Saletore's Encyclopedic Treatment of Ancient Indian Polity

This article is part 4 of 8 in the series B.A. Saletore

Ancient Indian Political Thought and Institutions is a truly majestic work. The treatment is encyclopedic judged by its content, organization, treatment and exhaustive attention to detail. By all standards, it deserves an independent, serious study in its own right…like a lecture series or study circle. For now, we can be content with taking a brief look at its contents divided into six sections. The following is a list of only the most important topics which enables us to form a broad idea:

·       Relationship between Dharmasastras and Dandaniti.

·       When did Dandaniti secure an individuality of its own?

·       The main schools of Indian political thought

·       The antiquity of some important of the concepts in Indian political thought

·       The social contract theory contrasted with the Indian situation

·       The Indian and the Babylonian concept of the state

·       Manu and the Modern World

·       Kautilya and Aristotle

·       Indian Political Institutions: Vedic, Jaina and Bauddha

·       The nature of the Indian State

·       Anarchy and Interregnum in Indian political history

·       Law and Order

·       The Theory of the Prakruts

·       The Arthasastra and Nitisastras

Finally, in a majestic discussion, Saletore expounds on the Elements of the Indian State over more than a hundred pages. He also dedicates substantial portions in the work for discussing Kautilya from various perspectives: Manu and Kautilya, Kautilya and Aristotle, Kautilya and Ashoka, was Kautilya an idealist? Kautilya’s institution of spies, post-Kautilyan schools, etc.

In the end, it is clear that Saletore holds Kautilya very dear to his heart because, in his own words:

Kautilya, more than anyone else, epitomised in himself the fundamental ideas that were agitating the minds of our ancients in the most formative period of their history.

This conclusion is consistent with both recorded history and the lived traditions of ancient India which have come down to us till date. Apart from our Vedic Rishis, the history of ancient India is distinguished by immortal luminaries of various fields who have stood the test of time. For example, Panini in the realm of Sanskrit language, Valmiki Maharshi and Veda Vyasa in literature, Bharatamuni in the realm of art and aesthetics, and Kautilya in statecraft and polity. All of these luminaries remain epoch-makers—Yugapurushas—who gave Bharatavarsha her foundations.   

Saletore’s Ancient Indian Political Thought and Institutions is in all respects and by all standards an invaluable work that must be rescued from its current oblivion and popularized at all levels, for all audiences.

Sthanikas and their Historical Importance

The corpus of Saletore’s work reveals his uncanny knack for selecting all kinds of random subjects and transforming them into full-blown works of original history. The next work is a prime example of this trademark Saletorian talent. Titled Sthanikas and their Historical Importance, this is actually a monograph of 65 pages published in the Journal of the Bombay University in July 1938. Apart from its inestimable value as a historical work, it is also a thoroughly enjoyable read.

The Sthanika was an office in the civil administration of Hindu Empires in India, which got stabilized during Kautilya's time and lasted all the way up to the Mysore Wodeyars! The Sthanika was a familiar term in Karnataka even as recent as the 1960s in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Saletore’s monograph beautifully traces the journey of this office over this extraordinary period of 3000 years and shows its transformation over both space and time. He shows how Sthanika became synonymous with a varna or Jaati in some parts of India. He also takes apart many spurious interpretations on his topic made by both ignorant and politically-motivated scholars and writers.

Without getting into too many details of this work in the space of this lecture, I will mention that singular quality of Saletore that shows up here in a pronounced fashion. This is his deductive and inductive methods of arriving at historical truths about Sthanikas. To put this in legal parlance, Saletore plays the roles of the defendant and plaintiff lawyers and the judge! He first poses the problem, then lists out all the opposing arguments before arriving at the final conclusion, all the way erecting difficulties and barriers to himself. This is akin to Ganesh's Avadhanas where he intentionally chooses difficult bandhas, and willingly imposes it upon himself only to provide Ranjane or joy to the connoisseurs.

I will provide only one example of how this small monograph became influential and impactful. After all, how many of us really read university journals? In this light, the story of a retired head clerk of the Postmaster General's Office named I.K. Srinivasa Rao is noteworthy. This gentleman from Mangalore was so profoundly inspired by Saletore’s monograph that he wrote an entire book in Kannada on just one aspect of the history of Sthanikas. Titled, Sthanika Brahmanaru: Kannada Jilleyalli Sthanika Padaviyallidda Smarta Brahmanara Aitihasika Parichaya published in 1957. Its translation is as follows: The Smarta Brahmanas of Kannada Districts who occupied the Position of Sthanikas. The author expresses his profuse gratitude to Saletore for first opening the eyes of the public to the Sthanikas and says, and I quote, “this entire community must be eternally indebted and grateful to the Mahaneeya, Dr. Salettooru, Chairman of the ASI, Government of India.”   

Saletore has written a small but useful foreword to the work.

Ancient Karnataka--History of Tuluva

Next, we can quickly examine Saletore’s signal contribution to the history of Karnataka in the volume titled Ancient Karnataka--History of Tuluva. As we noted earlier, this was the first of a five-volume magnum opus of writing the comprehensive history of Karnataka that Saletore had planned. Death tragically cut off the project.

The first volume itself runs up to nearly 600 pages and is probably the most definitive work on Tuluva history written by a devoted son of the soil and its culture. Its inspiration was the primary source work in Kannada, titled Tuluva Gramapaddhati, an ancient compendium detailing the life and times of the Tuluva Nadu. Saletore first received it from the hands of the pontiff of a Matha in Udupi. The work comprises an astonishing range of details including village life, customs, traditions, village organization, duties of local officials, system of land distribution, modes of punishment, judiciary, and the historicity of prominent families like the Hollas, Maiyyas, Ballalas and Karanthas. Like in his volumes on Vijayanagara, History of Tuluva draws from extensive primary sources including but not limited to epigraphs, legends, oral histories, folklore, coins, and extant institutional practices. The chapters on the foreign relations of the Tuluva rulers and merchants, their traditional religious practices, households in the 32 villages of Tuluva-Nadu, and daily life in the region are truly picturesque.

In fact, History of Tuluva is a fine model for learning how to write what is known as local histories. Equally, Saletore’s fond attachment to his native land, its pristine geography, people, and its culture shines almost on every page.  

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.

Prekshaa Publications

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