Whose History is it anyway?
When Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code becomes the largest selling book in history, after The Holy Bible, that is, chronicled history perhaps becomes the biggest casualty. A concoction of erstwhile history, a bit of mystery and a fair bit of heresy joined hands to create history in the book dom world. The book heavily relied on Gnostic gospels as opposed to mainline history as one knows it. As most conventionalists relegate the book and its contentious content to Conspiracy theory, a not so hidebound conventionalist might yet question whether history needs to be accepted as it has been laid down and delivered to our generation, especially since Brown insists that he did draw upon a wealth of written material in building his narrative. Fair enough!
Mahatma Ghandi among others is on record relegating / dismissing “History” to be HIS story, dictated, written & re-written at various intervals by powerful men in absolute power. Peter Gieyl, reflecting on various versions of the Napoleonic legend called history “an argument without an ending”. Perhaps it is very much in that sense that Benedetto Croce, the Italian philosopher once declared “all history is contemporary history”.
So not long into making forays into an attempt at figuring out the methods adopted at chronicling history over the ages, one discovers that when it comes to history there is no clear demarcation between its black and white,rather it is overwhelmed by masses of grey, its puddles of grey, all over. One has to bear in mind too, that only the elite knew how to write in earlier days.
Hence, the pertinent, yet enigmatic question, “Whose history is it anyways?”
The Conspiracy Theory:
For a novel, The Da Vinci Code has been able to create enormous controversy. Not only that, the book has become a major publishing success, apart from selling over 86 million copies, it has been translated to over 40 languages. That the book falls in a genre few connoisseurs’ felt would sell much, is what’s intriguing here. The Da Vinci Code hence establishes that Conspiracy theories sell like no other, in our times.Our generation can also be so be seen as one to seek and yearn for tales that are out of the ordinary. To be fair to the author, even if one were to relegate a lot of Dan Brown’s secret societies, priory controllers of the world, theories and science to pure sales motives, a lot of what remains, prove to be facts. Opus Dei, for instance, exists, albeit without the flamboyance seen in the book, as was evident in their spokeswoman smilingly confessing in “The Time” magazine (when Opus Dei featured in their cover story) “wish we were half as dramatic as Silas is “. Brown also leaves an interesting connection unexplored apparently, he uses St Sulpice and the gnome inside as a “red herring” in the hunt for the Grail. Research reveals that St Sulpice was long seen as the headquarters of an “Angelic Society”, a society who is said to have had a special bond with their guardian angel -the secret grandmaster of the Priory of Sion. (Milton, the great poet, was supposedly a patron of this society, and is said to have written a verse that would supposedly solve the mystery of the location of the Illuminati Lair in Rome). More mystical food for thought? Maybe.
Linking Da Vinci Code to my context here, the book attributes Leonardo Da Vinci as stating that the great Roman emperor Constantine “commissioned and inanced a new Bible, one which apparently omitted the aforementioned Gnostic gospels that spoke of Lord Christ’s human traits and instead embellished those gospels that made Jesus Godlike. The Gnostic gospels were apparently gathered, burned, and later outlawed by the same regime.
Chronicled History of course denies this.
But then this is the same chronicled history that condemns Hitler as a mass murderer, while elevating Stalin to reverence (in some circles) as a revolutionary Soviet politician. (His photos still adorns most Communists offices in India incidentally) and portrays Winston Churchill in all glory as a decorated & knighted politician! Both of them has as much, (if not more) blood on their hands as Hitler’s, besides being a racist on even par.
So whose history is it anyway?
The Indian Epics:
That mythology is very good for the philosophical health of a nation is a proven fact. Let us entrain forth onto Indian terra-firma, on that little note.
Most of us are familiar with and consider the version of Ramayana depicted and widely shown on media, as the real Ramayana. But is it? Sadly not, says men who studied Ramayana in depth. The famous and often quoted “Lakshmana Rekha” for instance, finds no mention in the original Valmiki’s Ramayana.
Not many seems to be aware that Ramayana is a by-product of a series of Rama Katha. Many forms of Ramayana exists in India and outside of India. While the epic in having travelled far & wide, did find its most enduring acceptance in Valmiki’s version the utopian classic saga of good winning over evil. No doubt it has all the necessary ingredients be it sacrifices, love, treachery, hero, heroine; all intrinsically interwoven on grandeur proportions. While this is resplendent in Bharath India, Ramayana also exists and is celebrated in various other forms in countries like Burma, Java, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Japan, China, Thailand, Sumatra etc. In all these places it takes different and varied forms. In Thailand, Ramayana is interpreted in their form of a ballad, as a war story with no mention of any of the heroic battle exploits won by King Rama, as we know. Even Valmiki later on, transgresses Ramayana into Uttara Ramayana wherein Sita takes over the prime space and thereafter the story wades into an endless tearjerker. Valmiki is seen thereafter, going sentimental, leaving behind all the heroics and valour of king Rama and his men.
While one can be all in awe of Vyasan in crediting him with the 100,000 verses that make up the grand Indian epic Mahabharata, he is also said to have relayed it to five of his pupils, all of whom had proceeded with their respective tasks. While nothing controversial comes up in history with respect to the 1st four,in Jamini’s version the Kauravars are depicted as the heroes, and is portrayed with all the pomp and glory of great rulers of the times. They are said to exude the all-encompassing power domineered with a kind heart.
While there are many learned who advocate quite vehemently, that Mahabharata is an epic commentary of Bhagwat Gita, in the Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen seeks to make a very intriguing observation. Sen implores one to look back at Mahabharata from within Bhagwat Gita. He strongly opines that if one were to introspect in such a manner, Arjunan’s questions will stand out victorious and attains more relevancy than Krishna’s answers in Bhagwat Gita. How much ever Bhagwat Gita tries to justify and state philosophically that the body dies, souls lives on, etc., for us normal human beings, here on earth, feet on ground, war just means senseless killing, mass death, and a pall of extended gloom. Yudhishthira, the sole survivor post the battle of Kurukshethra, is seen trudging a lone path to eternal heaven with a dog for company, and so ends the great epic … So who won? What was achieved? Did the eloquent Krishna’s duty above all else, ye need not think of consequences” succeed in washing off the kith, kin, brothers, cousins, teachers et al blood, off the hands of benevolent Pandavas (and the villainous Kauravas), as is envisaged by the famed historians – vis a vis the Bhagwat Gita ? What was this great duty and high moral ground(s) that everyone had to be killed for? Did it not just lead to, “sarvanasham”?
Serious enough points to ponder, no doubt.
By no means is this an attempt to belittle or take away the great valour, honour, sacrifices, respectful teachings and all the mass good inculcated, imparted and imbibed by erstwhile generations on end. (all of what the Epics convey being laudable per se, in entirety, for future generations too, given in too). Not at all. The intention here is instead is more so to highlight that there could exist another side, a different angle, an angle perhaps not so well probed or explored by the historian clan.
Having said that, one need to bear in mind the fact that hardly any of us, be it an intellectual or a nonprofessional, reads these Epics ( or for that matter, history itself) from a tabula rasa state of mind. We invariably pick this classical literature up with pre conceived notions & opinions formed at various stages of one’s life through varied sources. So one is in a warped cocoon to start with and from it springs acceptance, opinions, reproduction, justifications, theories etcetera.
The Brahmanical Hegemony :
Those complex dynamics exist between religion and power, as negotiated, interrogated, and contested by the communities in time and space, is a given. Most of the contributors do take religion as a critically recuperated cultural category, transcending, and at most times, overpowering, modernist predilections, and power. It could have been as a decentred denomination, but in India, it was not. Caste has been a major player here. While their space have been watered down considerably these days, earlier the Brahmins were a tightly bounded entity enjoying a primordial status. They, more than anyone else overcame methodological challenges through an unchecked theoretical relativism combining it successfully with knowledge, gained primarily through their comprehension of Sanskrit. Making high use of their exalted status, they ensured that Manusmriti, Upanishads, Vedas, etc. were documented in annals of Indian history as our principal & fundamental religious manuscripts. This while ensuring that the resultant huge social inequality suited them the most, benefited them the most.
Their history therefore needs to be seen in light of their monstrous hegemony over all other spiritual practices. They managed to wipe off casteless Buddhism that enlightened India for over 600 odd years. While Buddhism successfully spread Buddhism successfully spread to many countries, within India it was replaced with services of Brahmins, text & religious scriptures of Brahmins, and Bhakti and Tantric cults established by them. Fragmentation of power into feudal kingdoms followed with Brahmins developing a strong relationship with Royalties.
We now live in much improved times, no doubt. However, did we not take a long long time to overcome the havoc wrecked by centuries of caste system and distorted history? Not that we are currently free from all that entirely, far from it, in fact! The crux of religion stands forgotten, is what caste system reveals. Love of humanity as envisaged by all religions, goes for a toss too, in our unjustly glorified caste system. “Judge a person by his karma not birth”, was how it was outlined in Bhagvat Gita, nowhere was it stated to be as rigid as Brahmins outlined it to be. Valmiki was elevated to a Rishi after he wrote Ramayana. Vedavyasa who composed Mahabharath was born to a fisherwoman and was Krishna Dvaipayana till he authored the Vedas – prime examples of being known by one’s Karma and not by birth.
In spite of this even the most embittered amongst us, perhaps would not begrudge them their place in our society or treat all from the clan with equal disdain.
Adishankaracharya, the great Indian philosopher and social reformer is credited with being one of the greatest teachers of the Vedas. The four monasteries that he established in the four corners of India are amongst the most revered pilgrim destinations in the country even today.
The point being – Indian religious history is not all about Hinduism, Vedanta & Sanathana Dharma as is envisaged by historians. In reality we have always been an amalgamation of cultures and traits spanning centuries, both inland and migratory at the very least.
Text Book History in India
None of our textbooks thus far teaches any of India’s ancient history in all its resplendent glory. It is a fact that in mainland India most of our history books indifferently wraps up a 500 year period of Indian history prior to Mughal invasion in under two pages! This while each Mughal ruler is awarded a full chapter, invariably. Great rulers and the not so great Mughal rulers are detailed extravagantly for some biased reason. The history text books teaches us of a great civilisation being existent in Indus valley before the Aryans apparently wiped it out. No validated history exists to date showcasing Aryans as being anything else other than migrators and that of them being in any way violent or destructive. We are not finished here. Textbooks widely refers to Indus Valley civilization as the beginning of ancient Indian history, probably basing it on the “Aryan Invasion Theory”. Well over two decades ago this Aryan Invasion theory was profoundly refuted and rejected by illustrious historians (both Indian and Western) basing their rejection on concrete archaeological evidences. Research papers written and published by both Indian and foreign scholars regarding the rejection and refusal of this Aryan invasion theory is, today, widely available. However, the Indian textbook makers will have none of it.
A layman’s cursory glance at any major school history textbooks of India makes it obvious that it is Delhi centric I North Indian foremost. This is how it is seen to unfold; a major part of it dwells upon events, rulers and history as it happened in Northern India, a little bit of it dwells on Western India, before mentioning Southern India as an afterthought. One would have to really dive deep and far before coming up with any literature pertaining to Eastern Indian states or Territories.
Eminent historians are unified in stating that one of the most glorious periods in Indian history belonged to the Vijayanagara Empire who ruled from South India and for over three hundred years. It would be very difficult to find more than one paragraph attributed to this golden age in any Indian history textbook. Just as a point of illustration we have King Rajendra Chola, who supposedly headed the greatest empire ancient India has ever seen, is mostly now accorded two lines in textbooks. Mughals and their rule however feature far more extensively, in those same textbooks. Thankfully Shivaji features in detail. Perhaps his grandfather and ancestors being Muslims helped him there?. The legendary warrior Porus who is said to have won over 40 battles in a row before getting defeated by Alexander in the battle of Hydaspes, finds mention in Greek sources, but no information is available on any Indian official sources, whatsoever. The Kuru kingdom is stated to be first state-level society of ancient times and it happened in Western India. Only perseverant historians seem to be in the know of prime facts like these and no major Indian history books highlight these golden moments sadly. With the advent of modern day Wikipedia and internet data I history mongers and the not -so-history mongers can dive in and find these and other facts fortunately. But year after year history books get printed and published and they will have none of it though!
5000 years of History!
The cacophony in recent times from most right wing groups has been that – we Indians have over 5,000 years of history …. ” So when they say India-is it the present India? At what point would the extension of this modern concept of nationalism to ancient boundaries even begin to make sense?? For, in the Mahabharata, Gandhari wife of Dhritharashtrar, is said to hail from Ghandahar a city in current Afghanistan. Ashoka the great emperor (great emperor yes, in spite of having the blood of 100,000 lives in the battle of Kalinga, on his hands) refers to Kerala Puthur alongside with Ceylonians (current Sri Lanka) and hence outside of India, in his treatise Shilanyas. So whose India are we talking about that dates back to 5,000 years? Ancient India covered much more area than the few lines drawn on a map by a few British officers from the comforts of their living room over a customary high noon tea. It is one Mr James Mill who influenced India’s history in these matters with his book “History of India” in early 18th century wherein he ventured into dividing India’s history into Hindu India, later invaded and ruled by Mughals and he accords the British colonial ruled India as British India, thereafter. This was meekly accepted by generations, authenticated by another European scholar Max Mueller. Scholarly and eminent personnel they might have been, but grave injustice it was that they meted out to Indian history no doubt. Ironically, neither of them not once ever set foot in India during their lifetime (but write elaborately on India, they did).
Romila Thapar once interestingly quoted “If one were to ask Vikramadityan the grand ruler of the mighty Gupta dynasty who ruled India for over 300 years, whether he was a Hindu, he would not have understood the question!” The word Hindu (and hence Hinduism) as a word was coined in about the year 650 AD. The use of the English term “Hinduism” came much after that and it represented or described a collection of practices and beliefs. The truth is that before the British began to categorize communities strictly by religion, Indians generally did not define themselves exclusively through their religious beliefs; identities were segmented based on locality, language, caste, occupation and sect, basically.
Innumerable instances of our history being distorted can be found at various stages. Most of the wars that were fought during ancient times had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with grafting wealth, land and power. Much is touted in history about the mighty war between Shivaji and Aurangzeb; how the Hindu bastion under Shivaji withstood the mighty Muslim Moghul Aurangzeb. While there were indeed battles between them, the truth was that these battles and almost all other such battles during these times had nothing to do with religion per se. The General that defeated Shivaji and put him in prison was Raja Jai Singh. Shivaji on the other hand did fight plenty of battles against the Naiks and the Wodeyars, none of whom were Muslims. Same is true against Tipu Sultan. Tipu’s constant fight was against the British, and not against the Hindu kingdoms. In fact, he was the only King who all his life never once bowed down to the might of British. Yes, he attacked the rulers in Kerala in erstwhile Malabar and Travancore but that was mainly because they leaned towards the British imperialists more than anything else. Tipu’s constant donations and patronage of the famous Sringeri Madham is well chronicled.
British influenced Indian history depiction in a big way and under their influence, Indian history text books ensured that we Indians, are less aware of our glorious past and more aware of the distorted version. Worldwide today India is famous for a grand monument no doubt, the famed “Taj Mahal”. While nothing wrong with the monument as such, the tale that goes with it states that it was built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz. Hidden somewhere in fine print find, an imploring historian will find that Mumtaz was the emperors 3rd wife, and that he had many more and one of them could even have been Mumtaz’s elder daughter, perhaps forcibly, when in exile. So would the historic tale of grand love hold much credence if history were to be published rightly is anybody’s guess. Many of India’s glorious rulers had left monumental mark all over ancient and present day India. None of them finds a prominent description in its history books sadly. If this is how history has been illustrated and penned out over generations, then whose history is it anyways?
The Relevancy Conundrum
Why history is relevant is but a natural question. The answer would be that, in spite of its fallacies and shortcomings, History does help to identify the driving forces of society, of governments, of individuals, of change, and it traces these features of the past to contemporary features of the world. All the more reason for history to be accurate. History is not a one-dimensional reporting with dates, no. In fact, it should be seen as a multifaceted discipline that works towards increasing one’s cultural awareness and moral understanding of the world we live in. So, whenever questions are asked about why history matters and what can we learn from history, it invariably leads to philosopher George Santayana’s often quoted aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. India’s current reservation system is a product of its damning caste system. Most of the new generation passing out from elite English convent schools fail to comprehend the justness of Indian reservation system employed at various levels throughout India. They fail to realize that if, for instance, the finish line is the coveted Government job, he or she hailing from an upper caste and privileged to have been educated at a convent school has already had a head start compared to a lower caste entrant. Their parents and grandparents were denied entry into any schools or for that matter even disallowed to walk in daylight not too long back, on the basis of them being born into a lower caste alone! Ambedkar’s near perfect but lengthy Indian constitution was a major step in the right direction towards rectifying our ills of the past.
Nevertheless, to quote Dr Ambedkar himself “true that we have given India a great Constitution – but it is being given/imposed from the top. Underneath it lies centuries of casteism, racial differences, north south regional satraps, rich poor divide etc”. Many of the ills still exist widely and right in front of us, says our young historian Manu S Pillai. “A totally liberal democrat constitution is being imposed on a totally undemocratc society”, says he. Caste is the elephant in the room that never got addressed by India.
Nobody yet has shown the courage to disown caste system throughout India, unfortunately. We have had many small bang improvements attempted over the years since independence, a mish-mash of measures that didn’t add up to any coherent vision or resu lt(s).
By allowing the future India as emerging through or from a reinvigorated imagination of India’s fabulous and fantastic past, distorted as it is, we are indeed ensuring that we are quite literally marching back into the future.
Present day Times
Today in India alone, there are over 368 recognised news channel operating round the clock. Enough news being churned out of the news gristmill to relegate today’s news to history, as early as tomorrow. This outbreak of visual media phenomena is true for the rest of the world too. As the Pope opined – a homeless citizen freezing to death on a cold street, due to homelessness and hunger, ceasing to be news, and on the other hand the Stock exchange rising (or decreasing) by 10 points making headline news, as is the case today – is indeed a most worrying factor, to which we human beings need to wake up. Money and power dictating the news of today, hence the likely history of tomorrow – nothing seems to have changed.
The world over, if one were to open our eyes wide enough, is wi tness ng a rise in ethnic nationalism and rampant xenophobia which targets refugees and long term immigrants. This, when coupled with chiasmic inequality between the rich and the poor resu lts in a powerful majority, size-wise, beng rendered into a wounded majority that claims
victimhood at the expense of the real victims, the minorities marginalized by their inability to manage this narrative of false victimizations. These developments have come alongside dizzying volleys of contrasting and conflicting claims, news, fake news, counter news, and what not! That this blurring of the boundaries between truth and falsity, real and fake news’ have been mobilised by authoritarian leaders to claim political power, cannot be denied either.
Therefore, whose history hence is it anyways
Will we know?
Will we continue to be brainwashed by vested powers?
Will our future history depict the truth of our events?
Truth is that we are people who are trapped by history; and history is trapped by the people in power. As such, the truth is that history is therefore at it’s kindest to the people who write it for us.
During my college days a simple two page paper presentation on any topic would entail one to visit the college library andbe immersed in various books, vis a vis references to compile the paper. Fast forward to present day. An article to debunk history, as the one attempted above, was made without a single visit to any library. An internet connection on a smartphone or a tablet enabled at an airport lounge, a walk in the park, one’s study desk, et al to be one’s library.
All views set forth in the above article is entirely personal in nature. No historical or other authenticity is claimed as to any dates or facts mentioned in this article.