Indian History And Its Historians

Portrait of Srimushnam Vyakarna Subbaravachary...
Portrait of Srimushnam Vyakarna Subbaravacharya (+1837) a reknown sanskrit scholar

Part V :  British Colonial Indology (1780 CE – 2000 CE)

In reality this field of study was dominated by German scholars. Interest in Indology only took concrete direction and shape after the British came to India, with the discovery of Sanskrit by Sir William Jones in the 1770’s. Other names for Indology are Indic studies or Indian studies or South Asian studies. Almost from the beginning, the Puranas attracted the attention of European scholars. But instead of trying to understand the Puranas, and the context in which they were developed, the Occidental went about casting doubts on the authenticity of the texts and, in fact, altering the chronology which could be found in a particular Purana. 

The extraordinary level of interest by German scholars in Indic matters is a very interesting narrative in its own right and we need to reflect upon its highlights. The German speaking people experienced a vast increase in intellectual activity at about the same time that Britain colonised India. We do not understand the specific factors that came into play during this time, other than to remark on the tremendous intellectual ferment that was running concurrently during the French revolution and the keen interest that Napoleon showed in matters scientific, including the contributions of the orient. 

Clearly the remarks that Sir William made about Sanskrit as well as the high level of interest in Sanskrit language that he triggered, contributed to the overall sense of excitement. But why was it Germany and not Britain, the center of research on the Oriental contributions. The answer lies in the intense search for nationhood that was under way in Germany during that period. When Sanskrit was discovered, and it dawned on the Germans that the antiquity of Sanskrit was very great, and that Sanskrit and German were somehow related, the Germans suddenly had an answer to the question of their own ethnic and linguistic origins.

Sir Henry Maine (1822 – 1888), an influential Anglo-Indian scholar and former Vice Chancellor of Calcutta university, who was also on the Viceroys council, pronounced a view that many Englishman shared about the unification of Germany.

A Nation Has Been Born Out Of Sanskrit

From the beginning, the great interest that Germany showed in Sanskrit had more to do with their own obsessions and questions regarding their ethnic and linguistic origins. It had very little or at least far less to do with the origin of the ancient Indic. And yet, that does not stop the proponents of AIT (Aryan Invasion Theory) in India, whose knowledge of European history appears to be rudimentary at best, from asserting that AIT is an obsession of nationalistic Hindus. Such is the fate and perversion of history that conquered nations are expected to suffer !

Different aspects of this fascinating chapter – postulation of an Aryan race and its corollaries, Indo European and Indo German people – are described by various authors … Trautmann, Rajaram, Arvidsson, and very recently by Prodosh Aich. The interesting but curious aspect of this phenomena is that while the concept of Aryan race has been well nigh discarded by most of the modern generation in the Occident, it lingers on in our narrative of Indian History, a relic of the heyday of Europe’s dominance on the world scene. In those heady times as colonial powers, they promoted racist theories eulogising their occupation of distant lands, and over strange people, as part of their heritage as an Aryan people. Kipling’s phraseology, “white man’s burden.” is at once succinct of their superiority in psyche and of the racist outlook in behaviour and strategy formulation. 

In contrast to the Germans and the French, whose interest was catalysed by the ubiquitous presence of Indic civilisation in South East Asia, the British had aparticular reluctance to study the nature and extent of the Indic civilisation. First and foremost, amongst their reasons for such neglect, was the aversion to admit that a subject people had any worthwhile civilisation to speak of, let alone one that was of far greater antiquity than their own.

Britain was the last of the three major powers in Europe to have a chair in Sanskrit; it was almost 50 years after the death of Sir William that England got around to establishing a chair at Oxford, the famous Boden chair.

 *  *  *

Rajagriha or Rajagrha (Sanskrit)

The ancient capital of Magadha, famous for its conversion to Buddhism in the days of the Buddhist kings. It was the royal residence from Bimbisara-raja to Asoka, and the seat of the first Synod or Buddhist Council held 510 BC.The famous Saptaparna cave, in which the Buddha’s select circle of arhats were initiated, was in this famous city. 

Rajgir

is the current name of the city and a notified area in Nalanda district in the Indian state of Bihar. The city of Rajgir (ancient Rajagriha or Rājagha; Pali: Rājagaha) was the first capital of the kingdom of Magadha, a state that would eventually evolve into the Maurya Empire. Its date of origin is unknown, although ceramics dating to about 1000 BC have been found in the city. The epic Mahabharata calls it Girivraja and recounts the story of its king, Jarasandha, and his battle with the Pandava brothers and their ally, Krishna.

Rajgir is also mentioned in Buddhist and Jain scriptures, which give a series of place-names but without a geographical context. The attempt to locate these places is based largely on references to them in the works of Chinese Buddhist pilgrims, particularly Faxian and Xuanzang. It is on the basis of Xuanzang’s records in particular that the site is divided into Old and New Rajgir. The former lies within a valley and is surrounded by low-lying hills. It is defined by an earthen embankment (the Inner Fortification), with which is associated the Outer Fortification, a complex of cyclopean walls that runs (with large breaks) along the crest of the hills.

New Rajgir is defined by another, larger embankment outside the northern entrance of the valley, and is next to the modern town.

 … to be continued

English: Sanskrit manuscript using the Ranjana...
Sanskrit manuscript using the Ranjana script, with an illustration of the Buddha sitting below the Bodhi Tree, day and night. Manuscript either from India or Nepal, date unknown.

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