The history of India provides both an inspiration and a challenge to the historian. It inspires by its vast range and scope, its color, its variety, its rich cluster of personalities; it challenges with its complexities, its long periods of obscurity, its unfamiliar movements, and its stark contrasts between luxury and poverty, between gentleness and cruelty, creation and destruction. For the few with gorgeous processions and rainbow pageantry there were the many with mud huts and a handful of rice or millet a day, with the burning heaven for a canopy and the stifling dust for perfume.
In India everything seems strange at first sight to the foreign observer. The climate, the face of the country, the nature of the people, their habits, institutions, thoughts, and worship all present surprises and riddles. The Westerner considers the earth and his surroundings to be solid but the Indian regards them as maya or illusion; the healthy eater finds most advanced Indians to be vegetarian; the Western belief in force and power is matched by the Indian belief in thought and nonviolence. The introduction of Western ideas and customs has only increased the confusion. Here are operators on the Bombay Stock Exchange devoting their gains to the protection and veneration of the cow, and cotton-mill magnates subscribing funds for the encouragement of hand spinning and weaving. There are keen businessmen who do nothing without the advice of an astrologer and men of action who are at times unavailable because they have passed into meditation. If we seek to understand Indian people and things in terms of Western experience we shall certainly fall into many pitfalls, and it is therefore best that we should begin this work with a survey of the Indian scene and some consideration of relationships in general between India and the West.