40.) Spatio-Temporality in Hindu Studies

To say that Hindus did not or do not have a sense of history could mean that they substituted a sense of space for a sense of time, in the sense that they dwelt in a “single space,” probably a single mythical space. It also implies that they do not have a sense of change. They can sense a change within a space from one topos to another, but not a change from one moment to another.

It is important to keep these unarticulated assumptions in mind in dealing with the Western reconstruction of India’s past. For the West, the sense of history, or change from one moment to another is important, for that is what history is. What is more, the succeeding moment is often seen as an improvement over the preceding moment in Western culture and this of course constitutes the core idea of progress. As its flip side, one could also posit a concept of regress in other cultures.

The association of these somewhat dissociated meanings might make room for the suggestion that history involves periodization and the manner of periodization is bound to be affected by these loose, but not uninfluential, notions of time in the West. They have a double bearing on the process of historical periodization: (1) the tendency to assume that what is different must belong to a different period of time, for difference is seen to imply change and (2) that this difference either leads to a better or worse condition.

How these assumptions about the relation of temporality to heterogeneity may have affected the Western reconstruction of India’s past therefore needs to be taken into account. How the assumption that differences involve differences in time rather than differences in space might affect historical assessments is best illustrated with examples drawn from the history of Indian philosophy. There is this constant debate in Western histories of Indian philosophy about which school came first and which after, or which system preceded or succeeded which, at the expense of the realization that they may have co-existed, as they did, we know, for thousands of years. This tendency towards longitudinality as an explanation of heterogeneity, is one consequence of working primarily with a model of temporality to explain heterogeneity. The discussion, in the case of the Mahābhārata, of how the Vedic, Kṣatriya and Brāhmaṇa elements must have played a successive rather than a simultaneous role in the composition of the Mahābhārata provides another illustration of this point.

How the assumption of progress or regress affects historical assessments can also be similarly identified. Consider the following statement:

As we contemplate the long procession of Indian history it may at first sight seem little more than an unending procession, with the elephants of states and umbrellas of authority appearing at intervals, interspersed with trains of attendants and disturbed by the brawls of contending factions. An Amurath to Amurath succeeded, it would seem, with intervals of anarchy while one dynasty replaced another. Or it can be seen as a series of invasions, each adding some new element to the population, whose rule is displaced in turn by the next arrivals. Professor A.L. Basham, in a recent inaugural lecture, could see no thread of meaning running through the four and one-half thousand years of which we have some knowledge.[1]

Percival Spear goes on to say, however,

The dynastic and racial view was given its classical form by Mountstuart Elphinstone in his History, which ran through nine editions from 1841 to 1909. The Indian historian is inclined to see Indian history as a splendid Hindu creative achievement leading to a golden age in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., followed by the humiliation of Muslim conquest and domination, the British episode, and the glorious renaissance and revival of the past and present centuries. The Pakistani may see Indian history as a great Muslim creative achievement superimposed upon a corrupt pagan society and culminating in the Mughal period and the reign of Aurangzeb. The British were the darkeners of the light, the precursors of the modern Indian infidel state. British historians in the past have tended to see Muslim rule as a preface to their own, and their own as a restoration of ordered life in a decayed society and the introduction of fresh light from the West, and more particularly the Western isles.[2]

This concept of progress seems to be at work behind the statement that “British historians in the past tended to see Muslim rule as a preface to their own, and their own as a restoration of ordered life in a delayed society”. Ironically, the author himself ends up by viewing British rule itself in relation to India through the same prism![3]

The survey of the religious history of India points in the same direction. The point has not escaped attention, but it has not been accorded much importance. It lies sandwiched as a caveat between two slices of conventionally Western approaches in the following citation from Louis Renou.

The Upaniṣads are a particularly delicate case; the problem, stated in simplified form, has been whether the Upaniṣads were pre- or post-Buddhist. Their subject-matter and method of presentation have much in common with Buddhistic writings; the Pāli style seems, indeed, to be a diluted imitation of the Upaniṣadic style. The secular approach of the Upaniṣads is characteristic also of Buddhism and Jainism, those religions of princes. If we work on the presupposition that in India progress is from the simple to the complex, from brevity to elaboration, the Upaniṣads must be regarded as earlier. This is my own view.[4]

The point ends here and is followed by the remark:

But we must not be surprised to see that in India parallel streams of thought may exist side by side without any contact other than an unemphatic rivalry.[5]

But after momentary hesitation, the earlier flow of thought is soon resumed.

If, on the other hand, we believe that the Upaniṣads were only made through Buddhist influence, or, in other words, that ‘it was Buddhism that taught the Indians to philosophize’, we are losing sight of the fact that Vedic speculation is firmly established from the gveda onwards, not only in the tenth book, but even in what is known as the older gveda, for example, in iii. 54, 9: ‘I recognize from afar the ancient and immemorial one. We are descended from him, the great Procreator, the Father. The gods who do him homage, in their own vast, separate domain, quickly took up their positions in the intervening space…’ Here we already have a full formulation: the single original principle, and the realm of the gods lying between Man and the Supreme being. Religion and speculation go hand in hand from the very outset.[6]


In other words, Western assumptions of time and space can be potentially distorting when applied uncritically in an Indian context.


[1] Percival Spear, India: A Modern History (Ann Arbour: The University of Michigan Press, 1972) p. 465.

[2] Ibid., p. 465.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Louis Renou, Religion of Ancient India (London: Athlone Press, 1953) p. 7.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Louis Renou, Religions of Ancient India (London: Athlone Press, 1953) p. 7-8, emphasis added.

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5 Responses to “40.) Spatio-Temporality in Hindu Studies”

  1. Shankara Bharadwaj Says:

    It might be more accurate to say that space and time are seen inseparable, synonymous and even interchangeable at times. Both are seen as never ending and incomprehensible. With the difference that time is seen as infinite yet cyclic while space is vast. Space is seen as the “preserver”, the witness of everything. Time is seen as the “destroyer”, the swallower of everything. In contrast it is the sense of “permanence”, “immortality” that is sought by Hindus.

    But the more important point is that the history is not person-centric in nature. There is very much the sense of time, but not in the same sense as the modern history views time. Events and persons are not clearly plotted against a time line. However they can be found to be plotted in time cycle, which is what makes it difficult to establish the time line.

  2. Indian History Carnival - 15 | DesiPundit Says:

    […] Arvind Sharma explains why “Western assumptions of time and space can be potentially distorting when applied […]

  3. RaiulBaztepo Says:

    Hello!
    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language ;)
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

  4. PiterKokoniz Says:

    Hello !!! ^_^
    I am Piter Kokoniz. oOnly want to tell, that I like your blog very much!
    And want to ask you: is this blog your hobby?
    Sorry for my bad english:)
    Tnx!
    Piter Kokoniz, from Latvia

  5. Ratna Lahiri Says:

    Thanks for a wonderful provocation, Please do keep it up

    What’s Amurath by the way, in ” An Amurath to Amurath succeeded, it would seem, with intervals of anarchy while one dynasty replaced another. ?…”

    Could you write something then on the Indian idea of Amritattva in Indological provacations?

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