Publishing for Posterity : The way of the Sanatani

Mayura Rao

Humans are social beings who lived in groups from prehistoric times hence interaction was integral to keep the group intact. As the groups grew bigger into clans, communities, villages, towns, and states – so did the need for establishing continuous communication channels for transmission of accumulated experiences, traditions, and beliefs from one generation to the next. We know today from the many archaeological findings and etchings that there existed many ancient civilizations that once thrived. These material remains communicate with us and provide a glimpse into the characteristics of ancient societies through which modern inferences and analysis are made. These remains are no less than a publication, however in the modern parlance a publication is often deemed as a journal, a book, or any written material for mass consumption. Academic circles today hold that Indians were slack at recording of history and documentation practices. This deduction is attributed to the paucity of documented evidence which stems from the modern conception that only conspicuous written texts or publications in black and white comprise a documented evidence. 

But knowledge transmission in India has largely been through oral tradition from times immemorial – the written word was in fact held as a degradation of the mental faculty, subtly suggesting that there might have existed a writing system parallel to the oral tradition. In the light of archaeological expositions of Indus scripts as a writing system that is at least 4000 years old, even John Marshall, the British archaeologist expressed that written texts might have been there that were possibly lost to the perishable nature of the material on which it was written. Large number of seals and inscriptions found at the Indus valley site although undeciphered are established as a writing system by paleographists and archaeologists alike. Although it is postulated that people took to writing when the increasing number of texts became impractical to commit to memory, history schools claim that writing was unknown in ancient India and that it was discovered by the Buddhists much later and such other wedges of sectarian suppositions. Even if writing was a later phenomenon, written texts the world over have been drawn from the oral texts that were extant before it was put to writing. The purpose of this post is not to prove the antiquity of ancient Indian writing but to inquire into the various modes of ancient communication channels or publications where writing was perhaps just one of them hence shunning modern attachments would be a scientific impetus for real inquiry into the past.

Today arts and sciences like music, Sthapathya kala, Vedas are still taught in oral tradition through Guru-Shishya parampara, which not only reflect the continuity of the ancient practices but are also reminiscent of ancient publication forms. It is said that ancient scholars were walking and talking libraries, who were like living publication houses. Today we find hundreds and thousands of inscriptions and manuscripts alongside the other auxiliary sources of history like archaeological, numismatic, geological, literary and linguistic evidences that are different forms of ancient publications that aid the historian’s work of establishing a dialogue between the past and the present. When the past has had alternative pedagogies and mediums of expressions such as the art forms, oral tradition, Sanskrit language, it is only imperative that it is treated as historical sources in the construction of history. Historiography cannot be obscured in the bias and brittleness of modern lens when inquiring into ancient practices. As regards to corruption and motivated manipulations to the texts over time, they are common ailments to both the written and oral texts across civilizations where scientific discretion is exercised in determining their authenticity.

So, were Indians slack at documentation and recording of history?

There is a plethora of epigraphic and literary evidence of ancient texts available, so much that the British were fascinated to start the Asiatic Society for Oriental Research. Catalogus catalogorum, Epigraphica Indica etc were compiled meticulously, many Sanskrit works were translated into English, the Vedas were put into writing, the ASI and many Oriental Research Institutes were set up across British Indian provinces to study the voluminous data, meticulous hunt for manuscripts on medicine, mathematics and astronomy was undertaken, it was collected, compiled and carried away. And after all the elaborate research and romanticism with Sanskrit texts, after accumulating and translating all knowledge into English, they propagated that Indians produced only religious texts and were lax with documentation practices and that there was nothing significant in their past. Today all our history of knowledge tradition is classified under language studies, and Sanskrit literature is made out to be only about Shakuntala’s feminine descriptions.

If at all Indians were slack at anything it can be attributed as not consolidating data as a Pan India effort. But then, local history and documentation work were intended for local consumption and application, there was no need felt for surveying or compiling of pan India data, as civilizational and cultural studies as an instrument of exploitation was unknown to Indians. The advent of historical research programs and civilizational studies was a mapping tool of imperial design for smooth conquests and gaining subservience.  The western universities continue to be invested in construction of colonial histories while the many indigenous research findings remain alienated from the academia. Paradoxically all that textual evidence that the British so fervently compiled and carried to their oriental libraries is today categorized as communal and saffron in Indian academia. More than 67% of Indian manuscripts are in Sanskrit, they are historical sources but are passed off as poetic myth or deemed as dead language. With the miring of chronology and dates without proper consultation of the traditional Indian calendric calculations, the alienation of these historical texts from academic purview is complete. There is a need to introduce and treat texts like Lilavati, Arthashastra, SuryaSiddanta, Astadhyaayi, smritis as history of maths, history of economics and ancient administrative practices, ancient astronomy, grammar, ancient legal codes that should be taught to students in these respective fields. 

Ancient publication forms as source for construction of Indian history

The Vedas and Dharma Shastras constitute the sruti and smriti texts providing civilizational details of Vedic times. The Rig Vedic texts give details of the vedic clans of Anus, Druhyus, Bharatas, Purus, Tritsus, Yadus etc the socio-political, cultural aspects and that there lived a king called Sudasa who defeated a confederation of 10 kings but strangely none of this is taken as history or even oral history, however only the term ‘Dasyu’ is often quoted as the tribes oppressed by the Aryans, ignoring the dasa in Sudasa’s Aryan name!

While the Dharma Shastras are equivalent to modern code of conduct or a legal code, the Puranas are chronicles of history that elucidate the reigns of dynasties, kings, providing a peek into the then socio-cultural, political, economic and legal practices. 

That which is old but relevant is known as Purana.

ItihAsa means ‘So indeed it was’

Sanskrit works like Malavikaagnimitra of Kalidasa gives information about the Sunga period, Mudrarakshasa by Vishakadatta describes the socio-cultural practices of the Mauryan society, poets Bhasa and Sudraka’s plays are based on historical events of their time, Harshacharita by Banabhatta throws light on King Harsha’s reign, administration and trade practices of his time, Vaakpati’s Gaudavaho is based on achievements of Yashovarman of Kannauj. Vikramaankadevacharita by Bilhana describes victories of Chalukya king Vikramaditya, Rajatarangini by Kalhana details Kashmir history and is regarded as the best form of history writing even by western scholars as it is unbiased and well-researched. Sanskrit poem ‘Madura Vijayam’ is written by Kampana Nayaka’s wife Ganga Devi. Kampana was the son of Bukkaraya, the founder of Vijayanagar kingdom. Mahakavya by Vidyapathi recounts the life and deeds of the Chalukyan emperor. The 13th century text Bhavaprakasha is an important work on literary criticism. Sandesha kavyas like Sukasandesha of Lakshmidaasa 1100CE, Kokilasandesha by Uddanda kavi in 15th century, Mayurasandesha by Udaya and Bhringasandesha by Vasudeva in the 16th century are said to bring out not only lyrical merit but also provide historical and topographical details, information of personalities, events and detailed descriptions of the routes taken by the respective messengers. The Bhagavatha champu and AchuyutarayAbhyudaya of Rajanatha who lived in the 16th century in the reign of Achyutaraya provides details of events in his reign. There are many more historical, literary works and Sanskrit biographies like Kumarapaalacharita, Hammirakavya, Navashashankacharita, Prithviraajacharita that reveal the richness of our book culture, this is apart from the many texts of astronomy, grammar, medicine, mathematics, and sciences that are all categorized as Sanskrit literature and language studies. These texts are treated as religious myth or poetic works of fiction of eulogistic hyperbole of their patrons unlike their Persian counterparts where biographies of Akbarnama, Baburnama, Jahangirnama, Shahjahanama, Humzanama etc receive academic vetting as authentic sources of history. 

Accounts of foreign travelers, ethnographers, historians, geographers and ambassadors are important sources of history, but their bias and ignorance of native culture cannot be ignored as most of them were agents of their masters whom they accompanied in the course of their expeditions or were patronized courtiers. Al Beruni’s accounts form important material for history writing but he was no historian as he came with his master Mohammed of Ghazni. Muhammed Kasim alias Ferista’s accounts are quoted as historical references but he wrote his celebrated history at the command of the Bahamani ruler Ibrahim II of Bijapur. Ibn Batuta after his globe-trotting was employed as a Qazi in Mohammad Bin Tughlaq’s court Huantsang mistook the openness and accommodative nature of Harsha and went on to say that Harsha followed Buddhism but epigraphists observe that Harsha himself proclaims to be a Shaivite, Herodotus was dependent on Persian sources for his information about India as he never visited India. There were many more travelers and merchants who wrote about their experiences in India, such foreign accounts are indeed important to make inferences for construction of history but not without reconciling it with the indigenous works and testimonies. 

Linguistics as an imprint of ancient publication form:

There is a little bit of history embedded in our art, culture, language, and customs. Like the Prashastis and Pushpikas  in inscriptions and manuscripts that serve as publications providing elaborate details, the ‘Pravara’ recited during the morning prayer goes on to provide the name, lineage, time, date, era, chronological and geographic details of the region, country, and continent. Linguistic etymology and Sthalapuranas provide historical details. For example the name ‘Telangana’ has its etymological roots from the term ‘Tilinga’ which is a corruption of ‘Trilinga’ that indicated that this place lay encapsulated by 3 lingas of Srisaileshwara, KAleshwara and Bheemeshwara (Daksharaama), similarly “Bhattakula” – today’s Bhatkal district in Karnataka, indicates that there must have existed a flourishing Gurukula by the Bhattas, as Kula was not only a familial name but also indicates a school of thought. 

Linguistics is an intangible instrument of publication:,the Sanskrit lexicon is rich with distinct words that has specific connotations. An author was called lekhaka, a scribe who copied manuscripts – a lipikaara, an inscription writer was called ShAsanakAra, a scribe engaged by royals or village head to write copper plate grants was known as kAyastha. The surnames Patila or Patela meant ‘a village headman’, ‘Deshmukh’ connoted a ‘mukya of a desha’, the ‘Kulkarni’ or ‘Kula Karanin’ were hereditary writers employed to records/accounts of village. Kula means belonging to particular family/school and karanin means writer. The person maintaining accounts of a Paragana was called a Deshpande. Fadnavis was a Peshwa time official designation for port administrators. One who practiced Jyothisya shastra was a Jois or Joshi. These professions are today categorized as castes hence it is for the historian to explore these ancient forms of intangible publications and objectively analyze and employ its historic value in the construction of history. 

In philology and linguistics lie the key to unlock the constructed misconceptions of linguistic separatism. Below are some Sanskrit terms and their Pali pronunciations that have the same meanings: Madhyama    Majjima , Dharma    Dhamma , Samagra    Samagga , Karmam    Kammam , Varga        Vagga , Arya        Ayya , Both Arya and Ayya are terms used to connote a noble person, while Ayya is extensively used in the Southern India to show reverence and is attached to most South Indian names like Siddaramaiah, Devaiah, Kempaiah etc, somehow its Sanskrit counterpart is vilified and made out to be oppressive and external. 

A synthesis of Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Vedic, Jain and Buddhist studies categorized under one roof as Classical history where an overview of history of linguistics is taught that is distinct from language studies would go a long way in alienating separatist theories and understanding true history from a wider perspective.

Purpose of publication in the Indian parlance

But before anything else it is imperative to understand the purpose of publication in the Indian context, why were texts transmitted? What constituted a publication in the ancient parlance?

Traditionally text is defined as “यः श्रूयते, यः पठ्यते -सः पाठः” which means – “that which is heard or read and has literary value is a pata (text)”, the written form is called a patyagranth. Texts essentially were empirical communications that were of knowledge value hence transmission of this baton of knowledge was essential to preserve it for posterity. It traversed from the Guru to the Shishya by the oral word hence it was free from the machinations of predetermined objectives or propaganda. 

Recording history or publications were not unknown in ancient India but only the intent and medium was different. The concept of recording events like land grants, coronations, chronicling dynastic lineage, victory and hero stone memorials, didactic inscribing was prevalent for public consumption which was for immediate use. The idea of history was more invested in reliving the already recorded ancient history of Ramayana and Mahabharata as they served in raising the moral quotient of the society.

The moral element was directly proportional to the law and social order (Dharma) in the society. Across different time periods we find that poets and scholars chose to draw from the great epics constantly as they were all encompassing and presented before the people – the different paths and their end results, enabling people to choose the right path in life. 

Thus, the idea of publications in the Indian context was not an institutionalized artificial effort but was naturally ingrained in everyday lives through the oral word. Neither was publication meant for establishing any scholarly acclaim or personal glory. We read from the Rig Vedic texts that many seers composing newer works simply attributed their works to the already known seers from the 10 Mandalas as the idea of composing (publishing) was qualitative and aimed at adding value with no pursuit for personal acclaim. The creative flair of figurative language, poetic rhythm and meters employed were mere tools to effectively convey the message in an engaging way. However, with progress of time, the purpose perhaps was lost to pursuit of personal glory amidst covetous skirmishes of scholarly debates focused on expounding one’s acumen and creative flair or lack of it, leading to splintering into sectarian groups. The need for publishing through the written medium seems to have emerged as a result of sectarian mobilizations whose political needs for indoctrination and publicity to hasten the spread of the new ideology, seems to have played a role in popularization of the written medium for transmission of texts. We can trace this trend of leveraging the written publications and documentaries as an instrument of indoctrination by westerners even today. This is not to undermine the drive for data and research, but to understand the imperial underpinnings of dominance behind all that research that are aimed at mapping potential resources and threats to their dominance. 

Today there are many travel channels, documentaries and academic studies undertaken by western universities and media on our melas, mantras, languages, festivals, folklore, food, family, kitchens, charity modules, rivers, agriculture, minerals deposits, medicines, monuments, politics, religion, holy places, education and several other social, cultural, economic and behavioral aspects but the reverse has not happened. Because publications, in the Indian context has been about celebration of life, reflection of our deeds, reliving the tales of righteousness and to keep traditions continuous. Some biographies, literary works and inscriptions may contain their bit of aggrandizement and political insinuation, but they have only preserved the tales of different epochs of history and were never aimed at alienation, dismantling, appropriation or negation of cultures. The many invasions, arson and aborting of the traditional Gurukulas and the culture of isms has not only led to the loss of many ancient formulae and knowledge system but it has also disconnected us from our roots and taken away the very temperament of research inquiry and its applicability. The longer we uphold these colonial constructs the further we are alienating the future generations from the civilizational continuity that our ancestors so diligently published for posterity.

And in this spirit and hope for native renaissance it is indeed time that India gears up simultaneously to study and publish her perspectives on histories of civilizations around the world.

Mayura Rao
Mayura Rao

A blogger, freelance writer, eternal student, history enthusiast. News, politics, philosophy, travel, culture, monuments are her other interests.

2 thoughts on “Publishing for Posterity : The way of the Sanatani”

    1. Great article that very nicely pinpoints and elaborates on problems in documentation and publication of knowledge in the current times.

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