Searching History

Peary Chand Mitra's Study of History

Subhendu Sarkar

The introduction of Western system of education in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the first decades of the nineteenth century ushered in a new age giving birth to a class of young radical Bengalis who were inspired by the European liberal ideas yet, at the same time, were deeply patriotic. They neither endorsed the reactionary Hindu customs that thrived on dogmatism and conservatism nor developed a blind faith in the superiority of everything European as often promulgated by the British administrators and evangelists. In fact, the 'Young Bengal' (as the group of middle-class freethinkers came to be identified) exhibited the critical attitude of a reformer who was, on the one hand, eager to protect the interest and prestige of India and, on the other, criticize the imperialist machinations of Britain.

In those days of nascent nationalism, the Young Bengal movement relied on improving, morally and intellectually, themselves and others through speeches and writings. It is for this purpose that a number of associations and periodicals (both Bangla and English) sprang up from time to time that had to fight against both Indian feudal and English vested interests. 'The Society for the Acquisition of General Knowledge' (SAGK), founded on 12 March 1838 at the Sanskrit College Hall, was one such organization, in which over 150 members (besides the older generation of liberals, there were mostly students, either former or present, of Hindu College and Calcutta Medical College) delivered written or oral discourses during monthly meetings on wide-ranging topics like science, history, language, geography, philosophy, politics, condition of Hindu women, etc. till 1843. The organizers published selected lectures in three volumes in 1840, 1841 and 1843. It is well to remember that their conviction that knowledge could lead to human happiness and their objective to do good to the society drove them forward in their arduous journey.

It is in this context that one should assess the contributions of Peary Chand Mitra (1814-1883) who made a formidable effort to reconstruct the ancient history of India in a series of papers at the gatherings of the SAGK. Therefore, the recent publication of the five papers that Mitra read on the 'State of Hindoostan under the Hindoos', along with an essay on the female education (a response to Rev. K. M. Banerjia's essay on the same subject) as Appendix is a commendable endeavour to remind us about the early efforts of serious study of ancient Indian history by a Bengali [Study of Hindoostan under the Hindoos by Peary Chand Mittra, Kolkata: Radiance, 2018]. Mitra acquainted himself with all the pioneering works on history and the translations of a number of Sanskrit texts gradually made available after the founding of the Asiatic Society in 1784. But far from repeating what has already been written down before him Mitra tried to assert the lost glory and prestige of India with a motive to strengthen nationalist sentiments. The papers also throw light on his essentially democratic political outlook.

The first task that Mitra undertakes is to disprove the commonly held notion that the Hindus have no history. In fact, this was necessary to help build confidence among the nationalists by equating Indian society with other ancient civilizations of the world. Citing different information propounded by European scholars in historical and translated ancient literary texts as regards the origin of the Aryans (Brahmins) and the eventual settlement in India, Mitra establishes his point. He takes Indian history further back by discussing about the aboriginal inhabitants and religions other than Hinduism (Brahminism) like Buddhism and Jainism in some detail. He concludes the essay of 14 September 1839 by glorifying ancient India by referring to the remarkable achievements, in spite of many impediments, in the 'acquisition and propagation of the sublime doctrine of Philosophy—of men who stormed their minds with the truths of Physical and Mathematical sciences—of men who have left monuments of their skill and proficiency in architecture, music, and other fine arts of men whose imaginative powers could steal the happiest ideas from the flowery banks of Poesy...'.

What is significant about Mittra's investigation is that he emphasizes the social, political, economic and cultural conditions prevalent in ancient India rather than the genealogy of the past rulers, though he does not forget to mention some prominent rulers, their deeds and popularity with the masses. His discussion on the 'Hindoo Republics' reveals Mittra's political ideology to a great extent. Referring to the later researches of Forstor and Col. Todd with respect to the Marhattas, the Sikhs and the Rajpoots, he reminds that 'the accounts of the Greeks respecting the existence of some republics in India when it was invaded by Alexander are by no means "exaggerated" and it is therefore not at all improbable that its constitution might have in the course of time undergone changes in some parts; vestiges of which already adverted to are still to be found.' Equally noteworthy is Mittra's attempt to provide information about the 'constitution of Hindoo kingdom'. His stress on the reliance of the Rajah on his learned magistrates in dealing with the different functions of the State and the obligatory duties of a king (in compliance with the dictates of the Manu-Samhita and the descriptions available in the epics) to 'increase the comfort and happiness', even by risking his life, of his subjects (treated as his children) betray Mittra's personal dislike for a despotic form of government.

To prove further that the Indians are not naturally inferior to the Europeans, Mitra highlights the achievements of the ancient Hindoos in the field of trade and commerce. Though scanty is his knowledge as he himself admits in this sphere, Mitra presents a picture of mercantile connections that the ancient Indians had with Babylon, China, Egypt, Persia and many other countries. He cites an exhaustive list comprising items that were imported and exported, ranging from silk to dogs, and puts forward estimates of the amount of money involved in business. Related to this account are Mittra's inputs into roads, ports and navigation that were essential to the economic system.

Mittra's penchant for democratic values recurs in his fourth essay (delivered on 12 May 1841) where he deals with the judicial system of ancient India, though he admits that it was not perfect in every respect. Going through a number of works, he lays down the features that characterized the 'Panchayat system' in villages. The institution consisted of an 'assembly of the most distinguished persons whose number varied from five to "any given odd number," and whose election was sometimes made by the parties in dispute, and sometimes by "the public authority ".' Different types and grades of courts of arbitration existed for people of different professions and castes to ensure quick justice without having the need to incur too much expense. Of course, the Nripasabha or the king's court, among the established tribunals, held the highest authority to dispense justice. But, citing James Mill's History of British India as support, Mitra lays stress on the similarity of the ancient juries with those of the English court. The king never pronounced his judgment as per his arbitrary will but was always guided by the 'principles recorded by the ancient sages and agreeably to the established customs of the country'. Besides, he consulted the learned members of his court.

Mitra devotes his last essay, read on 8 September 1841, to the revenue and policing systems of ancient India. There are details about the structure of village and town community, right in the land, the administrative hierarchy and the method and rate of tax collection. The function of the police, working next to gramadhikar (the village headman), was that of a watchman with manifold duties ranging from watching the crops to catch a thief. Mitra concludes that such a system 'prospered amidst the change of dynasties and the convulsions of revolutions, strengthening the villagers with one tie of fraternization and infusing into them an inextinguishable love for their "petty republic", which they were ready at all times to defend from aggression...'

The Appendix is a polemical piece that Mitra wrote as a response to a Prize Essay on Native Female Education by the Rev. Krishnamohan Banerjia (1813-1885) testifies his liberal attitude towards women. Mitra humbly refutes Banerjia's contention about 'the absence of institutions obligatory on parents to educate their daughters, and the prohibition of women from reading the Vedas' by reminding the fact that there were many women in ancient India with high literary and scientific attainments. He also mentions the matrimonial practices like 'Gundharba' and swayambara to validate the fact that women in ancient India even had the liberty to choose their husbands. Besides, they had property rights. What is striking is that Mitra not only asserts that the condition of women in ancient India was better than that in ancient Greece and Rome but also goes on to point out, quoting Blackstone in his support, that in spite of England being an enlightened nation, the position of women there is inferior to that of men. This is a direct way of establishing the superiority of India over her conqueror.

Peary Chand Mitra was not a professional historian. In fact, his exhaustive reading of history was prompted by an urge to reclaim the forgotten glory of ancient India which was so much necessary to boost the morale of the early nationalists who were trying to build up public opinion, though in a limited sense, against imperialism. But it is important to remember that he was not a revivalist guided by a parochial attitude about nationalism. Instead Mitra, like his fellow Derozians, was in favour of free inquiry. Without the least hesitation to mention the limitations and faults in many institutions that existed in ancient India, he chose to speak highly about its positive achievements. With a balanced approach of a rationalist, Mitra hoped to inspire his contemporaries to rejuvenate and reform the country that has degraded under the foreign rule. In the present when the right-wing politicians are busy making absurd claims about the superiority of ancient Indian society in all conceivable matters, a reading of Peary Chand Mittra's book will provide an insight into an outlook that can be patriotic without compromising on historical facts.

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Vol. 52, No. 8, Aug 25 - 31, 2019