Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya. 2017.
Representing the Other? Sanskrit sources and the Muslims, Eighth to Fourteenth Century
Delhi: Primus Books
Summation of the argument
The thrust of the book reviewed here is to underline the tendency in historiography to ‘convert a single representation into an absolute empirical reality, without even instituting comparisons’ (p. 89). It is to advance this argument that Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya explores Sanskrit sources both in the form of those that are classed as Mahākāvya literature as well as the inscriptions of land grants, and problematizes how contemporary historiography produced essentialized forms of otherness, particularly in the context of Hindu–Muslim relations. Through careful analysis of some selected Sanskrit texts of the medieval period and using the hermeneutical principle of deriving ‘meaning of the total world—political, economic, social, cultural-ideological’ (p. 27), he unearths the ways in which the sources do not necessarily exhibit partisanship toward a reified Muslim ‘other’. For instance, he points out that both Pṛthvīrāja-vijaya and Hammira-mahākāvya clearly show that the military campaigns of the Hindu kings were not only directed toward Yavana, Mleccha and Turuṣka rulers, but also against several Hindu rulers as well (pp. 43-45). In other words, the adversaries of the Hindu kings were not simply those of the Turuṣka/Yavana category but, as Madhurā-vijaya and Sāluvābhyudaya texts show, included several local Hindu rulers. Similarly, metaphors that are usually reserved for Hindu rulers have been used for Śaka/Turuṣka rulers – Sultan of Delhi addressed as mahārājādhirāja, parama-bhaṭṭāraka and so on. While the Yavana/Turuṣka rule was described in the texts as destruction of the existing social order of the Brāhmaṇas, Chattopadhyaya points out that such descriptions could be described as the ‘counter-representation of the suratrāṇa as the perpetuator of that social order’ (p. 38).
In the context of the meritorious deeds, such as constructing wells, temples, mosques and so on, by wealthy merchants and royal families, such deeds were often performed within the context of ‘a larger social base’, as the Chinchani records reveal—the mosque having significance for the local community; and that it ‘represented a dharmasthāna’ evident in the way Hindu reference terms that are normative for Hindu rituals were used to describe the daily activities of the mosque (p. 50).
Such descriptions in the texts reveal representations of ‘others’, and in interpreting these representations, argues Chattopadhyaya, there are three agencies – ‘the represented, the representer and the interpreter(s)’, all of which are concerned with multiple rather than an unilineal explanation (p. 54). In other words, the crux of his point is that the notion of the ‘other’ is not new in Indian society. The brahmanical discourse had always been apprehensive of the threat to society’s order through the agency of the ‘other’. It cannot be reduced to a ‘major disjunction in Indian history’ (p. 63).
On a specific level, the book is about a specific debate about whether or not to view Hindu–Muslim constructions in a disjunctive historical context. On a larger scale it raises questions as to how one reads Indian history as a whole. The broader theoretical significance of Chattopadhyaya’s study lies in the fact that it moves away from an essentialist notion of the other to a more organic notion of social difference. To place it in the broader theoretical context, we must bear in mind the Hegelian legacy of existentialism vs. Derrida’s recognition of difference as the nature of the world. Despite the fact that there are multiple religions and other worldviews in our human experience, religions in their particular situations tend to be essentialistic, which is a legacy of existentialism. Chattopadhyaya’s study departs from such tendency of the popular Brahmanical discourse in a significant way in that it exposes not only the diversity within the Sanskrit texts in dealing with the ‘other’, but also underscores the complexity of the multilayered situations within which the authors of the texts operated. As such, the authors in various periods and historical and sociopolitical circumstances eulogized the very rulers of Turuṣka background as suratrāṇa, who in other situations were seen as the destroyers of the social order. In a significant sense, the ‘other’ is not cast in stone and goal posts are constantly moved depending on who is considered the ‘other’.
Having said the above, if one wants to place Chattopadhyaya’s study on a global comparison, then the point must also be made that the victims of being the ‘other’ in one sociopolitical and geographical context could become the representer of the ‘other’ in another context. This is to suggest that every cultural and religious worldview contains elements conducive to constructing the other, for it is the nature of the world to not only distinguish one’s own culture from the others, but also in doing so, claim superiority over the other. And this requires power – political as well as social. Political power alone is not sufficient to construct the other in pejorative terms, but social power is perhaps more important which may or may not follow necessarily from the political power. Since I am located in the context of Africa, I cannot but reflect from my particular sociopolitical background. So, for instance, although Black people in South Africa have now gained political power, their white counterparts do not see them as socially equal, not as yet. The stereotypical othering continues even after 25 years of Black rule in South Africa, giving rise to an increase of racially based conflicts. Despite the fact that we are able to recognize the differences in our worldviews, beliefs and cultural traditions, such recognition does not seem to follow an active attempt to abstain from pejoratively othering groups that we do not consider our equals. There seems to be an universal human tendency to essentialize one’s own culture in superior ways to claim social and political gains. Chattopadhya’s study is an important reminder that the construction of the other is not always a straightforward enterprise but a very convoluted social reality nonetheless. Conceiving the constructions of the ‘other’ in disjunctive ways in which Hindu and Muslim identities have been constructed in modern India can be problematic in understanding the larger historical transformation.
One final note in conclusion – the Appendix 2, in which Chattopadhyaya takes up issue with Sheldon Pollock’s view of disjunction in the medieval period which occasioned the rise of Rāma as the model on which political imagination occurred in India, could have been placed at the beginning of the study, instead of relegating it to an afterthought. It does provide the basis on which Chattopadhyaya built his thesis in the book. The book as a whole is very engaging and provokes debate among scholars of Indian history and culture. Both senior researchers and advanced level students would find the study very useful.