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History and Culture of Ancient India

The antiquity of Indian civilization

One of the most original civilizations of the East was the Indian one. Its contribution to the general culture of mankind is truly enormous. Even in ancient times, India was known as “the land of the sages”.

Steatite seals. Mohenjo-Daro. 3 thousand BC

Steatite seals. Mohenjo-Daro. III thousand BC.

From a very early time, it was in close historical and cultural contacts with many countries of the East and the ancient world. The achievements of Indian civilization had a significant impact on Arab and Iranian cultures and sciences. Many ancient writers and philosophers sought to visit India to get acquainted with its original teachings about the universe and the place of man in it.

The results of new archaeological excavations suggest that India was inhabited in the deepest antiquity: early Paleolithic cultures were discovered in various areas. The progressive development of the economy and social relations determined the transition from the Paleolithic to the Mesolithic and Neolithic, whose monuments are discovered in different regions of Hindustan. New excavations in Mehrgarh (modern Pakistan, French expedition led by J. F. Zharizha) revealed the consistent development of local cultures from the pre-Ceramic Neolithic period to the metal age and allowed us to revise the traditional point of view about the relatively late (IV thousand BC) time of the emergence of sedentary agricultural cultures in Hindustan in comparison with other countries. Now we can say that already in the VII millennium BC, the population cultivated many cereals, domesticated cattle, and entered into close contacts with the synchronous cultures of Iran and Central Asia. India has become one of the most ancient centers of Eastern cultures.

Harappan Civilization

Opening up to the world

One of the brightest pages in the history of ancient Indian culture was the Harappan civilization. When in the 50s of the XIX century, the English General A. Cunningham, who led the archaeological work in India, during the inspection of the ancient settlement in Harappa (modern. Pakistan) discovered a seal with “unknown characters”, he certainly did not suspect the importance of the discovery he made. Before the planned excavations, which began only in the 20s of the XX century. In the Indus Valley (excavations in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, which means “hill of the dead” in Sindhi), the civilization now called Harappan was practically unknown to science.

Figurines of the mother goddess. Mohenjo-Daro. Terracotta

Figurines of the mother goddess. Terracotta. Mohenjo-Daro. Middle of the third millennium BC.

The level of development and chronological framework of the Harappan civilization

At present, this civilization appears to us as highly developed, having emerged on a local basis. Its settlements are now found on a vast territory: more than 1,100 km from north to south and more than 1,600 km from west to east. According to scientists, up to 100 thousand people lived in the largest cities. At that time, cities were centers of trade, crafts, and administrative authorities, but the majority of the population — farmers and pastoralists-continued to live in rural communities. For many decades, scientists have been arguing about the chronology of the Harappan civilization. Now the most accepted dating is the following: 2500 (2300)-1800 (1700) BC.

The high level of development of Harappan culture is indicated by the strict planning during the construction of cities, monumental architecture, the presence of writing, the system of weights and measures, and works of art. Excavations in the main centers showed that they were built according to a pre-developed plan: the streets ran parallel to each other, intersected at right angles; the main streets were quite wide-up to 10 m. Almost all major cities consisted of two parts: the citadel, which towered over the city, and the “lower city”. In the citadel there were, apparently, the city authorities (some scholars believe that there were also houses of priests), in the” lower city ” lived the main population. Communication between the two parts was, judging by the excavations, limited: there were special gates that could be closed in order to prevent ordinary residents from entering the citadel. Well – to-do citizens lived in two-and even three-story houses.

Economy and farming

The main occupation of the population was agriculture, the inhabitants cultivated wheat (several varieties), barley, peas, and were engaged in gardening. Rice remains have been found in some settlements. Irrigation was widely used in the river valleys. Domestic animals were already tamed, cattle, sheep, goats were bred, a dog, a cat, and a donkey were domesticated. The population harvested two crops a year, using fertilizers for planting.

The Harappan cities were major centers of trade, both domestic and foreign. Judging by the finds of seals in the cities of the Two Rivers, trade with Mesopotamia was particularly active. It was carried out, obviously, both by sea and by land. Excavations on the island of Bahrain have shown that there was a “transit point” here; probably there were traders from India and traders traveling from Mesopotamia to the East. The discovery of sea trade in Lothal (a Harappan town not far from modern times) speaks of sea trade. Bombay) seals depicting ships with masts.

Steatite printing. Mohenjo-Daro. 3 thousand BC.

Steatite printing. Mohenjo-Daro. III thousand BC.

Language and writing

One of the most difficult mysteries of the Harappan civilization is language and writing. To date, more than 1 thousand seals with inscriptions have been found, which were also applied to ceramics and metal products. Scientists have identified more than 400 different characters, but the question of what the origins of this writing were and what language was spoken by the population of the Harappan culture is a subject of acute debate. In the 80s of the XX century, a new method was used to decipher the Harappan script and language — with the help of computer technology. This work was carried out in parallel by Soviet scientists led by prof. Knorozov, who was successfully engaged in deciphering the Maya script, Indian and Finnish researchers. It was possible to establish not only the direction of writing-from right to left, but most importantly-confirmed the point of view already expressed earlier by linguists about the belonging of the language of the population of the Harappan civilization to the Dravidian language, or rather, to proto-Dravidian.

The decline of the Harappan civilization

After a period of prosperity, there was a decline, a decline in culture. It occurred differently in different areas, and perhaps the causes were different in each case (river flooding, climate change, tectonic tremors, epidemics, etc.). Recently, anthropologists, using a new method of analyzing bone remains, came to the conclusion that the cause of death of residents of settlements was malaria. This conclusion does not refute the reality of the fact that the Indo-Aryan tribes came to India, but, judging by historical and linguistic data, this happened several centuries later than the fall of the Harappan civilization.

Arrival of Indo-Aryan tribes in India

The oldest written monument of the Indo-Aryans “Rigveda”, according to most modern scholars, should be dated to the XI-X centuries BC. These Vedic texts allow us to trace in general terms the progress of the Indo-Aryan tribes to the east and their development of the Ganges Valley areas. It was a long process that took several centuries.

The figure of a priest. Mohenjo-Daro. 3 thousand BC.

The figure of a priest. Mohenjo-Daro. III thousand BC.

The population of the Vedic era was known for many cereals, including barley, rice, wheat, and legumes. Rice farming emerged as a result of the extensive development of the Ganges Valley. According to a number of scientists, rice was not known to the Indo-Aryans before their arrival in India and they borrowed the art of growing it from local tribes. The Vedic tribes lived in small fortified settlements, which, according to archaeological excavations, bore little resemblance to the major cities of the Harappan civilization. But gradually cities appear in the Ganges Valley.

A striking indicator of the development of property and social inequality was the emergence of slavery. Slaves (dasa) initially became prisoners of war, but then members of the same community began to fall into slave dependence. Slavery was then still undeveloped, patriarchal, Vedic society was at the level of tribal organization.

The Rise of Magadha

Vedic writings and epics mention a large number of ancient dynasties and the names of the oldest states in the Ganges Valley, but the question of the historical reality of these data is very controversial and in most cases is not yet confirmed by the materials of archeology. Gradually, out of a large number of states, Magadha became of primary importance in the Ganges Valley. Ancient Magadha (on the territory of present-day Southern Bihar) occupied a very favorable geographical, strategic and commercial position. The country had a lively trade with many areas of India, was rich in minerals, in particular metals. Its oldest capital was Rajagriha. Under the Magadha king Udain (461-445 BC), Pataliputra became the capital of the state. Patna), which became the largest center of Ancient India. Then the Nand dynasty was established on the Magadh throne and a large empire was formed. The state created by the Nandas prepared the conditions for the organization of a large Maurya empire.

India in the age of the Mauryas

A cart with a double team. Mohenjo-Daro. 3 thousand BC.

A cart with a double team. Mohenjo-Daro. Middle of the third millennium BC.

The creation of the Maurian Empire was a major historical event in the life of the country. For the first time, such a large territory (in fact, the entire Hindustan, with the exception of the extreme south) became part of a united state. Ancient authors have information about the struggle of King Chandragupta of the Maurya family with the Greek-Macedonian garrisons and governors who were “planted” in India by Alexander the Great. Plutarch even has a curious account of the meeting of the young Chandragupta with Alexander in the Punjab. In any case, a successful war with the remnants of the Greek troops strengthened Chandragupta’s position and allowed him to move from Northwestern India, where he was located, to Pataliputra. In a fierce battle with the last of the Nanda kings, he was victorious and took possession of the Magadha throne.

The formation of the Maurian Dynasty and the fight aainst the Seleucids

Around 314 BC, Chandragupta became the rightful ruler, the founder of a new dynasty — the Mauryan dynasty. But the political situation remained extremely tense. Especially difficult were the relations with the Seleucids, who created their state as if on the ruins of Alexander’s empire. Ancient writers tell about the military clashes between Chandragupta and Seleucus Nicator, the then ruler of this state, and about the conclusion of peace between them (in 303 or 302 BC). It is difficult to describe with certainty the course of this struggle, but judging by the results of the peace treaty (Seleucus received 500 war elephants, and the Maurian king — some areas in the north-west of India, which Alexander had previously subdued), the victory was actually on the side of Chandragupta. After the peace was concluded, Seleucus sent his ambassador Megasphenes to the court of the Maurian king.

Megasphenes was replaced at the Maurian court by another Seleucid ambassador, Deimachus, who had already arrived at King Bindusara, the son of Chandragupta. During this period, the Mauryas maintained diplomatic relations with Ptolemaic Egypt — Dionysius was sent to Pataliputra. The heir of Bindusara was Ashoka.

A scene from Jataka. The Shung Era. 2nd century BC

Scene from Jataka. The stupa in Bharkhut. The Shung Era. II century BC.

Ashoka’s Lawmaking

Thanks to his numerous inscriptions-edicts found in various parts of India, we know about the most important political events, the system of government, the policy of the king. The inscriptions allow us to fairly accurately date the beginning of his reign: the coronation of Ashoka, obviously, refers to 268 (267) BC. The sites of the king’s edicts allow us to outline the boundaries of his empire:

  • It included not only the regions of Western, Central, Eastern and Southern India (except for the extreme south),
  • but also the territories of Pakistan
  • and some parts of Afghanistan.

A comparison of the Indian and” non-Indian ” versions of the edicts of King Ashoka shows that the main text of the decree was compiled in the imperial capital of Pataliputra, from where it was then sent to various provinces. Here, local scribes copied it into the appropriate local dialects and languages, depending on the population living there, adding the features of their native language to the original text. Most of the edicts are written in the Brahmi script, and only the versions in the North-West are written in kharosthi (this script was formed on the basis of Brahmi under the influence of Aramaic writing).

Judging by the edicts, Ashoka paid special attention to Buddhism. According to his own admission, he visited a Buddhist community — the sangha, became an upasaka — a lay follower of the teachings of the Buddha, and traveling through the empire, went to Lumbini-the place where, according to the prevailing tradition, the founder of Buddhism himself was born.

The Fall of the Mauryas

After the death of Ashoka, the empire was divided into western and eastern parts. The heirs of the emperor could no longer preserve the former power of the state. In 180 BC, power in Pataliputra passed to a representative of a new dynasty — the Shungs.

Kushan and Gupta Empires

Female sculpture from Didarganj. The age of the Mauryas. 3rd century BC

Female sculpture from Didarganj. The age of the Mauryas. III century BC.

The period of the Indo-Greek kingdoms
After the fall of the Maurian Empire, several small Indo-Greek states were formed in the north-west of Hindustan, the political history of which has been restored so far only in the most general outlines. The most famous Indo-Greek king was Menander, whose coin finds allow us to outline the boundaries of his power:

  • Gandhara,
  • Arachosia,
  • some parts of Punjab.

The Indo-Greek kings had to face the Saka tribes, who in the first century BC penetrated into India from Central Asia. Initially, the success was accompanied by the Indo-Greeks, then the Saks-in Northwestern India, the Indo-Saka states were created. Later, the political map of this region became even more colorful: the Indo-Parthian dynasties rose, which tried to seize the territories of the Indo-Greek and Indo-Saka rulers.

Rise of the Kushans

The Indo-Parthians were especially strong under King Gondophar, but soon they had to cede power to a new powerful dynasty-the Kushan. Initially, the Kushans occupied the regions of Bactria in Central Asia. Gradually, the Kushan kings significantly expanded the territory of their state. Under King Cujul Cadfiz, they subdued Arachosia, part of Parthia.

Kujula’s son Vim Kadfiz extended the power of the Kushans as far as the lower Indus. The process of Indianization of kushans is reflected in the coins of Vima Kadfiz: they depict the god Shiva, the king is sometimes called Maheshvara — one of the names of this god. Under Vim, an important monetary reform was carried out: the minting of a new gold coin began, the denomination of which was equal to the Roman aureus, and a strict denomination of copper coins was established. This was obviously caused by the existence of different monetary systems in different areas of the empire. For the centralization of the state, the reform of the unification of coins was of great importance.

Unfortunately, the available materials do not allow us to give the exact dates of the reign of Kujula and Vima; the opinions of scientists on this issue differ, but such dates are now most accepted:

  • Cadfiz I-25 BC-35 AD;
  • Cadfiz II-35-62 AD (or somewhat later).

The rise of the Kushan state under Kanishka

The most famous Kushan ruler was Kanishka, whose name is associated with the flourishing of the empire, the rise of the economy and culture, the establishment and spread of “northern Buddhism” — Mahayana. Our information about the reign of Kanishka is based on a small series of inscriptions that keep track of time according to the “Kanishka era”, and numismatic data. In addition, there is a lot of evidence about him in later Buddhist legends, in which tradition painted the king as a zealous Buddhist. The Kushan state under Kanishka significantly expanded and included the regions of Bihar, some territories of Central India up to the Narmada River. Under Kanishka, the Kushan empire became one of the strongest powers in the ancient world, competing with China, Rome, and Parthia. During this period, relations with Rome were particularly revived. It is possible that the Kushans refer to the report of ancient authors about the Indian embassy in Rome in the reign of the Emperor Trajan (99 AD).

Unfortunately, there is still an extremely controversial question about the years of Kanishka’s reign, about the date of the era that is mentioned in his inscriptions and the inscriptions of his heirs. For a long time, scientists held the opinion that the” era of Kanishka ” began in 78 AD, now many experts tend to date the beginning of his reign to a later time — the first quarter of the second century AD.

A girl picking flowers. Mathura. The Kushan era. 2nd century AD.

A girl picking flowers. Mathura. The Kushan era. II century AD.

Decline of the Kushan dynasty

Among Kanishka’s successors, the most famous were Huvishka and Vasudeva. During this period, under King Vasudeva, the features of the decline of the Kushan state began to be noticeable. His heirs fought hard against both the strong Sasanian power (Iran) and the local dynasties established in various parts of India. The most persistent was the struggle of the Kushans with Sasanian Iran in the middle of the third century AD, when the western regions of the Kushan Empire became part of the Sasanian empire under Shapur I (241-272). By the end of the Kushan dynasty, only the Gandhara region belonged. Then almost all of the Kushan Indian possessions became part of the Gupta Empire.

Rise of the Guptas

The strengthening of the Gupta state falls during the reign of Chandragupta I, who bore the magnificent title of “ruler of the great kings”. The beginning of the reign of Chandragupta — the” Gupta era ” – dates back to 320 AD.

The empire became even more powerful during the reign of Samundragupta. He managed to capture many areas of the Ganges Valley and even the Deccan. The regions of the South, apparently not part of the empire, were considered subject areas and paid tribute. Some areas of Western and Northwestern India were also dependent on the Guptas. Samundragupta maintained close ties with Sri Lanka.

A yakshi talking to a parrot. Bhutesar. The Kushan era. 2nd century AD

Yakshi talking to a parrot. Bhutesar. The Kushan era. II century AD.

Under Samundragupta, the empire became one of the largest in the ancient East. Its influence expanded, and close ties were established with many states. According to the epigraphy, Samundragupta reigned until 380, then the throne passed to his son Chandragupta II, who reigned until 413 or 415.

The Golden Age of the Gupta civilization and the struggle against the Huns

The figure of Chandragupta II is one of the most popular in the Indian tradition, where he is known as Vikramaditya (the Sun of Power). Tradition links the work of many of the greatest writers, poets and scientists to the period of his reign. In modern Indian science, the period of Chandragupta II is often called the “golden age of the Guptas”.

After the death of Chandragupta II, his son Kumaragupta (415-455) succeeded to the throne. Shortly after his death, his successor Skandagupta had to fight very hard against the tribes of the Eftalite Huns who invaded India. Under the Eftalite king Toraman (490-515), the Huns managed to advance into the interior of India, capturing Sindh, areas of Rajasthan and Western India.

The Guptas still retained their power over Magadha and other territories for some time, but these were already weak descendants of the once powerful Gupta kings. Thus fell one of the great empires of antiquity.

The main features of cultural development

Goddess Lakshmi among the Lotuses. Mathura. The Kushan era. 2nd century AD

Goddess Lakshmi among the Lotuses. Mathura. The Kushan era. II century AD.

The achievements of the ancient Indians in various fields-literature, art, science, philosophy-were included in the golden fund of world civilization, and had a significant impact on the further development of culture not only in India itself, but also in a number of other countries. Indian influence was particularly significant in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the Far East.

Religion played an important role in the spiritual life of Ancient India. The main religious movement was Hinduism (it is now followed by more than 80% of the population of India); the roots of this religion go back to ancient times.


The religious and mythological ideas of the tribes of the Vedic era can be judged by the monuments of that period-the Vedas, which contain rich material on mythology, religion, and ritual. Vedic hymns were considered and are considered sacred texts in India, they were passed down orally from generation to generation, carefully preserved. These appeals to the gods, hymns and incantations depict the world of the Vedic man, his beliefs, ideas about the universe. The totality of these beliefs is commonly called Vedism. Vedism was not a general Indian religion, but remained only the beliefs of the group of Indo-Aryan tribes that settled Eastern Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, which was the creator of the Rig Veda and other Vedic collections (Samhit).

The figure of a layman is a follower of Buddhism. Sangon. The Kushan era. 2nd century AD.

The figure of a lay Buddhist. Sangon. The Kushan era. II century AD.

One of the characteristic features of the Vedic religion was polytheism-the worship of many gods and deities. They were usually given the properties of a human (anthropomorphism), but sometimes they were also drawn as demigods-half-beasts (theriomorphism).

  • The main god was considered Indra-the god of thunderstorms, a powerful warrior;
  • The guardian of world order and justice was the god Varuna;
  • The fire god Agni was especially revered — the defender of the hearth, ” the guardian of the house and people»;
  • The Sun God Surya was associated with the coming of the day, and he dispelled the darkness of the night by riding his chariot through the sky every morning.

The Vedic Indians divided the entire world, the entire universe, into three spheres-heaven, earth, and antariksha (the space between them), and each of these spheres was associated with certain gods. The sky gods were Surya, Varuna, and the earth gods were Agni and Soma, the god of the “intoxicating drink.”

Vedism is characterized by syncretism in the description of the gods; there was no strict hierarchy of deities, there was no supreme deity; referring to a particular god, the Vedians gave him the characteristics of many gods, at each particular moment it was he who was the main one, bringing happiness and averting diseases and troubles.

The Indian of the Vedic era deified the forces of nature, animating plants, mountains, and rivers. Later, the doctrine of the transmigration of souls took shape. The Indians believed that the one who leads a blissful life goes to heaven after death, while the messengers of the god of the afterlife, Yama, are waiting for the sinner. To win the favor of the gods, the Indians offered sacrifices to them, begged for help, offspring and wealth. Of course, the sacrifices were not the same — the rich arranged lavish ceremonies, the poor were content with offering flowers and “sacred water”. The Vedas tell of a sacrificial fire in honor of the gods, into which grains were thrown, the intoxicating “drink of immortality” — soma-was poured, and animals were sacrificed.

Vedic writings depict the rich spiritual world of the Indians of that distant era, complex cosmogonic ideas. Even then, people thought about the mysteries of the universe, tried to understand the causes of the world, the appearance of all life on earth. Of course, these were naive attempts to explain the mysteries of the universe in a mythologized form. The Vedic hymns express the idea that even the gods are not eternal, that the creator was some “abstract deity”, that from the giant Purusha everything was born-earth, sky, sun, people, gods. In the Hymn of Creation, something impersonal is declared to be the basis of existence.

Many features of Vedism entered into Hinduism, although it was already a developed religion, reflecting a different stage in spiritual life.


Sitting Buddha. Mathura. The Kushan era. 2nd century AD.

Sitting Buddha in Katra. Mathura. The Kushan era. II century AD.

In Hinduism, the creator god is brought to the fore, and a strict hierarchy is established in the pantheon. A special role was played by the cults of the gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. This is how the triad, the tri-unity (trimurti) of these main deities is formed, perceived as a manifestation of the one supreme deity. Brahma was considered the creator and ruler of the world, he also owned the establishment of social laws on earth (dharma), the division into varnas; he is the punisher of infidels and sinners. Gradually, Vishnu (god — guardian) and Shiva (god-destroyer) began to play a special role in Trimurti, which led to the emergence of two main trends in Hinduism-Vishnuism and Shaivism. This design was fixed in the texts of the Puranas — the main monuments of Hindu thought that developed in the first centuries of our era. Along with the Indo-Aryan beliefs, both directions of Hinduism have absorbed the beliefs of the non-Aryan, primarily Dravidian, population. In general, Hinduism as a religious and mythological system is characterized by the inclusion of the beliefs of different tribal groups, their assimilation.

God Vishnu

The inclusion of various cults in the Hindu religious system, their correlation with the image of Vishnu, was carried out thanks to the concept of avatars, namely, the doctrine that the god Vishnu descends into the world and, reincarnating, appears in various images.
Early Hindu texts speak of ten avatars (“descents») Vishnu:
  1. the first avatar is associated with the story of the flood, when Vishnu, wanting to save people, took the form of a fish;
  2. The second is about how Vishnu, taking the form of a turtle, helped to get the drink of immortality (amrita);
  3. The third depicts Vishnu as a boar who defeated a demon and saved the earth from destruction.;
  4. the fourth-in the form of a lion-man, who, thanks to the titanic power, was able to defeat the demon;
  5. the fifth-in the form of a dwarf-depicts the cunning of Vishnu, who, taking this image, managed to deceive the demon king and win back the earth from him;
  6. The sixth is in the form of Parashurama (“Rama with an axe”), when Vishnu defeated the kshatriyas who seized power on earth;th
  7. e seventh – in the form of Rama, who defeated the evil demon-rakshasa Ravana (the story of the exploits of Rama was the plot of the famous epic poem ” Ramayana»);
  8. In the eighth descent, he appears as Krsna, the hero of the Yadava tribe. This avatar is one of the most popular, and Krishna has become a favorite character in many works. The cult of Krishna has become so popular that its followers have become an independent branch of Vishnuism-Krishnaism;
  9. The ninth avatar – in the form of a Buddha-is the result of the inclusion of Buddhist ideas in Hinduism;T
  10. he tenth-in the form of Kalki-reflects the idea that Vishnu at the end of the age of Kali will appear in the form of a horseman and destroy all misfortunes, restore order and justice on earth. In late Hinduism, the avatar of Krishna comes to the fore. According to some scholars, the name Krishna is of local, pre-Aryan origin.

God Shiva

The cult of Shiva, which represents destruction in the triad of the main gods, became very popular very early on. But in mythology, Shiva is associated with different qualities — he is a deity of fertility, an ascetic, a patron of cattle, and a shaman dancer. This indicates that the cult of Shiva has absorbed various local beliefs.
The religious concepts of Hinduism had a great influence on various aspects of the life of ancient Indian society, including the social sphere. The Varna system was considered sacred, and believers were required to strictly fulfill their pre-ordained duties and social obligations; it was believed that one could not become a Hindu, one could only be born a Hindu. Hinduism reached a special development in the Middle Ages, becoming the main religion of the population.
Stupa fence. Fragment. Sangol. The Kushan era. 2nd century AD

Stupa fence. Fragment. Sangol. The Kushan era. II century AD.


Of the vast number of religious and religious-philosophical works of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita (The Song of the Bhagavat) was the most popular in ancient times and continues to be so today. This work is part of the epic poem “Mahabharata”, but it can be considered as a completely independent work. The main content is reduced to the dialogue of the warrior Arjuna with Krsna, the earthly incarnation of the supreme God. But this is not just a dialogue, but instructions about the fate of a person, about high morality, about a sense of duty, about the mundane and divine. In the center of the poem is a description of the paths that lead the believer to religious “liberation”. The main thing is the love of God (bhakti).
The Gita has become a kind of symbol of the spiritual life of India. Many outstanding public figures, writers, and artists have repeatedly addressed her, and M. Gandhi, J. Nehru, and R. Tagore spoke about her with admiration.


Much later than Vedism, Buddhism developed in India, but after a few centuries it crossed the borders of India, established itself in many countries of Asia, and became one of the three world religions.
As noted above, Siddhartha Shakyamuni (“the hermit of the Shakyas”) – the creator of the Buddhist teachings-was born in 563 BC in the town of Lumbini (modern. Nepal) in a Kshatriya family. When he was 40 years old, he “achieved enlightenment” in Sarnath (near the modern city of Varanasi-Benares) and became known as the Buddha, i.e. “enlightened”. Reliable historical data, synchronous with the life of the Buddha, has not been preserved, but we can talk about the historicity of the founder of the Buddhist teaching, regardless of how right the tradition is about the events of his biography and his name itself.
Scenes depicting Yakshas. Mathura. The Kushan era. 2nd century AD
Scenes depicting Yakshas. Mathura. The Kushan era. II century AD.

Basic doctrine

Like all religions, Buddhism was based on the doctrine of salvation — in Buddhism, the realization of this” liberation ” is called Nirvana. Only monks can achieve nirvana, the early Buddhists taught, although every believer should strive for it. On this long road to “liberation”, it is necessary to follow the basic commandments, first of all the so-called four noble truths. In them, according to tradition, the Buddha outlined the causes of human suffering and outlined the “path of liberation”.
Tradition also attributes to the Buddha the words that, just as the water in the ocean has the taste of salt, so his teaching has the “taste of liberation”. Life is suffering, which arises in connection with the desire, the desire for earthly existence and its joys. Therefore, you should give up your desires and follow the “eightfold path”.» —
  • righteous views,
  • righteous behavior,
  • righteous effort,
  • righteous speech,
  • righteous way of thinking,
  • righteous memory,
  • righteous way of living,
  • righteous self-absorption.
Shiva Lingam. The Gupta period. IV-V centuries.

Shiva Lingam. The Gupta period. IV-V centuries

It is no accident that the ethical side played a huge role in Buddhism. The moral aspect of human behavior had to take a special place. Following the “righteous path”, a person, according to the teachings of the Buddha, should rely on himself, and not seek help, protection and salvation from outside.
Buddhism did not recognize the existence of a creator god, a creator god who, according to Hinduism, generates everything in the world, including man, and on whom human destiny depends.
Despite the ideas put forward about the universal equality of people by birth, about the democratic nature of the Buddhist monastic community — the sangha, Buddhism is not a radical social movement. The cause of all worldly hardships, worldly suffering, and social injustice, according to Buddhist teachings, is the personal “blindness” of man; it is due to his inability to give up worldly desires. According to Buddhist teaching, it is possible to overcome earthly suffering only by extinguishing all reactions to the world, by destroying the consciousness of one’s own”I”.
However, Buddhism opposed sharp caste divisions, for the equality of people by birth, and this, naturally, attracted to it the commercial strata, the rich Vaishyas, to whom Brahmanism assigned a very modest place in the social and social hierarchy. Buddhism also found support among the Kshatriyas.

Two directions of Buddhism

By the time of the Maurya period, two main trends had taken shape in Buddhism —
  • Sthaviravadins (followers of the” teachings of the elders”) and
  • mahasanghikas (supporters of the “big community”).
The latter direction was, obviously, the basis of the Mahayana teachings (“big chariot”, “wide path”), whose followers began to distinguish themselves from the adherents of Hinayana. The term “hinayana “(“small chariot”, ” narrow path») The Mahayanists called the followers, from their point of view, a more closed and orthodox Buddhist trend. But there was no open conflict between the representatives of these schools in India.
The head of the Buddha. Gupta period. 4-5 centuries.

The head of the Buddha. The Gupta period. IV-V centuries.

The oldest Mahayana texts appear, apparently, as early as the first century BC, but most of them date back to the first centuries AD.
One of the most important in the Mahayana doctrine was the bodhisattva doctrine. The concept of a bodhisattva was also present in the Hinayana, but in the Mahayana the cult of bodhisattvas acquired a special meaning. It was believed that a bodhisattva is a being with the ability to become a Buddha, approaching the attainment of nirvana, but out of great compassion for other beings and the whole world, refusing to enter into nirvana. If, according to the Hinayanists, nirvana could only be achieved by monks who had completely broken away from worldly life, then, according to the Mahayana, the highest “liberation” was also available to lay people.
The interpretation of the image of the founder of the Buddha’s teaching and the very concept of “Buddha”was also different in the Mahayana. Whereas in the Hinayana the Buddha was regarded as a real historical figure, pointing out to believers the ways and means of “liberation,” in the Mahayana he was regarded as the supreme absolute being. In the Mahayana, Buddhas and bodhisattvas become objects of worship. Ritual and rite of passage are of particular importance.
Since the attainment of nirvana, according to the Mahayana, takes place with the help of bodhisattvas, the believers tried to win their favor by making rich offerings. In the first centuries of our era, Buddhist monasteries turned into large owners, to whom the kings-followers of Buddhism and other rich donors gave land, gave large sums of money, and various valuables.

Buddhism outside of India

After crossing the borders of India, Buddhism brought to other countries many traditions of Indian education, as well as works of both religious and secular nature. Many literary and scientific works were translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan and Chinese. In the Tibetan Buddhist canon, most of them are Sanskrit-based works. Through Buddhist mediation, China became acquainted with Indian culture. In the first centuries of our era, several hundred Sanskrit texts were translated into Chinese.


The God Vishnu. The Gupta period. IV-V centuries.

The God Vishnu. The Gupta period. IV-V centuries.

In ancient India, philosophy reached a very high level of development. The most famous school of ancient Indian materialists was the Lokayata. The Lokayatiks opposed the main provisions of the religious and philosophical schools, including the idea of religious “liberation” and the omnipotence of the gods. They considered sensory perception to be the main source of knowledge.

The great achievement of ancient Indian philosophy was the atomistic teaching of the Vaisesika school, which finds certain analogies with the teaching of Democritus. Patanjali, the founder of the yoga school, paid special attention to the development of questions of human psychology.

One of the greatest Mahayana philosophers was Nagarjuna, who came up with the concept of “universal relativity” or “emptiness” (sunya-vada). His ideas had a great influence on the fate of Buddhist philosophy in Tibet and China, and his development of logical categories largely predetermined the development of the school of logicians in India. The Sankhya school (doel, “account”) reflected many achievements of ancient Indian science. By the end of antiquity, the idealistic Vedanta school, founded by the eminent philosopher and preacher Shankara, had gained the greatest influence, but rationalistic concepts also played a significant role in the development of Indian philosophy.


Ancient Indian literature rightfully occupies one of the most honorable places in the history of world literature. It is very diverse both in its genres and in its linguistic and cultural traditions, striking in its depth, originality of content, and exceptionally poetic. Ancient India gave the world such great writers as Kalidasa. His work was one of the most important stages in the cultural development of the country. When the first translations of his works into Western European languages appeared at the end of the XVIII — beginning of the XIX century, the largest writers and poets of Western Europe turned to Kalidasa. We also got acquainted with Kalidasa’s work early in Russia.

The history of ancient Indian literature is usually divided into several stages —

  • The Vedic,
  • epic,
  • period of classical Sanskrit fiction (the so-called Kavya literature), although along with Sanskrit writings there was a rich literary tradition in Prakrit (Middle Indian languages) and in Dravidian languages, primarily Tamil.

The first two stages are characterized by the predominance of the oral tradition of text transmission-a feature that can be traced in the subsequent periods of the development of the fiction of Ancient India.

The “Mahabharata” and “Ramayana” epics

The god of Kuber's wealth. Mathura. Gupta period. 4-5 centuries.

The god of Kuber’s wealth. Mathura. Gupta period. V century AD.

The real encyclopedias of Indian life are the two great epic poems of Ancient India — the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which captured all aspects of the life of ancient Indians and had a huge impact on the further development of Indian culture.

The images and plots of the epic became an integral part of the national tradition of the country, they were addressed and are addressed by outstanding figures of theater, music, and fine arts. These sacred epics went beyond the borders of India and already in the early Middle Ages became very popular in Nepal, Cambodia, Indonesia, Tibet, and the Far East. In terms of the power of artistic embodiment, the gigantic volume and impact on the culture of many peoples, the poems “Mahabharata” and “Ramayana” are fairly compared with the “Iliad” and “Odyssey” (“Mahabharata” contains 100 thousand couplets, “Ramayana” — 24 thousand).

The final edition of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana dates back to the first centuries of our era, but the way of composing the heroic epic took a huge period of time: the epic absorbed various materials, which, forming in the oral and poetic tradition, increasingly acquired a didactic character, was permeated with religious and philosophical ideas and included works of religious content proper.

The main outline of the “Mahabharata” is a story about the rivalry of two royal families — the Kauravas and the Pandavas, about an 18-day battle on the field of Kuru. The authorship of the poem is attributed by tradition to the sage Vyasa.

Palace stage. The Satavahana era. 2nd century BC

Palace stage. The Satavahana era. II century BC.

The story of the Ramayana is based on the story of King Rama’s expedition to the island of Lanka to rescue his beloved Sita, who was kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. Rama and Sita became the favorite heroes of millions of Indians; their devotion to each other, the victory of good over evil, and today remain in India a symbol of nobility and high moral ideals.

Epic poems have been translated into many Eastern languages, and they were especially popular in Southeast Asia, where they were used to publish original local works.

Other literary works

Many of the subjects of the epic formed the outline of the works of art of subsequent eras, they are very popular in modern India. Thus, the legend of Shakuntala formed the plot of one of the dramas of Kalidasa. He wrote many plays, epic and lyrical poems: the drama “Shakuntala” (“Recognized by the ring of Shakuntala”), “Malyavika and Agnimitra”, “Vikramourvashi” (“The courage of Urvashi”), the poems”Meghaduta” (“The Messenger Cloud”), “Kumarasambhava” (“The Birth of Kumara”), “Raghuvamsha”(“The Birth of Raghu”). The lifetime of this great master is not exactly established, but most scientists attribute it to the IV-V centuries AD. – the era of the power of the Gupta Empire.


The Gupta era was a time of development of ancient Indian theater, and this was reflected in the appearance of special treatises on drama. One of them, the Natyashastra, describes in detail the tasks of the theater, the various types of performances, the actors ‘ acting, the stage technique, etc. The level of ancient Indian drama was so high that many Indologists of the XIX-early XX century. It was believed that the theatrical art flourished in India under the direct influence of the Greek theater, however, although there were connections between India and the ancient world, the theater arose in it independently and, moreover, the Indian theatrical tradition is older than the Greek one.

Sitting Buddha. 2-3 centuries

Sitting Buddha. 2-3 centuries

The Panchatantra, a collection of short stories and parables largely based on folklore material, has become very popular among Sanskrit works. Panchatantra has been translated into many Asian languages, including Pahlavi, Syriac, and Arabic. Its Mongolian, Tibetan, Lao, and Malay translations and editions have been preserved. In the Middle East, it was known as”Kalila and Dimna”. Her Syriac translation of “Stephanite and Ikhnilat” formed the basis of the Old Russian translations. In total, more than 200 translations of the Panchatantra are known.

Along with the Sanskrit writings associated with the Brahmin-Hindu tradition, there was a rich literature in Ancient India that belonged to a different — Buddhist (Sanskrit and Pali) — tradition. The most striking talent here is the poet and playwright Ashvaghosha (I-II centuries AD), who wrote in Sanskrit. His poem “Buddhacharita” (“The Life of the Buddha”) testifies to the emergence of a new genre in India — an artificial epic, where the influence of folk poetry is very strongly felt. His other drama, Sariputraprakarana (Prakarana on the Conversion of Shariputra), had a notable influence on the subsequent development of Indian drama.


The theory of literary creativity, including poetry, reached a high level in Ancient India. The rules of versification were elaborated in detail, special texts on metrics and treatises on poetics were compiled. One of the earliest works on poetics, “Kavya-alankara “(“Poetic ornaments”), belongs to the pen of Bhamaha (IV-V centuries AD). Gradually, several schools of” poetic science ” are formed, leading to disputes about the essence of poetry, about artistic techniques, genres, and poetic language.

The figure of a seated Buddha. Sarnath. Gupta period. 4-5 centuries

The figure of a seated Buddha. Sarnath. The Gupta period. IV-V centuries AD.

Among the early literary monuments in Tamil, the first to be mentioned is the “Kural”, the authorship of which the local Tamil tradition associates with Thiruvalluvar. This collection of sayings reflects the long history of independent development of the literary tradition of the Dravidian population of India and incorporates many folklore elements. “Kural “is still extremely popular in India.

Architectural monuments

The first monuments of architecture and fine art of Ancient India belong to the era of the Harappan civilization, but the most striking examples were created in the Kushan-Gupta era. Monuments of both religious and secular character were distinguished by their high artistic merits.

In the ancient era, most of the buildings were built of wood, and therefore these architectural monuments have not survived to this day. According to Megasphenes ‘ notes, the huge palace of the Mauryan king Chandragupta was built of wood, and excavations conducted by Indian archaeologists in the capital of his empire, Pataliputra, revealed only the remains of stone columns. In the first centuries of our era, stone began to be widely used in construction. The religious architecture of this time is represented by cave complexes, temples (Hindu, Buddhist and Jain) and stupas— stone structures in which, according to tradition, the relics of the Buddha were kept.

Of the cave complexes, the most impressive are those at Karla (near Bombay) and Ellora (near Aurangabad). The huge cave temple in Karl is almost 14 m high, 14 m wide and about 38 m long. In the central hall there are monolithic columns, a large number of sculptures and a stupa for worship. In the Gupta era, the construction of the cave complex at Ellora began, which lasted for several centuries.

The ground — level Hindu temple in Sanchi, one of the best examples of the architectural art of Ancient India, dates back to the V century AD. The Buddhist stupa in Sanchi, surrounded by a gate and fence, is also widely known. The carved decorations of the gate speak of the refined skill of their authors, they are connected with the Buddhist stories about the life of the Buddha.

Princesses in the garden. Ajanta 5th-6th centuries

Princesses in the garden. Ajanta 5th-6th centuries


In ancient India, there were several schools of sculpture, of which the largest were

  • Gandhar (North-West India),
  • Mathura (in the Ganges Valley), Amaravati
  • School (in Andhra).

Most of the sculptures that have come down to us are of a cult nature, but along with the religious one, there was also a secular sculptural tradition. In ancient India, special sculpture guides were created, which contained rules for creating statues, primarily for temples and other places of worship. The techniques of iconography were also developed, which differed in different religious traditions — there were Buddhist, Jain and Hindu iconography.


In the Gandhara school, there is a noticeable combination of different traditions: local Buddhist, Greco-Roman and Central Asian. Many Gandhara sculptures are so different from the Indian models that scholars have put forward a theory about the Roman or Hellenistic origin of this school. However, the local Indian art still remained the determining factor. Gandhara gives us samples of very early images of the Buddha, which was obviously related to the Mahayana doctrine, where the idea of the Buddha as a god was formed. Previously, the Buddha in the image of man and god was not depicted, but was designated by various symbols: the Bodhi tree (according to tradition, Prince Siddhartha achieved “enlightenment” under this tree), the wheel (an allusion to the Buddhist teaching about the cycle of life). The Mahayana doctrine also influenced the appearance of bodhisattva statues.


In the Mathura school, the heyday of which coincides with the Kushan era, the secular stream is particularly important, along with sculptural compositions of a purely religious nature — a whole gallery of secular characters is represented by statues of Kushan rulers and patrons. Very early on, images of the Buddha appear in Mathura sculpture. The Mathura school was influenced by earlier Mauryan art, and some sculptural examples show the influence of even Harappan traditions (figures of the mother goddess in terracotta, local deities, etc.).

Amaravati School

In comparison with Gandhara and Mathura, the Amaravati school embodied, along with the Buddhist tradition, some elements of the traditions of the south of the country; these artistic canons were preserved in later South Indian sculptures. Amaravati sculpture has had an impact on the art of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.


A scene of ritual intoxication in the garden. Mathura. The Kushan era. 2nd century AD

Scene of ritual intoxication in the garden. Mathura. The Kushan era. II century AD.

The most famous monument of ancient Indian painting is the wall paintings in the Ajanta caves, the so-called Ajanta frescoes, although they were not frescoes in the proper sense of the word, since the paintings were applied to dry plaster. In this Buddhist complex of 29 caves, paintings cover the walls and ceilings of the interior. Various subjects convey scenes from the life of the Buddha, various mythological themes, and illustrate Buddhist legends-avadanas. There are scenes from everyday life, and palace themes (royal hunting, receptions of ambassadors, etc.).

The beautiful preservation of the painting is striking, despite the centuries-old age of the paintings, the humid climate and the localization-open caves. The ancient Indians perfectly mastered the art of strengthening the soil, knew the secrets of persistent colors. The soil used for the paintings was made of two layers, beeswax, molasses, and stone were used for the binding, and after the outer soil dried, the wall was polished and watered with lime milk. When starting to draw a drawing, the masters first made a contour that was painted. Color was given special attention, it was believed that it is the color that most affects the viewer. The choice of color strictly depended on what figures were to be depicted. Gods and kings were always painted in white; this color could not represent the characters who represented evil.

Ajanta traditions have influenced the painting of other parts of India and the art of Sri Lanka (the famous Sigiriya murals). Even in ancient times, the paintings of Ajanta made a great impression on everyone who saw them. For example, the Chinese pilgrim of the seventh century AD, Xuan Tsang, spoke about them with admiration.

Scientific knowledge

The achievements of the ancient Indians in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and linguistics were impressive. Their scientific achievements had a considerable impact on the culture of other peoples, but they especially influenced the development of Arab and Iranian-Persian science; the discoveries made by the Indians anticipated much of what European science of Modern times later came to.


The name of Aryabhata (V — beginning of VI century AD) occupies an honorable place in the history of world mathematics and astronomy. The Indian scientist was aware of the value of the number pi, he proposed an original solution to the linear equation, which is close to modern methods of mathematics.

An outstanding achievement of ancient Indian science was the creation of a decimal number system (using zero); this innovation was formed not only as a result of the development of the mathematical tradition itself, but also under the influence of the worldview concept of “emptiness”, introduced into philosophical thought by the famous Buddhist thinker Nagarjuna. The decimal system was borrowed by Arab scholars (“Arabic numerals”), then it was adopted by other peoples. Now it is used all over the world.

The ancient Indian number system defined the modern numbering system and formed the basis of modern arithmetic. Thanks to the development of the theory of abstract numbers and the development of a digital system, algebra has reached a high level of development. It is in this field that, unlike ancient science, where the main focus was on geometry, the ancient Indians achieved exceptional success. The algebraic works of ancient Indian mathematicians in the Middle Ages were widely used by Arab scientists, whose treatises began to be familiar in Western Europe from the XI-XII centuries. Thus, in 1145. Al-Khwarizmi’s algebraic treatise, largely derived from the writings of Indian mathematicians, was translated from Arabic into Latin.

Some mathematical terms, which are also used by modern scientists, are of Indian origin, for example, “digit”, “sine”, “root”. The art of mathematicians in ancient India was highly valued. The famous mathematician Brahmagupta, who lived in the late VI — early VII centuries AD, wrote: “Just as the Sun outshines the stars with its brilliance, so a scientist can outshine the glory of others by proposing, and even more so by solving mathematical problems.”


Ancient Indian treatises on astronomy attest to a high level of astronomical knowledge, which was constantly being improved. Independently of ancient science, Aryabhata made a guess about the rotation of the Earth around its axis. This truly revolutionary idea was so sharply at odds with traditional views and religious concepts about the structure of the universe that Aryabhata’s work was angrily condemned by priests and scientists who stood on orthodox positions.

The introduction of the decimal system contributed to accurate astronomical calculations, although there were no telescopes or observatories in Ancient India. The seventh-century Syrian astronomer Severus Sebokht wrote that the astronomical discoveries of the Indians were “more ingenious” than those of the Babylonians and Greeks, and according to the ninth-century Arab scholar al-Jahiz, “the science of astronomy comes from them (the Indians), and other people borrowed it.”


Until now, in India, Ayurveda (the science of longevity), which originated here in ancient times, enjoys great honor. Ancient Indian doctors studied the properties of herbs, the influence of climate on human health, and paid considerable attention to personal hygiene and diet. Surgery was at a high level: in the ancient Indian medical treatises of the first centuries of our era, 300 different operations and 120 surgical instruments are mentioned. Popular today in the West, Tibetan medicine is based on the traditions of ancient Indian Ayurveda.

Despite the independent origin, there are similarities between ancient Indian medicine and the physiological theories of antiquity (Hippocrates, Galen, etc.). Ancient Indian doctors believed that the human body is based on three main “vital juices” (or ” primary elements»): wind, bile and phlegm-they were identified with the principles of movement, fire and softening (similar concepts of” vital juices ” existed in ancient medicine). Indian medical thought, like the ancient one, paid special attention to anthropogeography, i.e. the influence of natural conditions on the human body. Certain parallels can be traced in the Indian and ancient teachings on heredity and on medical ethics.


In ancient India, the science of language reached a high level of development, which was due to the exceptional role in the Indian culture of the oral tradition and the very early concept of the divine nature of speech. Speech was considered to be the basis of all sciences and arts. In the Panini grammar “Ashtadhyay” (“The Eight Books”), the analysis of the language material is carried out so deeply and thoroughly that modern scholars find similarities between the linguistic theories of the ancient Indians and modern European linguistics.

Ancient India’s links to other civilizations

Scenes from the life of the Buddha. The Satavahana era. 2nd century BC

Scenes from the life of the Buddha. The Satavahana era. II century BC.

Since ancient times, India has been closely connected with other countries of the East and the ancient world. This contributed to the exchange of cultural achievements, better acquaintance with each other. During the Harappan civilization, trade and cultural contacts were established with Mesopotamia, Iran, and Central Asia; during the Mauryan era, ties with the ancient world, Egypt, Southeast Asia, and the Far East were strengthened. Especially close were the ties with neighboring Iran: Achaemenid influence was reflected in Indian architecture, writing, and Ancient Iran borrowed a lot from Indian science.

Indian embassies, according to the reports of ancient authors, reached Rome under the emperors Augustus, Trajan, Hadrian, and Aurelian. In the first centuries of our era, ancient and early Christian philosophers and writers knew about Indian philosophers and their teachings. The Indians were interested in ancient astronomy and astrology. This is clearly evidenced by the translation from Greek into Sanskrit of the astrological treatise known in India as ” Yavanajataka “(“Greek composition”).

Influence of the culture of Ancient India in subsequent epochs

Ancient Indian culture had a great impact on the culture of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, the writing systems of these regions were formed on the basis of the Indian Brahmi system, and many Indian words were included in the local languages. Buddhism and Buddhist literature were very influential in Sri Lanka and China, and Hinduism and Sanskrit literature were very influential in Southeast Asia.

When Europe and America became acquainted with ancient Indian literature, Indian culture attracted the attention of many outstanding writers and poets. I. Herder, I. Goethe, G. Heine, G. Hesse, S. Zweig, L. Tolstoy, R. Rolland, R. Kipling, and others addressed Indian subjects and motives. Herder, Goethe, and F. Schiller admired Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, considering it one of the best works of world literature. Goethe created several ballads based on Indian legends (especially “God and Bayadera”, written in 1794).

Ancient Indian philosophy has influenced the work of such famous American writers as W. H. Smith. Emerson, G. Thoreau, and W. Whitman. Researchers have rightly noted the impact of the ideas of the Gita on the poem “Leaves of Grass”by W. Whitman.

Special mention should be made of Russia’s familiarity with ancient Indian literature and philosophy. Already in 1778, a translation of the Bhagavad Gita appeared in Russian; in 1792, the famous historian N. M. Karamzin translated several scenes from the Shakuntala, he compared Kalidasa with Homer. In 1844, the poet V. A. Zhukovsky translated the chapters from the epic “Nal and Damayanti”. This translation was approved by V. G. Belinsky. To the creativity of Kalidasa turned their eyes to F. Tyutchev and A. Fet. L. N. Tolstoy was interested in many aspects of ancient Indian civilization, especially Buddhism. At the beginning of the XX century, the “Indian theme” attracted the attention of And. Bunin, V. Bryusov, K. Balmont, and A. Blok. M. Gorky was well acquainted with the literature and philosophy of Ancient India.

In modern India, the legacy of bygone eras is evident in all spheres of life and culture. This country is characterized by the exceptional vitality of ancient traditions, and it is not surprising that many of the achievements of ancient Indian civilization have become an integral part of the general cultural fund of the Indians. They have become an integral component of world civilization.

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