The Highest and the Lowest

Indian history is straightforward. In the distant beginning there was the Indus Valley Civilization of roughly 3000 BCE that morphed into early, middle and late Harappan lasting from 2500 BCE to 1900 BCE. Then came the Vedic period (roughly 1700 BCE to 500 BCE). This was the period in which the Rig Veda, one of the four canonical texts of Hinduism, was composed. It is a remarkable fact that everything we know about the Harappan culture is archeologicalthere are no surviving textswhile everything we know about the Vedic period is literarythere are virtually no surviving artifacts.

The next great empire was the Mauryan (322-185 BCE), one of the largest in the world, at the time dwarfing any other on the Indian subcontinent. After the Mauryans we have the Gupta Empire (320-700), the so-called Golden Age of India, the period when the great poet Kalidasa wrote his epics. After the Guptas we have the late classical age (700-1192), a period of great economic growth when India controlled a quarter of the worlds worth. Then the Muslims arrived. The two major Muslim periods were the Sultanate from 1192 to 1526 and the Mughals from 1526 to 1757. Then came the British and then in 1947 independence.

This is just a brief sketch. It leaves out several hundred intervening dynasties in which what's-his-name defeats whozit at the battle of whatchamacallit and whozit doing likewise to what's-his-name's second son and so on and so forth. In the course of all of this every so often someone would pause to raise a monument to whozit. There you have it in a nutshell. Nothing could corroborate better the adage that history is one damned thing after another.

The buildings I saw on a recent trip to India, among them the tomb of Humayun, the Jama Mosque, the Qutb Minar tower, the India Gate, the Red Fort--as it happens all of them in Delhi--are like all such monumental buildings anywhere in the world. They are the bookmarks of history. Sultans, emperors, generals go to war. Soldiers die. Someone builds a monument. We get to see it.

Are there any lessons to be learned from this 4500-year sweep of history aside from the obvious one that war has been the basso ostinato of homo sapiens over which the highestas well as the lowestof human achievements have been built? In India among the highest one would certainly have to count the temples at Khajuraho, Mughal architecture, the concept of zero, the Kama Sutra and the discovery by Indian astronomers that the earth spun on its own axis. And the lowest? Well, the caste system comes immediately to mind.

Although discrimination by caste is illegal in India, the fact of caste remains the elephant in the room.  Every guide I met found an opportunity to assure me that he or she was a Brahmin.  Or a Vaishya.  No one ever admitted to being a Dalit.

The harshest thing about the caste system is its permanence.  Once an untouchable, always an untouchable.  In America a poor boy can grow up to be president.  In India a poor boy can grow up to be a poor man.

Now that caste is illegal that may change.  But the pace to this outsider seems glacial.