Lessons from Panchatantra – Artha

The evil jackal Damanaka meets the innocent bull Sañjīvaka. Indian painting, 1610.
The evil jackal Damanaka meets the innocent bull Sañjīvaka. Indian painting, 1610.

In the first book of Panchatantra, the merchant Vardhamana sets off from the city of Mahilaropya and has to abandon his bull, Sañjīvaka in the forest. This triggers a set of events involving a lion, Pingalaka, and two jackals, Karataka and Damanaka. Vardhamana considered various career paths and settled on inter-regional trade. In Panchatantra, Vardhamana is a role model, a man who had achieved great wealth due to his karma. A dharmic trader has to offer charity, donations, and construction of religious and civic amenities.

Besides becoming rich, a dharmic person has to generate additional wealth as well.

What has not been obtained should be obtained. What has been obtained, should be kept secure. What is kept secure, should be augmented and expended on the deserving. Even wealth that is protected according to the practices of the world can be suddenly lost due to various calamities. If wealth cannot be used when the occasion for it arises, then it is just as good as not having earned it. Therefore, protection, increase and use of the earned wealth should be done (Natural Enmity: Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra [Book 1])

This is illustrated using the example of collyrium (anjanam or kohl) and an ant hill. When you have a dabba of collyrium, a small quantity is used daily.  Soon, the dabba becomes empty. Contrast that with the ant hill. Every day, the ant contributes a little, but over time, it becomes – well, an ant hill. The niti shastra, advocates saving money and building capital. At the same time, it advocates against hoarding because all it takes is a natural calamity to destroy it.

Natural Enmity: Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra [Book 1] by Ashay Naik quotes

upārjitānām arthānāṃ tyāga eva hi rakṣaṇaṃ|
taḍāgodarasaṃsthānāṃ parīvāha ivāṃbhasāma||

[3.1] In order to protect the wealth that has been gained, one must let go of it like the outflow of water that is stagnant in a tank. Hoarded money is comparable to stagnant water – it becomes the harbinger of dregs and diseases. Like water, money should be constantly in circulation.

arthair arthā nibadhyante gajair iva mahāgajāḥ|
na hi anarthavatā śakyaṃ vāṇijyaṃ kartuṃ īhayā||

[3.2] Wealth attaches itself to wealth just as giant elephants to each other. Without outlay of capital, it is not feasible to practice commerce assiduously. Use money to make money. Wealth attracts wealth as – we have a nice ancient metaphor here – elephants attach to other elephants.

Panchatantra adds two more aspects of money management to the existing thought. Till those times, it was considered that one should acquire and protect wealth. But Panchatantra argues that one should consider the application and augmentation of wealth as well. Vanijya, cannot happen without capital investment.

In socialist India, before the economy was opened up in the early 90s, being wealthy had a bad connotation. Popular culture showcased the wealthy as people surrounded by henchmen and molls, roaring with laughter without any purpose who took special fascination to poor blind mothers. In Kerala, we took it one step further. These villains built their houses next to a pool housing hungry crocodiles, into which the hero would be dunked.

Gaining wealth is not bad. As per our tradition, it is part of one of the four purusharthas, along with dharma, kama, and moksha. The testimony to that is the graph below

The global contribution to world's GDP by major economies from 1 CE to 2003 CE according to Angus Maddison's estimates.[65] Up until the early 18th century, China and India were the two largest economies by GDP output.
The global contribution to world’s GDP by major economies from 1 CE to 2003 CE according to Angus Maddison’s estimates. Up until the early 18th century, China and India were the two largest economies by GDP output.

The graph shows the global contribution to world’s GDP by major economies from 1 CE to 2003 CE according to Angus Maddison’s estimates. Up until the early 18th century, China and India were the two largest economies by GDP output.

Once the enlightened Europeans took over, it was a disaster. This disaster was prolonged in 1947 by a family, who had no grounding in dharma. Vishnu Sharma wrote the Panchatantra to educate the foolish sons of a king. If only the fools, who crashed the country into a ditch had read any of this.

Revisionist History

Revisionist History by CREDIT - Bill Hudson, AP
CREDIT – Bill Hudson, AP

The above picture was taken in 1963, during a protest march for civil rights, in the United States. This was the time in history when Martin Luther King and his people were organizing sit-ins, boycotts, and marches to protest their oppression. They were looking for a means to turn public opinion in their favor by provoking the police.

They got their moment on that day in 1963. The protest march started at a church near the Kelly Ingram Park. Besides the protestors, there was a crowd to watch the march and police to control both of them. The police stood between the spectators and the protestors. And they had dogs. Then the dog, controlled by a white police officer, attacked one of the foot soldiers, an innocent looking black boy.

The picture became famous. Newspapers printed it above the fold. The President was asked about it; Congress discussed it; there were debates around the country. Eventually, the civil rights act was passed.

All of this was fine, except that the photo did not represent the reality. This was the topic of a recent Revisionist History podcast.

The boy in the picture was Walter Gadsden. He had skipped school and was walking to meet a friend when he saw the protests. He moved away from the marchers when he was attacked by the dog. In a later interview, Gadsden revealed that he had no connection to the civil rights movement. He was neither a participant nor a foot soldier. Also, the police officer had not unleashed the dog on the boy; he was trying to pull the dog away to save the boy.

There is a statue at the Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham which memorializes this incident. The dog attacking the boy scene has been immortalized; a powerful memory which people had chosen to preserve. The Podcast makes the case that even though that particular incident was technically wrong, the statue is an art (the dog turns into a wolf, the boy is falling down) needs to be seen as an interpretation.

Thus does it matter that the basis of the statue at Kelly Ingram Park was incorrect? Doesn’t it miss the big picture of what happened in 1963? Did police use dogs at that time? Sure they did. These kind of gotcha stories are an example of missing the forest for the trees. Societies which are not obsessed with these low-level details have ways to abstract the wisdom of events into stories which can be retold.

The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit is a best-selling book which explains how habits are formed and how you can develop good habits. According to the book, habits have three components (1) a cue (2) a routine and (3) a reward. For example, a cue could be the time 3 pm, the routine would be to go and find something sweet to eat, and the reward would be the joy. If you want to change the habit, you have to realize these components. After that, you can change by keeping the same cue and reward, but by changing the routine. Thus instead of downing chocolates, you can go for a walk. (Read a detailed review of the book or listen to a podcast with the author)

When I read the book, it felt as if I had seen this elsewhere, with more depth. So I went back to Patanjali’s Yogasutras with commentary by Swami Vivekananda.

First, Swamiji talks about how habits are formed. Imagine a lake. Each action we take is like a pulsation over the lake. Once the pulsation dies out, what remains are the impressions of those pulsations. When a large number of these impressions are left on the mind, it becomes a habit and it becomes our nature. If some good impressions remain, then we become good and if some wicked impressions remain, we become wicked.

Swami then talks about how to change bad habits. While Duhigg talks about replacing the routine with a different one, Yogasutras talks about replacing a bad habit with a counter habit. The base habits which are deeply ingrained in our mind automatically kick in every situation. The only way to change the base impressions on the mind is by doing good things, thinking holy thoughts and various other yoga practices. These help overwrite the base impressions with new ones, thus transforming you at a deeper level.

This transformation does not happen over night; it requires long continued practice. For example, when you start skiing, you will fall down a lot. Do you give up because others are making fun of you or do you have enough internal power to continue? Do the opinion of others control you or do you have mastery over yourself? Do you have enough vairagyam?

The drawback of Duhigg’s method is that once the cue happens, it can be strong enough to over power the mind. If the waves are strong, then you will not even realize you have carried out the routine; It might hit as a regret later. Thus you need to intercept the waves even before they become a swell. That requires transformation at a subtle level, that the practices mentioned in the Yogasutras can help.


The Self-Validating, Self-Sustaining Transcendental System

The best way of knowing something is through direct experience. You watch a beautiful sunrise and you feel joy. There is nothing here that deludes the senses. Another way is through inference. Observing that there is a distortion caused by some invisible object in space, astronomers infer that there is a black hole nearby. Though this is not direct perception, this seems like a perfectly rational way.

There is another way of knowing which is experiential. For example, yogis perceive certain truths by going beyond the mind. They profoundly alter their consciousness and experience heightened levels of insights. They experience knowledge beyond the senses and we consider them sacred. Raja Yoga has detailed descriptions of these experiences. The biographies of Sri M (See Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master) or Paramahamsa Yogananda contain experiences which would be considered blasphemy in dogmatic traditions.

This also gives an opportunity for charlatans to claim the same experience. Since it is the experience of one person, how can one validate it? Usually, when two of our perceptions do not contradict, that is proof enough, but here are talking about experiences beyond ordinary perceptions.

Rather than depending on a central authority, these systems are self-validating. There are few simple rules which can help to figure out if the person is making up things or if this is really a sacred experience. These are simple rules which long living civilizations can hold in their memory.

They are

  1. It should not contradict past knowledge in that tradition
  2. It must be true knowledge by someone who has transcended the senses.
  3. It depends on the character of the man
  4. This experience must be verifiable.
  5. He should not be selling this knowledge

In science, if a mass murderer like Stalin, makes a discovery, it is acceptable. That is not acceptable in dharmic traditions. The person has to be sattvic, following a well-established path (See No one does yoga anymore)

If someone says, this is an experience that only I can have and that the rest of us have to trust that, it has to be rejected. In scientific traditions, anyone should be able to have those experiences, provided they follow the right path.

Once we understand this, it is easy to figure out why there is so much hatred towards a decentralized, self-validating and self-sustaining tradition which has sustained for millennia. The fact that anyone can be divine goes against the only-one-divine-person-and-trust-him dogma. Belief in this dogma causes them to destroy anyone who does not believe so. (All in the name of “religious freedom”). Once you become a dogmatic prisoner of science too, you shut yourself from these possibilities by restricting yourself to what is directly perceived and inferred. Our mind and body are capable of much more.

Reference: Patanjali Yoga-Sutra by Swami Vivekananda (Kindle Edition – India, US)

No One Does Yoga Anymore

Yoga is a multi billion dollar industry in America and yet it has nothing to do with Yoga. In the 1970s, Neem Karoli Baba said that no one does Hatha Yoga anymore and the American Yoga industry proves just that. What Neem Karoli Baba said was Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s has steps to acknowledge our spiritual aspects and it assumes that you have completed two steps prior to embarking on the third one, which is Asana, which is what Yoga studios focus on.

The first two steps are Yama (ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya and aparigraha) and Niyama (Saucha, Samtosa, Tapas, Svadhyaya, Isvara pranidhana). Just look at the last item, Isvara pranidhana. According to Yoga journal, it is surrender to God (the one with the capital G). That’s their game. That’s not what Patanjali means though. He means Ishvara and not God. They both are not the same.

Swami Vivekananda writes that Ishvara has to be worshiped by praise, by thought and by devotion. Will atheists do that? But when you are getting a pie of the multi billion dollar cake, you don’t want to throw Yama and Niyama and Ishvara at your clients.

Ayodhya: Marxist Mischief

“The Ram temple is to a Hindu, what Mecca and Medina are to a Muslim. A Muslim cannot imagine both these places under the control of another religion. Muslims should feel the pain of a Hindu, whose religious places are under the control another religion, even though they live in a Hindu-majority country. Hindus believe Babri Masjid is Ram Janmabhoomi. This place has nothing to do with Prophet Muhammad. It relates only to Babar. So why should there be such a fight over this place?”

That was Archaeological Survey of India archaeologist K K Muhammed speaking to Indians which included SIMI supporters in Oman before 1992. He continued:

“When the Al-Aqsa Mosque or Bayt al-Muqaddas was taken over by the Jews, we Muslims of Kerala, met at our local mosque. We cried and prayed to Allah to return Bayt al-Muqaddas back to us. The pain that a Muslim felt when he lost Bayt al-Muqaddas, is the pain that a Hindu feels now. I am not talking about the modern, educated Hindus. I am talking about those Hindus, who in the freezing cold of North India, walk without shirt or shoes, just to have a glimpse of Rama. We should understand their pain and suffering.”

The crowd was silent. “After Independence, a separate country was created for Muslims. After that, India could have become a Hindu nation. But Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Azad did not do that. That shows their high level of thinking. For this, the man who walked in just a dhoti had to sacrifice his life.”

“Imagine if India was a Muslim majority country. Would it have been secular? No. If Hindus were given a separate country, the Muslim majority would not have declared India to be secular. This is the greatness of Hinduism. This is their tolerance. That is something we should understand and respect. If, instead of Hindus, India had some other religion as the majority religion, what would have been the state of Muslims? We should understand all this and make the right moves and only then a nation will become secular. This reverse thinking is required.”

Then someone asked. “If we return three sites back to Hindus, won’t they ask for more?”

Muhammed replied, “We are talking about compromise here. If such a thing happens, Hindus themselves will oppose it. Bajrang Dal, VHP, Ram Sena, such militant organizations don’t have support among Hindus”

The above speech and Muhammed’s role in the archaeology and politics of Ayodhya is mentioned in his autobiography ഞാനെന്ന ഭാരതീയൻ (Me, the Indian). His teacher at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) was Prof. Irfan Habib and besides learning history, Muhammed was also able to learn about the politics of historiography.

When the above meeting was over, some youngsters took Muhammed to a room and asked why he did not mention all of this to Syed Shahabuddin.

In fact Muhammed had mentioned this to Syed Shahabuddin. While working in Patna as an archaeologist, Muhammed had to deal with a BJP MP Jawahar Prasad, who wanted to expand a temple in an archaeological site. At that time, it was a BJP government at the center.Though it was risky opposing an MP belonging to that party, feeling the need to oppose what was not right, Muhammed fought against this move and succeeded. This won a commendation from Syed Shahabuddin and a subsequent meeting. When Muhammed bought up compromising on Ayodhya, Shahabuddin did not agree.

During this period there was confusion regarding the Ayodhya issue. Was the masjid really built over the Ram temple? Or were the Hindus making it up?

Muhammed writes that Marxist historians like S. Gopal, Romila Thapar, Bipin Chandra decided to lend their support to the Muslim extremists; they questioned the historicity of Ramayana; they wrote that there was no mention of the demolition of the temple till the 19th century; they started arguing that Ayodhya was a Buddhist-Jain center. The others of this group were Suraj Bhan (the only archaeologist), R. S. Sharma, Akhtar Ali, and D N Jha.

All of them testified as part of various government committees. The Babri Masjid Action Committee’s meetings were held under the leadership of Indian Council of Historical Research’s chairman, Irfan Habib. Prof. MGS Narayanan opposed this, but that had no impact. Muhammed believes that Irfan Habib did not want a solution to the Ayodhya problem. Anyone at ICHR who advocated reconciliation would be branded as a communalist following a familiar pattern.

But was there any need for this confusion? Muhammed did not think so. He knew because he was inside the Masjid in 1976 – 1977 as a student conducting studies under Prof. B. B. Lal. Then he saw 14 pillars of the temples which were made of Black Basalt. The base of these pillars had the 11th century style poorna kalasam, one of the eight symbols of prosperity. When they excavated the sides and the back of the Masjid, they found bricks which were the foundations of these pillars. On the basis of this, Muhammed was sure that a temple definitely existed. At that time, one one thought this would turn controversial.

Muhammed writes, he knows there were moderate Muslims who were willing to compromise and hand over the temple to the Hindus in the 1990s. Vishwa Hindu Parishad had taken a hard stance and some Muslim leaders thought if they returned the Masjid back, then VHP would not have any more issues to raise. That’s when Marxists got in the fray.

When historians and archaeologists formed two groups and were screaming at each other, Muhammed made the claim that he had seen evidence of the temple inside the mosque.This was published in all the Kerala editions of the Indian Express. Some congratulated him for speaking out. Some threatened him.

The Director General of ASI, MC Joshi asked Muhammed, how he could make a public statement on a controversial topic without permission, a crime for which he could be suspended.

Muhammed replied लोकसंग्रहमेवापि सम्पश्यन्कर्तुमर्हसि from the Gita (3.20)

RC, Tripathi, who was the Joint Secretary angrily asked, if Muhammed was teaching Sanskrit to an Allahabad Brahmin like him, to which he replied स्वधर्मे निधनं श्रेय: (3.35)

Tripathi calmed down and said, “there is lot of pressure to take action against you”. Muhammed said, he was aware, but he felt obliged to tell the truth. He got transferred to Goa instead of getting suspended.

Once Babri Masjid was demolished, evidence overflowed. The most important one was the Vishnu-Hari plaque. It had Sanskrit written in nagari script of the 11th century which proclaimed that the temple was dedicated to Vishnu who killed Bali and Ravana. YD Sharma and KM Srivastava during an 1992 study found murtis of various avatars of Vishnu and also of Shiva and Parvati dating to the Kushan period (100 – 300 CE). In 2003, the Allahabad High Court ordered an excavation and during that period, they found more than 50 platforms made of bricks. Finally, a total of 263 artifacts were found.

Based on this evidence Archaeological Survey of India concluded that there was indeed a temple below the mosque. Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court also came to the same conclusion.

What is interesting is how the Marxist historians behaved after the report came out. They started flip flopping. Muhammed says that the people who participated in the excavation as part of the Babri Masjid Action Committee were not archaeologists. Some of them had technical knowledge of archaeology, but no field experience. None of them were a match for the head, Dr. B R Mani.

Muhammed writes that while these historians created the narrative, the propaganda was disseminated by publications like Times of India which decided to publish these one sided accounts. Due to this, any chance of Muslims handing over Ayodhya over to Hindus was scuttled. Muhammed blames Marxist historians for destroying Hindu-Muslim unity in the country and making the country pay a big price for it.

Prof. Irfan Habib’s “Secularism”

Njannenna Bharatheeyan by K K Muhammed
Njannenna Bharatheeyan by K K Muhammed

Few decades back, at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Prof. Irfan Habib  summoned his former student and now faculty member K K Muhammed to his office.  Muhammed had discovered Ibādat Khāna in Fatepur Sikri. Built by Akbar in 1575 CE, the  Ibādat Khāna was the place where various religious scholars held discussions. A major discovery, this was reported in various newspapers, something which Prof. Habib was not too happy about. The conversation went as follows:

Irfan Habib: “This is not Ibādat Khāna”

Muhammed: “No? This is not Ibādat Khāna?”

IH: “What you gave in Times of India is not Ibādat Khāna”

M: “How can you say that? Are you an archaeologist?”

IH: “I may not be as good an archaeologist like you”

M: “Sorry, you are not an archaeologist.” Irfan Habib was speechless.

Habib pushed a paper to Muhammed and said, “write what you discovered is not Ibādat Khāna”. Muhammed refused and walked away.

After working both at AMU and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in various designations, K K Muhammed has now written an autobiography in Malayalam titled, ഞാനെന്ന ഭാരതീയൻ (Me, the Indian), which has details of his encounters with Prof. Habib and his cabal. As part of his education,  Mr. Muhammed learned how a historian becomes secular.

When Muhammed reached AMU as a student, he was initially excited to have someone as famous as Prof. Habib as his teacher. Muhammed recollects, “As a teacher, he did not make any impact on me.” His other classmates too had similar opinion. This news reached Habib’s ears. Muhammed ran for the Student’s Union as a Congressman. This too did not go well with the Marxists and they decided to contain him. This would cause various encounters between the Irfan Habib group and Muhammed and they are detailed in the first few chapters of the book.

Due to some Machiavellian maneuvers by the Marxists, Muhammed did not get admission as a researcher and hence opted for archaeology.  After completing his post-graduate diploma in Archaeology, he returned to AMU. He thanks Habib for blocking his path, because it led him to archaeology where he made a name for himself by discovering not just the  Ibādat Khāna, but also a Christian Church, Akbar had built for the missionaries.

The Marxist attack came in multiple ways. First, they tried to prove that the discovery was not Muhammed’s. That failed. The second attack claimed that if Muhammed had discovered this, then it could not be the Ibādat Khāna. Soon after that Habib became the Head of the Department and that’s when the direct confrontation mentioned earlier happened.

Muhammed was a Communist sympathizer, but what he encountered in the campus was a new form of it. The petty version. Muhammed writes that he could never get along with Irfan Habib.

Habib group could cause career damage. They controlled the purse strings: they could decide who got scholarships or who would be admitted as researchers.  If you were not part of his group, you were branded communal. Independent thinking was anathema. But if you joined his group, you became secular.

How a communalist turns
How a communalist turns “secular”

For this Muhammed cites the example of Prof. Ramachandra Gaur, with whom he worked. An enemy of Habib, Prof. Gaur was branded an RSS man. Once he became the Head of the Department, he changed his allegiance. Gaur also advised Muhammed that it was better to switch to Habib’s group for career advancement. Once Prof. Gaur joined the Habib group, he was considered “secular”. Muhammed says, he refused to follow Gaur’s example.

Another encounter he mentions, occurred in front of an interview panel consisting of among others, the Vice Chancellor and Habib. During the interview, the Vice Chancellor said he could not consider anyone for AMU, who did not respect Prof.Habib. Muhammed replied that respect has to be earned not demanded. He mentioned how a person who got less marks than him was admitted as a researcher. Another case was when someone with less marks and no Post-Graduate diploma was given the post of Asst. Archaeologist instead of him. Muhammed also had evidence against a false accusation that Irfan Habib had made. While Muhammed said all of this, Irfan Habib sat with his eyes down. Muhammed, writes, “His behavior towards me changed, but I was sure he would stab me at the first opportunity”

Muhammed writes that Prof. Habib preferred people who flattered him like Makkan Lal.  Prof. Habib tried to get Prof. Makkan Lal as the deputy director instead of Muhammed. When this was challenged by Muhammed in court, Makkan Lal became an ally of Irfan Habib. Muhammed writes, “Unholy alliances are short lived”. By the time of the World Archaeology Congress in Delhi, the Habib group and Makkan Lal group were openly fighting and in the  Babri Masjid dispute, Irfan Habib and Makkan Lal were on the opposite sides.

Muhammed was finally selected as the Deputy Superintending Archaeologist at the Archaeological Survey of India. According to Muhammed, Prof. Habib. met the Director General of ASI and asked him to reject Muhammed. The DG replied that it was a UPC selection and he did not have the power to reject it. Then Prof. Habib had one final request. Don’t post him in Agra. (What if he discovers something else). Muhammed was posted to Madras Circle. But he would visit AMU for lectures and then efforts were made to block them. The only place where they were successful in blocking him was at JNU (no big surprise there), but everywhere else Muhammed was able to speak freely.

In the foreward of the book, Prof M G S Narayanan, too writes about Prof. Habib. According to Prof. MGS, Prof. Habib  has poisoned, not just history, but culture and social life by his narrow groupism, nepotism and treachery. At the same time, he writes that Prof. Habib is a hard working person, but crafty. His group would threaten, cheat and would be part of various intrigues. Anyone who criticized this group would be branded a Hindutvavaadi and communalist. At the same time, Prof. MGS says, Prof. Habib is not an Muslim Fundamentalist. He is not sure, even if he is a believer. Prof. MGS attributes this group for making Babri Masjid a national issue.

According to Muhammed, it was during the Babri Masjid time that his mask of secularism came off. As the head of a government body (ICHR), he should not have taken sides in the dispute. People saw this as an effort to to increase his influence by taking sides with the Muslim side in the dispute. The one historian who had to courage to say that the head of ICHR should not take sides in the dispute was Prof. M G S Narayanan. Prof. MGS initially had a great opinion of Prof. Irfan Habib. He even disagreed with Muhammed on his opinion of Prof. Habib, Once Prof. MGS worked with Prof. Habib in ICHR, he realized that truth of Muhammed’s statements. Not being able to work with Irfan Habib, he left ICHR. Very soon Prof. MGS was branded with the Hindutva label.

These are just few select incidents from the first few chapters of the book. It is these petty people who get to define Indian history on  if a Ram temple existed or if Saraswati flowed in India or in Afghanistan (see The Lost River). This is the price for continuing the British practice for having an “official” history. We have become bystanders while our history has been hijacked by Marxists  like Prof. Irfan Habib.

Preserving Long Term Memories

Penelope questions Odysseus to prove his identity (by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1801)
Penelope questions Odysseus to prove his identity (by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1801)

Here are few incidents that baffle the mind.

In Odyssey, Odysseus reaches home a decade after the Trojan war to find his wife Penelope being harassed by unruly suitors. Disguised as a beggar, he figures out the suitors’ intention and decides to act. In Book 20, the seer Theoclymenus warned the suitors, “The sun from out the heavens is lost, And clouds of darkness rushing spread.” Plutarch and Heraclitus, thought this line was a reference to a solar eclipse.

Using other astronomical data points in the Odyssey, scholars computed the date of the eclipse, which was total over the Ionian islands, to be April 16, 1178, B.C.E. Another recent attempt, using off-the-shelf planetarium software, came to the same conclusion. The question became this: if the poets who composed Odyssey lived five centuries after the eclipse, how was the memory preserved?

The second mystery comes from Australia. 21 disparate aboriginal groups talk about a time when the Australian coastline was inundated with rising sea levels. For example, the Narrangga tribe remembers a time when they could catch kangaroo and opossum when the area they were living was dry land. Mapping the references in the story to the geography, it was clear that the water level before the flooding was way below the present values. The conclusion by scientists: these memories were of a flooding that happened 7000 years back.

There are many incidents from India, but the one from Rig Veda is apt for the third one. In forty-five hymns, the rishis praised Sarasvati; for them, she was ‘great among the great, the most impetuous of rivers’, ‘limitless, unbroken, swift-moving’ and ‘surpasses in majesty and might all other waters.’ The location of the river is clearly specified in the Nadistuti sukta. The Sarasvati no longer flows as a majestic river, but the memories of it are alive, 4000 years after it dried up.

Going back to the first incident, scholars investigating the Odyssey mystery – how the memory of a distant event was transmitted over centuries — were puzzled. This violated a commonly held theory that oral transmissions lose fidelity after 500 – 800 years. In the Odyssey case, evidence pointed otherwise. Then there was another complication. Greeks were not known to be astronomically inclined during that time period. Looking for alternative explanations, scholars came up with a hypothesis. It is possible that the Babylonians, who were astronomical enthusiasts observed another eclipse in 1124 B.C.E, computed the trajectory of the eclipse that happened in 1178 B.C.E. and transmitted that information back to the Greeks.

The Technique

Convoluted explanations are not always the most elegant ones. The tyranny of simpler explanations suggests that there were techniques obvious to residents of traditional societies with deep civilizational ethos which can explain the preservation of memories over long periods of time.

Memories are preserved when societies have the ability to retell stories across generations and remain unaffected by military, religious and cultural assaults. Indigenous traditions have foundational ways — through stories, art, ritual — to preserve knowledge. Textual studies won’t reveal the secrets; these have to be experienced.

Native Australians had intimate knowledge of the lands they inhabited and the sea that surrounded them. Their authority figures passed that knowledge to the next generation through songs, stories and by recording them on totems. The stories were memorable like the Panchatantra or Hitopadesa. One tribe remembers a giant kangaroo and how its actions caused the flood; another tribe remembers a man who chased his wives and caused the sea to drown them; a third remembers a man who called on the sea to drown a woman stealing wattle gum. At any point, three generations were aware of these unforgettable tales. Similarly, it is possible that the Greeks too preserved it using the same mechanism.

While stories are imprecise and can change based on the story teller, the Vedic tradition has ensured large-scale precise oral memorization of the text over thousands of years. Despite invasions, colonization and desecration, these traditions are alive with thousands of students still learning Sanskrit literature, grammar, logic, philosophy and other subjects. In Sanskrit schools students spends time with a guru up to ten hours a day for a minimum of seven years, memorizing the Vedas. The guru ensures that the student strictly follows the conventions of body movement and arm gestures and articulation. Finally, the student’s mastery of the complex topic is rigorously tested.

This memorization affects brain plasticity as well. A recent paper published a study on the brains of Vedic pandits who have done extensive scriptural studies. Researchers found that the Pandit brains had massive gray matter density and cortical thickness increase in language, memory and visual systems as well as regions associated with long term and short term memories. The gestures — arm, wrist and hand movements — too had significance in learning. Due to these techniques, the memories of the homeland of the rishis who composed the Rig Veda, which has been along the banks of Sarasvati has been preserved unchanged despite the efforts of Eminent Historians to prove otherwise.

The Perils

These techniques have their weakness. Look back 500 – 800 years and it is obvious why memories got erased in that span. Enlightened Europeans, in the name of the God, Gold, King, and Queen, successfully conducted genocide against native populations around the world. Before that monotheism spread violently, pulverizing societies, while advocating love and peace. Many societies were conquered and cleansed. The conquerors imposed their story over the conquered. In some cases, the conquerors adopted the story of the vanquished and modified them to suit their framework.

A simple strategy the colonialists and invaders followed was to rename places, persons or objects to unlink them from the past. During World War I, the British Army with Indian soldiers was advancing towards Salman Pak, outside Baghdad. This place was the resting place of one of Muhammad’s companions. The Ottomans used that effectively to incite enemy soldiers. They printed pamphlets calling on Indian Muslims to leave the British Army and join fellow Muslims in the Ottoman Army. Fearing the impact Salman Pak could have on the soldiers, the British started referring to the place by its Sassanid name, Ctesiphon. In a similar vein, but not for similar reasons, Sargamatha became Mt. Everest, Shivanolipatha Malai became Adam’s Peak and Ram Setu became Adam’s bridge. Chennai became Madras, Thiruvananthapuram got anglicised, along with many other places.

The British dealt with this cleverly in India. They established centralized institutions and used that to launch attacks on Indic ethos. Their pen-wielding mercenaries replaced unique memories with “official history”. 1947 came; the English left and the Indians who took over, who had no idea about the Indic ethos, continued the same tradition. You cannot talk about Saraswati without getting a sign off from an Eminent Historian. They would decide if there was a Ram Temple. The society became bystanders while people whose salaries depended on them not understanding India became authority figures.

It was not any better in other countries. While the native Australians remember an ancient flood and ancient Greeks, an eclipse, most of their memories have been erased. They live on the ruins of forgotten and superseded civilizations. The Australian genocide by the settlers have wiped most of the natives; the Greeks no longer follow the religion and culture of their ancestors.

Sites of Harappan Civilization along the path of Sarasvati
Sites of Harappan Civilization along the path of Sarasvati

Despite all the trauma that the decentralized memories survive. Each society chose the memories it wanted to preserve, cross-pollinated it with other concepts and came up with paradigms for preserving it. They never outsourced the validation and preservation of the memories to central institutions regardless of their merit. Despite destroying temples and converting people, the memories survived.

Compared to any other country, India is the only place where there is an unbroken continuity between the land, the people and their stories that have been narrated across generations. Despite the propaganda by the colonials and Eminent Historians, Indian society and families practice traditional pursuits and maintain a culture that represents the unbroken narrative of India. Over time Indian society continued to reject what was taught in classrooms because it had little correlation with the culture that they lived in. Thus when Irfan Habib says that Saraswati is an imaginary river, people instinctively feel that he is pulling a quick one. This skepticism prevented the centralized monolithic machinery from gaining wide acceptance in Indian society, thus shielding India’s ethos of decentralized history. But for our memories to be preserved and transmitted, we should not remain bystanders and let centralized history writers decide what needs to be preserved.

Briefly Noted: The Black Widow by Daniel Silva

The Black Widow by Daniel Silva
In the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, SS colonel Hans Landa or the “Jew Hunter”, reaches the home of a French dairy farmer looking for a Jewish family. The next few minutes are a typical Tarantino scene, where you know the end is not going to be good. For leaving his family alone, the farmer betrays the Jewish family hiding in his basement.

From the Dreyfus Affair (recently retold in An Officer and a Spy) to World War II and beyond,  Jews were never safe in France. Even now France is seeing a rise in antisemitism and an increase in aliyah. Daniel Silva’s The Black Widow starts with a bomb explosion in the Marais district of Paris, known for its large Jewish population. When the French find out that ISIS (“ISIS gave purpose to lost souls and promised an afterlife of eternal copulation“) is responsible for the attack, they request the help of Gabriel Allon, who is going to be Israel’s next intelligence chief. The only data point they know is that a man known as Saladin is responsible for this attack. They neither know his real name nor his nationality. To find out the real identity of Saladin, they need someone who can infiltrate ISIS.

Among all the books of Daniel Silva, this is probably the best. While rest of them are thrillers, this one grips you because of two things. One, he deals with a real problem and how the world is reacting to that. While the book was written prior to the Paris attacks, it resembles real events that happened recently.He ridicules President Obama, who called ISIS, al-Qaeda’s jayvee team and also people who call ISIS as un-Islamic.

Here is a paragraph from Greame Wood’s article in The Atlantic

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.[What ISIS Really Wants]

Second, the book does not have much sub plots and hence the main plot grips you. Silva’s book ends with an attack on the American soil by ISIS sleeper cells and that is a real fear.

Briefly Noted: Jade Dragon Mountain: A Mystery by Elsa Hart

Jade Dragon Mountain: A Mystery (Li Du Novels) by Elsa Hart
Early in the 17th century, the English were trying to get a foothold in India as traders with the visit of Thomas Roe to Jehangir’s court. In China, at around the same time, the Ming dynasty was getting replaced by the Qing dynasty. The world was changing, not just in terms of a dynastic change, but also in terms of Western religious and economic imperialism. Jesuits and Dominicans were wandering around China looking for converts. The English East India company was also looking for a way to gain foothold in the country. (The Virginia Company was already setting the template for destroying native civilizations in the America)

In Elsa Hart’s work of historical fiction set in this period, a Jesuit priest is found murdered in the town of Dayan near Tibet. The magistrate of the town does not want this incident to upset the celebrations that have been planned for  Emperor Kangxi, who is visiting shortly. There are many suspects – the Dominicans, the trader from the Company, the library clerk, the first lady, the Tibetans and a wandering story teller — who have their own secrets. While the magistrate is happy to ignore the incident, his cousin Li Du is not. An imperial librarian and now an exile, he  happened to be in the magistrate’s house when the murder happened and will not rest till the mystery is solved.

The book is interesting in the way any historical fiction is. It gives an introduction to an interesting phase of Chinese history. It brings out the transition from Ming to Qing very well and also the way the Tibetans are treated. The details in the story gives a good feel for Chinese culture and social norms. The story follows the three act structure very well, but the intensity of the transitions is timid. There is no violence, or torture or gruesome deaths, thus making it different from most other historical fiction. In a book market where historical fiction focuses mostly on the Western world, this book is a welcome change.