Lecture 1, Part 3: Difficulties in Approaching Indian Thought by Bharati

To the reader…

This is part of a series of posts on Indian Political Thought. They are transcripts of lectures delivered recently by Bharati. Each lecture will be divided into a number of parts and published separately. Bharati has not only endorsed their publication but also checked and improved the transcripts; for which, the blog renders its gratitude. However, yours truly and their good friend are responsible for tracing, checking, and arranging the references. These references are neither authoritative nor exhaustive; treat them simply as the attempts of two cluelesss students at helping themselves and other clueless students understand the lectures just a little better. Often they are pointers to material that might interest the slightly more advanced reader. Some are simply interesting (we hope) pieces of trivia.

Some things before you proceed:

  1. Sanskrit (and other non-English) terms are transliterated following the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) standard. Though it not strictly necessary or even recommended, I try to transliterate most terms. Familiarity with Devanagri sounds is recommended.
  2. Please use the footnote markers ([1], [2], etc.) to jump to footnotes and back to the text.


Difficulties in approaching Indian thought

21. How often members of those societies actually followed the rules prescribed for each varna, we do not know. And the reason we don’t know is because we know ancient India mainly through normative and literary texts, (besides of course through archaeological remains) and these texts are mostly of one particular kind, which is to say that they are in Sanskrit in most cases and you can say that they are Brahmanical. They are Brahmanical in the specific sense that — this is actually a complicated thing even though we use words like Brahmanical and Brahmanism very easily — they were authored by Brahmins. And those who author or propose a particular scheme are always going to make sure that they will have an advantageous position within that classificatory scheme, and that is what must have happened. (Obviously, we are not saying that a class of very clever and cunning people wrote something up and everyone else bought into what they said. It’s never as simple as that!) However, ancient India, or medieval India, or later India, and therefore Indian way of thinking, is not restricted to Sanskrit and Brahmanical texts.

22. And this is where our first difficulty of understanding Indian thought comes. There has been an overidentification of Sanskrit and Indian thinking. But Indian thinking is far more than what Sanskrit texts tell us. There were not only Sanskrit texts, but also Tamil texts, as well as Buddhist texts written in Pali. For the medieval period, you have to look at not only Sanskrit and Tamil but also Arabic and Persian. (And, from the second millennium onwards, at texts written in the regional languages.) Some very important texts of the 16th and 17th centuries are in Arabic and Persian. Not many people know that. And this is a tragedy of modern India. I mean since the 18th century, or at least since the 19th century, educated Indians have been obsessed with what they believe to be authentically Indian. They have been obsessed with Indian past. They have been obsessed with what they call ancient India. But the average knowledge about that India and its history, barring a few exceptions, is very poor. We don’t know for example that in the 16th and 17th century, there was a lot of translation activity going on between Persian and Sanskrit. Some of the Mughal Emperors actually patronised this activity. And that is how you get translations of the Mahābhārata into Persian.[11] We don’t know that one particular kind of style of singing within Hindustani Classical music which is called dhrupad would not have probably survived had it not received royal patronage from the Mughal Emperors.[12] Medieval India was a world which we, who are not professional historians, still don’t understand very well.

23. Even historians are dependent on whatever manuscripts and court records there are. (Both are elite activities, by the way.) Unfortunately not all manuscripts have survived. It is likely that a very large number of manuscripts have been lost. They may have simply fallen into neglect. So when a particular five hundred year old Sanskrit text from a particular era and a particular region is discovered, we have no way of knowing what the contemporaries of that text or that author thought about it. We look upon anything that is in Sanskrit reverentially. But it is possible that the contemporaries of the author of that text did not think much of it. A particular play which has been translated recently and probably belongs to the 14th and 15th century is such an isolated text.[13] Maybe there were several such plays written during that period. On the other hand, it’s equally possible that the particular genre had been abandoned by authors who hoped to get royal patronage. What did the contemporaries think of it? How often was it staged? We don’t know. Appreciating a text historically requires you to know the context. And that context, even if it is not a social or historical context, has to be an intellectual context. So for me to appreciate a particular play from the 14th century I need to know similar texts of the 14th century and references to this text in other texts. If all that has gone away, how do I come to an infromed judgment about this isolated text which has miraculously survived?

24. I say this about texts whose manuscripts have disappeared. What about those which exist but which are not accessible to scholars? There was a king called Maharaja Anūpa Siṃha who lived during the later part of the 17th century. He ruled in parts of Rajasthan.[14] He was a very scholarly king, and that’s another interesting thing about kings in India. Like some of these Mughal Emperors,[15] some of the so-called Hindu kings were great lovers and patrons of learning. Maharaja Anūpa Siṃha knew a lot of scholars from Varanasi or Benaras. Through his contact with them, he acquired a lot of manuscripts. We are talking about 17th century, and therefore the pre-print era (in India); and for that era manuscripts were extremely valuable because that’s the only way you got to know works being composed.

25. Mansucripts used to circulate throughout India. The circulation of manuscripts itself is a fascinating story which tells us how little we know of the world which not only has irrevocably disappeared but has been so badly misunderstood. A huge amount of manuscripts were circulating throughout India. Kashmir was an important center of learning and Indian philosophy. Some of the most important so-called Hindu philosophers actually come from Kashmir.[16] And what is interesting is that everytime a new text appeared in Kashmir, it immediately got copied and started circulating in the rest of India. That is the kind of contact that intellectuals or scholars or whatever you call them from different parts of the country had with each other. So this Anūpa Siṃha fraternises some of these scholars in Varanasi and through them acquires manuscripts. He goes on acquiring manuscripts. Like the king in Tanjore. Tanjore’s (Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji’s) Saraswathi Mahal Library is in large part the collection of the king, one of the last kings before the British took over.[17] Similarly here is this 17th century king who acquires a huge collection.

26. What is the state of that collection (now called Anup Sanskrit Library, Bikaner, Rajasthan) today? Probably the manuscripts are all still there. Probably they are all still intact. Those who are looking after the library, probably the descendents of the King and his family, they do not allow any scholars to copy these manuscripts. Not only has there been no digitization as far as I know but even mechanical copying of manuscripts is not allowed. Now the problem is that you can’t possibly sit there and go on reading these manuscripts till you become old (as the American scholar Sheldon Pollock said) and feel proud of having read eight or ten manuscripts out of the hundreds that are there in the library. The modern scholars operate differently. Academics from within India and elsewhere take leave, arrange money from some foundation, visit libraries, photocopy the material they need, and read it leisurely later. That is how academic activity works. So you have a huge collection of manuscripts, still not fully explored by the scholarly world because it is inaccessible.

But both western and Indian scholars have been denied permission to reproduce the manuscripts [from the Anup Sanskrit Library in Bikaner] in any way, and have thus been effectively barred from using them unless they are prepared to read them in situ — and grow old in the desert of Rajasthan.

Sheldon Pollock, “Is There an Indian Intellectual History?”, p. 539.

27. Do you know that there is no definitive exhaustive catalogue of ALL the manuscripts in India anywhere? There are scattered catalogues which cater to specific areas and specific regions. So apart from the problem of language, there is also the problem of access to manuscripts. And then there is the problem of the nation-state and its boundaries. Most of us identify ourselves as Indians and there is a geopolitical reality called the Indian nation state with its boundaries. But take a look at the older maps with trade routes marked on them. Wherever there is trade, there is a movement of people, and wherever there is a movement of people, there is also likely to be a movement of texts. If the hypothesis is correct, and if it is true that trade routes were extensive in pre-modern India, then it simply means that looking at old Indian texts and thinking through the frame of modern Indian nation-state is deceptive. [For more on this, as well as the maps, see Lecture 2, Part 1 (to be uploaded soon)]

28. Let me give you an example. Suppose you talk to Bengali intellectuals from a small town in Bengal. You will notice that they read Bangla, speak Bangla, and the people they know are Bengalis. Which means that their world is the Bengali intellectual world. It is possible that in the 18th century coastal Andhra Pradesh, the world of Telugu intellectuals was the Telugu world. But, from the trade routes and the old maps that have been collected, it seems that the world of pre-modern Indian intellectuals was far more extensive than what the modern Indian nation-state and the administrative boundaries of its regional units represent. It went all the way on both the Eastern and Western side to areas which are now part of different nation states. It went to South-East Asia on the eastern side. Some of the older texts were being translated into Chinese.[18] On the Western side, it went through the gulf all the way up to the Mediterranean sea. At one point it went all the way up to Tashkent. Assuming that these trade routes represent the interaction that Indians had, then it was not restricted to today’s India but it was far more extensive than that. So when we say Indian thinking, are we talking about Indian thinking as it is represented by whatever figures within the confines of the modern nation state called India, or are we talking of Indian thinking as part of a larger South Asian region? Depending on the answer to this question our study and the object of our study will be very different.

29. The reality of the modern Indian nation state and its present boundaries have influenced our perceptions. Everyone who pretends to know anything about Indian history talks about invasions. We believe that there was ancient India, which was mostly good and Hindu, medieval India, which was full of invasions and barbarism, and then modern India, which is partly colonial or British, before its independence is restored.[19] This conception of Indian history as falling into three time periods actually comes to us from the colonial administrator cum historian James Mill, father of John Stuart Mill. Because of the conscious or subconscious influence of this tripartite scheme of Indian history, whenever we talk about invasions, we actually talk about invasions which started happening in the medieval period. But if you look at the early Indian history, you will see that it too was full of invasions. In fact, some of the most important texts, the epics and the Puranas, were composed around the time when invasions from the north-west were taking place pouring various people into the Gangetic belt. That is when some of the law books were codified or were in the process of being composed. This may be very significant because the idea of an outsider (mlechcha) and the idea of demons (asuras) that you find in some of the law books and some of the Puranas may actually have been a kind of legal or poetic representation of these new people who were coming in waves around the time these smritis and puranas were being composed.[20]

30. Look at the period between three or four centuries before the common era and two or three centuries after the common era. A whole lot of people, or groups, which were ethnically different poured into India and they were not migrants who came in search of jobs or livelihoods like in modern times. They came and ruled different parts of the country. Some of the very famous empires in early Indian history were empires of people who came through the North-Western route into the Gangetic belt, settled there and started ruling. I am not sure if we should use the word “invasion” because it is used with an implicit frame of reference which is derived from the modern Indian nation-state. When we say invasions into India, we implicitly look at the modern Indian nation-state’s international borders and say, they came from outside these borders. But these boundaries are a modern creation. Suppose we ignore this and still want to call them invasions because they were ethnically, linguistically different from those who were already settled there. Why do we focus on some invasions and not others? The whole history of India is a history of invasions. All sorts of people have been pouring in into India and eventually becoming part of the Indian society. They have had all kinds of relations with those who had settled here or were living here earlier. Those relations include conflict also. (How many of us can say confidently that they are pure descendents of the original inhabitants of India?)

31. So modern nationalism and the modern self-understanding of Indians as belonging to a well-defined geopolitical entity has been a great stimulus and also a great impediment in understanding Indian history well. Nationalism is why we got interested in our past and that is how the discipline of history took roots here. But nationalism also provides a modern frame of reference which complicates the way we look at our past.

32. Even without nationalism, it is not easy to bridge the great distance that separates us from the past. Let me draw your attention to something I was talking about earlier. I was talking about classificatory schemes and this whole idea of correspondence between being a Brahmin, a particular part of the day, a particular metre of poetry, and I said that they were supposed to have a certain connection with each other. That idea must have appeared to some of you at least very strange and difficult to understand. But let me read out to you something from a very old text and you are going to find it even stranger.

Here now is the praise of the personal recitation of the Veda [that is, what are the benefits you derive from reciting the Vedas]. The one who does it regularly [recites the Vedas] acquires presence of mind, becomes independent, acquires wealth, sleeps well, he becomes his own physician, to him belongs the mastery of the senses, to him belongs the development of his intelligence, glory, and cooking the world. [“Cooking” is the literal translation of the Sanskrit word.][21]

33. The reference to cooking is not an aberration. The same word is used once again in the text: “As his intelligence grows, certain duties become incumbent upon the Brahmin. A Brahmanic origin, behaviour consonant with his Brahmanical status, glory, and cooking the world.”[22] What is this whole business of cooking the world? As you explore this and go into greater detail, you realise that in this idea of cooking the world, “world” is a translation of the Sanskrit word loka [not “people” as in some translations]— and cooking is a translation of the Sankrit word pakti from which the modern Indian word pakānā is derived. Lokapakti is the original Sanskrit word which is translated here literally as cooking the world.[23] I doubt if anyone here would have ever heard of an idea as strange as this and would have thought that this is actually an important idea in ancient Indian thinking. If the classification of different elements and things of the world into Brahmanical, Kṣatriya, or Vaiśya elements was strange enough for our modern ears, this is beyond strange and forces you to leave aside all your preconceived notions about ancient India and approach that world with openness and humility.

34. Why is it that I have brought this up? Not because I am going to talk about cooking the world or cooking in general. But because I want you to know that the world that we are talking about, the world that we are trying to think about and understand, is a world which is stranger than you can imagine. It’s a bizzare world. It’s a world which sometimes perplexes you, sometime amuses you, sometimes shocks you. It has become very common to refer to the Upanṣads and everyone who is a great admirer of Hindu philosophy talks about Upanṣadic philosophy. Some of the descriptions in this Upanṣads, and if anybody is interested I can privately give the actual reference, are so explicitly erotic that even in an Indian philosophy class, I wouldn’t have possibly been able to discuss them.[24]

35. Again there is a correspodence, you may say metaphor, between erotic acts and sacrifice. Because the ancient Indians saw the correspondence between the two, one became the metaphor of the other, and in discussing sacrifice, the particular Upanṣad is describing the sacrifice through the imagery of erotic activities.[25] This will shock people. This will shock even those who swear by Indian philosophy or the so-called Hindutva because our tastes and sensibilities, what we regard as appropriate and not appropriate has so completely changed from what it was in the ancient or in the medieval period that we can’t possibly read these extracts or passages without getting disturbed at least in the beginning. As you read more, it of course becomes familiar to you and then it stops shocking you, you might even start enjoying it. You can try.

36. The point I am trying to make is that between us and them — whether this us is Indian or Western, men or women, upper caste or lower caste, Hindu or non-Hindu, secular or communal, whatever or whoever we are ­— there is a huge gulf. There are many barriers between us and them. And unless we suspend all our prior prejudices and our politically charged emotions, we will not understand them. Somebody said that the past is a foreign country.[26] And it is actually very true in the Indian context. The Indian past for the modern Indians is actually a foreign country. What has happened is that very few half-understood elements of pre-modern India have been brought together in a quick easy-to-understand and very-pleasing-to-one’s-mind kind of way, and has been dished out as Indian history, Indian religion, Indian philosophy, etc. But we need to not only set aside our prejudices but also be brave. Setting aside prejudices requires bravery. Because a prejudice is that which protects you from something which will disturb you. Something which will unsettle you. And you don’t want to be disturbed, and you don’t want to be unsettled, and therefore, that prejudice is there protecting you. And therefore, setting aside that prejudice requires enormous amount of courage.

37. I may be a secular person and I may be disturbed by communal conflict in modern India, and therefore I may be constantly believing that communal conflict started happening only because of the British and after the British came and their divide-and-rule policy. That before the British, there were no communal conflicts. But the day I actually start looking at historical evidence which has survived and which is available from pre-modern period, this very easy formulation that in the pre-British period, Hindus and Muslims were not fighting with each other has to be modified, and has to be modified drastically. Doesn’t mean that I cease to be or stop being a secular person. But it simply means that my very comfortable, my very easy formulations about Indian history which in a way reinforce my secular, or communal, or religious position, has to go. I’ll have to reformulate my secularism. If I am a Hindutva person, I will reformulate my Hindutva position. If I am a liberal person, I will reformulate my liberal position.

38. So going through a study of pre-modern thinking is an experience by itself. For those of you who come from outside India, that is one set of challenges. But I imagine that if you overcome those challenges, your access to pre-modern Indian thinking will be actually easier than our access because we are so steeped in the politics of the 19th and 20th century. And it is that 19th and 20th century politics which makes attracts us to Indian thinking but also obscures that Indian thinking from us. So it plays a dual role. It is going to be a difficult and challenging course. And it is going to be difficult and challenging for many reasons.


[11] The translation activity got underway with the patronage of Akbar who sponsored the translation of numerous Sanskrit texts (but also the Tuzuk-i-Baburi of his grandfather Babur) into Persian. The Sanskrit texts translated included, but were not limited to, Rāmāyaṇa, Atharvaveda, Līlāvatī (a mathematical treatise written by Bhāskarāchārya in the 12th century), and Rājataraṅgiṇī (written by Kalhaṇa in the 12th century). It was carried on by by Jahangir. The most important of the translations of course was that of the Mahābhārata commissioned by Akbar in 1582. The translation produced was called Razmnamah.

See Audrey Truschke, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court, South Asia across the Disciplines (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).[^]

[12] Especially Akbar. Dhrupad is closely and famously associated with the composer and singer Tansen who one of the nine jewels (Navaratnas) at Akbar’s court. See Ritwik Sanyal and Richard Widdess, Dhrupad: Tradition and Performance in Indian Music, SOAS Musicology Series (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 45–59.[^]

[13] Jyotirmaya Sharma’s The Ocean of Mirth: Reading Hāsyārṇava-Prahasanaṁ of Jagadẽśvara Bhaṭṭāchārya, A Political Satire for All Times (London: Routledge, 2019)[^]

[14] See Sheldon Pollock, “Is There an Indian Intellectual History? Introduction to ‘Theory and Method in Indian Intellectual History,’” Journal of Indian Philosophy 36, no. 5–6 (October 2008), p. 539, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10781-008-9051-y.[^]

[15] Babur wrote a memoir called Tuzuk-i-Baburi in Turkish (later translated into Persian as Baburnamah at the instance of Akbar); Humayun built a great library; Akbar gathered a great number of scholars at the palace, started patronised translation activity which contiued under Jahangir and to an extent under Shah Jahan; Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Shah Jahan, was a great scholar himself and arranged the translation of many of the Upanṣads, etc.[^]

[16] To mention three of the most prominent: Ānandavardhana (9th century; author of Dhvanyāloka), Abhinavagupta (10th century; author of, among others, Locana [a commentary on Dhvanyāloka], Abhinavabhāratī [a commentary on the Nāṭyaśāstra], Tantrāloka), and Kalhaṇa (12th century; author of Rājataraṅgiṇī).[^]

[17] The reference is to the Thanjavur king Serfoji II Bhonsle (1777–1832). See I. Arokiaswamy et al., “The Sarasvati Mahal Library and Contribution of Rajah Serfoji II,” Gerteria Journal 33, no. 11 (2020): 47–55.[^]

[18] Three prolific translators of Buddhist texts were Kumārajīva (4th century CE), Paramārtha (6th century) and Xuanzang (7th century CE).[^]

[19] James Mill’s three-volume work titled The History of British India comprising six books, first published in 1817 and published later with more volumes, divided the history of India into three: that of the “the Hindus” (Vol 1, Book 2), “the Mahomedans” (Vol 1, Book 3), and the British (Vol 1, Book 1; Vol 2, Books 4–5; Vol 3, Book 6).[^]

[20] See Sanjay Palshikar, “Asuras Through the Ages,” in Critical Studies in Politics: Exploring Sites, Selves, Power, eds. Nivedita Menon, Aditya Nigam, Sanjay Palshikar (Noida: Orient Blackswan, 2014), 21–44.[^]

[21] Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa Jules Eggeling’s (vol. 5, p. 99) translation goes as follows:

Now, then, the praise of the study (of the scriptures). The study and teaching (of the Veda) are a source of pleasure to him, he becomes readyminded, and independent of others, and day by day he acquires wealth. He sleeps peacefully; he is the best physician for himself; and (peculiar) to him are restraint of the senses, delight in the one thing , growth of intelligence, fame, and the (task of) perfecting the people [or lit: cooking the world].[^]

[22] Ibid. (trans. Jules Eggeling, vol 5, pp. 99–100)

The grwoing intelligence gives rise to four duties attaching to the Brāhmaṇa—Brāhmaṇical descent, a befitting deportment, fame, and the perfecting of the people [lit: cooking the world].[^]

[23] The term lokapakti gives the title of Charles Malamoud’s Cooking the World: Ritual and Thought in Ancient India (1996).[^]

[24] Two references: Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 6.4.6–11; Chāndogya Upaniṣad 5.8.1–2.[^]

[25] Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 6.2.13 (trans. Patrick Olivelle, p. 149):

A fire — that’s what a woman is, Gautama. Her firewood is the vulva; her smoke is the pubic hair; her flame is the vagina; when one penetrates her, that is her embers; and her sparks are the climax. In that very fire gods offer semen, and from that offering springs a man.[^]

[26] “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” is the opening line of L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between.[^]


Arokiaswamy, I., D. Arumugam, Kumar P. Satheesh, and M. Jeganathan. 2020. “The Sarasvati Mahal Library and Contribution of Rajah Serfoji II.” Gerteria Journal 33 (11): 47–55.

Eggeling, Julius, trans. 1882–1900. The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa: According to the Text of the Madhyāndina School. 5 vols. The Sacred Books of the East. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Malamoud, Charles. 1996. Cooking the World: Ritual and Thought in Ancient India. Translated by David White. French Studies in South Asian Culture and Society. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Mill, James. 1817. The History of British India. 3 vols. London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy.

Palshikar, Sanjay. 2014. “Asuras Through the Ages.” In Critical Studies in Politics: Exploring Sites, Selves, Power, edited by Nivedita Menon, Aditya Nigam, and Sanjay Palshikar. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan.

Pollock, Sheldon. 2008. “Is There an Indian Intellectual History? Introduction to ‘Theory and Method in Indian Intellectual History.’” Journal of Indian Philosophy 36 (5–6): 533–42.

Patrick Olivelle, trans., The Early Upaniṣads: Annotated Text and Translation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Sanyal, Ritwik, and Richard Widdess. 2004. Dhrupad: Tradition and Performance in Indian Music. SOAS Musicology Series. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Sharma, Jyotirmaya. 2019. The Ocean of Mirth: Reading Hāsyārṇava-Prahasanaṁ of Jagadēśvara Bhaṭṭāchārya, A Political Satire for All Times. London: Routledge.

Truschke, Audrey. 2016. Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court. South Asia across the Disciplines. New York: Columbia University Press.


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