The Study of Ancient India: Erroneous Perceptions and the Reality - A Talk by Dr. Dilip K Chakrabarti
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Speaker Dr. Dilip K Chakrabarti

In his talk, delivered at Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) on August 31, 2011, Dr. Dilip K Chakrabarti, Professor Emeritus of South Asian Archaeology, Cambridge University made out a strong case for presenting the history of ancient India in an unbiased manner. The talk, interspersed with powerful arguments, succinctly underscored the colonialist bias from which the study of ancient India suffers even today. It is rather unfortunate that historians in independent India, who have striven to put the records straight, have been labeled either as ‘Hindu revivalists’ or ‘communalists’. Dr. Chakrabarti was speaking at VIF’s increasingly popular monthly event ‘Vimarsha’ on the subject ‘Study of Ancient India: Erroneous Perceptions and the Reality’, attended by a large gathering of people comprising many eminent personalities and scholars from the academia. Dr. Chakrabarti was visibly pained on how historians, mostly western but a few Indians also among them, over the centuries have willfully distorted the history of ancient India due either to personal or political prejudices. The detailed yet incisive narrative by the reputed archeologist drew mixed reactions from the audience with some quizzing him further on ways to removing the erroneous perceptions which long have surrounded the history of ancient India. The event was chaired by Mr. KN Dixit who has been a former joint DG, Archeological Survey of India and currently, Secretary of the Archaeological Society of India. Prof Makkhan Lal, a historian and archaeologist with great repute and also founder Director of Delhi Institute of Heritage Research and Management, introduced the speaker. He also expressed concern with the prevailing view that revisiting the history of ancient India has been long overdue.

Tracing the non-linear progression of the modern research into the history of ancient India, Dr. Dilip Chakrabarti said, the first phase of ancient Indian historical research lasted from the middle of the eighteenth to the middle of the nineteenth centuries. Some of the major ancient Indian places mentioned in the Graeco-Roman sources were identified, and there was a beginning of ancient Indian historical chronology with William Jones’ identification of the Greek Sandrokottos with Chandragupta Maurya. This was a period when under the influence of the Enlightenment philosophers of Europe, there was a move to look for the origin of culture and civilization beyond the Biblical lands. India was isolated as one of the regions from where civilization got disseminated as far west as Scotland. The basic conceptual framework of the period was, however, the Biblical scheme of the creation of the universe. Viewed in this light, all human developments were inter-related because in the final analysis they could all be traced back to one of the three sons of Noah. It was not surprising that William Jones found similarities between Sanskrit and a host of other languages including Greek, Latin, Peruvian and Japanese.

After 1857, when British India was shaken to its foundations, India stopped figuring high in the scheme of civilization. Instead of continuing to postulate that people migrating to the west from India were the torch-bearers of civilization, scholars from this period onward assumed that people migrated from the west to India, bringing elements of civilization with them. In another important development, there was a correlation between the racial schemes and the language schemes and this was the reason why a section of prominent scholars laid a lot of importance on the idea of Aryan invasion of India. The Aryans were considered the harbingers of culture and civilization in India, and there was a lot of interest among the Indian higher castes to identify themselves with the Aryans and thus claim a cousinship with their rulers who were also considered Aryans. Meanwhile, early in the twentieth century the Arthasastra of Kautilya was discovered, proving that there was a coordinated sense of statecraft in ancient India. There was also the discovery of the Indus civilization soon after this period.

When Independence came in 1947, ancient Indian studies were dominated by the old ideas of race-language-culture correlation. The nationalist historians of the pre-1947 period left this framework undisturbed, although in the matter of various secondary details, they tried to prove the prevalence of many modern features such as those of democracy in ancient India. In no case did they, however, try to go beyond the evidence in hand, and from this point of view they were as objective as historians could be expected to be.

However, the nationalist historians were called both ‘Hindu revivalists’ and ‘communalists’ by the Indian historians who became powerful in the 1970s and later. In no case are these labels acceptable or justifiable, and one suspects that by raising the bogey of communalism, these new historians tried to consolidate their own position of power. The formation of the Indian Council of Historical Research in the early 1970s was in response to this trend. By forming a body to control the funding of historical research in the country and by filling it up with the nominees of the ruling power, the government ensured that historical research in the country would henceforth be dominated entirely by group politics and thus get criminalised.

The relationship between ancient Indian studies and the modern socio-politics related to India as a country is more important than we realize. Many of our old premises regarding ancient India are academically wrong – its race-language-culture framework, the way its sources have been looked at, the ideas related to the origin of its various cultural elements, the way the different sections of the country have interacted, etc. Each of these has a bearing on how we think of our country as an ancient land and each of these is in need of careful scrutiny. It is unlikely that the established framework of these studies, as sanctioned by the dominant power among the Indian and foreign academia, will yield its place to the onrush of new thoughts and approaches quietly or peacefully. If a very senior Indian archaeologist can write that for India, the sun of culture and civilization always rose in the west and if challenging opinions such as these is considered an act of fundamentalism by some of the country’s establishment historians, we must realize that we are in for sharp battles. Such battles can be fought only by well-trained, nationally committed historians and archaeologists. Dr. Chakrabarti however deplored the fact that with no serious historical research undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India, the agency functions like a Public Works Department (PWD), responsible only for preservation and maintenance of historical monuments.

Event Date 
August 31, 2011
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