Book Title: Indians: A Brief History of a Civlization
Author: Namit Arora
Indians are a people obsessed with history. This obsession has generally created two different impulses, of unfulfilled curiosity and politically motivated history. The book under review clearly caters to the first impulse. All those with great curiosity but little information about Indian history must turn to this book to whet their appetite. It is like taking a conducted tour to India’s long past, a journey in time. The tour takes two routes, by looking at the monuments and ruins of today which had a great past. The author visits these monuments and then takes the readers on a journey in time, stretching up to a few thousand years, to provide a view of what India looked like then.
The second route to India’s past is through the writings and observations of travellers who came to India from places as far off as Greece, Persia, Morocco, Italy, China and France and left rich records of their impressions. Sometimes a society understands itself better by focusing on how outsiders have looked at it. Both the routes converge at a point which illuminates the enchanting history of India, without invoking false pride about it.
The book maintains a constant dialogue of the past with the present. General History books often present the past as something distant and resting somewhere on the horizon. ‘Indians’ tries to cull out those facets of the past that are still with us. After establishing this connectivity in time, it attempts to unravel India’s past. This exercise has been made more interesting by telling the history of this ‘discovery’ also. Different facets of India’s history were unearthed at different points; the 5,000-year-old Indus Valley Civilisation was discovered as late as in the 1920s!
While describing the Indus Valley civilisation and comparing it with the Vedic Age, the author has made an extremely important point, which has generally gone unnoticed: The Vedic Age represented a high, doctrinal and scripturalist version of Hinduism, whereas the Indus Valley, predating the Vedic times by a few centuries, is a fine example of folk and ritualistic form of Hinduism. This ideational discovery should correct the misleading picture of eternal Hinduism, frozen in time and space, by highlighting the great diversity within the faith.
The parts dealing with Buddhism (chapters 4 and 5) and the records of Chinese travellers (Faxian, Xuanzang and Yigiand, between the 4th and the 7th centuries) are particularly fascinating. Buddhism, India’s gift to the world, may be considered as “Hinduism for export”. It went to China from India in the first century of the Christian era with traders and missionaries. In China, it grew very differently from India, based not so much on scriptures, but on derivative texts and local rituals. This is testified by the images of the laughing Buddha in China as against the image of a quiet, serene and meditative Buddha in India. It is possible that a search for the essentials of the original Buddhist doctrine may have brought so many Chinese travellers to India during the first millennium of the Christian era. They visited different Buddhist sites and institutions and left elaborate records on what they observed. As it happened, Buddhism in India began to decline since the 9th century and was virtually extinct by the 13th century. The records of the Chinese travellers played an important role in reviving interest in Buddhism in India around the 19th century when their writings were discovered and translated by European Indologists. Faxian, the pioneer Chinese traveller, had come to India with four other pilgrims. They arrived in India through the land route and spent the whole of six years by the time they reached Bihar. Readers can get some idea of what travelling was all about in pre-modern times.
The book admirably demonstrates that a pride in one’s past can be invoked quite effectively by making it intelligible and binging it alive, without having to needlessly glorify it.