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Ten Books That Changed The World

Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first significant text in world literature, and a perfect example of the power of written stories to shape history. By bolstering cultural cohesion across the region, the epic helped maintain the earliest territorial empire. Written in cuneiform, it disappeared without a trace because it was never transcribed into any other writing system, until it was rediscovered by accident two thousand years later. Saddam Hussein, a keen student of history, wrote a novelistic adaptation of the epic. To his great surprise, it failed to secure the survival of his regime.

Ezra’s Bible

Written texts became increasingly important for Jewish life during exile in Babylon, the most literate place on earth at the time. When the scribe Ezra led his followers back to Jerusalem, he held up him Torah scrolls and demanded that the returning exiles bow before them as they would to a god. It was the beginning of sacred scripture, giving rise to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We have been living in a world shaped by sacred texts ever since.

Diamond Sutra

The Diamond Sutra commemorates the life of the Buddha by portraying his interactions with students and his daily habits in unusual detail. When the sutra was committed to writing long after the death of this great teacher, it became so influential that devoted monks carried it all the way to China. It was here that the Diamond Sutra encountered paper and print. With the help of these technologies, it spread to Korea, Japan and beyond, making Buddhism a world religion.

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How Urmila Pawar broke the barriers of caste and patriarchy armed with only words

The struggle of Dalit women in India is often perceived as a fight against patriarchy, and caste — as separate entities. The truth, however, is that their struggle is against against caste-ridden patriarchy, essentially an offshoot of Brahminism in India. Therefore, the claims of the Dalit woman in the the anti-caste struggle are more powerful, subtle, theoretically holistic and thought provoking. Not only this, Dalit women, through their narratives, seem to broaden the scope of movement against caste.

Right from the era of Savitribai Phule, Fatima Sheikh and Mukta Salve, Dalit women’s writing has had a rich history. Needless to say, it provides a background to the discourse of feminism in India that has always been denied by Brahmin women who call themselves feminists. The position of Dalit women as ‘Dalit within Dalits’, is the crucial factor that makes their struggle theoretically fertile and, a discourse which feminism in India cannot afford to avoid.

When Urmila Pawar’s autobiographical work Aaidan was first published, it sent waves of discomfort in society, among men and women alike. I remember sometime in 2014, when I went to watch a play based on her work at the National Centre for Performing Arts, located in an elitist area of South Mumbai, witnessing for the first time on stage, the lives of women I had seen around me. Pawar came on stage before the play began and shared her experiences of writing her first book. She had faced opposition from male agencies across castes, including her own home — where her book (initially) was not celebrated, but looked down upon.

As a Dalit woman, Pawar wrote about her life experiences, dared to articulate them intimately and explicitly — and that was the point of arrival from which Dalit narratives against caste society became clearer to the world. Though pioneering writers like Shantabai Kamble and other Dalit women had already put their struggle into words, it was Pawar’s work which received wide readership. In her book, one of the instances she mentions is of the menstrual cycle, illustrating how the the idea of ‘purity’ and ‘impurity’ not only fractured Brahmins psychologically but also victimised Dalits till a certain point of time. When she, as a girl, was made to sit in a corner by her mother to avoid touching anything during her cycle, Pawar recounts thinking: “As if I wasn’t discriminated (against) enough by others outside, now (my) family too, has set rules for me”.

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Hakim Sana’i of Ghazni

Hakim Sana’i was one of the most significant poets in the history of Islamic mysticism. The proper name of Sana’i of Ghazni was Abul Majd bin Majdud bin Adam. Sana’i was born in the province of Ghazni in southern Afghanistan. He was one of the three great mystical mathnavi writers of Persia, the second being Shaikh Faridu’d-Din ‘Attar and the third jalalu’d-Din Rumi, who write; “Attar is the soul and Sana’i its two eyes, I came after Sana’i and ‘Attar.”

Sana’i was the court poet of Bahram Shah, according to afghanland.com sources, and spent many years praising the king and his court but few years later he became more devoted to God and abruptly left the court of the king.

Bahram Shah was planning to lead an expedition to India, Sana’i wrote a verse and took read it to the palace at the presence the King. On the way to the palace he heard a drunkard ordering the Saqi (the, Cup bearer) to serve him wine, which he would drink for the King’s stupidity. The cupbearer said, “Don’t talk nonsense, Bahrarn Shah is not stupid, he is wise and just.” The drunkard retorted, “His expedition to Ghazni has not yet come to an end; he is planning to lead an expedition to India. What else can be more foolish than this?”

After finishing one jaam of wine he asked for another saying he would drink the second to Sana’i’s foolishness. The cupbearer said, “Why do you call Sana’i foolish? He is a good natured poet with lofty ideas.” The boozer answered, “He writes in praise of unworthy persons, goes to them and with folded hands recites what he has written for worldly gains. Is he not a fool? What will he say to God, on the day of the Reckoning when He (God) asks him, ‘what have you brought for me? ”

The words of the drunkard opened Sana’i’s eyes; he left the king’s service, gave up writing panegyrics and retired into seclusion.

Sana’i wrote his most famous mathnawi Hadiqat-ul-Haqaiq (“Garden of Truth”) at a very old age and died soon after its completion in A.D. 1131. He uttered the following words at the time of death:

I returned to what I had said previously because there is no word in meaning -nor words in meaning.

Hakim Sana’i is the first writer to introduce “Tasawwuf” in poetry.

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10 MUST-READ HISTORIES OF THE PALESTINE-ISRAEL CONFLICT

November 2 marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, when the British government famously promised to establish a Jewish “national home” in Palestine. A century of conflict in Palestine/Israel has produced a vast and ever growing historical literature in English, as well as in Arabic and Hebrew. Conflicting or irreconcilable narratives mean that works which tell the story of, and from, both sides, are rare. Views of fundamental issues like the legitimacy of Zionism or the Palestinians’ right to resistance inevitably color the interpretation of key events from Balfour to the 2014 war over the Gaza Strip. Perceptions can still be polarized about Israel’s war of independence and the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, the 1967 war, and the character of the occupation that persists 50 years later. Well-known books, especially by Israel’s “new” historians, have made a big impact on knowledge of the formative pre-state period. Here are ten others which in different ways and at different times have made a significant contribution to illuminating this unending story.

Ronald Storrs, Orientations

Storrs was the first British military governor of Jerusalem after the Ottoman surrender in December 1917. His memoir is elegantly if pretentiously written. It reflects contemporary colonialist assumptions about Arabs and Jews, the innate authority and arrogance of the world’s largest empire and the author’s mounting frustration as the confrontation unfolded in its earliest days. Storrs was in Palestine at the time of the Balfour Declaration and in the early Mandate years. Perhaps his most memorable line, as resentment and tensions mounted, was how “two hours of Arab grievances drive me into the synagogue, while after an intense course of Zionist propaganda I am prepared to embrace Islam.”

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