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Reading History: India

Judith Brown surveys the relevant literature for understanding Indian society and history.

India is not only so different from the West in social structure, religious orientation and political experience. It's time-scale of recorded civilisation is daunting: while its size and internal regional differences involve the student in an enterprise equivalent to that of investigating all the countries of Europe at one go! This article is intended only as an introduction to India's historical experience, with particular reference to the last two centuries.

The essential starting-point is India's geography; the social structure based on caste rather than class, which developed to use the resources of nature and men in the particular ecological context of the subcontinent; and the ideological underpinning of society in Hindu religious tradition. These have for centuries been 'givens' in Indian History, and have constrained and at times even imprisoned those who attempted political dominion of the subcontinent, whether Moghuls, British or post-independence Indian governments. A small and beautifully illustrated paperback from British Museum Publications Ltd. (B. Durrans and R. Knox, India Past into Present , 1982, designed to accompany two exhibitions in the 1982 Festival of India) is an excellent point of departure. Part 1 traces early civilisation and the ebb and flow of urban life against the backdrop of continuing village life. Part II describes life in a 'typical' Indian village, for this (with regional variations) has for centuries been the context of the lives of most Indians. Even in the late twentieth century 80% of Indians are rural people. A more comprehensive and complex introduction to Indian civilisation, which includes more historical narrative and analysis and a helpful exposition of the nature of caste society, is a paperback by B.S. Cohn, India: The Social Anthropology Of A Civilisation (Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1971).

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