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India: history gap, Buddhism

Right, so I should post something, to keep my readers going and to not build up an intimidating infoload... my last post was Aug 24? Eek.

One thing that's starting to come clear is that Indian history is confusing partly because it's full of holes. We're talking about a subcontinent where literacy skipped from Harappan writing we can't read, ending in 1800 BC, to stuff we can read in the 3rd century BC. Way behind the Middle East and China. Maturity of the scripts suggests experience for a couple centuries prior, but we don't have evidence.

And then, well, if India had a strong historical tradition, it either did not survive the preservation of palm-leaf manuscripts or it has escaped the notice of my authors. There's the Mahabharata, but it's like the Iliad. The first 'histories' are Buddhist and Jain biographies of the lives of their founders, which mention various kings as they allegedly interact with said founders. We also have Ashoka's stone-carved graffiti across the subcontinent; later, we have medieval royal charters (land grants) commonly engraved in copper, as evidence of various kings existing. But not much like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, or Catholic parish recordkeeping.

Or, eyeball the various subentries of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Medieval_historians Lots of European names, out to the occasional Georgian or Armenian, lots of Chinese, a couple Arab ones. 1/5 of the human race is not represented.

Even the Indo-Greek kingdoms are mostly known or inferred from the coinage they left behind.

We also have the phenomena of very major emperors like Ashoka and Kanishka being 'rediscovered', by Europeans, in the 19th century. Buddhists remembered they'd existed, but outsiders mapped them to specific times and the rock edicts, and read the edicts. This is like belatedly discovering Alexander or Charlemagne.

Histories weren't alien to the whole Indosphere; Sri Lanka has a nice long chronicle of its own, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahavamsa Actually a fair bit of what we know of Indian history seems to come from Ceylonese records...

But otherwise there's not much in the way of chronicles until 13th century Muslims; before then we have to piece together coins, charters, inscriptions, religious and literary texts, and the observations of the occasional Greek or Chinese visitor.


For its anti-materialist reputation, Buddhism has surprising mercantile ties. One is that not caring about caste and ritual purity is a big boon to moving around with trade goods. Another might be the small religious trust-community that both Jews and Jains have benefited from. Another is that the whole notion of 'merit' that one can earn and accumulate and transfer makes a lot of sense to people familiar with money.

The early Budddhist chronicles also describe an urban and mercantile culture, which is interesting since the Upanishads, dated a couple centuries prior, are still in the mode of Highland cattle rustlers. Something changed fast, or wasn't being recorded, or the dates for the Buddha need an extra 80 years added to them.


I finished K&R and have started a third book, India: A History by John Keay. It aspires to be comprehensive like K&R, but with more maps, photographs, and family trees, and an occasional snarky style alien to the dry K&R or the somewhat awed Wood.


Arthashastra influential to 12th century, then lost until 1904


(2011-09-20 23:20:49) Amy: Chinese took historiography seriously. There's the story that during the Choson Dynasty (Korea, but Chinese-influenced) there were historians compiling everything done by the court - and they were sealed from everyone else, including the emperor, to prevent political pressure on the historians.

Enough, for now, it's 2:30.

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Damien Sullivan

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