Sunday, February 18, 2018

On Writing history and historians:

A good friend had posted a note on myths and history writing and another person raised a few questions regarding history writing in India and valid sources. Rather than answer there I thought I'll reply in a separate post.

As always I first turned to Will Durant. The Durants (Will and Ariel) after completing the magisterial 11 volume 'Story of Civilization' wrote a slim "Lessons of history'. From that book a few quotes.

"Our knowledge of any past event is alwas incomplete, probably inaccurate, beclouded by ambivalent evidence and biased historians, perhaps distorted by our own patriotic or religious partisanship.... Even the historian who thinks to rise above partiality for his country, race, creed or class betrays his secret predilection in his choice of materials, and in the nuances of his adjectives".

Herodotus - Wikipedia
"Obviously historiography cannot be a science. It can only be an industry, an art, and a philosophy - an industry ferreting out the facts, an art by establishing a meaningful order in the chaos of the materials, a philosophy by seeking perspective and enlightenment."

A celebrated passage in Barbara Tuchman's legendary 'Guns of August' talks about the climate of France when the British army landed. Tuchman writes in "Practicing history", "I do not invent anything, even the weather". She had found notes on how the weather was from a soldier's diary. Robert Caro, author of multi-volume biography of LBJ did something similar. Tuchman says a historian's task is to to find out "what really happened, or, literally, how it really was....we can never be certain that we've recaptured it as it really was. But the least we can do is stay within the evidence".

I've picked only a few pebbles in the field of history writing and because of the easy accessibility of history writing in western academic output I'm unabashedly tilted in that direction. So take my points with a pinch or even a ladle of salt.

A.R. Venkatachalapathy in a book about Bharati's works and copyrights wrote that Rajaji initiated heriditary based education (kula kalvi). No. A good historian would write, "Rajaji initiated education reforms that were castigated by the opposition as 'heriditary based'". There's a world of difference between the two. This is the difference between writing history and writing in populist manner.

Why is Herodotus considered the father of history? Because he recorded facts as an observer and contemporaneously. His narrations certainly had embellishments and biases but his narrations are on a natural level. Once we understand the difference between Homer and Herodotus we'll know that we had the equivalent of a Homer in Valmiki but no equivalent of Herodotus.

About Thucydides, "Thucydides, unlike Herodotus, makes very little reference to Greece’s gods as active agents in history, preferring to understand events in terms of their human causes.". THAT's the key. His writing is direct prose and he speaks the language of pretty much a modern historian. He uses extensive quotes of speeches made, including the most famous one, the funeral oration by Pericles. About the speeches here is Thucydides, "with reference to the speeches in this story, some were delivered before the war began, others while it wass going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one's memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said". No modern historian could have given a better disclaimer. The words of an ancient greek historian is available to me today thanks to translations and popular editions. 

Thucydides continues in a brilliant paragraph

"With references to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most sever and detailed tests possible. My conclusions have cost me some labor from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eyewitnesses arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for once or the other. The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does to reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time"

In that breathtaking paragraph a historian who lived in 5th century BCE completely presages the sentiments of those living in 20th and 21st century, like the Durants, Tuchman and Caro, speak.

Indians face a crucial problem of when to rely on folklore or literary traces and when to discard them. This often leads to cherry picking. On one hand we want to discard folklore about, to pick an example, 8000 jains being impaled by HIndus and on the other hand we want to believe every folklore about how the ancient caste based society was idyllic or some such thing.

Can we know anything about India from its storied epics after strip the myths from them? Of course. If M.I. Finley can learn about Greek society from Homeric epic then so can Indians learn about India from their epics. The problem is who is India's Finley? And how would a book like his be received in Modi's India?

How often have I heard fantasy claims about how the caste system or the varna system (both are supposedly different at least in the early history) were not as oppressive or discriminatory as they're made out to be? Oh so often those claims are made and often myths are trotted out not just as proof but as axiomatic evidences despite the evidences in the myths themselves being sparse. Rama, a Kshatriya, took Guha, a lower caste, as his brother we're told. Sure, yes but then what do we do with a story like that of Karna or Ekalvya? We had a Homer in Valmiki but no Thucydides.

Rupa Viswanathan in her exceedingly well researched and well written book on Pariahs, 'The Pariah Problem', highlights the role of a historian in interpreting evidence. Her book relied heavily on records left by Christian missionaries and she highlights the advantages and pitfalls of those records,

"This book relies heavily on a large corpus of missionary writings that provide a rich depiction of laboring life in nineteenth and twentieth century south India. These writings come, of course with characteristic distortions. To cite just one example here, conflicts between landlords and Christian Dalit laborers were often styled by missionaries as examples of "religious persecution", a trope by which missionaries employed themselves and their new converts in an ongoing biblical epic"
So what does a historian do to swift propaganda from evidence, 

"Yet missionaries' very meticulousness often provides evidence that tells against their own narratives.... the detailed quotidian records missionaries kept can be used to extract a story that both exceeds and corrects the one missionaries themselves told."
A historian constantly questions the sources and corroborates with conflicting accounts. Historian emeritus Mary Beard does just that in her critically acclaimed "SPQR". Questioning the grandiose narrations of battles in Roman history she notes that the battles were most fought within "12 miles of Roime" and that the grandiose depictions notwithstanding the battles were "something closer in our terms, to cattle raids". She underscores that the religiosity of Roman and their relationship to gods was different from how we understand religion today and that that difference should be remembered when understanding their history. 

When historian Irfan Habib said that "Bharat Mata" was a colonial era idea he was verbally lynched for the double sin of saying that and for being a Muslim. Immediately every jingoist started spouting quotes from every nook and cranny of India's literature to justify that the tradition of invoking a mother deity as a symbolism predates the colonial era. But, Habib was spot. The idea of India as a political entity and symbolizing her as a mother goddess was indeed a colonial era construct and one that liberally borrowed from colonial England's own tradition. This is the greatest danger facing India when one deals with its history. We don't stop to think whether words used in a different era mean the same as the words used in contemporary era.

It was beyond boring to see an ancient Tamil verse that speaks of Himalayas and souther borders to be presented as evidence of an idea of India as a political entity. Of course, India was not invented as entity on August 15th 1947 but nor was the idea of a political entity as a nation, a modern political term, exist from time immemorial. We rarely remember the limits of using clues from literature and cultural sign posts to create a narrative of history.

Romans did not just write a history of themselves. Beard points out that Roman emperor Claudius, first century CE, wrote a "twenty volume study of Etruscans in Greek, as well as compiling an Etruscan dictionary". The Etruscan civilization had been overrun by the Romans.

Beard recounts the revolts and rebellions of the plebeians between 5th century BCE and 3rd century BCE that led to large scale reforms in the laws of Rome. Now one wonders how come no such popular revolt happened in India. When K.A.N. Sastry says that despite caste differences there were no frictions in ancient India one could, in view of Roman history, ask what did the caste system provide to maintain the peace if peace did exist. Such an exploration will lead to inconvenient answers.

Historians when dealing with a subject like India have to be interrogators of the past and be artists in sifting through the layers of myths and propaganda. The Kalinga war is supposed to have turned Asoka into a Buddhist and we know more about the Peloponnesian war than we do of that war. Even coming to the 10th century CE (AD) K.A.N. Sastry casts a doubt on the claims of Rajendra Chola's expedition to the northern kingdoms. This is a stunning gap in history. Evidence of slave trading in early Roman history is show cased in a museum in Italy but most Tamils do not even know that the Chola empire had slave trade or that women were treated as war booty. Partly, the evidence is patchy at best, and partly even that patchy evidence is covered up in myths about the Chola empire.

As regards patchy evidence India's biggest problem was who wrote history, at whose behest were the carvings done, at whose payroll did the poets sing? Again, in Roman history we often find someone like Cicero writing volumes while being at odds with the ruling dispensation. It is not uncommon to find opponents of a regime leave behind copious writings. Who, if any, voiced any criticism of Rajaraja Chola, let alone a body of work that's critical of him? Who was India's Cicero?

Marcus Tullius Cicero - Wikipedia
Much of what I said above will rankle the Hindutva camp and they'll dredge every nonsense to refute the questions except objective proof. I'd like to emphasize that not having a Cicero or a Thucydides is NOT a sin. No civilization has it all. The idea in highlighting what we didn't have is to question the narratives that we're often told.

Hindutva camp justifiably scolds the Christian Missionaries for publishing tracts that ridiculed Hinduism and which in turn was used by the likes of Justice Party in Tamil Nadu to lampoon Hinduism, selectively. But the same camp will gleefully imbibe colonial era historians who exaggerated the ferocity of Islamic invasions and sometimes even attributed religious reasons when there was none, because the Colonialists were at war with Islam in another part of the world and their narratives reflected that. Now, that matters little to the Hindutva camp. Romila Thapar has never questioned the destruction of the temple of Somanatha but she's often pilloried by the Hindutva group for questioning the historiography of that event and for arguing that that event is now politicized with an agenda.

Dipesh Chakrabarty, professor of history in the University of Chicago, in his "The calling of history: Sir Jadunath Sarkar & His empire of truth" draws attention to a very important fact about colonial era historians like Smith and the study of Indian history as a subject in British and Indian universities in the early 20th century. V.A. Smith and Henry Miers Elliot (of the Elliot-Dowson duo cited above) are referred to as historians and their books have become modern classics and standard texts from which Indians still quote. Yet, by any modern sense of the word 'historian' neither Smith nor Elliot would qualify for it. They are not 'academic historians', in other words they were not trained to be historians. Chakrabarty points out that they were administrators in the service of the colonial regimes and wrote history as hobby.

Chakrabarty further underscores how little attention was given to the study of Indian history. "Indian history was not taught at a British university until the formation of the School of Oriental studies in 1917". He quotes Tapan Ray Chaudhuri on 1950s Oxford, "the university made no other formal provision for the instruction of graduate students working on Indian history beyond appointing a supervisor". To make matters worse the Colonial government severely restricted access o research material for independent researchers. "Denied access to official sources and relegated to a low status in the Western academic world, Indian enthusiasts of scientific history at the beginning of the twentieth century turned, understandably, to colonial administrator-scholars in search of mentors".

The scene in Indian universities was no better. "Indian university as an institution often did not provide a venue for debates that would subject issues of public life to rigorous and academic examination." Chakrabarty points out how Jadunath Sarkar actually predates the creation of history as discipline to be studied and taught. Teaching and studying history, as a discipline, was non-existent before 1930s. 

What sources a historian uses often becomes a very contentious point when the topic of research touches upon the fault lines between Hinduism and other religions and when the topic relates to India's past that a group would now like to be portrayed only in idyllic terms or in dark shades. Jadunath Sarkar's prime topics were Aurangzeb, hated by Hindus and Shivaji, disliked by Muslims. At the end both groups questioned Sarkar's sources when they felt his opinions not to their liking about their respective co-religionists. 

Use of oral history of epigraphic evidence is a minefield. While they certainly have their place in constructing history it'll come down to how artfully a historian presents what he or she could find from the evidence and very clearly let the reader know what the gaps were and what assumptions were used to fill in the gaps and why the assumptions flow from evidence and not the imagination of the author. 

In the absence of epigraphic or oral or literary evidence do we conclude that the period was 'ahistorical'? Consider the case of the Kalabhra dynasty. Kalabhras, according to very sparse evidence, reigned from 3rd-7th century CE. A dynasty that ruled for 400 years has left behind very few traces in history. The Kalabhras were known to not prescribe to Brahminical Hinduism. Their successors on the other hand did. And history, K.A.N. Sastry concedes was mostly written by upper caste. History was also written by the victors and Kalabhras era was largely relegated to the shadows in Indian history. It is stunning that a 400 year rule has left no evidence. Either it speaks to the lack of evidence or, even more stunningly, the industrial scale efficacy of erasing history by the victors. 

History in India more often has gaps or convenient silences. We're often told that the triumph of Hinduism over Buddhism or Jainism was a sanguine philosophical victory sans the bloodshed that accompanied such transitions in other parts of the world through out history. True, the evidences or lack of it point to that conclusion. But can we stop there? Saivite and Vaishanavite literature heaped scorn and ridicule on Jains and the Jains returned the favor. Throw in the mix the shift of royal patronage and the near total disappearance of Jainism from South India one wonders whether the implied violence in literature stopped with just that. Centuries later facing down Christian evangelism and a modern jurisprudence, that was more interested in not disturbing peace amongst the governed by enabling any change in social order, Hinduism reacted pretty strongly against a competing religion wielding the weapon of disinheritance of familial properties and family bonds. 

Indians prefer stories, grand myths, than facts and the painstaking effort to construct facts. India is a land of story tellers. Nothing to be ashamed of or inferior just plain truth. This is why even recent events have received scant attention from the nation's historians. The State of Emergency promulgated by Indira Gandhi almost decimated the nation's democracy and yet we cannot cite a good scholarly book that a common citizen can read to know about that era. The Rath Yatra of Advani changed the contours of Indian politics and continues to cast a shadow on the country's polity and yet a common citizen relies more on googling and finding sites that pander to one's own prejudices for information of that epochal event. Jawaharlal Nehru has not had a full fledged biography since the 3 volume biography by courtier historian S.Gopal. Tamil Nadu was a major center of Christian evangelism in early 18th century and again the common citizen has no idea of how the faith took root and how the church navigated the cultural landscape. For that one has to rely on books by academicians published by the likes of Routledge. Dalits, a large section of the population, could not event get their stories out are only now finding platforms to voice their narratives. 

History and Science are the two most endangered disciplines of study and intellectual vocation in Modi's India. India's universities and public spaces have become fields of conflict and jingoism rules the roost. Understanding the role of history and how history needs to recorded, studied and taught is essential for India's future as a liberal and secular country.

No comments: