New insights into ancient India

Print edition : October 28, 2016

At the Buddhist monuments at Nagarjunakonda, also known as Nandikonda, in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh. Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam

An important contribution to studies on Indian history, with some essays in the collection revisiting old themes and sources and others focussing on new sources and themes of inquiry.

STUDIES on the early history of India have increased in volume and in the range of subjects explored. Apart from monographs focussing on specific themes, there has been a tendency among historians to collect papers they have published in various places and place them in a single volume. A compilation of 13 essays arranged in four sections, Upinder Singh’s latest publication is essentially such a collection of diverse articles written at different points of time, covering disparate sources and historical contexts.

The first section, titled “Realm and Region”, comprises four essays that focus on three specific early historical sites, Sanchi, Nagarjunakonda and Mathura, and more generally on early medieval Odisha. “Archaeologists and the Modern History of Ancient Sites” forms the subject of the second section, where general issues relating to the institutionalisation of archaeology as well as the religious and other ramifications of site preservation and dismemberment are probed. The section titled “The Intersection of Political Ideas and Practice” has three essays focussing on specific texts—epigraphic and literary. The final two essays examine religious patronage by “Looking Beyond India to Asia”. Given the range, it would be tedious as well as unwieldy to present a view of all sections; hence, I focus on the first and the third.

Three essays in the first section are significant because they draw our attention to the fact that despite so much being written on some historical sites, there is still so much more to explore. Nagarjunakonda in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh and Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh are important Buddhist sites of the early historical period that have received some attention from scholars. The corpus of inscriptions available at these sites, in addition to the rich archaeological remains, provides insights into issues relating to patronage and institutional development.

The study on Sanchi covers familiar ground through a quantitative and qualitative analysis of around 860 inscriptional records, most of which were issued in the period between second century BCE and first century C.E., where gender, occupational background, corporate affiliation and monastic identity are analysed (pages 8-27). What is important about this discussion is that there is an attempt to locate the continuity of this site, although the drastic dwindling of inscriptions indicates that the site has lost its force as a sacred centre. Nagarjunakonda, known in historical records as Vijayapuri, is treated differently—here, the 56-odd inscriptions belonging to the Ikshvaku period (third-fourth centuries C.E.) are summarily discussed in terms of the patronage of different kinds of women donors (pages 47-53). The significant point that emerges is the close linkages of the site with Sri Lankan monastic institutions, as seen in the references to Sihala-vihara (monastery for Sri Lankan monks), and monks from the Tambapani dipa (island of Sri Lanka) who converted Kashmir, Gandhara, China, etc. It is possibly because of the reference to the nanadesa samanagata (monks coming from different places) and the mahabhikhu-sangha from nanadesa (great community of monks from various lands) that Upinder Singh identifies the emergence of a cosmopolitan Buddhist centre here (pages 45-46).

Gregory Schopen, the renowned scholar on Buddhism, identifies relic worship and the development of sacred sites around the tumulus harbouring these as reflecting initially the desire by the followers of the faith to be close to the Buddha. The emergence of the saririka (corporeal), uddesika (memorial) and paribhogika (objects used by the Buddha such as the begging bowl) caityas essentially catered to this need of the devout. Other than the one great stupa, the mahacaitya, housing the bone relic of the Buddha, there were eight stupas housing relics. Of these, four had relics in earthen jars and appeared to have been built by non-royal patrons, suggesting that these were for local monks. The monastic complexes also indicate diversity in size and sectarian affiliation. Most interesting is the reference to the vigata-jvaralaya (“place for terminating fevers”/hospital), indicating the linkages between Buddhist monasteries and medical knowledge and practices (page 56), a point amply demonstrated by Kenneth G. Zysk on the subject.

Various artefacts found at the site, like stone querns and grindstones, iron tools, lead coins, ornaments of metal, terracotta and shell and pottery fragments, indicate that textual prescriptions about monastic life were not adhered to. The discussion on narrative art from the site follows the lines of scholars such as Vidya Dehejia to some extent in terms of set themes being identified from the Buddha’s life, his miracles, his past lives, etc. A cryptic comment about questioning the interpretation that the ayaka pillars represented five major events in the Buddha’s life (birth, departure, enlightenment, first sermon and death) leaves one without any clues about alternative interpretations by the author (page 59). Despite such difficulties, this essay effectively pieces together a coherent narrative on the basis of existing material to argue for the rich and multilayered Buddhist presence at Nagarjunakonda.

The chapter on Mathura begins with a definitive premise that the early history of popular Hinduism can be traced from here (page 73). The introduction sets the tone for this: “Notwithstanding its internal diversity and the absence of a canon or priesthood, I think that one can and should use the term ‘Hinduism’” (page xix). There is a whole range of debate and discussion on this theme and to bypass all of this with no substantive explanation (even a couple of sentences would have sufficed) seems awkward to say the least, coming from a scholar of Upinder Singh’s calibre. The chapter starts off with tables providing the archaeological profile of the region with its eight periods of occupation, although five cultural sequences, roughly from the sixth century BCE to the sixth century C.E., mark the focus of the study. The female figurines with “prominent breasts and broad hips” adorned with neck, ear and hand ornaments have crowns or elaborate headdresses “consisting of a mass of conical sprouts or grass blades encircled by a cluster of cactus-like plants” (pages 77-78).

Given the terracotta artefacts such as miniature tanks and shrines that have been found with these from at least the first century BCE, the author sees a cultic context for these images, thus accepting the label of goddesses for them. The yaksha and yakshi images from the region between the third century BCE and the second century C.E., generally understood to be rural fertility deities, attest to their popularity in an urban milieu, when they also began to gain colossal proportions. The Parkham yaksha has an inscription recording that it was carved by the artist Gomitaka, pupil of Kunika, and set up by eight brothers who were members of the Manibhadra puga (congregation of merchants; page 80).

A.L. Basham has pointed out that Manibhadra is the name of a popular yaksha, known as the king of travellers, who, along with Purnabhadra, was worshipped in north India as seen from various literary and epigraphic evidence. Upinder Singh also draws our attention to serpent worship, attested by several anthropomorphic images with serpent hoods. The seven-hooded 2.33-metre-high naga from Chhargaon is inscribed, recording the names of donors who set up the image near a tank in the second century C.E. Tabulating the images housed in the Mathura museum, Upinder Singh concurs with the dominant view that the Sunga-Kushana period, particularly the latter, saw an increase in brahmanical iconography (page 86). This ties up with the patronage of brahmanas attested to in contemporary records. Last but not the least is the discussion of the devakula at Mat, with Kushana inscriptions, that raises the issue of whether kings of this dynasty claimed divine status (pages 92-93).

This set of essays is especially important for those of us working on art, region and religion because they underscore the point that places are not inert, static or frozen in time. They constantly change and evolve because of political, economic and cultural factors. The idea that the locale of a monument/sculpture is embedded in a location—a wider spatial construct linked to its physical contours as well as to its association with specific human endeavours —has profound implications. While Michel Foucault’s heterotopic universe that dissolves constructed and constricting spaces may be a difficult concept for a historian to embrace, Upinder Singh does try to establish the many ways in which places are constituted within the historical record. The diversity of sources for reconstruction, which she weaves together in her narrative, are partly responsible for this. The notion of multiple levels at which a space may be understood can be seen as reflecting different perspectives from, and of, a place—in other words, places can and do have a multivocal character.

The three essays that examine texts form another interesting set, with one focussing on what may be called prescriptive literature, one on a narrative form, and the third on the inscriptional text. All three examine the forms of media and communication in early India in terms of the content and form as well as the meanings and symbolism subsequently attached to them. The reign of the Mauryan emperor, Asoka (circa 268-232 BCE), is marked by the issuance of public records known as edicts, which have tended to be either interpreted as legitimising devices or as proof of the dominance of Buddhism (page 274). Two fundamental principles seem to be emphasised in these records: abjuring of war and violence and upholding people’s welfare at the individual and state level. Dhamma was a tool towards this end and cannot be understood as the ultimate aim.

A complex rereading and comparison of the different edicts leads Upinder Singh to a rather radical conclusion: “The ultimate declared aim of Asoka’s political theory and practice was neither the expansion of territorial power nor the maintenance of social order. Instead, it was an extremely radical and intrusive aim: the moulding and transformation of the mental and emotional dispositions, attitudes and behaviour of all humankind” (page 299).

The second article focusses on a text composed in the sixth-seventh centuries, Kamandaka’s Nitisara, and also highlights violence and war as key elements in the exercise of political authority. Welfare is understood in terms of prosperity, and it is ultimately geared to benefit the state (pages 313-314, 322). The essay on Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsha is also concerned with war and kingship, not in terms of actual conquest but in the sense of display of military superiority. However, because of the nature of the genre, kavya, this work allowed for the depiction of an “emotional landscape”, which was seen as interfering with and influencing the political landscape (pages 348-349).

What one misses in this section is the tying together of these three distinctive sources in terms of their genres and the time period they belong to in a manner that effectively conveys the constitution of the political imagination. That the exercise of power seems to be laced with an anxiety about the mechanisms of control in the prescriptive texts can be contrasted with the edicts that demonstrate unequivocally the assertion of power, while the narrative genre appears to collapse the neat divisions between the political and the personal. The possibilities through such analyses are immense and provide a more nuanced reading of power and authority.

This brings me to the introduction of the volume. It starts on a strange note: “[D]ebates on the idea of antiquity and periodisation have led to a sharp decline in the use of the adjective ‘ancient’ in favour of ‘early’. I prefer to talk about ‘ancient’ rather than ‘early’ India, mainly for aesthetic reasons. The adjective ‘early’ is bland, dull and nondescript; ‘ancient’ on the other hand, has depth, mystery, resonance” (page xv).

For a historian who has tried to so carefully cull and interpret her evidence, to summarily eschew critical analysis in favour of flippancy was disconcerting to say the least. There are reasons why some scholars favour “early India” as a catchphrase to speak of the historical processes broadly occurring from prehistoric times to about 1300 C.E., primarily based on the critique of a Eurocentric periodisation. This usage can as easily be critiqued, for it appears to have apparently only supplanted the term “ancient” with no substantive change in categorisation. But the critique needs to come from a historical location. The introduction as a whole needed to be tighter and more focussed on the issues raised by the author in the various chapters, rather than when and why these came to be written.

Taken as a whole, the volume is an important contribution to studies on ancient and early medieval Indian history. Some of the essays revisit old themes and sources, and we come away with some new insights. Others focus on new sources and themes of inquiry, and the vast ocean of research possibilities opens up before us.

R. Mahalakshmi is Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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