There are educational
institutions where the history of India as was known half a century
ago is still current and where a different kind of history remains unfamiliar.
But there are some university departments which are at the forefront
of research and which have witnessed a paradigm shift. This has not
entered every university syllabus nor the popular perception of history.
Nevertheless its impact is apparent in the fact that there is a general
awareness that there have been radical changes in the interpretation
of early Indian history.
The paradigm shift
takes various forms. History is no longer a recital of information on
events and dates. It is the analysis of the evidence relating to the
past in an effort to understand the past. This is a complicated process
in the study of early history since the evidence is both limited and
of diverse kinds.
This has led to
the periodisation of Hindu, Muslim and British - or its equivalent of
Ancient, Medieval and Modern - being gradually eroded through studies
that show continuities from one to the other or changes within one.
Therefore the line of demarcation has to be made not on the basis of
the religion of dynasties, but on more fundamental social changes, and
these do not necessarily coincide with invasions, conquests and dynastic
Early Indian society
cannot be described as characterised by Hinduism as there are other
factors which are more important, such as the evolution of caste, the
utilisation of resources by a variety of social groups, authority systems
and the interface between rural and urban areas. These mould the form
of the public expression of religion, and history is essentially concerned
with forms of public expression. Besides, what we today call Hinduism
was not invariably the dominant religion in every area. There were,
for instance, long periods of time when Buddhism was more prevalent
in certain regions. The 'Golden Age' of the so-called Hindu period is
now questioned, given these more realistic aspects of life which provide
a different picture of early times.
So where does the
focus lie now? It lies in locating distinctive social forms and in examining
the transitions which lead to a change in social forms. These are what
might be called historical processes.
For example, there
is a transition from hunting and gathering and pastoralism to settled
agriculture and there are a variety of agrarian economies. Juxtaposed
to agrarian activity there is frequently an exchange of goods and trade,
and this too takes various forms - barter, the use of money and other
commercial transactions. The counterpart to these are various forms
of social organisation developing from kin-related connections to a
broader network of people performing social functions. This is particularly
so in the history of the evolution of administrative institutions. Such
changes can be seen among groups within a single society or across a
number of societies, and are of course demonstrated in the different
norms and customs of castes. Whereas previously the study of caste was
largely for information, we now try and relate this information to a
broader social context and try and understand the historical function
of particular castes.
These are not linear
changes which occur uniformly all over the sub-continent. They occur
at different points of time in different situations. It is, however,
possible to see a particular form which dominates and provides a context
to the others.
For example, if
commerce is central to a region, as in the case of the Indus cities,
it involves studying the items exchanged and their production, transportation
technology and the routes involved, the nature of the markets, the evolution
of urban centres and the authority which controls the trade at various
points. Discussions on economy require knowledge of technology. There
is, for instance, a debate on whether the people of the Indo-Iranian
borderlands introduced new technologies in the second millennium B.C.
in the form of horses, chariots and possibly iron, which assisted in
the spread of the Indo-Aryan language and the evolving of new societies
in the north-west, or the even more intense debate on the role of iron
technology in the formation of states and the growth of cities in the
Ganges valley around 500 B.C.
The role of religion
in history has undergone a major re-orientation. It is still regarded
as important but as one among various social articulations. Once religion
moves from the purely personal and private to the public, that is, once
it becomes the expression of a social group which identifies with it,
then in historical terms it has to be seen as more than just rituals
and beliefs. Analyses of rituals and beliefs certainly provide clues
to what the religion is about, but its historical influence is assessed
in terms of who its propagators are, from where it gets its support,
how its followers are organised and what it provides to the ordinary
adherent. Thus the rise of Buddhism as a historical event is a process
linked to the evolution of states and urban centres, which is one reason
why it spread initially with the patronage of rulers such as Ashoka
Maurya, and subsequently - what might be called its grassroots spread
in the post-Mauryan period - is tied to the patronage it received from
artisans, traders and small-scale landowners. This is attested in the
hundreds of votive inscriptions at the major stupa sites and monasteries,
which, in turn, are located along trade routes and at important commercial
In an article written
nearly 25 years ago on the problems of historical writing, you drew
attention to the need for the application of an "evolutionary analysis"
in early Indian history. You wrote that "If Indian historical writing
wishes to take its place as part of the social science tradition, it
must come to terms with the assumptions of this tradition (and evolution
is one), or else it must find its own way out of the jungle..." Has
history as a discipline found its place in the social science tradition
The inclusion of
history as a social science has resulted from the changes in the discipline
of history and that has been a major contribution of historians from
the 1950s. It began with the seminal work of D.D. Kosambi. The emphasis
given by Marxism to the economy and to social stratification is in itself
an interdisciplinary process drawing on other social sciences. This
has been developed further in at least three themes of research: the
formation of states was once seen as resulting from conquest or from
class confrontation, but the work being done now investigates the finer
points of each of these, suggests other indicators and demonstrates
its complexity and its variants; the relationship of political authority
to control over wasteland and cultivated land involves legal issues,
property rights, water resources, yields and assessments, rights and
dues, as is evident from the study of land grants made in the first
millennium A.D.; religion as ideology is now seen as an important part
of social mobilisation, as for instance in the confrontations of the
Shaivas with the Buddhists and Jainas.
Given these new
dimensions, the inclusion of history as a social science has enlarged
the required reading for research on a particular subject and this has
resulted in greater specialisation and in-depth studies. The over-arching
historical generalisation is now beset with multiple questions. Perhaps
the narrowing of the focus has subtracted from the historical sense
or mood of a period, but effectively it also makes the ultimate generalisation
more valid. Let me add further that if history has been enriched by
its association with the social sciences, the latter have also now had
to take a more historical approach to their investigations. For example,
it is not acceptable now to use arbitrarily historical data without
reference to their context and time-frame.
Have any new tools
been developed for the understanding of ancient India that have yielded
interesting results? To what extent have developments in archaeology,
anthropology and linguistics broadened the concerns of historical analysis?
The most substantial
contribution in terms of further evidence has been from archaeology.
Excavations in the last 50 years have revealed new cultures, some even
going back a few millennia, in parts of the sub-continent that were
thought to be uninhabited. There has been therefore both a spatial and
temporal filling out of gaps.
shows up the irrelevance of present-day state boundaries. The Indus
civilisation spread down to Gujarat and northern Maharashtra and into
Punjab and the Doab. It becomes imperative therefore that Indian and
Pakistani archaeologists should be in constant contact and, if possible,
work together. It is quite absurd that we have to get our information
on what is being discovered across each border from European and American
of archaeological and literary sources raises another set of questions.
There are fanciful descriptions in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana
of the life lived by the ruling families in towns such as Hastinapur
and Ayodhya and other such places. But the excavated sites associated
with these places suggest an ordinary style of life, hardly better than
that of a prosperous village. Clearly there is much poetic licence in
the epic descriptions. Archaeology in some senses questions what might
be called the monopoly of the text.
data into historical studies also forces historians to think along inter-disciplinary
lines. The decline of the Indus cities is attributed to a range of causes,
of which ecological change is among the major ones. The evolution of
towns in the Ganges valley in the mid-first millennium B.C. has to do
with techniques of forest clearance, rice cultivation, agricultural
technology, the transportation of goods and other such features, to
a far greater degree than political events. Technology can be a factor
of change in some situations and of stasis in others.
Data from archaeology
makes, as it were, a direct input into history. Evidence from linguistics
is less direct but extremely important to the analysis of texts, since
it studies, among other things, the history of a language and language-change.
Vedic Sanskrit, which was once thought to be a pure Indo-Aryan language,
is now revealed as a mix of Indo-Aryan and non-Aryan languages. This
puts it into a different perspective for the social historian who has
to assess, on the basis of the linguistic evidence, the degree to which
various social groups speaking other languages participated in the society
reflected in the Vedic corpus. This naturally raises the question of
an admixture not just of languages but of rituals, customs and institutions,
and the need to explain how and why certain languages or certain institutions,
not provide data for early history, but does provide some methodological
assistance. The methods of analysing pre-modern societies do help in
asking questions from historical data, the answers to which encourage
a deeper investigation. The attempt is not to use an anthropological
model and apply it directly to historical data but to be aware of the
considerations and evaluations which go into the investigation of a
society by anthropologists and use these as the basis for asking questions
in relation to a historical society. Anthropological work on state formation,
some of it rooted in Marxist analysis and some using other kinds of
analyses, is one example of how an awareness of anthropological work
has attuned us to the categories involved in state formation: proto-states,
early states, mature states, imperial systems, primary state-formation,
secondary state-formation and a variety of other aspects.
As for tools of
analysis, there is one major new tool and that is the computer and it
is being used for all kinds of historical studies.
A primary use is
as a data-base. A Japanese Sanskritist has put the critical edition
of both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana on computer and these and other
such data-bases are used regularly in the very impressive work on Sanskrit
from Kyoto and Tokyo. European and American scholars are doing the same
and many texts are now available on floppies. Another Japanese scholar
made a data-base of the Chola inscriptions and was able to do an intensive
analysis of administration using this source. One is waiting for that
dream period when the corpus of Indian inscriptions will also be available
on diskette. Having a data-base on diskette makes it much easier to
check the occurrence of words and phrases and thereby facilitates making
certain kinds of connections and analyses.
The computer can
also be used for linguistic analysis: either to prepare a concordance
of signs, as in the Indus script, or to separate periods of composition
in a text by demarcating the distribution of linguistic styles, as has
been done for the Arthasastra.
But let me add hastily
that the computer is a tool, it does not provide answers on its own.
It merely makes the search for certain kinds of information easier and
faster and this inevitably suggests fresh avenues of investigation.
Ultimately it is the scholar using the computer who has to know the
data, ask the appropriate questions and search for the answers.
Today Hindutva is
attempting to recast our past. Could you discuss the impact and implications
of the Hindutva interpretation of history, and 'Indigenism', which is
perhaps Hindutva's diluted variant?
In a sense, Indigenism
is the other side of the coin of globalisation. In terms of its application
to history, it attempts to invent a "tradition" and retain it as something
essentially different from other cultures and societies, and to build
an ideology on such a tradition. But it fails to provide a theory of
historical explanation or a method of historical analysis. It frequently
incorporates 19th century colonial historiography as part of its ideology,
as for example, in retaining the Hindu, Muslim and British periodisation
together with the colonial evaluation of the first two, and using this
to try and negate the significance of the second period. Another example
is the insistence on the Aryan roots of Indian civilisation, to such
a degree that some are now arguing, in complete opposition to the evidence,
that the Harappans were Vedic Aryans! This stems from a 19th century
concern in Europe for Aryan origins, and its utilisation in explaining
the beginnings of Indian history. This was essentially a political agenda
as has also been the appropriation of the theory by Hindutva ideologues.
There is a clinging in such circles, to the Aryan as a source of Indian
identity. Indigenism takes the form of arguing that the Aryans were
indigenous to India and spread from here to Europe, so that India can
be regarded as the cradle of European civilisation as well.
Indigenism of this
sort is intellectually and historiographically barren with no nuances
or subtleties of thought and interpretation. It hammers away at a certain
point of view which acts as a casual explanation for every historical
event irrespective of whether it is relevant or not - characteristic
of the use of history by totalitarian ideologies.
Could you assess
the classroom status of ancient Indian history? How is history being
taught in schools - how far are the results of modern research being
reflected in textbooks; have the distortions you have been discussing
also crept into them?
Barring a few exceptions,
early Indian history is still generally taught in many schools as it
was half-a-century ago. Out-of-date textbooks, sometimes factually incorrect,
written in a dull and plodding fashion, are used to smother students
with boring information, chunks of which they are made to learn by heart
and reproduce in examinations. There is little attempt to convey the
idea that history is a process of gaining an understanding of the past
and not a body of information to be memorised. No attempt is made to
integrate the different activities that went into the making of the
past, or to explain why there are differences in various parts of the
country and how they came about. Even the differences in the nature
of the societies of early times and of now are not discussed. The continuity
between periods of time and the transmutation of ideas and institutions
are absent. Distortions are sometimes not even noticed, leave alone
being corrected. The results of modern research are not reflected because
those authors of history textbooks who are not historians seldom consult
historians or their work. The writing and prescribing of textbooks used
to be a cottage industry; it has now become a factory system. One has
therefore to ask where the profits go before the mess can be cleaned
are frequently blamed for being badly trained, but the training is not
of their choosing. My own experience in workshops involving school teachers
is that they are eager to be up to date and to teach history as it should
be taught, but are discouraged by the syllabus, often unintelligently
formulated, and an examination system in which learning by rote and
using bazaar notes is at a premium.
There isn't nearly
enough attention given to setting right the way in which school education
functions, even though it is recognised that this is the bedrock of
What have been the
problems encountered with the regionalisation of historical studies
that has been a feature of post-Independence research?
At the time of independence
there was a feeling that the history of India was dominated by the history
of the Ganges valley and that south Indian history, for example, tended
to be neglected. This was largely true. The colonial vision had been
the perspective from the Ganges valley and northern India. Added to
this, the identity of each state was strengthened by the creation of
linguistic states. The impetus for writing regional histories was encouraged
by the growing middle class in the States searching for its identity
in the past of the region.
The positive result
of this was an intensive search for local sources on the past. Archaeological
excavation was undertaken with enthusiasm, surveys of local monuments
revealed structures ignored prior to this change, inscriptions were
discovered through a more careful screening of local landscapes and
settlements, and texts pertaining to regional circuits of pilgrimage
and administration, all added up to increasing the knowledge about the
But the weakness
lay in either adhering too closely to the all-India periodisation of
Ancient, Medieval and Modern, which in some cases, such as the States
of the North-East, made little historical sense, or else in moving too
far away and losing the broader perspective for the narrower regional
history. We met with this problem as early as the 1960s when some of
us wrote model textbooks for the NCERT (National Council for Educational
Research and Training) in which attempts were made to keep in mind both
the national and the regional perspectives. But we frequently heard
that our textbooks did not suit the local schools since there was not
enough of the history of the particular State. This was also born out
of a regional chauvinism where the local elite was concerned that the
regional history should focus on its origins and rise to power. Yet
regional history, when placed in perspective, can usefully modulate
the generalisation about historical change on a national level.
A further corrective
which regional history can encourage, if it is not hijacked for purposes
of regional chauvinism, is to demonstrate that there is a multiplicity
of histories, even of early India, which have to be co-related. There
are variant perspectives on the same events and the historian has to
be aware of this variance, both in looking for evidence and in interpreting
Which is the future
direction in which you would like to see our exploration of the ancient
past proceed? Which are the neglected areas?
has its own momentum, which draws from dominant groups seeking to legitimise
themselves by controlling the projection of the past. This has been
so from the remotest past for which we have written records and will
continue. One hopes, though, that this will be on the decline through
a greater awareness of the uses of history. Irrespective of predictions
about the "end of history" or the devaluing of historical narrative
as a subjective enterprise, I do believe that the obsession with the
past will continue and that historians will thrive. In fact the greater
the contentions, the more will there be a honing of historical generalisations.
I shall be interested to see what form the new theories of historical
explanation will take, since the survival of history as a discipline
depends as much on theoretical rigour as on historical data.
responded in writing to a questionnaire from Parvathi Menon.
It was published in the 'Frontline' magazine dated August 1998)