Published on 4th December, 2021, in Times of India.
The subject that we know as history emerged only in the 19th century. Before that, memory, legends and evidence-based history were all combined as a single unit. They were stories from the past, communicated by bards to make communities feel good about the past or to remember past injustices. The king’s bard told good things about the king’s lineage, and bad things about neighbours.
In the 19th Century, evidence became very important to prove the occurrence of an event in the past. Thus history emerged. Since then, historians have challenged common assumptions about the past, based on data. This has placed historians in a confrontational course, with the general public, especially in political matters. People love bards who tell them good things about the past. But historians tell you what actually happened in the past, as evidence reveals, and it may not be pleasant.
For example, most Indians believe in the legend of Adi Shankaracharya. They believe he came from Kerala, travelled around India, and is responsible for driving Buddhism out of India, and re-establishing Hindu supremacy. He is also believed to be the organiser of various military ascetic academies or akhadas in the four corners of India. This was, it is claimed, because he foresaw the arrival of Islam, long before it actually happened. This kind of storytelling feeds into the triumphalist frenzy that is much loved by Hindutva. Nationalists love it.
However, historians have challenged this claim. Based on evidence, they say that information about Adi Shankaracharya comes to us only 500 years after his time. They were written when the Vijaynagar Empire was on the rise, and its kings were fiercely resisting what they called ‘Turuku Dharma’ coming from the North.
As they defended ‘Hindu Dharma’ or the local way of life, they patronised scholars who began organising Hinduism as a unit, something for which there was no need before. This is the time that Bheda-abheda Vedanta rose, trying to give Hinduism a common conceptual framework, based on ideas of the Upanishads that were over 2,000 years old.
The hagiographies of Shankara were composed by Vedanta scholars who were actually challenging his ideas. Vaishnavas saw him as a Shaiva, others saw him as Shakta. Ramanuja, who formalised temple worship combining Vedanta with Bhakti with rituals even called him Crypto-Buddhist (Prachanna-Baudha) as Shankara’s Advaita preferred the formless divine (Nirguna) and did not differentiate between deity (bhagavan) and devotee (bhakta). Legends that Adi Shankaracharya established military ascetic organisations in North India have also been challenged as being invented later to legitimise these organisations.
Historians are often paid by government bodies. Therefore, historical research often aligns with certain political ideologies. For example, during the British era, historians claimed that Islamic culture destroyed Hindu culture. Historians in the post-Independence era tried hard to downplay the communal angle and focused on the good things Muslim rulers did. So, Muslim rulers were identified more as “Persianised Turks”, making their actions more ethnic, cultural and political rather than religious.
Historians have gone so far as to argue that Muslims did not break as many temples as the Hindus claim. These numbers are vastly exaggerated by folklore. They present cases where Hindu kings also broke into temples, almost justifying Muslim attack as the ‘norm’. Yet they ignore the wrath of the USA when two buildings were broken by Muslim fanatics. It justified the Gulf War and the destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan. Political memory and anger does not depend on logic, despite historian’s need to influence contemporary history.
Marxist historians see history as nothing but class struggle and so have successfully converted Hinduism in global academic circles into nothing but a hegemony to justify caste oppression. This naturally upsets elite Hindus who, in their hatred for historians, become eager supporters of Hindutva’s manufactured history.
Historians have unwittingly become activists who provide fodder to the woke, as they frame the past through the lens of inequality and oppression. No historian can say good things about Hinduism without being mocked by peers. You can only say good things about freedom fighters who valued secularism. Is that objective? Pakistani historians have to justify the Partition at any cost. Indian historians cannot.
To be fair, the same is true for historians in other nations too. No British child wants to be told his ancestors were colonisers. No American child wants to be told his ancestors were enslavers. No nation wants their children to be burdened with guilt and shame because historians want truth and reconciliation.