Alain Danielou,
A Brief History of India
(Inner Traditions, 2003)

L'Histoire de l'Inde
(Fayard, 1971)

The late Alain Danielou was a versatile and well-known Indian scholar. He lived in India for 15 years, translated the Kama Sutra in an edition that has been favorably reviewed, and wrote a number of books on Indian religion, music and thought. Danielou's history of India was originally published in France in 1971. This English translation by Kenneth Hurry includes a modest amount of additional material to take the story into the 21st century.

The book's preface is promising. The author writes, "the history of India is not merely a chronology -- a series of accounts of battles, conquests and palace revolutions." Yet here is a typical sentence chosen almost at random from later in the book, "According to Ptolemy, Siristolemaios (Shri-Pulumayi), son of Guatamiputra Satakarni, continued to reign at Baithana (Pratisthana), while Ozene (Ujjain) fell into the hands of Tiasthenes (Chastana)." Pay attention. There's a quiz at the end of this review. India's history may not be a mere chronology, but much of this book comes close.

Density isn't the only problem. The author uses hundreds of place, region and empire names, yet the first map doesn't appear until more than 60 pages in and there are only three maps in the entire 353 pages of text. Given roughly 10,000 years during which political boundaries changed substantially every century or so, it's impossible to follow what's being described without supplementary material.

Any history that covers sometimes obscure events over a long period of time can suffer from similar problems, but great historians such as Gibbon transcend such difficulties in part by knowing when to include more detailed information about people and events. The "Brief" in Danielou's title doesn't justify this sort of description of the founder of the kingdom of Ghazni in roughly 962, "A courageous and enterprising man of Turkish origin, Alptigin was a former Samanid slave from central Asia." The adjectives must stand by themselves since nothing specific is said to document either bravery or enterprise. Again, this is all too typical rather than an exception. My favorite example is, "Pushyabhuti ... acquired supernatural powers...." The reader is left to wonder what they were.

Though hardly enough to avoid tedium, there are choice tidbits. In the 3rd century BC the Indian ruler Bindusara wrote to the Greek Antiochus asking that he send some dried figs, sweet wine and a Sophist. "Antiochus replied, 'We shall send the wine and figs, but Greek law does not allow us to sell our Sophists.'"

In another example of how the odd fact can add interest, Danielou tells us that in 1668 the British gained control of the port of Bombay "for an annual rent of 10 pounds sterling." Not quite as good a deal as Manhattan, but close.

The book, in spite of its title, is probably intended as a short reference work for scholars. It has received good reviews in Europe and is sometimes recommended for libraries. Danielou does include an impressive bibliography of works published prior to 1985. For those unfamiliar with India, however, a glossary would have been more useful. For example, while the text does include descriptions of the important religions, they are in fragments scattered through the book and often come long after they were needed. The best discussion of the Hindu religion appears near the end of the book, though a reasonable overview of this ancient philosophy is absolutely critical to understanding many key events.

All of my criticisms would be irrelevant if Danielou had managed to deliver on the promise of his title and preface. A brief history may be easier to read with pithy anecdotes, maps and a glossary, but the main objective must be to impart a broad understanding of a country's major events, ideas and people. Here, too, this history falls short. The author is best at placing the major empires in context from the Aryan invasion to the creation of Pakistan, less effective (at least in this book) in the explication of Indian thought and, hopeless at bringing to life either great historical figures or everyday people. In the end the often valuable content can't offset the mind-numbing style.

The somewhat unorthodox discussion (to Westerners) of Gandhi and the British-forced partition of India in 1947 is a notable exception and suggests how much better the book might have been. One may disagree with Danielou, but he presents a valid and coherent view. He is highly critical, accusing Gandhi of a mystical sort of demagoguery that resulted in a new nation formed, "in the most disastrous way imaginable, leading to the partitioning of the country [into India and Pakistan], one of the greatest massacres in history... " and the destruction of the traditional social system and culture. At a minimum he is correct when he points out that religion and a clumsy, poorly thought-out partitioning are the root causes of the present dangerous friction between the two nations.

India is second only to China in population. U.S. businesses are outsourcing a growing number of technical jobs to Indian companies. The feud with Pakistan now includes atomic weapons and, because of the role of Islamic fundamentalists, is related to the West's struggle with extremists. All of this is ample reason for more interest in India and its history than most of us usually display, but I can't recommend this book to typical readers. A New History of India by Wolpert is a better choice for most. It is lighter on India's early history, has only one map and is too much tilted to the Western view of events, but it is far more readable, better organized and far more likely to leave non-specialists with a reasonable grasp of the broad contours of its incredibly complex subject.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 24 January 2004

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