A New History of India

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Stanley Wolpert visited India for the first time in 1948 as a young marine engineer, arriving the day after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. This initial exposure to India fundamentally altered the course of the author’s life, and he thereupon resolved to take up the study of Indian culture and history. He has been teaching at U.C.L.A. since 1958. The work for which he is best known to the general public is the novel Nine Hours to Rama, one of several works he has written set in India, which took its inspiration from the events surrounding Gandhi’s murder. Two previous scholarly efforts, Tilak and Gokhale and Morley and India, 1906-1910, deal with the militant and reformist traditions of Indian nationalism and the British responses to them. Wolpert’s fascination with political history and the personalities of the leading characters in this drama is apparent in these earlier books and provides a link with the present work, his most ambitious to date.

A New History of India is a narrative history directed primarily to the interested general reader and to the beginning college or university student. In it the author surveys the entire course of India’s four-thousand-year history, from the Indus civilization to “Indira Raj,” judiciously balancing his account both geographically and chronologically. For Wolpert the past is indeed prologue: his main purpose is to delineate the historical dimension of certain issues facing present-day India, though he eschews any attempt to offer solutions to these problems. The stress is thus on continuity, on themes such as the recurrent struggle between unitary and divisive tendencies in Indian history. A New History of India is only loosely structured around these major themes, however, and it is largely left to the reader to draw his own conclusions about the historical causes of contemporary problems.

The portion of the book that covers the pre-British period is particularly illuminating and useful to the student. Here Wolpert incorporates material gleaned from a number of disciplines—economics, linguistics, ethnology, and myths—to enhance our understanding of the often obscure history of this early period, beginning with a discussion of the “ecological context” whose structures and rhythms have shaped so much of the life of the subcontinent. He tells us, for instance, how linguistic evidence from the Vedas, the ancient Hindu scriptures, was laboriously analyzed and compared to archaeological findings from the Mesopotamian home of another branch of the Indoeuropean family to produce the first scientific estimation of the date of arrival of the Aryans in India. He discusses at some length the peaks of imperial greatness attained under the Mauryan and Guptan dynasties and dwells briefly on the formation of the classic synthesis of Hindu culture under the latter dynasty—its schools of abstract philosophy, popular Hinduism, and styles of art which were to remain standards of reference for centuries—before passing on to the gradual subjugation of the subcontinent by Central Asian Muslim invaders.

It is by way of discussing this conquest that Wolpert introduces one of his major themes into the narrative: the chronic inability of Indians to unite politically and militarily to ward off external threats and to increase their own well-being. This incapacity made their land relatively easy prey to a whole series of Central Asian invaders and, finally, to the British. In contrast to Indians, the British were “paragons of united action and national unity,” able to submerge private ambition and greed to achieve group goals, and it is this national trait rather than mercantile enterprise, military advantage, or technological advantage, that explains their conquest of the subcontinent.

This account of the rise of the British raj is very misleading. In the first place, it is incorrect to state as Wolpert does that Indians were unable to place group goals above individual ones—Indian history is as full of examples of self-sacrifice and group loyalty as that of any other people. Granted, Indians were unable to unite in a national effort to expel the British. This is not surprising, since Indians lacked a political concept of the nation embracing the entire subcontinent or the economic infrastructure to produce such a notion; nationalism, after all, was a distinctly nineteenth century development even in most of Europe. Thus it was not a question of their having a concept of the nation which they were then insufficiently devoted to to defend. Second, it is true that at crucial moments the British were able to unite against their Indian foes; they had no alternative but extinction. One is always struck, however, in reading accounts of the British conquest, by precisely the individual greed and ambition of these early nabobs which only the firm hand of a Cornwallis could restrain. One might add that this explanation comes dangerously close to that propagated by the British themselves in numerous popular histories of the rise of the raj, according to which it was the character and moral superiority of the British race over their opponents which explains their victory....

(The entire section is 2126 words.)