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Book Review


Gilbert, Marc Jason, South Asia in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xiv + 186. Chronology, Further Reading, Websites, and Index. $19.95 (paper).


     This volume is part of an ambitious project edited by Anand Yang and Bonnie G. Smith to replace what they term "old" World History with "new" World History. They intend the series neither to center on nor to ignore Europe but instead to provide full coverage of human history, considering cultures and states not typically treated in World History textbooks. They seek longer time frames, pushing back into pre-historical, geologic, and even planetary formation scales. They propose connecting various cultures and peoples to make them less exotic, while utilizing recent research to focus more on the lives of common people and less on kings and empires. Individual volumes will place regions or topics within this overall framework, which is intended to give students a historical context for the events, crises and issues of today's interconnected world.

     The author's brief preface suggests the importance of South Asia in various historical periods and today. Harappa with its sophisticated urban planning and broad trade contacts was one of the earliest civilizations. South Asia actively traded with Greece and Rome, as well as China. Some of its foods became staples in distant lands. The region figures prominently   in European literature and philosophy. Its British colonization was a model for other colonial conquests. Its nationalist resistance was a model for other such movements.

     The first two chapters cover ancient South Asia. The Harappan sites in India and Pakistan have yielded much engaging detail on houses types, urban sanitation, art motifs, and farming methods. Like the ancient city of Jena Jeno on the Niger River the Harappan culture has no evidence of kings and, therefore, provides good material for classroom discussion of similarities and differences among ancient civilizations. Harappan pottery and worked gemstones excavated in the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia suggest trading connections. Desiccation and salinization were important factors in the decline of Harappan civilization, which could lead to a classroom discussion of these important environmental factors across the ancient world, such as at Carthage.  Chapters Two and Three cover the sacrifices and ceremonies of Vedic culture and the period (perhaps 700 – 500 BCE) of the great South Asian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The theme of the beginnings of the caste system could lead to a discussion of various forms of social hierarchy in the ancient world. The section on Buddha and Mahavira (especially their thinking on karmic rebirth) could lead to a wider discussion of philosophical resistance to the social hierarchy.

     Chapter Three begins with Alexander's incursion into South Asia but features the classical Indian empire of Chandragupta and Ashoka. The most famous theme of this period is Ashoka's edict rejecting war as a moral and legal function of government. This document could be the starting point for a classroom discussion of whether war was (and is) a necessary function of government. Trade, especially seaborne trade, was active between South Asia and Rome, as evidenced by both archaeological and textual evidence. The later part of the chapter focuses on philosophical and trade connections between South Asia and China in the early centuries of the Common Era.

     Chapters Four and Five cover the period of Islamic incursions into India (700–1757 CE), from the earliest Islamic kingdom in Sindh in what is now Pakistan to the Mughal conquests of the sixteenth century. It begins with a short summary of the political and religious nature of the faith and its generally tolerant attitude toward Christians and Jews. It next turns to exchange across the Islamic world, including Sindh, such as the concept of zero, various medical and surgical procedures, and domesticated plants. The chapter then skips to the thirteenth and fourteenth century Afghan and Turkish invasions and conquests of North India. The attempts by various rulers build administration might lead to a classroom discussion of what conquest really meant in this period of slow communication and transportation and the need for local, literate administrators. Chapter Five opens with Akbar's consolidation of power, construction of a bureaucracy, offers of honorable service to Rajputs and other indigenous military groups and patronage of Hindu religious institutions and debates among spokesmen for various beliefs. The remainder of chapter concerns the arrival of the Portuguese and the activities of later Mughal rulers, such as the building of the Taj Mahal and Aurangzeb's retreat from earlier multiculturalism. The chapter ends with the breakup of the Mughal Empire into successor states, such as the Maratha and Awadh.

     Chapter Six follows the British in their initially halting but later concerted and successful efforts to conquer South Asia. The focus is on what each side learned from the other. Urban Indians studied European rationalist thought and the British became aware of the depth and breadth of Sanskrit philosophy. Over decades the British in India gradually turned away from the study of Indian philosophy and turned towards the belief in the superiority of all things English and an exploitative attitude toward Indian natural resources. The British began to see India as a failed society in need of reform. The Rebellion of 1857 hardened attitudes on both sides. This section might be the basis of a more general discussion of colonial attitudes toward conquered peoples and the effects of the conquest on the colonizing country.

     Chapter Seven outlines the development of nationalism, first as an elite movement with articulated critiques but modest goals through more radical acts (including violence) to a mass movement. The colonial government never solved the problem of anticipated Hindu dominance and Muslim permanent minority status. Through World War I India provided tens of thousands of troops and expected political reforms but no real power was conceded to Indians. The chapter moves to Gandhi and the mass nationalist movement. This section would be suitable for a broad discussion of nationalist tactics: negotiation, violence, non-violence, and revolution.

     Chapter Eight gives a broad-stroke summary of trends in South Asia since 1947. Was there sufficient experience and commitment to sustain democracy? What would be the role of socialism, industrialism, and government planning in the economy? What would be the stance towards the Cold War? How large would be the army and how would India confront China and Pakistan over border disputes? What would the government do about ethnic and religious violence? How would the country deal with globalization and environmental degradation? The chapter includes a short section on Pakistan and even shorter sections on the other countries of South Asia: Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Nepal.

     A book this brief (150 pages of text) is bound to deal only cursorily with important subjects, such as India's very long term international trade in spices, medicines and fabrics, the vast number of people in India who were neither Hindu nor Muslim, and the importance of inter-regional migration (as opposed to international migration). These lacunae limit the book's utility as a stand-alone textbook for a course on South Asia. It would work as a supplemental text for discussion of connections between India and the world over a long historical sweep.

Stewart Gordon is the author of three-dozen scholarly articles and nine books on Indian, Asian, and World History. His newest book—on comparative structures and processes along routes—has been published by Oxford University Press in 2018. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


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