Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Kingdoms of the Wall

Last week I finished listening to ‘The Story of India’ on CD, and I still don’t have a good feel for Michael Wood's unifying structure for Indian history. All I have come up with so far can be summed up by slightly modifying the words of Poilar’s uncle in ‘Kingdoms of the Wall’: ‘India is a world. India is a universe.’

Michael is obviously very impressed with India, and very fond of India, and wanted to write a book. He thinks many of the distinguishing features of Indian culture can be traced back before the coming of the Aryans, as far the very dawning of humanity on the subcontinent, and talks about yoni and lingam stones five thousand years old being recognised by modern villagers when dug up. Having stressed this antiquity of Indian civilisation he runs out of specific things he really wants to say and skips along from vignette to vignette for the last 2000 years without ever making much of a point. I don’t think Michael’s heart was really in telling that part of the story.

I still enjoyed it, of course, since I am also very impressed with India, and very fond of India, and wanted something to listen to in the car. So I apologise, Michael, if you are reading this, for the negative tone of what follows. Thanks for the book. I have just written about the aspects that struck me as worth quibbling about, as a contrary and pedantic Dr Clam.

There is a dreadful responsibility resting on the shoulders of anyone who goes to write about such a vast subject, because of the false impressions that can be given by leaving things out. For instance, Michael mentions famine in association with the career of the Buddha and an Emperor of the Mauryan or Kushan period- I forget which- who was moved by his inability to do anything about it to embrace Buddhist principles: then he doesn’t mention famine again until the 19th century, where it is a stick to chastise the British with for being insensitive and incompetent Imperialist rulers. This gives the false impression that the millennia in between were all jolly and well-fed, which is of course not true. Famine is a chronic problem in populous countries with rain-fed agriculture and pre-modern communications. Here, for example, is part of the account of an English traveller in Gujarat in 1631, during the reign of Shah Jahan, the ‘Golden Age of the Moguls’:

‘No less lamentable was it to see the poor people scraping on the dunghills for food, yea in the very excrements of beasts, as horses, oxen, etc., belonging to travellers, for grain that perchance might come undigested from them, and that with great greediness and strife among themselves, generally looking like anatomies with life, but scarce strength enough to remove themselves from under men’s feet, many of them expiring, others new dead…. From Surat to this place, all the highway was strowed with dead people, our noses never free of the stink of them, especially about towns; for they drag them out by the heels, stark naked, and all ages and sexes, until they are out of the gates, and there they are left, so that the way is half barred up.’

[From Peter Mundy, Travels in Europe and Asia, quoted in ‘The Men Who Ruled India’, Philip Woodruff]

In a similar way Michael says, several times, that India was something like 30% of the worlds economic output under the Moguls, and only 3% in 1900 (or at Independence- I forget which) and this he also blames, without explicitly hammering the point, on the British behaving badly. Leaving aside the fact that the 3% is probably a number based on solid data and scholarship, while the 30% is a rubbery one that someone made up: (1) The taxation policies of the Moguls could hardly have been more effective at creating poverty and quashing entrepreneurship than if they had been designed for that purpose, and similarly appalling administrative practices were found everywhere on the subcontinent when the British arrived. It is a matter of record that the British immediately started acting to reverse and ameliorate these policies, but ‘India is a world. India is a universe’ and it is not surprising they were not as effective as the Japanese were in their colonies. (2) India’s economy shrank only in relative terms, because vast swathes of the world- Europe, Japan, Russia, the Americas- were surging ahead in leaps and bounds.

Michael becomes more politically correct as he moves closer to the present, but this is not an imperceptively gradual process: it comes in quite suddenly, with the coming of Islam. He takes great pains to stress the non-ideological motives for Muslim invaders, the craving for lewtz and the necessities of power politics, and also takes pains to balance Muslim with non-Muslim atrocities. When he has to mention Mahmud of Ghazni’s destruction of Hindu temples, for example, he makes sure to say something about the contemporary wars of the Cholas in South India, who were quite happy to destroy the other side’s Hindu temples despite being Hindus themselves. He only forgets himself once, when he gets to Aurangzeb, the last great Mogul Emperor. Every other historical figure is painted in shades of grey, but he has no compunction about painting Aurangzeb completely black. The conflict between him and his brother Dara Shikoh can be construed as a conflict *between* Muslims, I expect, so Michael sides whole-heartedly with the ‘Muslim’ who is more congenial to a modern worldview. But- if the quotations attributed to Dara Shikoh in the book are accurate- he really *was* an apostate, and would not be recognised as a real Muslim by 99% of Muslims living today. Michael more or less blames Aurangzeb’s religious policies (he removed various un-Qur’anic favours extended by his predecessors to the kaffirs, and introduced Shari’a) for the collapse of the Mogul Empire, but historians today are far from agreed that this is true. It didn’t fall apart until *after* his death, after he had ruled nearly fifty years, and it was a dreadful economic mess already when he took over.

The most serious bit that is left out is one that Michael says, early on, that he left out on purpose. And it makes sense to draw the line somewhere, so he probably had to leave it out, or his book would have gone on forever. It is an aspect of Indian history that is of enormous interest to someone looking from this direction, from the East.

Look at Bali; look at Borobodur, at Angkor Wat, at the galleries of painted scenes from the Ramayana you can see at that palace in Bangkok: Indian culture is the background culture to a region of half a billion inhabitants outside of India. It sank in and became part of those places, in a way that Chinese culture never really has. Like Greek or American culture, Indian culture was an attractive product that could be readily exported. The Islam of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, is an Islam that was mediated through India, was Indified on its way. I would have liked to hear more about how all this happened. Michael had to leave something out, and looking from the West, from his home in the UK, this Drang nach Osten probably seemed like an obvious thing to leave out. But by leaving in- as you have to – all the movements of ideas and people from the West- the Aryans, the Greeks, the Arabs, the Moguls- the impression that you get is of an Indian civilisation more passive than it was, an eternal Mata Bharat merely receiving and transforming the products of virile men from the West.


Marco said...

As usual, a very eloquent review.

Other fascinating things about India are its miniscule role in the Geopolitical games due to it not being a permanent security council member. Also, its miniscule success at the Olympics compared to its population.

Dr. Clam said...

...its miniscule role in the Geopolitical games due to it not being a permanent security council member...

Methinks you have inverted cause and effect and magnified the importance of the UN far beyond its due- the nations that were important in geopolitical games in 1945 made themselves permanent security council members, and have remained important since... India, by consciously embracing non-alignment 1947-1991, placed itself outside the main current of the geopolitical games at the time. It was probably the only nation big enough to do so.
I think its current role in geopolitical games is very far from miniscule, and in the new multilateral Age of Stupid it is going to be very important indeed.

As for the lack of Olympic success, I would ascribe this to having a more sensible set of national priorities. :)

Marco said...

in the new multilateral Age of Stupid it is going to be very important indeed.

Let's see... future geopolitical games...

I envisage a "modern depression" for a decade with the lost decade of Japan being a rough template....

Being more global, trade may plummett, isolating economies somewhat.....

This may eventually spark a third world war.

Until a WWIII, geopolitical games will be "cold war"ish - in which only countries with the cover of a veto in the UN would threaten MAD style nuclear armageddon as a last resort - leaving India as a powerful but sidelined player.

All bets are off as to what happens then, but it is likely India will have a much larger role when the mess is cleared up.

Dr. Clam said...

Sheesh, have things really gone that bad in only 40 days? I forecast a shallow global recession, followed by a science and technology-driven wave of growth and optimism culminating in Happy Fun World^TM with liberty and justice for all.

You still seem to think a UN veto has some sort of significance. The lead-up to the Second Gulf War demonstrated that the UN is a body entirely powerless and irrelevant, a mere decorative pageant like the Mogul Empire c.1850.

India has robust democratic institutions, gets along with everybody, and demography is on its side, unlike China, Japan, and Europe. Therefore it is the country to watch in the Eastern Hemisphere for the rest of the century. IMHO.

Marco said...

Sheesh, have things really gone that bad in only 40 days?

Yeah turn your back on the world for 40 days and see what happens!!! :-)

Marco said...

I forecast a shallow global recession, followed by a science and technology-driven wave of growth and optimism culminating in Happy Fun World^TM with liberty and justice for all.

I'd like to see you expand on this in a marconomic evolutionary path- way. What analogous historical events can you point to and say - we are in a similar position due to .... and go on and point to such and such probable process that would get to your culmination.

Dr. Clam said...

Perhaps one day I shall take up your marcoeconomic challenge. Here are some quotes on the 1896 depression for you in the meantime.

Marco said...

Speaking of predictions of well into the future, back in 1987 we made guesses on the year man would first land on Mars. I seem to recall years in the 2020's as guesses.

My thoughts on a "modern depression" is that it is a relative thing. In the Japanese "lost decade", by any historical measure, they kept their affluence including creature comforts, life expectancy etc. They were just more depressed. A global analogue would see many developing countries regress back to an angry, somewhat dispossessed populace. But in developed countries the populace would tend to blame every other country for the stagnation (at an admittedly comfortable GDP)

In the past, over a long period, this beggar thy neighbour sentiment led to military build-ups hence the thought that global conflict becomes more possible. This is not necessarily incompatible with happyfunworldtm.