Monday, 2 July 2012

A First Post: Indian History

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.


  1. In the history of India, you can never overlook the distinction between _evidence_ and _extant evidence_.

    It would be absurd if Sri Lanka had a robust tradition of written history, but all of mainland India had none: what most people don't want to state bluntly is that mainland India underwent the trauma of being conquered by Islam, and Sri Lanka didn't (though Sri Lanka underwent many traumatic conquests nevertheless). It's politically inconvenient to say so, but this is probably why so much of ancient India's written record is no longer extant: we know (e.g.) that there were voluminous commentaries to the Vedas that have completely disappeared. It is convenient to just say, "disappeared", and not to discuss the history of burning books in India. However, Muslim armies did burn Hindu books, and, indeed, Hindus did burn Buddhist books too, and so on.

    Nobody wants to deal with the historical transformation of India under Muslim conquest and government: it's politically explosive to even discuss it openly, and many of the seemingly-sophisticated re-evaluations of India's histories are fall apart on this point. By contrast, the history of China does not minimize the significance of being conquered by the Mongols --although this was (in fact) a much less dramatic change in the history of China than the Muslim conquest of India.

    In your recent debate with Kerim, I thought it was really laughable that so much importance was being assigned to the transformation of India under the British Empire, but the influence of Islam was apparently being dismissed from consideration completely (in the transformation of the caste system, and the reorganization of social hierarchy generally, in that discussion).

    There are also (very simple) stone inscriptions in Sri Lanka that pre-date the Emperor Ashoka, but only by a few years. You can see a photograph of what one of them looks like here:

    Similarly, I have no reason to suppose that such things didn't formerly exist throughout India: Sri Lanka is only "an exception to the rule" because more of its written record remained extant (both on stone and "on paper", i.e., palm-leaf).

    In related news, of course, Sri Lanka has a continuous tradition of Theravada Buddhism, whereas Nalanda (in India) has none --but we do have lurid descriptions of monks being slaughtered, and their books burned, from the years of the Islamic conquest.


  2. I didn't discuss Islam because it seemed outside the purview of the argument rather than for any political reasons, but yes, of course, it seems like a probable cause for our ignorance. Other people have suggested that caste is involved, though, and it also seems reasonable to believe that a society that preserved texts orally for upwards of a thousand years and consisted, at least in part, of hereditary castes attempting to concentrate some sort of power in their own hands, would have avoided writing things down for just anyone to read. Of course, the truth will probably never be known, and it is possible that Islam is responsible for this.

    My point is more that Indian history is a bit of a mystery - that the edifice created by generations of Indian nationalists is not based on all that much evidence, and probably can't be. The cause is important, but less important than the fact that little can be known - perhaps even the cause of our ignorance itself.

    I was aware of texts from early Sri Lanka - potsherds, primarily, I thought? I read about those in Allchin, The Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia, assigned a date of approximately 450 BCE. It's gratifying to know that these sherds weren't alone. But they don't tell us much except that Brahmi was present in south Asia before Ashoka, which logical deduction had already settled (or so I thought). Regardless, the edicts are the first useful texts known from India, in the sense that their date is assured, their content tells us a reasonable amount, and they are widely spaced and give what seem to be a sensible outline of Mauryan influence. That is when the historic period in south Asia really begins.

    How were the dates for the Sri Lankan inscriptions arrived at, by the way? The sherds were dated on the basis of C14 dates from the same strata, if I remember correctly (and given the difficulties of calibrating dates from the first millennium BCE, and the fact that Allchin et al were writing in the 1990s, this might render them inaccurate).

    Also, I doubt Brahmi inscriptions were ever that common. Why haven't archaeologists found many inscribed potsherds from sites in dated strata on the mainland, or lots of cave inscriptions, or caches of ancient texts? It seems unlikely that Muslim invaders would have been capable of removing traces of these things.

    Either way, I expect Islam had an impact, and I certainly wouldn't want to deny it outright.

  3. History = "Purana"

    Many 'puranas' exist, in fact a vast literature, most predating the Muslim conquest. Hindus regard these books as 'history'. Ther is no vacuum, no major 'missing category' in the literature. No obvious lacuna of 'burned books'. Eg the famous Bhagavat Purana.

    Now if you study this literature (as I have) the question becomes, 'Why did ancient Indians have such a different attitude to history from the Greeks?' But then ancient Indians are not so different from ancient Celts or Germans, are they?

  4. "we know (e.g.) that there were voluminous commentaries to the Vedas that have completely disappeared."

    No we do not!

  5. Hindus may regard these books as history, but they aren't, and they don't tell us anything about the daily life, socio-economic situation, or chronology of ancient India. They are useless as historical documents. It's not about Indians taking a 'different attitude to history'; it's that they produced no chronicles and no histories that are of any real use to a historian or anthropologist interested in getting to grips with what life was really like in India a couple of thousand years ago. That's what I and others mean when we say that Indians produced few histories. They may have thought of things quite differently to the Greek historians (doubtless they did), but either way, you cannot use puranas to reconstruct the past lives of Indian people, and they are to this extent useless as sources for historians. It is also important to realise that, in absence of historical data/chronicles/archives, it is difficult to date any text accurately, which is why even well-established figures are impossible to date.

    There are plenty of works missing as a result of the Islamic conquests in India (among other factors). Why is it that there are loads of works preserved in Tibetan, Chinese, and other east Asian languages, that have not been recovered in India or South Asian languages? There are plenty of those, from monks' accounts to sutras to ritual prescriptions. They must have had Sanskrit or Pali originals, but they haven't lasted in South Asia. There are definitely some works that have gone missing, and to deny this seems absurd.

    And, of course, there are plenty of lacunae. Why do we only have a couple of copies of the Arthasastra, and why were they only recovered in the twentieth century? Why did this apparently important text disappear for such a long time? And why is it that there are so many scripts that are only encountered in inscriptions? Where are the texts themselves for which these scripts were used? Did they all decay? Were none preserved? Why are there so few recensions of many major texts?

    Indian historiography is lacking for many reasons. I suspect the Islamic conquest is one of those reasons. But it also appears that historical writing wasn't an important genre to ancient Indians.


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