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Titelbild TransHumanities 2020

Lecture Antje Flüchter

From Contemporary to Non-Contemporary: Transforming Narratives about Indian Statehood in Early Modern Discourse
Antje Flüchter

The modern discourse about India is highly influenced by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. For Hegel human history began in the East. However, the East had not evolved since and thus it remained rather pre-historic or at best the childhood of humankind. This Hegelian concept became a central aspect of the master narrative of the Rise of the West, which developed parallel with the rise of British colonialism in India. Emanating from the idea of their own dominance, Europeans shifted their understanding of the world order from a hierarchy of civilisations to a temporal or chronological sequence (Achim Landwehr). Consequently, the West was mobile, developed and modern, whereas India was static, undeveloped and medieval. Coming from such a conceptualising of history, Indian phenomena can never be contemporary to European ones, but are always the non-contemporary variation to the contemporary (Western) norm. At this point, Dipesh Chakrabarty and other postcolonial scholars applied their criticism that the West put India in the waiting room of history. Opposing such interpretations, a growing number of contemporary scholars have claimed that Indian rulers were more modern than their European contemporaries (e.g. concerning the institution of a standing army or religious tolerance). On the one hand these interpretations have posed important questions on Western master narratives. On the other hand, however, the authors tend to construct another master narrative, namely one about Eastern dominance. Furthermore, it could be criticised, that they used an anachronism, because they transferred concepts from our period (like tolerance) to the past. Anachronism in historical studies has been perceived as a capital crime (Lucien Febvre). However, is it the same, if one labels the Mughal ruler Akbar tolerant as if you call Rabelais an atheist? Considerations like this lead us into recent discussions about periodization or the constructing of time and teleologies.
In my paper I will refer to two scholars who wrote about these questions: Kathleen Davis demands to understand the dichotomy modern-medieval as mobile categories that rather describe a normative evaluation than a chronological point of time; Carolin Arni discusses the use of a controlled anachronism to explore the production of knowledge. In my paper, I explore these issues using the examples of early European perception of Indian statehood. In Early Modern times, Europeans travelling to India had little reason to presume European dominance, because on the subcontinent they encountered powerful rulers and empires, above all the Mughal Empire. Based on the aforementioned considerations about time order, my paper is asking two questions: When and how did authors use temporal classifications as a normative and civilisatory category in describing Indian statehood? Can we apply modern categories as a controlled anachronism to the premodern phenomena and is this a promising heuristic device?
To answer these questions, I will examine four aspects of the Indian Mughal statehood on which an orientalist image of India was constructed: 1. The description of Early Modern Indian governance with categories deriving from premodern feudalism; 2. the narrative that all property belonged to the Mughal ruler and consequently that there was no private property and no hereditary nobility; 3. the role of the harem and the Mughal women in Mughal politics; and, 4. the perception of the politics regulating religion.

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