Myth from history

There were many responses to my post on the Maratha Mindset: How to Control Your History and Emotions to Grasp the Future on Your Terms. I didn’t have the time to respond in detail, but a few conversations suggest I could be a bit more clear.

The primary issue that I’m alluding to is that a nation-state does not come out of thin air. They come out of history, historical memory, and organic cohesive identity. Victor Lieberman’s Strange Parallels argues that the mainland Southeast Asian nations developed nation-states rather easily (e.g., Vietnam, Thailand, etc.) because of a particular geopolitical background that they share with Western Europe. The contrast here might be with recently independent African nations, which often were literally constructed out of colonial-era compromises between European nation-states. Not so with Vietnam or Thailand, which had 1,000-year evolutions as political entities.

This moves me to the idea of India as a nation-state. It is clear that the Indian subcontinent has a broad civilizational affinity and unity. This was recognized by ancient Indians themselves, and it was recognized by outsiders. But civilization does not mean a nation-state. Western Europe is “the West,” the set of societies united by the Western Christian Church (later to become Protestants and Catholics). Aside from very short periods (e.g., the Napoleonic Empire) Western Europe, like mainland Southeast Asia, has been divided between different sub-civilizational units which developed a cultural and national coherency.

China is an exception to this. It has been a civilizational empire for 2,000 years, and today is the archetypical civilizational nation-state. It is, in some ways, what the Republic of India should aspire to become. The Chinese government has been pushing for Standard Mandarin to be known by the whole population within a few decades, without much controversy. The Han Chinese have long had a unitary political identity, no matter their internal linguistic diversity (which is dampened by the common written language).

Going back to India, it is clear that the construction of a nation-state and national institutions is a process. It is work. It does not naturally emerge out of thin air through fiat. In the previous post, I contrasted the Gangetic plain, in particular Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, with Maharashtra. What was I pointing to there?

The Gangetic plain has a strong civilizational identity. In this way, it is similar to many Arab Muslims, who have a strong identity as Arab Muslims. Arab Muslims also have weak national identities and strong local identities. This is a problem for nation-states because they need intermediate identities into which the local identities can flow. It’s a matter of organization that leads to structural cohesion.

The peoples of the Gangetic plain have strong communal identities, but weak regional identities. The communal identities were so robust that the vast majority did not convert to Islam. But with the weakening of the exogenous pressure, they need intermediate identities around which they can coalesce around to scale-out the social structure.

But how? One way you can do this is to focus on a national origin myth. But this presents a problem. The dominant indigenous polities of the Gangetic plain since 1200 A.D. have been Islamic and usually Turkic. Many Hindus on the Gangetic plain would argue that these were not even indigenous polities. Setting that aside, it does seem that the Mughals are ill-suited to being the binding historical precedent due to popular alienation (Ranjit Singh is too sectarian). There were obviously non-Muslim polities in the Gangetic plain before 1200 A.D., but myth-building at such a distance is not optimal. The Shah of Iran in the 20th-century attempted to reconfigure Iranian identity around that of the ancient Persians, but this was too tenuous a connection for most of the populace, which was more rooted in the Shia identity that came down from the Safavids.

In South India, even the Vijayanagara Empire may not be recent enough to serve as a concrete basis for myth-making.

The Marathas of the 18th-century are different. They are recent enough that many people have personal family connections to this period and the people of this period. There is a concreteness. Though the Marathas are people of the Deccan, they are not totally alien to the Gangetic plain, sharing a broad civilizational identification. Additionally, despite Maharashtra being a caste-based state like all Hindu-majority states, there is a strong sub-national identity. Despite the prominence of Brahmin Peshwas, the Maratha Empire was driven at all levels by the manpower of the militarized rural peasantry.

The Maratha identity emerged out of decades of conflict and warfare. In classic cultural evolutionary terms, intergroup competition drove within-group cohesion. This is a well-known dynamic. War tends to solidify identity, contingent on the scale of the war. Even if the Marathas originally did not see themselves leading a pan-Indian cultural revolution with arms, that does seem to be what ended up occurring at the height of the Maratha Empire.

Their military aspect is also critical. The Bengal Renaissance led to a strong sub-national identity among Hindu Bengalis in particular, especially the elites. But civilian brilliance does not seem to have the power to ground a myth. That must be done with the sword (or musket).

Ultimately, national identity must be more than a negation. This is most clear in the nature of Pakistan vs. Bangladesh. Pakistan’s identity is much more rooted in its negation of Hindu India (along with its claim to be the heir of the Mughals). The people of the Gangetic plain resisted Islamicization, but much of their broader identity beyond community seem to be fixated on the negation and rejection of the Islamic period.

The Maratha example is one which is not founded on negation, but creation. That creation occurred out of the maelstrom of decades of warfare and conflict. But it did occur. War led to the creation of the skeleton of an Empire based on Indian cultural motifs, without West or Central Asia ties.

The Maratha Empire was ultimately incomplete. The British stopped what was likely an inevitable deposition of the Mughals and a decentering of Islam as the obligate religious-identity at the apex of political power in the subcontinent. But it is a realized enough history that can serve easily as the seed for a future identity.


20 Replies to “Myth from history”

  1. Good point. Even when ‘recent’ Maratha supremacy can be recognized as an incipient Indian nationalism, there are strong regional identities in India. Shivaji in his travels in south India stopped in Chennai in 1677 and worshiped Kaligambal goddess temple which is in the busy part of central Chennai . At that time , he had a face off with the East India Company based in Chennai , whose masters EIC had become

  2. “the Marathas originally did not see themselves leading a pan-Indian cultural revolution with arms” actually this isn’t really true. Shivaji’s father Shahaji was attempting to conjure secret support for the Vijayanagarans, despite working for an enemy kingdom. Shivaji’s letters display an anguish and desire to liberate the subcontinent from the “Yavans”.

    1. Shivajis father Shahaji was a general in the army of the Bijapur Sultanate. Shahaji and other muslim generals were sent south by the sultan to subdue the nayaks of jinjee(one of the remnants of the vijayanagar empire after its end at the battle of talikota). Shahaji was suspected(and rightly so) of sabotaging the campaign and instead helping the hindu nayak by secretly providing him intel about d sultans armys movements. He was arrested and brought to Bijapur in chains by another bijapur general Afzal Khan(who Shivaji would later infamously and controversially kill at the Battle of Pratapgad). Shahaji was later released on the condition that Shivaji(who, independent of his father, had built his kingdom by chipping away at bijapur territories) would not annex any more land. He didnt for the next 6 yrs(1649-55). If u want a comprehensive bio of Shivaji, i would recommend Jadunath Sarkars ‘shivaji and his times’

  3. Maratha power was forged in the decades old war with Aurangzeb who wanted to bring the entire Deccan under Mughal rule. At many junctures Aurangzeb and the Mughals thought they had crushed the Marathas, only to see the Marathas unite under the banner of a different descendent of the Bhosale family and/or “Sardar” (warrior and nobleman).

    Maratha power was initially based on infantry and then cavalry. Given the hard scrabble land from which the Maratha empire emerged, they had to raid and loot and plunder in order to survive. [True of the Sikh bands as well.] However, even after the Marathas under the Peshwas burst out of the Deccan and feasted on the decomposing Mughal Empire, they were often more likely to raid rather than stay and rule. They preferred quick and easy victories and resulting plunder, rather than protracted battles with an organized army with artillery. A powerful artillery came about in the later stages of Maratha ascendancy and was based on the expertise of French mercenaries. [Similar to Tipu Sultan and the Sikhs.]

    This penchant for raiding did not win the Marathas any allies. The Maratha heartland never generated the kind of surplus that the Maratha Empire could leverage into the conquest of adjoining areas. The surplus of the Gangetic plains was extracted during raids but not over extended periods via taxation and trade.

    Even today, there are people from Gujarat and as far away as Bengal who have family lore passed down about ruthless Maratha raiders. More importantly, these raids disrupted the local economies to such an extent that moneylenders started backing the EIC which though rapacious allowed the Seths (moneylenders) to go about their traditional business.

    The lack of unity among Maratha factions, and lack of strategic thought prevented the Marathas from building alliances with Rajputs and Sikhs. Marathas never fully understood the power of the EIC till it was too late.

    In some ways, the lack of strategic thought and doctrine still plagues the Indian union.

    1. Agree on the lack of strategic thought.

      At one point of time, if the squabbling Marathas, Nizam, & Tippu/Hyder had formed an alliance they could have dealt a death blow to the East India Company

      But these guys always over played their hand & due to some reason or the other never came together

  4. In what ways is the freedom struggle not suited to be the origin myth for Indian nation-state? Perhaps too recent, but then even the Maratha resurgency isn’t very old compared to the civilisational antiquity of India. Recency will also grant it (the nat’l struggle) the concreteness you mentioned in your write-up.

  5. In what ways is the freedom struggle not suited to be the origin myth for Indian nation-state? P

    the freedom struggle was by an elite, often anglicized. not sure that that is relatedable. also plenty of african and latin american countries had freedom struggles which were successful. but often that doesn’t result in a successful nation-state.

    the american revolution is against that, but arguably the american english colonies were coherent as a unit (that’s what they event claimed at the time). there was a broad national feeling across the states

    1. \the freedom struggle was by an elite, often anglicized. \
      To be fair to the freedom struggle, it never rejected Maraths or any other Hindu or Indian kingdom. It wanted to build itself on these older memories and loyalties and glorified them.

  6. Even today, there are people from Gujarat and as far away as Bengal who have family lore passed down about ruthless Maratha raiders. More importantly, these raids disrupted the local economies to such an extent that moneylenders started backing the EIC which though rapacious allowed the Seths (moneylenders) to go about their traditional business.

    yes. this is where the ‘myth’ has come into play. the bengalis have the nawab. or, they have the marathas. rising hindu consciousness forgoes the option of identification with musli premodern elites.


    When Toppling Monuments Serves Authoritarian Ends

    “There are no “culture wars” in India like those that rage in the United States, because Hindu nationalists have in large part already won. The print and television media, with only a few exceptions, have found that their best interests lie in amplifying the government line. Hindutva visions of Indian history and identity, incoherent and evolving as they often are, have become the new consensus.

    There is little scope for public debate and discussion where freedom of expression is under threat. Recourse to history––even more sophisticated histories––can take a society only so far. The problem is not, as the German philosopher Georg Hegel once suggested, that Indians have no history. History is everywhere, deployed to enrage and incite. Today, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party seeks to create an ethnostate on the bedrock of an imagined history”

  8. The peoples of the Gangetic plain have strong communal identities, but weak regional identities.

    This is not unique to India though. China also had/has powerful regional/communal/linguo-cultural identities often backed by intelligentsia/politic-economic/clans of that region. This is the rift lines the Split-cycles of Chinese history would usually fall into.

    The reason it eventually gets taken care of in China over and over again is the civilizational traditions of how to organize society. Hierarchy is accepted as a pro or rather in other terms a necessary & must evil.

    Meaning their answer to this is a very strong Center.

    One way you can do this is to focus on a national origin myth.

    India did do that. Post Independence leaders of India were highly educated and knew of this. This is why Mauryan symbology was used, often at the expense of Independence movement symbols like the removal of Cotton Spinning Wheel to the current Ashoka Chakra.

    The other aspect of it was Mauryan’s were distant enough to not cause regional friction but young enough to have a common myth being possible and also critically with just enough information available (since even today not as much is known of that era) its easier to mold the narrative with current era requirements. History like this is a Living entity.

    Part of the problem with the word History is semantic in nature, as in we call the Scientific discipline of learning about past History and it must be Objective Truth but the above mentioned Living traditions is also called History. Hence the conflict which arises from semantic corruption.

    Living history is important because we’re not the only ones in modern era doing it. What we claim to have happened 3 centuries back by rulers or peoples of that time, those peoples were also re-writing their traditions, i.e. tailoring/re-writing history. Meaning there is not such thing as, Can’t re-write history. Living history we can and should re-write because its for the benefit of the living and coming generation. The scientific pursuit of History is different.

    the freedom struggle was by an elite, often anglicized.

    This again shouldn’t be an issue since most Regimes (countries, States, Nations, etc) since the ancient times were constructed by the Elites, peasant/low-class-caste forming Dynasties did happen but they were outliers not the norm. Even the anglicized angle isn’t convincing since these leaders could also play the indigenous card when they wanted politically and not without merit either. They weren’t ethnically foreign like many of the past dynasties.

    Secondly, US formed a successful enough State despite being created by the absolute Elite to the point they were still owning slaves, barely quarter of the humanity in the land could even vote.

    Meaning India could have used the Freedom movement as a Nationalist strain (which was very common in first part of 20th century) for Nation building myths. Chinese basically piggy-banked on this till the last few decades when old traditions are being allowed public space again. It is/was possible but it wasn’t the path chosen by India even though it wasn’t hidden either. Freedom movement symbolism was pervasive (to the extent it is relevant) in Post-Independence India, just ask old relatives if they are alive.

    1. The US elites papered over the original sin of slavery in order to get all the colonies to sign on in the struggle against the British. Similarly, the Congress under Nehru tried to paper over some many religious, cultural, linguistic, and caste fissures in India so that we could emerge as a unitary state. This was after the partition of course.

      Over time some of these fissures have healed – linguistic wars are mostly a thing of the past, but fissures based on caste continue to fester. Mythology and lore surrounding Indian history and in particular the period between 1100 and 1800 AD has been sorely tested. The Congress’ grip on power has slipped away as has its hold on India’s historical narrative.

      Through the last 70+ years, India has avoided a major cataclysm such as the Civil War in the US. Recent estimates put casualties from the US Civil War at ~ 900,000 out of a population of 31 million. That is a staggering 3% of the population! Of course undivided India paid a huge price during the partition, but it also took a lesson from it in that the elites were able to avoid a repeat of the same.

      Comparison with China is not very useful. The Chinese Communist regime was a successor state to a heritage of strong centrally controlled Chinese empires. The history of the Congress Party and India was very different. There was no way that these narratives could have been forced on the citizens of Independent India in a democratic dispensation.

      That is the saving grace.

  9. The freedom movement was heavily influential in the first few decades after independence, and did contribute to a certain extent in creating a modern social fabric in which all communities could feel represented free of historical baggage. This worked for as long as the congress party was in power, and it suited them due to their outsize involvement in the freedom movement. However in this day and age using the freedom movement will be seen with suspicion since it’s seen as a congress pet project. Over-reliance on the aesthetics of the freedom movement, especially the Gandhian variant over the revolutionary one was also (arguably) responsible for many of the blunders of the initial decades – non-alignment, suspicion of capitalism and modernity, a romanticisation of rural life, etc.

  10. india is complex. an entrenched left leaning intelligentsia will ensure that every hindu success story is derided and ultimately trashed by creating a false binary between different castes and religions.

    take the maratha empire for example. in any sane country its story will be celebrated as a national success. it was a hindu reconquista in many ways. however, of late dalits have taken to celebrating the battle of koregaon, (, which was a defeat of maratha peshawa at the hands of british, as their hour of glory! the reason is that british ranks contained a number of mahar (dalit) slidiers, and peshwa of course represented the brahmanical hegemony. so we now have a counter narrative ready, which must be given an equal hearing.

    goaded by their semi-literate “intellectuals”, dalits are writing their own version of “your heritage is my slavery” narrative. this sounds a bit unfair to peshwas and marathas in general, because they didn’t seem to have oppressed the dalit in a concerted way. dailits were always dealt a generally disadvantageous hand in india, and nobody seriously disputes that. but celebrating national defeats just to spite their detractors is taking it to another level altogether.

  11. In the Hindutva line of thought (not an accident that RSS was founded in Maharashtra), Shivaji’s consolidation is THE central event in Indian history of the last millennium.

    It could have gone wrong so easily – the near death at Pratapgad (saved by Jiva Mahala) or his arrest at the Agra Durbar and then subsequent escape . The whole sequence of events have now assumed greater importance in light of the events that followed far after Shivaji.

    He had very good successors – especially Baji Rao I – the primary military genius of the Marathas, who greatly expanded the initial seed into a true continental power.

    But Shivaji’s motivations are very nicely explored in “Shriman Yogi” by Ranjit Desai (also translated in English). There existed a strand of public consciousness that remembered the ethos and ethics of a pre-Turkic age.


    “Can the Yālis talk?

    If they could, would they tell us about how the great Hindu confederacy dreamt of by those two brothers Hakka and Bukka, became a great empire – one of the greatest civilizational centres of the world those times? The empire not only ensured the survival of Hindu culture. It helped Indic culture flourish into new forms, and created a statecraft which was far ahead of its time and yet, by its own extreme goodness, fell and died a horrible merciless death.

    Perhaps the city fell and died a martyr but the Yālis would continue, about how one day a young man with a strange turban and a budding beard and moustache reached the ruins. He stood there watching the ruins with a heavy heart. It was as if the youth was lost in meditation among the ruins of Hampi. Then the Yālis would tell us that one of his friends called him, ‘Shiva, come let us go…’ Yālis, only if they could talk, would tell us of the fire they saw in the eyes of that young man as he got up and mounted his horse. They would also tell of the cry they heard in the air as the youngsters turned to leave, ‘Har Har Madadeo … Jai Bhavani…. ’”

  13. your heritage is my slavery” narrative.

    That is what essentially happened in India, over the long historical & meta terms & timeline. History (scientific and living) is proof of it and Genetics is corroborating proof of it as well.

    One doesn’t get puny desert nobodies constantly pummeling neighboring states 10-20 times their size without the larger state having insane Human Resource/Management problems.

    When you eliminate 2/3 of your population from credible social mobility and best resources (material and intellectual) of the land then yes you are in practical terms Slaving them, i.e. denying them agency.

    It takes just 2-3 generations for a population group to see significant physiological genetic changes (Dutch going from low-mid in Europe to Top 2 in topmost average height of population, in around 150 years). It doesn’t take a genius to see what would happen to a human group when they are subjected to reduced access to the average/best resources but their immediate neighboring group who live alongside them isn’t bound by that.

    And it won’t get rectified in 50-100 years either.

    And India still hasn’t properly reconciled its Caste dynamic, socio-culturally or politically.

    The only really mind-blowing thing is that India hasn’t seen a Lower Caste violent revolution of a national scale. Or maybe they are so comprehensively brainwashed that they can’t even imagine something like that. Revolutions only happen when people dare and risk it all.

    War without End | Ambedkar, Time, and Stasis | Aishwary Kumar.

    Chapter taken from The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Political Theory.

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