How India’s historians have reflected on the country’s history, culture and heritage

Print edition : October 09, 2020

The Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves near Bhubaneswar in Odisha. The caves were excavated by Kharavela and his successors. The great Kharavela of the Chedi dynasty who ruled this region in the second-first century BCE boasts in the famous Prakrit Hathigumpha inscription about his sending of armies to, and subsequent conquest of, Bharatavasa/varsa. Photo: PAUL NORONHA

Irfan Habib and Romila Thapar at the Indian History Congress, in New Delhi on May 15, 2010. They speak of the view from outside of the subcontinent, traced from at least three millennia before the present, and indicating a widening spatial conceptualisation over time. Photo: The Hindu archives

Mohammad Habib. He talked of the role of the modern state for the furtherance of history writing: it was to only be a facilitator in the sense of creating and funding institutions for habilitating the discipline, and to have no role whatsoever in influencing the historian’s craft.

Amir Khusrau. Irfan Habib refers to the pride in the land and its culture evinced in the writings of Amir Khusrau in the early 14th century, particularly with reference to the Nuh Sipihr, and the awareness that Hind comprised different ethnicities and cultures speaking Dhaur-samunduri (Kannada), Telangi (Telugu) and Ma‘bari (Tamil).

Satish Chandra , medieval historian. Many historians in post-independent India consciously tried to focus on issues of syncretism in the past—mingling of cults, belief systems, rituals, ideas, cultures and civilisational ethos. Satish Chandra informs us that this was not meant in any way to obfuscate historical realities of strife and conflict.

One of the greatest issues for historians has been the geographical understanding of India, as well as its cultural and civilisational edifice. While a sense of unity, spatially, culturally or in religious terms, may have contributed to the idea of India as it exists today, modern Indian ethos rests on more than a unified historical consciousness.

THE term ‘Indian history’ is deceptively simple at first sight, so much so that we take it as a given rather than as a point of reflection: it assays a study of the past of the Indian subcontinent. But is it merely the territorial entity that we know of as India today that provides a geographical marker for the study of the past or is there something ‘Indian’ about that history that predates the modern entity that is India? Serious practitioners of the discipline, generally with a vast experience and expertise in the field, have presented interesting views on the subject of how to write a history of this vast subcontinent, and have also delved into the issue of the imperatives of the present affecting our reading of the past, including whether the idea of India was a modern construct or had its roots in the past. An important element in these reflections is the engagement with truth and objectivity on the one hand and, on the other, the historian’s social responsibility, which are inextricably tied together but may cause serious discomfort. Some of the historians concerned have been at the receiving end of societal ire and paid a huge personal price in some instances.

Here, we would do well to recollect the prophetic words of the British historian Eric Hobsbawm in the collection of essays, On History, on ‘telling the truth about history’. He argues: “The point from which historians must start, however far from it they may end, is the fundamental and, for them, absolutely central distinction between establishable fact and fiction, between historical statements based on evidence and subject to evidence and those which are not.” The fashionable and now politically correct position that all views are valid, whether based on fact or fiction, myth or history, hard evidence or deep sentiment, is rejected by Hobsbawm. Historians trained in the methodology of collection, collation and analysis of data, be they literary texts, inscriptions, art and architecture, archival documents, visual archives, and so on, have in India and elsewhere largely subscribed to this understanding.

As early as in 1935, Shafa’at Ahmad Khan, in his presidential address to the first All India Modern History (AIMH) Congress, warned of the dangers lurking in the background for the discipline of history, of potentates and dictators seeking to control the writing of history, and luring the historian away from a scientific and impartial history. He also highlighted the issue of sources and how to analyse them, particularly when they are full of legendary material or present bigoted views. “Should history be tied to the chariot wheels of perverted sectionalism, deriving its strength from a mass of passionate material” or should there be an attempt at seeking the truth, which does not depend on one view that accentuates or emphasises differences but on a variety of sources? The nation in the making and the vision of independent India were clearly tied to his understanding of the historian’s craft.

Mohammad Habib, along the same lines, underscored this commitment more evocatively, when he placed the dilemma of the lack of historical sources, gaps within them and personal prejudices in the interpretation of these sources as the greatest obstacles in the path of the historian committed to the truth. Addressing the Indian History Congress, the organised body of historians that derived from the AIMH congress, in 1947, he quoted a Persian text on the export of history from the academy to the bazaars, and that shopkeepers, with little actual understanding of context, passed judgements and peddled them willy-nilly. Importantly, Mohammad Habib talked of the role of the modern state for the furtherance of history writing: it was to only be a facilitator in the sense of creating and funding institutions for habilitating the discipline, and to have no role whatsoever in influencing the historian’s craft. Shafa’at Khan and Mohammad Habib were located in a colonial context, sympathetic to the anti-colonial freedom struggle, and were acutely aware of the imperatives of historical consciousness, and that of the nation in the making.

One of the greatest issues for them and for subsequent generations of historians has been the geographical understanding of India, as well as its cultural and civilisational edifice. Many of them believed that the geographical unity of India was well-known from early times. Mohammad Habib is poetic in his description of the fundamental unity of the country: as the sacred land where black-eyed gazelles grazed, the munja grass grew, and pan (betel) leaf was eaten, where the material and spiritual blended seamlessly. But, he cautioned, the character of this unity had varied from age to age. What was this unity that he was referring to? Was it defined in geographical terms? Or, was it not so much a unity as an identity of a geographical space that was being alluded to?

A land comprising five regions, namely the east, south, west, north and middle, is known to the composers of the pre-Buddhist early first millennium text, Aitareya Brāhmaṇa; only two of these regions are described with specific politico-territorial associations: the Uttara Kurus and Uttara Madras to the north, and the Kuru-Pancalas in the middle respectively [Aitareya Bhahmana 8.14], and it is the madhyama diś/ middle direction that is considered the centre in later texts. By the early centuries of the first millennium, a more detailed description of land and people can be found; Kalidasa in the middle of this millennium best demonstrates this–a subcontinental identity from the Himalayas to Kanyakumari, and from the western seaboard to the eastern bay is articulated. Equally interesting to note is that the descriptions in texts such as Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa indicate different regions, rivers, forests, and the people who lived there. Again, lands and people beyond these known regions were also alluded to, often in a general and passing manner as in the case of the Kirātas, generally treated as barbarian tribes outside the pale of brahmanical society. A wonderful but little known or referred to compendium, A Sourcebook of Indian Civilization, brings to our attention several textual descriptions of this sort that clearly indicate an increasing and more accurate awareness of the geographical unity of the subcontinent. Babur Nama and A’in-i-Akbari are also cited for their reference to more specific geographical markers of ‘Hindustan’. But did this knowledge constitute Mohammad Habib’s fundamental unity of the country? The editor of the aforesaid compendium is of the opinion that despite such knowledge, any concrete unity remained to be conceptualised only in the British colonial context.

Different Regional perception

A term that appears in a fairly early context is Bhāratavarṣa, in common as well as academic parlance understood to encapsulate the idea of India as we know of it today. While the authors mentioned earlier do not refer to it specifically they seem to be cognizant of it. Texts such as Viṣṇu Purāṇa mention it as the country north of the ocean and south of the snow-capped mountains where the descendants of Bharata resided. There were nine broad regions, seven mountains, several sub-regions and a number of states and people in this varṇaṇam, or description, along with a cosmographic vision of its emplacement. B.D. Chattopadhyaya in his masterly analysis of this concept argues that since Bhāratavarṣa was part of a much larger design, it would methodologically be incorrect to plot a geographical or cultural realistic spatial configuration on the basis of this. He concludes that the close association between rulers and their lineages with the varṣa or territory may be linked to other conceptualisations as well, such as the conquest of the directions—the digvijaya. So, again, the neat collapsing of Bhāratavarṣa with modern Bharat/India is cautioned against. Clearly, this makes sense when we consider that even geographically significant regions within this conceptual outline barely find a place, while some are conspicuously absent. So, although Kalinga is mentioned, albeit in the southern direction, it is understandable that the great Kharavela of the Chedi dynasty who ruled this region in the second-first century BCE boasts in the famous Prakrit Hathigumpha inscription about his sending of armies to, and subsequent conquest of, Bhāratavasa/varṣa. In other words, while the knowledge of Kalinga is visible in Puranic geographies, the regional perception is different. While scholars see the reference to Maṇipura in the Arjuṇa-vanavāsa sections of the Ādi Parva as corresponding to modern Manipur, and the references to Prāgjyotiṣa or Kāmarūpa as knowledge of modern Assam, which of course is incorrect as it is only a partial one, what constitutes the rest of the north-eastern States of modern India are outside the ken of the brahmanical knowledge-keepers.

View from outside

Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib, among others, speak of the view from outside of the subcontinent, traced from at least three millennia before the present, and indicating a widening spatial conceptualisation over time. The Iranian Avesta denotes the Indus and its tributaries, known in the Rg Veda as saptasindhu, as heptahindu. The Daiva record of the Achaemenid ruler Xerxes (c. 484 BCE) from Iran mentions Hiduš, which is believed to be a reference to the lands around the Indus/Sindhu river. The Greek ‘India’ was possibly derived from the Iranian usage; while the term Hindustan was seen as purely a descriptive category of the land beyond the Indus. The designation of a religio-cultural identity as Hindu was limited in medieval times, and was essentially a modern colonial invention as D.N. Jha and others have shown. Irfan Habib refers to the pride in the land and its culture evinced in the writings of Amīr Khusrau in the early 14th century, particularly with reference to the Nuh Sipihr, and the awareness that Hind comprised different ethnicities and cultures speaking Dhaur-samunduri (Kannada), Telangi (Telugu) and Mabari (Tamil). He sees this pride in the rich diversity and inter-weaving of cultures, which he defines in civilisational terms as Indian and Islamic, as accentuated in the Mughal emperor Akbar’s time, as defined in the text par excellence of those times mentioned earlier, A’in-i-Akbari.

Shireen Moosvi distinguishes the narrow descriptions and understanding of the country and its customs in Alberuni’s Kitāb-al-Hind¸ which she attributes to the decline of Buddhism, from later Arabic and Persian sources, where the process of assimilation, diversity and harmony at work due to the influx of new cultural variants, could be gleaned. She also refers to Amīr Khusrau’s pride in being a Hindustāni Turk speaking Hindwi rather than Arabic. She draws out the early Iranian influences that shaped Khusrau and others in identifying the subcontinent with three great achievements that it gifted the world: the decimal system, Pañcatantra and chess. One of the foremost scholars who has studied Akbar’s reign, Shireen Moosvi argues that Akbar’s Sulh-i-Kul was a principle of absolute peace that was conceived to govern a religiously diverse people. Again, without over-emphasising the point, there are gaps in both geographical and cultural knowledge in these sources when compared with the coordinates of modern India. To be fair to the scholars mentioned here, nowhere do they claim this; in fact, Irfan Habib is at pains to point out that there was a step by step evolution of the idea of India, and even then this historical consciousness that we encounter by no means reflected today’s idea of India. Shireen Moosvi also draws our attention to the fact that the many accounts of India in the late medieval period were essentially political annals, and hence it is in the sense of a politically congruent region that they began to refer to Hindustān.

It has become a fashion to talk of pilgrimage in the brahmanical (read Hindu) tradition, with the development of the epic-Puranic traditions, as evoking a sense of spatial unity and cultural coherence. R.G. Bhandarkar’s study of sectarian traditions developing around the worship of Śiva and Viṣṇu remains a path-breaking work that points us in this direction. The idea of spatial and cultural identity lent by pilgrimage is too general an assertion and needs to be contextualised. In my reading of pilgrimage in Tamil literature and inscriptions, I have pointed out that while the knowledge of sacred places and landscapes, real and mythical, existed in the Sanskritic Tamil traditions, the awareness was limited; more importantly, the concern was with the regional pilgrimage centres and that is where the legendary and historical information about place, cults, worship and ritual can be situated. Even where Puranic myths related to gods and goddesses are referred to, these are situated within narrow spatial parameters, what Friedhelm Hardy brilliantly discusses in terms of the ‘localisation of the transcendental’. So, Śiva’s cosmic dance, his feats vis-a-vis the asuras/demons, his marriage to goddesses (a wonderful study on this theme is by David Shulman) find a place within a Tamil cosmography that includes references to the mythical Meru and Jambudvīpa, which are part of the cosmography in the Sanskrit Purāṇas. But clearly, these are naturalised within the Tamil regional landscapes, creating a sacred geography that strengthens pilgrimage within, and the institutional hold over, the specific tradition in the region. To talk, then, of India’s sacred geography in uncritical or simplistic terms certainly goes against the historian’s methodology and training.

Varna-jati structure

Finally, a theme that is rarely touched upon when we talk of unity of Indian identity is the caste system, and how it may be understood as a pan-Indian phenomenon. The varṇa-jāti structure has generally been studied through the writings of brāhmaṇa ideologues, who sought to define and justify social hierarchy and exploitation. R.S. Sharma’s masterly survey of the śūdras in ancient India has demonstrated how this particular group, which stood at the bottom of the social ladder, was meant to serve the upper three varṇas in the four-fold system—the brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya and vaiśya, and that various literary texts of the śramaṇas (Jainas and Buddhists) and brāhmaṇas refer to the exploitation of the labour and services of the śūdras. Rejecting the idea of unchanging caste hierarchy and status, Sharma brings to our notice the variations over time, instances of upward mobility and the inclusion of more and more castes within this category in newer areas beyond the northern Indian plains, indicating processes of assimilation and accommodation.

We also witness some social mobility, as by the turn of the Common Era the śūdras began to be clubbed with the vaiśyas, which also indicated the status decline of the latter to some extent. The view is of the brāhmaṇa/upper castes, and the ideological apparatus evoked notions of purity and pollution to legitimise the hierarchy, and while the social system of ordering definitely benefitted the elites, there were transformations over time. So, the śūdras could be ministers and kings, or designated as agriculturists in some contexts, and those dealing with corpses, leather tanning and menial work were designated untouchables. In regional contexts, the process of castefication may have been different; but the idea of social and ritual differential and hierarchical status was firmly entrenched. Romila Thapar sees varṇa as ritual status and jāti as hereditary groups with their own rules relating to marriage and food, and situated hierarchically with each other, and that both categories possibly had different origins. This would explain the specificity of some jātis in regional contexts whereas the varṇa was known over a broader area where Sanskritic culture prevailed.

Role of brahmanas

In the Tamil region, K.R. Hanumanthan, investigating the evolution of caste and specifically untouchability in early literature, indicated that the brahmanical domination in the region was co-terminus with the growth of caste-based segregation and exploitation. R. Champakalakshmi in the same region sees the brāhmaṇa and non-brāhmaṇa as the two broad varṇas at the time of state formation in the region around the 6th century CE; the veḷḷāḷa, or peasants, were the dominant community whose influence in state and society was pervasive. K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, Burton Stein, Arjun Appadurai and others bring to our attention the unique jāti formation here—the vertical division of castes into valaṅkai and iṭaṅkai (right and left hand) groups.

Be it Odisha, Kerala, Bengal or Kashmir, the one feature that stands out is the ubiquitous presence of the brāhmaṇa, and in several regions the Buddhist sangha may have also contributed to the assimilation of this social framework of varṇa and jāti. The idea of India then, with similarities in conceptualisation and gaps in definitive knowledge, could be owed to this particular category of ideologues, the brāhmaṇas, and the social-ritual prescriptions they espoused. Did such an idea represent the tribes, the communities not governed by brahmanical ideas and values systems such as the followers of Islam or Christianity (both present in parts of the subcontinent almost since their respective inception)? Did the brahmanical Bhāratavarṣa include the people who were apparently assimilated as jātis and placed within the varṇa ritual hierarchy but who continued to hold their own beliefs and practices? Is this idea of India that we get from a narrow worldview, no matter how poetic its expression and wide its circulation in the realms of power, also reflective of the worldviews of those who travelled and lived, possibly even settled, across the seas as merchants, devotees, militia men? Can this idea reflect a sense of belonging of the last one – the antyaja/ śūdra, and those beyond the social pale, the untouchable caṇḍāla?

Our affinities culturally and linguistically towards western and central Asia are well-known and documented by historians and other specialists using a range of archaeological, genetic and other evidence; those whose speculations and claims to the contrary abound have yet to submit verifiable data or arguments. More worrisome is that those with neither the specialised knowledge nor training are making claims about various complex historical issues such as the Aryan-Dravidian identity, identity of the Sarasvati river, the Indo-Aryan origins, Harappan civilization, etc.—these are reminiscent of the shopkeepers peddling history in the bazaars that the aforementioned medieval Persian text described.

Connected histories

Coming back to the issue of diversity and the different levels at which the past can be understood, the movement of religious ideas and institutions outside the subcontinent is so well-attested and irrefutable, and we can clearly see that there are streams of connectivity that enrich ideas of Indian civilisation and identity, be they pilgrims’ accounts in the land of the Buddha, and the development of Buddhist knowledge in Sri Lanka, Tibet, South-East Asia and China. Connected histories can also be seen in movements of commodities such as spices and silks, and people, from and to the peninsula, the north-west or the eastern seaboard through Iran, Iraq, the Mediterranean on the one side, and Central Asia, China, etc. on the other; as well as in the art and architectural ‘borrowings’ and innovations seen in the Buddhist stūpas and images, in toraṇa gateways and in motifs such as the kīrtimukhas. Can we as historians still seek an idea of India in the singular, enclosed within subcontinental bounds? What about the question of gender, the firm yoking of patriarchy to caste, religion and community, as pointed out by Uma Chakravarti, Suvira Jaiswal and Kumkum Roy? Whether we see women as a homogenous group or as imbricated within caste and other social identities, were they also claimants to the idea of India? Can we override the issue of the proponents of a Sanskritic hegemonic view of India belonging to the elite classes, or that other castes and communities may have had a different view of India and of their location in space and time? Neither the brahmanical view nor caste can be understood as unchanging and ossified, and for historians this element of change along with certain aspects of continuity is extremely significant in understanding the history of ideas. The idea of India is one such that needs to be complicated.

Many historians in post-independent India consciously tried to focus on issues of syncretism in the past—mingling of cults, belief systems, rituals, ideas, cultures and civilisational ethos. The medieval historian Satish Chandra informs us that this was not meant in any way to obfuscate historical realities of strife and conflict. Such an understanding must be linked to Irfan Habib’s discussion of the context in which the shaping of a historical consciousness occurred, what Benedict Anderson had popularised as imagined communities.

Recent critiques have lost the sensitivity towards this context, and violence, conflicts, or fault lines become the overarching trope in representations of Indian history. While such critiques and revisions are essential for the discipline and its practitioners, they have to be embedded in sources and interpretations based on that context, rather than deriving from contemporary situations or viewed through current lenses.

In conclusion, while a sense of unity, spatially, culturally or in religious terms, may have contributed to our understanding of India as it exists today, modern Indian ethos rests on more than a unified historical consciousness, however one-sided, faulty or misplaced that may be. Bipan Chandra and Mridula Mukherjee, historians of modern India, have repeatedly drawn our attention to the vision of the Indian national movement, articulated by so many great women and men in different tongues and emphasising specific elements more than others, but all very clear that equality, dignity, freedom of expression and diversity were to be the pivot on which the idea of India rested. The struggle for independence also opened up avenues for disavowal of pre-existing ideas and assimilation of new ones, including those relating to women’s rights and the abolition of caste discrimination. The colonial context in the configuring of modern Indian borders cannot be understated, and the new India was as much of the citizen in Nagaland or Mizoram, absent in hegemonic historical imaginations, as of Kashmir or Gujarat.

It becomes imperative then that we do not allow our histories to be yoked to the ‘chariots of sectionalism’ that Shafa’at Ahmad Khan warned us about in our seeking of the idea of India, or, as Shireen Moosvi cautioned, get swept by the hostile winds in the form of distorted interpretations of India’s past, but instead follow in the wake of serious scholarship, whether to take forward or critique earlier interpretations. That historians over the past century have grappled with this question, sometimes agreeing with one another and also opening up new lines of thinking, reveals the possibilities for more nuanced and detailed historical interpretations.

R. Mahalakshmi is Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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