New book paints picture of pluralities in ancient India
What a pleasure to read an intelligent, well researched, clearly written book that sees our collective past as a mosaic rather than a monolith. Amid a choppy flurry of writings about the ‘glorious’ past over the past decade by polemicists and self-educators, historian Upinder Singh presents us with lucid descriptions of the complexities and pluralities of ancient India in the domains of ideas, religion, social structure. and the arts. Taken together, these allow us to build a more complete and better picture of the contradictions that could color our present.
For example, one of the questions that Singh addresses is: how come we worship the goddess with enthusiasm and have had countless powerful women leaders in so many areas, when the structures that under- tend our society are patriarchal and misogynistic? Moreover, what happened to the joyous celebration of physical love and sexual desire in ancient India (as evidenced by the Kama Sutra and temple carvings) so that we are now in control of the limits of physical and emotional attraction? Singh also addresses other major oppositions within our cultures, such as violence and non-violence, debate and conflict, providing his observations on the dialectical relationship between them to influence how they fit into the world. contemporary society. But even if ancient India – Culture of contradictions (Aleph, ??799) were not to shed light on our present, the fact that he views the past as a space of inclusion and multiplicity makes it an important contrapuntal (and persuasive) note in monotonous accounts of ourselves and others who are now part of our national soundtrack.
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Singh taps into a wide variety of sources that indicate that our ancestors lived in a pluralistic society that contained (not necessarily conflict-free) various ways of being and thinking. Archaeological monuments, artefacts and inscriptions, coins, religious and literary texts, philosophical and normative treatises, temple sculptures and engravings, travelers’ accounts, poetry, all this contributes to the entirely credible image that she creates from them. juxtaposition. Many of these sources contradict each other, some are clearly in opposition to others, some are dissenting voices, others themselves ask questions or urge us to do so. It is essential that we place Jainism, Buddhism and primitive Hinduism in relation to each other, so as not to fear the diminishment of one or the other when we realize that they were using the same ideas (such as dharma, which was fully developed into an ethics system by Buddhism) to explore different metaphysics and theologies, which they influence each other in consonant and dissonant ways. These three religions also share various gods – Indra and Kubera, Lakshmi and Saraswati, are prominent in the Jaina pantheon, as are a multitude of demigods and semi-divine beings (nagas and yakshas, for example). It doesn’t matter who said what first or best, what matters is that we examine various traditions in a healthy conversation with each other.
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Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions: by Upinder Singh; Aleph Book Company, 280 pages, ??799.
Singh teaches us not to think in hermetically sealed binaries. This prevents us from pitting one set of ideas against another, of course, but it also opens our eyes to the fact that the same systems and ideologies often contain contradictions within themselves. For example, when bhakti developed within Hinduism, all of the holy poets from this set of very diverse and regional cultures were not reformers or advocated for change, especially not regarding the position and conduct of women in society. Likewise, we are also used to thinking that Jainism and Buddhism are actively against the caste system that we (rightly) believe is embedded in Hindu belief and practice. A closer reading of the ancient texts and inscriptions will show us that while Jainism and Buddhism had female monastic orders and held that women could aspire and achieve spiritual liberation (moksha / nirvana), it is also true that they recognized actively the existence of caste and hierarchy. Also, according to the two, a woman had a better chance of achieving liberation after being born as a man. While the new perspective on old and entrenched beliefs may make them seem insignificant and insufficient now, the changes were quite radical for their time.
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Additionally, in a welcome change from many general stories, Singh is careful to include the south in his analyzes. Although it remains largely focused on what can be gleaned from Tamil Sangam literature, it makes us realize that the south had a parallel history for much of the ancient period, no less sophisticated in arts and governance. and as prosperous in trade as the policies of the north. and kingdoms we are used to hearing about. Although similar in many ways, the ancient south had its own philosophy. Since more women are represented in the great anthologies of Sangam period poetry, the way they speak and are evoked, it is tempting to assume that they enjoyed a better position in society.
In her introduction, Singh makes a revealing comment not only on her method and perspective, but also on her choice as a scholar and teacher: to be circumspect rather than dogmatic. She says this book was born out of a course she was preparing on “Indian Civilization”. “How could I approach such a grandiose theme without being excruciatingly superficial, selective and simplistic?” . . . Wasn’t my course doomed to fail before it even started? Instead of despairing, I decided to be frank about the difficulties and structure the course around the contradictions and ideas of early Indian history.
Singh later reiterates his commitment to thinking about the past based on evidence that shows these are simultaneous contradictions, within eras and periods, systems and ideologies. “When discussing different aspects of ancient Indian cultural traditions, it is best to replace the conjunction ‘or’ with ‘and’. paintings, monuments, one beside the other. How wonderful it would be if we could learn to place the creators of culture, that is, people, in the same relationship with each other – and not or.
Arshia Sattar is a writer and translator based in Bangalore.