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Lessons From The Golden Age

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This mammoth volume is part of a mammoth series on India's pre-modern history. Abraham Eraly's third book in the series, The First Spring, is on the golden age. Eraly compiles copious quantities of information into 57 chapters. These chapters are segregated into 12 parts — overview, political history, polity, economy, society, family, everyday life, sciences, philosophy, literature, arts and religion. It is not a history of kings and dynasties, but of ordinary people, and it draws extensively on sources from the oft-neglected south India and those that are non-Sanskrit.

Eraly's is a stupendous effort. However, there are two problems. First, it is not written in an academic style. Presumably, the intention was to address a non-academic and popular audience. The style, information and bulk being what it is, that is unlikely to be an achievable objective. There has been extensive reading, reflected in "incidental data" and bibliography appended at the end. But the text is not adequately footnoted and referenced. Consequently, chasing a specific reference or proposition is going to be tough. The book makes for heavy reading, and it is one few readers are likely to attempt at one go. It is more like a big volume one will occasionally dip into. Second, all this information is simply packed in. With the exception of the overview part and its two chapters and schematic division into parts, one misses a conceptual-cum-analytical structure. It is compilation, more than research.

The overview chapter is an exception. Why was there a golden age in India, ending with the Gupta period? Why did dark ages set in thereafter? Some propositions are known, others not that obvious, and that's the Eraly value addition.
First, Buddhist (and Jain) ethics emphasised equity and access and human enterprise. "Fatalism" had not set in. Second, agriculture went through a transformation. There was monetisation, capital formation and trade, with increase in literacy. Third, guilds provided skills and their standardisation, and testing and certification of goods and services. They also regulated prices and working conditions of labourers. Fourth, kings had contractual obligations, not a divine right to rule. More importantly, s/he possessed executive duties of ensuring domestic and external security, with almost no legislative powers and limited dispute resolution powers. "One of the most laudable aspects of the political developments of the classical age was the robust growth of village self-government in many parts of India." To use today's jargon, we had better governance and decentralisation, with optimal provision of public goods and services. Fifth, there was urbanisation, not a retreat into a rural Arcadia. Sixth, cross-fertilisation led to innovation and experimentation. Seventh, rigidities of caste had not set in. Individually and in isolation, each of these propositions is plausible and known. Taken together, they represent a coherent story of why civilisations rise (and fall). The reversal into dark ages is explained by a reversal of each of these trends. Though not an Eraly estimate, there are rear-casts that between 500 BC and 500 AD, India had a per capita income of about $150. That made it one of the richest regions of the world.

This shows both the positive and the negative sides of the Eraly volume. One cannot complain that the stuff is not there. But it is there in fragmented fashion and is not teased out into a great story. The volume also ends abruptly, without a concluding chapter. Perhaps, the author deliberately attempted to be descriptive, not prescriptive and normative. Perhaps, there was a conscious attempt to avoid value judgements.

However, this is not a convincing explanation. Value judgements inherently exist, such as in the seven propositions I have listed. This is a great pity. Nine years of laborious research have produced a richly documented volume and the writing could have been better. In that sense, the author hasn't done justice to his own work. That said, this is a book one ought to dip into. It is a treasure-trove of information.

Author's Details:
Abraham Eraly has taught Indian history in colleges in India and the US, and was the editor of a current affairs magazine for several years. His works include two critically acclaimed books on India: The Last Spring: The Lives And Times Of The Great Mughals and Gem In The Lotus: The Seeding Of Indian Civilization.

Debroy teaches at Delhi's Centre For Policy Research

Click to read an excerpt from The First Spring

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 17-10-2011)