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The Idea of Ancient India (Essays on Religion, Politics, and Archaeology)

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Item Code: NAM274
Author: Upinder Singh
Publisher: Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2016
ISBN: 9789351506461
Pages: 481 (56 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 inch X 6.0 inch
Weight 640 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

This book engages with some of the most important issues, debates, and methodologies in the writing of ancient Indian history.

Thematically structured, the first section discusses religious and regional processes through a meticulous analysis of inscriptions and material remains. The second-based extensively on archival sources-connects ancient and modern India through a discussion of the beginnings of Indian archaeology and the discovery, interpretation, and reinvention of ancient sites in colonial and post-colonial times. The third underline the importance of reconstructing the intellectual landscape of ancient India through a sensitive, yet, critical historicization of political ideas in texts and inscriptions. The final section makes a strong case for situating ancient India within a broader, Asian, frame.


About the Author

Upinder Singh is Professor and Head, Department of History, University of Delhi. About the Author After studying in St Stephen's College and the University of Delhi, she obtained her PhD from McGill University, Montreal. She taught in St Stephen's College from 1981 to 2004. She has been a recipient of the Netherlands Government Reciprocal Fellowship (1985-1986), Ancient India and Iran Trust/Wallace India Visiting Fellowship (2009), Daniel Ingalls Fellowship at the Harvard-Yenching Institute (2005), and Erasmus Mundus Fellowship at the University of Leuven (2010). In 2009, she was awarded the Infosys Prize in Social Sciences-History by the Infosys Science Foundation.

She is the author of Kings, Brahmanas, and Temples in Orissa: An Epigraphic Study (AD 300-1147) (1994); Ancient Delhi (1999); The Discovery of Ancient India: Early Archaeologists and the Beginnings of Archaeology (2004); and A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the Twelfth Century (2008). She has edited Delhi: Ancient History (2006); Ancient India: New Research (co-edited with Nayanjot Lahiri, 2009); Rethinking Early Medieval India (2011); Asian Encounters: Exploring Connected Histories (co-edited with Parul Pandya Dhar, 2014); and Buddhism in Asia: Revival and Reinvention (co-edited with Nayanjot Lahiri, 2016). She has also written a book for children, Mysteries of the Past: Archaeological Sites in India (2002). Her current research interests include ancient Indian political ideas and the connections between South and Southeast Asia.



Among historians, debates on the idea of antiquity and periodization 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, nondescript; 'ancient,' on the other hand, has depth, mystery, resonance. Similarly, I use the singular 'idea' rather than 'ideas' in the title of this book because it seems to me to possess far greater weight. Moreover, it does not exclude plurality, which is an intrinsic aspect of the past as well as of all historical interpretation. 'The idea of ancient India' can, therefore, encompass infinite ways of understanding the ancient past of India, or rather, South Asia. This book reflects the ways in which my own thoughts on the subject have evolved and changed over the past two decades. My initial writing belongs to the long period of time I taught at St Stephen's College. Although I wrote three books over those years, the combined pressure of undergraduate teaching and family responsibilities meant that time for research and writing was scarce; it had to be created with considerable difficulty and struggle. Moving to the History Department of the University of Delhi in 2004 was an exhilarating experience-for the first time, I had enough time to read, think, and write and also the opportunity to incorporate my research into teaching. Most of the chapters in this book were written after I joined the University Department.

Although these chapters cover many of my interests, some were left out, and at least two of them are important. The first is the village-to- village survey that I conducted in 1994-1995 along with my friend and colleague Nayanjot Lahiri (Tarika Oberoi joined us subsequently) in Faridabad district in Haryana. This project sensitized me to the importance of the materiality of India's ancient past and how it lives on, incorporated but transformed in meaning, in contemporary villages.' The second aspect missing here is my work on Delhi's ancient history, published as a book titled Ancient Delhi. Writing that book presented two challenges-to construct a continuous narrative of Delhi's ancient past on the basis of very meagre sources, and to write in a style accessible to the general reader. The second was much more difficult than the first. My work on Delhi was accompanied by a conviction that exposing students to local history was one of the best ways of generating an interest in the discipline of history in their minds. This led to the idea of introducing a series of courses on Delhi's history in the undergraduate programme of the University of Delhi.

Religion and Region

The chapters in the first section of this book reflect my enduring interest in analyzing epigraphic data and situating inscriptions within their larger contexts. The approach is strongly empirical, not only because the minutiae of details have always attracted me but also because I think that historical hypotheses must be very thoroughly grounded in the empirical data and very carefully calibrated with regard to chronology.' Many of the inscriptions I studied were associated with religious sites. My interest in religion was in large measure an instinctive one, but was also influenced by dissatisfaction with the manner in which Indian historians of the 1970s and early 1980s tended either to sideline this important aspect of history or to reduce it to legitimation strategy. 'Sanchi: The History of the Patronage of an Ancient Buddhist Establishment' (Chapter 1) was the first paper I wrote after completing my PhD. I visualized it as part of a larger project on the inscriptions of early Buddhist sites in India. The chapter offers a diachronic view of the patronage of San chi, bringing out the elements of continuity and change over five phases, beginning with Asoka in the 3rd century BCE and ending in the 12th century. The epigraphic data from this site was very amenable to statistical analysis, but I also thought it could be fruitfully juxtaposed with textual, sculptural, and archaeological evidence.

Between the 2nd century BCE and the 1 st century CE, there was a massive upsurge of popular support for Buddhism all over the subcontinent, of a kind never seen before or since. At Sanchi, this period saw busy construction activity, especially the building of stupas, and the engraving of over 800 donative inscriptions.' The chapter discusses how the people who financed the Sanchi establishment identified themselves-for instance, through their names, kinship relations, occupations, native place, and their status as members of the monastic order or laity. Of course, we have to remember that these do not necessarily include all the bases of social identity prevalent at the time, but rather the elements that were considered most important for the purpose of pious donation, given the limited space that was available for inscribing the records. The notable aspects of the donations include the large number of gifts made by members of the monastic community, the prominence of women donors, and collective gifts made by the laity, monks, or nuns of certain villages and towns. The gifts by groups of nuns point towards the existence of nunneries. This is precious evidence, given the fact that after its inception, the history of the bhikkhuni sangha in India is shrouded in mystery. Apart from what the inscriptions say, equally important are their silences, especially the absence of references to varna or jati. Clearly, the early history of these social institutions is much more complex than is often assumed.

The chapter begins with a cautious disclaimer, stating that it does not aim at adding to knowledge about the theoretical aspects of patronage. But in retrospect, I think that it does. It situates donative inscriptions and their empirical content within their larger archaeological and artistic contexts. It compares textual precepts with monastic and lay practice. It shows that the testimony of texts and inscriptions can be marked by similarity, asymmetry, as well as stark difference. It treats gender as part of a larger matrix of social participation in religious patronage. The chapter also argues that the relationship between royalty and the growth of religious establishments needs to be interrogated. Finally, I engage with the hypothesis of urban decline, pointing out that the abundant evidence of inscriptions and structural remains belonging to the Gupta and post-Gupta periods at San chi contradicts the hypothesis of urban decline in what is known, for the sake of convenience, as the early medieval period.

The second chapter in this section, 'Nagarjunakonda: Buddhism in the "City of Victory'" (Chapter 2) transports us from central India to Andhra. I visualized it as part of a long-term continuous history of the site, from prehistory to the 21st century. The larger idea was that of biographies of sites and monuments that traced their lives across the centuries, unconstrained by the standard chronological divides of the ancient, medieval and modern. Nagarjunakonda is an incredibly complex and disconcerting site. For one thing, it no longer exists. It was drowned in the waters of the Krishna river when the Nagarjunasagar dam became functional. What is visible on the island in the middle of the river is a surreal recreation of some of its parts via a re-assemblage of a few selected structures, models, and replicas. Further, the various excavation reports do not easily dove-tail into one another. Nagarjunakonda is a puzzle whose pieces had not only got horribly jumbled up, many of them were also irretrievably lost. All this made it a challenging subject for research.

The chapter on Nagarjunakonda, written over a decade after the one on San chi, marks a methodological advance. It interrogates the goals of archaeological investigation and the perspectives of archaeological reports. By now, I was also much more conscious of the need to understand the inscriptional discourse more carefully, to be attentive to its purpose, audience, and reception, and to look closely at the idiom of religious piety. As pointed out by Gregory Schopen, an analysis of such donative inscriptions has to begin with the question: Why were these inscriptions inscribed? Schopen's answer to this question is that a magical efficacy was attached to the writing of names, and that the inscriptions gave the donors a permanent place in the shadow of the relics. I add to this the observation that the degree of proximity to the relics was also a factor, and that donors did not only seek proximity to the relics, but also to the monastic community. Schopen has also drawn attention to the great importance of the idea of the transfer of religious merit in Buddhist donative inscriptions. The chapter extends this by talking about the sharing of merit, and argues that the 'circle of merit' revealed in the epigraphs can be seen as an important part of religious practice in a society that was already stratified to some extent on the basis of class, but in which kinship still played a pivotal role. I also think that it is extremely important to underline the fact that the idea of the sharing of merit was not confined to Buddhism or to the subcontinent.

The chapter focuses on the early historic phase and the approach, once again, involves integrating evidence from different sources in order to address issues related to Buddhist monasticism and its lay patrons. Women patrons-royal and non-royal-are prominent, and this reflects their importance in the political and social structures of the time. The chapter highlights the archaeological evidence of the everyday lives of monks, ranging from pots to sickles to remains of board games. The contrast between monastic theory and practice is clear from the thriving relic cult at Nagarjunakonda. It emerges even more starkly in the evidence of animal sacrifice from one of the stupas, which, I argue, shows the permeation of local practices into Buddhist funerary rituals. Buddhism cannot be seen as insulated from the larger social context; local custom impinged on monastic practice, sometimes with startling results.

It was clear to me that any discussion of religious sites had to give due importance to their artistic elements. In approaching the domain of art history, I benefitted greatly from the writings of art historians. Vidya Dehejia's discussion of early Buddhist narrative art opened up an exciting range of issues related to the language of the visual sources and showed how these should not be seen simplistically as visual translations of textual material. Monika Zin's writings directed my attention to the problems involved in reading the sculptural narratives, and to the fact that some of the routinely accepted interpretations were, in fact, flawed. The need to continually interrogate 'standard' interpretations can also be seen in the case of the ayaka pillars which often mark Andhra stupas which I now realize do not necessarily (as is frequently suggested), represent five scenes from the Buddha's life.

While early historic Buddhist sites have some things in common, their communities of patrons and donors could also be markedly different. Monks, nuns, and whole villages appear as donors at Sanchi and Bharhut, but not at Nagarjunakonda. Sanchi owed its inception to a king (Asoka), but was relatively independent of royal patronage thereafter. At Nagarjunakonda, on the other hand, ruling elites-not kings, but women of the royal household-played a crucial role. It is, therefore, important to construct profiles of individual sites before talking in general terms about 'Indian Buddhism'. It is also necessary to work out the relationship between the Indian sites and monastic communities in other Asian lands, especially Sri Lanka, in order to understand the role of pan-Asian networks of Buddhist pilgrimage, patronage, and monastic interaction, which had an important role to play in the efflorescence, decline, and revival of Buddhism in the subcontinent. Further, the study of Indian Buddhism has to be integrated into the larger political, religious, and cultural landscape. The chapter on Nagarjunakonda acknowledges this fact towards the end, by drawing attention to Vijayapuri as a political centre and by referring to its Hindu and Jaina temples.

While much of my work has focused on Buddhist sites, I have also been interested in other religious traditions. 'Cults and Shrines in Early Historical Mathura (c. 200 BC to AD 200)' (Chapter 3) was written for a special issue on the archaeology of Hinduism, edited by Nayanjot Lahiri and Elizabeth Bacus." Notwithstanding its internal diversity and the absence of a canon or priesthood, I think that one can and should use the term 'Hinduism'. Mathura, an extremely important ancient Indian site with an extraordi- narily rich and diverse cultural and religious landscape, offered great potential for the exploration of early Hinduism. To my surprise, I discovered that apart from the site of Sonkh (for which there is a full archaeological report), the archaeological documentation of Mathura is very patchy.

This chapter discusses the religious landscape of Mathura before it developed its strong associations with Krsna. Here again, I discuss the trajectories of religious developments on the basis of the archaeological, sculptural, and epigraphic material. The chapter points out that much of the textual evidence used to construct ancient Indian religious history is not only difficult to date but also masks the popular, regional, and local. Of course, the archaeological data is by no means inherently superior; it too has its limitations. My analysis of the epigraphic and sculptural data from Mathura shows that the worship of yaksas and yaksis, nagas and naga, and anonymous goddesses (often incorrectly given the label of a generic 'Mother Goddess') was a prominent feature of the religious landscape of early historic Mathura. The analysis supports the hypothesis put forward by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy about the importance of these cults as sources of the bhakti tradition. I also draw attention to certain aspects of popular religious practice, represented by ordinary, unremarkable artefacts that do not find their way into the texts of the Great Tradition-the so-called 'votive' tanks and shrines, which are more accurately described as miniature tanks and shrines. Clearly, there is a need to examine ancient religious thought and practice by carefully interrogating the categories of urban and rural, popular and elite, classical and folk, domestic and public. And this cannot be done by looking at texts alone.

At the turn of the millennium, the old cults receded into the shadows in the face of an efflorescence of Hindu pantheons and cultic practices (along with the continuing importance of sacrificial ritual) associated with the worship of deities such as Vasudeva-Krsna, Surya, Visnu, Siva, Durga and Laksmi, In fact, considering that the sculptural evidence precedes the Puranas by several centuries, we see a much more elaborate and well-developed Hindu sectarian landscape than we might expect. This is because textual references represent a relatively late stage in the history of religious ideas and practices, after they had been accepted by religious elites. There is also the political angle to consider. While there is some ambiguous evidence of the worship of deified kings at the Kusana site of Mat, it is significant that the patronage of Brahmanas was important for dynasties whose roots lay outside India. Further, the religious patron- age of political elites was usually pluralistic. This has usually been seen as a reflection of a laudable Indian attitude of 'religious toleration', but is better understood as a deliberate royal religious policy, rooted in the absence of a strong monotheistic tradition, the monolatrous nature of Hinduism, and the presence of several competing religious traditions, none of which were able to successfully capture the state.




  List of Tables ix
  List of Figures xi
  Introduction xv
I Religion and Region 1
1 Sanchi: The History of the Patronage of an Ancient Buddhist Establishment 3
2 Nagarjunakonda: Buddhism in the 'City of Victory' 43
3 Cults and Shrines in Early Historical Mathura (c. 200 BC - AD 200) 73
4 Early Medieval Orissa: The Data and the Debate 100
II Archaeologists and the Modern Histories of Ancient Sites 121
5 Archaeologists and Architectural Scholars in 19th Century India 123
6 Amaravati: The Dismembering of the Mahacaitya (1797-1886) 147
7 Buddhism, Archaeology, and the Nation: Nagarjunakonda (1926-2006) 191
8 Exile and Return: The Reinvention of Buddhism and Buddhist Sites in Modern India 222
III The Intersection of Political Ideas and Practice 271
9 Governing the State and the Self: Political Philosophy and Practice in the Edicts of Asoka 273
10 Politics, Violence, and War in Kamandaka's Nitisara 304
11 The Power of a Poet: Kingship, Empire, and War in Kalidasa's Raghuvamsa 342
IV Looking beyond India to Asia 369
12 Gifts from Other Lands: Southeast Asian Religious Endowments in India 371
13 Politics, Piety, and Patronage: The Burmese Engagement with Bodhgaya 394
  About the Author 432
  Index 433
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