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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In Niti Central: Petrified History to Percipient History

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

In the first part of this series we described India as having an “accumulative” history versus other civilisations having maintained “discrete” histories. This key differentiator between India and other civilisations is an important factor to consider as India attempts to reassess its own history. For example, various western anthropological models of civilisations describe several phases of a civilization. They typically start with some description of a beginning and some description of a decay and then an ending.

India does not share that experience, because all ancient civilisations, with the exception of India, are akin to fallen trees petrified over the centuries. Petrification is a process that replaces the live cells of a tree with minerals that fossilize the cells and preserve the structure. Archaeological findings of ancient civilizations are in many ways similar to finding a petrified tree. Unlike a live tree, a petrified tree can be sliced and its rings counted to know how old the tree was when it died. A petrified tree also preserves the signature of the minerals that it absorbs when they replace the live cells providing critical information about the period of petrification; a dead civilisation provides answers that offer as much clarity as a petrified tree does.

Living History

However, India is a living civilisation, which has preserved the memory of ancient times across generations through the memory of people, stories and philosophical treatises. India’s unbroken continuity means that it is an ancient, but a live tree, like a banyan tree that has roots spread far and wide. Can a live Banyan tree answer a simple question as to how old it is? Can it even answer the question as to where the original trunk was? Perhaps, only if parts of the tree were petrified, like the sites near Saraswati and Kampil.

Absence of fossilized anthropological evidence does not indicate the absence of antiquity. The methodologies that are applied to study what died and preserved, have to differ from methodologies that are required to study a live civilisation. To find out what someone ate before they died, one can perform an autopsy and examine the contents of the stomach. What about a live person? Well – just ask what they ate. Therefore, studying Indian history needs a fundamentally new approach which has to be different from the study of dead fossilized civilisations. It needs to be analogous to asking a live civilisation “what do you remember?”

For example, if you ask the Rajasthanis on why their region is a desert, they would tell us that it is due to the disappearance of a mighty river which had once flowed through the region. Even though the river vanished several thousand years ago, the memory is preserved in folk songs and local traditions. If you had asked the people of Kampil, even before excavating, they would have told you that the mound in their village actually hid a fort. Much before satellite imagery found the paleo channels, Indians who had read the nadistuti sukta of the Rigveda would have told you that the location of Saraswati was between Yamuna and Sutlej.

India’s secret of this contiguous memory lies in the ability of the society to retell the stories across generations. The carriers of these memories were not political rulers, but society itself and these memories were carried across generations through folk songs, dances, stories and enactments of epics. This is very different from the concept of annals, or what is known as recorded or “official” history of events recorded by courts of kings. Thus, preservation of history in India was highly decentralised, yet, the themes of preservation were common.

Transfused History

Though India has a unique combination of diversity of language and culture, Indians are bound by a common thread of stories and traditions. Society achieved this by maintaining a section of the population who took the responsibility of rituals, as well as educating themselves in a broad category of subjects, that included stories and philosophical treatises. Additionally, pilgrimages to various “तीर्थस्थल were encouraged by ensuring that the lodging and boarding was free of cost. In return the guests would perform ceremonies, rituals, hold philosophical discussions, perform vedic recitations, and discuss stories and philosophies with their hosts. This not only allowed for a cross-pollination of ideas, concepts, and philosophies, but also of stories, best practices and the opportunity for selecting and sharing wisdom. This “transfusion” of ideas across regions, languages and peoples provided a unique paradigm in integrating Indian ethos while maintaining its diversity.

Just as a historian makes editorial selections in what goes in a history book, society, in combination with a culture that encouraged cross-pollination of ideas, made similar choices. What makes one story more important than other? Why preserve the memory of one event and not another?

Just as प्रकृति (prakriti) represents things that are impermanent, changing or evolving, संस्कृति (Sanskriti) defines सनातन (Sanatana – everlasting or immutable) ideas. Editorial selections were made based on what concepts were considered प्राकृतिक (Prakritic or impermanent) and what concepts were considered सांस्कृतिक (Sanskritic or immutable). If an event significantly affected the lives of people and the lessons learned were considered immutable, it got added to the stories worthy of preservation.

This automatically meant that western notion of civilisation, based on materialistic markers, were generally ignored in Indian ethos. Indians placed सभ्यता or civility above materialistic markers of civilisation. This relative prioritisation allowed Indians to identify stories that were worth preserving, without getting seduced by materialistic markers. This is exemplified in the story of Ram’s life, where the seeming prosperity of Ravana’s Lanka, with its multi-storied palaces and bejewelled and golden decor, are described in great detail. Yet, Ayodhya which had far less impressive materialistic markers in comparison to Lanka, was considered superior, because of the civility that existed in society that was free from Ravana’s oppressive regime.

These stories not only provided the audience with the tools to recognise what was worthy of cherishing, it also put a spotlight on the important concept that if power was centralised in the hands of oppressive regimes, civility would be adversely impacted. This knowledge that civility had indeed broken down in the past, in cyclical patterns, equipped Indians to look to their history for lessons that would enable them to overcome obstacles in the present.

Percipient History

With society’s ability to perceive, discern, discriminate and select what is remembered for posterity, Indic memories can therefore be best described as Percipient History. Percipient history depends on the preservation of what the society perceives is worthy of preservation. Petrified history is more about preservation of snapshots of discrete periods of history, which includes “historical records.” The process of keeping records was often undertaken by rulers, administrators and therefore represented the view of the state or institutions and not society. The concept of centralised study of Petrified history was forced upon India by the English. This was then propagated by historians who continued to be seduced by the beauty of material markers preserved as petrified civilisations, rather than the wisdom and perceptiveness of a living civilisation.

As India reassesses history, it needs to make a distinction between non-Indic petrified history and India’s percipient history. Indians also need to look at the unique style of Indian historiography, the goal of which was to extract empowering lessons which would benefit future generations without indulging in flagellation. We will look at this in the next part.

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In Niti Central: Politics of ‘official’ History

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

Click on the image for the story on how this civilization met its end

Click on the image for the story on how this civilization met its end

With a nationalistic government leading India, there is an unprecedented opportunity to undo the damage that has been caused to Indian memories, by forces hostile to Indic ethos. A natural reaction would be to take an opposite position to reverse the damage. This series takes a step back and analyses the mechanisms used by our ancestors. Had they developed a framework for recording history that is staring at us but we don’t realize? If so, can we decode that framework and can that offer us guidance in creating an analytical and an Indic approach to reassessing history?

The first part argued that India’s experience and memories are distinct from other places – and there India needs its own framework. In this part we review the politics of “official” history and argue that India needs a different approach. In the subsequent parts we decode the unique Indic methodology of editorializing, preserving and transmitting, not only narratives but even lessons learned. The final part will look at how that decoded knowledge can help formulate a new framework for reassessing Indic history, and perhaps even the history of humanity.

Politics of Historiography

European polity has dominated modern discourse in recent times, and it is represented in their hierarchical top-down systems that come in various flavours. Whether they are an “-acy”, an “-ism”, or an “-ity,” they have one thing in common: they all view society either as errant or as similar to sheep, which needs to be controlled and shepherded. What differentiates various systems from each other is the extent of shepherding and whether the shepherds emerge from the flock they seek to control. This has translated into academic institutions and government machinery that attempt to wield control over society.

Western Historiography is based on theoretical frameworks, such as Marxism, nationalism, post-colonialism, post-modernism, feminism and more, and draws from social sciences, religion and anthropology among others. These frameworks provide a specific perspective and the conclusion reached by historians depends on which of these coloured lenses they are wearing. Historiography has been used as tools to control the “masses” and follows a consistent pattern. First, “eminent” people with certificates of qualifications and specialized degrees are given charge of influential institutions in the nation. They control the intellectual framework for history and anthropology and define the narratives based on that framework. Next, large universities and institutions which are well funded, author huge volumes of writings, which are then condensed and simplified for various educational levels. Finally, the government controlled educational system works as a distribution channel for students who are nothing more than consumers of ideas created by these “highly qualified” people.

This is in complete contrast to India’s ethos where society determined qualifications of individuals based on their observed day to day actions. Personal sacrifice of material gain and power, combined with demonstrable knowledge, was given the highest respect; not degrees and certificates from highly funded institutions. Further, the responsibility of propagating memories remained with society and was never outsourced to any authority or central institution, regardless of their qualifications, stature or intelligence. India’s long held memories, helped Indians recognize the patterns of oppression inflicted by the British and they fought against Britain relentlessly. The part success achieved in the Anglo-Indian war of 1857 was a result of Indian memories that equipped Indian society to support Indian leaders form alliances and challenge the oppressive economic, political and social systems imposed by the British. The Azamgarh proclamation of August 1857, which demanded political, economic and personal freedom, was an acknowledgement of this unbroken Indian ethos.

To neutralize India’s decentralized memories, the British launched a two pronged attack. First, they created centralized institutional structures, and second, used those institutions to launch an ideological assault and propaganda against Indic ethos. They hired consultants to write Indian history with an anti-Indic bias through various narratives. The mission of these pen wielding mercenaries was to eventually replace India’s unique memories with “official history.”

The techniques for erasing memories were already perfected within the Western world. As Christianity spread, “Pagan” cultures were erased, Orwellian memory holes were created to incinerate inconvenient remnants of past history to prevent any resurgence of those who were vanquished. Sometimes the incineration was physical, with the near successful genocide in the “New World”, where “Guns, Germs and Steel”, were used to wipe out native people and their memories. In other cases, less dramatic but effective memory holes were created by renaming places, persons or objects to unlink them from the past.

Fortunately, the two pronged assault on India was not entirely successful. Indian society viewed the English rule and any institution that attempted to influence society with scepticism. With the exception of a small section of the English influenced minority, Indians largely ignored centralized propaganda that passed off as history.

However, this changed after the English were evicted. India had the opportunity to neutralize both the assaults by dismantling the centralized institutions as well as end the propaganda perpetuated against Indic ethos. Independent India’s leaders did neither.

Missed Opportunities

The centralized institutions not only remained intact, they were strengthened. In the early decades following the eviction of the English, a battle ensued to control these centralized institutions. All sides claimed that their attempt to rewrite history was from an Indian perspective. While some groups viewed India from anti-Islamic narrative, others viewed India from an anti-imperialist narrative. Neither presented any insights into Indic ethos nor offered a narrative that was correlated to Indian memories. In fact, the Marxists, defined by their own lenses, created an imagined narrative consistent with their ideological preferences and a strong anti-Indic bias. None of the warring factions really understood India and its eternal memories, or worse deliberately chose to misrepresent India.

The Marxists won this battle and exercised complete control over education, academia and humanities. The only change Independence bought was that English propaganda was replaced by Marxist propaganda, which was propagated using the old and newly formed institutions created with the same intent.

They successfully labelled themselves as “historians” (without the Marxist tag), or “liberals with a scientific outlook” while anyone questioning them were slandered as “communal.” They continued the attack on the section of society which was critical in preserving memories through stories and philosophical treatises, and blamed them for all the ills in society. The Marxist historians considered it their burden to fix the flaws of an errant Indian society through power and manipulation. They highlighted the negativity that had befallen India’s social fabric during India’s economic destruction under English misrule, and extrapolated that negativity into the past. They furthered this propaganda by collaborating with Western Historians and self-proclaimed “Indologists” and continued the English tradition of assailing Indian society. They leveraged this misrepresentation to promote the idea that holding on to the past was “orthodoxy” and forgetting it, “progress.”

Indian society was more receptive to the propaganda produced by these post-independence institutions because they believed that they were run by “well-meaning and progressive” Indians. These “historians” either lacked an understanding of Indic ethos or deliberately chose to misunderstand it. They used centralized institutions to propagate ideas learned from their peers in other parts of the world. For them everything was a class struggle and this thesis had to be accepted for one to be considered as “secular.”

Despite this propaganda, Indian society and families continued to practice traditional pursuits and maintaining a culture that implicitly represented the unbroken narrative of India. Over time Indian society continued to reject what was taught in classrooms because it had little correlation with the culture that they lived in. This scepticism prevented the centralized monolithic machinery from gaining wide acceptance in Indian society – thus continuing to shield India’s ethos of decentralized history.

Today, India is at a crossroads again.

From अध्यात्मिक Participants to Bystanders and Consumers

A nationalistic Indian government is leading India, which wears an unabashedly pro-Indian lens rather than the jaundiced lenses worn by the Marxists. This nationalistic government now controls these centralized institutions created by the English and then expanded by the Marxists.

Is this situation good for Indic ethos?

Contrary to what most nationalists believe, the situation has the potential to be disastrous. In fact, far more so than the Marxist takeover of these institutions.

The reason is that a majority of Indians in society, who thus far have viewed both the English and Marxists with suspicion, might let their guard down and accept centralized and nationalistic versions of Indian history that might be written from an Indian point of view. For them, a rewriting of Indian history with a nationalist viewpoint would be the perfect way to undo the damage cause thus far.

What they don’t see is that the fundamental flaw in India’s post-Independent approach to history was not about who would control these institutions. The flaw was that these centralized monolithic institutions continued to exist for someone to control, as a proposed replacement for India’s decentralized memories. It is not the narrative, with or without the biases, that is the primary threat to India’s memories, but the mere existence of any official narrative, that is accepted by society, that will pose as the biggest threat to India’s decentralized history.

Indian society today, despite the educational system, has remained active in transmitting past memories. However, if the Indian government offers a curriculum in history that the society finds acceptable, then the society will transform itself from proponents and champions of history to consumers of history. Society will become a mere bystander as “better qualified people with degrees and certificates,” combined with a “nationalistic outlook” take control over what always belonged to the people.

India’s ethos is driven by the engine of diversity and powered by the principles of अध्यात्म (adhyatma). Adhyatma, roughly translates as “the supreme self,” where the self is considered to be the prime mover as each person takes responsibility for themselves and thus builds a self-reliant society. Whether India embraces a “unifying” consumer culture in materialistic pursuits is a separate discussion. The immediate question is will India embrace a consumer culture in history and philosophy? As a society that respects the notion of अध्यात्म, India’s core strength is her ability to thrive intellectually, at the level of each individual, without external authority and despite the government – be it oppressive or friendly. No oppressive ruler has been able to take that away from her. Will a friendly government succeed in dismantling India’s decentralized ethos, where all enemies have failed?

Of all the threats that Indian memories have faced – the threat of a successful implementation and acceptance of centralized history is the gravest. What the Mughals could not even dent, where Macaulay and Bentinck mostly failed, and where Marxist controlled institutions could only find limited success in hurting India’s ethos – will a Indian society finally accept a centralized history. Will a nationalistic government become an agent of destruction of the Indian nation’s core values preserved in India’s decentralized, dispersive and percipient history?

The answer depends on the choices that are made today.

What next?

If rewriting centralized Indian history from a nationalistic perspective poses a risk – what is the alternative?

To make recommendations, it is important to take a step back, analyse and to understand how Indians preserved their memories successfully despite the invasions and subjugation. The following two parts attempts to decode the Indic Historical Framework and presents that as an alternative model that is consistent with India’s ethos. The fifth and final part in this series makes some general and some specific recommendations for the government of India to mitigate the risks that India’s eternal memories face.

In the next part we will introduce the concept of percipient history and contrast it with the petrified history of other ancient civilizations.

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In Niti Central: Enduring history of a forever nation

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

Stone Age rock paintings found among the Bhimbetka rock shelters

In the late 1860s, a German businessman, enthusiastic about Greek history, started digging in the small town of Hisarlik in Turkey, in search of a Homeric site. He claimed to have discovered Troy, made famous in Homer’s Iliad with the story of the Trojan horse. There was much debate and excitement among anthropologists and enthusiasts and when the dust settled, the conclusion was that the site was indeed Troy. This discovery was significant because neither the locals nor any annals had maintained the linkage between Troy and Hisarlik through the centuries. The link was broken as Turkey went through many cultural and political transformations: Greek ethos gave way to the Roman civilisation, which was then replaced by the Byzantines. The Persians, the Arabs and the Ottomans who followed them, erased ancient memories, replacing it with new ones chosen by the new rulers and the new religions.

Contrast this with a similar archaeological discovery made during our times. In the 1990s, a team of Indian and Italian archaeologists conducted excavations near a village in Farrukhabad district of Uttar Pradesh. A mound just outside the village was excavated, which led to the discovery of the ancient town of Kampilya, the capital of King Drupada from the Mahabharata. However, this discovery generated neither any debates nor any significant discussions, and the excitement was limited to the archaeological circles.

What can explain the absence of excitement for a seemingly similar discovery? Are Indians not interested in their own past? Is it because it wasn’t a businessman who had sponsored the excavation of Kampilya? Or is there another explanation?

The answer is simple: Kampilya, unlike Troy, was never lost and its excavation was never a discovery. For the locals, the mound was always known as Drupad kila (Drupad’s fort), Although the fort had been buried for thousands of years, knowledge about the fort was transmitted over generations without a break. Also, not surprisingly, the name of the village was Kampil (a variant of Kampilya).

Unlike Turkey, where no local stories had survived the two and half millennia since the legend of Troy, the villagers in Kampil in their own history of at least five thousand years, not only knew about Kampilya, but also about Drupad, his daughter Draupadi and the battles fought near their village. Drupad’s story was neither legend, nor Kampilya legendary; they existed as real places with stories that have lasted hundreds of generations.

The absence of excitement in India about ancient discoveries is not surprising, because India is a unique civilisation with ancient memories that remain alive. In fact, India is the only place where there is an unbroken continuity between the land, the people and their stories that have been narrated across the generations. Consider other ancient civilisations west of India. Egypt, Rome, Greece, Iran and Mesopotamia still exist, but they are not the same places with whom India traded during ancient times.

In Egypt, it was the archaeological discoveries during and following the Napoleonic invasion that actually connected Egyptians to their forgotten past. For Greeks, the Minoan, Mycenaean and Hellenistic Greece are all relics of the past and modern day Greeks don’t live by the same religion or follow the same culture. Although the land and the people continued, the stories were replaced with biblical ones.

Similarly, towards the east, in the case of China, Buddhism became a cultural force that dramatically altered the fabric of the society from the traditions of the Xia, Shang and the Zhou dynasties. Various pre-Buddhist ideologies that dominated the society were replaced by new concepts of dharma and karma. From 200 BCE and over the next millennium, Buddhism became a powerful force; stories of Buddha in various forms pervaded society. Shaolin’s foundation by Indian monks and the subsequent role that institution played in Chinese political balance further entrenched Buddhist thought into China’s political discourse.

The Jewish people have a long memory as well. However, their cultural continuity was detached from their land as the Jews were forced to disperse into various parts of the world. The geography that encompasses modern day Israel and its neighbours went through several social and political changes similar to those witnessed by Mesopotamia, Turkey and other ancient civilisations in that area.

The pre-European inhabitants of North-America and Australia also maintained a long memory of their civilisation. However, the near genocidal attack on their existence by Europeans all but vanquished many of the tribes. Those who survived are attempting to resurrect and piece back their memories. The memories peoples of South-America and Africa were also erased as foreign political forces brought the full force of their religious dogmas and replaced the original memories with those considered holy in their respective books.

When it comes to India, Kampil is not a unique instance where memory was preserved over a long period of time. The memory of the Vedic Saraswati was preserved in local folks songs, Rig Veda and the Mahabharata. Another example is the case of the star Vega or Abhijit, which was at one time given the status as one of the 27 nakshatras (a special star along the ecliptic used for tracking planetary and solar motion). The memory of Abhijit becoming the pole star, 13,000 years ago, is known to Indians even today in the form of it losing its status among the pantheon of 27 nakshatras.

One can witness this continuity in several walks of life as well. For example, the ratio 5:4 was commonly used by the people of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation for constructing cities, the Vedic people for building fire altars, Varahamihira for building palaces, and the artisans who built the Delhi Iron pillar. Even now the proportion is used by the Jaipur Royal family in their flag. This continuous usage exceeds a span of at least five millennia.

This civilisational continuity is ingrained in the attitude and actions of the people. In the 19th century, much before the arrival of modern archaeology, the people of Ujjain knew that their city was built on top of another ancient city and for building a house, they could get well-baked bricks just by digging into the ground. The Archaeological Survey of India conducted twelve expeditions of marine excavations near Dwaraka in Gujarat, based on the description in Skanda Purana. Dwaraka, which was known as Kusasthali, was described as being situated at the confluence of Gomati and the Western Sea. These excavations yielded pottery, seals and epigraphs, which were possibly from the 17th – 18th century BCE.

Indians have always known about India’s uniqueness vis-a-vis other ancient civilisations. Allama Iqbal expressed these exact thoughts when he wrote:

युनानो-मिस्रो-रोमा सब् मिट गये जहांसे

अब तक मगर है बाकि नामो निशां हमारा

कुछ बात है कि हस्ति मिटती नहीं हमारी…

Greek, Roman and Egyptian civilisations have all vanished without a trace

Yet, our identity remains unbroken

There is something unique about us, that preserves our existence…

Indian history, with its unbroken continuity has accumulated the memories of the past into stories that remain live even today. Other civilisations within their finite periods of existence are visible to us through annals and records that appear as discrete narratives. Therefore, Indic history can be described as being “accumulative” history, versus other civilisations having “discrete” histories. This key differentiator between India and other civilisations is important to consider as India attempts to reassess its own history.

Although that is an important differentiator, there are other aspects as well which makes India unique. Because other ancient civilisations are no longer living. The techniques used for understanding them are similar to a post-mortem, and therefore unsuitable for understanding a living civilisation such as India. Later articles in the series will demonstrate that Indian society had the ability to perceive, discern, and select what to preserve for posterity.

Today, a nationalistic Government is leading India, and that presents an unprecedented opportunity to undo the damage that has been caused by forces hostile to Indic ethos. A natural reaction would be to take an opposite position to reverse the damage. For example, it would be tempting to replace the current “official” history that is out of touch with India, with one with a nationalistic outlook. Towards that goal, it would be expedient to replace the heads of the central institutions with ones who can write volumes about nationalistic history.

While removing the individuals in power who are hostile to Indic ethos is a necessary first step, the question to ask is, what are our expectations from the new appointees? Should they be also writing volumes on history?

This series takes a step back and analyses the mechanisms used by our ancestors. Had they developed a framework for recording history that is staring at us but we don’t realise? If so, can we decode that framework and can that decoded framework offer us guidance in creating an analytical approach to reassessing history?

The rest of the articles in the series will attempt to answer these questions. In the next part, we review the politics of “official” history, and in the subsequent parts we decode the unique Indic methodology of editorializing, preserving and transmitting, not only narratives but even lessons learned. The final part will look at how that decoded knowledge can help formulate a new framework for reassessing Indic history, and perhaps even the history of humanity.

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