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The Wonder That Was India by A.L. Basham

October 11, 2015

TWTWI 2The first book I ever read at uni and which showed me that my narrow views needed widening.

India had underfloor heating centuries before the Romans and vast architectural edifices when Europeans were still living in caves.

The people of the Indus Valley worshipped female, earth goddesses but were invaded by the Aryans people from what we now call Germany who called them ‘dasa’ – dark people. The Aryans worshipped male, sky gods like Ouranus (Uranus) and Dyash Pita (Jupiter). The swastika was their symbol for the sun god – the rays coming out from the cross-shape being the rays of the sun. The dasa moved south and there are still tensions between different parts of India to this day and Hinduism embraces gods and goddesses from each civilisation.

Arthur Llewellyn Basham (1914-1986) did a B.A. Honours I in Sanskrit language and literature (called Indo Aryan Studies) at the school of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London before taking up a Ph.D. in the history of ancient India also at SOAS, under L.D. Barnett. His doctoral thesis on the history and doctrines of the Ajiviakas was subsequently published and remains a very useful overview of the topic. Basham became a lecturer in the history of India at SOAS in 1948. He taught ancient Indian history there for many years until 1965 when we moved to Australian National University retiring in 1980. He taught as a visitor in various universities before and after retirement in India the United States and Mexico. During his long career he had many honors including honorary degrees from Kurukshetra University and the Nava Nalanda Mahavihara and the Dr. B.C. Law Gold Medal for Indology of the Asiatic Society and is buried in the old military cemetery of all saints cathedral in Shillong.

TWTWIThis bare outline of the life does not convey the special quality of the man. Basham was a warm and generous teacher and a kind of uncle to his students. He had a large number of postgraduate students most of them from newly independent India and Pakistan some of them already accomplished scholars English lodging and English reserve. Basham was anything but reserved and he lavished time on the improvement of their writings he backed them in their difficulties wit the administration he gave them practical advice and lent them money in a pinch. Basham used to say that the students over a hundreds of them were his proudest achievement and indeed a whole generation of his students filled leading positions in the universities of India Pakistan and Bangladesh. This warmth toward his students was of a piece with his warmth of feeling for India which is so evident in his book.

That a series dealt with ancient civilizations explains the past tense of the title. The wonder except was India which does not fit the pattern of the others in the regard and for which the use of the past tense is not really appropriate. It was for this reason that Basham’s book is as the subtitle says, a survey of the culture of the Indian sub-continent before the coming of the Muslims. For Basham the coming of the Muslims meant the coming of Persian language sources and as he had no Persian he did to feel competent to speak authoritatively about the later period. This suited the publisher’s remit. There is no question here of anti Muslim feeling.

This is not a history book in the normal sense of a continuous chronological narrative but a sort of an encyclopedia of Indian civilization with chapter on prehistory, history the state, society everyday life, religion the arts, language and literature and the heritage of India. It also contains many short appendices giving very useful summaries of knowledge on particular topics such as cosmology and geography astronomy the calendar, mathematics and the like. It is a synthesis of existing knowledge not a monograph that breaks new ground or develops a new methodology. But in spite essentially pedagogical nature it has a mission and it has something quite new to say about it when it appeared.

Like any other book of history we can understand it best by seeing it as the result of the intersection of three things the author’s intellectual formation the historical period in which it was written and the prior texts upon which it builds or from which it seeks to distinguish itself.

Basham had an artistic nature and this expressed itself in a number of ways.

TWTWI 3Preface to the Second Edition: In order to explain the aims and purposes with which I wrote this book and the principles which I employed in writing it I can do no better than quote from the preface to the first edition: As this book is intended for the general reader I have tried as far as possible to leave nothing unexplained. And as I believe that civilization is more than religion and art I have tried however briefly to cover all aspects of Indian life and thought. Though primarily intended for westerners I hope that the book may be of some interest to Indian Pakistani and Sinhalese readers also as the interpretation of a friendly mleccha, who has great love and respect for the civilization of their lands and many friends among the descendents of the people whose culture he studies. The work may also be of help to students who are embarking on a course of serious ideological study for their benefit I have included detailed bibliographies and appendies. But for the ordinary reader the work is cumbersome enough and therefore I have not given references for every statement. I have tried to reduce Sanskrit terms to a minimum but the reader without background knowledge will find definitions of all Indian words used in the text in the index which also serves as a glossary.

Sanskrit Prakrit and Pali words are transliterated to the standard system at present used by Indologists this with its plethora of diacritic marks may at first seem irritating but is the only sound method of expressing the original spelling and gives a clear idea of the correct pronunciation. Modern Indian proper names are generally given in the most usual spelling with the addition of marks over the long vowels to indicate their approximately correct pronunciation. Throughout this work the word India is of course used in its geographical sense and includes Pakistan. Though very inadequately I have tried to include in the scope of this survey Ceylong whose culture owed much to India but developed many individual features of its own.

The translations except where specified are my own. I lay no claim to great literary merit for them and have not been able to reproduce the untamable incantation of the originals. In most cases they are not literal translations since the character of Indian classical languages is so unlike that of English the literal translations are at the best dull and at the worst positively ludicrous. In places I have taken some liberty with the originals in order to make their purport clearer to the western reader but in all cases I have tried to give an honest interpretation of the intentions of their authors as I understand them.

Whatever the shortcomings of the wonder that was India it has clearly served a useful purpose and in this I take legitimate pride. Though one of a series of surveys of ancient civilizations intended mainly for the general reader it has been widely used as a college textbook not only in England but also in India itself and in America and it has already encouraged several young men and women in at least three continents to proceed further in the field of indology. When I submitted the typescript of the first edition to the publishers I feared that my work fell between two stools being too dull for the ordinary reader and not sufficiently erudite for the serious student. Perhaps this judgment is a fair one and the reviewer who referred to the book as a channel house of facts was not far out. Nevertheless the fact that a new edition is demanded proves that the wonder that was India has met a widespread need however inadequately.

Preface to the Third Edition: The second edition of this book was published in New York in 1963 and before it could appear in Britain a paper back edition was called for thus making a possible to incorporate further alterations and corrections. No drastic changes have been made in this edition but a few notes on recent archaeological discoveries have been added. Small emendations and stylistic improvements have been incorporated and additions have been to the bibliography.

 This wonderful book includes: India and her Ancient culture the Land of India: The Discovery of Ancient India; the Glory of Ancient India; The Harappa Culture and the Aryans; Primitive Man n India: The First Villages: The Harappa city culture; The End of the Indus cities: Indo-Europeans and Aryans; The Aryans in India: The Proto Historic Period: The Culture of the Rgveda, the later Vedic age , Ancient and Medieval Empires; Sources of History: The Age of the Buddha: Alexander and the Maurayas: The Age of Invasions; The Guptas and Harsa: The Middle Ages in the North; The Middle Ages in the Peninsula; Political Life and Thought Sources Kingship: The Royal Function: Quasifeudalism: Oligarchies and Republics: Village
Administration; Public Finance Legal Literature: The Basis of Law: Crime Administration of Justice; Punishment; The Secret Service; Hindu Militarism ; Military organization and technique; Society : Class Family and Individual
Laws of class and stage of life; The four great Classes: Untouchables; Confusion of class
Caste Slavery; Gotra and Pravara; The Family the Four stages of life: the Child: Initiation: Education Marriage Sexual Relations Divorce: Polygamy: Old age and Death: Women Prostitution Widows;

Everyday Life : The Daily Round in City and Village The Village: Agriculture and Stockbreeding; the wild tribes; the town; the man about town; amusements; clothes and ornaments food and Drink; Economic life; Guilds; Technical achievement; trade and finance; Caravans and trade routes sea trade and metaphysics

Chapter VII    Religion : Cults Doctrines and Metaphysics . The Religion of the Vedas Gods of the Rg Veda: Sacrifice New Developments of Doctrine: Asceticism Speculation and Gnosis; ethics of the Upanisads. II. Buddhism; The Buddha; The Growth of Buddhism The Lesser Vehicle; The Evolution of the great Vehicle the great Vehicle; the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt; The Buddhist order: Buddhist
ethics and Morality
III. Jainism and other Unorthodox Sects; Jainism: The Ajivikas Scepticims and Materialism Everyday Life : The Daily Round in City and Village Te Village: Agriculture and Stockbreeding; the wild tribes; the town; the man about town;
amusements; clothes and ornaments food and Drink; Economic life; Guilds; Technical
achievement; trade and finance; Caravans and trade routes sea trade and metaphysics The Arts : Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Music ad the Dance: The Spirit of Indian Art: early Architecture; The Stupa: Cave Temples; Temples Sculpture Terracottas; Mettal Sculptures and Engraving Painting Minor Arts: Music; The dance; lauage and Literature : I. Language: Sanskrit Prakrits and Pali: Dravidian Epic Literature: the heritage of India; the Impact of the west; The world’s Debt to India

Indian civilization is among the oldest in the world, and what is unique in that respect is that the culture of the peoples still remains largely unchanged, with a strong thread of continuity through the ages. The Wonder That was India takes a look at the country’s history from the time of the Harappan or Indus Valley Civilization. It explores the possible causes for the decline of the Harappan civilization and settlements. The book talks about the possibility of the Harappans having moved towards the south and settled in the peninsular region.The author also discusses the Aryan invasion theory, supporting it with various research papers and findings of that time. The evolution of Hindu religion is also talked about in this book-from the Harappan times, to the coming of the Aryans and the mutual influence that Hinduism and its off shoots Jainism and Buddhism had on each other. This book is comprehensive in its coverage of Indian history. It looks at every aspect of Indian society and culture. The Wonder That was India covers everything from religion, governance, social evolution, literary traditions, philosophy languages, and science.The author explores the significant role the Hindu religion played on the lives of the people. All the literary compositions of ancient times had religious associations. He also puts forward the theory that the European gypsies are of Indian origin.The Wonder That Was India also gives an insight into modern Indian society and culture, how it became a confluence of different influences from many a quarter throughout the many stages of its history.

Basham, Arthur Llewellyn Basham was an Indologist and a professor at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.Basham wrote many books on India, including A Cultural History of India and The Sharqi Sultanate Of Jaunpur. He also co-authored The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism, Religious Beliefs and Practices of North India During the Early Medieval Period,

Quotations:

“It is today something of an anachronism to speak of Western civilization or Indian civilization.”

“It is not wholly surprising, however, that, when India began to reassert herself, two nations should have replaced the single British Raj; but all impartial students must regret that the unity of the Indian sub-continent has been once more lost, and trust that the two great nations of India and Pakistan may soon forget the bitterness born of centuries of strife, in cooperation for the common welfare of their peoples.”

“If for a time Buddhism became to all intents and purposes a separate religion, denying the Vedas, the ordinary layman might not see it in that light. For him Buddhism was one of many cults and faiths, by no means mutually exclusive, all of which led to salvation, and all of which were respectable and worthy of honour.”

“The course of training of the yogī was divided into eight stages, reminding us of the eightfold path of Buddhism, but far less practical: (1) Self-control (yama), the practice of the five moral rules: non-violence, truthfulness, not stealing, chastity, and the avoidance of greed. (2) Observance (niyama), the regular and complete observance of the above five rules. (3) Posture (āsana), sitting in certain postures, difficult without practice, which are thought to be essential to meditation. The most famous of these is padmāsna, the “Lotus Posture”, in which the feet are placed on the opposite thighs, and in which gods and sages are commonly depicted. (4) Control of the Breath (prānāyāma), whereby the breath is held and controlled and the respiration forced into unusual rhythms, which are believed to be of great physical and spiritual value. (5) Restraint (pratyāhāra), whereby the sense organs are trained to take no note of their perceptions. (6) Steadying the Mind (dhāranā), by concentration on a single object, such as the tip of the nose, the navel, an icon, or a sacred symbol. (7) Meditation (dhyāna), when the object of concentration fills the whole mind. (8) Deep Meditation (samādhi), when the whole personality is temporarily dissolved.”

“The Divine is a diamond of innumerable facets; two very large and bright facets are Visnu and Siva, while the others represent all the gods that were ever worshipped. Some facets seem larger, brighter, and better polished than others, but in fact the devotee, whatever his sect, worships the whole diamond, which is in

“It is not wholly surprising, however, that, when India began to reassert herself, two nations should have replaced the single British Raj; but all impartial students must regret that the unity of the Indian sub-continent has been once more lost, and trust that the two great nations of India and Pakistan may soon forget the bitterness born of centuries of strife, in cooperation for the common welfare of their peoples.”

“If for a time Buddhism became to all intents and purposes a separate religion, denying the Vedas, the ordinary layman might not see it in that light. For him Buddhism was one of many cults and faiths, by no means mutually exclusive, all of which led to salvation, and all of which were respectable and worthy of honour.”

“The course of training of the yogī was divided into eight stages, reminding us of the eightfold path of Buddhism, but far less practical: (1) Self-control (yama), the practice of the five moral rules: non-violence, truthfulness, not stealing, chastity, and the avoidance of greed. (2) Observance (niyama), the regular and complete observance of the above five rules. (3) Posture (āsana), sitting in certain postures, difficult without practice, which are thought to be essential to meditation. The most famous of these is padmāsna, the “Lotus Posture”, in which the feet are placed on the opposite thighs, and in which gods and sages are commonly depicted. (4) Control of the Breath (prānāyāma), whereby the breath is held and controlled and the respiration forced into unusual rhythms, which are believed to be of great physical and spiritual value. (5) Restraint (pratyāhāra), whereby the sense organs are trained to take no note of their perceptions. (6) Steadying the Mind (dhāranā), by concentration on a single object, such as the tip of the nose, the navel, an icon, or a sacred symbol. (7) Meditation (dhyāna), when the object of concentration fills the whole mind. (8) Deep Meditation (samādhi), when the whole personality is temporarily dissolved.”

“The Divine is a diamond of innumerable facets; two very large and bright facets are Visnu and Siva, while the others represent all the gods that were ever worshipped. Some facets seem larger, brighter, and better polished than others, but in fact the devotee, whatever his sect, worships the whole diamond, which is in reality perfect.”
The age in which true history appeared in India was one of great intellectual and spiritual ferment. Mystics and sophists of all kinds roamed through the Ganga Valley, all advocating some form of mental discipline and asceticism as a means to salvation; but the age of the Buddha, when many of the best minds were abandoning their homes and professions for a life of asceticism, was also a time of advance in commerce and politics. It produced not only philosophers and ascetics, but also merchant princes and men of action.

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