In Niti Central: Petrified History to Percipient History

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

In the first part of this series we described India as having an “accumulative” history versus other civilisations having maintained “discrete” histories. This key differentiator between India and other civilisations is an important factor to consider as India attempts to reassess its own history. For example, various western anthropological models of civilisations describe several phases of a civilization. They typically start with some description of a beginning and some description of a decay and then an ending.

India does not share that experience, because all ancient civilisations, with the exception of India, are akin to fallen trees petrified over the centuries. Petrification is a process that replaces the live cells of a tree with minerals that fossilize the cells and preserve the structure. Archaeological findings of ancient civilizations are in many ways similar to finding a petrified tree. Unlike a live tree, a petrified tree can be sliced and its rings counted to know how old the tree was when it died. A petrified tree also preserves the signature of the minerals that it absorbs when they replace the live cells providing critical information about the period of petrification; a dead civilisation provides answers that offer as much clarity as a petrified tree does.

Living History

However, India is a living civilisation, which has preserved the memory of ancient times across generations through the memory of people, stories and philosophical treatises. India’s unbroken continuity means that it is an ancient, but a live tree, like a banyan tree that has roots spread far and wide. Can a live Banyan tree answer a simple question as to how old it is? Can it even answer the question as to where the original trunk was? Perhaps, only if parts of the tree were petrified, like the sites near Saraswati and Kampil.

Absence of fossilized anthropological evidence does not indicate the absence of antiquity. The methodologies that are applied to study what died and preserved, have to differ from methodologies that are required to study a live civilisation. To find out what someone ate before they died, one can perform an autopsy and examine the contents of the stomach. What about a live person? Well – just ask what they ate. Therefore, studying Indian history needs a fundamentally new approach which has to be different from the study of dead fossilized civilisations. It needs to be analogous to asking a live civilisation “what do you remember?”

For example, if you ask the Rajasthanis on why their region is a desert, they would tell us that it is due to the disappearance of a mighty river which had once flowed through the region. Even though the river vanished several thousand years ago, the memory is preserved in folk songs and local traditions. If you had asked the people of Kampil, even before excavating, they would have told you that the mound in their village actually hid a fort. Much before satellite imagery found the paleo channels, Indians who had read the nadistuti sukta of the Rigveda would have told you that the location of Saraswati was between Yamuna and Sutlej.

India’s secret of this contiguous memory lies in the ability of the society to retell the stories across generations. The carriers of these memories were not political rulers, but society itself and these memories were carried across generations through folk songs, dances, stories and enactments of epics. This is very different from the concept of annals, or what is known as recorded or “official” history of events recorded by courts of kings. Thus, preservation of history in India was highly decentralised, yet, the themes of preservation were common.

Transfused History

Though India has a unique combination of diversity of language and culture, Indians are bound by a common thread of stories and traditions. Society achieved this by maintaining a section of the population who took the responsibility of rituals, as well as educating themselves in a broad category of subjects, that included stories and philosophical treatises. Additionally, pilgrimages to various “तीर्थस्थल were encouraged by ensuring that the lodging and boarding was free of cost. In return the guests would perform ceremonies, rituals, hold philosophical discussions, perform vedic recitations, and discuss stories and philosophies with their hosts. This not only allowed for a cross-pollination of ideas, concepts, and philosophies, but also of stories, best practices and the opportunity for selecting and sharing wisdom. This “transfusion” of ideas across regions, languages and peoples provided a unique paradigm in integrating Indian ethos while maintaining its diversity.

Just as a historian makes editorial selections in what goes in a history book, society, in combination with a culture that encouraged cross-pollination of ideas, made similar choices. What makes one story more important than other? Why preserve the memory of one event and not another?

Just as प्रकृति (prakriti) represents things that are impermanent, changing or evolving, संस्कृति (Sanskriti) defines सनातन (Sanatana – everlasting or immutable) ideas. Editorial selections were made based on what concepts were considered प्राकृतिक (Prakritic or impermanent) and what concepts were considered सांस्कृतिक (Sanskritic or immutable). If an event significantly affected the lives of people and the lessons learned were considered immutable, it got added to the stories worthy of preservation.

This automatically meant that western notion of civilisation, based on materialistic markers, were generally ignored in Indian ethos. Indians placed सभ्यता or civility above materialistic markers of civilisation. This relative prioritisation allowed Indians to identify stories that were worth preserving, without getting seduced by materialistic markers. This is exemplified in the story of Ram’s life, where the seeming prosperity of Ravana’s Lanka, with its multi-storied palaces and bejewelled and golden decor, are described in great detail. Yet, Ayodhya which had far less impressive materialistic markers in comparison to Lanka, was considered superior, because of the civility that existed in society that was free from Ravana’s oppressive regime.

These stories not only provided the audience with the tools to recognise what was worthy of cherishing, it also put a spotlight on the important concept that if power was centralised in the hands of oppressive regimes, civility would be adversely impacted. This knowledge that civility had indeed broken down in the past, in cyclical patterns, equipped Indians to look to their history for lessons that would enable them to overcome obstacles in the present.

Percipient History

With society’s ability to perceive, discern, discriminate and select what is remembered for posterity, Indic memories can therefore be best described as Percipient History. Percipient history depends on the preservation of what the society perceives is worthy of preservation. Petrified history is more about preservation of snapshots of discrete periods of history, which includes “historical records.” The process of keeping records was often undertaken by rulers, administrators and therefore represented the view of the state or institutions and not socie
ty. The concept of centralised study of Petrified history was forced upon India by the English. This was then propagated by historians who continued to be seduced by the beauty of material markers preserved as petrified civilisations, rather than the wisdom and perceptiveness of a living civilisation.

As India reassesses history, it needs to make a distinction between non-Indic petrified history and India’s percipient history. Indians also need to look at the unique style of Indian historiography, the goal of which was to extract empowering lessons which would benefit future generations without indulging in flagellation. We will look at this in the next part.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks Jayakrishnana for this very interesting and stimulating analysis. I think that one level we need more self-reflective instruments of analysis of Indian way of reasoning and logic and how that influences our indenoous understanding of history. At another level, we need to see how this understanding can be analysed and understood in terms of what you call petrified history, because that is the dominant framework of understanding the world today.

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