B.D. Chattopadhyaya’s exploration of the processes and nature of change in Indian society between the seventh and the thirteen centuries, marks a radical departure from the existing historiography of the period. Providing an alternative perspective on these six hundred years, he demonstrates change as a process of progressive transformation, and not-as in the mainstream vision of the period-by the breakdown of an earlier social order. The introduction to this second edition provides an overview of the various contemporary debates and theories surrounding ancient and early medieval India.
This Oxford India Perennials edition is testimony to the book’s status as a landmark publication, which-re-interpreted early medieval India, since its first publication in 1994.
Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya taught at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
It is Heartening For Any Author to be told by his/her publisher that his/her book needs to be reissued in a new edition. It becomes an additional source of pleasure when the new edition is scheduled for publication in the year when the publication house celebrates the centenary year of the beginning of its journey in India. My thanks to Oxford University Press, India, my publisher, combine with many good wishes for the current as well the next centenaries.
This new edition is not substantially new. The text, apart from bibliographical updating and addition to the notes, remains the same. What is new is the ‘Introduction to the Second Edition’. I must clarify that it is not intended to be a detailed bibliographical survey and analysis of the enormous corpus of relevant writings that have appeared since the first edition came out. As its title suggests, it seeks to raise the issue, as really a supplement to what was written earlier and following the lead provided by non-professional thinkers of our past, of Indian civilization having its own specific characteristics, and its own trajectory of evolution. The linkage between the past of what has come to be called ‘early medieval’ and with what followed, from the perspective of the making of our multilayered society and civilization in all its dimensions, still remains inadequately explored. In other words, we still do not have an Indian history; we continue to make do with our substitution of Hindu, Muslim and British India with ancient India, early medieval India, medieval India and modern India for our pedagogic as well as other forms of communication. Such periodization is unavoidable and, also, useful, but it is at the same time necessary to cultivate a vision of the past in relation to our present. The ‘Introduction to the Second Edition’ makes only an additional tentative suggestion in the direction of understanding that linkage. Like any other suggestion it too makes no claim to offering a widely acceptable solution.
In some recent writings it has been felt that the debate centring round ‘Indian feudalism’ characterizing the ‘early medieval’ of India has become sterile; it has reached a ‘curious impasse’; or a ‘dead end’. In a way, the pessimism is understandable because even after many years of ‘Indian feudalism’ historiography, the same set of arguments and counter-arguments have gone back and forth, as the ball on a ping pong table. But the pessimism also bypasses the real meaning of the debate: the necessity of trying to understand the nature of change in Indian society, not only by studying isolated themes of one’s fancy but also by trying to relate one’s choice to the shape in which it is found in different historical contexts. The debate, alongside historiography in general, in fact created meaningful spaces to explore, and such spaces continue to remain available to historians. I shall give two examples. One major thrust of the debate has been on what may be called ‘resource production and distribution’. Despite substantial work done in the field, my own feeling is that we really do not have as yet any satisfactory analytical history of agrarian and other forms of production, viewed across time and space. Similarly, bhakti occupies a key position in writings on ‘feudal’ ideology. However, bhakti cuts across almost two millennia and across disparate regions in India, but its various meanings in different contexts still remain elusive. In other words, the debate raised questions which the framework used could not satisfactorily answer. But failure certainly does not mean that the issues have become dated or irrelevant. Far from it; they need to be addressed again with a different kind of competence. Our (and ‘out’ most certainly includes the present author) truncated training and truncated vision of Indian history need to be replaced by a different kind of skill, linguistic and otherwise, to handle, from a long duree perspective, old issues, and new issues arising out of them, in years to come. History requires its various trajectories of change to be studied, as it requires a change in the set of historians too.
In meeting the modest requirements for the new edition, nevertheless involving a lot of technicalities, I am much obliged to Shashank Shekhar Sinha and the editorial team at Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
I rededicate the book to my mother Surama Devi who is no longer with us but will always be in us.
Early Medieval India has long remained a much maligned period of Indian history both among those who possess a passing acquaintance with India’spast and with specialists. The Indian history to be found within most textbooks is still redolent with ‘dark ages’ and ‘periods of crisis’, in much the same measure as ‘golden ages’. Characteristics generally associated with early middle age have burdened this period and dressed it up as one of the key ‘dark ages’ of Indian history. The value judgements of historians on personalities, as on periods of history, are carried over as axioms in historiography; early medieval India has not yet been able to shake off axiomatic pronouncements upon it; this despite the fact that recent researches look at the period from many more angles and have succeeded, to a very substantial measure, in rescuing this epoch out of its dismal maze of dynastic genealogies, chronological charts and chronicles of military success and failure.
The essays in this volume were written over a rather long span of time, alongside articles on other periods and themes, and so they are not really products of a systematically designed research project on early medieval India. They represent my explorations and ideas on the nature of the change which distinguishes the period following the decline of the Guptas in the middle of the sixth century from the one preceding it. Initially, the idea was to focus on the nature of change in a select region, namely Rajasthan. But an inevitable drift, generated by my curiosity over other areas and other themes, prevented any stringent thematic unity. What holds these essays together is the attempt to analyse different manifestations of the historical processes at work in the post-Gupta period. The introductory chapter was especially written for this collection of articles-which were published earlier in scattered academic journals-so as to provide a framework.
The suggestion that I put together my meagre output on early medieval India came from young friends and colleagues; I hope my decision to do this will not reflect adversely on their judgement. My interest in early medieval India and the urge to re-examine the dominant formulations regarding the period began when I was, for about a year, a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Simla. I acknowledge with thanks the many facilities made available to me by the Institute. I am grateful to my colleagues Professor Muzaffar Alamand Dr Neeladri Bhattacharya for the interest they have taken in the publication of this book; to my students Ms Nandini Sinha and Sri Shyam Narayan Lal for the help received from them in the preparation of the manuscript; and to Oxford University Press for having patiently awaited the final script.
The somewhat uncommon Title of This Introduction would appear to require a little explanation. Movements in societies and civilizations can be shown to be unexceptionably comparative; they can be shown to be in consonance with the necessary, and sometimes major, orientation of the characteristics which make a civilization that civilization and not another. In initial support of my emphasis on what I have called the ‘Indian experience’, I would like to begin this preliminary point by citing two outstanding Indian thinkers, neither of them professional historians. One is Rabindranath Tagore, the poet, and the other is D.D. Kosambi, the mathematician, who also worked his way, through at least half the span of his life, towards developing a new understanding of India’s past. This is what Tagore wrote in his insightful essay ‘India’s History’ (‘Bharatvarsher Itihas’ in Bengali), in the early twentieth century, on the colonial perspective of Indian past and its chronology:
Similarly, in his search for a new framework for the understanding of Indian past, Kosambi too emphasized the need for an Indian approach, because Indian history simply could not be written in the fashion of European history or any other history:
Kosambi, in his voluminous writings on India’s past, did develop a perspective which broke away from the generally accepted Euro-directional view of it and its chronology. The perspective deriving from his understanding of the multi-level accretions of the past into the present is essentially an understanding of the ‘Indian experience’.
The arbitrarily afore selected citations from Tagore and Kosambi would hardly bring out the full strength of their respective arguments, but despite the vast difference between the thinkings of these outstanding personalities, they seem to have converged on the point that India’s past cannot be viewed with a fixed Western lens. It has to be understood in its own terms, because the social and civilizational material from India’s past is so significantly different. The Indian past also continues to be an inseparable part of the way we live, both in the material sense of our continuing to use old technology alongside new, as well as in our beliefs, thoughts, and modes of worship, and in our social relations.
What, then, is the justification for invoking ‘Classical’ and ‘Medieval’ in the title of this essay? One justification of course is the acceptance of the inevitability of change in all societies and of the necessity of chronologically labelling them, irrespective of how one chooses the terminology. Some of us still believe that long-term narratives for societies for the most significant markers of change for that society. Second, although comparisons in history are not intended to establish identities or to construct a unilateral, homogeneous, universal human history, comparisons are unavoidable and are indeed necessary, if only as a methodology for tracing the likely evolutionary path of a particular society. Evolutionary path implies a long-term narrative, which, in turn implies periodization or, at least attempt at periodization.
Defining the ‘Classical’
Since I have chosen to use ‘classical’ and ‘medieval’ in the title of this essay despite my accent on ‘Indian experience’, it should be my burden to clarify in which sense I am using them. To begin with ‘medieval’, it is surprising that no clear meaning of the term is available even in the context of Western historiography. My most trusted dictionary, The Oxford English Dictionary, begs the question by simply defining it as’ of pertaining to or characteristic of the Middle Ages, medieval thought, religion, etc’. similarly ‘medievalism’ is the ‘system of belief and practice characteristic of the Middle Ages’, and unless one takes ‘sacerdotalism’, ‘sometimes associated’ with the system of belief and practice as the defining characteristic of the age, ‘medieval’ would not, as in other societies of the world, go much beyond signifying simply a span of time, arbitrarily chosen or chosen without adequate explanation.
By contrast, the meaning of ‘Classical’ is more precise; it signifies ‘designating the language, art, or culture of a period deemed to represent the most perfect flowering of the civilization that preceded it (italics added). Of the other meanings of ‘classical’, one is ‘constituting a standard or model, especially in literature’.
While I shall be struggling to search for the possible meaning of ‘medieval’ in the Indian context, though perfunctorily in this essay, let me start by stating how I understand ‘classical’. I would take’ classical’ to represent the stage of convergence of different elements in society (not only literary) which may be taken to represent, in the coming together of these elements, the stag of the formation of a civilizational model. The model may take a long span of time to crystallize, but once that stage is reached, the model may be found useful for deciphering significant patterns of change in subsequent stages. The term ‘classical’ has of course been used earlier in Indian history and continues to be used in all conceivable occasions but mostly as signifying a high point of cultural efflorescence, corresponding to the perceived prosperity of a large empire, or a small regional kingdom and from which it is deviation which follows. There have been different ‘classical’ or ‘golden ages’ in India, inevitably followed by rather inglorious ones. I would venture to suggest, on the basis of whatever empirical material and historical research I have had access to, the time span c. second-third century CE to c. sixth century CE as marking the phase when the classical formation of the Indian subcontinent took place. Despite the risk implicit in this kind of universalization I shall still go ahead with it since in our definition of ‘classical’ it is essentially some kind of model formation, and not simply for a region. I would identify the following markers as suggesting the phase to stand out as different, but drawing upon civilizational elements from the past and also upon diverse sources from different directions. For one thing, this was the phase when the major texts, systematizing ideas of different times and different locations finally took shape essentially through the medium of Sanskrit, although Prakritism too continued. This was also the period when Tamil, representative of another major language group, not only acquired a substantial corpus of literary products but was experiencing the formulation of linguistic and literary norms as well. The final form of the Ramayana, and particularly the redaction of the massive text of the Mahabharata, the major Dharmasastras, the Arthasastra, the Kamasastras, distinctly drawing upon ideas of predecessors, and giving them the appearance of cohesive wholes, took shape in this period. The creative literary outputs of the period, including hagiographic, despite differences in their quality, could be cited as models by later day compositions.
Another area in which standardization appears to me to have been of highly significant implication was the institution of monarchy at the centre of political formation. The idea of the ‘great elect’ (mahasammata) was viewed as integral to the process of the emergence of the state out of social chaos, but what is particularly noticeable about monarchy as a hallmark of the classical order is the assertion of its hegemony, as a historical reality, amidst a strong surviving tradition of ‘republicanism’, its ideological complementarity with Brahmanism, and its continuity as the model for ideal governance. This model of governance with monarchy as its pivot, along with other ‘limbs’ (angas) is available in non-Sanskrit compositions such as Thirukkural as well.
The other marker of Indian classicism that I would choose would relate to social order, deviations from it and the apprehension of social crisis as a leitmotif in all conceivable situations as a political statement. Kali, believed to be the final incarnation of Visnu and personifying the destruction of an existing, stable order, is actually, albeit curiously, seen as upsetting the arrangements envisaged as a model. What is alone capable of holding the order together was Varna-dharma. Affirmation of Varna-dharma, i.e., a society in which all four Varnas or strictly demarcated social groups followed their respective dharmas, and prevention of Varna-samkara (mixing up of varnas), were time and again declared by monarchs to be the objective of their rule. This was the true meaning of ‘protection’, the service for which the monarch was entitled to a share of the produce of his subjects. Varna-samkara or illegitimate admixture of varnas, was the Brahmanical explanation of jatis or social groups in existence beyond the four varnas. Although explanatory framework of Varna-samkara was early in origin, its most elaborate exposition would be found in Manu, and its continued use as a device for explanation could even extend, as in the late text Brhad-dharmapurana, to the hierarchized composition of Sudra Varna, by putting different groups in categories of uttama (good), madhyama (middle) and adhama (inferior), attributing their respective positions in the hierarchy to the degree of illegitimacy of the unions. One significance of this social theory is that it could be used to explain in any situation the location of any jati or group in the order, and also to determine whether a group was a part of the order or outside it.
Integral to my construct of the Indian classical are two other elements. One is the form of ‘Hinduism’ which is visible in the period, and Hinduism’s major religious processes, visible in texts, epigraphs, coins and icons. The major deities, including the previously neglected form of the goddess (devi), their theology and creative functions and their mythologies, start getting elaborately textualized in the Puranas and in specifically ritual and philosophical texts. This attempt at standardization was extremely significant as a model in that disparate objects of worship and rituals could make entry into one major sectarian worship or the other. Siva’s family is perhaps the first example that would come to one’s mind, as it represented the coming together of unrelated deities such as Rudra-Siva, Parvati-Uma-Durga, Ganesa, Skanda-Visakha-Mahasena in the close bond of family ties through elaborate mythologies of marriage, self-sacrifice, asceticism, temptation, birth and so on. What the mythologies provided was the space for accommodating, identifying and thereby universalizing, thus widening the geographical horizon of Hinduism. Essentially a religious process, it could converge with the political, and it would be seen that this aspect of the classical formation too had important bearing on what emerged in the post-classical formation too had important bearing on what emerged in the post-classical stages of religious change. Classical Hinduism also marked a shift from cult site to shrine, the construction of shrines becoming, at least according to the majority of available records, more acts of family patronage rather than community acts from now on.
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