The Eurocentric Approach to Indian History
in Colonial and Communist Writing :
the Case for Reinterpretation.
Professor M.G.S. Narayanan
Chairman, Indian Council for Historical Research
Twenty five years ago, in 1974‑75, when I made a study of the British and European historical writing on Ancient India with special reference to Vincent Smith in the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, I happened to realise at the same time the magnitude of Western contribution in the field and the distortions due to the inherent limitations of their attitude. They gave us our history and archaeology, they recovered our Buddha, our Asoka and his edicts, our golden age of the Guptas etc. etc.
They brought back into circulation from oblivion our Ajanta and Ellora, our Mamallapuram and numerous dynasties, capitals, inscriptions and literature. They also provided the basic framework of history with Eurocentric approach which, it is sad to contemplate, has not changed even after fifty years of Independence. The European prejudices are deeply embedded in our understanding of Indian history, and it will take a long time to eradicate these prejudices. A good beginning has been made recently, but we have a long way to go. In this lecture I propose to highlight the distortions to enable the new generations of historians to take stock of the situation and proceed to undo the damage. So far we have only undertaken a few repairs and alterations to the structure. I am now convinced about the need to dismantle the structure itself and construct a new one in its place. This is because the defects are not in the case of details but in the basic assumptions with which they started, and the logic with which they proceeded. These assumptions and logic were the outcome of the European intellectual milieu in the 18th-19th centuries of the Christian era. They supplied the motivations for the study of Indian history and culture in the colonial era. The Communists have inherited the same legacy today.
When the distortions are eliminated, the true significance of the work of European pioneers will be appreciated. This will also enable us to do justice to our own traditions, and open before us the path of the future.
The most important assumption was that Indian history was just a collection of unrelated events, like a series of migrations and conquests, owing their origin to external stimuli. It did not reveal the organic growth of a nation or a civilization, marking the stages of development or decline. The people are not an active force bringing about changes like the renaissance and reformation, or producing a revolution at some stage. It was a procession of exotic and colourful characters, autocratic kings and emperors just having their way without encountering resistance from the people.
In the circumstances there is no development, and no meaning, in history. Political and historical upheavals are not products of conditions within society, representing certain trends or movements among the people. There was a long series of invasions Aryan, Saka, Greeko‑Bactrian, Arabic, European etc. acting upon the unresponsive masses. It was as though India was simply a geographical entity, providing an empty stage for odd characters to appear and move about for some time before their mysterious disappearance.
A related assumption was that there was no meaningful periodisation of Indian history except on the basis of the faith or nationality of the rulers. Thus they proposed a division into the Hindu, Muslim and British periods which was changed later to conform more exactly to the division of European history into three periods ancient, medieval and modern demonstrating further the meaninglessness of the whole exercise. In this context there was no sense in searching for the special traits that set apart one period from another in terms of political forms or economic trends or culture. With each new discovery in the field of archaeology or ancient literature the absurdity of this periodisation became clearer and clearer, but no attempt was made to abandon the frame.
The Greco‑Roman civilization provided the yardstick for Western scholars to measure everything in the history of India. The Christian era, which has no relevance for Indian history, was employed in all discussions, ignoring the Kali era, the Saka era etc. which were closely connected with the different epochs in India's history. There was an unwritten law that nothing in India could be of greater antiquity than the civilization of Greece.
The division of humanity in terms of race was a European practice which gained new importance in the 18th‑19th centuries against the background of the colonial enterprise. They were inclined to treat non‑Europeans as inferior human beings and provide some sort of legitimacy for their military, aggression against those peoples. In conformity with this practice, European scholars attempted to read racial overtones in ancient Indian texts from the Vedas onwards. Conflict between the Aryan and non-Aryan races was found reflected in the Vedas and even the epic poem of Ramayana. This prejudice was imported into the study of ancient Tamil Sangam literature also. All this was done though there was no justification for such a treatment in the texts themselves.
In Vedic literature, which is the earliest in India, and the foundation and source of authority for all 'Hindu' sacred books, there is not the slightest reference to a distant homeland or a struggle with non‑Aryans for the possession of the Panchanada region where the hymns were composed. If at all some sections of the Vedic people had come from the other side of the Himalayas this is possible as there were no political boundaries in pre‑historic times they must have been living in the Punjab area for a sufficiently long period to identify that land with their own religion and culture. They belonged to this land, but the European mind could not accept the fact that Indians were the authors of such exalted sentiments, and a whole theory of conquest was formulated to establish the foreign origin of Indian faith and culture.
According to Western scholars, not only did the Aryans come from outside but they also maintained exclusiveness in every walk of life throughout the ages. Though the concept of racial segregation did not appear in any later Indian text, it formed the central theme in almost all historical studies on India. It is doubtful whether any group except some of the Brahmin priests continued their hereditary occupation unchanged in North‑India. The old Kshatriya dynasties seem to have disappeared by the time of the Mauryan empire, and thereafter we find kings and chieftains emerging from indigenous tribal groups in every part of India. There are clear signs of upward mobility for people of nomadic or peasant origins, moving right up to the status of ruling dynasties in different principalities. The term Aryan is not employed as a race-marker, but as an indicator of culture. This goes against the Western view that the rigidity of the caste system prevented growth and development in India.
In many respects the caste system is found to be capable of ensuring livelihood and security and certain rights to individual members of each community, and giving them a certain amount of self respect and pride except in the case of the lowest groups of outcastes. This is a big achievement for ancient society in which slavery and insecurity are found everywhere in the world outside India. The caste system provided checks and balances and room for upward movement in a limited way to each member of society. It gave a philosophy of life and a sense of duty and responsibility to everybody while the hierarchical arrangement was only a matter of theory which was often contradicted in practice. On the whole the unique institution of the caste appears to have been responsible for the stability and survival of Indian culture, providing insurance against the threat of revolutions, and as such it was responsible for the extraordinary vitality and power of assimilation on the part of society in India. Many of the aggressive intruders were transformed into castes in India in due course.
There was no conflict between state and church, no ground for religious fanaticism and inhuman cruelty sponsored by sectarian creeds, no revolution resulting from extreme forms of oppression, throughout the history of India. As monarchy was regulated by the concept of Dharma and political authority was circumscribed by the rules and conventions laid down in Dharmasastras, the growth of autocracy in the European sense was ruled out as long as the Indian social system was alive. These were some of the special characteristics of Indian society, which distinguished it from the European model in historical times. These differences could not be understood and appreciated by the Western scholars for whom the European model was the standard model to be followed everywhere.
While all pre‑historic and ancient civilizations like those in the Nile Valley, the Euphrates‑Tigris valley and the Yangtsikiang valley perished or changed beyond recognition, the civilization that flourished in the Indo‑Gangetic valley had a continuous existence for more than three millennia. The deities, beliefs and languages, and even the oldest literature enshrined in the Vedic hymns have survived in recognizable form among the people of India. This durability and flexibility which produced a highly complex society with composite culture, must have been at least partly the contribution of the much hated caste system in its early phases. The same system lost its creative role and became stagnant and authoritarian and even destructive when the country was brought under colonial rule. All social and cultural institutions degenerated when society lost its freedom and initiative.
The European understanding of the caste system, which has influenced our present views, had been based on the observation of its decadent condition after it was torn out of the original context and became an instrument of oppression and social injustice. What is true of the present can not be transferred to the past. The historical evaluation of the caste system should be based on the performance during the period when it was functioning in a healthy way as the binding factor in the traditional society of India.
It was no ordinary military invasion that India encountered in the 10th century; several tribal groups including Afghans, Pathans, Turks and Mongols united by the bond of aggressive militant Islam were out to conquer the world and destroy all pagan idolatrous cultures. These people intoxicated with military victory and iconoclastic zeal could not understand the sophistication of 'Hindu' society and culture. In spite of this, the invaders were civilized and refined to a large extent by the impact of India on them. Even militant Islam was transformed into liberal Islam in India in course of some centuries so that it has become one of the building bricks for composite Indian culture.
Western scholars judged Hinduism on the basis of its decadent form and it is a pity that Indian scholars have been endorsing this verdict even after the Hindu renaissance under the leadership of Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and others in the 20th century. Historical judgment in such matters deserves to be reconsidered in the light of contemporary evidence. The Western view point which emphasized the negative aspects and suppressed the positive aspects must be re‑examined today. Instead of doing so the Marxist historians are attempting to uphold the same imperialist views and to give them legitimacy with the use of theoretical jargon which has lost its relevance this is the reason why there must be a vigorous effort to apply strictly scientific methods to review and re‑evaluate the chronological frame work, periodisation and contents of Indian history from the beginning to the present day. The Eurocentric approach has to be replaced by an Indocentric approach and the past is to be used properly for facing the challenge of modern times.
21 November 2001
© Prof. M. G. S. Narayanan