New history of ancient past

Print edition : June 08, 2018

For Upinder Singh, the wilderness was conjoined with the state in a convoluted and complex way, fraught with tension and violence. B.N. Chattopadhyaya presents an equally striking discussion of not merely the normative state perception but in an attempt at inversion tries to locate the forest itself as state in ancient India. Photo: G. Karthikeyan

The three books foreground the importance of the present in formulating questions and agendas for the study of India’s historical past.

THE euphoria of the post-Independence Nehruvian era saw the celebration of the composite culture of India, in keeping with the nation-building agenda that had its roots in the freedom struggle since the late 19th century. Some of the Orientalist views on the greatness of India’s ancient past, the glories of specific periods and the achievements of dynasties and individual rulers held sway among the nationalist historians writing in the first quarter of the 20th century.

The institutional apparatuses that were colonial instruments of power, such as the Archaeological Survey of India, reiterated a certain Orientalist fascination for “Indian” culture and civilisation, particularly the spiritual element that was seen as the running thread weaving the rich and varied fabric of this subcontinent into a single tapestry. The term “the wonder that was India” coined by A.L. Basham, which was also the title of his book, in a way encapsulated the dominant historiographical position on the unity and integrity of the Indian civilisational ethos, despite its evolutionary layering.

Historians writing from the 1950s onwards dislocated the dynastic histories of the yesteryear and replaced it with a rich and nuanced discussion of the society and economy using the same literary, epigraphic and numismatic sources that erstwhile scholars had painstakingly scrutinised to work out chronologies of ruling lineages.

On the other side, the numerous wars and territorial conquests known from various sources were no longer understood only in terms of dynastic feats but also as the expansion of state-society concomitant with agrarian expansion, consolidated through revenue extraction and the social organisational framework of varṇa and jati. While the focus of attention shifted over the next few decades to specific themes such as gender and caste, or trade and urbanisation, these remained largely within this broad historiography.

However, since the turn of the new millennium, there has been a substantive centrifugal move that privileges identity, separateness and alternate histories.

Two-pronged approach

The three books under discussion, in a way, are enmeshed in this new historiography but in very different ways. Upinder Singh’s massive tome fits well within this new history, with her emphasis on violence as endemic to Indian society, through a reading of political articulations, assertions and achievements. In many ways, this work dovetails with the traditional dynastic histories, where the emphasis is on the source as history.

In other words, the literary texts, both prescriptive and narrative, provide ample evidence of varieties of polity and kingship, state structure and institutional apparatuses that Upinder Singh explores using the hermeneutic method to interrogate ideas, events and personalities as portrayed here. The author uses a two-pronged approach: examining the incidence of violence in ancient India and offering a critical view of the understanding of violence in philosophical and intellectual terms (page 11).

The first three chapters, titled “Foundations”, “Transitions” and “Maturity”, discuss issues of state formation and transformation in the time periods 6th-3rd century BCE, 2nd century BCE-3rd century CE, and 4th-6th centuries CE respectively. The running theme, of course, is the manner in which the state is predicated on violence. The fourth chapter focusses on the theoretical underpinnings of state-sponsored violence, while Chapter Five brings to the fore the clash between the state and non-state players, particularly in the context of the state’s extension of control into the wilderness/forests, and the transformation thereof.

B.D. Chattopadhyaya’s book is a collection of eight essays that appear to have been written at different points of time and for various occasions, which, however, fit together rather compactly, conveying a sense of urgency with respect to the interrogation of sources as well as some unhistorical “historical” claims in contemporary times. The author keeps his task simple and straight—to highlight the development and transformation of ideas, concepts and structures over time, with specific originary moments and changes located in historical contexts.

Forest as the ‘other’

Four of the essays (Chapters 1, 2, 7 and 8) relate to conceptions of historical geography, political regions and cultural spaces. The rest are largely concerned with political processes in specific contexts and in many ways overlap with the discussions in Upinder Singh’s work. For instance, the chapter on the forest in both works examines the apparent binary between the forest (Upinder Singh uses wilderness as the equivalent) and state society.

For Upinder Singh, the wilderness was conjoined with the state in a convoluted and complex way, fraught with tension and violence (page 370). The dual context of the hunt and the maintaining of territorial sovereignty prefigure the forest-state relationship. This is the most exciting chapter in the book in which we wade through over 90 pages of dense descriptions in texts such as the Ramayaṇa, the Mahabharata, Jatakas, Buddhacarita, Arthasastra, Kalidasa’s plays and the Asokan edicts to find a rich array of images and perceptions of the forest as “other” in the normative imagination.

Chattopadhyaya, in about 15 pages, presents an equally striking discussion of not merely the normative state perception but in an attempt at inversion tries to locate the forest itself as state in ancient India.

Rooted in historicism, it is not description but interpretation that directs the inquiry here. Chattopadhyaya begins with the beautiful Rg Vedic hymn (Mandala X, hymn 146) dedicated to aranyani—the lady of the wilderness. Even while praising her, the poet brings in similes of domesticity in the agricultural villages to tame the forest as it were, and suppress the fear he himself feels in the wilderness. While the mystique and primordiality of the forest may have been the cause for such a veneration as well as fear, the Brahmanical texts, Chattopadhyaya goes on to argue, very much situated the forest within the domain of the state (pages 59-60).

The liminality of the forest was both literal and metaphorical: it could easily be transformed with the expansion of state society once it entered the latter’s orbit as periphery or margin, and it could just as easily be understood as the dark, dangerous space that required the moral authority of the king to tame it. What was equally possible was that the forest was never completely wiped out or subsumed under the expansive state, and smaller nuclei of complex societies could emerge from within the forests, creating local political elites and structures, which retained their autonomy of sorts—the atavika rajya.

Given the biases of our sources, Chattopadhyaya presents a masterly technique of ferreting out the marginal from the mainstream without getting verbose.

The discussion on Rama

A theme that has been discussed several times over by scholars from the disciplinary backgrounds of Sanskrit literature and history is the conceptualisation of Rama as the ideal king in Valmiki’s Ramayaṇa.

Upinder Singh and Chattopadhyaya also pick up this theme for discussion and, although their methods and argumentation are quite different, both veer around to a similar position. Both are concerned with the inexplicable acts of Rama such as the killing of the monkey king Vali, the repudiation of Sita after the vanquishing and killing of Ravaṇa, and the beheading of the sudra Sambuka for performing tapas. Both agree that it is rajadharma that motivates Rama, despite several instances of his finer emotional expressions, to commit acts that are devious, intolerant and violent.

Chattopadhyaya draws the reader’s attention to the subordination of other dharmas, pronounced as important enough in the Dharmasastras for the king to protect them and allow them to thrive, in Valmiki’s Ramayaṇa (page 96). Particularly using the case of Vali, the author argues that this reflects the monarchical state’s view of the forest kingdoms and its (lack of) autonomy, thereby providing the rationale for Rama’s “immoral” act, which ironically stemmed from a moral positioning of kingship.

Upinder Singh’s reading circles around the issue of the king’s dharma, but follows the storyline closely to understand the lurking of political violence in the narrative. She reiterates an oft-repeated view about whether Rama was indeed a righteous king, and concludes that the two acts of killing Vali and abandoning Sita reflected the “chinks in his armour that save him from utter and tedious perfection and give the story an important element of tension and pathos” (page 87).

Chattopadhyaya’s chapter on festivals and rituals and their implications for the state is one of the most fascinating analyses of a variety of sources, such as those mentioned above as also the Kamasutra (c. 2nd century CE) and the 7th century Sanskrit play Ratnavali. Two terms are referred to in these texts— utsava and samaja/ samajja—to refer to festivities and gatherings. In one of the earliest references to the latter, the Mahabharata mentions the organisation of a samaja that was “agitated like the great ocean” because of the sheer numbers that gathered.

The occasion was the showing off of the accomplishments of the Paṇḍava and Kaurava princes. Similarly, in the Harivamsa, we hear of the samaja organised by Kamsa, the ruler of Mathura, to enable people to watch the wrestling bouts of Krishna and Balarama (page 142). Rituals also appeared to be a part of these spectacular festivities. The utsava had more of a ritualised content, and the same texts also mention various occasions as utsava.

In the organisation and overseeing as well as participation in the festivities, Chattopadhyaya locates the state’s assertion of authority, particularly as the upholder of social hierarchies. Our sources do occasionally indicate the rituals and festivities of ordinary folk, marked by revelry and orgiastic ritual, but equally assay their suitability for the elites or renunciates. This is seen in the Buddha’s admonition of monks who are believed to have participated in such samaja. For Chattopadhyaya, disorderliness and lurking danger in such unfettered festivities justified the state’s and societal control over ritual behaviour for ultimately it was the king who was meant to uphold the moral order.

Against the grain

D.N. Jha’s work comprising 10 essays is of a different order. It is deeply polemical, and this quality is also its strength. What ties the essays together is their fearless attack on the contemporary breast-beating and political whiplash against history and historians. The interrogation of sources to highlight dietary practices, communal agendas, colonial historiography and the contribution of pioneering scholars to the study of ancient India repeatedly bring to mind the aptness of the title of this work. The need for writing “against the grain” is rooted in our current context, when distortions and lies masquerade as history.

While both authors would possibly shudder at their works being compared, Jha’s essay on Brahmanical intolerance in ancient India brings in the question of endemic violence of sorts by refuting the imperialist understanding of India as the land of spirituality and tolerance, reminiscent of Upinder Singh’s arguments.

For Jha, the issue is tied to the Orientalist interpretations of the greatness of Indian civilisation perceived through the frame of Hinduism. He does not spare social reformers such as Raja Rammohan Roy and Dayanand Saraswati in his critique of the reification of Hindu identity, although the major part of his criticism is focussed on V.D. Savarkar, K.B. Hedgewar and M.S. Golwalkar. He also identifies exclusivist and vituperative tendencies in the writings of litterateurs such as Bankim Chandra and Bharatendu Harischandra, nationalists such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and scholars such as R.C. Majumdar and Jadunath Sarkar.

The essay on colonial historiography raises the issue of stereotypes that were propagated in the 19th century and continue in some respects into the present. Four such stereotypes are identified by Jha: the lack of historical consciousness; the antiquity and unchangingness of the Indian civilisation; Muslims as the outsider in Indian (read Hindu) society; and the spiritual and non-material inclination of ancient Indians. While refuting the ahistorical, xenophobic and obscurantist views, Jha rightly stresses the significance of mainstream historiography in post-Independence India, which has sought to interpret the evidence and present a dynamic view of historical processes in the Indian subcontinent.

The essays on D.D. Kosambi and R.S. Sharma are positioned to elaborate this view, and a critical analysis of their writings in terms of their understanding of contexts and changes is presented.

Upinder Singh, Chattopadhyaya and Jha present the very best of the analytical historiographical tradition of modern India, and their books foreground the importance of the present in formulating questions and agendas for the study of the historical past. The size, content and style of each of the books are distinctive, yet all three draw us into contemporary debates on how to view the ancient Indian past. Each is equally concerned with methodology and historical frameworks, contexts and generalisations, assumptions and misconceptions. Yet, there is a substantial difference in the way they approach these issues, and for this reason alone they must be read separately and together simultaneously. Jha’s work makes no pretension to be a typical academic one, in terms of the language, the lack of diacritics and the choice of themes.

As mentioned in the preface, these were mostly articles written in response to attacks by a political group on issues relating to identity and historical events and interpretations. Needless to say, Jha’s scholarship on ancient India is so well known that it is obvious that he seeks new or different, non-specialist audiences for this work.

Upinder Singh’s work is a typical scholarly work, although she also seeks non-specialist audiences by eschewing diacritics except for Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit terms. Some of the material has already been published by her in essays and books, and we also find considerable discussion that draws upon the works of other scholars; it is through the focus on political violence that Upinder Singh tries to string together already well-known and amply discussed themes and sources.

It is Chattopadhyaya’s work, the slimmest of the three, that really stands out as an academic gem for its thick description, intensity and rigour. The range of sources, the ability to zero in on core historical issues without diminishing the integrity of the source, and the ease with which the author straddles linguistic and disciplinary diversity is a lesson for all those engaged in history writing.

R. Mahalakshmi is professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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