Express news service
In what is easily one of the best non-fiction works to release this year, Upinder Singh’s Ancient India caters to an audience of readers interested in history, curious to compare the ancient and the modern, or simply learn more about the stories of India. It highlights its point of interest: the contradictions that coexist, sometimes peacefully sometimes in a state of conflict, both in yesterday’s India and in today’s India. In fact, the more it changes, the more it is the same.
Rather than asking who am I, Singh finds the question, who are we, to be the most relevant. The book opens with an account of Rohith Vemula’s suicide and his written condemnation of caste discrimination, and quickly takes us back to the 4th century BCE, to the dasa / dasis system that prevailed then.
The first clear references to slaves go back to the Rig Veda Samhita, writes Singh, then discusses the Manusmriti, the Arthashastra of Kautilya, the Mrichchakatika of Shudraka, discusses the origin of varnas, then proceeds to the first revelation: how the peoples of the Ancient India sometimes resisted these social ideologies.
Singh uses the device of not too long passages with succinct subtitles to address topics such as untouchability, slavery, Jain and Buddhist challenges, criticism and satire at the time, love imagined in Sanskrit kavya; yakshas and nagas; popular Hindu goddesses; the world of real women; the violence inherent in ancient India’s interaction with the forest peoples; counter-cultures of non-violence; the astika-nastika division, and more.
There is a succinct description of caste as not only a simple division of labor, but a complex system involving the control of material resources, value systems and the production of knowledge. The leitmotif is one that is too easy to grasp: that there did not exist – and do not exist – true prototypes of ancient and modern Indian culture.
Even as religion promises universal salvation, the chasm of social inequality continues to widen. Even though detachment is praised, desire is prized. Even though the goddess is worshiped, women are abused. Even if violence is condemned, wars are valued.
Singh takes into account the limits of archaeological finds and textual material to capture the whole of human experience. Were the ancient Indians nonviolent? No. Were they less violent than people living in other parts of the world?
This, she argues, requires a study of the comparative world history of violence. She explains the amnesia of violence in ancient Indian history as stemming from an idealized interpretation of Indian history, a hopping, leaping and leaping approach that magically connects Mahavira, the Buddha, Ashoka and Gandhi, and leave everything else aside.
The past, says the author, can be beautiful, edifying, inspiring; it can also be ugly, disturbing and disturbing. India is neither timeless nor a utopia of social harmony, religious unity and non-violence. If we are heirs to a glorious heritage, this heritage also contains disturbing inflections that must be looked at in a nuanced way, understood and assimilated in the most balanced way possible.
The image of the jacket, that of a celestial dancer in 11th century sandstone, is truly stunning. The black / white format of the striking illustrations, “evocative windows into the past” as Singh calls them, make them a treat to watch. Singh explains that these human figures are not naked, it is the diaphanous dresses they wear that give the illusion of nudity.
Elsewhere, it reproduces for our edification the first graffiti of love found in the cave of Jogimara in Chhattisgarh: Sutanuka of name, a devadasi; the excellent among young men, the name Devadinna, the rupadaksha, loved him (kamayitha).
The underlying message of the book is as clear as it is straightforward. Just as ancient India was steeped in diversity and torn by many contradictions, so too is the state of present-day India. As Singh gently but repeatedly points out, our culture was diverse and complex and we need to understand how these multiple threads were and are intertwined with each other. In this understanding, perhaps, new ways of coexisting will come.
Ancient India: culture of contradictions
By: Upinder Singh
Publisher: Aleph Books
Price: Rs 799