Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Culture as a site of Struggle by K.N. Pannikar

Culture as a site of struggle (Article taken from EPW 14 Feb 2009. Download pdf version).

by K N Panikkar

The emerging mode of historical research, either consciously or unconsciously, comes into contention at each stage with the hegemonic school of thought: the nationalist with the colonial, the communal with the secular and the post-modern with the Marxist. The changes in historiography are not necessarily a mere process of evolution, but are shaped by continuous intellectual struggles, rooted in ideological influences, political interests and material concerns. Inherent in these struggles are a variety of issues like the concept of nationalism, the future of democracy and the practice of secularism. This article explores how culture is invoked in the making of these struggles and in the process draws attention to the relationship between culture, nation and communalism.

This article is based on the presidential address to the 69th session of the Indian History Congress held at Kannur University, Kerala, from 28 to 30 December 2008.Email: knpanikkar@gmail.com


The tradition set by the Indian History Congress of defending the foundational principles of the nation has recently found rearticulation in its efforts to preserve the secular heritage of Indian civilisation, which was sought to be besmirched by the protagonists of communalism masquerading as historians. As a consequence, Indian historiography became a site of struggle between secular and communal interpretations, but not between them alone, as several other ten-dencies have joined issue, either directly or indirectly, rationalising or justifying the communal.

In fact, inherent in the development of historiography in any society is a continuous struggle between contending ideologies which seek to establish their hegemony over the discipline. It is primarily, yet not exclusively, an intellectual and academic project, as historical writings are inevitably imbued with the quest for social and political power. The historiographical shifts in the study of Indian history during the last 100 years or so have emerged out of such struggles, involving the colonial, the nationalist, the communal, the Marxist and post-modern inter-pretations. Some of these contestations are based on a very selective approach, foregrounding one dimension or the other of social or political reality, which is strategically and academically important for their protagonists. The differences between these schools of historiography are not merely methodological, which indeed is a distinguishing factor, but have meanings which impinge upon political perspectives and social power. It is well known that the colonial and neocolonial histories tended to mask the reality of colonial oppression, the ideological influence of which continues to persist even today. At the same time, nationalist historiography tried to expose the colonial structure of exploitation, whereas the communal interpretation is primarily engaged in undermining the secular tradition of Indian civilisation. If the Marxist studies are concerned with the problems of the underprivileged and their movements, the post-modern history, reflecting the logic of late capitalism, tends to fragment and disorient social reality.

Engagement with Culture

In all these contestations, an engagement with culture, in varying manner and degree is a common factor. While the colonial historiography tried to underplay, even deny, the achievements of indigenous culture, the nationalist tended to romanticise it. The Marxist historiography performed a dual purpose: first, to expose how the hegemonic character of culture justifies and maintains the exploitative system and thus to unravel how culture helps to conceal the objective conditions of oppression and, secondly, to underscore the role of culture as a source of resistance. The post-modern engagement, mainly concerned with the question of cultural representation, seeks to unsettle the dominant system of meaning and moral authority. The cultural concern is well pronounced in communal interpretation, in which the explanatory model attributes primacy to culture, invoking an ideal past and highlighting the differences historically evolved between religious communities. In the communal strategy the study of culture fulfils two purposes: first, to identify culture with religion and secondly, to redefine the nation exclusively through this relationship.

The distortion of history, be it through factual misrepresentation in textbooks or invention of facts in research, for which communal interpretation has become synonymous, is not an end in itself, but is intended to achieve these twin objectives. In pursuing these aims, the emerging mode of historical research, either consciously or unconsciously, comes into contention at each stage with the hegemonic school of thought; the nationalist with the colonial, the communal with the secular and the post-modern with the Marxist. Thus, the changes in historiography are not necessarily a mere process of evolution, but are shaped by continuous intellectual struggles, rooted in ideological influences, political interests and material concerns. Inherent in these struggles is a variety of issues like the concept of nationalism, the future of democracy and the practice of secularism. What I propose to do in my address is to explore how culture is invoked in the making of these struggles and in the process draw attention to the relationship between culture, nation and communalism.


The “analysis of culture” Clifford Geertz suggests, “is not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning” (Geertz 1973: 5). The search for meaning would encompass “the totality of forms of activity in and through which human existence realises itself”, which Earnest Cassirer characterises as the “science of culture” (Cassirer 2002). The search for meaning is simultaneous with social existence of human beings and their efforts to confront their existential conditions. The conception of culture, therefore, is contingent upon the constraints set by society, but at the same time, its meaning undergoes continuous revision and refinement according to the changes in the configurations in society. In other words, culture is not static but dynamic in its character and practice. The variety of meanings it acquires over a period of time is partly a result of its dynamic character. Since the time Mathew Arnold characterised it as a “study of perfection”, what culture stands for has unrecognisably changed. In Arnold’s view “culture moves by the force, not merely or primarily of the scientific passion for knowledge, but also of the moral and social passion for doing good” (Arnold 1932: 45). This ideal and utopian notion has by now given way to socially sensitive and politically informed conceptualisations. For instance, Norbert Elias suggests that “the concept of Kultur mirrors the self-consciousness of a nation which had constantly to seek out and constitute its boundaries anew, in a political and spiritual sense, and again and again to ask itself: what is really our identity?” (Elias 1978: 5-6). The answer to this question, many would contend, is rooted in culture which is important both for the individual and society.

Elias draws attention to the crucial role of culture in identity formation of a society; their relationship being symbiotic, as they influenced each other in shaping their character. This symbiotic relationship is historical, as cultural formations evolved over a period of time, in the context of the forces of production. The quest for identity, particularly manifesting in times of social change, tends to conjure up phantoms of the cultural past, attributing new meanings to it. Colonialism was such a period in Indian history, just as globalisation is today, when the past not only appeared to be alluring but also held out the possibility of resistance. In colonial India, for instance, the beleaguered traditional elite sought to reinvent the meaning of culture by “going back to the source” and reinterpreting it in order to confront the challenge of changes occurring in society.1 Going back to the “source”, however, tended to negate the essential quality of historical experience of the coming together of different cultural streams. One of the consequences of togetherness was cultural heterogeneity which was continuously enriched by the incorporation of new cultural streams.

Continuous Process

The search for the meaning of culture is a continuous process in the historical evolution of all societies, as cultural conditions and practices constantly change. It becomes particularly important when social cohesion and political solidarities are attempted to be constructed. The making of the nation, as suggested by Elias, is such a historical process in which the meaning of culture is implicated as a crucial factor. In India it has been sought in the early Indian philosophical speculations as encoded in religious texts, in the expressions of creativity in different artistic and literary fields, in the realm of inter-religious exchanges, in the popular cul-tural practices and struggles and so on. How they contributed to the conceptualisation of the nation and its formation has found a variety of complementary and contradictory opinions. Yet, they have all recognised the significance of culture in welding people into a nation. Although cultural hegemonisation attempted by colonialism provided the context, it was part of a positive endeavour to identify elements which constituted popular consciousness. Such a thought process was extremely complex and often not very lucid, yet it drew attention to the importance of culture which was generally overlooked or subordinated to the political.

The political discourse, however, is not divorced from cultural concerns implicit in goals like national unity, social diversity and religious communitarianism. These goals were informed by certain cultural attributes like homogeneity, plurality and superiority, which were entwined with different conceptions of nation. As such locating the nation either in the economic or the political alone, as is the case in the bulk of Indian historiography, without tracing its connection with the cultural, has remained an incomplete exercise. The communal historiography has taken advantage of this void in order to attribute an exclusively cultural character to nationalism


Those who have assigned a central role to culture in the making of the nation have attributed vastly different meanings to it. Within them there are broadly two streams of thought. In the first, culture is a secular practice and its character is heterogeneous, whereas in the second, culture is identified with religion. Inherent in the making of India as a nation was an implicit struggle between these two viewpoints, out of which has grown the idea of secular India. Two important scholars who represented these views respectively are Ananda K Coomaraswamy and Radhakumud Mukherji.

Assigning centrality to culture in the concept of nationalism, Coomaraswamy argued that nation can neither come into being nor exist without a cultural base. The very lifeblood of a nation is culture. His emphasis was on the aesthetic and the creative qualities which he put rather dra-matically: nations are “made of artists and poets, not by traders and politicians”. Political and economic battles, he held, “are but half the battle”, as the real victory is achieved only with the attainment of spiritual and mental freedom. In his vision national unity is based on “a deeper foundation than the perception of political wrongs” and that he located it in the great ideals of Indian culture. The character of Indian culture, according to Coomaraswami, was inextricably intertwined with historical evolution. This being an inclusive process, Indian culture could not be identified with the experience of any one religious community nor would its heritage be complete without reckoning the contribution of all social groups. For instance, Coomaraswamy felt that “it would hardly be possible to think of an India in which no great Mughal had ruled, no Taj had been built, or to which Persian art and literature were wholly foreign” (Coomaraswamy 1909: 11). How various cultural streams got constituted into a single entity, although religious and cultural differences existed within it is, therefore, central to the making of the nation. Coo-maraswamy considered the diverse people of India as a magic puzzle, which falls into place “when once the key is known; and the key is that parts do fit together which we call national self-consciousness” (ibid). Coomaraswamy may have overstated the cultural cause, but he under-lined two important interrelated dimensions. First, culture is the defining feature of nationalism and secondly, the character of Indian culture is plural and secular. About the first proposition there may be many sceptics, but very few are likely to dispute that nationalism is not complete without a cultural component.

About the character of the cultural component, however, opinions differ. Radhakumud Mukherji, an erudite scholar and author of a popular history of Hindu civilisation, attributed to it an exclusively Hindu character. His ideas and analyses have been quite influential in shaping the notion of Hindu nationalism, which is a euphemism for majority communalism.2 In a series of lectures delivered in 1921 and published as Nationalism in Hindu Culture he traced the idea of Indian nation to Hindu scriptural texts. According to him, “the underlying principle of nationalism” was present in the hymns of Rig Veda. Its historical evolution and eventual expression in modern times were made possible by the contribution of religious institutions and practices. Indian nationalism, Mukherji argued, drew its ideological strength and social support from its cultural foundations which were essentially religious (Mukherji 1921: 52 and Mukherji 1954).

Evolving Discourse

The ideas of Ananda Coomaraswamy and Radhakumud Mukherji, although based on academic understanding, were indicative of the evolving discourse in Indian society, at least from the 19th century. The progress of the anti-colonial struggle and the future vision of the nation led to a more powerful articulation of these points of view. Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore on the one hand, and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya on the other, represent the course through which these ideas have developed and matured. In course of time they became central to the intellectual and political struggles for realising the nation.

No one articulated and practised the secular idea more effectively than Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. Yet, they sharply differed about the consequences of nationalism.3 As is well known, Tagore was critical and apprehensive about the aggressive possibilities inherent in it. In contrast, Gandhi recognised its emancipatory dimension and its ennobling propensities. However, both shared common ground about the importance of culture in the making of nationalism.

In a seminal essay, which is often referred to for its critique of nationalism, Tagore explored the connection between culture and nationalism, in the process elevating the concept of freedom to a higher level of abstraction. Political freedom, he contended, would not necessarily make a nation free, unless it is coupled with cultural emancipation (Tagore 1997: 462). In Tagore’s vision cultural emancipation had a secular dimension, incorporating within it “Muslim inven- tiveness and the creativity and freedom of the Hindus”.4

Culture and Political Struggles

The transition to mass politics in the anti-colonial movement which Mahatma Gandhi ushered in was based on recognition of the relationship between culture and politics. He tried to fashion the anti-colonial movement in cultural terms. Before Gandhi, cultural and political struggles had followed different trajectories, as their possible connection was neither explored nor pursued in practice. A consequence of this disjunction was the loss of an opportunity to integrate cultural and political struggles. The concern, on the other hand, was on the question of precedence to be accorded, either to the cultural or to the political struggles. The possibility or importance of integrating both did not figure as an option. As a result, when the political struggles gained momentum and became popular, cultural struggles were marginalised and consequently, became increasingly weaker. The significance of Gandhi’s initiatives to create a new cultural consciousness has to be viewed in this context. The constructive programme that Gandhi had launched was part of this larger agenda; form of cultural struggle to equip the people for higher social and political efforts. That accounts for making participation in constructive work a precondition for joining the Civil Disobedience Movement. In reply to a question from a students’ deputation in 1934, Gandhi had said:

The two things – the social re-ordering and the fight for political swaraj – must go hand in hand. There can be no question of precedence or division into watertight compartments here. But a new social order cannot be ‘forced’; that would be a remedy worse than the disease. I am an impatient reformer. I am all for thoroughgoing, radical, social reordering; but it must be an organic growth, not a violent super-imposition.5

The Gandhian endeavour – his politics, social reform and personal morality – was part of a larger scheme of cultural reordering. Almost everything he did, be it the experiment with sexuality, toilet cleanliness, simple dress, vegetarian food or removal of untouchability, was integral to culturally equipping society to achieve higher moral and ethical goals. They were not personal obsessions, but part of a social programme. It may not be stretching the argument to suggest that Gandhian politics was essentially cultural politics. That accounts for his opting out of formal politics and concentrating on constructive work, which was essentially an effort to transform the then existing social consciousness. To him nationalism had no meaning without achieving cultural transformation.

The common thread connecting the ideas of Coomaraswamy, Tagore and Gandhi is the secular conception of Indian culture, rooted in the historical experience of Indian society which Jawaharlal Nehru had invoked through the very suggestive metaphor of a palimpsest. The cultural diversity which this historical process has given rise to has been the foundation on which the idea of India has struck its roots. However much synthesis, assimilation or acculturation had taken place, what came into being over a period was cultural heterogeneity, not limited to the elite cultural life but reaching out more to popular practices.

The colonial intervention did not destroy heterogeneity, but only added another element to it. However, heterogeneity did not result in multiculturalism, as cultural equality is one of its necessary conditions, which was not realised either in inter or intra-community cultural relations (Panikkar 2007: 182-94). All that cultural evolution brought about was plurality with space within it for demarcation and marginalisation. It was within this space caste and religion-oriented cultural consciousness originated and developed. The former was initially a source of resistance, as evidenced by the ideas and activities of Jotibha Phule, Ramaswami Naicker, Ayyankali and Bhimrao Ambedkar, whereas the latter provided the ground for the growth of communalism. Both these views put together sought to trace the relationship of secular and democratic culture with the nation.


In the communal conception of nation, culture not only occupies a central place, but also defines its character by its identity with religion. The nation, therefore, is a cultural construct, with culture understood as an integral part of religion. Much against the grain of historical experience and contemporary reality, the communal assumption has foregrounded two inter-related notions: first, each religious community has a homogeneous culture and second, the culture of each community is distinct and different. Such a characterization attributes a religious cultural character to the social composition of the country. It is further qualified by dividing society into two unequal segments: people of indigenous and “foreign” origin who were separated by religious-cultural differences. These differences were so irreconcilable that they belonged to two different nations, with entirely different cultural traditions. These differences accounted for the struggle between the communities in the past. However, the origin of the idea that Indian society was a conglomeration of different religious communities, constantly at loggerheads with one another, is not in communal history. That credit goes to colonial historiography, although the colonial and communal historiographies share common ground on several issues. The colonial administrators from the time when James Mill wrote his influential History of India in 1815, in which he had proposed a religion-centred periodisation of history, propagated this notion. Subsuming the assumptions of colonial historiography, but improving upon its political and cultural interpretations, communal ideologues argued that religious communities acquired political identity through inter-community struggles with which Indian history abound. More importantly, the communities had distinct identities as a result of their separate cultural practices rooted in religion.

Savarkar View

In a synoptic account of Indian history in his relatively less known work, Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar interpreted the history of India in terms of the Hindu resistance to foreign invasions. Savarkar identified six periods in which Hindus valiantly fought and defeated the foreign invaders, who ranged from the Greeks to the British. 6 The importance of this historical experience was that they contributed to the formation of a self-identity of being a Hindu nation. “In this prolonged furious conflict (with the Muslims)”, argued Savarkar, “our people became intensely conscious of ourselves as Hindus and were welded into a nation to an extent unknown in our history” (Savarkar 1989: 44). Thus the political history of India was a record of the Hindus struggling to realise a nation at the face of intermittent foreign invasions.

But such a political experience alone, it is held, was not sufficient to bring about emotional bonds strong enough to bind a people into a nation. Something more abiding was necessary, which, according to Savarkar and following him to communal history, was the allegiance to a common culture (ibid: 92-116). The religious communities, both Hindu and Muslim, were different due to their differing cultural allegiance.

The cultural logic of the distinction between the Hindu and Muslim communities has been a part of the social consciousness in India, at least from the 19th century. Although political life transgressed religious divisions and social life was ordered on the basis of mutual cooperation and respect, religious affiliation was an important factor in self-identity. The tendency to locate oneself in terms of religious belonging in public life was present even in the early colonial period. The “Letters to the Editor” appearing in newspapers in the 19th century provide interesting insights into popular social consciousness. Dealing with subjects which were strictly secular, the authors of most of these letters identified themselves according to their religious affiliation.7 This self-identity, pre-political in nature, was a cultural construction in which religion mediated almost imperceptibly. The political intervention in this self-identity during the course of the 19th century externalised it to such an extent that religious identity was recognised as the main marker of the nation. This transformation of the cultural into the political accounts for the ability of communalism to create a space for itself.

Saratchandra Essay

During the course of the 20th century the cultural logic of communalism had assumed an increasingly aggressive character. An important example of this development is the reading of Hindu-Muslim cultural differences by the popular Bengali novelist, Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya. In a brief essay entitled, “Bartaman Hindu-Mussalman Samasya”, first presented at the Bengal Provincial Conference of 1926, he added a new dimension to the communal argument about the differences between the Hindus and Muslims. Many before him were of the opinion that the differences between the two were irreconcilable because they were fundamentally cultural. The two nation theory, advocated by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Mohammad Ali Jinnah rested on this argument.8 Saratchandra’s focus was not on cultural differences, which at any rate existed, but on the lack of culture of the Muslims. The Hindus, high or low, were born with culture whereas the Muslims were born without it! Worse still, the Muslims could not even attain it, however much they tried. Their lack of culture accounted for their general behaviour which, according to him, was characterised by “brutality, barbarism and fanaticism”.9

Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya did not explain what he meant by culture – no definition was offered – but from the instances he refers to it is clear that he did not mean cultivated qualities, but “inherent qualities” with which human beings are born. Many communal ideologues in the past had harped on the cultural differences between the Hindus and Muslims or on the cultural superiority of the Hindus. But the concern of Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya was of an altogether different order: to create the categories of cultured and uncultured on the basis of religious identity. What he did was to reinvent the traditional category of mlecha in order to serve a contemporary purpose. And the purpose was not only social discrimination by demonising the Muslims, but also to achieve the political objective of undermining the Gandhian project of Hindu-Muslim unity, for according to him, the union between Hindus and Muslims was impractical and more importantly, unnatural. He argued that instead of pursuing the mirage of Hindu-Muslim unity what was required was unity within the Hindu community, by bringing to an end “the folly of treating a section of the Hindus as low castes” (Chatterji, p 272).

By discounting the possibility of the Hindus and Muslims coming together and at the same time promoting the internal consolidation of Hindu community, Saratchandra was charting out a path for the construction of communal consciousness. Neither Hindu-Muslim differences nor community consolidation were alien to the communal discourse which evolved from the 19th century. Yet, Saratchandra’s views were significant for two reasons. First, Muslims are excluded from the nation not on cultural differences, as Savarkar did, but on the grounds of being “uncultured”. Second, it represented a new communal aggression based on cultural authenticity derived from an identity of religion and culture. Saratchandra’s arguments are not an aberration, but a logical development of the ideas of discrimination and hatred inherent in the evolving communal discourse from the 19th century, which continues to be influential in shaping the consciousness of the present, at least among a section of the society. The cultural logic of communalism seeks to unburden the secular cultural baggage that society has acquired historically.

In the process the heterogeneity is ignored, which came into being as a result of the social togetherness of communities. The heterogeneity covered a very wide spectrum: the creative and philosophical realms, on the one hand, and everyday cultural practices of the people, on the other. It gave rise to a variety of cultural processes – synthesis, assimilation, acculturation and eclecticism and more importantly, the way people lived. It is arguable that what really happened was not any one of these processes, but a combination of all in varying degrees, which imparted to Indian culture the quality of a colourful mosaic. One of the implications of this process was the immense cultural variety within religious communities in terms of everyday cultural practices and creative expressions. In other words, religious communities were not synonymous with cultural communities (K S Singh 1992: 50-51). Their boundaries did not coincide or overlap. The cultural logic of communalism is, therefore, antithetical to the historical experience of Indian society. The meaning of culture, which communalism foregrounded was, tantamount to the denial of the secular heritage of Indian cultural life and even more failed to take cognisance of the variety of cultural articulations within a community.


If culture is amenable to a variety of interpretations, as evident from the above, what is central to the exploration of its meaning is a methodology for its study which would take note of its complexity and social relatedness. The empirical and descriptive methods which held sway for a long time did not go beyond the narration of cultural practices and consequently the meaning of culture remained beyond their reach. The early Marxist method viewed culture as an epiphenomenon of economic base, in the overall structure of productive force determinism, which failed to interrogate the complexities of cultural existence. A paradigm shift was heralded with the “cultural turn” in Marxist studies in the mid-20th century, which recognised the relative autonomy of cultural production and all forms of social consciousness. The initial theoretical enquiry which triggered a serious debate can be traced to the essay of Lukacs, which had advanced the notion that “the different aspects of the social structure can and must become independent of each other” (Lukacs 1971: 23). Further consideration of this theoretical proposition was pursued by the members of the Frankfurt school like Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin and others, who explored the relative autonomy of the superstructure, without overlooking the homologous connection between culture and economic base (see Scott 2007: 7-34, Jay 1972). Their concern was mainly confined to the creative and philosophical realms and hence did not directly address these issues in relation to social sciences.

In history, the turning point was the emergence of a group of historians who drew attention away from the cellar to the attic. Prominent among them are Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, E P Thompson, Raphael Samuel, Rodney Hilton, George Rude and Raymond Williams. Their works heralded a departure, initially inspired by the works of Maurice Dobb, from the productive force determinism of Marxist orthodoxy in base-superstructure relations. In his influential article, entitled “Historical Materialism and the Role of the Economic Factor”, published in 1951, Dobb disputed the notion that in historical interpretation the economic factor is the only one that matter and suggested that ideas and economic conditions had a reciprocal relationship, even if the two-way relationship is not symmetrical. Dobb and the group of historians who followed his lead heralded both a departure and continuity in the application of historical materialism to the study of the past: continuity because it can be traced to Marx and Engles and departure because it meant a reorientation in historical analysis.10

‘Cultural’ Marxism

The cultural Marxism, as this tendency has been labelled, not only liberated historians from the influence of reductionism, but also opened up a whole range of possibilities for enquiring into the problems relating to culture and social consciousness. It led to the study of cultural and moral mediations and how material experiences were handled in cultural ways (see Hunt 1989, Wood 1990). In The Making of the English Working Class E P Thompson, for instance, described class consciousness as “the way in which these experiences (of productive relations) are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value systems, ideas and institutional forms” (Thompson 1968: 10). Handling social experience in cultural terms is the key to this tendency which created a new paradigm for the study of culture, without ignoring the role of the mode of production. The defining characteristic of the methodology so conceived and practised recognised the relative autonomy of the superstructure, within the rubric of its dialectical relationship with the base. The distinction between class experience and class consciousness which Thompson employed in his studies, particularly in The Making of the English Working Class, illumined this relationship. Thompson considered the former as “largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born”, whereas the latter as the product of cultural mediations (ibid). The theoretical propositions and analysis of Antonio Gramsci, who emphasized the “necessary reciprocity between structure and superstructure, a reciprocity which is nothing other than the real dialectical processes” has been an important influence in the practice of cultural Marxism (Hoare and Smith 1971: 366).

A turn towards culture with such theoretical sensitivity was slow to occur in Marxist historical writing in India, even though the influence of Marxism in political and intellectual life was present from the second quarter of the 20th century. The theoretical concerns and analytical possibilities of the base- superstructure relations in which the study of culture is located became a serious concern only in the works of Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi, who charted out quite an innovative methodology in his study of ancient Indian history. As is well known, Kosambi was not trained as a historian – he described himself as an interloper while speaking in the symposium of Indian History Congress in 1965 – but his methodological and theoretical contribution to the study of history has been so original that he is credited with ushering in a “paradigm shift” in the writing of Indian history (Thapar 1994: 89-113).

Romila Thapar, who so qualified his contribution, describes the paradigm shift as “the move from the colonial and nationalist frameworks and the centrality of dynastic history to a new framework integrating social and economic history and relating the cultural dimension of the past to these investigations” (Thapar 2008: 43-51). To these two more reasons may be added. First, unlike many of his contemporaries who “avoided the disagreeable contact with anthropology, sociology, or reality” and thus confined themselves to what Kosambi termed a “tunnel vision”, he adopted an interdisciplinary approach which became a defining characteristic of his works (Kosambi 2002: 4). The insights of archaeology, anthropology, numismatics and linguistics, combined with an uncanny ability to recognise cultural survivals of the past, illumined his methodology. Second, while committed to the dialectical method of Marxism, he used Marxist method in a very creative and innovative manner. That led to the rejection of economic determinism and reflective theory; recognition of the dialectical relationship between base and superstructure with relative autonomy for the latter; criticism of the mechanical approach of official Marxism and above all, questioning the conclusions of Marx himself wherever they were not in conformity with historical facts.11 Such openness and intellectual freedom lay at the back of the cultural turn he brought to bear upon Indian historiography.

Kosambi’s Methodology

Firmly rooted in the Marxist theoretical framework, Kosambi evolved a methodology for the study of culture. In his first work, An Introduction to the Study of Indian History published in 1956 Kosambi had spelt out his conception of history as “the presentation, in chronological order, of successive development in the means and relations of production” (p 1). This definition of history is repeated several times in his subsequent works.12 The source from which he arrived at this historical theory is Marx’s Preface to the Critique of Political Economy which according to him “says in profound and inspiring words just what human history has been to date”.13 However, he realised that applying this theory to ancient Indian history was difficult in the absence of sufficient surviving evidence about the means and relations of production. The solution he invented was to “guess at the basis from what remains of the superstructure” which led him to trace the unknown base through the known superstructure. In other words, he turned the Marxist metaphor upside down. Naturally the focus of his study was superstructure, culture in other words, which according to him indicated “real changes in the basis”.

In the theoretical concerns of Kosambi, two ideas figure prominently in the consideration of base- superstructure relations. First, the relative autonomy of the superstructure and second, the reciprocal relationship between the two. His analytical method and subjects of study, in fact the entire corpus of his work, bears testimony to the first. He has also spelt it out in an unambiguous manner in The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline:

Our position has also to be very far from a mechanical determinism, particularly in dealing with India where form is given the utmost importance while the content is ignored. Economic determinism will not do. It is not inevitable or even true, that a given amount of wealth will lead to a given type of development. The complete historical process through which social form has been reached is also of prime importance (p 12).

While acknowledging the autonomy of the superstructure, Kosambi subscribed to the idea of the superstructure “reacting” upon the base.14 Both these ideas – relative autonomy and reciprocity – are demonstrated with respect to the changes in Indian society.15

Informed by such a theoretical understanding Kosambi’s study of Indian history represents a reorientation, both in methodology and content, with culture occupying a central place in it. Most of his works, therefore, falls within the rubric of cultural – intellectual history, rooted in the social dynamism generated by the forces of production. The importance he attributed to the study of superstructure, despite deriving the definition of history with reference to the developments in the mode of production, has earned him the sobriquet of “cultural determinist” (Riepe 1977: 42). It hardly captures his theoretical position, as his was an attempt to locate culture in the overall structure and not to seek a cultural explanation for societal changes. In fact, he was against all determinisms, either economic or cultural; his method was dialectical, as indicated in the subtitle of Exasperating Essays – Exercises in the Dialectical Method. In the process he evolved a methodology for the study of culture, attributing to it relative autonomy and independence as well as reciprocity with the forces of production.

Such a relationship – dialectical, dynamic and complex – between the base and the superstructure, around which Kosambi’s analytical model was built, had opened up immense possibilities for the study of Indian culture. But after him they remained largely unrealised, as the focus of Marxist historiography has been either on economic issues or on political movements.

Cultural issues hardly attracted attention and when they did, their treatment suffered either from reductionism or empiricism. More grievously the historical totality with culture as an integral element, as Kosambi had suggested, by and large, remained outside the Marxist concern. As a result, an impression has gathered ground that Marxist method is inadequate to deal with matters cultural. Kosambi’s contribution proves the contrary.

A critical and innovative approach to the study of culture which Kosambi had pursued could herald the arrival of a new cultural turn in Marxist historiography in India. That it has not really happened in any significant measure is surprising, as quite a few historians of the present generation were inspired by Kosambi’s work and many among the young are attracted to the study of everyday cultural practices. Such an inability to further the study of culture has become particularly glaring as “cultural studies” with a linguistic turn threaten to overwhelm the field. Whether the significance of this trend is only methodological or it has ideological implications is a larger question which cannot be addressed here. Yet, it may not be altogether inappropriate to underline that the relatively inadequate attention to the study of culture in Marxist historiography has made it easier for communalism to appropriate and imperialism to hegemonise the study of culture. Nevertheless, culture has emerged as a very intense site of struggle. Understanding the nature and direction of this struggle and participation in it calls for serious academic engagement.


1 Going back to the sources is a term used by Amilcar Cabral to describe the intellectual response in colonial countries as a part of the renaissance. See Cabral (1973: 63).

2 In recent times the notion of Hindu nationalism has been given academic legitimacy by western scholars. See for instance, Jaffrelot (1996) and Juergensmeyer (1994).

3 For the differing opinions of Gandhi and Tagore see Bhattacharya (1997).

4 Elaborating on the reason for adopting chapkan as the common dress for the country, Tagore wrote: “The chapkan is the dress of Hindus and Muslims combined. Hindus and Muslims have both contributed to make up its present form. And still in Western India, in various princely states, one can see a lot of variety in the chapkan. And in this variety one does not only see Muslim inventiveness, but also the creativity and freedom of the Hindus… If a race is forming that can be called an Indian race, then by no means can the Muslim aspect of that race be omitted… So the dress that will be our national dress will be a Hindu-Muslim dress.” Quoted in Tarlo (1996: 60).

5 Quoted in Gopal Krishna Gandhi (2008), p 251.

6 “By the Glorious Epoch I mean the one from the History of that warlike generation and the brave leaders and successful warriors who inspire and lead it on to a war of liberation in order to free their nation from the shackles of foreign domination, whenever it has the misfortune to fall a prey to such powerful fatal aggression and to grovel abjectly under it, and who ultimately drive away the enemy making it an absolutely free and sovereign nation”. V D Savarkar, Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, Bombay, 1989, p 3.

7 This observation is based on my reading of the “Letters to the Editor” colums of Bombay Gazette and Times of India in the 19th century. See Panikkar (2007) for details.

8 The two nation theory was first propounded by V D Savarkar in 1924 (Hindutva, New Delhi, 1989, p 84). Jinnah’s advocacy of two nation theory came much later. Jinnah claimed that the “Muslims are a nation according to any definition…and they must have their homeland, their territory and the state” (M A Jinnah ed.), (1940:1-15). Also see Jalal (1985: 57-58).

9 Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya, ‘Bartaman Hindu- Mussalman Samasya’, Appendix 1 in Chatterji (1995:271).

10 Engles had written in 1890: “According to the materialist conception of history the determining element in history is ultimately production and reproduction in real life. More than this neither Marx nor I has ever asserted. If therefore somebody twists this to the statement that economic element is the only determining one, he transforms it into a meaningless, abstract and absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but various elements of the superstructure…also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements…” Quoted by Maurice Dobb, op cit, p 228. Also see Williams (1958: 258-75).

11 Refer particularly to his essays, “Stages of Indian History”, “On a Marxist Approach to Indian
Chronology”, “Marxism and Ancient Indian Culture” and “What Constitues Indian History” in B D Chattopadhyaya (ed.), op cit.

12 “Combined Methods in Indology”, op cit, 58; The Culture and Civilisation in Ancient India in Historical Outline, New Delhi, 1970, p 10; Myth and Reality, Mumbai, 1962, p 31 and Exasperating Essays – Exercises in the Dialectical Method, Pune, 1957, p 2.

13 “Stages in Indian History” in Chattopadhyaya (ed.), op cit, pp 57-58.14 “Stages of Indian History” in B D Chattopadhyaya (ed.) op cit, p 60.15 When the size of the village unit remains unchanged, the density of these units plays a most important role; the same region with two villages, or 200, or 20,000 cannot bear the same form of superstructure, nor be exploited by the same type of state mechanism. Conversely, the progressive weight of this superstructure changes land ownership within the village (Kosambi 1970: 11).


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