/ Response to Noreña

In his article, “Romanization in the Middle of Nowhere: The Case of Segobriga,” Carlos Noreña refocuses the debate about the nature and mechanisms of Romanization toward “questions of agency and motivation.”[1] It is collectives of local elites, he concludes, that ultimately provide the driving force for Romanization. He sets out to understand not only how and why the elites of Segobriga “Romanized,” but why they did so at a precise moment in the history of the city. Sheldon Pollock poses a very similar question in his study of the Sanskrit Cosmopolis. “We know [the Buddhists of North India] Sanskritized their dialects in linguistic terms, but no very cogent explanations of why they wanted to do so are on offer. When we are told that this came from a ‘desire to emulate the practices of the Brahmin communities,’ we have again to wonder why this desire was so late in coming, and why it arose when it did.”[2] Yet, as Pollock argues, the process of Sanskritization was fundamentally different from Romanization, in terms not only of the particulars of the spread of Latin and Sanskrit, but critically in terms of the socio-political conditions under which these processes occurred. My own research, focused on the Maitrakas of Valabhī, based in the modern state of Gujarat in northwestern India, also points to the key role of local elites in the spread and development of Sanskrit cosmopolitan political culture. Inscriptions reveal both Maitraka aspirations toward the normative Sanskrit cosmopolitan politics of the Gangetic plains, and the ways in which Maitrakas manipulated and innovated existing traditions from the kings of the Gangetic plains as well as elite Sanskritic culture more broadly construed to suit their own needs. Likewise, Noreña’s article highlights the agency of local elites and the importance of understanding their actions, needs, and motivations. Comparison with the Maitraka kings, who chose to participate in a cosmopolitan culture outside of the structures of an empire, reveals that the phenomena Noreña outlines were widespread, and that an appreciation of the agency of local elites is essential to a fuller understanding of multiple cosmopolitanisms.

Pollock argues for the unique nature of the spread of Sanskrit precisely by comparing it to the spread of Latin. Latin, he argues, was “the language of a conquest state. . . . The coercion, co-optation, juridical control, even persuasion of the imperium romanum were nowhere in evidence in the Sanskrit cosmopolis; those who participated in Sanskrit Culture chose to do so, and could choose to do so.”[3] Unlike in Segobriga, where the institution of the emperor was critical to the Romanization of the city, Sanskrit spread independent of conquest. No single empire ruled South Asia, let alone the broader sphere of the Sanskritized world, which reached throughout South and Southeast Asia. “Sanskrit literary culture, until a very late period (Vijayanagara), was never harnessed to a political project in so direct and instrumental a way as we find in both republican and imperial Rome.”[4] This critical difference, the fact or absence of an imperial structure, resulted in a difference in the nature of Roman and Sanksrit cosmopolitanism as well:

The Roman imperial order was not about expanding the center to the periphery—as so often occurred, however unprogrammatically, in the symbolic political practices of coauthor Asia—but about incorporating the periphery into the single Roman center. If some Romans (the Stoics) may have thought of themselves as kosmou politai, citizens of the world . . . , this seems partly owing to the Roman’s ability to transform the kosmos into their polis.[5]

The Sanskrit cosmopolis functioned in a very different way, replicating itself over and over throughout the Sanskritized world:

Thus across Southeast Asia a thorough-going reconstitution of the cognitive landscape occurred, where not only natural features like mountains and rivers but also regions and kingdoms were identified with names borrowed from the Mahābhārata. As late as the sixteenth century, in a description of the Javanese pilgrimage circuit titled the Tantu Panngelaran, the story is recounted how, at the origin of the island, the gods, having created men and women, moved Mount Meru from India to Java and took up their dwelling there. The Khmers, according to one compelling argument, saw themselves as living not in some overseas extension of India, but inside an Indian world, one populated by the gods and heroes as depicted, above all, in the Mahābhārata.[6]

It is tempting to imagine the recreation of Sanskrit cosmopolitan geography throughout South and Southeast Asia along with Noreña’s argument that “it is perhaps best to conceptualize the nature of collective agency in the spread of Roman culture not as unidirectional, or even bidirectional, but rather as fractal.”[7] Yet for a pattern to be considered fractal, it is necessary that it consists of every increasingly smaller copies of the main pattern in question. The Sanskrit cosmopolis could have been, and was, reduplicated at any scale. There was no center.

Thus, in the Sanskrit cosmopolis, there is no question that it was local elites who were the main drivers and maintainers of Sanskritization. With no central authority, there could be no other vector. Noreña specifies that he is referring to landed elites. In ancient South Asia, this would have been the kings, their officials, and members of the three main religious orders: Brahmins, Buddhists, and Jains. These three orders were bound into the same systems of land ownership as royal elites through a complex but omnipresent system of land grants, recorded on copper plates, and thus preserved for the study of modern scholars. This “epigraphic habit,” to borrow from Noreña, was a key feature of the Sanskritized kingdom. The form of these grants was specified and recorded in Sanskrit literature:

The king should grant various enjoyments and riches to the priests, for what is obtained by priests is an undecaying treasure for kings. . . . When a king gives a grant of land he should write it down for the reference of all good future kings. The order will be fixed, on cloth or on copper plate, sealed with the king’s seal and signature, containing his lineage, the name of the grantee, and the size and boundaries of the land.[8]

The Maitrakas, who ruled on the Saurastra peninsula in modern day Gujarat, and would expand their kingdom as far as Ujjain in modern Madhya Pradesh, regularly issued such inscriptions. There are more than one hundred that have survived and been analyzed by modern scholars, and surely, given the rate of destruction of any ancient object, there would have been more in antiquity. The Maitrakas, who ruled from c. 500 CE until c. 775 CE fit the criteria of local elites, in that their founder, Bhatarka, had served as a general of the Gupta empire, which was centered in Pataliputra, or modern Patna, located on the Ganges river in Bihar.[9] In addition, the Maitrakas, for all their normative aspirations, ruled in a place which, like Segobriga, was outside what would be considered the Sanskrit heartland. Not only is the Maitraka capital found on a peninsula, and thus somewhat physically separated from mainland North India, but the material culture of Saurastra was considerably unique. Early stone temples from Saurastra were mistaken for being Dravidian (or South Indian) on the basis of certain architectural features which were not found in contemporary temples of North India.[10] That said, Saurastra was not a complete backwater; the earliest post-Mauryan royal inscription was found in Gujarat, written by the Kshatrapa king Rudradāman at Junagadh. The Maitrakas did not base themselves in Junagadh, in spite of all its previous royal associations (most prominently with the Mauryas, Kshatrapas and Guptas), but rather located their capital at Valabhī, north of modern Bhavnagar, and near the famed trading centers on the Gulf of Khambat. They were, therefore, from their inception, a little local, and a little cosmopolitan, neither imperial subjects nor outsiders to the imperial project.

Surrounded, as they were, by a rich tapestry of elites and their respective versions of Sanskrit cosmopolitanism, the Maitrakas had to make choices about their own Sanskritized presentation. They drew from the neighboring empires of the Guptas and Vakatakas (and later Harsha) as well as from multiple Buddhist and Brahmin traditions. There was no single moment or driver of their participation in the Sanskrit cosmopolis, unlike at Segobriga, where the emperor August’s engagement with the city set off their embrace of Romanization. The earliest Maitraka grants did specifically reference their engagement with other rulers. The grants of the kings Droṇasiṃha and Dhruvasena I mark them each as, “one who meditates on the feet of the highest lord.”[11] The identity of this paramount lord left strikingly silent—especially considering that the Maitrakas could have been referring to either the Guptas or the Vakatakas, both empires from which the Maitrakas drew inspiration for their grants. These grants also call these same kings “great kings,” and do not otherwise indicate that any external power had any practical influence over the Maitrakas. Śīlāditya I (r. 7th cent.) and Dhruvasena II (r. 7th cent.) took a “second name” in their inscriptions.[12] These invented names or epithets—Dharmmāditya, meaning ‘sun of dharma’ for Śīlāditya I and Bālāditya (young sun) for Dhruvasena II, were listed along with the rest of the kings’ titles. This practice of taking a second name is known from Gupta coinage, where, for example Chandragupta II was also called Vikramāditya (sun of valor).[13] The structure of the Maitraka grants, however, is much closer to the structure of grants by the Vakatakas, contemporaries of the Guptas and early Maitrakas, than to grants by the Guptas.[14]

In spite of its self-proclaimed Shaivism (nearly all the Maitraka kings call themselves “highest devotee of Shiva,” one of the gods served by the Brahmin order) the royal family drew “merit” from grants to both Brahmins and Buddhists.[15] The Brahmins and the Buddhists had a very contentious relationship—the Buddhists were, from their inception, and explicitly anti-Brahmanical order. Therefore, for kings to claim that they draw merit from their grants to both groups demonstrates their willingness to work among and between multiple elite traditions. Even within the traditions of Brahmanism, the Maitrakas invoked multiple points of status. The kings Droṇasiṃha and Dhruvasena II are both associated with Manu, the quasi-mythical author of the Manu’s Code of Law (Manusmṛti), a text which was at the time, and still is, considered central to Brahmin orthodoxy.[16] This text spells out the proper action of each rank in society, including the proper action of kings.[17] These references to Manu were not found in either their Gupta or Vakataka antecedents. Maitraka kings also reached out to less orthodox strains of Brahmanical philosophy, such as the epic the Great Bhārata (Mahābhārata). This text charted a vision of kingship strictly opposed to the Buddhist imperial model followed by South Asia’s earliest empires. During the earlier Mauryan empire and under subsequent Buddhist states, the primacy of the Brahmin position in society had come under threat from imperial entanglements with Buddhism. The Great Bhārata, then, was a text that sought to negotiate Brahmins back into the good graces of kings, and presented an anti-Buddhist and anti-imperialist rhetoric in order to accomplish this aim. The Maitraka grants made references to Yudhiṣṭhira, the king from the Great Bhārata, invoking him as the guarantor of land grants.[18] Unlike the more orthodox and Brahmin-centric Manu’s Code of Law, the Great Bhārata, especially in its portrayal of kingship, was heavily influenced by negotiations, and perhaps even compromises, between Brahmin elites and royal elites.[19] While the Manu’s Code of Law expounded on a largely orthodox vision of kingship, where the role of the king was to uphold the Brahmins at the top of the social order, the The Great Bhārata, in contrast, was “a dramatic new religious beginning for the Brahmin tradition.”[20] “[T]he post-Mauryan [Great Bhārata] exists because some very energetic and imaginative brahmins sought to take matters into their own hands and negotiate the terms of their status and position with the armed forces within society with the presence of the rest of society around them.”[21] The Great Bhārata was deliberately ambiguous, giving instruction to a king who sought paramountcy, all the while showing the terrible consequence—a devastating civil war which resulted in the end of a cosmic age—of the imperial project. It was more responsive to its own contemporary politics more than to the traditions of the Vedas, the most sacred Brahmin texts.[22] The Maitraka kings, then, drew on a rich collection of elite texts and traditions. Given the options of the Brahmins and the Buddhists, the kingship of the Manu’s Code of Law and the kingship of the Great Bhārata, they chose all of the above.

The Maitrakas made choices, not only about whether or not to participate in Sanskrit cosmopolitan culture, but about how they would do this. With no singular model or central authority to rely on, they were able to shape and manipulate their own version of Sanskrit cosmopolitanism through their inscriptions. If the Maitraka inscriptions might be described as being in the Vakataka style, then there were other grants of other kings that were made in the Maitraka style.[23] The Maitrakas were far from atypical. As Daud Ali notes: “[T]he appearance of so many royal houses between the fifth and seventh centuries throughout the subcontinent from diverse or unstated backgrounds, taking the title of mahārāja and acknowledging imperial authority, does suggest the integration of local or nascent power brokers into a composite but increasingly homogenous ruling class.”[24] They may not have been imperial subjects, but these kings had imperial ambitions, and associated themselves with imperial symbols and rhetoric at the same time as they made appeals to texts like the Great Bhārata, which, in its harrowing depiction of a war to end all things, made an argument for the importance of the diversification of kingship. The symbols and text on which these kings drew were often, like their own references to their unnamed overlords, deliberately ambiguous, and therefore ripe for both royal appeal and royal interpretation.

Noreña focuses on the local elites in Segobriga, the pressures and opportunities they faced, and ultimately their collective agency in adopting Romanization. A comparison with the Maitraka dynasty further emphasizes the importance of the agency of local elites in the adoption of a cosmopolitan culture. Because of the socio-political differences between the imperium Romanum and the Sanskrit cosmopolis, the Maitrakas likely faced a far broader range of options than the elites of Segobriga, yet they still chose to embrace, perpetuate, and innovate within Sanskrit cosmopolitan culture. Noreña’s argument demonstrates the importance of understanding the desires and actions of the local elite in understanding cosmopolitanism (in this case Romanization) within the structure of an imperial power. The examples of the kings within the Sanskrit cosmopolis, invite us to ask if and how cosmopolitan messages and symbols were themselves crafted to appeal to the local elite (as the Great Bhārata may have been) and why particular elements or suites of elements were adopted under different cosmopolitan circumstances.

Works Cited

    Ali, Daud. 2004. Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    Altekar, A. S. 1957. The Coinage of the Gupta Empire and its Imitations. Varanasi: Numismatic Society of India, Banaras Hindu University.
    Barnett, Lionel D. 1921–1922. “Bhamodra Mohata Plate of Droṇasiṁha: The Year 183.” Epigraphia Indica 16: 17–19.
    Bühler, Johann Georg. 1877. “Further Valabhī Grants: B.—The Grant of Dhruvasena II.” Indian Antiquary 6: 12–16.
    Fitzgerald, James F. 1983. “The Great Epic of India as Religious Rhetoric: A Fresh Look at the Mahābhārata.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 4: 611–30.
    Fitzgerald, James F. 2006. “Negotiating the Shape of ‘Scripture’: New Perspectives on the Development and Growth of the Mahābhārata between the Empires.” In Between the Empires: Society in India 300 BCE to 400 CE. Patrick Olivelle (ed). 257–286. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    Gadre, A. S. 1934. “Five Vala Copper-plate Grants: Grant No. II. Copper-plate Grant of Śīlāditya (I) alias Dharmāditya of the Gupta Saṁvat 287 (606 A.D.). Journal of the University of Bombay vol. 3 pt. 1: 80–82.
    Hiltebeitel, Alf. 2001. Rethinking the Mahabharata: A Reader’s Guide to the Education of the Dharma King. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
    Joshi, K. L., ed. 2005. Yājñavalkyasmṛti: with Original Sanskrit Text, Literal Prose English Translation, Introduction and Index of Verses, trans. Manmatha Nath Dutt. Delhi: Parimal Publications.
    Konow, S. 1911–1912. “Five Valabhī Plates: I. Palitānā Plates of Dhruvasena I.; [Valabhī-] Saṁvat 206.” Epigraphia Indica 11: 105–09.
    Nanavati, J. M., and M. A. Dhaky. 1969. “The Maitraka and the Saindhava Temples of Gujarat.” Artibus Asiae, Supplementum 26.
    Noreña, Carlos F. 2019. “Romanization in the Middle of Nowhere: The Case of Segobriga.” Fragments 8: 1–32.
    Olivelle, Patrick. 2005. Manu’s Code of Law: A Critical Edition of the Mānava-Dharmasìāstra. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    Pollock, Sheldon. 2006. The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
    Ravishankar, T. S., and Jai Prakash. 1997. “Loichandā Plates of Dhruvasena I, (Valabhī) Saṁvat 206.” Journal of the Epigraphic Society of India 23: 141–46.
    Shastri, H. G. 2000. Gujarat Under the Maitrakas of Valabhī: History and Culture of Gujarat during the Maitraka period—circa 470–788 AD. Vadodara: Oriental Institute of Vadodara.
    Sircar, D. C. 1953–1954. “No. 30—Charter of Vishnusena, Samvat 649.” Epigraphia Indica 30: 163–81.
    Verma, Nita. 1992. Society and Economy in Ancient India: An Epigraphic Study of the Maitrakas (c. A.D. 475–775). New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House.
    Virji, Krishnakumari Jethabhai. 1955. Ancient History of Saurashtra: Being a Study of the Maitrakas of Valabhi V to VIII centuries A.D. Bombay: Konkan Institute of Arts and Sciences.


1. Noreña 2019: 14.return to text

2. Pollock 2005: 514.return to text

3. Ibid., 571.return to text

4. Ibid., 266.return to text

5. Ibid., 276.return to text

6. Ibid., 234.return to text

7. Noreña 2019: 17.return to text

8. Yājñavalkyasmṛti:1.315–20.return to text

9. For a comprehensive history of the Maitrakas, see Shastri: 2000; Verma 1992.return to text

10. Nanavati and Dhaky 1969: 28.return to text

11. parama-bhaṭṭāraka-pāda-anudhyāta. E.g., Barnett 1921–22: 18, l. 1; Konow 1911–12: 107, l. 13.return to text

12. dvitīya-nāma. E.g., Gadre 1934: 81, l. 21; Bühler 1877: 15, l. 9.return to text

13. See Altekar 1957: 129.return to text

14. Virji 1955: 252.return to text

15. puṇya. E.g., Konow 1911–12: 107, l. 20; Gadre 1934: 81, l. 21.return to text

16. From a grant of Dronasiṃha: Manav-ādi-praṇita-vidhi-vidhāna-dharmmā, whose dharma comes from the performance of the rules first taught by Manu (see Konow 1911–12: 107, l. 7). From a grant of Dhruvasena II: parivṛddha-guṇ-ānurāga-nirbhara-citta-vṛttibhir Manur iva svayam abhyupapannaḥ prakṛtibhir, who like Manu himself, sought for protection by his subjects whose minds were full of affection for him on account of his strong virtues (see Bühler 1877: 15, l. 3–4).return to text

17. Olivelle 2005: 11–16.return to text

18. E.g., Ravishankar 1997: 143, l. 24: purvva-dattaṃ dvijātibhyō yatnād-rakṣa Yudhiṣṭhira [|] mahīṁ mahi-matām cchrēṣṭha-dānācchrēyōnupālanam[||], Yudhiṣṭhira, be the zealous guardian of those gifts already made to the twice-born, as the fruits of benefits of gifts are better than much land.return to text

19. Fitzgerald 2006: 258.return to text

20. Fitzgerald 1983: 613.return to text

21. Fitzgerald 2006: 277.return to text

22. Hiltebeitel 2001: 180.return to text

23. See Sircar 1953–54.return to text

24. Ali 2004: 37.return to text