Ancient Asian Dynasties, Religions & Philosophies

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Home to most of the world's population, Asia has a long history. In this lesson, we take a look at the earliest years of ancient Asia, with particular emphasis on India and China.

Ancient Asia

Even in antiquity, Asia was home to an overwhelming majority of the world's population. So it makes sense that a great deal of history took place here. However, history is not just about politics and military maneuvers. A number of the most important religious and philosophical traditions in the world came out of ancient Asia. In this lesson, we'll look at the ancient histories of the two largest cultures of Asia--China and India--and we'll examine the philosophical and religious traditions that emerged from them.

China's Dynasties and the Mandate of Heaven

The recorded history of China began around 1600 B.C. with the Shang dynasty. However, there was actually a dynasty that came before the Shang. As the Shang people recorded, they took over from the previous dynasty, the Xia, which had lost the Mandate of Heaven. The Mandate of Heaven was a Chinese philosophy stating that the emperor's right to rule was only guaranteed by heaven. If the Emperor was not just, the mandate would be revoked and there would be chaos.

According to the historical records of the Shang, they had taken the mandate from the Xia. But it would only be a few hundred years before the Shang themselves lost the Mandate of Heaven to another group, the Zhou. Originally the Zhou were a vassal kingdom to the Shang, but the Zhou had grown tired of the Shang's rule. The Zhou would manage to hold the Mandate of Heaven for almost 800 years after gaining it around 1000 B.C., losing it in about 250 B.C. to the Qin, the founders of the Chinese empire.

It is from the Qin that we get the name 'China.' However, the Qin were short-lived. After only a few decades, the Han began to rule China. The Han dynasty would be so important that to this day most Chinese people consider themselves to be Han, not Zhou, Qin or Shang.

The Han dynasty was expansive and powerful.

Invasions and Dynasties of India

To the southwest around 2000 B.C., India went through some pretty earth-shattering events that would change their own ideas about heaven and the cosmos. The Aryans, a group of Indo-European invaders from Uzbekistan, had arrived. They completely uprooted Indian social structure, placing themselves at the top. Moreover, they changed Indian religion from a priestly order to one that was much more similar to the Hinduism that we have today.

After these invasions, two different groups became powerful. First, the Maurya Empire, established by Chandragupta Maurya, ruled much of India from about 300 to 185 B.C. Interestingly, Chandragupta Maurya had met Alexander the Great and wanted to replicate his Greek empire.

Following the fall of the Mauryans, the Gupta Empire came to power around 300 A.D. The Gupta didn't conquer as much as the Maurya, but they expanded the culture and science of India.

Religions: Hinduism and Buddhism

Two of the largest and longest-living religions to come out of ancient Asia were Hinduism and Buddhism. Hinduism is actually a collection of many different philosophies, and it originated in India, spreading throughout other parts of Asia and beyond to become what is now the world's third-largest religion. The Vedas, expansive texts containing Hindu philosophy, rituals and hymns, were composed during this period.

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