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

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