From the Epic to Scientific History: India

By Markovits, Claude | UNESCO Courier, April 1990 | Go to article overview

From the Epic to Scientific History: India


Markovits, Claude, UNESCO Courier


FROM THE EPIC TO SCIENTIFIC HISTORY

worlds ancient and modern

India, cradle of an ancient civilization, and the United States of America, a continent "without a past" but with a strong imported Puritan tradition, represent two diametrically opposed temporal and historical worlds. Between the two extremes lies a whole gamut of intermediates. Common to all is the historical quest summed up in Fernand Braudel's dictum: "The price of nationhood is an unceasing search for national identity."

DOES India have a history? This question has always troubled historians, especially in relation to the long period extending from the Aryan invasions to the arrival of the Muslims in the twelfth century. There are two kinds of source for this period, which saw the emergence and blossoming of Hindu civilization: normative texts such as the Vedas and epics on the one hand, and on the other, archaeological documents.

However, correlating the two presents insurmountable difficulties. Some scholars firmly deny the historical nature of the epics, which they believe to recount purely mythical events without any historical foundation. They point to the haziness of the scattered geographical references which the epics contain and to the great uncertainty about when they were composed. Another school of Indian scholars believes that the findings of certain recent excavations confirm the historicity of the events related in the epics.

In fact the quarrel is a philosophical one. Long ago Hegel proclaimed the non-historical character of Indian civilization. Stressing that the "time which elapsed before the appearance of written history...was without objective history because it had left no subjective history or historical account", he drew attention to the contrast between India, "this country so rich in profound spiritual achievements", and China, which "possessed an outstanding history, going back to the most remote times".

The lack of ancient Indian historical writings is undeniable. With the exception of the Kashmir chronicle, there is no text of a historical nature prior to the Muslim conquest. Starting in the late twelfth century, historical texts were written to the glory of the Muslim sovereigns. The most illustrious representative of this school of writing was Ferishta, the historian of the Deccan. This imported genre, written in Persian, had only a limited influence.

Students of Indian civilization

The birth of would-be scientific historiography is linked to the British conquest of India, which began in 1757 and was all but over in 1818. But this form of writing was inherited from elsewhere and it was practised only by the colonizers, at least until around 1830.

Sir William Jones (1746-1794), who founded the Asiatic Society of Calcutta in 1784, laid the foundations for a chronology of ancient India. Most of the members of the Society belonged to the British ruling elite. Whether judges or administrators, their curiosity about India and things Indian was not entirely innocent. Getting to know the country better might help them to control it more effectively. But they were also men of the Enlightenment and they wanted to learn about one of the great civilizations of humanity. They admired the culture of ancient India, but considered it inferior to that of classical Greece, which was a model of perfection for Europeans at that time.

The most violent attack against the civilization of India was launched by James Mill (1773-1836), a prominent representative of Utilitarianism or "philosophical radicalism" and father of the famous John Stuart Mill. His History of British India (1817), the earliest attempt to arrive at an overview of Indian history, attracted wide attention and exercised considerable influence.

A senior official of the East India Company stationed in London, Mill never set foot in India and worked from secondary sources. Contemptuous of facts, he regarded history as a branch of philosophy and poked fun at the gullibility of the "orientalists". …

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