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Asian History


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


India History

Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History  by Romila Thapar (Verso) An explosive account, drawing together and placing in context the many interpretations of a pivotal moment in Indian history, which dispels the myths and inventions of Hindu nationalism.

In 1026, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni raided the Hindu temple of Somanatha (Somnath in textbooks of the colonial period). The story of the raid has reverberated in Indian history, but largely during the raj. It was first depicted as a trauma for the Hindu population not in India, but in the House of Commons. The triumphalist accounts of the event in Turko-Persian chronicles became the main source for most eighteenth-century historians. It suited everyone and helped the British to divide and rule a multi-millioned subcontinent.

In her new book, Romila Thapar, the doyenne of Indian historians, reconstructs what took place by studying other sources, including local Sanskrit inscriptions, biographies of kings and merchants of the period, court epics and popular narratives that have survived. The result is astounding and undermines the traditional version of what took place. What makes her findings explosive is the fact that the current Hindu nationalist regime in India constantly utilizes a particular version of history to further its aims. It is a moment in history that has almost been lost. The event in question is the rading of Somanatha Hindu temple by the Sultan of Ghazni in the 11th century. The subsequent accounts of this event lasted all the way to the British colonial rule of India 8 centuries later. The Somanatha raid is a critical topic for post-colonial discourse.

Gandhi's Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi by Stanley A. Wolpert (Oxford University Press) More than half a century after his death, Mahatma Gandhi continues to inspire millions throughout the world. Yet modern India , most strikingly in its decision to join the nuclear arms race, seems to have abandoned his nonviolent vision. Inspired by recent events in India , Stanley Wolpert offers this subtle and profound biography of India 's "Great Soul." Wolpert chronicles the life of Mahatma Gandhi from his early days as a child of privilege to his humble rise to power and his assassination at the hands of a man of his own faith. This trajectory, like that of Christ, was the result of Gandhi's passion: his conscious courting of suffering as the means to reach divine truth. From his early campaigns to stop discrimination in South Africa to his leadership of a people's revolution to end the British imperial domination of India , Gandhi emerges as a man of inner conflicts obscured by his political genius and moral vision. Influenced early on by nonviolent teachings in Hinduism, Jainism, Christianity, and Buddhism, he came to insist on the primacy of love for one's adversary in any conflict as the invincible power for change. Gandhi's Passion shows how Gandhi's legal training at Inner Temple in London and his work to protect the rights of Indians in South Africa at the turn of the century led to his agitation for Home Rule in India. Wolpert uses Gandhi's own writings – there are 90 volumes of his collected works and descriptions of meetings and travels to organize mass passive resistance, including boycotts and marches – to  explain how Gandhi's nonviolent resistance, or Satyagraha, essentially forced the British to grant dominion status to 300 million Indians. 
Wolpert resists the temptation toward idealization, showing us not only the selfless mystic, but also the unapproachable father, the unpredictable partisan, and the frustrated visionary. He touches on the fact that Gandhi's transformation alienated his children and wife, whom he married at age 11, even while he expressed an "intensely personal passion" for various Western missionaries and forced some ashram devotees to sleep by him naked. Still, in recounting Gandhi's terrible agony at his failure to transform independent
India into a land of religious harmony and social unity, Wolpert humanizes rather than discredits the ideals for which he fought.
By revealing Gandhi, the man, rather than the living god depicted by his disciples,
Gandhi's Passion provides an unprecedented representation of Gandhi's personality and the complexities that compelled his actions and brought freedom to India . As a legacy invoked by Martin Luther King, by Nelson Mandela, and by many others, those ideals continue to shape the world's horizon of hopes.

In Search of the Cradle of Civilization by Georg Feuerstein, Subhash Kak, and David Frawley (Quest Books) For decades, schoolbooks have taught that Sumer was the cradle of civilization. Conventional scholarship has also held that Aryan civilization came to India by way of invasions from the north. In Search of the Cradle of Civilization: New Light on Ancient India is a ground-breaking book wherein three renowned scholars show that there was no "Aryan invasion", and that India, not Sumer, was the cradle of civilized humanity. Through exploring the rich symbols, metaphors, and myths of the Vedas, we can examine the wealth of India's spirituality and discover its relevance for today's world.

In Search of the Cradle of Civilization is divided into two parts. In the first we learn that there was no such thing as an 'Aryan invasion' of India. It is a myth based upon a few idle conjectures of Max Muller along with a couple of scraps of misinterpreted evidence, an ideology masquerading as historical 'fact' (as is so much else today) because it fitted in so well with the Imperialist ambitions and racialism of the West.

India has always been multi-racial and multi-cultural, and the 'Aryans' were there all along. The cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro were abandoned, not because of any supposed 'Aryan invasion,' but for the simple reason that the vast and sustaining Sarasvati river dried up c.1900 B.C., and the people of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization had to relocate further East to the region of the Ganges.

The Indians have no memory of an 'Aryan invasion.' There is no evidence of an invasion and no sign of the cultural break that such an invasion would have caused. On the contrary, India exhibits a striking continuity of culture which qualifies it as the world's oldest living continuous civilization, and one that stretches back to at least 6000 B.C, if not much further.

As portrayed by the authors, the rich and highly advanced Indus-Sarasvati civilization - a civilization of sages, priests, philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, musicians, astronomers, artists, architects, engineeers, navigators, artisans, farmers and merchants covered an area of over 300,000 square miles (in contrast to Ancient Egypt's 15,000 square miles and Sumer's even smaller area). It held over 2500 settlements, towns, and cities, and conducted an extensive commerce with Arabia, Africa, and the Middle East. Also, where influences can be determined, they flowed, not from West to East but from East to West. In short, pace Sumerian scholar Samuel Noah Kramer, everything did not begin in Sumer. It was neither Sumer nor Egypt that was the cradle of civilization. It was India.

Chapter 9, 'Why the Aryan Invasion Never Happened: Seventeen Arguments,' summarizes and concludes Part I of the book. Part II, 'The Splendor of Ancient India: Its Cultural and Spiritual Legacy' provides a stimulating overview of the spiritual heritage of Ancient India, the birth of science, the astronomical basis of the Vedic myths, the powerful and long-continuing influence of India on the West, and the Vedas and Perennial Wisdom.

We learn that the Vedas are of staggering importance. Far from being a mere collection of myths, they represent a crystallization, in symbolic code, of the incredibly ancient wisdom of a balanced and harmonious civilization in which science and religion were not, as with us, opposed, but were mutually involved in the pursuit of truths which had the aim of bringing both man and society into harmony with the cosmos.

Sadly the Vedas, written as they are in a difficult archaic Sanskrit, are little studied even in India, and are even less understood. Given the increasing degeneracy of modern civilization, it is a blessing that a handful of determined scholars have today set about extracting the knowledge from this precious repository that could, if rightly used, help restore us to sanity.
One of the most appreciative interpreters of the Vedas today is the Roman Catholic priest and Professor of Religious Studies, Raimundo Panikkar, and readers are referred to his superb anthology of beautifully translated extracts with detailed commentaries, 'The Vedic Experience - Mantramanjari: An Anthology of the Vedas for Modern Man and Contemporary Celebration.
Here is a brief extract (slightly modified since it should be set out as poetry). It should show anyone something of what we have lost and what we must relearn from "the treasures of Asian understanding" if, in the words of British scholar, scientist, and sinologist Joseph Needham, "our civilization [is not] to go down in history as distorted and evil"
"Now Dawn with her earliest light shines forth, / beloved of the Sky, / Fresh from her toilet, conscious of her beauty, / she emerges visible for all to see. / Dawn, Daughter of Heaven, lends us her lustre, / dispersing all shadows of malignity, / Arousing from deep slumber all that lives, / stirring to motion man and beast and bird, / This maiden infringes not the Eternal Law, / day after day coming to the place appointed" Sanskrit and English belong to the same family of languages, and we naturally resonate with family. Official spokesmen of a Eurocentric West continue to promote the arrogant and wholly false belief that "we have nothing to learn from the East." A few hours spent with Feuerstein, Kak, and Frawley's timely and significant study will soon convince you of the foolishness of such a notion. Don't miss this fascinating and extremely important book

Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi by Katherine Frank (Houghton Mifflin) Here is the first popular biography of one of the most powerful women in the twentieth century, Indira Nehru Gandhi. India’s third prime minister, she was voted “Woman of the Millennium” by the BBC. Now the acclaimed biographer Katherine Frank uncovers the personal Indira, drawing from unpublished sources and more than a hundred interviews with people who knew her. The result is a beautifully drawn, complete, and balanced portrait. Steeped in the volatile history and exotic locale of the world’s largest democracy, IIndira tells a tale of epic proportions about a life marked by surprising contradictions.

Wary at first of the political spotlight, Indira eventually played an important role in many of the major events of India’s past century. An Indian who was blunt in English, she rose to power in a country with more than 850 million people who spoke scores of indigenous languages. She was born to a wealthy, westernized family, but her real constituency was the poor of the countryside and the urban slums, the illiterate, the dispossessed. From the powerful influence of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, to her misguided relationships with her two sons and political heirs, to the fateful decision that led to her assassination, Indira shows us a figure who was brave, shrewd, isolated, sometimes awed, and always fascinating. It is certain to be the definitive biography of this charismatic leader.


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