B.A. Saletore: The Pioneer of using Epigraphy in Indian History Writing

This article is part 3 of 8 in the series B.A. Saletore

This was exactly Saletore’s approach and method. In fact, as already mentioned, Saletore was the first Indian historian who correctly grasped and elucidated on the innate value of epigraphic records. He also lit the path of unearthing priceless historical truths hidden in these records. By doing this, he courageously swam against the tide of history research and writing in India, which was faithfully aping the aforementioned Eurocentric model, which regarded epigraphy at best as an ancillary source that had no real evidentiary value.

Apart from their Biblical and racial bias, there was another fundamental reason for this rejection of our epigraphy. Although a good number of European scholars had learnt Indian languages to a high degree of proficiency, they could never truly understand the cultural and civilizational nuances that a person will naturally imbibe by birth, i.e., only by living in that cultural atmosphere. This umbilical cord of affinity is the mother that feeds the milk of culture from her breast. In the realm of history, our inscriptions, grants, etc., are these mothers. They tell us the real history because they are the surviving, first-hand proofs of how our ancestors lived their present. This point precisely ties in with K.M. Munshi’s grand conception of writing Indian history:

To be a history in the true sense of the word, the work must be the story of the people inhabiting a country. It must be a record of their life from age to age presented through the life and achievements of men whose exploits become the beacon lights of tradition. The history of [Indians] having a common culture…flows as a running stream through time, urged forward by the momentum of certain values and ideas and must be viewed as such… without such an attempt, the past would have no message and the future no direction.

These are the exact elements that we notice most pronouncedly in Saletore’s magnum opus on the Vijayanagara Empire.

Overall, Saletore’s approach to and the historical works he wrote are permeated by these fivefold features:

(1) Legends, Puranas, etc.

(2) Primary sources from epigraphy

(3) Accounts of foreign travelers

(4) Folk sources

(5) Literary sources

His final output was an exquisite, illuminative and exhaustive blend of these elements. As we shall see, Saletore’s work on Vijayanagara remains so exhaustive that everyone who wrote on it after his time either supplemented his foundational work or proved him right in the light of newer research findings.  

Indeed, when we read Saletore, we discern a touching sense of earnestness, an abiding gratitude to the past masters in the field and an open-mindedness to subject himself to scrutiny.  

Above all, Saletore was a fierce patriot and an uncompromising upholder of the Sanatana culture in an all-encompassing sense. In fact, he sought to delineate and expound upon the flowering, development and the downfall of the Hindu civilization and culture using history as a vehicle, and his works are the surest proof of the success of this method. An inextricable part of his cultural patriotism was his abiding love for the Kannada land, its people, their customs and he declared in so many words that "the values and ideals that are sorely needed in contemporary India are to be found in the history and culture of the Kannada people."

And he put this precept to practice by being one of the pioneers who radiated effulgence on the religious, cultural, political and socio-economic aspects of Karnataka throughout the ages. It has since remained an enduring beacon for anyone interested in the subject.

Section 3: Survey of his Works

And now, we can briefly survey a few of his acclaimed works. We will begin with his final work, widely considered to be his masterpiece. Saletore died a year after its publication. This is the magnificent, Ancient Indian Political Thought and Institutions running to nearly eight hundred pages. The work is a brilliant study of the great Indian political minds and the institutions they created throughout the ages from the ancient times. It is also a sign of the poverty of our own era that this book continues to remain in obscurity.

In Ancient Indian Political Thought and Institutions, Saletore for the first time, makes an extraordinary comparative analysis of the four greatest political thinkers of all time: Manu, Kautilya, Hammurabi, and Aristotle. Introducing the scope of the work, Saletore writes:

The history of ancient Indian political thought is the story of great minds that evolved great political institutions and guided Hindu society for nearly three millenniums. Its significance lies also in the fact that it deals with a vast country which has had a civilization that goes back to at least 5,000 years and which witnessed the rise and fall of many kingdoms and empires in the course of its long and eventful history…

Our study is marked by a continuity which is its next significant feature. Superficially it might seem that later political thinkers merely reproduced the theories of earlier writers…But our ancients were too generous and tolerant to disarm legitimate criticism. It is this which explains why, in the purely speculative fields of religious thought, they had room for such agnostic teachers like Brihaspati, whose school came to be called Carvaka or Lokayata. It would, therefore, be incorrect to maintain that the ancient theorists merely echoed one another; on the other hand, they carefully maintained what their predecessors had said in regard to political thought, recorded wherever necessary divergent opinions, and thereby added to the totality and continuity of the subject. This conservatism of all our ancient lawgivers, Dharmasastra writers from Manu onwards, was by itself one of the factors which enabled the subject of politics and statecraft to possess a continuity of its own. Herein lies a special feature of our study.  The continuity of ancient Indian political thought and institutions makes it an intelligible field of enquiry. This is particularly noticeable when we take into account the genesis of ancient political thought, the institutions which it brought into existence, and the factors which helped their growth when they received their final crystallization in the later age of Kautilya, after which they remained practically unchanged for centuries. From this point of view, our subject is not only continuous but complete in itself, carrying with it the characteristics of an ancient beginning, an enduring growth through centuries, and a long fulfilment and flowering which invest it with an abiding interest and fascination that are unique in the wide field of historical studies.

To the modernists, the study has a special appeal in the sense that, some of the fundamental problems which were tackled by the ancient Indian theorists and statesmen have a striking resemblance to those which confront the modem State. [Emphasis added]

Perhaps the only senior contemporary of Saletore who elucidated the last point so profoundly and so extensively both in theory and practice was none other than DVG. That both of them hailed from Karnataka is an additional factor of pride for all of us.

To be continued



Sandeep Balakrishna is a writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. He is the author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore" and "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History." He translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.

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