The sixth and 5th centuries BC witnessed the creation of many small states all across north India. No state or personality attained particular prominence during this period although some of the states carried recognizable names. Some examples are Gandharas, Kuru-Panchala, Kasi, Kosala, Surasena, Magadha and Malla. While centralized governance (such as an empire) would come much later, this period is of interest to us for some very important developments. These will be discussed under the following sections:

i) Political systems:

While most of the states took the shape of monarchies, there were intermittent attempts at forming a type of representative government in the manner of Republics. (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica Vol 21, 15th ed. P34). These were either single tribes or confederacy of tribes. They elected Chiefs or Presidents (“ganapati or ganaraja”) who were assisted by councils of ‘elders’. These administrators met at “Parishads” (or assemblies); at these meetings the members were seated according to plan, the proceedings followed an agenda, which outlined the order in which the members made their speeches and debates. The decisions arrived at during such meetings were then carried out. While this form of government did not develop into full-blown democracies in India, we cannot ignore the fact that this experimentation took place in the 5th and 6th centuries BC. This is clearly a fore runner of the more full-blown Republics and rule by elected officials in Greece and Rome.

ii) Economy:

The finding of silver and copper coins suggest that these societies had developed a monetary system and managed to move away from the barter system. As trade flourished across the Indo-gangetic waterways and the Punjab and beyond, increase in the numbers of merchants and artisans invariably followed.

iii) Religion:

This period saw unprecedented flowering of philosophical thoughts in India. This “axis age” (when some of the greatest thinkers ever in world history such as the Buddha, Mahavira, Confucius, Socrates and many others were all alive at the same time) saw Hinduism delve into great abstract philosophical treatises contained in the Upanishads and Aranyakas as outlined earlier. This is the same period in which Mahavira formulated his teachings which became the highly ascetic Jainism. This religion (perhaps precisely because of the ascetic nature of it) remained confined to India but its contemporary, Buddhism, not only spread all over India but also to Tibet, central Asia, China, Japan, Korea and the southeast Asian countries. We will now examine the birth and fundamentals of Buddhism in greater details.


In 327 BC the Macedonian ruler Alexander entered Gandhara (in the northwestern part of India, across the Indus river’s tributaries). His troops defeated the army of King Porus (Purushothaman). However, his campaign to continue eastward failed as his army refused to continue fighting. Historians believe this to be due to the fact that the army they confronted (the Nandas) was huge and seemingly invincible. Alexander’s plans to conquer the rest of India was thus thwarted and his campaign did not leave much impression in India or its history or culture. This was despite the fact that he did establish a number of Greek settlements in India. The Persian empire under Darius extended to the Gandhara but no great campaigns were carried out by the Persians into India before or after the time of Darius.