“Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions” by Upinder Singh

Celestial dancer (Devata), mid-11th century (Metropolitan Museum of Art) Celestial dancer (Devata), mid-11th century (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In her new book Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions, historian Upinder Singh seeks to correct the way Indians project the concerns and aspirations of the present onto the past. Apart from making complex, highly contentious matters of histories of faith, caste, non-violence, desire and tolerance simple to engage with, Singh has a unique quality of engaging with the larger whys of the book.


The fact that history is (or ought to be) interesting should be good enough reason to read it. But there is another point to it. This is not because (as many people think) history repeats itself or that it teaches us to avoid mistakes made in the past. The lessons of history are often not of an earth-shattering kind, nor do they necessarily form a guide to everyday living. A person can aspire to a reasonably happy and successful life without reading history books. The connections between the past and the present are often subtle and difficult to discern and are pierced through by rupture and change. In one sense, the past is irretrievably dead and gone. And yet, while we concentrate on living in the here and now, it helps to have a sense of who we are in relation to the spaces we inhabit and the historical processes of which we are a part.


One must read Singh to correct the “idea of India” kind of narratives about India’s past that tend to unintentionally promote a cohesiveness often resulting in oversimplified statements about the country, society, and politics. By unpacking ancient Indian history in ways that shatter these unifying approaches to Indian past, Singh shows that


The past can be beautiful, uplifting, and inspiring; it can also be ugly, unsettling, and disturbing. This book invites readers to abandon simplistic stereotypes and to try to grasp some of its complexities, instead of sitting in judgement. The powerful contradictions discussed in this book are not part of a dead, fossilized past. They exist even today in refracted memories of that past and in the lived realities of the present.


Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions, Upinder Singh (Aleph, October 2021)
Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions, Upinder Singh (Aleph, October 2021)

Singh tackles the popular myths about Indian history as starting points to go deeper into the primary sources about ancient Indian history (the epics, the sacred texts, poetry, drama, doxographies, treatises, and so on). She argues that India’s ancient past—to which a lot of shaky assertions about Indianness are traced—needs to be understood in terms of five continuums of inequality/salvation, desire/detachment, goddess-worship/misogyny, violence/non-violence, and debate/conflict. While the thesis of the book is unsurprising—for no historical period of any nation can have an unqualified defining ideal—Singh’s book is commendable for its systematic and guided tour of the stories and texts that Indians may be familiar with but may have difficulty placing given the existence of an equally strong counter-narrative for every narrative.

One example (about non-violence and vegetarianism in India) can help explain this point better. Contrary to the belief that the non-vegetarianism in India stems from a firm belief in non-violence, ancient Indians did not just consume meat  but also went to very great extents to fight wars and deal with their enemies quite violently. The presence of violence is also evident in the way taxes were forcefully collected from the people by the law and in the way lower castes and women were abused, very often physically. Violence is present in the sacred texts but is emphasized as ritual and sacrifice. Singh’s takeaway:


How is the amnesia about violence in ancient Indian history to be explained? It comes from an idealized interpretation of Indian history from a hop, skip, and jump approach that magically connects Mahavira, the Buddha, Ashoka, and Gandhi and leaves out everything in between. It comes from the centrality of non-violence in the Indian freedom struggle. Gandhian nationalism contributed in a big way towards creating the illusion that non-violence was somehow ingrained in the Indian psyche. But even Gandhi, the modern icon of non-violence, struggled throughout his life with the problem of violence and met his end through an assassin’s bullet. It is in the midst of violence that non-violence acquires its deepest meaning.


Similarly, it is commonly thought that Jainism and Buddhism challenged Hinduism to promote social equality. But Singh observes that the real contribution of Jainism and Buddhism as challenges to the Brahmanical religion does not lie in their propagation of freedom from caste but in their revolutionary idea that salvation was available to all—and not just to upper caste men.

Regarding gender, Singh notes that ancient India had people worshipping goddesses as the Mother and as a force fighting evil but women were, at the same time, treated as subordinate beings. Singh looks at all archeological and textual evidence to discuss goddess worship even in Buddhism and Jainism but she also points at evidence such as the lack of women priests and very few hymns attributed to female sages in the Rig Veda. The Manu Smriti, a text that praises women also insists that a family in which women are disrespected does not prosper. However, the same text also recommends that women be kept under control because of their fickle nature. Similarly, while Buddhism thought of women as temptresses, the Buddha did allow women into the fold and that was a progressive gesture in the context of its times. There is evidence that women offeried patronage to Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist institutions but there is no evidence that women bhakti poets/“saints” lived the lives of married householders the way their male counterparts did. After presenting the different scenarios, Singh concludes with pointers to reading such contradictions about veneration and subjugation of women: that goddess worship did not translate into equal status for women in real lives, that sustained efforts at thinking about controlling women also suggests that not all women conformed to the patriarchal dictates, and that women from elite classes seem to have fared better than women from the lower classes.


Ancient India helps Indian readers avoid presentism (the tendency to judge the past through the lens of the present) and broadens the context in which texts can be read to enhance their understanding of the past. To readers outside India, it is an invaluable resource in the process of making sense of an ancient civilization that deserves to be made sense of beyond the “hop, skip, and jump” approach from one event or historical figure to another.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.