This is the inaugural post for my blog, West's Meditations. This is a blog about history, philosophy, and anthropology - and really anything else I find interesting. My main interests are in ethnology, especially with regard to Indonesia and the Pacific, and world history, although I have many more deep-seated interests besides these. The subject I have chosen to discuss is early Indian history, something about which I was, until fairly recently, ignorant. A number of things generated my interest in it, but the two most important factors were reading about early history in western Indonesia (including the Kutai inscriptions) and about the Indo-European expansion (specifically M. L. West's book, Indo-European Poetry and Myth, which naturally cites the Vedas at every turn). I was surprised by much of what I learned about India, and just how little is known about the early history of it compared to other parts of earth.
The first and most surprising thing about India is the problem of dating. I had assumed that India would have a historiographic tradition comparable to Mesopotamia, Greece, or China, or even pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, but this is not so until quite late on. Indian history classes in schools appear to teach the dates of Indian historical figures as unambiguous fact, and popular representations of ancient history in India such as the Amar Chitra Katha are unabashed about dating or period detail even when it comes to wholly invented or highly problematic topics. This shouldn't disguise the fact that early India is a confusing and largely mysterious place.
The dates of pre-literate (see below) figures like Gautama Buddha and Mahavira are, of course, tricky, and we shouldn't expect perfect and accurate chronologies for them, just as we can't really expect to have a perfect and accurate chronology of the authors of the Iliad. But the problem in India extends further than this. Key figures in Indian tradition, like Kautilya (a kind of proto-political scientist purported to have written a work known as the Arthashastra), have widely varying dates. The date given on that wikipedia page of 350-275 BCE is probably impossible - in fact, it's a totally invented set of dates, based on the baseless idea that Kautilya was advisor to Chandragupta Maurya. There's no contemporary textual evidence of his existence, and the text attributed to him was re-discovered only around 1915. In fact, nothing in the first paragraph of that wikipedia entry has the slightest bit of evidence in its favour; there's even dispute about whether Kautilya came from north or south India, let alone whether he taught political science to Chandragupta Maurya, who is attested in Greek texts as Sandrakottos (or similar), at Takshila (a site now in present-day Pakistan). Dating Kautilya accurately is not possible, and modern commentators use a rough chronology based on the style of language used in the Arthashastra to date his life. This method doesn't yield precise dates, especially when the other examples used for comparison are equally hazy chronologically. This kind of dating is a lot like archaeological seriation, but is even trickier and even less accurate. It seems that Kautilya will have to remain a mysterious figure for now.
Another chap in a similar chronological situation, this time from south India, is Thiruvalluvar, a Tamil sage. He is supposed to have composed a work known as the Thirukkural, a collection of about a thousand maxims. Most of them are good common sense, and some are evidently proverbial (there was a Penguin classics edition of the text, but that appears to have been discontinued). As that wiki entry says, he "is thought to have lived sometime between the 2nd century BC and the 8th century AD", which is, needless to say, quite a margin of error. Again, there is no textual evidence of his existence, and nothing can be said for certain except that there is an extant text attributed to a man of his name (the ascription dating to the tenth century CE). Beyond this, there is no reason to believe that he even existed.
These are two of the heavy hitters of Indian tradition, not minor players, and we know nothing substantial about them.
Part of the reason for this is the late development of writing in India. There was a reference to "6,000-year-old" Indian texts on the crappy History Channel show Ancient Aliens (which, of course, describe alien aircraft), and we hear all the time that India has an ancient and brilliant history, or that Hinduism is the world's oldest continuously practiced religion. But the first writing we can actually decipher from India was written in the Brahmi script, which appears in the epigraphic record from as late as 270 BCE. This was the time of Asoka, an emperor of the Mauryan empire (which rose after Alexander's invasion of India). It is clear that Brahmi had been around for a while before we see it written in stone, as it is very different in structure to the scripts that likely influenced it, and because it wasn't entirely uniform. But it still appears late in the history of the planet, a very peculiar thing. India had been in contact with Mesopotamia and Egypt for a couple of thousand years before this (as we can tell from Babylonian and Egyptian sources, including, I think, some of the Amarna letters), and Indians appear in friezes from Persepolis giving tribute to the Persian empire at the time of Darius. And yet, apart from the controversial Indus script, no true writing appeared in India until the late first millennium BCE, and certainly no sources we can read today.
Writing was slow to develop as knowledge had traditionally been preserved orally (a tremendous intellectual feat, but a culturally constraining one), and it isn't for hundreds of years that we find accurately dateable texts. To some extent, more is known about Indian influence elsewhere in Asia and the Indian Ocean (especially the Malay Peninsula and, surprisingly, eastern Borneo) in the first millennium CE than is known about India at this time. Famous playwrights like Kalidasa can be dated approximately within a few centuries, and Kalidasa is supposed to have lived in the early first millennium CE - long after Hammurabi, after Gaius Julius Caesar, and after the first dateable inscriptions from the Americas. Relatively obscure European or Chinese figures from the same time - even figures from the so-called "Dark Ages", and even from centuries and centuries earlier - are well-known and understood compared to the brightest of early Indian lights. That's an amazing thing. (Kalidasa is worth reading nonetheless, especially Meghadutam, one of the fantastic poems attributed to him.)
This post is not meant as India-bashing in any sense. India had writing before the Germanic peoples or the people of Britain, and the subcontinent has produced an array of wonderful, beautiful things - bashing India on the basis that it developed writing late on would be an odd move from someone whose contemporaneous ancestors were illiterate raiders. I wrote this instead because I find it fascinating that so little is known about the early history of India, and because I had always assumed that it had produced provenanced, dateable original sources just as Zhou China or even the Third Dynasty of Ur had. The fact that it didn't is a very strange and intriguing thing, and it makes early Indian works like the Rigveda - entirely orally composed - even more fascinating.
In any case, I hope you've enjoyed this post highlighting a couple of important points about the history of India. If you've got any comments - even angry, abusive hatemail - don't forget to plop them in the comments box below.