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Book Review: ‘India as Known to the Ancient World’ by Gauranganath Banerjee

Honey Raj

This monumental piece of work is a great service to the study of phenomenal linkages of India with the rest of the world like Western Asia, Egypt, Greece and Rome, Central Asia, China, Indonesia, Java, Sumatra, Bali, and Borneo.

Book name: ‘India as Known to the Ancient World’

Author: Gauranganath Banerjee

Published in: Calcutta

Publisher: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press

Year: 1921

India: The Land of Philosophy, Wealth and Moksha

India’s colorful heritage, rich culture, and traditions are the manifestation of its engagement with the world. India boasts a melting pot of culture, traditions, and customs which has been accumulated over the centuries. The important aspect of this engagement is through trade and commerce. When a country engages itself with the other country for the transfer of goods and services it also transcends its rich culture and traditions along with it and vice-versa.

‘India as Known to the Ancient World’ by Gauranganath Banerjee is a monumental piece of work and a great service to the study of phenomenal linkages of India with the rest of the world like Western Asia, Egypt, Greece and Rome, Central Asia, China, Indonesia, Java, Sumatra, Bali, and Borneo. Understanding these linkages in the ancient civilization is particularly important as India has been periodically overrun by both European and Asiatic but the transmission of culture continued without a break. Civilization is the outcome of shared actions and reactions which is demonstrated in India’s engagement with the rest of the world. The incorporation of culture comes through the instinctive adoption of customs and modes of thought. The book delves into ancient times to introspect the complexities’ associated with varied nations in carrying out trade. It also examines how various countries exploited and plundered the rich wealth of India and thus in turn carried the precious culture along with them.

The little yet comprehensive book offers an inquiry into the marvelous civilization which arose in ancient India thousands of years ago and influenced the customs and traditions of other countries. The small eleven chapters together compile a great book to investigate our ancient past and the propagation of trade and commerce along with cultural expansion. The book runs along the central theme of intricacies associated with the trade and its expansion and the convergence of cultures of various countries with India.

At the very first instance, Banerjee describes that the trade was carried by land and through the means of caravans. But the transfer of goods by these means was mostly confined to the adjoining countries but not across the sea. He opines: “Dark and serrated mountain ranges, glowing with heat and devoid of life, alternates with stretches of burning sand, sunken reefs, and coral rocks near the shore, marauding bands of Bedouins infesting the caravan-routes, trade jealousy and ‘preferential tariffs’ of the myrmidons of custom houses prevented rather threw obstacles in the way of this conducting commerce”. The discovery of rivers, the arms of the seas along with the technique of “navigation and shipbuilding” helped in the accomplishment of the desired result. From the account of many historians, it is to be believed that the first voyages of the Egyptians and Phoenicians were made in the Mediterranean and the Red sea. If the ancient Indian scriptures are to be believed, people from various nations brought numerous gifts to the great Rajasuya of Yudhishthira in Mahabharat. But the Phoenician taught the world the art of shipbuilding.

From the Chinese vault, it is quite evident that the trade between India and Babylon sprang around 700 B.C. Indian elephants, cedar, peacock, rice, sandalwoods were known to Greeks and others in the original Indian names. Rice, for instance, was known as oryza which is identical to the Tamil name arisi or rice. Indian traders later settled in Arabia who were referred to as ‘Crowds of strangers lived in Babylon’. Babylon was the greatest commercial depot of the world adorned with temples, palaces, and gardens, glittering under the blue sky. This region had no dearth of wealth and the traders across the world made it their second home.

In the early days of the Roman Empire, India was known as the great commercial centre for the merchants of Italy and Egypt as it was much an earlier period for all Asiatic races from Phoenicians in the west to China in the east. The natural and industrial resources, glittering gold, and diamonds, spices drew everyone’s attention and thus contributed to the creation of the greatest empires around the world. The Egyptians were mostly fond of India’s Silk, diamond and other precious stone, spices, ginger, and ivory were equally lucrative.

Indians are indebted to Herodotus for his account of cotton, bamboos, gold digging ants as large as foxes, and many wonderful myths about India. Indians became familiar with the Greek alphabet at the time of the greatest grammarian Panini around 4 B.C. Megasthenes visited India during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya. He also wrote a book Indica where he described India as a marvelous country, its splendid mountains, and its smiling well-watered plain and proud race of men who breathe the pure air. The Greek expressions found their way into Sanskrit. The greatest Indian rulers were applauded for their splendid efforts. For Instance, the relations of Ashoka with the West in the field of religion and politics are stated in XIIIth inscription where he is mentioned as ‘pious’ king as he won the hearts of Greek Princes.

Buddhism found their places in the Greek literature, but it was narrated as a life of Christian saint. The Pali literature has been picked up in the Gospels of the Apostles. It is quite evident that Buddhism did exercise some influence on the development of Christian worshiping and ceremonies. Northern India, the great seminary of religious and philosophic thought, gradually made its influence felt in central Asia and by Buddhist propaganda optimized the lives and opinions of the Nomads. The influence of India first made its appearance felt in Khotan where the son Ashoka made it as his empire. Many Buddhist shrines and monasteries are still found in this region.

T’ien- du or T’ien- chu is the name by which India was known to the Chinese but the more ancient name which they knew was Shin-du, which is an Indian river name, Sindhu. The introduction of Buddhism from India acted as a catalyst for the moral development of China during the Han Dynasty. The Hindu civilization and the Brahmanical traditions are the most important aspect in deciphering the relationship between India and further India. The Dravidian influence is visible in the temple buildings of Indo-China. The names of Indonesian cities were derived from Sanskrit, which shows the evidence of Indo-Chinese Brahmanism.

As Gauranganath Banerjee describes how the temples of Brahma became the Buddhist Viharas, the statues changed their attitudes and lowered their eyes with gentle smiles. Brahmanism decayed and the ruins of the temple remained. Although Buddhism tried to overpower Brahmanism, Vishnu, Shiva, and Ganesha were honored as heroes. Their bronze and stone decorated images were kept in proximity with Buddha, for instance in the temple of Vat Bot Phram at Bangkok.

From the time the immemorial Indian Ocean has remained of prime importance to India for its commercial objectives. India and the Indian Ocean are the two inseparable parts which are quite evident from their names. India never followed the interventionist policy but always aspired for the expansion of trade with other countries by land or sea. Indian priests came to Indonesia and won reputation and importance there. Since the advent of Buddhism, Hinduism falls in this transition period. Java also a very small island, recorded the highest immigration of Hindus as well as Buddhists. The religion of Hinduism spread to the neighboring Islands such as Sumatra, South Borneo, etc.

Overall, this a magisterial piece of work by Gauranganath Banerjee devoted to understanding ancient India’s glorious civilization and how the world saw it from different perspectives. From trade and commerce to Hinduism and Buddhism to the endorsement of Sanskrit, the book aptly describes the dominance of Indian culture across the world. It is truly comprehensive, intensively researched, balanced, insightful, and backed by credible historical facts.

The author is a research scholar in Central University of Jharkhand and an intern at Academics4nation.



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