Mandala Of Indic Traditions
Review: Ways of Understanding the Human Past. Chattopadhyaya, D.P.
2001. New Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilisations. Pp. 164. Price Rs. 295/-
by D.P. Agrawal
This small book by D.P. Chattopadhyaya (DPC) is really a little gem. DPC is
a well-known philosopher and intellectual. He has been instrumental in bringing
out several volumes on different aspects of ancient India. He is very active
and a liberal scholar. In this book he expounds the philosophy of history and
brings out the difference between history and science. He says, history is what
the historian makes it. To call it science or art is external to its making,
putting a label on it from without, a meta-historical act. He delves into many
interesting problems like concepts of time, including why India lagged behind
in development of technology, despite a head start of 15 centuries over the
West. He brings out the difference between the concepts of history, in the western
sense, and itihasa of the Indian terminology. He also discusses the problem
of the relative chronology of Ramayana vs Mahabharata. The philosopher
that he is, DPC discusses the fundamentals of Indian history with the detachment
of a logician and the grand perspective of a philosopher.
We would like to give some glimpses of the profound propositions he has made.
On Definition of History
He begins his book with a profound statement about the importance of history
(itihasa), "Language and the linguistic expressions are more or
less culture-specific. I say 'more or less' because culture has no boundary
wall around it, at least in the physical sense. The creative carriers of culture,
human beings, though in most cases have their habitats and addresses, are not
glued to them. Neither time nor place can strictly bind us to such limits. Yet,
in a very important sense, we ourselves and what we do, think, feel and will
are situationally oriented. In other words, our culture without losing its freedom
is necessarily located in some or other historical perspective. That partly
explains why we cannot view ourselves and our culture under the aspect of eternity.
We understand ourselves historically or under the aspect of itihasa."
But he is quick to add that history may not mean the same thing as itihasa.
In a way his monograph is devoted to this distinction between the two. The English
word history is regarded as itihasa in many Sanskrit-rooted Indian
languages. Whether this translation is correct or not cannot be decided a
priori. It requires in-depth investigation and concrete illustration.
Emphasising the difference between history and science, paradoxically DPC finds
the former as concrete and the latter as abstract. 'The historian's world is
relatively arrested, but the form of its arrest is such that it shows the embeddedness
in (and coherence with) the larger world, from where its being arrested. This
showing sustains its claim of concreteness and makes it concrete. While the
scientist's theory is relatively abstract, the historian's narrative is relatively
concrete. I emphasize 'relatively' because neither is science purely abstract
nor is history purely concrete.' I am afraid that not many would agree with
Bringing out the limitations of history, he says, 'We can not elicit from the
past what we need today but what was not there in fact. In that case in the
name of using history we abuse it. History strictly speaking, has no lesson
to offer us. It is for us, the readers of today or tomorrows, to decide what
we want to learn, rather to take from history, rejecting other textured parts
of it. In order to learn from history the exercise often unwittingly undertaken
by us in effect destroys the historicity of history. History itself, as I said
before, is a modification of our total experience. If, in the name of extracting
moral lessons from it, we modify it once again, history ceases to be what it
is intended to be.'
He is emphatic that unless history is defined as science there is no compelling
reason why it should be required to offer causal explanations of the events
of the past. It must not be forgotten that construction of history itself involves
generalizations. If, in addition to this type of generalizations, further abstracts
and general laws of science are imported into the realm of history, then what
we get is scientistic (i.e. aping or apology of science), not scientific, history.
DPC argues that without radically departing from the nature of history, its
style of presentation and the language in which it is written, we cannot fairly
call it a science.
He denies any absolute quality to history. DPC explains, Historicism goes well
with good relativism without compromising its objectivity and truth.
That explains, among other things, why history of the 'same people' and the
'same' country, party or event required to be repeatedly written. Historical
truths in their linguistic representation or conceptual reproduction are always
repeatable and renewable, i.e. incomplete or open-ended. This is an important
character which history shares with science.
On the Two Epics
There is a lot of controversy about the two epics, both about their historicity
and relative dates. He has given an interesting discussion about the two epics
Regarding the historicity of Rama nd Krsna, DPC argues that the works of grammarians
like Panini, the Buddhists like Asvaghosa and the Jaina authors like Vimalasuri
and Gunabhadra confirm the view that from at least the fifth century B.C. to
the first two centuries of the Christian era the general public of India were
firm in their belief that Krsna and Rama, the two main characters of the epics,
were indeed historical in character. The mount of Ramagiri, referred to by Kalidasa
in his famous poetic work, the Meghaduta, also lends support to the claim
of historicity to the story of the Ramayana. Ramagiri is believed to
have derived its name from the fact that Rama stayed there for some time in
his years of exile in the forests.
Arguing further, DPC points out that Badarayana's Brahmasutras and Baudhayana's
Grhayasutras were familiar with the character of Krsna of the Mahabharata.
Both these authors lived around the third century B.C. R.G. Bhandarkar and K.T.
Telang maintain that the present form of the Bhagavadgita was composed
around the fifth century B.C. DPC is aware of the mutual borrowings and cross-references
of names, events and precepts in the two great epics of India are extensive.
Sometimes, the reader feels that the Ramayana was written before the
Mahabharata. Hopkins tries to defend this view. Altekar seems to be inclined
to endorse it. But there are many places in the Mahabharata, which strongly
suggest that this epic appeared well before the Ramayana. This hypothesis
is persuasively argued, with numerous supporting considerations, by P. V. Kane
and others. Kane writes, '... one may conclude that there was a Bharata epic
long before there was a Rama epic... the core of the Mahabharata is much
older than that of the Ramayana... it is the latter that most probably
borrowed several matters from the great Epic Mahabharata.' It seems that
both these epics were repeatedly written and rewritten, keeping in view the
changing social needs and the politico-religious sentiments of the people. In
fact, these two epics are basically expressive of a single and increasingly
growing tradition. It is however not a monolithic tradition.
DPC thinks that between the two epics, the basic themes and related number
of sub-themes are strikingly similar. The conflict between right and wrong,
between duty and human susceptibility, runs through the length and breadth of
both the epics. But these issues, though pregnant with high philosophical, religious
and moral principles, have been depicted in a very credible and earthly manner,
bringing close to the life of the laity and literate, especially the latter.
The social and ethnic dimensions of the epics, if perceptively followed, disclose
many unwritten chapters of India's past. How different races and ethnic groups
came and settled in India and how they moved from one area to another may be
reconstructed from the stories, myths and allegories of the epics. Their languages,
institutions, rituals, food, drink and dress, habits, and belief systems gradually
got coalesced and unified. In spite of their considerable cultural diversity
how different smaller human aggregates, indigenous and incoming, interacted
and intermixed is also interestingly narrated in the
Cutting at the roots of jingoism, DPC explains that both the epics may be justly
viewed as literary expressions of the process of integration between the indigenous
peoples of India and the incoming ones, including the Aryans. It would be wrong
to suppose that the Aryans and the non-Aryans came to India only through and
by means of warfare. Most of the arrivals of the so-called foreigners had been
gradual, non-belligerent and gradual in character. I say 'so-called' because
our identity itself is mixed. Most of us are partly foreign and partly indigenous.
Foreigners and our mixed presence need not be always construed as invasive.
Many of these groups arrived in India through a process of normal migration.
It is to be remembered here that during the third, second and first millennium
BC and even during the first millennium AD the migration and immigration were
more or less a regular feature of the peoples' ways of living. During the years
of natural calamity and those of poor availability of food, the tribally organized
peoples had to move from place to place, from the less hospitable areas to the
relatively more hospitable areas. Besides, it is to be borne in mind that in
those ages of remote past, the concept of territorial border between and among
the smaller human aggregates was quite different from what we understand it
to be at present.
He emphasises the composite character of our culture. He thinks that cultural
conflict articulates itself in different ways and at different levels. Even
within the rigorous philosophical systems of India, Bauddha, Vedanta and Nyaya,
for example, we find conflicting trends, Vedic and non-Vedic, nastika
and astika. Interestingly enough, the aspect of conflict is not the only,
not even perhaps the main, aspect of the process of composite acculturation.
What supervene the elements of conflict are those of accommodation, assimilation
and reconciliation. It is evident both from the works of the social thinkers
and legislators, Dharmasastra and Arthasastra, and from those
of the epic poets like Vyasa and Valmiki. We find in these works that developing
intellectual, ethical and social forms is transmuting the primitive elements
of our culture. The ancient elements are given a touch of nobility and gravity,
artistic excellence and moral loftiness.
DPC brings out the mundane aspects of life also in the literary epics. In these
works, aesthetic emotion, poetry, fiction and romance are imaginatively mingled
with philosophy, ethics, and social and political ideas. Though the epics are
dominated by the narrative consideration of the main stories, the underlying
ethico-religious (dharma} tone is unmistakable. The Mahabharata
and Ramayana are itihasa on a large scale and with a massive purpose.
The Mahabharata is the creation and expression not of a single individual
mind, but of a mind of the Nation.
The other side of the epics is their historical importance. Though we appreciate
the literary quality and poetic excellence of the epic we try, directly or indirectly,
to discern the factual aspects from the fictional ones of these many-sided narratives.
We can hardly afford to ignore our will to know the past of our peoples in their
specifics. DPC consciously uses the term aitihasika (an adverbial form
of itihasa) and avoids the term historical mainly to highlight
the mode of consciousness of the concerned peoples themselves, their ways of
life and thought.
On Sources of History
Coming down to the Mauryan period, DPC informs us that Kautilya in his Arthasastra
states that the king must listen to itihasa. Explicating the contents
of itihasa he writes that it draws upon the Puranas, itivrtta,
akhyayika, udaharana, Dharmasastra and Arthasastra.
The context in which this definition of itihasa has been offered is devoted
to the topics of education for the ideal king. These days itihasa is
taken to be the Sanskrit equivalent of the English word 'history'. Literally
itihasa (iti ha asa) means 'so indeed it was'. This claim, to
apprehend what actually happened, seems to be compromised when we find in it
tale, legend, tradition, history, bardic story, heroic history, traditional
accounts of the past events, etc.
Ordinarily, purana stands for what is old or ancient, as opposed to
what is new or nutana. DPC then goes on to describe the 18 Puranas,
grouped into three divisions: Rajasa, Satvika, and Tamasa.
In the Puranas are compiled tales, anecdotes, songs, lore that had been known
through the ages. Before composing the Mahabharata, it is said, Vyasa
compiled the materials of the original Puranas and handed the same down to one
of his disciples and also he taught him what is itihasa. The Puranas
are referred to in the Atharva Veda, Satapatha and Gopatha
Brahmanas, Taittiriya Aranyaka, Chandogya and Brhadaranyaka
Upanisads. Also it is mentioned in the Asvalayana Grhyasutra. Dharmasutras
of Apastamba and Gautama, Mahabharata and Manusamhita. In the
Vedic literature itihasa and Purana are often used as synonymous words.
In brief, Purana denotes history, traditional stories, anecdotes and religious
treatises. Many Pauranika experts of today maintain that the Vayu-Purana
is the oldest, though the Bhagavata-Purana seems to be most famous. The
Agni-Purana is encyclopedic in its scope and character. The Puranas provide
a wide range of humanistic research-base for reconstruction of what is now called
We notice, that the views of historians differ widely, from admiration and
critical acceptance to outright rejection. While Sastri and Srinivasachari sound
unduly adulatory, R.C. Majumdar appears unduly critical. Majumdar asserts, 'the
fact remains that the Indians displayed a strange indifference towards properly
recording the public events of their country.' D.D. Kosambi, who was trained
as a mathematician and was well versed in classical Indian languages and literature,
thought that the emergence of the divine family, together with its entourage,
is a historical phenomenon indicating the rise of a unified society out of different
tribal elements which were formerly not united. The Puranas, written and re-written,
approximately between the sixth and the twelfth centuries AD are said to have
'fabricated myths', facilitating this process of unification.
About the origins of Buddhism, DPC says that it appeared on the social scene
was initially a spiritual presence and protestant force but gradually it was
assimilated and engulfed by the new interpretation of Brahminism offered by
influential thinkers and reformers like Gaudapada, Samkara and their followers.
Compared to the Puranas, the Bauddha Jatakas appeared historically more significant
to Kosambi. While he praises 'the most informative' character of the Jatakas,
he is evidently unhappy with the Puranas [which] have 'the deplorable Brahmin
habit of putting in an ordered sequence traditions that belong to different
groups.' In other words, for the sake of an artificial social unity the writers
of the Puranas, Kosambi thinks, felt free to distort the course and scope of
On Why India Lagged Behind
DPC has a plausible explanation for the slow scientific progress. He thinks
that the ability to swallow logical contradictions wholesale left its stamp
upon the Indian national character, noticed by modern observers, as also by
the Arabs and Greeks before them. The absence of logic, contempt for mundane
reality, the inability to work at manual and menial tasks, emphasis upon learning
basic formulations by rote with the secret meaning to be expounded by a high
guru and respect for tradition (no matter how silly) backed by fictitious ancient
authority had a devastating effect upon Indian science... For historical descriptions
of ancient Indian scenes and people, sometimes even for the identification of
ruins, we have to rely upon Greek geographers, Arab merchant travellers and
Chinese pilgrims. Not one Indian source exists of comparable value.
DPC explains that the vaidika and the pauranika modes of understanding
and expression are highly symbolic, mystical and often rhetorical. Many writers
of the Indian as well European tradition have pointed out the important distinction
between the languages of mysticism, religion and poetry, on the one hand, and
those of logic and science, on the other. He cautions that it would be wrong
to suppose that mythical thinking has no structure in it. Without minimum structure,
hidden or inarticulate in character, myths of widely different and (spatially)
separated cultures would not have conveyed comparable or even strikingly similar
DPC also wants us to critically assess if the sufi and bhakti
spirit of resignation and reconciliation, emotion and acceptance, adversely
affected the critical temper and scientific research in India during the second
millennium. One of the reasons why science did not have in India a career comparable
to that of the post- Renaissance Europe is often attributed to the rise of devotionalism
and mysticism, indifference.
On History & Myth
DPC explains the difference between history and myth. The truth about the mythical
beings is to be traced to their origins, not history. The sanctity of the mythical
institutions is to be found in their primordial past, not in their historically
changing past. Historical explanation is not the generally acceptable explanation
in the world of myths. In the world of myths gods and goddesses are ageless;
if they are infant, they remain so for ever; if they are young and strong, they
are so for all time to come; if goddesses are beautiful, their beauty never
fades. Time is frozen in their life- story; history plays no notable part in
the world of gods. The division of space into direction [east, west, south and
north] and zones runs parallel to the division of time into phases [ksana,
muhurta, yuga, mahayuga, kalpa], both represent
merely different factors in the gradual illumination of spirit which starts
from the intuition of the fundamental physical phenomena of light. In the mythical
world, as in the physical one, space and time are indirectly, at times almost
inscrutably but unmistakably related.
About the concepts of time, he tells us that the biological or relativized
conception of time is different from the objective and impersonal theories of
time dealt with in mathematical physics. Even if one forgets the Newtonian notion
of absolute time, which is and flows in and for itself without being related
to any (this or that) external object, is found to be impersonal, non-biological
and, strictly speaking, 'absolutely relative' (relative to space). Relation
of perceptual time with the immobile/ eternal time-in-itself may be dealt with,
affirmatively or negatively, in very many ways, namely, metaphysical denial
(of time), spiritual realization (of God Absolute), practical and scientific
ordering of life, and intuitive plastic architectonic forms of things, arts
He criticises the simplistic interpretation of Cassirer of the mythical traditions
of China, India, and Egypt. To think of a great culture and its historiography,
whether of east or of west, exclusively in terms of one or a few stereotypes
is dangerously misleading. Every cultural personality, like individual personality,
because of its ineleminable freedom and related creativity is complex both in
its material products and spiritual products, including religious and philosophical.
On Concept of Number
DPC also discusses the role of number. In myths number does not play an exact
theoretical or abstract role. To organize, relate and order the Perceptual world
of multiplicity number is necessary. It sets limit to what seems to be unlimited.
It relates things and ideas, which are apparently unrelated. In theoretical
and scientific thinking number is used mainly for explanatory purpose. But in
mythical thinking it is loaded with religious and spiritual signification. Originally
rooted in, or attached to, perceptual objects, number, gradually with the passage
of time, assumes a relatively abstract and universal character. DPC explains
that this psychological account of hypostatizing the nature of number, dissociating
it from its perceptual point of origin, is a quasi-theoretical enterprise to
bring about harmony into the seemingly chaotic things of the world.
He tells us that number is intimately related to the world of experience, of
multiplicity, and is not abstract and/or distant from it was realized both by
the Pythagoreans in west and the Samkhya thinkers of India. The Samkhya system
is essentially number-based and symmetric. Not only physicists but also prosodists
are deeply concerned with number. From Rta to Chandas, from physical
rhythm to poetic and musical rhythm, number pervades.
DPC relates number to history in terms of datability Dating involves numbering.
It is to provide a time-address of an event or a series of events on the map
of a calendar. Calendar is a 'system by which beginning, length, and subdivisions,
of civil year are fixed.' It has nothing to do with 'the inner measure' of time
itself; it is a human contrivance. In different countries we find different
calendars, like Greek Orthodox, Julian, Gregorian, Sakabda, Vikramabda, Bangabda,
DPC is however clear that merely by chronicling events one does not write history.
To write history involves selection, rejection and construction. Physical connection,
temporal continuity and chronological order by themselves cannot give us history.
Meaningful coherence of dated events presupposes an aim or a point of view.
When history is sought to be fashioned in the image of science, only then the
question of tracing and showing causal connection makes sense. The western historians
find in Kalhan's Rajatarangini a distinct respect for chronology and
continuity, two of the characteristics often found to be associated with the
datability requirement of the so-called scientific historiography of European
origin. Kalhana himself claims to have given 'connected account of what had
become fragmentary'. But DPC holds the view that filtered through the minds,
beliefs and actions, understandings and misunderstandings, writings and interpretations
of these different kinds of persons what reaches the readers, persons of the
later times, cannot be 'true pictures', still less scientifically, i.e. testably,
true pictures of the past. Historical truth is not like scientific truth testable,
repeatable and abstract, nor is it quantifiable. Historical events are not measurable
and therefore not datable in the strict sense, yet, DPC says that in a respectable
sense history is objective.
Besides the Puranas and vamsa-caritas another source of Indian history
has been bardic literature. The bards used to write poetry in praise of their
patron-families. The bards remained custodian of their writings, the genealogies
of their patrons. Bards used to attend the courts of the patrons and occasionally
accompanied their patrons on their pilgrimage and military campaigns. Thus they
had direct access to their lives and deeds. Because of their very nature, panegyric
poems prove more faithful in their description of times, places, social customs
and conditions than in that of the character of the concerned persons. But it
must be admitted here that the bardic literature, written in bhasa or
vernacular, not in elitist Sanskrit, gives one a more or less faithful picture
of the concerned society and people. Thus this source of history helps the historian
to be both factual and literary at the same time.
On Islamic Tradition
It is clear that the India of the first millennium AD, when the Sultanate and
the Mughals had been the ruling powers at Delhi, is historically better available
to us than the India of the earlier period. Also it is true that compared to
the Hindus, the Muslims, generally speaking, were more inclined to keep records
of their times and places in the forms of coin, inscription, official document,
autobiography and biography, etc. In the late medieval period of India, particularly
during the Mughal period, many biographies and memoirs were written and they
have proved a very rich source of information to the later historians. Autobiographies
of Babar and Jahangir, and the biography of Humayun by Gulbadan Begam, of Akbar
by Abul Fazal, and of Babar, Humayun, Akbar and Jahangir by Mutamad Khan deserve
special mention in this connection. Abdul Hamid's Padshah Nama is a comprehensive
account of Shah Jahan' s reign. For the events of Aurangzeb's reign the best-known
works are Muhammad Kazim's Alamgir Namah and Muhammad Saqi Mustaid Khan's
Maathir-i-Alamgiri. It is clear that these books are of uneven quality
and authority. For example, Abul Fazal's Akbarnama and Ain-i-Akbari
are much more read and known for their accuracy and comprehensiveness.
DPC has a word of praise for the Sufi tradition. The independence of the sufis
is evident from their criticism of the inefficient and corrupt practices of
the court officials. By professing Islam as their religion they were not prepared
to support either the misdeeds of the Islamic rulers or look down upon the people
professing other religions. That obviously enhanced their prestige in the eyes
of the Hindus and their social acceptability to the latter. The teachings of
the sufis in many respects anticipate those of Kabir, Nanak, Dadu and Caitanya.
The poems and songs of the mystic saints undoubtedly brought about a significant
change in the Hindu-Muslim relationship and thereby in the social milieu of
the time. The mystic temper imparted by the sufis and the preachers of
the bhakti cults helped to smoothen the rugged edges of the relation
between the different castes and communities.
History is what the historian makes it. To call it science or art is external
to its making, putting a label on it from without, a meta-historical act. He
brings out the difference between two types of historical records. What had
been written in biographies, memoirs, letters, literary works, etc. in the centuries
long past were not in most cases consciously intended to be history. The concerned
persons narrated their recollections, experiences and impressions, judgments
and hopes without knowing for whom and for what purpose(s). The case with the
official records, gazetteers and manuals, etc. is somewhat different. These
were largely, not entirely, meant for contemporary people and for some specific
purposes. All these sources of history are source materials of what we call
history today and not history proper.
On European Historians
DPC informs us that the writers of history in all its forms, ancient and not-
so-ancient, Indian and European, had to address themselves to at least two common
problems, viz. (i) to relate the mundane affairs, including those of common
men, kings, their rule, victory and defeat in war, and (ii) to make their narratives
intelligible by lifting the same from the vagaries of changing time and interpretation.
For both the purposes the idea of God, first polytheistic and then monotheistic,
was felt very necessary and, after practice, found to be useful. Both the cyclical
and linear views of history and all its phases, progressive and regressive,
were believed to be subject to the will of God, his curse and blessing, forgiveness
or grace, i.e. in brief, his design reflecting the qualities of popular and
He critically evaluates the role of foreign writers on India who may be broadly
viewed under three heads, viz. (i) those who had personal familiarity with the
country, its people and culture; (ii) those who wrote totally relying on the
available literature on the subject and without visiting the country; and (iii)
those who used 'facts' of Indian history only to illustrate their own theories,
philosophical or economic. If Adam Smith and Hegel belong to category (iii),
James Mill falls under category (ii). He neither visited this country nor knew
any of its languages. What is very surprising is his claim that to write a scientific
and objective history of India one need not personally visit that country or
be acquainted with its language or its tradition of learning. From this point
of view, one feels, Alberuni is a rare exception and belongs to Category (i).
His writings are based on personal and long acquaintance with the country, its
classical languages and several branches of science. Alberuni, from his Central
Asian point of view, enumerates the causes of the decline of the ancient Hindu
civilization and the barriers which separate the Hindus from the Muslims and
making it difficult for a Muslim like him to write objectively about India and
its scientific progress and regress. For a scholar of the early twelfth century,
Alberuni's mind and method were highly informed and scientific.
On Hindu Rule & its Decline
Not only Alberuni, the twentieth century historians like R.C. Dutt, K.M. Panikkar,
R.C. Majumdar and U.N. Ghoshal, and others, have pointed out some other causes
of the decline of the Hindu rule: (a) constant warfare between petty kings and
chiefs, (b) supremacy of the priests at the expense of the downgradation of
all other castes, (c) over- bearing character of the Ksatriyas and their resulting
isolation from the masses making them an easy prey to the religiously much homogeneous
incoming Muslims, and (d) degeneration of Hinduism into unlived ritualism. R.C.
Majumdar was more forthright:
'In its original Vedic form as class or professional guild, social stratification
seems to have served some positive and productive purpose but with the passage
of time it became not only deadly conventional but also counter-productive.
Slowly but steadily the Brahmanas managed to degrade the rest of the society
to be a state of marked inferiority and subordination... The [neo-Brahminical]
theory [about the evil effects of inter-caste marriage] bears the stamp of
absurdity on its very face and need only to be stated to be rejected in scorn
...The Hindu society now resembled that unfortunatehuman being whose head
and feet alone were active but whose intermediate limbs were maimed or paralyzed.
A careful study of the series of Muhammadan invasions, which ultimately overwhelmed
the Hindu States, leaves the impression upon every mind that the Indian soldiers
were not a whit inferior to the Mohammadans in respect of courage, valour,
and endurance, but they suffered the defeat in spite of this, because the
Hindus did not keep pace with the progress of military science abroad, and
they were unaware of those military tactics in which their opponents excelled
The caste system was not the only untoward feature of the society that the
neo-Brahminical religion had evolved. The lowering of woman as a class from
the high position she had once enjoyed marked its degradation in no less conspicuous
manner. The iniquitous barrier, which the Hindus had raised between man and
man, and man and woman, sapped the strength and vitality of national as well
as domestic life'.
D.D. Kosambi, R.S. Sharma and Irfan Habib, the Marxist historians, have also
endorsed what R.C. Majumdar said. DPC explains that the Marxist concept of historiography
is its emphasis on the changing relation between the castes and their performing
(or non-performing) roles within the productive system of the society. While
the more privileged and less productive castes are naturally interested in making
the caste system rigid and preserving it in that form, the less privileged and
more productive castes would like to change it to their advantage. This gives
rise to social tension and conflict, and also accounts for the generation and
release of the political forces favouring social and economic mobility.
With the detachment of a philosopher, DPC says that the perceptions of the
historians change from age to age, from culture to culture, and even from person
to person. For example, what India, together with its geography, philosophy,
religion and culture in general, was like has been perceived and described quite
differently by Alberuni (in the eleventh century), by the British historians
of the last two centuries, and the post-independent Indian historians of this
century. Alberuni' s geographical background, Kazak (Khiva) and Afghan (Ghazni),
religious faith (Islam), favourable disposition to the Greek sciences of the
time, his own status as a court scholar from a defeated kingdom, and many other
personal and social details must have influenced his findings and judgments.
One has to accept the plain general truth that human perception is more or less
coloured by the concerned person's experience and expectation. The point may
be clearly illustrated by referring to the difference in approach to the Indian
policy issues of James Mill and John Stuart Mill, father and son, both of whom
served the East India Company in the same department and at a very senior executive
level. Despite their common, broadly common utilitarian, point of view, while
the father was illiberal, the son was by and large liberal. The historian who
believes in the primacy of narrativism is bound to differ considerably in his
method of representation from the one who favours causalism. For the
sake of added concreteness and specificity in historical narration, the role
of individual human beings is extremely important, but exclusively in
terms of individuals intelligible historical narration is not at all possible.
History, DPC asserts, is a humanistic study. It is about humans, by humans,
and often for humans, present as well as future. Though part of nature, humans,
their actions and ideas, are not reducible to natural laws. Historical events,
essentially products of human enterprise, cannot be subsumed under the laws
of nature. Historical unpredictability is basically rooted in human freedom
and creativity. The freedom that is available to humans, in spite of its partially
determined character, are open to many-sided uses and misuses, constructive
DPC makes some very perceptive remarks on Gandhi. Gandhi fiercely defends freedom
and, at the same time, as a Hindu and Vedantin, he believes in the identity
of all human beings professing different religious faiths. He proclaims himself
as a devout Hindu and yet he strongly criticizes casteism, untouchability and
other blemishes of Hinduism. For the basic lessons of life Gandhi always turns
to tradition, the school of practical experience, and not to history which,
to him, is concerned only with 'facts', 'wars' and 'kings' and not with the
life, love and sacrifice of the common human beings. For example, there are
hundreds of passages in the Koran, which will be perfectly acceptable to the
open- minded Hindus, and that there are many maxims in the Gita which
accord well with the teachings of Islam. Religious antagonism is often due to
our failure to get to the core of our respective religions and adhere to it.
Gandhi believed that the supposed incompatibility between Hinduism and Islam
is in most cases externally implanted by the Western historians.
The lack of moral accent of contemporary historiography makes Gandhi very unhappy
and time and again this takes him back to the voices of wisdom of the ancient
civilizations and the classics of human literature. It is clear that Gandhi's
philosophy of history, when it is spelt out, would be a sustained dialogue between
the common practice of the people and the elevating moral principles found in
the best writings and lives of the past. In freedom, love and morality people
attain their best possible unity and their history discloses its highest glory.
DPC warns that the composite (helper-wrongdoer) image of economically influential
and politically powerful countries like the USA and its allies is casting its
shadow on the developing countries. It seems to him that the unipolarity of
the last decade of the twentieth century is likely to yield its ideological
space to the tripolarity in the next thirty years or so.
He thinks that multipolarity is the natural outcome of the normatively supervenient
role of the principle of autonomy. This principle is so fundamental to the
ideal of world-union, as distinguished from the idea of world-state,
that without it no durable form of human unity can possibly emerge. Therefore,
in the name of idealism-economic, political and moral-we must not unwittingly
espouse a kind of globalism, which is inconsistent with the principles of autonomy
and suppress the true identity of different countries. For this purpose the
policy- makers are required to be engaged in a sustained and practical historical
dialogue with what has happened to the mankind and its different continental
segments in the past.
DPC warns that the distinction between what is pleasing and what is aesthetic
is being steadily and effectively demolished by what is called entertainment
industry, a clever blend of commercial enterprise and cultural initiative. As
a result of strong, sustained and continuous publicity blitz the culture-specific
tastes and dispositions are transformed, often mutilated, very fast.
On Reason & Time
If nature as it is now is clearly intelligible, DPC asks what is the
use of bringing the past to bear upon it, to make it intelligible? To most of
them time is a category of understanding (Nyaya), or a form of perception
(Kant), or imaginary (Buddhist). In brief, time is taken up as a category of
existence or an epistemological principle necessary for what is received from
without or/and within. To Descartes and Kant, for example, history is not a
reliable form of knowledge. Preoccupied with the questions relating to the validation
of scientific knowledge, they found no strong reason for addressing themselves
to the problems of the historical mode of knowledge. The past, the Buddhist
thought, is alternatively constructible, mainly due to imagination (kalpana).
Scientific reason, as ordinarily understood, is concerned basically with the
(causal) order or teleological (unitary) character of different events.
Whether events themselves are ordered or order is imposed on them by the human
mind (particular or universal) are the kind of questions, which have been long
dealt with by philosophers, scientists and theologians.
Compared to sociology and anthropology, intriguingly DPC believes that literature
can give us a relatively vivid picture of the past. The non-cognitive aspects
of the vanished centuries are practically available to us through the surviving
rites, rituals and their analogues. As we have noted before, many of our modes
of experience are neither discursive nor cognitive, still less scientific.
Concluding his really incisive and comprehensive discussion about history,
DPC says, 'History is what the historian makes it...Tomorrow's historian, using
these very materials, is likely to write a different history. The 'same' materials
are read, interpreted and used differently by different historians.' He feels
that itihasa has a distinct orientation towards future. 'Rooted in the
past, our existence as an executable project is perpetually self-exceeding and
We may agree or disagree with some of his contentions, but they have been argued
very cogently. For example, at times he seems to equate history with science
whereas history is far more complex than the worst non-linear chaotic dynamic
system in nature. We went into some detail to give a glimpse of the vast ground
related to itihasa that DPC has covered. It's a very thought-provoking,
stimulating excursion into the human past and contemporary reality, with an
emphatic future-oriented perspective.
An obligatory read for all interested in India's history, culture and tradition,
as also in its future.