A New History of India
‘A New History of India’ by Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Shobita Punja and Toby Sinclair compliments good reads like Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘A Discovery of India’ that was published in 1946.
‘A New History of India’ is a scholarly attempt by historians to challenge the falsehood being fed to the nation by a university called WhatsApp. WhatsApp university is dangerous as it is staffed by people deliberately using history to impose personal political agendas. There seems to be little interest in reading, writing or analysis.
Concerned about growing ignorance of the youth over the country’s collective past, the writers have reiterated in the book that India was always a mosaic. The country had never existed in isolation and continues to enjoy countless encounters and influences. The story of the gradual making of India through millennia is told in text of course but also with illustrations, photographs and maps.
The historians say that much before India became a nation state it was a civilisation, enjoying a unique geography. Friendly winds had brought to its shore both traders and invaders.
However some 4.5 billion years ago when the planet was a core of molten lava, flowing in successive layers of rock there was nothing on the subcontinent. Once the lava reached the outer layer of the rocks, it formed continental plates and oceanic crusts on which all life exists today.
By about 180 million years ago Africa, Antarctica, Arabia Australia, South America and India were all joined in a single landmass called Gondwanaland. Bees and other insects arrived about 220 million years ago to spread the growth of plants and flowers that were edible.
A Human-like species originated in Africa and their exploration for food and safer environments took them out of Africa. Approximately 300,000 years ago humans entered the Indian subcontinent to share the landscape with other wild animals in the region.
Clearly it is a combination of geography, geology, politics, culture, religion and economics that have together made India the country that it is today. The first two chapters in this history book therefore are an interesting geological account of the subcontinent.
Nomadic life shifted to settled life during Vedic times. Later humans moved from settlements along the banks of the Indus River to live on the shores of the Ganges River.
Here Buddhism was born to liberate the human mind from prevalent ideas of the cycle of life and death. The Turkish conquest at the tail end of the 12th Century introduced Islam only to further enrich life in the subcontinent with new forms of piety, monotheism and spiritual quests.
Together these ideas fired local imaginations and gave birth to great minds like that of Guru Nanak in Punjab, Chaitanya in Bengal and Kabir in the heart of the subcontinent.
This was a period of intense questioning of religious orthodoxy and the idea of the creator of the world was made accessible to ordinary humans by humanising faith. What is not emphasised enough today is the arrival of the British, after which the Indian economy lost its independence and became a subordinate partner in the modern global economy.
In the din of hateful debates that force Hinduism to confront Islam today, the historians feel that two important personalities who don’t get the attention they deserve are Mahavira and Gautama Buddha in India.
The Jain followers of Mahavira and Buddhists have been reduced to tiny minorities and their identity drowned within the larger Hindu family.
Few people remember the message of Mahavira and the Buddha today while during the freedom movement, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad is yet another giant of a human being who has not got the attention that he deserves.
Jainism and Buddhism are important as two major and enduring movements that articulated a process of organising society and piety in a more compassionate way and which was different from the ways that the Brahmanical tradition and discourse had attempted to impose on people.
The Mahavira and the Buddha taught around the same time and there are some similarities in their ideas. These two traditions are a code of conduct held together by a philosophical understanding of piety and the world. Both reject the authority of the Vedas in the attainment of salvation.
The word Jain denotes a follower of Jina, a victor or an individual who has acquired infinite knowledge and teaches others how to attain liberation from the cycle of rebirth to attain moksha. A synonym for Jina is Tirthankara, someone who builds bridges to help people cross the ocean of suffering.
The three pillars of the Jain discipline are right faith, right knowledge and right conduct. Underlying the practice of Jainism was the philosophical belief that reality had multiple dimensions. The Jainism understanding of reality did not condemn or reject other existing philosophical views but emphasised that they were partial and therefore inadequate or incomplete.
Since religion is being encouraged to play a larger than life role in India today, it is important to understand the message of different religions like Jainism and Buddhism as explained by the historians.
Buddhist and Jains have a central theme in life which is liberation from the bondage of endless cycles of life. They believe that every person without the help of the gods, rituals or intermediaries like priests is capable of making his or her own spiritual path, diverse as they may be to attain liberation.
To take to that path both Buddhists and Jains evolved a code of conduct for ordinary people by highlighting certain social mores and conduct. By distancing his message from abstract modes of thought, the Buddha brought his ideas closer to how people lived, how they should live and conduct their lives.
Ahimsa or non-violence is a fundamental feature of Jainism that permeates all aspects of an individual’s life. The other practices are truthfulness and honesty, contentment and self-restraint, forgiveness, humility, celibacy, penance, non-attachment and renunciation.
For the Buddhist, the path to liberation begins with the Middle Way that steers the mind from all extreme thoughts, actions and deeds like extreme asceticism, or excessive sensual indulgence.
The authors write that the coming of Islam introduced many new dimensions and features into the cultures and histories of various parts of India where Islam reached either through military conquest or through the teachings of Sufis who moved across the country.
This is the time of the opening up of India to the Persianate world and India’s 500 year-long encounter with the Persianate world coincided with some very significant developments in the history of India.
This period saw the disappearance of Buddhism, rise of Sikhism, emergence of the world’s largest Muslim society, clearance of large acres of forest for grain cultivation, integration of tribal clans into the Hindu social order as castes and the growth of India as a major producer and exporter of manufactured textiles.
According to the historians the arrival of Islam into India brought a fresh momentum into societies here. One part of it was violent conquests that brought with them a new political discourse.
The other part was less perceptible and more enduring, fashioning as it did new forms of poetry, aesthetic sensibilities and even the extension and organisation of agricultural activities.
A New History of India: From its Origins to the Twenty-First Century
Authors Rudrangshu Mukerjee, Shobita Punja, Toby Sinclair
Published by Aleph Book Company, 2023.