Book Review: Richard H. Davis’ “Global India circa 100 CE: South Asia in Early World History” Reviewed by Devika Rangachari

We republish here a review of Richard H. Davis’ “Global India circa 100 CE: South Asia in Early World History” that was written by Devika Rangachari  and which appeared on H-Asia (July, 2011).

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. 25).

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 rule.

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 spreads.

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.

If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at:

Citation: Devika Rangachari. Review of Davis, Richard H., Global India circa 100 CE: South Asia in Early World History. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. July, 2011.

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.

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