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Sep 23, 2014

Alberuni's India

The Hindu

ALberuni's India

REPRINTS of classics are always welcome, and publishers who undertake these are to be applauded. Unfortunately, they often do not understand that reprints need as much editorial care as a new manuscript. The book under review is a case in point. One is delighted to welcome back this timeless classic — But:

1. The cover has a sketch of the five-storeyed Qutab Minar, with two gentlemen in shawls and turbans gazing out from the foreground. Alberuni and friend? Not possible. Al Hind was written in 1030, the Qutab attained its full height in the 1360s. We can now expect to see Bernier's Travels in the Mughal Empire AD 1656-68 with a view of Correa's LIC building on the cover;

2. Sachau's translation, published in 1910, was reproduced by a Delhi printer in 1983. It was entitled Alberuni's India, an accurate description of all categories of Hindu thought, as well those which are admissible as those which must be rejected. The present edition has reduced this to Alberuni's India, as will (sic!)those which are admissible as those which must be rejected!
In the text, all marginal subheads have been inexplicably deleted. There are irritating abbreviations (e.g. "On Mount Meru according to the belief of the authors of the Puranas" has become "On Mount Meru according to the belife (sic!)";

3. And this is really a disaster — over 150 pages which are unusable (p.165-320, "Annotations"). The 1910 edition was in two volumes, each paginated separately. The present edition has been typeset afresh, withcontinuous pagination. Result: Section II, p.3 corresponds to page 407, but the Annotations' page references have not been changed accordingly! Maybe the publishers could sell the book at Rs. 75 less than the marked price?

Alberuni was a polyglot, as was his translator, fluent in Arabic, Farsi, and Sanskrit. Sachau translated Al Hind into German in 1884 and later into English. It is a sad commentary on Indian scholarship that there has been no new edition, no attempt to compare Alberuni's interpretation with the Sanskrit texts he used. This was a landmark manuscript, the first international encyclopaedia of the philosophical texts and scientific treatises of early medieval India.

Alberuni, an astronomer-mathematician of Khiva, north of Afghanistan, was brought to Ghazni in 1017 as a prisoner of war. At the court of Ghazni he met poets and scholars, among whom was Firdausi, the greatest Farsi poet of all time. As one tries to visualise that world, where the hazards of travel and the vagaries of war did not constrict scholarship, one realises how inadequate it is to study South Asian history in isolation, how necessary it is to read it in conjunction with that of other regions, to appreciate the arts and knowledge-banks sans frontiers that flourished in a world of changing political frontiers.

What for others would be a lifetime's work was achieved by Alberuni in 13 years. Europeans would call him a "Renaissance man." Curious not only about mathematics and astronomy, but also folklore, languages and geography, he was part of that tradition of transmitting South Asian scholarship to Europe via Baghdad. Thirty-seven chapters in Al Hindare devoted to astronomy and astrology. "The Hindus do not consider it wearisome to reckon with large numbers, but rather enjoy it" (p.405). Nine chapters are on aspects of religion, with sections on theRamayana, the Mahabharata, the Gita and the Puranas. Two describe, with some impatience, rather bizarre superstitions, concluding tolerantly "but tricks of this kind are common to all nations" (p.183).

The 10 chapters on geography are inevitably all about north India. On Kashmir, he reports "(The inhabitants) used to allow one or two foreigners to enter their country, particularly Jews, but at present they do not allow any Hindu whom they do not know personally to enter, much less other people" (p.194). Twenty-one chapters are rich in sociological details. He sees the Varna system as something common to most societies. "The kings of antiquity — spent most of their care on the division of their subjects on different classes and order" (p.83). "Most of the Hindu festivals are celebrated by women and children only" (p.588). On Dipavali "people dress festively and give each other presents of betel leaves and areca nuts... (and) light a great number of lamps" (p.592).

About Sati, "If a woman loses her husband, she cannot marry another man... she has either to remain a widow or to burn herself" (p.563). Beef eating had once been prevalent, but was now prohibited (p.560). After listing explanations for this, he himself inclines to an "economical reason" (the cow as provider of milk, the uses of dung, their use as draught animals) and is reminded of a similar prohibition in Babylonia.

A compelling read, despite loads of awesome astronomical calculations. To end this review, the most well-known quote (p.6), "The Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no religion like theirs... If they travelled and mixed with other nations, they would soon change their mind, for their ancestors were not as narrow-minded as the present generation is." Jet-setting ministers, are you listening?

Alberuni's India, Edward C. Sachau, Trobner & Co., London, 1888, Rupa & Co., 2002, p.820, Rs. 395.

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