Abraham Eraly's book seeks to show how this golden age found its realisation in the millennium
One of the refrains in the historiography an earlier generation was used to is that of the golden age. Historians of the nationalist era identified such ‘golden ages' in Periclean Athens, Imperial Rome, Elizabethan England, and so on. Several elements went into the making of it. One thing that was common to all is that the ‘golden age' would appear and disappear with an empire, plunging the country in darkness when the empire unravelled.
In the case of India, the Gupta Empire was particularly favoured. Interestingly, it served at once to legitimise the British Empire (“India can experience golden ages only under empires”) and to support the anti-imperialist struggle (“We have done it in the past!”). However, this mood of celebrating the past did not survive the British Empire for long: there were few takers for it in the post-Independence period, as historians started looking at the sources closely and finding out evidence of glaring contradictions of varied kinds, oppression, and suffering for a bulk of the population. The real golden age of the country, they recognised, lay in the future. The theme seems to be enjoying a well-earned rest now.
Abraham Eraly's book takes us back. For the author, Indian history “evolved in roughly thousand-year phases”. This book is about one such phase — from “around the middle of the first millennium BCE to around the middle of the first millennium CE” when India was a “marvellously creative civilisation.” Inevitably, this Garden of Eden is followed by the Fall, “centuries-long cultural hibernation and decay.”
Divided into 12 parts, it seeks to show how this golden age found its realisation in the millennium. After a quick overview, Eraly discusses political history, polity, economy, society, family, everyday life, the sciences, philosophy, literature, the arts and religion. The tone is celebratory throughout.
Reading the book, one gets the impression that, in the past, life and culture meant those of a microscopic minority, of those sections of society that are represented in the expressions of high culture. To be sure, all ages have been golden for them. A vast majority of people have no place here.
Not only is the frame unacceptable, there are contradictions as well. “Sudden rise and fall of numerous dynasties” is, for the author, indicative of an “anarchic state.” What were, pray, these dynasties doing there? In one place, the Cholas, Pandyas, Satiyaputras, and Keralaputras mentioned by Asoka are “ethnic groups,” while in another, they were “rulers in the time of the Mauryan emperor Asoka.”
There is no sense of evolution or change: for instance, the three kingdoms of south India — Chola, Chera, and Pandya — would endure “for many centuries”, with only a new entrant, the Pallavas, there to break the monotony. The structural and processual changes that had taken place in these realms do not seem to worry Eraly. There are factual errors too. More than half a century of research in the history of Kerala is just brushed aside. Speaking about the rule of the Perumals, the author says that it is plausible, and jibes that “in any case, it is no more unbelievable than many of the other ‘facts' about Kerala's early history.”
Crowning it all is the statement that “the reign of the Perumals was followed by that of the Kulasekharas, a dynasty of unknown background”; this should be news to any student of Kerala history.
Ideal and real
Statements in the prescriptive texts of various points in time are cited as evidence of what things were like, unmindful of the changes in social formation. Thus theMahabharata, theJatakastories,Arthasastra, TamilSangamtexts,Manusmriti,Tirukkuraland Cholaprasastisare summoned to testify to an ideal as if it wasthereality. This kind of mixing the ‘ideal' and the ‘real' is seen throughout, whether it is in relation to polity, economy, society, or culture. Irreconcilable concepts such as ‘imperial centralisation' and ‘village democracy' coexist with an abandon that is almost existential.
As one closes the book, one is left fuming with anger — anger at the way in which the discipline of history is insulted by disregarding more than half a century of research. The wine that is presented in this old bottle is not just old, but stale.