A.L. Basham’s the wonder that was Indian is a brilliant early history of one of the oldest civilizations. When it was first published in the United Kingdom in 1954 it became an instant hit as it would in the United States a few years later. Since then it has consistently found an avid readership all over the world been translated into many languages and has educated and entertained generations of general readers serious students and travelers to India. This edition celebrates its fifty years in print with a foreword by Thomas R Trautmann Prof. at the University of Michigan and once Basham’s student which brings alive the man and the academic behind this cherished volume and illuminates the historical influence upon it.
The wonder that was India is a classic that anybody with an interest in the civilisational beginnings of India must read. It is a work of uncompromising scholarship and a labor of love.
The publication of this edition of A.L. Basham’s the wonder that was India marks the golden jubilee of its first publication in 1954 by Sedgwick & Jackson of London Basham’s book has become a classic in its field. It found a wide readership from the start. In America for example the paperback which was published by Grove press (1959) sold over 10,000 copies in the first two years. Its readership in South Asia and Europe was increased through the publication of translations in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Telugu, Tamil, Sinhalese, French German, Spanish, Russian, Polish and Croat.
Arthur Llewellyn Basham (1914-1986) to give his full name did a B.A. Honours I in Sanskrit language and literature (called Indo Aryan Studies) at the school of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London before taking up a Ph.D. in the history of ancient India also at SOAS, under L.D. Barnett. His doctoral thesis on the history and doctrines of the Ajiviakas was subsequently published and remains a very useful overview of the topic. Basham became a lecturer in the history of India at SOAS in 1948. He taught ancient Indian history there for many years until 1965 when we moved to Australian National University retiring in 1980. He taught as a visitor in various universities before and after retirement in India the United States and Mexico. During his long career he had many honors including honorary degrees from Kurukshetra University and the Nava Nalanda Mahavihara and the Dr. B.C. Law Gold Medal for Indology of the Asiatic Society and is buried in the old military cemetery of all saints cathedral in Shillong.
This bare outline of the life does not convey the special quality of the man. Basham was a warm and generous teacher and a kind of uncle to his students. He had a large number of postgraduate students most of them from newly independent India and Pakistan some of them already accomplished scholars English lodging and English reserve. Basham was anything but reserved and he lavished time on the improvement of their writings he backed them in their difficulties wit the administration he gave them practical advice and lent them money in a pinch. Basham used to say that the students over a hundreds of them were his proudest achievement and indeed a whole generation of his students filled leading positions in the universities of India Pakistan and Bangladesh. This warmth toward his students was of a piece with his warmth of feeling for India which is so evident in his book.
Thus Sedgwick & Jackson took the line the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome and had the idea of multiplying it. The title of Basham’s book has spawned yet others as we may see from the internet where we may find such titles as the wonder that is India. A wonder of Ancient India the Mahabharata, wandering wonder Ibn Batuta and Neem the wonder tree of India.
Each of the books of this series was like Basham’s substantial work on an ancient civilization written by a scholar with good specialist credentials well produced with over a hundred illustrations and selling at an affordable price 45 shillings. The fact that the series dealt with ancient civilizations explains the past tense of the title. The wonder except was India which does not fit the pattern of the others in the regard and for which the use of the past tense is not really appropriate. It was for this reason that Basham’s book is as the subtitle says, a survey of the culture of the Indian sub-continent before the coming of the Muslims. For Basham the coming of the Muslims meant the coming of Persian language sources and as he had no Persian he did to feel competent to speak authoritatively about the later period. This suited the publisher’s remit. There is no question here of anti Muslim feeling.
Coming to the substance of the book we see that it is not a history book in the normal sense of a continuous chronological narrative but a sort of an encyclopedia of Indian civilization with chapter on prehistory, history the state, society everyday life, religion the arts, language and literature and the heritage of India. It also contains many short appendices giving very useful summaries of knowledge on particular topics such as cosmology and geography astronomy the calendar, mathematics and the like. It is a synthesis of existing knowledge not a monograph that breaks new ground or develops a new methodology. But in spite essentially pedagogical nature it has a mission and it has something quite new to say about it when it appeared.
Like any other book of history we can understand it best by seeing it as the result of the intersection of three things the author’s intellectual formation the historical period in which it was written and the prior texts upon which it builds or from which it seeks to distinguish itself.
We begin with the author himself Basham had an artistic nature and this expressed itself in a number of ways. He played the piano and had written some musical compositions while still a teenager. He could draw and if you look closely at some of the line drawing in this volume you will see a tiny ALB monogram identifying figures he drew for it. But he was especially fond of literature and was widely read in poetry and novels in several languages. In fact Basham had written and published a book of verse and a novel during the thirties while still a very young man and before he took up Sanskrit and ancient Indian history. Both his parents were writers and undoubtedly his love of literature came from them. (His Father a journalist had served in India during World War I and Basham learned a few rudiments of Hindustani from him as a boy so it seems that he also his interest in India from his father). It shows clearly in his chapter on literature which is filled with his own translations from works in Sanskrit Prakrit and Tamil. A second great interest was in Indian religious. It is striking that the chapter on religion is the longest of the book and give a very extensive outline of the topic.
In order to explain the aims and purposes with which I wrote this book and the principles which I employed in writing it I can do no better than quote from the preface to the first edition
As this book is intended for the general reader I have tried as far as possible to leave nothing unexplained. And as I believe that civilization is more than religion and art I have tried however briefly to cover all aspects of Indian life and thought. Though primarily intended for westerners I hope that the book may be of some interest to Indian Pakistani and Sinhalese readers also as the interpretation of a friendly mleccha, who has great love and respect for the civilization of their lands and many friends among the descendents of the people whose culture he studies. The work may also be of help to students who are embarking on a course of serious ideological study for their benefit I have included detailed bibliographies and appendies. But for the ordinary reader the work is cumbersome enough and therefore I have not given references for every statement. I have tried to reduce Sanskrit terms to a minimum but the reader without background knowledge will find definitions of all Indian words used in the text in the index which also serves as a glossary.
Sanskrit Prakrit and Pali words are transliterated to the standard system at present used by Indologists this with its plethora of diacritic marks may at first seem irritating but is the only sound method of expressing the original spelling and gives a clear idea of the correct pronunciation. Modern Indian proper names are generally given in the most usual spelling with the addition of marks over the long vowels to indicate their approximately correct pronunciation. Throughout this work the word India is of course used in its geographical sense and includes Pakistan. Though very inadequately I have tried to include in the scope of this survey Ceylong whose culture owed much to India but developed many individual features of its own.
The translations except where specified are my own. I lay no claim to great literary merit for them and have not been able to reproduce the untamable incantation of the originals. In most cases they are not literal translations since the character of Indian classical languages is so unlike that of English the literal translations are at the best dull and at the worst positively ludicrous. In places I have taken some liberty with the originals in order to make their purport clearer to the western reader but in all cases I have tried to give an honest interpretation of the intentions of their authors as I understand them.
Whatever the shortcomings of the wonder that was India it has clearly served a useful purpose and in this I take legitimate pride. Though one of a series of surveys of ancient civilizations intended mainly for the general reader it has been widely used as a college textbook not only in England but also in India itself and in America and it has already encouraged several young men and women in at least three continents to proceed further in the field of indology. When I submitted the typescript of the first edition to the publishers I feared that my work fell between two stools being too dull for the ordinary reader and not sufficiently erudite for the serious student. Perhaps this judgment is a fair one and the reviewer who referred to the book as a channel house of facts was not far out. Nevertheless the fact that a new edition is demanded proves that the wonder that was India has met a widespread need however inadequately.
The second edition of this book was published in New York in 1963 and before it could appear in Britain a paper back edition was called for thus making a possible to incorporate further alterations and corrections. No drastic changes have been made in this edition but a few notes on recent archaeological discoveries have been added. Small emendations and stylistic improvements have been incorporated and additions have been to the bibliography.
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