Hypocrisy and Indian History: A Public Statement

(I did not write this post. Here is the original source. Please sign the petition, if you have not)

On 26 October, 53 Indian historians voiced alarm at what they perceived to be the country’s “highly vitiated atmosphere” and protested against attempts to impose “legislated history, a manufactured image of the past, glorifying certain aspects of it and denigrating others….” This was soon followed by an “Open letter from overseas historians and social scientists”, 176 of them, warning against, “a dangerously pervasive atmosphere of narrowness, intolerance and bigotry” and “a monolithic and flattened view of India’s history.”

Such closely-linked statements appearing with clockwork regularity in India and abroad—there have been several more from various “intellectual” circles—are a well-orchestrated campaign to create a bogeyman and cry wolf. They are neither intellectual nor academic in substance, but ideological and, much more so, political.

As historians, archaeologists and academics specializing in diverse aspects of Indian civilization, we wish to respond to these hypocritical attempts to claim the moral high ground. Many of the signatories of the above two statements by Indian and “overseas” historians have been part of a politico-ideological apparatus which, from the 1970s onward, has come to dominate most historical bodies in the country, including the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), and imposed its blinkered view of Indian historiography on the whole academic discipline.

Anchored mainly in Marxist historiography and leftist ideology, with a few borrowings from postmodernism, the Annales School, Subaltern and other studies, this new School, which may be called “Leftist” for want of a better term, has become synonymous with a number of abusive and unscholarly practises; among them:

  1. A reductionist approach viewing the evolution of Indian society almost entirely through the prism of the caste system, emphasizing its mechanisms of “exclusion” while neglecting those of integration without which Indian society would have disintegrated long ago.
  2. A near-complete erasure of India’s knowledge systems in every field philosophical, linguistic, literary, scientific, medical, technological or artistic—and a general under-emphasis of India’s important contributionsto other cultures and civilizations. In this, the Leftist School has been a faithful inheritor of colonial historiography, except that it no longer has the excuse of ignorance. Yet it claims to provide an accurate and “scientific” portrayal of India!
  3. A denial of the continuity and originality of India’s Hindu-Buddhist-Jain-Sikh culture, ignoring the work of generations of Indian and Western Indologists. Hindu identity, especially, has been a pet aversion of this School, which has variously portrayed it as being disconnected from Vedic antecedents, irrational, superstitious, regressive, barbaric — ultimately “imagined” and, by implication, illegitimate.
  4. A refusal to acknowledge the well-documented darker chapters of Indian history, in particular the brutality of many Muslim rulers and their numerous Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and occasionally Christian and Muslim victims (ironically, some of these tyrants are glorified today); the brutal intolerance of the Church in Goa,Kerala and Puducherry; and the state-engineered economic and cultural impoverishment of India under the British rule. While history worldwide has wisely called for millions of nameless victims to be remembered, Indian victims have had to suffer a second death, that of oblivion, and often even derision.
  5. A neglect of tribal histories: For all its claims to give a voice to “marginalized” or “oppressed” sections of Indian society, the Leftist School has hardly allowed aspace to India’s tribal communities and the rich contributions of their tribal belief systems and heritage. When it has condescended to take notice, it has generally been to project Hindu culture and faith traditions as inimical to tribal cultures and beliefs, whereas in reality the latter have much more in common with the former than with the religions imposed on them through militant conversions.
  6. A biased and defective use of sources: Texts as well as archaeological or epigraphic evidence have been misread or selectively used to fit preconceived theories. Advances of Indological researches in the last few decades have been ignored, as have been Indian or Westernhistorians, archaeologists, anthropologists who have differed from the Leftist School. Archaeologists who developed alternative perspectivesafter considerable research have beensidelined or negatively branded.Scientific inputs from many disciplines, from palaeo-environmental to genetic studies have been neglected.
  7. A disquieting absence of professional ethics: The Leftist School has not academically critiqued dissenting Indian historians, preferring to dismiss them as “Nationalist” or “communal”. Many academics have suffered discrimination, virtual ostracism and loss of professional opportunities because they would not toe the line, enforced through political support since the days of Nurul Hasan. The Indian History Congress and the ICHR, among other institutions,became arenas of power play and political as well as financial manipulation. In effect, the Leftist School succeeded in projecting itself as the one and only, crushing debate and dissent and polarizing the academic community.

While we reject attempts to portray India’s past as a glorious and perfect golden age, we condemn the far more pernicious imposition by the Leftist School of a “legislated history”, which has presented an alienating and debilitating self-image to generations of Indian students, and promoted contempt for their civilizational heritage. The “values and traditions of plurality that India had always cherished in the past” are precisely those this School has never practised.We call for an unbiased and rigorous new historiography of India.

  1. Dilip K. Chakrabarti, Emeritus Professor, Cambridge University, UK; Dean, Centre of Historical and Civilizational Studies, Vivekananda International Foundation, Chanakyapuri, Delhi; member, ICHR
  2. Saradindu Mukherji, historian, retired from Delhi University; member, ICHR
  3. Nanditha Krishna, Director, CPR Institute of Indological Research, Chennai; member, ICHR
  4. M.D. Srinivas, former professor of theoretical physics; former vice-chairman, Indian Institute of Advanced Study; chairman, Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai; member, ICHR
  5. Meenakshi Jain, associate professor of history, Delhi University; member, ICHR
  6. Michel Danino, guest professor, IIT Gandhinagar; member, ICHR
  7. B.B. Lal, former Director General, Archaeological Survey of India
  8. R.S. Bisht, former Joint Director General, Archaeological Survey of India
  9. R. Nagaswamy, former Director of Archaeology, Govt. of Tamil Nadu; Vice Chancellor, Sri ChandrasekharendraSaraswathiViswaMahavidyalaya, Kanchipuram
  10. B.M. Pande, Former Director, Archaeological Survey of India
  11. DayanathTripathi, former Chairman, ICHR; former Head, Dept. of Ancient History, Archaeology and Culture, D.D.U. Gorakhpur University, Gorakhpur; former Visiting Professor at Cambridge, British Academy
  12. R.C. Agrawal, President, Rock Art Society of India; former Member Secretary of ICHR
  13. K.V. Raman, former professor of Ancient Indian History & Archaeology, University of Madras
  14. Padma Subrahmanyam, Dancer and Research Scholar
  15. Kapil Kapoor, former Rector, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Chancellor, Mahatma Gandhi Antararashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya, Wardha (Maharashtra)
  16. Madhu Kishwar, Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi
  17. ChandrakalaPadia, Vice Chancellor, Maharaja Ganga Singh University (Rajasthan); Chairperson, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla
  18. SachchidanandSahai, Ph.D. (Paris), National Professor in Epigraphy, Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Advisor to PreahVihear National Authority under the Royal Government of Cambodia; member, ICHR
  19. J.K. Bajaj, Director Centre for Policy Studies, Former Member ICSSR
  20. MakarandParanjape, Professor of English, JNU; Visiting Global South Fellow, University of Tuebingen
  21. NikhilesGuha, former professor of history, University of Kalyani, West Bengal; member, ICHR
  22. Issac C.I., member, ICHR
  23. (Dr.) Purabi Roy, member, ICHR
  24. Jagbir Singh, Former Professor and Head, Dept. of Punjabi, University of Delhi; Life Fellow, Punjabi University, Patiala.
  25. G.J. Sudhakar, former Associate Professor, Dept. of History, Loyola College, Chennai
  26. Bharat Gupt, Former Associate Professor, Delhi University
  27. O.P. Kejariwal, Central Information Commissioner & Nehru Fellow
  28. S.C. Bhattacharya, former Professor and HOD, Ancient History, Culture and Archaeology, Allahabad University; former National Fellow, IIAS, Shimla
  29. S.K. Chakraborty, former professor, Management Centre for Human Values, Indian Institute of Management Calcutta
  30. AmarjivaLochan, Associate Professor in History, Delhi University; President, South and Southeast Asian Association for the Study of Culture & Religion (SSEASR) under IAHR, affiliated to the UNESCO
  31. R.N. Iyengar, Distinguished Professor, Jain University, Bangalore
  32. Professor (Dr) Nath, former Professor of History, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur
  33. KiritMankodi, archaeologist, consultant to Project for Indian Cultural Studies, Mumbai
  34. K. Ramasubramanian, Cell for Indian Science and Technology in Sanskrit, IIT Bombay; Council Member International Union for History and Philosophy of Science; member, RashtriyaSanksritParishad
  35. M.S. Sriram, Retired Professor and Head, Department of Theoretical Physics, University of Madras; Member Editorial Board, Indian Journal of History of Science; Former Member, Research Council for History of Science, INSA
  36. Amartya Kumar Dutta, Professor of Mathematics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata
  37. Godabarisha Mishra, Professor and Head, Dept. of Philosophy, University of Madras
  38. R. Ganesh, Shathavadhani, Sanskrit scholar
  39. Sri Banwari, Academic and Journalist; former Resident Editor, Jansatta
  40. S. Krishnan, Associate Professor, Dept of Mathematics, IIT Bombay
  41. Rajnish Kumar Mishra, Associate Professor, Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
  42. VikramSampath, Director, Symbiosis School of Media and Communication; former Director of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) – SRC; historian and author
  43. K. Gopinath, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore
  44. M.A. Venkatakrishnan, former Professor and Head, Dept. of Vaishnavism, Madras University
  45. Sumathi Krishnan, Musician and Musicologist
  46. PremaNandakumar, Author and translator
  47. Santosh Kumar Shukla, Associate Professor, Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

The above list was released on 17 November; on 18 November, three scholars had been contacted but could not send their answer in time owing to the flood situation in Chennai. We include them here for the record:

  1. Siniruddha Dash, former Professor & Head, Dept. of Sanskrit, University of Madras
  2. Mamata Mishra, Managing Trustee, Prof. K.V. Sarma Research Foundation
  3. ChithraMadhavan, historian and epigraphist

(via IndiaFacts)

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In IndiaFacts: Review – Zealot by Reza Aslan

(The original version was published at IndiaFacts)

In 66 C.E., fed up with the Roman occupation of their land, the Jews declared war on the Roman Empire. Soldiers patrolled even in the temple of this supposedly inconsequential part of the empire. Imagine the anger Malayalis would have felt if Communists administered their temples and the state looted its wealth. Wait. Wrong example. Though Rome was a powerful empire, the Jews were confident that their God would take them to victory. Motivated by what looked like a possible victory, the rebels attacked Jews who colluded with the Romans. Many messiahs also appeared on the scene, prophesying the end of Jerusalem. Finally, the miracle happened; they liberated Jerusalem.

If any Carthaginians were around, they would have told the Jews that this was a bad idea. In 70 C.E., the empire struck back. They razed the city to the ground, slaughtered the Jews and exiled the survivors. They also renamed the city and erased all mention of it from the record. Unlike Hindus, the Jews did not have temples all over the country. There was one temple — The Temple at Jerusalem — the center of their worship and that was gone. It was not just the Jews who were affected; the followers of a man named Yeshua were affected dramatically. It was after these events that the first Gospels were written.

Due to these sequence of events, Aslan argues that the Jesus of the Gospels is not the same as the historical man named Yeshua. For Aslan, the Gospels were written by believers for a specific purpose and are not historical documents. He ignores them and presents a picture of Yeshua by looking at the social, political and theological context of that period. Aslan himself is a former evangelical, who gave up that life as he became a religious scholar. Besides painting a portrait of Yeshua, he also reveals how the modern Jesus was invented.

If Jesus was not the person whom the Gospels claim to be — the good shepherd, the peacenik, the one who turned the other cheek — then who was he? According to Aslan, two things we can be sure are

  1. He was a Jew who led a popular movement like many others
  2. He was crucified by the Romans like many others.

To those who believe Yeshua was a child prodigy, who at a young age, stunned the priests of the Temple and to those Indians who are fascinated by the tale of Jesus learning in India, Aslan, who has been a Biblical scholar for two decades, sets the record straight. Yeshua was a woodworker or craftsman who never ventured far away. All Jewish peasants of the time were illiterate; Yeshua could not have been any different. (On a side note, the theory that he died in Tibet has been debunked as well)

Once baptized by his guru, John the Baptist, Yeshua took on a career of preaching. He wandered around as a professional exorcist, curing the ill of their sickness. Another common profession during that period, it paid more than being a woodworker. He was not the only miracle worker of that period, “it was quite common to see diviners, dream interpreters, magicians and medicine men wandering around the region”. But Aslan says Jesus did something different from the rest: he never charged for his work. We know that because the pagan and Jewish critics of Christianity agree on this as well.

Yeshua was not stoned to death for blasphemy, but crucified, which was the Roman punishment for treason. Anyone who proclaimed he was a messiah was crucified for striving to overthrow the Roman empire. Disrupting the activities of the temple, Yeshua proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was coming soon and this occurred during the time of when rebels were working to overthrow the Romans and bring the land under Jewish control. The main thesis of Aslan’s book is that Jesus was not someone who was talking about abstract ideas during this time, but was a zealot, actively involved in this movement like others of that period. Yeshua proclaimed that the present order would be replaced by a new political, religious and economic system and for advocating such a revolutionary idea, he was executed by crucifixion.

Another point Aslan makes is that the crucifixion of Jesus was not one of those stop the world events that happened in Jerusalem. Pilate, the Roman governor, who sent Jesus to the cross had utter disregard for Jewish customs and had crucified many others. He would not even have met Jesus. Terrorized by Pilate’s hobby, the people of Jerusalem complained to the Roman emperor. Even then he did not lose his job. Nothing happened to the temple priest as well. It was much later, after Pilate sent soldiers to butcher the followers of another messiah, that both he and the temple priest lost their jobs.

Following the crucifixion of Yeshua, three major strands of events occurred. The followers of Yeshua — the ones who walked with him — were shocked. The messiah who promised to rebuild David’s Kingdom had not only failed but was crucified like a state criminal. What did that mean? What could they do now? For the Jews, it was curtains down. He was yet another failed messiah. But for members of the Jesus movement, they had to invent a new explanation. They also had to prove to others that he indeed was the messiah. One of the earliest beliefs they came up was the radically new resurrection narrative — that he arose on the third day. They stayed in Jerusalem, continuing his teaching.

The second chain of events was set off by Paul who was inspired by Jesus though he had never met him. Other writers claimed Paul had a vision; Paul himself never said so. For Paul, Jesus was divine. Paul’s target market was the urbanized elite who did not care for messianic concepts or Jewish rituals. For the original illiterate followers of Jesus, Paul’s teachings were all Greek (literally). It would be like Hindus reading the writings of Prof. Wendy Doniger. In fact, Paul’s teaching looked so radical that the head of the Hebrew followers, James, (the brother of Jesus), sent congregations to convert the followers of Paul back to the fold; James was quite successful.

As the Hebrews — the farmers and fishermen followers of Jesus — and the Hellenists — the urbanized Greek speaking Romans — were duking it out , 9/11 hit Jerusalem and the Romans wiped out the place from the map. This triggered the third sequence of events. The Gospels were written down in various cities in the empire — Rome, Damascus, Antioch, and Ephesus — by people who had never met Yeshua. By then four decades had passed since Yeshua’s crucifixion and the eyewitnesses to his life had perished. The teachings that were passed along were conveniently modified.

Also, after 70 C.E, it was clear to everyone, who had the power to chop off your head. The authors of the Gospels could either stick their neck out and write that Jesus was a man who wanted to overthrow the Roman empire or they could spin another tale. They chose the latter. A Jesus, who operated at a divine plane and had nothing to do with earthly matters became a convenient replacement.

The author of the first gospel, attributed to Mark, wanted to absolve the Romans of all the crime. Hence, the whole story of Pilate washing his hands of Jesus was invented. The Romans, who crucified Yeshua were sanitized and Jews who did not accept him as the messiah became the villains. That was the birth of anti-Semitism, the consequences of which can be seen even today. Another important point to note is that the gospels were not written in Hebrew or Aramaic, but in Greek. The evangelists’ goal was to convert the gentiles and so distancing themselves from Jewish “mumbo-jumbo” seemed right.

Aslan is not the first person to do this kind of analysis. He is one among many of a two centuries old line of scholarship trying to excavate the historical Jesus. Many years back, Prof. Thomas Sheehan of Stanford, taught a course called The Historical Jesus where he did similar analysis looking into the Gospels to find out what fits and what does not. Usually, historians go to primary sources to find the truth, but in this case, Sheehan says, the primary source are problematic. The Gospels which are now considered Canonical were ruled so by political forces. Whatever did not fit the template was considered heretic, a concept alien to dharmic traditions. Each blind scholar in this lineage found a different part of the elephant: using historical studies, literary analysis and sociology, they found Yeshua to be either a philosopher or an apocalyptic preacher or teacher or simply a magician.

With the destruction of Jerusalem, the original message was diluted and the urbanized, educated Greek-speaking diaspora Jews, immersed in Greek philosophy and Hellenistic culture Deepak Chopra-ed a new religion. This is like how American Buddhists are defining a new “scientific” religion by eradicating traces of Hinduism and mystical elements of Buddhism and retaining just mindfulness. The failed messiah, who did not set out to create Christianity, became the creator of heavens and earth and had nothing to do with the Roman occupation or the fight against it. This Neo-Jesus is the one to whom believers pray every weekend.

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How the RigVeda is memorized

(This is a guest post by reader Ranjith P, after he saw a RigVeda chanting exercise in a temple near his home)

As you might  know it is a puzzle that how is RigVeda,  a ~4000 year old text is still memorized and chanted without making any mistake. It turns out that  people have made many special exercises to make sure that each person understands each word in detail, and can chant it in any order.  Once such exercise is called vaaram which helps people  learn RigVeda word by word by reciting it in a complex ordered way.

For example, these are the verses from Book 1, Hymn 23

Now watch these being recited

The two persons chanting are Dr. Mannoor Jathavedan Namboodiri (first person) and Mr. Naarayanamangalam Visakh. The second part (second person) is from Rig Veda Book 8 Hymn 11

When you see the video, you will note a few things

  1. In the first few minutes you can clearly see some stones near the person. They use some stones and somehow generate a random number. And using this, they choose a random hymn  in RigVeda and start from there. They don’t pre-plan where to start. That means, they have to know the whole of Veda by heart
  2. They repeat  words like: alpha beta, beta gamma, gamma, delta etc (first word, second word, second word, third word, third word fourth word etc).
  3. At the end of each sentence (and randomly) they have to split words (spitting sanskrit words is tough) .
  4. If you imagine transmitting some information orally, after some generations, very likely that one will goof up long and short vowels. For example,  words like “devaa” could be mistaken for “deva” and “vayoo” for “vayu“. To avoid it, they have developed a way of chanting where they stress the long vowels very clearly by extending it a bit too long so that the “deergham” is very clearly conveyed orally

When the second person chants you can see the first person, using his fingers, at random locations, ask the second person to split words (to test whether he knows)

This vaaram is like a minor day-to-day version of the famous Kadvalloor Anyonyam. vaaram is only one of the exercises and there are many others as well.

PS: This event happened at the Edakkuda temple, Malappuram district, Kerala

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Indian History Carnival-81:Purnaiah & Talleyrand, 1857, Indians in World War I

  1. Pavan Srinath compares the lives of Krishnamacharya Purnaiah and Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord and finds similarities.
    Krishnamacharya Purnaiah (also spelled Purnaiya) started managing the finances of Mysore under Hyder Ali, slowly moving to manage much of the state’s administration as well. Helping manage an easy transfer of power to Tipu upon the death of Hyder Ali, Purnaiah continued to be a close confidante and aide to Tipu Sultan. After the defeat of Tipu, he continued on under the British and was then appointed Dewan as the British allowed the Wodeyar family back into power in the early 19th century.

  2. Madhulika Liddle writes about the monuments that were destroyed in the Anglo-Indian war of 1857 in Delhi
    In 1857, Baadli ki Sarai suddenly shot into prominence, because it became the site of a landmark battle: the Battle of Baadli ki Sarai, fought on June 8, 1857, between about 4,000 rebels (who had occupied the sarai and were defending it) and the besieging British forces. The British won, and Baadli ki Sarai became, over the following years, almost a sort of pilgrimage for Empire-loving British tourists who came here to gloat over the wonderful victory.

  3. In the post titled Recruitment and literacy in World War I: Evidence from colonial Punjab, Oliver Vanden Eynde argues that  higher post-war literacy in the recruited areas like Punjab were due to the learning opportunities in the army.
    The analysis confirms that, between 1911 and 1921, literacy rates (as well as the number of literate individuals) increased significantly in heavily recruited communities. This effect is strongest for men of military age, which is consistent with the hypothesis that soldiers learned to read and write on their foreign campaigns. My estimations suggest that for every ten additional soldiers recruited from a community, the number of literates in the community on average increased by three individuals after the war.

  4. A large number of Indian soldiers fought in the First World War, especially in the Middle East and they are largely forgotten, writes Vedica Kant
    However, the most significant campaign of the war for Indian troops took place in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). The Mesopotamia campaign started off as an entirely Indian Army operation. 588,717 Indians – i.e. nearly 40 per cent of all Indians who were involved in World War I – served in Mesopotamia, more than in any other single campaign during the war. In a parallel with Iraq’s more contemporary history, the decision to expand the conflict to Mesopotamia was driven by the desire for oil. The Government of India decided to deploy an expeditionary force in the region to protect its oil interests there. For a majority of Indians their experience of the war was not that of a bitter European winter but of the dramatic swings between extreme heat and dust and the chilly winters of the Arabian Desert.

The next carnival will be up on Dec 15th. Please send your nominations before that.

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In Niti Central: Empowering history, no flagellation

(This was co-authored with Parag Tope, the author of Tatya Tope’s Operation Red Lotus and originally published at Niti Central)

Flickr via Ujjwol Lamichhane

Whether one evaluates petrified history or percipient history, the practical benefit of studying history is only as relevant to how that knowledge helps the present and the future. Therefore, thestudy of history must achieve two goals:

  1. Learn from positives by identifying success – things done right.
  2. Learn from failures by identifying mistakes – things gone wrong.

Modern, rather European or Western narrative of history, attempts to achieve the same goals, however, these methods are constrained by their own narrow paradigms:

Institutions, not society, are primarily responsible for “official” history

Narratives are based on a linear time-frame, absolute time lines and display an obsession to date everything

Materialistic markers and dating are used to competitively rank petrified civilisations

A western sense of civility (or an absence thereof) determines identification of “things gone wrong.” This “civility” is on fully display in highly flagellating what-if analyses, name calling, character assassinations and finger pointing.

Western methodologies for history are consistent with their polity – where institutions and state dominate over the lives of people. This is not only true today, but was true during Roman and Greek periods as well. Therefore it is not uncommon to find semi-hagiographic records of anyone associated with those institutions forming the basis of “historical records”. For example, we have a good idea about Plato’s lineage, how he got his name and who his siblings were while we have scarce information on where Aryabhata was born, who his parents were or who his teachers were.

If the goal is to learn from the positives and avoid repeating mistakes, how do dates and lineages matter? Analytical processes have their place in any intellectual framework, however, when it comes to history, why are absolutes important? The answer becomes clear if one attempts to understand the roots of western ethos, polity and a progressive, linear view of time.

Progress versus the कालचक्र (Kaalachakra – wheel of time)

This linearity lends itself to a near obsession with the concept of “progress”. However, this obsession with progress is matched by the equally strong fear of the impending apocalypse. From a western intellectual framework, the past petrification does indeed offer lessons about their own imminent future. Western ethos, rooted in fear of the apocalypse, recognizes that their future could be leading down the path of destruction. Every few decades, Europeans and Westerners, both from the ‘religious right’ and the ‘progressive left’, claim that the world is going to end soon, because humans are sinners or polluters.

In that framework, these lessons are indeed relevant and therefore desire introspection. Thus, the Western obsession to date every event is also understandable. If doomsday is coming, would it not make sense to predict as to when it is coming? Consequently, Western methodologies are appropriate to prevent a destruction that their religious texts, or scientific fears, claim is impending.

Western timelines are stratified into various ‘ages’ indicating a certain linear progression. Thus when the English invented Indian history, it was conveniently split into a Hindu age, Buddhist age, Muslim age and a British age. Indian ethos operates differently. Indians never looked upon time as linear, but cyclical and in that context the need to date everything is considered a fool’s errand.

Similarly, India’s percipient history is primarily about learning from the positives and therefore, Indic memories present a large number of positive role models. The best practices are preserved by recognizing the “things done right” and by identifying those who did the right things and placing them on a pedestal.

Constraints of Civility and Historical Amnesia

What about mistakes and “things gone wrong”? Indic memories clearly place the heroes of a story on a pedestal – be it Vishnu or Durga in their various Avatars. The antagonists, those who are the cause of the imbalance, driven by ego or ambition to lord over others, like Ravana and other Asuras, are explicitly assailed. However, Indic memories display a selective amnesia of the names of all those who either blundered, betrayed, or made bad choices, which enabled the antagonists becoming powerful in the first place. For example, the stories of the growth of Ravana’s empire offer little information of the kings he defeated. Is it possible that during the period of Ravana’s expansion, there might have been kings who either made strategic blunders or were bribed, bought or beaten?

Indic civility or सभ्यता clearly discourages finger pointing or flagellation. This easily explains why Indic memories are amnesic when it comes to offering lessons learned that involve any sort of finger pointing at any historical person, persons or even citizens who might have made mistakes that led to further failures.

If stories of defeat were editorially eliminated, because civility could not accommodate finger pointing, how did Indians learn from their mistakes? Is Indic civility or सभ्यता a curse that prevented Indians from truly learning from failures? Were ancient Indians in their desire to be civil, fail to preserve the lessons learned for posterity?

There are two possibilities:

  1. Yes – the absence of finger pointing does indeed indicate that Indic memories fail in providing the lessons learned for later generations.
  2. No – Ancient Indians were able to solve the problem and overcome the “constraint of civility” by preserving the lessons learned without pointing fingers.

Those who are stuck in a linear apocalypse-fearing western mindset would choose the first option.

Consider the other possibility. Is it possible to separate the lessons learned from the primary story and the characters who blundered? Does naming the individual who blundered have any importance in learning from their mistakes?

Dispersive History

The answer is Dispersive History – where events of relevance, like light passing through glass, are filtered through a prism of Indic ethos and “dispersed” into relevant buckets for consumption by generations to come.

Dispersive history splits important events four ways:

The protagonists are named and are placed on a pedestal.

The antagonists are named and denounced.

Mala fide actions, that remain a part of human failings that includes corruption and betrayal, offer no new lessons. Those who might have been bought or betrayed are ignored and their names forgotten with time.

Bona fide mistakes are encapsulated as lessons learned in abstracted form. The names and sometimes even the species are changed to avoid direct finger pointing. This is history with pseudonymous characters which can be described as abstracted pseudonymous history.

The stories in हितोपदेश (Hitopadesha – good advice), the पंचतन्त्र (Panchatantra – five principles) or the philosophical observations made in poetic form in the सुभाषित (subhashitas – “well said” ideas) – are abstracted observations with pseudonymous characters, that were likely to have been inspired from real events. The names or the specifics in the stories are far less relevant than the lessons themselves.

For example, a king who was seduced by rhetoric and ignored obvious red flags in an alliance with another king, could have easily inspired the story told in the हितोपदेश (good advice) of the “old tiger and the greedy traveler”. Or citizens of a country that were seduced by free handouts of a seemingly benign, but oppressive ruler, could have inspired the story of the “doves, the hunter, the grains of rice, and a mouse.” The story of how a weak, but clever king who used the power of an ally to defeat an enemy could have formed the basis for the panchatantra story काकस्य उपायः ( kaakasya Upaayah – A Crow’s Solution).

Furthermore, children were exposed to these stories early in life – so that they could grow up with these lessons. As adults, they could recognise the traps that their ancestors might have fallen into – and learn to avoid them. This helped achieve the second goal of historical analysis, with without any flagellation or sacrificing the civility that defines Indic ethos.

This way of preserving stories for posterity is another distinctive feature of India. These stories were important in the lessons they taught, but simple enough that it was both entertaining and could be communicated easily irrespective of the age and educational background of their listeners. Some of these stories were even simplified into common sayings which are used in everyday conversations even today.

How do you use this understanding of Indian historiography to alter the way history is taught was written in India? In the final part of this series, we offer some suggestions. We would also like to invite the readers to make suggestions in this regard. The final part of the series which consists of few general and specific recommendations will be published a month later based on the comments and feedback we receive.

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