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.

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