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OUTLOOK India Magazine, Aug. 20, 2001

Golden Age Hallucinations
Indian civilisation derives from no utopian ideal; it was founded on, and as, a crossroads


Two radically different conceptions of India have informed discussions amongst both academics and normal human beings in the past decade or so, and it is the tension between these two conceptions that I wish to treat here. On the one hand, we have the view that 'India' as we know it was invented in the not-too-distant past, probably by the British, or perhaps by Indians and Britons acting together in the period of colonial rule. This is what we may call the constructivist approach, one that from its academic origins has percolated to other parts of elite Indian society which have willy-nilly absorbed the best and the worst of post-modernist gobbledygook by now. There is of course some truth to the notion that the idea of India altered significantly in the 19th and 20th centuries, but one may legitimately doubt whether the whole thing was made up in recent times as a sheer act of will.

The second view, which is radically opposed to the first, and which today finds more extensive political expression than academic support, is the idea that some very stable and autarchic notion of India has been around for a very long time, indeed from the time when a classical Indian civilisation put down its roots in the Indo-Gangetic plain.

This is a view that sees Indian society in terms of three (or two-and-a-half) phases: a formative one, ending at the close of the first millennium of the Christian era; a second phase of confusion and decline that is roughly coterminous with Islamic rule, and then a third—which may yet be incomplete—of resurgence and a return to the roots. We can all identify the crudest versions of the latter view in the writings of the ideologues of the rss or their Neanderthal counterparts elsewhere, including rabble-rousing European journalists in India, but the problem is that this view is far more widely shared than one often suspects.

Some thoughts on 'India' as a term may be useful to set the stage. The word itself derives, most of us know, from the medieval Arabic term 'Hind', which is itself a deformation of the far older and far more limited 'Sind'. When one reads the Arabophone encyclopaedists and geographers writing in medieval times, it soon becomes clear though that they are quite ambiguous as to the limits of 'al-Hind'. Of the core areas, there is little doubt: everyone includes the Indo-Gangetic plain from the Punjab to Bengal. But the status of the peninsula is already less clear, and we know that as late as the 15th and 16th centuries, 'Hind' and 'Hindustan' sometimes did not include the Deccan and areas south of it. If this minimal view exists, there were also other writers who thought in medieval times that Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and (in a few odd cases) even Yemen all belonged to Hind. All in all, we have three major geographical categories that stand out in these materials: Hind, Sin (or China) and Ajam (the Persian-speaking area). The problem was that the borders of the three were not unambiguous.

What of people in the Indian subcontinent? Did they have some definite notions of the limits of their identity? Once again, matters are far from clear. One measure could be the limits of the spread of Sanskrit or of Brahmanic culture, but both of these take us far into Central Asia on the one hand, and Southeast Asia on the other. Nor do the epics, and the limits of their spread, prove particularly helpful. It is true that the partisans of a theory of 'Greater India' wished in the 1930s and 1940s to make grandiose claims on this basis for the extended limits of Indian sovereignty, but such claims could be equally made then by India's neighbours using very similar sorts of evidence.

It may nevertheless be useful to reflect a little bit on the 'Greater India' thesis, and its corollary, namely the idea of the 'Indianisation' of cultures elsewhere. At the heart of the matter is the notion that at some distant point in the past, say about AD 500, the concept of 'Indian civilisation' had already been perfected. Everything of any importance was in place: social structure, philosophy, the major literary works. Then, we can imagine the process of 'Indianisation' as the transportation of these elements to distant lands such as Cambodia or Champa, to be transplanted in more or less fertile soil.

But little in the history of Southeast Asia actually provides much comfort to this view. At the same time, we must ask ourselves whether it is really convincing to think of an Indian 'civilisation' that had been perfected as long ago as the Gupta dynasty. Many writers in the 20th century of course have held to this view. These include some of the best-known Western Orientalists such as A. L. Basham or Madeleine Biardeau. But the protagonists of this position also include writers from V.S. Naipaul to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, whose Discovery of India is quite remarkable from this point of view. The central idea here is of India-as-civilisation, and it very soon becomes the same as a notion of closed India. Indian civilisation is portrayed as self-sufficient and homeostatic, and it can only export culture, but never really be influenced by the outside save in a negative sense. Somewhat paradoxically, in view of his later reputation as an apostle of secularism, Nehru seems by and large to have accepted a very negative view of Islam. This is why he portrays the situation in India after AD 1200 in negative terms, as the decline and atrophy of an already-perfect civilisation. Writing more recently, Naipaul draws upon similar images, adding to it a dash of the 'Clash of Civilisations' thesis: the fault-line between Islam and Hinduism (which can be read as 'Indian civilisation') passes for him through the heart of the subcontinent.

One of the examples that Naipaul chooses to illustrate his sad tale of medieval decline is the fate of the imperial state of Vijayanagara in the Deccan, portrayed by him as one of the last bastions of Hindu civilisation that held out against the Muslim invader. Now, most historians of Vijayanagara today would see matters rather differently. They would point to the dependence of Vijayanagara on Muslim military specialists and horse-traders, Portuguese firearms, and an imperial ideology that was based not on ancient precepts but newly-formulated sectarian ideas from the 14th and 15th centuries. In terms of court ritual, fiscal structure and imperial style, Vijayanagara shares far more with the Bahmani sultanate and its successors at Bijapur and Golconda, than with the Pallavas and Cholas. Politically, the rulers of Vijayanagara were as often allied to these sultanates as opposed to them, while amongst their major rivals and enemies were the Gajapati rulers of Orissa. In order to understand this, however, we need to see India not as a civilisation but as a crossroads, as a space open to external influences rather than a simple exporter of culture to its neighbours.

Where did this misunderstanding arise, and since when has Vijayanagara been seen as a Hindu kingdom struggling against Muslim enemies? One part of the answer lies with the Portuguese in the 16th century. Looking for help against the Muslim rulers of peninsular India, they thought the 'Gentile' kings of Vijayanagara were their natural friends.By the middle years of the 16th century, they had partially given up this illusion, but some parts of it persisted into the views of later writers, including those from Holland and France. It may be useful at this point to insist on one fact. It is clear that most of these writers were not liars or prevaricators; they did not simply make up things about India. What they did, however, was selectively read Indian society, and produce an image of it that was often based on true elements, but which had been shorn of their real context. Still, several centuries after the arrival of Vasco da Gama on Indian shores, there was no single dominant idea of India in writings by Westerners: several contradictory views existed depending on whether one wrote from Madurai or Agra, whether one was Protestant or Catholic, whether one knew Persian or Sanskrit, and so on. However, by the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a new homogeneity can be found in views of what India was. This picture, produced by Western Orientalists and their Indian assistants, tended to focus on Sanskrit as the true source of Indian culture (demoting Persian in the process), and there was also a search for an Indian Golden Age. Minority voices contested this view, but they were few and far between. Indian popular culture was also largely set aside in favour of an obsession with high culture.

It is remarkable that both Indian reformers and neo-traditionalists of the 19th century bought into this view, and a strange complicity came to exist between these two apparently opposed strands. The epoch from the 12th to the 18th centuries was portrayed in dark hues, and if some felt Westernisation was the antidote to the malady, others proposed a return to the real roots of Indian civilisation. But what was this pristine culture to which a return was proposed? Carnatic music played on the violin (an 18th-century import from Europe), or dances performed to the texts of Kshetrayya that came precisely from this period! In north India, ultra-purists insisted that Dhrupad should be favoured over Khayal, and invented a bogus Vedic genealogy for the former, forgetting that it was heavily influenced by Mughal court culture. As for devotional religion such as we know it today in India, most of it is the product of the period from the 14th century onwards, whether in Maharashtra, Punjab or Bengal.

This takes me to an observation of the poet and literary critic Velcheru Narayana Rao, who has often argued that all we have real access to in our past is that part which goes back five or six centuries. Beyond that, we have intellectual constructions and wishful thinking, but little that exists in our everyday life that connects us instinctively to things that are so distant from us in time. So, ancient India is not a reality for us in the same way as medieval India, and it can never achieve the same status. Further, this intermediate past is one which we can only think through in terms of the idea of a crossroads, where not only did regions and regional cultures influence one another, but things came and went from far more distant lands, whether Europe, Central Asia, Iran and the Ottoman empire, or Southeast Asia and East Africa. It will do us no good to pretend that these processes of exchange were not linked to violence. Empires were built, and cities sacked; religious sites were desecrated, and political opponents were massacred. This was the way it was in our part of the world, just as it was in medieval Iran, the Germany of the Thirty Years' War, or the empire of the Incas. But this is the only past we have, and we had best make as good a job as we can with it.

To take the example of the Indian connection to Africa, this is one that has been really neglected. On the one hand it is linked to the Indian Ocean slave trade, since Africans were brought as slaves to serve in the states of medieval India; but on the other, it is linked to the complex history of western Indian merchant communities who profited from Africa and the African trade. The point to be made is that it will simply not do to always portray Indians and Indian society as victims of the greed and depredations of others, while conveniently whitewashing those parts of our own past that do not suit us today. In a similar vein, the relations between Indian traders and moneylenders and peasants in Central Asia were often exploitative ones, a fact that partly explains the resentment against them in the early years of the 20th century.

Some of my Indian intellectual friends believe it is their task to use history in order to demonstrate the illegitimacy of Indian nationalism. This is not my view, nor do I believe that historians are really up to this task. The point I wish to make instead is that we have by now come to terms in surprising measure with a truly traumatic period in our not-too-distant past, namely that of about two centuries of British colonial rule. No one really questions the existence of key institutions that the British left behind in India; there is no current proposal to dismantle the railway network or blow up the city of Kolkata simply because they were created under colonial rule. The same holds for the status of the English language, which has if anything grown stronger in India in the last three decades. But it would be truly bizarre if the price to be paid for this acceptance of the legacy of colonial rule were to be the transfer of nationalist resentment onto the earlier period, in order to cast the blame for everything that is wrong with Indian society today on medieval invaders from Central and West Asia. True, all nationalisms seem to need negative stereotypes in order to shore up their self-images. But a national culture that does not have the confidence to declare that, like all other national cultures, it too is a hybrid, a crossroads, a mixture of elements derived from chance encounters and unforeseen consequences, can only take the path to xenophobia and cultural paranoia. A last suggestion: if cultural cleansing is to start in India, we might begin by returning the khaki shorts to their place of origin.


Author of the critically-acclaimed The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama, Cambridge, Paris-based Sanjay Subrahmanyam's next book is A History of the World Between 1350-1715.