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India Was A Superpower Of The Ancient World

November 15, 2019

Via Wikimedia Commons.

In January 2019 the multinational bank Standard Chartered published a list of the world’s strongest economies by the year 2030. China grabs the top spot with an awe-inspiring gross domestic product (GDP) four times its current size. Behind it is a resurgent India whose economic heft leaves the USA trailing behind at third place. The figures might seem ridiculous at present but they do serve as confirmation bias for anyone who’s betting on Asia’s growth story: China and India, having suffered five centuries of systematic decline, are assuming their historic roles in the world stage.

This expectation was given life when the late British economist Angus Maddison published an estimate for historical GDP that revealed China and India’s importance to global trade.

But with much of Asian history unsettled until now one indisputable fact gleaned from examining the past is India’s prominence. Accurate data about its economy before the common era may never come to light but there’s enough evidence proving its ancient empires shaped the world around it. After all, even Alexander the Great (356 BC – 323 BC) attempted to conquer India for its riches, which proved his undoing. Other conquerors tried the same, none as humiliating as the excesses of Timur in 1398 and the Persian warlord Nadir Shah whose army ravaged Delhi in 1739. Yet even when India failed to resist its invaders its culture and splendor were never snuffed out.

Several great empires rose in the 2,500 years of India’s known history. Two periods stand out for their territorial expanse–the Mauryan Empire that flourished at the same time as the Roman Republic at its height and the Gupta Empire whose peak was concurrent with the Roman Byzantines and the Persian Sassanids. In fairness, the British Raj that dominated India for almost a century governed an enormous domain that only broke apart during partition. The Republic of India, now on its 72nd year, with the fifth largest economy on Earth is well on its way to earning its seat among the great powers.

But the past incarnations of India did enjoy the same status and one region proves this. Dubbed the “East Indies” by European explorers smitten by profits and now labelled the “Indo-Pacific” by American strategists who plan to contain China, the societies that inhabited “Nusantaria” benefited from India’s goodwill for centuries. Nusantaria, by the way, is a word coined by the British author Philip Bowring to describe maritime Southeast Asia, the marvelous collection of states that have joined together as ASEAN. The names may change over time but the commonalities are recurring. In his acclaimed book Empire of the Winds (Bloomsbury, 2019) Bowring assembles a deep history that shows how Austronesians scattered over a “great archipelago” mastered the seas and enabled maritime trade.

These Austronesians, who include Cambodians, Indonesians, Filipinos, Malaysians, Thais, and Vietnamese, have different national identities today yet share varied cultural traits, many originating from India. A consequential thalassocracy that ruled the island of Sumatra from the 7th until 11th centuries whose capital became a renowned center for Buddhism patterned its governance on Indian kingdoms. Vestiges of Buddhist and Hindu influences are everywhere in Southeast Asia, be they ancient cities almost lost to time or in cherished local cuisine. An entire chapter in Bowring’s Empire of the Winds is devoted to chronicling how Indian political and religious norms flourished in Nusantaria for a thousand years. This was enabled by trade rather than outright conquest.

Unlike China’s historic trade relations with Southeast Asian states, whose volume waxed and waned depending on politics in the mainland, India’s connections to the same region are unbroken. Even under the Raj in the late 19th century it was Indian bureaucrats and laborers who helped build colonial economies in Burma, Hong Kong, and Malaya. Thriving South Asian communities from Bangkok to Manila are not accidental but eventual. In the age of ASEAN an assertive Delhi is committed to new alliances where its economic and military power incentivizes weaker countries away from Beijing’s own embrace. The vital lesson here is apparent; Maddison’s meme on India’s significance rings true enough. India was a superpower of the ancient world and is now resuming this position.

Empire of the Winds is now available everywhere.

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