It is difficult, when writing history, to stay distant from one’s own prejudices, our pet ideas, our personal viewpoints. This, of course, makes history organic and imbues it with a life that the sciences do not have. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why history never can become a science (which is a little ironic, given how much science goes into modern historical research).
Abraham Eraly’s book “The First Spring: Vol 1” is no different. Ho looks at his subject as dispassionately as he can, but he cannot let go of his own judgement,, his own concepts and interpretations. It is a comprehensive history he writes, each chapter focusing on one particular aspect of India – religion, politics, trade and economics, culture, urban life and so on. Each subject is dealt with in detail, as much detail as is available at least. He quotes copiously from whatever texts are extant, available to us as temple engravings, brass-plate engravings and the various “smritis”. The narration is thorough and sounds cogent. Just as importantly (or maybe more so), it is engaging. It’s human, direct, and flows. Eraly doesn’t talk down to you, and he keeps the language and the presentation bot lucid and sober. It’s a good, if long, book to read and most readers will come out of the experience with some new facts and many a new realization.
Where the book fails is in part due to two interconnected reasons:
A) There is a shocking and almost criminal lack of real world history in ancient Indian texts. While our forebears wrote extensively on dharma (conduct, not religion), mythology, philosophy, mathematics, medicine, surgery, art, even love – they hardly wrote any history. Even king-lists, the one thing that survives from almost every civilization are either missing or incomplete or outright fabrications. Our main sources are, therefore, indirect ones – foreign commentaries, “smritis”, plays and such, and anything we can piece together from inscriptions here and there.
B) This absence of “valid histories” leads to Eraly depending quite a bit on the “smritis”, especially for information on the social and cultural practices of the period. These rambling sets of codes and rituals set out to define, categorize, and direct the conduct of the entire mass of humanity then living in the Indian subcontinent. These texts are surprising, amusing, shocking, exasperating, infuriating, paradoxical, intricate, excessively detailed yet eminently self-contradictory that it is difficult to imagine any society governed by these masses of contradictions. Eraly however, imagines so.
This is where some prejudice seeps through. Eraly essentially takes most of the ideas put forth in the “smritis” as historical fact, even though he is quite cognizant of the inherent contradictions of texts that espouse completely opposite ideals, often after a gap of only a few pages. To posit that such a society actually existed, as such, at one and the same point in time and space (yes, I haven’t gotten over the Thapar torture) is far-fetched in the least. I read the “smritis” and their endless lists of proscribed habits and foods and actions and what not as some idealized concepts of what the authors (almost universally brahmins) desired the world should be. The reality, in all probability, was quite a disappointment to them.
To his defence, Eraly does raise this possibility as well, but the narration taken all in al shows that his heart probably tends the other way.
This small (medium?) peeve apart, the book is quite readable and I do recommend it to every student of Indian history quite unhesitatingly. It asks of your time, but it gives back satisfaction in full measure.
This was a great review, HB. I enjoyed reading it. My immune system treats all historical texts as works of fiction, so when I read, I prepare to not believe. I am from a country with a short history, all written from European perspectives and no amount of rewriting can change that. I did a history course for undergraduate credit and only one Oxford educated lecturer was capable of offering any clarity on the subject. All word of mouth, no texts to consult. I relied on my own reading for all courses, so I ignore what I’m told and create notes from what I can find in the library. The one text I could find had all the insights in footnotes. Basically, we had to regurgitate the lecturer’s thesis. The narrative style was very frustrating, since I hated attending lectures. I barely escaped with my reputation (for not attending classes).
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I loved history and treated school text books as the bible, but as I grew up I realized how muddled up it all was and how very subjective historical narratives are.
A lack of history is usually always artificially created and it can be frustrating, Vast swathes of geography and humanity who have little, if any, known history left. Makes you wonder how much we’ve lost!
Anyway, I’m getting poetic, so I’ll stop. And thank you for reading this long, rambling review! 🙂
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It was quite entertaining and I found it organised and structured. I can’t write a book review without ranting, so hats off to you.
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