Education About Asia: Online Archives

Through Indian Eyes; 5th Edition

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BY DONALD J. JOHNSON AND JEAN E. JOHNSON
NEW YORK: THE APEX PRESS, 2008
352 PAGES, ISBN: 0-938960-55-5, PAPERBACK

Reviewed by Marc Gilbert

The most important criteria for selecting classroom materials that support teaching a subject as diverse and complex as Indian civilization should be the degree to which they offer a coherent vision of their subject. A lack of vision may undermine student confidence, and may hinder their ability to examine complexities that lie beneath the “big picture.” These complexities yield the most accurate knowledge of a culture and offer the best opportunities to build learning skills, and clear foundational material is paramount. Ideally, solid materials provide both this necessary baseline and at least a glimpse of the more accurate and revealing depths that instructors and students can explore.

For more than twenty years, the authors of Through Indian Eyes have succeeded on both counts, offering a superb text for high school and introductory college courses addressing Indian family life, religion, history, and economy. The revised fifth edition adheres to its predecessors’ evocation of the grandest and most inclusive of all conceptualizations of Indian civilization—that developed by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. An able historian, as well as the first Prime Minister of independent India, Nehru adopted an accessible view of Indian society that stresses the continuity and underlying unity of cultural traditions, the grandeur of relatively tolerant indigenous empires, the challenges and contributions to an Indian identity arising from the British rule, and the central role played by democratic principles in India’s struggle for independence and the resolution of its post-independence travails. This vision is made explicit in Nehru’s own words in Through Indian Eyes via a few key primary source selections. However, students also encounter visions of India other than Nehru’s, such as Gandhi’s morally-inspired opposition to the industrial path favored by the secular and socialist Nehru, and the Hindu fundamentalist convictions that account for Gandhi’s assassination and continue to roil Indian politics. As the text roughly equates Indian identity with both Hinduism (dharma) and citizenship in the Republic of India, to some degree it marginalizes Muslims and some non-elite, anti-nationalist conceptions of Indian society. However, no comparable work offers greater or more sympathetic treatment of Muslims in South Asia (including Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India) or the subcontinent’s dalits, or dispossessed.

Like earlier editions, this edition is comprised of short, often dramatic and easily absorbed readings on history, aesthetics, religion, social life, economy, and political institutions ranging from speeches, official documents, and political analysis, to autobiography and other forms of literature, both traditional and modern. Most sources are written by Indians and each includes a succinct editor’s introduction. Several selections take the form of a conversation, inner dialog, or newspaper editorial. The most effective address the issues of caste, dowry, and arranged marriage, and have long been of great value in drawing out student discussion of these significant issues. Equally valuable are selections offering opposing viewpoints or examining the divergent treatment of issues in Indian and non-Indian textbooks; these offer excellent opportunities for student skill development through textual analysis.

The greatest change in the fifth edition is the addition of material on the process of increasing globalization that traces India’s voyage from victim of neo-colonial market forces and investment patterns (the Bhopal Tragedy), to its late rise as an outsourcing and software giant, to the most recent development: the Tata Group’s purchase of a British corporation that makes India the world’s third largest producer of steel. This event constitutes the current high-watermark of India’s rising status in the New World Order.

Given the great utility of Through Indian Eyes as a classroom resource, each chapter, regrettably, does not offer end-of-chapter study questions. These would provide instructors and their students with directed learning opportunities and offer closure for those chapters that end without suggestive analytical or concluding remarks from the editors.

Through Indian Eyes has for many years been a valued tool for approaching Indian civilization. In the past, it provided an intimate, as well as coherent, portrait of traditional and contemporary society on the Indian subcontinent. It still does. However, the fifth edition’s fresh material on developments in India since 2000, including fuller discussion of India’s adoption of neo-liberal economic principles and treatment of India’s accelerating role in the world economy, has raised its status from timeless treasure to timely resource.

MARC JASON GILBERT (PhD, UCLA) is the holder of the National Endowment for the Humanities Endowed Chair in World History and Humanities at Hawai`i Pacific University.