The Wonder That Was India
© 1959 Arthur Llewellyn Basham
For the past few weeks I’ve been enjoying The Wonder That Was India, a Will Durant-like survey of Indian history and culture prior to the Mughal invasion. Its opening section covers political history, from the first hints of settled human life through several empires and many periods of fragmentation. In sections that follow, Basham focuses on society, daily life, economics, art, literature, religion, philosophy, and metaphysics. Evolution is a recurring theme; the flowering of languages and religions being the most obvious examples of institutions’ varied growth through time. He notes, for instance, that the intermix of Buddhism and Zoroastrianism produced strains of Buddhist thought that looked for a future Buddha, one who would be greater even than Siddhartha Gautama. Basham writes in earnest admiration of Indian civilization, which managed get by without having institutionalized mass slavery – unlike the Roman empire, for instance. The author’s pen has a warm elegance that made the sheer amount of information easy to contemplate, and his commentary shed a good bit of light on various subjects for me. For instance, he commented that one reason histories are generally so sketchy about India before Ashoka is that there’s little written surviving history to work with. His own sources for the period were limited; one history applied only to Kashmir, and another was more religious than historical.