Thursday, February 23, 2012

Understanding History: 3. An Indian View of the Past

This is the third part of a series on Understanding History. Part 1 was on the colonial construct of history, and Part 2 on India's brainwashed historians

To see clearly the need for a uniquely Indian historiography we have to keep in mind the evolution of European concepts of history. From the time of the ancient Greeks to the middle of the 19th Century, it was a literary pursuit, of interest mainly to the elite interested in governance. In ancient Rome, it became moralistic in Plutarch’s Lives, overtly polemical under the impetus of missionary Christianity, nationalist in the 18th Century, and racist during the colonial period.

Until about 1850, history was the occupation of amateurs; then, under the influence of German scholars, it took on the pretensions of a science, with a methodology that aimed “not to please, nor to give practical maxims of conduct, nor to arouse the emotions, but knowledge pure and simple” (Langlois & Seignobos: Introduction to the Study of History, 1904). In practice, European historians have come nowhere near that ideal, but our professional historians have accepted their propaganda as fact and belittled India’s own understanding of history. To see what that is we have to look at how Indian tradition has shaped our view of the past over the millennia.

Ramayana & Mahabharata
Far from being poor historical material, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are key markers of the evolution of Indian society. The Ramayana, as noted in an earlier post, records and justifies the evolution of kingship, not as an imposition of force accepted in trembling and fear as in Hobbesian Europe but founded in the love of a virtuous and beloved king. Rama is not an all-powerful dictator but a ruler solicitous of popular opinion in all things.

The story of the Mahabharata is completely different in moral content. The personality of Krishna is suited for a time when the State is well established and dominated by power-hungry, immoral people. He is the primary strategist and tactician for the dispossessed and politically weak but virtuous Pandavas, their spiritual mentor even in the rush and press of battle. As the only purna swarup among the incarnations of Vishnu, Krishna is fully conscious of his divinity from the moment of birth, acutely aware of the need to confront and check the growth of evil as the baneful Kali Yuga approaches.

The revelation of his Universal form to Arjuna is to drive home the teaching that the workings of the Universe lie beyond human knowledge, that even if we do not like the hard choices before us, we must make them according to our best lights; in the worst of times we cannot despair and should not abandon our duty.

To be able to do that in an age dominated by ignorant passions of every kind, he advises detachment. “You have the right to action, not to the fruit thereof” he tells Arjuna. “True yoga is to be unmoved by defeat and loss, or wealth and victory.” He did not say (as Western commentators so often misinterpret), that we should deaden ourselves to feeling; only that our actions should be dispassionate.

All this is meaningful history. The rich content of our ancient literature, declared largely irrelevant in the frame of European historiography, is central to the Indian national narrative. That is so not because we assert that the stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata are literally true but because we define historical truth differently. It matters little whether Rama and Krishna were “historical figures.” They have lived in Indian hearts for thousands of years, and their stories illuminate who we are as a people; that gives them a reality far beyond that of any tinny chronology.

Their significance is not in the miraculous stories of the epics, but in the values they incarnate, and the moral guidance they offer. It says more about India than any library of Western “histories” that without benefit of church or clergy its people have made national treasures of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. It is their moral weight, more than anything else that has allowed India to endure the massive corruptions of the culturally amnesiac class brought to power by colonial rule.

In seeking a new historiography relevant not just to modern India but to a globalizing world it would be useful to look at how differently Europe and India have approached and achieved the primary goals of remembering the past and being guided by it. Perhaps the simplest way to do that would be to compare the hopes expressed in the introductory passages of the Histories of Herodotus and of the Mahabharata.

Herodotus was impelled to write by “the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.” His gossipy stories are still read today, but mainly by scholars and history students, and few would attribute much “glory” to the people in his narrative.

The hopes expressed at the opening of the Mahabharata as the visiting Ugrasrava begins telling the hermits of the Naimisha forest of Vyasa’s great work, are markedly different from those of Herodotus: “As the sun dispels the darkness, so does the Bharata by its discourses on religion, profit, pleasure and final release, dispel the ignorance of men. As the full-moon by its mild light expands the buds of the water-lily, so this Purana has expanded the human intellect. By the lamp of history, which destroys the darkness of ignorance, the whole mansion of nature is properly and completely illuminated.”

The illuminating power of history is in line with that of the sun and moon. The Mahabharata is not just about a particular war but about “religion, profit, pleasure and final release” – that is to say, all of life. While the histories of Herodotus gather dust on bookshelves, Vyasa’s story is known in every village in India and far afield; its heroes are remembered fondly in the names of children throughout the land, and its teachings taken to heart by unschooled peasants, scholars and saints.

The Mahabharata has kept a nation of great diversity in touch with its essential cultural unity and instructed countless generations on what is to be valued in life, and what is without worth. This is what history is supposed to do. As a remembrance of the past that puts the present in proper perspective the Mahabharata is unmatched by any other work. Western historiography with its malleable truths and tribal loyalties has produced nothing remotely comparable.

That the Mahabharata is a sophisticated work of national, moral and philosophical guidance is evident at many places in the narrative. Consider, for example, the origin and nature of the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Although always referred to as “cousins,” the two sets of siblings, ostensibly the sons of the blind Dhrithirashtra and his younger brother Pandu “the pale,” are unrelated by blood.

The sons of Pandu, who is cursed to die instantly if he should give way to carnal desire, are actually fathered by different gods invoked by his two wives. Dharma, the personification of universal law fathers the first-born Yudhisthira. Maruti the Wind begets Bhima of immense strength. Indra the warrior god of thunder and storm is the father of Arjuna, the perfect warrior. The twin Aswins, skilled in the arts and husbandry that support life, are the parents of Nakula and Sahadeva.

Together, they represent the essential strengths of any civilization: Law, Power, the capacity for war and the skills for peace. India is united not by its bloodlines but by the indissoluble bonds of a brotherhood of very mixed parentage; that theme is further emphasized in the love of the Pandavas of one shared wife who can be seen without taxing the imagination as the beautiful land to which all are wedded.

The Kauravas are also not the natural sons of the blind Dhritrashtra. His wife Gandhari (from Gandhara, modern Afghanistan), is childless and becomes pregnant only through the magical intercession of Vyasa (a literary device he uses throughout the Mahabharata to signal didactic intent). Her pregnancy is abnormally prolonged, and as it draws past the second year she hears of the birth of Pandu’s first son and, losing patience, induces birth. What emerges from her womb is not a baby but a horrible ball of flesh, hard as iron. Vyasa returns to remonstrate with her. If she had not lost patience her offspring would have been of unrivaled splendour.

However, all is not lost: he cuts up the ball of flesh into a hundred and one pieces, putting each in a separate jar. After two years of incubation the Kauravas emerge from the jars, all boys except for the youngest; they seem normal, even splendid, but are demonic by nature. As the Pandavas exemplify the attributes of a healthy society, the Kauravas illustrate the monstrous consequences of human over-reaching and incontinence.

Dhrithrashtra’s blindness and Gandhari’s decision on her wedding day to blindfold herself for life establish a theme Vyasa returns to repeatedly in his long narrative: Evil is rooted in the incapacity or willful refusal to see reality. Every fateful choice the Kauravas make as they spiral down to doom illustrates the delusive power of egotism, greed, anger, hate and envy. No Satan plots their downfall, for Hinduism has no such entity; their fate is sealed by the failure to see the kinship of all things underlying the world’s vast differentiation; without spiritual cognition, they lack compassion, and thus understanding.

These value judgments indicate a factor of central importance in Vyasa’s story: the course of human affairs is not accidental. The immutable laws that govern the universe extend into human conduct and our actions propel destiny. In telling of the origins and development of the conflicts that culminate in the killing field of Kurukshetra, Vyasa shows repeatedly how bad karma has insidious and long-term effects.

Pandu brings on his curse because he shoots a deer in the act of coupling. Karna is resplendent like his father the Sun god and a greater warrior than Arjuna; but he accidentally kills a poor man’s only sustenance, a cow, and invites the curse that disables him at a critical point in battle and causes his death. The matchless warrior Bhisma inadvertently ruins the life of a princess he kidnaps according to the Kshatriya code, and her revenge comes after her death and rebirth as the effeminate Sikhandin, against whom he will not defend himself.

The repercussions that flow from ill-considered actions are clothed as curses, but they are manifestly the ineluctable working out of karma. The Bharata war itself is a karmic landmark, for it occurred just before the world entered the Kali Yuga, the most benighted of the four-phase cycle of the moral universe.

The lesson of the whole of Vyasa's work is that when bad times come, there is nothing to do but accept it, knowing that it is karma at work. The best response is to create good karma, oppose evil with good, understand hatred, fight it with love.

In part 4: constructing a karmic history for the globalized world.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Understanding History: 2. Our Brainwashed Historians

Part 1. Colonial Constructs, appeared in October 2011.

Indian historians have internalized the European view of the Indian past without question.

The dada of colonial era Indian historians, R.C. Majumdar (1888-1980), even went to the extent of declaring the lack of historical sense one “of the gravest defects of Indian culture.”

In his widely read work, Ancient India, he wrote that “the aversion of Indians to writing history” defied “rational explanation.” Indians “applied themselves to all conceivable branches of literature and excelled in many of them, but they never seriously took to the writing of history, with the result that for a great deal of our knowledge of ancient Indian history we are indebted to foreigners.”

That assessment of Indian shortcomings was of a part with the British claim that they had brought the Indian past into the light of history. Indian historians have also generally accepted James Mill’s classification of their country’s past into Hindu, Muslim and British periods. (They seem not to have noticed that Mill’s decision to call the colonial era “British” rather than “Christian” highlighted the absurdity of religious labels on the complexity of India.)

The baroque British theory that a race of White “Aryans” invaded the country, bringing Vedic civilization with them, further mangled the conception of the “Hindu period.” With that theory, Europeans laid claim to the origins of Indian civilization, and as the “Aryans” were supposedly proto-Brahmins, it gave a racist spin to the caste system.

Indian historians have not responded coherently to these absurdities. The best of them have presented Indian perspectives – as K.M. Pannikar (1895-1963) did in Asia and Western Dominance (1959) – without subjecting Europe’s deeply flawed and dishonest historiography to a critical review.

In the absence of an alternative conceptualization, all Indian historians have worked within that alien framework or its narrower Marxist subset. D. D. Kosambi, for instance, declared on the first page of his much reprinted An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (1956), that he saw his task to be “the presentation, in chronological order, of successive developments in the means and relations of production.” That formulation was necessary, he said, because India lacked the historical source material available in Europe.

Echoing Hegel, he wrote: “India, for all its great literary heritage has produced no historical writers comparable to Herodotus, Thucydides, Polibius, Livy, Tacitus. Many Indian kings of the middle ages (e.g. Harsa, circa 600-640) were incomparably superior in their education and literary ability to contemporary rulers in Europe; they had personally led great armies to victory in heavy warfare. Nevertheless, not one seems to have thought of composing a narrative like Caesar’s Commentaries or Xenophon’s Anabasis. The tradition was of graceful court drama, an occasional hymn in praise of the gods, or a witty epigram.”

Amazingly, all those who have echoed such views seem to have missed the obvious reason why Indians did not write “history” in the European sense: their fundamentally different view of the nature of reality.

In Europe, the individual life has always been a singular one-act drama on the vast dark stage of eternity; those who achieved something of note wanted to leave a record of it. In India, which saw the individual soul journeying through successive lives, the Maya of material existence was not worth recording, for it was incidental to the overall moral progression.

Indian historians raised in the intellectual prison of colonialism did not see the need to formulate a historiography suitable to the ethos of their own civilization.

In elucidating India’s lack of appropriate historical source-material Kosambi wrote that in Europe the written record was “powerfully supplemented by archaeology;” the spade had substantiated even the Homeric account of Troy, once dismissed as pure myth. In contrast, the “desultory” archeology of India had made “numerous epigraphic finds” without being able “either to restore a reasonably comprehensive dynastic list or to define the regnal years and complete territorial holdings of those Indian kings whose names survive.”

He noted that although the Bible was a religious work, it had “far greater historical and archaeological value than any similar Indian book, because the people who transmitted it had continuous contact with the site and were used to describing places and events with a trader’s accuracy.” In India, it was “still impossible to say where the great theme battles of the two epics Ramayana and Mahabharata were fought, let alone when – if indeed they represent any historical event at all.”

That dismissive attitude towards the Indian epics has been characteristic of all Indian historians working within the Western framework. The most brainwashed among them, Ram Sharan Sharma, has even declared that his examination of “inscriptions and sculptural pieces found in Mathura dating back to 200 BCE and 300 AD,” require that “ideas of an epic age based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata have to be discarded.” He has also questioned if Rama and Krishna had any basis in reality.

Such lack of respect for the central realities of Indian existence has led our historians to applaud the deductive archeology developed by Europeans to piece together complex stories from mute stone and shard, but reject the world’s oldest and most continuous oral and written tradition as “historical material”. Ironically, they have accepted the concept of the mythical “Aryan race” that Europeans have extracted from the same oral and written record.

The outraged response to all this from Hindus who take their faith seriously has been captured by an illiberal and fascist Hindutva element in Indian politics (first developed by the British as a foil to the Muslim League). 

The results have been  generally disastrous. On the one hand it has brought to the surface a monstrous religious violence entirely alien to Hindu tradition; on the other, the dismissive response of so-called “Left/Secular” historians to the Hindutva phenomenon has obscured the need for a serious examination of what happened under colonial rule. In fact, the need to oppose the political scum that rode to power on the Hindutva wave has made the Secular/Left actively anti-Hindu.

Coming in Part 3: An Indian Historiography

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What Role for Indian Think Tanks?

According to an Edit Page article in The New Indian Express on 6 February, a global ranking of Think Tanks has found not one of India's 292 institutions good enough to be in the global top 30. In terms of number of TTs we rank third, behind the US with 1815 and China with 425,

The writer, Amitabh Mattoo, billed as a JNU professor and Director of the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne, admitted that the criteria used in the ranking had been widely criticized, but nevertheless, urged remedial action by the government to avoid a “mushrooming” of American and European franchises with Indians as “junior partners.” His “guesstimate” was that some 50 percent of projects run by Indian Think Tanks were already funded from abroad.

Mattoo saw three factors as most responsible for the weakness of Indian Think Tanks: lack of adequate and steady funding, government suspicion of “truly independent” organizations, and the tendency of “idealistic founders” to become “feudal patrons.”

To deal with the situation, he urged the government to create four new TTs, each with an endowment of Rs. 1000 crore, dealing with Economics; Security; Politics/Governance; and Social Change. He recommended that they be given unconstrained “freedom to hire the best global talent to work on critical areas of policy” and work without “interference.”

Strangely for a piece titled Unthinking Think Tanks,” Mattoo said not a word about the quality of thought that has emerged from Indian Think Tanks.

If he had looked at that issue, it might have become quickly apparent that pots of money will not help, and that the “best global talent” might make things worse. For the basic problem with Indian TTs is not lack of money or access to foreign talent; it is the hangdog "Bollywood" state of mind, reflecting the belief that our reality is second-class, that it gains meaning only from association with that of the West.

Remember NDTV's maddening crawler "India's 9/11" that disfigured its coverage of the 2008 attack on Mumbai? It was as if Indian loss of life and blood lacked authenticity without a Western reference.

That syndrome is widely evident in India, including in areas of marked success.

"Bollywood" has been followed by the equally silly (and confusing) Tollywood, Kollywood and Mollywood.

 "Silk" is "India's Marilyn Monroe."

The Jaipur Literary Festival is "India's Cannes."

Jug Suraiya is "India's Art Buchwald."

Indian cuisine, traditional fabrics and costumes are referred to as "ethnic." (This might be mere ignorance: the usage originated in the United States, where the non-ethnic default was WASP: White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant.)

If we look at more considered manifestations of thought, for instance, at the books that have come from our post-1947 political and corporate leaders, there is the same unquestioned kowtowing to the dominance of the West. Paranoia about American intentions in India does not qualify as evidence to the contrary; it is an attitude fostered by a political "Left" slavishly imitative of the British model.

The slavishness can be traced back to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's hugely influential attitudes to the West (and his fundamental differences with Mahatma Gandhi on that count). Perhaps the crux of his attitude was captured in his declaration to Gandhi during their 1928 exchange of letters: "You misjudge greatly, I think, the civilization of the West and attach too great importance to its many failings. ... I think that Western, or rather industrial civilization, is bound to conquer India."

Nehru's staggering presumption has become general today. The fact that industrial civilization has proved to be unsustainable and is in a state of terminal crisis has made hardly a dent on the views of Indian acolytes. For instance, former President Abdul Kalam's several books and numerous speeches present a vision of a "developed India" entirely in technological terms. He hardly ever mentions Gandhi's vision of how India could progress, and ignores the great problems that beset industrial development.

An ancillary to the worship of technology seems to be ignorance of Indian realities. Nandan Nilekani's "Imagining India" is a good example of that phenomenon. Consider his explanation of why newly independent India was mistrustful of free-market economics: "Nehru saw Britain as a hard, repressive State, and the market-friendly systems it had established got tarred with the same brush." (Colonial rule, established and maintained with violence, grossly discriminatory towards Indian business, was "market-friendly"!!!) Other examples of ignorance are rife. At one point he refers to Sita's "Kush" as "the son of Vishnu."

I could give numerous other examples from a wide range of writers, but will desist for fear of boring the reader. The evidence is overwhelming that the Maya of the West has come to suffuse the disordered view of our thought leaders. We have not had since Gandhi a leader who comprehended clearly the challenges facing India.

To understand how Mattoo's hankering after the "best global talent" is rooted in post-colonial confusion, consider how ridiculous it is to have a global ranking of Think Tanks.

In the United States, Think Tanks are instruments of a variety of interest groups, making the arguments to be taken on board by legislative processes minutely overseen by political lobbyists. Chinese TTs are meant to facilitate, strengthen and on occasion hide the Communist Party’s brutal grip on power. In India, as Mattoo notes, TTs are founded by idealists who then become invested in keeping control of their creations and turn into “medieval patrons.”

Given those differences, what is the basis for comparison?

This is not to deny Mattoo's point that we stand in danger of a foreign takeover of our policy space.
But money and foreign talent are not an appropriate response to that danger.

Indian reality, more than that of any other nation, is sui generis. We Indians are its best judges.

Perhaps the way forward would be to reorient our Think Tanks so as to generate on every major policy issue, a national discourse rooted in an understanding of our post-colonial situation. The overall aim must be to understand contemporary global realities within the frame of India’s historical experience.

The difficulty in undertaking such an effort will lie in surmounting the enormous distortions that colonial rule introduced in our understanding of Indian history. Perhaps a National Truth Commission about the colonial period, examining what the British did to India would be a good way to begin. Once the past is clear our policy options will clarify themselves.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

End of the Kali Yuga: 2

The Kali Yuga will not end because a great cycle in the ancient Mayan calendar draws to an close in 2012 or the heavens signal to astrologers that epochal change is afoot.

It will end because of a concerted global effort by people sick of the malignant reality we now endure.

There are three prerequisites to such an effort: a general awareness of the need for change, an understanding of what must be done, and a realistic hope of success.

The first condition has already been met: the varied economic, social, environmental and political crises of the last decade have created a global awareness that the world order is violently and grossly unjust, inefficient to the point of criminality, and increasingly dangerous to all life on the planet.

The second condition has not been met. As the broadcast debates about Capitalism at the recent World Economic Forum at Davos made clear, even the leaders of the existing world order don’t have a clue about what must be done. The problem is complex and profound but simply stated: corporate capitalism as a business model is obsolete. Just as the invention of the automobile pushed the horse and buggy into history, the Information and Communications revolutions have pushed into obsolescence the once formidable power of centralized, hierarchically managed corporations.

This has happened because the Network has dethroned Capital. The perennially corrupt grip of corporations on “other people’s money” that Adam Smith fulminated about has been broken and the “invisible hand” he conceived of is now, at long last, able to guide the Free Market to serve the greater good. (The "invisible hand" has been much derided by ignorant people, but Smith, who first rose to fame with The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was undoubtedly correct: human beings are inherently moral, and a free market would reflect that quality.) 

To understand the new economic realities of the Information Age we have only to consider the Eurozone Crisis. It exists only because the small corporate elite that created and profits from the problem of sovereign debt is holding everyone else hostage to its own interests. European bankers have the temerity to insist that millions of ordinary people be thrown out of work and societies as a whole be subjected to austerity so that they can continue to rake in obscene profits; but like cartoon characters that run off a cliff and do not realize it until they look down, they no longer have the ground under them.

The power of bankers has been rooted in their capacity to concentrate and command the money that greases the wheels of commerce: Main Street, as the saying goes, is dependent on Wall Street. However, the Network has transformed that equation. The capital necessary for businesses to function can be raised from millions of ordinary people rather than from small groups of rich money lenders. If bands of entrepreneurs organize networks to do that, they can replace Wall Street and revolutionize the world.

It is not just banks that will feel the revolution of Democratized Capital. The entire housing industry can be made self-financing and the very concept of a “mortgage” – the word is of French origin, and literally means “engaged to the death” – rendered archaic.

To understand how this can be done, consider the United States “housing crisis.” It is essentially a crisis of liquidity: in the aftermath of a “real estate bubble” that drove up house prices beyond the reach of most people, the banks responsible for the situation went bust and had to be bailed out with taxpayer money. Prices are still too high for most people to buy, and banks unwilling to put themselves at risk again; as the housing sector stagnates, the rest of the economy has also slowed.

The simplest solution to the problem would be to create an online housing lottery, with arrangements for winners to sell houses they did not want to occupy; the United States has a licensed and regulated brokerage industry that should make such an arrangement relatively easy. This will have two quick results: housing prices will dip to realistic levels without sellers who paid inflated prices taking a hit; and the market as a whole will revive, with a tonic effect on the rest of the economy.

Such a solution would be impossible without the Internet and the Worldwide Web, which have made the market for housing as liquid as those for stocks and bonds. They have also flattened the playing field. If the lottery system of housing finance is properly institutionalized the whole concept of “low-income housing” would become meaningless. Further, the money generated by the lottery could be used to improve existing housing stock and modernize urban areas that are now languishing from lack of investment.

Networks of entrepreneurs and activists have the potential to transform every aspect of the national and international affairs. They could vastly accelerate the economic and social development of poor countries by creating an accessible global architecture for knowledge-sharing and technical support. Funding development could become much less bureaucratic, much less prone to the "leakage" that is now a major problem. The delivery of aid, both financial and technical, could be finely targeted.

More broadly, the entire United Nations System could be reformed and the processes of international cooperation brought down to the community level. In a networked world tyrannical governments would be at a huge disadvantage and could not survive. In every aspect of global affairs, the vicious cycles of special interests using violence to achieve narrow ends would be replaced with virtuous spirals benefiting societies as a whole.

As this process gets under way, people will be able to see that the end of the Kali Yuga is not an idle hope but a realistic prospect, and that will spur transformations that today we consider Utopian.

In Part 3: the profound possibilities for personal transformation as we exit the Kali Yuga.