Contending Paradigm of Indian History: Did India lack historical agency? – Shivaji Singh

Prof Shivaji SinghAum dhidhampchetinyaii  shabdabrahmaswayambhuve.
Bhagavatyaii saraswatayaii bhuyo bhuyo namoh namah.

As you all know, history is indeed very important. As a major portion of collective social memory and as a significant segment of effective social psyche, history acts as vehicle of culture and civilization from generation to generation. History of a people shapes and defines the people’s social identity. It invariably provides lessons to learn from past experiences, and acts as a source of morale in times of distress. This is why a continued presence of a positive historical consciousness is considered to be essential for any living and vibrant society.

Unfortunately, however, today in India, history is unable to play its expected useful role of keeping the people emotionally integrated and psychologically buoyant and proud of their heritage. Instead, it is fast turning to be perilous — a major source of division and discard, an unnecessary burden on memory, and an impediment to progress. This is because there have come into existence several versions of Indian history that contradict each other, creating great confusion. History is admittedly an established discipline, but the world of Indian historical discourse has become so chaotic today that it would be a travesty of terms to call it a discipline.

How did the history of India come to such a chaotic condition? And, is there any way out of this mess? These two questions are, I think, the most important ones, demanding immediate attention of all scholars who care for the discipline called history and believe in its usefulness to society. 

Let us have a broad look on the early history of history in India. 

Guru & ChelasThe antiquity and pre-modern stages of Indian historical tradition 

Ancient Indians had a sense of history and historical tradition that goes back to the Rigvedic times. The Rigveda evidences the presence of three literary genres of historical nature: royal and priestly eulogies, Gathas, and Narasamsis — all prevalent in those days, like the Riks, in oral form constituting a floating mass of literature. A verse of Rigveda (IX.10.3) clearly states that kings are graced (anjate) with eulogies (prasastibhih). Several Danastutis (hymns composed in praise of liberalities shown by kings to their priests) also tend to take the form of eulogies. Eulogies were composed for priestly families too. Rigveda VII.33 is an eulogy of the Vasisththas. Rigveda III.33, which is a dialogue between Visvamitra and rivers Vipas (Beas) and Sutudri (Sutlej), is rightly taken by some scholars to be an eulogistic anecdote of the Visvamitras. 

The term ‘Gatha’ in the Rigveda normally means ‘song’, but it gradually develops a more special sense in later portions of the text and stands for songs of historical or legendary content. The word ‘Narasamsa’, from which Narasamsi is derived, denotes according to Yaska ‘praise celebrating men’ (Yena narah prasasyante sa narasamso mantrah. Nirukta IX.9). The difference between Gathas and Narasamsis was that while a Gatha  could relate to human as well as non-human beings (as in Indra-gatha, Yajna-gatha, etc.), the Narasamsis pertained only to human beings. 

In the later Vedic age, three new forms of historical narratives also came into existence. They were: Akhyana, Itihasa and Purana. Akhyana literally means “the communication of a previous event.” Composed in the form of short historical episodes, Akhyanas had become quite popular in the later Vedic times. The Aitareya Brahmana (III.25.1) refers to Akhyana-vids (a class of literary men who had specialized in Akhyana literature). 

The word ‘Itihasa’ literally means “verily thus it happened.” It appears probably for the first time in the Atharvaveda (XV.6.4) but became very prevalent in the later Vedic period itself. It repeatedly occurs in several Brahmanas such as the Satapatha, Jaiminiya, Gopatha etc. Before the term Itihasa acquired a broader sense of all forms of historical narratives, including even law and administration, as in Kautilya’s Arthasashtra (1.5), it denoted only Puravrittam (history in the narrow sense of the term). This, as V. S. Pathak rightly points out, is implied by the Nirukta (X.26) and explicitly stated by the Brihaddevata (IV.46). That, a distinction was made between Itihasa and Akhyana, is also attested to by the Satapatha Brahmana (XI.1.6.9) wherein it is told that Daivasuram (the war between Devas and Asuras) is related partly as Akhyana and partly as Itihasa. 

The term ‘Purana’, according to its etymology as provided by the Vayu Purana, means “that which lives from ancient times” (yasmatpura hynanatidam Puranam, Vayu P. I.203). As a form of legendary lore, Puranas may have existed from pre-Vedic period, that is, from times of antiquity even prior to the composition of Rigvedic mantras. The Atharvaveda (XI.7.24) refers to Puranam along with Richah (mantras), Samani (chants), Yajusha (formulae) and Chhandansi (meters) indicating, thereby, that Purana was fully recognized as distinct literary category by its time. By the time of the Chhandogya Upanishad, Purana definitely denoted actual book or books (Chhanogya Up. VII.1.2). According to A. D. Pusalkar, a well-known scholar in the field of Epic and Puranic studies, “in the later Vedic age, Itihasa preponderated over Purana, but gradually the latter asserted itself. 

By the close of the Vedic period, we meet two additional genres of historical compositions. They are known as Vamsas and Akhyayikas. Literally meaning ‘lineages’, the Vamsas focus our attention on genealogies rather than on history as such. A further development of this species of literature is indicated by the distinction made between Vamsa and Vamsanucharita, the former relating to genealogy of gods and rishis and the latter pertaining to the sequence of dynasties. Both Vamsas and Vamsanucharitas were later assimilated in the Puranas. They were taken to constitute two of the five characteristic features (pancha-lakshanas) of an ideal Purana. Akhyayikas denoted shorter Akhyanas. Both Akhyayikas and Akhyanas were later liberally utilized to swell from time to time the body of the Mahabharata as also of the Ramayana, the two most well-known ancient Indian Itihasa works. 

The early medieval period witnessed a further flowering of Indian historical tradition. Several historical works such as Bana Bhatta’s Harsh Charita, Bilhana‘s Vikramankdeva-Charita, and Jayanaka’s Prithviraja-Vijaya, etc, were written in this period by historians mostly attached to royal courts. Persons of royal blood too, even if rarely, distinguished themselves as a historian. Somesvar III Bhulokamalla, the son and successor of Vikramaditya VI of the Chalukya dynasty of Kalyani, is an example. Known mainly for his famous work Manasollasa, he had also written a biography of his father entitled Vikramankabhyudaya. 

The Indian historical tradition, thus, continued to develop and proliferate unabated during several millennia from its beginnings in Rigvedic times down to the end of the medieval period. As a result, such a rich and huge mass of historical literature came into existence that one could not possibly adequately describe it without classifying it into some sort of categories. Attempts have been made to classify it according to its sources (like Vedic, Buddhist and Jain) or in accordance with its chronology and provenance. However, all such efforts present difficulties for Indian historical tradition in one-piece, a ‘whole’ that cannot be segmented into parts. Even A. K. Warder, who assumes that Indian historiography becomes increasingly regional during the medieval period, admits that “it (always) derives from the universal ancient pauranika history”. 

Why is Indian historical tradition so unique? Where is its wholeness derived from? Let us find out. 

Brahman - AtmaUniqueness and wholeness of the Indian historical tradition 

A characteristic feature of Indian tradition, that has played the central role in shaping its historical paradigm, is the acceptance of the existence of an ultimate reality or essence of which ‘Rita’, ‘Satya’, and ‘Dharma’ are respectively the mental perception, verbal expression and practical application. In Indian tradition, therefore, historical events and processes are judged in the light of their conformity with Rita, Satya and Dharma, the three modes of the Ultimate Reality. 

Let me explain this feature a bit more. The cornerstone of Indian traditional value-system is the concept called Rita. It is difficult to find a concept equivalent to it in any other language or society. Its renderings in English as ‘Eternal Order’ or ‘Cosmic Order’ are inadequate. The ancient Greek vocable ‘anagki’ and the ancient Chinese term ‘tao’ appear to resemble the word Rita in meaning, but they too fail to fully express its connotation. The concepts ‘Lex naturalis’ and ‘archetype’ of Western thought are comparable but not equivalent in conception to Rita. In fact, in time-span Rita is eternal, in its expanse it is cosmic, and by nature it is proper, true, divine, pious, religious, perfect, glorious and noble, all rolled into one. 

It is also worth noting that Rita, Satya and Dharma are not different entities. They are three modes of the same Reality. Commenting on Rigveda 10.190.1, Sayana clearly states that Rita is another name of Satya (ritamiti satyanam). Rita is the mental perception of the Reality (ritam manasam yatharthasankalpanam), and Satya is the verbal expression of that Reality (satyam vachikam yatharthabhashamnam). In the motto: Satyamevajayate nanritam (Mundaka Upanishad, 3.1.6), Anrita is placed in opposition to Satya which also confirms the identity of Rita and Satya. As Rita and Satya are identical, Satya and Dharma too are one and the same entity. “Verify, that which is Dharma is Satya” (yo vai sa Darmah Satyam Vai), confirms the Brihadaranyak Upanishad (1.4.14). When the Reality transforms itself from mental perception and verbal expression into practical application it is called Dharma. 

Events and process that constitute the subject matter of history consist basically of human activities performed through Mana (thinking), Vachana (speaking) and Karma (acting). According to Indian value-system, perceptions, statements and actions are right only to the extent they conform to Rita, Satya and Dharma respectively. Ultimate Reality or Essence in its three modes, thus is the standard by which all human actions and activities, that is to say, entire history is to be judged or evaluated. 

In this concern for Satya (truth), a mode of Rita and Dharma, that compels Kalhana, the author of the Rajatarangini, to unequivocally emphasize the importance of objectivity in historical interpretations. “That man of quality alone is praiseworthy”, says he, “who is above (the feelings of ) love and hatred and whose intellect remains steady while relating the meaning of (the facts of ) the past”. 

Slaghyah sa eva gunavana ragadveshabahishkritah,
Bhutarthakathane yasya stheyasyeva Sarasvati. (Rajatarangini, 1.7) 

Sarvepalli RadhakrishnanA ‘superb’ colonial myth: Ancient Indians lacked the sense of history 

The colonial era of Indian history was an era of historical myth-making. Innumerable myths were created and propagated to falsify history with a view to change Indian psyche and denationalize Indian identity. The Aryans constituted a race of people culturally backward and barbarous but physically vigorous and bellicose! They were the sole possessor of horse and horse-drawn chariots that provided them superior maneuverability in battles against their enemies! They invaded India, destroyed the Indus cities and drove away their occupants, the Dravidians, to South India! Indian people had always been ruled by despotic and tyrannical rulers! The Indian society was static; it remained substantially unchanged throughout its long span of existence until the arrival of the British! The root cause of India’s backwardness was its (Hindu) religion! India as a concept never existed till the British imperialists invented it! So on and so forth; the list of colonial myths is endless. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan succinctly puts it: “The west tried its best to persuade India that its philosophy is absurd, its art puerile, its poetry uninspired, its religion grotesque and its ethics barbarous”. 

Most of these myths have been exploded and the ones remaining are in the process of meeting the same fate, despite the efforts of the intellectuals who still uphold the colonial paradigm and try to redefine and reproduce the myths in a new jargon. However, the myth according to which ancient Indians had no sense of history may be said, in a sense, to be a ‘superb’ myth of a sort for it continues and it continues as a commonplace view! 

The origin of the myth is traced back to German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) and his Euro-centrism. Hegel is on record to have stated: “India not only has old books of religion and brilliant works of poetry but also old codes of law … and yet it has no history”. He indeed suffered from Euro-centrism, a bias shared by many scholars of the colonial era. Rajiv Malhotra has exhaustively quoted from his writings to demonstrate Hegel’s Euro-centrism. I would like to add that Hegel was still more parochial in his outlook for he takes the Mediterranean region, not Europe as a whole, to be the pivot of historical transformations. In fact, it was partly his peculiar metaphysic and his obsession with thesis-antithesis dialectic and largely his ignorance of ancient Indian literature that came in his way of recognizing the age-old Indian historical tradition. Be that as it may, his metaphysic and his dialectic are long since discredited. Years ago, Bertrand Russell had rightly observed: 

“I cannot see any justification, on the basis of his (Hegel’s) own metaphysic, for the view that world history repeats the transitions of the dialectic, yet that is the thesis which he developed in his Philosophy of History. It was an interesting thesis, giving unity and meaning to the revolutions of human affairs. Like other historical theories, it required, if it was to be made plausible, some distortions to facts and considerable ignorance. Hegel, like Marx, and Spengler after him, possessed both these qualifications. It is odd that a process which is represented as cosmic should all have taken place on our planet, and most of it near the Mediterranean. Nor is there any reason, if reality is timeless, why the latter part of the process should embody higher categories than their earlier parts – unless one were to adopt the blasphemous supposition that the universe was gradually learning Hegel’s philosophy.” 

Myths have their own life-time, their own duration of existence. And, when, as in the present case, a myth is created by an eminent philosopher like Hegel, whose influence by the end of the nineteenth century had made most of the intellectuals of America and England largely Hegelian, it has got to last long. But, the real reason for its longevity lies in British colonial interests in India that wanted to show that the Indians were backward, living in prehistory and so in dire need of foreign help to modernize and begin history. The rest of the story as to how the Colonial Power launched on a major project of creating ‘a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, words and intellects’ is too well-known to be repeated here. Writing years after independence, A. K. Warder notes: 

“The standard imperialist version of Indian history, worked out during the colonial period, is now most remarkably, taken for granted among modern Indian historians of almost all persuasions, not least among them the ‘Marxists’ (who is this respect remain Hegelians; S.A. Dange is an honourable exception), as well as among academic historians in all other countries, again regardless of political persuasions.” 

In fact, as it is said, one can recognize a cat only if he/she has a picture of a cat in mind, a mental model or an idea of the cat, so to say. The history taught in the colonial era infused in the minds of Indians the modern idea of history which is European in origin. This idea of history had sprouted in Graeco-Roman tradition and developed under the shadow of the 18th century European Enlightenment. It is very much different from the ancient Indian indigenous sense of history, know as Itihasa, that had originated and developed in ancient Indian philosophic cultural context. History, as we know, “develops in close juxtaposition and with constant interactions of associated scheme of ideas”. Since, the formations of the ancient Indian sense of history and the modern European idea of history had occurred in different cultural-intellectual environments, it was natural that they differed in their tone and tenor and more particularly in their ethos. As people all over the world, including India, have at present the modern idea of history in their minds, they fail to recognize ancient Indian historical tradition or recognize it only to the extent to which it anticipates the modern view. 

History of IndiaComparing the ancient Indian and modern ideas of history and their validity 

Despite the fact that the modern idea of history is now globally accepted and the indigenous Indian sense of history is rarely shared by historians even in India, it would be worthwhile, I believe, to compare the two concepts of history and judge their validity purely from an epistemological point of view. 

One significant difference between the two is that while ancient Indian indigenous history, called Itihasa, aimed at man’s self-fulfilment and self-realization, the history current today has either only vague objectives like furtherance of freedom, rationalism and individualism or a hidden agenda to support this or that political ideology. The other important difference is that while Itihasa interpreted historical change in terms of reasons, not causes, current history, under the impact of positivism and other modern concepts, emphasizes causality and value-neutrality.

Now, a point to ponder: Is the notion of casual explanation, in which explanation is based on antecedent causes and conditions, applicable to history? I doubt it. The central concept of history, it must be noted, is action, not behaviour. Behaviour is a quasi-physicalistic, physiological and infra-rational category. Action, on the other hand, is a purposive, goal-oriented activity or conduct. A human action may be reasonable or unreasonable, right or wrong, just or unjust and the like, but it can be interpreted only in terms of its reasons, not causes. Intentions, purposes and motives do not ’cause’ actions, for, firstly, they are not identifiable separately from them, and secondly, they are semantically related to them. 

And, what about the doctrine of value-neutrality, the other postulate involved in modern idea of history? The notion of value-fact dichotomy is totally wrong. Of course, there is a distinction between fact and value, between descriptive and prescriptive, between ‘is’ and ‘aught’, but it is a distinction without dichotomy. Facts and values are the two modes of the same reality. Facts qua facts do not exist. What appears to be a purely factual statement contains an implicit evaluation. A fact can only be understood in terms of a corresponding norm. 

Thus, we see that even from a purely epistemological point of view, the modern idea of history is inadequate. In traditional Indian history, on the other hand, value-fact dichotomy is not accepted. Historical events and processes are judged, as I have discussed above, on the basis of their conformity with Rita, Satya and Dharma, the three modes of the Ultimate Reality or Essence. 

Antonio GramsciConfusion in contemporary Indian historical discourse 

Indian historical discourse is in a state of chaotic confusion and disarray today. Several paradigms of Indian history are endlessly contending with each other for their justification and supremacy. As a result, we have several versions of Indian history current simultaneously. An impartial person willing to know something about India’s past is in a fix, unable to decide as to which one is a trustworthy version. In such a situation, the very utility of history for society is becoming doubtful. 

Until recently, books on historiography described only three paradigms of Indian history: Imperialist, Nationalist, and Marxist. Today we have at least as many more. The colonial era is long since over, but the imperialist paradigm is continuing, albeit it is now called ‘Western Elitist’. The Marxist paradigm is still alive despite the fall of Marxism. It is now more generally known as ‘Secular Marxist’. The Nationalist paradigm has tremendously refined its historical models making them more and more scientific. However, it has been mysteriously renamed as ‘Hindu Nationalist’! 

Among the new ones, the most well-know is the Subaltern paradigm. It emerged in 1980s inspired mostly by Eric Stokes‘ historical writings. It started with the basic assumption that history contains many more complexities and paradoxes than what the monolithic and dogmatic reconstructions of the past have revealed so far. It has apparently borrowed ideas and terminology from Italian philosopher and political theorist Antonio Gramsci (including the term ‘subaltern’ itself) but given them a new context and meaning. Although there is no umbilical cord connecting Subalternists and Marxists, who are in fact very much critical of each other, the elite versus subaltern theme is modeled more or less after the Marxist bourgeoisie versus proletariat. In my view, however, the subaltern paradigm of history in Indian context is a reflection of a larger ongoing literary movement fostering identity politics of the left-behind sections of the Indian society or what is termed as the marginalized social groups. In Hindi literature, it goes by such names as Dalita Vimarsha and Nari Vimarsha. 

The upholders of this postmodern historical paradigm analyse contemporary Indian historiography in two categories: neo-colonialist and neo-nationalist. They are critical of both the categories for they find that both share an elitist perspective that wrongly paints the significant role and contributions of the subaltern groups as a mere response to an elite inspiration, influence or guidance. Elitist historiography, according to them, “renders invisible the quotidian experience of ordinary people”. They, therefore, plead for extending the historical narrative in scope “not only to make room for the pasts of the so-called peoples without history but to address the historicality of everyday life as well.” However, had it been only a question of extending the scope of historical narrative, it would not have been a matter of concern. But, of late, Subalternists have started rejecting what they call “the imagined-into-reality framework of the Indian nation” and raising several other such alarming theoretical issues. 

Another paradigm newly emerging in Indian historical discourse is inspired by the ‘Annales School‘. Founded a century ago by French historians, this school has been quite influential in setting the agenda for historiography not only in France but in other countries as well, particularly in Italy, Poland and Venezuela. Although it has maintained its leftist leaning all along, its focus has been shifting from time to time. At one time it gave serious attention to the role of mentalities in history, linking them with changing social conditions, but now that has been almost given up. However, taking a long-term view of history, emphasizing social rather than political issues, a concern for marginalized peoples, wide range of interests and differing methods of approach may be said to be the hallmark of the Annales School. The Annales School’s approach to history has started influencing Indian historians. Harbans Mukhia of JNU, Delhi, who has edited (jointly with Maurice Aymard of Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris) two volumes on French studies in history, is, to my knowledge, perhaps the most vocal admirer of the Annales School. S. Settar‘s books Inviting Death (New York: Brill, 1988) and Pursuing Death (Dharwad: Institute of Art History, Karnatak University, 1990) too have an Annales’ imprint although not acknowledged openly. 

The ‘Deconstructionist‘, though not a paradigm in the technical sense of the term, is yet another postmodern and post-structuralist historical ‘consciousness’ that has added to the current complexity and confusion in Indian historical discourse. Its roots go back to a school of philosophy that originated in France in late 1960s mainly through the writings of its chief proponent Jacques Derrida. Derrida’s stand is based on two of his basic perceptions: one, dichotomous categories such as mind/body, sacred/profane, signifier/signified, etc., that are generally accepted and used by philosophers and other scholars in their expositions, are arbitrary; and the other, all such expositions contain implicit hierarchies that impose a sort of order on realty subordinating, partly hiding and even totally excluding from our view many of its aspects. His intellectual efforts were mostly aimed at exposing and challenging these dichotomies and hierarchies that come in our way of a proper understanding of reality. ‘Deconstruction’ is the designation Derrida gave to his efforts in this direction and to the procedure he adopted in making them. 

Although the deconstructionists coming after Derrida have sufficiently modified and refined the methods of deconstruction, the aim of its application in historical analysis remains the same. Looking in a broader perspective, it may be said that they have, in fact, brought into sharp focus the old problem of the extent of correspondence – or rather, isomorphism or one-to-one correspondence – between historical reality (history as it happened in some space-time context) and the written history (constructed or reconstructed by the historian). They do not deny the existence of historical reality, which nobody can do, but in tune with the spirit of the postmodern age, they challenge “the old modernist certainties of historical truth and methodological objectivity, as applied by disinterested historians”. They raise questions about the legitimacy of empiricism in constituting history as a separate epistemology (that is, a special form of knowledge) as also about the role and use of historian’s theoretical and explanatory frameworks in historical understanding. 

The confusion is worse confounded since all these different historical paradigms are current simultaneously. What David Harlan observes in reference to postmodern American historiography is equally, if not more, true in context of contemporary Indian historiography: “If we ask, ‘what is historical writing?’ the answer can only be ‘there is this kind of historical writing, and that kind, and then again that kind.” The greatest problem before a student of Indian history today is to cope with such a situation. Shall the concept of validity become altogether irrelevant to history? Is there any way out of this dilemma? I believe that there is one, and now I come to that. 

PsycheA basic knowledge of Indian psyche essential for understanding Indian history 

Long ago, in his famous book: The Idea of History, published posthumously in 1946, R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943) had stated that to know the past the historian must re-enact it in his own mind. He tried to explain his point by several examples. For instance, he said, suppose a historian has certain edict of an emperor before him. “Merely reading the words and being able to translate them”, said he, “does not amount to knowing their historical significance. In order to do that he must envisage the situation with which the emperor was trying to deal, and he must envisage it as that emperor envisaged it”. His statement, as expected, invited several objections. It was argued, for instance, that “an act of thought by becoming subjective ceases to be objective, and thus, by becoming present ceases to be past.” Collingwood continued to answer the objections throughout his life and although he could not satisfy the objectors, he succeeded in making out an important point: an action can be judged properly only in the light of the thoughts and intentions leading to it.

Can anybody judge history, which consists mostly of individual and social actions, without knowing the thoughts and intentions of the historical actor or actors concerned? The answer is unequivocal: one cannot. Despite differences in historical orientations and paradigms scholars in general are unanimous on this point. Thus, Alun Munslow, even though far from Collingwood in time, space and historical perceptions, echoes the same feeling. “The most basic function of the historian,” writes he, “is to understand, and explain in a written form, the connections between events and human intention or agency in the past.” It follows, then, that Indian history cannot be understood and explained without a basic knowledge of the specific structure or rather architecture of Indian psyche, the fountain of all sorts of intentions commonly shared by Indians. 

The two most important ‘building blocks’ of this architecture are Bharatiya Chitta and Mana, that have shaped the psyche of a common Indian, the fundamental source of all his thoughts, intentions and actions. Chitta and Mana are not one and the same in connotation, although both are generally rendered as psyche in English. They must not be confused with what the Annalistes designate as ‘mentality’ too. These are characteristically Indian concepts. For understanding them, we must begin with the Indian notion of ‘Antahakarana’ or inner consciousness, the human faculty that deals with almost all non-tangible matters. Antahakarana is said to have four constituent parts (together known as Antahakarana-Chatushtaya). They are Mana, Chitta, Buddhi and Ahankara related to each other in a hierarchical order. 

The most potent of the four is Ahankara (self-awareness), the sense of being, the consciousness that ‘I am’ or ‘I exist’ (in Sanskrit ‘asmi’ from which the term ‘asmita’ meaning identity is derived). Ordinarily a person perceives his self-consciousness in terms of his physical and social being, and identifies his self with his body (dehatma-buddhi). This is an instinctive human tendency present everywhere and in all ages. But, then, there is an ideal of self-awareness too, “which men accept, as distinct from their actual and habitual self-awareness”, and which is “generally derived from the cultural tradition to which they belong and varies accordingly.” In Indian tradition individual self is taken to be non-different from the Essence or Ultimate Reality. This Ultimate Reality is described by many names like Brahma, Isvara, Paramatma, etc., and worshiped as Godhead under various denominations. In essence it is ever-present (Sat), pure consciousness (Chit) and limitless bliss (Ananda). Being part of the Ultimate Reality, the individual self too shares all the three attributes. It is deathless, but bonded by the body and Ahankara, its consciousness is diluted and bliss jeopardized. The diluted consciousness is called Chitta as against pure consciousness which is Chit. 

Both Chit and Chitta are derived from a basic concept Chiti and all these terms go back to Rigvedic times. Although the concept is living in Indian tradition as attested to by the popularity of a large number of names like Chidambara, Chinmaya, Chidakasa, Sachchidananda, etc., very little work has been done on this significant cluster of concepts. To my knowledge, Deendayal Upadhyaya is the first thinker who has repeatedly drawn our attention to the concept of Chiti. Fortunately, now some institutions like the Research and Development Foundation for Integral Humanism and Deendayal Shodh Sansthan are making commendable efforts in properly explaining Chiti and related concepts.

Mana is also an old Rigvedic concept. While the function of Chitta is reflection, that of Mana is paying attention. Chitta is more powerful than Mana and if Mana finds something pleasurable or desirable Chitta often takes it over from Mana. However, the most important point to be noted is that a considerable part of Chitta and Mana, as also of Ahankara and Buddhi, is determined by the geo-cultural environment in which it develops, although since human being is a human being, different from other zoological beings, a portion of his Antahakarana-Chatushtaya ever remains universal as well. 

Indian history stands distorted badly because the so-called ‘motivated’ and ‘committed’ historians have been intentionally distorting it continuously since the colonial times to foster their political, religious or other ideological interests. This is beyond doubt and by now well-known. But what is not so well-realized is the fact that even those historians who cannot be categorized as ‘motivated’ or ‘committed’ have brought in considerable aberration in Indian history because being ignorant of Indian psyche they have failed to recognize connections between events and human intention or agency in pre-modern Indian history. 

RishiJudging Indian history from a wrong angle: A few illustrations 

The Aryans were a “non-urbanized people and semi-barbarous” who destroyed the non-Aryan Harappan Civilization and “the Rigveda is the epic of destruction of one of the great cultures of the ancient world”. This is the view adopted and expressed in the prestigious UNESCO publication entitled History of Mankind, Vol. 1. One may not wonder on the assertion of the Aryan Invasion Theory in this volume for it was published at a time when that theory was accepted as a Gospel truth. But it is certainly surprising to hear that the early Vedic people were ‘semi-barbarous’ people. Can anybody degrade a people as semi-barbarous who have the honour of bequeathing to posterity a literary composition like the Rigveda, considered to be one of the earliest, if not the earliest, human achievement of its kind, and which contains high philosophical thoughts of several enlightened souls like Rishi Dirghatamas

The reason for this anomaly lies in application of a totally alien-to-Indian-psyche definition of ‘civilization’ in Indian history. This definition, still prevalent among historians and archaeologists, does not entitle non-urban peoples like the Vedic Aryas (who were erroneously supposed to be merely a village folk) to be called civilized. The definition is based on a materialist conception of history. It was initially suggested by Lewis H. Morgan in 1877 in his book: Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of  Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization. Frederick Engels adopted this definition in his famous essay: The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, written in German which appeared in Zurich in 1884, wherefrom it was applied in the fields of archaeology and history by V. G. Childe. The definition is defective in several respects, but we need not elaborate the points here. Suffice it to say that a definition given from a particular view-point cannot hold good for others who do not accept that point of view. 

Many more examples can be cited in which outlandish concepts, totally unfit for Indian historical circumstances, have been unduly inserted in Indian historical discourse. But, instead of listing them I would like to draw your attention to another type of unwarranted imposition on Indian history pertaining not to concepts used in it but to its very structure. 

The structure of any historical narrative depends mainly on its periodization and a proper periodization must indicate the major turns and twists in the spirit of the people concerned, that is, the people whose history we are considering. But, as we know, the periodization of Indian history was done by James Mill on the basis of three major influxes of foreigners in India, be they invaders or traders/colonizers. He divided Indian history into three periods: the Hindu, the Muslim and the British beginning respectively with the (presumed) Aryan and successive Muslim and British arrivals. But Mill was a knowledgeable person, and he was aware that he was violating the basic principle of periodization by keeping in view the outsiders not the insiders. So he propagated the myth of Indian passivity. He asserted that the Indian past had been that of an unchanging, static society. Mill’s periodization still continues with cosmetic change as the ancient, the medieval and the modern. The structure of Indian history he conceived remains intact. 

But, consider, for instance, the situation of India in the 17th century. We find an unmistakable upsurgence in the rise of Ramdas and Shivaji in Maharashtra, the Gurus in the Panjab and the Rajputs in Rajasthan. The upsurgence continues through time and, despite political and economic domination by Britain, finds expression in the Great Uprising of 1857 and in thoughts and actions of Dayanand Sarasvati, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Vivekanand, Tilak, Shri Arvind, and several other saints and savants. K. M. Munshi designates this period in Indian history as the ‘Age of Modern Renaissance’. There have been periods of great expansion and efflorescence in Indian history as well as times of distress when Indians have displayed commendable resistance. The monotonous periodization: ancient, medieval and modern fails to project the paradigmatic trajectory of Indian spirit. 

Finally a word about the ‘Idea of India’ that too has been distorted because of westernized thinking. The Idea of India and the understanding of Indian history are interconnected. If you want to know about India, you need to go through books on its history albeit a bit cautiously. But, if you want to write the history of India, you must be conversant with the personality of India before hand. Several scholars do not appear to be sensitive to this interconnection and take the issue of the ‘Idea of India’ lightly. 

Thus, in his H. D. Sankalia Memorial Lecture entitled ‘The idea of India and its heritage: The millennium challenges’ (delivered in 2000), D. P. Agrawal remarks: “Nations are essentially spatio-temporal concepts, which change with time and geography. So let us not get bogged down into such mires but address the more substantive and challenging issues”. Agrawal is a senior scholar and an old friend of mine whose scholarship I highly admire despite differences of opinion on historical issues. However, I fail to see why Agrawal taking the ‘Idea of India’ as a millennium challenge finally whisks it away as a less-substantive or less-challenging issue. India is not just a spatio-temporal entity that has been changing with time and geography. India has a personality of its own, and the millennium challenge is to define that personality. 

In his lecture, Agrawal quotes the famous words from Nehru’s Discovery of India that depict India as “an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously”. It is true that Nehru emphasized the miscegenation and accretion of cultures in India; and that was true for most of the early epochs of Indian culture. Living at a time when the Aryan Invasion Theory was accepted as an article of faith, Nehru could not think of an original indigenous culture of India. He could not see that the ancient palimpsest he was talking about had, in fact, an original inscription engraved on it so deeply that layer upon layer of subsequent engravings could neither hide nor erase it. 

Nevertheless, despite all British impact on his education and personality, Nehru had occasional glimpse of ‘Indianness’. In his Foreword to Filliozat‘s India (1962), he writes: “There is an Indianness which distinguishes every part of India. … That Indianness is something unique and deeper than the external differences.” Nehru felt this Indianness emotionally and intuitively but he could not locate its primary source (Utsa). 

In fact, Bharatiyata or Indianness cannot be defined in geographical and political terms. It can be defined only culturally as a set of values based on intuitive recognition of transcendental spirituality. Spirituality, it may be noted, is a category of perception higher than religion or even morality. Bharatiyata or Indianness is distinguished by a spiritual vision of life, which the Vedic Rishis have bequeathed to humanity. – GFCHINDIA, 2014

» Prof Shivaji Singh is the former Head of the Department of Ancient History, Archaeology and Culture, University of Gorakhpur. He is presently the National President of the Akhial Bhaarateeya Itihaasa Sakalana Yojanaa.

3 Responses

  1. A very scholarly article, a must read for every patriotic indian.

  2. Unless Hindus become strong Physically, mentally, economically and as a social group, none of these presentations will have any impact even within India. The ‘elite Hindus’ have to establish, by action, that many things are possible by Yoga. The elites have to be supported by the others and those people’s living has to be made pleasant by the elites.

    • Do you even know what Prof Singh is talking about?

      Prof Singh has painstakingly put together an extraordinary lecture about Indian history studies—presented here in text—and it should be read carefully and its content and implications considered even more carefully.

      But is there any use telling you this? Probably not. Talking to your kind is like throwing dry peas against a stone wall. They just bounce back!

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