Non-saffron history unnerves reds

Meenakshi Jain


The Weekend Observer, December 4, 1999

 

Leftist intellectuals are of late busy defending the Marxist contribution to history writing in India. Frightened by a perceived threat to their hegemony following the loss of formidable positions of intellectual power and patronage, they are gearing up to resist the inevitable challenge to their version of history.

 

Sneering at ‘saffron historians’ whose views have begun to command some attention in intellectual circles, the Leftists claim that the former will be unable to present a history that can seriously overturn their account.

 

Their cockiness is baffling since ‘saffron historians’ have no need to engage in such an endeavour at all. A formidable pre-Marxist history already exists; it has merely to be restored to its former glory. Marxists claim to have widened the spectrum of historical research to include economic, social, subaltern and sundry other perspectives, to create a more complete narrative.

 

However, archaeologists, anthropologists, sociologists, linguists, philosophers, and specialists on comparative religion have put together a far richer rendition of the Indian reality. What is more, it seriously contests the Marxist version in several key areas.

 

The asymmetry between archaeological findings and Leftist treaties on early Indian history is now too great to be ignored by serious scholars, though it Must be admitted that Marxists are taking a valiant last stand; they are fanning out to various colleges with ever-greater vigour in a bid to impress susceptible audiences of the strength of their theses.

 

It would be interesting to know whether members of the Archaeological Survey are also being courted in university campuses, which are more or less still Marxist bastions. However, it is empirical archaeological data, not normative saffronist fancy, that has disproved an Indo-Aryan or European invasion in the pre-or proto-historic periods. There is simply nothing to prove that the Vedic-speaking people were intruders in the Indus-Saraswati region. The ‘big bang’ theory of Indian Civilization - the so-called seismic clash between Aryans and Dravidians - has bitten dust, without RSS historians having to lift a shovel.

 

Philosophers and experts on comparative religion have also cast the weight of their scholarship in favour of an integrated Indian Civilization long before saffron intellectuals came on the scene. S N Dasgupta’s magisterial History of Indian Philosophy marshalled an amazing body of religious documents to present a powerful argument for the Vedic basis of Indian Civilization. Sadly, but perhaps predictably, this authoritative study has been edged out of the recommended reading, at least in Delhi University.

 

Even writers of such eminence as Mircea Eliade, Rene Guenon, Hanrich Zimmer, who elevated Hinduism to a level unpalatable to Marxists, have suffered eclipse. These scholars have written forcefully of Hinduism as the oldest of the mystery religions of the world: A form of Philosophia Perennis, embodying those universal truths to which no people or age can make exclusive claim. Its doctrines, they have said, can neither change nor be perfected, only viewed and formulated afresh, “each successive formulation always remaining completely faithful to the traditional spirit.” It is to Hinduism that these scholars credit Indian’s coherence, even in the absence of outward structure and authority, again without any prompting from the Parivar and its affiliates.

 

Then there is Ananda Coomaraswamy who detected in India “a strong national genius... since the beginning of her history.” He found Indian art and culture “a joint creation of the Dravidian and Aryan genius.” Of Buddhism, he wrote:’ “the more profound our study, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish Buddhism from Brahmanism, or to say in what respects, if any, Buddhism is really unorthodox. The outstanding distinction lies in the fact that Buddhist doctrine is propounded by an apparently historical founder. Beyond this there are only broad distinctions of emphasis.” No right-wing historian could dare put it so boldly in Indian today.

 

Unfortunately for Marxists, sociological and anthropological works on Indian social structures are also overwhelmingly at variance with their tomes on the subject. In sociological accounts, the caste system, projected by Marxists as the archetype of oppressive institutions, appears as not-so-villainous. Non-Marxist accounts bring out the high degree of fluidity in the caste system, with upward mobility the greatest pursuit.

 

It is sociological and anthropological accounts that have fully alerted us to the irrelevance of varna hierarchy in day-to-day life, where power was a crucial determinant and was exercise more often than not by dominant castes belonging to the fourth varna. At the local level at least, the varna order was turned on its head with agricultural castes serving as benefactors and role models for all in their vicinity.

 

Sociologists and anthropologists like, M N Srinivas, C J Fuller, Jonathan Parry and Marcel Mauss have unraveled (without help from rightist quarters) the ritually limited role of Brahmins, their complete dependence on their lower caste patrons, and the contempt and ridicule they generally evoked in tile countryside. In Marxist historiography, in sharp contrast, the Brahmin has been consistently equated with Shylock.

 

Sociological accounts of the Indian village community also contradict Marxist pontifications on the subject. The former have laid far greater stress on ‘inter-caste complementarily,’ the sense of community that was reiterated in joint celebration of festivities, rituals, worship, and in combined efforts to raise the crop and defend life and property from freebooters and natural calamities. Institutions of caste come across as vibrant and supple in sociological and anthropological writings, as opposed to their oppressive and status quoist depiction in Leftist literature. Here too, it may be noted, saffron writers have played a negligible role.

 

On Islam, too, there is little need for a saffron academic effort. Enough work has been done by such renowned scholars as Bernard Lewis and Patricia Crone for us to fully appreciate the significance of the Islamic revolution in the world context. Crone has adequately explained the centrality of conquest in ‘the Muslim scheme of things. Mohammed’s God” she writes, endorsed a policy of conquest, instructing his believers to fight against unbelievers wherever they might be found. In short, Mohammed had to conquer, his followers liked to conquer, and his doily told him to conquer; do we need any more?’

 

Bernard Lewis, in turn, has dwelt at length on the “radical change” and “discontinuity” that Islam brought wherever it went in the Middle East. The pre-Islamic states, scripts and languages were wiped out.

 

There was a violent break “in the self-image and corporate sense of identity, and the collective memory of the Islamic Peoples in the Middle East” We should not expect that things could have been differently intended for India.

 

On Indian specifically, we have works such as those of the late Prof. Aziz Ahmad, whose Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment provides a devastating account of the magnitude of the rift between the two religious in the subcontinent and speaks of the inevitability of Partition.

 

Prof. Ahmad’s works have been supplemented by those of a number of American academics whose researches have led them to similar conclusions.

 

In the light of such a formidable intellectual corpus just waiting to be rehabilitated, Marxist intellectuals should refrain from taunting saffronists to pick up the gauntlet. Their time would be better spent scrambling for cover. The bubble is about to burst.

 

(The author is a historian and professor at Delhi university.)

 

 


Meenakshi Jain