Monday, April 27, 2015

India: A History

I have recently started reading John Keay's India: A History From the Earliest Civilizations to the Boom of the Twenty First Century published by the Harper Press.

What I want to do in this write-up is to do a live review of this book as I go on reading it. This blog will continue to update as I read one chapter after another reviewing them in succession. I will present my own analysis and comments in the following paragraphs as well as reproducing choicest excerpts from the book, especially the ones which are more relevant for today's India and the kind of issues that are discussed in present time e.g., Nationalism under Modi government.

When I was reading the first chapter The Harappan World, one thing struck me hard is the fact, which anyone who has studied the Indian history deeply knows well, that this country, which is generally called India, was historically never a one country. The present political form of this country as one geographic territory is a phenomenon which is only as old as the so-called Indian independence from the Britishers. Even during British Raj, whole India i.e., its main independent principalities like the Nizam of Hyderabad or the Maratha Empire or the Rajputs of Rajashthan were never under one rule of Britishers. Even at their height of colonial rule, as Keay shows in his book, Britishers were only ruling around 95% of geographical territory. So, the whole idea that is being taught inside school classrooms in history classes that it was an Indian struggle against the British Raj is faulty and wrong. There was no one India at that time. Only independent principalities were struggling to hold off the Britishers from their own territory. This historical fact has a deep root in ancient history of India. India never was one country. I quote Keay in this regard:
Despite the pick-and-preach approach of many nationalist historians, geographical India is not now, and never has been, a single politico-cultural entity. In fact, its current three-way division between Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, far from denying some intrinsic unity, is a notable simplification of its traditional plurality. (p. 7)
This historical fact blows a big hole in the whole nationalist propaganda movement of Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist government. In this country nationalism, like Germany under Hitler, is almost impossible because of its cultural diversities. The present India was put in place artificially and forcefully by Sardar Patel after independence from the Britishers. And because this unity is forceful and artificial, I don't think it will remain in place for very long time in future. We already see many secessionist movements where different states are trying to secede from the Indian federal State e.g., Kashmir, Assam, Punjab in past, Bengal, Bihar/Jharkhand etc.

Chapter 2 Vedic Values (C1700-900 BC)
Once Harappan civilization collapsed, the stage is set for the entry of that mythic Aryan race in India. Looking at the similarities between Sanskrit, which was used by these Vedic age Aryan people, and other languages around the world like Latin and Greek, one can say that these languages sprang from some common source, and after analyzing the similarities between these languages - the work of Philology - one can say something about the origins of these Aryan people.
Using and developing this new discipline, scholars at first called the elusive 'common source' language (and family of languages which derived from it) 'Indo-Germanic' or 'Indo-European'. This changed to 'Indo-Aryan', or simply 'Aryan', after it was realized that the ancient Persians had indeed used their arya word in an ethnic sense; they called themselves the 'Ariana' (whence derives the modern 'Iran').  (p. 21)
Given the vast spread of Indo-Aryan languages, an Aryan homeland was soon being sought somewhere in the middle of the Eurasian landmass. Most scholars favored the steppes of southern Russia and the Ukraine, or the shores of the Caspian. (p. 21)
It looks like arya must have entered India some time between 1500 BC and 1300 BC.  (p. 27)
 Another important thing to understand about these Aryans is whether they invaded these lands or just migrated and in that migration spread their Aryan Vedic culture in the then present local population, whom they called Dasa, through assimilation? Looking at the archeological and other evidences Keay speculates:
Aryan ideas and influence were initially carried by work-seekers and traders, not warmongers. (p. 28)
... the process appears simply to have been one of gradual acculturation requiring neither mass migration nor enforced concurrence. A small admixture of fortune-seekers, traders or teachers who happened to be in posession of a superior technology and of a pursuasive ideology could and did, if prepared to compromise with existing custom, create a convincing and lasting veneer of Aryanization without apparently antagonizing anyone. (p. 29)  
Admittedly, indeed on their own admission, the arya cattle-rustlers of the Rig Veda did antagonize the dasa. But they also compromised with them, adopting dasa technology, dasa cults and dasa vocabulary, and inducting dasa clans and leaders into their society. Despite the importance attached to purity of Sanskrit, there is even a hint of dasa-arya bilingualism ... the arya may have secured recognition of their superiority by a process no more deliberate and menacing than social attraction and cultural osmosis; thus the Aryan invasion and conquest of India could be as much a 'myth' and a 'red herring' as the existence of an Aryan race. (p 29)  
With the Aryans now in India, next we will move to the Epic Age. Look for more in future.

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