The Aryan influence, some scholars claim, gave rise to what is known as the Vedic Period in India (c. 1700- 150 BCE) characterized by a pastoral lifestyle and adherence to the religious texts
known as The Vedas. Society became divided into four classes (the Varnas) popularly known as `the caste system’ which were comprised of the Brahmana at the top (priests and scholars), the Kshatriya next (the warriors), the Vaishya (farmers and merchants), and the Shudra (labourers). The lowest caste was the Dalits, the untouchables, who handled meat and waste, though there is some debate over whether this class existed in antiquity. At first, it seems this caste system was merely a reflection of one’s occupation but, in time, it became more rigidly interpreted to be determined by one’s birth and one was not allowed to change castes nor to marry into a caste other than one’s own. This understanding was a reflection of the belief in an eternal order to human life dictated by a supreme deity.
While the religious beliefs which characterized the Vedic Period are considered much older, it was during this time that they became systematized as the religion of Sanatan Dharma (which means `Eternal Order’) known today as Hinduism (this name deriving from the Indus (or Sindus) River where worshippers were known to gather, hence, `Sindus’, and then `Hindus’). The underlying tenet of Sanatan Dharma is that there is an order and a purpose to the universe and human life and, by accepting this order and living in accordance with it, one will experience life as it is meant to be properly lived. While Sanatan Dharma is considered by many a polytheistic religion consisting of many gods, it is actually monotheistic in that it holds there is one god, Brahma (the Self), who, because of his greatness, cannot be fully
apprehended save through the many aspects which are revealed as the different gods of the Hindu pantheon. It is Brahma who decrees the eternal order and maintains the universe through it. This belief in an order to the universe reflects the stability of the society in which it grew and flourished as, during the Vedic Period, governments became centralized and social customs integrated fully into daily life across the region. Besides The Vedas, the great religious and literary works of The Upanishads, The Puranas, The Mahabharata, and The Ramayana all come from this period.
In the 6th century BCE, the religious reformers Vardhaman Mahavira (549-477 BCE) and Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BCE) broke away from mainstream Sanatan Dharma to eventually create their own religions of Jainism and Buddhism. These changes in religion were a part of a wider pattern of social and cultural upheaval which resulted in the formation of city states and the rise of powerful kingdoms (such as the Kingdom of Magadha under the ruler Bimbisara). Increased urbanization and wealth attracted the attention of Cyrus, ruler of the Persian Empire, who invaded India in 530 BCE and initiated a campaign of conquest in the region. Ten years later, under the reign of his son, Darius I, northern India was firmly under Persian control (the regions corresponding to Afghanistan and Pakistan today) and the inhabitants of that area subject to Persian laws and customs. One consequence of this, possibly, was an assimilation of Persian and Indian religious beliefs which some scholars point to as an explanation for further religious and cultural reforms.