The Eurocentric Approach to Indian History

By Prof. M.G.S. Narayanan
The author is a well-known historian and former chairman of the Indian Council for Historical Research. This address was delivered at the annual conference of the Indian History and Culture Society held at Vadodara in November 2001 and reproduced in History Today (No. 3, 2002).

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 realize 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. 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.

1. History as a collection of unrelated events

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.

2. Same periodicity as Europe

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.

3. Nothing could ever be better than Greece

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.

4. Finding race where there isn’t any

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.

5. The Aryan “invasion”

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.

The term Aryan is not employed as a race-marker, but as an indicator of 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.

6. Not acknowledging the positive aspects of the caste system

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.

7. The One True Political Model™

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.

8. The noble savages

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.

Even militant Islam was transformed into liberal Islam in India.

The last ‘great’ Mughal emperor could have uprooted idolatry and superstition but for Shivaji’s ‘reactionary’ movement for independence. The British also were interrupted in their ‘civilizing mission’ though they succeeded in leaving behind them a loyal class of intellectuals who struggle hard even today to resist any change in the Colonial scheme of education. Thanks to the basic tenacity and old‑fashioned traditionalism of the large ‘uneducated’ masses, much of the old religion and culture, festivals and fairs, social bonds and economic practices and rural charity — not the ‘rural idiocy’ of Karl Marx — have survived the onslaught of imperialism disguised as modernity. New sprouts are appearing on the butchered trunk of the ancient banyan tree: old ideas and ideals have been rising from the faded manuscripts, dilapidated temples and broken sculptures revealing some aspects of the lost splendour. I am not advocating revivalism, because the past cannot be revived. I am thrilled by the contemporary phenomenon of renovation and creative innovation inspired by the glimpses of the past, a true‑Hindu Renaissance.

New Vision

Our intelligentsia today has to visualize a new India. For this we must have a correct understanding of the present, an in‑depth study of the past with all its achievements and its failures, inside knowledge of indigenous social institutions like the temple, the caste system, the Panchayat system, the joint family, etc., along with the knowledge of the outside world and modern science. Historians have a heavy responsibility to develop an India‑based or Indocentric approach to history to replace the Eurocentric approach which is dominant today. It is mostly the Eurocentric history that is being taught in schools and colleges without criticism or debate. In these days when even the basic theories of physics are being challenged and the principle of uncertainty has begun to prevail in the field of physical sciences, it would be foolish to stick on to 19th-century ‘scientific’ theories of history and consider them as the last word in the discipline. The goal of historical writing on India should not be to please the scholars of the right or the left in the Western Universities, but to cater to the requirements of the new generation of students in India. No country can survive without nationalism today and this implies that in the field of historical study also we have to evolve a nationalist perspective.

I am not advocating revivalism, because the past cannot be revived.

However, one has to take care to see that it is not attempted at the cost of evidence, but through the integration and reinterpretation of all evidence, for instance, the glorification of imperialists both foreign and Indian in our history, accomplished by suppressing their acts of cruelty and cunningness, must be given up and the inherent injustice involving in the destruction of the people’s culture has to be exposed. Through the integration of evidence the lost meaning of institutions and practices can be recovered and their true significance for the life of the people can be appreciated. New study of old materials and the search for new materials will have to be pursued relentlessly.

That there is plenty of scope for such reinterpretation became clear to me when I took up a fresh study of south Indian history by piecing together evidence from literature and archaeology in different regions and different ages. I shall try to illustrate this point by citing one instance where the crucial importance of an institution that formed part of the monarchical set up was almost completely neglected and could be exposed and comprehended by following certain clues found in Kautilya’s Arthashastra. Several years ago I noticed that certain terms in the text were not properly explained. The term ‘aasanna’ literally means ‘a person close at hand’, and was used to describe a section of the king’s officers. The term ‘dasavargika’ means ‘the member of a group organized in multiples of ten’, and this too was employed referring to those who surrounded the king. Again the term ‘maulabala’ meaning original army was employed in describing the relative strength of different types of armed forces in a war situation. However, it was recognized that these terms referred to the same body that developed into a hired a group of aristocratic warrior‑lords who shared the secrets of administration and acted as a suicide squad in protecting the monarch from all dangers in war and peace.

Medieval Arab travel accounts of the coronation ceremony in the Valabhi kingdom of Gujarat, numerous Kannada inscriptions on hero‑stones describing the self‑sacrifice of loyal warriors, called Gurudas, Shavasis, etc. in the service of the king, scattered references to ‘Udan Kottam’ in Tamil Cola epigraphy and literature, glimpses of the hundred organisations in Cera inscriptions illuminated by modern reports of European officers on the activity of Caver or suicide squad in Kerala — all these throw light on an ancient institution of ‘companions of honour’ carried well into the medieval and modern times. They also reveal the political wisdom of Kautilya who was the mastermind behind the establishment of the first great imperial monarchy in India.

It is interesting to observe that the meaning of these obscure terms came to be recovered with the help of a 13th century translation and commentary of the Arthashastra preserved in the manuscripts library of the Maharaja of Tranvancore. All this would suggest an unbroken tradition of administrative planning throughout India, maintained with the help of the ancient textbook on political science. Such continuity can also be traced in many aspects of social, religious and cultural life of the Indian people. This is possible only if our scholars in history concentrate on such exploration instead of debunking Indian culture, following footsteps of Imperialist and Marxist interpreters who reviewed Indian past and present from an European angle.

The case of this institution of ‘companions of honour’, built around monarchy, shows that kingship in India was not having the character of a simple autocracy as is often made out to be. The Arthashastra itself shows the institutionalized terms of the Ministry, the priesthood, and other services that surrounded the prince. He was to be brought up in a particular manner and made to choose his friends and companions in conformity with the rules. The plan of a janapada or settlement was drawn up with great attention to details and it was built after taking into account several factors that contributed to the complex character of our society and administration.

The image of the otherworldly Indian incapable of governing himself and the country, cannot be sustained in view of the vigorous activity observed in semi‑autonomous villages.

Several inscriptions regarding property rights and taxes, found in Dharmasastra texts, are attested by official statements recorded in medieval times. Many changes and attempts to accommodate new situations are also documented, so that the concept of changelessness in Indian society propounded by Western Orientalists now stands repudiated. Similarly, the image of the otherworldly Indian incapable of governing himself and the country, cannot be sustained in view of the vigorous activity observed in semi‑autonomous villages. The state itself appears to have been an organic limb of the society that had a flexible Jati system and fixed ideals of Chaturvarnya and Varnashramadharma with plenty of room for differences in rituals, belief systems, administrative arrangements and day‑to‑day practice.

The Dharmashastra texts provided the written part of the constitution for the society and amendments were effected in them from age to age. Artha or material wealth was recognized as the basis of social and political organisation; Kama or desire for worldly enjoyment was accepted as a legitimate goal of life as long as it was regulated by considerations of Dharma, the lofty ideal of the moral order of the universe. The community of learned Brahmins provided the bond of continuity in time and space. it was not a mere priestly group that performed poojas and yajnas, but it provided the intellectual and cultural leadership in all walks of life. While different languages with their own literature flourished in different regions, they all drew inspiration and strength from Sanskrit which attained the position of lingua franca through the ages.

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.