In her new book, Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions (Aleph publications), historian Upinder Singh makes a strong case to abandon simplistic stereotypes as she points out one “contradiction” after another in Indian culture — from the myth of being inherently non-violent, to goddess worship and misogyny. The acclaimed historian, who is also the daughter of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, talks to Firstpost on issues ranging from what ails Indian history, historians and historiography, to the malaise of ban culture in the country, which she says “has been going on for a long time”. Edited excerpts:
My first question comes from the very name of the book, Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions. What makes you call Indian culture a “culture of contradictions”?
All cultures have contradictions in terms of ideas and attitudes, so I am not suggesting that Indian culture is the only culture that has contradictions. This book looks at certain fundamental contradictions — pacifist image versus violent reality, Shakti worship versus women’s position in society — that were visible in ancient times and could be seen even today, though in different ways.
Very early in the book, you write how Indian historians have routinely framed their debates in terms of Left versus Right. This divide is more visible in ancient Indian historiography. How do you see it and how can we reconcile these differences?
I don’t know if we can reconcile these opposite viewpoints. I think it would be a tall order. But I do think that it is necessary for ordinary, non-historian people to understand that not everything said about ancient India is reliable, that there’s something that can be described as a historian’s craft. Like any other discipline, history also has certain moorings and methods, a kind of critical evaluation and analysis of sources leading up to certain evaluation. So, you are right there are certain very entrenched views — Left versus Right. And ancient India is often in the centre of the storm.
You begin the book with a comparison between race and caste, saying while race and caste are not identical, they are comparable. How do you explain that?
Well, I introduced this analogy because in recent times there has been quite a bit of discussion about whether race can be equated with caste or not. And what I have explained in the book is that there are significant differences, though there is no denying that they both are the sources of continuing discrimination, inequality and oppression against people.
Like in the previous book, in this one too you question the idea of Indians being a pacifist lot. How did we come to believe in Indian pacifism?
I wrote a whole book on this subject called Political Violence in Ancient India and that created a bit of a stir because a lot of people have this notion that Indians are non-violent, pacifist people, that non-violence and ahimsa are ingrained in our psyche. But as I delve into ancient history and ancient sources, I find through my investigation that this is not true.
We Indians have this self-image of being pacifist, non-violent but look around and you will find how untrue this is. There is so much violence of all kinds, whether it is social or religion or caste-oriented. You don’t have to go that far in the past to know that there’s nothing inherently non-violent about us. And that is the case in ancient times as well. There is plenty of evidence of different kinds of violence in ancient times. But what is unique about ancient India is not the fact that they were non-violent people, but that ancient Indian thinkers were deeply engaged in debating the tension between violence and non-violence for centuries on end.
Coming to your question as to why despite all the evidence to the contrary, we continue to think of ourselves as utterly peace-loving, non-violent people. This has a lot to do with India’s freedom struggle, with the centrality and importance of ahimsa in Mahatma Gandhi’s ideology. This, in my opinion, has a major role to play in somehow convincing Indians and the world at large that there is something inherently non-violent about India and Indians. Even in ancient India, there are icons of non-violence like Mahavira, Buddha and Asoka to bolster such claims.
You mention that Jawaharlal Nehru has a great role in promoting Asoka and his idea of pacifism. Please explain.
Asoka is my favourite figure in ancient India. There’s something very special and unique about him. Remember, there is a king in the 3rd century BCE who is talking about war and not boasting about a military victory against Kalinga but actually expressing remorse at the terrible devastation that it caused. We can see the influence of Asoka on the modern Indian nation: Look at the symbol that was chosen after Independence, the choice of the Sarnath lions as the symbol of the Indian Republic. Nehru has a great deal to do with that choice. Because Asoka represented something that was unique in what India has to offer to the world — rationality, peace and cosmopolitanism. These are the things that appealed to Nehru a lot. This way Asoka managed to find a place in the imagination of modern Indians.
A line of historiography blames Buddhism for quelling India’s imperial quest. In fact, the same argument is taken forward to explain why India was subjected to so many defeats, especially in the medieval era.
This is a complicated question, just like the one related to the causes of Buddhism’s decline in India. Buddhism declined long before the invasions of medieval times. There is a stream of historiography that suggests that Buddhist influence may have made Indians pacifist. But I would not agree with the argument that Buddhism led to the weakening of the martial ethos among Indians. On practical levels, kings who professed Buddhism and Jainism also fought wars. There’s something about the political sphere where ahimsa kind of hits the rock.
You speak of a famous debate in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, where Gargi’s relentless questioning of Yajnavalkya ends with him asking her to desist, lest her head fall off. How do you see it in the context of argumentative Indians?
The Gargi-Yajnavalkya saga is one of the famous episodes to show that women also participated in philosophical debates in ancient times. It’s a very interesting and lively episode. But from that one episode, we cannot jump to the conclusion that there was gender equality in those times. That has never been there. It has never been there in any society. We also need to realise that women were never a homogeneous group and their role and status varied according to the class and caste they belonged to.
A lot of our texts talk about elite women. Though the power is mostly vested with men, we see a lot of women, especially from royal families, exerting power, most notably in the religious realm such as temple donations, et al. So, we should desist from simplifying history. The present is complicated, so was the past.
You mention a fascinating episode at the National Museum in February 2020 where while showcasing the culinary exploits of the Indus valley people, the non-vegetarian dishes were struck off the menu. What does this episode tell us about our ancient ancestors and also about us in today’s times?
In February 2020, the National Museum in New Delhi announced an event, “Historical Gastronomica: The Indus Dining Experience”. The idea was to offer a well-researched and curated experience of what the ancient Harappans ate. But at the last moment, the non-vegetarian dishes were struck off the menu. Now as a historian this is an untenable idea. For, we know for sure that all Indians for centuries have not been vegetarians. There’s hard evidence to prove that. The evidence shows that from the Stone Age onwards, there had been a lot of meat-eating in cultures across the subcontinent.
Some Harappans may have preferred vegetarian food but we have found at Harappan sites a lot of animal bones with cut marks and charring, thus proving that they were cut and cooked. There’s no doubt that Harappans ate meat, so why this? It has to do with a certain perception of Indian culture according to which it is somehow associated with vegetarianism. And we all know how political food can be. In the book, while discussing all this, I also make a point to desist equating non-violence with non-vegetarianism.
You mention how, in sharp contrast with today’s situation, there was a tradition in ancient India to mock religions. Please tell us more.
We often hear about filmmakers, writers, artists, actors, etc, getting targeted for their views. This has been going on for a long time. So has been the ban culture, though it seems to be getting more acute. It is difficult for a creative person to function in a situation where they are constantly under water, being afraid of public backlash, or going in for self-censorship to avoid controversies. You can’t have any genuine creative outpouring without any real freedom of thought and expression.
In this context, I have delved into the ancient Indian tradition of debates. I find it fascinating to read Kshemendra, a brilliant Sanskrit writer from the 11th century Kashmir, who wrote amazing satires in which he criticised everyone except kings. This again is a classic example of how ancient India is not a singular, homogeneous entity but consists of different strands, many of which might not be visible to us today.