India: A History by John Keay
And that's not all the historian has to contend with. Because of its location and large area (which historically was fragmented into countless smaller territories), India was always vulnerable to both internal squabbles among rival dynasties and invasions from outsiders, whether from Central Asia, the Middle East, or Europe. And invaded it was, over and over again throughout the centuries, and ruthlessly exploited for its abundant human and natural resources. Consequently, the story line of India's past has more twists and turns than the average daytime soap opera; keeping all the characters straight, and making sense of their motives and alliances, is a tricky business.
By and large, Keay does a most impressive job of clearing these hurdles. In spite of the scanty available remnants of India's "elusive" (to use his word) ancient past, and the recurring bedlam caused by successive waves of invaders, Keay paints for the average reader an intelligible and vivid portrait of his subject that reads more like a sweeping novel than a standard history with its dry recitation of names, places, battles, and dates. Especially effective in this regard are his many short biographies of India's past and present movers and shakersfrom saintly personalities like Gandhi to notorious sinners like the tenth-century conqueror Mahmud, of whom Keay writes that if the "Hindu pantheon included a Satan, he would undoubtably be that gentleman's avatar"along with pertinent quotes from these luminaries, their apologists or accusers, Buddhist
pilgrims and curious foreign travelers, and other professional historians, both past and present. There's also Keay's sly witsurely atypical of a mainstream historywhich crops up with pleasing regularity. Take, for example, his playful description of a nearly forgotten king, whose "chinless" and long-nosed visage, wearing a "sun helmet indistinguishable from the British solar topi," is inscribed on a 2,000-year-old silver coin. He "must surely have had knobbly knees," speculates Keay, tongue lodged firmly in his cheek, "and worn knee-length white socks."
If this book stumbles at all from the standpoint of our imaginary yoga students, it's because Keay hasn't much to say about India's spiritual heritage and its relationship to Indian culture at large. There are a couple of very promising sections early on. One examines how the
ritual demands of the Vedic sacrifice stimulated the study of astronomy, geometry, anatomy, and phonetics. Another scrutinizes the life of the Buddha, his tumultuous social and intellectual milieu, and the effect of his itinerant experiences on the imagery of the Middle Way,
the Wheel of Dharma, and the Three Refuges. Then too, there are periodic references to the spread of the bhakti movement, which Keay labels as the "most distinctive and endearing characteristic of what we now call Hinduism."
But, disappointingly, Hinduism itself gets short shrift, except for a brief discussion of its primitive form (known as Brahmanism), and you will search the index in vain for a reference to yoga. Even worse, there are times when Keay misses the boat entirely. For example, he comments that the holiest of Hindu holy books, the Rig Veda, contains some hymns of "dazzling lyricism," but says nothing of their transcendent message. He also sorely misinterprets the Tantric movement, which first emerged in the fourth or fifth century A.D., and the enormous repercussions it had throughout Indian culture.