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The Indian Rejection of History

March 12, 2012

One of the tragedies of history is that India didn’t record any of it. Here’s a striking passage from an article by Sheldon Pollock:

We can read thousands of pages of Sanskrit on any imaginable subject and not encounter a single passing reference to a historical person, place, or event—or at least to any that, historically speaking, matters.

This was more or less deliberate. The attitude of Indian scholars seems to have been that the only truths worth knowing are truths of eternal or atemporal significance. So there’s lots and lots of literature on topics like grammar and philosophy and psychology and aesthetics, but there’s no history.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Gunn permalink
    March 18, 2012 11:58 am

    Whilst western scholars appear to be uncomfortable taking the Puranas as literal historical records, my understanding is that they are very much considered so by Indians.

    I’m also not clear what the qualification ‘or at least to any that, historically speaking, matters’ – this seems to be a way to dismiss whatever historical records do exist based on the author’s prejudice.

    Compare this to for example the Jewish literature, which is regarded as historical by western scholars, even though large parts of it are just as fantastical as things found in the Indian tradition.

    [JH: I’m most familiar with philosophical literature, and here’s what you often see: There’s some supposed author who wrote a founding text for a school, but we know basically nothing about him besides the name. In a given work, objections are frequently raised and responded to, but the writer doesn’t say who is responsible for the objection, when they wrote, why they made the objection, or even what school they belong to. There are examples, but they’re formulaic and ahistorical. And so on.

    Older and more literary stuff often looks different.]

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