Book Review: Gem in the Lotus

“This book by Abraham Eraly”: starts from pre-historic times (when India was attached to Africa) to the end of the Mauryan Empire till the reign of the Asoka (made famous by a really bad movie by Santosh Sivan). In the process Eraly covers the Indus Valley Civilization, the Vedic Culture, the rise of philosophical thought in the Upanishads, and then the rise of Jainism, Buddhism, finally resulting in Appendix A.
Eraly has taken lot of effort to give us a real feeling of life of normal people during various periods of time. So you have an idea of the food and housing of people during Vedic Times to how things were for a Buddhist Monk living in the Sangha.
This book is an easy reading. Each chapter is divided into small sections each covering a concept. For example, one of the sections talks about about various practices in the society. It seems in the Vedic period people slept with whomever they liked. Even women had this freedom. During the marriage ceremony, the priest would ask the woman to name her lovers or atleast indicate the number. Once she confessed it was no longer a sin.

Eraly believes in the Aryan Invasion Theory has a very graphical account of the events.
bq. As raiders stormed into the city, people fled in terror, but many were cut down in the streets. Some were butchered as they huddled in their homes. A lone man was done to death in a lane. A group of nine, five of them children—probably a family of ivory workers, for they had with them two elephant tusks—hid in a shallow pit, but were slaughtered.
According to Eraly, the Vedas were composed by the Aryans after they invaded India. But he concedes that there is no mention of this invasion in any of the Vedas. The explanation for this is very grand—they forgot about their wanderings in Iran and Central Asia, which is kind of equivalent to, `Dog ate my homework’
Eraly analyzes the Vedas based on the translations by Wendy Doniger of “RISA Leela”: fame and says that they are “obscure, childish and vulgar”. Then he quotes another unbiased historian Romila Thapar, on the puranas.
bq. their objective was not record the past accurately, but as Thapar points out, to write about the past to serve “the goals and purposes of the Hindu tradition”. They are propaganda material.
Also we see more instances of selective quotes to make sweeping generalizations. For example he makes a statement that mantras in the vedic times did not make any sense. And for that he quotes one mantra from Maitrayani Samhita which reads like this “Nidhayo va nidhayo va om va om va om ee ai om svarnajotih” and then says MacDonnell says this is untranslatable. So all mantras are meaningless.
The third chapter titled “The Age of Ferment” is about the growth of philosophic thought in India following the Vedic Period. But then once the Vedas are analyzed and the Upanishads come into picture, Eraly shows tremendous admiration for the philosophy. He says “For that age, the Upanishads were indeed an extraordinarily sophisticated intellectual feat, and some of their mystical insights are in strange consonance with the findings of modern science”.
The best part of the book is when he covers the time of Buddha (The Gem in The Lotus), Mahavira and the Ajvikas. This is followed by the establishment of the Mauryan Empire and the book has detailed descriptions of the life of Chandra Gupta Maurya and Asoka. The final chapters are on the “Clockwork State” established by Chanakya. This chapter quotes a lot from Arthashastra, and the final chapter is a selection of observations on India from the Greek sources.
Though I may disagree with some of his observations, writing this book is a great achievement. There is not much archeological support for the events of this period. Most of the information comes from literary and puranic sources. This means, the person writing this book has to read a whole lot of books and recreate it in a very readable way. Eraly has done that in a very beautiful way.
If you want to get started in ancient Indian history, this is a great book to begin with. But read more books and you will find that there are authors who disagree with Eraly’s observations.
“Ratheesh”: (Apr 21st) also has a review of this book.

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