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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Global India circa 100 CE

Richard H. Davis. Global India circa 100 CE: South Asia in Early
World History. Key Issues in Asian Studies Series. Ann Arbor:
Association for Asian Studies, 2009. Maps, illustrations. 90 pp.
$10.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-924304-59-0.

Reviewed by Devika Rangachari Published on H-Asia (July, 2011)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha

A Perspective on Globalization
Through his "booklet," Global India circa 100 CE, Richard H. Davis
seeks to challenge one of the most persistent stereotypes about South
Asian civilizations, and India in particular: that they have been
static throughout the centuries unlike the dynamic West. Stressing
that depictions of India as a world apart are historically
misleading, the text situates India in a larger world context and
examines some of the ways in which the subcontinent was engaged with
other parts of the world in this one period in its history. Using a
variety of sources ranging from literary texts and archaeological
evidence, to art history and numismatics, Davis argues that India was
a complex civilization, at the time involved in varied types of
exchanges of ideas, goods, and people with the surrounding world.
Adopting Nayan Chanda's identification of the four primary agents of
globalizing developments, Davis focuses on traders, missionaries,
warriors, and adventurers, and examines the processes of interaction
and exchange between India and the rest of the world through them.
The text, therefore, is divided into individual chapters exploring
these four types of globalizing agents, followed by a concluding
summary of the responses of Indian "localists."

In his discussion on traders, Davis addresses the manner in which
they linked the Indian subcontinent into a "world system" of commerce
ranging from Rome to China, with India as a pivotal node on both land
and sea routes (p. 61). Focusing, for instance, on the significant
trade links between south India and Rome in the early centuries CE,
he points out that this was only one stage in a larger network of
long-distance sea-based trade routes that traversed India in
classical times. The international sea trade system in which India
was a crucial player brought together the portion of western Europe
that was under Roman control, the Mediterranean basin, Egypt and the
Red Sea, the southern coast of Asia, coastal southeast Asia, and
south China. The resulting cultural exchange had profound effects on
the subcontinent.

While discussing missionaries, the next set of global agents, Davis
focuses on Buddhism, its missionary agenda, and its pan-Asian reach
with its universalizing message that took on new forms as it
integrated itself with new cultural settings and interacted with
other religious faiths. In this regard, the text provides a
fascinating account of early Buddhist translators in China, like An
Shih-kao who contributed immensely in turning Buddhism into a Chinese
religion. These processes of encounter, comparison, and dialogue
between Indian Buddhist ideas and practices and those in China would
lead to innovations and developments both within Buddhism and beyond
it, and to varied intellectual and cultural contacts between India
and China in the early centuries CE. Davis notes that the entry of
Buddhism into China was a step in the global mission that was set in
motion by the Buddha and pursued by Buddhist missionaries and another
way in which Indians were engaged in the "cultural world system" of
this time. He confesses, however, that the complex and often
conflict-ridden relations between the Buddhists in China and the
Confucian and Taoist establishments over time, a "fascinating topic
in the history of religions," is beyond the scope of this booklet (p.

In the section on warriors, Davis focuses on the Kushanas who began
as nomads migrating from western China and established a large empire
that integrated northern India with parts of Central Asia. The
Kushanas were able to unite varied ethnic and cultural groups,
exercise control over overland trade routes across Asia, and
facilitate the spread of Buddhism in Asia. The very fact that a
warrior tribe could establish an empire that played such a pivotal
role in the global reach of India in the first two centuries CE is
indicative of the fluid social and political geography of the time.
Analyzing varied aspects of the political, social, and religious
ideology of the Kushanas, Davis also compares Kanishka, the famous
Kushana ruler, with Ashoka, the Mauryan ruler, in their attitude
toward Buddhism, and notes that the attempt to portray the former as
a "second Ashoka" is only partly viable (p. 40). While there is no
evidence that Kanishka shared Ashoka's fervent personal commitment to
Buddhism, he did, however, emulate Ashoka's model of patronizing
Buddhist institutions as part of a cosmopolitan imperial strategy of

The Kushanas also helped to promote the trade routes that we know as
the Silk Road, which, according to Davis, offers an "excellent
illustration" of exchanges between India and the world (p. 40).
During the first two centuries CE, the Silk Road emerged as a major
route for traders linking important centers of civilization,
facilitated by the diplomatic policies of warrior rulers and
extending a new mobility to missionaries of several religious
communities. It enabled a significant exchange of goods and cultural
products between the East and the West until maritime trade routes
supplanted overland caravan trade around the eleventh century. In the
first two centuries CE, the majority of trade moved through Kushana
lands into India and then across the Indian Ocean to the Egyptian
ports along the Red Sea.

In his last section that deals with adventurers as globalizing
agents, Davis notes that while the early centuries CE witnessed
intercontinental trading networks, pan-Asian religious missions, and
the establishment of new kingdoms in India by warrior groups from
outside the subcontinent, it was also a period of steady expansion of
the Arya culture. Thus, the epic Ramayana, for instance, can be seen
as an allegorical narrative of global engagement that reflected the
expansionary "civilising mission" of a north Indian cultural and
political order as it spread historically beyond its center in the
Gangetic plain (p. 45). It offers insight into the issues of cultural
contact and social incorporation faced at the time by those who
called themselves Arya and those outside their social order.

Davis observes that the element of "otherness" in this story can be
seen in Rama's interactions with three categories of beings outside
his homeland: the brahmana ascetics of the Dandaka forest, the
demons/rakshasas with their organized sociopolitical system
headquartered at Lanka, and the monkeys of Kishkindha (p. 49). Here,
one can discern a connection between a fictional narrative and a real
historical pattern. In the early centuries CE, several brahmanas did
venture out beyond the areas of sedentary agriculture and settled
kingdoms into relatively wild territory to establish centers for
Vedic instruction. In a similar vein, the rakshasas and monkeys of
the epic have been identified as certain historical ethnic/religious
groups. Thus, as Davis points out, these two groups are not just
objects of fantasy but also creatures in whose societies Rama
intervenes. The epic, therefore, provides a fictional window for
speculating on actual historical encounters as the Arya culture

The localist response, examined in the last section of Davis's
booklet, is, as he notes, a conservative one. While globalizing
movements introduced not just trade commodities but also new people,
ideas, and social linkages into Indian society, some localists
perhaps perceived the social changes that threatened the status quo
as dangers, even more so than the other perils of travel that are
usually allegorized in story literature. Davis points out that many
texts of this period view the Aryavarta as "a privileged zone of
sacrificial purity," distinct from the outside world inhabited by
others. As contact with outsiders may lead to impurity, the brahmanas
are advised to adopt a policy of "passive avoidance" (p. 60). The
alternative is seen as a hideous free fall into a state of anarchy
consequent upon a decline in social cohesion.

At this juncture, Davis makes an interesting comparison between the
insular view of dharma propounded by the Dharmashastra authors, who
advocate a similar policy of exclusion toward "atheists" (which
includes the Buddhists and Jainas), and the more "outward-oriented
perspective" of Valmiki's Ramayana where the author argues for a
concept of dharma that is universal (p. 60). This concept of a far-
reaching dharma guides Rama's actions and ultimately leads to the
incorporation of the "others" into Rama's dominion.

Global India circa 100 CE is eminently readable and bristles with
poems, interesting anecdotes, quotes from varied texts, maps, and
photographs. There are some minor errors. For example, "new forms as
it was integrated itself in new cultural settings" (p. 61). Other
editorial glitches include a misspelling of the word "Caspian" on map
3.2, which depicts the trade routes between the Mediterranean and
China during the Kushana period (p. 43). Davis makes some unwitting
errors as well such as his erroneous assumption that the historian
Aloka Parasher is male (p. 46). Another oversight is in his
alternately identifying Vibhishana of the Ramayana as Ravana's
brother and brother-in-law in the same paragraph (p. 51).

Global India circa 100 CE ends with the observation that the
processes of interaction and exchange that took place in this one
period in Indian history between India and other parts of the world
have continued and taken new forms and directions. Briefly surveying
India's global interactions between the first two centuries CE and
the establishment of the European colonial world system, Davis
rightly concludes that at no time in the history of South Asia would
Henry Kissinger's ill-judged phrase "a world apart" ever apply (pp.
1, 62).

The text, therefore, despite minor glitches, provides an invaluable
introduction to a key period in South Asian history. Its succinct yet
crucial glimpses of certain aspects of early world history and
comparative religions renders it useful to readers from a wide range
of disciplines. As noted earlier, its narrative style is extremely
accessible and thereby brings a great deal of lucidity to a fairly
complex subject matter.
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