Compelling but skewed - critiquing an instance of ‘popular’ histories

In recent years one sees certain kind of publications on our past. Written in engaging prose, attempts to resurrect our understanding of history in very fascinating ways is being made where these books might not truly represent new scholarship but they base their works more researched studies by historians with greater academic credentials. And of course they obviously do their key research as well but I’m not sure the extent, depth and scope of their direct engagement with primary sources. In itself, the researched monographs and papers on aspects as varied as state formation, social change, art, architecture, religion etc by more famed historians and scholars are often written in language and prose that can induce somnolence to all, other than those dedicated full time to research and academia. Works of Burton Stein, R Champakalakshmi, Y Subbarayulu…anyone for the afternoon weekend? That’s where works by the likes of Ira Mukhoty, William Dalrymple or Manu Pillai come in. They bring insights and pointed inferences from several sources in racy and captivating narratives piquing the interest of those trying to figure out the world we all have inherited. But both history writing and interest in past is fraught. Few of us are innocent of very instrumental concerns - our questions, anxieties are inspired from our experiences and socialisation and at many levels we look into the past to confirm our biases and prejudice. This is particularly true today in the polarised world we live in. Rare are those, even scholars and recipients of scholarship, who look at history or sociology as a truly reflective and dialogic endeavour not to reinforce their certitudes. Yet few will be so acknowledging of their limitations and slants but maintain that they allow facts to speak for themselves and their works are ‘objective’.

Anirudh Kanisetti is one among such school of writers which have arguably established itself as a genre of historiography. This book of Kanisetti’s - Lords of the Deccan very engagingly argues for the need to establish the importance of early medieval states such as the Badami Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas and Chalukyas of Kalyan (the Deccan) as opposed to the more Tamil centric Pallavas or Cholas which he claims dominates South Indian historiography. The book has got tremendous publicity like few works of history one can imagine to have in these times of supremely transactional and instrumental reason. Along with Vikram Sampath’s two volume biography of much maligned and misunderstood nationalist V D Savarkar much has been written about. The latter work invited applause and derision and it was along expected political lines. The left-liberal rubbished it using its oft abused tropes and Vikram Sampath accused of everything from plagiarism to legitimising a fascist. The right welcomed his work as finally restoring the kind of credibility and recognition that Savarkar justifiably merits. In such a context where and how can one place Kanisetti’s work?

The knowledge frame and its problems

I don’t quite go into the details of the book but share my critique based on the several presentations of his, including the one above. Here he summarises his book and presents key arguments and insights. It’s neat but not quite. The epistemology that informs Anirudh Kanisetti’s perspective, a distillation of more academic works on Deccan and beyond, is basically a selective, reductive and very structural-functional reading of our past. In such a prism, our faith, rituals, symbols, literature, our art, architecture …much of our culture particularly art and sculpture is reduced to forms of materialist and hierarchical functionalism. His reading of sources are too literal that end up serving a narrative that notwithstanding claims of scientific objectivity, is really skewed. Naturally in such frames of knowledge power, prestige, competition and conflicts becomes more defining in reading the past. Further normative values informing polity of India’s pre-Islamic past is seen to be nothing other than a romanticisation of the period. The argument I forward invokes not a straw man to belittle Anirudh’s work but bringing forth certain assumptions, blinkers and contrived selectivity that lot of works in this epistemic genre not very convincingly paper over.

While bringing such a sociological and historical view has its merits and corrective to a more simplistic understanding, likes of Anirudh and the school of historiography his work represents, veers to mostly highlighting the grosser and more instrumental aspects of temporality overdetermining political, cultural and social life. In so bringing to relief such an Indian past, (the H word is apparently misleading and there’s a taboo in applying the moniker for being seemingly misplaced) India like Europe, was unexceptional. While Anirudh’s work cannot be brought to bear the gamut of issues that I can place at liberal historiography’s doorstep, yet it is important to point out certain selectivity in school of scholarship that Anirudh dips into not just in this book but in his otherwise delightfully presented and dramatised podcasts (check his Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts) In such a sense several other works by folks trying to popularize epochs from the past in more elegant prose than what academicians of history in their insipid and dull prose can barely muster, too suffer from this implicit and sometimes made explicit, assumption. I refer to Manu Pillai’s work on Deccan Sultans or Srinivas Reddy’s work on Krishnadeva Raya in particular. So the more sensory, self-aggrandizing and transactional calculus that societies in the past and across space were seen as universally having, is yet suspended to highlight normative, syncretic, integrative aspects of certain epochs where suddenly such attributes are seen as becoming more pertinent! This point I will come to further.

The importance of normative ethos, sui generis literary, cultural practices & perils of empirical readings

That much of the sources both literary and epigraphic in India were known to represent many aspects of kingly might in certain hyperbole which formed part of our literary sensibility is barely highlighted. This didn’t necessarily make bereft a sense of history, as late medieval scholars of Islamic world and European colonialists repeatedly highlighted, Hindus (yup Hindus) lacked. What Hindus represented in their socialisation was an perception of time and sensory world that engendered different sense of being, self in a society seemingly segregated and even hierarchical but functioning in ways that went beyond notions of simplistic functionalism and oppression that European sociology would argue. The attribution to divinity in all these (actually in many premodern, non Abrahamic and arguably even European cultures) did not imply stasis but yet made social and political changes in certain continuance of broad structures based on established socio-cultural ontologies. 

Further the repeated references to war, conflict, weapons and the militarist paraphernalia that seemingly represent warlike cultures saturating Indian state and polity other than literary, what are and the extent of the archeological evidences that suggest such intensity of bloody and brutal warfare, belligerence, warlike? If battles were waged in such constant frequency and the society was so overly battle ravaged seemingly like the Roman empire or Europe of the Crusades, surely there should be such material evidences of weapons, war gear, so abundant from the early medieval Deccan and prior? Further references to battles proliferate in temples in its art - sculptures, panels, pillars but doesn’t that point to something? Temples are imaginations of both the sacred and profane but all eventually manifesting a social order which Hindus (not merely the Vedic and seemingly Brahmanical type) arguably conceived as a whole, and the monarch its custodian. My familiarity with the work of Adam Hardy is limited yet to me appeals because it represents certain possibility of viewing temple as more than centers of temporal power in less obvious ways that is visible in its architecture. The aedicular patterns have a lot to suggest beyond temporal calculations…possibly a federated unison concentrated beyond the realms of mundane power, a societal quest entrusted in the hands of a sarathy - the monarch? Further whatever happened to the idea of noblesee oblige from the very land of Bhagvad Gita, Shanti Parva and Tirukural which along with several other normative texts - and not just the abused Manusmriti - insists and implores on monarchs the dharma of responsibility and justice to its people? Therefore rather than transactional relationship between secular power and an instrumental practice of faith involving construction of temples and establishing kingly authority, don’t temples also represent transcendence of such mundanity and dualities? As such Christian Europe too with its breathtaking cathedrals do shimmer with possibilities of such readings…but that’s a separate topic for another day. It’s not for nothing we say Hinduism is less a faith but a way of life informing our being where faith’s politicization was beyond mere disembodied display of power and authority.

Of course it’s inconceivable that there were no battles and wars then. But to render pillage, plunder as a mode of production as it were, undermines the singularities that defined early Hindu societies in ways that were more nuanced and thought out than the rather universalists readings a European viewing may lead us to believe. Even as I personally don’t dismiss validity of certain perspectives and outlook merely for its European, Christian and colonial origins, here enlightenment and post enlightenment Eurocentric frames renders human nature and its expressions in certain broad homogenising sweeps. Incidentally scholars who wrote the current - and soon to be defunct - NCERT textbooks similarly delineate the entire leitmotif of bloody battles and conflict as extending well into the coming of the ‘new kingdoms’ - according to them approx 600-1300 CE and beyond ! In such a sense the argument of Anirudh’s itself is not very novel or new. They are rather typical of the historiography of Marxists and ‘liberals’. This adumbration is a rather ingenious way of minimising the truly sanguinary paradigm shift wrought in domains of polity, social life and culture by Central and West Asians cohorts euphemistically called political migrants! 

Further the Mahabharata too visualises Kurukshetra as all blood and gore which some take it literally but a historical reading would render it no more than few series of skirmishes. I wonder if the great Kalinga war of Asoka also is to be seen too literally with his inscriptions and contemporary literary texts giving rather vivid picture of massacre, ravaging and destruction in ways it claims and portrays. Yet the even more brutal description and observation of the savagery and barbarity that Islamic hordes and their monarchs brought in the subcontinent is made light of with caution of exaggeration intrinsic to accounts (being recorded by monarchs biographers and other such disingenuous red herrings) by this very school of scholarship. Yet they have no hesitation in taking references literally in periods prior to Islamic rule across India! And as alluded earlier the syncretic and pluralist factors brought by fusion of different cultures is an emphasised attribute largely exclusive to period 1206 CE and after but before it was mere brutal conflict between sects i.e. Jainism, Buddhism was devoured by unsparing Hindus. Saivism, Vaisnavism or Tantra were in eternal and unsavoury conflicts where different dynasts patronising different schools of thought often settled such differences through gorish interventions. To be fair Anirudh does seek to highlight similar syncretism and cosmopolitanism during Rashtrakuta epoch but does that merely establish itself with contacts with Arab world alone and not within subcontinental cultures where even their putative enemies like Cholas or Pratiharas may well have been encompassed within Hinduism’s intrinsic inclusivity? Again even while being cognisant and apparently glowing of the cultural-social singularities that Kannada language, temple architecture witnesses under Rashtrakutas, the overall narrative is one which yet subsumes it all in temporal, functional and politics of brute power, vain glories and aggrandisement for which wealth was plundered from outside the kings sovereign domains if not within. A duality as it were which Anirudh also stated elsewhere that a king could have perpetuated the worst atrocities yet build awe inspiring temples. Such dualities are reductionist and simplistic emerging from framework, very neo-Marxist if not classically Marxist. Even when factoring various superstructural aspects of faith, culture, practices, ideas, interactions as autonomous and purportedly less shaped by production relations, analysis, perspectives and narrative still remain deterministic. In such a discourse, individual will embodied in monarchy has to remain one of temporal power, authority established by brute force - corporeal or ideological. The uplifting aesthetics, richness, wholeness and breathtaking skill manifest in art and architecture too is brought to meaning largely if not only by over emphasising this context. In such a sense again what's new here? The vivid prose and catchy narration certainly.

Exploring other possibilities

The point is, to repeat, not that conquests, invasion and battles in ancient and early medieval India between different dynasts not transpire in prevailing feudal socioeconomic order. And wars by default are bloody and brutal. Yet the default ethos contra Anirudh and the Marxist and ‘liberal’ scholarship from where the former obviously bases his more readable and ‘hearable’ works, was possibly I argue, to inform further research, on an agrarian base, more of an art, craft society and thereby facilitating commerce and trade too. These all arguably transpired under a polity informed by an unique socio-cultural spirit. And in this an indigenous cosmology of self, society and polity overdetermined the social order in which waging wars i.e. warrior dharma occupied some aspect of their social life. In this the belligerent potency was possibly more ritualistically, literarily and symbolically ‘performed’. Along with such armed conflicts, centrifugal distinctions in terms of new language and literature, art and architecture and even social movements too emerged which however in itself did not undermine the larger Hindu geist. When veering away from a harmonious social order to a more hierarchical and oppressive one, a self correction possibly transpired through reforms and changes brought in by saints, reformers and devotional cults where political powers too mediated but possibly at times overstepping, falling and failing. This I contend informed the Hindu society’s character. The Hinduness in such a sense then was probably more real than imagined.

The invention of history as it were then requires a lot more criticality, dialectics and dialogue between two and more epistemic paradigms seemingly contradictory. Today I feel forms of scholarship are selective not willing to accept certain frameworks that undermines their subjective truths. Truth being subjective sounds so ironic but that is how it is. So one still awaits a more fulfilling, nuanced and rigorous reading which factors Hinduness and practice of dharma even as more temporal and historicist frames from epistemes of modernity are taken to understand past and present. If my ruminations and hermeneutics are seen merely as facile defense of saffron readings of our past and society, my agenda is mostly to resuscitate historical and sociological knowledge not lending to polarized understanding but that rather invite dialogue, reflection and empathy. 

However dismissing politicisation of Hinduism today as crude and opportunistic (which at some levels it may well be) is a refusal to empathetically look at whys and hows of such compulsions. Critiques of Hinduism in such sociology and history, forwards an idea of deracinated modernity even as other faiths’ cultural identity and its agency is indulged in a very selective manner. On one hand it being non-institutionalised is extolled as a virtue. On the other hand Hindu India is seen not just as misrepresented but as being non-representable and therefore mere figment of imagination. Its varying practices, political fragmentation and liberal-Marxist favourite whipping boy ‘caste’, even as condensed and amalgamated by similar spirit and frames of knowledge is ultra-empirically construed as being eternally hostile and constantly at feud. Therefore any reading ushering in notions of not just incipient nation but attributing a Hindu character of such epochs are perceived ahistorical. This seemingly empirical view based on inductive methods to me is a reductive understanding and as outlined above negates bringing in a different perspective bearing more resonance in today’s India using a normative paradigmatic framework indigenous to our sacred cultural geography. Diktats of ideology, sometimes tacit, often explicit and misplaced, colonial if not Eurocentric epistemes, warps, such scholarly quests.