Published in First City, Nov. 2010
During rituals known as Shraadh, Hindus worship the ancestors or the Pitr. Specifically, reverence is reserved for three generations of ancestors – the father, the grandfather and the great grand father. Generations before this are referred to as “the others”. It is almost as if, after three generations, the family is expected to forget even the name of that ancestor. It is the final letting go.
The notion of ‘letting go’ is central to Indian thought and plays a key role not only in Hinduism but also Buddhism and Jainism. One is constantly asked to move on. That is why, traditionally in India, no tombs were built. The body of the deceased was cremated and the ashes thrown in rivers as one hoped for a quick journey across the river Vaitarni to the land of death followed by a quick rebirth.
Tombs were reserved for those who lived exceptional lives that liberated them from the cycle of rebirths. These tombs were known as Samadhis and often contained the relics of holy men, such as the Buddha and various Vedic teachers who had attained liberation or moksha.
The ordinary man was encouraged to move on after death and not cling to memories. Memories were seen as fetters to intellectual and emotional evolution. They conditioned the mind and created impressions that trapped the soul in the cycle of rebirths. For a culture that valued the soul over the flesh, memories were seen as something temporal, something limited to space and time that one had to transcend.
This is why history, or at least what is conventionally understood as history, played a very poor role in Hindu thought. More important than kings and events were ideas. And ideas were recurring. Which is why itihasa meant not just history but ‘what was, what is, what will be’ aligning itself to the concept of sanatan, the eternal truth, which forms the core of Indian thought.
What mattered more to Hindus, Buddhists and Jains were eternal principles, not time-bound details. What matters more than the particular is the universal. More important than an Alexander who conquered most of the known world or Ashoka or Aurangazeb who ruled most of the Indian subcontinent, was the mythic idea of the Chakra-varti who ruled the universe, only to realize its futility.
This disdain or indifference for history perhaps stems from faith in rebirth. If this life is but one of infinite lives, then how do events of this life matter. What matters is reflection, introspection of how eternal principles keep manifesting and recurring in each lifetime.
Contrast these with the worldview of the Greeks and the Chinese and the Arabs and the Mongols and the British. Each of them believed in one life. And so this life mattered. The events of this life mattered. And so had to recorded carefully. History was thus born. And so were tombs. Monuments to the dead had to be raised. In the Mahabharata, there is a derisive reference to ‘worship of a collection of bones’ in the Kali Yuga. Clearly, this celebration of the past was not appreciated in Vedic thought.
Indian disdain for history is most evident when one watches historical films and teleserials. Even a slight deviation in a mythological serial can shut the country down but no one cares when historical characters are subjected to flights of fancy. History plays second fiddle to legend. What matters more is entertainment and romance. Nobody cares what actually happened when Alexander came to India, what matters more is how he reacted to the royal nobility of Porus. Nobody cares what really happened to Prithviraj Chauhan but everyone cares about how he married Sanyogita and killed Muhammad Ghori. It must be remembered that it took a British film maker to make the first Indian film on Gandhi. Later Indians did make films on Babasaheb Ambedkar and Sardar Vallabhai Patel but their poor show at the box office is testimony to the value Indians place on history.
This is why, in India, when one goes to the village, people will know less about people who resided in the village a few generations ago but more about the land’s relationship to Ramayana and Mahabharata. Thus, there are ponds across India where Ram bathed and caves where the Pandavas lived. The same awe is rarely reserved for structures built by parents before great grand parents.
The practice of recording family trees does exist in a few communities, especially in Rajasthan and has been seen as a practice brought down by Huns and Scythians who settled in this region post the Greeks. Another place where family trees are recorded are in pilgrim spots where the local priests known as Pandas claim hereditary rights to serve members of a particular clan, such as kula or gotra. But by far, history is treated with indifference. In fact, had the Greeks and Arabs and Chinese not recorded their interactions with India, much of Indian history would have gone unnoticed.
When one reads sacred literature, one finds long genealogies of kings that trace their origin right up to the gods. There are as many genealogies as there are scriptures and there are widespread variations between them. Scholars have tried hard to put together a history of India based on data found in the Puranas and have failed. The purpose in these lists is not so much as being accurate as it is about connecting the patron of the scripture to one of the two line of kings that ruled India since mythic times, the Surya-vamsis or the sun dynasty or the Chandra-vamsis or the moon dynasty. Even today, most Rajput royal families claim descent from the sun, while many royal families in the East and South claim descent from the moon. The genealogies thus supported the ‘divine right of kings’.
But the British put us on the defensive, forced Indians to construct history. They made Indians feel inferior because they had no sense of history. They went about writing the history of India. And what they wrote, divided Indians forever.
Today, we have a Left-wing view of history that ignores, even mocks the faith of Indians. And then there is the Right-wing view of history that rejects all ideas that came from the British and insists that everything in India is much older than any historian can ever imagine.
With the British came a chronology of India: the Indus Valley civilization followed by a Vedic age followed by Buddhism then the Greeks, then the Huns and Gujjars, then the rise of temples followed by the arrival of Arabs and Mongols and finally the Europeans. In this scheme of things, holy epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata are recorded in the post-Buddhist period, while the more abstract Vedas come from the pre-Buddhist period. In the British view of things, Vedic thought is not indigenous, it came from elsewhere. This becomes a double whammy for the traditional mind. It suggests that the most revered Indian ideas are not only rather recent but worse, foreign!
All these findings upset many Indians as they seemed to be strategically motivated to make Indians feel inferior. So there has been over the past 100 years of retaliation. The baby was thrown out with the bathwater. All datings were rejected. Everything has to be older to be genuinely valued. So everything from Ramayana to Mahabharata to Bhagavad Gita is taken to come down from a time long before Alexander, and long before the Indus valley, and all from the Gangetic plains.
In the din of arguments we will never know the truth. Epigraphic and archeological evidence can never give the full picture whereas faith will always be inflated by imagination. If one follows the ancient Vedic route of not focusing on details of events and seeking the underlying idea, one discovers something very interesting in this debate over Indian history. One discovers that the past is a powerful way to intellectually dominate a people. The British did it by insisting that what Indians believed to be history is actually myth and by myth they meant ‘falsehood’, not ‘subjective truth’. Indians have retaliated by insisting that ‘subjective truth’ is ‘objective truth’. And hence all holy books in India, as far as the devotee is concerned, came together at least 5000 years ago. Today the fight between faith and history has affected school curriculum and court judgments. While many assume this is a fight for truth, it is, in all probability, simply a fight for self-esteem.