History

History Of Nations: Gandhara & Kuru Kingdoms/Vedic Period/Mahajanapadas

c. 1500 BCE – c. 300 BC

Headfirst into the mythical and unknown, we’re heading over to the Indian subcontinent for only the second time ever. Following the collapse of the Indus Valley civilisation, which we mostly know from the archaeological ruins that survived, the Indian subcontinent has a period of history that’s rather hard to piece together. One of the few bits of history that has survived is an ancient kingdom from Purushpura known as Gandhara. It’s largely mentioned in the main Indian epic of the time, the Mahabarata, and is a point for when Hinduism as a whole moves into India. Because while we don’t know many definite things that aren’t myth about the Gandhara kingdom, we do know that those Indo-Aryans, who I mentioned last time as rulers of the Mitanni, were also setting up their cultural centres in India at this time, the period known to my favourite people ever, archaeologists, as the Vedic period. (They aren’t my favourite people ever)

Location

Gandhara was located around where Pakistan, Afghanistan and India meet up, around the modern Swat valley, a western kingdom by India’s standards, so it would have probably been just one of many kingdoms at this time, coming at the southern foothills of the western Himalayas. Throughout India at this time the Vedic period was in full swing and states were beginning to be more urbanised again following the collapse of the Indus civilisation and this trend would continue towards more urbanisation as this millennium in Indian history wore on. Gandhara would not have been the only one.

Indeed, Kuru, located around modern Delhi, Kosala and Magadha to the east and Asmaka towards the south provide only some of the many kingdoms around the Vedic region. This post is intended to cover them all as one so I don’t spend so very long covering each and every one because there are some minutiae even I won’t go so far as to uncover (and also I have no idea how to find more information).

The Vedic Period vs the Mahabharata

The Vedic period itself is named after the Vedas in Hinduism, as it’s believed that it was at this time that these ancient scriptures of Hinduism found their origin, through oral tradition. In the Hindu tradition, these texts mean ‘to know’ and are authorless, so are sacred texts that were shaped in Indian tradition through this period. They give their name to the general period. I speak in very general terms about these as I know that my knowledge of Hinduism is lacking and I wouldn’t want to speak out of place, it is something that will come to me over the time of doing this.

Anyway, in general, the Indo-Aryans might have started to filter into India at around 1900 BC. The religion of the Indus Valley was kind of a proto-Hinduism, and the new peoples also brought with them their own religious practices, so what followed is that a general tradition of Hinduism emerged from the combination of both of these. It still wasn’t Hinduism as we know it today, but the Vedic religion still has many important parts of Hinduism, many of the Hindu pantheon were present and several of the texts from this period are still used in some form today. States like the Kuru Kingdom appeared from Indo-Aryan tribes. They were apparently drawn together from their collective understanding of Vedic hymns and stories, following the same rituals. These of course included religious sacrifice, because what sort of ancient society would they be without religious sacrifice? Most famous of these was a horse sacrifice, where a sacred horse would be set loose by a kingdom, who would pay some soldiers to follow the horse around for a year, which sounds like one of those absurdly amazing low-effort jobs you hear about in low-rent internet blog features. Any other kingdoms that that horse wandered into would have to pay tribute to the owner (and in no way was this encouraged by the soldiers ‘following’ and ‘poking the horse with a stick’) or fight him. And this was apparently one of the main methods of international relations in this part of the world.

The early part of this period was more focused on tribes, focused on a rajan (chief) aided by spiritual advisors who made each tribe like a primitive oligarchy, while they later condensed into the kingdoms that I have mentioned, using the rituals developed earlier from the Vedic traditions to lay down an early code of laws. And by the end of the Vedic period, more permanent kingdoms had emerged in India.

For Gandhara though, as that is the one we’re focusing on, if we were to choose any kingdom to focus on, its prominence mainly comes about through the Mahabarata, where it is a prince of the Gandhara kingdom, Shakuni, which results in the Kurukshetra War, a war that takes place over some of the oldest parts of the epic. That war, if it happened, may be far older than the Gandhara described here, or it may have happened in the time period I’m covering now. Because of the vagueness of the text, dates from 5000 BC to 500 BC have been suggested and it’s entirely possible that this war, which actually ended up taking place in Kuru more than Gandhara, in the modern day province of Haryana, on the border, was a small scale clash between some Indian parties that ended up being exaggerated in the telling by bards. Because that was a part of early Indian society, the telling of epic tales and they would get exaggerated.

A clear example of that can be seen next, as another part of the Mahabarata shows Janamejaya, a king of Kuru, getting involved with Nagas. If you don’t know what Nagas are, it means snake or serpent in Sanskrit, so I take to mean as he actually got involved with snake people because that makes historical sense (if they were real they were probably just a tribe that had a thing for worshipping snakes or worshipped a snake god or something). Janamejaya tried to exterminate the Nagas but was stopped by a priest whose mother was a Naga. Sometimes these things just happen. I’m not going to relate the whole of the Mahabharata to you guys as I’m not familiar enough with any of it to do it justice, not being from an Indian background myself. But it has events like that in it. So it’s a good solid historical source, of course.

Gandhara as a kingdom personified was known as a cultural centre of art and apparently Indian music considers some of its traditions to be descended from this kingdom. By the time of its decline it was probably also coming into contact with people from the west, like the Persians and maybe even at the latest part, the Greeks, which adds to its distinctiveness.
Public service announcement, someone rewrite the Wiki article for Gandhara PLEASE, someone with a better knowledge of these things than me, it’s terribly structured. Actually, just do the same for all of the…

Other Mahajanapadas

Aside from Gandhara and Kuru, once India did emerge from the Vedic period it had, traditionally, sixteen great kingdoms. And no, as much as I’d love to, I’m not doing a single post for each one, I do have my limits, I’m going to deal with most of them now and come back to India when there’s more to come back to, however one, Magadha, will be getting a separate entry and it’s for a good reason (hint: think Buddhism). While Gandhara and Kuru are the most known ones of the other lot due to being powerful in Kuru’s case and closer to the West in Gandhara’s case, we also have thirteen other Mahajanapadas, and yes, in the traditions, there are sixteen ‘great states’, although I’m sure that number isn’t accurate. There’s Assaka/Asmaka in the south-west, the Gandharans are all alone up north save for a tribe called the Kambojans, and then the rest of them are strewn along the Ganges from Kuru in the west to Magadha in the east. I’m sure it was the bread basket of those times but this distribution and the fact that there are supposedly only sixteen ‘great states’ seems off to me, what makes a great state?

In any case, the lists are found in Jainist and Buddhist and Hindu texts/sutras so I guess it’s not a definitive historical list that I should be making a big fuss about. Just know that names like Anga, Avanti and Malla were also people that were inhabiting the Ganges valley at this time and in this precursor to large Indian states like the later Maurya Empire, there were these states that got romanticised into the Mahabharata as part of India’s national epic.

We’ll next return to India in a few posts’ time to cover Magadha and the rise of Buddhism (this was sort of kind of a post on the rise of Hinduism) but before that, it’s back to Assyria. We can never leave (the Middle East).

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