Philosophy of History

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

Prof. Ganapathy Subbiah

ślāghyah sa eva gunavān rāgadvesabahiskrtā 
bhūtārthakathane yasya stheyasyeva sarasvatī
 The noble-minded (poet) alone is worthy of praise whose word, like that of a judge, remains free from love or hatred in 
 relating the facts of the past.
                    —Rajatarangini, 1.7

The inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent can feel legitimately proud of being the inheritors or descendants of a long and remarkable culture that is at least five millennia old. Paradoxically, this great heritage often becomes a double-edged sword, serving as both strength and burden to the people of the subcontinent. The strength of this heritage lies in the accumulated and inherited wisdom of the millennia, a wisdom that is always available to us, to guide us through the trials and tribulations of the present, if only we know how to tap it, to listen to its sane voices. Its burden lies in the remnants of the follies and prejudices of the past that we knowingly or unknowingly carry with us, which often obstruct our vision and understanding of the past as well as the present. To clear away these remnants, the people of the subcontinent need to accept and employ the academic discipline called history. This discipline can be a way to acquire dispassionate and objective knowledge of the past and an instrument for gaining a meaningful understanding of the present and a clear vision of the path through the future.

The study as well as the status of history in our country, however, is at crossroads now more than ever before. On the one hand, there is understandable euphoria in many quarters that our country is going through an exciting phase of making history in diverse fields—economic, scientific, and cultural. On the other hand, the discipline of history is itself under fire. Concerted efforts are being made by some sections of various political groups to gain full control over the curriculum of the discipline in academic institutions, or even to do away with the discipline from the institutions of higher learning altogether, claiming it to be a ‘non ­utility’ subject. In some institutions of higher learning, particularly in South India, history is relegated to the status of only an adjunct subject to more utilitarian courses such as ‘tourism and travel management’.

History—A Gift of the West?

In one sense, this state of affairs should cause no surprise, because it has been time and again argued that ‘Indian society has no history at all, at least no known history’, and that whatever historical discipline India has developed in the recent past is the gift of the West. We would do well to remember that the notion of history as it has been shaped in the West is rooted in the Judeo­-Christian-Islamic tradition in a significant way. And it is equally worth noting that the growth of history as a secular profession and academic discipline in the West was itself a post-Enlightenment phenomenon, which coincided with the emergence of the nations of the Western world as the first global imperial powers. This period witnessed, in the West, the formulation and application of grand theories of history [Universal, Nationalist, Dialectical, Progressive, Marxist, and so on]; some of which were subsequently reformulated, abandoned, or simply replaced by newer ones.

Some of these theories were in due course of time imported into the non ­Western world as tools of analysis by local academicians who were trained in the Western system of education. How far such imported theories have helped non­Western societies in obtaining a clearer vision of their past and better understanding of their present is, however, a debatable point. The ‘history of history’ as it developed in the Indian subcontinent since the mid nineteenth century offers an instructive example in this regard. An overwhelming majority of Indian professional historians readily acquiesced in the view of Western scholars that India had in pre-modern times no tradition of historiography in the Western sense of the term. There were, no doubt, sporadic attempts by Indian scholars to repudiate this view, but their voices were too feeble to make any impact. In recent years, we are seeing a renewed and more vigorous effort—coming, surprisingly, from some leading Western scholars specializing in the study of Indian society—to establish that Indians did possess historical consciousness, that a tradition of writing history long existed in India, before the British imported their own brand of ‘history’.

We shall not enter into that debate here because its broad contours are familiar to all discerning students of Indian history and culture. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that the terms of discourse on the issue have nearly always been dictated by West­ern academia. Thus, when Western academicians argued that India in the pre-­modern period had no sense of history, Indian scholars, by readily accepting the proposition, lost the battle even before it began. They failed to realize that, as the terms were understood and employed in the West, India lacked not only history, but also ‘religion’ and ‘philosophy’. Their uncritical acceptance of the notion that historical consciousness was absent in early India led them to accept a bifurcation of the study of Indian history in the higher academic institutions of our country—a bifurcation into two distinct disciplines, dealing separately with so-called pre­-modern and modern Indian history. A new discipline thus came into existence to study various aspects of early Indian culture; it was called Indology. Study of early India could not be accommodated within the boundaries of traditional historical discipline. Even today, ancient India receives scant attention in the departments of history in Western universities; because India is supposed to have had no ‘history’ until the time the European powers arrived on the subcontinent. In contrast, the field of so-called modern Indian history emerged as a testing ground for most of the grand and novel theories of history—modern and post-­modern. Perhaps the most recent and glaring example is the ‘subaltern’ school of history, authored and nurtured mainly by a team of non-­resident Indian historians. The school is no doubt making waves in much of the Western world, but the theoreticians of the school themselves have shown little or no concern for early Indian history.

Schools of History

The study of early Indian history in the first half of the last century was dominated by two schools of historiography: the Imperialist and the Nationalist. Both schools thrived under colonial rule but lost much of their vitality and relevance thereafter. Since Independence two trends have again emerged as dominant in the historiography of early India. One is rooted in what may be called a spirit of ‘sub­nationalism’, which draws its sustenance from linguistic-cum­-ethnic­-cum­-regional identity, and which emerged as a powerful trend particularly after the reorganization of the states of the Union on the basis of language. The other analyses early and medieval Indian history within a Marxian framework and in a sense is diametrically opposed to the ‘sub­nationalist’ school. Historians who owe their allegiance to the Marxian principles of historical materialism do not agree on all points of interpretation of early Indian history; yet, their efforts would appear to converge on taking a long-distance view of Indian history and marking out the stages of ‘major advances’ therein.

In terms of both quantity and quality, the data relating to early Indian history that have been accumulated and analysed by historians belonging to various schools of thought are, no doubt, impressive. But the crucial question is: has meaningful communication taken place between the historians and the people whose history they have been attempting to reconstruct? The answer has to be a resounding no. The reasons are not far to seek: the academic discourse on history in our country is conducted mainly in English; and more importantly, the epistemological suppositions on which the discourse is based are also ‘alien’. Paradoxical though it may sound, some of the most thought provoking formulations on the relevance of historical consciousness and the meaning and end of history as perceived by the Indian genius have come from great thinkers of modern India who were not professional historians. The foremost among them is Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore.

Tagore on Indian History

Rabindranath Tagore was not a historian in any professional or academic sense of the term. He did not speak as a historian, nor did he write as a historian. Our objective therefore is not to assess his craftsmanship as a practicing or amateur historian. Tagore was nonetheless constantly making history. It is in his role as a maker of history that he was speaking and writing about the past as well as the present. This point requires reiteration because Tagore has been occasionally criticized by professional historians for the way in which he read and reconstructed the events of the past. At times, he is even held responsible, as their ‘spiritual father’, for the growth of some of the regressive schools of thought in Indian historiography.

As one constantly engaged in making history, Tagore offers an interesting contrast with another great man and maker of history of his times, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi denied history the status of being a distinct category or means for acquiring valid knowledge, and went to the extent of declaring, ‘I believe in the saying that a nation is happy that has no history. It is my pet theory that our Hindu ancestors solved the question for us by ignoring history as it is understood today.’ While Gandhi was pleading to ignore history as it is understood today, his stand was quietly and firmly ignored by his own disciple par excellence, Jawaharlal Nehru. In Nehru’s perspective, history is heritage; a study and understanding of it, however difficult and complex it might be is essential to clear one’s mind and prepare it for ‘the next stages of thought and action’. He conceded that unlike the Greeks, the Chinese, and the Arabs, ‘Indians in the past were not historians’, but at the same time, he upheld the view that ‘this lack of historical sense did not affect the masses, for as elsewhere and more so than elsewhere, they built up their view of the past from the traditional account and myth and story that were handed to them from generation to generation’. He nevertheless lamented the ignoring of history by Indians, believing that this ignorance led to a number of negative consequences like ‘a vagueness of outlook, a divorce from life as it is credulity, a wooliness of the mind where fact was concerned’.

In contrast, reconstruction of the events of the past on the basis of recorded ‘facts’ did not mean much to Tagore; he saw history as a far deeper and sublimer phenomenon. The following passage from one of his Bengali essays, Bharatbarshe Itihaser Dhara, may be said to contain the essence of his conception of what history is and how the early Indians perceived and practised it:

Unopposed shakti (power) is the cause of destruction; all rhythm in the cosmos is the product of two [opposing] forces. … This rhythm is not as clearly and freely expressed in human nature (manab-prakritir madhye) as it is in the cosmos (vishwa-prakritir madhye). The principles of contraction and expansion are there too [in human nature], but we are not able to balance the two easily. In the cosmic song, the rhythm (tal) is easy; but in the human song this is a matter of much sadhana. On reaching one end of the duality we often get so carried away that our return to the other end is delayed; then the rhythm is broken. … The self and the other, acquisition and rejection, restraint and freedom, tradition and reason—these [dualities] are pulling [all] humans; to learn to maintain the rhythm of the opposing pulls and reach harmony (sama) is to learn to be human; the history of this practice of maintaining rhythm is the history of humanity. In India we have the opportunity of clearly observing the record of this sadhana of tal.

Tagore speaks here of two distinct spheres, the physical world and the world of humans, and draws our attention to the crucial factor that unites as well as differentiates the two, as also the manner in which they complement each other. Whereas the rhyme and rhythm of the physical world is clear and obstacle­free, that of the human world is not, because attaining equilibrium in the human world is neither easy nor automatic. It can be realized only through long and arduous effort (sadhana).

Tagore also refers to a dialectical process involving opposites; this process is in constant operation between not only the physical and the human worlds but also within each human being, and inevitably leads to change (parinama). If and when perfect balance is achieved as these opposites interact with each other, rhyme and rhythm or, in Tagore’s language, the chhanda is realized. This is the meaning as well as the end of history. In Tagore’s understanding of history, there is no external force or power that can intervene and help us realize this; we have to realize it ourselves through constant endeavor. The story of this endeavor is what constitutes the sum and substance of human history.

Where do the generative roots of this notion of history that Tagore has formulated lie? Is it possible to trace their origin to some of the foundational thoughts of early Indian philosophy? There are no simple or ready answers. But one cannot resist the temptation to draw a parallel between Tagore’s strikingly material conception of history and the Sankhya philosophy, in which all change is perceived as the result of an unending dialectical process between the active but unintelligent Prakriti (physical world) and the nonactive but intelligent Purusha (human world). Are we treading the right path or misreading Tagore completely?

Historical Evolution of India:

Non-existence can never be the cause of what exists. Something cannot come out of nothing. That the law of causation 
is omnipotent and knows no time or place when  it did not exist  is a doctrine as old as the Āryan race, sung by  its 
ancient poet-seers, formulated by its philosophers, and made the corner-stone upon which the Hindu man even of today 
builds his whole scheme of life.

There was  an  inquisitiveness  in  the  race  to  start with, which very soon developed into bold analysis, and though, in 
the first attempt, the work turned out might be  like  the attempts with  shaky hands of  the  future   master-sculptor, it 
very soon gave way to strict science, bold attempts, and startling results. 
Its boldness made these men search every brick of their sacrificial altars; scan, cement, and pulverise every word of  
their scriptures; arrange, re-arrange, doubt, deny, or explain the ceremonies. …  It evolved the science of geometry 
from the arrangements of bricks to build various altars, and startled the world with astronomical knowledge that arose 
from the attempts accurately to time their worship and oblations. It made their contribution to the science of 
mathematics the largest of any race ancient or modern, and to their knowledge of chemistry of metallic compounds in 
medicine, their scale of music notes, their  invention of the bow-instruments—(all) of great service in the building of 
modern European civilisation. It led them to invent the science of building up the Child-mind through shining fables, of 
which every child in every civilised country learns in a nursery or a school and carries an impress through life.

Behind and before this analytical keenness, covering it as in a velvet sheath, was the other great mental peculiarity of 
the race—poetic insight. Its religion, its philosophy, its history, its ethics, its politics were all inlaid in a flower-bed of 
poetic imagery—the miracle of language which was called Sanskrit or ‘perfected’, lending itself to expressing and 
manipulating them better than any other tongue. The aid of melodious numbers was invoked even to express the hard 
facts of mathematics.

This analytical power and the boldness of poetical visions which urged it onward are the two great internal causes in the 
make-up of the Hindu race.
                         ---- The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 6.157-8


1. M K Gandhi, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. XXV (New Delhi: Government of India, Publications Division).

2. D D Kosambi, Combined Methods in Indology and Other Writings, comp. and ed. Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya (New Delhi: Oxford, 2002).

3. Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, 1981).

4. Rabindranath Tagore, Rabindra Rachanavali, Vol. 9 (Kolkata:Vishwa Bharati, 1409 BE).

5. Vinay Lal, The History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India, (New Delhi: Oxford, 2005).

  • Originally published as "In Search of an ‘Indian’ Philosophy of History" by Prabhuddha Bharata November 2007 edition. Reprinted with permission.