Supertext: The textbook that changed my life

May 30, 2003

I wish there had been a textbook that changed my life, not because I want to have my life altered but because I have never found a single textbook for the study of South Asian culture. It is too vast a subject. For me the closest candidate is The Sources of Indian Tradition edited by Theodore de Bary.

"South Asian Culture" is the name of a course I studied in its first incarnation at the School of Oriental and African Studies more than 20 years ago and which I have taught four or five times in the past decade. To help students gain some familiarity with South Asian history, religion, politics and culture, I returned to de Bary's collection of key texts from the region translated from Vedic Sanskrit, Jain Prakrits, Pali Buddhist texts, Sanskrit Hindu shastras, medieval vernacular devotional literature, Koranic Arabic, Persian writings of the Mughals, Punjabi Sikh works and more recent texts from British colonial rulers and the Indian reformers, nationalists and mystics.

By this time the Sources was available in two volumes, regrettably dividing the ancient and medieval from the modern. However, little had really changed. The first volume concentrated on one of mankind's greatest achievements, the religious thought of ancient India, while the second omitted some of the texts, such as the earlier encounters of the Orientalists with India (the wonderful "discovery" of Sanskrit by Sir William Jones) whose views were overruled by those who introduced English education, and substituted material on important social and political leaders, notably Ambedkar.

Given the already lengthy volumes, it may seem churlish to mention omissions. But I could not avoid noticing that both volumes are entirely concerned with India's "great" traditions, and ignore the "lesser" ones of folktales, fables and popular legends. There is so little women's writing, for example, that when I jokingly told my students that Meera ( fl. 16th century) was the first woman in South Asia, they almost believed me.

I would also like more on visual traditions, with the evolution of temple and other architecture to the development of modern mass-produced images. Music also remains outside the scope of these volumes, as does modern literature. Perhaps a textbook on South Asian culture really is too great a task and separate ones are required. Yet, I still find myself turning back to the Sources as a way of persuading students that original texts, even if in translation, are the best way to find out about a culture and to encourage them to contemplate learning at least one language from the region in order to open up South Asia's many cultures.

Rachel Dwyer is chair, Centre of South Asian Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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