Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on Libsyn, Apple, Spotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!
In this episode of the history podcast, Omar and Jay discuss the period of Delhi Sultanate with Jay and Gaurav. We go over all the major dynasties and also discuss the religious, economic aspects of this time.
As Omar Ali puts it, the legacy of Delhi Sultanate is the legacy of Islam in the subcontinent.
1. The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate, 1192-1286 by Sunil Kumar
2. The History and Culture of the Indian People: Volume 6: The Delhi Sultanate
3. India in the Persianate Age: 1000-1765 by Richard M. Eaton
4. Medieval India – Vol. 1 by Satish Chandra
5. Advanced Study in the History of Medieval India: Volume I by J L Mehta
6. A Comprehensive History of India: The Delhi Sultanat (A.D. 1206-1526), ed. by Mohammad Habib and Khaliq Ahmad Nizami
After reading SL Bhyrappa’s Parva I wanted to read more from the man. I started with Saartha after a friend recommended it. Review of Parva.
Saartha is a tale of a Brahmana sent on a mission by his king under the pretext of finding more about the various trade caravan routes with a Saartha (caravan). The protagonist Naga-Bhatta is the first person narrator for the entire book. The novel is primarily a journey of self realization of Naga-Bhatta – dealing with a varied range of emotions from anger, infidelity, love to melancholy and despondency. Naga-Bhatta travels from his hometown in Central India to North Indian plains – particularly Mathura, from Mathura to Kannauj and Kannauj to Magadha, Magadha to Mahismati before embarking upon a journey to Arab ruled Multan before coming back to Mathura. Though a lot of characters come and go in the novel, the ones who leave a mark as personalities apart from Nagabhatta are Pratihara Senapati JaySingh and actress and Yogini Chandrika. Other than that, the author also brings the real life historic personalities to life in fantastic and powerful manner. – Mandana Misra, Kumarila Bhatta, Bharati Devi (Misra) and epoch changing Adi-Shankaracharya. Apart from that, the author deals with the intellectual fights – especially between Sramanas (especially Bauddhas) and the followers of the Vaidika Dharma (Vedic Hindus). Bhyrappa manages critical about aspects of both the traditions even though the narration is that of a Vaidika Brahmana.
The storytelling is top notch and visually perfect. The dialogues are extremely effective and powerful. But where the author excels like in Parva is bringing to life a real world from a time long gone. What is more – he manages to do it with the Zeitgeist of the story in mind – not our own. The author doesn’t want to be politically correct or use his zeitgeist as a lens to observe the events of the tale. As the narration is that of a moderately patriarchal 8th century Brahmana, he doesn’t try to bring up the hypocrisy of his position – wherein the protagonist has no qualms about his (attempted) infidelity while he cannot digest his wife’s betrayal so much that it derails his life – filing him up with despondency and emptiness. Its in moments like these that the brilliance of the author comes through.
Throughout the narrative we are come across various spiritual paths available to the thinkers and philosophers in Ancient India – namely the Karma Kanda focused Vaidika Mimansa path, the Mahayana Bauddha path, the Yoga path, the Tantrik path, and finally Shankara’s Advaita. How the Naga-Bhatta grabbles with these paths and how he finds his Karma at the end is essentially the story of novel, Alchemist like tale with huge dollops of sophisticated philosophy and realism. What is fascinating about this book is that unlike Parva (Mahabharat) this book deals with and uses supernatural powers not just as sidenotes but for important parts of the story arc. Also the author’s grasp over Sanskrit is just spectacular, and like in Parva he has created couplets here and there as per the plot demand.
the Polemic and the Philosophy: (Spoilers ahead)
While the story of Saartha works on various levels, I doubt if that was the main purpose of the book. The author uses the character arc of Naga-Bhatta around which the tapestry of 8th Century India is painted, and its this tapestry that works more than the story. In the beginning we are introduced to the conflicts and divergences between Vaidika and Bauddha traditions, while noting the important changes which were occurring in the Bauddha tradition during this time. Some scholars have pointed to these changes (adopting of Puranic deities and tales) which made the Bauddha traditions loose its differentiating USP. The portrayal of Drama as a means of spread of devotional traditions of Rama and Krishna is fantastic. The mechanisms of Yoga and especially Tantra are very well explored. The flirtation of Naga-Bhatta with Buddhism, his abandoning of Vaidika traditions and coming back are not only explained convincingly, but readers also given a peak into the potential origins of the Maithuna images (erotic coupling images) which adorn the Khajurao temples.
The first climax of the book – based on the hagiography of Shankara- deals with the encounter of Adi-Shankara with the Guru of Naga-Bhatta – Mandana Misra, and though Mandana Misra is said to lose that encounter personally as I reader I couldn’t follow the logic of it. Similarly the peek into the life of Kumarila Bhatta – the Mimansika who is said to have defeated the Buddhists before Shankara left me unsatisfied. However one has to note that maybe that was the desire of the author, who clearly seems to favor the Vaidika Mimansikas (minus some orthodoxy).
The final climax of the book is about the confrontation with Islam. This part felt slightly caricaturish but still captured some of the salient reasons for Islamic incursions into the subcontinent. The tripartite struggle of Palas, Prathirahas and Rashtrakutas, the Hindu insularity and naivety & superstition and various other reasons come forth during the climax. The book ends on a very sour note, but that wasn’t surprising, as Bhyrappa is no bollywood screenwriter (who make Padvawat and Panipat appear as victories of Hindus (maybe even Prithviraj)).
Incidentally the History podcast Brownpundits have been producing was covering the same time period which Saartha covers. I would highly recommend the book to anyone interested in history, philosophy or even self discovery – Saartha works very well on all these fronts.
Personally as an agnostic I have wondered why have I never been attracted to the philosophy of Buddha whereas I have always been attracted by the philosophies’ Vaidika and Puranic Dharma. Bhyarappa was able to give me the answer in one sentence “Can you imagine Buddha saying what Krishna says (on Kurukshetra) ?”
Another Browncast is up. You can listen on Libsyn, Apple, Spotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!
The history podcast returns to North India. Gaurav and Jay are in conversation with Maneesh about the changes in the North Indian landscape before and after the times of Harsha – generally considered as the last Emperor of “Ancient India”. We touch upon political splintering that followed the fall of the imperial Guptas, the political Game of thrones that followed, the Kumbha Mela and the decline of trade. 玄奘 (Xuanzang) and Banabhatta make appearances as prolific storytellers along with the stories of contested Urban decay and decline of Buddhism in the Indian heartland.
References for the episode:
A Comprehensive History of India – Vol III
The History and Culture of the Indian People: Volume 3. The Classical Age
Imagining the Urban – Sanskrit and the City in Early India by Shonaleeka Kaul
Urban Decay in India (c. 300-c. 1000) by Ram Sharan Sharma
Upinder Singh – Ancient India.
Upinder Singh – Political violence in Ancient India
Upinder Singh – Culture of Contradictions.
Romila Thapar – Ancient History
Romila Thapar – Past before us
RS Sharma- India’s Ancient Past
Live History India (Paid + unpaid)
The History of India Podcast – Kit Patrick
Echoes of India Podcast – Aniruddha Kanasetti
In this episode of the History series, we return to North India and talk about the Age of the Guptas. We touch upon the military genius of Samudragupta and various Gupta emperors, the emergence of Classical Hinduism and various forms of Art, Music, Science which consolidated during this era. The speakers of the episode are Gaurav Lele and Jay Vardhan and the discussion is moderated by Maneesh.
Sources and References:
Books and Blogs
Upinder Singh – Ancient India.
Upinder Singh – Political violence in Ancient India.
Upinder Singh – Culture of Contradictions.
Romila Thapar – Ancient History
RS Sharma- India’s Ancient Past
Gupta Vakataka Age RC Majumdar
Live History India (Paid + unpaid)
Early Hinduism — the epic stratification | by Gaurav Lele | Medium
The History of India Podcast – Kit Patrick
Echoes of India Podcast – Aniruddha Kanasetti
This research article will be submitted in the new journal Intersectional Gender and South Asian studies. Dedicated to VisionIAS - especially Smriti Shah
Roots of divergence between Bangladesh and the rest of South Asia
South Asia in general has been a diverse place demographically as well as geographically. Unlike the myth of ancient civilization conjured up by well-meaning anti-colonialists in the 19th and 20th centuries, South Asia neither had a coherent identity nor a dominant mass religion. It only became a political unit after the forceful amalgamation of different polities under the Colonial British Raj. Since getting independence, Bangladesh has diverged a great deal not only from former West Pakistan but also from India. Not only in economical terms but also in terms of women empowerment. Unlike most democracies, Bangladesh has been governed by women for a significant duration of time since its independence.
This essay is highly speculative in nature and I have many doubts about many of the things stated below, but I have tried to coherently bring together distinct threads of early Indian history into an explanation for the great stratification of Jati-Varna
Ancient history is in general a tricky subject to delve into, but when it comes to ancient Indian history, the tricky becomes almost entirely speculative. The entire narrative is based on a series of texts, from the Vedic canon to Pali texts – none of them are dated precisely in absolute terms. The paucity of inscriptions from ancient India makes dating much more difficult as oral texts are much harder to accurately date.
One of the early inscriptions from Ancient India, Ashoka’s 13th major rock edict from Kandahar reads
Except among the Greeks, there is no land where the religious orders of Brahmanas and Sramanas are not to be found, and there is no land anywhere where men do not support one sect or another.
Here Brahmanas are mentioned but not as a Varna per se but as analogous to various Sramanas (priests / philosophers). Some academics have come to regard the Sramana traditions as somewhat antagonistic to the orthodox Brahmanical traditions. However, the earliest written reference to these traditions, Ashoka’s Rock Edicts mention them always together. Patanjali and others too mostly mention them together and never as quite as antagonistic as later Sramana canon or modern scholarship would have us believe.
However, it is undeniable that one cannot be understood without the challenges presented by the other. Ahimsa and Vegetarianism are generally acknowledged (and contested) to be Sramana influences on Classical Hinduism. A lot of digital and literal ink has been spilled to answer the question of how these two currents have interacted and shaped each other – mostly through the lens of Ahimsa, Dha(r/m)ma, Moksha and only rarely Karma.
Johannes Bronkhorst’s Greater Magadha thesis offers a tenuous but interesting take on these interactions. The basic premise of the thesis is that the region of Greater Magadha was home to the Proto-Sramana traditions while the Kuru-Panchala region to the Vedic Brahmanas and that many ideas central to classical Hinduism like Karma, Rebirth, and Ayurveda came into it from the Sramana traditions of the Greater Magadha via the esoteric Upanishads (especially the ones which were composed in the horizon of Greater Magadha). The whole thesis rests on the revised chronology which only makes sense if the thesis is true – so I doubt the book is going to convince anyone. But it has catalyzed a rudimentary and dormant theory that came to my mind years ago while reading Ambedkar’s writings.
The composition of the Manava Dharma Shastra (100 BCE to 200 AD) is generally considered to be an indication (or instrument) of Varna ossification. The Varna system in some form ought to have existed (especially in the Gangetic heartland) since the late Vedic period (Purusha Sukta), yet both textual and genetic evidence points to this period as being one of great mixing. Hence it is fair to assume that whatever rudimentary Varna system existed, it was not very rigidly followed in these times. Also its important to note that traditional Varna system may have never been a reality south of the Vindhyas.
It is difficult to pin the Varna ossification to any particular political period. The only pan India ancient empire – the Mauryas are unlikely to have imposed any Varna hierarchy on their subjects as the pedagogic Ashoka doesn’t once mention Varna in his Rock Edicts. The Shungas are seen as the Brahmanical pushback against excesses of the Mauryan state but their power was both too limited in time and too restricted in region to have made any major impact. The same is true for most other political powers in the country for the next 500 years.
Brahmins had begun moving out of the Gangetic heartland as early as the late Vedic period itself. So why did the Varna system, suddenly begin to ossify centuries later? Surely some metaphysical, philosophical, and/or political explanation is required to make sense of this phenomenon. Also, Jati endogamy which is the true hallmark of the Indian Caste system cannot be explained by the Brahmanical Varna system – even the rigid one prescribed in the Manusmriti. The answers may lie in a core philosophy of the Indic faith systems.
So what is the common characteristic that defines Indian religious thought? The answer is easy – the concept of Karma, Rebirth and Dharma. Even if we reject the thesis of Greater Magadha, we have to accept that the concepts of Rebirth and Karma are explored in far more detail in the Sramana schools – namely Buddhists, Jainas, and Ajivikas. The whole philosophical aim of the Sramana schools is to avoid Bad Karma to primarily get Good Karma and finally Moksha. This is in clear contrast with mainstream Vedic thought. Though the early Upanishads (Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka) touch the Karma doctrine it’s in no way as critically dissected as by the Sramanas. The lengths to which the Jainas and Ajivikas go to avoid all Karma; the detailed linking of the intention of the “Actor” to the Karma done by Buddha illustrate that the Sramanas, in general, were way more focused on Karma than their Brahmana counterparts. More importantly, the concept of Karmic retribution in Rebirth is much more detailed in early Sramana traditions than the Upanishads (Yajnavalkya doesn’t link Karma directly to Rebirth but discusses both separately). So it remains fair to assume that even if doctrines of Rebirth and Karma didn’t come into Classical Hinduism as an import from Sramana traditions, it can surely be thought that the Sramana innovations in the Karma and Rebirth doctrines challenged the more “this-worldly outlook” of the Vedic Brahmanas.
But how does this matter to the Jati Varna matrix? The initial conception of Varna sees it as a natural order of things (not unlike stratification seen in most ancient societies). Moreover, this conception is in no way rejected by the Sramana traditions even Buddhism – thought Buddha did not give Varna the emphasis it received from the Vedic Brahmanas. Even today caste is practiced in the Jainas. So how did the conception of Karmic retribution affect this system? The answer seems obvious enough. It meant that the position of one in the Varna hierarchy could be justified as the fruit of Karma of previous births and not only as a Natural order. In other words, the ritual status was awarded to certain births for their good Karma and vice-versa. In many ways, Karmic retribution is a fundamental shift from the “this-worldly” ways of the composers of Rigveda.
This change is captured in the Bhagavat Gita, arguably the most important book of the Hindu canon. While there continue to be many interpretations of the doctrine of Karma espoused in the Gita, the one reading tells us to fulfill the Dharma (of your Varna/ Position/ Situation) with the implication that it would result in Good Karma and better Rebirths – the ultimate aim of Moksha notwithstanding. That indeed seems to be one of the simplistic messages of the Gita which would have begun spreading in the society with the final versions of Mahabharata. The prescriptive Manusmriti is one thing, but the bonafide revelation of Gita is another (though it is not my point that Karmic retribution is the core message of Gita but it is hard to argue against it being a vehicle of the spread of these memes). This doesn’t mean that Varna became birth-based at this moment in history – it is fair to assume it always was at least partially birth-based though more flexible. But we can state that at this stage, one’s Birth became Karma-based and Varna also became inextricably linked to Karma.
This could have resulted in two primary effects:
It would mitigate the sense of injustice perceived by sections of the society who had it tough. The injustice of birth was not injustice but the karmic justice of previous births.
It associated “ritual Varna hierarchy and division of labor” with moral dimension (Karma of previous birth). Potentially this moral dimension would buttress the existing Varna hierarchy.
It’s easy to imagine how this would in turn result in decreasing porousness between Varnas. Incidentally, this is attested through the first/second-century inscription near Nasik by Brahmana Satavahana Queen Gotami, which praises how her son prevented the mixing of the Varnas. This is one of the most solidly dated references against the mixing of Varnas (as it is an inscription) issued by a political authority (not just religious abstractions).
However in a pre-modern subcontinent without a strong centralized state, these ideas would have spread very slowly through the network of Brahmins and various (particularly) Vaishnava sects through the vehicle of Gita. The Hindu Golden age of the Imperial Vaishnavite Guptas – who ruled the second-largest and arguably the richest empire of ancient India, in the fourth/fifth century AD nicely correlates with these timelines. Thus we could say that by the time of the Huna invasions of the 5th and 6th century the Varna ossification was prevalent, but even that doesn’t explain the complete story. Still, we have no philosophical or scriptural basis for Jati endogamy.
Anthropologist Irawati Karve in her book “Hindu society” was one of the earliest to claim that the Jati system was a pre-Aryan reality upon which the abstraction of the Aryan Varna system was imposed. Academically her work has been contested and not accepted in mainstream Indology, but her case is very compelling, given that it is based on her immense fieldwork in “Non-Aryan” tribes who have maintain very strict endogamy. But how does her thesis map onto what we know from genetics? Endogamy in India roughly seems to have ossified between 0 AD and 500 AD but who is to say that less rigid endogamy (not detectable) was not the norm earlier? Is it possible that the self-conception of Jatis is indeed is an ancient Pre-Aryan reality that was less rigid during the Vedic times? Clearly, there are no easy answers as all we can do is speculate and wait for Ancient DNA from India to show if there existed any pre-Aryan structure in the populations of the Indus valley.
Many tribal (hunter-gatherer) societies have endogamy baked into their cultures. But generally, as these tribal societies get integrated into the agricultural societies, this endogamy tends to break down – as evident for recent genetic findings (particularly Europe). But what if the tribal societies which integrated into the emerging Urban civilizations (first the Indus and then the Ganga) , never fully gave up their tribal/clan identities? The hundreds of excavated IVC villages point to sophisticated trade/occupational specialization. If both the sexes work in their ancestral trades per se, it would naturally result in tribal endogamy as it makes occupational sense. But that would not necessarily lead to rigid endogamy to the levels we see in the subcontinent- probably because this doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world. Though the identities of groups by kinship (precursor to Jati) may have existed even before the Varna system began to take form (let alone become rigid).
But why does this Jati endogamy become sharper with the ossification of the Varna system? Some take the explanation as Jatis arising out of the mixing of Varnas seriously, but that thesis (ludicrous imo) can be jettisoned without a second thought as Jatis exists even in those who are outside the Varna hierarchies. A potential answer may again lie in the doctrine of Karmic retribution.
Unlike the original simplistic Varna hierarchy – the concept of Karmic retribution enables hierarchies within hierarchies. Every Jati can be ranked within the Varna hierarchy based on the perceived moral inheritance (Karma) of their profession. Additionally, better births and even salvation are promised to the ones following their Jati-Varna Dharma. Thus Jatis would have both religious as well as occupational/cultural reasons for enforcing stricter endogamy which is far more believable than assuming these norms were somehow imposed across the subcontinent in pre-modern times by machinations of Dvija Varnas.
None of the above points are sufficient but all are necessary to explain the great vivisection of Indian society. Chronologically first the kinship-based (not gotra) groups were integrated into the expanding Aryavarta both culturally and genetically while the late Vedic abstractions of Varna and ritual purity began to take root in the orthodox Vedic traditions. When the rudimentary conceptions (Vedic or non-Vedic) of Karma and Rebirth were taken up by the Sramanas, taking them to a complex, philosophical, and rigorous extreme, they began to affect the Vedic philosophies.
In essence, the religious innovations of Karma, Rebirth and Dharma when coupled with pre-existing concepts of Varna, ritual purity, and tribal occupational endogamy conjure up a perfect storm that continues to flow through the blood of around 1/4th of humanity, in form of thousands of distinct streams.
What is not discussed above is the impact on the subcontinent of the violent Huna invasions which along with internal strife resulted in the collapse of the Gupta empire. The rapid de-urbanization which is speculated to have occurred in the fifth and sixth centuries would have also played a crucial role in this ossification. The second millennium with the Turkic invasions would have also played some role in the maintenance of this now-steady state.
I continue to have a lot of doubts about the above speculations, but when I read books on Indology and Indian prehistory, I find even more tenuous speculations (made by professional academics) than the ones I have proceeded to make in this essay. At least these speculations seem to align with the history alluded by the genetic data of caste (Or I have made them align).
I had thought along these lines even before reading about the interactions of Brahmanas and Sramanas but while reading the Greater Magadha thesis and following a YouTube seminar I thought the thrust of my current argument was staring me in the eye. I expected someone to draw the conclusions I had drawn, but was extremely surprised than no one has gone there.
The references for this essay are numerous and diverse to be noted here. Anyone interested please reach out to me.
I made an offhand comment on Twitter that I thought might be worth amplifying and elaborating. You can argue that to a great extent the period between 250 AD and 750 AD can be thought of as the “Buddhist Age” in Asia. The year 750 AD is easy as a cut off point, as the battle of Talas in 751 symbolizes the recession of Tang Chinese influence in Turanian Central Asia, and the inexorable advance of the Muslim Arabs. The year 250 is more vague, but it post-dates the collapse of the Han dynasty, and starts to see the ascension of Buddhism as a Chinese religion par excellence, rather than a marginal Indian cult.
Let’s focus on the year 700. What’s going on? First, let’s acknowledge that Buddhism is in serious decline across the Indian subcontinent, though there are local pockets of strength, with a late Indian summer to come with the Pala Empire of Bengal in 750. Second, it was under threat across its East Iranian heartland. It is often forgotten that Buddhism and Zoroastrianism competed toe-to-toe as the religion of the elites across the East Iranian world, from modern-day Afghanistan to Khorasan and deep into Transoxiana. The book Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road documents this interplay. Lost Enlightenment as well as Christopher I Beckwith’s book argues from the strong role of Turanian Buddhism in shaping Abbassid era Islam (e.g., viharas as models for madrassas and Turanian Buddhist textual culture as the seedbed for hadith).
in Japan Buddhism was taking root, while in Korea and much of China it was the dominant religion in 700 AD. Buddhism also had a thin, but detectable, impact across Southeast Asia, along with Indic culture more generally. Tibet was not as clearly associated with Buddhism in 700, but the religion had already been introduced and was making a cultural impact.
What does this have to do with “Brown Pundits”? Buddhism is the dominant vehicle of clear and obvious Indian cultural influence in the world. It is, arguably, the earliest of the great missionary religions to exist today. Though Buddhism never took root in the West, it was clearly known and a presence in the eastern Mediterranean during the Roman period in cosmopolitan ports such as Alexandria. Though Indian numerals are extremely consequential, they are a more bit-sized cultural element, which has been detached from their Indian matrix. In contrast, Buddha’s Indian origin is well known, and the influence of Buddhism is probably responsible for legends that are hard to explain such as the Indian princess who married into the Korean royal line and gave rise to a modern day Korean clan.
In my previous two posts, I traced the roots of India as a civilization state and proposed a framework which would seek to retain modern India’s classical Anglo-liberal framework but embellish it with Dharmic values. In this third and final post, I will seek to demonstrate how these seemingly contradictory systems could be reconciled in a coherent Anglo-Dharmic liberal conservative framework. I will also analyse Indian domestic and foreign policy from a liberal conservative perspective. Before doing that, it is worth examining how liberal conservatism would deal with the third great tradition that has influenced Indian history: Islam.
The Muslim Question
The ledger of the Nehruvian state’s interactions with and treatment of Indian Muslims is decidedly a mixed bag. On the positive side, it is to the Nehruvian state’s credit that Indian Muslims were able to see themselves as full and equal participants and stakeholders in the Indian Republic. It is easy to underestimate today how difficult and challenging this would have been in the immediate aftermath of the partition and vivisection of India in 1947. It would have been easy to let hatred and vengeance take over in the aftermath of a bloody division. The Congress party under the stewardship of Pandit Nehru ensured that the better angels of our nature prevailed and the Muslims who remained in India were treated with tolerance and compassion. The basic framework of the Indian Constitution, in particular the golden triangle of equality, freedom and liberty, ensured full and equal citizenship and freedom of worship for Indian Muslims. The wisdom and sagacity of the founding fathers of the modern Indian Republic who were the architects of this framework must be applauded.
Buddhist logic from the beginning differs from its Aristotelian cousin, featuring the chatushkoti or tetralemma:
India in the fifth century BCE, the age of the historical Buddha, and a rather peculiar principle of reasoning appears to be in general use. This principle is called the catuskoti, meaning ‘four corners’. It insists that there are four possibilities regarding any statement: it might be true (and true only), false (and false only), both true and false, or neither true nor false.