Peopling history

Print edition : December 01, 2006

A lively and insightful history of early India from the margins whose merit lies in the creative analysis of early Indian literature.

UMA CHAKRAVARTI'S Everyday Lives, Everyday Histories: Beyond the Kings and Brahmanas of `Ancient' India is a compilation of 14 essays from the author's considerable work on the history and historiography of early India. Though it brings together articles written by the historian-activist over two decades and published in various journals and collections, no element of staleness attaches to the book.

The credit for this goes in part to the quality of writing and analysis that uniformly characterises its contents. More significantly, the freshness of the work derives from the unified framework within which the essays are presented, the framework of "everyday lives, everyday histories" that makes explicit the book's agenda - a history of and from the margins. This book is therefore not a routine collection of a scholar's writings; it is a case for a new take on early Indian history.

As the title suggests, Uma Chakravarti's interest lies in going beyond the "kings and Brahmanas" of ancient India; that is, expanding our understanding of the past to issues and vantages other than those related to the elite and the orthodox.

This interest has stayed with the author from the days of her doctoral thesis, which she later formulated into her book The Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism. There she not only studied a heterodox ideology that counterpoised itself to the dominance of Vedic Brahminism, but also did so entirely through sources in Pali, a linguistic tradition which diverged from that of Sankrit, the archetypal language of early India.

It is appropriate that the use of Buddhist literature, which is believed to furnish a relatively popular and empirical perspective, and of texts in Pali, which is believed to have been a tongue commoners actually spoke, form the bedrock of nearly half the studies that figure in Everyday Lives.

These essays, then, represent a systematic exploration of what may be called alternative language sources.

The volume brings them within the mainstream of early Indian historical research, which has otherwise tended to be weighted in favour of traditional Sanskrit literature. I suggest that this attests the book's commitment to the margins in an interesting variant of the concept.

Interpreted more conventionally, the margins in early India, which include social groups such as low castes, outcastes and forest-dwelling tribes, have long, if inconsistently, drawn the attention of historians. What is refreshing about Everyday Lives is that it defines the notion of "the margins" creatively.

It does not, for instance, circumscribe it within the idea of location vis-a-vis the varna order, which Uma Chakravarti dismisses essentially as a theoretical construct, though without discounting the reality of caste exploitation. In the author's words: "... caste continues to be treated as the primary level of reality in the context of ancient Indian society. Further, it is sometimes treated as the only reality in social history. Use of the caste frame of reference alone is clearly inadequate because it does not sufficiently account for the material basis of society" (page 59).

She urges that looking at those social categories and relations among them "will contribute to a better understanding of the actual socio-economic conditions of the time... " Accordingly, for Uma Chakravarti "the margins ... came to be translated as labouring groups, including women who labour and women as a wider category" (page xxv). While these are not new categories of historical analysis, applying them to early India in a conscious and focussed way brings in an element of newness.

While the book's concentration on socio-economic subalterns enriches the historical gaze, it seems to carry with it an implicit presumption about so-called superalterns - Did Brahmins or merchants not have `everyday lives'? The book does not try adequately to address the question of the interplay of multiple bases of power, - ritual, political, social, economic and gender powers - which coexisted but did not necessarily coincide. Complex contrarian combinations of the ingredients of status, whether high or low or neither or both, were possible.

For example, individuals or groups could be placed high ritually but destitute economically; or degraded socially but powerful politically; or exalted socially and politically but subordinated sexually, and so on. Acknowledgement, if not exploration, of this fact is indispensable to finetune our understanding of the dynamics of the social system as a whole as well as of specific socio-economic groupings within it.

The isolation of margins (versus elites) for historical enquiry carries the tendency to promote a bisected view of the past that, though it performs the important function of bringing out the internally riven nature of the early social order, does not facilitate an appreciation of the plurality of historical reality; the possibility, for instance, of elites within the margins (and vice versa), or of groups, particularly royal clans, with ambiguous origins and therefore status, or of group and individual mobility on the socio-economic/ political/ritual scale.

Be that as it may, in keeping with the author's concerns, Everyday Lives includes both general discussions on and specific enquiries into the nature of stratification in early Indian society. Two essays on the social philosophy of Buddhism fall in the former category; they explore an alternative system of social classification from early historic India that challenged the Brahmanical model of hierarchy, only to develop its own principles of registering inequality.

Similarly, the piece on conceptualising "Brahmanical patriarchy" presents a lucid gendered reading of successive historical phases in early India. The essay offers a veritable blueprint for interrogating the past through a feminist lens. Moving away from questions of the "status" of women, whether high or low, to which earlier approaches were confined, Uma Chakravarti looks instead at "the structural framework of gender relations, i.e. the nature and basis of the subordination of women, and its extent and specific form in early Indian society". She argues strongly for the integral role of caste, class and state in the creation and enforcement of patriarchy through ingenious, orchestrated means ranging from the ideational to the coercive.

Interestingly, however, though Uma Chakravarti bases her reconstruction on Brahmanical texts such as the Manu Smriti, she acknowledges evidence of similar patriarchal thought and practice in Buddhist literature (pages 146, 154). In the event, the historical utility of labelling patriarchy in early India as Brahmanical, when it apparently cut across intellectual-ideological divides, is not clear. Moreover, she adduces evidence (such as the practice of niyoga or levirate) of control over female sexuality as being "firmly established" in the Rg Veda (pages 143). Considering that neither caste nor private property nor kingship nor any form of state is believed to be reflected in the Rg Veda, the subordination of women in Indian society seems to have predated the institutions Uma Chakravarti emphasises as forming its structural framework. Caste, class and state then appear to be accompanying, reinforcing, even moulding circumstances in the development of patriarchy but do not provide an exhaustive explanation of its origins.

Nevertheless, gender is clearly Uma Chakravarti's forte, which she exhibits with a relish that makes for vibrant studies of particular categories and images of women in Indian history. Thus we have a powerful and complex delineation of the material, cultural and sexual politics that drive the real and symbolic degradation of the widow to a state of "social death". We also have a beautiful exploration of the world of the bhaktin, the female devotee, in early south Indian traditions; it brings out the tension between the social and spiritual roles a woman must experience by virtue of being a woman, and analyses a variety of ways in which bhaktins negotiated the dichotomy without giving up the female identity constructed by the female body.

Everyday Lives is also notable for the specimens it carries of the author's engagement with gender issues in the Sanskrit epics. An essay explores the roles of myriad women in these texts and how these contributed to the authoritative construction of enduring feminine stereotypes, both ideal and deviant. It is a good reminder of the vast potential of Indian mythic literature - long maligned as a historian's nightmare - for encouraging exciting new ways of approaching our past.

This is reiterated in another piece where, drawing on the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the author attempts to open up the institution of the family to historical probing. She argues that the sacrosanct domestic domain, projected as an uncontested and harmonious preserve, was in fact the site of competing interests, both material and affective, and conflicts over power. This both underlines and qualifies the working of the principle of paternalistic dominance within the household, a theme that the essay could have dwelt on and developed.

The collection also contains two specific discussions of labouring groups. One is a diachronic study of servile labour in early India, prominent for the clarity it imposes on our understanding of various forms of unfree labour.

For example, drawing attention to the phenomenon of debt bondage, Uma Chakravarti writes: "While servitude existed within the framework of caste, the phenomenon of caste did not preclude the possibility of servitude existing outside it." The other essay seeks to sharpen the application of an analytical concept (of Western origin) such as `the peasant', to make for a more accurate comprehension of the diverse realties of the Indian context.

In an unconventional introduction to her book that can perhaps be described as an issue-based autobiographical sketch, the author offers a glimpse of what provoked and sustained her interest in documenting social inequity in history. Everyday Lives is, in her words, "an unashamed study of the past from the standpoint of the present" (pages xv). Her engagement with the women's movement and with civil libertarian/democratic causes of the present day inspires the questions she asks of the past.

This is a singular confession for a historian since, despite growing sensitivity to the essentially subjective and retrospective nature of history-writing, a potentially anachronistic investigation remains something of a cardinal error in the discipline. By proclaiming her `culpability' up front, Uma Chakravarti disarms would-be critics. More importantly, through sound research she brings legitimacy to the act of subjecting enquiries into the past to the concerns of the present.

Uma Chakravarti's introspection about the influences, particularly political, that have shaped her work over the decades reflects her inclination to contextualise historiography. This is on display in her essays too.

Particularly remarkable are a couple of articles that, in an interesting shift of the historian's gaze, examine two serials telecast on Doordarshan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which dealt with themes and traditions from early India. Thus Chandraprakash Dwivedi's Chanakya is critiqued as an exercise by the Indian state (as represented by Doordarshan) to highjack the past in the service of a right-wing Hindutva agenda to bolster the state through upper-caste prescriptions in the face of a "crisis of legitimacy" at the time. And Ramanand Sagar's Ramayan is shown to legitimate the political power of the ruling elite through its "rehabilitation of Rama", and reconstitute patriarchy in its presentation of female characters of the epic.

Uma Chakravarti's observations on these serials of many years ago are extremely skilful and thorough. However, stimulating though the arguments are, there is a tendency to over-read the situation, especially in the case of Chanakya. One wonders whether, Doordarshan's agency notwithstanding, an individual serial-maker's interpretation of the subject matter can be equated with the (sinister) designs of the state.

Further, can it always be insisted that all sections of society be represented in every narrative, as the author's lament over the invisibility of producing classes and women in Chanakya would suggest, irrespective of the tale's focus on statecraft and machinations within the (male) ruling class?

That Chanakya, being a teacher, a master-strategist and a Brahmana, would belong to "the intellectual elite" cannot be brushed aside, and if then the narrative focusses on his purported vision for society as a whole, it does not quite amount to "inventing a society that has no internal contradictions and no contestations".

The expose of the patriarchal leanings of Ramanand Sagar's Ramayan is more persuasive. However, it should be borne in mind that both this serial's anti-feminism and pro-monarchism and Chanakya's statism draw on ideological thrusts and thematic emphases contained in early Indian texts such as the Valmiki Ramayana and Kautilya's Arthashastra (on which the serials are based to a large extent). Therefore less `credit' may devolve on the modern-day exponents of these ideas than the author would have us believe.

If anything, the televised representations can be seen as a part of the history of retellings that have gathered around ancient Indian texts and traditions over the centuries. Each retelling, much like a work of history, carries its special concerns; whether these are on the right or the left of the ideological divide does not make them less or more legitimate.

All told, Everyday Lives is a history book with a difference: lively, pioneering and insightful. Its special merit lies in asserting the creative range of enquiries you can launch on the evidence of early Indian literature and, of course, in nudging the spotlight towards the underdog in history.

Uma Chakravarti's book is an argument for enlivening and peopling history. It is engaging fare for historians and non-historians alike.

Shonaleeka Kaul teaches at Miranda House, Delhi University.

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