Hindu Kingship and Polity in Precolonial India

By Freitag, Jason | Anthropological Quarterly, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Hindu Kingship and Polity in Precolonial India


Freitag, Jason, Anthropological Quarterly


Norbert Peabody, Hindu Kingship and Polity in Precolonial India (Cambridge Studies in Indian History and Society). Cambridge University Press, 2003, 190pp.

In this important contribution to the study of political culture in India, Norbert Peabody examines the dynamic and contested discourse on kingship in Kota, Rajasthan, in the late pre- and early colonial period. Peabody challenges recent ethnohistorical scholarship to more fully recognize the historical situation of precolonial societies and to emphasize processes of change rooted in the values of the cultures under study. Dirks' seminal ethnohistorical work The Hollow Crown (Cambridge, 1987) puts the raja at the center of a symbolic political economy and tends to minimize the overlapping and conflicting actors in the political field "in favour of more internally consistent, integrated, and consensual models of social organization that substantially homogenized the diversity of values and orientations present in local societies" (168). Peabody demonstrates that in eighteenth century north Indian society the meanings associated with political relations gave rise to "various tensions and disjunctions" (8) that served as sites for social and political transformation. Peabody powerfully demonstrates how attending to these dynamics would strengthen ethnohistorical analyses.

Peabody's second challenge is to the legacy of Edward Said's Orientalism. Peabody outlines the classic criticisms of Said's work, namely that it dichotomizes Europe and the Orient, assuming a single, monologic discourse across diverse spaces and time that ignores entirely the agency of the colonized. Again, Peabody engages the dynamism of Indian society to develop a heteroglossic model of the construction of Orientalist discourse that includes the colonized themselves. Looking beyond the overly determined Saidian Orientalism "should allow us to see that Orientalism has a history too" (12). In both cases, Peabody's aim is to subvert the creation of monolithic discourses, be they ethnohistorical analyses of sovereignty or orientalist fictions of an undifferentiated other. He succeeds admirably in this ambitious task.

Peabody analyzes carefully chosen and related spaces: lineage, religious patronage, fiscal relations and the transition to colonial rule. The chapter "Karmic kin(g)ship in Kota," examines the ethic of achieved status and kingly legitimacy through a reading of the textual and visual narratives surrounding of one of Kola's most illustrious Maharaos, Bhim Singh (r. 1707-20). A curious issue arises here, for textual narratives detail the battlefield death of Bhim Singh at the hands of a rebel governor of a neighboring province, while a monumental painting in the Kota Collection depicts just the opposite. Peabody perceptively reads this discrepancy neither as a simple error nor as an attempt to deny historical fact, but rather as an expression of a traditional ideal of Rajput kingship. In what Peabody terms a "karmalogical" lineage (40), the conquest of the Maharao transfers his status and legitimacy onto his vanquisher. The painting, therefore, depicts this continuation of the Maharao's valor. This traditional Rajput kingly emphasis on action and achievement as markers of royal status stands in stark contrast to a more modern calculus of genealogical royal legitimacy in Kota.

Continuing to "Kings, saints and merchants," Peabody examines the close relationship between religious sectarian leaders, Rajasthan's powerful trading communities, and dynastic stability in Kota. Crucial to an understanding of political ideology in Kota is an understanding of the religious sect known as the Vallabha Sampraday. Vallabhacarya (1479-1531) was a Telegu Brahman and saint who founded this devotional (bhakti) sect that elevates the worldly duties of the householder (grhastha) as opposed to the traditional bhakti ethic of renunciation and asceticism. This focus on the worldly sacralizes the profane world, and assumes the immanence of Lord Krishna in the material of the idols of the sect. …

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