Ancient India


It is impossible to give an account of the content of an informative book of 676 pages; one can only touch upon some memorable details. What can be said with certainty, though, about this great historical account is that the author’s love, admiration, and tenderness toward his subject shine through every page. A.L. Basham’s tome, The Wonder That Was India. A survey of the history and culture of the Indian sub-continent before the coming of the Muslims (Picador, 3rd edition, 1967, first published in 1954), is to be savoured slowly. It is an interesting companion to Pankaj Mishra’s An End to Suffering (also reviewed here).

The volume’s Foreword is penned by Thomas Trautman, and the book itself is divided into ten chapters and ends with 10 appendices, a Bibliography and References, as well as with an Index and Glossary. It contains a chronology of pre-Muslim India, and  89 plates (illustrations, photos in black and white and in color) as well as line drawings. The historical account touches ancient India from the prehistoric period (3000 BC Baluchistan, and 2500-1550 Harappa Culture) through to the 16th century (Northern and Peninsular medieval dynasties). The author tackles this vast subject geographically (North to South and West to East) according to where chronological developments in culture, economy, social and religious contacts lead. The amount of information receives a logical treatment, so reading flows very easily. No historical outline, however, is complete without touching upon the present. And Basham’s Chapter X, Epilogue: The Heritage of India contains not only those elements which the world received from India, but also an optimistic view of the future: “…the whole face of India is altering, but the cultural tradition continues, and it will never be lost”. (p. 496) This statement, seen from a distance of more than 60 years, and from cynicism due to all postmodernist thought, brings heartfelt positive feeling, only to be undone by recent cultural clashes (in Sri Lanka) and by the rapid leveling of all cultures in the world into one technological maelstrom.

What follows are outlines of each chapter.

From the Introduction (Chapter I), we learn that the name India comes from the name of one of the two most important rivers, Sindhu (Indus), which the Persians pronounced as Hindu. It is noteworthy that, according to the author, the effects of the northern mountains (Himalayas) on the social, economic, and cultural development of India has been overrated, but of course their importance as sources of the two most important rivers (the Indus and Ganga) is paramount. The history of India is unique (similar to that of China) in that some of the most ancient traditions have been preserved until the present day – a situation which is not mirrored in Egypt or Greece. The continuous traditions came to be studied, from the European perspective, in the 18th century: among the first scholars who delved deeply into India’s history were Jesuit fathers who mastered Sanskrit (for ex., Father Hanxleden who worked in Kerala from 1699 to 1722), but the pre-eminence of research falls into the English hands starting with Sir William Jones (who came to Calcutta as a judge of the supreme court, 1746-94), a linguistic genius, to whom we owe a scientific proof of the idea that Persian and European languages originate from a common ancestor which is not Hebrew (as had been believed). Under the English administration, India’s ancient literature was translated, and the Asiatic Society of Bengal was established (1784), existing to this day. Archaeology received a boost, too, but most excavations on a large scale began only in the 20th century. Native scholars did and continue to do work as Sanskritists, epigraphists, archaeologists. Basham’s perspective and admiration is clear from this excerpt:

At most periods of her history India, though a cultural unit, has been torn by internecine war. In statecraft her rulers were cunning and unscrupulous. Famine, flood and plague visited her from time to time, and killed millions of her people. Inequality of birth was given religious sanction, and the lot of the humble was generally hard. Yet our overall impression is that in no other part of the ancient world were the relations of man and man, and of man and the state, so fair and humane. In no other early civilization were slaves so few in number, and in no other ancient lawbook are their rights so well protected as in the Arthaśāstra. No other ancient lawgiver proclaimed such noble ideals of fair play in battle as did Manu. … To us the most striking feature of ancient Indian civilization is its humanity.... India was a cheerful land whose people, each finding a niche in a complex and slowly evolving system, reached a higher level of kindliness and gentleness in their mutual relationships than any other nation in antiquity. For this, as well as for her great achievements in religion, literature, art and mathematics, one European student at least would record his admiration of India’s ancient culture.  (pp. 8-9)

This paragraph not only clearly states Basham’s esteem, but also touches upon a number of strands that fill the loom of Indian history, but whose interpretation by no means receives a universal acceptance. These are as follows: India was a cultural unit in antiquity; social relations were humane; laws protected the humble classes.

Chapter II deals with Prehistory: The Harappa culture and The Aryans. Stone tools (hand axes, arrowheads, etc.) were found both in northern and southern India and could be dated to about 100 000 years ago.* Agricultural settlements were excavated in Baluchistan and lower Sind, dating from the end of the 4th millennium, when the climate was very different. Various cultures thrived, separated by the manner in which they produced pottery (in the North red, in the South buff), but they were united in worshiping a Mother Goddess, of whom small statuettes were found. The civilization of the Indus, now called the Harappa culture (2500-1550 BC), known from excavation in Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, and other cities, was apparently based on oligarchic commercial republic system, since no remains could be identified as places of worship nor weapons were found there. Harappa had a thriving agricultural economy and exported produce and cotton, metal and semi-precious stones which found their way to Mesopotamia; numerous family seals with emblems and inscriptions were found. Waves of invaders destroyed the existing villages and replaced the existing culture. These invaders were probably Vedic Aryans, and called themselves Aryas (anglicized into Aryans; the form survives as Iran, cognate with Eire).  These migrated from the North-West; the invasions to India covered centuries and various tribes. One tribe, the Bharatas, included priests who perfected advanced poetic technique, and the hymns were passed down by word of mouth only through careful memorization. This great collection of hymns is the Rg Veda, still the most sacred text of the Hindus, and it, as well as the Brahmanas, and Upanisads, form the basis of our knowledge about the ancient Aryans. It is probable that the hymns of the Rg Veda were composed between1500 and 1000 BC.  The Aryans were organized in tribes led by chiefs (raja) and they were fighting not only the natives (Dāsa) but also among themselves. Apparently, the retroflex consonants existing in Sanskrit and other modern vernaculars are due to the influence of  the natives’ languages while learning Sanskrit. Aryans seem to have had class divisions in place: ksatra (the nobility), vis’ (ordinary people), brāhmana (priest), sudra (serf); these divisions deepened as the Aryans laid great stress on purity of blood, so children born of  intermarriage with natives and non-assimilated natives were considered low class. The Sanskrit word used for these divisions is varna (color), and not caste, term which is generally accepted today. The Aryans engaged in a mixed pastoral and agricultural economy, the horse and the cow were utilized greatly; inebriating drinks (sama and sura)  were very popular – used in sacrifices and during festivities. They were warlike and kept pressing on to the eastern parts, setting up kingdoms in Kosala and Kasi and later Videha. Consolidated kingdoms of the later ages were still ruled by kings, but their power was much limited by the power of the Brahmans and that of the public opinion. “Political divisions based on kingship were giving place to those based on geography, and in many parts of India the tribes were rapidly breaking up. This, and the strong feeling of insecurity which it caused, may have been an important factor in the growth of asceticism and of a pessimistic outlook on the world, which is evident throughout this period.” (pp. 42-43).

Chapter III focuses on History: Ancient and Medieval Empires.  From the 6th century BC on, the historian can rely on more numerous written sources: this time brought great ferment not only in the spiritual domain (ascetics, mystics, the Buddha, etc.), but also advancement in commerce and politics. The old order of brahmanic culture slowly disappeared and new kingdoms arose in the east: Magadha, Vatsa and Avanti. The policy of Bimbisara and Ajatasatru (both kings of Magadha) seemed to aim at the control of as much of the course of the Ganga as possible – conceivably the idea of a far-flung Indian empire in the making. The Greeks’ permanence in India was short – about 80 years. Alexander crossed the Indus in 326; Megasthenes, as ambassador (305 BC), traveled and saw the Mauryan court and greatly admired its emperor Candragupta, a precursor of Asoka, the greatest and noblest ruler India has known. Then come various invasions from Central Asia as well as Iran.  In the 4th century of our era, Candra Gupta rose to power, ruling over Northern India, and his imperial advancements were continued by other rulers establishing the Gupta empire. Further raids occurred between the 7th and the 10th century (invaders from Central Asia, and the Huna, Arabs, Turks). All the while dynastic wars continued.

Chapter IV discusses The State: Political Life and Thought. The main sources of information are textbooks on statecraft, the administration of force, the conduct of kings.  Kautiliya Arthasastra gives detailed instructions on control of the state, organization of the national economy, and conduct of war. The great epics Mahabharata and Ramayana also contain sections which provide information on statecraft as it existed in the early centuries of our era. Kingship, royal function, oligarchies and republics, councillors and officials, local administration are described in this chapter. Legal literature, elucidating the obscure sacrificial instructions of the Brahmanas, was written in the form of brief aphorisms (sutras) and they were later versified. These Smrti (remembered) writings are distinct from the earlier Vedic literature Sruti (heard). The king’s duty was to uphold the Dharma (“the divinely ordained norm of good conduct, varying according to class and caste, “the Sacred Law”, p. 114) by means of Danda (coercion/punishment/justice). Militarism was one constant aspect of any kingdom, but “The intense militarism of ancient India did not lead to the building of a permanent empire over the whole sub-continent.  … numerous factors prevented the unification of the recognized cultural unit… the size of the land … the martial tradition itself.” (p. 124) In India, “Hinduism, which had no all-embracing super-national organization, rather encouraged inter-state anarchy by incorporating many martial traditions into the Sacred Law.” (p. 129)

Chapter V describes Society: Class, Family and Individual. In social conduct, there is a common Dharma, i.e. rules of conduct, but there exist also Dharma rules which are intended for different distintions by class, age, gender, etc. The biggest distinction was between the twice-born and those who could not be initiated into the Aryan status.

The Brahman was thought of as a divinity in human form, and he was accorded precedence, honor and worship. He was responsible for carrying out the sacrifices to ensure prosperity, and some were great teachers of the Vedas. There were various classes and types of professional priests; but all were feared and maintained by the king and the population at large. The ksatriya (ruling class) was responsible for protection, i.e. fighting in war and governing in peace. The vaisya (mercantile class) was made of farmers, keepers of cattle and petty merchants; although they were a distant third group, – they could be oppressed at will by the upper two classes – ,  some achieved great wealth. The sudras were not twice-born, and these were of two kinds: “pure” or “not-excluded” and “excluded”.  Their duty was to wait on the other three classes; they had few rights; and were not allowed to hear or repeat the Vedas. Below the sudras there are the untouchables, outcastes, depressed classes (the candala group).  Slavery is also discussed. The four stages of life, which together with the idea of class are the bulwarks of Hindu society, are described in detail:   after receiving the sacred thread (i.e. the second birth), youth were to lead an austere life as students at the home of their teachers; having mastered the Vedas, they returned home to marry and become householders; once they have seen their children and grandchildren, they left their homes and lived in the forest as hermits. Clearly, these rules pertain to boys. Women were always minors at law. They could hold specified amounts of property, could become nuns but not officiate. But the role of women was to marry and take care of their menfolk and children. The wife’s fidelity was sacrosanct.

Chapter VI focuses on Everyday Life: The daily round in city and village – among the most important sources for the life of a well-to-do young Indian is the Kamasutra. Dice, chess, boxing and other games are described.

Chapter VII takes on Religion: cults, doctrines and metaphysics, describing the religion of the Vedas (the main gods are compared to the Greek divinities), following the ascetics, analyzing the rise of ascetic and mystical doctrines out of some opposition to brahmanic pretensions and deep feeling of uncertainty during momentous societal transformations. Topics treated in detail are Ethics of the Upanisads, Buddhism, the Lesser and the Great Vehicle, Jainism and other unorthodox sects, Hinduism, all illustrated with significant excerpts from the sacred writings. Christians, Jews, and Muslims were not antagonized: “This capacity of toleration contributed to the characteristic resiliency of Hinduism, and helped to assure its survival” (347).

Chapter VIII concentrates on The Arts: architecture, sculpture, painting, music and the dance. Stupas (burial mounds) underwent transformations and became centres of religious life. Temples are described in detail, as well as sculpture , engraving, terracotta products and paintings receive meticulous treatment. The Indian musical scale is illustrated.

Chapter IX deals with Language and Literature. The role of Sanskrit, the language of the sacred books,  for historical linguistics is recognized; Indian grammarians and some of their ideas are described. Prakrits, the language of everyday speech is also preserved in Asoka’s edicts, for example, or in the speech of women characters in Indian drama. It is simpler than Sanskrit both in sound and in grammar. One early dialect of Prakrit was  Pali, still the language of Buddhism in Ceylon, Burma and South-East Asia.. Dravidian languages (Tamil, Canarese, Telegu and Malayālam) also enjoyed literary uses. The earliest important written documents are Asokan inscriptions, written in a well-developed script, pointing to a long previous development. Between the 6th century BC and 5th century of our era scripts underwent modifications: the Devanagari script is used to write Sanskrit, Prakrit, Hindi and Marathi, but there are local variations, for ex., in the Panjab, Bengal, Orissa, Gujarat and elsewhere. Parts of the Vedas, Brahmanas, Upanisads receive high praise for their literary merit. The two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana,  being martial epics interpolated with passages on theology, moral and statecraft, are also prime sources for our knowledge of early Indian civilizations. European aesthetic standards do not appreciate the ornate Sanskrit poetry and its rigid canons of literary convention appreciative of verbal ingenuity. Plays are also described (for ex., “The Little Clay Cart”), as well as Sanskrit prose.

The Appendices deal with Cosmology and Geography, Astronomy, The Calendar, Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, Physiology and Medicine, Logic and Epistemology, Weights and Measures, Coinage, The Alphabet and Its Pronunciation, Prosody, The Gypsies.


* This dating has now been corrected to much earlier: see Michael Greshko, “These Tools Upend Our View of Stone-Age Humans in Asia”,