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THE IDEA OF ANCIENT INDIA: ESSAYS ON RELIGION, POLITICS, AND ARCHAEOLOGY


Aloka Parasher-Sen

THE IDEA OF ANCIENT INDIA: ESSAYS ON RELIGION, POLITICS, AND ARCHAEOLOGY
By Upinder Singh
Sage Publications, Delhi, 2016, Pg 439, 1250

VOLUME XLI NUMBER 3 March 2017

Today we stand at a juncture in our evolution as a state and society wherein as inheritors of a complex, yet particular cultural relationship with our past, the way we define the ‘idea’ of ‘ancient India’ is of utmost importance. Though written in two different temporal contexts, the title of Upinder Singh’s collection of essays The Idea of Ancient India resonates with a similar title The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani. In both cases the subject of critical interrogation is an entity called ‘India’ and, in the present case, ‘Ancient India’. Can there be an original or pristine idea of India/Ancient India? At first glance, both the titles unconsciously lead us on to think of an essential entity called India/Ancient India that was somehow timeless and unchanging. Clearly, in the opening lines of her Introduction Singh does not envisage an ‘idea’ of ‘Ancient India’ in the singular, though she insists on the use of ‘Ancient India’ as opposed to ‘Early India’ since the former has an aesthetic appeal that the latter does not have. Even if not intended, the singular use of ‘idea’ and the solidity of a place in the distant past called ‘Ancient India’ tends to, in the common popular consciousness, accept such ‘givens’ as its spirituality, great religious traditions, magnificent heritage and culture, the grandeur of its arts, and other such essences that codified for us a particular idea about her brilliant past. It is well known that recent interpretations of Indian history have vehemently questioned this imagery but, have we really succeeded in changing the commonly understood perceptions about India’s ancient past? To unravel both the complexity that was Ancient India and to critique the pitfalls of the terminology we use to define it, we need to first elaborate on the content of this book. In other words, how has, to use Singh’s words, the ‘depth, mystery….’ (p. i) of Ancient India been unpacked in this particular endeavour and, more importantly, how does the author wish to locate herself while recounting the contours of the various historical features she has researched. The Idea of Ancient India as a collection of articles has been written over a period of time on various themes. Chronologically, the content described in them ranges from late centuries BCE to the twentieth century. It is concomitantly the journey of Upinder Singh as a historian beginning with ...


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