At the close of the sixth century B.C., the region that is now the northwest of India was subsumed into the Achaemenid Empire of Persia and turned into one of its satrapies. The establishment of administrative ties between Central Asia and India may be directly attributed to this integration.
Greek authors recorded their impressions of the general conditions that prevailed in South Asia during this time period. Although Indian accounts largely ignored Alexander the Great’s Indus campaign in 326 B.C., Greek writers did record their impressions of the general conditions that existed in South Asia. As a result, the earliest date in Indian history that can be established with absolute certainty and supported by historical evidence is 326 B.C. In the subsequent few hundred years, there was a cultural fusion between numerous Indo-Greek components, particularly in the fields of art, architecture, and coinage. This happened in both directions. The establishment of Magadha in the eastern Indo-Gangetic Plain had a significant impact on the political landscape of northern India. In the year 322 B.C., Magadha, which was at the time governed by Chandragupta Maurya, started to exert its authority over the regions that were located in its immediate vicinity. Chandragupta, who reigned from 324 to 301 B.C., was the builder of the first Indian imperial force, the Mauryan Empire (326-184 B.C.), whose capital was Pataliputra, which is located near modern-day Patna in the state of Bihar. Chandragupta’s reign lasted from 324 to 301 B.C.
Because of its location on fertile alluvial land and proximity to natural riches, particularly iron, the city of Magadha served as a lively commercial and economic hub. According to Megasthenes, a Greek historian who served as an envoy to the Mauryan court in the third century B.C., the city that served as the capital was a splendid metropolis filled with palaces, temples, a university, a library, gardens, and parks. Legend has it that Chandragupta’s success was in large part due to his advisor Kautilya, the Brahman author of the Arthashastra (Science of Material Gain), a textbook that outlined governmental administration and political strategy. Kautilya is considered to have been Chandragupta’s most influential advisor. There was a highly centralised and hierarchical government with a large staff that oversaw the collection of taxes, trade and commerce, industrial arts, mining, vital statistics, the welfare of foreigners, maintenance of public places including markets and temples, and prostitutes. Prostitutes were also regulated by this government. Both a sizable permanent army and a highly established intelligence gathering apparatus were preserved. The territory of the empire was subdivided into provinces, districts, and villages, each of which was controlled by a group of locally elected officials who had been nominated by the central government and who performed the same duties as the central administration.
The grandson of Chandragupta, Ashoka reigned over India from 269 to 232 B.C. and is regarded as one of the country’s most notable emperors. The second group of datable historical documents consists of inscriptions carved by Ashoka on rocks and stone pillars positioned at important points across his kingdom. These locations include Lampaka (Laghman in modern Afghanistan), Mahastan (in modern Bangladesh), and Brahmagiri (in Karnataka). According to some of the inscriptions, after the bloodshed that resulted from Ashoka’s campaign against the powerful kingdom of Kalinga (which is now known as Orissa), Ashoka renounced the use of violence and adopted a policy of nonviolence, also known as ahimsa. He also advocated for a theory of rule based on righteousness. His tolerance for other religious beliefs and languages mirrored the reality of India’s regional heterogeneity, despite the fact that he seems to have followed Buddhism in his personal life (see Buddhism, ch. 3). It is said in early Buddhist traditions that he held a Buddhist council in the capital of his kingdom, that he often travelled across his domain, and that he sent Buddhist missionary emissaries to Sri Lanka.
Ashoka benefited greatly from the contacts that had been formed with the Hellenistic world during the reign of his predecessors. He sent diplomatic-cum-religious missions to the rulers of Syria, Macedonia, and Epirus, who learned about India’s religious traditions, especially Buddhism. It is possible that the rock inscriptions attributed to Ashoka may be explained by the persistence of numerous Persian cultural components in the northwest of India. Such inscriptions were often linked with Persian monarchs. Inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic written by Ashoka have been discovered near Kandahar, which is located in Afghanistan. These inscriptions may reflect Ashoka’s wish to retain connections with people who are not from India.
Following the collapse of the Mauryan Empire in the second century B.C., South Asia was left in the hands of a patchwork of regional empires whose borders sometimes overlapped one another. Between the years 200 B.C. to 300 A.D., India’s unprotected northern and western borders once again drew a string of invaders. During the course of their conquest and settlement, the invaders were “Indianized,” much as the Aryans had done before them. Also, this period witnessed remarkable intellectual and artistic achievements inspired by cultural diffusion and syncretism. The Indo-Greeks, or the Bactrians, of the northwest contributed to the development of numismatics; they were followed by another group, the Shakas (or Scythians), from the steppes of Central Asia, who settled in western India. Yet another group of nomads, the Yuezhi, who had been expelled from the steppes of Mongolia in the Inner Asian region, went on to oust the Shakas from the northwest region of India and create the Kushana Kingdom (first century B.C.-third century A.D.). In India, the realm of the Kushana Kingdom extended from Purushapura (modern Peshawar, Pakistan) in the northwest to Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh) in the east and to Sanchi (Madhya Pradesh) in the south. The Kushana Kingdom also ruled over portions of Afghanistan and Iran. For a brief time, the kingdom extended all the way to Pataliputra, which is located much farther to the east. The Kushana Kingdom dominated an important section of the fabled Silk Road and served as a commercial crossroads for the Indian, Persian, Chinese, and Roman empires throughout that time period. The most influential and notable Kushana emperor was Kanishka, who ruled for around twenty years beginning around the year 78 A.D. He became a Buddhist and then organised a significant Buddhist council in the region of Kashmir. Gandharan art, which was a fusion between Greek and Indian traditions, and Sanskrit literature were both supported financially by the Kushana dynasty. They initiated a new era called Shaka in A.D. 78, and their calendar, which was formally recognized by India for civil purposes starting on March 22, 1957, is still in use.