Incarnations: A History of India in Fifty Lives

Incarnations: A History of India in Fifty Lives

by Sunil Khilnani


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An entertaining and provocative account of India’s past, written by one of the country’s leading thinkers

For all India’s myths, its sea of stories and moral epics, Indian history remains a curiously unpeopled place. In Incarnations, Sunil Khilnani fills that space, bringing to life fifty extraordinary men and women who changed both India and the world. Journeying across India in pursuit of their stories—visiting slum temples, ayurvedic call centers, Bollywood studios, textile mills, and Mughal fortresses—Khilnani offers trenchant portraits of emperors, warriors, philosophers, artists, iconoclasts, and entrepreneurs. Some of these historical figures are famous. Some are unjustly forgotten. And all, Khilnani convinces us, are deeply relevant today. As their rich and surprising lives take the reader through twenty-five hundred winding years of Indian and world history, Khilnani brings wit, feeling, historical rigor, and uncommon insight to dilemmas that extend from ancient times to our own.

We encounter the Buddha not as the usual beatific icon but as a radical young social critic. We meet the ancient Sanskrit linguist who inspires computer programmers today. We hear the medieval poets, ribald and profound, who mocked rituals and caste and whose voices resonate in contemporary poetry. And we see giants of the twentieth-century Independence movement—among them Mohandas Gandhi; Ambedkar, the Untouchable lawyer turned constitution maker; and the legendary singer M. S. Subbulakshmi—not as cardboard cutouts but as complex and striving human beings. At once a provocative and sophisticated reinterpretation of India’s history and an incisive commentary on its present-day conflicts and struggles, Incarnations is an authoritative, sweeping, and often moving account of a nation coming into its own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374537210
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 09/19/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 520,004
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Sunil Khilnani is the author of the acclaimed and influential The Idea of India (FSG, 1998). Formerly the Starr Foundation Professor and Director of the South Asia Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., he is currently the Avantha Professor and Director of the India Institute at King's College London. He is married to the writer Katherine Boo.

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A History Of India In Fifty Lives

By Sunil Khilnani

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Sunil Khilnani
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71542-7



Waking India Up

Fifth century BCE

The sun has slipped behind the tarpaulin roofs of a Mumbai slum. Day laborers are streaming home from ten-hour shifts working on construction sites or tending the gardens of nearby private schools. In this particular web of slum lanes, many workers are Dalit, the untouchables of old — a status so low they were not even part of the caste order. Most months, their financial situation boils down to what people around here call "earn and eat." But for two years, some of these families set aside what little they could for bricks and mortar, and now they have a deep-blue room, five meters a side, that stands distinct from all the other hand-built homes in the slum.

A temple devoted to the Buddha — many slums in urban India have one. This particular place of worship is tucked behind a scrap shop. In the West, the Buddha is often seen as an extinguisher of his own personality, the original Impersonal Man. Indeed, after attaining his enlightenment, it is said that he referred to himself as tathagata, "gone." In modern India, though, his legacy has helped hundreds of millions of low-caste citizens become newly present, allowing them to emerge from the Hindu caste system's iron cage. He is far more surprising, it turns out, than the conventional image — or the one of a placid sage sitting in the lotus position, half smiling — lets on. Although many aspects of the Buddha's life remain elusive, he is perhaps the first individual personality we can recognize in the subcontinent's history.

Fifteen-year-old Vijay watched his father lay bricks for the little blue temple. "Buddha had no caste, so I have no caste," he says. "It's better this way." His older brother Siddhartha chimes in: "Buddha was for equality."

Siddhartha is one of a dozen boys in the slum who were named after the Buddha, a man born Siddhartha Gautama near the foothills of Nepal's southern border with India, probably in the fifth century BCE. In his lifetime, the Buddha created a spiritual philosophy that has rightly been called one of the turning points in the history of civilization. Less known, but perhaps equally important, were his rational challenges to reigning beliefs about caste and religious authority. Some scholars see him as a social subversive, some as a wry critic of self-important merchants, priests, and kings. To others, he was primarily a philosophical, and even political, experimentalist, one who explored new ways of organizing and conducting human life.

The religion that began with his experiments eventually spread throughout Asia, from the western edges of Afghanistan to Japan, gradually becoming what it is now: the fourth largest in the world. But in India it flourished for a millennium, and then all but disappeared, for reasons that are still mysterious. Only in the mid-twentieth century, as British colonial rule gave way to an independent India, was the Indian Buddha revived in the place of his birth, dusted off and reclaimed for his political utility as much as for his ethics. To several of the fathers of the modern nation, the Buddha provided a rational faith that could be weaponized against the hierarchies that still warp Indian society. Today, the Buddha continues to inspire people such as Siddhartha and Vijay in their struggles to assert their own individualities.

* * *

Evidence for civilization on the Indian subcontinent dates back to at least 2500 BCE, when city settlements began to develop in the Indus Valley, in today's Pakistan. From these sites, archaeologists have excavated many objects, but the script of this civilization remains unintelligible to us — if it is a script at all. The composition of the earliest Vedas, the oldest sources of Hindu thought, seems to have begun roughly a millennium later. Beyond these hymns to the gods, though, we have no physical evidence of this world; and neither from the Indus Valley sites nor in the Vedas can we feel the pulse of any historical individuals. It's only a thousand or more years after the Vedas were composed, with the arrival of the Buddha, that real personalities appear to us on the stage of Indian history.

Even before it began to be written down, the story of the Buddha was given permanence in painting and sculpture. In the oldest of the caves at Ajanta, in western India, are probably the earliest-surviving representations of the Buddha's life: vivid frescoes, some of which date back to the first century BCE. "There, in front of you, are the oldest Indian faces in existence," the writer and historian William Dalrymple says. "They inhabited a world incredibly different from ours. Yet you can look into the eyes of these people, of individuals, and their emotions are immediately recognizable."

Although scholars still debate the Buddha's exact dates, with an elastic range for his death that stretches from roughly 500 to 400 BCE, it's clear he lived in an era of remarkable invention worldwide. Within the space of a couple of centuries, Confucius articulated his social philosophy in China, written versions of the Old Testament crystallized in Palestine, and Socrates conducted the dialogues that would lay many of the foundations of Western philosophy. On the Gangetic Plains of northern India, iron tools, writing, and coinage were producing and circulating new wealth. Trade contacts with Persia and western Asia were creating cosmopolitan cities, bustling with commerce and competing ideas about how to live a good life. Many of the forms of Hinduism familiar to Indians today, as well as many conflicting worldviews, also took shape in this period.

The Buddha's life played out in the midst of this flux. He grew up within sight of the high mountains of Nepal, on the northern edges of the Magadha region. Social life was largely regulated by the rituals contained in the Vedas. These practices, and the sacred verses describing them, were in turn fiercely controlled by the priestly castes that constituted the highest varna, or estate, of men, the Brahmins.

But across Magadha, communities were beginning to reject both Brahminic power and Vedic rituals, such as animal sacrifice. Some of these communities were chiefdoms dominated by men from the warrior and trading varnas. The Buddha himself was a member of the second-highest varna, the Kshatriyas, made up of warrior castes. He was "a product of his own time," the Harvard scholar Charles Hallisey says, but he was also "an innovator, someone who creates something new in the world — and this tension is right at the centre of everything we think about who the Buddha was historically."

There are almost as many versions of how the Buddha developed his radical moral vision as there are Buddhist traditions around the world today. Perhaps the most well known, depicted on the walls of the Ajanta caves, is an inward drama: the story of one man's religious, psychological, and ethical experimentation. After a cosseted upbringing, Siddhartha Gautama was deeply shaken by his first encounters with human suffering. (Let's set aside how sheltered he must have been, to have grown up not encountering suffering.) Undone by his belated exposure to worldly pain, he resolved to escape it. Renouncing his wealthy family, he took up the life of a wandering ascetic. "My body became extremely lean," he later said. "When I thought I would touch the skin of my stomach, I actually took hold of my spine."

Over the course of six years, Siddhartha explored a number of the spiritual practices and philosophies swirling around northern India, but his attempts to find a release from suffering proved fruitless. Then, after abandoning these efforts, he was jolted, Proust-like, by a childhood memory of how, as his father worked nearby, Siddhartha sat under the shade of a rose apple tree in a state of pure joy, "without sensual desires, without evil ideas." How could he recover that state? Days passed in mental struggle, and then one spring night, while sitting under a bodhi tree, he achieved it. And in that state, he believed he had grasped the causes of suffering, and its cure. He had now awakened, emerging from our worldly life of attachments, desires, and pain as if from an interminable dream.

* * *

Around five hundred kilometers south of Ajanta, in the rice paddy and cotton fields of northern Karnataka, is another major Buddhist site, Kanaganahalli, where the remains of a large domed reliquary shrine, or stupa, dating from roughly the first century BCE, were uncovered just twenty years ago. In the centuries after the Buddha's life, many ordinary, nonliterate Indians would have learned of him through Jatakas, popular morality tales about his imagined previous lives, which were often depicted on sculptural friezes that decorated stupas such as the one at Kanaganahalli. There is something particularly captivating about these sculptures, perhaps because the soft gray limestone gave the carvers a freer hand to imbue the friezes with a sense of liveliness and humor. But we also see the Buddha represented here just by symbols: an empty seat that expresses the extinction of his self, the bodhi tree where he reached enlightenment, and the cakka, or cakra, the great wheel, which has come to represent his teaching.

After waking into his new state of consciousness, the Buddha decided to share his liberating insights. He began to advocate a path he called the middle way, which avoided both asceticism and worldly indulgence. His teachings became the dhamma, which roughly means "law"; it was a set of principles to be followed, but also a teaching about the principle, or essence, of suffering and experience. The term was originally a Brahmin one, the Sanskrit dharma, which prescribed a different law for each caste — laws that encompassed every dimension of life, from marriage to work to meals. The Buddha took this established term and bent it to his own purpose; his dhamma was a single ethical vision embracing all living beings. "Identify oneself with all," he taught — that is, regard every creature in the universe with compassion.

The Buddha's solution to suffering lay in the individual mind. Yet he was also sketching a new form of society. His relative egalitarianism is clear even from the language he used to teach his followers. Brahmins fiercely protected the Sanskrit in which the Vedas were expressed, and the lower orders were forbidden from learning this "language of the gods." Instead of Sanskrit, the Buddha used the local dialect of the people. He also dispensed with the idea of a deity, and with a priestly caste meant to direct social life according to scripture. As his following grew, he founded an order of monks, the sangha, which adopted broadly collectivist principles, taking important decisions through discussion in council and sharing much of what little property they were permitted to have. Low-caste members were allowed the same religious education that was open to other followers, another practice barred within Brahminic society. After some resistance — it seems the Buddha was not entirely immune from patriarchal attitudes — he allowed women to be admitted to the order as nuns. He also rejected doctrines of predestination, by which birth supposedly determined people's roles in society. He was a moral meritocrat, and to an extent a social one, too.

* * *

Following the Buddha's death, his teachings spread first by word of mouth and then by imperial enthusiasm. In the third century BCE, India's greatest empire-builder, Ashoka (5), embraced the Buddha's teachings and accelerated their transmission throughout India, inscribing on pillars and rock faces across the subcontinent messages inspired by them. Judging from the archaeological evidence alone, India for much of the next thousand years seems to have been at least as much Buddhist as it was Hindu.

By the seventh century CE, things had visibly changed. Xuanzang, a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim visiting the way stations of the Buddha's life in northern India, found a dwindling community of monks and roughly a thousand monasteries "deserted and in ruins. They are filled with wild shrubs, and solitary to the last degree." How did this come to pass? In short, we don't know. As Xuanzang traveled, he recorded stories of attacks on Buddhist holy sites, including the toppling of the original bodhi tree where the Buddha had found enlightenment. Later Tibetan and other Buddhist chronicles also mention Hindu hostilities against the faith. What's clearer, historically, is that Buddhism eventually came under assault from Muslim marauders — for instance, in the devastating twelfth-century sack of Nalanda, a great center of Buddhist learning, which forever destroyed a major storehouse of human knowledge.

But it's possible that Hinduism also adapted over the centuries in ways that allowed it to win back followers. Around the start of the Common Era, there were efforts to formalize the great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and legal treatises such as the Manusmriti, or the Laws of Manu. Some scholars see in these works attempts to incorporate Buddhist ideas in order to neutralize and rebut Buddhism — effecting a kind of Brahminic counterreformation. After all, Hinduism has never been a fixed doctrine moored to a single sacred text: it remained multiple and in some respects labile, a fact that allowed it to absorb criticism and challenges.

* * *

Once, in Japan, I traveled to the ancient capital of Nara to see its Buddhist temples and shrines. Built of massive timber beams, they've been protected, even burnished, by the wrap of Japanese civilization. So I was startled to come across images and statues bearing names I knew: Indian names for some of the Buddha's many incarnations. Discovering them in shrines used continuously for around twelve centuries, I was moved anew by the difficulty of the Buddha's course through the history of the land where he was born. The Sanskrit roots of the word Buddha mean "someone who has woken up." In India, Buddhism seemed to sleep for centuries. It was only the anguished choice of one of modern India's founding figures that summoned the Buddha back to life.

On October 14, 1956, Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (41), the leader of a political movement to gain rights and dignity for the country's Dalits, stood on a stage in the city of Nagpur and formally converted to Buddhism. Before him, in the crowd, were some four hundred thousand or more of his followers. Though Ambedkar had been an architect of the new Indian Constitution, he doubted that lower-caste citizens would be able to thrive in what remained, despite his active struggle, a caste-dominated polity. After taking his own oaths, he turned to administer a set of conversion vows to the individuals in the massive crowd:

I renounce the Hindu religion which has obstructed the evolution of my former humanity and considered humans unequal and inferior ... I regard all human beings as equals ... From this time forward I vow that I will behave according to the Buddha's teachings.

Ambedkar was chiseling his own Buddha: near enough a social revolutionary, or an ancient Indian Rousseau. Like other founders of modern India, he was recycling historical figures who could be endowed with new life in order to solve the problems of Indian society — a little like the scrap shop workers just behind the Mumbai slum temple, sifting through their bags for something of continuing value.



Soldier of Nonviolence

Fifth century BCE

Mohandas Gandhi (38), the Mahatma, was fond of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. One blind man, grabbing the elephant's tail, said that an elephant was like a rope. Another, holding its trunk, countered that it was like a snake. A third, touching one of its legs, protested that it was really like a tree. Those touching its ears or sides made still other claims. All were "right from their respective points of view," Gandhi wrote in the mid-1920s, "and wrong from the point of view of one another, and right and wrong from the point of view of the man who knew the elephant."

For Gandhi, the parable illustrated "the doctrine of the many-sidedness of reality." "It is this doctrine that has taught me to judge a Mussalman from his own standpoint and a Christian from his," he continued. "I used to resent the ignorance of my opponents. Today I can love them because I am gifted with the eye to see myself as others see me and vice versa ... My anekantavada is the result of the twin doctrine of Satya and Ahimsa."

Anekantavada, satya, and ahimsa: "manysidedness," "truth," and "nonviolence." These principles were particularly urgent for Gandhi in the 1920s, as relations between Hindus and Muslims slid into rioting and bloodshed. Though Gandhi would give these virtues his own characteristic twist, they were rooted deep in Indian thought, in a critique of Vedic Hinduism that coalesced in the Gangetic river basin some twenty-five hundred years ago. That critique eventually became Jainism, one of the four great religions born in India (along with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism). The man who systematized the Jain worldview, in the fifth century BCE, is known by the honorific Mahavira, which means "the great hero." Ahimsa, rigorous attachment to the truth, and the doctrine of anekantavada were central to Mahavira's teaching, and he would later be canonized by Gandhi (along with the Buddha and Tolstoy) as a "soldier" of nonviolence.


Excerpted from Incarnations by Sunil Khilnani. Copyright © 2016 Sunil Khilnani. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents

Fifty Lives: Birthplaces Map x

Introduction 3

1 The Buddha: Waking India Up 9

2 Mahavira: Soldier of Nonviolence 16

3 Panini: Catching the Ocean in a Cow's Hoofprint 23

4 Kautilya: The Ring of Power 30

5 Ashoka: Power as Persuasion 37

6 Charaka: On Not Violating Good Judgment 45

7 Aryabhata: The Boat of Intellect 52

8 Adi Shankara: A God Without Qualities 57

9 Rajaraja Chola: Cosmos, Temple, and Territory 65

10 Basava: A Voice in the Air 72

11 Amir Khusrau: The Parrot of India 79

12 Kabir: "Hey, You!" 87

13 Guru Nanak: The Discipline of Deeds 95

14 Krishnadevaraya: "Kingship Is Strange" 103

15 Mirabai: I Go the Other Way 110

16 Akbar: The World and the Bridge 116

17 Malik Ambar: The Dark-Fated One 124

18 Dara Shikoh: The Meeting Place of the Two Oceans 130

19 Shivaji: Dreaming Big 138

20 Nainsukh: Owner Transfixed by Goose 145

21 William Jones: Enlightenment Mughal 150

22 Rammohun Roy: "Humanity in General" 158

23 Lakshmi Bai, Rani of Jhansi: Bad-ass Queen 165

24 Jyotirao Phule: The Open Well 172

25 Deen Dayal: Courtier with a Camera 180

26 Birsa Munda: "Have You Been to Chalkad?" 187

27 Jamsetji Tata: Making India 194

28 Vivekananda: Bring All Together 203

29 Annie Besant: An Indian Tom-tom 211

30 Chidambaram Pillai: Swadeshi Steam 219

31 Srinivasa Ramanujan: The Elbow of Genius 228

32 Tagore: Unlocking Cages 236

33 Visvesvaraya: Extracting Moonbeams from Cucumbers 245

34 Periyar: Sniper of Sacred Cows 254

35 Iqbal: Death for Falcons 263

36 Amrita Sher-Gil: This Is Me 272

37 Subhas Chandra Bose: A Touch of the Abnormal 280

38 Gandhi: "In the Palm of Our Hands" 289

39 Jinnah: The Chess Player 299

40 Manto: The Unsentimentalist 309

41 Ambedkar: Building Palaces on Dung Heaps 316

42 Raj Kapoor: The Politics of Love 326

43 Sheikh Abdullah: Chains of Gold 334

44 V. K. Krishna Menon: Somber Porcupine 342

45 Subbulakshmi: Opening Rosebuds 350

46 Indira Gandhi: The Center of Everything 358

47 Satyajit Ray: India Without Elephants 367

48 Charan Singh: A Common Cause 375

49 M. F. Husain: "Hindustan Is Free" 383

50 Dhirubhai Ambani: Fins 392

Notes 401

Acknowledgments 427

Index 431

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