In Niti Central: Empowering history, no flagellation

(This was co-authored with Parag Tope, the author of Tatya Tope’s Operation Red Lotus and originally published at Niti Central)

Flickr via Ujjwol Lamichhane

Whether one evaluates petrified history or percipient history, the practical benefit of studying history is only as relevant to how that knowledge helps the present and the future. Therefore, thestudy of history must achieve two goals:

  1. Learn from positives by identifying success – things done right.
  2. Learn from failures by identifying mistakes – things gone wrong.

Modern, rather European or Western narrative of history, attempts to achieve the same goals, however, these methods are constrained by their own narrow paradigms:

Institutions, not society, are primarily responsible for “official” history

Narratives are based on a linear time-frame, absolute time lines and display an obsession to date everything

Materialistic markers and dating are used to competitively rank petrified civilisations

A western sense of civility (or an absence thereof) determines identification of “things gone wrong.” This “civility” is on fully display in highly flagellating what-if analyses, name calling, character assassinations and finger pointing.

Western methodologies for history are consistent with their polity – where institutions and state dominate over the lives of people. This is not only true today, but was true during Roman and Greek periods as well. Therefore it is not uncommon to find semi-hagiographic records of anyone associated with those institutions forming the basis of “historical records”. For example, we have a good idea about Plato’s lineage, how he got his name and who his siblings were while we have scarce information on where Aryabhata was born, who his parents were or who his teachers were.

If the goal is to learn from the positives and avoid repeating mistakes, how do dates and lineages matter? Analytical processes have their place in any intellectual framework, however, when it comes to history, why are absolutes important? The answer becomes clear if one attempts to understand the roots of western ethos, polity and a progressive, linear view of time.

Progress versus the कालचक्र (Kaalachakra – wheel of time)

This linearity lends itself to a near obsession with the concept of “progress”. However, this obsession with progress is matched by the equally strong fear of the impending apocalypse. From a western intellectual framework, the past petrification does indeed offer lessons about their own imminent future. Western ethos, rooted in fear of the apocalypse, recognizes that their future could be leading down the path of destruction. Every few decades, Europeans and Westerners, both from the ‘religious right’ and the ‘progressive left’, claim that the world is going to end soon, because humans are sinners or polluters.

In that framework, these lessons are indeed relevant and therefore desire introspection. Thus, the Western obsession to date every event is also understandable. If doomsday is coming, would it not make sense to predict as to when it is coming? Consequently, Western methodologies are appropriate to prevent a destruction that their religious texts, or scientific fears, claim is impending.

Western timelines are stratified into various ‘ages’ indicating a certain linear progression. Thus when the English invented Indian history, it was conveniently split into a Hindu age, Buddhist age, Muslim age and a British age. Indian ethos operates differently. Indians never looked upon time as linear, but cyclical and in that context the need to date everything is considered a fool’s errand.

Similarly, India’s percipient history is primarily about learning from the positives and therefore, Indic memories present a large number of positive role models. The best practices are preserved by recognizing the “things done right” and by identifying those who did the right things and placing them on a pedestal.

Constraints of Civility and Historical Amnesia

What about mistakes and “things gone wrong”? Indic memories clearly place the heroes of a story on a pedestal – be it Vishnu or Durga in their various Avatars. The antagonists, those who are the cause of the imbalance, driven by ego or ambition to lord over others, like Ravana and other Asuras, are explicitly assailed. However, Indic memories display a selective amnesia of the names of all those who either blundered, betrayed, or made bad choices, which enabled the antagonists becoming powerful in the first place. For example, the stories of the growth of Ravana’s empire offer little information of the kings he defeated. Is it possible that during the period of Ravana’s expansion, there might have been kings who either made strategic blunders or were bribed, bought or beaten?

Indic civility or सभ्यता clearly discourages finger pointing or flagellation. This easily explains why Indic memories are amnesic when it comes to offering lessons learned that involve any sort of finger pointing at any historical person, persons or even citizens who might have made mistakes that led to further failures.

If stories of defeat were editorially eliminated, because civility could not accommodate finger pointing, how did Indians learn from their mistakes? Is Indic civility or सभ्यता a curse that prevented Indians from truly learning from failures? Were ancient Indians in their desire to be civil, fail to preserve the lessons learned for posterity?

There are two possibilities:

  1. Yes – the absence of finger pointing does indeed indicate that Indic memories fail in providing the lessons learned for later generations.
  2. No – Ancient Indians were able to solve the problem and overcome the “constraint of civility” by preserving the lessons learned without pointing fingers.

Those who are stuck in a linear apocalypse-fearing western mindset would choose the first option.

Consider the other possibility. Is it possible to separate the lessons learned from the primary story and the characters who blundered? Does naming the individual who blundered have any importance in learning from their mistakes?

Dispersive History

The answer is Dispersive History – where events of relevance, like light passing through glass, are filtered through a prism of Indic ethos and “dispersed” into relevant buckets for consumption by generations to come.

Dispersive history splits important events four ways:

The protagonists are named and are placed on a pedestal.

The antagonists are named and denounced.

Mala fide actions, that remain a part of human failings that includes corruption and betrayal, offer no new lessons. Those who might have been bought or betrayed are ignored and their names forgotten with time.

Bona fide mistakes are encapsulated as lessons learned in abstracted form. The names and sometimes even the species are changed to avoid direct finger pointing. This is history with pseudonymous characters which can be described as abstracted pseudonymous history.

The stories in हितोपदेश (Hitopadesha – good advice), the पंचतन्त्र (Panchatantra – five principles) or the philosophical observations made in poetic form in the सुभाषित (subhashitas – “well said” ideas) – are abstracted observations with pseudonymous characters, that were likely to have been inspired from real events. The names or the specifics in the stories are far less relevant than the lessons themselves.

For example, a king who was seduced by rhetoric and ignored obvious red flags in an alliance with another king, could have easily inspired the story told in the हितोपदेश (good advice) of the “old tiger and the greedy traveler”. Or citizens of a country that were seduced by free handouts of a seemingly benign, but oppressive ruler, could have inspired the story of the “doves, the hunter, the grains of rice, and a mouse.” The story of how a weak, but clever king who used the power of an ally to defeat an enemy could have formed the basis for the panchatantra story काकस्य उपायः ( kaakasya Upaayah – A Crow’s Solution).

Furthermore, children were exposed to these stories early in life – so that they could grow up with these lessons. As adults, they could recognise the traps that their ancestors might have fallen into – and learn to avoid them. This helped achieve the second goal of historical analysis, with without any flagellation or sacrificing the civility that defines Indic ethos.

This way of preserving stories for posterity is another distinctive feature of India. These stories were important in the lessons they taught, but simple enough that it was both entertaining and could be communicated easily irrespective of the age and educational background of their listeners. Some of these stories were even simplified into common sayings which are used in everyday conversations even today.

How do you use this understanding of Indian historiography to alter the way history is taught was written in India? In the final part of this series, we offer some suggestions. We would also like to invite the readers to make suggestions in this regard. The final part of the series which consists of few general and specific recommendations will be published a month later based on the comments and feedback we receive.

5 Comments

  1. Indians live only in contemporary times. The cannot comprehend past glory or future events. That is why even in sociology they extrapolate they contemplate current social set up to five thousand years. India’s social problems will be solved if we abolish history itself and in place of history everybody should be given training in some trades. INDIAN HISTORY IS A MIRAGE.Let us not waste our time in chasing MIRAGE.

  2. Nice series. The explanation on petrified vs living was novel to me. Have been thinking about how to approach history. Could think of two :

    1) Bottom-up approach:

    Lots of local history is embedded in the various modes.

    example a: I have heard of a annual festival by a community in Senji (in Tamilnadu, aglicised as Gingee) that enacts the Mahabharata as a play in which all the community members participate. In this enactment, they have added incidents related to a migration of their community.

    example b: Abdul Kalam in his “Wings of Fire” talks about a forefather of having saved the uthsava murthy of Ramanathaswami from drowning during the theppam festival in Rameshwaram. To commomerate his commitment, his family is being honored every year during the annual theppam festival.

    There are many such histories embedded in the day to day life. These local histories could be systematically recorded.
    It is irritating to hear “indians do not have a sense of history” as if it was the universal truth. Indian Historians are not looking at the right place for historical records. There is so much of it in oral traditions. One could dig into it.

    2) Top-down approach:

    This map draws up the various broad cultural regions of india.
    http://im.rediff.com/news/2013/jul/30map2.jpg
    it has some 50 odd distinct cultural regions.

    There should be 50 odd centres of history based in each of these 50 odd regions. That could help in the decentralization.

    View and research Puranas and Upa-puranas as records of history. The “historians” consider Puranas as unreliable. I was shocked when I first heard it. May be not all things in the Purana can be taken at face value. But it still has historical references. They need to researched.

  3. @Tamilkelvan. I suppose that JK should give up writing. And you should stop wasting your time here. Small steps in abolishing history. Giant step for solving contemporary social problems.

    Aside. I disliked history (and geography) textbooks in high school because they were so dull. However, the kind of history on History Channel, and movies like National Treasure and Night at the Museum etc show how far ahead the young American nation is in this !

  4. If the goal is to learn from the positives and avoid repeating mistakes, how do dates and lineages matter? Analytical processes have their place in any intellectual framework, however, when it comes to history, why are absolutes important? The answer becomes clear if one attempts to understand the roots of western ethos, polity and a progressive, linear view of time

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