Any interpretation of history invariably passes through the lens of perception, so it is critical to identify and set aside the bias inherent in any narrative about the subcontinent if we are to understand its present as objectively as possible. It is this spirit of inquiry that historian Romila Thapar urges us to adopt, through a series of essays in her book The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History (2014). An excerpt:
Research in any field generally involves two stages: collecting the data and checking its reliability, and then interpreting it. The reliability of the data is crucial as is also the consulting of all the available evidence pertinent to the research. The same holds for the writing of history. I am assuming that the first stage is familiar to most people and shall therefore focus on the second. In this, one of the more interesting aspects is how the historical evidence of early Indian society has been interpreted in the last two centuries and how these readings have been and are still changing in recent decades. I shall be looking into the broad trends that have shaped the interpretation of Indian history of the period from about 1000 BC to AD 1300.
The modern study of early Indian history begins with history as constructed by colonial scholars. Although there were views on the past in ancient Indian sources these were set aside as not being historical. The history of India was constructed in accordance with nineteenth century European views on what history should be and what was thought to be Indian history. This colonial view also influenced Indian nationalist perspectives on the past, with some agreements and some disagreements.
At the time of Indian independence, in 1947, we had inherited a history of the subcontinent that incorporated two substantial views of the past: the colonial and the nationalist. Both claimed to be based on contemporary techniques of historical research. They were primarily concerned with chronology and sequential narratives about ruling powers, a concern that has been basic to much historical writing.
Three arguments were foundational to the colonial view of Indian history. The first was periodization. James Mill in The History of British India published in 1818-1823, almost two hundred years ago, argued for three periods: Hindu civilization, Muslim civilization and the British period. These labels were taken from the religions of the ruling dynasties—first the Hindu and then the Muslim. The divisions were endorsed by the assumption that the units of Indian society have always been monolithic religious communities—primarily the Hindu and the Muslim—which were mutually hostile. Religion was believed to have superseded all other authority. On the basis of their numbers in the Census of 1872 and subsequently, the Hindus came to be called the majority community, and the Muslims and others were the minority communities. It was argued that there was an absence of historical change in India, therefore all institutions were static until the coming of the colonial power. The only thing that changed was the religion of the ruling dynasties. This periodization became axiomatic to the interpretation of Indian history. It also had a major political fallout effect in the twentieth century when the subcontinent was partitioned on the basis of the supposed two nations defined by religion.
The second assertion was that the pre-colonial political economy conformed to the model of what was called Oriental Despotism. This again assumed a static society, characterized by an absence of private property in land, despotic and oppressive rulers and therefore, endemic poverty. This pattern, commonly applied to Asian societies, did not envisage any marked economic change. A static society also meant that it lacked a sense of history and it was asserted that pre-modern India suffered from an absence of historical writing.
The third aspect was that Hindu society has always been divided into four main castes—the varnas. This division it was argued was based on Indian society being a collection of segregated races, with caste as the mechanism of segregation. Therefore it remained unchanging through history. Racial identity was to the forefront with the prevalence of what was called ‘race science’ in Europe. This notion of caste was derived by colonial scholars largely from what they saw as the Aryan foundations of Indian civilization, both as a race and a language. The earlier people were labelled as Dravidian because of its being another ancient language with a distinct geographical location and substantial numbers of speakers. Dravidian became the counter-point to the Aryan. Sanskrit was viewed as the dominant language of the Aryan civilization and the hegemonic religion was Vedic Brahmanism. In all three descriptions India was projected as the alien, the ‘Other’ of Europe. Europe had to be proved to be unique and Asia as lacking in the characteristics of European civilization.
However, the interest in history was also expressed in some less negative attempts to ‘discover’ the past of the colony. Much effort was made to collect data: archaeological excavations were begun by A. Cunningham, linguistic surveys carried out by G. Grierson, and a massive programme of collecting and reading texts was initiated. The oral traditions of bardic compositions, collected by L.P. Tessitori and J. Tod, were also part of this effort. Ancient scripts, such as Brahmi, were deciphered by J. Prinsep and others, so that inscriptions which could be now read provided extensive, fresh information. All this data had to be organized and interpreted. The organization was efficient but the interpretation did not help in questioning colonial theories. Unfortunately nineteenth-century European notions of ancient history provided little understanding of the Indian material. Nevertheless, as Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India stated, all this was the necessary furniture of Empire.
Colonial interpretations claimed to be applying the criteria of Enlightenment rationality in their interpretation of the history of the colony. But in effect they were imposing a history that was not divorced from justifying colonial dominance. These preconceptions, together with a focus on chronology and the narrative of dynasties, governed routine history. Colonial historians drew on texts encapsulating the upper-caste perspectives of Indian society and extended it to the whole of society. Indian historians writing on ancient India came from the newly emerged middle-class, and were of the upper castes and therefore familiar with these texts. There may have been some hesitation in analyzing their contents critically in the historical manner, as among the texts were those often regarded as sacred. The colonial routine continued. Nevertheless, a debate did emerge especially among historians influenced by nationalist ideas and opposed to some colonial preconceptions. The colonial periodization was generally accepted. A few changed the nomenclature to Ancient, Medieval and Modern, borrowed from Europe and thought to be more secular, although the markers remained the same and there was no effective change.
The theory of Oriental Despotism was, naturally, rejected by the more nationalist Indian historians. Curiously, however, there was little interest at this point in providing alternative hypotheses on the early Indian political economy and society. This would have meant critiquing the normative texts and giving greater credence to non-religious texts. Social history in standard works largely reiterated the description of the four castes as given in the normative texts—the codes of caste society known as the dharma-shastras—registering little recognition of deviations, leave alone explaining them. That the system need not have worked as described in theory was not generally investigated. Other ways of looking at the past were not admitted to the forefront of historical writing.
The predominant form of nationalism, described as anti-colonial and secular, was beginning to be imprinted on Indian historical writing. But parallel to this and initially less apparent in historical writing, were the two extreme religious ‘nationalisms’, Hindu and Muslim, both emerging in the early twentieth century, much encouraged by the colonial version of the Indian past. These were not essentially anti-colonial since their agenda lay elsewhere and they were tied to the political ambition of establishing separate nation-states. They were less interested in researching alternate paradigms and explanations of history, and more in seeking to use history to legitimize their political ideology and the mobilization that they sought. There was an even greater insistence that a religious identity had always been the seminal identity in the past and continues to be so in the present. They argued that this identity of Hindu and Muslim would define the character of the nation-states in contemporary times, even if it meant establishing two separate nations. From these two perspectives history was directed towards justifying what was to be the outcome of independence—the partition of India into two states, one upholding Islam and the other encapsulating the struggle between those wanting a secular democracy and those proposing a Hindu state. The colonial view of Indian history was being echoed in these ideas.
The last few decades have seen a protracted battle between religious organizations insisting on their version of history and professional historians with a more secular understanding of history. The battle came to a head over the writing of state-sponsored textbooks. And while history, as viewed by various religious organizations and political parties supportive of them, has been put on hold for the moment, and more meaningful history has come to the fore, our experience of the last two decades shows that ancient Indian history walks a tightrope.
Excerpted with permission from the book The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History, published by Aleph Book Company in 2014. You can buy the book here.
This article is part of our special series the 'Making of Modern India' through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India's exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.