What was written in the first book on India?
“I shall not produce the arguments of our antagonists in order to refute such of them, as I believe to be in the wrong. My book is nothing 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.”
It takes some time to sink in, when told that these words were written some 990 years ago. Taḥqīq mā li-l-hind min maqūlah maqbūlah fī al-ʿaql aw mardhūlah, is the name of the book, also popularly known as Kitab al-Hind, and the Tarikh ul-Hind, from the first volume of which is this quote taken. The name of the author is Abū al-Rayḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī. Encyclopaedia Britannica translates the full title of the tome as: Verifying All That the Indians Recount, the Reasonable and the Unreasonable.
The Author of Kitab al-Hind, first book on India
Books on India from ancient to medieval times are a plenty. Indian civilization has across ages attracted some of the most erudite explorers in world history. All of them have written their experiences, and are important sources of Indian history. Kitab al-Hind, The Book on India, however, stands apart, as does its author, the great Islamic scholar Al-Biruni.
Before the modern European researchers with keen interests in India, Gaston-Laurent Cœurdoux (1691–1779), William Jones (1746–1794) and Dimitrios Galanos (1760–1833) to name a few of them, the only person who can be termed as a proper Indologist is Al-Biruni. He was a late 10th – mid-11th century polymath, a physicist, mathematician, astronomer and historian.
Becoming Father of Indology
Arabic apart, he knew Persian, Sanskrit, Greek and Hebrew. But our subject at hand is not the author himself, about whom we will hear another day, but the book which is, according to Britannica, “by far the most important of his encyclopaedic works”. On this book rests his fame as the Father of Indology.
Al-Biruni came to India in 1017, which is when he started writing this encyclopaedic work and finished it 1030. It includes all that he could learn about India of his times, and continues to be one of the most important sources for studying early medieval Indian society, literature, religion, customs and science. He studied India in such depths that has been rarely matched by any single person before or even after him, particularly considering the wide scope of his enquiry.
But what impresses me most about this great scholar is what is reflected in the quote with which this column begins: his intellectual freedom from social and religious dogma, with which most ancient and medieval tomes by scholars are tainted. Such dispassionate objective observation of a foreign land has been extremely rare, even in modern times.
The book greatness of the book comes out best in the words of one of the finest orientalists of modern times Carl Eduard Sachau (1845-1930). Taḥqīq mā li-l-hind min maqūlah maqbūlah fī al-ʿaql aw mardhūlah, says Dr. Sachau is like “a magic island of quiet, impartial research in the midst of a world of clashing swords…
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)