Persia held dominance in northern India until the conquest of Alexander the Great in 327 BCE. One year later, Alexander had defeated the Achaemenid Empire and firmly conquered the Indian subcontinent. Again, foreign influences were brought to bear on the region giving rise to the Greco-Buddhist culture which impacted all areas of culture in northern India from art to religion to dress. Statues and reliefs from this period depict Buddha, and other figures, as distinctly Hellenic in dress and pose (known as the Gandhara School of Art). Following Alexander’s departure from India, the Maurya Empire (322-185 BCE) rose under the reign of Chandragupta Maurya (322-298) until, by the end of the third century BCE, it ruled over almost all of northern India.
Chandragupta’s son, Bindusara reigned between 298-272 BCE and extended the empire throughout the whole of India. His son was Ashoka the Great (lived 304-232, reigned 269-232 BCE) under whose rule the empire flourished at its height. Eight years into his reign, Ashoka conquered the eastern city-state of Kalinga which resulted in a death toll numbering over 100,000. Shocked at the destruction and death, Ashoka embraced the teachings of the Buddha and embarked on a systematic programme advocating Buddhist thought and principles. He established many monasteries and gave lavishly to Buddhist communities. His ardent support of Buddhist values eventually caused a strain on the government both financially and politically as even his grandson, Sampadi, heir to the throne, opposed his policies. By the end of Ashoka’s reign the government treasury was severely depleted through his regular religious donations and, after his death, the empire declined rapidly.
The country splintered into many small kingdoms and empires (such as the Kushan Empire) in what has come to be called the Middle Period. This era saw the increase of trade with Rome (which had begun c. 130 BCE) following Augustus Caesar’s conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE (Egypt had been India’s most constant partner in trade in the past). This was a time of individual and cultural development in the various kingdoms which finally flourished in what is considered the Golden Age of India under the reign of the Gupta Empire (320-550 CE).
The Gupta Empire is thought to have been founded by one Sri Gupta (`Sri’ means `Lord’) who probably ruled between 240-280 CE. As Sri Gupta is thought to have been of the Vaishya (merchant) class, his rise to power in defiance of the caste system is unprecedented. He laid the foundation for the government which would so stabilize India that virtually every aspect of culture reached its height under the reign of the Guptas. Philosophy, literature, science, mathematics, architecture, astronomy, technology, art, engineering, religion, and astronomy, among other fields, all flourished during this period, resulting in some of the greatest of human achievements. The Puranas of Vyasa were compiled during this period and the famous caves of Ajanta and Ellora, with their elaborate carvings and vaulted rooms, were also begun. Kalidasa the poet and playwright wrote his masterpiece Shakuntala and the Kamasutra was also written, or compiled from earlier works, by Vatsyayana. Varahamihira explored astronomy at the same time as Aryabhatta, the mathematician, made his own discoveries in the field and also recognized the importance of the concept of zero, which he is credited with inventing. As the founder of the Gupta Empire defied orthodox Hindu thought, it is not surprising that the Gupta rulers advocated and propagated Buddhism as the national belief and this is the reason for the plentitude of Buddhist works of art, as opposed to Hindu, at sites such as Ajanta and Ellora.