Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

November 1, 2015

First published October 31, 2015


14 things historians taught me

Published on 31st October, 2015, in .

Before I explain what I learned, let me clarify definitions. For me, history is a construction of the past based on verifiable material evidence such as archaeological, epigraphic and textual records. Mythology is the subjective truth of a people transmitted through stories, symbols and rituals. The former tells me what happened in the past and the latter tells me how our ancestors explained life.

We must distinguish both history and mythology from cultural memory — how people remember the past. This has nothing to do with facts. It has to do with self-esteem of a tribe, a clan, or a community. One has to gently tread on it.

In colonial times, the world was divided into fact and fiction. But in post-colonial times we have learned to recognise the fluidity that makes such binaries rather simplistic. That memory of communities, their understanding of the world, and their articulation defy the rigid boundaries constructed by Marxists on one hand, and religious radicals on the other.

So here is a very short list of some of things I learned from historians from around the world. None of this information would have been available, had they not existed. In fact much of this information did not exist even a hundred years ago, and we owe a lot to the 19th century European Orientalists, their prejudices notwithstanding.

1. Mythical and historical figures.

Historians revealed to me that Abraham and Moses can only be considered mythological figures, like Ram and Krishna, because information about them comes from the lore of the faithful and lore of the land, but not from materially verifiable archaeology or epigraphy. While there is some evidence that Jesus and Muhammad were historical figures, details of their lives, like the resurrection of Jesus and the flight of Muhammad to heaven, key to the religions they established, cannot be considered factual, and remain matters of faith.

2. Indus Valley civilisation.

Historians revealed to me that a vast civilisation rose and fell in the region around the Indus valley and stretching out to cover much of what is today Pakistan and North West India about 5,000 years ago. Here there are images such as the pipal tree and the bull, which are still considered sacred symbols amongst Hindus and Jains today. We don’t yet know what language they spoke though there are many theories.

3. Shared language roots.

Historians told me that early Vedic hymns were composed around the Saraswati River, which in all probability flowed from north to west of India, parallel to the Indus River. Later Vedic hymns were composed in the Gangetic plains. These hymns have the same roots as many Indo-European languages, but they also contain many sounds that can be traced only to Dravidian languages. These hymns are at least 3,500 years old as there is epigraphic evidence of Vedic gods such as Indra in Mittani inscriptions found in northern Mesopotamia. The hymns themselves refer to astronomical phenomena of much earlier times, so the date of origin may stretch way back, but we have no material evidence of that. We can always speculate.

4. Buddha may have lived 2,500 years ago.

Historians revealed that Buddhist and Jain hermits, even Vedic scholars like Yagnavalkya, challenged Vedic ritualism about 2,500 years ago, and popularised the monastic ideal (shramana parampara) on one hand and the spirit of enquiry (mimansa) on the other. Information on the Buddha comes to us from only from Sri Lankan Pali canon that are 1,900 years old, but they corroborate archaeological evidence in Gangetic plains and Ashokan edicts, indicating there was certainly a Buddhist movement and even probably a historical Buddha who was born 2,500 years ago. For Jain Tirthankaras, there is only Jain lore that speaks of leaders such Mahavira, who was contemporary of Buddha, and Parsva who lived at least four centuries earlier, but there is no material evidence.

5. Brahmi script and Ashoka.

Historians pointed out that the first evidence of the written word in the Indian subcontinent comes to us from Ashoka’s inscriptions 2,300 years ago. The script is called Brahmi. That it may be related to script found in Indus valley, dated to 5,000 years ago, remains a matter of speculation. The language of Ashokan edicts is not Sanskrit, but Pali. These were royal edicts. Until discovery of these edicts in the 20th century, Ashoka was simply a character of Buddhist and Jain lore, not a historical fact.

6. Sanskrit didn’t start out as a court language.

Historians told me that the first Sanskrit inscription is found in Junagarh, and comes to us from Rudradaman, a Saka king, probably of Scythian ancestry from West Asia, and is about 1,850 years old. They revealed that Sanskrit used by Rudradaman is different from Vedic Sanskrit. It is what we now call “classical” Sanskrit. It follows rules observed by the grammarian Panini in his work Ashtadhyayi. When did Panini live? The presence of the word “yavanani” indicates familiarity with Greeks or yavanas, who entered India 2,400 years ago. Scholars speculate that in this period Sanskrit was no longer restricted to Vedic rituals and became royal court language. Interestingly, historians pointed out that Sanskrit became a proper noun around this time, until then it was simply an adjective meaning “well-formed language”.

7. India always wanted gold.

Historians have found gold coins from Rome along the coasts of India as well as Roman writings referring to India as the “land of the golden bird” with an insatiable appetite for gold demanded in exchange for luxury goods such as textiles and spices. Historians also revealed how slowly Indians (except Tamilians) stopped travelling by sea and the mercantile trade was taken over by Arabs and eventually the Europeans.

8. We invented sugar.

Historians told me that 2,500-year-old Chinese and Greek writings have spoken of India as the “land of sugarcane”, and that sugar was crystallised in India for the first time about 1,500 years ago and reached Europe via sea merchants who mixed it in ghee and sold it as medicine! Europe became familiar with sugar less than a thousand years ago.

9. Christians entered India before Europe.

Historians pointed out that there were Christians in India before there were Christians in Europe and that Cheraman Juma in Kerala is probably one of the earliest mosques in the world, outside Arabia, built by sea-faring Arab traders about 1,350 years ago.

10. Oldest stone temples only 2,000 years old.

Historians revealed that temples of stone started being built in India less than 2,000 years ago, first out of caves and only later as free standing structures, as we find in Ellora, Maharashtra. Before that, there were wooden temples though temples are scarcely mentioned in the earliest documented Mahabharata and Ramayana, which refer more to the portable Vedic ritual of yagna. The great gopurams of South Indian temples became popular only in the last 800 years.

11. Patrons kings of Jainism waged wars.

Historians told me that kings who patronised Jainism did not follow non-violence. For example, Kharavela of Odisha 2,150 years ago and Pulakesin of Karnataka 1,350 years ago were conquerors. The former wrote inscriptions in Pali language and Brahmi script while the latter wrote inscriptions in Sanskrit language using Kannada script.

12. Our epics were collated over 500 years.

Historians point out that the earliest written Mahabharata and Ramayana was put together over 500 years roughly 2,000 years ago, and they were written in post-Panini classical Sanskrit, though they tell stories that may have been orally transmitted for centuries, from as long as 5,000 years ago. Historians also reveal that Ramayana and Mahabharata were written in regional languages, using regional scripts, such as Tamil and Odiya and Avadhi only from around a thousand years ago and these regional epics reveal a shift in approach — from being simply heroic epics to being devotional literature.

13. Islam reconfigured India dramatically.

Historians showed me that the arrival of Islam had major changes in the Indian subcontinent, both negative as well as positive. Yes, there was violence and slavery and temple-breaking. Let’s not deny that as people often do in ‘national interest’. Images of Krishna were housed in ‘havelis’ under protection of Rajputs, and walls were built around temple complexes in Eastern and Southern India. But there was a spurt in the rise of regional scripts, as writing started being more valued. And there emerged new ways of looking at the divine: a bhakti movement where God was both formless (nirguna) and with form (saguna). But unlike Islamic submission to God, this spoke not just of devotion but also affection for God, who was also seen as Yashoda’s child, Radha’s beloved and Parvati’s incorrigible husband. Hindu gurus and gods and heroes, started being seen as Muslim Pirs and vice versa. All this happened because of various forms of Islam that came from Arabia and Persia and Central Asia, or despite it, or even in defiance of it. Culture churned and reframed itself.

14. We were pleasure-loving and artsy.

Historians reveal how Sanskrit and Prakrit literature of ancient times reveals a culture comfortable with pleasure and the arts. This culture of song and dance and painting transformed and thrived even under the patronage of Muslim kings, who also introduced Persian arts to India. However, this aesthetic culture collapsed after the arrival of puritanical Europeans, who described Indians as effeminate and pleasure seeking, a term of derision that many Indians believed to be the truth, and not the prejudice of the unfamiliar.

But the best thing that historians taught me is that no knowledge is fixed and finite. With new data, and new methodologies, and lesser prejudice, our knowledge of the past will keep expanding. We don’t need to manufacture history for propping up a fragile self-esteem. We just have to delve deeper into time-bound history to appreciate the timelessness of our mythology.

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