Early Indic visions of history – III

Among regional histories, the 12th century Rajatarangini (RT) stands tall. It gives a continuous chronology for early Kashmir, using traditional Indic calendars.

Published: 09th May 2022 11:50 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th May 2022 11:50 AM   |  A+A-

Against the entrenched colonial bias that early Indians did not write history, this series seeks to understand Indic visions and methods of history in their own right. It does so in two ways: (a) by surveying the range of evidence available of early Indian societies displaying a distinct regard for time-keeping and chronicling events for posterity, and (b) by questioning the Positivist Eurocentric basis on which the modern discipline of history has come to exclude traditional Indic modes of narrating the past.

Among regional histories, the 12th century Rajatarangini (RT) stands tall. It gives a continuous chronology for early Kashmir, using traditional Indic calendars, such as kaliyuga and shaka samvat, to record the reign of every monarch of every dynasty that ruled the land. It also recounts a host of events that occurred during these regimes, and their policies, deeds and struggles, and explores a range of historical causes and explanations for them. Interestingly, the poet, Kalhana, claims to have consulted local land grant inscriptions (shashana), and older texts, to write his history, thus giving insight into the sources and techniques of the practice.

One of the outstanding features of the RT is that it begins with a prolegomenon clearly stating its purpose (prayojana) and philosophy. Kalhana states that “shedding both attachment and aversion, the voice of the poet should be unwavering when recounting matters of the past” (I.7). Modern scholars have read this as a statement recognising objectivity as a virtue in a historian. It is worth noting, however, that Kalhana presents this as a poetic virtue and, as Walter Slaje argued, it may refer to the state of equipoise (shanta rasa) that Sanskrit poetics of the time recommended and which Kalhana adopted.

While most scholarship on the RT has valorised its empiricist qualities, like deference to chronology, ‘objectivity’ and causality, in my book The Making of Early Kashmir, I have drawn attention to its poetic and figurative aspects as enunciating a historicality deeply charged with culturally specific meanings. The RT was, after all, classic epic poetry (mahakavya), and according to tradition, the poet (kavi) was a seer (rishi), who possessed omniscience and divine sight (divyadrishti). With these powers, which arose from intuition (pratibha), they could gauge the real nature of things and even apprehend different dimensions of time.

Thus Kalhana says: “Who else is capable of making visible (pratyakshatam) bygone times except the poet-creator who can make delightful productions (ramyanirmana)?’ (I.4). Here is an explicit Indic belief in the poet’s creative ability to make the unobservable past perceptible—the quintessentially historical function. This claim to epistemic authority, however conventional, rendered such poetry the lamp that illuminates past realities (kavyadipam hutavastuprakashakam), as Kalhana’s successor Shrivara put it. 

Significantly, however, kavya’s vision of history was inflected by a didactic mandate to provide instruction (upadesha) on a range of human affairs, like dharma (piety), artha (power) and kama (pleasure). For the RT, the area of instruction was specifically political morality (rajadharma) with the aim of ensuring social order and people’s welfare (prajanupalanam). Accordingly, the primary enterprise of the RT was not merely penning a factual record of Kashmir’s past but representation of the Valley as a discursive political space infused with ethics.

Thus, kingship in the RT is evaluated according to certain principles: good conduct (sat), righteousness, generosity/liberality (dakshinya), discriminating intellect (sarasaraviveka) which encouraged men of merit, character and learning, and the will to enforce justice (dharma) and ensure absence of fear (abhaya) among subjects. These constituted the personal and political values to which the sovereign’s commitment was expected in the early Indic vision.

Then, these values were plotted through a series of exemplars that Kalhana identified in Kashmir’s kings, clubbing them in pairs elucidating their comparative morality (good vs. bad rulers). Thus, the entire ‘River of Kings’ can be understood as a flow of ethical figures, in which didactic and historical functions coalesced. This in turn meant that truths in the RT were both transcendent, in invoking higher ethical ends, and contingent in so far as they were located in a real historical past.

What’s more, myth and popular memory were used to further this ethico-political vision of history. Modern historians have tended to regard myth with consternation, believing the mythic to be always fictive and false rather than a society’s meaningful rendition of truth claims. However, as Paul Veyne observed, myth is not about the ‘real’ as truth, but about what was noble as truth.

Indeed, myths in the RT based on local Kashmiri legends about wrongdoing kings and their cities catastrophically destroyed by the anger of tutelary deities (nagas), or about the origins of the land of Kashmir in an act of the great Gods—display precisely such a meaning and function in this ethicised commentary. Far from being a lapse in critical judgement, then, the inclusion of myths was crucial in the text’s scheme of things. By sanctifying the land and warning unrighteous social actors about the consequences of their actions, it provided the synergistic background for the unveiling of ethical governance, which seems to have been the larger purpose of composing the RT, as I have argued.

Thus our ancient historical traditions span a wide variety, from the highly precise and factual, like the public epigraphs, to the ethical and didactic, like the literary representations of human history as a laboratory of dharma and karma. The sacred and the profane, the transcendent and the contingent, were intertwined in this understanding. Rather than inflict inapt colonial parameters, Indic history-writing is best grasped in this larger sense, sensitive to the culturally specific functions this civilisation assigned the genre. 




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