The old colonial notion that ancient Indians had no sense of history has by now been blown to bits by outstanding scholars like V. S. Pathak and Romila Thapar. They have also established that ancient India drew its sense of the past from a vast range of sources, of which religious texts were one, and that its understanding of the past differed radically from the Western notions of history. Romila Thapar, in particular in her magisterial work, The Past Before Us – Historical Traditions of Early North India (published 2013), scrutinizes the vast corpus of Vedic texts, the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, the itihas-purana traditions, the Buddhist and Jain canonical texts, hagiographies, biographies, inscriptions, chronicles and theatrical compositions like the Mudrarakshasa to form her database and arrives at conclusions which frontally challenge received wisdom from the West.
Come medieval India and a new genre of history comes alive. These histories, more like court chronicles, titled Tawarikh, plural of tarikh which denotes both date and history, followed strict codes of chronological and spatial location of an event and were narrative rather than analytical in content, although a certain view point always inheres in any narrative account . There was an interesting dichotomy as part of the narrative. The framework that enclosed the tawarikh was largely derived from Islam, which not only brought a new religion to the world but also a new concept of history. The chronological framework that was almost invariably followed was that of the Islamic hijri era, with the exception of Abul Fazl, Akbar’s courtier and historian. Abul Fazl abandoned it in favor of Ilahi era, created to commemorate Akbar’s accession to the throne, and disengaged history writing from the axis of Islam. At any rate, Abul Fazl had rather a low opinion of the hijri era. Within this overall chronological framework, historians were more particular about locating each event in the precise year of the reign of each ruler whose deeds formed their main narrative.
More important, they did not look at history as a branch of Islamic theology, unlike their European counterparts. In medieval Europe, histories composed by church fathers, the only literate class, perceived all historical events as manifestations of God’s will. For them the past, present and future — all constituted part of God’s grand design in which nothing happened haphazardly, even as these appeared so to human beings. In medieval India, on the other hand, historical events are treated as individual, independent events and not part of a grand pattern, and historical causation is established in human volition and at best human nature. God is invoked only when the historian is unsure of the veracity of an event, akin to our everyday invocation, “God knows” when we are unsure of something.
We are thus introduced to “strong” or “weak” rulers, “liberal” or “orthodox” rulers and the complete history of their reigns merely unfolds their nature. Best examples: Muhammad bin Tughlaq (“his nature consisting of contradictory qualities”), Akbar (“liberal”), Aurangzeb (“orthodox”). Diversity necessarily inhered in the explanation since no two persons, not even rulers, would possess the same nature.
It was James Mill who metamorphosed the entire, long history of ancient and medieval India, divesting it of all its diversities by making the religious identity of the rulers, instead of their nature, the central category for understanding the past; all diversity of explanation was lost to the uniformity of the religious identity of all the rulers, whether Hindu or Muslim. His History of British Rule, published in 1818, created the tripartite division of India’s past into the Hindu, the Muslim and the British periods. As a Utilitarian and as a colonialist par excellence, he had contempt for religion, for both Hinduism and Islam but more for the former, and emphasized that prior to the British rule, India was mired in religious obscurantism with no worthwhile achievement to its credit; thus the Indians ought to be thankful to the colonialists for setting them on the path of progress.
This was further reinforced by Elliot and Dowson’s 8-volume History of India as told by its own Historians, published from 1854 onward, bluntly stating in the Introduction: “This history will teach the bombastic babus of India the great benefits British rule has brought them.” The foundation of the infamous “divide and rule” strategy had been laid.
Since then the tripartite division has remained operative in the teaching of history in India and even when the nomenclature was altered to Ancient, Medieval and Modern, first by Stanley Lane-Poole in 1903, the basis of division remained the same until around the early 1960s. Religious identity and religious conflict were clearly the central analytical categories in this history. Fundamental to it was the assumption that colonialism was the harbinger of “modernity” to India, as it was to the rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America. This view was shared by almost all European thinkers during the 18th and 19th centuries from Montesquieu to Karl Marx, even as their modes of thought as well as their sympathies were as different from one another as chalk was from cheese.
From the late 1950s and 60s, Indian historians began to revisit all the assumptions and categories of historiography handed down to them by colonialism. A few, indeed very few, of the historians who fundamentally revised colonial history writing were committed Marxists and many more were not. It is the Marxists who questioned even Marx’s understanding of India’s past, including his notion of the Asiatic Mode of Production. One substitute for it was the concept of “Indian Feudalism”, but this was soon thrown open, with the question “Was There Feudalism in Indian History?” – the title of an essay that became the centre of a long-drawn, international debate, which unearthed several facets that lay unseen below the surface. The long cherished colonial notion that India (indeed the Orient) was unfamiliar with any socio-economic mutations before the colonial engine of modernity was set in motion, was blown to smithereens.
Religious identities were assigned their due priority in the saga of change, but were no more the lone, determining element. History was no longer mono-causal but multifaceted. Sights were moved from individual character of rulers to social and economic structures, technology and trade as the motors of change, uprisings of peasants and artisans against the state’s exploitative excesses. A threshold had been crossed.
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(Harbans Mukhia is National Fellow, Indian Council of Historical Research)