'Kashmir and its endemic spirituality are timeless'

Print edition : March 16, 2018

Shonaleeka Kaul.

Interview with Shonaleeka Kaul, academic and author.

IT is difficult to slot Shonaleeka Kaul. Indeed, she defies easy description. At one level, she is a serious academic grooming the next generation of historians at the much-in-the-news Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. At another, she is a lover of Urdu and takes justifiable pride in her language skills. Although not formally trained under an aalim (scholar), she can certainly more than distinguish between qamar (moon) and kamar (waist), which is not something one can say about even some professional singers these days. She often responds to a query with ashaar (Urdu couplets), breaking all stereotypes of academics being just serious scholars of their chosen field of study.

Yet all this pales into the background when she speaks of Sanskrit, not just Sanskrit as a language of scriptures but Sanskrit as a language of administration, culture, even technology; all this at a time when a section of India is seeking to use the ancient language for saffronisation, reducing it to a mere tool of ideology. The insightful Imagining the Urban: Sanskrit and the City in Early India, which she penned in 2010, turned heads. More people are warming up to her latest book, The Making of Early Kashmir: Landscape and Identity in the Rajatarangini, published by Oxford University Press.

The book obviously delves into Kalhana’s landmark work of the 12th century. Rajatarangini was a trailblazer: it inspired at least three other works in subsequent centuries. It is still viewed critically for giving an identity, voice and expression to the transcendent “local culture”.

Not having quite finished with demolishing stereotypes with her Urdu, Shonaleeka Kaul goes on to do more than that with her writing, arguing forcefully that Sanskrit has been misunderstood in the past few centuries. Languages, she believes, are not mere instruments of power and politics.

Excerpts from the interview she gave Frontline between myriad other challenges waiting for her attention.

You argue in your latest book that Kalhana’s “Rajatarangini” is a piece of history because it is traditional Sanskrit poetry (“kavya”). Is it not hard to reconcile poetry with history? We have had the worst experience with Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s “Padmawat” recently.

The divide between history and poetry may, in fact, be a fallacious one and perhaps stems from a misunderstanding of both. It is also rather recent, inspired from post-Enlightenment objectivist notions in the West rather than from any ancient approaches to treating of the past. It is to a great extent the positivist legacy of Leopold von Ranke [1795-1886], who introduced this stress on facticity, objectivity and scientific method in history as if it were a physical science rather than a humanistic discipline.

It is interesting to note, however, that Ranke’s own contemporaries, other philosophers such as Hegel, Droysen, Nietzsche and Croce, all understood history writing as a literary art grounded in poetic intuition. More recently, after the postmodern turn, scholars such as Hayden White have convincingly shown that history is also a form of literature which would make no sense but for the coherence of the narrative form—“the plot structure”—which is the invention, no less, of the historian and on which he endows the past.

On the other side, literature is not necessarily fiction, although even fiction, I would argue, contains an intuitive grasp of symbolic truths. A.K. Ramanujan’s profound readings of ancient Sanskrit and Tamil texts have demonstrated this par excellence. So poetry is but another mode or form of representation of past realities, only more aesthetic than usual. As for history, there is happily now a growing awareness among scholars working on premodern, non-Western societies that what is history is not a universal given—in content or form—but a highly culture-specific understanding of time and what constitutes true knowledge of it. Of course, it is for the historian to devise sensitive and rigorous methods to read “poetry” for history.

What then was the idea of history in early India?

Honestly, we are only beginning to ask that question in earnest! It would be fair to say there was not one but multiple modes and practices of history in early India— itihasa, purana, charita, katha, kavya, vamshavali, and so on—which were, however, in conversation with one another. Among these, Sanskrit poetics ( alamkarashastra) invested in the epistemic authority of the poet ( kavi) as the historian by virtue of his seer-like qualities and intuition that enabled him to “see” ( pashya) the true nature of reality, including matters past ( bhutartha), and to do so without attachment or aversion ( ragadveshabahishkrita), as Rajatarangini states. The kavi had the qualities of both varnana [description] and darshana [insight]. Another feature of this historical vision, well illustrated by Rajatarangini, was its deeply ethical character.

A certain critical idealism and call to action [dharma, karma] imbued history in this form with a transcendental value over and above the more limited task of recording facts, and gave kavya-as-history a discursive and commentarial effect.

You claim that “Rajatarangini” is not a simple text but a composite type. Is it not at the end of the day simply kavya?

Ironically, most of 200 years of scholarship on Rajatarangini that celebrated it as objectivist history regarded it as anything but kavya! This displayed that anxiety over the history/poetry divide. They dismissed all aspects of figuration that were proper to it as traditional poetry, like rhetoric, myth, memory and didacticism, and the rich semantic possibilities in these, and extolled instead chronology and causality in the text—positivist qualities that were hardly central to the concerns of the genre itself. So the first thing The Making of Early Kashmir tries to do is rehabilitate Rajatarangini to its literary culture— kavya—and thereby access the wealth of meanings about Kashmir that it produced and preserved via its authentic representational strategies.

Now, the reason I call Rajatarangini a composite text rather than a simple kavya is the substantial intertextuality on display in it. Crucial postures and propositions of Rajatarangini are informed by other, pan-Indian Sanskrit literary and philosophical traditions such as shastra [prescriptive treatises on statecraft and law], niti [political and moral parables], itihasa [narratives on the past: the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, to be precise] and vamshavali [genealogy]. Rajatarangini may be seen to migrate among these genres and kavya—an act of literary virtuosity that also attests the felicity with which Kashmiri poets could wield the master texts and genres of the Sanskrit episteme.

There are inherent flaws in almost all historical accounts. They are written with the top-down approach, a kind of euphemism for praising the king. Do such blemishes make an appearance in “Rajatarangini”, too? You call it a political commentary.

Our understanding of ancient poets is rather supercilious. We believe them to be passive “house birds of patricians” prostrating before their almighty patrons and parroting what the elites would want to hear. We also assume that they were socially conservative. I have always wondered at this teleological double standard where modern intellectuals and litterateurs image themselves as critical, radical and speaking truth to power but are loath to extend the same possibilities to their ancient and medieval counterparts! In fact, as I have shown in my first book, Imagining the Urban: Sanskrit and the City in Early India, and as the work of Yigal Bronner and others has also brought out, there are any number of examples from Sanskrit literature where poets expose and stridently critique different forms of power in early India—that of the king, of priests, of patriarchy and of wealth.

Rajatarangini itself is a splendid example as Kalhana devotes far less space to eulogising virtuous kings than he does to critiquing wrongdoing ones, as well as lampooning the pompous among Brahmanas, and castigating degenerate or sycophantic courtiers and feudal chiefs. Moreover, his attack is in scathing terms, sometimes even using obscene and scatalogical language for the object of his contempt, which is highly unusual in Sanskrit poetry. While some regard this as a trademark cynicism, I believe it shows that for Kalhana ethics far outweighed aesthetics and social status.

Pluralism of Kashmir

Kalhana hails the pluralism of Kashmir, the coexistence of Saivas, Vaishnavas, Buddhists, etc. Why have our historians fallen short of highlighting this multilayered pluralism? I ask because long before we got the much-hailed Akbar, Kashmir gave us Zainul Abedin.

You’re right! And much before a Zainul Abedin, there was a Meghavahana, a Lalitaditya, an Avantivarman and a Jayasimha in Kashmir, all of those so eclectic in extending their support to multiple faiths. Moving still further back, there is epigraphic evidence from across India of not just kings but common people cross-subscribing to what we today think were discrete, watertight belief systems. There were also shared sacred spaces, such as seen at Ellora and Aihole. Indeed, simultaneous multiple religious affiliations in early India is pluralism at its fascinating best, yet it has not received its due in scholarship.

Historians tend to see culture excessively through the prism of power and, therefore, as a perennial site of conflict and competition. Such an approach perhaps forecloses the exploration of early Indian religions, as much as languages and literatures, on their own terms and through their own complex dynamics.

Why is it that in the annals of India, Kashmir is often treated as an outpost? I mean we hear more about Kushanas and Taxila, Kamarupa, Cheras and Ikshvakus than of the Kashmir of ancient or medieval India.

Exactly! The absence of Kashmir from school and college syllabi is shocking and is one of the reasons why there is so much ignorance about its history and legacy. Of course, it is not the only region of India to receive inadequate curricular coverage, and a contributory factor is certainly the lack of any recent, comprehensive history that would synthesise the entire gamut of historical evidence and present a genuine and complex narrative. But even so, here was a land that spearheaded virtually all intellectual and cultural movements of the Indian subcontinent for at least 1,500 years, if you count from just the 1st century C.E. onwards, and was acknowledged for it, both by other regions of India as far south as Tamilakam, as the work of Whitney Cox and others shows, and by lands beyond South Asia, like Tibet, Sogdia, Kucha, Yarkand, Turfan where it was Kashmiris that spread Indic knowledge and learning, especially Sarvastivada and Madhyamika Buddhism and Tantric Saivism, not to mention languages like Sanskrit and Prakrit, scripts like Brahmi, and Indic styles of art and architecture.

However, some historians have assumed the reverse. They have, as you correctly say, attributed the status of an outpost or periphery to Kashmir, as also an isolation and insularity vis-a-vis mainland India. In fact, however, a range of cultural markers from early Kashmir—archaeology, art, script, linguistics, foreign accounts, etc.,—question these assumptions and attest to her deep and extensive connections and mutual involvement not just with neighbouring areas like Punjab and Himachal but with centres of Indic civilisation in the deep interiors of India like Patna, Nalanda, Gaya, Banaras, Allahabad, Mathura, Malwa, Gauda (Bengal), till Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

This was cultural transmission and communication of incredible reach! Kashmiris looked to these places for politics, trade, education, asylum, employment, art, religion, philosophy, fashion and pilgrimage, while people from different parts of India travelled to and settled in Kashmir for the same reasons. So massive and crucial was Kashmir’s presence in Indic affairs, and vice versa, that I argue for moving away from the paradigm of “unique history” or “centre and periphery” to that of “connected histories” to correctly understand Kashmir’s civilisational centrality.

You describe Kashmir’s “regional selfhood” as something that transcended the limits of vernacularism. Is that not just another form of parochialism?

Not quite. The vernacular finds a peculiar expression and form in early Kashmir that makes it quite different from other regions. That form is cosmopolitan and universal, not parochial. Sheldon Pollock argued for the binary of cosmopolitan and vernacular languages and for the latter—like Kannada, Bengali, Gujarati, and so on—displacing the cosmopolitan language par excellence, Sanskrit, when regional kingdoms crystallised in different parts of India between 1000 and 1500 C.E. But Kashmir offers a stunning exception to this: she emerges on the discursive horizons of history with self-awareness as a region and a people—entirely in Sanskrit! Namely, Rajatarangini, which is the earliest extant articulation of Kashmiri selfhood. So much so that till today the Kashmiri names of places in the Valley are clearly derivatives of their Sanskrit names mentioned in Rajatarangini 900 years ago, displaying a remarkable persistence of culture despite the odds. And Rajatarangini is not even the first form this took; in what is often glossed over, the text itself names a long and like tradition of texts, also evidently in Sanskrit, that narrated the history of Kashmir long before Kalhana.

When you add to this fact all the other geo-cultural synchonicities with the rest of the subcontinent, it suggests that early Kashmir presents an understanding of regions as perforated entities: “nodes gathering spatial flows and connectivities that stretched far in time and space”. Hardly perceived as threatening, this constitutive exteriority seems to have been inherently enabling, and Kashmiris like Kalhana wore their local and universal affiliations with no apparent discomfort or sense of dissonance. Indeed, one observes that the highly intertextual Rajatarangini was in this sense a metaphor for Kashmir, since just as texts made themselves from other texts, regions could also make themselves from other regions. The local and the universal, the vernacular and the pan-Indic, appear as but different registers of expression for Kashmir.

In what may be described then as a diglossic identity, the regional is hardly expropriated by the trans-regional. Rajatarangini does not see these as mutually exclusive identities to sport. Instead, there is a need to appreciate that societies have always been constituted by their involvements in more extensive networks. And ancient regions could be just as embedded in and defined by these spatial matrices outside of themselves and be just as cosmopolitan and dynamic as modern cities and nations even without the benefit of the latter’s advanced communication technologies.

You have brought the focus back on “Rajatarangini” at a time when Sanskrit is in danger of being reduced to an instrument of saffronisation, a time when caste identities are being reinforced. Is there not a danger of the language itself being misconstrued?

That danger is not recent. I would argue that Sanskrit has been rather misunderstood for a couple of centuries now but especially since the 20th century when scholarship came to increasingly believe that it was historically a language exclusively of scripture, ritual and repression. But this is drastically reductive of the vast and variegated repertoire of Sanskrit literature, which entails everything from metaphysics to erotics, logic to poetics, statecraft to medicine, including veterinary science, from maths and astronomy to painting and architecture, law, ethics, food, and so on.

I can’t emphasise enough that languages are not merely instruments of power and politics. They are also an entire system of symbolic expression, means through which societies made sense and meaning of the world around them and articulated their humanity and genius. So let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater. If there was ever a time to reimagine Sanskrit and other early Indian languages and recover and interrogate the extraordinary intellectual histories entailed by them, it is now.

Finally, with all the political turmoil and criss-crossing religious identities, is culture not a timeless constant in Kashmir?

I believe the land of Kashmir and its endemic spirituality, which Rajatarangini refers to repeatedly, are timeless. Righteous conduct and qualities that Kalhana idolises—justice, bravery, loyalty, discriminating right from wrong, high-mindedness—are eternal and universal ideals too. But between then and now, Kashmir has gone through a great deal of violence, not only the colossal loss of lives but the loss of an open and plural culture, and the loss of history and heritage, which is ultimately a loss of self.

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