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.


Anonymous said...

John Keay is one of my favourite authors and this book is high on my list of favourites. My respect for the "early Britishers" (those who came before 1857), went way up after reading this book. Folks like Sir William Jones, James Prinsep, Sir Alexander Cunningham, Brian Houghton Hodgson, William Roxburgh (and many others) have seminal contribution to Indian history, flora and fauna, study of indigenous people.

Other books that are highly recommended are "India - a history", "The great arc" - on the mapping of India by Lambton and Everest, "The Honourable Company" - on the British East India Company, "Explorers Extraordinaire" - on British explorers whose names I have not heard, "Last Post: Empires End" - the fall of the Imperial powers in South East Asia and "Sowing the wind" on the history of the Middle East. John Keay single handedly made history my favourite subject

Nina said...

Great book. I found it to be quite an eye opener, too. For me, it sparked off an interest in etymology, languages & linguistics. I had no idea until I read the book that Sanskrit and Latin were even remotely related.

Vinaya HS said...

Thanks for the tip. I'll make sure that I buy this book this month.

///slash\\\ said...

one of my favourites
Orwell Library an online collection that has all his works - well almost.

Vijay said...

Thanks all for the comments.

Anon: You're right. Keay is awesome. I haven't read all the books you mention, but they're definately on my list.

Nina: Keay's book can definately have that effect. I'd be interested to know what you've learned about etymology and linguistics since reading this book.

Vinaya: Good choice - you won't regret it!

Slash: Thanks for the link. Great stuff!

Anonymous said...

Are you aware of a series that BBC ran on Indian history called Legacy ?

Raghav RAO- said...

vijay can u forward me the ebook
plus i sent the link to a couple of anti-colonialism friends
and thet we're left speechless

Balaji said...

John Keay's 'India Discovered' left lasting impression on me. The list of things for which we are indebted to the British doesnt just end with the language and institutions such as the railways, but also for our own understanding of our past. One of Keay's other books, 'India - a history', is a huge magnum opus that spans all the way from the Vedic times to the modern, but this one has a far more personal and immediate feel to it. So does his book about the mapping of India.
The book that really jolted me during college was Atlas shrugged. Even I do not agree with the extreme positions taken in the book, it still stretched my mind to absorb those extremes.

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Siddhartha Shome said...

Vijay, came across your blog today. Excellent blog. Especcially the post about Keay's book. I must read the book. I have also been fascinated by the story of Princep's "discovery" of Ashoka, though I read about it in a different book - Kejariwal's "Asiatic Society of Bengal". Also loved your post on Naipaul's, Dalrymple's and your take on the destruction of Vijayanagar. Thank you for the blog.

Siddhartha Shome said...

Do see this.

Anonymous said...

At that time,(Princip) Indians were just recovering from the 'Jaisia" factor.
No we know.

Lavanya said...

dude, i came across ur blog today, and loved this entry. i read abt princep's discovery in some other context and wanted to browse more about it - ur book recommendation has led me in a great direction. iv read another of Keay's books on indian history - very well told and objectively written - and now am anxious to lay my hands on the one uv written abt.
well done!

Rama Kant said...

Keay's book has definitely opened a different chapter about those Englishmen who worked so laboriously to bring the glory that was Ind before us and that was lost to us completely. James Prisep was among the finest youngman who almost laid down his life for the sake of knowledge. We must remain grateful to those personalities.
RK Chaturvedi