A Synthetic Presentation of Indian Civilization

A Synthetic Presentation of Indian Civilization

In the last few years, Indian history has been much in the news. Not, however, in an effort to make better sense of India’s past, of her behaviour as a civilization, of the specificities of Indian culture, nor also to integrate new findings into an ever-growing perspective, but mostly for polemical, political or sensational reasons that only end up creating more confusion and driving us farther away from the central issue:

How to deal with Indian history?

Ideology barges in and a finer perception of India tiptoes out. In the end, we Indians are the victims, more particularly the students: as long as the teaching of history is manipulated and remote-controlled, it will stifle creativity and students will continue to look at the discipline as a chore pushed down their throats — a “sleeping pill”, as some of them once told me. Mathematics might be another, but then, you need it to get a good job — what do you need history for?

That, in fact, is the whole question. Unless the syllabus, the textbook and the teacher can together convince the student that history opens a window onto Indian culture and heritage and an understanding of ourselves — in short, a meaningful perspective of India — the answer to the question will merely be, to get a few marks at the exam. If there is nothing more to is, we might as well scrap the whole discipline, as a few State governments have indeed suggested recently.

India’s history is not about dates and kings and bloodshed. It is about bringing out the life and culture of the Indian people, also the bend of the nation, the way India reacted (and continues to react) to crises and obstacles, adapted to new conditions, the way it has absorbed and given, changed but also remained the same. In a word, what makes India India.

Two views of India

If we pursue this research, we will soon find that we have to deal with two diametrically opposite perspectives of India. One of them was aptly summarized by the great historian R. C. Majumdar:

So far as the available evidence goes, there cannot be the slightest doubt that Indian civilization manifests itself in a way and a form very different from that with which we are familiar in the rest of the world. We have consequently to approach the history of India in a different spirit, and adopt a different scale of values in order to appraise her culture and civilization. The wars and conquests, the rise and fall of empires and nations, and the development of political ideas and institutions should not be regarded as the principal object of our study, and must be relegated to a position of secondary importance. On the other hand, more stress should be laid upon philosophy, religion, art, and letters, the development of social and moral ideas, and the general progress of those humanitarian ideals and institutions which form the distinctive feature of the spiritual life of India and her greatest contribution to the civilization of the world. (1)

Rabindranath Tagore, whose view of India and Indian history is rarely highlighted, wrote a seminal essay entitled The History of Bharatavarsha. In it he struck a chord parallel to Majumdar’s:

The history of India that we read and memorize for our examinations is really a nightmarish account of India. Some people arrive from somewhere and the pandemonium is let loose. And then it is a free-for-all: assault and counter-assault, blows and bloodletting. … If Bharatavarsha  is viewed with these passing frames of dreamlike scenes, smeared in red, overlaid on it, the real Bharatavarsha cannot be glimpsed. These histories do not answer the question, where were the people of India?…

Our real ties are with the Bharatavarsha that lies outside our textbooks. If the history of this tie for a substantially long period gets lost, our soul loses its anchorage. After all, we are no weeds or parasitical plants in India. Over many hundreds of years, it is our roots, hundreds and thousands of them, that have occupied the very heart of Bharatavarsha. But, unfortunately, we are obliged to learn a brand of history that makes our children forget this very fact. It appears as if we are nobody in India… (2)

Such a conception was also that of Swami Vivekananda, (3) of Sri Aurobindo, who presented us with a comprehensive formulation of Indian civilization in his Foundations of Indian Culture, (4) of Sister Nivedita, (5) John Woodroffe, (6)  Ananda Coomaraswamy, (7) K. M. Munshi, (8) and a host of other profound thinkers and scholars.

On the other hand, we have what I venture to call the “colonial-Marxist” perspective. The hyphenation is justified, as we find that in India’s case, Marxist historiography accepts in practice the broad framework of the erstwhile colonial historians, even as it throws new insights, some of which (in the economic and social fields in particular) are often valuable. Among the main features of this perspective, we should certainly mention:

  • A purely materialistic, social and economic definition of man. Since no spiritual dimension is acknowledged, India’s religious and spiritual currents, movements and evolution are interpreted purely from a materialistic standpoint.
  • Indian spirituality and religion (labelled “animism,” “idolatry”…) are therefore of no value, as are India’s great spiritual figures. To a Marxist historian, Swami Vivekananda’s or Sri Aurobindo’s or Tagore’s understanding of Indian history and civilization is of no relevance.
  • India’s cultural continuity and identity are basically denied. Artificial breaks are introduced in time (for instance the imaginary Aryan invasion of India) or in society (the Brahmins vs. the rest of India). We do hear of India’s “diversity” but not of what constitutes its “unity.” India’s cultural cement, for instance the reach of Epic and Puranic lore to the remotest corner of India, is not thought to be a worthwhile object of study.
  • A gross overemphasis is laid on the caste system: most social phenomenons are interpreted in terms of caste. Yet the relative stability and economic prosperity provided by the caste system to Indian society is overlooked. Also, the substantial role of Islam and British rule in hardening the caste system is glossed over, while Hinduism is portrayed as the spread or sometimes the imposition of “Brahminism,” ignoring its organic interchange with local cultures.
  • India’s civilizational achievements and contributions to the world in terms of science, technology, philosophy, spirituality, religion, art, literature, scripts etc., are consistently under-emphasized.
  • Semitic religions and societies are gently dealt with, while the defects of Indian society are magnified and invariably put down to Hinduism.
  • India’s history is squeezed into a Eurocentric framework through an artificial and alien terminology: “barbarism,” “feudalism,” “class war”.

Failing to work out an Indian historiography of India, this perspective in effect promotes a de-Indianized view of Indian history, which can logically lead only to the atomization of India, since one is left to wonder what can hold together this bewildering medley.

Themes in Indian Civilization

In this paper I propose to highlight a few key themes that naturally emerge from Indian history and archaeology. In themselves, they are by no means new, so I will not go over the “classical” evidence supporting them, which can be found in many studies. (9)  I will only attempt to show how they receive fresh and sometimes crucial support from findings made in recent years. Which of the two above perspectives of India those new findings tend to endorse should be clear enough.

Antiquity and Continuity

Antiquity and continuity are possibly the most striking characteristics of Indian civilization, and they has been amply confirmed by archaeological evidence. Among India’s most ancient settlements, Mehrgarh, an important site in Baluchistan, at the foot of the Bolan pass, has been excavated in the last decades. Spread over 250 hectares, it has brought to light one of the earliest farming communities on the subcontinent, dating back to 7000 BC; by 6000 BC, it had “a veritable agricultural economy solidly established,” (10) in the words of French excavator Jean-François Jarrige. More importantly, Mehrgarh has revealed a continuous sequence of cultures spanning some 4,000 years and leading to the “mature” Indus-Sarasvati civilization and beyond. More such sites may yet come to light, giving us a better understanding of the growth of civilization on Indian soil.

One possible candidate may emerge from the Gulf of Khambat, where in the last few years the National Institute of Ocean Technology (11) has been collecting artefacts from the sea bed, with pottery and wood pieces yielding dates between 3000 and 10,000 years old. (12)  Moreover, sonar photography has revealed strangely geometric patterns along a paleo-river bed that resemble settlements. While the site does seem to hold potential, such patterns can also arise out of natural formations; we should therefore urge caution pending systematic excavations of the sea bed.

On a surer ground, sites of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, the first on Indian soil (2600-1900 BC for its mature phase), have yielded many artefacts that evidence a cultural continuity with later Indian civilization, especially in the Gangetic region. For instance, ornaments (including craft techniques), games (from spinning tops to dice), traditions (red pigment at the parting of the hair), the use of conch shells for libations as well as trumpeting, the ritual use of water for purification (as seen at Mohenjo-daro’s Great Bath), religious symbols (the svastika, the trishul, the pipal, etc.), important modes of worship such as fire, mother-goddess, lingam, etc. (13)  It is therefore hardly surprising to read such statements under the pens of archaeologists:

John Marshall: “The [Harappan] religion is so characteristically Indian as hardly to be distinguished from still living Hinduism…. One thing that stands out both at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa is that the civilization hitherto revealed at these two places is not an incipient civilization, but one already age-old and stereotyped on Indian soil, with many millennia of human endeavour behind it…” (14)

Jonathan M. Kenoyer: “Since the discovery of the Indus cities, scholars have made comparisons and contrasts between the Indus cities and later urban cultures of the subcontinent. Current studies of the transitionbetween the two early urban civilizations claim that there was no significant break or hiatus.” (15)

Jim Shaffer: “The previous concept of a ‘Dark Age’ in South Asian archaeology is no longer valid.” (16)

Such assertions of India’s civilizational continuity, which run counter to the theory of an Aryan invasion of or migration into India, are echoed in the works of B. B. Lal, S. P. Gupta, S. R. Rao and others. They also get independent corroboration from three recent significant finds in the Gangetic plains:

  • Mother-goddess cult:
    In the 1980s, evidence of worship of a mother-goddess going back to 8000 or 9000 BC came to light during the excavation of Baghor in the Son valley (Sidhi district, Madhya Pradesh). On a circular platform of about 85 cm in diameter made of sandstone rubble, fragments were found of a 15 cm-high triangular-shaped natural stone of alternating light and dark colours. Very similar shrines were found in nearby tribalsettlements, in particular with the Kol and Baiga tribes, which makes thiscult over 10,000 years old. (17)
  • Rice in Neolithic culture:
    Recent excavations in North Central India have yielded ancient dates for Neolithic sites where rice was domesticated (often along with millet):

    7477 BC for Jhusi (near the Ganga-Yamuna confluence),
    6570 BC for Koldihwa (in the Belan valley of Allahabad district),
    6591 BC for Tokwa (Adwa valley of Mirzapur district).
    This pushes back the conventional date for rice cultivation in India by several millennia. Indeed, the region was a crucial one for the birth of rice and millet agriculture, while the North-West developed barley and wheat agriculture. The two regions gradually came into contact, with rice travelling westward and barley and wheat eastward. (18)
  • Iron:
    So too, the beginning of the use of iron, traditionally dated 1000-1200 BC and associated with the eastward migration of the imaginary “Aryans,” has been pushed back to 1800 BC, for instance at Malhar (district Chandauli in U. P.). (19)  This date not only “corroborates the early use of iron in other areas of the country, and attests that India was indeed an independent centre for the development of the working of iron,” according to Rakesh Tewari, but also overlaps the late Harappan stage, bridging the copper and iron ages.
  • No Thick Forests:
    In the earlier picture, iron was thought to have been the crucial technological development enabling the eastbound Aryans to clear thick forests of the Gangetic plains before settling down to an agricultural life. This myth falls flat in the face of recent research: combining evidence from literary sources, studies of fossil pollen as well as archaeology, Rakesh Tewari again has shown how a large number of agricultural settlements are found in the region right from 2500 BC: although there were indeed pockets of forests, the evidence is “indicative of a savannah landscape dominated by grassy vegetation.” (20)  Clearly, the Aryan invasion scenario fails at every step and the ground reality evidences continuity in evolution.

Taken together, these findings help to throw a bridge over the imaginary chasm between the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, ending about 1900 BC, with a “late” phase extending till 1300 BC, and developments in the Ganges plains that led to a fresh phase of urbanization there from about 800 BC. Not only is there no chronological break (the old and now discarded concept of a “Vedic night” between the two civilizations), we also find that there is no cultural hiatus. Urbanization did collapse in the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, but technologies, crafts, traditions and much of the culture survived: the overall picture is one of a continuum. (21)

Spiritual Foundations

Indeed, a compelling example of the preceding statement can be found in evidence surfacing from the Harappan cities of a distinctly Indian tradition, that of yoga. Besides the numerous seals representing deities in yogic postures and a series of figurines from Lothal in various asanas, we have from Harappa a striking figurine with joined hands (22)  in anjali namaskar. The famous “priest-king”, portrayed in deep contemplation and exuding a sense of self-mastery, might represent a rishi or a sage rather than a “king”. Thus from its very beginnings, Indian civilization exhibits a spiritual bent; whether that could be a reason for the absence of army, warfare and man-made destruction in the Harappan world should become clearer with future excavations.

This spiritual bent manifested in all fields of life. We will mention here two among the less prominent ones, which have been the object of recent exploration, and we will leave aside the much better documented field of art, where Indian spirituality perhaps found its fullest expression.

Town-planning is the first, integrating cosmic designs from the earliest times, sometimes in a most unobtrusive manner. Beginning with the impressive Harappan cities, we find a careful orientation along the cardinal directions, grid plans, enclosing walls, etc. In the case of Mohenjo-daro, however, Holger Wanzke (23) observed that the alignment of Mohenjo-daro’s citadel has a 1° to 2°clockwise divergence from the cardinal directions and in fact points to an east-west alignment along the Pleiades star cluster (Krittika), which rose due eastduring the mature Harappan phase at the vernal equinox (because of the precession of the equinoxes, it no longer does). The Shatapatha Brahmana ( does refer to a time when the Pleiades, the first of the 27 Nakshatras, “does not swerve from the east”, which is precisely the mature Harappan period. It is therefore likely that the Harappans practised a “sacred astronomy”, although systematic studies in other cities remain to be made.

They were also, undeniably, experts in geometric town-planning. Dholavira is the best example so far of a careful planning involving the use (and sometimes the repetition) of sacred ratios such as 5/4, 7/6, 1/3, 3/4 etc. In a recent study I tried to work out the geometric foundations of Dholavira, and in the process, three important facts were brought to light:

  • Some of the ratios, especially 5/4 (used no less than three times at Dholavira), are found in other Harappan cities, buildings and structures; their use is therefore not random.
  • Dholavira’s chief ratios of 5/4 and 7/6 are mentioned as ideal proportions by Varahamihira in his Brihat Samhita; and
  • the system of units used by Dholavira’s planners is specifically described in the Artha Shastra. Those last two points are, naturally, important bridges between the Harappan and the historical eras. (24)

Like Mohenjo-daro, cities of historical times often have an astronomical backdrop. I will only mention here, among cases recently studied under the direction of astrophysicist J. McKim Malville: (25) that of Chitrakut, where places of pilgrimages were found to reproduce on the ground arrow-like designs reminiscent of Lord Rama, and oriented to the summer solstice sunrise and sunset; and the case of Kashi where, amidst many layers of complex cosmogony connected with various pilgrimage routes, shrines to 14 Adityas turned out to be patterned in an array of sunbeam-like alignments pointing to precise directions for the sunset at different times of the year. Ancient town-planners certainly saw geography as a sacred medium.

The second field is India’s ecological heritage. No doubt, most ancient civilizations and non-Abrahamic cultures regarded Nature as sacred, but nowhere has this been so systematized, widespread and deep-rooted as in India— and ancient too, since we see Nature worship in full action from the Indus-Sarasvati civilization onward. There have been many recent studies of this vital aspect of Indian culture. (26)  While they have added to our detailed understanding of it, their fundamentals remain the same: mountains, rivers, trees and other plants, animals, natural elements are all woven into a rich web along with mythology, religious worship, customs and festivals, medicine, sometimes also planets and calendars. This cosmic tapestry of life rests on two beliefs: the whole universe is a sacred place, and the earth is our Mother. As current ecology is beginning to understand, there is no better conservation policy.

Tireless Creativity

A good deal of recent research has produced new insights into advanced concepts and pioneering developments in early India in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, metallurgy, water conservation and other technologies. The field is much too vast to be even summarized here, but mention should be made of a number of important studies (27) which, together, project India as an extraordinarily creative civilization. We are far from having assessed its colossal output, from advanced mathematics to the treatment of seeds, or from the most refined and complex architecture to horse training. To give one glimpse of the extent of our ignorance, we may mention the recent publication (28) by the well-known late scholar of Indian science, K. V. Sarma, who compiled a list of 3,473 science texts from 12,244 science manuscripts found in 400 repositories in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Of those 3,473 texts, no more than 7% are available in print. In other words, we know nothing of the remaining 93% and depend on 7% of those texts for our understanding of Indian science. Let us hope that the unpublished texts will come to light before they crumble away as many of their predecessors.

But India’s achievements were by no means limited to ancient times. Thecase of S. Ramanujan is now well known. Less so is that of Jagdish Chandra Bose, whose pioneering research has been reassessed in recent years in a manner that credits him, rather than Marconi, with the invention of wireless transmission. In the words of D. T. Emerson:

In 1895 Bose gave his first public demonstration of electromagnetic waves, using them to ring a bell remotely and to explode some gunpowder.… The first successful wireless signalling experiment by Marconi on Salisbury Plain in England was not until May 1897. (29)

There is, in fact, ground to believe that Marconi generously borrowed from J. C. Bose’s breakthrough. (30)  Not that Bose minded; he made it clear that he was not interested in commercial telegraphy and that others were welcome to use his research work. This generous attitude, in line with India’s age-old gifts to the world, ought not, however, to have denied him credit for his pioneering work.

India, a Dharma-based society

Numerous texts, especially the Mahabharata and the Dharmashastras, depict Indian society as one based on Dharma at all levels. This is reflected in a number of inscriptions, from Ashoka’s Edicts to elaborate social codes under the Cholas. But the bolts and nuts of Indian society depended much less than generally thought on the king at the top: there were multiple layers of assemblies to ensure that villagers as much as town and city dwellers could participate in the management of their own affairs. In modern parlance, India developed democratic traditions early on.

India’s “early republics,” the Mahajanapadas of North India at the start of the historical era, have long been documented. But recently, archaeologists such as B. B. Lal (31) or J. M. Kenoyer (32) have argued that two thousand years earlier, the Indus-Sarasvati civilization might also have been some sort of federation of city-states, not only in view of the huge distances involved, but also because of the remarkable invisibility of any kind or ruling class in the archaeological record, something without parallel in other ancient civilizations.

Indeed, it appears that the phenomenon was far more extensive than our textbooks make it out to be — especially those that trace the birth of democracy in India to 1947! Recently a Canadian historian, Steve Muhlberger made a fresh study of Indian republicanism, noting:

The experience of Ancient India with republicanism, if better known, would by itself make democracy seem less of a freakish development, and help dispel the common idea that the very concept of democracy is specifically “Western.” … It is especially remarkable that, during the near-millennium between 500 B.C. and 400 A.D., we find republics almost anywhere in India that our sources allow us to examine society in any detail. … The republics of India were very likely more extensive and populous than the poleis of the Greeks. The existence of Indian republicanism is a discovery of the twentieth century. The implications of this phenomenon have yet to be fully digested. … Historians may find, in the Indian past as elsewhere, plenty of raw material for a new history of the development of human government. (33)

This is one more field clearly calling for sustained research, the outcome of which may well establish that a social order based on Dharma was actually the supreme ruler in the Indian concept, or, as Sri Aurobindo put it, “a greater sovereign than the king was the Dharma, the religious, ethical, social, political, juridic and customary law organically governing the life of the people.” (34)

Peaceful Integration: the “Many in the One” (35)

To the unbiased student of India, India’s extraordinary cultural integration is and remains one of her greatest achievements. To quote Rabindranath Tagore again: “Amongst the civilizations of the world, Bharatavarsha stands as an ideal of the endeavour to unify the diverse. Her history will bear this out.” (36)  But Tagore went further, and wrote:

India has all along been trying experiments in evolving a social unity within which all the different peoples could be held together, while fully enjoying the freedom of maintaining their own differences…. This has produced something like a United States of a social federation, whose common name is Hinduism. (37)

Even though today such a statement would raise eyebrows (especially the left one), its truth is undeniable. It was tacitly accepted by the late sociologist M.S. Srinivas, who did not shrink from depicting the “cohesive role” of Sanskrit literature. (38)  In actual fact, Hinduism is largely the result of a centuries-old peaceful, organic and decentralized interplay between Vedic and local cultures at all levels of Indian society, including the tribal ones. (39)

 In this complex process involving thousands of communities and many more local traditions, India’s two Epics have played a major part, followed by the Bhagavatam and Puranic lore. It is no surprise to find, for instance, that many rural communities and tribes throughout the country (as far as the North-Eastern States) have preserved and continue to enact their own versions of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana through tales, songs, new myths and customs, (40) and have established links between their landscape and one or another episode from the Epics. This “sacred mapping” of India’s geography is perhaps an unparalleled cultural phenomenon. A recent study by Sandhya Jain on tribal contributions to Hinduism concludes:

Tribals have made an enormous contribution to India’s civilization; all major gods of the Indic tradition have tribal links. Shiva was worshipped by forest-dwelling communities in large parts of the country, as were Vishnu’s incarnations as Varaha (boar) and Narasimha (lion). Vishnu in fact evolved out of several distinct deities, notably Vasudeva, supreme lord of the Vrishni/Satvata tribe; Krishna of the Yadava clan; Gopala of the Abhira tribe; and Narayana of the Hindukush mountains. Similarly, Gautama Buddha hailed from the Sakya tribe; Vardhaman Mahavira was a scion of the Jnatrikas…

There is to this day a close relationship between the Kurumba, Lambadi, Yenadi, Yerukula and Chenchu tribes and Shri Venkateshwar of Tirupathi. Lord Ayyappam in Kerala and Mata Vaishno Devi in Jammu also appear to have tribal links. All these gods and temples, as also that of Jagannath in Puri, enjoy preeminent status in the classical Hindu pantheon. Tribal society constitutes the keynote and the bedrock of Hindu civilization. (41)

A startling illustration of this statement can be found in a recent study by Jyotindra Jain, (42) who found among a few tribal communities of Western India the survival of a most ancient cult to the Vedic god Indra (called “Babo Ind”) — while mainstream, “Brahminical” Hinduism hardly ever worships Indra anymore.

Gods apart, tribal chieftains often naturally became Kshatriyas in the course of this interaction, and a number of later kings have such tribal origins. Upward mobility was far more common than we think, and even where it did not occur, a bidirectional cultural osmosis was the constant. India as a cultural entity would not have existed otherwise.

As A. V. Balasubramanian, an expert on India’s traditional knowledge systems, recently noted, “The relationship between folk and classical traditions is found to be symbiotic.” (43)  Numerous examples of such symbiosis can be cited. In Kerala, for instance, folk elements have mingled with classical Sanskrit theatre (such as Kutiyattam) to create new forms of dramatic art. (44)

Peaceful Interaction with the Other

India’s impact on world culture and progress, from ancient to present times, also deserves far greater attention than it has been given. Fresh evidence of it constantly keeps coming to light. We may cite a few examples almost at random:

  • Current excavations at the Egyptian port of Berenike have brought to light a flourishing sea trade between India and Egypt and the Roman empire, with Berenike playing the role of a key link between India and the Middle East. (45)
  • New studies emanating from India and viewing the Indian ocean as one civilizational zone of interaction have detailed India’s outreach to Africa, Mesopotamia, as well as South-East Asia. (46)
  • Peter B. Ellis, in his wide-ranging study The Druids, writes of “the extraordinary parallels and similarities between the Celtic and Hindu cultures, occurring in the areas of language, law, religious attitudes and mythology, music and caste.” (47)
  • New research on the spread of Indian mathematics suggests that it may have played a crucial role in the development of modern mathematics in Europe. British mathematician Ian Pearce, for instance, writes:
    I believe that the Indian influence on Arabic work is often ignored or played down and consider this to be unfortunate (at the least). This issue is definitely worthy of discussion as it is noticeable that much is made of the Greek influence on Arabic works but far less of the Indian influence, which in retrospect was quite significant…. Indian mathematics had on Arabic mathematics, and ultimately, through Latin translations, on European mathematics, an influence that is considerably neglected…. If indeed it is true that transmission of ideas and results between Europe and Kerala occurred, then the ‘role’ of later Indian mathematics is even more important than previously thought…. The work of Indian mathematicians has been severely neglected by Western historians.” (48)
    Similar conclusions have been suggested by George G. Joseph (49) and K.Chandra Hari. (50)
  • Research on India’s impact on the West in the colonial era has so far been confined largely to Britain and the U.S.A. But fresh material has been emerging from other nations. In France, for instance, philosophers from Voltaire to Renouvier, historians from Michelet to Quinet, poets from Lamartine to Rimbaud, writers from Daumal to Malraux were profoundly influenced by Indian concepts and literature. (51)  India, though physically conquered, thus played a significant part in shaping Europe’s literary movements from Romanticism to Surrealism, and also its humanist philosophies.
  • Similarly, the inspiration found in Indian concepts by Western scientists like Tesla, (52) Schrödinger, (53) Oppenheimer (54) or Heisenberg (55) has come to light in recent years, but needs to be built into a coherent overall picture.
  • Finally, India’s outflow of Hinduism and Buddhism to the West is by no means confined to the nineteenth century: the so-called “New Age culture” owes much to it, and an increasing number of Westerners are turning to some form of yoga and meditation; just as Indian culture is getting Westernized to some degree, Western culture is getting Indianized. One remarkable feature of this interaction of India with other cultures and other parts of the world is that it has almost always taken place in a perfectly peaceful self-effacing manner. India certainly never sought to impose itself on anyone, much less to destroy other cultures. It is a sobering thought that the same philosophies, the same spirituality, the same belief systems, the same literature that were warmly welcomed throughout Asia over two millennia ago continue to send their gentle and enriching rays abroad.


The average history textbook greets its readers with a fragmented, confused and incoherent idea of India; they learn nothing of the unifying virtue of Indian culture, of its synthesizing (not “composite”) nature, its unparalleled continuity, least of all its spiritual foundations and its achievements. By contrast, other nations, with an often much more limited heritage than India’s, find nothing wrong in nurturing pride for it in their students.

In 1918, Sri Aurobindo diagnosed the problem of Indian education thus:

The full soul rich with the inheritance of the past, the widening gains of the present, and the large potentiality of the future, can come only by a system of National Education. It cannot come by any extension or imitation of the system of the existing universities with its radically false principles, its vicious and mechanical methods, its dead-alive routine tradition and its narrow and sightless spirit (56)

Together, the above themes offer a pedagogic alternative, in that they paint a living and inspiring, if incomplete, picture of Indian civilization. An innovative teaching of Indian history could organize its material around such “master ideas,” (57) as Sri Aurobindo called them, rather than follow a chronological line that churns out events pell-mell and without an atom of relevance to the life of today’s young Indian.

This bookish approach must be done away with. Instead, an intelligent pedagogy (which is, in today’s Indian educational system, a contradiction in terms) could include, besides the above thematic approach, visits to archaeological or historical sites and museums, and even involve students in a local excavation or restoration; it could encourage the use of visual and multimedia material, good maps, etc. It should also encourage research projects based on the above or other themes, for instance the lives of a few great Indians—kings, but also scientists, saints, sages, poets, freedom fighters etc. — so as to show in what ways they have embodied the Indian genius.

As a result, a student would acquire a far more concrete, often visual, contact with Indian culture and would grasp its evolution rather than a mass of scattered, unrelated and often outdated data. The gain would be enormous: no longer an isolated (and largely meaningless) individual in time and space, the student becomes part of the great stream of Indian civilization. Identity — the dreaded word of today’s scholarship — would also crystallize, but a self-confident, generous, creative identity in tune with the universe. Is it a sin to celebrate India’s symphony, while acknowledging a few false notes?

The issue now facing India’s history is not some dubious “detoxification,” but nothing less than its decolonization and, in reality, its demoronization. Let us end this brief journey through Indian civilization with this profound observation of Sister Nivedita:

India, as she is, is a problem which can only be read by the light of Indian history. Only by a gradual and loving study of how she came to be, can we grow to understand what the country actually is, what the intention of her evolution, and what her sleeping potentiality may be. 

~ Michel Danino, student of Indian civilization, convener of the International Forum for India’s Heritage, French and English Author.   Keynote address delivered at a seminar on “History of Globalization and its impact on Indian Culture” organized by the Department of History, P.S.G.R. Krishnammal College for Women, Coimbatore on December 20th, 2006.

References & Notes

  1.  The History and Culture of the Indian People (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1951), vol. 1, p. 42.
  2.  Rabindranath Tagore, The History of Bharatavarsha.
  3. E.g. Swami Vivekananda, Lectures from Colombo to Almora (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1992).
  4.  The Foundations of Indian Culture, vol. 14 in Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library (Pondicherry: SriAurobindo Ashram, 1972).
  5.  Sister Nivedita, Footfalls in Indian History (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1990).
  6.  John Woodroffe, Is India Civilized? (Madras: Ganesh & Co., 1918).
  7.  See for instance his Essays in National Idealism  (1910, reprinted Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi,1981), Art and Swadeshi (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1994).
  8. See K. M. Munshi, Akhand Hindustan (Bomba, New Book Co., 1942), also his introduction to The History and Culture of the Indian People.
  9. For instance The Cultural Heritage of India (Calcutta: The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture,1958-2001, 6 volumes), The Wonder That Was India by A. L. Basham (Calcutta: Rupa & Co., 3rd ed,1981),  A Cultural History of India,  ed. A. L. Basham (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1975-1983), India and World Civilization by D. P. Singhal (Michigan State University Press, 1969), and L’Indeclassiqueby Louis Renou and Jean Filliozat (in French, 2 volumes).
  10. Jean-François Jarrige, “De l’Euphrate à l’Indus,” Dossiers Histoire et Archéologie (Dijon, December1987), p. 84.
  11. See details and photographs on its website www.niot.res.in/m3/arch/index.htm.
  12. Those dates and further details are provided in the article “Recent Marine Archaeological Finds in Khambat, Gujarat” by S. Kathiroli, S. Badrinarayanan, D. V. Rao, B. Sasisekaran and S. Ramesh in Journal of Indian Ocean Archaeology (New Delhi: Centre for Research and Training in History, Archaeology and Paleo environment), No. 1, 2004, pp. 141-149.
  13. Such evidence has been carefully documented in Jonathan Mark Kenoyer’s Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization (Karachi & Islamabad: Oxford University Press & American Institute of Pakistan Studies, 1998), B. B. Lal’s India 1947-1997: New Light on the Indus Civilization and The Sarasvati Flows On: The Continuity of Indian Culture (New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 1998 & 2002). See also Michel Danino, “The Harappan Heritage and the Aryan Problem” in Man and Environment, vol.XXVIII, No. 1, 2003 (pp. 21-32).
  14. John Marshall, Mohenjo-daro and the Indus Civilization (London, 1931, 3 vols.), vol. I, p. vi-viii.
  15. Jonathan Mark Kenoyer’s Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization, op. cit., p. 180.
  16. Jim G. Shaffer, “The Indus Valley, Baluchistan, and Helm and Traditions: Neolithic through Bronze Age,” in Chronologies in Old Worlds Archaeology, ed. Robert W. Ehrich (3rd ed., Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press), vol. I, p. 459.
  17. J. M. Kenoyer, J. D. Clark, J. N. Pal & G. R. Sharma, “An Upper Paleolithic Shrine in India?”, Antiquity, vol. 57, 1983, pp. 88-94, reproduced in A Source-book of Indian Archaeology, ed. F. R. Allchin & Dilip K.Chakrabarti (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 2003), pp. 49-55.
  18. V. D. Misra, “Stone Age Cultures, their Chronology and Beginning of Agriculture in North-Central India,” presidential address at the conference of the Indian Society for Prehistoric and Quaternary Studies, Gwalior, 2nd December 2006 (unpublished).
  19. Rakesh Tewari, “The origins of iron-working in India: new evidence from the Central Ganga Plainand the Eastern Vindhyas” Antiquity vol. 77, No. 298, December 2003 (pp. 536-544).
  20. Rakesh Tewari, “The Myth of Dense Forests and Human Occupation in the Ganga Plain, in Man and Environment, vol. XXIX, No. 2, 2004, p. 113.
  21. For an overview and more references, see Michel Danino, 2003. “The Harappan Heritage and the Aryan Problem,” Man and Environment (Pune), XXVIII.1, January-June 2003, pp. 21-32. I havedeveloped this perspective in L’Inde et l’invasion de nulle part (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2006).
  22. See its photograph in B. B. Lal’s Sarasvati Flows On: The Continuity of Indian Culture, op. cit.
  23. See Holger Wanzke, “Axis systems and orientation at Mohenjo-daro,” in Interim Reports, Reports on fieldwork carried out at Mohenjo-daro, vol. II, ed. M. Jansen & G. Urban (Aachen: Aachen University Mission, 1987). See also Asko Parpola, Deciphering the Indus Script (New Delhi: Cambridge UniversityPress, 2nd ed., 2000), p. 201.
  24. Michel Danino, “Dholavira’s Geometry: A Preliminary Study,” Puratattva No. 35, 2004-05 (New Delhi:Indian Archaeological Society, 2005), pp. 76-84.
  25. J. McKim Malville & Lalit M. Gujral, Ancient Cities, Sacred Skies: Cosmic Geometries and City Planning in Ancient India (New Delhi: IGNCA & Aryan Books International, 2000).
  26. Let us mention, among many others, Lifestyle and Ecology and The Cultural Dimension of Ecology, both edited by Baidyanath Saraswati (New Delhi: IGNCA and D. K. Printworld, 1998); Bansi Lal Malla, Trees in Indian Art, Mythology and Folklore (New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 2000); Shakti M.Gupta, Plant Myths and Traditions in India (Munshiram Manoharlal, 2001); a well-documented series published by the C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre (Chennai): The Ecological Traditions of Tamil Nadu (1997), Sacred Trees of Tamil Nadu (1998), Sacred Groves of Tamil Nadu (1998), Sacred Tanks of South India (2002), Temple Tanks of Chennai (2004). Many valuable papers are also contained in Sanskriti Sangam: Proceedings of First International Conference & Gathering of Elders held at Mumbai from 4 to 9 February 2003 (Bensalem & Nagpur: International Center for Cultural Studies, 2003).
  27. Many excellent studies on early Indian science are available. We may mention a few here: A Concise History of Science in India, ed. D. M. Bose, S. N. Sen & B. V. Subbarayappa (New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy, 1989); History of Science and Technology in Ancient India, by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya (Calcutta: Firma KLM, 3 vols., 1986, 1991, 1996); History of Indian Science, Technology and Culture AD 1000-1800 (New Delhi: Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture, &Oxford University Press, vol. III, part 1, 1998); History of Technology in India, ed. A. K. Bag (New Delhi:Indian National Science Academy, 1997); Indian Mathematics and Astronomy – Some Landmarks, by S.Balachandra Rao (Bangalore: Jnana Deep Publications, 1998); Indian Scientific Heritage , N.Gopalakrishnan (Thiruvananthapuram: Indian Institute of Scientific Heritage, 2000); Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century, Dharampal (Hyderabad: Academy of Gandhian Studies, 1971,republished by Other India Bookstore, Goa, as part of Dharampal’s complete works); Indian Science Through the Ages, ed. M. Lakshmi Kumari, parts 1 & 2 (Madras: Vivekananda Kendra Patrika, 1983); The Crest of the Peacock, George Gheverghese Joseph (London: Penguin Books, 2000); The Golden Age of Indian Mathematics, S. Parameswaran (Swadeshi Science Movement, Kerala, 1998); A ModernIntroduction on Ancient Indian Mathematics, T. S. Bhanu Murthy (New Delhi: Wiley Eastern Ltd., 1992); Geometry in Ancient and Medieval India, T. A. Sarasvati Amma (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1999); Computing Science in Ancient India, eds. T. R. N. Rao & Subhash Kak (Louisiana: Center for Advanced Computer Studies, 1998); The Universal History of Numbers: from Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer by Georges Ifrah (New Delhi: Penguin, 2005, 3 volumes); History of Astronomy in India, ed. S. N. Sen & K. S. Shukla (New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy); Indian Astronomy – An Introduction, by S. Balachandra Rao (Hyderabad: Universities Press, 2000); A History of Hindu Chemistry, Acharya Praffullachandra Ray (Kolkata: Shaibya Prakashan Bibhag, centenary edition2002); Chemistry and Chemical Techniques in India, ed. B. V. Subbarayappa (New Delhi: Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture, & Centre for Studies in Civilizations, vol. IV, part1, 1999).We may add an important Internet resource from the School of Mathematics and Statistics ofUniversity of St. Andrews, Scotland, which constitutes an excellent introduction to the topic:http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/history/Indexes/Indians.html. A thousand pities that noIndian University offers such an Internet resource on this important aspect of India’s heritage.
  28. K. V. Sarma, ed., Science Texts in Sanskrit in the Manuscripts Repositories of Kerala and Tamil Nadu (NewDelhi : Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan, 2002), p. 16.
  29. D. T. Emerson in The Work of Jagadis Chandra Bose: 100 Years of MM-Wave Research atwww.tuc.nrao.edu/~demerson/bose/bose.html. On this issue, see also http://earlyradiohistory.us/1897tele.htm and www.qsl.net/vu2msy/JCBOSE.htm.
  30. See “Sir J. C. Bose’s Diode Detector Received Marconi’s First Transatlantic Wireless Signal ofDecember 1901 (The ‘Italian Navy Coherer’ Scandal Revisited)” by Probir K. Bondyopadhyay, Proceedings of The IEEE, Vol. 86, No. 1, January 1998, p. 259-285.
  31. B. B. Lal, The Earliest Civilization of South Asia (New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 1997), p. 236.
  32. Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, “Early City-States in South Asia: Comparing the Harappan Phase and Early Historic Period,” in The Archaeology of Early City-States: Cross-Cultural Approached, eds. D. L. Nicholsand T. H. Charlton (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press), pp. 51-70.
  33. Steve Muhlberger, “Democracy in Ancient India”:www.unipissing.ca./department/history/histdem/.
  34. The Foundations of Indian Culture, op. cit., p. 329.
  35. Sri Aurobindo, On Himself, vol. 26 in Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library (Pondicherry: SriAurobindo Ashram, 1972), p. 410.
  36. Rabindranath Tagore, The History of Bharatavarsha.
  37. Tagore, “Nationalism in India” (republished New Delhi: Macmillan, 1999), p. 69.
  38. M. N. Srinivas, The Cohesive Role of Sanskritization and Other Essays (New Delhi: Oxford UniversityPress, 1989).
  39. The Vivekananda Kendra Institute of Culture, Guwahati, for instance, has spearheaded a major effort in the area of tribal culture in the North-East, in which many tribal and other scholars have taken part; it conducted several important seminars, whose papers are being published. See also “Lord Rang-Frah in The Tangsa Pantheon: A Note on Tangsa Religion and Philosophy” by Narayan Singh Rao.
  40. A number of illustrations of this can be found in Mahabharata in the Tribal and Folk Traditions of India,ed. K. S. Singh (Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1993) and Rama-Katha in Tribal and Folk Traditions of India, eds. K. S. Singh & Birendranath Datta (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1993). See also Painted Words: an Anthology of Tribal Literature, ed. G. N. Devy (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2002),under chapter “Myth.”
  41. Sandhya Jain, Adi Deo Arya Devata: a Panoramic View of Tribal-Hindu Cultural Interface (Delhi: Rupa,2004).


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One Response to "A Synthetic Presentation of Indian Civilization"

  1. Om Prakash Sharma  December 16, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    We boast of our ancient culture which no doubt has been great. But why can’t we try to replicate our past in future? Let the learned people make our youngster aware of our culture and restrict the orthodox ritualistic people from distorting and destroying our future


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