Positivist history and the memory/construction of genealogy in medieval India

Caleb Simmons

In Genealogy, Time and Identity, Aruna Pariti examines genealogies from the Cāḷukyan dynasties to uncover their role in the historical consciousness of the medieval Deccan. The primary theoretical inquiry of the book looks at how the relationship between cyclical mythic time and linear time work together within the inscriptions of the dynasty to form a “social history” of the period. The book is an excellent study of this absolutely essential yet understudied literary and epigraphic genre in medieval India. 

Structure of book

The book is comprised of seven chapters including the introduction (Chapter One) and conclusion (Chapter Seven). The second chapter is largely a review and critique of existing historiography and the influence of a linear understanding of time on how history is perceived and how histories are written. Chapter Three provides an overview and taxonomy of the Cāḷukyan inscriptions according to their relationship to time. The next chapter (four) embeds the genealogical types within the movement of royalty either as they emerge as a result of migration or through conquest. Chapter Five examines the “Notification” of the inscription, i.e. the portion of the inscription that details the cause (land donation, temple patronage, etc.) that grounds the inscription in its economic context. The final substantive chapter attempts to disentangle the pan-Indian and local elements from the genealogical accounts.

History: cyclical and linear time

Pariti spends a great deal of time critiquing the colonial and modern positivist approach to historiography and the many colonial historians who declared that “India has no history.” While the naiveté of the positivist approach has been well-established by many recent scholars who trot out quotes from Western and Indian historians from the eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, Pariti brings a new wrinkle to this otherwise tired topic by attempting to understand the ways that time was conceived within inscriptions in a meaningful way. That is, through a thorough reading of the genealogies from one dynasty over time, she constructs a typology of genealogies through which we can see that linear and cyclic time can co-exist within the same framework and are employed in order to say different things about the royal family. Interestingly, if not obvious after reading it, there is an increase in “mythic” and legendary lineages as time passes and the courts are more deeply rooted in courtly culture. Becoming more imbedded within the culture of the high poetics of kāvya and epic and mythic lore of the Purāṇas, these courts produced genealogies that reflected those styles and motifs. 

Memory and the construction of lineage

That, however, brings me to the major critique that I have of Pariti’s work, namely her notion of memory and collective memory within the epigraphic program of the Cāḷukyas. The author characterizes the genealogies as part of a remembered past and argues that memory was “a central component of a genealogy.” She draws upon Sheldon Pollock’s work on smṛti in which he argues for the role of memory in their production. One cannot deny that, in some respects, memory and remembering is present in the very idea of representing one’s lineage; however, Pariti’s notion of memory makes her analysis of genealogies fall prey to the same problems as many of the early positivist historians of epigraphy whom she critiques by using epigraphic genealogies to uncover “historical facts” about kings and their ancestors. Her heavy emphasis on “remembering the past” neglects the wider history of genealogy-construction in medieval India. Throughout the period under discussion, lineages, like any other literary genre, followed certain literary/narrative/rhetorical styles that are related to their political influence and the reaches of their military and administrative arms and are drawn from other literary and epigraphic sources (perhaps not unlike modern historiography that Pariti says “uses only written source material” [p. 5]). Additionally, there was a great deal of borrowing and mimicry from one kingdom to the next as poets, scribes, and courtiers were often amongst the plunder of warfare. Therefore, part of the “memory” of the lineage was often based on the details of their rival’s family, only with names from their lineage taking their place. 
As a literary and epigraphic royal genre, genealogy was part of the court’s construction of kingly/royal identity, what I have elsewhere called “king fashioning” (2015; forthcoming) Pariti, to a point, acknowledges this. She argues quite eloquently that “genealogies should not be treated merely as family records but, rather, as historical narratives that encompass important issues related to historical memory, temporality, and sequential narration of names and actions undertaken by individuals in a rather systematic way” (p.4). The author, however, still relies on the taxonomies of positivist historiography in her understanding of the genealogical details: “genealogies were crucial for those groups who were seeking to heighten their socio-political status and, therefore, regarded their preservation and even fabrication as a crucial factor for legitimization” (p. 6). Pariti continues to use the term “fabrication” when she discusses the details of legendary (Type III) and mythic (Type IV) genealogies in the eponymous Chapter Three (e.g. p. 76). Despite her best efforts to read the lineage texts/inscriptions from their own context she stops short failing to realize that production of genealogical material is inherently genealogy construction (just as history production is history construction). The details that are presented within any royal genealogy are carefully curated in order to praise the contemporaneous king (instead she suggests that they have “greater authenticity” than their literary counterparts [p.15]). The characteristics and qualities that are ascribed to the kings, heroes, and gods from which he descends are all qualities that are—by virtue of that descendent—attributed to him as well. It is only when we as scholars of genealogy can leave behind the search for “facts” that we can truly see the royal of lineage construction as what Kesavan Veluthat has called “royalist literature” in the construction of royal identity and in king fashioning (1993, p. 38-39). 


Despite this tendency to fall into the trap of positivist historiography (which I must say is extremely appealing when dealing with this material and a mistake this reviewer has also often made), Genealogy, Time and Identity is a worthwhile contribution to research on the historiography of medieval India, Indian kingship, and Indian religion and is essential for scholars of medieval India, who are interested in the ways kings and their courts constructed their identity through genealogy. 

Caleb Simmons, Assistant Professor, Department of Religious Studies and Classics, University of Arizona (USA); Visiting Research Fellow, Käte Hamburger Kolleg Ruhr Universität, Bochum (Germany)

Works cited:
Simmons, Caleb. forthcoming (2017). “Family, God, and King: Vaṃśāvaḷi as Local Royalist Literature” in Manu Devadevan (ed) Clio and her Descendants: Essays for Kesavan Veluthat. New Delhi: Primus Books. 
---------------------2014. “Goddess on the Hill: The (Re)Invention of a Local Hill Goddess as Chamundeshwari” in Padma Sree (ed) Inventing and Reinventing the Goddess: Contemporary Iterations of Hindu Deities on the Move. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. 
Veluthat, Kesavan. 1993. The Political Structure of Early Medieval South India. New Delhi: Oriental Longman.