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What Ought to be History


Rajat Kanta Ray

HISTORY AT THE LIMIT OF WORLD-HISTORY; THE HISTORY OF HISTORY: POLITICS AND SCHOLARSHIP IN MODERN INDIA
Ranajit Guha ; Vinay Lal
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002; 2003, pp. 116; pp. 309, Rs. 325.00; Rs. 650.00

VOLUME XXVIII NUMBER 1 January 2004

History at the Limit of World History and The History of History are remarkable because of the somewhat eccentric views that the two authors, of very different persuasions, hold on what ought to be hisory. Aristotle, Hegel, Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derida, Jacques Lacan, Michael Bakhtin, Rabindranath Tagore et al are passed in review by Ranajit Guha, and Ranajit Guha, in his turn is passed in review by Vinay Lal along with an equally odd assortment of Hindu communalist historians and internet communicators of ‘Cyber Hinduism’ in the Silicon Valley, with Jadunath Sarkar, R.C. Majumdar and Bankim Chandra Chatterji thrown in for good mesure. The over-all impression is one of disjointedness, but there are some solid nuggets to be picked out in both books.   Particularly useful is both authors’ discussion of what is meant by itihasa, a specific form of ancient Sanskrit literature. The Sanskrit name was adopted as the equivalent of the term ‘history’ in the vernacular languages of nineteenth century India. Itihasa, however, meant something else altogether in antiquity: a tale ending ‘so it was’ (iti ha asa). It was a tale, not a historical record of the things that actually happened. Moreover, it was a tale of olden times with a specific purpose, it was meant to convey good advice on the principal aims of life. A Sanskrit saying defined the purpose clearly: dharma-artha-kama-mokshanam-upadesha samanvitam purva-vritta-katha-yuktam-itihasam prachakshate.   ‘What is called itihasa is a narrative tale of the past that contains instruction in righteousness, wealth, pleasure and liberation’. Obviously this is not history as we understand it today. Purana, another category of ancient Sanskrit literature relating to the past, was a mythical tale of the gods and goddesses, with rudimentary genealogies of ruling dynasties of the present iron age. These genealogies bore a greater resemblance to the historical past than the events narrated in the epics, yet the epic events were precisely what was then understood as itihasa, or ‘so it was’. The two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, but more specifically the latter, constituted itihasa at that time (the Mahabharata specifically calls itself itihasa: ‘Mahabharatasya-itihasasya’ -- 1.1.19; 26). Kullukabhatta, giving an instance of itihasa around the twelfth century, mentions the Mahabharata rather than the Ramayana, for reasons not entirely clear (itihasan Mahabharatadin, or histories [are] Mahabharata etc’—commentary by Kullukabhatta on Manusamhita). The Ramayana, however, also calls itself itivritta (mama-itivrittam maharshi Valmikikritam’, i.e. ‘narrative of my ...


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