We in India know that we have a great history. I am not sure how we know this for a fact but we know. The Chinese hold a very similar opinion. Maybe the concept of the great past is something that our forefathers passed on to us as we pass on to our future generations. But are we basing our views of ancient India on facts and hard data or are they based on speculation and heresy?
The concept of a great Indian past is one of the foundations of Hindutva-based political and spiritual movements and political organizations. You will find ardent followers of such groups constantly complaining about the condition of India today and then use the “glorious Indian past” argument to justify the changes that they feel have to be implemented to bring India up to speed again.
In 2004 noted British economist Angus Maddison published a book titled “The World Economy: Historical Statistics”. According to this book the Indian economy was the largest in the world in the 1st century accounting for almost 32.9% of worlds Gross Domestic Produce (GDP) (remember 1st century is when Jesus Christ was supposedly born). India retained the top spot for the next 1500 years only to be overtaken by Ming China in the year 1500 ACE. India remained the second largest economy in the world until 1870 ACE. Angus Maddison’s book was the manna from heaven that the Hindu fundamentalists have been waiting for.
I would like to list some of the key points that we should be aware of before buying into the hype that books like these create:
Concept of India: We know that the India that exists today was never ruled by a single king or emperor ever in our history. The British ruled most of modern India but British India also included parts of Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan. It is also very important for us to remember that the region that is India today is very different from what was known as India in the 1st century.
For most of the ancient cultures like the Greeks, the Romans and the Persians, India meant predominantly the region extending from parts of modern day Iran to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It also included parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Kashmir. It did not include the Central, Southern and Northeastern India that forms 90% of India today.
So if we use the data from scriptures and other texts to calculate the GDP of India in the 1st century and come to the conclusion that we were the biggest economy, then by default it also means that Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran were also the largest economies of that time. We also then have to agree that most of modern India that was not part of ancient India was not that rich.
Invasion of India: If you like to read about foreigners invading a country then reading about Indian history would be a good place to start. India has been invaded by the Greeks, Persians, Turks, and Mongols and more recently by the Portuguese, British, French and the Dutch. All of these invasions happened when India was either the largest or second largest economy in the world (if you believe Angus Maddison).
Let us look at it from a modern context. How many countries are there in the world today that can attack and capture territories belong to the United States of America? The answer is zero. Once a country starts becoming wealthy one of the first things they do is to find ways to protect their wealth. This is done by building powerful armies and allies. If India was wealthy in the past then how do you explain all these successful invasions? Maybe India was not as wealthy or technologically advanced or motivated as some of the other countries during the past 2000 or so years?
India Was Rich: One of the common reasons given for the successful invasions of India is that India was a rich country. The Mughals were in India for over 650 years, the Portuguese for almost 500 years and finally the British for almost 350 years. If India was rich and the Mughals looted all of the wealth then what were the Portuguese and British doing in India?
Capturing another nations wealth is not one of the primary reasons one country attacks another country (can you think of an example in the past 100 years where one nation attacked another over wealth?). The primary reasons for war are territorial disputes, religion, cultural differences, perceived injustices, suppressing dissent, eliminating competition and the control of natural resources and strategic areas.
It is a fact that once a country falls then its wealth is immediately transferred to the winner. It is the low hanging fruit. But the primary reason why the Europeans and others invaded India was to dominate the trading route with India and exploit Indian resources including manpower to their advantage (two million Indians fought under the British during World War II). This does not mean that India was rich or that countries like Britain were poor but just the opposite. The Europeans and the Mughals before them had the technology and the resources to travel long distances to capture Indian territory.
Once they captured India they used Indian manpower to produce goods and services and made money by selling these goods and services all over the world. The profits made their countries of origin richer. In their spare time they tried to spread their religion to the so called primitive Indians. This is far closer to reality than believing that the invaders came to India because India was rich.
GDP is Not Equal to Wealth: India is the 12th largest economy in the world today in terms of GDP. But are Indians richer than the Swiss, Belgians or the Austrians all of whose economies are much smaller than India’s? Can an Indian even dream of a lifestyle an average Norwegian has? The per capita income of a Norwegian is about $86,000. The per capita income of an Indian is $1,170!!
So if GDP is not an indicator of how rich or powerful India is today then how is it an indicator of India’s wealth in the 1st century? When I hear that India’s GDP was the biggest in the world in the first century then two things comes to my mind: 1) How can we calculate such a complex statistic like the GDP in the 1st century when we cannot accurately determine the names of the rulers of India at that time and 2) The GDP of India was high probably because India was comparatively very populated then as it is now. India was not rich then and neither is it rich now. And that’s my point.
“Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists” – John Kenneth Galbraith.
- India’s Greatest Moment in its History is Now
- Myth or Reality: India is prospering but not Indians?
- Hinduism: Myth vs. Reality
- History of India: The First Indians
- India and China: Contest or Friendship of the Century?
Category: Culture & Religion