Its 5000 years old

Myth Theory 28 Comments

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.

  • Good one! “Let Go, Let God” is the essence of all teachings.

    Thinking about Past can induce pride/distress while thinking about future induces worry. That is why stress is given on living the present moment fully.

    Snap a finger and that’s a moment of life gone… Did you live it?

  • rajesh gawade

    great….great thanks once again i was waiting for your new article this came after long gap thank you sir…..

  • Sid

    Perfect pitch, can i contact you some place? Maybe a phone or email? I am writing a novel based on the conspiracy of nine unknown men during Ashoka rule and would like to have your views on it before I decide to publish it.

    You can see my email id written in this comment. Do let me know.


  • Aasheesh Khanna

    How true..but still the question remains,wat is the correct date for the events that happened in past?
    as u rightly pointed out that indians dont have much sense for history but ideas…

    but for the people who live in these current times,who really want to delve beyond the idea and into some hard facts…where do they look?

    british versions are deliberate mis informations..
    indian versions are dismissed as flights of fancy or as u said myths…

    so where lies the truth?

    we believe our ancient texts to be fantastic but they are the only source we have of our history…written by us..

    when ramayana and mahabharata occured ?

  • Rudresh

    Excellent article. All your articles are always enlightning ones.

    A small correction. I think Prithviraj chauhan killed Mohammad Ghauri and not allaudin khilji.

    • Devdutt

      right u r :-) oops

      • srinibas

        I read that Prithviraj chauhan was killed by Mohammad Ghauri.

      • Niranjana nagpal

        Sir, I think modern generation is highly indebted to you to make us understand and appreciate our religious texts in a better manner.

        • Rajesh

          I believe….Bhavnao ko samjho.. Sir…he he he.

          But also that stastics and facts should be right !!

  • brilliant analysis. you have talked about this earlier in different contexts; about indians not being organised and uniform by nature; but this article puts all of it in a better light. Also d famed documentation of west vs d infamous process disorientation of ours.

    but then in todays time, wen v r aping west, wen v r embracing capitalism…how do we cope up??

  • sk maltare

    generations are like rockets moving in the sky with a large white fume behind it. rocket moves on, leaving no evidence of fume where it was before a little earlier on time-line. but all the fumes are very much present at the place where it is now, and it is physically present. after three generations people do not remember their fore fathers. as if they don’t exists at all, for them. whereas, they were very much physically present when they were there on the time-line. but now, they don’t exists. similarly , on the time line you and me are present now, but no one will be ready to recognize our existence after three generations, in future. it doesn’t matter to them ( future generations ) whether you are in a great healthy wealthy situation at present, or in any other shamble situations you are!!. because you have been given a task of pushing the generations ahead on the time line and after playing your given role you don’t have any relation with what is happening on the stage now.

  • Sree Nair

    Yet another thought provoking article.
    Talking about our senselessness of history we are still at the mercy of others. There is no consensus between the so-called secular intelligentsia and the nationalist historians. When Murali Manohar Joshi attempted to correct some of the anomalies the secular Intelligentsia jumped the gun. People like Romila Thapar were at the top crying foul. All the national media without going into the the checking the veracity of the subject cried foul. So our History is still ‘His story’ about us. Not our story about ourselves. Children learn all rubbish written by people with western outlook. The history lessons in CBSE texts contradict with most state history text books. In Kerala when Independent struggle is taught ‘Wagon tragedy’ is taught but not the 1921 Moplah mutiny. It is like teaching only Gujarat carnage without mentioning Godhra incident. CPM leader EMS even branded that Moplah mutiny as an Agrarian struggle.
    I always wonder why we have elaborate lessons to teach 50 years of history prior to independence and very limited or none about post independence period – although 64 years have passed! Is it because political bosses dislike the recent past?. I have not come across any drastic change in history lessons – what students learn now and what I learned 35 years back. The father of economics is still Adam smith. Kautilya’s Arthashastra is hardly mentioned in economic lessons. Barthruhari’s Neeti shatakam is never a part of Social science. I always felt and wished if only once our social science teachers had read it ?
    Now with the Tsunami of scams and lack morality and ethics in high echelons of power the need to teach Neeti Shatakam from Elementary level is of atmost importance. Who’s there to listen !

    • Niranjana nagpal

      I completely agree with you. The modern education system in schools has totally given a miss to our ancient texts.

    • I quite agree with you. As a student, I used to love history, and tried to read up on every little scrap of information I could get – starting from my own text books, to my brother’s, then magazines, newspapers, and even story books. (Unfortunately, I was advised against taking up History as an Honour’s subject in college because apparently, it promises no jobs! :D)

      But to this day I wonder why so little is said in ICSE history texts about India’s regions – we after all, have very different regional histories that can’t be generalised under a blanket banner like “Golden Age of Hindus” or “Muslim Rule”.

      Besides, we never had access to such texts as Arthshastra and Nyaya Shastra even in college – In fact that we should read up these texts do not feature in the to-do lists of teachers and competitive examinations.

      So the problem is two fold – One, the establishment doesn’t require us to study our indigenous texts even if they are related to one’s subject. Two, there is not enough books, publishers, or online resources making these books available to the public.

      Unless we address these problems as a society, it seems to me that all we’ll do is debate and blog! :)

  • Narendranath Mitra

    extremely well written… actually this mindset comes up from a fundamental difference between Indian (or should we say Oriental) thought process and the occidental one. The rationalist philosophy of the Greek to the development of science in Europe enhanced the concept of ‘Analysis’ or lets say deconstruction.
    any phenomenon have been initially perceived as function of 100 or so parameters…. by considering one as variable and rest as constant or ideal a formula is created. This partial and fragmented understanding of any phenomenon has given us Modern technology oriented life style, but lack of Comprehensive understanding (which was probably the ancient Indian approach)makes it incomplete and sometimes disastrous.It is really difficult to comprehend the concept of O-U-M with an occidental educational background which most of us have.

  • I’m a mother who lost her baby just about four months ago.

    Few weeks ago I read mr. dutt’s article about krishna-gandhari encounter in kurukshetra. I could relate myself to it – as i always ask krishna (the lord) why he has taken my beautiful eleven day old baby.

    Today in my blog, I wrote about how we are asked to let go – after a death. More so a baby’s death.

    Then am reading this article and was surprised how much it reflects my thoughts today and wanted to comment here. My blog is here:

    Some coincidence.

  • A L Mohan

    excellent article.what one is taught in class rooms is muddled history and with a nair has suggested neethisthakam can be taught profitably instead of history.let factual history post independence be written well.

  • Satish Gundawar

    which side you are?

  • Rajesh

    Hi Devdutta,

    After reading this article my belief has gone still stronger.

    I think In today’s world everything needs to be proved to people, nobody believes till it happens, not anyone’s fault. It is only because of lack of trust. This doesn’t apply to others but to me too.

    think there lies a deeper meaning in have casteism, since the Vedic times based on religion, occupation and race (not only in Hindu’s but in other respected religions too). This gave each and every individual their individuality and focus. This helped in reducing insecurity and fear of survival and existence. Today and even in the near future most of the social issues faced, shall be as a result of this insecurity, fear and fight for survival, making every human being act like an animal in the wild protecting its habitat. We are nearing this sooner or later or have we already reached that stage?
    The question arises, what is humanity all about? It has always been considered, that human being are the most superior race with their ability and power to think. But are we losing it soon or have we already lost it.
    Think the above article has some relevance towards my this belief.

  • Dear Devdutt ji,

    After reading your excellent article, I am reminded of Khalil Gibran,a very popular Lebanese American Christian poet, artist and writer, who writes about “OUR CHILDREN” as under:

    Your children are not your children.
    They are the sons and daughters of
    Life’s longing for itself.

    They come through you, but not from you;
    And though they are with you,
    Yet they belong not to you.

    You may give them your love, but not your thoughts;
    For they have their own thoughts.

    Gibran is talking of our posterity, whereas you talked about our ancestors. As per our Hindu Tradition, at least three generations before us are treated as “OURS”, and older than that are treated as “OTHERS”; whereas Gibran seems to be telling that even our immediate next generation also is, in fact, “OTHERS.” Opinion – To each his own.

  • Savita

    Does indian mythology explain why we are taking infinite number of births? Why this cycle is going on ?

    • Devdutt

      because we don’t want to break free

      • Nagesh Kamath

        Zabardast reply.I am impressed, keep it up.God bless you.

  • aarthi raghavan

    hi Devdutt Sir,
    i agree with you.i like valmiki ramayan as it says wht happened the same time,i like other historical romances which are half-fact and half-imagination.i don’t really care even if it is imagination if the settings and stories are good.

  • narayan

    After reading this article I was struck by the fact that I did not even realize how little Indians really bother about history! The comment by Devdatt that people are very well versed about which river Rama crossed or which cave the Pandavas dwelled in but not have any idea about their own forefathers was a very telling one, in my opinion. It underscored, more than anything else for me, the point of how we are not really concerned with our own history.
    Could it be because we dont really have much achievements to make note of? After all poverty runs among masses and if I am more worried about where the next set of meals is going to come from, then it may be difficult for me to think about much else?
    But that does not excuse the well off Indian from looking into history, does it? Perhaps they will, in the future. Now that the situation for an average middle class Indian has improved, the barriers to communication have disappeared (thanks to the Net), there will be more people interested in researching and writing about history.

  • If you really want to investigate Indian history, you have to look at what Indians have recorded.

    Monuments and books can be destroyed by time, nature and enemies. Hence Indians recorded their histories in the “stars”.

    If you really want to “date” an event from our itihaas, all you have to do is look at the details of planetary movements recorded for that event. The details of constellations, eclipses, meteors etc are very accurately recorded. Details given in the scriptures are too well recorded for them to have been a figment of anyone’s imagination.

    There are number of people who have used modern charts of planetary movements to figure out when Ramayan or Mahabharat took place. Internet has a number of article on such research.

  • D Balasubramaniam

    Another article of yours made me think when a way of life became an “ism” and now this! If Church was created in Rome to rule the masses, the British created “Hinduism” to rule the sub-continent. The “history” they created still divides us. Even the present day govt wants us to specify which “section” of Hinduism we belong to so that more politics of reservations can be enacted upon us (reservations started in British India as far as my limited knowledge goes)

  • hi Devdutt,

    Excellently put across ideas. This fight of self esteem, of faith and the history is attributed to the moral self beliefs. We in general fear to question, as questions will lead to devient alternative thoughts which will harm and more importantly hurt the beliefs of millions. Not that we care about the fellow followers, we don’t want to be the odd man out. I think its a fight of fear and history actually.