Nationalism in the Study of Ancient Indian History. Dilip K Chakrabarti. Aryan Books International. 2020. Rs 876.
From the days of colonial Indology to recent days of Stalinisation-saffronisation controversies, ancient Indian history has always been a war field — battles fought, with institutional strategies, political patronage, ideological rhetoric, media propaganda and caricatured labelling of the opponents being the chosen weapons rather than true scholarship.
The battlefield as on today is loaded in favour of the Marxists.
Anyone who has gone through the way Ayodhya debates proceeded in reality and in the way it was presented in the media-academia complex, would have noticed one important feature.
Despite all the posturing of scientific rigour the leftist historians could show nothing more than rhetoric when confronted with empirical data by the other side. Yet the left historians could create the false image of them being scientific and rational while the other side being shallow nationalists/fundamentalists basing their claim on mythology.
In 1998, Arun Shourie published his famous Eminent Historians — a readable rhetorical yet factual expose on how leftist historians captured institutions, controlled text-book writing and used tax payers’ money for the dissemination of their ideology. Since then many Hindutva writers have updated on the theme.
However, what has been missing is a coherent objective assessment of the damage the ideological vested interests and their stranglehold on historiography have done to the study of the history of ancient India.
Dr Dilip Chakrabarti, no Hindutva-ite, one of the finest archeologists of international repute with more than four decades of field experience, sets out to do exactly that in the 384 pages of his book Nationalism in the Study of Ancient Indian History (Aryan Books International, 2021).
Including the summary and conclusions, there are six major sections in the book.
He starts with how in post-independent India, ancient Indian history became ‘an area of conflict’ and the role of the doyens of Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) in it.
He points out how “the ability to echo the right political slogans of the day has been important for the aspiring historians of the country certainly since the establishment of ICHR in 1972 and the beginning of the Ram Janma Bhumi dispute some 20 years later.” (p.13)
Dr Chakrabarti thanks Arun Shourie for having “done a yeoman’s service to the cause of historical studies in India” by exposing how a cabal of politically motivated historians controlled the government sponsored ICHR for decades.
Then, the veteran archaeologist explains how this group of historians, which became institutionally powerful, started attacking historians who had anything positive to say about ancient India.
For example, he points out that Prof R S Sharma, a Marxist historian, called the approach of historians like R C Majumdar as ‘the nationalist and revivalist approach’ though as Chakrabarti points out there was no reason why it should be called revivalist.
More amusing is the accusation by R S Sharma that these historians with their “fulsome adoration of Hindu institutions … tended to antagonize Muslims” though no such Muslim response has been cited by Sharma.
Dr Chakrabarti is not comfortable with the way ICHR functions under the BJP government as well. He quotes with justified unpleasantness a report which speaks of an ICHR publication Bharat Vaibhav which among other things seeks to find cultural basis for the achievements of Har Gobind Khorana in “genes based Gotra system”.
Instead of priding ourselves on such frivolous pseudo-scientific ridiculous claims, he wants some real changes like setting up “a laboratory for archeological dates and different types of material analysis … on the model of Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)“. He bemoans quite rightly “the general absence of a professional attitude to historical studies among the so-called Hindu nationalists”. (p.25).
He also criticises the obsession of the ‘Hindu nationalists’ with river Saraswati though he admits the leftist historians’ mischief in stirring a controversy out of a non-issue here.
Recognising that there is a growing “dissatisfaction and impatience” among people on the absence of proper history writing, he wants alternative organisations like ‘Bharatiya Itihasa Samkalan Yojana’ to rise above what he considers as their pet themes and make serious efforts to meet the growing expectation.
He is critical of pushing back the Vedic age to thousands of years back based solely on astronomical data. He also criticises Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan of turning the Aryan theory upside down. While he is right about the former, in the case of latter, Shriram Sathe, the founder of Bharatiya Itihasa Sankalan, as early as 1991 wrote that the modern research reveals that it is wrong to divide people as belonging to specific races and hence to speak of Aryan race itself is wrong. (‘Aryans who are they?’, 1991, p.47)
Dr Chakrabarti also brings out the kind of damage the Marxist historians have done to historiography. This damage itself has to be understood first.
An example is how R S Sharma, through his influence and institutional support, effectively enforced the idea of a feudal society in ancient India — not very different from European feudalism.
Dr Chakrabarti writes:
In fact, the idea of ‘feudalism’ and related ideas which were foisted on the study of ancient India is as silly as the notion that the mention of Pushpak Rath in the Ramayana implies knowledge of aeronautical science during that time.(p.33)
He points out how after Independence it has not been nationalism but rather an avid tendency to shun any semblance of the same, which led to distortion or even wrong understanding of the data.
It is a desire on the part of Indian academic establishment to be ‘one of them’, them being the ‘great Euro-American tradition of archeologists.’ In fact, what is lacking in entire Indian history establishment, including archaeology, is that they avoid any issues of national character he claims, substantiating his arguments with facts.
Next, he studies some of the foundational colonial historians of ancient Indian history. But before that he highlights a paradox of history.
A M T Jackson, the Magistrate of Nasik was assassinated by Anant Kanhere in 1909 for being extremely harsh with Indian freedom fighters. Jackson was also an Indologist.
If as a bureaucrat, his actions were inimical to Indian freedom struggle, as Indologist he was full of admiration for India.
In fact, he was arguing the case for the richness and vitality of Hindu civilisation against its colonial academic critics. After devoting about eight pages to the soulful defence of Hindu cultural achievements by Jackson, he points to two unique features in his essay on Indian culture, published posthumously.
One is that Jackson makes no mention of Aryans or Aryan race. Secondly, he emphasises the capacity of Indian civilisation to assimilate various groups. (pp.66-75)
In the colonial historians of ancient India there was James Mill who hated Hinduism. Dr Chakrabarti makes an important observation:
James Mill’s antipathy to the Hindus and the civilization they built in ancient India is well-known, but what is striking about his detailed item by item rebuttal of everything Hindu including the claim of the Hindu contribution to arithmetic, trigonometry, and algebra is the air of contempt it breathes. In a way, this contempt is very much reminiscent of the type of contempt and patronizing attitude one finds for India and Indian scholarship in the ‘Indian Studies’ sections of the Western universities.(p.79)
Another very little-known scholar whom he highlights is General Charles Stuart (1757/58-1828) who wrote in defence of Hindus and Hinduism against the missionary slander.
Among others, Dr Chakrabarti also discusses Elphinstone and Vincent Smith. He points out how despite his prejudice against Indians who were to him “inferior in spirit and energy and elegance to the heroic race” which was the Greeks, Smith still found the ancient Hindus “superior in certain aspects" to the contemporary Greeks.
In Elphinstone, one also finds the rudiments of seeing Brahmins as outsiders exploiting the larger society. He speculated if they were “conquerors … a foreign people or a local tribe like the Dorians in Greece … or merely not a portion of one of the native states … which had outstripped their fellow citizens in knowledge and appropriated all the advantages of the society to themselves.” (p.113)
With respect to Vincent Smith, he points out that Smith’s book is quite like “a modern text book of ancient India minus its archeological data and debates about Vedic literature”. His refusal “to find a relation between language and race" were quite remarkable for his time.
What is even more significant is his unwillingness to accept nasal index-based classification of Herbert Risley. (p.148) Despite his belief in Aryan hypothesis, “he was willing to find a continuity of the Indian population right from the Neolithic if not Paleolithic stages”. (p.150)
In his overall assessment of colonial British historians, if one ignores the contempt for all things Indians exhibited in people like James Mill, the Professor writes that “most of the scholars … had respect for the richness, antiquity and continuity of the ancient Indian culture.” (p.154)
Then he moves to the Indian historians of the period between late nineteenth century to c. 1950. Here we meet quite a lot of giants whom we have been made to forget.
One such is Rajendra Lala Mitra, a nineteenth century historian – who was the editor of Bibliotheca Indica.
He had challenged some of the cardinal figures of colonial historians. For example, when the then authority on Indian architecture, James Fergusson, obsessively sought to establish “Greek inspiration behind the genesis of Indian stone architecture" Mitra argued against it.
Dr. Chakrabarti points out how Mitra’s 1876 arguments stand validated today with the "discovery of stone-cutting and polishing in the Indus civilization context at Dholavira”. (p.161)
Mitra identifies “the difficulty … European writers feel in attributing to the natives of the country the capacity for carving such vigorous representation of human beings" as the reason for the emergence of the Greek influence theory.
Perhaps, the difficulty was because the European scholars could not see similar art work emerging now in India. Mitra attributes such absence to “subjugation for six centuries under ruthless masters who deemed it a religious duty of great merit to knock down or deface every representation of human form they met with”. (p.163).
His study of Buddha Gaya published in 1878 was one of the earliest archeological studies of the site. Here, he conclusively proves the presence of arches in the main Mahabodhi temple which predate the visit of the famous pilgrim Xuanzang. Dr Chakrabarti points out that this is “important because this proves the use of arch before the coming of the Muslims”. (p.166).
Mitra had also written on beef in ancient India and what comrade D N Jha wrote a few years ago with a lot of marketing gimmicks could not better whatever Mitra had presented.
Another important aspect of Mitra’s study of ancient India is in his essay on the Rajasuya sacrifice where he discusses the political life in ancient India. Here, exploring the relation between a supreme power in India and its tributary powers, he observes that the relation “bore the character of confederacies or federal unions and not that of feudal baronies…” Dr Chakrabarti considers this observation “a very perspective comment”. (p.171)
Another among the many important historians Chakrabarti deals with is Radhakumud Mukherjee. Here is the author’s assessment:
Like his volume on ancient Indian education, Mukherjee’s volume on Indian shipping is encyclopaedic in scope and but for the modern archeological details, it has not yet been bettered. He puts his nationalistic focus on a much heightened level in his book on fundamental unity of the country which was in every sense a path-breaking study.(p.212)
After discussing quite a number of ‘nationalist’ historians and their contributions, each showing a fresh perspective anchored in empirical data and not on any theory, he enlists the common features of the ‘nationalist’ historians of this period:
First, all of them had acquiesced in the idea of Aryan migration into India. … Secondly although all of them were proud of India’s spiritual and philosophical heritage, they also wanted to explore the various fields of ancient India’s non-spiritual fields of endeavour. . . .(pp.249-50)
Thirdly, as opposed to the notion that the ancient history of India was a history of the various immigrating races and their languages to India, the history of India as a geographical, cultural and religious unit has been throughout an important factor to reckon with. … Fourthly …ancient Indian state could not be ipso facto because of the wider range of Dharmashastra injunctions on royal power be a despotic state.(pp.249-50)
Fifthly, there was a strong republican angle to the history of ancient Indian states. Sixthly, the ancient political history, right from its legendary beginning was integrated into the secure framework of inscriptions and coins which continued upto the Islamic invasion. … The economic power of ancient India was not ignored either. … Finally, there was no compunction in admitting that all these achievements were Hindu achievements, all other Hindu religions including Buddhism and Jainism being nothing else except offshoots in Hinduism.(pp.249-50)
At the end Dr Chakrabarti makes the most crucial observation regarding these historians:
Finally, as in India of 2020 the term ‘nationalism’ does not have a wholesome connotation in certain quarters, we must ask ourselves if the historians who built up national or even nationalistic perspective of ancient India can be accused of wilful distortion of data in any of their discussions. The answer has to be a straightforward ‘no’.
However, the same thing cannot be said about the Marxist breed of historians who today occupy the citadels of academic and media power.
Then the author moves to Rabindranath Tagore and Sister Nivedita.
Though not professional historians, their contribution to the way history has to be approached and studied is important. To Tagore “history has to be rooted in the land and it is through history that we discover the land”. (p.264)
While for Sister Nivedita it is “history as written in their own subconscious mind” that shapes the character of a people, “she advocates the significance of looking around the country with eyes open for historical evidence" which the author feels is close to stressing the importance of archeological exploratory work. (pp.266-7)
He further points out how Sister Nivedita emphasised the power of synthesis that India manifests while Tagore was strikingly unhappy with all the invasion hypotheses.
Then, when he passes on to R C Majumdar, he points out how it is hard to categorise him as ‘nationalistic’ as the Marxists try to depict him. (p.277)
On the whole, the works of historians who are labelled 'nationalistic' and most of these would not have minded the label, show that they are not revivalist as slandered by the Marxist historians. On the other hand, they have grounded their work on data and they had a clear picture and feel of the land and the people they were exploring.
Then he moves on to the Marxist historians.
He has respect for Damodar D Kosambi – the mathematician turned historian. He evaluates his book An Introduction to the Study of History as “an interesting mix of insightful and brilliantly put observations in the context of any time and some academic contentions which have turned out to be rubbish in the context of modern knowledge”. (p.295)
Despite Kosambi’s Marxist tendency to make assumed infallible pronouncements, Chakrabarti respects him for among the Marxist historians his attempt was far superior to that of many.
He then moves to various other historians of Marxist variety. He explains in detail what damage they did to Indian historiography with their not-so-ethical institution capturing and imposing their ideology into textbooks etc.
A case in point is R S Sharma who made his Indian feudalism hypothesis triumphant because he “presided over a powerful communist network in historical studies than because of its merit”.
Then Dr Chakrabarti takes the reader through an odyssey into the way archaeology and historiography work together, with the feel of the continuity of the tradition and people.
And to him, this is nationalism in action in archaeology. What he says regarding archaeological discoveries in the recent times, including Keeladi, Kodumanal and Porunthal in the context of Brahmi writing in Tamil, illustrates the point:
The sheer number of inscribed pot sherds is mind boggling considering the general paucity of inscribed pot sherds in the corresponding archaeological levels in North India. It is evident that the scale of literacy in South India has to be considered as much wider than the scale of literacy in the north during this period. . . .(pp.331-2)
One may point out one more piece of emerging evidence from South India. This is in the context of the overwhelming mass of epigraphic evidence in favour of continuity between the past and the present in South India. Personally I became aware of this while my wife and I were offering Puja in the Siva temple at Chidambaram. Professor K. Rajan of Pondicherry Central University who kindly took us to the temple commented that we stood at the place where the king Kullotunga Chola also stood while offering Puja in the same temple. I may be unfamiliar with the Tamil tradition but realized that there was a strong sense of continuity between the past and the present in Tamil tradition. The sense of continuity has to be a strong plank of nationalism in the consciousness of any region in India.(pp.331-2)
Then he shows how his own description of the continuity of ‘the basic outline of space in the northeastern suburbs of early twelfth century Kanchipuram’ in The Oxford Companion to Indian Archaeology and points out that “there is a great scope for studying local topographies down to the level of agricultural fields on the basis of relevant inscriptions in Tamil Nadu” and adds, “Nationalist ancient historical studies are precisely of this kind, being full of great historical value”. (p.332)
As one comes to the end of the book, one thing becomes quite clear.
One has to belong to the nationalist school old style and not Marxist school for being a good historian of ancient India.
Dr Chakrabarti, based on the methodology and tradition of the nationalist historians of India in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, provides a clear definition of what it means to be nationalistic for a historian: “… if one’s work moves closely to the land and is aware of the possible multiple sources of the selected investigation area, one’s passion for knowledge in the field can be called nationalistic”. (p.349)
So by this yardstick, the author has “no hesitation in labelling Kosambi as a nationalist”.
Dr Chakrabarti not only proves that the nationalist historians have contributed substantially to history as a science in a far healthier way than their Marxist counterparts but that the latter actually did and continue to do extreme damage to Indian history and society. The author does not mince words:
My contention is that of all the main stages of ancient Indian historical research the stage marked by Communist dominance has been academically about the worst stage so far and sooner we can forget the Communist writings about the coming of the Aryans, ‘feudalism’, ‘state formation’ etc. the better.
The book is also a caution to those who want to carry the mantle of nationalist historians forward. Dr Chakrabarti does not hesitate to put his own work as the benchmark of such aspiring historians. It is a target that demands not frivolous joy out of pseudoscientific claims and claims of fantasy laden chronology and scoring brownie points in social media. It is a work that demands sinking one’s hands and soul into the soil of the nation, lifelong dedication, rigorous academic discipline and love for the people of this land and this land itself.
The book should be made a compulsory reading text for anyone and everyone who wants to consider oneself as a nationalist – for that name carries a heritage that is as strong as the mace of Bheema and as sharp as the arrow of Arjuna. It is not for those weak in intellect and integrity.
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