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A while ago a China expert online (JamesCat on RPG.net I think, for the few who might recognize that) said that people tended to know China or India, but not both. Admittedly, both are huge. Admittedly, I'm nothing like an expert in either. But it did occur to me that I had a slightly better mental skeleton of China than of India, and so last week I checked out a bunch of India books, rather than reading Wikipedia. So far I've read one and the intro of a second. (India, Michael Wood; A History of India, Hermann Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund, to be referred to as K&R to the confusion of the C programmers.)

It's been interesting reading, and also interesting is the difference between the two books. Wood is very personal: he talks about the history, but also about his personal trips and experiences to historical places, as well as ritual and culture, with lots of photographs and one colored but not completely labeled map. K&R have no pictures, several maps (still not completely labeled with all the names used), and the intro dives straight into causal history, how environment and technology shaped things. Chapter 1 of Wood starts "The rain has stopped... Outside my room I can hear..." He's at a tourist resort in Kerala, setting some mood before talking about the very prehistoric beachcombers who may have followed the coasts and continential shelves from east Africa through south Asia and into Australia. K&R start in on environment and technology: the first people with their stone tools living in places later empires didn't, changes in rainfall creating and then destroying the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), rice and chariots...

I'm not going to boil down even one book to a LJ post with any fairness, but I'll pass on some highlights of note, drawing from both books:

* The beachcomber migration, and southern India perhaps still being descended from them, genetically and linguistically and religiously.
* The IVC (but old hat to me now), falling by 1800 BC.
* Aryan arrival after that, supposedly passing down a word-perfect Rig Veda, which non-Hindu nationalists can date to maybe 1500 BC, bounded by bronze use, related Mitanni texts in the west and by Rig Veda ignorance of the IVC except as mysterious ruins.
* Chariots letting the Aryans conquer, but also fight each other; war elephants later enabling strong kings, for the same reasons as cannon in Europe, effective but expensive.
* Mountains and deserts inhibiting communication and language spread, such that you can supposedly go "Hindi is north of this mountain range".
* The Mughals introducing the first really centralized empire, and also cavalry (with recurrently imported Arabic and Persian horses, India supposedly being bad for breeding them) that allowed more effective extraction of land tax; that's K&R, but Wood noted how the Mughals were almost an Islamic enlightenment in religious tolerance for a while, but bad for the economy, extracting 1/3 of produce in land tax and the monarchy+nobility collecting 15-20% of the economy, high by European standards.
* The British introducing superior bureaucracy -- even better than what they had at home, unencumbered by rights and traditions -- allowing similar collection but more efficiently -- and, being foreign, exporting much of that surplus rather than spending it among the peasants who produced it, which touches on older stuff I've seen about the economic disaster for India of colonialism. (E.g. stagnant or declining GDP/capita for 150 years.)
* India not having writing between the IVC and the 3rd century BC, though with orally administered (that sounds wrong) kingdoms nonetheless.
* Archaeology advances!: The red-headed Tarim Basin mummies, the translation of the Bactrian language of the Tocharians, their identification with elucidation as the little-known but huge Kushan empire.
* The khumba mela, a massive religious gathering of pilgrims and holy men, with 70 (seventy) million people at the biggest one. Take that, Burning Man.
* The Kali Yuga or current age being 5000 years old. Related to the 5700 year Jewish epoch, and the development of writing or of more intensive agriculture? Not that the Aryans are noted for either...
* Greco-Roman maps and gazetteers including Zanzibar and India up to the mouth of the Ganges; China was mysterious.

* "India" being rather artificial, in a way. The British were the first to ever control the whole subcontinent. Before you might have 1 or more northern rulers, and southern ones, but no one who controlled north and south. Wood quotes people as claiming there nonetheless was an idea of India; given a lack of historical unity and shared language, I wonder why. Germany at least had a closely related language family and religion (well, religions after Reformation) and the Holy Roman Empire; southern India doesn't even speak Indo-European. Not sure about the religion side...
* "Hinduism" also being artificial, a result of the British trying to categorize and simplify what they studied and controlled. Wood talks frequently about Vaishnavism, Saivism, brahminism... there's Vedic bases, but grouping them all together might be like grouping Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, Karaites, and Samaritans all under "Abrahamism" as a single religion. I need to read more about how the south got incorporated into this.

Historical points:
* Aryan invasion and domination of the north
* Alexander, Greco-Bacterian kingdom
* Ashoka and Mauryans in the 3rd century BC. coming out of the east Ganges and controlling much of the north, Ashoka becoming a big promoter of Buddhism, with edict-pillars and stupas all over, and missionaries to the Mediterranean.
* The Tocharians or Yueh-chi getting kicked out of China and taking over the Bactrian area, aka Afghanistan and Pakistan, pushing the Greeks into the Indo-Greek kingdom, and forming the Kushan empire, with a high point around 140 AD under Kanishka the Great, a pillar of Buddhism, villain of India, and evil genius of the manga Berserk. Eurasia being mostly at peace from the Yellow River to Hadrian's Wall in Scotland, formation of the silk road, India having 1/4 of world population and maybe 30% of the economy. Lots of religious eclecticism, with Kanishka blending Iranian fire gods, Greek gods, Vedic gods, and Buddhism, or at least juggling them all. Ayurveda was Kanishka's guru. Gandharan art developed in this period, and the human representation of the Buddha (vs. a wheel, or empty throne) and possibly various representations of Hindu gods as well. Gold coins minted on Roman weights. Embassies with the Han and with Antoninus Pius. Spread of Mahayana Buddhism (Ashoka was Theravada/Hinayana).
* The Vaishnavist Guptas, with lots of poetry and little monuments; revival of Brahminism and Vedic kingship and decline of Buddhism; writing of the Kama Sutra; visit of Hsuan Tsang
* Cholas being a southern Tamil dynasty lasting 1600 years, but peaking in power in 1000-1300 AD, conquering various islands out to Indonesia. Rajaraja the great king, embassies to China.
* Mughals, some details above, plus a few generations of religious tolerance from Akbar and even innovation (religion of light, esoteric readings of the Koran, trying to "meet the two oceans" of Islam and Hinduism) on until orthodox Islamic backlash under Aurangzeb
* British, acquiring empire by accident. Trading posts, factories, tax farming rights; then the "Mutiny" of 1857 and suppression by atrocity, and Parliament taking it all away from the East India Company.
* Independence, and the Italian Catholic Sonia Gandhi as prime-minister elect, yielding to a Sikh swearing the oath to a Muslim president in a majority Hindu nation.

Great books:
* Rig-Veda: oldest Indian text, preserved by and long secret to Brahmin families, with gods much more like the Greek gods than later Indian ones
* Arthashatra: text on statecraft, written under the Mauryan Chandragupta.
* Mahabharata, Aryan Iliad, tale of war of two great clans, death of almost everyone, 100,000 verses (longest poem) (but updated to mention the Romans, Antioch, and even 5th century AD Huns.)
* Ramayana, myth of kingship, elevated by the Guptas, supposedly set 1 million years ago but set in places with pottery post 600 BC.

Hmm, Wood mentioned castes, but not a whole lot, and reincarnation not at all.



( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 22nd, 2011 01:52 am (UTC)
As a Tamil who's not lived in India, but spent my entire life learning its history in an ad-hoc fashion, I still found your post extremely informative and interesting. It's great to get a Western perspective on things even if you've largely just touched on factual matters.

I've loved Michael Wood's documentaries ever since I watched Legacy - The Origins of Civilization but I've never read any of his books, although I do have a copy of The Smile of Murugan: A South Indian Journey which everybody else in my family has read and comes highly recommended. Unfortunately I don't have the patience to read any book from cover-to-cover so I'm glad you've covered some territory from his book on India. I've got a copy of the DVD which he made from his work on the book and it's fantastic.

but grouping them all together might be like grouping Judaism, Christianity

I couldn't agree more. That is something about Hinduism which I have tried to impress upon people my whole life. Of the major religions, it is probably the most segregated but as I'll explain below this is changing in a big way, slowly but surely.

Wood talks frequently about Vaishnavism, Saivism

These Hindu sects are most prominent in the south, especially amongst Tamils. It's easy to distinguish between Vaishnavite and Saivite Tamil Brahmins because the former will almost always have the surname Iyengar/Ayyangar (and its transliterate varieties) and the latter Iyer/Aiyer. During the 1960s and 70s when anti-Brahmin Tamil nationalists came to power for the first time in post-independent India, most of the Tamils who migrated overseas (particularly to the West) were Brahmins. This was probably even true until the early-to-mid 1990s. They probably didn't make up more than 2% of the Tamil population but they probably dominated 90% of the higher-rung positions in professional services until fairly recently. Within Tamil Nadu itself you can distinguish between Iyers and Iyengars by the way they apply sacred powders on their foreheads. Iyers apply three horizontal lines of incense ash while Iyengars apply a V-shaped symbol using lime-coloured-turmeric (ie, red) powder.

My general understanding is that South Indian Brahmins were/are a lot more protective of their religion than their North Indian counterparts. A couple examples. In the holiest temple in Kasi (aka Varanasi/Benares, the Mecca for Hindus) any Hindu can not only enter the inner sanctorum where the Shiva idol is but you can even touch it. In the South, you'll be so lucky to get anywhere near the inner sanctorum of the holiest temples without belonging to the priesthood in charge of it. Also, non-Hindus (usually meaning foreign tourists) are not allowed into several major south Indian temples whereas the same restrictions don't apply in north Indian temples. One caveat to this in recent times is the influence Hindu nationalists have had on imposing similar restrictions for scoring cheap political points. Non-Hindus are not allowed in because they'd supposedly defile the temple. Bearing all this in mind, don't even think of taking photographs in major south Indian temples, especially of the idols, even off a mirror's reflection. Been there, done that. Not pretty.
Aug. 24th, 2011 09:02 pm (UTC)
One source had said Saivism and Shaktism were big in south India; does that register with you at all?

From a Western perspective I look for doctrinal differences, "why are these different?", and Wikipedia's been useless there, unless I skimmed too fast; Vaishnavism and Saivism might be Flubber and Blubber for all I can tell from there. I can imagine the aesthetic and ritual differences, four-armed humanoid statue vs. pouring milk over a black lingam, but are there "real life" differences? Different exhorations or proscriptions?
Aug. 22nd, 2011 01:53 am (UTC)
Until fairly recently, the rigidity between Vaishnavites and Saivites was rock-solid. It still exists in many villages but like I mentioned above, it's breaking down. But traditionally members of each group would NEVER go to a temple dedicated to the other sect. So it's obvious there are temples made for one group or the other. One notable exception to this is the temple in Rameshwaram on the southern coast, the closest town to Sri Lanka.

It features prominently in the Ramayana from which it derives its name and after which my surname is derived (Ramanathan) and indeed my dad's entire name. Eshwar/Ishwar (EEsh-wuhr) is another name for Shiva but Rama was an incarnation of Vishnu. On his way to Sri Lanka to save his wife Sita from the clutches of the demon Ravana he stopped at the spot where the Rameshwaram temple now stands and reportedly prayed to Shiva for his blessings. The phallic idol (which we call lingam in Tamil) he shaped is therefore known as Ram-eshwar. But like I said, it's an exception. Almost all temples are either dedicated to Vishnu, his incarnates, family and allies or Shiva, his family and his allies.

Why are things changing? My interpretation is that unlike the other major religions, Hinduism lacked a major central church, at least nothing as big as the Roman Catholics, Shiites or Sunnis. And though my knowledge of north Indian Hinduism is very basic, it seems to me that the further south one went, the less centralised it became. So much so that I would say that until the 20th century, Hinduism in southern India, particularly amongst Tamils varied from village to village. There was a loose connection between members of the same caste-level in each village but there was no central authority other than the fact that if you were born into a Saivite family you prayed at your local Saivite temple that was run by the local Saivite Brahmins.

With the migration of the masses to the cities post-independence, this village-based religion has adopted itself to modernisation and forms of centralised Hinduism have developed and continue to do so. It's reached a point where there is less distinction between temples in southern India. And with migration overseas, it's very common to find only two types of temples in some Western countries, or even just one - housing all the Vaishnavite, Saivite, South and North Indian Hindu idols in one temple. The irony is that you probably wouldn't find a temple like that in India itself but expediency, cost and whatever else has forced Hindus to adapt to the changing environment.
Aug. 22nd, 2011 04:19 am (UTC)
Thanks, I appreciate the comments. More tomorrow, maybe.
Aug. 22nd, 2011 01:53 am (UTC)
Wood mentioned castes, but not a whole lot

This is one of my favourite topics about Hinduism, mainly because so little is known about it from an academic point-of-view amongst Indians themselves. Indeed the best people to ask about it are western anthropologists who have in some instances dedicated their lives to studying just one small community within the dozens, if not hundreds of sub-caste communities that extend across India. Most basic texts will introduce you to the four vertical caste groups plus the untouchables, but as you proceed further you'll learn about horizontal castes which share some characteristics from another vertical group but cannot be easily classified in the traditional four level vertical structure.

It so happens that I, or historically speaking my family at least, belong to one of these horizontal groups. I originally come from one of the four main weaving Tamil sub-caste communities. Generally speaking, caste rules applied only to those speaking the same language, so a Tamil Brahmin would not practice Hinduism in exactly the same way other South Indian Brahmins would, or especially North Indian Brahmins. The basics would be essentially the same (ie the mantras were all based on the Vedas, especially the Rig Veda) but there was much specialisation and distinction between ethnocentric caste groups.

Also, and this is mainly found amongst south Indian Hindus and particularly Tamils, besides being a Vaishnavite or Saivite, everybody belonged to a particular "village god" based on endogamy. I've explained roughly how it works in this post I made in 2006 following the 'annual' visit to my 'village god' in the summer of 2005. If it still doesn't make sense feel free to ask about it. That system is widespread amongst Tamils so everyone should have/know where their village god is.

And so on and so forth. Sorry for flooding your entry with these lengthy comments. Saw it was about India and stuff I like and couldn't resist leaving my two pence. :)
Aug. 24th, 2011 08:53 pm (UTC)
vertical = varna, horizontal = jati?
Aug. 22nd, 2011 01:56 am (UTC)
The link to the post mentioned above. My apologies.
Aug. 24th, 2011 08:48 pm (UTC)
Thank you -- that was very interesting!

As I read these books, I'm reminded of the emphasis on primary sources in Advanced Placement History, and thinking I need to find some. :)
Aug. 22nd, 2011 02:18 am (UTC)
I promise this is my last comment for a while but I forgot to recommend a book worth reading if you'd like a specialised text on how one group of castes work. A few years ago I made use of my access to JStor to uncover a California-based anthropologist who dedicated the early part of his academic life to studying my specific sub-caste community - the weavers that I mentioned above. I couldn't believe my luck when I discovered a book he had written about it in the 1980s based on the years of on-the-ground research he did in and around the towns and villages where both my parents are from (they both belong to the same sub-caste but if you follow the link above to the post I made from 2006 you'll know that they didn't belong to the same endogamous group). He speaks fluent Tamil and is an expert on south Indian castes in general. Here's a link to the book he wrote about our community. He still teaches at UCSB, I think.

From the title you get a clue as to why we're considered a horizontal caste - warriors generally belonged to the second-tier Kshatriya caste while traders belonged to the third-level Vaishyas.
Aug. 24th, 2011 08:50 pm (UTC)
Heh, and by the reading I'd just been doing, weavers would be artisans and fourth-level Sudras... Argh!
Aug. 22nd, 2011 02:55 am (UTC)
Are you also Mindstalk at the SJG forums?
Aug. 22nd, 2011 04:18 am (UTC)
Yes, and RPG.net.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )


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