In 1825, H H Wilson, Member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal and translator of gems of Sanskrit literature such as Kalidasa’s Meghaduta and the Vishnu Purana, translated parts of Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, the 12th century “Hindu History of Cashmir”, as he called it. Wilson famously observed about the Rajatarangini that it was “the only Sanskrit composition yet discovered to which the title of History, can with any propriety be applied”.
Read closely, Wilson’s adulation for the text’s historical qualities was in fact indictment of an entire literary culture and civilisation for its lack thereof. Just a few years before him, Imperialist historian James Mill, in his notorious The History of British India (1817), had launched a diatribe against ‘backward’ Indian literary and cultural traditions for not matching up to their Graeco-Roman or Judaeo-Christian counterparts, which were celebrated for their historicity. The culmination of such assessments was a downgrading and delegitimising of indigenous Indian narratives of, and approaches to, the past.
Comments such as those of Mill and Wilson can be understood as both illustrative of and foundational in the then-emerging misconception and propaganda that Indic civilisation, and particularly Sanskrit traditions, were singularly lacking in historical sense, a notion that came to endure and enjoyed great currency ever since.
This ‘lack’, in turn, was believed to be on account of other Orientalist stereotypes that were developing about India as the British colonial regime established itself in the early 19th century, namely, a greater proclivity of Indians to spiritual over material interests, and a changelessness and stasis of Indian society itself. These together were deemed responsible for the apparent dearth of historical literature in India, especially as compared to the abundance of scriptures, mythology and aesthetic works.
Against this entrenched colonial bias of 200 years, documenting and understanding early Indic visions and methods of history on their own terms assumes considerable significance. We will do so in this series by: (a) surveying the range of evidence available of early Indian societies displaying a distinct regard for time and time-keeping, and preserving and chronicling events for posterity, and (b) questioning the Positivist Eurocentric basis on which the modern discipline of history has come to exclude traditional Indic modes of narrating the past, like myth and ethical instruction.
Time and chronology are regarded as perhaps the single most important element of historical consciousness. Early India deployed both linear and non-linear systems of reckoning time. Among the former were a number of eras or calendars (samvat, kala) that were evolved and used over centuries.
The most famous of these would be the Vikram samvat dating to 57 BCE and the Shaka samvat inaugurated in 78 CE. (The latter was adopted as the official calendar of the Government of India.) Other calendars were the Gupta kala (319 CE), the Kalachuri-Chedi era (248 CE), and the Harsha era (606 CE). Though also occurring in texts, the use of these samvats is most prominently seen in thousands of inscriptions.
Of these, epigraphs from the 3rd century BCE onwards display a striking sense of history insofar as they were, by and large, punctilious about recording the date of their being inscribed as also of the event they were recording or commemorating, or the dates of the king during whose reign the inscription was instituted.
Later, more elaborate inscriptions, especially from south and central India, called copper plate land grant charters, included a detailed genealogy of the ruling king and his entire dynasty. They tended to give highly precise and complex dates starting with the era (samvat), year (varsha), month (masa), lunar fortnight (paksha), week (saptah), date (tithi), down to the day (divasa) and hour (muhurta) of the day!
However, Indic conceptions of time were not confined to anthropic and quotidian time; they were as conscious of vast cycles of cosmic time against which they also thought it important to situate human history. Thus the concept of chaturyuga (‘four eras’), to be found primarily in that vast corpus of texts called the puranas. One yuga followed another in a cycle characterised by declining moral values and general lawlessness, which, however, was followed by another cycle of regeneration.
The four yugas were krta (the golden age), treta, dvapara and kali (the dark or polluted age). Together they constituted a mahayuga, and one thousand mahayugas formed a kalpa, which was equal to 4.32 billion (human) years! Each kalpa was divided into 14 intervals known as manvantaras. The end of every kalpa was marked by deluge and annihilation of the world—till the next cycle of creation began. All these were exponentially widening divisions of time. Our present is believed to be in the middle of the kaliyuga, which clocks a total of 4,32,000 years.
Rather than see yugas and kalpas or cyclical time as mythic time, their sheer enormity and scale can be read as a statement on the unreckonable nature and vastness of time when seen from the very beginnings of creation. This may perhaps be among the earliest expressions of the recent fields of ‘deep history’ or ‘big history’ that also seek to look back to the origins of the Earth and the solar system.
Further, the placing of moral order at the centre of time suggests a deeply ethical worldview. And the cyclicity of moral ascendance and decline, where history and human behaviour repeat themselves over and over again across the millennia, suggests a historical vision crucially invested with cultural memory.
(to be continued)
Associate Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University