Ideology and the Study of Ancient Indian History: Report on the Michigan- Lausanne International SeminarSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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The study of early South Asia has become an ideological battleground in the increasing communalization of politics in South Asia, particularly India. The Michigan-Lausanne Seminar, which took place in the Michigan League from October 25-27, explicitly considered the ways in which ideology structures the study of South Asia. Scholars of archaeology, linguistics, history, religion, and anthropology discussed and debated questions of theory and methodology, demonstrating that knowledge is inextricably bound up with questions of politics.
Twenty years ago, Professors Madhav Deshpande and Peter Hook (both of Asian Languages and Cultures and Linguistics) had organized a similar seminar, and the purpose of the 1996 seminar was to both reflect on the changes in scholarship in the last twenty years and to consider the present political situation in which South Asia is studied.
Deshpande and Thomas Trautmann (History) jointly organized, and the University of Michigan and the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, jointly funded the seminar, composed of five sessions with three papers presented at each session. Speakers pre-circulated their papers and used the seminar to further clarify and discuss their arguments. Seminar participants raised questions both at the level of content and at the level of methodology.
Trautmann's paper traced the racialization of the term "Aryan" in the nineteenth century. Initially used as a linguistic category, it soon came to connote a "people" and was used in nineteenth century systems of classification and categorization. Trautmann traced the genealogy of "Aryan" to three specific systems of thought: 1) the exclusionary sense of Nazism and other modern racial-hate doctrines, 2) the inclusionary sense of British Orientalists of India, and 3) the celebratory sense for Hindus. Thus, it would be impossible to argue for a stable or coherent meaning of the term which does not take into account the politics in which it is embedded. The racialization of a linguistic term, Trautmann argued, must be traced to the shift in British ethnology from language-based comparison to racial sciences. "Aryan" stopped signifying a language family, and instead was understood to describe a people.
Deshpande suggested a slightly different approach to deconstructing the genealogy of "Arya." Rather than tracing the genealogy of "Aryan," Deshpande concentrated on the methods used to read ancient texts. He argued that not only colonial and nationalist scholars have an agenda in their readings of ancient texts, but the classical texts themselves reveal a politics of knowledge. The term "Arya" was inconsistent in ancient texts, with a great deal of crossing over of categories about what constituted a proper "Arya," with usage referring sometimes to behavior, sometimes to language, and sometimes to physical attributes. The ambivalent nature of the term allowed a strategic use of it. Rather than referring to an ethnic designation, "Arya" was used as a marker of moral, social, and spiritual status.
Shereen Ratnagar (Jawaharlal Nehru University) offered a methodological critique of the limits of archaeology in answering historical questions. Historical linguists have looked to archaeology to bolster their claims of the migrations in the prehistoric era. Ratnagar questioned whether archaeology can be used to make any claims to identify the ethnicity or ethnic origins of peoples, as arguments for ethnic similarity are often made on the basis of inconclusive evidence. Ratnagar asserted that ethnically distinct groups may share a common language, while groups which have different languages may share many other cultural artifacts. Scholars cannot assume that something called "culture" is coterminous with "ethnicity" or "language group."
Edwin Bryant (Columbia University), in his paper on the debate whether Indo-Aryan speaking peoples migrated into the subcontinent or were indigenous to the area, demonstrated the perils of doing research in a highly charged political atmosphere. Bryant reassessed the evidence offered by those who are of the "indigenous Aryan" school that has become linked to the rise of Hindu communalism in South Asia. Good scholarship, Bryant suggested, demands that scholars be willing to engage in debates over heavily politicized issues and interrogate their own assumptions. It is too easy to dismiss some of the provocative, and potentially insightful evidence offered by the "indigenous Aryan," school as empty assertions by Hindu communalists. Bryant's paper also offered insight into the seeming impossibility of finding a common set of scholarly theories shared by all the participants of the conference. Did this mean, then, that there was no real answer to the racial and communalist "readings" of South Asian civilization? One member of the audience suggested that the papers shared an ambition to "transcend certain binary categories." One of the answers to the seeming scholarly impasse was in terms of pedagogy and the importance of sharing both the methodological insights, as well as the theoretical debates which had emerged from the conference. The tenacity of racist and communalist thinking partially lies in its ability to change the terrain of the debate, and appropriate different kinds of scholarship into ideology. In order to counter such ideology scholars and academics must be willing to constantly debate and challenge each other and the assumptions which undergird the study of early South Asia.
Asko Parpola (University of Helsinki) suggested that the lesson from the conference was that "there is no pure 'Aryan' or 'non-Aryan' peoples or languages . . . the political message of this conference seems to be that no party can claim any original or pure past."
Parna Sengupta is a graduate student in History.