Abhinav Agarwal
Book Review: The Indian Renaissance
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The Indian Renaissance: India’s Rise after a Thousand Years of Decline, by Sanjeev Sanyal


In short: If a country is indeed seen as rising after a thousand years of decline, and if you put so in the title of your book, it stands to reason you are expected to devote some amount of reasoning and logic to that line. This book does not. Why the decline happened is only fleetingly touched upon, without much conviction.

The book’s stronger sections are towards the latter part, especially when talking about the country’s broken education system and its archaic and dysfunctional justice system. The book’s heart is in the right place, but it needed more meat on its bones, and a more vigorous heart, so to say, to elevate it from the ranks of the me-too to a must-recommend.

Long review:

India was the most technologically advanced the richest, the oldest, and certainly the most culturally advanced civilization from the beginning of recorded history till about a thousand years ago. It remained the world’s richest nation till the eighteenth century. Why India went into a state of decline a thousand years ago, why it continued to decline, and why it should see a renaissance now, starting with 1991, is a conundrum. Of course there have been explanations.

Those of a more socialist leaning argue against anything worthwhile in Indian civilization to begin with, it was a civilization bound to stagnate (as per D.D. Kosambi, eminent historian), and that anything worthwhile in India can be found to have originated only in the last thousand years. On the other hand, those who have made a more honest study of India and its civilization point out to its immense contributions in almost every sphere, including science, language, mathematics, urban planning, and more (see Michel Danino’s “India’s Culture and India’s Future“).

Sanyal points out that the Indus Valley Civilization (more correctly the Indus Valley Saraswati Civilization, but not pertinent to the discussion in the book) was the largest, earliest, and most advanced example of urban town planning the world has known, with a level of standardization that would not be seen even five thousand years later. Indians were adept at trading, and the world’s oldest tidal dock can be found at Lothal (my post).

Indians were trading with Sumerians and “India accounted for 33 per cent of the world economy in 1 A.D. However, “(B)etween AD 1000 and 1820, India’s share of world GDP fell from 29 per cent to 16 per cent.” It would fall to 4% by 1947, and sink to 3% by 1991. So, what caused the decline? That is, surprisingly, a tough nut to crack. A thousand years later we still do not have answers. Conjectures, yes. Ideologically framed theories, yes. But nothing that quite convincingly explains why. So, a book that has the words “India’s Rise After a Thousand Years of Decline” should provide enough food for thought, or so I thought.

The author puts forth a conjecture or two, and the main thrust of that conjecture is that Indians turned inwards. They stopped being open to new ideas. Their “spirit of entrepreneurship” was eroded. “There are several independent signs of intellectual fossilization around the eleventh century” as well as “growing technological naivete after the eleventh century.

Plausible and true to an undeniable extent. It is tempting to rush forth to arguments that sound plausible enough to be acceptable and backed by just enough fact to pass initial muster. The most popular myth is that “the Muslim conquest of India was the result of a young and vigorous religion defeating an old pacifist civilization.” This, the author points out, “is hardly borne out by the sequence of events.” Furthermore, “(A)s Professor Pervez Amirali Hoodhboy puts it: ‘One gets the impression that [Muslim] history’s clock broke down somewhere during the fourteenth century and that plans for repair are, at best, vague.’” To sum, “by the time Muslim was rule was firmly established in India in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Islamic civilization itself was past its peak.” This story of civilizational decline is not unique to India.

The Roman empire crumbled after the fifth century, unable to withstand the onslaught of an increasingly powerful Christian Church that saw the library of Alexandria burned down by “Christian zealots in the late fourth century“, the Greek philosopher Hypatia “killed by a Christian mob in Alexandria“, and “Plato’s academy shut down under the orders of Emperor Justinian in AD 526.” China had naval technology “generations ahead of the Europe” in the early 1400s. Yet a cultural attitude saw this knowledge stagnate and innovation stifled. So, India was not alone in this civilizational decline.

The author argues that “it was civilizational decline that led to foreign domination rather than the other way around.” And here is where the biggest problem lies with the book. For two primary reasons. Firstly, while the Indian civilization may well have been at its peak and suffering from the not unexpected signs of complacency by the time the last millenium began, there is nothing in the decades or centuries preceding it to point to an imminent decline.

The second is the contradiction in the book itself – if civilizational decline was well and truly underway by 1000 AD or thereabouts, it would have been unusual to find any exceptional centers of learning in the subcontinent. However that was not the case. You had the university at Takshila, established in the sixth century BC, destroyed by the “White Huns (Epththalites) around 460 AD.

This was followed by the total destruction of the world’s largest university at Nalanda in 1193 CE by Bakhtiyar Khilji, and finally the complete destruction of Ujjaini – “a major center for mathematics, literature, philosophy and astronomy” – in 1235 by Sultan Iltumish. A civilization in decay and stagnation cannot be expected to either have the greatest centers of learning in the medieval world, nor would it be expected to stave off the military advances of Islamic warriors for several centuries – a feat unparalleled in history.

What is a plausible explanation is that the steady, unremitting, and murderous onslaught of foreign invaders led to Indian civilization retreating into a survival mode, closing itself to innovations, questions, invigoration, and closing itself to adaptation in order to survive.

In other words, foreign domination led to a rapid shrinking of the space for openness that defined, rather than caused, the thousand years of decline. This story of the thousand-year decline takes up one chapter, less than thirty pages in the book. That is perhaps the single biggest weakness and flaw of this book.

The rest of the book takes the reader through the emergence of the Indian middle-class, the roots of which can be seen as early as the eighteenth century. The post Independence period saw the full brutality of the “Nehru-Mahalonobis rate of growth” visit Indians, which left economic growth mired at less than four percent and hundreds of millions in abject poverty.

While socialism may have been the fashion of the age when Pandit Nehru ruled India, “but the blind following fashion is no excuse for poor judgment.” Milton Friedman, Nobel laureate, had as early as in 1956 had pointed out the fundamental flaw and danger in having an able mathematician like Mahalonobis “apply themselves to economic planning.

Much of the book is basically ground covered several times before by several other books, most notably by Gurcharan Das’ “India Unbound“. There has been no shortage of books on the topic of India’s rise, and each has tried to add something to this narrative, some successfully so, some less so (Edward Luce’s “In Spite of the Gods” being a particularly nasty example, while Anand Giridharadas’ “India Calling” being a paint-by-numbers exercise in enervating mediocrity). This book’s shining moments can be found when discussing India’s educational and legal systems, both of which have failed the Indian citizen.

What is however lacking throughout the book is both the engaging nature that a Mark Tully brings through his anecdotes and first-person accounts, as well as the vice-like grasp over facts that an Arun Shourie can hold the reader with. If you want to be educated on the utter banality of horror that the Indian bureaucracy is, you need do no more than read his “Governance“.

The morbidly fascinating morass of the Indian judiciary is brought to the fore in his “Courts and Their Judgments“. So, even though the book is arranged somewhat thematically, the discussion fails to cohere, flitting from one topic to the other, and is marked by a lack of an underlying narrative fabric to bring these together into a story. It remains a set of longish essays put together into a book.

On a slightly mischievous note, I must conclude by observing that the author, a Bengali, cannot help but point the decline of the once glorious city of Calcutta (now Kolkata) as symbolic of the decline of an entire civilization!

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