An Introduction to the Project

The History of Genealogy, the Genealogy of History: Family and the Narrative Construction of the Significant Past in Early South Asia

Simon Brodbeck and James Hegarty

Pre-modern South Asia has consistently but erroneously been presented as a land without ‘history’. The Genealogy and History project will explore how, in South Asia, ‘family history’ or ‘genealogical narrative’, has been an enduring resource for the formation and transformation of understandings of the past. Our key research question is: What is the role of genealogical narrative in early South Asia?

Family history has been used – and is still used – as something of a speculative laboratory in which all sorts of idea of how one might, could or should live (and much else besides) have been debated. This has mainly been achieved by showing the consequences of a given course of action for a given family (by and large, of kings or Brahmins – a significant religious elite in South Asia).

Understanding of how and in what ways people use narrative to construct forms of religious and social identity is one of the most important ways in which arts and humanities research can contribute to a global society seeking to regulate itself in a context of multiple, and often conflicting, understandings of the past. How do ideas of the past take shape? What influences choices with regard to what is remembered collectively and what is not?

This project will take up these issues and will explore both the forms and functions of family histories in Sanskrit literary and inscriptional sources. By doing so, the project will not only shed light on the cultural history of early South Asia, but will also explore the ways in which human social groups originate, maintain and transform their understandings of the significant past more generally.

A three year project funded by the AHRC.


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