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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

Keay's book still merits inclusion on our hypothetical reading list, if only to enable our imaginary students to have some perspective on the historical-cultural background of Indian spirituality. Yoga students in the West tend to think of India as the quintessential holy land—swarming with ash-covered sadhus and sacred cows, thick with thousand-year-old temples, watered by rivers that stream out of Heaven itself—so much so that we tend to exaggerate this aspect of the place. In Keay's chronicle a decidedly more down-to-earth Indian identity slowly materializes; it serves as an important counterpoint to our idealized image.

What we would like most of all for our students is an insightful treatise on the centuries-long relationship between the sublime expressions of the Indian soul (yoga among them) and its country's history. It's pretty evident that this subject isn't a particular interest of Keay's, at least not in this book.

Despite this failing, his work is still an engrossing, entertaining, and intellectually edifying experience. It's also a visual delight, with stunning photos of ruins, shrines, palaces, sculptures, and paintings, along with some 40-odd maps and half as many charts and tables. The history that addresses us as yoga students remains to be written, it seems, but in the meantime India: A History is well worth our attention.

Contributing editor Richard Rosen is deputy director of the Yoga Research and Education Center in Sebastopol, California, and teaches public yoga classes in Berkeley and Oakland, California.

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