Defining the Historian

(Asoka’s Edict in Greek and Aramaic. Found in Khandahar)

In an opinion piece in The Hindu, Upinder Singh writes highly about Marxist historians and offers the following criticism:

While making these valuable interventions and contributions, Marxist writings often tended to work with unilinear historical models derived from Western historical and anthropological writings. Texts were sometimes read uncritically, with insufficient attention paid to their problematic chronology and peculiarities of genre. Archaeological data were included, but the basic framework of the historical narrative remained text-centric. Initially, the focus on class meant less attention to other bases of social stratification such as caste and gender. Religion and culture were sidelined, or mechanically presented as reflections of socio-economic structures [Changing interpretations of early Indian history]

The bigger problem is in applying a 19th century model in analysing ancient India without accepting that people of ancient India lived by different codes and philosophy. For example, when you apply Marxist historiography, with the theme of of social class and economic constraints in determining historical outcomes, on the Asokan empire, the results are ridiculous, but in India that passes off as serious research.

Prof. Thomas Sheehan gives an example of such analysis in one of his Stanford lectures regarding the heavenly ascension of Jesus. To understand the ascension, Prof. Sheehan says, you need to understand Jewish Cosmology in which earth was a flat disc arched by a dome on which the celestial bodies were attached. Thus to reach heaven one just had to climb the tallest mountain.

Now apply the knowledge gained from the Hubble telescope on the life of a 1st century Jewish Rabbi and you get ridiculous results. Where is heaven now.? Is it beyond Milky Way or is it between the earth and moon.? Did Jesus travel at the speed of light to reach heaven or was he teleported?

In the article Ms. Singh educates us about various historiographical schools of India — the Orientalist, Nationalist and Maxrist historians — and itemizes their contributions. Regarding Orientalists, she rightly says, “Social and religious institutions and traditions were critiqued from a Western viewpoint.”

Blindly applying Western techniques has serious problems because the terminology itself is incompatible. This adoption has resulted in discussions on if Hinduism is monotheistic, monistic or henotheistic, when all schools of Indian Philosophy stand for direct, immediate, intuitive realization of Reality.

If you take a word like nāstika, it is often translated into English as atheism, while it has no such meaning in Indian Philosophy. Jainism denies God, but does not deny godhead; every liberated soul is a god. In mahāyāna Buddhism, Bodhisatva is worshipped as God, but in India, Jainism and Buddhism are categorized as nāstika. Sāṃkhya and Mīmāṃsā schools do not believe in God and should by Western classification be atheistic, but in India they are treated as orthodox. This is because the term nāstika is used for one who does not believe in the authority of the Vedas and has nothing to do with God.[1]

Without such understanding, various definitions are translated into English. Since there is no accurate word to describe certain concepts, they are loosely translated. Later scholars, who cannot read original texts, depend on such translations and make up various Ph.D theses which are then quoted by eminent historians.

Various nationalist historians have attempted to correct such mistakes, but they don’t get credit in Upinder Singh’s article. Instead this is what she has to say.

It coalesced with a communal tendency to valorise the ‘Hindu period’ and to project the advent of the Turks and Islam as a calamity and tragedy.[Changing interpretations of early Indian history]

Thus by Ms. Singh’s definition the American invasion of Iraq or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan cannot be called a calamity or tragedy; we are now in predictable territory of template script.

Any historian who identifies himself with a label – Orientalist, Marxist or Nationalist – has already pigeon-holed himself. They are bound by dogma and cannot accept any evidence which goes contrary to their predefined concepts. At that point they cease to be historians and become politicians. Historians like Upinder Singh now perpetuate such labels, implying that a historian has to belong to one such fraternity.

Instead what we need are historians who understand the social, economic, political and cultural context in which the events happened and are able to write history with that perspective. By sourcing, contextualizing, close reading and corroborating source materials, historians can come up with an analysis of what really happened.

An example of this technique can be seen in this interactive presentation (via) by Prof. Sam Wineburg on the Battle of Lexington in which primary sources from the American and British side are used to find out what really happened. The final output is history, not simply the American or British version.

Similarly in India, we see that the Marxist historian D.D.Kosambi‘s take on the Aryan Invasion is very similar to the position of the Nationalists.

In essence, Indian civilization whether Hindu, Buddhist or Jain, or any other, developed primarily from the unique (and varied) conditions of Indian geography and the human exertion that went into modifying those conditions to advance agriculture and settled civilization. Taken in the general context of say three or four thousand years of Indian history, it is hard to ascribe to an “Aryan” invasion/s the sort of paramountcy assigned by the British. While British motives in magnifying the “Aryan” character of Indian civilization are only too apparent, this contemporary obsession with the “Aryan” question that
appears to have gripped large sections of the Indian intelligentsia suggests that the ideological confusion created by the British has not yet been fully sorted out. [Kosambi on the Aryan Invasion]

Ambedkar and Aurobindo too came up with the same conclusion and this position was validated by genetic studies thus freeing it from dogma.

In his 1937 essay “Beliefs,” Huxley said, “It is impossible to live without a metaphysic. The choice that is given us is not between some kind of metaphysic and no metaphysic; it is always between a good metaphysic and a bad metaphysic, a metaphysic that corresponds reasonably closely with observed and inferred reality and one that doesn’t.”[Our crisis of foundations: what Tom Wolfe’s novel, among other things, brings to mind ]

We cannot live without historians and our choice is not between Orientalists, Marxists or Nationalists, but between good historians and bad ones.


[1] A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy by Chandradhar Sharma

14 thoughts on “Defining the Historian

  1. Interesting post
    However I have a few random observations
    * The problem is history is often tied up with political and ideological agendas whether that be marxist or hinduvtawadi etc
    * A lot of history is interpretation and interpretion is bound to be subjective.

  2. Good post. Not sure if history can be looked at in an “objective” manner, as everyone will have some biases. What’s important is to be aware of, and state those biases or assumptions upfront, instead of pretending that one’s analysis is the only valid/objective one.

  3. History definitely is influenced by the bias of the historian, but usually it is compensated by having various schools of thoughts. In India, history always was written with a Marxist perspective, and dissenting voices which would have provided balance were never heard. Now such dissenting voices are shut off by labeling them.
    Even before we get to the objective part, the methodology itself needs to be criticized. Marxist historians often try to downplay the impact of religion on social life, but in India, that turned out to be just bashing Hinduism. Often we hear statements like the greatest emperors of India were Akbar and Asoka, both of whom were not Hindus, ignoring the contribution of the Vijayanagar empire and the Cholas.
    It is time such historians are called what they really are – biased historians.

  4. “Thus by Ms. Singh’s definition the American invasion of Iraq or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan cannot be called a calamity or tragedy; we are now in predictable territory of template script.”
    this was probably the first post i read in your blog, followed a link in sandeepweb. you rock.

  5. JK,
    I remember a promotion of Smt. Singh’s book in TOI some months ago and the portrayal of her as being critical of Marxists historians. (Only in India can one get away with calling themselves Marxist anything, never mind a historian!!).
    Anyway, have you seen the rather long op-ed in The Hindu on the D. D. Kosambi recently by one Dr. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, former prof of JNU. I liked this from the op-ed: In a letter to his old friend Daniel Ingalls, an Indologist at Harvard, he wrote in 1953: “The world is divided into three groups: (1) swearing by Marxism, (2) swearing at Marxism, (3) indifferent, i.e. just swearing…I belong to (1), you and your colleagues to (2).” [sic]

  6. Chandra, Thanks for the link; I had not seen it. These folks have changed the discussion of history to always include Marxism. Marxism itself is dying around the world, but still it is kept alive by such folks.
    I have few of those Kosambi books mentioned in the article, but never got around to reading them completely. On the whole I get the feeling that he did not hate India/Hinduism as much as his disciples.

  7. This is because the term nāstika is used for one who does not believe in the authority of the Vedas and has nothing to do with God. JK I would qualify that even further. The astika way of thought uses Vedic methods to discuss philosophical and logical problems, rather than repose authority in the Vedas. The Vedas are supposed to apaurusheya, not because they are dictated by some devas, but because they are independent of any personal likes or dislikes. Given some time and space for vada, tarka, jalpa, etc., anyone can conclude as the Vedas do. The question of belief does not arise.

  8. I want to comment on one thing: in the 1857 mutiny in India, all the british historians like that Dalrymple are biased people and they all state that “there was no evidence of any harm of british women by indians” ( by harm I mean the honour lost of those women by force), and that it was only the other way around UNTRUE Of course they’re going to say this because they dont want to admit the truth because it makes them look bad! How can anyone believe that there was no evidence?? Of course whoever took records from the british side during that time would NEVER admit that there was evidence! How can you trust any of the British records??? They’re all biased, they all try to make themselves look good!!! People should ask the Indian historians and ask about their view! Of course the princes and chiefs had their own inquiries and records that these things did happen to the brit women. Also Dalrymple talks about white mughals BS!!! THERE WERE NO WHITE MUGHALS!! Esp. at that time, indian society was so strict do you think the women would ever go out with the white guys???? Never
    Dalrymple is lying, and he is lying because the truth bothers him…
    only the several Indian Maharajas had 20 white mistresses each
    Bias on our part though is you don;t hear too much about this history from indian historians, why? B/c its shameful to admit and talk about what happened to the brit women, and also about the indian rajas and brit mistresses, these subjects are taboo in India and so these historical records are kept somewhat hidden and secret, but they exist (for eg. Jayaprakash Narayan kept records during the foreign occupation of india). On the other hand, the europeans and brits have a habit of being outspoken about everything and dont have the same sense of taboo and strict censor concerning these subjects, and so discuss these more freely.

  9. I just wanted to correct myself, and refrain from using racially sensitive terms like “white” in the last post, when talking about the maharajas; instead, this the corrected post:
    “only the several Indian Maharajas had 20 British mistresses each”
    Thank you.

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