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A Simple, Scientific Narrative

narrated, albeit briefly. The economic A Simple, Scientific aspects of the period receive special atten- Narrative India

of the Cera-Cola-Pandyas are duly narrated, albeit briefly. The economic

A Simple, Scientific

aspects of the period receive special attention such as growth of crafts, commerce and urbanism and money economy,


India’s Ancient Past

by R S Sharma; OUP, New Delhi, 2005; pp xiii+387, Rs 395.


oming from a historian of repute like R S Sharma, this book is not addressed to historians and researchers already familiar with his writings, which have contributed to the significant advance in Indian historiography in the recent past. It is mainly intended as an introduction to India’s ancient past from the stone age to the beginnings of the early medieval period for the interested lay reader and high school or pre-university students seeking a simple but scientific narrative of the past. It is more in the nature of an integrated text of his earlier essays in text-book writing for beginners and is carefully organised in the form of short chapters on every period marking changes in the formative or evolutionary phases of Indian civilisation.

The narrative is highly readable, demarcating the major periods of social formation, political and cultural evolution, underlying which is a judicious use of all available sources and their relative importance for each period. Divided into 33 chapters, the first six provide the background in terms of the historiographical changes, ecological and geographical setting, nature of the sources and their linguistic variety. The rest of the chapters provide a historical reconstruction.

Comprehensive Account

Starting from the old stone age or Palaeolithic age, Sharma deals with the geographical spread of the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic cultures and their geographical spread, but makes a significant omission by leaving out the most important Palaeolithic site of Attirampakkam in the Palar valley and the Mesolithic site of Adichanallur (Tamraparni valley) in Tamil Nadu. A fairly comprehensive account of the bronze age Indus valley civilisation and its urban character points out the differences between this culture from the Vedic-Aryan pastoralcum-agricultural society, the latter’s beginnings being located outside India on the basis of archaeological and literary evidence and its later development in India, through interaction with the indigenous culture with institutional features specific to north India, especially in the region of the five rivers. The later Vedic (post-Rig Vedic) period introduces changes from the tribal-pastoral character of the Rig Vedic society to a territorial monarchical polity together with republican forms of polity in the north-eastern regions, leading to a further spread of Vedic-Aryan culture.

In the post-Vedic period anti-Vedic traditions such as Jainism, Buddhism questioning the brahmanical varna-based social order and other philosophical systems including the materialist Lokayata emerged. The significance and influence of Buddhism, emergence of territorial states like the ‘mahajanapadas’ along with the northeastern republics (Liccahavis and Sakyas) from where the counter religious traditions like Buddhism emerged, ultimately leading to the formation of larger states like Magadha, are markers of major sociopolitical changes, which are focused upon in the 13th, 14th and the 15th chapters.

The impact of foreign invasions, i e, of the Iranian and Macedonian in the 6th and 4th centuries BC, and the later Indo-Greek and Kushan (Yuechis of central Asia) during the centuries after Mauryan rule, changes in the varna organisation due to the egalitarian ideals of Buddhism, the emergence of ‘gahapatis’ or agricultural householders and gradually also traders, are other significant changes from the age of the Buddha to the rise of the Mauryas as empire builders, all of which form the main themes of the chapters from the 16th to the 20th. The beginnings of Mahayana Buddhism, also ushered in a period of great art and architectural traditions.

Peninsular India

Peninsular India is taken up in the following chapters, in which the history of the Satavahanas and the early Tamil kingdoms particularly the Graeco-Roman trade contacts. The author uses Tamil sources, epigraphic records and foreign accounts in addition to archaeological data. The importance of brahmanical ideology for the state and legitimacy of the newly emerging rulers including the three Tamil kings (are they not more tribal chiefs than kings?) and social formations in the south as also the Buddhist cosmopolitan outlook conducive for a more egalitarian, especially the trading community, are emphasised. However, the author does not seem to be aware of the fact that the Satiyaputras of the Asokan edicts have been identified with the Atiyamans of the Sangam literature on the basis of the Tamil Brahmi inscription discovered in Jambai in the South Arcot district of Tamil Nadu nearly 20 years ago.

The rise and growth of the Gupta empire, the beginnings of a land grant system, Gupta patronage to Sanskrit and the development of classical literature (kavya grammar and smritis as normative texts); science and technology and classical idioms in art (sculpture and painting); temple worship and Puranic religions especially Bhagavatism and the Bhakti ideal; a decentralistion in administration due to grants of land to brahmanas and royal functionaries, are discussed as a prelude to the emergence of a feudal organisation by the end of the 6th and beginning of the 7th century AD. The emphasis is on the decline of trade and absence of money as an exchange medium and hence on land grants as the major institutional force of change towards an agrarian order dominated by brahmanas and rulers.

Chapters 26 to 28 carry the narrative forward both in space and time by outlining the spread of civilisation, in this case mainly brahmanisation and Sanskritisation, in all the peripheral areas such as Bengal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Assam, describing the process as the formative phase in the making of India. Special emphasis is laid on the period of Harsha (606-647), and the attempt to establish a third large state under him after the Huna invasions, affecting Kashmir, Punjab and western India. Harsha’s reign, according to Sharma, typifies the coming of the feudal age in north India with

Economic and Political Weekly May 20, 2006 increasing land grants. The feudal character of early medieval society has, however been under continuous debate among scholars studying the land grant system and agrarian order. At the same time, Chinese interest in the Buddhist religion and the visits of the Chinese pilgrims Hsuan Tsang and I-Tsing continued to encourage the development of universities like Nalanda with royal patronage. Biographies like the Harsha charita also became an important source for this period.

Tamil Kingdoms

The establishment of over two dozen states in the peninsula is associated with the spread of the brahmanical sociopolitical order and the deccan kingdoms of the Vakatakas, Kadmabas, Western Gangas and Chalukyas as also the Telugu Vengi and Tamil Pallavas and Pandyas and the temple as the main institutional focus of the development of these regional kingdoms are highlighted. Curiously, Sharma describes the Kalabhra hostility to early Tamil kingdoms as a peasant revolt against the landed brahmanas, which is hardly attested by available evidence, for it is only from later inscriptions and traditions that one hears of the Kalabhras subverting the existing socio-political order of the Sangam Tamils, which is believed to explain the political vacuum of about three centuries, after the decline of the Sangam rulers and before the rise of the Pallavas and Pandyas (6th century AD). This period still remains a problem in terms of the nature of changes that occurred in the Tamil region, transforming the tribal character of the early chiefdoms into a brahmanical monarchical organisation with institutions like the Brahmadeya and the temple. Sharma’s interpretation of the Ur, Sabha and Nagaram as three types of villages is based on a misconception of their character. In fact they are most clearly known to be the local assemblies of the peasant village, the Brahmadeya and the market centre respectively. Hence, it follows that when trade declined the merchants did not move to villages as believed by Sharma, but a new form of urbanisation led to the emergence of the traders’ organisation called the ‘nagaram’ in a predominantly agrarian economy. That different regional structures of the brahmanical social order evolved in these regions, as stated by Sharma, cannot be disputed.

Chapters 29 to 33 sum up the whole historical processes and sequence of social changes, together with the contributions of different periods of ancient Indian history to religion, philosophy, science, technology, medicine, art and literature, which may well serve as an objective assessment of the importance of ancient India to the development of Indian civilisation.

R S Sharma’s present exercise in setting the right perspectives for understanding India’s ancient past is indeed a welcome contribution at a time when clear direction and perspectives are lacking in the writing of Indian history for the pre-university level classes and for the interested lay reader due to the hijacking of history for political use, nay abuse.



Economic and Political Weekly May 20, 2006

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