Social and Political Life in the Vijayanagara Empire
Following the tradition of keeping the best for the last, it is time to examine Saletore’s seminal magnum opus, Social and Political Life in the Vijayanagara Empire in two volumes.
To begin with, we can quote from the foreword to the book written by the scholar of history, Dr. S. Krishnaswamy Aiyangar.
The very extent of the subject and the vastness of details available, would baffle anybody in this direction ordinarily. But Dr. Saletore has succeeded in producing a creditable work bearing on the vast subject. The work gives a correct and complete view of the life of the people under the empire, during the three centuries of its fight to preserve Hindu institutions and Hindu civilization.
Social and Political Life in the Vijayanagara Empire still retains its eminence as an eternal classic on the subject. As we noted earlier, this was his doctoral thesis submitted to the University of London which earned him his PhD but for both the academic and lay reader, its value is inestimable. It became an immediate classic and invited widespread acclaim and petty-minded criticism for the same reason: because it was such an extraordinary and pathbreaking work. In an incredible feat of racist spite, the British academic F.J. Richards wrote “review” of this thousand-page masterpiece that runs into exactly…half a page! It is not a review but a litany of cheap nitpicking looking for things that don’t exist in the volumes.
Social and Political Life in the Vijayanagara Empire is truly pioneering and belongs to the class of Jadunath Sarkar's volumes on Aurangzeb and the Mughal administration and his painstaking reconstruction of Persian primary records of the period.
In a single stroke, Saletore’s volumes created a new tidal wave in writing the history of Vijayanagara and became a model for future scholars and researchers. It still remains na bhooto na bhavishyati: never before, never after. For their intrinsic value, they are favourably comparable to P.V. Kane’s monumental and path-breaking volumes on the history of Dharmasastra.
In fact, the sort of preparations that Saletore made for writing this work is a beautiful and inspirational story by itself. He spent a majority of his time at the India Office in London, working long hours each day, digging for every scrap of material on Vijayanagara. It is said that he could use only a portion of the enormous wealth of Sanskrit, Kannada, Telugu and Tamil MSS, epigraphs, numismatics and other evidence in his final, published work. His disciple, Smt Jyotsna Kamat has written that Saletore’s unpublished findings from these MSS still have great scope for further studies in the history of Vijayanagara. Indeed, one fondly wishes that Saletore should have also written a detailed political history of Vijayangara.
Vijayanagara remained close to his heart till the very end of his life and we get a glimpse of this abiding interest when he writes these words tinged with humility: “I must confess that I have not exhausted the subject.” This statement, coming from the acknowledged expert on the subject serves us an important lesson in level-headedness.
Now we can quickly scan the major features of Social and Political Life in the Vijayanagara Empire, both volumes included. Saletore has dedicated it to Lionel David Barnett “by his pupil, the author.”
Its bibliography runs into fifty-five pages not counting the copious footnotes and excerpts from various primary sources in the main text itself. The work covers everything about the Vijayanagara Empire in exhaustive detail including the story of its origin, the geography it commanded, its revenue system, judiciary, administrative machinery, military, foreign relations, policy towards the Muslim Bahamani kingdom, social institutions with a special discussion on the role of Brahmanas, social etiquette, valour, patriotism, houses, food, drink, dress, corporate life, festivals, games and amusements.
In fact, judging by the encyclopedic level of details contained in the work, a creative person can physically reconstruct that era. Likewise, for people who are interested in preserving the Sanatana cultural continuity, there is enough material to make informed links between that era and our own.
This is precisely where we can reconnect the aforementioned point about epigraphy as a primary source for writing authentic histories of India.
Saletore’s volumes on Vijayanagara became authoritative landmarks precisely because he spotted and excavated the real-life stories of real people that epigraphs, inscriptions, grants, etc., contained within them. But his real feat, in fact, his signal service was to sift through literally thousands of such records, to give them a proper chronology, context, meaning, to flesh out the cultural nuances hidden in them and to finally compile all of these into a cohesive and cogent narrative.
In fact, as we read through the twin volumes, a whole world of connections opens before our eyes: it is an extraordinary experience of literary time travel to our own world which we have lost. But for Saletore’s works, the treasure of historical stories that he has unraveled for us would have perhaps been lost forever. Another marked revelation is this: even as we read the pages, an almost uncountable elements of the Hindu civilizational and cultural continuity become evident.
In the preface, Saletore describes the scope of the endeavor and it is worth recounting in some detail. First, he correctly characterizes the rulers of the Vijayanagara Empire as the custodians of Sanatana Dharma and says:
I applied myself to the elucidation of many an interesting problem connected with the private and public life of the Vijayanagara rulers and their subjects in all its manifold aspects.
Vijayanagara rulers and their people may be judged in terms of the actions and thought of their predecessors both in and outside Karnataka. It is with this object that the following method has been adopted in the work. Classical and mediaeval Hindu theories relating to government and society have been first given followed by Vijayanagara conceptions of the same. Further, the origin of the political and social institutions of the Vijayanagara princes and people has been traced to their Hoysala and Tamil antecedents, in order to bring out more clearly the historical sequence that may be said to govern the actions of the mediaeval Hindu monarchs. An attempt has been made for the first time to bring before the reader classical and mediaeval Hindu theory in harmony with Vijayanagara maxims and practice. [Emphasis added]
The two majestic volumes are the living proofs of the success and fulfilment of this vision of writing Vijayanagara history. But let’s hear the intrinsic value of epigraphic sources for reconstructing Vijayanagara history from the horse’s mouth:
Evidence from all available sources has been utilized. And no source of information has been found so fruitful as the numerous epigraphical records which contain, especially in regard to government and social matters, innumerable details which throws flood light on the internal organization of Vijayanagara. [Emphasis added]
In a direct challenge to the prevailing European notions of Indian history, Saletore gives us this gem:
History is not preordained. Event Y will not automatically or naturally follow from event X. More often than not, great events of history occur through freak accidents of insignificance and end up having far reaching consequences.
Thus, Saletore correctly holds that the "study of the manner in which Hindus of those times led their lives" has a direct bearing on our understanding of how Hindus successfully warded off Islamic invasions in south India. Writing the history of Vijayanagara sans this perspective and understanding is fruitless at best and dangerous at worst, which has been the case today. And unlike the well-meaning but apologetic historians of today, Saletore was a fearless exponent of historical truths.
To be continued