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Published on: 12/26/21 2:28 PM

Book review: Ancient India, Culture of Contradictions by Upinder Singh

In what is easily one of the best non-fiction works to release this year, Upinder Singh’s Ancient India is aimed at a reading audience with an interest in history, the curiosity to compare ancient and modern, or to just read more about India’s backstories. It throws a clear light on its point of focus: the contradictions that co-exist, sometimes peacefully sometimes in a state of conflict, in both the India of the past and the India of today. Indeed, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Rather than ask,  who am I, Singh opines that the query, who are we,  is the more pertinent one. The book opens with an account of Rohith Vemula’s suicide and his written condemnation of caste discrimination, and quickly takes us back into the 4th century BCE, to the dasa/dasis system that prevailed then.

The earliest clear references to slaves occur as far back as in the Rig Veda Samhita, Singh writes, then goes on to touch upon the Manusmriti, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Shudraka’s Mrichchakatika, goes into the origin of the varnas, then proceeds with the first reveal: how the people of ancient India sometimes bucked these social ideologies.

Singh uses the device of not too long passages with succinct subheadings to take up topics like untouchability, slavery, Jaina and Buddhist challenges, critique and satire back in the day, love imagined in Sanskrit kavya; yakshas and nagas; the popular Hindu goddesses; the world of real women; the violence inherent in ancient India’s interaction with forest people; countercultures of non-violence; the astika-nastika divide, and more.

There is a succinct description of caste being not just a simple division of labour but a complex system involving control over material resources, value systems and knowledge production. The leitmotif is one that is all too easy to grasp: that there existed – and indeed, exist – no real prototypes of ancient and modern Indian culture.

Even as religion promises universal salvation, the chasm of social inequality continues to widen. Even as detachment is lauded, desire is prized. Even as the goddess is worshipped,  women are treated badly. Even as violence is condemned, wars are valorised.

Singh takes into account the limitations of archaeological finds and textual matter in capturing the entire range of human experience. Were ancient Indians non-violent? No. Were they less violent than people living in other parts of the world?

That, she avers, needs a study of the comparative global history of violence. She explains the amnesia about violence in ancient India’s history as coming from an idealised interpretation of Indian history, from a hop, skip and jump approach that magically connects Mahavira, the Buddha, Ashoka and Gandhi, and leaves out everything in between.

The past, says the author, can be beautiful, uplifting, inspiring; it can also be ugly, unsettling and disturbing. India stands revealed as neither timeless nor an Utopia of social harmony, religious unity and non-violence. If we are inheritors of a glorious  heritage, that heritage also contains troubling inflections which need to be looked at in a nuanced way, understood and absorbed in as balanced a manner as possible.

The jacket picture, that of a celestial dancer in sandstone from the 11th century, is truly a thing of beauty. The black/white format of the striking illustrations, “evocative windows into the past”  as Singh terms them, make them a treat to look at. Singh explains that these human figures are not nude, it is the diaphanous robes they wear that give the illusion of nudity.

Elsewhere she reproduces the earliest love graffiti found in the Jogimara cave in Chhattisgarh, for our edification: Sutanuka by name, a devadasi; the excellent among young men, Devadinna by name, the rupadaksha, loved her (kamayitha).

The underlying message of the book is as clear as it is direct. Just as ancient India was anchored by diversity and riven by contradictions galore, so is the state of current India. As Singh gently but repeatedly stresses, ours was a diverse, complex culture and we need to understand how these multiple threads were and are intertwined with each other. In that understanding will perhaps come new ways of co-existence.

Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions. By: Upinder Singh. Publisher: Aleph Books. Pages: 263. Price: Rs 799

This ran in the Sunday Express of 26/12/21.
Aleph BooksAncient Indiaculture of contradictionsour contrary historyUpinder Singh

Sheila Kumar • December 26, 2021

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