AL Basham’s the Wonder that was Indian is a brilliant early history of one of the oldest civilisations. 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 into many languages, and has educated and entertained generations of general readers, serious students and travellers to India. This edition celebration its fifty years in print with a foreword by Thomas R Trautmann, professor 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 influences 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 labour 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 Sidgwick & 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 Ajivikas, 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 he 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 honours, 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, Calcutta, and was president of the 28th International Congress of Orientalists at Canberra in 1971. He died in India while on a fellowship at 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, others mere beginners, and all of them unused to English weather, English food, 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 with the administration, he gave them practical advice and lent them money in a pinch. Basham used to say that the students-over a hundred 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.
The book itself, like any book, is the product of the author’s life and times, and the special circumstances of its making. The first thing to be said about it has to do with the title, which was imposed upon him by the publisher, and about which Basham was slightly embarrassed. The wonder that was India was commissioned as part of a series of books with the titles, The glory that was Greece, The grandeur that was Rome, The splendour that was Egypt and The greatness that was Babylon. It was, in other words, part of a series on the ancient civilisations. Basham used to say that he blamed the nineteenth-century American writer Edgar Alien Poe for his florid title. Poe had written, in his poem ‘To Helen’, in which the classic features of the object of his affection call Poe back to his cultural homeland of the Greek and Roman texts from his vagrant wanderings (to places such as India, perhaps?),
On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Niad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome,
Thus, Sidgwick & Jackson took the line, ‘the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome’, and had the bad 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, a substantial work on an ancient civilisation, 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 civilisations explains the past tense of the title: The wonder that was India. Other civilisations of the series were in some sense extinct, except for that of India, which does not fit the pattern of the others in that 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 not 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 encyclopaedia of Indian civilisation, with chapters 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 of its essentially pedagogical nature, it has a mission and it has something quite new to say about its topic. Let me specify what the programme of the book was and what was new 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 drawings 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 got 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 religions. It is striking that the chapter on religion is the longest of the book, and gives a very extensive outline of the topic.
Basham came of age during the thirties, which for a young Englishman was marked by the great depression, the shrinking and near disappearance of liberal democracy-which seemed to have no answers for the problems of the age- from the European continent, the growth of communism and fascism, and the rising tide of the Indian nationalist movement. These form the context of his early writings. Basham’s tendencies were anti-imperial, and he strongly favoured Indian independence. He briefly joined the Communist Party, as did many young intellectuals of the period, but it did not suit him and he quit a few months later. During World War II he was a conscientious objector to the war and served in the London fire brigade. Ramachandra Guha has said, ‘Inside every thinking Indian there is a Gandhian and a Marxist struggling for supremacy. This seems roughly to have been true for Basham. In his case he turned away from the Marxist he had once tried on, and although he was not in any direct sense a Gandhian he was an admirer of Gandhi and a pacifist.
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 quotes from the Preface to the 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. Thought primarily intended for westerners I hope that the book may be of some interest if 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 friend among the descendants of the people whose culture he studies. The work many also be of help to students who are embarking on a course of serious Indological study; for their benefit I have including detailed bibliographies and appendices. But, for the ordinary reader, the work is cumbersome enough, and therefore I have not 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 according to the standard system at present used by Indologists; this, with its plethora of diacritic marks, may at first seem irritating, but it 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 Ceylon 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 untranslatable 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 that literal translations are at the best dull and at the worst positively Indicrous. In places I have taken some liberty with the originals, in order to make their purport clears 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 shortcoming of 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 readers 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 “charnel 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.
It is now eights and half years since The wonder that was India first appeared. In that time no very starting new light has been throw on early India, though the indefatigable work of archaeologists in both India and Pakistan is slowly revealing more of the remains of the prehistoric and historical past of the subcontinent. Recent excavations, however, have not radically altered the general picture of pre-Buddhist India, though they have tended to confirm the suspicion of some Western Indologists and the earnest conviction of many Indians that the culture of this period was by no means as backward as some minimalists have suggested.
Of the historical period many new and valuable studies have been produced since 1954, and fresh light has been thrown on several aspect of India history and culture, but nothing has been written to alter the general outline, and most of the problems of Indology which were outstanding ten years ago remain unsolved. There is as yet no real certainty about the date of Kaniska, despite the appearance of new evidence. The dark periods of Indian history between the time of the Buddha and the rise of the Mauryas, and that between the decline of the Kusanas and the rise of the Guptas, are still almost as dark as ever. In the field of religion many questions, such as those connected with the growth of theistic devotion and Tantricism, are still unanswered. In fact every branch of Indian studies still offers scope for unlimited research.
In preparing this edition I have taken account of several recent archaeological discoveries. The chapter on political life and thought has been considerably revised in the light of the evidence that the Sukraniti is a 19the-century production and therefore quite irrelevant. My suspicions about this were confirmed by the work of Dr. L. Gopal (p. 81, n.), to whom I am much indebted. The section on music in Chapter VIII has been largely rewritten on the advice of my colleague Mr. N. Jairazbhoy, who pointed out several mistakes in the original text and gave me the benefit of his own research in the history of Indian music. My friend Mr. D. Barrett, of the British Museum, has given me valuable advice on the most recent views on the dating of certain important works of art, and the text has been amended accordingly. Various errors and anachronisms have been corrected, and many stylistic lapses, of which the first edition was all too full, have been put right. Some of the illustrations have been replaced by better ones.
In the last ten years several changes have taken place in the state boundaries of India, such as the disappearance of Hyderabad and the division of the former Bombay State into Maharashtra and Gujarat. These changes have been taken into account, and as far as possible I have employed for place name the new official spellings of the Indian Government. In some instance I have does this with considerable misgiving, especially in the case of Varanasi which seems an unnecessary archaism for Benares; but as this is now the name by which the sacred city is officially referred to in India, and which is likely to become more widely known with the years, it seems right, on balance, that I Should use it. Ganges has no real justification except that it is traditionally the name by which the great river is known in Europe and America, so I have no misgivings about substituting the officially accepted Ganga, the name by which the river is known is every Indian language.
Several additions have been made to the bibliography and a few which were included in the first edition have been omitted. I am quite conscious of the inadequacy of the bibliography as a guide to the serious student. In defence I can only point out that it is meant primarily for the general reader who wishes to go further in one or other branch of India Studies; the university student will. Obtain the bibliographical information he requires from his teacher. Certain Continental reviewers have complained of the absence from the bibliography of several important books in French and German. I must make it clear that works in language other than English have been included only when particularly significant. Few “general readers” in the English-speaking world are able to read lengthy volumes in German, and even those who have some equipment in French are disinclined to use it for such purpose. This is very regrettable, but it is a fact which cannot be ignored. Hence many important Continental works are omitted. If ever a translation is made of this book in French or German it is to be hoped that the bibliography will be adapted to the language concerned.
In conclusion I would again record my gratitude to those who assisted me in one way or another in the written of the first edition: Dr. F. R. Allchin, Dr, A. A. Bake, the late Dr. L, D. Barnett, Professor J. Brough, Professor A. T. Hatto, Dr. J. R. Marr, Professor A. K. Narain, Professor C. H. Philips, Mr. P. Rawson, Mr. C. A. Rylands, Dr. Devahuti Singhal and Dr. Arthur Waley. I am also grateful to numerous reviewers, some of whose suggestions have been adopted in this edition, and to many friends who have offered helpful advice and criticism.
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