Eurocentric History vs. the Indian Perspective

Prof. M.G.S. Narayanan

 

The author is a well-known historian and former chairman of the Indian Council for Historical Research. Reproduced with permission from “Chairman’s Column,” ICHR Newsletter, Vol. 2, January-June 2002.

 

History is constantly rewritten by historians in every country in every age. Since India became independent in 1947, there was an urgent need to rewrite Indian history from the point of view of independent India. Not only was there so much of accumulated new source materials, both archaeological and literary, waiting to be processed and interpreted, but the new citizens of the Republic of India had several new questions to be addressed to the past.

As long as the British Government kept India as their colony, they sponsored the writing and teaching of Indian History with a colonial slant. The institutions which they created for carrying on research were largely controlled by the foreigners and their supporters. Therefore it is only natural that in course of time Indian thinkers began to feel that the intellectual and cultural hegemony of the colonial masters must be terminated, at least after half a century of political independence.

This was not an easy job. Though the visible hand of the foreign ruler had been removed, the invisible strings of colonialism continued to operate in our universities and educational network. Most of the historians of India in my generation were trained in Western Universities and had been in the habit of looking up to them for appreciation and rewards. A Eurocentric approach to history prevailed, and in spite of the challenge that Nationalists offered to imperialist ideas, they were often under the influence of Western concepts, knowing or unknowingly.

It is good that our historians learnt a lot about the craft from their European and American mentors, but they also imbibed notions of Western superiority and Western ideas of ‘Progress’ and ‘Civilization’. There was a general tendency to condemn and denigrate everything Indian, calling it Hindu and communal, without realizing the fact that the label ‘Hindu’ did not represent a religion in the Semitic or Western sense, but a whole civilization which possessed institutions and outlook entirely different from those of the Western civilization.

Western standards, capitalist or communist, were applied indiscriminately to Indian history for evaluating the developments in all walks of life. This was evident in the way terms like religion, state, class, empire, nation, law, justice, morality, etc. were used in the analysis and interpretation of the past in India.

The Vedic Age, the period of the composition of Vedic hymns in the land of the great rivers, was discussed in the context of an imaginary ‘Aryan Invasion’ for which there was no trace in archaeology or literature. They postulated the existence of a ‘Dravidian race’ of inhabitants who were suppressed or driven out by the so-­called ‘Aryan race’ of invaders who established their control over the native ‘Dravidian race’. The story of Aryan-Dravidian dichotomy and racial conflict, for substantiating which there was no record, was visualized as the running thread connecting all events in India through the ages. The work of Mahavira and Gautama Buddha in propagating their philosophy had come to be treated as their attempt to establish new ‘religions’ different from the Hindu ‘religion’… These reformers were called ‘founders of religion’, and when the number of their followers dwindled eventually due to various factors, it was attributed to ‘religious persecution’ though there was no such evidence. The history of different political units had been discussed as though they were kingdoms established arbitrarily by some powerful tyrants and functioning arbitrarily without reference to a framework of civilization. European and West Asian parallels of religious persecution, conversion, state religion, church-state conflicts etc. seem to have been at the back of the historian’s mind while approaching all Indian phenomena. The history of India for the period after Harsha was often conceived as the history of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire. Society outside these was neglected as if it was of no consequence. The history of the regions of North East India and South India was often kept out of what came to be regarded as the mainstream history of India. The process of development of the Indian civilization, its formation and dissemination, and the stages of its growth were not subject matter to be considered in history courses taught in schools and colleges.

When such assumptions and attitudes came to be questioned towards the close of the previous century, historians opposed to change organized campaigns in the media against all attempts to review and rewrite history. This was understandable. It was too late for established writers to change their framework and parameters of references and they feared that unsympathetic historians of another generation might scrutinize their work too closely, find it wanting, and reject or modify certain aspects of their contribution.

There was a similar fear in political circles which enjoyed power for long and cherished their Westernized ways of life. They were frustrated by the course of direction taken by democracy in India in which the voice of the newly empowered masses increasingly became assertive and decisive. Therefore the conservative politicians and the conservative historians joined hands to resist any change in the writing and teaching of Indian history.

Fortunately for us, there is a growing number of historians in India, especially among the younger generation, who would refuse to hold any philosophy or ideology of history, be it Imperialist or Nationalist or Marxist, as the last word, the final truth. They are prepared to learn about all new refinements in historical method, in India or elsewhere, to judge everything independently, and to subject all preconceived notions to scrutiny with an open mind, ready to accept anything that is supported by reliable evidence. This new healthy trend has to be encouraged.

The Indian Council of Historical Research is committed to support genuine research in all possible ways without reference to any creed or ideology.

We are aware of the fact that certain historians professing to project the Marxist ideology have been in the habit of claiming infallibility and monopoly of wisdom, branding all other historians as reactionary and communal and treating them as untouchables. This intellectual fascism has to be discouraged. What they were enjoying for some time was not a monopoly of wisdom but a monopoly of power in several government bodies and universities. This has come to an end happily. Historical research must now gather new momentum in this country so that our people are eventually liberated from the hegemony of Eurocentric history and enabled to develop their own independent Indian perspective.

 

© ICHR, New Delhi, 2002.

 
 
       
 
 
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