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India: A History by John Keay

A new history of India provides a decidedly down-to-earth counterpoint to our idealized image of yoga's birthplace.

By Richard Rosen

Atlantic Monthly Press

Suppose you were given the task of compiling an extensive reading list for a course on the history and philosophy of yoga. What books would you include? Naturally you would want those texts that anchor the entire yoga tradition, like the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali's Yoga Sutra. You would also want to recognize the work of important contemporaries who helped disseminate yoga's message in the twentieth century (and now into the twenty-first), including sages like Sri Aurobindo, Ramana Maharshi, and Swami Vivekananda, and scholars like John Woodroffe, Mircea Eliade, and Georg Feuerstein.

But ask yourself another question: Would you also add to this bibliography a secular history of India? You might reply that, after all, yoga has been in the West for more than 100 years and, for better or worse, we're in the process of converting it into something uniquely our own. It might be worthwhile to know something about the social forces at play in our corner of the world in the early twentieth century that prepared the ground for the transplanting of yoga. But, you might argue, it would scarcely benefit our imaginary yoga students to know about, say, the administration of the Mauryan empire (ca. 326-200 B.C.), or the economic policies of the British raj.

Remember, however, that yoga evolved and flourished within an alien (to us) setting over a period of more than 5,000 years. The yoga we are accustomed to in the West is really only a distant relative of its Indian forebear, although it remains a vital link to a long-ago time and a faraway place whose way of seeing the world differed greatly from our own. Can we really claim to understand yoga in its fullest sense without understanding something about its broader historical and cultural context?

This line of questioning is occasioned by the recent publication of India: A History (Atlantic Monthly Press). Written by John Keay, a British historian and South Asia expert, it certainly merits consideration for our list. The narrative begins in the Indus River Valley (in what is now Pakistan) in 3,000 B.C., with a survey of the earliest traces of Indian civilization, the extensive ruins of which were first excavated in the 1920s. Then, for the next 500-odd pages, Keay guides us along a circuitous route into the modern era, ending dramatically with the foreboding detonation of India's first nuclear weapon.

Tackling the history of most any country is surely a challenge, but a country like India is particularly problematic. Firstly, events from at least the first half of India's five millennia are poorly documented.

Keay happily notes that the "situation has improved considerably over the last half-century"; still, all the historian has to draw on to fill in the blanks in the early historical record are some "grudging materials," as Keay says—"some enigmatic archeology, long mostly religious texts of uncertain antiquity, snippets of surviving tradition, the patchy accounts of European and Chinese visitors, coins, and a few mostly stone-engraved inscriptions."

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