Author: Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay.
History as it is
In Indian history curriculum, Emperor Ashoka is an important figure, being the only other emperor in India apart from Akbar to have received the honorific “Great”. The following is an excerpt on Ashoka from a typical NCERT history text book used in Indian schools. The book is called “Our Past – I” and is a prescribed textbook for History for Class VI.
Ashoka was one of the greatest rulers known to history and on his instructions inscriptions were carved on pillars, as well as on rock surfaces.…. Ashoka’s dhamma did not involve worship of a god, or performance of a sacrifice. He felt that just as a father tries to teach his children, he had a duty to instruct his subjects. He was also inspired by the teachings of the Buddha. There were a number of problems that troubled him. People in the empire followed different religions, and this sometimes led to conflict. Animals were sacrificed. Slaves and servants were ill-treated. Besides, there were quarrels in families and amongst neighbors. Ashoka felt it was his duty to solve these problems. So, he appointed officials, known as the dhamma mahamatta who went from place to place teaching people about dhamma.
Let us try to understand the impact of the above text on the minds of young children who have just started learning about India’s past. He or she will conclude that:
- Ashoka was India’s greatest emperor
- Ashoka was inspired by Buddha’s teachings
- Hinduism was full of backwardness and superstitions.
- Hindus sacrificed animals
- Hindus practiced slavery
- People quarreled with each other.
- There was discontent and strife everywhere
What are some other things that are taught in history curriculum from Class VI through Class X? We learn that:
- Indus Valley civilization was an egalitarian and advanced society
- Their script is still unknown but it was definitely not Sanskrit
- Aryans invaded India around ~ 1500 BCE and subdued the natives
- They were different from the Indus people
- Hinduism is riddled with social problems like caste system and gender inequality
- Brahmins oppressed other classes
- Ramayana and Mahabharata are myths
- Medieval Hindu kings always fought with each other
- Turkish and Mughal conquerors defeated Hindu kings
- Islamic rule united us and gave rise to Hindustan
- The Mughal era was a golden age
- Later the British then created India by uniting warring states
- Gandhi and Nehru gave us independence using peaceful non-violence protests
For 4 to 5 years, such pre-dominantly negative ideas about India’s past and its Vedic roots, are continuously drilled into young impressionable minds till their Class X board examinations. Some of them take up history as a subject for their graduation. Some pursue PhD’s in various aspects of Indian history and some become Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officers, representing Indians in India and abroad.
Nothing positive or uplifting is taught about India. India’s monumental achievements in the areas of science, mathematics, astronomy, grammar, logic, mind sciences, warfare and administration are missing from today’s curriculum. Instead what we find is blatant Hinduphobia disguised as secular scholarship, perpetuated through tropes likes “Buddhism Good, Hinduism Bad”, “Islamic egalitarianism”, “syncretic culture”, “scientific spirit” and so on.
Many free-thinking people as well as those aligned with India’s right-wing demand a re-writing of history. They claim, and rightly so, that history curriculum is inherently biased in that it suppresses Hindu contributions, trivializes the Kshatriya valour of Hindu kings, whitewashes the atrocities of Muslim kings and British, and unnecessarily glorifies the Islamic as well as Nehruvian secular period.
School children who are indoctrinated with such poison, at worst detest their Vedic heritage, and at best are indifferent to their past. In my experience, most of those who go on to study history of India as a subject become the strongest critiques of India and Indian culture. India continues to be misunderstood and misrepresented in the global arena, because the English-speaking elite representing India have no sympathy for India and its traditional past. The IAS and IFS folks who are supposed to represent India at home as well as abroad are notorious for their disdain of any underlying unifying Indian grand narrative and many in fact even question the legitimacy of the Indian state.
Therefore many Indians see re-writing of history as a panacea for all our civilizational woes. Their reasoning is that if correct history is taught, our children will not grow up hating our heritage. They will be proud Bharatiyas who will learn not only about wars we have lost, but also those we have won. They will learn not only about Sati and caste but also about India’s various scientific and mathematical achievements. But here is where things start becoming murky. What is “correct history”? Who defines correctness? Do children really need to know about Sati or caste or women oppression? If so, what is the best way to teach that? Should children learn about the savagery of Mahmud Ghazni? Won’t this then not create a Hindu-Muslim fissure? All such difficult questions need to be first addressed, and in my view reaching a consensus on such issues will be exceedingly difficult. Moreover there will be vehement opposition from various political parties, caste groups, women’s rights activists, eminent historians, sociologists, public intellectuals and liberals.
But more important than all that is the question, can history be changed at all?
A Brief Philosophy of History
To answer the question, we should first understand what history is, what its underlying theoretical assumptions are, and what its intended social consequences are meant to be. This will help us understand whether history can even be changed at all – because if history cannot be changed, no amount of revisionism will help. Therefore we need to have a solid understanding of the philosophy of history to even think about attempting to revise history. I will briefly summarize some of the core tenets and their implications in this section.
Philosophy of history as a discipline officially starts with the Greek philosopher, Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c. 484-425 BCE) who wanted “to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the marvelous achievements both of the Greek and non-Greek peoples; and more particularly, to show how the two races came into conflict.” Thus the study of history as an intellectual discipline has a well-defined starting point in time and is rooted in the notion of conflict. An important point to be noted is that, philosophy of history as a discipline in the west, starts much after itihasa as a subject, was formalized in India.
The next stage of the philosophy of history is the rise of religious practice of sacred-history in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic worlds where the past was “not studied for the sake of disinterested truth, but in the hope of attaining a glimpse of the bond between the divine plan and a given people’s course in the world”. An important figure in this tradition is Augustine (354-430) who “emphasized the linearity of history as a part of the Christian eschatology, the necessary unfolding of God’s eternal plan within a temporally-ordered course of history”.
The next major figure is Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) who is the first person to be officially called the philosopher of history. He postulated that the history of all nations moves through different epochs in which humans evolve mentally:
- Age of Gods, where people think they are governed by the divine
- Age of Heroes, where larger-than-life kings and generals govern the people
- Age of Men, where people are guided by equality and justice
Antoine-Nicolas de Condorcet (1743-1794), was a very influential French philosopher who greatly influenced the works of Saint-Simon, Hegel, and Marx. He viewed history not merely as a description of progress but also as a predictive tool to be used by political institutions to bring about equality.
“The historian is no mere critic of his time, but also a herald of what is to come.”
Next we come to one of the most influential figures in the philosophy of history, G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831). The very subject of philosophy of history is often considered synonymous with his scholarship on the same. Hegel viewed history as a process of unfoldment or movement towards greater rational freedom. Hegel divided human history intro three epochs of movement from freedom to greater freedom:
- Public freedom and citizenship of Roman Republic
- Individual freedom of the Protestant Reformation
- Civic freedom of modern state
He postulated that in the ancient eastern civilizations, only the despot was free. Ordinary people had no liberty and were subservient to state and religion, and it was under the influence of the west and especially Christianity that the ideals of freedom percolated to the rest the world.
It is only in the intertwining of the Christian recognition of the sanctity of life and the modern liberal definition of morality as inherently intersubjective and rational that guarantees freedom for all. “It was first the Germanic Peoples, through Christianity, who came to the awareness that every human is free by virtue of being human, and that the freedom of spirit comprises our most human nature”.
What history means for us
Conflict: The theme of conflict is an essential aspect of history which continues till modern times in different avatars. Marxist view of history is based on class conflict. Subaltern view of history is based on the conflict between subalterns and a majoritarian hegemonic state. It will thus not be unreasonable to say that there can be no history without conflict. Thus when Indian history was being written during the 19th-20th century, before the discovery of Indus Valley civilization, the starting point of Indian history was assumed to be a violent conflict between the so-called Aryans and the natives of India.
Linearity: The theme of linearity has been an essential aspect of history from early on. Vico formalizes this idea by presenting history as a progressive movement from backwardness to reason. The corollary is that those societies or nations which cannot be classified into the different ages are not part of history. Before Europeans came to Americas, Native Americans had no history so to speak since they were languishing in the age of Gods. Their history officially starts with the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus and their encounter with western style progress. Similarly, Indian history essentially began when Nordic/ Germanic/ Central Asian Aryans invaded India and gave them the tools for progress. Prior to that for tens of thousands of years, Indians were living in a static ahistorical limbo.
Predictability: An important idea of historical studies is the idea of universal predictability and inevitability. What has worked in one nation state or civilization at some historical period must also work in another nation state or civilization. Because ultimately all those who participate in the march of history must follow similar paths. This goes against the very idea of karma as understood in Hinduism. We don’t have any such notions of predictability, and that is seen in the famous message of Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita: “You have right only to action and not to its results” (Gita 2.47).
Racism: Prejudice against eastern civilizations is built into the very fabric of history as a discipline. Hegel was openly critical of Indian and Chinese civilization. He regarded them as static and therefore pre-historical. Moreover his very framing of the philosophy of history was based on supposed superiority of Germanic people and Christianity.
Incidentally the word India or Hinduism does not occur even once in the article “Philosophy of History” that I have referred to above extensively.
History is an inherently biased discipline. It is a racist western enterprise and relies on philosophical ideas which are diametrically opposite to the core tenets of Hinduism.
It is therefore no wonder that Indians and especially Hindus find our history (which is written using the framework explained earlier) to be biased and Hinduphobic. Because that is exactly how history is supposed to be studied and written. Thus the very notion of re-writing or revision of history is, in my opinion, ludicrous and a non-starter.
What we need is an ALTERNATIVE to history and NOT an alternate history.
One of the alternatives that we have right now is itihasa. However in my opinion we must look beyond itihasa. While itihasa has served its purpose well to bind Hindus together for thousands of years, we must realize that itihasa as a discipline developed before history and certainly far before the advent of Christianity and western civilization and its myriad ideologies. Thus itihasakara-s never had a chance to conduct a purva-paksha of history, and develop new siddhantas in response to newer ideologies.
Our experts of today must systematically interrogate the philosophy of history, and develop an alternative siddhanta which helps us make sense of our past and teaches us how to use it to shape our future, but at the same time make history irrelevant.
Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay is a civilization studies researcher with a background in data science. His writings on culture, philosophy and economics have appeared in various newspapers, online platforms and academic journals. He has authored two monographs titled “The Complete Hindu’s Guide to Islam” and “Ashoka the Ungreat“, and is a recipient of the Foundation for Indian Civilization Studies award for 2017.