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"In the history of the world there have been thousands of kings and emperors who called themselves 'their highnesses,' 'their majesties,' and 'their exalted majesties' and so on. They shone for a brief moment, and as quickly disappeared. But Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star, even unto this day."

H.G. Wells

  • Empires played a less prominent role in India
  • In the Indus River valley flourished the largest of the First Civilizations (The cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro – urban planning)
  • But in the Indus valley, there was little evidence of any central political authority
  • At its demise by 1500 BCE, creation of a new civilization along the Ganges River
  • Scholars debate the role of the Aryans, a pastoral Indo-European people, and whether they invaded and destroyed or were already a part of the Indus Valley population
political fragmentation and diversity
Political fragmentation and diversity
  • By 600 BCE, the classical civilization of South Asia began to take shape in northern India
  • But emerged as a fragmented collection of towns and cities with diverse political structures
  • And a range of ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity due to endless variety of peoples migrating from Central Asia across mountain passes into India
  • The source of an identity in the midst of diversity was a distinctive religion (Hinduism)

Linguistic Map

but empires had been known
But empires had been known
  • Northwestern India had been briefly ruled by Persian Empire
  • Northwestern India and been briefly conquered by Alexander the Great
  • Persian and Greek influences encouraged the first and largest of India’s short experiments with empire building

“Surrender of Porus to the Emperor Alexander”

the mauryan empire
The Mauryan Empire
  • With a population of perhaps 50 million
  • A large military force (reported 600,000 infantry soldiers - 30,000 cavalry - 8,000 chariots - and 9,000 elephants)
  • Civilian bureaucracy with various ministries and spies
  • State also operated many industries – spinning, weaving, mining, shipbuilding, and armaments
  • Taxes on trade, herds, land (from which the monarch claimed a quarter or more of the crop)
ashoka reigned 268 232 bce
Ashoka (reigned 268-232 BCE)
  • Left a record of his activities and thinking in his edicts carved on rocks and pillars (Pillars of Ashoka)
  • Reign began in a ruthless fashion of conquest and expansion
  • But a particularly bloody battle, the Battle of Kalinga, was a turning point

-Disgusted by the violence and carnage, Ashoka converted to Buddhism


Adopted a more peaceful approach to government

  • Encouraged nonviolence and tolerance
  • Worked for the happiness and well-being of his subjects
  • Abandoned the royal hunts
  • Ended animal sacrifices in the capital
  • Eliminated most meat from the royal menu
  • Generously supported Buddhist monasteries as well as the building of stupas (shrines erected by Buddhists which housed relics of important Buddhists)

Ordered the digging of wells, the planting of shade trees, and the building of rest stops along the empire’s major highways (integrating the kingdom’s economy)

  • But still retained the power to punish wrongdoing and the death penalty remained
  • Attempted to develop a moral code for the diverse empire
  • After Ashoka’s death, political fragmentation returned with competing regional states

Buddhist symbol - the Dharma wheel – representing

the teachings of the Buddha

the gupta empire
The Gupta Empire
  • Another short-lived experiment in empire building in South Asia
  • A golden age of Hindu culture
  • Mathematicians developed the concept of zero, the decimal system, and the concept of infinity
  • Scientists experimented with vaccinations
  • Artists created beautiful paintings in the caves of Ajanta and great works of literature in Sanskrit, the holy language of the Hindu religion

But India was similar to Western Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire

  • Political fragmentation was more common than unity
  • Perhaps India’s tremendous cultural diversity was the reason
  • Also frequent invasions from Central Asia, which regularly smashed states that might have emerged as empire builders
  • And India’s social system known as the caste system increased local loyalties

But a vibrant economy encouraged trade and commerce

  • India was a focal point of an extensive network of trade in the Indian Ocean basin
  • Its cotton textile industry supplied cloth throughout the Afro-Eurasian world
  • Strong guilds of merchants and artisans provided political leadership in towns and cities
  • Wealth from commerce patronized the activities of artists and architects
  • Creativity in religious thinking (from Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism emerged)
  • Great advances in mathematics and science, especially astronomy

The absence of a consistent imperial unity did not prevent the evolution of a lasting civilization

  • A Strayer Question:

Why were centralized empires so much less prominent in India than in China?

  • Compare and contrast the process of empire building in India and the Roman Empire.
  • How did the religious experience shape the political reality in South Asia?