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Sunday, May 08, 2011

Early India: From The Origins to AD 1300

BOOK REVIEW
Early India: From The Origins to AD 1300
by Romila Thapar
p 2004
University of California Press

   Here is something I've learned about Indian history: It is pretty controversial to write anything about Indian History.  There is very little you can actually say or write about Indian history without angering someone who cares very passionately about the subject your are speaking or writing about.  Undoubtably, the single biggest factor in aggravating the debate on Indian historical subjects is the "Hindu Nationalism Movement." People in the US who are even aware of this phenomenon typically describe it in political terms, for example, when writing about the actions of the  BJP or "Bharatiya Janata Party" but it should surprise no one that Hindu Nationalist ideas extend directly into historical research, writing and debate.  Hindu Nationalism inspired ideas take many forms in the discussion of Early Indian History.

  First, there is the debate, now largely won, by the way, over whether the initial Vedic migration into India was an "invasion" or not.  Obviously, Hindu Nationalists would rather have it be said that there was no invasion, and many would further argue that India is the home of ALL Indo European Languages.  Well, the good news: No Aryan invasion, more like small scale migration over many years.  The bad news: There is no way that the Indo European language family originated in North West India, so call that one a draw.  Even finding a "neutral" source on this subject is difficult, but Romila Thapar does a good job of presenting the current historical facts in a non-inflammatory fashion.

   Another major area of dispute colored by Hindu Nationalism are the pre-Mughal Turkish led raids into Western India, which allegedly resulted in temple destruction and the building of a mosque over said temple location.  These disputes have resulted in back and forth terrorist activity as well as the occasional mass killing.  Here, Thapar notes that the raids seem not to have bothered the locals at the time, or rather they didn't see it as anything "out of ordinary" and that any later mosque building was done with the consent of the native community, not at the behest of an "outside" Muslim ruler.

  In addition to the controversial subjects, Thapar does a solid job bringing the reader up to date on current "hot topics" in the field of Early Indian History, like "Did the medieval Indian state formation process constitute a variation of European defined feudalism?"  She also does a remarkably thorough job of discussing the caste formation process in ancient India- I confess to say that it's complexity, even at this level of generality, somewhat escaped my comprehension, but the writing is so clear and concise that I will likely revisit her discussion in a few months.

  All in all this was a solid introduction to the field of Early Indian history- worth a read for someone seeking a foundation in the subject.

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