Are Indians an ahistorical people? Part II

Are Indians an ahistorical people?

Part II

Let me pose a hypothetical question.

What if the British had not chosen to civilize India? Would we have no history? What would we have? What did we have?

Apart from many tangible examples of history, in the form of old temples, palaces, towns, ceremonial buildings, celebratory water-features and gardens, we had some of the most extensive written literature – consisting of legends, philosophical treatises, codified manuals and stories. This literature, which was encyclopedic in nature, records not just dominant modes of conduct, philosophies or people but also the tertiary, non-mainstream ones. For instance, the Carvakas, materialists whose way of thinking and living is more nearly like the dominant material values of the world today, were historically always a minority in the Indian subcontinent. Nonetheless, they are mentioned repeatedly, and not just in the philosophical treatises of the Sankhya, Yoga, Jain or Buddhist schools but also in many versions of popular epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Thus, the idea of history being a multi-faceted perception, and the retention of different perspectives for the listeners/readers to make up their own minds about the relative value of each perception, was especially true in the Indian tradition. By that measure, it certainly appears that the Indians cannot be called ahistorical.

In India, culturally and philosophically there was no sudden, sweeping Industrial Revolution. An oft-remarked phrase is that in India you can see several centuries at the same time. Even today, when we are being consciously propelled towards a western-dominated society more than ever before, different ways of living coexist simultaneously, some reflecting 21st century modes and others that seem to have existed since very ancient times. However, with colonization and its aftermath, our perception and understanding of history has changed so drastically, that many of the beliefs, knowledge systems, and alternative records which constitute our many histories, have already perished.

The Objectives of History

To understand why this continues to happen, we need to look at the objectives and methodology of history in the colonial period (whether directly those of the colonizing power or of dominant cultures at that time that may not necessarily have been colonizing our country). The British, (who by the time they came to India were themselves a society living in ways that were a definite break from their own past) formulated ways of recording the vast and complex Indian civilization that they encountered. Two main categories of such recording and interpretation work are generally identified – termed the Orientalists and the Utilitarianists. The Orientalists had a romantic notion of India, and the Utilitarianists had a contemptuous attitude towards India. Their major motivations, depending on either orientation, were therefore essentially:

a)      to understand/ control an unfamiliar area, people and resources;

b)      to highlight/ appropriate aspects of these areas, people and resources useful to them;

c)      to ignore/ denigrate aspects of these areas, people and resources not useful to them.

Both these categories of writers/researchers/historians, naturally, ultimately failed to understand the Indian world-view. Their version of Indian history, led to a distorted view of Indian presented to the world – and to Indians.

The other main source of our history, is through scholars who were not directly participating in the colonial enterprise. They did not have any direct interest in controlling and exploiting resources in this country. Their objective however was not mere academic interest either. In Germany, as in France, and in many other countries of the West, there was among some intellectuals a profound dissatisfaction with the mechanized, inhuman ways of their society that resulted from large-scale industrialisation. They were looking for a second Enlightenment, a second Renaissance that would liberate them from the deadening effects of their industrialized society.

Just as the first renaissance arose out of the revival of concepts and ideals from the ancient Greek culture; so it was believed that the second renaissance would arise from the East, from the ideals of ancient India. Hence, the overwhelming emphasis of such scholars and Indologists on the most ancient and the oldest aspects of Indian history that they could unearth, to the exclusion of the later periods of Indian history which were identified with a jaded and fallen people. Some of these scholars were also looking for a justification of their own present – hence Max Mueller’s statements about the ancient Aryans being most akin to the ancient Germans, and his belief that they were the most vigorous and enterprising races in the world with the authority and responsibility of leading the rest of the world.[1]

The conventional manner in which historical studies pertaining to India are generally still regarded, practiced and studied, follows such a colonial tradition. And so we dream of our glorious ancient past, rue an abysmal immediate past and present, and look forward to a potentially bright future – but only if we follow the footsteps and the direction of the West. Not very different from the stated beliefs and policies of our colonial masters. So we continue to view ourselves through the eyes of the West, and can only see our reflections reduced and distorted through time and space.

Evolving Histories

Is it pertinent to continue with this definition and concept of history which we inherited with colonisation – or do we need to evolve a different way of looking at history? To paraphrase the physicist Richard Feynman’s famous quote: “first figure out why you want to learn and what you want to know and the method will result more or less by common sense’.[2] Why do we study history today? Are the purposes the same as why the colonial powers did? If yes, then our purposes are certainly misguided; if no, then it is time we reevaluate both our motives and our methods of looking at history.

There will probably not be any disputing the fact that the motive for learning history is, or should be, to direct our understanding of the past so as to make us aware of our cultural, national and local identities, and to help us to shape ourselves and our societies in positive ways. Obviously these objectives are very different from those of the ‘historians’ of the colonial period. The methodology evidently should be different too. We therefore need to redefine history from our context.

Defining history merely as ‘a study of the past‘, limits the reach and sources of history to the professional and excludes a wide swathe of sources as well as people from their own history. The exclusion of the layperson in recent times is not just confined to the field of history. Increasingly, in India we follow the path of the western world where, as N.J. Habraken observes: ‘We have been educated in a culture of science, technology, and organization that is overwhelmingly professional. This culture is, if not ignorant, deeply suspicious of the productive power of the lay world and its variety of social patterns.’ [3]

So, while we certainly were not an ahistorical people when the term was first applied to us, most of us – and paradoxically, even professional historians – are in danger of becoming so now. The dialogue with the past gets far more muted and limited every day. Carried out behind closed doors amongst only among a handful of professionals, such whispered and occasional dialogue, keeps out of the conversation a large section of people who also carry the memory of their past. It therefore misses out not just many important words and phrases but even lengthy passages of the story from the past, and then presents this incomplete fragmented story, as the complete and only version of the past! With the concentration on only one sort of recorded history that professional historians espouse, it ultimately serves to keep away both professional and the laypersons from their shared history – and from each other.

So most of us, educated or not, literate or illiterate, are ambivalent and negligent about many aspects of our history. Not just our philosophies and myths, but also the more tangible remnants which refuse to fade away from our landscape. This perhaps explains the extreme distrust between professional custodians of monuments and local communities who, finding that they no longer have any claim to their immediate history, refuse to recognize any duties towards protecting them either. We carve our initials on them, inscribe ‘Raja loves Meena’ on them, vandalise them in other ways, use them as trash cans, and even carry off their bricks and stones as mementoes or to build our homes.

The historic Bijay Mandal, with litter stuffed in next to the stairway

Even when we recognize them as repositories of culture, of knowledge, of history, etc. and put up plaques recognizing them as important national assets, in actual fact we ignore them. While we may physically conserve them, we do not believe they have anything which may be applicable for us to follow today. The fact that climate, ecology, even culture is a continuum, and the responses to them in older architectural forms and spaces may contain aspects which may have relevance to our lives today, is not even considered. Thus, everyone agrees that Jaipur is a foremost example of city-planning. Yet, the new extensions to Jaipur are built as if they could be anywhere in India or even outside India; as if there is nothing within this feted historical city that architects and planners may learn from, that could be integrated in modern cities.

In short, we treat our historical assets, our monuments and our cities, just as we study or regard history – as a separate compartment, as something frozen, as only representative of a certain time different from the present, as something to be visited briefly – and then forgotten. And as something to be kept beyond the reach and comprehension of the layperson, the non-historian. On the other hand, many counties of the western world who look after their tangible history so well, still do so in a museumized, mummified way. Unlike our bustling teeming old cities, filled with every variety of human activity but unkempt and crumbling, their cobbled streets, thatched houses, beamed rooms, are alluring and well-preserved, and house endless permutations of museums, interpretation centres, souvenir shops, restaurants, design offices, galleries – but have no trace of the diverse life that first gave rise to them.

The linguist, Helena Norberge-Hodge, who has spent a large part of her life in the region of Ladakh, generally seen as a remote, backward, exotic land, arrived there in 1975. During her time there, she visited and lived in many villages there. After spending sixteen years in Ladakh, she wrote the book, Ancient Futures, Learning from Ladakh. Recollecting her experience in the earlier part of her time spent there, she writes: ‘I have never met people who seem so healthy emotionally, so secure, as the Ladakhis. The reasons are, of course complex, and spring from a whole way of life and world-view. But I am sure the most important factor is the sense that you are part of something larger than yourself, that you are inextricably connected to others and to your surroundings.’[4]

In conversations with my maid and my cook, I notice the same connection with the villages and the local cultures they have come from, as well as how much more aware they are not just of their customs and religion, but also through them of the larger world. Practically all the days in a year have some significance for them. They are far more attuned to the changing cycle of the seasons or the movement of the moon and the sun. The rituals, fasts or festivals that highlight important times of the day, season or year help them not merely to celebrate their present by meeting with the family or the larger community, but also to keep their past alive through shared memories of other celebrations and rituals.

Perhaps it is this lived connection with our surroundings, which we need to recognize as an important part of history. Perhaps we need to redefine history as ‘an understanding and record of the past’ rather than merely a ‘study of the past’. Such a definition would necessarily include and question various ways of looking at the past, whether through written and oral records, societal beliefs, art forms, mythology, ritual practices and so on. It would give credence to local, decentralized histories; to lived histories, that help to root us to our context and route us to our directions. We may then be better able to understand the significance of different remnants of our personal and shared memories, and which of these we must amend, continue, transmit or discard.

So, one of the relevant answers to ‘what is history’ – which is naturally as subjective as any other one – could be ‘a rediscovery of values that have existed for thousands of years – values that recognize our place in the natural order, our indissoluble connection to one another and to the earth’.[5] From that point of view, a large part of the world today, not merely many Indians, may be termed ahistorical.


[1] Vasudha Dalmia, pp. 1-27, ‘Friedrich Max Mueller, Appropriation of the Vedic Past’, Orienting India, European knowledge formation in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, Three Essays Collective 2003, New Delhi.

[2] “First figure out why you want the students to learn the subject and what you want them to know, and the method will result more or less by common sense”. Richard P. Feynman, as quoted in Special Preface to Six Easy Pieces, p. xviii, Penguin 1995, this Edition 2008

[3] Appearance of the Form, p. 2, Sharing

[4] Ancient Futures, Learning from Ladakh, p. 85, OUP New Delhi 1991

[5] Helena Norberg-Hodge, Ancient Futures, Learning from Ladakh, p. 191.

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