Archive for the ‘History’ Category

A racy start!

April 13, 2016

Here are a few paragraphs at the beginning of a piece published in The New York Review of Books:

Universities and museums around the Chinese world were interested but reluctant to buy. The documents were written on hundreds of strips of bamboo, about the size of chopsticks, that seemed to date from 2,500 years ago, a time of intense intellectual ferment that gave rise to China’s greatest schools of thought. But their authenticity was in doubt, as were the ethics of buying looted goods. Then, in July, an anonymous graduate of Tsinghua University stepped in, bought the soggy stack, and shipped it back to his alma mater in Beijing.

University administrators acted boldly. They appointed China’s most famous historian, seventy-five-year-old Li Xueqin, to head a team of experts to study the strips. On July 17, the researchers gingerly placed the slips in enamel basins filled with water, hoping to duplicate the environment that had allowed the fibrous material to survive so long.

The next day, disaster struck. Horrified team members noticed that the thin strips had already started developing black spots—fungus that within a day could eat a hole through the bamboo. Administrators convened a crisis meeting, and ordered the school’s top chemistry professors to save the slips.

Over the following weeks, the scientists worked nonstop through the eerily empty campus—the students were on vacation, and everyone else was focused on the Olympic Green just a few miles east. With the nation on high alert for the games, security officers blocked the scientists from bringing stabilizing chemicals into the locked-down capital. But the university again put its weight behind the project, convincing leaders that the strips were a national priority. By the end of the summer, Professor Li and his team had won their prize: a trove of documents that is helping to reshape our understanding of China’s contentious past.

The piece is interesting throughout!

History of a party

December 19, 2015

Ram Guha on 125 years of Congress party.

Three ways to be alien of Sanjay Subrahmanyam

December 15, 2012

This is the first time I have read Subrahmanyam though I have heard about him sometime back. I enjoyed the book — though the reading is a bit slow due to the foot notes, quotes and unfamiliar ideas. Recommended. And, I have already ordered his Mughal history book and connected history volumes.

When Krittika was heaven …

March 11, 2012

Can the references in the ancient Indian texts say anything about the Aryan Invasion Theory? One of my colleagues and friend in the Department, Prof. TRS Prasanna believes that one can. Here is a quote from his homepage:

The Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) was proposed by 19th century European Sanskrit scholars based on the similarities between Sanskrit and European languages, now called Indo-European languages. According to AIT/AMT, Aryan tribes invaded/migrated to India about 1500 BC. The Rig Veda that is the oldest text is dated near this date. Later Vedic texts, Samhitas and Brahmanas, are dated to 800. AIT has always been controversial and many scholars have opposed it from the very beginning. Today, most archaeologists, geologists and scientists oppose AIT as the hard evidences point against it. Despite this, AIT remains a dominant theory and its legitimacy rests mostly on philological (comparative linguistics) scholarship.

The main reason most scientists don’t support AIT is that the astronomical references in the Samhita and Brahmana texts have been dated (from 1890s onwards) to 3000 BC. Western Sanskrit scholars have denied the interpretation and the dates of 3000 BC. We present comprehensive analyses of key astronomical references in the Samhita and Brahmana texts and show that they consistently lead to 3000 BC. They clearly show that AIT is an incorrect theory. Another finding is that Sanskrit scholars are unaware that they have correctly interpreted verses on ekastaka to 3000 BC for the last 80 years. That is, for the first time, we have shown that western Sanskrit scholars who proposed AIT have contradicted it themselves.

We have considered the evidences from physical sciences and established the criteria for scientists to form a professional opinion on AIT. We have proposed four questions that must be addressed satisfactorily in order for scientists to support AIT. On these grounds, we establish that there is no scientific basis for AIT.

Prof. Prasanna has published an article in the latest issue of Indian Journal of History of Science titled “Ancient Indian Astronomy and Aryan Invasion Theory”; you can download a the preprint version of the paper here (pdf). Here are some of the highlights of the paper:

  • A simple method to date the Brahmana period to about 3000 BC
  • The origin of Mahashivratri and its dating to about 3000 BC
  • Interpretation of Ekastaka verses and their relevance to dating the Vedic texts.
  • The position of Krittika during the Samhita period (which, sort of explains my title to this post!)

If you are interested in Aryan Invasion Theory or in the history of Indian science, here is a paper that is worth your while! Have fun!

A brief colonial history of nepotism?

August 26, 2011

Ashok Mitra in the Telegraph:

The colonial times saw the full flowering of this ethos, which defined an entrenched agrarian culture. Somebody from a middle-class background lucky enough to get promoted as burra baboo in a managing agency firm lost no time in filling the posts of petty clerks within his beat with his near and dear ones. Such gestures would be accorded tacit social approval; it was as if the individual was redeeming his debt to his extended family which had helped him get established in life. The expression ‘nepotism’ was yet to gain currency. Fellow-feeling — identity of interest with those around — was what mattered. It was extremely low-level economic equilibrium; a stagnant agriculture — at that point the prime source of national income — fostered a stagnancy of the mind. What is elliptically referred to as modernization was a lugubrious process, there was not that degree of competition for people to avail themselves of urban opportunities, the formidable head clerk had little trouble in crowding the office with members of his clan. Similar things happened within government precincts; a deputy collector and magistrate or a subordinate judge — the highest rung of the ladder an Indian could ordinarily aspire to reach — would consider it his bounden duty to get poor relatives or acquaintances selected as kanungos, muharirs or sheristadars. This mirrored the social conscience of the day. Many private banks, for instance, crashed because they thought nothing of making generous advances to either members of the family floating the enterprise or to close friends that in the end went unrequited.

Such a state of affairs continued more or less till the advent of independence. During the acute depression of the 1930s, a swelling of urban unemployment led to stray protests against reported instances of nepotism in public appointments. But it did not assume a serious form; a provincial chief minister (then designated as premier) could even brazen it out by claiming ‘helplessness’ since all his nephews, who had landed cushy government jobs, happened to be brilliant. The private sector, though, was yet unaffected by ramblings of nepotism-induced discontent.

Take a look!

The essential writings of Dharmanand Kosambi

January 8, 2011

I had a chance to read Dharmanand Kosambi: The essential writings, edited by Meera Kosambi. I can not say that the book is uniformly good; however, there is enough of interesting history, social anthropology and some glimpses of a scholarly mind at work to make it a worthy read. If your interests are in history (of religion and Buddhism in particular), or social anthropology, this is a book that you do not want to miss. Here are some sample passages from the book for your reading pleasure.

With ample textual substantiation Dharmanand narrates the salient features of the Buddha’s life — first that his name was Gautama and that he was never named Siddhartha; then that he was the son of a wealthy Shakya landowner dependent on agriculture, but not a king or emperor; that the story of his having lived in three lavish palaces during the three seasons was a myth (although Dharmanand earlier believed it to be true); that he practised Samadhi since childhood; and that the reason for his renunciation was not the improbable incident of seeing an old man, a diseased man, and a corpse for the first time in his late twenties, but his distaste for violent quarrels such as those erupting between the Shakyas and the neighbouring Koliyas over the water of the Rohini river (although a general awareness of the frailty of life was also a contributory cause (From Meera Kosambi’s Introduction in the book, pp. 34-35) .

I would really love to read the book mentioned in the passage above, Dharmanand Kosambi’s Bhagavan Buddha.

We went to Ashoka’s stone pillar, inscribed on which are words to this effect: ‘Lord Buddha was born here; therefore I came in person to worship here, and erected this stone pillar’. (p. 177)

By the way, from the book, I also learnt that Ashoka exempted the village where Buddha was born from taxes and even gave some endowments; so, it looks like though Guptas methodically used grant giving to temples to further their imperial agenda, the example was set much earlier.

Among them was found a rock pillar of King Ashoka, on which appears a Pali inscription as follows:

Twenty years after his coronation, Priyadarshi, the Beloved of the Gods (i.e., Ashoka), came here personally and offered worship because Shakyamuni Buddha was born here. (He) built a wall of stone pillars on all four sides and erected (this) stone pillar. The Lumbini village was exempted from tax because Lord Buddha was born here, and some revenue was assigned (to the vihara?) (p.245)

Apparently, this stone pillar is what makes Buddha a historical person, and not a Puranic deity derived from sun worship (as some scholars believed).

Lord Buddha would rise at dawn and meditate or walk back and forth quietly outside the vihara. In the morning he would go into the village [or town] to beg for food. He would answer any question that anyone asked, then preach to him and lead him on the right path. …He would return to the vihara with the begging bowl in which the cooked food given as alms had got mixed up, and had his meal before noon. After eating he would rest a little and then meditate. In the evening he would preach to householders or or monks. Late in the evening he would meditate again or walk back and forth. At about midnight he would go to sleep, lying on his right side, placing one foot upon another, and using his hand as a pillow. This sleeping position is known as the sleeping position of the lion. (p. 257)

There are more information about Buddha’s travel habits in that section, which, again I enjoyed reading.

Till I read the book, I did not know that Vagh Bhatta of Ashtanga Hridaya is a Buddhist (and, that Maitri is an object of meditation for attaining samadhi).

Also, by far, of all the writings, I enjoyed Kosambi’s the translations of the rock edicts of Ashoka and his The Buddha, The Dhamma and The Sangha the most (from which the above quotes are taken).

Kosambi’s writings on socialism, nationalism, reasons for the downfall of the Buddhist sanghas, and his feminist ideas make very interesting and thought-provoking reading.

Let me end this post with a quote from the preface of Kosambi’s play called Bodhisattva (which, in some way, for me,  indicates the importance that films started gaining in the Indian entertainment and edification landscape in 1940s).

Anyone desirous of making a film or a talkie on the basis of this play should take advance permission from me, and make changes–if any–only under my supervision.

Have fun!

A historical look at Hindu rituals

December 22, 2010

I have finished reading the book The Archaeology of Hindu Ritual: Temples and the establishment of the gods by Michael Willis.  Here is the blurb:

In this groundbreaking study, Michael Willis examines how the gods of early Hinduism came to be established in temples, how their cults were organized, and how the ruling elite supported their worship. Examining the emergence of these key historical developments in the fourth and fifth centuries, Willis combines Sanskrit textual evidence with archaeological data from inscriptions, sculptures, temples, and sacred sites. The centrepiece of this study is Udayagiri in central India, the only surviving imperial site of the Gupta dynasty. Through a judicious use of landscape archaeology and archaeo-astronomy, Willis reconstructs how Udayagiri was connected to the Festival of the Rainy Season and the Royal Consecration. Through his meticulous study of the site, its sculptures and its inscriptions, Willis shows how the Guptas presented themselves as universal sovereigns and how they advanced new systems of religious patronage that shaped the world of medieval India.

By the way, you can order a paperback, South East Asian edition at Flipkart which is not as costly as the hardbound above.

Here is a review for the book from The Hindu:

The whole work is very scholarly and refreshingly provides a new treatment of the records both textual and epigraphical. His conclusions have a direct mooring both in the modern theoretical framework and in the ancient texts. The exhaustive footnotes and references add to the scholarship. In all, this book is a very erudite work in the field of ancient Indian history. It is quite true that such excellent works appear not too often.

It is not often that one agrees with the blurbs of the books or with high praise such as the one above in reviews. This book is one of those rare exceptions. I strongly recommend it.

WIllis’ book consists of three chapters — apart from the introduction and a couple of appendices: The archaeology and politics of time at Udayagiri, The establishment of the gods, and Ritual action and ritual actors. The issues discussed in these chapters parts are as follows (in Willis’ own words):

These parts of Udayagiri, contiguous and thematically related, provide enough material to elucidate two important topics for the history of India: (a) the archaeology and politics of time and (b) the establishment of early Hindu deities as juridical personalities. The first involves a reconstruction of the Indian methods of time-keeping and calendar-making, the ritual cycles that were built on this calendar, and the ways in which the early Guptas used this system to promote their  vision of kinship and dominion. The second involves the legal and social justifications for the creation of permanent religious images, the ways these images came to be installed and worshipped in temples, and the mechanisms whereby temple gods were furnished with endowments for religious service. These are my themes in Chapters 1 and 2. The arguments in these chapters are self-contained but prompt important and directly related questions. In their simplest form, these questions may be phrased as follows: Who were the key religious leaders and ritual actors of Gupta times? And what was their role in shaping Gupta kingship? I have attempted to answer these questions in Chapter 3.

Finally, what makes reading this nearly 250 page book interesting, at times frustrating and very slow are the notes — running into 88 pages.

I also liked Willis’ writing style; he has his favourites and his not-so-favourites and his writing communicates this information directly to the reader; here are a couple of examples:

Although I am distressed to find myself in agreement with Bhandarkar, his suggestion that the eponymous name of the deity was “KumArasvAmin” seems justified. (p. 244)

The historical career of Sanskrit, in Pollock’s view, is that it “only slowly and reluctantly … emerges as a political language … from the sacredotal environment in which it was most at home.” This is nothing more than the old division of church and state in fancy dress, … (p. 7)

Fleet, with characteristic genius and brevity, was the first scholar to note the point, … (p. 258)

I have also learnt several interesting facts and new ideas which I have not had a chance to learn till now: here are a few examples:

There were once brackets, the design indicating that a gate akin to those at sAnchI once stood at Eran. Gates of this variety were not exclusively Buddhist. (p. 194)

We hasten to add that the practice of temple destruction was not unique to the Sultanate. Aside from carrying away of idols as noted in Davis, Lives of Indian Images, pre-Islamic dynasts are known to have destroyed temples; for example the rAshtrakUtas desecrated the Sum temple of PratIhAras; … for a Gupta-period example, see Sircar, Select inscriptions, 1:306, n.2; … The rAjatarangini records that the kings of Kashmir broke up temples and temple-estates to fund their military exploits. Motivations were thus political (destroying the deity that served as palladium of a royal house) and economic (seizing property belonging to the god). The destruction of temples was not “religious” in the modern sense. (p. 297)

… devotee was not absorbed and lost forever in Siva after death. Neither did the devotee’s soul dissolve with the body, entering again the manifest cosmos as some of the Upanishadic thinkers proposed. The Saiva soul, au contraire, was released from the fetters of existence to become an independent Siva. The soul that has attained perfection becomes a siddha equal to Siva, an autonomous theomorphic entity, separate from Siva as MahAdeva but with all his powers and qualities. This theological vision is poignantly illustrated by the sahasralinga, … The point here is that Siva is surrounded by hundreds of devotees who replicate him but have not lost their individual identities in him. (p. 137)

The juxtaposition of the domestic world of thr sUtra-tradition with the public cult of the temple may be overdrawn — the two overlapped for centuries — but it highlights the degree to which ritual, social, and economic relationships were changing in the time of the Guptas.  As already noted this was a change of configuration rather than components. The new relationship between pUjA, priest, image, patron, and land was a powerful synergism that produced temple-based Hinduism. This world — in part Vedic but radically different from what went before — did not emerge in an organic, subconscious, or accidental fashion from some sort of socio-religious plasma; it was consciously created by members of the priesthood — an intellectual and religious elite with clear aims and certain purposes. As Giles Tarabout has discovered through his diligent ethnographic labours: “it becomes very difficult to subscribe to any theory that would explain the development of image worship in terms of Brahminic concession to the masses”. The temple priests of Gupta India established the images in increasing numbers, accumulated endowments to support their work, and grew ever more powerful. As they did so, ancient forms of worship and everything they represented were displaced. By the early sixth century, these priests and their temples had changed the religious landscape of India forever. (p. 122)

Personally, the experience of reading this book is one of the most exciting I have ever had; it had convinced me that I should do a more methodical reading of Indian history and that I should pay closer attention to the archaeological sites when I visit them. Of course, there are more questions that open up as there are some which are answered. There are also speculations that come to my mind, and new interpretations that are possible — for example, at home, we have always been told that Vishnu is to be treated like a King during worship at the temples — which takes a distinctly new meaning after reading the book. May be if the early Guptas were Saivites, Siva would have been the King? Or, as to why Sankara, after all his commentaries on Vedic literature, would still write Bhaja Govindam at the end — may be he was catering to one class of priests, and so on. On the whole, a good reading experience that I strongly recommend; and, a book that is worth returning to for a re-read in years to come.

A book on anthropology and history with Indian flavour

June 1, 2010

Even though I bought a copy of Bernard S Cohn’s An anthropologist among the historians and other essays nearly six or seven years ago, I had a chance to start reading it only this summer. I have completed reading nearly one third of the book. The book, being a collection of essays, is highly uneven. Having said that, it is an enjoyable, if slow, read; and, strongly recommended if you are interested in anthropology, history and India.

The first essay titled An anthropologist among the historians: a field study is the one that I enjoyed the most till now; almost the whole of the essay is quote-worthy. Here are a couple of  interesting bits:

One’s initial entry into the society of historians in the archives is likely to be through the circumstance that someone else has a volume that you need. Is he working on the same subject as you are? Will his work block yours? Or is his work peripheral to yours? Will his work in the records provide a path for you? You gingerly sound out the holder of the volume you want and usually find that he is working on a different but related subject. Most likely the difference is chronological; he needs the records because they cover the end of his period and you are planning to begin at this point. But a bond is formed. First the interaction consists of the exchange of irrelevant or widely-known citations. Someone working on a closely allied subject rarely tells you his best finds. You must wait until he publishes and you can trace the footnotes legitimately. Similarly, you may wait until he publishes and you review his book to hit him with an important but little-known document or reference that you have found.

Anthropologists are slightly uncomfortable in the classroom. Some pace to and fro; some sit on tables; some sit among the students. The anthropologist’s lecture notes are on scraps of papers and backs of envelopes. His lecture notes  don’t represent a fixed capital which he adds to from time to time. He is always short on lecture notes. He encourages diversionary discussion, and, no matter what the lecture topic, he can usually introduce some anecdotal material from his field work.

The other essays, even though they do not flow with the same ease as the one mentioned above, still are full of insightful facts/observations; here are a few samples.

In 1893 Tilak, along with Annasahib (an orthodox Brahman), organized as a public festival the worship over a ten-day period of the Hindu god Ganesh. The manifest reason for the celebrations was to prevent lower-caste Hindus from participating in the Mohurram festival of the Muslims as had been the custom up until this time.

The famous old division of Right-hand and Left-hand castes in South-eastern India is probably a result of an ancient juxtaposition of populations originally inhabiting different regions.

One way of looking at the history of the study of caste is as a history of the discovery of the levels of the system. This discovery is very much tied to the methods of study and presuppositions of those doing the study. In the Dharmashastras and Vedas studied by the orientalists one finds varnas. If one sends out assistants and surveys with questionnaires, as did the administrators, one finds jats, and jatis; if one does long-term, intensive fieldwork in one place, one finds brotherhoods.

I was not aware of the communal aspects of Tilak’s Ganesh festival nor did I come across the Left-hand and Right-hand caste classification till I read Cohn.

Surprises from a book of oracles

March 19, 2010

… it gives us a rare glimpse – as Jerry Toner stresses in Popular Culture in Ancient Rome – into the day-to-day anxieties of the ordinary inhabitants of the Roman Empire. For (never mind the publicity yarn about Alexander the Great) this is not elite literature, or certainly not literature aimed exclusively at the elite; in fact, the question about “being sold” implies that slaves were among the intended clientele. Here we have a long list of the kinds of problems that made ordinary Roman men (and they do seem to be exclusively male questions) anxious enough to resort to fortune-tellers. Some of these are the perennial issues of sex, illness and success (“Will I split up from my girlfriend?” “Will the one who is sick survive?” “Will I be prosperous?”). But other questions reflect much more specifically Graeco-Roman concerns about life’s fortunes and misfortunes. Alongside worries about the wife’s pregnancy, we find questions about whether or not to rear the expected offspring: a vivid reminder that infanticide was one orthodox method of family planning in the ancient world, as well as being a convenient way of disposing of those who emerged from the womb weak, sickly or deformed. Debt and inheritance also bulk large among the topics of concern, accounting for at least twelve of the ninety-two questions (“Will I pay back what I owe?” “Will I inherit from a friend?”). So do the dangers of travel (“Will I sail safely?”) and the potential menace of the legal system (“Am I safe from prosecution?” “Will I be safe if informed against?”). Even illness may be thought to be the result of crime or malevolence, as the question “Have I been poisoned?” shows.

Toner is excellent at squeezing the social and cultural implications out of this material. As well as reflecting on the perilous, debtridden, short and painful human lives that the oracle book reveals, he notes some surprising absences. There is nothing here (poisoning apart) to suggest a fear of violent crime, despite the fact that we often imagine that the Roman Empire was full of highwaymen, pirates and muggers. Nor is there anything on the institution of patronage. Modern historians have written volumes on the dependence of the poor on their elite patrons – for everything from jobs, to loans or food. Toner speculates that the intended users of these oracles were so far down the Roman social hierarchy that they were below the reach of the patronage system (which only extended so far as “the respectable poor”). Maybe. Or maybe the whole system of patronage was far less important in the life of the non-elite, than the Roman elite writers, on whom we mostly rely, liked to imagine. Or, at least, maybe it was far less important in whatever corner of the Roman Empire this strange little book originated.

Pushing the evidence a little further, Toner suggests that we might see in these oracles a rudimentary system of risk-assessment.

From this must-read review by Mary Beard at TLS; link via Jenny.

The woman who dared twice

March 2, 2010

Sriram Venkatkrishnan tells the story!