Sunday, January 30, 2011

History of India

There is so much I don't know about the history of India. I've studied the history of the US, Japan, and China, and of course the European history you pick up in the normal course of US schooling (and in the context of art hstory, actually). But somehow my knowledge of India shows up in little blips along the path, without any kind of larger context. Here is my complete knowledge of India; under one page of 12pt Times New Roman:

Way back in the way back, some of the first cities on earth were built in the Mohenjo-daro valley. They had a grid plan and public sanitation, including sewers. The art from that city is distinctively stylized.

This bit is disputed, but Joseph Campbell says that sometime in the thousands BC, light-skinned mounted warriors (“Aryans”) invaded from the North. They instituted the class system, either inventing or co-opting the idea of reincarnation to support the segregation and superiority of their descendants. The Upanishads represent something of the earlier pastoral spirit of Hinduism, while Mahabharata is a collection of stories and songs of the conquerors, including the Bhagavad Gita (an odd but beautiful celebration of killing your family if they cross you).

Gautama Buddha lived around 300-500BC. He rebooted the Hindu franchise with a more egalitarian outlook, a focus on individuals rather than obligations, and more accessible spiritual practices. The big idea was that you don't have to undergo the endless round of reincarnation and get rewarded in an awesome heaven and then start over. You can escape the drudgery of, well, being alive, by simply awakening to the truth, here and now.

Buddhism started strong in India, but had more long-term success in China, the Tibetan highlands, and Japan. Today Buddhism is barely a minority in India. Buddhism had something of the genius of Christianity for recognizing and incorporating elements of existing religions when it moved into new lands: Tibetan Buddhism incorporates the veneration of traditional saints and spirits; Zen Buddhism incorporates Taoist philosophy.

During the British colonial period, India was conquered. Like everywhere else under British rule, they got shafted. I have some confused visions of Rudyard Kipling and The Secret Garden in here, British officers and their families served by silent Hindi servants. Several different kinds of ships plied the waters between India and China and Great Britain under the aegis of the East India Trading Company, including the monstrous Indiamen, the largest wooden sailing ships ever built. They were illegal to build in England, I think? So they were built in India, in huge, efficient shipyards that astonished first-time visitors.

Anyway, when the British empire was falling to pieces, India eventually wrestled its autonomy back from England. Something to do with Gandhi fasting. There was a line drawn between India and Pakistan, to separate the largely-Hindu population of Indida from the largely-Muslim population of Pakistan. The valley of Kashmir lies in between, and has been a sticking point ever since because it's prosperous and has a mixed population. It's also convenient for India that it has Pakistan as a plausible-deniability buffer between itself and Afghanistan. Pakistan and Afghanistan blend into each other in the desert mountains at the border, and the isolated tribes out there don't give a fuck about the larger political situation, in general, they just want outsiders to leave them alone.


The blog post above directed me to this speech about Gandhi's last fast, given last year on the anniversary of Gandhi's death. It moved me deeply. But one of the things that moved me was that large parts of it are incomprehensible to me. It's like coming in at the 500-page mark of the third book in a fantasy series, where all the names of everything are made-up words and you have no idea what the political factions or main players are.

Gandhi gave a speech January 18, 1948. Look at just this one paragraph of the summary of the speech: 

He spoke to Sikhs warning them never to misuse the kirpan. The day he ended his fast was Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday and Gandhi sent a message to Sikhs congratulating them for their victory over anger and ending with the slogan ‘Waheguru ji di fateh’. He sent a special message to fellow Gujaratis. He discussed the issue of a national language and his preference for Hindustani. He spoke to caste Hindus about the evil of untouchability. After recounting the painful experience of oppressed castes of Rohtak he admonished Jats and Ahirs for tormenting them and treating them as slaves. He talked about the Meos, renamed 'criminal tribes' by the British who had been forcefully evicted from vast areas in Delhi’s hinterland and called for their rehabilitation. “

Things I didn't know, just in that paragraph:
  • Sikhs (embarrassingly, I had this confused with Sufi mystics >.> ) I had no idea Sikhism has more followers than Judaism. “Often mistaken as a combination of Hinduism and Islam, the Sikh religion can be characterized as a completely independent faith: they have their own holy scripture, Guru Granth Sahib.”
  • kirpan Okay, I had actually heard of a controversy about a kid who wasn't allowed to take his ritual knife to school with him, but I didn't recognize this as the name of the ritual knife.  It is one of the marks of a practicing Sikh, a member of the khalsa.
  • Guru Gobind Singh The 10th and last human Sikh guru; he declared that on his death that the only guru would be the holy scripture, Guru Granth Sahib. He was a warrior-prince who fended off a bunch of invasions and spent the second half of his life on the run from Mongol invaders. Like Genghis Khan, his life has the sound of a myth; it seems odd to keep coming across historical dates in the narrative. When all his sacred literature was lost crossing a flooded river, he dictated the Guru Granth Sahib from memory.
    •  ‘Waheguru ji di fateh’ (Same link as above.) This is kind of weird. Guru Gobind Singh had a political rally in 1699 to re-establish his authority over the Sikhs. He called for a volunteer to have their head cut off. On the third call, a guy volunteered. (!) The two went into the tent, and only the Guru came out, with blood on his sword. He got four more guys to volunteer to have their heads cut off, just by asking. (!!) Of course, he didn't kill them (bad PR), he brought them out and baptized them and made them the first five members of the Khalsa (the new, casteless, congregation). Then he told the crowd, 'Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji Ki Fateh' (Khalsa belongs to God; victory belongs to God). So, Gandhi was calling the Sikh's backing down an act of faith equivalent to volunteering for dismemberment. A high compliment. I wonder how many of his listeners got the reference? Is this a common story or is it the sort of thing that would get history professors chortling up their sleeves?
    • (I was just reading a bio of Genghis Khan talking about how he conquered most of Eurasia except the Indian Peninsula and the western half of Europe. I didn't realize the Mongols made it to India in the 1700s.)
  • Gujaratis  The name of a region, a language, and a caste. Gujarat is on the western edge of India, between Pakistan and the sea. It was controlled by India from ~1300-1750AD, then by the East India Trading Co., then by India again. It was briefly part of Bombay state, from 1947-1960. The language Gujarati is in the Sanskrit family, and many speakers also speak Hindi. This is Gandhi's home state, and though it was once identified with the non-violence movement, periodic clashes between Muslims and Hindus still break out into violence.
  • Rohtak  a city, or perhaps a district, in Haryana. Mostly agricultural, but developing some industry.
  • Jats  Ye gods, my attention span is running out. I've been doing this for three hours and I can't keep track of all the new vocabulary I'm getting in the course of reading these articles. Anyway, a fairly prosperous tribe/caste possibly related to the Romanis of Europe, divided into three major groups: Muslim in Pakistan, Sikh in Punjab, Hindu in the rest of India.
Okay, I was only gonna spend an hour on this today, I have to give up with these three un-researched:
  • Ahirs
  • Meos
  • British relocation of natives.

Hopefully I'll get around to finishing this at some point. Hooray for realization of ignorance!

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