Publication Date

March 1, 1996

India represents a core Asian tradition as well as one of the oldest strands in the fabric of world civilization. Indian religions, philosophies, art, literature, and social systems have played a fundamental role in defining the human heritage, and they merit a proper discussion in a world history survey.

Historically, India, like China, has been a seminal influence on the societies and cultures of Asia. People of the Himalayan regions, Sri Lanka, and a large part of Southeast Asia have been greatly affected by Indian culture. Buddhism, originating in India, became—and still remains—a dominant religion in several Asian countries, including China and Japan. India has also influenced the making of the modern world: Indian inventions and innovations in science, medicine, and mathematics contributed to the emergence of these disciplines. For example, the Indian discovery of zero and numerals, mistakenly referred to as Arabic numerals, revolutionized mathematical knowledge. Traditionally, Indian raw materials have been attractive to the West just as the subcontinent has been a vast market for industrial goods. And today, India is poised to become a major exporter of value-added goods and services. Hence, the study of Indian society is intrinsically important for understanding the rest of Asia and is relevant as well to a historical understanding of the emergence of the modern world.

From a more contemporary perspective, India is the world's largest democracy and a leading developing country. Its population—representing more than 850 million people of diverse cultures, languages, religions, and food habits—continues to be a growing attraction to the consumer and labor-oriented industries of the West.

The distinctiveness of Indian civilization lies not merely in its antiquity but, more importantly, in its continuity and diversity. Hindus, for example, continue to seek inspiration from traditions and concepts similar to those originally advanced by their ancestors. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the epics composed in ancient times, are still read and revered. In the same way, social institutions, languages, and literature show strong trends of continuity. This, however, does not mean that Indian society has been static. In fact, it is important to note that Indian traditions have constantly evolved over the past three and a half millennia. And Indian society is perplexingly multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual, and multireligious, though officially a secular state.

An Approach to Teaching India in World History

Given such longevity and diversity, teaching about the Indian subcontinent can be both a fascinating and a frustrating experience. And, teaching about India in a world history course poses additional challenges. India has continued to be imagined and imaged in diverse ways by scholars and laypeople alike. For instance, in the past India was seen by some as the land of the maharajas, and by others as a home of snake charmers. At one time perceived as a source of fabulous and untold wealth, India today is seen as a land of abject poverty. As in the past, India continues to be associated with spirituality, metaphysical reality, mystical happenings, and the sacred cow. While some continue to romanticize and idealize the image of India, others look on it with contempt and disdain. For some, India evokes the memories of Gandhi; for others, that of the Raj. While contemporary India is seen by many as a land plagued with poverty and communal conflict, it is viewed by many others as a nation equipped with several sophisticated technologies of the 21st century. Thus, the challenge in teaching about India lies not so much in providing basic knowledge about India, but rather in exposing students to the connections between the images and the realities that have characterized Indian society from antiquity to the present, and in enabling students to see India as a land of unity in diversity, of tradition and modernity, and of change and continuity.

There is also the challenge of time. How much time (measurable in class periods) should be devoted to the discussion of the Indian subcontinent in a world history survey? Related to the question of time is that of topics: what to discuss and what to discard? Equally important are concerns about the extent of depth and detail. And there is the difficulty of how to communicate concepts that are completely foreign to many students.

While it is difficult to arrive at specific answers to these questions and problems, it is possible to address them within the context of the general structure of and approach to the teaching of world history. If a teacher takes an integrated approach to world history, for instance, it will be hard to measure time to be spent on a specific culture in terms of class periods, just as the question of depth and detail might be subject to a given level of student-teacher interest. I emphasize a comparative approach to the study of various traditional and contemporary societies in a world historical context. This format has several advantages. It engages students in a meaningful intellectual exercise that requires them to identify the unique qualities characteristic of an individual civilization while allowing them to grasp more effectively the similarities among civilizations. This approach also enables students to focus on the larger issues and trends that characterize human history and helps to broaden their perspectives. The themes selected for discussion in this paper are not prescriptive but, rather, represent some of the broader issues in a world historical context.

As I begin to teach about India, I usually ask students to share their images of the subcontinent. This brief but informal dialogue helps me to understand how the students have come to acquire their impressions (e.g., through films, novels, newspapers, television, personal contact, or academic training). I then use this context to discuss the diverse range of scholarly and popular views about Indian society and to raise key issues related to the subject, such as the influence of dominant discourse in shaping images about other cultures. For instance, I explain how the Orientalist discourse (see Edward Said, Orientalism, 1979), has shaped Western images about the “Orient” and “Orientals.”

Land and People

A discussion of "imaginative" geography and culture explicit in terms such as "Orient" and "Orientals" is then juxtaposed with a discussion of my first important theme, the land and peoples of India. This theme allows the class to examine India's specific place in world geography, especially on the Asian land mass, and the influence of geographical features on its history and culture. The theme provides students with a thorough orientation to India's unique physical features and helps them understand how these features shaped the country's history. A brief discussion of the cultural geography of India exposes students to its numerous languages, dialects, and complex cultural contours. Time permitting, I have students (in groups) do a short class exercise of mapping India (i.e., identifying by marking on a blank map the major features of the physical and cultural geography of the subcontinent), using historical atlases and wall maps. I conclude the discussion of the theme by fleshing out the connection between geography and history. I examine how, for example, the Himalayas and monsoons have historically affected the people of the subcontinent. Teachers will find Joseph Schwartzberg, ed., A Historical Atlas of South Asia (1978) a good reference to consult.

The connection between geography and history can be further extended by a discussion of Indus Valley civilization in the global context of riverine civilizations, the growth and diffusion of agriculture and farming techniques, and the rise of urban trends from the dawn of history. This discussion sets the context for a comparative study of the river-based civilizations of the ancient world. It enables students to perceive similarities and differences underlying human heritage across the globe. They learn to identify the common characteristics of river-based civilizations flourishing in the Euphrates-Tigris valleys, the Indus River valley, the Nile River valley, and the Yellow River valley while appreciating the distinctive and unique characteristics of each. For example, in discussing the geographic extent of these civilizations, it can be pointed out that the Harappan (or Indus valley) civilization, which encompassed 840,000 square miles, was probably twice the size of the old kingdom of Egypt and four times that of Sumer and Akkad. Or, the connectedness of civilizations and peoples of the ancient world might be illustrated by focusing on evidence of Indian contact with the civilizations to the west. For example, the commercial contacts with the Euphrates-Tigris civilization can be demonstrated by archaeological evidence pointing to Harappan manufactures found in Mesopotamia.

The migration and movement of people, including nomadic invasions, played a significant role in defining the cultural, ethnic, and racial contours of the ancient world. In the large context of the migration of Indo-Europeans, I introduce the coming of Indo- Aryans to the Indian subcontinent. The ensuing interaction between the nomadic Indo-Aryans, equipped with horse-driven chariots, and the highly cultured people of the Indus valley lays the groundwork for the Vedic age, the second stage of civilization in India (around 1500 BCE). Relying on the evidence from philology and archaeology, a majority of scholars maintain that the Aryan tribes were part of the Indo-Europeans who originated somewhere in central Asia or southern Russia. These people migrated in constant waves toward Europe and India. It is interesting to note that although Indo-Aryans and Greeks came from the same stock of people (i.e., the Indo-Europeans), they met as strangers in the sixth-century BCE Persian empire. The characteristics of the Greek and Aryan gods in regulating the order of nature and in banishing evil from the world can be highlighted to show their common background and heritage. However, it is important to point out that the so-called Vedic culture and civilization owed its origin not only to the Indo-Aryans, but, as recent research suggests, also to an amalgam of Aryan and Harappan cultures. (For details about key issues and controversies pertaining to the representation of ancient Indian history, see Romila Thapar's Interpreting Early India, 1993.)

The Emergence of Traditions: Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism

Students can be familiarized briefly with the sources of Indian traditions—the Vedic and the Epic literature. Focusing on selected excerpts from Rig Veda (see Ainslie T. Embree, ed., Sources of Indian Tradition, vol. 1, 1988), one of the most ancient surviving pieces of literature, I ask students to discuss the cosmology and worldview that characterize the Indian tradition as well as the role of ritual and sacrifice. This discussion can be carried further with more concrete examples of Indian tradition and values drawn from the two epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata.

The way is now paved for a more specific discussion of the evolution of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism in the historical context of the evolution of religious and philosophical traditions in the ancient world. Taking Hinduism as a case in point, I ask, What is Hinduism? Is it a religion or a philosophy? Is it earthly or metaphysical? Is it spiritual or material? Is it polytheistic or monotheistic? Is it a social practice or a complete way of life?

The discussion of Buddhism and Jainism can be used to stimulate comparative and global thinking. I also focus on how, for example, Jainism and Buddhism emerged in India in the context of changing socioreligious trends, and why Jainism remained totally inside India while Buddhism spread beyond the Indian subcontinent. The spread of Buddhism from India can be used to illustrate the connectedness of world regions during ancient times. At the same time, one can raise a question about how Buddhism posed a challenge to Hindu society during the classical period in India just as it did to the Confucian state in China. This context enables me to come back to the subcontinent and examine the changes that took place in classical (or Gupta) India, as well as to flesh out the evolutionary nature of Hinduism, by pointing out how and why Hinduism assumed the shape that it did. This can be explained by reference to the prescribed Four Ends of Man (Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha) and to the Four Stages of Human Life (the Four Ashramas: Brhmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha, and Sanyasa). This explanation enables students to see that Hinduism is more than just a religion or social practice, that it is a complete way of life—spiritual and material.

A related issue in this context is the relation of these religious systems to Indian social structures. Using excerpts from the Bhagvad Gita and the Dhammapada, we examine the connection between religious and moral imperatives and evolving social and political structures. Here, the Hindu sanction for social behavior (e.g., the Fours Ends of Man, the Four Ashramas), as illustrated in the Gita, can be compared to the Buddhist sense of righteousness and duty, as illustrated in the Dhammapada. In addition to examining the role of social codes and religious sanctions, it is useful to reflect on the role and place of the individual and the family in the larger social and political structure, since a majority of our students are completely unfamiliar with social systems different from their own. Ideas of order and harmony can be examined with reference to the Varna (caste) system as an organizing principle in the social structure. It is, however, important to note the rigid as well as flexible nature of the caste system. For example, the founder of the first imperial age in India, Chandragupta Maurya, was not of the khshatriya caste (second from the top in social hierarchy and traditionally the caste of the rulers and warriors), but of the vaishya caste (second from the bottom, the caste of the merchants and artisans).

At the same time, the plurality of Indian traditions and their respective social and political influence can be highlighted by a discussion of the role of Jainism and Buddhism (which also represented resistance to Brahmanic authority under Hinduism and were therefore anticaste in nature) in shaping the Mauryan state in India. The classic examples are Chandragupta, founder of the Mauryan state, who renounced the world by becoming a Jain monk, and his grandson, Asoka the Great, whose polity and life were deeply influenced by Buddhism.

The global theme of the ancient empires can be used as a context to discuss the rise of Magadha, the Mauryan empire, India's first imperial unification, and the Gupta empire, the classical period of Indian history. This theme allows the teacher to demonstrate the interconnectedness of history through a discussion of empires and imperial expansion elsewhere in the ancient world. In this context, Alexander the Great's Indian expedition, just before the rise of the Mauryas, can be highlighted to point out that he was accompanied by a number of Hellenistic scholars whose purpose was to acquire knowledge about the ideas and religions of India. His staff also surveyed roads in Asia, which led to increased commercial and cultural interaction. The Mauryan king, Chandragupta Maurya, maintained close diplomatic relations with the Hellenistic kingdom. Trade with India dominated the commercial and trading relations of the Roman empire. Egypt was a valuable link between the trading worlds of the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean.

India and the Arab World

Contact between India and the Arab world, although starting earlier, became more pronounced and significant during the medieval period. The long-established trade between the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean became a subject of several notable Arabic works. The Arabs appear to have had high regard for India. Saif-i-Hindi (the Indian sword) was their favorite weapon. Arab interest in India is also attested by the records of numerous Arab travelers, ranging from Sulaiman the merchant to the globe-trotter Ibn Battuta. Indians were seen as “men unsurpassed in science, especially astronomy.” The period between 500 and 800 was indeed remarkable for scientific activity in India, especially in astronomy and mathematics. For a long time it was believed in Europe that the symbol for zero and the decimal system of notations were of Arab origin (thus the misnomer, Arabic numerals), but it is now universally acknowledged that these passed from India to Europe through the Arabs.

The rise and expansion of Islam is a major theme for medieval world history. In this context several important questions can be raised about the advent of Islam in India. Why was the coming of Islam delayed until the 10th century, especially given historical contacts between Arabia and India? Who were the people who brought Islam to India? Why did Islam come to India not through Arabia but via the Khyber pass—a strategic passage for all invaders of India from the northwest? These questions set a comparative context and allow students to grasp what was different or unique about the Islamic onslaught in India, and how it paved the way for the establishment of the Mughal empire and a distinct Islamic art, architecture, and culture in the subcontinent. K. N. Chaudhuri's Asia Before Europe: Economy and Civilization of the Indian Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750 (1991) is an insightful and useful scholarly reference.

The Indian case can be compared, for example, to that of China. Both experienced invasions from the northwest between 1000 and 1300, and both cultures survived these major interventions. In India, despite several centuries of Muslim rule, Hinduism remained intact as a majority religion. Islam imbibed many cultural traits of Hinduism and vice versa. Such an exchange created change as well as synthesis. A comparative analysis of the Bhakti and Sufi movements reveals the sharing of certain common characteristics. For example, both movements aimed at unity with God through love and devotion; challenged the traditional guardians of religions, the Pundits and the Ulama; recognized the significance of guru and the pir; advocated the use of vernacular languages; appealed largely to the lower classes; and led to the fusion of cultures. An examination of selected excerpts from these movements (drawn from Sources of Indian Tradition, vol. 1) provides an instructive introduction to these cultural movements, and lends a different perspective to the interaction between Islam and Hinduism–one based on mutual respect, sharing, and caring.

While Buddhism was eliminated from its original homeland, the early medieval period witnessed its spread throughout central Asia, Tibet, Nepal, China, Korea, Japan, and parts of southeast Asia. It was also from India that Islam spread to Southeast Asia. (Similarly the Mongol invasions of Asian land masses led to the spread of Chinese inventions, especially gunpowder and the compass, which helped Europeans to launch what became known as the Age of Exploration.) Once again, the movement of people and ideas allows students to see the interconnectedness of history.

European Imperialism

The growth of transoceanic trade, with spices as its focus, allows us to understand the early encounters between Indians and Europeans. It is important to point out, however, that Europeans were peripheral to Asia prior to the 19th century. During the 18th century a more dominant trend was the revival and reform of tradition in India. Excerpts from social reform movements (see Stephen Hay, ed., Sources of Indian Tradition, vol. 2, 1988) could be used to assess the nature of indigenous society, culture, and reform on the eve of British political intrusions into the Indian subcontinent. This discussion is particularly meaningful for understanding the images the West had of non-Western people, and vice versa, especially for considering notions of the “barbaric” and the “civilized.”

Early European intrusions were primarily characterized by missionary and commercial activities in India and around the Indian Ocean. The multifaceted theme of culture and colonialism can be examined by focusing on the role played by technology in shaping the subsequent interaction between the British and the Indians. This provides a context to understand the rise of Western domination of non-Western regions and peoples. Selected portions of Daniel R. Headrick's Tools of Empire (1982) are useful in facilitating a broader understanding among students of the subjugation of the highly sophisticated and relatively vast civilization of India by the numerically insignificant British. For example, one can illustrate how railways in 19th-century India were used more as tools of imperial expansion and consolidation rather than as means of industrialization and social transformation. By focusing on the agents, missionaries, and trading corporations, such as the British East India Company, it is easy to define and distinguish various brands of imperialism: cultural, political, and economic. Similarly, the case of opium production in colonial India by the British to promote the illegal opium market in China and to get Chinese tea for the British market can help highlight the complex nature of Western imperialism, which mani fested itself in different forms and led to a variety of interactions between the colonizers and the colonized. The subtleties of the nature and impact of imperialism can be demonstrated through a discussion of such novels as R. K. Narayan’s The English Teacher (1980) or George Orwell’s The Burmese Days (1984).

Nationalism and Independence Movements: India and Pakistan

Just as imperialism was a global trend of the 19th century, so also nationalism and independence movements characterized the world of the late 19th and 20th centuries. The various strands of the nationalist movement in India and its diverse leadership can be illustrated through a discussion of excerpts from primary source documents (e.g., Sources of Indian Tradition, vol. 2). The discussion may be further accentuated by exposing students to the literature of national awakening, such as Munshi Prem Chand’s Selected Short Stories (1980), and by critically integrating discussion of films such as Bharat ki Khoj (literally meaning “search of the Indian nation”). Questions about the role of leaders versus masses in the transformation of history and historical change can be explored by focusing on a novel by R. K. Narayan, Waiting for the Mahatma (1981) or on Raja Rao’s Kanthapura (1989). Either novel might be juxtaposed with Shahid Amin’s essay “Gandhi as Mahatma” (in Ranajit Guha and Gayatri C. Spivak, eds., Selected Subaltern Studies, 1988), and the film Gandhi. The peculiarities of Indian nationalism can be highlighted by raising and examining the question of why the national movement in India resulted in the creation of two nations: India and Pakistan. Thus, nationalism can also be discussed to understand the phenomenon of partition in India, which was as much nationalistic as it was political. India played a leading role in the national and independence movement in Asia, and was the first country after the Philippines to become independent.

In the post-World War II period, the major problems confronting the world have been the problems of democracy and development. In the context of this large and complex theme, India again can be integrated effectively into world history. India is both the largest democracy in the world and a leading developing country. This, however, does not mean there are no challenges to the healthy survival of democracy or to the country's continuous economic development. In fact, the rise of fundamentalism— which is a global phenomenon—has posed serious challenges to the survival of Indian democracy. Moreover, the problems of poverty, population, and environmental hazards have inhibited the full realization of developmental benefits. Here India can be compared to the leading developing countries in terms of the continuing interaction between modernity and tradition. Comparisons could focus on the role of authority versus democratic institutions or on issues of poverty and population.

The World Today

It is useful, from the point of view of students, to explain what India is like today. This can be done through a discussion of a variety of issues, including religion, science, theater, film, literature, and the role of women and children. Teachers will find a valuable resource on contemporary India in a special issue of Daedalus (1989) entitled Another India. This issue includes brief but insightful assessments of present-day realities by some of the leading Indian intellectuals. Also useful and easy to follow are Sara Mitter’s Dharma's Daughters (1991) and the film Kamala and Raji for insights into the traditional and changing role of women in India today.

A country with a rich tradition of spiritual masters, India is today rapidly becoming, among other things, a land of software mavens. In a recent commentary in the Los Angeles Times, Jonathan Power observed, “In Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare, we read one of life’s repeating stories: plodding wins the race. I venture to say, by the year 2000 we’ll learn this lesson again. It will be India, and not China, that will be on its way to becoming the giant of Asia and, before too much time is past, the largest economy in the world.” [*] A study of India in world history survey courses is not only vital to understanding of our human heritage, it is also critical to comprehending the 21st-century world.


* Los Angeles Times, Sunday, 20 March 1994, p. M5.

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