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Narrativizing Bharatvarsha: The Bibidhartha-Sangraha in Colonial Bengal

By Professor  

Historical narratives and their tendencies:

History can be often about beauty, or it could be beautiful in its own right. One could, for example, write a history of painting, monumental architecture, or music. Or one could, as a historian, craft one’s narrative in an evocative, lilting prose and make it beautiful. Even if one is describing the grim realities of working class life. If you are familiar with E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class you know what I mean. History’s, that is, historical narratives’, potential to engage with or capture beauty is doubtless. But history is still unlike beauty. It is sufficient for a beautiful thing to just be – it could be a lovely painting, a noble piece of sculpture, or a toothless infant’s chuckle – and it delights us humans. It need not serve as a means to some practical end. But history, when narrated, must serve some purpose.

Historical narratives, thus, always have a clearly stated or implicit objective. The word ‘history’ is, after all, derived from ‘historia’.[i] In Greek it meant ‘to enquire’, and enquiries are never undertaken in vain. Historical narratives also differ from chronicles, the mere documentation of events, in the sense that they are morally charged. They pit good against bad, the desirable against undesirable. Hayden White, a philosopher of the narrative, terms “narrativity” an outcome of the “impulse to moralize reality.”[ii] No doubt, R.G. Collingwood, the metaphysician of history, says, “All history is tendentious, and if it were not tendentious nobody would write it.”[iii] By “tendentious” Collingwood means that historical narratives universally display the tendency, or propensity, to promote a certain objective, argument, or idea. Take, for example, the Histories written by Herodotus, the ‘Father of History’, or, at least, from our non-western point of view, the father of the western historiographical tradition.

On the very first page of the Histories one finds that Herodotus states his objective to be “preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done” and ensuring that the “wonderful actions of Greeks and Barbarians” get their due share of glory.[iv] The obvious purpose of the Histories is thus commemorative – Herodotus, with an admirable professionalism, sought to preserve for posterity the great deeds of Greeks and non-Greeks (‘barbarians’) alike. In this sense, as desired by Collingwood, he could overcome mere tendentiousness to exhibit “the love of truth and impartiality….”[v] Along with the explicitly stated commemorative one, it is also possible to trace an implicit tendency in the Histories. For example, there is in these accounts an attempt to draw a contrast between eastern (Persian) tyranny and western (Greek) liberty.[vi] I feel tempted to term Herodotus the first ‘orientalist’, for in one sense, an ostensible lack of liberty, he imagined the east as a diametric ‘other’ of the west.

In the ages that followed the one of Herodotus, he lived and wrote in the 5th century BCE, many more historians authored histories in the west. They all exhibited their own unique tendencies. For example, the tendency in Thucydides (460-400/395 BCE), the Athenian author of the History of the Peloponnesian Wars, I feel, is to urge in his audience a love of Athens and its civic values. The speech that Thucydides puts in the mouth of the Athenian statesman-general Pericles, he is shown speaking at a funeral of the Athenian soldiers who have fallen in the war, “ends with an exhortation to the Athenians not merely to rally in to the defense of liberty and of their city, but to fall in love with it….”[vii] The Roman historian Gaius Sallustius Crispus (86-35 BCE), better known as Sallust and author of The Conspiracy of Catiline, sought to deliver a moral admonishment to his age. He contrasted his own times with a nobler past when “Avarice was almost unknown, and virtue was held in high esteem.”[viii] Titus Livius Patavinus (59 BCE-17 ACE), or simply Livy, another Roman who wrote a monumental history of Rome (From the Foundations of the City) in 142 volumes (only 35 are extant), too viewed history as a source of moral exemplars. According to John Burrow, the British intellectual historian, Livy “bequeathed to Europe…the conception of history as moral teaching by examples.”[ix]

Historiography, the art of pursuing historical investigations and developing historical narratives, continued to display a moralizing and edifying tendency in early modern Europe. Now it appeared to be somewhat consciously directed at the state and those who ruled it. Niccolo Machiavelli’s (1469-1527) Florentine History, for example, appears to me to have been crafted as a lesson in statesmanship. While dwelling on the internal affairs of Florence, perhaps to find helpful parallels, Machiavelli sought to investigate how Romans could bridge internal division through conciliation and maintain their institutions with little change.[x] In the same century as Machiavelli, Francois Hotman (1524-1590), a French jurist, wrote the Franco-Gallia: Or an Account of the Ancient Free State of France, apparently as a plea against French royal absolutism. This history of France argued that the ancient kings of the country were elected and could be deposed.[xi] 

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, first an ideal and then a materialist historiographical tendency appeared in Europe. The ideal tendency was authored by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and the materialist by Karl Marx (1818-1883). The Hegelian, or ideal, tendency was to view history as being driven by thought or ideas. Leszek Kolakowski opines that Hegel traced the “successive stages of the incarnate Mind in the history of civilization.”[i] The Hegelian argument is that “our thought itself is a part of the evolution of the world….”[ii] In the Marxian, or materialist view of history, on the other hand, the “determining character of human epochs” is “the character of production and exploitation: slavery in the Ancient world, serfdom in feudal society, wage-labour under capitalism.”[iii] Both tendencies, the ideal and the materialist, contained a state oriented agenda; one could also term it their ‘morality’. The ideal tendency valorized the state as the ultimate manifestation of the Mind’s quest for freedom. The Marxian materialist tendency saw the state as the site of class struggle, the result of an inevitable clash of interests between the ruling class and the laboring population. It looked forward to a time when the state will wither away in a classless society (brought forth by the proletariat’s victory in the class struggle). 

Bibidhartha Sangraha and the narrativization of Bharatvarsha:

I am pretty certain that I have tested the reader’s patience with the above, very lengthy, preamble. I, thus, begin this section of the article by offering my apologies. The preamble was, however, due to a reason, a vital one. Through it, I sought to bring to light some of the tendencies, or intentions, that historical narratives have demonstrated over the ages. They might seek to commemorate, draw moral contrasts (liberty vs. tyranny), promote civic pride, deliver moral admonishments or lessons, instruct, use the past as a plea against the present, resort to types of monism (see all historical causation as an embodiment of the Mind, or deriving from tensions within, or transformations of, forms of social production), or propose a final destiny for all humanity (a classless society). Further, they might valorize the state or nurture a fraught attitude towards it. That is, a historical narrative might contain a very overt political tendency.

More than one hundred and fifty years ago, most of the above tendencies were exhibited by the historical narratives presented in the pages of a Bengali journal called the Bibidhartha-Sangraha (henceforth only Bibidhartha). These narratives commemorated great deeds and gallantry, edified and instructed, contrasted the present with the past, delivered moral admonishments or lessons, derived from the past arguments to correct the present and, through it all, I argue, narrativized Bharatvarsha – it moralized a cultural reality for its readership (to improvise a bit upon Hayden White). The Bibidhartha stands completely forgotten today. For a journal that displayed such a lively interest in the past, it is a cruel irony to be forgotten by history. I am yet to meet a Bengali, even in the academic circles, who has even heard of the Bibidhartha. But let me vouch that it ought to figure prominently in any intellectual history of colonial Bengal. This is since, in my knowledge, it presented for the first time a grand narrative of all India in the Bengali language.

No, I do not mean to suggest that the Bibidhartha ‘invented’ India through ‘narrativity’. The canard that India is some sort of an ‘invention’ by her elites is commonly told in the academic circles (ironically, by the elites). (None other than the venerable Sudipta Kaviraj has written an article on the ‘inventedness’ of India.)[i] I find it most offensive. On the contrary, I find that the Bibidhartha began from the premise that India is a cultural reality and unity. I believe, even Hayden White will agree that one cannot moralize a reality one cannot perceive and the Bibidhartha perceived India from the very outset. Further, an ‘invented’, that is, a novel concept frequently has to be belabored – it has be to argued in some detail so that its audience understands and accepts its validity. The Bibidhartha did not have to belabor ‘Bharatvarsha’ to its readership. Whenever it used the term, it did so very matter-of-factly. It assumed that its audience, so to speak, is ‘getting’ it. It did not ‘invent’, what the Bibidharthadid with its histories was detail the unity that is India. It presented Bharatvarsha as an enormous matrix of morally charged or factually instructive narratives, all relevant to each other, and, finally, to the Bengali people, a vital detail in a grand unity.

The Bibidhartha-Sangraha was founded by Rajendralal Mitra. He served as the Asiatic Society’s librarian for ten years (1846-56). Edited by Rajendralal, the Bibidhartha began its career in 1851. Its interests were quite eclectic. The masthead declared them to be ‘historical accounts’ (purabrittetihas), zoology (pranibidya), arts (shilpa) and literature (sahitya) [see image below]. Rajendralal appears to have hoped that the Bibidhartha will win a mass readership. The editorial in the first issue declared that the journal will help traders and sweetmeat sellers (banik ebong modak), boys and girls (balak o balikagan) alike, to acquire knowledge.[i] Sixteen pages long, the maiden issue carried articles (all unsigned) on the mythical homa bird, rural libraries, the zebra, and the history of the Sikh people. Entitled Shikh Itihas, the last mentioned article dwelt on how a study of history might help the mentally lazy to make moral choices in the world –

The majority of individuals are not guided by their own intellect in discharging worldly affairs, they wander about allowing the instances and examples of others defeat the radiance of their own knowledge. It has to be unanimously agreed that a study of history augments the awareness of such people and helps them tell good from bad…This journal is dedicated to and will be ever engaged in the said task. Here we present the history of the Sikhs [translation mine].

But why did one have to learn to make moral choices in the world with reference to the history of the Sikhs? Apparently, that was because they displayed a very desirable moral quality – bravery. The article told the reader, with obvious pride, that even the conceited Europeans looked upon them as a prodigiously brave people (shikhdiger upkhyan-shrabane ke na utsuk haiben?…jahadiger bipul sahaser gaurab swagaurabe garbita europeanerao swikar karen).[i] Thereafter, it provided an account of the life and career of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith. More installments of Shikh Itihas followed in the subsequent umbers of the Bibidhartha.

The second issue of the Bibidhartha introduced Bengalis to the history of the Rajputs of the solar and lunar lineages. This article, titled Rajputra-Itihas, rued the fact that Bengalis commonly do not know of them (…tahader ekhankar janaganer sahit sambandha-dhara o mahima bangabhashae adyapi prachalita hae nai).[i] But this state of affairs had to change, since these lineages were spread across the vastness of India (bharatbarsha jemata bistrita, chandra o soara-bangsha o tadrup) and the banner of their glory matched the very Himalayas in stature (himalaya parbat ati uchcha; kintu ukta bangshadwayer rajadiger kirtidhdwaja tahahaite kharba nahe).[ii] After eloquently advocating the urgent relevance of learning about the Rajputs, the anonymous author chided his fellow Indians, or Bengalis, for their historical amnesia –

…alas! The histories of India are extinct! Lord Rama’s valour and glory made known to the world by the great poet Valmiki captured our minds, the echoes of the encomiums paid to the Lunar line by Vedavyas still resound in our hearts. But what became of these lineages later, how their branches spread across India, what noble deeds they performed and how they came to be extinct, despite there being several descriptions to the effect they have not been collated by the historians till date, nor have they collected their essence [translation mine].

While the itihasas composed by Valmiki and Vedavyas were evoked, seemingly as an exhortation to the contemporary historians, the Bengali reader was also told as to why the historical amnesia prevailing in the present has to be corrected particularly by commemorating the deeds of the Rajputs. This is because they were gloriously brave and the best among Hindus (mahatejasvi ebong hindujatishreshtha).

While detailing Bharatvarsha by collating morally relevant histories, the Bibidhartha also sought to present before its readership her true form and extent. We must not forget that in the mid-nineteenth century maps of India must not have been that commonplace. The second issue thus ended with the declaration that, to please those readers who derive satisfaction by reading the journal, a map of India, labeled in Bengali, is being published. It could be had for a rupee and four annas (…je sakal mahashayera ei patra path karia santosh prapta han tahader bishesh prityarthe bangabhashae bharatbarsher ek manchitra twarae prakash karate udyata haiyachi…tahar mulya ek taka chari ana matra nirupan kara giyache).[i] While India was narrativized, she was spatially delineated too.

After spatializing India, we observe the Bibidhartha at the task of filling in the human details. The historical narratives that appeared in the Bibidhartha frequently, from our point of view, also appear quite ethnographic. While telling the histories of various Indian peoples, they documented their manners and customs. The Bibidhartha edified its readership in the full extent of the human diversities that constitute Bharatvarsha. It published an article on the Bhil tribal people (Bhil Jatir Bibaran) – it contained the itihasa of their name, homeland and dharma.[ii] One article (Tinnibeli Deshia Polligar) ventured far south and described the Poligars of the Tirunelveli district (of Tamil Nadu) and their history,[iii] another gave an account of the past of the Pathans (Aafghan ba Pathan Jati), classifying them as yavans (Muslims) who had once arrived from outside and settled in Bharatvarsha,[iv] yet another, using the Rajtarangini as source, related the history of Kashmir (Kashmir-Desher Itihas).[v] Sometimes, the history of a custom or culture not specific to an Indian region or people was also dwelt on. For example, the issue that carried the article on the history of Kashmir also had one on the history of pig hunting in India (Baraha-Mrigaya).[vi] Along with the histories of Indian peoples, regions and customs, the histories of the important cities of India – both of religious and political importance – were provided. Thus, we encounter an article on the history of Kashi (Kashir Itihas)[vii] and another on that of the city of Delhi (Dilli Nagarer Brittanta)[viii] in the pages of the Bibidhartha.

While engaged in these historical excursions into diverse regions and cultures, the Bibidhartha never gave up using the history of Bharatvarsha as a source of moral exemplars or lessons. Ashoka was extolled for his religious catholicity. An article praised him for his philanthropy and never forcibly converting anyone to his Buddhist creed (…tini sharbada paropkare rata thakiten…balpurbak kahakeo nijdharme anite tahar kadapi abimat hae nai)[ix], while the second installment of the history of Rajputs identified them, with great admiration, as the only instance of a people on all earth who have not been reduced to passivity and pusillanimity despite suffering demonic cruelties and tyrannies for many hundred years (prithibimadhye rajasthan ekmatra drishtanta sthal ache jathaye manushya anirbachaniya durdanta ashurdiger jatparonasti krurta o doaratme shata shata batsar kramagata sarbbatobhave pramardita o mrittikaye shirobanata haiyao apnadiger balbirjyachyuta hae nai…).[x] Another article held up the Afghans, Mughals and Marathas as instances of peoples reduced to worthlessness due to excessive indulgence in luxuries, quite apparently the reader was meant to see them as unworthy of emulation (balishtha aafghan o moghal jatiyerao bharatbarsher aparjyapto shukhe magna hoiya ati alpadiner madhyaei nibirjya hae…bhimparakram Maharashtra kultilak shibaji…tahar bangsha dershata batsar kaal madhye shambhog panke e prakar nimaganaprae hae, je apan parijaner shasan kariteo akkham haiyachila).[xi] Some instance from the past was also contrasted with some contemporary reality with the seeming objective of changing or correcting it. One of the installments of Shikh Itihas, for example, noted with approval the unity and devotion to the concerns of this world and the next that the Sikhs once displayed as also the fact that these are not typically Hindu traits (tahader madhye aikya o aihik paratrik bishaye je nishtha chila, taha hindu jatir swabhaja sadharan gun nahe).[xii] One is tempted to see this as a message to the Hindus – they are apparently being asked to cohere and pay greater attention to both the matters of faith and the world.

Relevance of Bibidhartha-Sangraha to colonial Bengal:

It is immense. If one were to term ‘Bharatvarsha’ an ancient civilisational awareness and the sense of a ‘felt community’[1], the Bibidhartha it its first conscious and coherent modern expression in the Bengali language (once again, in my knowledge). In this sense, the Bibidhartha sure contributed to the emergence of Bharatvarsha as a political idea, deployable against the colonial state, in Bengal. So, even if the historical narratives appearing in the Bibidhartha carried no obvious political slant, they did, in some form, serve a political purpose in the end.

There is also in the historical accounts published in the Bibidhartha an unmistakable element of romanticism – they displayed a partiality for the epic and the heroic. That is why, perhaps, one finds that so many of them in the early numbers of the Bibidhartha were about the Sikhs and Rajputs – their deeds lent themselves to the epic and heroic genres rather easily. It is very likely that the Bibidhartha’s romantic fascination for the Sikhs and Rajputs seeded the literary field of colonial Bengal and caused the emergence of the ‘historical novel’ (aitahasik upanyas) in the Bengali language in the second half of the nineteenth century – from Bhudev Mukherjee to Bankim Chandra Chatterjee to Rabindranath Tagore, all tried their hand at it. Since the ‘historical novel’ thrived in Bengal for about a hundred years, one could say that even Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay, a much adored contributor to the genre, actually drew from the intellectual legacy of the Bibidhartha (though he might not have been conscious of this).

Finally, I consider the Bibidhartha important as a bearer of the popular memories of the pre-colonial times. The Bibidhartha appears in this capacity, for example, when it describes the circumstances prevailing upon the death of the Rajput hero Bapparao. As per the first installment of Rajputra-Itihas, his Muslim and Hindu sons (he had wives of both religions) fought over his corpse (the dispute was whether to bury or cremate him). The fight was resolved when the remains of Bapparao miraculously turned into a heap of blooming lotuses.[2] The tale is incredible, but having done some work on the kavya tradition of medieval Bengal, I propose that it captures an emotional or psychological memory of cultural conflict, or the awareness of a religiously informed cultural binary (this awareness is traceable in the kavyas). In the light of this appearance of the emotional/psychological popular memory of a seemingly conflictual religio-cultural past, Bidhartha’s (stray) allusions to the times of Muslim dynastic rule are interesting. When that past is alluded to, it is as a time of tyranny and trial. Take for instance the moment (cited above) when the Bibidhartha talked about the Rajputs suffering demonic cruelties for many centuries. Further, barring Akbar, one finds the journal describing Muslim monarchs in quite uncharitable terms. Alauddin Khilji is described as a ruler who, driven by spite for the Hindu ‘race’ and religion, filled the country with many thousand barbaric deeds (…hindu dharmer hingsha o hindu jatir prati dwesh o asabhyatasuchak sahasra sahasra kriate desh paripurna karata…).[3] Aurangzeb, on the other hand, is simply called a beneath human sinner (papishtha o naradham).[4] What strikes me is that, on all these occasions the Bibidhartha speaks with an easy confidence, assuming that it is one the same page as the reader, that s/he is ‘getting’ what is being talked about. In my opinion, it would not have been so had the Bibidhartha not been addressing popular memories of Muslim dynastic rule.


How long was the Bibidhartha’s career? Well, it was of ten years. After Rajendralal, Kaliprasanna Singha took over as the editor. The journal folded in 1861 after Kaliprasanna involved himself in the controversy around Nil Darpan – a play written by Dinbandhu Mitra to depict the cruel ways of the indigo planters. Singha earned the displeasure of the colonial government by criticizing the sentence meted to the English translator of the play – James Long.

Finally, let me declare that I have developed this article on the basis of my inspection of a handful of issues of the Bibidhartha dating to its first three years. It is worthy of being studied far more intensively by researchers and I ardently hope that it will be. I hear that the Center for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata has all the numbers microfilmed, while there are physical copies at the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad and Asiatic Society libraries. I perused the Bibidhartha at the latter place.