Monday, May 7, 2018

K.A. Nilakanta Sastri and Sources of Indian History: A seeker of facts and the mansions of history

To Will Durant "most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice". To Barbara Tuchman a historian's task was, in the words of Leopold Ranke, founder of source based history, "to find out what really happened". She added "I do not invent anything, even the weather". K.A. Nilakanta Sastri was definitely of the school of Ranke and amongst the practitioners of history in India he remains a lodestar for that maxim of Ranke. Sastri delivered three lectures on the sources of Indian history that forms a slim book that is packed with references in every sentence. Rarely do men of learning distill a lifetime's worth of seeking into so few pages.

Sastri's lectures were delivered in memory of Rev. Henry Heras of the Society of Jesuits at St. Xavier's college in Mumbai. Rev. Heras, born in Spain, was sent to India to St. Xavier's college in 1922 to teach history. In 1926 he established "Indian historical research institute" that is now called "Heras Institute of Indian History and Culture". It was Heras, Sastri says, who recommended Sastri to "be appointed to the Chair of Indian History and Archeology in the University of Madras" in 1929. Sastri recalls his first meeting with Heras when Heras showed his work on the Aravidu dynasty. Sastri  was impressed that the priest who had barely lived in India should've learned Indian languages and written a book. Heras's replied that as a Jesuit "bound by vows to obedience" he was merely heeding to the duty that he had been ordered to, 'teaching Indian history in St. Xavier's college', and that such heeding is his way to "serve God".

K.A. Nilakanta Sastri (courtesy Wikipedia)
Sastri had been invited to deliver the lectures by Father Correia-Afonso, a Goa born Jesuit known for compiling and publishing "The Jesuit letters", the correspondences by Jesuit priests in India to their home missions abroad during the Mughal era and afterward.

After duly commending his host and his friend Sastri without much ado plunges into the topic of his lectures and offers his audience the image of a mansion, as an analogy to the study of India's history, with many rooms, "some of which are steeped in darkness while the rest are lit up in different degrees of intensity, none of them, however, being so completely illuminated".

Delivering a memorial lecture in honor of a Jesuit priest at the behest of a Jesuit institution Sastri does not hold back on the merits of the many works of history by Jesuits. He correctly identifies that many Jesuits though they learned Sanskrit and Indian languages their aim was the proselytization of the Gospel. As for the merits of their works he, quoting an unnamed  'critical historian', said "the Jesuits for all their studies, gained no real understanding of India's past".

In an earlier blog I had cited Thucydides's approach to history, in his own words, and said that such language is strikingly contemporaneous and that such a academic approach to history was absent in India. Several took exception to that remark. Sastri writes, "India failed to develop a written history in the past. We come across no figure corresponding to Herodotus or Thucydides in Greece, Livy and Tacitus in Rome, or Sou-ma-chin in China". "While many of the other countries produced chronicles and semi-histories, India as rule manifested a profound indifference to the recording of historical events". The "Arab and Persion historians of the Muslim world", he adds, "are the most notable exceptions". As to why Indians may have been indifferent to recording history Sastri surmises it might have something to do with the Indian predilection to connect events to a cosmic grand picture and while that may have served a philosophical purpose the casualty would've been history.

William Jones and Charles Wilkins, the founders of Indology, amongst others, come in for a fulsome praise for their yeoman efforts in translating India's literature and philosophy. Sastri then cites, with admiration, the works of those whose names are forgotten today. Christian Lassen, a Norwegian orientalist who never visited India but learned Sanskrit in Bonn and translated Indian literature in Paris and London, wrote a 4 volume history of India. Sastri say that work "for all its marvelous learning, it is a work of great simplicity". Sastri is never sparing sharp criticism of anyone and rarely do works rise above his unyielding goal posts for excellence. Lassen, no admirer of Alexander unlike V.A. Smith, considered Hinduism, "for all its faults the rock upon which the fury of Islam broke".

Referring to the work of Belgian Indologist Louis de La Vallee-Poussin, another European who never visited India but learned Sanskrit and Indian classics and wrote a book of history, Sastri credits it with "precise and critical scholarship", "excellent bibliography" and "balanced discussion of many vexed questions relating to foreign invasions, the origins of Buddha image etc". He admires Poussin for asking historians to "admit what we do not understand".

After the examples of Lassen and Poussin Sastri, citing how Indian history is studied by history departments across the world, rues the absence of similar interest in outside world by history departments in India. An ill that still continues till today.

Should knowledge of Sanskrit be a pre-requisite for a student of history and archeology? I think it was Theodore Baskaran who said that he was not admitted for a course in history because he did not know Sanskrit. This rule is supported by many today but Sastri's experience tells otherwise and he calls for a well formed "linguistic equipment" in "Sanskrit, Pali and Tamil for the ancient period; Persian, Marathi and Portuguese for the medieval; Dutch and French besides English for the modern period". Anyone who does not extend pre-requisites to other languages besides Sanskrit is either ignorant or a bigot.

But should knowledge of "linguistic equipment" be a pre-requisite. Sastri's experience, again is otherwise. When one of his works was critiqued and he discovered that he missed sources in Dutch and French he set himself to learning the languages on his own. The man is an obsessive-compulsive seeker of a really rare kind.

C.P. Snow in a famous lecture spoke of the need to bridge science and the humanities to gain a holistic understanding. Sastri bemoans how archeologists are not linguists and linguists have no interest in field work. When literary sources, like Vedic literature, is used to reconstruct the past he's particular that only textual evidence corroborated by epigraphic evidence should be used.

On considering sources Sastri is very particular that we should judge the source for how removed it is from the event and for possible interpolations into the text. The Muslim historians come in for a fulsome praise by Sastri. That despite "partisan character, theological bias, or the didactic aims of particular writers". Though he admires Firishta he's unsparing on Firishta's possible bias in gliding over how the Vijayanagar ruler lost the battle of Talikota due to desertions by Muslim generals and other factors. Sastri identifies that lapse by comparing Firishta's account with the accounts of others including Caesar Frederic, a Venetian merchant.

While being unsparing judgmental of any work Sastri, like a true scholar, finds something of value even in a work by a demagogue like James Mill. He never fails to commend any work if it has, despite many faults, furthered the horizon of understanding by an iota.

The Hakluyt Society was established in London in 1846 to publish travel writings. Many invaluable Dutch and Portuguese accounts that Sastri rates above English sources of the Mughal era were published by this Society. Though a foreigner's writings are notable for unique perspectives Sastri cautions us that foreign sources could be "credulous purveyors of fable and gossip". He distinguishes how Greek historians, unlike Chinese historians, barely ventured beyond the edges of India and yet wrote with great certainty about a country they had known little of.

Over 50 pages Sastri flies over the vast terrain of Indian history from antiquity to near modern era and stuns the reader with reference after reference of source material with pithy comments on their merits and veracity. This chapter and the material referenced therein alone can fill a lifetime of learning. But Sastri then proceeds to specifically the history of South India in two chapters, one pre-1300 AD and another after 13th century.

Sastri is categorical on how Tamil predates Sanskrit but adds, based on evidence, that Tamil was influenced by Sanskrit. In his 1947 published "A history of South India" Sastri, with a touch of Brahminical pride, would wax eloquent how the vernaculars were raised into loftiness by the magic wand of Sanskrit. The passage is cringeworthy. In his 1964 lecture Sastri is more balanced though he rubbishes the claims of those who ascribe much greater antiquity to the Sangam era than what is epigraphically supported.

In the context of Tamil history Sastri again returns to the topic of how to use literature as an evidence cautiously. He concedes that literature enables a historian to construct the 'social and religious milieu' of an era. Then he adds, especially with reference to the Bhakti literature, "their correct understanding has been much clouded by the orthodox hagiology of a later age which has been accepted as history without sufficient critical examination". Literature like Silappadikaram and Manimekalai "should be used cautiously by a historian".

The colonial era records can overwhelm any prodigious historian but Sastri offers valuable guidance in the choice of material. He classifies the massive collection of Jesuit letters into categories based on who they were written for- for superiors abroad, personal notes, letters for the public and letters to personal friends. The audience should inform the reader that it has a specific perspective. Some publications of the letters have sowed confusion even in the minds of an eminent historian like Jadunath Sarkar because they've been edited shoddily.

As a school student I learned of "ten causes" for the decline of the French colonizers and the eventual success of the British but nowhere did I face the question of  why the Europeans conquered India and not "Persia or China or Japan". French historian G. Jonveau Dubreuil's biography of Dupleix identifies that "Because in India there had been a Dupleix. India was conquered not at all by arms but by 'Nababism', that is to say the genius of one man". Dupleix, according to his biographer, intended to be a Nawab. Sastri also recommends highly a 4 volume biography of Dupleix by Matrineau. Apparently he had read it.

Towards the end of his last lecture Sastri identifies Lala Lajpat Rai's "Unhappy India" as one of the fine works of the freedom struggle era. I had chanced upon Rai's book last weekend in Princeton University library. It was, apparently, written as a rebuttal to Katherine Mayo's 'Mother India'. Gandhi had called Mayo's book 'a drain inspector's book'. Rai's rebuttal, over 400 pages, is academic quality writing. I was taken aback by his style. Only Ambedkar, to my knowledge, had a similar style. Jawaharlal Nehru's prose, while being enchanting and indicative of a well read mind, is nowhere close to being called academic. Nehru's strength is less in marshaling facts with footnotes and more in giving expression to a grand sweep of ideas. Lajpat Rai's book is a must read. I'll review it after I have read it completely. Interestingly, Rai had spent 10 years in America and had met Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Dubois and has written a very engagingly academic quality book titled, "The United States of America: A Hindu's impression". Strangely he did not identify himself as an Indian.

A recent revisionist canard is to malign Nilakanta Sastri as a great scholar but one who could not hold in check his Brahminical worldview. This is a sheer canard because barring that one passage in one book, amongst his many, no one can show a shred of evidence that Sastri ignored evidence or glosses over inconvenient facts. On the contrary he does specify every now and then that the sources available were mostly written by Brahmins and therefore the picture that he presents could easily be skewed. This is what we expect of a historian of integrity. Nothing more nothing less.

Sastri has few regrets about how institutions in India and lack of interest in the study of history amongst students. He laments the lack of professional institutions that can catalogue and publish critical works of merit with consistency. Ever since college studies separated the study of economics from the study of history he saw a decline in the number and quality of applicants. Material resources matter little when lack of qualified candidates and practitioners are the real concern in his opinion.

As for the propensity of approaching South Indian history from the North Sastri addresses the concern straightforward in his "History of South India". He cites Professor Sundaram Pillai, note he's non-Brahmin, on the difficulty of distinguishing Aryan civilization from post-Aryan influence but nevertheless it is difficult for a historian to "distinguish the native warp from the foreign woof". Sundaram Pillai added that the further South we go it becomes relatively easy to to disentangle the pre-Aryan and Aryan influences. However the job of the historian, Sastri concedes, remains very difficult. That he was aware of such a criticism attests to his self-awareness and this canard should not become a persistent criticism as if it is systematic bias in the work. It is not. We should extend to Sastri the courtesy that he extends to even blatantly biased historians like James Mills and Farishta.

Nivedita Louis, a columnist who writes for The Hindu and historical guide, had excerpted Noboru Karashima's excerpt from a recent publication of Sastri's collected writings for 'The Hindu' highlighting just such a criticism. Soon the Periyarists came out of the woods and applauded that "there should be no sacred cows above criticism". I rubbished both Karashima's criticism and the Periyarist's pious adulation of 'no sacred cows'. I find today, as I went looking for the post on Facebook, that I no longer have access to Nivedita Louis's page. A small price to pay for defending a great scholar.

Nilakanta Sastri can be critiqued and criticized. If he were alive he'd welcome it but he'd ask, "do you have evidence? show me the facts"


  1. Sources of Indian history with special reference to South India - K.A. Nilakanta Sastri. Online edition at
  2. Collection of Sastri's books online
  3. Lala Lajpat Rai (contains links to his works including 'Unhappy India') -
  4. Hakluyt Society
  12. Practicing History - Barbara Tuchman
  13. Lessons of History - Will & Ariel Durant


Ananth said...

This is a brilliant piece, Aravindan. Congratulations. We need historians of his calibre.

வன்பாக்கம் விஜயராகவன் said...

"Periyarists" crying 'no sacred cows' is a travesty and a sham when their sacred cow is ...... E.V.Ramasamy Naicker aka 'Periyar'

S Baskaran said...

Thoroughly enjoyed reading. Also guides me to new sources for reading. Thanks.