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Open Essay

Can India and China take an epic journey to the future?

Stephen Owen is the James Bryant Conant University Professor, Emeritus, at Harvard University. Sheldon Pollock is the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University
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Sorting out Babel


What China and India Once Were: The Pasts That May Shape the Global Future | edited by Sheldon Pollock and Benjamin Elman | Viking | 365 pages | Rs 799

WHAT MAKES A literary tradition? Perhaps it is the continuously renewed experience of earlier texts over long spans of time and across large, somehow coherent territory. In the case of China and India, this sort of experience has been in evidence for several thousand years, throughout what have long been the two most populous countries in the world. The poet Yuan Zhen (779– 831) celebrated his predecessor Du Fu (712– 770) as follows: “When my reading of poetry reached Du Fu, I understood that all things great and small were gathered in it.” Yuan Zhen goes on to give an account of the whole poetic tradition, each earlier poet adding something that Du Fu combined into a whole. Grade school students in the People’s Republic of China still study texts from 2,500 years ago, including those by Du Fu, if with much vernacular explanation. Similarly, the equally old Indian epics are still very much alive in the subcontinent, though more often in films, comic books, or village pageants than in the Sanskrit of their most ancient versions. A work like the Mahabharata seems to have foreseen its own continuous cultural prominence when proclaiming itself a total account of the world: “Whatever is found here may well be found elsewhere; what is not here does not exist.”

Given the enormous time and space they have filled, Chinese and Indian literature may appear to be immediately comparable. But that appearance is quickly dispelled when we start to look more closely. Consider just the quotes adduced above. Yuan Zhen implies that fullness is the consequence of a cumulative tradition, whereas the Mahabharata seems to assume that it was all there at the beginning. And this first modest contrast is complemented by many others far more consequential. For example, unlike Chinese, there was no single language called “Indian” in which literature was communicated across that time and space, but rather several: Sanskrit, the “perfected” language (from around 1500 BCE until around 1500 CE), along with two languages (or dialects or registers) closely related to it: Prakrit, the “natural” language, and Apabhramsha, the “corrupt,” or demotic (both used especially for pastoral themes during the first millennium); and, in the second millennium, Persian, a literary language in India from about the eleventh century onward and the official language of the Mughal Empire (1526– 1858). Hindi—called Hindavi, “Indian,” by Arabs, Persians, and others, and chosen as the national language in free India in 1950—emerged only around 1500 out of the broad north Indian vernacular and until the modern era did not gain the subcontinentwide presence of Sanskrit or even Persian.

But India’s linguistic differences from China are even greater than this. Precisely as occurred in Europe around the same time, a number of languages of smaller spaces came to be used for the production of literature: in the south, Tamil from the early centuries CE, Kannada and Telugu from about the tenth century, Malayalam from the thirteenth; in the north, Bangla, Hindi, Marathi, Oriya, and others from around the fourteenth or fifteenth. This process of differentiation included scripts as well as languages, more than a dozen of them (all derived from a single source, an ancient script called Brahmi, but their relatedness had long since been forgotten), something that again distinguishes India from China but also from Europe, where a single script connected the far- flung areas of “Latin” Christendom. The relationship between linguistic and political differentiation also seems pretty clear. The empirelike states using Sanskrit gave way around the end of the first millennium to regional polities using the vernaculars until the coming of the Mughals, who promoted Persian as the language of learning and culture in the consolidation of their empire in the Indian subcontinent. If these many literatures were not written in a language called “Indian” or in a politically unified region called “India” (a term of non-Indian origin), what in fact makes them “Indian”?

Records of the grand historian (Shiji) is not the earliest example of extended historical writing in China, but it defined the past and provided material for future iterations of antiquity

China did have its own, less extreme language diversity tied to linguistic change, but two factors had large consequences: the ideal of a unified state and the writing system of Chinese characters. The unified polity insisted that a number of mutually unintelligible but closely related languages were merely dialects, as early medieval Europe understood the nascent Romance vernaculars as “dialects” of Latin. Chinese characters allowed very different pronunciations across space and time, contributing to the conviction that it was somehow one language. Pronounced in radically different ways in different subregions, the characters contributed to the establishment of Chinese as the most common written language of premodern Korea and Vietnam, and the second written language of premodern Japan. Far more than Sanskrit, written Chinese kept growing and changing; but, until the ideological division between “classical Chinese” and “vernacular Chinese” was institutionalized in the 1920s, linguistic variation in written Chinese was understood by Chinese readers and writers as difference of registers, each proper to a certain kind of writing. Regional variation and linguistic change were manifested primarily though new genres of drama, song, and prose narrative...

WHEREAS A NUMBER of literary genres beyond the lyric are comparable in the two traditions, some are stunningly different in themselves and in their historical effects. First on this list of differences is the dominant role in India of the epic imagination, one of the key forces that, through circulation of the originals and later vernacular versions, made Indian literature Indian in the absence of any single unifying language or script. While the absence of epic in China, like the absence of historiography in India, has been a cliché of Orientalism from the time of the German philosopher Georg Friederich Hegel (1770– 1831), here is a divergence in genre in the two traditions that markedly contrasts with what unites their lyric poetry.

In India, the two great epic traditions, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, have shaped its literature in ways with few parallels in world literature. It is not just that Sanskrit drama, like the Greek, is largely crumbs from the epic table, in that both have plays derived from and heavily influenced by epic tales. Later vernacular literatures also referenced epic themes, as European literature referenced the Bible. Instead, rethinking and rewriting the epics were processes that fundamentally shaped literature—and even founded literary traditions— across Indian time and space.

What is significant about the two great epics from a comparative perspective, accordingly, is not so much their literary characteristics as their literary-historical effects. For the period of its likely origins in the last century or two BCE, the Ramayana offers an unprecedented combination of narrative coherence and aesthetic concern over an extended tale of love, loss, and recovery, so much so that the author, Valmiki, was called the adikavi , or “primal poet,” of the Sanskrit tradition. His narrative will be familiar to readers of the romantic epic tradition in the West from the Odyssey onward. And to readers of the martial epic tradition in the West from the Iliad onward the Mahabharata will be familiar, both for its style (largely as oral poetry, which makes it older than the Ramayana though it is also younger, since it was probably first committed to writing in the early centuries CE) and for its tale of the centrifugal forces of political arrogance and aristocratic pride that ineluctably lead to the chaos of war. The literary-historical consequences of the two works, however, are unfamiliar, if not unique.

Most regional literary traditions in India defined themselves by vernacularizing and localizing one or the other work, their authors often receiving the same sobriquet of “primal poet” in acknowledgment of their inaugurating a new regional tradition of poetry. But the consequences of these epic works were more fundamental than marking the point of vernacular origins. It is no exaggeration to say that the Ramayana shaped much of Indian literary history over some two millennia. This holds true for the Mahabharata too, though to a lesser degree; dealing as it does with civil war, the most horrific of political failures, it was often viewed as a less normative, even more dangerous text. One exception to this is the Bhagavad Gita, an episode in the Mahabharata that seeks precisely to invest this failure with positive meaning by offering a new ethics of social action as moral imperative, detached from outcomes. Both epics were held to record actual historical events and exactly as the events occurred, and thereby to make claims to moral significance—for defining dharma, or the right thing to do in one’s relations with parents, siblings, spouses, society, polity—of the sort that actuality far more than fictionality carries with it. Akbar the Great, the Mughal emperor of the late sixteenth century, recognized the centrality of both works to the Indian cultural and political order and commissioned their translation into Persian, along with sumptuous illustrations. Their didactic force remains strong up to the present day. The Ramayana continues to enjoy a sanctity among many people as a divine text resistant to any modernist historicization, whereas the Bhagavad Gita has in some ways become the Bible of India, a status that is no colonial invention but dates from at least the eighth century.

The Ramayana continues to enjoy a sanctity among many people as a divine text resistant to any modernist historicization

Generation after generation rethought and rewrote the epic narratives in every imaginable genre of written and performative art. These revisions, especially prominent in the case of the Ramayana, sought to address what a given era or section of society came to regard as morally problematic. In one reworking offered in a celebrated Sanskrit drama of the early eighth century, the Uttara- rama- carita (Rama’s Last Act) of Bhavabhuti, the heroine, Sita, herself exiled by her husband, Rama, in the face of rumors about her infidelity during her captivity, is vindicated by the goddess Earth and by the ancient poet himself, who returns to rewrite the end of his story. In some South Indian versions especially of the modern period, the demon king antagonist Ravana, like Milton’s Satan, has become far more sympathetic, and even heroic, than the protagonist. In yet other versions, Rama and Sita are represented as brother and sister (the Pali retelling), or Sita as the daughter of Ravana (the Tibetan), or Rama’s brother Lakshmana as the wily defeater of Ravana (the oral version of the Dungari Bhils, a community of landless cultivators in northern Gujarat), or Hanuman, the monkey ally of Rama’s, as the true hero of the story. Indeed, this last rewrite is found in many Southeast Asian versions, and is faintly visible in the sixteenth-century Chinese novel Journey to the West, a text about Chinese travelers to India that marks the point where our China-India comparison, thanks to the vast dispersion of the Ramayana, becomes connection.

China’s “lack” of an epic was troubling to earlier scholars, both Chinese and non- Chinese. Hegel assured us that every literature was supposed to have at least one, and the Sanskrit epics were used to confirm the thesis that epic stood at the head of every tradition. Genres are, unfortunately, defined inductively; and characteristics of specific texts have been taken as essential to a genre rather than as interesting possibilities within something more broadly conceived. Epics are supposed to focus on one hero in one great undertaking. In practice, however, the “one hero, one action” definition is contingent on a larger knowledge of surrounding history/myth. We cannot read the Iliad without knowing the larger story of the Trojan War. The early epics were taken as not only historically true but also centers of historical knowledge. If, instead, we think of epic as foundational history, then we have grounds for comparison.

Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji), written by Sima Qian (145– 86? BCE), is not the earliest example of extended historical writing in China, but, like the ancient European and Indian epics, it defined the past and provided material for future iterations of antiquity. It treats China from the mythic past down to Sima Qian’s present, the turn of the first century BCE. It is in prose, but prose was already the medium of narrative, and it is beautifully crafted. From the beginning it was a written text, drawing on written sources, many of which we would classify as “prose romance” (where historical material is reconfigured and amplified for the sake of the story)— although to Sima Qian they were “history.” Moreover, Records of the Grand Historian has an author very much personally engaged in his text, continuing it as a project bequeathed to him by his father and accepting castration (rather than honorable suicide) in order to see the book to completion. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that he finds echoes of his own case in many of the stories he tells.

In the famous letter explaining why he accepted castration rather than committing suicide, he explains the purpose of the work:

I have compiled neglected knowledge of former times from all over the world; I have examined these for veracity and have given an account of the principles behind success and defeat, rise and fall. . . . In it I also wanted to fully explore the interaction between Heaven and Man, and to show the continuity of transformations of past and present.

But in the very first of the biographies, which make up more than half the work, he questions the existence of any moral order that would make “the interaction between Heaven and Man” comprehensible.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Records is that it is not overall linear narrative. It first treats the linear history of the rulers and dynasties, then the histories of the great aristocratic families that ruled the feudal domains. Then there is a dull, but necessary set of tables correlating the histories of the feudal domains, by which a single history became possible. The final and largest section treats “biographies,” either in pairs, as did the Greco- Roman essayist Plutarch, or in sets. Ancient China did have prose romances of moderate length treating individuals, but very long poetic or prose narrative is not extant. One earlier, long chronicle history survives, but the commitment to chronicle makes it almost incomprehensible for modern readers because there are many central characters and many continuous “actions,” appearing then disappearing, to reappear the following year or years later. The Sanskrit epic, with its very long digressions, still is framed around a single linear narrative.

Ancient China’s preference for shorter narratives may have had to do with writing. Writing was slow, reading was slow, and the physical texts— primarily bundles of bamboo slips— were cumbersome. To imagine a text like the Mahabharata in China, we would first have to imagine a very large warehouse with a meticulous organization. As elsewhere in the ancient world, memorization was important, but in ancient China it was memorization of shorter texts.

Whatever the reason, ancient China’s commitment to shorter narrative led to a different intellectual order. One of the basic forms of narrative is avenging a wrong and setting it right, in which the deferral of action is the space of the narrative. This is the cycle of the Trojan War and of the Sanskrit epics. We can find many parallels in Records of the Grand Historian, but it is most explicit in a chapter in the biographies, “The Assassins.” In the structure of the chronologically organized short narratives that make up this chapter we see an argument about long duration historical narrative done through short narratives...

Literature is a form of life, and Chinese and Indian literary traditions have long embodied larger trends in Chinese and Indian life. These show commonalities but also profound differences, with regard to the importance and nature of historical imagination, for example; the relationship between culture and state; and the very nature of language itself. Many of these trends continue; indeed, no better exemplar exists for understanding what the past of China and India means to their present than their deep historical literary cultures.

(This is an edited excerpt from What China and India Once Were: The Pasts That May Shape the Global Future | edited by Sheldon Pollock and Benjamin Elman | Viking | 365 pages | Rs 799 )

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