Bhairabi Prasad Sahu’s book on society and culture in Post-Mauryan India is a companion volume to Volume 6 which deals with the political and economic history of the same period. The five centuries intervening between the two pan-North Indian empires, the Mauryas and the Guptas, usually known as the ‘post-Maurya period’, is a significant period in early Indian history. It can very well be considered a formative period of early Indian society and culture. This period had witnessed the infiltration of various Central Asian tribes into the subcontinent, including the ‹akas, the Indo-Greeks, the Parthians and the Kushanas, bringing an unprecedented range of political and cultural churning. It was also the heyday of the lucrative trade network extending to China on one hand and the western Roman Empire on the other. Buddhism and Jainism had received immense patronage from these newcomers, and witnessed the zenith of their theology, art and literature. Much of the Buddhist canon took shape in this period, while the rise of Mahåyåna Buddhism also took place
The Brahmanical orthodoxy also reacted to these new developments. On one hand, they tried to codify every aspect of social life to regulate the lives of their adherents, leading to the composition of the dharma›åstras starting with the Manu Sm¸ti. Prescriptive treatises were composed on various spheres of human activities, and these—such as Bharata’s Nåtya›åstra and Våtsyåyana’s Kåma Søtra—became invaluable source materials for the historians. On the other hand, reforms took place within the Brahmanical system, and the devotional cults of Vaiœµavism and ‹aivism were also taking shape. The Råmåyaµa and the Mahåbhårata were canonized mostly in this period. Both Mahåyåna Buddhism and the devotional Brahmanical sects popularized anthropomorphic worship, leading to a proliferation of fine arts, especially sculpture which flourished in different schools associated with Gandhara, Mathura, Amaravati and Nagarjunaconda. The earliest Sanskrit inscriptions were composed in this period, as well as some of the earliest Sanskrit, Prakrit and Tamil creative literature.
However, because of the fascination with ‘empire’ in both colonial and nationalist historiography, this period has received considerably less historical attention than the periods associated with the Mauryas and the Guptas. While this period has been often viewed with a negative framework of ‘foreign infiltration’, the Gupta period usually received much more attention as the ‘golden age’ or ‘classical age’ in the social and economic fields, even though most of the developments associated with the Gupta period had their origin in this period. Doing justice to such an important period in a summary volume like this, focussing on the social and cultural aspects which were even more fluid and nuanced than the seemingly linear political and economic narratives, was a difficult task. Sahu has accomplished that task brilliantly. The book is divided into four small sections on Society, Religion, Art, and Languages and Literature. While Sahu composed the first three, the last section has been contributed by Kesavan Veluthat. Each section is written in lucid simple text, divided in short sub-sections, and accompanied by rich extracts from primary sources, notes and bibliographical notes.
The Aligarh Historical Society introduces the motive behind this series as ‘promoting the scientific method in history and resisting communal and chauvinistic interpretations’. While the resistance to communal and chauvinistic historiography is the need of the hour, speaking about an overarching ‘scientific methodology’ in history writing bears the historical baggage of nineteenth century Positivism and early Marxism. History, after all, can no longer be viewed as science, and what the ‘scientific methodology’ may stand for in our present understanding of history is highlighting the necessity to closely follow the sources in history writing. This volume has accomplished the task superbly. Every chapter introduces the readers with the source material used, acquaints them with their contents, and provides extracts from the primary sources at the end. However, the book also makes the readers aware about the diverse kinds of sources, rather than privileging one over the other. For instance, while writing the chapter on Society, Sahu closely follows the Manu Sm¸ti in outlining the crystallization of caste and the Brahmanical attempt to codify every aspect of a person’s life. However, he also notes the difference between the rural and the urban life, and shows how the Kåma Søtra’s prescriptions for the urban elite are very much different from what Manu would prescribe. Not restricting his discussion to mere prescriptions, Sahu also discusses how the donative inscriptions at the Buddhist sacred sites reflect the social realities. Therefore, Sahu’s discussion of the post-Maurya society does not remain a stereotypical survey of caste and gender, but becomes a commentary on the sources of the period, without making his writing text-heavy. Similarly, the chapter on Art is accompanied with
several images acquainting the readers with the primary evidence, but it also contains extracts from the inscriptions accompanying the art objects, placing them in their historical context. The chapter on Religion thoroughly surveys the new developments, and shows the religious trends from both the theological and material aspects, extracting passages from donative inscriptions as well as from the Dhammapada and the Bhagavad Gðtå.
Veluthat’s chapter on Languages and Literature is an extremely important one, noticing the development of Sanskrit literature in the period, but focussing more on Prakrit and Tamil, making the essential
point that these languages were as important as Sanskrit, if not more, in forming
the corpus of ancient Indian literature. Veluthat also engages with nuanced issues such as how Påli developed as one form of