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A new book paints a picture of ancient India's pluralities

Ancient India—Culture Of Contradictions by Upinder Singh presents a complex picture of the period, belying the blunt jingoism of our present

Bas relief sculptures on Vaman Temple, in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India
Bas relief sculptures on Vaman Temple, in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India (iStockphoto)

What a pleasure it is to read a well-researched, clearly written, intelligent book which sees our collective past as a mosaic rather than as a monolith. In the midst of an agitated flurry of writing about the “glorious” past over the last decade by polemicists and autodidacts, historian Upinder Singh presents us with lucid descriptions of the complexities and pluralities of ancient India in the areas of ideas, religion, social structure and the arts. Taken together, these allow us to construct a fuller and better picture of the contradictions that might colour our present.

For example, one of the questions Singh tackles is: How is it that we enthusiastically worship the goddess, and have had innumerable powerful women leaders in so many fields, when the structures that underlie our society are patriarchal and misogynistic? Further, what happened to ancient India’s joyous celebration of physical love and sexual desire (as evidenced in the Kama Sutra and temple carvings), such that we now police the boundaries of both physical and emotional attraction? Singh also discusses other major oppositions within our cultures, such as violence and non-violence, debate and conflict, bringing her observations of the dialectical relationship between them to bear on how they are situated in contemporary society. But even if Ancient India—Culture Of Contradictions (Aleph, 799) were not to illuminate our present, the fact that it considers the past a space of inclusion and multiplicity makes it an important (and persuasive) contrapuntal note in the monotonic narratives about Ourselves and Others that have become part of our national soundtrack.

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Singh mines a great variety of sources that indicate our ancestors lived in a pluralistic society that held within itself (not necessarily without conflict) diverse ways of being and thinking. Archaeological monuments, artefacts and inscriptions, coins, religious and literary texts, philosophical and prescriptive treatises, sculptures and temple carvings, travellers’ tales, poetry—all these are brought to bear on the entirely believable picture she creates from their juxtaposition. Many of these sources contradict each other, some are in clear opposition to others, some are dissenting voices, others either ask questions themselves or nudge us to do so. It is critical that we place Jainism, Buddhism and early Hinduism in relation to one another, to not fear the diminishment of one or the other when we realise that they used the same ideas (such as dharma, which was fully developed into a system of ethics by Buddhism) to explore different metaphysics and theologies, that they influenced one another in both consonant and dissonant ways. These three religions also share various gods—Indra and Kubera, Lakshmi and Saraswati, are important in the Jaina pantheon, as are a host of demi-gods and semi-divine beings (nagas and yakshas, for example). It matters little who said what first or best—what matters is that we are looking at diverse traditions in wholesome conversation with one another.

Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions: by Upinder Singh; Aleph Book Company, 280 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799.
Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions: by Upinder Singh; Aleph Book Company, 280 pages, 799.

Singh teaches us not to think in hermetically sealed binaries. This prevents us from pitting one set of ideas against another, of course, but it also opens our eyes to the fact that the same systems and ideologies often held contradictions within themselves. For example, when bhakti developed within Hinduism, not all poet saints in this highly diverse and regionally specific set of cultures were reformers or advocated change, especially not in relation to the position and conduct of women in society. So, too, we are used to thinking of Jainism and Buddhism as actively against the caste system that we (rightly) believe was enshrined within Hindu belief and practice. A closer reading of ancient texts and inscriptions will show us that while Jainism and Buddhism had female monastic orders and held that women could aspire to, and gain, spiritual liberation (moksha/nirvana), it is also true that they actively acknowledged the existence of caste and hierarchy. Besides, according to both, a woman had better chances of achieving liberation after she had been born as a man. While the new perspective on old and entrenched beliefs may make them seem trivial and insufficient now, the changes were quite radical for their time.

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Also, in a welcome change from many general histories, Singh is careful to include the south in her analyses. Although she stays largely focused on what can be gleaned from Tamil Sangam literature, she makes us aware that the south had a parallel history for much of the ancient period, no less sophisticated in the arts and governance and as prosperous in trade as the northern polities and kingdoms we are accustomed to hearing about. While similar in many ways, the ancient south had a distinct ethos of its own. From the fact that more women are represented in the Sangam period’s great poetry anthologies, the way they speak and are spoken of, it’s tempting to assume they enjoyed a better position in society.

In her Introduction, Singh makes a revealing comment about her method and perspective but also about her choice as a scholar and teacher: to be circumspect rather than dogmatic. She says this book arose from a course she was designing about “Indian Civilization”. “How could I approach such a grand theme without being atrociously superficial, selective and simplistic? . . . Was my course not doomed to failure even before it began? Instead of despairing, I decided to be upfront about the difficulties and structure the course around the contradictions and ideas in early Indian history.”

Singh later reiterates her commitment to thinking about the past based on the evidence that shows it to be one of simultaneously held contradictions, within eras and periods, systems and ideologies. “While discussing the different aspects of ancient Indian cultural traditions, the conjunction ‘or’ is best replaced by ‘and.’” I am struck by this simple but profound formulation of how to place the artefacts of culture—ideas, texts, songs, pictures, monuments—next to one another. How wonderful it would be if we could learn to place the makers of culture, i.e., people, in the same relationship to each other—and, not or.

Arshia Sattar is a writer and translator based in Bengaluru.

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