Recent decades have seen a vigorous re-investigation of the nature of the Maurya and Gupta empires, but the historical processes of the period in between remain less understood. This is in spite of a wealth of detail about specific aspects, such as the histories of dynasties, religious cults and trade. This book is the outcome of an international conference held at the Universty of Texas at Austin in 2003, which brought together historians, archaeologists, art historians, numismatists and scholars of literature, law, lingustics, philosophy and religion. It makes a significant contribution towards weaving together several strands of the historical trajectories of the period ‘between the empires’. The contributions are divided into two sections, the first focusing on archaeology, the second on texts. A problem in reconstructing the settlement history of this period is the lack of chronological stratification in most site descriptions. Dilip K. Chakrabarti’s discussion of urban centres,
geographical units and trade routes in the Gangetic plain and Central India is thick in archaeological data. Even more important are the implications of this data, which suggest that the phenomenon of early historical urbanism stretched beyond the contours of the sixteen mahajanapadas known from texts. Jonathan Mark Kenoyer questions the idea of a shift of focus of urban centres from the Indus to the Ganga valleys between the protohistoric and early historic periods. Admitting that the evidence from regional surveys is at present patchy, he argues for the presence of major polities in the Indus valley from the late Harappan to the Maurya periods. The point that needs to be worked on is not simply whether some urban elements existed, but the relative intensity and scale of urban processes in different regions in various periods. Frederick M. Asher questions dynastic labels and the generally accepted chronology of early Indian art. His overview of how this chronology emerged could have done with a sharper focus on how perspectives on the subject were shaped and sharpened by colonial power relations. Asher argues that the relationship between empire and art during this period was indirect, with the Maurya and Kushana empires connecting the subcontinent with the larger world, including the Mediterranean, and facilitating the import of ideas and deployment of greater resources (he assures us that this is not the old colonialist harping on ‘foreign influence’). Shailendra Bhandare’s point (chapter 4) that literary sources have traditionally formed the basis of the framework of ancient Indian history and that material evidence has been accorded a secondary status, is well taken. So is his assertion that while histories of ancient India written in the last half century have questioned the assumptions and conclusions of colonialist and nationalist historiography, they have tended to avoid engaging with the nitty-gritty of chronology. Highlighting the potential of epigraphic and numismatic evidence against the background of problems presented by ancient Indian literary sources, the conclusions flowing out of Bhandare’s analysis include a questioning of post-Maurya political history based on the Puranas. The situation need not be seen as one of texts versus archaeology; nevertheless there is certainly an urgent need to truly incorporate archaeological data into historical narratives. With reference to peninsular India, H. P. Ray argues for the autonomy of trade vis-à-vis political organization. Her aim is to highlight the social factors that determined economic activity and to delineate the relationship between writing, literacy and the changing frontiers of trade. A discussion of the cultural landscape of the 2nd/1st millennium BCE peninsular India with a focus on megalithic sites leads into a discussion of the evidence of writing on pottery from sites such as Anuradhapura and Kodumanal and the patterns revealed by donative inscriptions at Buddhist cave sites. The post-4th century CE period, Ray points out, was not marked by a decline in maritime trade. And sites such as Amaravati and Kanheri indicate that patronage to Buddhist establishments continued and expanded. Harry Falk moves the discourse to a more abstract level, identifying what he calls ‘the tidal waves of Indian history’. He divides the period c. 300 BCE-400 CE into four phases based on dynastic history—the ‘foreign-inspired’ Mauryas; the period of the ‘indigenous’ successor dynasties of the Shungas, Kanvas, Mitras, Dattas and others; a phase dominated by ‘intruding Westerners’ of Iranian, Scythian and Kushana stock; and the phase of ‘Indian resurrection’ culminating in the rise of the Gupta dynasty. His main conclusion: Indian history right up to the present oscillates between two attitudes or mentalities—extroversion (under foreign rulers) and introversion (during periods of indigenous rulers), both of which have all-round cultural impact. In the period between the empires, he suggests (among other things) that foreign and foreign-inspired dynasties had far-reaching economic and political interactions, were polytheistic and tolerant, with their women enjoying roles in public life. Indigenous dynasties were the opposite. Falk himself admits (p. 164) that this dichotomy is a ‘gross oversimplification’. Questions that can be posed include how boundaries between ‘foreign’ and ‘indigenous’ are to be defined and whether the antecedents and attitudes of elites towards foreigners are the central factors in defining and explaining historical processes. The writings in the second part of the book historicize some of the major texts produced during c. 300 BCE-400 CE. There is a close scrutiny of texts, but not a ‘closed scrutiny’, i.e. texts are not looked at as closed worlds but in relation to the historical moments during which they were shaped. This is not easy, since we are more often than not dealing with texts with multiple chronological layers. Madhav Deshpande (chapter 9) investigates the interface between changing political configurations and conceptions of language and grammar. The focus of Alf Hiltebeitel’s contribution (chapter 10) is the Narayaniya, a unit of the twelfth book of the Mahabharata, specifically its bearing on textual and religious history. Johannes Bronkhorst tries to historicize philosophy between the empires and explores the socio-political factors connected with the tradition of philosophical debate. Patrick Olivelle raises many important questions about the relationship between Dharmashastra literature and history. His special focus is on Buddhist influence on the brahmanical textual tradition. He argues (p. 171) that ‘once dharma had become a central concept in the religious discourse of Buddhism, and once it had penetrated the general vocabulary of ethics, especially through its adoption by the Maurya emperors, certainly by Asoka and possibly also by his predecessors, in developing an imperial theology, brahmanical theologians had little option but to define their own religion, ethic, and way of life in term (sic) of dharma’. A thought-provoking hypothesis. The boldest of the correlations between texts and history is James L. Fitzgerald’s analysis of the development and growth of the Mahabharata. Acknowledging that the Mahabharata is a polyphonic text, he nevertheless identifies (this is an argument he has made earlier) its ideological underpinnings—a brahmanical reaction against the marginalization of brahmanas under the Mauryas in general and Ashoka in particular. Here, he looks closely at four sections of the Mahabharata in the light of this. The epic, he suggests, seeks to tame un-bridled, bring it it line with brahmanical principles (especially the prevention of the mixture of varnas), and establish brahmana control. The extent to which the epic’s disquisitions connect with the political history of the times is a question that certainly needs to be asked, even if it yields many different possible answers. Three chapters focus specifically on themes related to religion. The insertion of religion into history is essential for an understanding of both. There is also an urgent need to take histories of religions beyond details of doctrines and to incorporate archaeological evidence of both religious thought and practice. With reference to Buddhism, these points have been made forcefully by Gregory Schopen in his various writings. Here, in his very lively and scholarly piece, ‘A well-sanitized shroud: asceticism and institutional values in the middle period of Buddhist monasticism’ he delves into Buddhist texts to reveal how they came to terms with the problematic figure of the cemetery-dwelling monk. Richard Salomon details the implications of fragmentary manuscri-pts of Buddhist texts from the north-west, written in the Gandhari language and Kharoshthi script. Compared to Buddhism, the history of Jainism remains much less studied and understood. There is the problem of the chronology of the canonical texts, many of which were compiled in the 5th/6th centuries. Paul Dundas discusses the emergence of ‘classical Jainism’. He argues that in contrast to Buddhism, Jainism in this period was a non-imperial religion trying to present itself in imperial terms. Like Schopen, he too highlights the importance of looking at material evidence as well as the need to understand the interaction between different religious traditions. The contributions on social history include Aloka Parasher Sen’s piece which describes how, both in the case of the outcaste and outsider, texts contain a variety of nomenclatures rather than single terms. Stephanie W. Jamison compares the portrayal of women in the Manava Dharma-shastra and earlier Dharmashastra texts. She argues that the increased attempts to control women, mysogynist statements and descriptions of women’s bad behaviour—in all of which the Smritis abound—are in fact based on an acknowledgement of women’s agency. She goes on to suggest that the reason for the marked hardening of the brahmanical attitude towards women may have been due to anxieties created by the rise of a threatening new type of female —the unmarried, independent, heterodox ascetic, especially the Buddhist bhikkuni. It is an interesting idea, but Jamison herself points out that the significance of the female ascetic can only be inferred and is not overtly evident in the texts. Further, the exercise of historicizing textual discourses on gender has to take into account the need to control women, especially their sexuality and reproductive potential, within the socio-political contexts of class, caste and the monarchical state. An acceleration of India’s interaction with other parts of the world, through conquest and trade, is one of the significant aspects of c. 200 BCE-300 CE and contributed to the cultural vitality of the period. Michael Witzel discusses brahmanical reactions to foreign influence, highlighting the political use of religion, language and script. He suggests that Indian history right down to the present can be seen in terms of the ebb and flow of strong foreign influences, phases of such influence followed by those of reaction and synthesis. He argues that the ‘opening of the Indian mind’ during the period c. 200 BCE-300 CE was followed by some ‘national reflection’ about ‘things typically Indian’ and considerable ‘closing of the Indian mind’ in the Gupta period. ‘One may regard the whole period between the empires—just like the current period from circa 1820/50 onward—as a process of brahmanical reaction, with stress on “Indianness”, and as a retrogade reflection on native customs and Vedic religion’ (p. 495). But was India of the ‘Gupta period’ (or even later times) really as closed and insular as is sometimes imagined? There is in fact evidence that trade and cultural contacts (especially with east and southeast Asia) continued. Further, for all their credentials as patrons of a brahmanical revival, it is interesting to note that, contrary to what is suggested here, the imperial Guptas did not make large numbers of land grants to brahmanas. It was their feudatories and contemporaries such as the Vakatakas who were into this sort of thing on a major scale. In certain places, Witzel uses questionable terminology—e.g. his reference to the ‘Nationalistic Hindu Sunga rulers’ (p. 465) and ‘converted Greeks’ (p. 490)—and conveys the strong impression of reading too much of the present into the past. The intolerant zenophobia of Hindutva looms large as the background to his piece. But surely this does not justify what looks too much like a reactive valorization of foreign influence in Indian history. Illuminating, in places provocative, this book should instigate further discussion and debate about one of the most dynamic and exciting periods in ancient Indian history. Upinder Singh is Professor in the Department of History,University of Delhi, Delhi.