History writing and Nationalism

  • By Prabuddha Bharata
  • August 2005

While at Alwar during his parivrajaka days, Swami Vivekananda happened to speak to a group of young men on the importance of the study and writing of history. He exhorted:

“Study Sanskrit, but along with it study Western science as well. Learn accuracy, my boys. Study and labour, so that the time will come when you can put our history on a scientific basis. Now, Indian history is disorganized. It has no chorological accuracy. The histories of our country written by English writers cannot but be weakening to our minds, for they tell only of our downfall. How can foreigner, who understand very little of our manners and customs, or our religion and philosophy, write faithful, unbiased histories of India. Naturally, many false nations and wrong inferences have found their way into them. Nevertheless the Europeans have shown us how to proceed in making research into our ancient history. Now it is for us to strike out an independent path of historical research for ourselves; to study the Vedas and the Puranas and ancient annals of India; and from this to make it our life work and discipline to write accurate, sympathetic and soul-inspiring histories of the land. It is for Indians to write Indian history. Therefore set yourselves to the task of rescuing our lost and hidden treasures from oblivion. Even as one whose child has been lost does not rest until he has found it, so do you never cease to labour until you have revived the glorious past of India in the consciousness of the people. That will be true national education, and with its advancement a true national spirit will be awakened.”1

One need not be conversant with the theoretical perspective in academic historiography to recognize in the aforementioned counsel a call for nationalist history. A review of this statement in its historical context as also against the background of the plural world of competing histories generated by diverse intellectual thought currents can, however, be instructive. This is especially so when contemporary curricular history texts in Indian schools have literally been turned into battlegrounds by conflicting political ideologies.

Historiography in Swamiji’s Time
The latter half of nineteenth century was a time when history as a discipline was crystallizing into the forms that we know of today. More specifically, it was moving from the early Enlightenment tradition to the age of empiricism or positivism. While the primacy of reason had been taken for granted with the turn of Enlightenment, early Enlightenment historians in the West-Vico, Voltaire, Hume, Robertson and the like-tried to see the unfolding of a technological plan in history, a plan of continuous cultural improvement. This is what Kant called universal history. To Voltaire history was the ‘teaching of philosophy by example’ and Hegel called these exemplars ‘world historical people-the Greeks, Romans and Germans-who dominated each successive stage of development.

The positivists, led by Auguste Comte, wanted to study society and history scientifically, just as scientists were studying nature. Empiricism was characterized by the use of all possible documentary evidence and the critical questioning of texts to arrive at an authentic’ account of ‘how things actually were’. Otto Ranke’s History of the Latin and Teutonic People (1824) and the twelve-volume Cambridge Modern History (1902-10) edited by Lord Action typified this process, although Chinese historians had recognized the centrality of evidence at least a hundred years before Ranke and Islamic historians were well aware of Vico’s concept of the stages of development.

For all their advocacy of empiricism, the main impulse for these nineteenth-century histories was nationalism, even as the ferment of revolution on the European continent was carving out new nation states from old monarchies and the concept of nations and nationalities was taking a concrete intellectual and social shape. Thus T B Macaulay’s History of England not only defended Anglican religion, institutions like the British Parliament and Victorian traditions but also combined the stress on national uniqueness with a xenophobic contempt for non-English peoples and religion (like Catholicism).2 J R Greene’s Short History of the English People that Swamiji reputedly mastered in three days prior to his B.A. examinations was also written on similar lines. Nationalist history writing on ‘rigorous’ and ‘scientific’ lines was intellectual de rigueur in Europe of Swamiji’s times. Swamiji’s study of Comte’s logical positivism has been pointed out by his biographers. He emphasized this need for a critical scientific attitude, organized presentation of data, and chronological accuracy to his Alwar audience. But he had other reasons too for emphasizing nationalist history writing.

James Mill had set the tone for Indian history writing with his History of British India (1817), where he periodized Indian history into the Hindu, Muslim and British periods- a schema that has still not died, though the nomenclature has now been replaced with the term Ancient, Medieval and Modern, the judgmental implications of which are less obvious. Mill was unequivocal about the immorality and despotism of Indian ‘civilization’ and though Islamic civilization was ‘comparatively superior’ to the Hindu, till the arrival of the British India had been ‘condemned to semi-barbarism and the miseries of despotic power’. Mill was of the opinion that the Hindus had no sense of history (this argument also rears its head occasionally even now) and that their culture was stagnant: ‘From the scattered hints, contained in the writings of the Greeks, the conclusion has been drawn that the Hindus, at the time of Alexander’s invasion, were in a state of manners, society, and knowledge, exactly the same that [sic] in which they were discovered by the nations of modern Europe.’3

Mount Stuart Elphinstone’s History of India (1841), which remained the standard college text for several decades, and which Swamiji had read event before his First Arts examination, announced in its preface: ‘If the ingenious, original and elaborate work of Mr. Mill left some room for doubt and discussion, the able compositions since published … may be supposed to have fully satisfied the demands of every reader.’4 E B Cowell’s introductory notes, however, would not have appeared very flattering to Hindus: ‘I need hardly say that the history of ancient India is almost exclusively mythic and legendary-the ancient Hindus never possessed any true “historical sense”.’ ‘The “Mahometan period”, Cowell continues, ‘is of a very different character. Here we have authentic contemporary records- we deal with flesh and blood, not shadows’ (vii). In asking the Alwar Youths to use the Vedas, Puranas and annals as source material for the reconstruction of India’s past, Swamiji was therefore looking to flesh the ghostly shadows that had so repelled Cowell - an endeavour that has been carried out with much success by subsequent historians.

Nationalist Histories
If Mill’s history was a ‘Justification’ of British imperial conquest and Elphinstone’s an essentially colonial overview of the history of a British colony, V A Smith’s Oxford History of India (1911) and the five-volume Cambridge History of India (1922-37) were fresh attempts at justifying British rule in India in the face of mounting opposition from Indian nationalists. In the words of R C Majumdar, Vincent Smith ‘never concealed his anxiety to prove the beneficence of the British Raj by holding before his readers the picture of anarchy and confusion, which, in his view, has been the normal condition in India with rare intervals.’ The inevitable moral was: ‘Such is India and such it always has been till the British established a stable order.’5

Such opinions also stemmed from a spirit of nationalism, only this nationalism, was British and not Indian. Contemporary historians like Tapan Raychaudhuri have pointed out that such histories continue to shape contemporary British opinion of its colonial past despite mounting academic evidence against such colonial views. Thus a contemporary British student is likely to argue strongly for the British sense of justice and equity, while Bankimchandra, who himself functioned as a deputy magistrate, could cite any number of instances of Britishers in India treating themselves as beyond the common law’. Evidently, some men were more equal than others’!

Nationalist history writing has not been the sole preserve of the British; nor even of imperial powers with strong national identities like Germany and France. In the US, Frederick Turner and James Robinson pioneered the writing of a ‘New History’ that argued for a distinct American spirit, which was not be explained through European perspectives. This concept is even now echoed in the rhetoric of US politicians. In the South American continent too there has been a recent call for historia patrias (‘national history’) ‘to unite the present population in common bond with the past’.

Swami Vivekananda was one of the first people to stress the need for writing Indian national history as seen through Indian eyes. In a conversation with Priya Nath Sinha he said, ‘a nation that has no history of its own has nothing in this world. … We have our own history exactly as it ought to have been for us. … But that history has to be rewritten. It should be restated and suited to the understanding and ways of thinking which our men have acquired in the present age through Western education.’6

It is evident that national history is history with a purpose. It tries to capture the ethos, values and traditions that give a nation its identity. It reconstructs the past as the foundation of the present, the wellspring from which contemporary society derives its inspiration and vitality. It helps build a, national consciousness’ and creates a desire to recapture ‘past glory’. It points to the ‘lesson’ that can be derived from a nation’s past and which can be used to constructively guide national policy. It sees politics and governance as goal-directed (and therefore ethical) activities and so reminds citizens, bureaucrats and politicians of their responsibility and duty to the nation.

In the passage cited at the beginning, Swami Vivekananda briefly outlines the purpose that he envisioned for Indian national history: one, it was to rescue the lost and hidden treasures of past Indian civilization; two, it would revive the glorious past in the consciousness of the people; and three, it would awaken the national spirit and thus make for true national education. Obviously, to Swamiji such history was essential to the making of an Indian nation, and would propel the fledgling Indian nationalism that was yet to take off.

The Making of a National History
The multi-volume Cultural Heritage of India (presently in six volumes) conceived during the centenary celebrations of Sri Ramakrishna’s birth (1936) and published by the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture was one pioneering effort at an overview of Indian culture. Another concrete response to Swamiji’s call came in 1944 with the formation of the Bharatiya Itihasa Samiti (Academy of Indian History) at the initiative of K M Munshi. The Samiti, which was soon subsumed under the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, went on to bring out the eleven-volume History and Culture of the Indian People under the general editorship of R C Majumdar. The editor’s preface set out the plan as it differed from the then standard Cambridge History of India:

“It has been hitherto customary to divide Indian history into the Hindu, Muslim and British periods. … But it can hardly be regarded as equitable. Looking at the matter from a broad standpoint, it would be difficult to maintain that the 4,000 years of pre-Muslim India, or the history and culture of which we possess a definite knowledge, though in brief outline, should rank in importance as equal with that of the Muslim period of about 400 or 500 years, or the British period of less than 200 year. … After all, the contribution of different ages to the evolution of national history and culture should be the main criterion of their relative importance. … there is, no doubt, a dearth of material for the political history of ancient India, but this is to a large extent made up for by the corresponding abundance for the cultural side. Taking everything into consideration we …have allotted nearly half of the entire work to the Hindu period.”7

In his foreword to the volumes, Munshi summarized the problems with the then available Indian histories:
“The treatment of the British period in most of our histories … read like an unofficial report of the British conquest and of the benefits derived by India from it. It does not give us the real India; nor does it present a picture of what we saw, felt and suffered, of how we reacted to foreign influences, or of the values and organization we created out of the impact of the West.

Generation after generation … were told about the successive foreign invasion of the country, but little about how we resisted them and less about our victories. They were taught to decry the Hindu social system; but they were not told … how its vitality enabled the national culture to adjust its central ideas to new conditions.
Readers were regaled with Alexander’s short-lived and unfructuous invasion of India; they were left in ignorance of the magnificent empire and still more enduring culture which Gangetic Valley had built up at the time. Lurid details of intrigues in the palaces of the Sultans of Delhi – often a camp of bloodthirsty invaders-are given, but little light is thrown on the exploits of the race of heroes and heroines who for centuries resisted the Central Asiatic barbarians when they flung themselves on this land in successive waves. Gruesome stories of Muslim atrocities are narrated, but the harmony which was evolved in social and economic life between the two communities remains unnoticed. …

The multiplicity of our languages and communities is widely advertised, but little emphasis is laid on certain facts which make India what she is. Throughout the last two millennia, there was linguistic unity. Some sort of lingua franca was used by a very large part of the country; and Sanskrit, for a thousand years the language of royal courts and it all times the language of culture, was predominant, influencing life, language, and literature in most provinces. … Aryan, or rather Hindu culture (for there was considerable Dravidian influence) drew its inspiration in every successive generation from Sanskrit works on religion, philosophy, ritual law and science, and particularly the two epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and the Bhagavata, underwent recensions from time to time [sic], and became the one irresistible creative force which has shaped the collective spirit of the people (9-10).”

Munshi also pointed out that the conception of India as a ‘mystic land’ without any significant ‘imperialism of the militaristic political type’ was a myth. The successive kingdoms of the Mauryas, Satavahanas, Guptas, of Harsha, of the Pratiharas, Rashtrakutas, Palas, Parmaras, and Cholas in ancient India were all witness to significant political and military activity. The Delhi Sultans and the Mughals in medieval India also had large empires and the Maratha dominion was by no means inconsiderable. He also noted the need to reduce the role of alien invasions (like that of Mahmud of Ghazni) in the history of India ‘to its appropriate proportion’.

He finally reiterated the fact of continuity of Indian culture since ancient time and exhorted: A post-mortem examination of India’s past [as done in the case of Egypt, Greece or Rome] would be scientifically inaccurate. … The modern historian of India must approach her as a living entity with a central continuous urge, of which the apparent life is a mere expression’.

Problems of Nationalism Historiography                   
Interestingly, since the 1960s Indian historiography (as also the Indian Historical Congress) came to be dominated by writers using Marxist methodologies, with D D Kosambi’s Introduction to the Study of Indian History Showing the way. This group of scholars found several propositions of the nationalist historians problematic. The shift in focus to the ‘glories’ of ancient India was seen as a right-wing Hindu revivalist stance. With their material base, Marxist methodologies can at best be used to deconstruct religious positions, and so any glorification of religious culture could not be acceptable to Marxist historians. The dialectics of class struggle also could not privilege the class cooperation posited by the nationalists as an essential ingredient of the nationalist movement. Thus R S Sharma’s work on the shudras ‘helped to expose the seamy exploitative undersides of ancient Indian civilization’ and the idea of the ‘Gupta Golden Age’ was also undermined.8

There was a reaction from Islamic scholars too. According to Sumit Sarkar of the Marxist school, “After the massive research of the Aligarh School’ the counterposing of a ‘good’ against a ‘bad’ Muslim king, an Akbar against an Aurangzeb, is no longer felt to be a necessary task for secular-minded medieval historians. Themes like technological change, surplus appropriation, have come to be considered far more significant, and tolerance or intolerance are seen as determined not by the personal catholicity or bigotry of rulers but primarily by material, especially political, pressures and relationships’ (ibid.).”

Forty-three years after the publication of A L Basham’s The Wonder That Was India (1954), a second volume written by S A A Rizvi was introduced under the same name. This volume, through purportedly the history of India between 1200-1700 CE, is essentially Islamic Indian history of this period.9

With the break-up of the European communist states Marxist ideology lost much of its appeal. Indian Marxist historians- now styled the ‘progressive group’ – too started looking for fresh theoretical perspectives. The ‘Subaltern Studies’ collective has been one such important fresh effort at historiography.10 It characterizes nationalist history as bourgeois elitism and aims to explore the ‘politics of the people … the subaltern classes and group constituting the mass of the labouring population and intermediate strata in town and country’. It points to the ‘failure of the Indian bourgeoisie to speak for the nation’, and aims to reveal patterns of domination and subjugation, for ‘there were vast areas in the life consciousness of the people which were never integrated into their [the nationalist elite’s] hegemony. 11

What Would Swamiji Have Said Now?  
Swami Vivekananda was explicit about the plurality of histories. During the conversation with Priya Nath Sinha cited above, he remarked: ‘Of course, we have no history exactly like that of other countries … [but] we have our own history exactly as it ought to have been for us.’12

Instead of the Marxist dialectics of class struggle revolving around control of the means of production, Swamiji posited a power struggle of the varnas that involved patterns of dominance and subjugation based on the possession of knowledge (both esoteric and mundane), military capability, economic potential and mass solidarity. He was able to apply this paradigm to analyse virtually any social situation.

Swamiji’s disquisitions on the oppression and deprivation of the marginalized section of society –the ‘silent masses’ – are too well known to need restatement, as is his remarkable insight about their rise to power. His discourse, however, takes the form of broad outlines and generalizations unlike the ‘fragmentary’ analyses of the Subaltern Studies.13 More importantly, he worked out programmes – with specific material, intellectual and spiritual content – to enable the subaltern alter the equations of power; and this he put in a language that the subaltern could understand. The historians of the subaltern, unfortunately, write with a ‘Western academic, postmodernistic, counter-establishment’ audience in mind, and in so doing have created their own ‘elitist’ niche in academic historiography. If anybody is likely to find it difficult to reach out or related to them, it is the subaltern!

Sarkar laments the ‘Decline of the Subaltern in Subaltern Studies’. He is also concerned about the emergence of ‘a tendency to define such communities principally in terms of religious identities’. Swami Vivekananda never tired of reminding his audience that religion is the core of Indian culture (and his ‘Indian’ here was not synonymous with ‘Hindu’) and any authentic study of the Indian ‘mentality’ can hardly afford to ignore this fact. Contemporary international politics is a strong reminder of the fact that religion is a very important determinant of international relations, criticisms of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations notwithstanding. The naivety or Sarkar’s remarks are only a reflection of the inadequacies of contemporary Indian historians in critically evaluating the religious elements in history. Small wonder that an overwhelming bulk of the critical studies on Indian religious history in general and Hinduism in particular is still being generated by Western scholars. Lucien Febvre, one of the founding fathers of the very influential Annales School of French historiography that initiated the ‘history of mentalites’, had observed that ‘the worst kind of anachronism was psychological anachronism’. To study the history of any religion, one therefore needs to be trained in the psychology constitutive of that discourse, and this is one area where our academics may well be helped by a bit of critical reflection.

Finally, let us go back to the Alwar talk one last time. The history that Swamiji wanted to be written for India was to be accurate, sympathetic, and soul-inspiring. Accuracy was to be determined by documentary evidence and critical analyses.14 That Swamiji’s sympathies were hardly with the ‘elite’ needs no reiteration, but his humanist concerns were certainly not restricted to the Indian subaltern alone. As for inspiration, it may not be unwise to re-examine the history of our own souls and the ideologies that propel them.

Notes and References                                   
1. His eastern and Western Disciples, Life of Swami Vivekananda, 2 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 2000), 1.271-2.
2. Both Bankimchandra Chatterjee and Swami Vivekananda were later to point out this double-faced character of nationalism
3. Cited in Arvind Sharma, Hinduism and Its Sense of History (New Delhi: Oxford University Press,2003),37
4. Mountstuart Elphinstone, The History of India (London: Jhon Murray, 1911, ix.
5. The History and Culture of the Indian People, 11vols., Gen. Ed. R C Majumdar (Bombay: Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan, 1990), 1.39.
6. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vol. ( Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 5.365-6.
7. History and Culture of the Indian people, 1.23.
8. Sumit Sarkar, Writing Social History (New Delhi: Oxford University press, 2004), 38.
9. It may be noted in fairness that the presentation of Islamic themes in the Cultural Heritage of India series is quite small. In Volume 4, on ‘Religions’, for instance, only three of forty-six essays are devoted to Islamic issues.
10. It made its debut in 1982 before the break-up of the USSR but after the Naxalbari movement had been suppressed.
11. Subaltern Studies Reader, ed. Ranajit Guha (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003), xiv-v.
12. CW, 5.365; see also CW, 4.399-400.
13. This is not to suggest that ‘total’ history is likely to be any less ideologically conditioned than ‘fragmentary ‘ history.
14. See CW, 7.362 ff.    

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