14 November 2015

Understanding Tipu Sultan, or trying to

Most successful plays derive their success by inducing a willing suspension of disbelief in their audience. Bertolt Brecht's historical plays tried to do exactly the opposite. In the course of these plays members of the cast would hold up placards and engage in other disruptive acts intended to disabuse the audience of the idea that they could identify with the action occurring on stage.

Brecht was a Marxist. And his technique was based on the Marxist premise that man's consciousness is a product of the modes and relations of production of the period in which he lives. Therefore, it is impossible for us, who live in an era of advanced capitalism, to identify with people whose ideas and actions were shaped under different modes and relations of production. Although I am no longer a Marxist, I think that there is substantial truth in the idea, at least in the weaker notion that we cannot view the past through the lens of the present.

If A destroys a Hindu monastery we would think it safe to label A as anti-Hindu. And if B provides resources to rebuild the monastery we would similarly think it right to label B as pro-Hindu. But when the monastery in question is Sringeri, one of the four mutts set up by Adi Sankaracharya, we run into problems. The monastery was plundered by the Marathas and help in rebuilding it was provided by Tipu Sultan. That would make him pro-Hindu.

But historical records show that Tipu destroyed many temples (reports of the number run from tens to thousands), especially in Kerala. That would make him a rank communalist by our standards. On the other hand his prime minister and commander in chief, among many senior officers, were Hindus. Tipu is also said to have provided annual grants to 156 temples. The Sringeri mutt, mentioned earlier, was plundered by the Marathas in the course of the third Mysore war, which was fought by Tipu on one side and the East India Company on the other allied with the Marathas and the Nizam. The web site of the Sringeri Mutt says: "On several occasions Tipu sought the blessings of the Acharya. He once wrote that he depended upon three sources of the [sic] strength — God's grace, the Jagadguru's blessings and the strength of his arms. He requested the Acharya to perform Satachandi and Sahasrachandi japa and homa. In the subsequent letter the Sultan acknowledged the miraculous effects of the Yaga that led to success in his enterprise and how rains poured and the land flourished." That would make him distinctly unIslamic.

All in all, when we look at Tipu with 21st-century eyes it is difficult to make any sense of him.

But perhaps he was not so unusual by the standards of his own time. Economic productivity was very low, so it was at least as profitable to seize wealth produced by others as it was to produce wealth yourself. Hence the frequent wars of the era. For all kings, it also would have made economic sense to ensure peace and social harmony within their own realms. So Tipu, in keeping the temples of his own kingdom in good humour while destroying those outside, was not being very different from the Marathas, stories of whose depredations outside their own territory are legion.

How economics changes the nature of wars can be seen in the course of the past hundred years. World War I was fought over the question of colonies. Even in World War II lebensraum was an important motivation. Since then, however, most wars have not been fought with the intention of acquiring territory and permanently holding on to it. Two factors have come into play. First, wars now are expensive to fight and very destructive. Second, economic productivity is so high that it is cheaper to produce wealth yourself rather than try to forcibly acquire it from others. If wars are far less frequent now than in centuries gone by it is not because man's ethics have soared high, but because of economics.

In trying to understand Tipu, it is good to keep that in mind.


Category: Economics


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