India is a palimpsest consisting of layer upon layer of history, culture and spiritual speculation and practice. It is as if you have a blank page in front of you and while writing your story you notice that words and phrases, seemingly welling up from the very page you are writing on, appear amid your words; and when you read all of this together, your words and the words that appeared as if by magic on the page seem to make sense but tell a story very different from the one you thought you were telling, one in which your story plays only a very small part or perhaps is eclipsed altogether. read more

On our trips into India we consider a whole bunch of these multilayered stories and then, as everyone who comes to India does, each of you will create out of this trip your own story, your own India.

The Indus Valley or Harappan Civilization is one of the five relatively indigenous ancient civilizations of the ancient world, along with those of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and Central/South America. Of all of these, it was by far the largest in extent, many times larger than any of the others. It is also the least well known, largely because its written language (if it was a written language) has not been deciphered.

It was a highly regulated society and achieved a degree of uniformity throughout its extent that is unrivalled elsewhere. All its cities and towns were designed on the same sort of grid plan; weights and measures were standardized throughout, as were the size of the burnt bricks used in construction.

The artistic remains, whether in pottery, stone or metal, have an amazing continuity with those created throughout the history of Indian civilization: from its ithyphallic, yogic gods, its mother goddesses right down to tools, utensils, vehicles (the contemporary bullock cart is virtually unchanged from the one used over 3000 years ago in these same regions), garments, right down to its toys and games. In its social and economic organization it seems to have prefigured the later caste system in that hereditary groups of specialists lived together in micro-communities, which composed what we might call the neighborhoods of the towns and cities, pretty much as they do today.

The Indus Valley civilization domesticated cotton, and spun and wove it into cloth. It seems that in the center of every town, perhaps adjacent to the central temple (although that is not certain) was a large bath or pool as large temples have adjoining bathing tanks even today.

The Indus script, which may have been no more than an accounting device, remains undeciphered, partly at least because very few “letters” ever appear together in a single inscription. So unless a Rosetta Stone is discovered we will probably never learn what these people expressed in those inscriptions; perhaps it was only financial transactions or other completely mundane communications or records or aids to memory or confirmation that they recorded. This does not seem unlikely, for the Aryans (pastoralist migrants from the northwest who came to the subcontinent around 1800 BC) made a point of not committing to writing the Veda, their most important and sacred text. In the ancient East, memory was a much more valorizing activity than inscription. What was important and vital was remembered, kept in mind and heart rather than recorded on paper, parchment, stone or pottery.

The Indus Valley “writing” appears mostly on tiny clay seals, usually combined with other pictures, ideographs or symbols, often beautifully designed and wrought.

The reasons for the Indus civilization's decline are speculative: lack of water (due to changes in the course of rivers, principally the Indus), deforestation (perhaps due to the utterly unnecessary baking of bricks), the Aryan invasions (from 1800-1500 BC onwards).

From their home in Central Asia (Afghanistan, northern Iran, southern Russia, Uzbekistan) these tribes of pastoralist nomads who called themselves Arya (“noble”) migrated (and no one knows why) from the central Asian steppes to the southeast and southwest. Perhaps there were pressures on them from other tribes, or perhaps they required more grazing land for their flocks. Little is known of them for there are virtually no surviving artifacts, neither artworks nor utensils nor buildings; being nomadic, they seem not to have been a very materialistic culture and they probably built and created their art in wood or other perishable materials.

They spoke a Sanskritic language, which is the source of, or at least shared a common source with, the modern north Indian languages (principally Hindi), Greek and all of the Indo-European languages in use today from Russian to English, and so we come across a large number of cognates in Hindi and English (“mata” and “pita” for “mother” and “father,” being just two of the most obvious).

They were militarily far superior to the peoples of the south, having horse-drawn wheeled chariots and superior metal for weapons. The ponderous Indian armies with masses of foot soldiers and elephant regiments which were used to fighting conventional, ritualized wars against similarly equipped armies were no match for the Aryans' light, fast-moving forces.

And the culture and traditions of these migrants were entirely at odds with, and in many respects diametrically opposed to, those of the indigenes. They were pastoralists, patriarchal, and they worshipped sky gods with the sacrifice as their central rite. What we know about them we know from their texts, the amazing Vedas, a collection of “prayers,” myths, philosophical speculations, spells, chants, magic formulae, etc—the Aryan “scriptures.”

Though far superior militarily and in many respects culturally too, they were gradually absorbed into the indigenous culture which they seem to have dominated. Evidently, like so many others who came to India, they were unable to resist the embrace of India's Great Mother Goddess, as well as the settled agricultural village life that prevailed in India's plains, not to mention the sensual women and the mild climate. Historically a land of remarkable abundance, life in the subcontinent must have seemed easy to these tough sinewy Aryans compared with the rigors of nomadic existence on the harsh plains, where their lives were determined by the needs of their flocks, having to shepherd them to good grazing grounds throughout the year.

In the Vedas, the goddess plays only the most minor of roles; the main actors are the patriarchal deities. In the great creation myth of Sesha-Narayana for example, it is the creator god Brahma and no longer the goddess Lakshmi who sits on the pericarp of the lotus that sprouts from Narayana's navel, and performs the creative function, the goddess being relegated to the role of subservient wife, massaging her lord's legs (though in later Hinduism, the creative activity of the female comes back into its own in a big way).

The meeting of the two cultures — Aryan and Indus Valley — was as great a clash on the human plane as was the clash of continents in that long-ago geological time when India collided with the Asian mainland. And the civilizational upthrust that developed out of this cultural encounter was as great a human creation as the Himalayas was a geological one.

It is in the period following the amalgamation of the two cultures that Hinduism, much as we know it today, developed (ca. 1200-300 BC). It is a period about which little is known. One of the many surprises of Indian history is that we seem to confront things (from artistic styles, to philosophies, to monuments, to social, religious and political customs and institutions) only when they are already in full flower, like Athena emerging full-grown from the head of Zeus; we do not get any sense of their development. Everywhere we turn, we find an India that is always already mature, as if she had no developmental phases, no childhood. So the small 5 th-century Gupta dynasty temples at Deogarh and Sanchi are refined buildings, expressions of a highly developed style, yet we have no precursors, no examples of that style's development, no clues as to where it came from or how it came to be.

But we know that it was during this period that caste developed. And the tensions in society that that system creates and which still exist today existed then too, especially those between the brahmins and kshatriyas (priests and kings).

(Brief note on the caste system: it can be very roughly defined as a hierarchical organization of society on a scale of ritual purity and pollution. In India the extremes are defined by the brahmins at the top of the chart and the untouchables or outcastes at the bottom, a contrast that provides the template by which the rest of the society is structured. Castes are endogamous groups having very strictly defined places in that hierarchical or ritual structure by virtue of the proportion and quality of the purity and pollution within their identity. It is a caste's level of purity that will, at least negatively, determine the possible occupations of its members and the nature of those members' relations with or avoidance of contact with members of other castes.)

It was in this period (ca. 1200-300 BC) also that the gods that Hindus worship today came to assume their identities (their myth-cycles) and developed place associations. It was the time when India was formed as a sacred geographical entity. This meant that many of the old Vedic gods as well as the autochthonous (animistic) deities of the Indus Valley culture and the fringe tribes either disappeared or underwent mysterious transformations when their myths, functions and identities intertwined one with another in the cultural and religious crucible of those times.

Many, perhaps most, of today's gods find no mention or play only very minor roles in the Vedas. The essential aspects of today's gods' identities were formed in the two great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, that also apparently assumed their definitive forms within this period. Within large-scale main plots concerning the fate of noble families and their kingdoms, are embedded stories within stories about gods and heroes. And here is where many of the myths that give today's gods their identities are told.

We know that some of the greatest and deepest philosophical speculations were carried out in this period for they resulted in the Upanishads, a collection of reflections on reality that is both profound and enigmatic. Sophisticated physiological studies had resulted in systems for changing consciousness by breathing regimens, mind control or meditation and bodily postures, and medical researchers — usually adepts in trance states — had discovered herbs and ways of preparing them to accomplish this same purpose, altering everyday consciousness, as well as to cure or diseases or alleviate ailments. Several philosophical systems were highly developed and their adherents vigorously debated the disagreements between them.

In the 6th and 5th centuries BC two men lived quite close to each other in the adjacent kingdoms of Magadha and Kosala just south of the Nepalese border in what is today the notorious Indian state of Bihar: the Buddha and Mahavir. Both are titles, the first meaning “the enlightened or wise one,” and the second, “great hero.” Both founded great religions. Although Jainism is pretty much confined to India, it has tens of millions of adherents. Its followers form a very prosperous, interconnected community of bankers and businessmen, whose influence on the affairs of the nation and particularly specific regions of it (e.g. Gujarat and parts of Rajasthan) is significant. On the other hand, Buddhism today has virtually no presence in India at all, except historical, and its nowadays well-established Tibetan exile communities, and even less influence. Though Buddhism hardly exists in the land of its founding, it is a major world religion today, vibrant and expanding.

Historically, Buddhism and Jainism owe their continued existence to and found their adherents primarily among the business classes. These religions meshed perfectly with those interests. They provided a spiritual and economic escape from the rapacious, life-dominating brahmins, and a unified power base from which to deal with the temporal rulers. Both religions were against sacrifice of all kinds and compared to the brahmins, and largely monastic, were relatively detached from the everyday lives of their adherents. For these two religions the center of spirituality resided in the monasteries (unlike in Hinduism where it resided just as much in the family hearth and at its altar, in a local and venerated tree or pond, in every river and every creature as in its greatest temples); and there was little directly religious responsibility enjoined on their lay adherents except to support those monastic institutions. In many cases they did so lavishly, resulting in some of the greatest artistic works of human creation. Even kings, most notably Ashoka, were attracted to Buddhism's truths and to its expedience as well, for it provided both a source of revenue from its business class adherents and a counterweight to brahmin domination of politics and affairs of state.

In a not so subtle way, the tension between the centrality of sacrifice to both tribal and Aryan culture and its denial by Buddhists and Jains not only shows the theological tension between brahminism and these new beliefs, but the struggle for secular dominance also, for one of the main functions, and an essential part of the very identity of brahmins is that they are the sacrificers, the only ones culturally and religiously certified to perform the sacrifices, and their orchestration of them is necessary to render these rites efficacious. Now when the Buddhists and Jains excluded sacrifice from their religions, they drastically diminished the function and the power of the brahmins, virtually eliminated the need for them entirely, except perhaps to carry out family rites like marriages and birth and death rituals. So in Buddhism and Jainism, it is the monks and nuns rather than the brahmins who become invested with the highest sacrality.

What is more subtle though, but no less significant psychologically and philosophically, is the manner in which the two new religions shifted responsibility to, and in fact even created, the individual. Whereas before, in the highly ritualized, socialized brahmanical culture, individuals had hardly any significance, now (and you can see how this favors the business classes and the ruling classes too, encouraging a profit motive and personal ambition) that sacrifice and the performance of rites generally, doing one's duty and following ancient customs without question or doubt, have been devalued, the individual must assume responsibility for his or her destiny—oh! horror of horrors! The burden one has to carry, the level of conscientiousness one has to maintain!

This sense of individuality was valorized in the new religions, for while rebirth or reincarnation was taken for granted by all these religions (Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, not to mention the religions of the numerous tribes), before, in ritualistic brahminism, one's new incarnations were not dependent on one's deeds in life, that is, were not dependent on one's individuality, but rather on one's lineage or one's fate, but now with the new religions' spin on things, one's next incarnation would be the direct outcome of one's actions in this life. This new pressure of having to live as a responsible individual must have seemed unbearable in a way that we, whose culture and thought patterns so exclusively and for so long have assumed (without having been free even to consider any alternative point of view) the reality and responsibility of the individual, can only now even dimly begin to fathom.

In the 4th century BC the Greeks or Macedonians led by Alexander the Great crossed the Indus and invaded India. They reached the Beas River, and there Alexander's troops became homesick and refused to go further; so the great leader was forced to withdraw from the subcontinent. It seems certain that Alexander’s retreat from the subcontinent was not due to military opposition. He left behind a governor of what was now considered his eastern province, and on his death in 327 BC, that governor became de facto emperor of the eastern realm of the empire. He was called Seleucis.

The area around eastern Afghanistan known as Bactria became the region later called Gandhara, and it gave birth to a school of Greco-Buddhist sculpture that was to have great influence in both East and West through its portrayal of physical beauty, heroism, religious sanctity and spiritual profundity and enlightenment.

Not much later, in the 3rd century BC, far to the East, in the region where the Buddha and Mahavira were born and lived, one dynasty, the Mauryas, gained political dominance. One reason for this was that the founder of the dynasty, Chandragupta, managed to transfer the loyalty of his warriors from their tribal leaders to himself, the emperor, and to enliven the ideal of an empire that would encompass the whole of India, ruled over by a benevolent “chakravartin,” a world-ruler, literally one who abides within the wheel, a wheel turner, an instrument of universal law and compassion, concerned above all for the welfare of his subjects.

But it was his grandson, Ashoka, known as “the Great,” who truly created and consolidated the empire. He brought centralized rule to a vast territory, virtually the whole of the subcontinent, creating a unified Indian empire that stretched from Afghanistan to the Bay of Bengal and from Kashmir to Cape Comorin, larger than the boundaries of India have ever been since.

One of his last conquests was the region of Kalinga, the modern state of Orissa. It was a bloody affair, a slaughter, particularly of non-combatants, on what was then an unprecedented scale. This set Ashoka back; he called it the great turning point in his life and claimed that it was directly responsible for his renunciation of violence and war, his adoption of the doctrine of ahimsa, doing no harm to any living thing, his becoming a vegetarian and his subsequent conversion to Buddhism. But there were political reasons for his adopting Buddhism too.

In any case, once the conversion was made, Ashoka became a zealous proselytizer of his newly adopted faith. He sent his daughter to Kashmir and his son to Ceylon as missionaries to preach the Buddhist message. They were both successful: both regions adopted Buddhism; but the son's contribution was the longer lasting. By the time the Muslims invaded Kashmir and virtually the entire population converted to Islam, Hinduism had pretty much reabsorbed Buddhism in the rest of India, but the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) remained, and still remains, Buddhist, the only place where this original, most fundamental and austere form of Buddhism still survives.

The Mauryan Empire was a truly magisterial creation and Ashoka was an amazing figure. He made his presence known and kept his spirit alive by erecting stone pillars throughout his vast empire. They were smooth, beautifully polished columns engraved with edifying sentiments, advice, homilies or warnings. Like those pillars, all the surviving artworks of the Mauryas were carved in hard stone and highly polished, giving them an uncanny contemporary look. The famous lion capital of the pillar at Sarnath near Varanasi has become one of the central symbols of the modern nation of India and appears on its currency notes.

Ashoka's success in forming a stable empire was made possible by getting the agricultural castes to accept as legitimate their inferior caste status and hence their inferior position within the society. This was a necessity, for empire depended for its existence on the government being able to siphon off the wealth of the villages, and the villagers had to be complicit in this: you may be able to rule by force, but there is a limit to the coercion you can impose on the peasants who are growing the food (that is, creating the wealth) that you depend on for your existence. Ashoka, unlike the Buddha and his followers, welded ethics and religion to a system of government. (And by the way, the wealth of the land — and the agricultural activity of the peasants — was the major source of wealth for every ruler of the subcontinent, Hindu, Muslim and English too.)

Indian statecraft is as ruthless as statecraft gets, and makes Machiavelli look rather soft. The idea was to render the villages helpless, reduce them to a state of mere subsistence; this was the key to Indian success in power politics, and in ancient (as well as modern) India power is all. But the king must have been a powerful figure in his own right, not just an agent with a title; the great rulers were also yogis, achieving mastery over others by achieving mastery over themselves.

Ashoka's successors were able to do this less and less successfully, and centralization was further strained by invasions of tribes from the west: Scythians, Huns, Sungas, Kushans. As the empire weakened, localism more markedly asserted itself, and the empire fragmented into more or less autonomous kingdoms as was to happen innumerable times throughout subsequent Indian history. Defeated kings were traditionally allowed to remain on their thrones but had to pay tribute to their conqueror and contribute troops to him when called upon to do so.

Now and then one of those kings assumed dominance over a number of neighboring kingdoms and formed for a while an empire resembling the Mauryan but none of these had the extent or the staying power, though the Kushan kingdom and its ruler Kanishka and the Sunga dynasty do stand out, primarily for the wonderful sculpture that was produced during the periods of their dominance.

In art, this was the time of the curious Gandharan sculptures, one of the most unlikely and least successful combinations (I cannot say syntheses) of artistic styles and aesthetic sensibilities in art history. The Gandhara figures try to be both Greek and Buddhist, but in fact they are neither: it's as if Gable were to have played Jesus. The poses and the draperies are dashing and heroic in the Hellenistic idiom; but the spirit wants to be quietistic and contemplative—a combination that simply doesn't work, so that the final result is faintly ridiculous.

It was a full 400 years after the Mauryas that another dynasty rose to such prominence and heights of power and influence that it could be considered a true Indian empire. This was the Guptas, who ruled from around 300 to 500 AD. And they were the last “real” Indian Empire (except for the Vijayanagar Empire, which held sway, but only in the south of India, from the mid-14th to the mid-16th centuries) until the Mughals more than 1000 years later. Still, whatever unity the Guptas managed to impose on the subcontinent, however great the extent of the territory they held sway over, and however “golden” their age was, it didn't compare in any of these respects to the Mauryas. The main thing was that their mode of rule was far more “feudal” than that of the Mauryas. They subjugated and then gained the loyalty of local rulers, reinstating them on their gaddis (thrones) and allowing them to rule pretty much as they pleased so long as they paid the requisite tribute and contributed men at arms when they were required by the emperor at Pataliputra, the capital of both the Mauryas and the Guptas, which is today nothing but a vast stretch of rubble on the bank of the Ganges on the outskirts of modern Patna, the capital of the state of Bihar.

The Guptas practiced Hinduism (in contrast to the Mauryas, Kushans and Sungas who were Buddhists) and their rule is noted today for the incredible art works, sculpture and buildings produced during their reigns; the delicate, gentle, classical sensibility, much warmer and more intimate than the imposing, magisterial works of the Mauryas. This perhaps reflects the greater autonomy of the localities under their rule as opposed to the vast, centralized empire of their predecessors, who had to project their identity and power over such great distances.

The Gupta period is a kind of renaissance in India; it is then that the great synthesis of religious beliefs that we today know as Hinduism largely took shape; it is when the Puranas, the collections of myths and rituals that superseded the Vedas, assumed something like its present form and when the practice of religion became pretty much what it is today. This is more a “people's” religion than that of the Vedas or the Buddhism of previous rulers. One of the main reasons for the Guptas' success in ruling India for so long (a lesson learned by their successors as well) is that they accepted the social and religious practices of the people and tribes they conquered and integrated them into the larger ocean of Sanskritic religious belief; this served both to valorize and certify their beliefs in terms of a larger whole. Ironically the brahmins too adapted to this catholicity and their heretofore narrow tradition ended up becoming the all-inclusive Hindu tradition. Prior to the Guptas, esoteric Vedic ritual and the yoga of ascetics, who remained only on the margins of society, were the only expressions of the ancient tradition in India, thereby ruling out peasants and tribals (that is, the vast majority of people), but with the collecting of the Puranas, two forms of popular devotion were wedded to these esoteric disciplines: 1) Bhakti, or devotion to a chosen deity and 2) karma-dharma yoga – devotion to the social, caste- and life-stage duties one is born to. In this way daily life was held in a creative tension and in balance with the teaching of ritual and renunciation. And this tension was also creative, fostering a life-loving, life-affirming religion, which both celebrated daily mundane life and also and at the same time was directed toward release from that existence.

Following the Guptas, the subcontinent once again fragmented into regional power bases. And this was to remain its condition until the Mughals unified it in the 16th century, over 1000 years later. Only the kingdom of Harsha Vardhana, which flourished in the 7th century and was centered on the city of Kanauj, stands out as being more unified than the others and controlling a good deal more territory than they did.

(Note on the Horse Sacrifice: This ritual was the most magnificent royal rite during the Indian middle ages; it was a means for a ruler to expand his power and assert his sovereignty over a region greater than his immediate kingdom. A beautiful stallion would be left free to roam wherever it chose for a full year. (To what extent its movements were in fact guided by the grooms and the military that followed its every step over the countryside is a matter of some dispute.) When the horse moved into another kingdom that ruler had either to acknowledge the supremacy of the king whose horse it was or fight. After a year, the horse was returned to the capital and there, at a huge ceremony on a ground painstakingly prepared, a sacrificial altar was constructed. Innumerable brahmin ritualists supervised the ceremonies and the entire court attended. The horse was sacrificed, smothered to death, so that the body would not be harmed. Then the queen of the realm lay down with the dead horse and simulated (or according to some accounts actually engaged in) sexual intercourse with it. Then the horse was dissected according to a very intricate set of instructions as to just where and how many and in what order the body had to be dismembered and what was to be done with the parts. It was this ceremony that established the king as world ruler, almost as a cosmic deity. Some have speculated that the horse sacrifice was a late royal ceremony, a substitution for the sacrifice of the king himself. It was in this way, when a king felt powerful enough to stage such a sacrifice, that kingdoms throughout the subcontinent continually shifted and rose and fell.

This 1000-year period, the so-called Indian Middle Ages, follows the Classical Age of the Gupta Empire and lasted until the Mughals consolidated their empire in the 16th century. There has been a Western prejudice against this period (and, let us remember that it was westerners who first discovered, or perhaps “invented” might be the more accurate word, and wrote India's secular – or profane – history, for history is a western discipline, a discipline that traditional societies have no use for) because the Indian Middle Ages embodied values that the West denigrates, values which do not seem to it to encourage or lead to progress; that is, progress marked by technological innovation, social and political changes in the direction of greater individual freedom of expression, a broadening of contacts with other cultures, a climate in which human as opposed to religious (read superstitious) values are predominant. The Indian Middle Ages was a time of political fragmentation, localism and the fostering of magical and ecstatic experimentation, all of which was unlikely to give rise to a Renaissance, the sort of atmosphere the West values.

In fact such a situation provided fertile ground for the Muslim invasions; medieval India was “easy pickings,” you might say. And the Rajputs (the warrior tribes of Rajasthan) especially, were encased in a self-satisfied, insular hierarchical social order; and so of course they couldn't resist Islam. The rulers tended to be remote from their subjects and so inspired no loyalty in them; and government was seen as an obstruction or a hassle, not as serving its subjects or in any sense helpful. It is still much the same today.

How “good” a historical period is judged to be depends entirely on who's writing its history. The values embodied in the 1000-year period of the Indian Middle Ages — the caste system with its hierarchical ranking of human beings according to religious values, and the organization of society that followed from that system remained unchallenged; there was no opening to democratic ideals or institutions or anything else that emphasized individualism or humanistic values. This the West considers human stagnanation and regressive.

It was an age of relatively self-contained societies, an age (like the early European Middle Ages) of looking inward. Localism was the theme, and although there was commerce and interchange of religious ideas, the center of gravity remained local, in large part because no dynasty was able to establish political control over a large swathe of the subcontinent; though this was not for want of ambition and trying. Looking inward, philosophical thought and myth-making had a fertile time as did artistic creativity in poetry, drama and literature, architecture and sculpture, all of which were pursued on local levels, often reaching great heights of beauty and genius. It was a time when the traditional sciences developed: ayurvedic medicine and astrology being two of the most significant. Perhaps even more important though, were the developments in the spiritual sciences and the techniques of ecstasy like yoga and meditation, ways of altering and heightening consciousness.

The names of these dynasties are known to us principally from the inscriptions on the monuments that are in many cases all the evidence that remains of their existence — Parmara, Bundela, Chandela, Pratihara, Satavahana, Chalukya, Rashtrakuta, Hoysala, Sena, Pala, Solanki, Pallava, Chola, Chera, Pandya, Rathore, Sisodia, Kachchawa, etc. Many of them created temples, caves, forts, palaces, and sculptures and paintings too that are masterpieces of world art.

The thing is that India is a palimpsest. And because there was no historical consciousness in traditional India, that is, not much interest in preserving the secular past for nothing about it seemed to be valuable for its own sake, successive dynasties, or even successive kings within the same dynasty, have covered up the past by dismantling buildings and using the stones for new constructions, or by simply abandoning the capital cities, forts and even temples of former rulers, leaving them to scavengers and the destructive forces of the jungle, and constructing new ones from scratch. In India, kingdoms have erased one another like waves obliterating footsteps in the sand, not so much, until the Muslim conquests anyway, by destroying them as by disinterest and sheer neglect.

The Muslim invasions, which paved the way for Islamic domination of the subcontinent, began in the 8th century with Arab incursions into the western province of Sind, now in Pakistan.

In the 11th century, Mahmud of Ghazni from Afghanistan invaded Gujarat, razed the renowned temple at Somnath and slaughtered thousands of the city's inhabitants. This was a defining moment and set the stage for antagonism between the members of these two religions, with a distrust and fear that has come down, largely unmitigated, to the present day.

For the Muslims, the Hindus were unregenerate pagans, heathens, and idolaters of the lowest sort. They worshipped idols and depicted their gods in animal forms and as nude humans or as half-woman-half-man or as partly human and partly animal. They let their women display themselves in public and expose their breasts. And they engaged in sacrifice, sometimes in human sacrifice.

For the Hindus, the Muslims were crude, beef-eating barbarians who couldn't comprehend the nature of a sophisticated hierarchical society; who were ignorant of what constituted pollution and purity and noble or sacred lineages; and who saw their God as so far removed from the world that instead of seeing his creation as sacred saw it and treated it as profane and as an object to be exploited and enjoyed.

In the 12th century, the last of the true Hindu kingdoms of the north, those of the Rajputs of Rajasthan, were conquered by Muslims, and the whole of north India, while not yet unified, was under the control of various Muslim rulers and dynasties.

A powerful sultanate was established in Delhi and it ruled large parts of North India from the 13th to the 16th centuries.

In South India in the 14th century the last truly independent Hindu kingdom was established on the Deccan Plateau, that of Vijayanagar, taking its name from its capital, the “City of Victory.” It was finally overthrown by an alliance of various Muslim kingdoms led by the newly established Mughals, and its amazing capital, now known as Hampi, was razed to the ground in a great battle in 1565 (the Battle of Talikot). It was at that time, according to Portuguese travelers who saw it in the final days of its glory, one of the largest and finest cities in the world; and the vast site of its remains certainly bears that out. From 1565, India would not be a Hindu-dominated nation for the next 400 years, not until it gained independence from British rule in 1947.

The greatest of the Mughal rulers, in fact the second greatest of all Indian rulers, after Ashoka, was Akbar. He established the greatest empire in India since the Mauryas. He was ruthless, illiterate, brilliant, and spiritual and philosophical too. His fine imperial administrative structure has lasted to the present day. Because of him, central administration became a taken for granted and necessary aspect of life. But probably the greatest result of Muslim rule in India is the architecture that resulted from the encounter and fusion of Hindu and Islamic styles. The Muslims gave India a romantic sensibility and exquisitely, magnificently and sumptuously beautiful art forms. Islam beautified India. The Muslims brought the arch, dome and minaret, but they relied on indigenous craftsman to carry out the building work. This resulted in a fusion of the Islamic architecture of structure with the Hindu architecture of mass.

In the 16th century, European imperialist powers began to exert strong influence in India, leading to British domination and ultimately rulership. They came by sea to the west coast, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, followed by the French and British. It was the first who lasted the longest: they maintained their colony of Goa and two small enclaves farther up the coast (in Daman and Diu—today part of the state of Gujarat) until 1961.

It should be emphasized that whatever attracted the European powers to invade, occupy and rule parts of India—its exotic spices and textiles for instance—they gained wealth from the subcontinent in very same way that rulers (both indigenous and foreign) had always, at least from the period of the Mauryas and perhaps even during the Indus Valley period, gained their riches in India (and this goes even for today's governments): they taxed the produce of the peasants, the production of the land, whether in cash or in kind as a proportion of their crops. From the Mauryas to the British (a period of 2200 years) rulers enriched themselves and their empires handsomely by taxing the peasant into a condition of subsistence—and things are not much different today over large parts of the country.

The Mughal Empire rose in the 16th century, and its period of glory lasted until the beginning of the 18th. Their architectural creations, the Taj Mahal most famous among them, are known throughout the world—their amazing synthesis of Indian and Islamic styles, the lightness, the delicacy, the harmony, the symmetry, all pervaded by an earthiness that saves them from inconsequence, suffusing them with the weight of profundity and wisdom.

Like the Guptas, the Mughals conquered and then reinstalled on their thrones the very Hindu monarchs they had defeated, but now in positions of subservience to the Imperial power. But they never unified the whole subcontinent, though not for want of trying: the deep south always eluded their grasp. Still, they controlled a vast area, from Afghanistan to Bengal and from Kashmir to well south of the Vindhyas.

In the mid-17th century in the south, several Hindu dynasties rose and became nemeses of the Mughals, chief among them the Maharattas, led by their great ruler and guerilla warrior, Shivaji, who harried not only the Mughals but the British too, also vying for dominance in the south.

But eventually English power rose and gained control over virtually the whole subcontinent; it was they who eventually forged the greatest empire since the Mauryas. At first their interest was entirely commercial, and the British East India Company ruled large parts of the country—imagine a company ruling a nation, though it was assisted by the British military it is true: taxes paid by the Company enriched the Crown.

The British found it far easier to conquer India than to understand it even though at first the English displayed a certain amount of openness and sociability (perhaps too much, as many were seduced by India and went “native” having huge estates and harems, adopting Indian dress and all the other trappings of (decadent?) Indian royalty), but later they retrenched, became stiff and haughty, brought English women to India and cocooned themselves in an inappropriate “English” lifestyle in the subtropics, out of touch with the “real” world that surrounded them.

Although over the years their knowledge of the country increased (the modern science of philology originated in Varanasi when William Jones learned Sanskrit and “discovered” the great ancient Sanskrit grammarians), but their understanding and tolerance didn’t. The administrators were seen by the locals to be competent, fair and just and relatively incorruptible. Still, the British prospered in India by a divide and rule policy, which was by the end of their tenure to have utterly tragic consequences.

The British adopted a universalist approached, identifying humanity’s common needs and working to satisfy them. But this was nothing but disguised ethnocentrism and colonial domination of a peasant society by a European imperialist nation. And indeed the Indian vision of reality is as far from universalist as one can get: intuitive, experiential, resistant to abstract generalization, able to live comfortably among a horde of particularities n a state of constant flux.

By the 19th century, the Company's rapacious policies did alienate large parts of the population and there were widespread, though local, revolts. But in 1857, one of those revolts became a revolution or a war of independence (though the British continue to refer to it merely as a mutiny (the Sepoy Mutiny, “sepoy” being the local term for members of the British-run and -controlled Indian Army)). It was for a time a close-run thing, but the British managed to reestablish their control. The Crown and Parliament back in London realized finally that a corrupt and rapacious commercial enterprise could not be entrusted with the fate of a nation and so India was declared a Dominion of the British Empire and Queen Victoria was crowned Empress.

Still, India had tasted revolt and yearned for independence, and inadvertently the British aided them in this. Thinking that it would cement their rule and the loyalty of their subjects, they selected certain men, the cream of Indian society, and trained them in British knowledge, customs and manners. Several attended universities in England, Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru among them, but this only exposed these people to and persuaded them of the justice of European ideals of the dignity of the individual and the right of nations to determine their own destinies; and also of the correctness of fighting for a just cause and the need for revolt against their colonial masters. These Indians were exposed not only to ideas that aggrandized the West and especially the British, but to revolutionary and anarchistic ideas of revolt, freedom and liberation; and they were exposed to other ideas too, those of the important circle of intellectual occultists who were prominent at the time: Annie Besant chief among them and also Nicholas Roerich. These were people who had themselves been influenced by Indian spiritual ideas and they, being influential and important in English intellectual circles, valorized Indian culture and civilization in the eyes of the Indians themselves. And gave them great self-respect. This was in part because no matter how desirous the British were of seducing the Indians with the superiority of their culture, it was in fact pervaded by racial prejudice and condescension toward those with darker skins, and while the Indians soon mastered Western culture, the English, with few exceptions, didn't realize the greatness of Indian civilization: its artistic genius, its proto-scientific achievements and the subtlety of its philosophical thought. Nor did the British realize that Indian culture (both Hindu and Muslim) was deeply spiritual in a way that Western cultures haven't been since the Middle Ages; this was responsible in large degree for the power of Gandhi, and the British couldn't grasp this.

But it was the racism of the British and their pervasive disdain for Indians and things Indian that rankled, and the actions resulting from that disdain revolutionized the population, especially the brutal massacre at Jallianawalabagh in Amritsar in the Punjab in 1919 when General Dyer had his troops open fire on a peaceful gathering in a small walled park from which there was only one narrow exit. It was a premeditated slaughter of the innocent, and what truly disgusted India and people everywhere who knew what had happened was that both in India and on his return to London, Dyer was hailed in official circles, by both Crown and government, as a gallant hero. Only much later, after a great hue and cry and a serious report by a commission that had investigated the “incident,” was he relieved of his command and reprimanded.

In South Africa, Mohandas Gandhi, later to become world famous as Mahatma (Great Soul) Gandhi, developed his theory of Satyagraha (literally, “firm grasp of truth”) or non-violent non-cooperation as a tool to gain political influence and later in India as an instrument of revolution. The famous Salt March of 1930 (when Gandhi and his followers marched to the sea, collected sea water and boiled it to make salt, thereby violating a British-imposed salt tax) and the extreme violence of the British reaction (delivering merciless beatings to wave after wave of non-violent, non-resisting satyagrahis, who had done nothing more than to scoop up small bowls of sea water), highlighted their moral bankruptcy and was a landmark in India's struggle for independence.

Ironically, just a year later, in 1931, New Delhi was inaugurated as the capital of British India. This vast, purpose-built capital is a grandiose construction, unmistakably designed to emphasize the majesty of British imperial domination of the subcontinent and not least, its permanence. But they occupied this massive, weighty, citadel, crudely symbolic of every aspect of imperialism, empire and foreign domination, for a mere 16 years before turning it over to their former dark-skinned subjects.

By virtue of its scale alone, it is an impressive collection of buildings. But much of the architecture is heavy and imitative, without any inspiration of originality. One cannot help but compare the India Gate, a triumphal arch, which is one of the foci of the capital's plan, with the Arc de Triomphe in Paris or Hadrian's Arch in Rome and it comes off badly in both cases—a massive statement of victory and power but a leaden one, without grace or charm. The capital’s symmetrical layout is there, but it is formulaic and obligatory. The combination of English and Indian styles is not nearly so successful as in other Raj constructions. Its most noteworthy and attractive feature is its use of buff and dark red sandstone to create a pleasing contrast, which at the same time works harmoniously and creates a sense of continuity with the past, for red sandstone was used in most of Delhi's great monuments.

It is perhaps noteworthy that in many other cases vast, grandiose projects have been undertaken by rulers as a way of glorifying themselves and their empires, apparently setting the seal of permanence, if not eternity, on their rule. But as often as not they signal just the opposite—the imminent fall of the empire or the ruler. I think of the Shah of Iran's grand function at the newly refurbished ruins of Persepolis to set the seal of eternity on the Pahlavi dynasty, though just a few months later Ayatollah Khomeini stepped off a plane at Teheran airport and the Shah and his family had to flee the country. Perhaps there is some sort of historical unconscious compensatory function at work in these cases. Or perhaps the gods simply punish hubristic rulers.

Finally, in 1947, after dividing India into two, actually into three, states (for having invested so much energy in turning the Hindus and Muslims against each other, as part of their strategy to “divide and rule” India, the British were finally unable to control the hateful monster of inter-communal aggression they had created) and getting the two new nations to agree to accept independence (which was no problem, for each country had an ambitious leader impatiently waiting in the wings—Nehru and Jinnah—hungry for power and only too anxious to settle for national dismemberment in order to get their hands on it) the British got out quickly, leaving the newly created countries to sort out the mess that would follow in the wake of what would be the largest and bloodiest human migration in history. The newly created minority in each newly created country fled from the rage of the newly created majorities who had been educated to hate them, and who, now with independence, felt free to act out that hatred in the most brutal, savage manner.

Jawaharlal Nehru, an aristocratic Kashmiri brahmin whose father, Motilal Nehru, was a well-known lawyer and pioneer freedom fighter, became the first Prime Minister of independent India. Like Gandhi, who declined political office (and resisted Partition right to the end), Nehru too was educated as a lawyer in London. He was much more westernized than Gandhi, suave, erudite, charming, handsome, and something of a ladies’ man too. But also like Gandhi, he had, oddly enough for he was not of them and never pretended to be, an incredible touch with the masses.

And like Gandhi, he too had been exposed in England to the most progressive political ideas and personalities of the day. He was a committed socialist and believed that the state had a responsibility for the material welfare of its population. He was impressed with the Soviet Union, but also with the United States. He wanted India to become such an economic giant, a self-sufficient agricultural, industrial and technological powerhouse — the USA of Asia — but he wanted also to combine that with pervasive social welfare policies that would lead to the eradication of poverty.

Unlike Gandhi though, Nehru was entirely secular, had no interest in religion at all, and considered that it was that that had for centuries kept India mired in material poverty and regressive, superstitious backwardness.

Anxious to rule, he compromised quickly and agreed to the Partition of India, which is still the source of so many of India's and the region's problems. Gandhi refused, until it was already a fait accompli, to go along with the idea and in order to avoid it was even ready and willing to accept an entirely Muslim government in Delhi to rule over the whole subcontinent. It was partly for this reason that fundamentalist Hindus did not trust him; and it was one of them who assassinated him.

But under Nehru's rule India developed impressively and quickly, though poverty was by no means eradicated nor was much of a transformation made in the nation's religious ideas and practices, philosophical underpinnings or social structure, or in its unsustainable rate of population growth. Still, the material changes were impressive and effective: railways, roads, industry, communications and employment expanded dramatically.

The 1962 war with China undid Nehru: he realized that he had completely misjudged the Chinese and worse, that he had misjudged (overestimated) his own nation's military capability, which was severely wanting. The Chinese, it is said, could easily have marched to Delhi. In the event, they occupied territory that had been disputed and invaded land they had never claimed as theirs but which they also occupied and shortly thereafter withdrew from, as if to teach the Indians a lesson.

Nehru died in 1964. The gaddi was occupied for a short time by a compromise leader, a loyal party man who would temporize until the Congress Party could come up with a new face who could command widespread support from the by now bitterly at-odds-with-each-other factions within the party and from the nation at large. Indira Gandhi, Nehru's (not Gandhi's) daughter, turned out to be that person. (She had the name Gandhi because she had married a Parsi (not a Hindu) business man whose name was Feroze Gandhi. Gandhi is not an uncommon name in Gujarat, the state that both the Mahatma and Feroze came from. He died young, but not before she had two sons by him, and she never remarried, remaining true to the traditional and controversial injunction against Hindu widows remarrying. There is little doubt that she continued in her widowed state in order to pursue her fierce political ambitions (for the electorate would never accept a remarried widow as their leader) rather than out of personal conviction or any attachment to tradition.)

Under Indira, the country continued to progress and modernize; but she refused to abandon the social welfare policies of her father or the alliance with the Soviet Union. There was a certain tension with the US, which was loosely allied, where the affairs of the subcontinent were concerned, with China and Pakistan. The regular occurrence of military dictatorships in the latter always appealed to the States, somehow made it feel comfortable in having Pakistan for an ally; and this was especially true during the Nixon-Kissinger years. There was also a certain distrust of India: still this divide and estrangement between East and West, between pagans and monotheists, between idolaters and “people of the Book.”

Two events brought Indira down. Politically, it was the imposition of emergency rule throughout the country: using the rationalization of a breakdown of law and order in the country, she suspended human and constitutional rights, all the standard actions dictatorial regimes take everywhere — arrests without warrants, indefinite detentions without filing charges, censorship of the press and speech, abrogation of the right to demonstrate. And, to make matters worse, she was widely perceived to have done this for mainly self-serving political reasons: to silence the criticism of her opponents both within and outside her party and to stop the organization of forces to contest against her.

Her younger son, Sanjay, who by this time had risen to political prominence, used the enhanced powers Emergency rule had bestowed upon the government and took advantage of his opponents' inability to voice their criticisms or organize any effective opposition to his policies, to embark on radical social changes in accordance with his vision for a new and enhanced India. Slum clearance in the cities and compulsory sterilization were the two most controversial of his initiatives and had the most far reaching repercussions. It didn't help that both programs were executed with gross insensitivity, in many cases amounting to sheer brutality. Celibate Hindu monks were sterilized, for example, and people's homes were destroyed as they were literally sleeping in their beds.

Indira and her government were voted out of office in a popular uprising of unprecedented proportions, and a motley coalition of parties, which shared no commonality except for opposition to Indira's Congress Party (now actually called Congress (I) to distinguish it from other factions, which were being created almost daily, as the Congress first fragmented and then fragmented ever further), swept into power. It was composed of Hindu fundamentalists and former Congress Party socialists, Marxists and capitalists, regional groupings and internationalists, and in a very short time it betrayed the hopes and expectations of everyone who had supported it.

Indira, seemingly having been forever disgraced, was swept back into power, partly as a result of a wave of sympathy for her due to Sanjay's death in the crash of a small private airplane that he himself was piloting on an afternoon joy ride.

The second event that brought her down did so in a more visceral way: she was assassinated, killed by one of her Sikh bodyguards in revenge for her having ordered the storming by troops of Sikhism's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar (which was also the site of the massacre at Jallianawallabagh 65 years earlier).

On another wave of sympathy, Indira's eldest son Rajiv was chosen as leader of the Congress Party and assumed the Prime Ministership. A man neither suited to politics (he had been a pilot for the national domestic airline) nor desiring to be at all involved in it, circumstances forced his hand, namely his brother's death and his mother's growing isolation. Ironically, this diffident fellow with little understanding of the country or of politics, extremely westernized and married to a socially awkward Italian woman of modest background, set in motion the most profound transformation of the country since the Muslim invasions. He modernized, westernized and opened up India to outside investment and influence on an unprecedented scale. As a result of these policies, which are still the major determinants of social, political and economic policies today, India is being revolutionized. A westernized middle class has arisen that is growing in numbers and is everyday becoming more and more the major influence on the country's mores and ethos and its political, social and economic policies. This might be okay elsewhere, where such a middle class reflects the nation as a whole or at least in large part, but here in India, the middle class constitutes 25% of the population at most. And it doesn't reflect or embody the needs, aspirations or “spirit” of the nation at large. Rather than representing or encapsulating the spirit or will of the nation, this class has rather eclipsed it, and usurped government, and to a great extent the media too, for themselves.

Although Rajiv too was assassinated (this time by a woman suicide bomber belonging to the Tamil Tigers, a group of freedom fighters who have been waging a long struggle for an independent state within Sri Lanka where the Tamil minority (imported, by the way, from South India by the British to work their tea plantations) had been systematically discriminated against by the Sinhala-dominated government and which India had been aiding (even at one time to the point of sending in troops, which were forced to withdraw in ignominy); and it was in revenge for this Indian aid that Rajiv was assassinated), the policies he had inaugurated remain in place and in ironic fact were strengthened by the so-called Hindu fundamentalist government that governed India until 2004; this because, unlike the Congress Party, the Bharatiya Janata (Hindu People's) Party and its allies have no tradition of socialism and social welfare either to pay lip service to or materially support.

But then out of frustration with the religious divide the Hindu fundamentalist BJP created, and with the continued, even increased, economic deprivation of the poor, a coalition led by the Congress and supported by the Left, came to power. Oddly enough, that coalition is led by Rajiv Gandhi's widow, a middle class Italian woman; though adroitly understanding what a furor would be caused if she herself became Prime Minister, she appointed a Sikh technocrat. And to pile irony upon irony, the President of India is a Muslim rocket scientist — so here is a country of more than a billion people, more than 80% of them Hindu, being ruled by an Italian woman, a Harvard-educated Sikh technocrat and a Muslim scientist.

The outcome of this struggle between the emerging westernized middle class and its imperatives for the nation, and the poor, the vast mass of Indians who are for the most part still engaged in traditional occupations in a traditional economy and society and with a traditional outlook on life, is still to be played out. And the drama is becoming more intense with modern development and the marginalization of the poor both increasing exponentially.

And in the foreign arena the situation is also complex and fraught, what with the US's projection of itself everywhere throughout the Islamic world (India's neighbor Pakistan being one of the most critical of all spots in this) and India's own problems with its neighbor over Kashmir, and the fact that both countries now possess nuclear powers.

Copyright © Martin Noval 2006