Partha Chatterjee on why no one, not even Indians, can claim to be part of an ancient nation

An excerpt from ‘The Truths And Lies Of Nationalism: As Narrated by Charvak’, by Partha Chatterjee.

The Pillars of Ashoka are a series of columns dispersed throughout the northern Indian subcontinent, erected by the Mauryan king Ashoka during his reign in the 3rd century BC.

(RAHNUMA) ‘What makes you believe that those people living in and around Sarnath fifteen hundred years ago were your people?’

…[L]et me take up a subject over which your friends have been greatly agitated recently. Who is a patriot and who is anti-national? Isn’t that what you have been shouting about? Come, let me show you all the lies that have been told about nationalism. Along the way, I will also tell you about some of its truths . . .

There are no ancient nations anywhere in the world. All nations (rāstra) are modern. Ancient Greece, ancient Egypt, ancient China, ancient India – all of them may have had great civilisations whose architecture, art, and literature are objects of admiration. But they were not nations.

To realise this truth, you will have to forget for the time being the history you were taught at school. Because it is that history, drilled into your heads from the time you were children, and constantly renewed by national festivals and ceremonies, the speeches of your leaders, and novels, films, and television serials, that make it seem obvious to you that your nation is ancient.

But I will show you that this is merely a conventional idea, a samskār. You take it for granted because everyone says it is so. In actual fact, it is not true.

Your nation is not – indeed no nation on earth is – ancient. Only modern people can imagine it that way…
The Indian rashtra as a nation-state has only been in existence since the middle of the twentieth century. If you want to push that history a little further back by claiming that the Indian National Congress as an organised political body was the Indian rashtra in waiting, even that would not take you beyond the last decades of the nineteenth century. The Indian nation would still be a very modern entity.

But, you may ask, what about the great kingdoms and empires of the past? The empires of the Mauryas, the Guptas, the Delhi Sultanate, Vijayanagara, the Mughals, the Marathas – were they not great states? They certainly were. But they were empires, not nations. The various parts of those states were held together by military force and tribute-paying arrangements.

That is not how the parts of a nation-state are supposed to be bound together. Even the Marathas held territories outside the Maharashtra region by the regular use of armed force and extraction of tribute from local rulers and populations who were looked upon as subjected peoples. The Marathas too had an empire, not a nation.

If you think about it carefully, the connection between nation and state, indicated by the word rashtra, is established by a third term. That term is “the people” (lok).

When you talk about the nation, you do not immediately think of natural resources or ancient ruins or the Himalayas or the Vedas; you think of the people of India. Therein lies the crucial difference between the ancient kingdoms and the modern nation-state.

Asoka or Akbar may have been great rulers; their subjects may even have been relatively happy and prosperous (let us grant that, for argument’s sake). But the empire of Asoka or Akbar was not based on the sovereignty of the people. No one in those times could even think of such a concept. The people were subjects of the emperor whom they regarded as the sovereign.

I am sure you know that popular sovereignty is a very modern idea which emerged in Western Europe and North America in the late eighteenth century, spread to South America and other parts of Europe in the nineteenth, and then came to the countries of Asia and Africa in the twentieth. The revolutionaries in France, claiming to speak on behalf of the nation, demanded in 1789 that the people and not the king and his nobles must rule. They cut off the king’s head.

In North, and later South, America, the European settlers of the British and Spanish colonies declared themselves as nations, rebelled against the British and Spanish empires and proclaimed republics of the people. In Central and Eastern Europe, all through the nineteenth century, various peoples declared themselves as nations and demanded their own states. Without the claim to popular sovereignty, there can be no nation-state or rashtra. Therefore, all nations are modern.

At this point, if your mind is agile and you are following the discussion carefully, you may come back with a counterargument.

Fair enough, you might say: let us grant that the nation as state is a modern phenomenon. The awareness of popular sovereignty and self-determination may also be something that has spread across the world only in recent times. But what about the people themselves? Can the people not be ancient? Could they not have memories and traditions that are thousands of years old? Could not the ancientness of culture give a people its identity?

I have to concede that this is a serious argument that demands a careful response. So you will have to be patient with me.

Buddhist stupa

Imagine yourself at Sarnath: you have probably visited the place before. What will you see there?
You will see an impressive structure which you may recognise as a Buddhist stupa. You will see a sandstone pillar which, you will be told, was ordered to be built by the Emperor Asoka in the third century before the Common Era.

There are inscriptions on the pillar which you will not be able to read, unless you happen to be a specialist: the language is an eastern Prakrit which, if read out to you, may sound vaguely familiar, but the script is Brahmi which is no longer in use anywhere.

In the museum, you will immediately recognise the lion capital of Asoka, made thoroughly familiar by its reproduction on banknotes and government stationery. You will see the ruins of a Buddhist vihara which, the tourist guide may tell you, was where more than a thousand monks and scholars lived when the Chinese traveller Xuanzang visited the place in the seventh century.

The entire place is now an archaeological monument: no one lives there and the only people you will see are tourists and pilgrims. The guidebook will tell you that the place became famous because that is where Gautama Buddha first preached his dhamma. Many of the things you see will seem quite familiar to you and, even if you were visiting the place for the first time, you will feel an exciting sensation of recognition.

But stop for a moment and ask yourself: who were the people who lived here when the place was inhabited and functional? What did they wear? What language did they speak? What did they eat? Since we know that this was a Buddhist monastery and place of pilgrimage, we could make the conditional inference that the people who lived here were Buddhist monks and scholars. Therefore, they are likely to have read, written, and spoken Pali. Some of them may even have been fluent in Sanskrit.

Since we know that monks and scholars came to Sarnath from many places in India and elsewhere, they must have also brought with them their native languages which not everyone would have understood. What about the people who lived in the neighbouring villages – the farmers and artisans and traders? What language did they speak?

Well, they certainly did not speak Hindi as everyone in the area does now, because the Hindi language did not exist then. They probably spoke some variety of what the Brahmans call Prakrit (assigning it the lowly status of a coarse dialect carrying the pungent smell of virgin soil and wild forests, as distinct from their own supremely refined devăbhāsā, the language presumably spoken by the gods). Anyway, whatever variety of Prakrit these people may have spoken, I can assure you that you would not have understood any of it.

What did they wear? What did they eat? Modern historians have scoured through religious and literary texts and examined inscriptions and archaeological artefacts to come up with some answers. These are conditional inferences that you will find in history books. They are all valuable information – I am by no means denying that.

But what makes you believe that those people living in and around Sarnath fifteen hundred years ago were your people? What is it that ties you and others of your kind – let us call them modern Indians – to those people in the ancient past?

Let me give you another set of examples. Make one more imaginative journey and take yourself to the pyramids of Egypt or, if you prefer, the Parthenon in Greece. I have never been to those places but have seen pictures. Once again, you will be faced with impressive structures that come from ancient times. Of course, you know they are ancient only because archaeologists and historians have told you so; how else could a non-expert tell simply by looking at the stones how old they are?

But you know the pyramids (including the gigantic Sphinx) at the edge of the desert in Giza and the Parthenon on top of the hill in Athens are ancient monuments that have become famous icons of ancient Egyptian and Greek civilisations. They will be both familiar and unfamiliar to you, in the same way that Sarnath was, because you will know something about the people who lived there in ancient times, and may find out more about them by going to the library or searching the internet. There will also be much that you will not know.

But would you ever feel that the people of ancient Egypt or Greece were your people? Never. So here is my question to you: what is it that makes you imagine the people of ancient Sarnath as your people but not those of ancient Egypt or Athens?

The answer is obvious, you will tell me. The remains of Sarnath are in the territorial region we call India; those of ancient Egypt or Greece are somewhere else, far away. It is geography that binds together the people of India today with those of ancient India.

To clarify your answer, let me ask you to do one more imaginative experiment: I promise this will be the last time I will ask you to do this. Imagine yourself walking through the ruins of Mohenjo-daro, the famous ancient city of the Indus Valley (or Harappan) civilisation.

Indus Valley (or Harappan) civilisation

I did visit the place once some years ago. With its brick houses arranged in straight lines and rectangular blocks, a central marketplace, public buildings, baths, and covered drains, the planned city seems to have been built by a people with a sophisticated culture. There are debates among scholars about who those people were: we will come to that subject presently.

But everyone is agreed that these ruins representing the urban phase of the Indus civilisation are from a period between 2600 BCE and 1900 BCE. They are also the earliest examples that have been found so far of an ancient high culture in the Indian subcontinent.

But remember, Mohenjo-daro is now located in Sindh province in Pakistan. If you are an Indian citizen, you will probably have some difficulty getting there. Does that pose a problem for modern Indians to claim its history as their own? Could you say, in the same way that you did in the case of Sarnath, that the people who lived in Mohenjo-daro four or five thousand years ago were your people?

I know that is an easy question to answer. You will smile and say, “We have already decided that the nation-state is a modern creation but a people may be ancient. So why should the present boundaries of the nation-states of Pakistan and India prevent Indians from claiming the Indus civilisation as their own?” It is a good answer.

But just to be aware of the implications, let me point out that history textbooks in Pakistan also begin with the story of the Harappan civilisation and claim the ancient people of the Indus valley as their people. They continue the story into the Vedic period and the rise of Buddhism in which Punjab and the north-western region of Pakistan played a very important part, the ancient city of Taxila being the major centre from where the Buddhist faith travelled to Central Asia and China.

That history is not inconsistent with your answer. The people of the modern nation-state of Pakistan claim as their own, for reasons of geography, the ancient tradition associated with the lower and upper Indus valley civilisations as well as Taxila, even though they date the beginning of the Pakistani nation from the Arab conquest of parts of Sindh in the year 711. But it means that the same ancient history and tradition may be claimed by different peoples; it may not be the exclusive property of one nation. Ancient history is like an inheritance shared by many. But your nationalist leaders will not be satisfied with that answer…

Scholars holding the view that the Vedic peoples were immigrants who came after the decline of the Harappa cities point to the following pieces of evidence. Linguistic analysis suggests that the Rig Veda hymns were not much older than the gāthā of the ancient Persian Avesta which are dated at around 700 BCE. Hence, the Vedic peoples were certainly later than the peoples of the Indus-Harappa civilisation.

Further, Vedic Sanskrit adopted many loanwords from Dravidian languages to refer to various material objects of common use. It also adopted the retroflex or mūrdhanya consonants…common to most Indian languages but absent in other Indo-European languages. The retroflex appears to have entered Sanskrit from the Dravidian or Mundari languages spoken in India.

Then there is the continued existence of stray Dravidian language speakers in northern India, such as the Brahui speakers of Balochistan, the Kurukh of Nepal, and the Oraon and Gond of central India. Finally, textual evidence suggests beyond any doubt that the Vedic peoples were adept in the use of horses and chariots with spoked wheels. To this day, there is no clear evidence that the Indus-Harappa people used horses.

Recent scholars have been led by this evidence to conclude that, contrary to the old Aryan invasion story, the Aryan peoples migrated from Central Asia to northern India and, rather than driving the Dravidians to the south, largely mingled with the indigenous population, gradually absorbing them into a new social order marked by hierarchies and discrimination, assimilation as well as exclusion, cohesion as well as conflict.
But the idea of the Vedic Aryans as immigrants unsettles the deep nationalist desire to claim an ancient past for the Indian people. The heritage of an ancient civilisation whose record is preserved in the large Sanskrit literary canon and whose achievements rival those of classical Greece, as certified by leading European Orientalists, is held with enormous pride by modern Indians.

That pride is severely dented if it has to be admitted that the Vedic Aryans were not the original inhabitants of this country and instead came from somewhere in Central Asia. Not only that, it is another blow to nationalist pride if it is claimed that there was in fact an earlier great civilisation in the Indus valley bearing no relation to the Vedic people – one whose language and culture are unknown and whose subsequent fate remains to be investigated. Nationalist ideology is impatient with such cautious judgments…

(Excerpted with permission from The Truths And Lies Of Nationalism: As Narrated by Charvak, Partha Chatterjee, Permanent Black in association with Ashoka University.)

Show More

Related Articles

Close