Friday, December 02, 2005

Devanam Piya Piyadasi Laja Evam Haiva

Check out this link from a few weeks back which has a bunch of famous people answering the question "What was the most influential book you read in college?" Responders include Christopher Hitchens, David Brooks and Alan Bloom.

Since reading this, I've been trying to answer the question for myself. If the question were "What was the most influential book you've ever read?" my answer would be George Orwell's "1984". It awakened my political consciousness and drew my attention to the varied forms of totalitarianism.

But I read "1984" long before I attended college, so I've been racking my brain to think of the book I read during college which most influenced the way I view the world. Ironically, it's not a book I was assigned in class, but one I picked up and read on my own. The book? "India Discovered" by John Keay. Keay tracks the efforts of many British Orientalists who sought to piece together the history and geography of India during the British Raj. Starting with William Jones, Keay demonstrates that these citizen-scholars literally re-discovered a lost Indian history. They only had two dates to work with: 326 BC when Alexander crossed the Sindh, and 712 AD when Mohammed Bin Qasim did the same.

Local texts were of little help. Firstly, they rarely separated myth from history. For example, Vikramaditya was a real king from the Gupta era, but most stories about him center around the myth of the Vetala. In fact, it's from the chronicles of another visitor to India, the Chinese Buddhist Fa-Hien, that we are able to get a glimpse into the world Vikramaditya ruled over. It seems that an essential trait of Indian culture is to gloss over history and mythologize it instead. Another problem with local texts is the lack of a proper dating system. Most kingly proclamations are made with reference to the year of the reign of that particular king. As a result, there are many gaps in Indian history, and the English administrators who came to India and took an interest in it, took on the task of filling these gaps.

The most glaring example of this is the discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization (or Harappan Civilization), which happened in the 1920s when workers laying railway tracks in the North of India discovered ruins with extremely well preserved bricks that they wanted to use on the construction. The British official overseeing the construction sent the bricks to Calcutta to be examined, and the rest, as they say, is History.

My favorite story from the book is that of James Princep, a young Englishman who came to Calcutta to work at the Company mint. Princep was an avid coin collector and became interested in ancient Indian coins. Unable to read the script on the coins Princep started meticulously recording every symbol he came across. He asked various travellers to record inscriptions on rocks and statues that they came across, and noticed something peculiar. A series inscriptions carved into rocks and pillars all across the sub-continent started with the same set of symbols. These inscriptions were usually accompanied with the three-lion motif or the chakra (wheel) motif. Princep concluded that all of these inscriptions must have been from proclamations made by a single king who ruled over most of what is now modern India. Unfortunately, no one had any idea who this king was, or what the script said. After years of painstaking work, Princep finally cracked the code and deciphered the script.

"Devanam piya, Piyadasi Laja evam haiva." That is the Prakrit that Princep deciphered when he cracked the script. All the inscriptions from the mystery king started with these words. Translated from the Prakrit, it says, "Beloved of the gods, King Piyadasi proclaims thus." The rest of the inscription would be the particular proclamation. So, who was this King Piyadasi? Some more detective work revealed that King Piyadasi was a tyrant king who conquered most of India before converting to Buddhism and ruling the vast country justly, peppering the country-side with proclamations of peace. His symbols were the three lions facing in different directions, and the wheel. Today we know him as Ashoka the Great, whose wheel symbol adorns the Indian flag.

What is amazing is that locals had no idea what the inscriptions were, or who Ashoka was. What Keay's book does is to show us just how much of our history was lost, and how much might still be unrevealed to us. And this is why I think Keay's book was the most influential one I read during college. I realized just how ahistorical Indian society is, and as an avid history-buff, it was quite a disappointing discovery. I also began to re-evaluate the legacy of the British in India. These insights have shaped my thinking as a student of history. After all, Jones, Princep and a host of other bureaucrats and army officers contributed so much to our understanding of India and Indian identity. We owe these men a huge debt, and to trample on that legacy in the name of anti-colonialism is to do ourselves a great disservice. And, it would be one of the most ahistorical acts imaginable.