Review: Ways of Understanding the Human Past. Chattopadhyaya, D.P. 2001. New Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilisations. Pp. 164. Price Rs. 295/- ($6)
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 this proposition.
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 also.
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 history.
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 events.
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 messages/meanings.
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 and architecture.
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, etc.
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 bhasaor 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 royal deeds.
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 and destructive.
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 forward looking.’
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.