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Through Many Prisms

Radhika Seshan

Edited by Upinder Singh and Parul Pandya Dhar 
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 235, Rs. 685.00


Inter-Asian connections and linkages have a long and fascinating history, and an equally fascinating historiography. The southeast Asian connections, in particular, have received much attention, having been examined through a variety of prisms, ranging from the ‘Greater India’ idea of the early decades of the 20th century, to Sheldon Pollock’s hypothesis of the ‘Sanskrit cosmopolis’ of the beginning of this century. As pointed out in the introduction itself, scholarship on ‘cross-cultural Asian interactions … still tends to be in a reactive mode’. This book makes a refreshing change, in the way in which it addresses the theme of connected histories, and underlines the multiplicity of ways in which such connections can be explored to give a richer understanding of the time and space. The book sets out to both raise and attempt to answer questions on the contexts within which the cross-cultural interactions evolved as well as the modus operandi and agents of transmission. The focus is on the cross-cultural, and therefore, equal importance is given to both sides, rather than making out, for example, that Southeast Asia was a passive recipient of all that India sent out. Equally important, while one of the concerns is rethinking the India-Southeast Asia connection, in keeping with the title of ‘Asian Encounters’, there are papers that address other parts of Asia as well. The book is divided into four sections – Changing Perspectives; Political Connectivities and Conflicts; Religions, Ritual and Monuments; and Trade, Icons and Artefacts. In the first section, the focus is clearly on historiography. Hermann Kulke sets the tone with his paper on ‘The Concept of Cultural Convergence revisited: Reflections on India’s Early Influence in Southeast Asia’, in which he begins with an overview of the writings on the region. Beginning with the idea of ‘Hindu colonization’ and ‘Indianisation’ visible in the work of historians like R.C. Majumdar, he goes on to discuss the alternatives and critiques provided by historians like Paul Wheatley and Ian C. Glover, before re-examining his own ‘cultural convergence’ hypothesis. He then discusses and critiques, in detail, Sheldon Pollock’s ‘Sanskrit cosmopolis’ hypothesis. The second paper in this section, that of Geoff Wade on ‘Ming China’s Violence against Neighbouring Polities and its Representation in Chinese Historiography’ provides a welcome reminder that it is not enough to look at the connectivities across the Bay of Bengal or the Indian Ocean alone, but look beyond, to Asia ...

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