India: Brief History of a Civilization

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India: Brief History of a Civilization. By THOMAS R. TRAUTMANN. New York: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2011. Pp. x + 238.

Had Burton Stein (1926-1996) lived to complete A History of India (published after his death in 1998), he would have written in the introduction that his book was intended to be "taken not as a recording of events as they sequentially unfolded in real time but rather as an accounting." And one form of accounting Stein had in mind was that of "my own view of that long, complex history,. ... my present attitudes and understanding of the history of the Indian subcontinent" (p. 420). Stein's goal was purely academic: to expose his own--often original--views of Indian history, and to submit them to a scholarly readership.

Tom Trautmann, like Stein a major contributor to the study of Indian history, undertook to write India: Brief History of a Civilization for a different purpose and with a different kind of reader in mind: "I wrote this book for my students in a large introductory Indian Civilization course at the University of Michigan" (p. viii).

Those readers of our journal who are called on to survey, in a one-semester course, to an often large class of undergraduates, the history of the subcontinent, from the beginning to the present day, will be immensely grateful to Trautmann for having put his experience in teaching "Civilization of India (History 206)" at the University of Michigan down in writing. I, for one, would have been, when, in the latter part of my career, I was asked to teach an even more clearly introductory "The legacy of India (South Asia 101)."

Even though there are many respectable books on Indian history and culture, Trautmann came to the conclusion that not one single volume covers the entire subject matter in a way that is suitable for an undergraduate course. To most American students the subject is unfamiliar if not totally foreign, geographically, historically, and culturally. Even for students of Indian descent names of Indian persons, book titles, technical terms, etc., can be long and difficult to remember. For the teacher, this circumstance leads to a continuous struggle between his/her own desire to expose his/her audience to as much as possible of India's past and his/her concern not to have the students lose sight of the forest for the many trees. Trautmann was aware that his book "no doubt ... falls between the wishes of both parties and will leave them something to complain about" (p. ix). What he wanted to provide was "a book that will give newcomers a quick overview of a very long period, so that in a short time they will acquire a mental map of the history of Indian Civilization as a whole, a basic stock of names and technical terms and a rough sense of the chronology. It should give readers the means to tackle more advanced works. …