Around three and a half thousand years ago the Indian subcontinent entered the Iron age. Population of the region by then was on its way to reach the fifty million mark, thanks to the fertile soil and sustaining climate. However, by today’s standard, it was still very thinly populated, with a handful of settlements separated by wide rivers in spate and impenetrable forest ranges. These settlements grew into sixteen major polities, called Mahajanapadas in various native literatures. Later, the twentieth century archeologists collectively termed these as the Vedic Civilization.
By sixth century BC one of these polities, Magadha, had produced the Jain philosophy through Mahavira as well as that of Buddhism through Gautama Buddha. This period worldwide witnessed a great spike in novel and horizon altering ideas from people like Thales and Confucius as well. Then in fourth century BC, Alexander, one of the greatest conquerors in world history invaded the subcontinent. After some initial success it is said that he retreated when his army mutinied against marching any further upon knowing that four thousand well trained and well equipped war elephants of the Gangaridei king awaited them. Being a Bengali myself, I cannot resist feeling the warmth of a silly pride there. Honestly, Alexander was on par with Genghis Khan, Napoleon and Hitler and the vegan elephants of Bengal made him retreat! Only the British Empire would later manage to put all these fantastic four’s combined greatness to utter shame!
Back then the rulers in Magadha were from the Nanda Dynasty. Their rule extended from the Bengal in the east to the Punjab region in the west, roughly a quarter of the total area of the subcontinent. This dynasty, among many other things, is famous for being usurped by Chandragupta Maurya, who founded the Mauryan dynasty in 322 BCE. He went on to unify almost all of India except modern day Kerala and Tamil Nadu along with the adjacent island that would later be called Sri Lanka. In the process he reclaimed the Satraps left by Alexander as well as defeating an invasion led by Seleucus I. The kings of this dynasty even went on to annex a large part of the present day Afghanistan to their empire.
However, the second ruler of this dynasty, known as Ashoka, renounced violence, albeit after his successful campaign in the vicious Kalinga War and decided to spread the message of peace ordained from Buddhism. His famous edicts and other philanthropic endeavors put him on par with the greatest of social reformers the world has seen so far. By then the concept of nonviolence was already three hundred years old from the teachings of Buddha and Mahavira. After another millennium, the same trends were preached again by the emigrating followers of Sufism from Persia, which was under the reign of the Umayyad Caliphate but by then we have managed to shake off the prefix from prehistory so more on that in the next episode.
Nevertheless this aura of nonviolence managed to penetrate both the native culture and collective conscience of the region to their cores. So much so, that it not only outlived almost eight centuries of foreign rule but is also providing the ruling stratum, even to this day, the opportunity to alienate its citizens to the status of poorly managed subjects while they can go on acting like colonial imperialists!