India by John Keay

keay_india.jpgOf the world's great ancient civilizations, the one about which I have been most ignorant is surely India. While I have read several books on Greece and Rome and listened to Teaching Company courses on China, Egypt, and the Near East, my exposure to Indian history has been more or less limited to repeated viewings of Richard Attenborough's biopic, Gandhi. In an effort to correct this, I purchased India, John Keay's one-volume history of the subcontinent from pre-history to present, though it has taken me several years to finally get around to reading it.

In the first lines of the introduction, Keay establishes that one reason for the difficulty in exploring ancient Indian history is the "poverty of available sources," which make "one of the world's longest histories also one of its more patchy." Keay describes the breakthroughs in recent decades, particularly in archaeology and linguistics, that have provided a fuller outline of early Indian civilization. Nevertheless, the several chapters which explore the Harappan and Vedic cultures and so-called "Epic India" remain rather speculative. Further, though the archaeological and linguistic analyses may be the best available, Keay's presentation is rather tedious. Along with the inherent difficulty in comprehending these geographically and chronologically distant civilizations, this makes for a sluggish beginning.

Truth be told, Keay's narrative is flat throughout the book. Things pick up a bit once the chronology comes "Out of the Myth-Smoke" with the Magadha and Maurya empires. With the rise of Buddhism and its accompanying source texts, as well as greater contact with the West (most notably Alexander the Great's incursion to the edges of India in the late 4th-century BC), the people, places, and dates of ancient India become more readily ascertainable:

In 1837, following years of conjecture and study by numerous other 'Orientalists', James Prinsep, the assay-master at the British mint in Calcutta, made what remains the single most important discovery in the unraveling of India's ancient history. From inscriptions in an unknown script found on the sotne railings of the great Buddhist stupa at Sanchi, he managed to identify two letters of the alphabet... Armed with his insight into the likely language, plus much of the alphabet, Prinsep proceeded to make the first ever translations from the neat 'pin-man' script now known as Ashoka Brahmi... Henceforth called Edicts, rather than Commandments, the inscriptions clearly announced themselves as the directives of a single sovereign. 'Thus speaks Devanampiya Piyadassi' was how most began.'

And thus historians began to piece together the history of Ashoka, most successful of the Mauryan emperors and regarded today as one of India's greatest rulers. The story of Ashoka and his successors is one of the best sections of the book, but it does not last. Unfortunately, in the era of the Middle Kingdoms, filling the 1500 years between the Mauryans and the rise of the Mughals, I spent much of the time just trying to identify the different regions of India that Keay was referring to as he muscled through the dozens of kingdoms and dynasties that competed for power.

Keay has a bad habit of alternating the use of a region's historical name with the name of a modern Indian political subdivision, adding to the confusion since neither of these is familiar to most Western readers. There are a decent number of maps, but I still found myself constantly trying to discern where the events being described were occurring, and more than once found myself on the entirely wrong side of the continent. Perhaps I am asking too much, and it is my ignorance rather than any defect in the book that is the cause of such difficulty. But I'm not so sure. The book does, after all, purport to be an authoritative one-volume history of the subcontinent. If there is inadequate time spent explaining and identifying the geographic regions up front, I think that is a valid basis for criticism.

Keay's treatment of India in the second millennium A.D. is nothing if not thorough. He traces in detail the rise and fall of dozens of regional and national governments, from the sultans of Delhi to the great Mughal Empire straight through the British Raj to independence and partition.

The dynamic of the Mughal political economy was as much about troops as money. Military leaders financed their activities by engaging in entrepreneurial ventures, and entrepreneurs secured their investments by supporting military venture.s Thus, even before war broke out with the French in the 1740s, the English Company, through its employees, was already indirectly involved in the hire and maintenance of troops by neighboring zamindars and revenue collectors... Most were recruited locally, many being from the Indo-Portuguese community. But Indian troops, known as 'peons' or 'sepoys (sipahis, soldiers), were also hired, there being a ready pool of professional soldiers - Marathas, Deccanis, Afghans, rajputs, Baksaris (from Awadh) - which Mughal rule had left stranded, and often unpaid, throughout the subcontinent. The existence of this market in troops, like that of the market in offices and revenue farms, positively invited European participation.

As India emerges under the Mughals as both a player and an object on the international scene, it is easier to understand the context of the history Keay is describing. Overall, Keay's book is a frustrating, rewarding endeavor. I spent much of the book moderately confused, and it took several weeks to struggle through, but at the end I felt substantially more familiar with the subject matter. Perhaps this is the inevitable nature of a one-volume text on the Indian subcontinent, which has seen more than its share of sweeping religious, military, and political turmoil in its four millennia of human civilization.