Why do Leftist and Hindutva intellectuals keep quarreling over history text books and curriculums?
Because, they understand the dictum that whoever controls your history, shapes your future. Kanshi Ram proved the dictum right; by using Dr Ambedkar’s historical works such as What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables he transformed Indian politics.
Building a great nation requires developing historical consciousness; awareness of your errors as well as strengths. India suffered colonialism under the Aryan, Islamic, and British rule because writing history was never a part of the swadeshi culture.
Usually, “facts” of history are interpretations with hidden or unconscious agendas. Ambedkar, and Kanshi Ram used history with explicit, honest agendas. The Congress lost North India because it neither challenged their Bahujan history nor offered a sincere apology for Mahatma Gandhi’s misdeeds.
One factor that prevented Hindus from writing history is that our sages did not believe that human beings can alter fate and shape their destiny. Samsāra, we were told, is endlessly repeating cycle (kalchakra). It is controlled by a terrible god, Kāla – the black or dark deity of death and destruction – the masculine version of Kali. In Skanda Purāṇa, Śiva describes Mahākāla to Pārvatī as ‘the Great Death’ . . . ‘the Great Black One’. Hindu cosmology made our human, historical choices meaningless.
Alternatives to History
Every culture has ways of remembering the past. The Embu tribe in Kenya, for example, names a child after an important event happening at the time of its birth. So a girl born during torrential downpour may be named Rain, Water, or Flood. A boy born during a famine may be called Drought or Starvation. Wise men of Embu invented stories to help society remember events and people. Often these were animal stories. A bully who disregarded others in a tribal feast and ate like a “pig” may become the hyena in the next story of animals-celebrating-a-feast. The bully cannot be named, but the story helps everyone to remember the event and the character. Stories condemn socially unacceptable behavior and promote desirable social skills. Society constructs stories to control individuals.
Brahminism turned public events into stories of gods, demigods, and demons. Gods amplified human follies and wisdom. Pauranic preachers used old stories with an agenda to “civilize”, that is, control those too weak to resist social pressure. Everyone knew that gods were made up. Nevertheless, once the stories were backed by the coercive power of the cultural elite, they became sacred—constructed “truths” with compelling socio-religious power. Myths sustained social evils of untouchability, infanticide, sati, idol-worship, temple prostitution (Devadasi), etc. Because myths enslave, the 19th-century reformers in India, rebelled against gods and their stories in pursuit of liberating historical truth.
Hindu philosophers had good reason for not writing objective, rational history. Their rationale was exactly why the Greeks stopped writing it and Postmodernists ridicule it.
Rationalist History – “A tale told by an idiot”?
The more one tries to make history an “objective-report”, the less meaning it has. When a historian starts looking for meaning and significance in his subject matter or an event, he makes his report “subjective” – his point of view; his effort to change the future in a direction he prefers.
Plato (429–347 BC), one of the greatest philosophers of the Greeks, put his finger on the problem: No particular thing or event can have any meaning or significance unless it can be related to a universal. No one, for example, can know what Pyrox is unless you can relate it/him to a larger universal “boy.” But no Greek will know what “boy” is unless defined as a young male “human” being. Being finite, “human” too needs a larger reference point – you can define him by relating him to yet larger universal, an “animal” or “God’s image.”
Just as every particular “thing” has to be related to a larger universal to be meaningful, so also a particular incident becomes of general and abiding interest, only when it can be seen as a part of a bigger picture. Ultimately, an event is significant if it fits into a cosmic canvas.
Aristotle, loved specifics or particulars more than Plato, but even he saw no point in history because it couldn’t tell anything beyond, “What Alcibiads did or had done to him.” Without the big picture of the universe, history of particular events or people becomes what Shakespeare called, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Hindu philosophers understood this; therefore, the jnan (esoteric/mystical knowledge) they sought was Brahma (Absolute), not particular (historical/existential).
The European Idea of History
Moghul emperors did write their memoirs, just as Chinese emperors had chroniclers who kept records. But record-keeping is not history. Neither the Moguls nor the Chinese emperors permitted a historian to pass any judgment on what they or their revered ancestors did. Their memoirs and records became history after European scholars began using them as raw materials for their discipline.
Lorenzo Valla (1407–1457) is recognized as the first modern historian because his careful linguistic examination exposed that the Pope’s temporal, socio-economic authority was based upon a forged document, “The Donation of Constantine.” The Moghul and the Chinese emperors would have executed a scholar like him instantly. The Church stood to lose much because of this devout Christian’s scholarship. Therefore, his work angered many church people and his expose was categorized as a banned book. Yet, because his work was truth that exploded a church-made myth, the next Pope, Nicholas V, made him an apostolic secretary in Rome.. The following Pope, Calixtus III continued to honor Valla.
Why did the Church respect a researcher who revealed a hidden, inconvenient truth? It was because the Bible is about truth, not myth. The Bible is a book of history told from God’s perspective. Its purpose is to judge individual, social, religious, and political evils so that we may repent and get right with God and each other. The Bible describes the dark and horrible side of Jewish religious-political history. Social evil did not surprise the Bible’s writers, because they knew that all human beings and their leaders are sinful. It confronts the dark side of human history so that we may confess, not hide, sins such as fraud.
The Bible’s passion for truth rather than myths created modern historical consciousness which enabled Western nations to reform social evils and become powerful. Through missionaries such as William Carey, the Bible brought its unique institution of the “prophet” into India. In the modern world that institution had blossomed into historians and journalists, whose academic and journalistic freedom to speak truth to power had been institutionalized. The prophet’s freedom to scrutinize rulers made them accountable. When leaders became accountable, it became easier for citizens to trust, respect, and to follow them. India is sinking because now we have journalists who serve money, not truth. They extract bribes from big businesses and politicians. Likewise, historians abandon or suppress inconvenient truth in order to get grants from rulers.
India will become a great nation when we allow historical truth to confront our myths and idols; when we embrace the truths such as: our neighbors are not “untouchable” or polluting; they are created in God’s image, worthy of our love, respect and service.
Published in the July 2013 issue of the Forward Press magazine