VOI message

Daud R. Ali daudali at uclink3.berkeley.edu
Thu Apr 13 09:22:42 UTC 1995

On Thu, 13 Apr 1995, Vidyasankar Sundaresan wrote:

> A dangerous notion, one that cuts both ways, as the JNU historians  
> should now be realizing. At least some part of the revisionism of the  
> right-wing Hindutva people is a reaction to JNU's Romila Thapar and  
> her tribe. Romila Thapar does arrange historical facts to her  
> convenience, and her books come across as having a definite political  
> agenda behind them. The pendulum now seems to be swinging the other  
> way. As I see it, such historians have lost the moral high ground by  
> having succumbed to the highly politicized atmosphere around them.  
> Much as members of the Indology list may not want to discuss the  
> political angle at all, the damage has been done in the past, and  
> most likely, more damage will be done in the future. 

I am not sure what "moral high ground" historians have ever occupied, but 
it certainly is not one of objective fact.  Let us not forget that 
left-oriented historians (Marxists, socialists, feminists ) are not the 
inventers of "revisionist history."  The nationalist myths about the 
Indian past, as exemplified in the History and Cultures of the Indian 
People, for example, have formed one of the major "revisions" of colonial 
historiography.  If J.S. Mill saw ancient Indian polity as inherently 
deformed, scholars like Jayaswal, Altekar and others have made ancient 
polities into tribal and village "republics."  Ancient India was one of 
the main battleground where nationalism fought its battles.  It is 
nationalist historigraphy, which has posited a never-changing "national 
genius" which has perhaps been the foundation "revision" of Indian 
history since the 1940s.

The valuable point , as I see it, that the JNU scholars make is that we 
must interogate why certain problems from the past are raised and others 
are not, in a given tradition of historiography.  Why is it important, for 
example, to underscore religious conflict rather than class struggle as a 
major determining dynamic in late medieval north Indian history?  Despite 
all of tis failings, I think that Romila Thapar's History of India I does 
remain, in its intention to write a "social history" of India, a valuable 
contribution to the field.  

The VOI message, with its particularly ironic alliance with a scholar 
hailing from and finding voice in a catholic institution, advertised a 
book whose presentation of fact was particularly mischeivious for its 
failure to look at the whole picture.  My point is not to exonerate 
Muslims who destroyed Hindu temples, but to simply ask, why are other 
sorts of conflict--caste conflict, class conflict, and 
Saiva/Vaisnava/Nastika conflict-- all elided from this political agenda.  
The Hindu temple has been a continuing site for all sorts of 
struggle  in SOuth Asia. 
I am certainly no expert on medieval history in the north, but I have 
read a little bit on medieval south Indian history.  There, we can find 
multiple inscriptional references to the destruction of temples by kings 
and warriors for one reason or another.  Not to mention, as Mr. 
Vidyasankar has pointed out, that Jains and Buddhists were singled out 
for attack by Saivas and Vaisnavas.  The anti-Jain and anti-Buddhist 
rhetoric in medieval Tamil bhakti is famous.  The Hindu temple as an 
institution in many cases was founded upon older Jain and Buddhist 
buildings.  I suppose this may sound revisionist.  But I am 
not trying to deny that temples were destroyed by Muslims  (a truly 
revisionist position).  I simply want to ask why other sorts of 
oppression and religious intolerance are elided in this political agenda.  
Why emphasize these appropriations of space and not the Saiva and Vaisnava
appropriations of Buddhist and Jaina practices.  Medieval Saiva texts 
claim that Sambandar had the Pandyan king impale 8,000 jain monks in 
front of the temple at Madurai.  How does this fit in to the history of 
the temple in the book VOI advertises?

Having said this, I do think that  "religious" conflict in Saiva and 
Vaisnava medieval India takes on different forms than in later times. 
Operations of incorporation/subordination take precedence over ones of
exclusion/subordination.  Hence Buddha becomes a manifestation of Visnu 
in Vaisnavism; or Visnu becomes Siva's premeire devotee in Saivism.  
Saiva kings patronized Vaisnavism, but simultaneously subordinated 
Vaisnavism in a variety of way--ritually, financially, etc. .  .  The 
idea of a conflict free entity known as Hindusim is definitely a 
nationalist myth; 
Just so with the dual model of the king as either a tolerant, 
secular monarch who patronized all sects or as a fanatic (like Sasanka) who 
persecuted all but his own.  It is not hard to see behind this 
nationalist paradigm the ghost of the secular modern nation state, or its 
dystopic shadow, the theocratic state.  The truth does not lie somewhere 
in the middle, but in totally re-appraising our notion of the medieval 
state and its relation to "religion."  Much more work must be done on this

This message began as a response to the accusation of revisionism directed
at JNU historians in favor of a moral high ground, and ended up on 
a tangent that was probably unnecessary.

Daud Ali


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