The History of India

The History of India

I.–The Hindus

India is crossed from East to West by a chain of mountains called the Vindhyas. The country to the North of this chain is now called Hindustan and that to the South of it the Deckan. Hindustan is in four natural divisions; the valley of the Indus including the Panjab, the basin of the Ganges, Rajputana and Central India. Neither Bengal nor Guzerat is included in Hindustan power. The rainy season lasts from June to October while the South West wind called the Monsoon is blowing.


Every Hindu history must begin with the code of Menu which was probably drawn up in the 9th century B.C. In the society described, the first feature that strikes us is the division into four castes–the sacerdotal, the military, the industrial, and the servile. The Bramin is above all others even kings. In theory he is excluded from the world during three parts of his life. In practice he is the instructor of kings, the interpreter of the military class; the king, his ministers, and the soldiers. Third are the Veisyas who conduct all agricultural and industrial operations; and fourth the Sudras who are outside the pale.

The king stands at the head of the Government with a Bramin for chief Counsellor. Elaborate rules and regulations are laid down in the code as to administration, taxation, foreign policy, and war. Land perhaps but not certainly was generally held in common by village communities.

The king himself administers justice or deputes that work to Bramins. The criminal code is extremely rude; no proportion is observed between the crime and the penalty, and offences against Bramins or religion are excessively penalised. In the civil law the rules of evidence are vitiated by the admission of sundry excuses for perjury. Marriage is indissoluble. The regulations on this subject and on inheritance are elaborate and complicated.

The religion is drawn from the sacred books called the Vedas, compiled in a very early form of Sanskrit. There is one God, the supreme spirit, who created the universe including the inferior deities. The whole creation is re-absorbed and re-born periodically. The heroes of the later Hindu Pantheon do not appear. The religious observances enjoined are infinite; but the eating of flesh is not prohibited. At this date, however, moral duties are still held of higher account than ceremonial.

Immense respect is enjoined for immemorial customs as being the root of all piety. The distinction between the three superior or “Twice Born” classes points to the conclusion that they were a conquering people and that the servile classes were the subdued Aborigines. It remains to be proved, however, that the conquerors were not indigenous. The system might have come into being as a natural growth, without the hypothesis of an external invasion.

The Bramins claim that they alone now have preserved their lineage in its purity. The Rajputs, however, claim to be pure Cshatriyas. In the main the Bramin rules of life have been greatly relaxed. The castes below the Cshatriyas have now become extremely mixed and extremely numerous; a servile caste no longer exists. A man who loses caste is excluded both from all the privileges of citizenship and all the amenities of private life. As a rule, however, the recovery of caste by expiation is an easy matter. The institution of Monastic Orders scarcely seems to be a thousand years old.

Menu’s administrative regulations have similarly lost their uniformity. The township or village community, however, has survived. It is a self-governing unit with its own officials, for the most part hereditary. In large parts of India the land within the community is regarded as the property of a group of village landowners, who constitute the township, the rest of the inhabitants being their tenants. The tenants whether they hold from the landowners or from the Government are commonly called Ryots. An immense proportion of the produce, or its equivalent, has to be paid to the State. The Zenindars who bear a superficial likeness to English landlords were primarily the Government officials to whom these rents were farmed. Tenure by military service bearing some resemblance to the European feudal system is found in the Rajput States. The code of Menu is still the basis of the Hindu jurisprudence.

Religion has been greatly modified. Monotheism has been supplanted by a gross Polytheism, by the corruption of symbolism. At the head are the Triad Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the preserver, Siva the destroyer. Fourteen more principal deities may be enumerated. To them must be added their female Consorts. Many of the Gods are held to be incarnations of Vishnu or Siva. Further, there is a vast host of spirits and demons, good or evil. By far the most numerous sect is that of the followers of Devi the spouse of Siva. The religions of the Buddhists and the Jains though differing greatly from the Hindu seemed to have the same origin.

The five languages of Hindustan are of Sanscrit origin, belonging to the Indo-European family. Of the Deckan languages, two are mixed, while the other three have no connection with Sanscrit.

From Menu’s code it is clear that there was an open trade between the different parts of India. References to the sea seemed to prove that a coasting trade existed. Maritime trade was probably in the hands of the Arabs. The people of the East Coast were more venturesome sailors than those of the West. The Hindus certainly made settlements in Java. There are ten nations in India which differ from each other as much as do the nations of Europe, and also resemble each other in much the same degree. The physical contrast between the Hindustanis and the Bengalis is complete; their languages are as near akin and as mutually unintelligible as English and German, yet in religion, in their notions on Government, in very much of their way of life, they are indistinguishable to the European.

Indian widows sometimes sacrifice themselves on the husband’s funeral pile. Such a victim is called Sati. It is uncertain when the custom was first introduced, but, evidently it existed before the Christian era.

A curious feature is that as there are castes for all trades, so there are hereditary thief castes. Hired watchmen generally belong to these castes on a principle which is obvious. The mountaineers of Central India are a different race from the dwellers in the plain. They appear to have been aboriginal inhabitants before the Hindu invasion. The mountaineers of the Himalayas are in race more akin to the Chinese.

Established Hindu chronology is found in the line of Magadha. We can fix the King Ajata Satru, who ruled, in the time of Gotama, in the middle of the sixth century B.C. Some generations later comes Chandragupta–undoubtedly the Sandracottus of Diodorus. The early legend apparently begins to give place to real history with Rama, who certainly invaded the Deckan. He would seem to have been a king in Oudh. The next important event is the war of the Maha Bharata, probably in the fourteenth century B.C. Soon after the main seat of Government seems to have transferred to Delhi. The kingdom of Magadha next assumes a commanding position though its rulers long before Chandragupta were of low caste. Of these kings the greatest is Asoka, three generations after Chandragupta. There was certainly no lord paramount of India at the time of Alexander’s invasion. Nothing points to any effective universal Hindu Empire, though such an empire is claimed for various kings at intervals until the beginning of the Mahometan invasions.


II.–The Mahometan Conquest

The wave of Mahometan conquest was, in course of time, to sweep into India. By the end of the seventh century the Arabs were forcing their way to Cabul 664 A.D. At the beginning of the next century Sindh was overrun and Multan was captured; nevertheless, no extended conquest was as yet attempted. After the reign of the Calif Harun al Raschid at Bagdad the Eastern rulers fell upon evil days. Towards the end of the tenth century a satrapy was established at Ghazni and in the year 1001 Mahmud of Ghazni, having declared his independence, began his series of invasions. On his fourth expedition Mahmud met with a determined resistance from a confederacy of Hindu princes. A desperate battle was fought and won by him near Peshawer. Mahmud made twelve expeditions into India altogether, on one of which he carried off the famous gates of Somnat; but he was content to leave subordinate governors in the Punjab and at Guzerat and never sought to organise an empire. During his life Mahmud was incomparably the greatest ruler in Asia.

After his death the rulers of Ghazni were unable to maintain a consistent supremacy. It was finally overthrown by Ala ud din of Ghor. His nephew, Shahab ud din, was the real founder of the Mahometan Empire in India. The princes of the house of Ghazni who had taken refuge in the Punjab and Guzarat were overthrown and thus the only Mahometan rivals were removed. On his first advance against the Rajput kingdom of Delhi, he was routed; but a second invasion was successful, and a third carried his arms to Behar and even Bengal.

On the death of Shahab ud din, his new and vast Indian dominion became independent under his general Kutb ud din, who had begun life as a slave. The dynasty was carried on by another slave Altamish. Very soon after this the Mongol Chief Chengiz Khan devastated half the world, but left India comparatively untouched. Altamish established the Mahometan rule of Delhi over all Hindustan. This series of rulers, known as the slave kings, was brought to an end after eighty-two years by the establishment of the Khilji dynasty in 1288 by the already aged Jelal ud din. His nephew and chief Captain Ala ud din opened a career of conquest, invading the Deckan even before he secured the throne for himself by assassinating his uncle. In fact, he extended his dominion over almost the whole of India in spite of frequent rebellions and sundry Mongol incursions all successfully repressed or dispersed. In 1321 the Khilji dynasty was overthrown by the House of Tughlak.

The second prince of this house, Mahomet Tughlak, was a very remarkable character. Possessed of extraordinary accomplishments, learned, temperate, and brave, he plunged upon wholly irrational and inpracticable schemes of conquest which were disastrous in themselves and also from the methods to which the monarch was driven to procure the means for his wild attempts. One portion after another of the vast empire broke into revolt and at the end of the century the dynasty was overturned and the empire shattered by the terrific invasion of Tamerlane the Tartar. It was not till the middle of the seventeenth century that the Lodi dynasty established itself at Delhi and ruled not without credit for nearly seventy years. The last ruler of this house was Ibrahim, a man who lacked the worthy qualities of his predecessors. And in 1526 Ibrahim fell before the conquering arms of the mighty Baber, the founder of the Mogul dynasty.


III.–Baber and Aber

Baber was a descendant of Tamerlane. He himself was a Turk, but his mother was a Mongol; hence the familiar title of the dynasty known as the Moguls. Succeeding to the throne of Ferghana at the age of twelve the great conqueror’s youth was full of romantic vicissitudes, of sharp reverses and brilliant achievements. He was only four and twenty when he succeeded in making himself master of Cabul. He was forty-four, when with a force of twelve thousand men he shattered the huge armies of Ibrahim at Panipat and made himself master of Delhi. His conquests were conducted on what might almost be called principles of knight errantry. His greatest victories were won against overwhelming odds, at the head of followers who were resolved to conquer or die. And in three years he had conquered all Hindustan. His figure stands out with an extraordinary fascination, as an Oriental counterpart of the Western ideal of chivalry; and his autobiography is an absolutely unique record presenting the almost sole specimen of real history in Asia.

But Baber died before he could organise his empire and his son Humayun was unable to hold what had been won. An exceedingly able Mahometan Chief, Shir Khan, raised the standard of revolt, made himself master of Behar and Bengal, drove Humayun out of Hindustan, and established himself under the title of Shir Shah. His reign was one of conspicuous ability. It was not till he had been dead for many years that Humayun was able to recover his father’s dominion. Indeed, he himself fell before victory was achieved. The restoration was effected in the name of his young son Akber, a boy of thirteen, by the able general and minister, Bairam Khan, at the victory of Panipat in 1556. The long reign of Akber initiates a new era.

Two hundred years before this time the Deckan had broken free from the Delhi dominion. But no unity and no supremacy was permanently established in the southern half of India where, on the whole, Mahometan dynasties now held the ascendancy. Rajputana on the other hand, which the Delhi monarchs had never succeeded in bringing into complete subjection, remained purely Hindu under the dominion of a variety of rajahs.

The victory of Panipat was decisive. Naturally enough, Bairam assumed complete control of the State. His rule was able, but harsh and arrogant. After three years the boy king of a sudden coup d’état assumed the reins of Government. Perhaps it was fortunate for both that the fallen minister was assassinated by a personal enemy.

Of all the dynasties that had ruled in India that of Baber was the most insecure in its foundations. It was without any means of support throughout the great dominion which stretched from Cabul to Bengal. The boy of eighteen had a tremendous task before him. Perhaps it was this very weakness which suggested to Akber the idea of giving his power a new foundation by setting himself at the head of an Indian nation, and forming the inhabitants of his vast dominion, without distinction of race or religion, into a single community. Swift and sudden in action, the young monarch broke down one after another the attempts of subordinates to free themselves from his authority. By the time that he was twenty-five he had already crushed his adversaries by his vigour or attached them by his clemency. The next steps were the reduction of Rajputana, Ghuzerat and Bengal; and when this was accomplished Akber’s sway extended over the whole of India north of the Deckan, to which was added Kashmir and what we now call Afghanistan. Akber had been on the throne for fifty years before he was able to intervene actively in the Deckan and to bring a great part of it under his sway.

But the great glory of Akber lies not in the conquests which made the Mogul Empire the greatest hitherto known in India, but in that empire’s organisation and administration. Akber Mahometanism was of the most latitudinarian type. His toleration was complete. He had practically no regard for dogma, while deeply imbued with the spirit of religion. In accordance with his liberal principles Hinduism was no bar to the highest offices. In theory his philosophy was not new, though it was so in practical application.

None of his reforms are more notable than the revenue system carried out by his Hindu minister, Todar Mal, itself a development of a system initiated by Shir Shah. His empire was divided into fifteen provinces, each under a viceroy under the control of the king himself. Great as a warrior and great as an administrator Akber always enjoyed abundant leisure for study and amusement. He excelled in all exercises of strength and skill; his history is filled with instances of romantic courage, and he had a positive enjoyment of danger. Yet he had no fondness for war, which he neither sought nor continued without good reason.


IV.–The Mogul Empire

Akber died in 1605 and was succeeded by his son Selim, who took the title of Jehan Gir. The Deckan, hardly subdued, achieved something like independence under a great soldier and administrator of Abyssinian origin, named Malik Amber. In the sixth year of his reign Jehan Gir married the beautiful Nur Jehan, by whose influence the emperor’s natural brutality was greatly modified in practice. His son, Prince Khurram, later known as Shah Jehan, distinguished himself in war with the Rajputs, displaying a character not unworthy of his grandfather. In 1616 the embassy of Sir Thomas Roe from James I visited the Court of the Great Mogul. Sir Thomas was received with great honour, and is full of admiration of Jehan Gir’s splendour. It is clear, however, that the high standards set up by Akber were fast losing their efficacy.

Jehan Gir died in 1627 and was succeeded by Shah Jehan. Much of his reign was largely occupied with wars in the Deckan and beyond the northwest frontier on which the emperor’s son Aurangzib was employed. Most of the Deckan was brought into subjection, but Candahar was finally lost. Shah Jehan was the most magnificent of all the Moguls. In spite of his wars, Hindustan itself enjoyed uninterrupted tranquillity, and on the whole, a good Government. It was he who constructed the fabulously magnificent peacock throne, built Delhi anew, and raised the most exquisite of all Indian buildings, the Taj Mahal or Pearl Mosque, at Agre. After a reign of thirty years he was deposed by his son Aurangzib, known also as Alam Gir.

Aurangzib had considerable difficulty in securing his position by the suppression of rivals; but our interest now centres in the Deckan, where the Maratta people were organised into a new power by the redoubtable Sivaji. Though some of the Marattas claim Rajput descent, they are of low caste. They have none of the pride or dignity of the Rajput, and they care nothing for the point of honour; but they are active, hardy, persevering, and cunning. Sivaji was the son of a distinguished soldier named Shahji, in the service of the King of Bijapur. By various artifices young Sivaji brought a large area under his control. Then he revolted against Bijapur, posing as a Hindu leader. He wrung for himself a sort of independence from Bijapur. His proceedings attracted the attention of Aurangzib, who, however, did not immediately realise how dangerous the Maratta was to become. Himself occupied in other parts of the empire, Aurangzib left lieutenants to deal with Sivaji; and since he never trusted a lieutenant, the forces at their disposal were insufficient or were divided under commanders who were engaged as much in thwarting each other as in endeavouring to crush the common foe. Hence the vigorous Sivaji was enabled persistently to consolidate his organisation.

At the same time Aurangzib was departing from the traditions of his house and acting as a bigoted champion of Islam; differentiating between his Mussulman subjects and the Hindus so as completely to destroy that national unity which it had been the aim of his predecessors to establish. The result was a Rajput revolt and the permanent alienation of the Rajputs from the Mogul Government.

In spite of these difficulties Aurangzib renewed operations against Sivaji, to which the Maratta retorted by raiding expeditions in Hindustan; whereby he hoped to impress on the Mogul the advisability of leaving him alone; his object being to organise a great dominion in the Deckan–a dominion largely based on his championship of Hinduism as against Mahometanism. When Sivaji died, in 1680, his son Sambaji proved a much less competent successor; but the Maratta power was already established. Aurangzib directed his arms not so much against the Marattas as to the overthrow of the great kingdoms of the Deckan. When he turned against the Marattas, they met his operations by the adoption of guerrilla tactics, to which the Maratta country was eminently adapted. Most of Aurangzib’s last years were occupied in these campaigns. The now aged emperor’s industry and determination were indefatigable, but he was hopelessly hampered by his constitutional inability to trust in the most loyal of his servants. He had deposed his own father and lived in dread that his son Moazzim would treat him in the same fashion. He died in 1707 in the eighty-ninth year of his life and the fiftieth of his reign. In the eyes of Mahometans this fanatical Mahometan was the greatest of his house. But his rule, in fact, initiated the disintegration of the Mogul Empire. He had failed to consolidate the Mogul supremacy in the Deckan, and he had revived the old religious antagonism between Mahometans and Hindus.

Prince Moazzim succeeded under the title of Bahadur Shah. Dissensions among the Marattas enabled him to leave the Deckan in comparative peace to the charge of Daud Khan. He hastened also to make peace with the Rajputs; but he was obliged to move against a new power which had arisen in the northwest, that of the Sikhs. Primarily a sort of reformed sect of the Hindus the Sikhs were converted by persecution into a sort of religious and military brotherhood under their Guru or prophet, Govind. They were too few to make head against the power of the empire, but they could only be scattered, not destroyed; and in later days were to assume a great prominence in Indian affairs. A detailed account of the incompetent successors of Bahadur Shah would be superfluous. The outstanding features of the period was the disintegration of the central Government and the development in the south of two powers; that of the Marattas and that of Asaf Jah, the successor of Daud Khan, and the first of the Nizams of the Deckan. The supremacy among the Marattas passed to the Peshwas, the Bramin Ministers of the successors of Sivaji, who established a dynasty very much like that of the Mayors of the Palace in the Frankish Kingdom of the Merovingians. But the final blow to the power of the Moguls was struck by the tremendous invasion of Nadir Shah the Persian, in 1739, when Delhi was sacked and its richest treasures carried away; though the Persian departed still leaving the emperor nominal Suzerian of India. Before twenty years were past the greatest of all revolutions in India affairs had taken place; and Robert Clive had made himself master of Bengal in the name of the British East India Company.

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