Revathi Krishnaswamy


Notes Toward a Global Literary History 

The world of world lit

The “death” of comparative literature has prompted scholars to resuscitate the discipline in the form of “global lit,” “planetary lit,” and “world lit.”   But these newer avatars remain trapped in the same Eurocentric frameworks they claim to replace.

To date, the most significant attempt to theorize “world literature” has, arguably, come from literary scholars who have drawn on Wallersteinian world-system theory to define world literature as a cultural expression of the modern capitalist world-system. According to world-system theory, the processes of capitalization and modernization that originated in Europe (around 1500 CE. and intensified since 1800 CE.), spread through trade and conquest, creating a unified and linked, albeit uneven and unequal world, characterized by dominant core regions (the West) and dependent peripheral regions (the Rest).  Although there were world empires before 1500 CE. there was no “world-system” as such.  Following this logic, Franco Moretti, Benita Parry, and others have rejected simplistic notions of world literature as a short list of “best works” from around the world, and instead asserted world literature as the cultural expression of a single modern capitalist world-system founded on inequality that developed under European hegemony in the last 200-500 years. From this perspective, only literature produced in the last 200-500 years can be properly considered “world literature,” with the novel representing the dominant genre.

While the world-system approach usefully anchors literature within a material history, it also reinforces Eurocentrism by limiting the historical time frame to the last 200-500 years under European hegemony and adopting a linear evolutionary parallelism that posits a causal connection between the development of capitalism and the development of the novel.  It also views cultural exchange and influence as largely unidirectional, flowing from imperial core to colonized periphery, thus erasing subaltern contributions to global modernity, minimizing European appropriations of indigenous knowledges, and reducing literary production in the peripheries to little more than belated adaptations to western capitalist modernity.  Furthermore, by perpetuating the practice of reading non-western texts using Eurocentric chronologies, theories, and methodologies, the world-system approach subscribes to the “world lit without world lit crit” paradigm I’ve critiqued elsewhere as imperialistic and unethical.

Eschewing the “rise of Europe” models of historiography (including Walltersteinian world-system theory), historians such as Andre Gunder Frank, Janet Abu-Lughod, A.G. Hopkins, and Sanjay Subramanyam have been looking beyond Europe and before the so called “Great Divergence” (Pomeranz), and finding “connected histories” before the world-system, market economies before capitalism, and modernization before modernity. There is now ample evidence to suggest that the initial groundwork for the (European dominated) modern capitalist world-system was, in fact, laid by an expanding set of intersecting trade and communication routes that emerged some five millennia ago (Frank).  Building on these recent developments in world history, I will flesh out the following broad claims:

  • The ancient Afro-Eurasian Silk Road or Routes (200 BCE-1400 CE), a vast network developed over land and sea through trading and taxation by traveling merchants, missionaries, and diplomats, often backed by strong nomadic communities or powerful empires (Han, Mongol), evolved an early form of mercantile capitalism that I call “caravan capitalism.”* The Silk Road economic system linking the East Asian core (esp China, India), the North African/West Asian/Central Eurasian semi-periphery (esp Persia) and the (Greco-Roman) Mediterranean periphery operated through a rudimentary patchwork of material processes and practices that came to characterize capitalism: extensive long-distance trade (luxury goods such as silk, porcelain, horses), capital mobility and credit creation, competitive accumulation of surplus via market-driven production and exchange, money-markets, imperialism, core-periphery relations based on a mixture of economic and geopolitical motives, periods of hegemony and rivalry, division of labor as well as forms of racial, ethnic, and gender exploitation designed to extract value. (Frank and Gills Eds. 1993; Frank 1998; Christian 2000; Sen 2003, Beckwith 2009; Liu 2010, Hensen 2012, Mair and Hickman 2014). [Questions for further exploration: how did caravan capitalism morph into mercantile capitalism under Islamic influence? Did modern technoindustrial capitalism with its emphasis on “science, patents, precision machinery and obsession with efficiency in the employment of resources, both human and material” emerge from and in continuity with caravan/mercantile capitalism or is it a distinct, possibly incompatible or antagonistic form of capitalism? Is the former more compatible with religion than the latter? Does “the great divergence” mark a break between two different forms of capitalism/modernity? Mosk 2017].
  • The Buddhist Enlightenment (583-480 BCE), transmitted along the Silk Road system, triggers a modernizing process that spurs urbanization, technological innovation, vernacularization, skepticism, questioning or rejection of “tradition,” altering of established social hierarchies (caste, gender) and emphasis on more rational or empirical forms of enquiry (Liu 1996, 2011; Foltz 1999; Kieschnick 2003; Neelis 2011). Indeed, Buddhist ideas, carried by Jesuit missionaries, may have influenced the European Enlightenment, particularly the Scottish Enlightenment, as reflected in the skepticism and empiricism of David Hume (Gopnik 2009). Drawing a through line from the Buddhist to the European Enlightenment delinks the history of modernity from an exclusively Eurocentric trajectory and paves the way for a “transmodern” retelling of world history that includes Europe without centering on Europe (Dussel). It also sets the stage for a dialectical engagement between the “ethical reason” of the Buddhist Enlightenment (Ambedkar) and the “instrumental reason” of the European Enlightenment (Adorno & Horkheimer) – one that can potentially produce the kind of rapprochement between the sacred and the secular that Habermas calls for but is unable to envision within his Eurocentric epistemology.
  • The Silk Road system promoted vigorous religious, cultural, intellectual (astronomy, mathematics/algebra), technological (gunpowder, paper making, printing, navigation), biological (medical knowledge as well as diseases) and artistic/literary interchanges across Afro-Eurasia (compare with Columbian Exchange). The literary narratives produced, circulated, exchanged, shared, and adapted along the Silk Road System therefore constitute an early (earliest?) form of world literature, with the “[Oriental] Tale” representing the dominant form and an important precursor of prose fiction, particularly the novel.


Silk Road World Lit

While a few alternative histories of the novel (Doody, Moore, Cohen) have challenged the standard Anglo-centric history that claims the novel originated in 18th century England, developed and spread to Europe and America in the 19th century before travelling to the rest of the world on the wings of colonialism, these alternative histories are largely ahistorical for, although they include varied fictional narratives (including the Oriental Tale) from different times/places, they simply see the literary form developing and spreading across empty time. What they offer is chronology, not material history.  By contrast, my literary history aims to read the literary text as the cultural expression of a material context.  I track the diffusions, convergences and conjunctures that underlying the emergence, development, and spread of the [Oriental] Tale through six major world narratives, the first three generally categorized as “folklore” rather than “literature,” (the annotations below are intended to briefly locate each text in historical/cultural context):

  1. The Panchatantra: An ancient Indian collection of five (panch) interconnected animal fables in verse and prose. The oldest surviving manuscript fragment dates back to 300 BCE, although the stories have a much longer oral tradition. Originally composed in Sanskrit; first translation into Pahlavi/Middle Persian in 550 CE; Arabic translation in 750 CE became the basis for subsequent European translations. Didactic in intent but uses entertainment as means of enlightenment; teaches pragmatic life lessons to royal princes, covering an array of topics from politics, philosophy, and astronomy to psychology, art, love and friendship. Mixes prose with verse in a style called champu in Sanskrit; dialogue and narrative are offered in prose, while verse is used to articulate concepts, provide moral instruction, and describe emotional behavior and sentiment; verse usually appears in the beginning and end of the text to emphasize the moral of the tale, while the prose form is used primarily to recount the story’s developments. This work of fanciful realism features a cast of colorful character types (ruthless kings, ambitious queens, cowardly warriors, cunning brahmins, crafty traders, wily thieves, poor peasants, canny maid servants and clever prostitutes). Uses frame/embedded story format; analogy and allegory are the most common narrative devices used to establish similarity or correspondence between human and animal/Nature.
  2. The Jataka: A collection of nearly 550 “birth stories” featuring the Buddha, many drawing on tales from the Panchatantra. The biggest and best-known manuscript is the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, a Pali work standardized around 250 BCE andpreserved by the Theravāda school. The text has verses at its core, and these are considered canonical; their surrounding prose narrative, considered commentarial and ascribed to Buddhagosa, was fixed (after a long history) only in the 5th CE Religious/moral instruction imparted through entertaining social commentary/satire; absence of supernatural/deus ex machina (unlike One Thousand and One Nights); paints raw and ribald picture of quotidian life, which Sri Lankan writer Wickramasinghe claims makes the Jataka the world’s “earliest specimens of realistic literature” (Landmark 128). [Questions for further exploration: Is Wickramasinhe’s claim about Jataka realism valid or is it an expression of Sinhalese anticolonial nationalism? What exactly is the relationship/resemblance between the realism of the Jataka and the social realism of the 19th CE European novel? Can this question be linked to the question about the relationship between caravan/mercantile capitalism and techno-industrial capitalism?]
  3. One Thousand and One Nights: a complex composite work whose earliest stories trace back to the Panchatantra and Jataka The 9th CE Alf Layla is the oldest known Arabic translation derived from the lost Persian, Hezar Afsan. The Syrian manuscript tradition is considered the most authentic while the Egyptian tradition supposedly contains later interjections, although the latter became the basis for most “standard” European translations, adding up to 1001 stories.  All extant versions nevertheless share a common core of eight tales, along with the frame story. Told by the legendary Sheherazade to the murderous King Shariyar as a clever ruse to ward off impending death each night. A cocktail of didacticism, entertainment and fantasy reflecting a commercialized, pluralistic, multicultural milieu covered in Islamic patina.
  4. Tale of Genji/Genji Monogatari: a 11th CE work by Murasaki Shikibu, an aristocratic Japanese court lady, is considered the world’s first novel. Written in hiragana, the vernacular script reserved for women (as opposed to prestigious Chinese script, reserved for men), it uses an engaging colloquial, conversational style. Incorporates many traditional Buddhist themes and motifs (from the Jataka that came to Japan via China), but with subtle feminist inflections.
  5. Decameron (1353): frame story containing 100 tales told by seven women and three men hiding outside Florence to escape the Black Death. Many stories trace back to the Oriental tale trinity (Panchatantra, Jataka, Nights). Written by the son of a leading Florentine banker, in a witty, conversational style using vernacular Florentine, Boccacio’s Decameron is the cultural product of an urbanizing, commercializing Florence where wandering knights of medieval European romance were being quickly replaced by traveling merchants.
  6. The Canterbury Tales (first print publication 1476): collection of 24 stories within a frame tale featuring a colorful cast of pilgrims on a pilgrimage telling competing stories to pass the time; composed in verse in middle English. Recent scholarship has identified the Decameron as an important source for the Canterbury Tales, widely viewed as the forerunner of the English novel.

What do these six narratives tell us about how forms of “fiction” including notions of fictionalism, verisimilitude, realism, reality, truth, literariness, narration, and narrators were conceived/constructed in the Silk Road world system? Although produced at different times/places, these narratives are connected by common influences, themes, plots, and subjects as well as a range of formal features. These resemblances are not simply proof of literature’s universal power to cross or transcend geographical/cultural/linguistic boundaries; rather, they reveal how literary forms are brought into being and into contact/collision with other, pre-existing forms through the capitalization/modernization process unleashed by the Silk Road world system in the dialectics of core and periphery that underpins cultural production. My literary analysis will focus on (a) the frame/embedded story as a literary/aesthetic expression of caravan capitalism, (b) vernacularization (linguistic and sociocultural) as a precondition for the emergence of prose fiction, (c) fictionalization and notions of realism, (d) characterization and notions of self, and (e) women (characters, narrators, authors) as central to the tale/novel tradition from the very beginning.

Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question:

Eurocentrism – challenging, countering, dismantling deep Eurocentrism, particularly Eurocentric epistemologies/theories that determine and delimit knowledge production.

Provisional sketch of essay:

  1. From the Buddhist Enlightenment to the European Enlightenment: toward a transmodern world history challenging the widespread assumption that the modern world was invented in and by Europe around 1500, I propose to argue that the groundwork for a modern capitalist world system was actually laid much earlier when goods, practices and ideas traveled along the ancient Silk Road.  I will further contend that the Buddhist Enlightenment may be seen as a precursor to the European Enlightenment, particularly in terms of promoting reason, skepticism, and empiricism. I will finally draw on the liberation philosophies of Ambedkar and Enrique Dussel to outline the historical and epistemological basis for a transmodern Enlightenment that includes Europe without centering on Europe.


  1. From the Jataka Tales to the Canterbury Tales: a global history of the pre-novel Most standard Eurocentric literary histories present the rise of the novel as coterminous with the rise the middle class and the spread of print capitalism and modernity within Europe. The subsequent spread of the novel to other parts of the world on the wings of colonialism, its rise to hegemonic status, and its postcolonial adaptations complete this metanarrative.  In this Eurocentric framework, the postcolonial novel is always a response, an act of writing back, howsoever creative or subversive.  To counter this Eurocentric historiography, I offer a pre-history of the novel that examines the rise and spread of the “Oriental Tale” along the ancient Silk Road.  I will trace the influence of the Buddhist Jataka and Panchatantra Tales through The One Thousand and One Nights on the Decameron and the Canterbury Tales (widely viewed as a forerunner to the English novel), focusing on specific narrative strategies and recurring motifs such as the frame narrative, embedded stories, multiple narrators etc.