Books on Indian history without recency bias

One of the problems with Indian history is that a lot of the books are strongly biased toward the Muslim and colonial periods. There are numerous reasons for this. People are interested in the Muslim and colonial periods for nationalist and anti-nationalist reasons, if that makes any sense.

But some of it is simply source availability of. When I am curious about the period between the Han dynasty and the Sui-Tang I’ll pick up a book like China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties. In contrast The Gupta Empire is an out of print monograph.

Because at some point the Rakhigarhi DNA results will be coming out I want to do some more reading on ancient and medieval (using those epochs loosely in the South Asian context) history, but so much of it is archaeological because of the thin historiographical tradition in South Asia.

Do readers have suggestions?

(Please calibrate to my level of knowledge. I’ve already read Early India)

31 thoughts on “Books on Indian history without recency bias”

  1. I’m not aware of anything better than Romila Thapar’s Ancient India for detail (to the extent that is known) before the Muslim period. However, if you are motivated by writing about the Rakhigarhi results, perhaps pre-history and history of the peninsula (Dravidian?) might be of interest? Im currently reading, and greatly enjoying, Asko Parpola’s “The roots of hinduism” which brings the tools of linguistics and archaeology in studying the Sindhu civilization and the Vedic people. I also enjoyed “A concise history of South India: Issues and interpretations”, an ensemble work edited by Noboru Karashima.

    If you do read either, I shall greatly appreciate a review. Also, when do you expect the Rakhigarhi paper?

  2. There’s always Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus: An Alternative History”. I haven’t read this book but the Hindu nationalists hated it, if that makes any difference to you.

    And while I was looking for that link, I came across “India: A Sacred Geography” by Diana L. Eck which, according to the blurb, is: “A spiritual history of the world’s most religiously complex and diverse society, from one of Harvard’s most respected scholars.” Take that for what it’s worth.

    I can’t be more helpful as I’m really not interested in pre-Islamic India. If you had asked about the Mughals, I would have had a whole reading list.

    1. Doniger’s book isn’t a history book about pre-Islamic India. It’s basically her interpreting various Hindu stories through a Freudian psychoanalytic lens, and that was part of why this pissed off a lot of people. She ended up applying sexual motives to various Hindu stories that have nothing to do with sexuality (ex. Rama’s father, Dasaratha, was a sex addict or Krishna riding a gopika-horse is symbolic for the mind controlling sexual addiction).

      And it wasn’t just Hindu nationalists getting angered by this, but average Hindus because her book was being promoted as “the” truth and being used as intro textbooks in many Hinduism university classes, but Doniger ended up strawmanning all her critics as Hindu nationalists, which pretty much shows the problem with a lot of American Hindu Studies departments and what passes off as good scholarship (European universities do a way better job on average than American universities).

    2. I second Arjuna’s comment about Doniger’s work.

      Hinduism is hardly the only religion or person to be analyzed thus by overzealous Freudians. I believe the Prophet Mohammad and Islam have been too, and I’d imagine committed Muslims would take as much exception to that as Hindus would to Doniger’s interpretations.

      1. Lots of books are written about the Prophet of God (peace be upon him) and about Islam in general. Some are good and some are horrible. I haven’t read Doniger’s book but she is entitled to her views if they are based on solid scholarship. I would not call for a book on Islam to be pulped, as I believe Doniger’s Indian publishers had to pulp all copies of her book in India. In general, books should not be pulped. You can give them a bad review, assuming you know what you are talking about.

        Anyway, Islam was not the subject of this post so please stay away from reflexive Islam bashing. I know its very hard for you people but try.

        1. Sorry for the digression.

          I was commenting purely on the merits of Doniger’s book, and thought the Muslim analogy might help you understand why Hindus (even atheistic ones like me) might find her work “un-insightful” ( to put it mildly.) After all, that was why you made the suggestion, right?

          I absolutely don’t want this book, or any book, to be pulped. I’m a free-speech absolutist libertarian.

          I also don’t think I “bashed” Islam or Muslims at all.

          Anyway, let’s not lose focus.

          1. Personally, I’m inclined to like anything that Hindu nationalists hate, unless there is a very strong reason not to. Hindutvadis are some of the stupidist people I have ever interacted with (However good they might be at their purely technical professions. South Asian education systems are nothing to write home about). They are the mirror image of Pakistani “soft Islamists” who are also insufferable.

            I’m glad we agree that no book should ever be pulped. As an English Literature major, books are sacred to me.

            You may not have bashed Muslims but someone was going to within a few comments. That’s how Hindus on BP normally work. Any criticism of their caste system and their myriad gods causes them to become incredibly defensive, but Islam is totally fair game. I say what’s good for the gander is good for the goose, but perhaps that’s just me.

      2. Since the Indian government had already banned the satanic verses, its only logical that the government would react to Doniger’s book in a similar fashion. Free-speech/literature absolutism is dead in India and the standard reaction to anything mildly offensive to any of the four religions(Hinduism/Islam/Sikhism/Xtian) is likely to ban/restrict its circulation.

        1. Banning “The Satanic Verses” was also not a good decision. It gives the novel too much importance. Not that Literature is not important. But if the government had not banned it, how many people would actually have read it?

          Two wrongs don’t make a right. Doniger’s book should not have been pulped regardless of the fact that the government had given in to Islamists previously.

          1. Yes.I agree no books should be banned.Period.But Indian government atleast does not follow that rule and bans mildly offensive books across the board at the slightest hint of protest.So as soon as there was protest against Doniger’s book-Bam!

          2. @Upamanyu, I don’t think that is a very useful point to make in this forum, as I learnt the hard way. You probably disagree, but let us watch and update our priors if necessary.

          3. Glad we agree. Books should not be banned. If there is one exception, it is “Mein Kampf” but that is sold openly at Indian railway stations (I hear). Some people think it’s a “leadership text”. Even such a horrible piece of propaganda is of historical interest and academics can produce annotated editions.

            The Indian Government has problems. Not just regarding books but with censorship in general. The whole row about “Padmavaati” or “Padmavaat” or whatever we are calling this movie now amply demonstrated that.

      1. Since you’ve actually read Doniger, what are your thoughts? Is there a review you have written somewhere?

        1. i never wrote a review. doniger’s book is not a history really in a narrative sense. commentary on aspects of hinduism through the freudian interpretative lens.

          some of the facts were interesting.

  3. For foundational texts DD Kosambi’s works from “An Introduction to the Study of Indian History” to “Myth and Reality” are solid, even if you’ve already read Early India. Draws liberally from anthropology and archaeology, so I appreciate the focus on material culture in contrast to the typical reliance on epigraphy and puranic chronicles.
    “Political History of Ancient India” by HC Raychauduri is more traditional (outdated some would say), but the sheer depth of textual evidence is impressive. Also it will be appreciated by people who feel early mythology hasn’t been treated with legitimacy.
    For south india “A History of South India: From Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar” by KN Sastri is the most well known survey text, but “A Concise History of South India: Issues and Interpretations” by N Karashima goes more into the pre-history which might be of interest to you (I haven’t read it). Champakalakshmi’s “Trade, Ideology and Urbanization” is also a handy text for the social/economic context around the early south indian polities and the powerful guild system.

  4. Well I suppose you do not have a lot of time on your hands if the Rakhigarhi results are just round the corner.

    But let me recommend a few which should be useful.

    If you wish for something else do let me know.

    If possible you should really read these two books –

    Though the above book requires good understanding of Indian history but nevertheless it is invaluable – it makes you realise how weak the whole chronological foundation of Indian history is.

    The above gives an Out of India perspective primarily based on Rigveda and Avesta.

    This above book gives you a good understanding of the Saraswati issue.

    1. Do you happen to have any recommendations for good translations of Kautilya’s Arthasastra?
      Thanks for the links above.

      1. Violet
        You can download from ‘Arthasastra of Kautilya’ tran by Shamasastry 1915 .

        Then translation by R.P.Kangle (Bombay 1960) is also a good one.

        Arthashastra – Science of Wealth -by Thomas Trautmann also gives an excellent review of arthasastra placing it in a historical context

      2. Violet, haven’t read Arthasastra for a long time. There are many different translations. Not sure which are best. If you read it you will note stunning similarities in rule of law with ancient Persia, ancient Greece and ancient Rome.

        Note it was for one kingdom and one time only. And doesn’t apply to even the same kingdom a few generations later. Flexibility matters. I don’t think large parts of Arthashastra applies to the present day.

  5. I agree with girmit on D.D. Kosambi. Personally I prefer “The Culture & Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline”. He was a Marxist – that shines through his work – but was too good an historian not to see that this evolutionary scheme did not apply to India. The book concentrates on society and material culture. I found it illuminating especially on the spread of the Aryans to the east after the Rigvedic period. Drawback is that it dates from 1970. It was republished in 1997.

  6. I agree with girmit on D.D. Kosambi. His “Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline” is quite succinct. He is a Marxist but too good a historian to let that bother him. I found it illuminating on the factors enabling the spread of the Aryans east after the Vedic period. Drawback is that the book was published in 1970! but there is a 1997 reprint available.

  7. I’ll also vouch for A Concise History of South India. Just under half of it is about the Pre-Islamic period, if you consider the big southern conquests by the Delhi Sultanate as the beginning of the Islamic period in South India. The section on very early history was a lot shorter than I was hoping for, but I think the brevity is mostly due to the general lack of sources about the period, and the book gives a good overview of early Dravidian history nonetheless.

    The Chola empire seems like the most natural place to focus on after a general survey of Pre-Islamic South Indian history. I’ve been looking at South India Under the Cholas by Y. Subbarayalu, and although from the Amazon reviews it sounds like it won’t read nearly as well as A Concise History of South India, it’s the only recent and in-depth book I can find specifically about the Cholas, and the scholarship looks sounds.

  8. Other than Thapar’s ‘Penguin History of Early Early India’, I would also recommend her collection of essays ‘Cultural Pasts’ and her more recent books, ‘The Past Before us’ and ‘The Past as Present’. D C Sircar’s ‘Geography of Ancient and Medieval India’ and his others books on Indian epigraphy are good for primary sources. In addition to Kosambi, D N Jha (‘Ancient India in Historical Outline’ and ‘The Myth of the Holy Cow’), another Marxist historian, is also worth reading. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s daughter and Delhi University historian Upinder Singh’s ‘History of Ancient and Early Medieval India’, though meant to be a textbook, is comprehensive and unbiased. I recently enjoyed Asko Parpola’s ‘The Roots of Hinduism’ but he is a bit out there in some places.
    As for the book by Sethna that Jaydeepsinh has linked to above, there is a fairly decent rebuttal by Michael Witzel here:
    I am no historian or archaeologist but I am a numismatist and even a basic knowledge of Indian coinage and epigraphy can help demonstrate that Sethna’s ‘paradigm shift’, such as placing the Gupta empire in the third century BC rather than AD, is not tenable at all.

  9. There are few ways to learn about pre-Islamic & Colonial Indian History. Instead of Searching about Indian history look into the interesting subjects which may provide a better look into India’s past e.g. Religion {Beliefs}, Trade links {Road & Sea links}, Archeology & Inscriptions etc.

    Check “Patrick Olivelle’s” work. It will help in understanding the religious texts.
    Then check works by “Ludo Rocher, Donald R. Davis & Timothy Lubin”.

    Also check work of “Sheldon Pollock” & although he also has some Oriental bias too but he is much more balanced because he do tries to shed the Orientalism away as well. {Note the differences in earlier & later works}

    It will help you get the grasp about religion, it’s political & social role & how laws used to get formed by mixing regional practices with religious belief.

    Check Sanjeev Sanyal’s work about India’s sea routes & his other works too.
    The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History
    Shiv Viswanathan’s review of book –

    Also check India’s maritime history, Trade routes, Ancient Ports –

    Keep tab of – manuscripts & archaeological evidences since the authors tend to add their own interpretations to these texts so instead of following their trail try to imagine the period from your own understanding of all the info you read.

    Also check pages of researchers because i find the most interesting work of various scholars as research papers & not essentially in any book.

    Note – The best way to read India’s history in unbiased manner is to learn what the authors do i.e. “They present the narrative from their own perspective”. So the best every reader can do us to learn about various perspectives that may have shaped the claims the author is making.

    For e.g. –

    Orientalism –
    Catholic Orientalism: Portuguese Empire, Indian Knowledge (16th – 18th Centuries) (Oxford Theology and Religion M)

    Nationalist & Right wing bias. {While reading right wing leaning authors because they too bring important points to the debate.}

    Left Wing Bias – Most difficult to find since they use various modern techniques for confusing the narrative using Contexts, critical theory, Deconstructionism {Modern Marxists mostly apply it} & so on.

    How one can keep tab on authors & learn about biases – – Romila Thapar “I write what i feel is right & give evidences… take it or leave it”

    Audrey Truschke –
    Criticism from Left-Wing {Note dates} –
    Criticism from Right-Wing {Note-Dates} –

    And the view which is close to my own perspective in this matter –

    What i do is i take a single topic, subject or issue & try to gather the best possible material about it from as many sources as possible & then i read them. For e.g. many people provide early texts about India as a proof of Casteism but they don’t read the source material or it’s translations because the “Source material” can be seen in various ways & provides a varied picture & thus the instances cited from it are ‘half truths’ which support the author’s narrative.

    The best way to remove bias is move beyond author’s interpretations & read the direct translations of source material & even translations can have problems so it is necessary to take even them with a pinch of salt.

    1. +1 re. translations. Even primary material varies based on publishers. Such is life…

      1. That’s why i said take even the translations with a pinch of salt & the best way to get the best translation is to get the top few translations of a particular period {For e.g. If one is to look at translations of various Indic texts from colonial period they have been further expanded & improved on the basis of linguistic & other improvements since their first translations.} of well respected authors.

        Thus comparing translations shows the improvements of translated texts & helps one to asses the best possible translation of original text.

        For e.g.
        Most early commentators used to put both ‘Varna’ & ‘Jati’ together but the modern scholarship clearly mandates to maintain the difference of both concepts in perspective.āti

        Note – Patrick Olivelle in his 2005 book, states that a close examination of the surviving version of the Buddhist Vajrasuci supports Johnston’s serious doubts, and it cannot be dated “even close to the 2nd-century CE”, about the time when Asvaghosa lived.[38] The false ascription of the text to the Buddhist Asvaghosa, adds Olivelle, continues to be currently perpetuated in India.

        The real problem is that people have now become so divided & ideological that they only see from perspectives which support their own ideas.

        I forgot to mention – Ludo Rocher, Donald R. Davis & Timothy Lubin

        These scholars uses archaeological evidences to trace the history of legal tradition according to Hinduism. You will find in their works is a clear division of what is in religious text & what was happening on the ground in view of archaeological evidences as well the ways community practices converge & diverge with religious texts.

        Do check these books –
        Studies in Hindu Law and Dharmaśāstra
        Hinduism and Law: An Introduction
        The Spirit of Hindu Law

        Check Timothy Lubin’s academia page & read his papers there is lots of interesting info regarding Ancient India.

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