India: An Introduction

In which the Author Explores his rather fuzzy motivations

Let me tell you a story. ashokanpillar

In Allahabad stands a pillar. It is crowned by a carven lion, slouched with barely-concealed fury and great elegance, glowering at those who approach. The lion is carved in a style distinctly reminiscent of the great Persian capital of Persepolis, and there are elements of Greek sculpture in its musculature and of Indian art in its stylized mane.

indian_relief_from_amaravati_guntur-_preserved_in_guimet_museum

Ashoka as a Chakravartin

This pillar was commissioned by a man who spanned an empire stretching from Afghanistan to the furthest south of the subcontinent, a man yet humble enough not to call himself (as later Indian rulers would) of rajadhiraja (King of Kings) or even chakravartin. This man in his carvings calls himself nothing more than the raja of Magadha. This man was the Mauryan emperor Ashoka.

A little below that are the engravings of another man, one to whom the appellations of rajadhiraja, paramarajadhiraja, and even rajarajadhiraja (King of King of Kings, or Emperor of Emperors) are plentifully applied. This man rampaged across the Gangetic Plains and most of the rest of India, drawing a galaxy of lesser rulers into orbit around him. He was the great-grandfather of one of the few commanders in human history that was able to defeat the might of the Huns (those barbarians who had humbled even the Romans); from his capital at Pataliputra on the Ganga, his campaigns had “scented the breezes of the Southern Sea”; he was an “Indian Napoleon”. This man was the Gupta emperor Samudra-Gupta.

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Jahangir on a Lion Hunt

On top of Ashoka’s are the engravings of yet another man, a patron of Sanskrit and the arts responsible for one of the most beautiful cultural blooms in the history of the subcontinent, a man whose son built the most glorious of Indian monuments, whose father had humbled the mighty Rajputs and inaugurated the most prosperous Indian polity since the time of our first pillar-engraver. This man was the Mughal emperor Jahangir.

I’ve mentioned this pillar for three reasons. To me, India is a country with history, culture, and interesting stories literally just around the corner wherever I go, a country where our history and heritage lies slumbering behind the smoke and noise of our thriving cities. Few other countries have a history as illustrious, a culture so refined; yet in our drab and pedantic textbooks there is no hint of this vibrance, and we rush to dismiss our own roots as too obscure for enjoyment. I want this series of articles to go towards dispelling that notion at least a little.

Now, my reasons. Firstly, note that the Indian idea of an emperor is not like the European conception of an absolute ruler, but is instead defined in opposition to other kings, Direct administration is not the goal of an Indian sovereign: how much more prestigious to have lesser kings accept your suzerainty! The emperor turns the Wheel of Law, as the chakravartin, and is the centre of the raja-mandala, with lesser rulers paying tribute to him. His righteousness and force of arms run his empire, not his shrewd managing of the economy and efficient administration.

Secondly, the pillar is a fascinating example of three rulers, the scions of the three greatest of Indian dynasties, who could not understand the words of those who came before, who came from vastly different backgrounds, and yet appropriated the majesty of their predecessors to leave their own mark in time.

Thirdly, it makes for a rather good story. 😛

My next article will start out my study of India with the imperial Mauryas: stay tuned!

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