Friday, September 1, 2017

The Wonder That Was India

The Wonder That Was India
© 1959 Arthur Llewellyn Basham
586 pages

For the past few weeks I’ve been enjoying The Wonder That Was India, a Will Durant-like survey of Indian history and culture prior to the Mughal invasion.  Its opening section covers political history, from the first hints of settled human life through several empires and many periods of fragmentation.  In sections that follow, Basham focuses on society, daily life, economics, art, literature,  religion, philosophy, and metaphysics.  Evolution is a recurring theme; the flowering of languages and religions being the most obvious examples of institutions' varied growth through time. He notes, for instance, that the intermix of Buddhism and Zoroastrianism produced strains of Buddhist thought that looked for a future Buddha, one who would be greater even than Siddhartha Gautama. Basham writes in earnest admiration of Indian civilization, which managed get by without having institutionalized mass slavery – unlike the Roman empire, for instance. The author's pen has a warm elegance that made the sheer amount of information easy to contemplate, and his commentary shed a good bit of light on various subjects for me. For instance, he commented that one reason histories are generally so sketchy about India before Ashoka is that there's little written surviving history to work with.  His own sources for the period were limited; one history applied only to Kashmir, and another was more religious than historical.


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  2. Stephen--I'm now watching a Teaching Company set of lectures on the history of India. I haven't gotten to Buddha yet, so the religious focus now is on Hinduism.

    The lecturer's take is that there are three main threads or groups of early peoples in India: the Adivasi or forest people, believed to be the first humans in the area, perhaps maybe 70,000 years ago; the Indus River Valley people, who quietly packed up and left after 700 years; and the third and latest group is the Vedantic people or the people of the Vedas. I haven't seen that lecture yet, but it's next. I guess they are the people we know as the Hindus.

  3. It sounds like your lecture is dealing with much more recent evidence than my books (so far) have had access to. The earliest they've mentioned is the Harappan (Indus Valley) culture, who were replaced/supplanted/assimilated by the Aryans/Vedantic people.

    Is the Teaching Company like the Great Courses series?

  4. Stephen--if your book was published in 1959, then the answer is yes. I don't know exactly when the lectures were recorded, but he did mention something discovered in 2010. So, it appears that the lectures have the benefit of 50 years of research.

    The Great Courses are produced by the Teaching Company. I just finished a series of lectures on Buddhism last week, so I decided that perhaps I should learn something about India.

    The public library here in Tucson carries a number of the Great Courses, so I'm lucky.

    1. Ah! I am jealous. Of course, Tuscon is a larger system than any public library system I use. By the way, I was contemplating an Arizona tour for my next trip out west, but after a few months of mulling-over I want to finish New Mexico first.

  5. sounds like an excellent survey... installed on my tbr...


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