Book Review: Alberuni's India


Common Name: Al-Beruni
Real Name: Abu Al-Rayhan Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Al-Biruni
Born: 5th September 973
Died: 13th December 1048
Books: Volumes 1 and 2, transalated by Dr Edward Sachau 1883
Indian Association: Supposed to have visited alongwith Mahmud of Ghazni and stayed 13 years in various locations


In writing a review of this book, one runs into difficulties right from the first line... while various sources on the Internet as well as our history tell us he travelled extensively in India, the preface insists that while he must have been to India, it is possible that he was a hostage on at least some of those occasions. This does seem logical, since Alberuni's first contact with Mahmud of Ghazni was in 1017, when Mahmud took Alberuni's native land. Alberuni was one of the hostages that were taken on this raid. This is further borne by the fact of Firdausi's treatment at the hands of the Sultan. Whether he went to India on his own or as a hostage, the fact remains that his chronicles and his books provide a valuable window into India and its history

I have read the full version which is in 2 volumes. The book covers Religion, Philosophy, Literature, Geography, Astronomy, Manners and Customs,Festivals, and Astrology in 80 chapters. Frankly, this book is not light reading, but if you approach it with an attitude of understanding India vis-a-vis the ancient and medieval worlds, this is an ideal book. We learn history and traditions from our family and our schools- this provides us a point-of-view from our own eyes, so to speak. Books like this one provide us a view of India from a different perspective, and is thus enlightening. A look at the heading on the first page will explain my point: "An Accurate Description Of All Categories Of Hindu Thought- As Well Those Which Are Admissible As Those Which Must By Rejected" Composed By AbuAlRaihan Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Alberuni

"My book is but a simple historic record of facts. I shall place before the reader the theories of the Hindus exactly as they are, and I shall mention in connection with them similar theories of the greeks in order to show the relationship existing between them" That phrase should make clear the Author's approach towards this gargantuan exercise which he had undertaken upon himself. You will find in this book our culture as it existed around 1000 AD, our languages, with Sanskrit supposed to be in common usage among upper classes and a vernacular dialect among the rest.A comparison of Greek society with Indian society, philosophy, way of life is another interesting read. The first part of the book deals with the subject of religion, beliefs in God etc. The interesting point is that you run across various texts that were then in prevalence, as well those texts that we recognise. A full list of Upanishads, Puranas with their short descriptions can be found. For a person like me, for whom these books were just names, this was qute interesting. This is followed by Astronomy, where concepts of time, Brahmanda are discussed. 

Next comes geography -and this is the interesting part- you are reading India as it was 1000 years ago! the political setup, rivers, mountains as they existed at that point in time have been covered in a very succinct fashion,such that you get the gist. Next, the concepts of time - touched upon earlier - are taken up - but this time Alberuni is talking about the Yuga. This is taken up in considerable detail, and is worth a read just to understand how our forefathers had developed the minute details. You will find details of the festivals that were celebrated in that time, the legal setups and the laws, norms of marriage and family life, casteism, fasts, eating and drinking habits, inheritance and a detailed treatise on astrology

If you approach this book as a normal history text, then you are doomed to boredom. If you pick and choose what you read, after first skimming through the book, then you can really enjoy it. Read the Foreword, Preface, the first few chapters in one sitting - it will be difficult to connect the pieces if you read it piecemeal. That part of the book deals with the overall approach of the book, Alberuni's history and early life, the politics that lead to this whole matter. On my first reading, I read it through and through - and got bored. On the next reading, when I chose what I wanted to read - festivals, eating habits, religion, yugas, geography etc - I really enjoyed it. 

I shall not attempt to surmise anything about the book, and make any conclusions. I can only state that this is a book where you can get to know your history a little better, understand what India was viewed as by outsiders. It is extremely detailed in some parts - those dealing with concepts of time and its mathematical calculations, religion and astrology. In other ways, it is frustratingly brief... that also lends credence to the translator's belief that AlBeruni must have been to India, but might have been a hostage. There are numerous references to books being referred, for one. The overall impression of some parts are that they have been gleaned from a study of literature of the time. It is nevertheless an interesting book for history buffs...

Comments

  1. Thanks! Very useful.

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  2. I am curious as to what Arabic word Alberuni used for "India". Was it Hind? And was it consistently used?

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    Replies
    1. Sorry for the delay, missed your comment...

      I have read the English translation of the same, so cannot comment with any surety. I have the copy, shall check in bibliography and annotations as well as preface and other references in the book. Interesting question, shall revert

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