Changing interpretations of early Indian history

30 06 2008

Changing interpretations of early Indian history

Upinder Singh

FROM: the hindu


History is not one but many stories; only a few of them have been written. The challenges to build on the advances so far are many.


The historiography of ancient and early medieval India reveals significant changes over time; these can be understood against the background of the political and intellectual contexts in which they emerged and flourished. The various ‘schools’ of history writing are often presented and understood in terms of one school making way for the other in a neat, forward progression. The reality is more complex. There was considerable variety within the schools; some of them co-existed in dialogue or conflict with one another, and there are examples of writings that go against the grain and do not fit into the dominant historiographical trends of their time.

Antiquarians’ domination

The 18th and 19th centuries were dominated by the writings of European scholars, referred to as Orientalists or Indologists, although they often described themselves as ‘antiquarians’. Many of them worked for the East India Company or the British Government of India. The founding of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784 provided an institutional focus for scholars working in fields such as textual study, epigraphy, numismatics, and history. A major contribution of the Indologists lay in their efforts to collect, edit, and translate ancient texts. In this, they depended heavily on information provided by ‘native informants.’ Indology soon spread beyond the British empire and became a subject of study in European universities.

Apart from the study of ancient texts, the 19th century witnessed developments in epigraphy, numismatics, archaeology, and the study of art and architecture. The decipherment of Ashokan Brahmi and Kharoshthi scripts were breakthroughs. The analysis of coins contributed to the construction of a framework of political history. Officers of the Geological Survey discovered prehistoric stone tools and laid the basis of Indian prehistory. The Archaeological Survey of India, established in 1871, has over the decades made important contributions to unearthing and analysing the material remains of India’s past. The contributions and breakthroughs of the 18th and 19th centuries were rooted in a colonial context, and this is evident in certain features of Indological writing. The Brahmanical perspective of ancient Sanskrit texts was often uncritically taken as reflecting the Indian past. Social and religious institutions and traditions were critiqued from a Western viewpoint. Indian society was presented as static, and its political systems despotic, over the centuries. Race, religion, and ethnicity were confused with one another, and there was a tendency to exaggerate the impact of foreign influence on ancient India. This is when the classification of the Indian past into Hindu, Muslim, and British periods took root.

Indian scholars of the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century made major contributions to constructing a connected narrative of ancient India. These historians, who wrote against the background of an emergent, and later increasingly strong, national movement, are generally referred to as Nationalist historians. They wove together data from texts, inscriptions, coins, and other material remains to show the contours of the ancient Indian past. Contributions were made in the field of political history. South India was brought into the narrative and the study of regional polities progressed.

The nationalist tinge in these scholars’ writings can be seen in their insistence on the indigenous roots of cultural developments. It is reflected in their search for golden ages, which led to their exalting the age of the Vedas and the Gupta Empire. Non-monarchical polities were discovered and celebrated to counter the idea that India had never known anything but despotic rule. The periodisation of the Indian past into Hindu, Muslim, and British periods was, however, retained. It coalesced with a communal tendency to valorise the ‘Hindu period’ and to project the advent of the Turks and Islam as a calamity and tragedy.

The 1950s saw the emergence of Marxist historiography, which went on to play an influential role in the construction of the history of ancient and early medieval India. In the long run, the Marxist historians shifted the focus from an event-centred history dominated by political narrative to the delineation of social and economic structures and processes, especially those related to class stratification and agrarian relations. Marxist historiography contributed to uncovering the history of non-elite groups, some of which had suffered subordination and marginalisation.

While making these valuable interventions and contributions, Marxist writings often tended to work with unilinear historical models derived from Western historical and anthropological writings. Texts were sometimes read uncritically, with insufficient attention paid to their problematic chronology and peculiarities of genre. Archaeological data were included, but the basic framework of the historical narrative remained text-centric. Initially, the focus on class meant less attention to other bases of social stratification such as caste and gender. Religion and culture were sidelined, or mechanically presented as reflections of socio-economic structures.

Despite important differences, the major historiographical schools shared similarities. Certain tenets of these schools continue to thrive. Some of the fundamental premises and methods of Orientalist historiography still hold their ground, and histories of Third World countries such as India remain Eurocentric. Appeals to the ancient and early medieval past are often dictated by nationalist or communalist agendas. Marxist historiography continues to be an influential force in early Indian historiography.

A critical understanding of historiography, one that recognises the contributions and limitations of past and present ideological and theoretical frameworks, is essential to understanding where the history of ancient and early medieval India stands. However, the advances of the future are likely to be the result of questioning and thinking beyond the boundaries of existing historiographical positions and methodologies.

History is not one but many stories; only a few of them have been written. The challenges to build on the advances so far are many. Currently, there are two parallel images of ancient South Asia — one based on literary sources, the other on archaeology. Texts and archaeology generate different sorts of historical narratives and suggest different rhythms of cultural continuity, transition, and change. Historians generally use archaeological evidence selectively as a corroborative source when it matches hypotheses based on their interpretation of texts. Archaeologists have not adequately explored the historical implications of archaeological data. Correlations between literature and archaeology tend to be simplistic and devoid of reflection on methodology. We need to consider whether, given their inherent differences, textual and archaeological evidence can be integrated, or whether we should simply aim at juxtaposition.

The tradition of extracting supposedly self-evident ‘facts’ from literary sources needs to be replaced by an approach that is more sensitive to their genre, texture, and cadence. However, in view of the information and insights offered by rapidly growing archaeological data, historical narratives can no longer remain text-centric. A more sophisticated approach towards textual study has to be accompanied by an incorporation of archaeological evidence. This will lead to a more nuanced image of ancient India. It will reveal the complexities and diversities of cultural processes, and will incorporate the ordinary and everyday into our understanding of the ancient past.

Histories of early India should ideally represent the various regions and communities of the subcontinent in their diversity. However, while the heartlands of great empires and kingdoms are well represented, many regions are not. These have to be brought in. Bringing more people into history requires initiatives to uncover groups that have been subordinated and marginalised. This is not easy, given that a great proportion of the source material available to historians has been created by elite groups and reflects their ideas and interests. Nevertheless, the past of people who have been hidden from history has to be uncovered and written, and these histories must become an integral part of the narrative of the ancient Indian past. Explorations of gender, the family, and the household need to be pushed further and have to become part of larger social histories. Issues and institutions such as the family, class, varna, and jati need long-term perspectives, showing how the different bases of social identity intersected and changed over time.

India’s varied and complex cultural traditions need attention. While these continue to be the focus of research among scholars working in South Asian studies, religious studies, and art history departments abroad, they have in recent decades remained somewhat marginal to mainstream historical writing in India.

Need to enlarge debate

There is a close relationship between history and identity; the past has, therefore, always been contested terrain. In contemporary India, the ancient past is invoked in different ways in political discourse, including propaganda with chauvinistic or divisive agendas. There are debates over the state’s right to project and propagate certain interpretations of the past through school textbooks. Communities frequently take offence at things written about them in historians’ scholarly writings. In such a charged and intolerant atmosphere, there are several dangers — of the deliberate manipulation and distortion of the past to achieve political ends, of historical hypotheses being judged on the basis of their political implications rather than academic merit, and of historians being criticised for writing objective history. The need to define and enlarge a liberal academic space which nurtures level-headed dialogue and debate has perhaps never been greater.

(This article is excerpted from the Introduction of Upinder Singh’s forthcoming book, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, Pearson Longman, Rs. 3,500.)

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