Mlecchas in Early India

Aloka Parasher

Munishiram Manorharlal, 1991

Hardback, 334 pp

ISBN 81-215-0529-X

Exploring Identity and the Other in Ancient India

Whether it is called register, mode, style, or trope, every historian now takes seriously the idea that the way in which facts are presented is as important as the actual facts themselves. And with the complex issue of mleccha's there are so many ways it could have been presented badly. The temptation to prove a point could descend into polemic. Extended criticism would become dry and technical (philological detail is rarely anything else). Instead Parasher has taken the word Mleccha as a thread, around which she has woven a series of explorations of different aspects. This is precisely the right approach as it conveys to the reader the multiple resonance, and the ambiguity of words that are used to define identity.

Mleccha (and its equivalent milakkha) are usually tranlated as foreigner or barbarian. A translation which is inadequate in so many ways but not least because it implies that it was a word used by Indians to describe non-Indians. In fact it is a term used by some writers who lived in certain parts of India to describe people native to what we think of as India but who lacked some important criteria the writer felt defined his cultural identity (language, religion, geographical location, ancestry etc.). Most often it was used by Brahmanical writers to describe those outside of the aryavarta (the cultural community defined by the caste system, the sanskrit language, and Brahmanical ritual).

Parsher begins with a discussion of the etymology of Mleccha. As the earliest reference occurs in the Satapatha Brahmana, which is part of an oral tradition dating to before 500 BC, scholars have usually looked for various origins in the bronze age societies of the first and second millennium BC.  The chapter on this is well-referenced and fairly comprehensive, covering a bewildering array of possible theories. The temptation to ridicule what are inevitably speculative attempts at a reconstruction is avoided and there is sufficient here for the reader to get a good grasp on the problem (in fact, probably a bit too much, non-philologists will suffer no harm by skipping the chapter entirely).

The next chapter begins an exploration of the relationship between mleccha and language (vac). It is hardly surprising that since Brahmins placed so much weight on proper speech for their own position in society, that language should feature heavily in the definition of Mleccha. In fact in early texts it is clear that mleccha status was defined largely in terms of language (either the inability to use Sanskrit, or the inability to use it correctly). Language was central to identity in ancient India, as evidence by the process of Sanskritization in the early centuries AD, the importance of the Grammarians from Panini onwards. Readers interested in this aspect should also consult the very good collection of essays by Madhav M Deshpande, Sanskrit & Prakrit: Sociolinguistic Issues (Mohilal Banarsidass, 1993).

Chapters 4 and 5 tackle the issues of inclusion and exclusion. The sources provide very different views on the need to exclude, or the opportunities for incorporating mleccha. The chapters are intrigueing, though more could have been made by placing some of the sources in a chronological context. For example, the Arthasastra suggests that mleccha would make valuable mercenaries, in fact it prescribes their use for a number of activities (assassination, espionage, poisoning) which might be considered beneath arya. This is a not entirely positive view, but it is a pragmatic one. The epics, which Parsher takes as generally later in tone, also portray the mleccha as valuable mercenaries. On the other hand, the Dharmasastra literature generally takes a theoretical (but not consistent) view of non-contact with the mleccha, and the Mudraraksana a similar position, portraying Malayaketu as depending on mleccha mercenaries in contrast to Chandragupta. If the sources are taken in this order, they suggest a shift towards a rhetoric (if not reality) of mleccha exclusion. It is an interesting thread, and would perhaps be interesting to explore if the developing rhetoric of exclusion was accompanied by a development in the systems of inclusion she looks at in chapter 5. Unfortunately, while the two ideas are well developed these possibilities are obscured by the lack of a chronological context.

Chapter 6 is unfortunately the weakest. It covers the use of mleccha to describe tribal groups (especially those of central India). While there is clearly some overlap between peoples described as atavika (forest dwelling) and mleccha, Parasher completely fails to demonstrate that it was their material culture or habitation (rather than say, lack of certain rituals, caste institutions, or improper speech) which was responsible for this classification. The assertion that 'aboriginals were apparently ostracized because of their backwardness and repulsive habits' (213) is unsubstantiated and surely extremely suspect. Given that mleccha developed a prejorative sense in the early historic period (with the rise of militant Brahmanism) it is equally likely that aboriginal groups were presumed to be backward and have repulsive habits because they were defined as mleccha. Parasher vacilitates '... they were all listed together as mlecchas. This is not difficult to understand and can be explained by the fact that to the brahmin writers these people were all outside the varnasramadharma' (214).

Chapter 7 covers foreigners, which as mentioned above is the most common translation of the term. Unfortunately it is extremely difficult to define what we mean by foreign. Some cases (such as the early Bactrian Greeks) seem obvious enough, but what of the Kushans, the Indo-Parthians, or the Western Ksatraps? The Ksatrapa rulers were supporters of Brahmanical institutions, aspired to Indian ideals such as the Cakravartin, and stood at the fore-front of trends such as Sanskritization. While their political were Scythian, very few of their ancestors would have been. Yet the Western Ksatraps are usually thought of as a foreign dynasty, in contrast to the 'Indian' Satavahanas. In fact the both have equal claim to be mleccha. Parasher is aware of this difficulty though is never quite able to get a grip on the problem of how to analyze an ancient notion of identity using a modern one.

The principle issue in this chapter is the reaction to the repeated invasions of the North-west from the second century BC to the fifth century AD, as typified in the Purana tradition. Including the Kushan rulers:

'Although it cannot be conclusively established by what name the Kusanas were known in Indian writings, the role they played in the socio-economic affairs of northern India for at least two centuries could not have been totally ignored by the Brahmans. By conquering vast parts of the Gangetic Valley down to Varanasi or even further east they had disturbed the orderly existence of everyday life. Further, the fact that the Kusana kings worked essentially in a Buddhist framework, they may have posed a threat to the Brahmanical supremacy. The Indians were too weak to resist this foreign invasion, even less than the earlier incursions, and thus ultimately the period of foreign domination as a whole came to be described as one of the evils of the Kali Age in their Itihasa-Purana tradition.' (233-4)

Parasher's argument in this chapter is that foreign invasions broke down the social hierarchy the Brahmins needed, and thus the period was perceived in this manner by them. There are several problems with Parasher's description of the Kushanas. Firstly, though the Kushans and Western Ksatraps extended considerable influence over the Gangetic valley, they never extended their direct rule much past Mathura. And the statement that the worked in a Buddhist framework is extremely inaccurate. The vast number of Buddhist (and Jain inscriptions) are actually private donations. Kushan kings tended to patronize their own central Asian cults in the north of the Empire or Brahmanical institutions in India itself (inscriptions 233, 235, 482, 484, 567). There is nothing to indicate that the Kushan emperors did not attempt to emulate already existing cultural norms of kingship and though there is some evidence that Indo-Scythian dynasts favored Buddhism, they did so in Gandhara, an area already peripheral by Brahmanical standards.

So given that the Kushans (and other 'foreign' kings) were not foreign in any real sense how can the reaction in the Purana tradition be accounted for. First it is worth establishing exactly what period the Purana tradition belongs. This is hard, as they are stratified texts, but there is an important internal clue. The texts are written as prophecies talking about future dynasties, and the future they predict runs up to the fourth century and the early Guptas - it is a list whose details focus on the Gangetic valley, and brahmanical woes. So the final form is locatable, it belongs to the Gangetic valley of the fourth and fifth centuries, the period of Gupta dominance. The general tone also fits well with other Gupta period material. The Brahmins were reactionary cultural conservatives and their Purana tradition idealises a past which did not actually exist. Part of forging a new sense of identity was creating an 'other', to hold up as an example of what aryavarta was not. The concept of mleccha had served that role before and so was ideally suited (when applied to the dynasties outside of the Gangetic valley) to serve the role again. In this respect Parsher makes a fundemental mistake in the final chapter. She treat the Brahmanical description of the Kali age as a reaction to some activity on the part of mlecchas. 'The other' does not exhibit agency, its actions, behaviour, and norms are creations of the people who write about 'the other', in this case the Brahmins of the Gupta period about the mleccha (Greeks, Huns, Scythians, and Kushans), and they are entirely about the ideals, aspirations, and sense of identity of the Brahmins. It is the motivations, and objectives of the Guptas and Brahmins that need to be understood.

The book ends with an appendix on the sources themselves. This is a well written, though in places there is insufficient detail. Two examples; the Mahabharata is an extremely complex text because it results from the compilation of a very lengthy oral tradition and has no single redactor, but I don't think sufficient time is spent to justify Parasher's particular use. Another example is the Mudrarakshasa, which Parasher says in the appendix she has already dealt with in Chapter 4. What she actually means is briefly touched upon it in a footnote on page 148. I also dislike the placement of this section. Though it is traditional to place overviews of sources into appendices it is inappropriate here, and unnecessary - readers who can handle the chapters on etymology or anthropology are going to be adequately prepared for this. This should have been positioned after the first chapter to give the reader an overview of the sources and their dates. There are many subtleties that are missed without a chronological framework, one of the subtleties a reader will miss is that though the chapters are themed those themes are arranged broadly in chronological order. 

However, none of this should take away from what is an excellent book It is well-written, and though individual points can be critiicized that is inevitable given the complexity and breadth of the problem. More importantly, it does something all good history should do - it avoids telling them answers, and instead invites them to think about problems.

Contents Page Women in the Kushan Period  Faces of the Feminine Trade and Religious Exchange Gandharan Art in Context

Robert Bracey.