India: A Brief History of Civilization, Thomas R. Trautmann.

There are innumerable introductory historical books that new students are prescribed to. In his experience with students, Thomas noticed a subtle mistake in these books for such a level of students. Most of these books had too many details than the students could digest. Such books with too many technical words could only do more harm than good to such students. An ideal historical book for beginners would be a short comprehensive to give students the necessary foundation to tackle advanced materials. With that, Thoma set out to write a book that is both brief and comprehensive.

Synopsis

            The author starts the book by a background of Indian civilization that dates back to five thousand years ago. He gives that reader what civilization means with reference to the three major native Indian groups that influenced this civilization. The author covers the landscape of the Indian history with reference to weather, locations and natural features and they shaped a people’s life. This landscape is expounded in the second chapter in which a beginning of Indian history is explained. The economy, the technology and the general way of life of ancients is comprehensively covered.

            The Vedic age is a historical pillar in the Indian history that still shapes the way of life of many Indians today. The author covers this history and shows how the foundations of Indian civilization are written down. Here, the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Mahabharata come up with writings of the Hindu religion that was metamorphosing at that period.  

            At around the 3rd century, a variety of events led to the fall of the Vedic Age. In the. fourth chapter, the author takes us through the journey of new empires in India accompanied by various religious groups.

            Before Alexander the great conquered the northern Indian region, Persia was in control of the region. Alexander continued his conquest by defeating Achaemenid Empire and hence firmly controlling the Indian subcontinent. It is at this time that foreign elements spread in the region leading to the rise of Greco-Buddhist culture that religiously impacted the region. When Alexander departed, the Maurya Empire rose onto its feet under the reign Of Chandragupta who stayed in power to the end of the 3rd century.

            Between 298-272, his son, rose to power and extended the kingdom. Nevertheless, the empire did not rise to its heights until Ashoka rose to power and fl;ourished the rule of the Empire. He did this by conquering cities like the city-state of Kalinga. However, Ashoka later embraced Buddhist principles after being shocked by the destruction and death of his conquest adventures. He generously gave to Buddhist communities to an extent that the government was strained financially. With that, the empire could not hold itself together after his death and inevitably splintered into small kingdoms. After a considerable period of disorder, the Gupta kingdom rose into power and once again united the nation.

In the fifth chapter, the writer is sure to enlighten the reader on a very important aspect of any historical development of a nation, that is, the classical age. Classical age is a historical period in history in which the most important and enduring facets of civilization are shaped. They are durable in a way that generations to come are affected. The author mainly covers kingships, religion and fine art.

            Definitely, the author would not have captured a historical map of India as intended and hence the author covers the loophole by penning down facts of the family, society, and polity in the Indian civilization. The above stated aspects have very deep roots in history and still have a monstrous influence in the present. For instance, marriages in India and arranged and indissoluble. Once arranged, the marriage is solemnized in a ceremony that dates back to the Vedic age. Of cause marriage is the basis of family in India like any other society, but families in India have very distinctive features seen almost nowhere else in the world. The author quenches the thirst of any young historian who cares to know about the family structure. He does this by simply and yet comprehensively going through the salient features on Indian family.

            A typical family in India is extended, joint and patriarchal. For instance, the author clearly states that a family in India is under the authority of the eldest male in the family. Additionally, male members of the family jointly own property. The author covers how high and low castes and religion affects the family structure.

            After a comprehensive analysis of the family, society and the state in the Indian civilization, the author saw it fit to cover the formal thoughts and practices that encompass the Indian civilization throughout the classical age and the periods afterwards. Delightfully, the author shows the reader how religion, law, arts and science define the lives of people and hence civilization. The reader should definitely be amazed by how scientific aspects like mathematics, astronomy and astrology interweave with other facets like law and religion to form the core of these people’s lives. The author explains the different types of law and how religion influenced the formation of law in both the classical age and modern Indian setup.

            Just like the shadow of the moon’s or the sun’s eclipse, the author notices that the Indian civilization does not confine itself to the borders of the nation as one would expect. The author notes that although it is imperative to realize that the Indian civilization existed within fuzzy but definite borders anciently called India or Bharata, it enormously affected its surrounding. In a chronological order, the author analyses how the Indian civilization interacted with the geographical space around it. That is, Central Asia, South East Asia, Middle East Asia and even Europe.

            In an interesting twist of coverage, the author goes back to the analysis of the religious metamorphosis of the India religious realm that formed part of what we see today. chronologically, the author simply explains the events that led to the spread of Islam in India. The author is taken through a journey of invasion of foreign Muslim elements including the Turks. The whole story culminates to the rise of the Mughal dynasty that had a great influence on the religious shape of the nation. In the early1700s, the dynasty fell to its knees and other people like the Britons took over.

            In a quest for power and wealth among the Europeans, the Voyager, Vasco da Gama found himself on the shores of India in 1498. The author takes us through events of India interaction with Europeans who include the French, Dutch, Portuguese, and the British. The author gives us an image of how the Britons established themselves through history by building companies, collaborating with native rulers and later conquering empires to ultimately seize power. By the end of 1800s, the fabrics of the British Empire was strong and so they easily controlled the region.

            As anyone would expect, the British rule finally frustrated the natives. By the end of the 1880s, protests had already begun against the British Empire. Here the author gives us a history of how the concept of Indian Nationalism developed as the natives actively sought for self-rule. The author takes us through a journey of how the national congress led by Nehru seeks the end of the British Empire. Other national like Gandhi are also a centerpiece of this strong campaign. The protests continue throughout the 1930s and the world war. By the year 1947, the British Empire was finally subdued and the nation could rule itself. Alongside the independence of India, other nations like Pakistan also stand on their feet. The author shows us how events are intertwined together and inevitably lead to development of new nations.

            Of course, when the British left India, the nation was happy and ready to embrace self-rule. Nevertheless, it was not to be a smooth ride. The newly formed nation was riddled with poverty, wide spread illiteracy, a shattered economy, divided communities and war with its neighbors. The author shows us how the nation takes historical steps through history. India has to develop economically and at the same time fighting ills of religious division and disunited communities. Without leaving out too much the author shows us the development of post-independence future and also gives us lens to look into the future of the nation.

My opinion

            The author’s idea to write this book was to give new history students an ideal material to learn the subject. Covering 5,000 years of history in one semester can be a monstrous endeavor for newbies. Thomas successfully pulls away these barriers. With short succinct chapters, the author provides the reader with clear and simple information. Unlike other historical materials on the same topic where students would be overwhelmed by details, the author cuts the chase and hits the nail on the head. He gives the guiding pillars that shape the civilization of India. To a new student, that is all that matters.

            In a nutshell, India:  Brief History of Civilization is a ground breaking historical piece that gives you an overview of a long history of a people in a quick fashion. The shortness of the book, is not its strongest pillar though. If you go through any comprehensive historical material on India today, one particular fact becomes apparent. That is, many scholars give very little attention to the early history of India and devote almost the whole book to the recent developments. Falsely, this gives an impression that early history is just a background whose effects cannot be seen today. The author knows clearly that the past cannot be ignored, that the present will be clearly understood if the deep roots of the past are understood. With that, the author comes up with a brief and yet comprehensive book covering 5,000 years of history.

From a personal point of view, the success of the author in hitting his target cannot be overstated. Covering 5,000 years comprehensively and in brief was a very ambitious goal. Any seasoned historian will be amazed with how the author filters details and yet manages to tell the story as it was. This is a book that goes a long way in fitting the exact needs of its target audience. That is, compacted 5,000 years of history in just a few sittings.

The author’s biography

Born in the year 1940, Thomas Trautmann acquired his BA degree from Beloit college in 1962. Focusing his studies on ancient India, he acquired his Ph.D. degree in 1968 from the University of London. In the same year, he joined the University of Michigan where he worked as an assistant professor. He was pointed as an associate professor in 1971 and later rose to the ranks of a professor in 1977.

Since he was trained in ancient Indian history, the professor threw his weight behind contributing to that field and also the history of anthropology, the history of kingship and the historiography of India during colonization. In his early works, he revised a canonical Sanskrit, that is, the Arthashastra. Together with other minor works, he got a solid foundation of studying and writing about the Dravidian kinship. In his recent studies of British orientalism, the professor has shed a significant amount of light in understanding the history of anthropology.

In his stay at Michigan University, he taught undergraduate students in Indian Civilization, kinship and ethnology. He will be remembered for his distinguished services as the director of south and southeast Asian studies center, the chairman of the history department and the director of institute of Humanities. Between 2003 and 2009, he was the development officer in the Department of history.

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