The book presents a lucid survey of major developments in the ancient and early medieval periods of Indian history. It discusses issues like the antiquity and authorship of the Harappan civilization, the original home of the Aryans and the salient features of their life, the emergence of caste system and the process of state formation culminating in the establishment of the Maurya empire. Challenging the stereotype of an 'unchanging' India and the myth of the 'golden age', the book not only underlines the changes in its social structure over centuries but also devotes much space to India's contact with the outside world leading to the enrichment of its culture. Moreover, it pays adequate attention to the transformation of India from pre-feudal to feudal society and to the discussion of the contours of feudal culture.
Throughout the book, emphasis has been laid on elements of change and continuity and the early historical developments have been examined from the vantage point of the present, resulting inevitably in a criticism of those who try to locate a cloud cuckoo land in the past and vindicating a critical understanding of popular misconceptions. Written in the author's characteristically telling style, Early India: A Concise History is an indispensable reading for those interested in acquiring familiarity with different facets of early Indian history and culture.
Dwijendra Narayan Jha was professor of History at the University of Delhi.
Professor Jha’s Published works include revenue systems in post-Mauray and Gupta Times (Calcutta, 1967), Ancient India: An History (Delhi, 1980), Economy and society in early India: Issues and Paradigms (Delhi, 1993), Ancient India in Historical outline (Delhi, 1998) and Holt Cow; Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions (Delhi, 2001), the last one reprinted as the myths of the How Cow (London-New York, 2002). Apart form publishing a number of articles in various journal he has also edited several works including feudal social formation in early India (Delhi, 1987), Society and ideology in India: Essays in Honor of R.S. Sharma (Delhi, 1996) and the Fedual order: State, Society and Ideology in early medieval India (Delhi, 200).
The present book is a restructured and revised version of my Ancient Indian in Historical Outline which was published in 1998 and has been reprinted eight times ever since and which provides a narrative of historical development in India up to the end of the ancient period with the beginnings of feudal society during the time of the Gupta king whose rule came to a close around the middle of the sixth century. My readers consisting of undergraduate students and non-specialists having some interest in Indian’s past, have persistently suggested that instead of ending the narrative around middle of the first millennium I should extend it further so as to cover half when the social, economic and cultural contours of classical Indian feudalism seem to have taken a definite shape-And that is what present work precisely seeks to do. It presents an account of major historical developments from the earliest times till about the end of the twelfth century and thus presents an account and the early medieval periods of Indian history. In my survey of the pre-feudal developments I have drawn heavily on my Ancient India (1998) but there is much that is new in the pages that follow. The first four chapters of this book are a freshly written version of the earlier publication and the last chapter is altogether a new section of the book. The chapter-wise bibliography has taken note of as many recent publications as possible and is intended to familiarize the reader with the latest writings in the field of early Indian history.
In writing this book I have received much help from Professors R.S. Sharma Irfan Habib and Michael and Michael Witzel who have made valuable suggestions on several points. Professors Shingo Einoo and K. M. Shrimali were as usual extremely generous in helping me out whenever I needed any material which was difficult to get in the libraries of Delhi. I have also benefited from interaction with my colleagues Professor B.P. Sahu, Dr Nayanjot Lahiri, Dr R. C. Thakran and Dr. Vishwa Mohan Jha. Shankar Kumar, Mihir Kumar Jha and Narottam Vineet have extended bibliographical assistance and have helped me in the preparation of the index. I am grateful to all of them. But I always fumble for words to express my indebtedness to my wife Rajrani who has been a constant source of inspirations to me.
I cherish the fond memories of Bhuvan Sinha who was a great help in all my academic pursuits and whom death took away from us while this book was in the making.
The manuscript of the present book was finalized the end of 2001 but it could not be sent to the press before the middle of the last year. Mr. B.N. Varma and Mr. Ramesh Jain have, however, made up for this delay by expeditiously seeing it though the press for which I thank them.
For long centuries India was known to the rest of the world only through stray references to it in classical Greek and Roman literature. In the eighteenth century, however, we come across a few Jesuit fathers in the peninsular region making a systematic effort to understand the life of the Indian people. Father Hanxleden, active in the Malabar area from the end of the seventeenth century to the fourth decade of the eighteenth, wrote the first Sanskrit grammar in a European language, which remained unpublished. Father Couerdoux, in 176 'Z, was the first to recognize the affinity between Sanskrit and European languages. The foundation of Indology, however, was laid not by Jesuit missionaries but by officers of the English East India Company. A trading organization at the time of its inception in 1600, it gradually acquired territories which were later to become the building blocks of the British empire. The transformation of a trading partner into a ruling power, though an area of absorbing study, is not our concern here. But it is necessary to bear in mind that historical writing-in the modern sense-on early India began as a sequel to the establishment of the English East India Company. The growing administrative responsibilities of the Company, especially after 1765 when the Mughals granted it the right to collect revenues and administer civil justice in Bengal, made I necessary for its officers to gain familiarity with the laws, habits, customs, and history of the Indian people. Many administrators, therefore, evinced a keen interest in Indian literature and culture. In 1776 N.B. Halhed translated into English the most authoritative among all the early Indian legal texts, the law book of Manu, which appeared in German two years later. In 1785 Charles Wilkins rendered into English the Bhagavadgita, the most popular religious text of the upper caste Hindus, to be followed in 1787 by his translation of the Hitopadesha, a popular collection of fables composed by Narayana in the twelfth century in Bengal. H.T. Colebrook, who had around this time become associated with the collection of revenue in Tirhut (north Bihar) and was able to master Sanskrit, wrote extensively on the Indian concept of time, religious rites and customs, and various other aspects of Indian culture on the basis of intensive study of the original texts.
The most important of the Company's officers who gave a real boost to Indian studies was Sir William Jones. He came to Calcutta asa judge of the Supreme Court of Bengal in 1783 and founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal in the following year. The Society and its journal, Asiatic Researches, provided a much needed forum for Oriental studies and can be regarded as a landmark in the revelation of the traditional thought and culture of India. Jones was a polyglot with knowledge of Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Sanskrit and a smattering of Chinese. He translated the Shakuntalam of Kalidasa (which drew unqualified admiration from Herder and Goethe and reached an extremely wide European readership), the Citagovinda, and legal texts like the Al Sirajiyyah, and the Manavadhamashastra. Intensive research on the Muslim and Hindu laws of inheritance undertaken by Jones and his British contemporaries may be seen as an attempt to break the Indian monopoly of legal knowledge and to assert British judicial power. The efforts of Sir William Jones were followed by the establishment of the Bombay Asiatic Society in 1804 and of the Asiatic Society of Great Britain in 1823. All this gave a stimulus to the study of ancient Indian history and culture, and Indological studies no longer remained the preoccupation of Company officers in India. Interest in Indian culture was aroused at a number of European universities where several scholars worked on Sanskrit and related subjects. The best known of the early Orientalists and Indologists was Max Mueller, who never visited India and spent most of his time in England. The affinity between Sanskrit and certain European languages, once discovered, was stressed. This may partially explain the growing interest in Indology outside England. It also gave rise to the idea of a common Indo-European homeland and heritage. The Aryans in India came to be regarded as the brethren of the Europeans. Some upper class Indians like Keshub Chandra Sen took this literally and identified themselves with the British people. A distinction was drawn between Aryans and non-Aryans, and a variety of virtues were attributed to the former. This in turn gave rise to the Aryan/Dravidian dichotomy amply reflected in the historical writings on early India.
Several early Orientalists like Max Mueller spoke glowingly about the unchanging Indian village communities. They thought of India as a country of philosophers given to metaphysical speculation with little concern for their mundane existence. Indian society was depicted as idyllic, and as being devoid of any tension or social discord. Possibly ill at ease with the changes caused by rapid industrialization in the West, they found a utopia in India and sought their own identity in it. Max Mueller thus took the Sanskrit name Moksha Mula. Some of his ideas were misconstrued by the British to emphasize-s-sometimes quite crudely-that Indians were not fit to govern themselves, given as they were primarily to metaphysical thought. By and large his perception of India, recently described as part of some kind of 'Indornania', was not acceptable in nineteenth-century England where Christian missionaries led by Charles Grant and the Utilitarians, especially James Mill, dominated the intellectual scene. Grant and Mill did not share the early Orientalist view of India, and their writings give ample evidence of their hostility to Indian culture. They are therefore said to have created an 'Indophobia'.
The Christian missionaries had little sympathy for Hinduism, which, in their view, was 'at best the work of human folly and at worst the outcome of a diabolic inspiration'. The people of India, according to Charles Grant, lived in a 'degenerate' condition because of Hinduism, the source of dishonesty, perjury, selfishness, social divisions, debasement of women, and sexual vice. Though not a missionary himself, Grant was an important personage in missionary circles, and exercised a strong and lasting influence on nineteenth-century British thought on India. His Anglicist bias made him plead strongly for the conversion of Indians to Christianity. It seems to have received memorable expression in the famous Minute on Indian Education (1835) authored by Thomas Babington Macaulay who had a high profile Evangelical family background.
The Utilitarians seem to have had much in common with the hostile missionary attitude to India as is clear from James Mill's three- volume History of British India, first published in 1817. It became popular enough to go into its fifth edition by 1858, though H.H. Wilson, the first Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, was contemptuous of Mill's perception of Indian culture and went to the extent of saying that 'its tendency was evil'. Mill divided Indian history into three periods, the Hindu, Muslim and British and thus laid the foundations of communal historiography promoted by both the British and the modern Indian revivalist scholarship. Unduly critical of the people and their culture, Mill postulated that contemporary as well as ancient India was barbarous and antirational. Indian civilization, according to him, showed no concern for political values and India had been ruled by a series of despots. Stagnant since its inception, Indian society was inimical to progress. All this was based on a grossly distorted version of the early Orientalist writings on India. In his book Mill was obviously making a case for changing Indian society through British legislation. This he was doing without ever having visited the country or knowing any of its languages-a fact he tried hard to justify by making the facile claim to writing a 'judging history'. Mill's History was one of the prescribed texts at institutions like the Haileybury College where English officers received their training before coming to India. Hence, the historical writings on India by British administrators betray Mill's influence in considerable measure.
The best known of the British administrator-historians on ancient India was Vincent A. Smith. He came to India in 1869 as a member of the Indian Civil Service and remained in service until 1900. He wrote all his nine books on Indian history after retirement. Of these his Early History of India, published in 1904, was based on a deep study of the primary sources available at that time. It was the first systematic study of early Indian history and remained perhaps the most influential textbook for nearly fifty years and is sometimes used by scholars and students even today. Less hostile to India than Mill, Smith nevertheless believed that the country had a long tradition of oppressive despots-a tradition which ended only with the advent of the British. The implication was that Indians were not fit to rule themselves. In keeping with the main trends of contemporary British historiography, Smith gave much attention to great men in history; and Alexander, Ashoka, Chandragupta II, and Akbar became his heroes. Smith exaggerated the ruthlessness of ancient Indian kings. The theory of governance in the Artliashastra was to him like that of imperial Germany with which Britain was later at war. He described Kautilya's penal code as 'ferociously severe', conveniently ignoring the fact that other ancient law codes were no less so. The corpus of literature generated by the British scholars on early India was not univocal and it is possible to identity differences in the perceptions of individual authors. Nevertheless, it remains true that the British wrote on early Indian history with a view to providing historical justification for the Raj and its exploitation of Indian resources. This quite often led to gross distortion of historical evidence. Such portrayals are viewed as part of the Orientalist discourse in which Orientalism is interpreted 'as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and for having authority over the Orient'. All this, however, does not negate the heuristic value and importance of the Orientalist writings in extending our understanding of the imperial power and its resistance.
British views of early Indian history came to be strongly challenged by Indian scholars influenced by Indian reformist leaders, and also by growing nationalism and political awakening. Ramakrishna Paramahansa asserted that Hinduism embraced all religions in its fold. His disciple Vivekananda, and later Annie Besant, sought to prove the superiority of the Hindu religion. Bankim Chandra preached that a revival of Hinduism was essential for the growth of India as a nation. Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj, gave the call 'Back to the Vedas'. Under the impact of such teachings, Indian scholars strongly defended Hinduism and it was often held that the Vedas represent its purest form-thus completely ignoring the fact that Hinduism was at best an umbrella term for the various strands of Indian religious thought, beliefs, and practices prevalent in the Indian subcontinent. The Vedas were regarded as the repository of all knowledge and rational thought, and even as anticipating some modern scientific discoveries. Inevitably the myth of the Aryan race stirred the imagination of nationalist leaders as well as historians. Already the early Orientalists had established that Sanskrit and certain European languages had connected histories. Indian scholars now regarded the Indo-Aryans as the originators of human civilization with India as its cradle. Inevitably they attempted to push back the antiquity of Indian culture. B.G. Tilak assigned the Vedic texts to the third millennium while A.C. Das placed some of the Rigvedic hymns in the geological ages. Though the discovery of the Harappan civilization in 1923-4 proved the falsity of their assertions, the fantastic antiquity given to ancient Indian culture in general, and to the Vedas in particular, remains a hobby-horse of some scholars even today. This does not apply to Rajendra Lal Mitra (1822-91), Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarkar (1837-1925), and Vishwanath Kashinath Rajwade (1869- 1926), who generally adopted a rational attitude to the study of the past. Mitra published a tract to show irrefutably that in ancient times beef-eating was not a taboo. Bhandarkar, being a social reformer, supported widow remarriage and castigated the evils of the caste system and child marriage on the basis of his study of the ancient Indian texts, and made significant contributions to the reconstruction of the political and religious history of early India. V.K. Rajwade's insightful study in Marathi of the evolution of the institution of marriage is a classic. He is also remembered for collecting a large number of Sanskrit manuscripts and sources of Maratha history, later published in twenty-two volumes.
Initially inspired by the ideas of social reform, Indian historical scholarship gradually became overtly anti-imperialist. With the radicalization of Indian politics after the partition of Bengal in 1905 and the simultaneous growth of militant nationalism, Indian historical writings were conditioned and influenced by contemporary political developments which sharpened the edge of the freedom struggle. Partly in reaction to the imperialist view of India's past and partly as a step towards the building up of national self-respect, Indian historians made zealous efforts to refurbish the image of India's past. Hindu culture was looked upon as the precursor of other Asian cultures; this buttressed the theory of pan-Hinduism. The ancient period of Indian history, equated with the Hindu period in James Mill's scheme of per iodization, was regarded as one. of prosperity and general contentment. Social inequalities were glossed over and Indian society was portrayed as a model of social harmony and peace. The age of the Guptas came in for special praise. It was considered the golden age of Indian history-an idea that continues to find importance in most textbooks.
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