A History of India

A History of India

Edward John Thompson, 1886-1946


      1. Pre-Vedic And Vedic India.
      2. Janism and Buddhism – Alexander – The Maurya Empire.
      3. Wars of Kites and Crows.
      4. The Golden Age Of Hindu Thought And Rule.
      5. Jostling Of Iron And Earthen Pots.
      6. Mohammadan Rule.
      7. The Mogul Empire Established – Coming Of The Europeans.
      8. Mogul, European, Maratha, Sikh.
      9. Merchandise Leads To Sovereignty.
      10. The Better Days Of John Company.
      11. Modern India.



Pre-Vedic And Vedic India

The earliest chapter of India’s history is in process of recovery and decipherment. The archaeologist came to the land late, and found few records of both high antiquity and great individual interest. Neither the baked clay tablets of Mesopotamia nor the mummy wrappings and papyri of Egypt could have survived neglect or exposure in India. But recent discoveries in the Indus Valley, following on the patient work of the Archaeological Department, have laid bare civilizations that may date back far beyond the beginning of the Christian era. These civilizations have features that suggest a connection with the Sumerian civilization in Babylonia; ultimately, when the innumerable sites on the islands and shores of the Persian Gulf and in the lands between India and Mesopotamia have been explored, we shall probably find that through millenniums of which history is ignorant a chain of inter-related civilizations connected the Ganges with the Euphrates.

Dr. Vincent Smith, in his Early History of India, remarks justly: “The political history of India begins for an orthodox Hindu more than three thousand years before the Christian era with the famous war waged on the banks of the Jumna, between the sons of Kuru and the sons of Pandu, as related in the vast epic known as the Mahabharata”. I have known orthodox Hindus for whom it began far earlier; a famous judge approved of the statement that the other great Hindu epic, the Ramayana, was written sixty million years before Christ, and he regarded the Ramayana as substantially historical. But today orthodox Hindus, among scholars, at any rate, are scarcer than they were, and their educated countrymen form a public almost as sceptical as our own. The Ramayana which tells of the war waged by Rama, King of Ayodhya (Oudh), to recover his wife Sita, who had been abducted by Ravana, the demon-king of Ceylon/Sri Lankya, may, in its tangle of fables of magic arrows and herbs and of monkey and bear allies, contain a core of genuine tradition of a war between an Indian king and Ceylon/Sri Lanka; and the Mahabharata almost certainly enshrines the memory of a great war waged in Northern India at some remote period, “just as the author of the Iliad had his imagination guided by dim recollections of an actual siege of Troy” (Oxford History of India). The Mahabharata tell a story with which peoples of all parts of India wished to be connected, and genealogies were made that carried back the great ruling families to the heroes of that mighty war. In this way the poem laid the foundations of that strong feeling of unity which had haunted the Indian mind.

Nevertheless, for long enough our history will be one of disjointed efforts and local dynasties. It begins with the first great unifying events that India knew, the immigration of tribes from Central Asia, calling themselves “arya,” or “noble”; but begins uncertainly, with deductions from their hymns, the Rig-Veda. For these Indian scholars usually claim a higher antiquity than European scholars consider likely; but they cannot be placed later than 1000 B.C., or the immigration later than 1500 B.C. The immigration was a process rather than a single irruption. An inscription in Cappadocia, in which India and Varuna, names of Vedic deities, seem to occur, suggests that in 1400 B.C. (the date generally assigned to the inscription) its western waves were still in touch with the Mediterranean shores. Part of the Aryan movement passed into Persia; another part occupied Afghanistan and the Punjab.

This is not the place for us to consider the Rig-Veda’s marvellous literary quality. But the hymns have a value for the historian also. They introduce us to a language highly developed, and so akin to Greek and Latin and our own that it undoubtedly shares with these a common ancestor. The hymns reveal a changing civilization and a people uncertain of many things. They were new to India, and there is no sufficient reason to think that they had reached the sea; the great rivers of the Panjab were their ocean. They were hardly yet in touch with the fauna that is characteristically Indian: the elephant was mriga hastin, “the wild beast with a hand” (its trunk), a phrase that keeps the freshness of astonishment. The tiger is not mentioned in the Rig-Veda. But the lion – never found in Southern or Eastern India, but even seventy years ago common at the Panjab’s borders, though now surviving in only one district in India – was known. The newcomers were a pastoral people, but inured to war; they were governed by kings, they had an elaborate ritual of sacrifice. Unlike Hindus, they had no objection to the flesh of the cow, and they did not have the rite of suttee, or burning the living widow with the dead husband. All this is known from the Rig-Veda.

Though the Aryans soon established a predominance in Northern India, they were not in effective touch with South India until centuries later, perhaps about 500 B.C. The Deacan, the plateau which stands up from the coastal plains of South India, has a rampart, a stretch of wild country stretching from the Bihar and Orissa Hills to the Western Ghats, and at its western end reinforced by the rocky heights of Rajputana and the Indian Desert. This strip of jungle and mountain was a belt of primitive barbarism, a fortress of beliefs and practices whose acceptance by the Vedic religion gave Hinduism its modern form. It was in this region that suttee and female infanticide died out most slowly, after abolition in British India; here human sacrifice was extirpated less than a century ago. Durga, the terrible goddess, whose name does not occur in the Rig-Veda, though today she is the most worshipped deity of Rajputana and (except, perhaps, Krishna) of Bengal, when we first meet her in Indian literature is spoken of as inhabiting this country, dwelling in the Vindhya Mountains and delighting in wine, flesh, animal a sacrifice. When at length the Aryan religion washed over this bulwark, it had absorbed the beliefs of this wilderness, and the plague and sickness demons of South India were easily taken into the now disordered and populous pantheon. Even so, the religion and thought of the south are very far from being the same as those of the north; in the latter the Aryan elements are still powerful.

The South Indian languages do not belong to the Indo-European family, but to the Dravidian. Kindred languages must have existed in the north, where Sanskrit supplanted them and the Indo-European languages descended from Sanskrit, and still spoken, arose ; a Dravidian tongue, Brahui, survives in Baluchisten today. The Dravidian civilization was inferior to the Aryan, and ultimately allowed itself to be absorbed. After the Rig-Veda, three other Vedas were composed, an elaborate system of ritual and magical usages. Later came the epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana; and then the Puranas, legends enclosing genuine tradition and history. The killing of oxen or Brahmins, who were essential for agriculture and the right performance of religion, was made the worst of sins; society was organized on the lines of the four great castes – the priest, warrior, merchant, husbandman. These four castes are found in only one hymn of the Rig-Veda; but the priest and warrior were prominent in Aryan times. The non-Aryan population of South India is divided into the first and last of the four castes, and in Bengal we have the Brahmin (the priest) and a multitude of “other castes,” But the four main divisions are so familiar from books that they may pass in a general statement. There are also many millions of outcastes, who for a long time have been becoming Mohammaduns or Christians, and in South India today are clamouring to be admitted to Hindu temples.

The Aryan invasion gave India a sacred language and decided the lines on which Hindu civilization was to develop. The first rots of almost all Hindu thought and philosophy can be traced to the Rig-Veda. The hymns, more than the primitive poetry of other nations, show the predominance of the male. Then goddesses – except the Dawn Goddess, who is vivid poetry – are pale shadows, usually nothing but the feminine form of some god’s name. Kali, or Durga, the one goddess who matters in Hinduism today, came from a non-Aryan cult. Because of this worship and aggrandizement of man at the expense of woman, Indian thought and action have through millenniums been lame and one-sided, and are today.