Book Excerpt: 'Retelling Time: Alternative Temporalities from Premodern South Asia'

Print edition : April 08, 2022

“..., the essays in “Retelling Time” are ... widely representative in that they examine the question of time in multiple languages and dialects viz. Sanskrit, Persian, Pali, Prakrit (Ardha-magadhi), Awadhi, Malayalam, Kannada, and Bengali, and relate to an equally wide range of traditions viz. Hindu, Jaina, Buddhist and Sufi Islam to logic, yoga, tantra, theatre, and poetics.” Here, a Krishnanaattam and Kutiyattam performance in Chennai on December 1, 2019. Photo: M. Karunakaran

An excerpt from the introduction (“Temporality and Its Discontents Or Why Time Needs to be Retold”) of the book 'Retelling Time: Alternative Temporalities from Premodern South Asia'.

WHAT is time? Reams of scholarship have long concluded that time, like one’s shadow, may be that which most eludes the grasp of comprehension the more one tries to capture it. It cannot be known by either its affirmation (time is this) or its negation (time is not this). It is a point but also a duration. It is measurable but measureless. It finishes but does not end. It is absolute but relative. Objective but subjective. One could go on.

Something so elusive has also, however, along with space, attained in the modern world the status of a fundamental dimension of existence—a measure and frame of all action and inaction, of change and of movement, of progress and growth, and thereby of life and vitality itself. A first principle, if ever there was one.

And yet—is time even real? Unlike space, does it have an existence, not to ask substance, in and of itself, independent of experience or even apprehendible through the five forms of sensory perception? It may be reasonable to assert that it does not. In other words, there is no clarity about the ontological status of time. And this, together with the large number of paradoxes or aporia about it, only some of which are listed above, suggests that it is highly likely that time has been little more than a human construct. Further, the same qualities undermine the assumption of its given-ness.

Not counting natural cycles and rhythms, time, as a human construct, may well be as Norbert Elias put it, ‘first and foremost the medium of orientation for the social world, regulating it in relation to human life’ (Elias 1988: ix). Indeed this is precisely the awareness that thinking with the term ‘temporalities’ has effected: namely, the inseparability of time from human, rather than natural, configurations. But which social world or human configuration do we speak of? As such, and as this volume will also argue, it may be productive to think about time through its functions, its fields of operation, or its contextualisation (Lebovic 2010: 282)—and thereby through its multiplicity. However, while some have influentially argued that the discovery of this subjective multiplicity of time is itself a product of modernity (Koselleck 2002: 110-111), Retelling Time contests this, demonstrating instead premodernity’s indubitable, deep and prolific engagement with the many faces and functions of time.

We call these the alternative temporalities of premodernity—the word ‘alternative’ an allusion to something that was certainly the product of modernity, namely, the invention and imposition all over the world of a single, universal standard of time, aptly described by Francois Hartog as a regime (Hartog 2003, 2013). The metaphor of regime implies an ordered and ordering nexus of powers, a dominion in and through which historical actors seek to control space by mastering time (Lianeri 2014: 605). Likewise, the modern regime of temporality was a mode of governing time and thereby peoples who were brought, or in other ways came, under its sway.

Emerging out of 18th century Western Europe, the modern regime of temporality, also known as Hegelian or Newtonian time, was characterised by proclamations of the homogeneity, discreteness, linearity, directionality (progress to the future), immanence and absoluteness of time. It was operationalised through techniques and mechanisms like the Greenwich Mean Time (1884), the Gregorian Calendar (spread between 1582-1882), and the Before Christ/Anno Domini mode of chronology-marking, to give but a few examples. So whether it was quotidian time we are speaking of or historical time, there was—and still is—but one, uniform measure applied across the entire modern world. In homes and in factories, in classrooms and in offices, in the field and in the marketplace, the time of modernity came to rule.

Further, it was experienced by much of the non-European world as a project of colonialism, complete with its irruptive political violence that was predicated on the delegitimation and destruction of the premodern past and the construction of a victorious ‘present’ which, given the apogee of human historical development the modern stood for, brooked no alternatives. This was the modern dominant narrative of ‘rupture and progress’….

The politics underwriting this modern regime of time and its close fit with the ends of Empire should thus be evident. As Helge Jordheim reminds us, it birthed an entire vocabulary of delays, lags, and accelerations, as evidenced in terms like the ‘first world’ and ‘third world’, ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries, and so on, used consistently right into our times to signal global orders and disorders (Jordheim 2014: 513). The colonial spatialisation of time, and juxtaposition of temporal difference onto cultural difference, achieved the inferiorisation of local life-worlds as unequal to the European standard. And this is why in this volume we define the premodern as coterminous with the precolonial in South Asia.


Since much of the debate on time in the West has, unlike in this volume, tended to become a reckoning with historical time, a word on history is due at this juncture. Though this volume tries to rescue time from the thrall of history and go well beyond it, it begs stating that history as a discipline, which is another product of post-Enlightenment modernity, has been a crucial agent of the project of constructing and valorising a colonial epistemology at the cost of local historical modes of premodernity. This is especially and amply demonstrable in South Asia (Kaul 2018).

What’s more, the project of history has outlasted Empire itself by enshrining a deeply empiricist and exclusionary self-definition as hegemonic in academia across the world till today. This definition papers over and brackets out the multiple visions and purposes of representing the past that flourished in premodern South Asia, with their emphasis on the didactic and the ethical, for example, and the use of figurative and mythical registers, over and above the documentary function of history. Instead, the modern ‘global’ discipline of history set up the tyranny of the ‘fact’, of scientific method, chronology (dates and precedence!), objectivity and rational causality—prime but fraught emblems of a ‘modern/Western’ intellect—whether or not these were material to the logic of the intellectual cultures on which these were imposed. In classic circularity, these non-European, premodern cultures and their texts ended up being heavily misinterpreted in the process, furthering the production of the colonial Other.

From E.H. Carr and R.G. Collingwood to Leon Goldstein, David Carr, Hayden White, Paul Ricouer and others, much has been written by way of debunking this Rankean positivism, which found its way from the Continent to the colonies via European imperialists and orientalists alike throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and was internalised gospel-like by South Asian historians in a scramble for coevality with the West. The contemporary avatar of historicism too has come in for a fair share of critique. But make no mistake, the modern lives and thrives even in the postmodern world in the form of the ‘disciplinary essentialism’ and ‘methodological fetishism’ enforced in and through history departments and historical praxis across the world and (therefore?) certainly across South Asian academies (Kleinberg et al. 2018). Most attempts to intervene and self-correct on the part of practitioners and pedagogues of history are likely to be met with an obdurate anxiety about unscientifism, nativism and reaction. In today’s polarised politics in South Asia and the West alike, especially if premodern Indian classical or vernacular traditions or alternatives of history are invoked, charges of cultural chauvinism or cultural nationalism are not hard to come by either.

It takes no labouring to see that central to this project of history is the modern regime of time—linear, uniform, progressive, strictly diachronic, profane, immanent time. Certainly this regime too has come in for handsome and multilinear critique from recent postmodern/postcolonial scholarship. The concepts of the anthropocene and deep time of climate change, of presentism, memory studies, the global contemporary, and of heterochronicities, among others….

In any case, just as modern time emerged from what a scholar has called our ‘obsession with certain theatres of theorising time’—a thinly veiled reference to the hold of German, French and American scholars on the field for the last hundred years and more—few of the challenges or critiques of modern time have originated from the non-West either. Those that have, perhaps, never get the same audience or reach. In any case, as Neil Lazarus put it, ‘the West names not a geographical location but an episteme or line of vision’ (Lazarus 2011: 98). It could have votaries and mediaries anywhere in the world.

Retelling Time departs from both these trends in taking on the limits and finality of the modern regime of time: its challenge is mounted not from the Western episteme at all but from South Asian traditions, and on behalf of the premodern rather than the postmodern world. The premodern, after all, suffered the greatest epistemic violence at the hands of the colonising modern; postcolonialists, then, need not have reinvented the wheel of time but merely dug deep into the bottomless reservoirs of…. South Asian knowledge systems. In so far as critics of modernity may have overlooked or abandoned the premodern, they have perpetuated the sins of modernity and left behind an unfinished task.

In contrast, defying a priori concerns over nativism and the like to which such an attempt is deemed susceptible, this volume presents a bouquet of alternative temporalities from premodern South Asia, which stem from an array of world views, epistemologies and ontologies that have been systematically marginalised and invisibilised thus far. This volume may therefore be understood as positioning itself within the discourse of the Global South.

What does that mean? For reasons explained at the beginning of this essay, it is possible to see that the way we figure time, figures us (Terdiman 2008: 142) and, further, that temporal assumptions and habits may shape entire fields of knowledge. Hence for this volume, time helps formulate a political challenge which, in engaging the hegemony of the time of colonial modernity and its concomitant weltenschauung, embraces a number of alternative visions of time from the non-modern, South Asian world, without committing the volume to any one in particular. Their challenge is collective. This volume thus seeks to ‘deoccidentalise’ yet again, and desync from modernity, our ways of seeing and knowing the world and our place in it, for which the diagnostic of time offers a fundamental opportunity. It does not seek, however, to propose any substitute, unitary dogma.

Retelling Time aims perhaps higher than that. It seeks to problematise how we think about something as foundational as time, rather than bracket away other understandings of it as niche or exotic. In presenting variegated, viable yet radical South Asian alternatives to doing time and history, and in asking that these premodern ways of knowing and being find a natural place in international discourses, this volume seeks to confound long-lasting and all-pervasive global regimes of thought and pedagogy in the hope that a non-sovereign intellectual world-order may yet be within reach.


… While the international field of ‘regional history’ or ‘area studies’—departments where the study of non-Western societies (Asia, Africa and Latin America) are typically consigned (confined?) internationally—may admit of distinctive histories arising from different spatialities; social sciences the world over … still seem to work with the premise of a uniform global time….

Retelling Time is an attempt to reopen this question for South Asia via a series of case studies that interrogate a range of premodern South Asian classical and vernacular genres of thought and language-use for their alternative conceptions and practices of time. These include alamkara, theravada, yoga, rāmakathā, tasawwuf, āyāramga, purāna, trikā-tantra, navya-nyāya, pratyabhijñā, carita, kūtīyāttam, and mangala kāvya. Some of these relate to not just textual but oral and performative genres. Further, without being comprehensive (an unachievable goal if ever there was one, given the linguistic and intellectual prolixity in South Asia), the essays in Retelling Time are nonetheless widely representative in that they examine the question of time in multiple languages and dialects: viz. Sanskrit, Persian, Pali, Prakrit (Ardha-magadhi), Awadhi, Malayalam, Kannada, and Bengali, and relate to an equally wide range of traditions viz. Hindu, Jaina, Buddhist and Sufi Islam to logic, yoga, tantra, theatre, and poetics.

In every instance, these case studies depart from the modern Eurocentric belief in a homogenous, abbreviated, secular, empty and irreversible time. They propose instead vast, transcendent, eternal or recursive notions of time, and the reworking, stretching, collapsing, melding, and even ceasing and extinguishing of time … all of which are closely connected to deeper cosmologies and weltenschaungs ….

Given that time is crucial to how societies understand their pasts and themselves—their genealogies—the import of the clash between these alternative temporalities, it bears repetition, runs deeper than a concern for mere chronology; it represents alternative epistemologies and ontologies—and a multiplicity of them. One hastens to add, however, that this is not a resort to the familiar, if inaccurate, binaries of physics versus metaphysics, or materialism versus spiritualism, which replay the Orientalist stereotypes about the West and the East that this volume seeks to dismantle. (Indeed modern physics may today be suggesting radical things, such as the possibility that the past, present and future exist at the same time (!), which, fascinatingly, mirrors premodern notions of contemporaneity discussed in at least two chapters here). Such binaries would be highly reductive of the diversity of treatments of time and their multifarious contexts discussed … in Retelling Time.

….The point therefore is the multiplicity of premodern temporalities rather than merely their alterity….

In particular, given that about half the essays explore traditions of what may be called faith and spiritual practice, it must not be assumed that premodern time was essentially ‘religious’ time. Not only is the Judaeo-Christian category of ‘religion’ inapt for early South Asia; it would also misleadingly conflate discrete modes of thought and practice touched on in this book, such as devotionalism (Vaishnavism) on the one hand and monism (sufism, trikā-tantra) and gnosis (yoga) on the other, with different brands of a-theism and rejection of the soul (Jainism, Buddhism) in between…. And, as some of the chapters again show, tracing a fixed line between the sacred and the profane may not be a worthwhile pursuit either. It would overlook both the interpermeability of the two in premodern South Asia and their mutual autonomy.

In the same way, departing from most modern scholarship on time that is unable or unwilling to speak of it other than in relation to history, this volume is not primarily about historical time any more than it is exclusively about sacred time. For, as recent research has shown, history for the last two hundred years is really a construct and extension of modernity and its privileging of certitudes, verifiability and linearity, underwritten, in some measure, again by Semitic theologies and mensuration. In so far as history is studied between the covers of Retelling Time…, it is sought to be done in emic ways, uncovering endogenous understandings of it.

What does this volume propose then? In contrast to what Walter Benjamin called the ‘homogenous empty time’ of modernity, this volume is an attempt to understand time and expressions of time as serving certain functions—sometimes specific to their contexts and sometimes transcendental, but always foregrounding values. This is in fact the closest one can come to speaking of any dominant South Asian cultural subjectivity regarding time during premodernity….

Retelling Time therefore certainly looks at the sacred and the sotereological in premodern/non-modern South Asia, but also at the social, the aesthetic, the scientific, the historical, the fictional, and the performative—and often all of these in conversation with one other, mediated by an ethical paradigm. And in this context, time is a singularly apt category or analytic to frame this enquiry because it is naturally both social and spiritual, both quotidian and cosmic.

To reimagine time, and allow for South Asian varieties of it… is… to challenge colonial epistemic hierarchies, which remain firmly entrenched in pedagogic practice…, however much they may have been indicted in theory and rhetoric. This volume invokes the aspiration for a truly globalised knowledge order and makes a case for inviting premodern... South Asian knowledge systems to their well-earned place at the international high table of academia, especially but not only when such fundamentals of human experience and cognition as time are at debate….

Shonaleeka Kaul is Associate Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.