Beginning to diverge from the North ethnically and politically under local rulers; rapid Sanskritization of elites and kings causing a wane in the influence of Buddhism; prosperity from East-West trade along the coast; urbanization moving inland.
Particularly eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that I mentioned a tribe called the Yuezhi, who were hot on the tails of the Sakas. For a brief while they focussed their attentions on petty tribal infighting while raiding the Parthian empire in Persia, and then turned their attentions back to their ancestral enemies, the Sakas, who had by this time settled down and become thoroughly Indian. Under a succession of martial kings, beginning with a certain Kujula Kadphises, the Yuezhi wiped out the Saka kingdom and the Northern Kshatrapa at Mathura. Wisely enough, the Western Kshatrapa swore fealty and was spared by the new “Kushan” Kingdom.
The Kushanas reached their apex under King Kanishka, a descendant of the aforementioned Kujula. His kingdom, stretching from Central Asia to Pataliputra, provided a stable haven for the development of the Silk Road trade route and benefited immensely from it. In fact, contemporary Roman writers bemoan the immense drain of gold from their empire (which was enjoying an era of peace and prosperity under the excellent emperors Trajan and Hadrian) to India at around this time. More important to the history of humankind is Kanishka’s religious and cultural syncretism. As cosmopolitanism reached its peak in Gandhara, Kanishka’s empire bore emblems of Greek, Buddhist, Hindu, and even some Persian culture; he patronized both the elegant Gandhara and the solid Mathura schools of art. At his massive capital, Purushapura (“City of Men/ City of Man”: modern Peshawar), he ordered the construction of the greatest Buddhist monument ever built. An 87-metre wide, 210-metre tall stupa that dwarfed even the Amaravati stupa in comparison, this multi-storied marvel was studded with jewels and gold and could be seen from miles away. Unfortunately for posterity, this wonder of the ancient world has not survived, and all we know of it comes from a tale by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang 500 years later.
“Of all the Stupas in the world.. not one comes close to this in grandeur. Everybody agrees that this is the most wonderful Stupa in the whole of the inhabited world..”
Buddhism had begun its journey from philosophy to religion from the time of Asoka Maurya and the Second Buddhist Council; Kanishka ordered a Fourth Buddhist Council which definitively founded the Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”) school of Buddhism, which worshipped the Buddha as a deity in addition to assorted Bodhisattvas such as Avalokitesvara and Vajrapani, with its own distinctive stories, scriptures, and pantheon. Kanishka’s control of the Silk Road, and his personal patronage, helped disseminate this and ensured that it was the dominant school of thought for centuries in countries as far-flung as Japan, Tibet and China.
Prosperous but not decadent; intellectually vital; religiously syncretic; ethnically diverse; artistically sophisticated; the subcontinent had an unmistakable cosmopolitanism that, arguably, was never repeated in its history. There is great glory and sophistication yet to come in my story, but the deep connections that South Asia (not just India) once had with the world in general and with Central Asia and Afghanistan in particular are, like Kanishka’s stupa, no more than rubble and ash.
Prelude to the Golden Guptas
With the death of Kanishka, the Kushan Kingdom began to unravel under pressure from the Sassanid dynasty of Persia. Meanwhile, after Rudradaman delivered a death-blow to the Satavahanas, the Western Kshatrapas too were in decline. The time was ripe for a reassertion of the indigenous culture of the subcontinent, much enriched in art, culture and wealth by its experience of foreign contact. Wealth flowed freely in the cities, the populace was thriving as never before, Brahmanism had evolved into a formidable royal tool. Petty princes abounded across the subcontinent, and the precedent for their subjugation had been set. It was time for someone to follow in the footsteps of Chandragupta Maurya and Gautamiputra Satakarni.
“There was Samudragupta! Equal to the gods.. By whom the whole tribe of kings on Earth were overthrown.. Whose deeds in battle are kindled with prowess.. around whom Fortune circles.”
It was time for India’s Golden Age. And, as the Roman Empire declined in the West and Han China subsided into chaos, India would do what neither of these powers could: break the power of the Huns and keep alight the flames of civilization as the greatest imperial power of its time. Stay tuned for more!