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Looking Back through our Identities – Itihāsa Purāna- Aloka Parasher Sen


Updated: Nov 23, 2020

Meaning of words and their contextual use is important. How are Myth and History commonly understood and what, against this, is meant by Itihāsa Purāṇa? Where does the historian’s training to use tools of the scientific method to unravel ‘truths’ in myths become complicated? Surely myths cannot be seen as proof givers of history nor, be seen as ‘truths’ of the past in absolute terms?

Focusing on looking at the transmission of myths into regions and localities, historian Aloka Parasher Sen argues that a historical evidence is thus produced that then edifies the myth to create new meanings. What can be done to achieve a continual dialogue between modern history writing and what modernity understands as myth?

Below is a transcript of the speaker’s responses to the audience questions that could not be addressed during the session for lack of time. 

Nilanjana Ghosh. In the post Foucauldian times as the history of metaphysics has been dismantled how should we expect history to fashion our selves in a moral way?

APS. Nilanjana thanks for this. The modern understanding of History cannot fashion itself (or us) in the 'moral way' because of its very nature. That is, it claims to assert truth and authority and therefore, it is in fact dangerous for it to lay claims on morality. Moral and ethical issues are best dealt with in discourses that allow debate and disagreement since, what is morality must necessary vary from culture to culture. We decide on moral issues as inherited and embedded in our tradition/s.

Swatilekha Maity. Good evening to all the respected professors and everyone here. I have a question regarding this point of writing one’s own history, the internalisation of experience and violence. I am interested to know what can be the emotive and experiential significance of  Jatugriha Parva in context to the position of the tribal people in this epic? Can this episode be considered as a way to question the linearity of the narrative perspective in context to the socio-ethnological perspective and dominated and dominant discourse, more like a door to the alternate ways of seeing the past?

APS. Thank you for this insightful question Swatilekha. This particular narrative does not give the perspective of the tribal. Rather, they are mere victims of an act organized by someone and then executed by another. Why they are inserted into the story when Kunti has in fact invited only the brahamans for a meal? It is perhaps give the erroneous impression that the mother and five sons came on their own. But did they? I do not think so. So the agency lies with the dominated and therefore the tribal can only read it as a tale of being cheated.

Bhangya Bhukya. Thank you for the wonderful talk mam, two things, one, can we call these Chench myths /narrative as public histories, second, can we trace the period of Chench Lakshmi narrative.

APS. Thank you for this question Bhangya. To my mind the public historian comes in from outside also uses a modern training to meet the needs of a community and respond to their understanding of their historical artefacts. While I was emphasizing from what emanated from the Chenchus themselves as reported by Haimendorfin the early twentieth century. That this narrative was floating around in the late nineteenth century is told to us by Thurston. The sculptural representations that poignantly displays an angry Chenchita assumes that this narrative must have existed then. These sculptures are all dated to around the fourteenth century. It is for this reason on often suggests that myths are timeless as we often do not know at what specified time they emerged. But that they continue to be narrated indicates that they were important for the identity of the community concerned.

Nilanjana Ghosh. As we are now familiar with the pervasive vissicitudes of the political powers should we incorporate marginalized other to the main course history keeping in mind their power of resistance they embody?

APS. Yes Nilanjana. This is what the ultimate aim of my presentation was. Modern historians have unconsciously got trapped in the project of monolithizing the history of the nation-state. To get out of these debates and continually argue for and against the project, we need to assert the narratives of the many marginalized sections of our society and make the case that they indeed had a different view of their pasts and thereby, of the country where they have lived for generations.

Umang Kumar. Thanks Prof. Parasher-Sen. Scholars like Pargiter tried to construct construct historical narratives from itihasa-purana. Much of Ancient Indian History – esp. Vedic history – depends on Vedic literature – which is also considered religious/sacred and has a lot of mythic layers. So much a Buddhist history depends on the Buddhist texts esp. from the “Pali canon’ – tho’ the Dipa/Mahavamsa are considered 'historical'…what are the alternatives? How 'legitimate' is construction of histories esp. social histories by the reading of these ancient texts…which seems to be quite common…?

APS. So let me clarify Umang Kumar. Pargiter and much of the historical scholarship during the first half of the twentieth century used all types of ancient texts to find ‘facts’ of the past ignoring the nature of the world view that was embedded in them. Most of (not all ) ancient Indian literature is religious or sacred but Pargiter tried to cull out a narrative political history from the Puranas and thus ran into problems of dating them. On the other hand, much of this literature can be used to write a social history provided we take a deep look at the way each of them were formulated and what was meant to be their original purpose

Tina Servaia. The last point was very important. We have always viewed the past through the perspective of the present, and this is where the murkiness comes in.

APS. But Tina perhaps there is no other way to approach the past expect from the present. But yes, one need not privilege the present and its apparatus to define the past. Rather, a more negotiating attitude of ‘recovering’ the past rather than ‘writing’ the past could be adopted so as to keep boundaries fluid.

Shreya Mandal. I seemed to have missed the name of the second book that professor was talking about. After the reading of excepts from Thapar’s Past before Us. Ma’am can you please mention it once more?

APS. Shreya the extracts from the second book that I read from was written by Chaturvedi Badrinath called Mahabharata on the Human Condition published in 2006 by Orient Longman.

Rajani Nair. How should one approach myths in historical enquiry and in the study of historical sources?

APS. Rajani, for a start one should not construct them as ‘sources’. Myths can be used to talk of a continuous tradition that is not always located in the past as in many communities, they resonate in their present as well. Myths and legends can reflect on how a country, society or collective understands its historical consciousness but they cannot be ‘historical sources’ as that would mean that the imaginative and fictive have to be made a part of so-called scientific history.

Nilanjana Ghosh. Thanks a lot. The session was unique. I have never experienced such a dynamic view of history. Thanks for the answers ma’am.

APS. You are welcome, Nilanjana.

Tina Servaia. What other factors shape the collective historical consciousness? Please discuss this further.

APS. Other than the composite term itihasapurana, on many occasions the terms gathas (stories, poems), akhayayanas (narratives of the past), kavyacaritas (historical biographies) and many other such terms can be used to discuss a collective historical consciousness. Each of these would also reflect on regional perspectives of how this consciousness is couched in different localities of the country.


ALOKA PARASHER-SEN has been teaching at the University of Hyderabad, India since 1979  where, since 2018, she is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Sanskrit Studies. She has widely traveled on academic assignments and was DAAD Fellow, (1986- 87) and occupant of the Rotating Chair in India Studies (2007-08) at the South Asia Institute of the University of Heidelberg, Germany, a Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Professor (1992) at the University of California, Berkeley, USA and most recently, the first occupant of the Saroj and Prem Singhmar Chair in Classical Indian Polity and Society (2008-2011) Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta, Canada.

Her main area of research interest is in the social history of early Indian attitudes towards foreigners, tribes and excluded castes and different aspects of the history and archaeology of Early Deccan. Her major writings include Mlecchas In Early India (1991); Social and Economic History of Early Deccan – Some Interpretations (1993); Deccan Heritage, Co-Editor (with Harsh K. Gupta and D.Balasubramanian), Universities Press, Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2000,Kevala Bodhi,  The Buddhist and Jaina History of The Deccan (2003) Subordinate And Marginal Groups In Early India Up To 1500 ADOxford in India Readings Themes in Indian History (2004; 2nd Paperback edition 2007), Religion and Modernity in India, (with Sekhar Bandhyopadhyaya) (OUP 2016), Settlement and Local Histories of the Deccan (Manohar 2020 in Press) among others.

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