VIDEO: The Story of India – Will Durant

Will & Ariel Durant

Will Durant Quote

The strange irony of Indian history – Michel Danino


Prof Michel DaninoHistory is at the root of the identity individuals, communities and nations choose to give themselves, it has immense bearing on current situations, and no nation escapes historical controversies. – Prof Michel Danino

Indian history presents us with a delightful irony. On the one hand, most schools and colleges teach it in such off-putting manner, with stale textbooks full of howlers, that most students come to hate the topic and happily erase it all from their memories the day after the exam. And on the other hand, Indian history seems to be alive and well, if we judge by the numerous historical debates that have filled the public space, from the Aryan theory to the Ayodhya issue, from the record of Aurangzeb or Tipu Sultan to pinning down the responsibility for the Partition, from “terrorism” in the Freedom Movement to Subhash Chandra Bose’s ultimate fate. That such “debates” are conducted more often through mud-slinging, if not demonization, than in a mature and civilized manner is another matter.

We also have a colourful range of scholars: At one end of the spectrum, some, dreaming of Puranic scales of time, are tempted to take Indian history millions of years into the past (or at least many thousands more than archaeology would permit), to visualize vimanas and other advanced technological devices from earliest times, and to imagine ancient India as a perfect golden age. And at the other end, scholars claiming to practise “scientific” history produce, instead, a brand heavily inflected by ill-suited imported ideologies and models, leave alone factual and methodological flaws. In between, are numerous solid, unprejudiced and meticulous historians who are passionate about the discipline; unfortunately, the wider public rarely gets to hear about them as the media can’t get desired sound bites from them .

Is this scene unique to India? By no means. Because history is at the root of the identity individuals, communities and nations choose to give themselves, it has immense bearing on current situations, and no nation escapes historical controversies. Did the Hebrews migrate from Egypt to Palestine as described in the biblical Exodus? Can the French nation be said to have been created by Joan of Arc? Did the “American holocaust” of Native Americans by the Spanish, Portuguese and British wipe out 100 million lives, as asserted by some scholars? Did the nations that declared their “neutrality” during World War II end up helping the Nazis? Did Stalin’s rule of the USSR result in some 60 million deaths? Is there firm evidence for the genocide of Armenians in 1915 by Turkey? Was Tibet ever an integral part of China, as the latter proclaims? Could the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been avoided?

Such questions can rarely be answered with a fair degree of certainty. Yet it is the job of history to try and answer. What is history, then? A few days ago, I was amused to read that Pakistan’s Sindh Minister for Culture, Tourism and Antiquities demanded that Ashutosh Gowariker, director of the newly released film History of IndiaMohenjo Daro apologize to the Sindhi people for “distorting historical facts and making a mockery of the 5000-year-old highly developed [Harappan] culture and civilization.” I have not watched the film, which does seem to have taken some liberties, but did not expect an avowed piece of fiction and entertainment to be taken so seriously. It is interesting to note in passing that many Indians feel similarly connected to the Indus civilization, many of whose sites are located on this side of the international border. Even such a crude example illustrates sharply enough how history—or protohistory, in this case—remains alive in sensitive ways and is intertwined with questions of national identity.

Yet “history is the lie commonly agreed upon,” in Voltaire’s opinion, which is hardly an optimistic definition. Two hundred years later, the U.S. historians Will and Ariel Durant were a little more explicit: “Our knowledge of any past event is always incomplete, probably inaccurate, beclouded by ambivalent evidence and biased historians, and perhaps distorted by our own patriotic or religious partisanship. Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice.” An honest statement, but still not too hopeful. If, as the British historian E. H. Carr wrote, history is “an unending dialogue … between the society of today and the society of yesterday,” is such a dialogue possible at all when the data it is built upon is so deficient?

In India’s case, Tagore, in an insightful essay titled The History of Bharatavarsha, bitterly complained in 1903, “Our real ties are with the Bharatavarsha that lies outside our textbooks. … It appears as if we are nobody in India; as if those who came from outside alone matter.” He was echoed in 1942 by the scholar and statesman K. M. Munshi: “Most of our histories of India … deal with certain events and periods not from the Indian point of view, but from that of some source to which they are partial and which by its very nature is loaded against India.”

That, of course, was a reference to colonial histories written by the colonial masters. Has the situation much improved? Can we claim that we now have an “Indian perspective” on Indian history? Today, sober-minded Indologists and historians look at India as a civilization rather than a nation in the modern sense of the term; they ask when and how it emerged, and how it managed to integrate the myriad cultures of the subcontinent into one recognizable whole maintaining its original diversity. They query the social, political and administrative systems it evolved, its cultural developments, its myriad ethnic and linguistic units, and its interface with other cultures and civilizations. Despite yawning gaps in the archaeological, epigraphic, literary and economic records, a picture does emerge.

For a perspective of India to be successful, it should, in my opinion, build a sense of identity and belonging to a stream of civilization. But aren’t there many “ideas of India”? I propose to explore this question in later articles. – The New Indian Express, 24 September 2016

» Michel Danino is the author of The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati and Indian Culture and India’s Future. He teaches at IIT Gandhinagar. Email:

Restored impression of Martand Sun Temple by J. Duguid 1870-73

Surya Temple at Marttand, Kashmir from Hardy Cole's Archaeological Survey of India Report 1869

Is yoga Hindu? – Devdutt Pattanaik

Lord Shiva wearing yoga band.

Dr Devdutt PattanaikWe must be careful of arguments presented by Right wing and Left wing thinkers, who are both outliers in all cultures, but tend to dominate discourse and take away nuance. … These two wings feed off each other as they spend all their time arguing against each other’s ideas, rather than appreciating that history is neither simple nor linear. — Dr Devdutt Pattanaik

Yes, yoga is Hindu. More appropriately, it is Indic, for the idea was also developed, over centuries, by Buddhists, Jains, and a whole bunch of people who lived in the subcontinent of India.

The people of this land were called Hindu by ancient Persians, and Indians by ancient Greeks, as they lived in the land across the river Sindhu known as Hind in Persia and India in Greece. The British called this subcontinent the Indian subcontinent, and the Americans call it South Asia. In the Puranas, this land is called Jambudvipa, the land of the jambul (Indian blackberry) or jambu (rose apple) tree. Today, this land includes the nation-states of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

India has become a political term, while Indic is a cultural term. Hindu, once a geographical term, has now become a religious term. Depending on how good a lawyer you are, you can argue that Hinduism is a religion created by the British in the 19th century, or a way of looking at the world that emerged 5,000 years ago.

In America, this question of whether yoga is Hindu has been raised because of politics and economics. For some Hindus argue that the term has been appropriated by the Americans, and made commercial, Shiva Pashupati of Mohanjodarohence corrupt, stripped of its spiritual significance. Others argue that it never belonged to Hindus and so the question of appropriation does not arise. Essentially, it has become a territorial fight about is it “yours” or is it “mine”, the very mental knots that yoga seeks to unravel.

But there is no doubt that the idea originated in this part of the world, nurtured by many people, over hundreds of years. The form that we know it in today is the result of the re-packaging that yoga saw in the early 20th century, done in India, by Hindus.

The Indus Valley seals show a man seated in a posture that yoga identifies as bhadrasana, or the throne position. Was this yoga? We can speculate either way.

The Vedic traditions, that are 4,000 years old refer to the word yoga in the sense of yoking or harnessing an ox to a cart. Even today, yoga or its colloquial form “jog” is used to indicate alignment of various forces, for example, the planetary forces in astrology. One can argue that the word “jugaad” comes from “jogi” or the resourceful man who can create “jog” where none existed before. So the word has Vedic roots.

The Shramana, or hermit, traditions, that are 3000 years old, brought forth many ideas that were eventually seen as yogic, such as psychological discipline—focussing (dhyan) and building awareness or perspective (dharana), or withdrawing (pratyahara), and a host of breathing exercises (pranayama) to regulate the mind and physical contortions (asana), such as standing on one foot, or holding arms aloft, favoured by hermits known as tapasvins, who do tapasya, or the churning of the spiritual fire known as tapa, which grants humans supernatural physical and psychological powers (siddhi) that enables them to control nature. So the practices associated with yoga today do have roots in the Shramana tradition. Buddhism and Jainism are Shramana traditions.

PatanjaliIn the Puranic age, that is 2000 years old, Vedic rituals and eventually Shramana traditions, were overshadowed by the stories of God, manifesting as Shiva, Vishnu and Devi. Shiva became the God who reveals Yoga to his student Patanjali, a serpent, who, in turn, shares it with the world. Vishnu also shares it, as Krishna to Arjuna, and Ram to Hanuman. Here, we start seeing a division. Some focus more on the psychological aspect, ideas such as union of the individual soul (jiva-atma) with the cosmic soul (para-atma) that is God, which is known as samadhi. Others focus on the physical aspects, especially magical powers related to celibacy, which is known as siddhi.

The samadhi focus is seen as Vedic and the siddhi focus as Tantrik, though such divisions are arbitrary. The focus varies in various texts. In Bhagavad Gita, which is part of the Mahabharata, for example, there is a reference to the psychological aspect of yoga, and to pranayama, but not to asanas, while in Patanjali’s yoga sutra, the reference to asanas is minimal, it does lend a clear definition of yoga (removal of mental twists and turns), and feels no obligation to be overly theistic, except functionally.

In the Nath traditions, that started becoming increasingly popular 1,000 years ago, there are clear references to the physical aspect of yoga: various yogic postures and breathing exercises. These are used by ash-smeared mendicants who revere Matsyendranath and Gorakhnath. The more radical members of this school of thought are the naked ascetics that fascinate the West, and satisfy their craving for the exotic.

Since the 19th century, during the British rule, to counter the European discourse, and following exposure to European style gymnastics, under the patronage of Wodeyar kings of Mysore, local gurus of traditional physical culture such as Krishnamacharya conceptualised and organised yoga as we know it today, and it Tirumalai Krishnamacharyaspread across India and around the world through teachers such as Iyengar and Sivananda. There have been translations and commentaries on ancient and medieval yoga texts such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra by scholars and academicians, including Vivekananda.

Today, the idea and practice of yoga has spread widely across the world, alarming on one the hand Christian and Muslim isolationists and supremacists (who see this as covert Hindu missionary activity) and Hindu isolationists and supremacists (who fear the appropriation of their faith and culture). Then there are the atheists and secularists, also seeking supremacy, who see red every time the word tradition or religion is mentioned.

We must be careful of arguments presented by Right wing and Left wing thinkers, who are both outliers in all cultures, but tend to dominate discourse and take away nuance. The Right wing, especially the Hindu supremacists among them, tend to believe that yoga emerged in its perfect pristine form within Hinduism somewhere in the distant past, even before the Indus Valley Civilisation. The Left wing has contempt for all things ancient, religious or tradiitonal. These two wings feed off each other as they spend all their time arguing against each other’s ideas, rather than appreciating that history is neither simple nor linear.

To deny that yoga has no special relationship with India, with Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, is like saying America has nothing to do with Native Americans (except being built on their corpses). At the same time, to accuse the West of stealing yoga is unfair, and ideas do transform following cultural exchange. The idea of “purity” that many religious and academic folk cling to is dangerous as it ultimately ends up establishing “untouchability”. – Daily-O, 14 September 2016

Yoga in Moscow

Yoga at the White House

School children doing yoga on the Rajpath, New Delhi

How Irfan Habib tried to highjack Indian history – Jayakrishnan Nair

Irfan Habib

K. K. MuhammedAccording to Prof M. G. S. Narayanan, Prof Irfan Habib  has poisoned not just history, but culture and social life by his narrow groupism, nepotism and treachery. – Jayakrishnan Nair

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.

CPI (M) FlagWhen 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.

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.

Aligarh Muslim UniversityAnother 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 assistant 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.

K. K. Muhammed's book in MalayalamIn 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. – Varnam, 4 September 2016

» Jayakrishnan Nair is  a history enthusiast.

Akbar's Ibadat Khana in Agra

V. S. Naipaul interviewed by Dileep Padgaonkar, Rahul Singh & Sadanand Menon – Media

V.S. Naipaul
Sword of IslamWe reproduce here excerpts of three interviews given by Sir Vidiadhar S. Naipaul on his interpretation of the ethos of the Sri Rama Janmabhoomi movement. Sir Vidiadhar is a Trinidad-born author of Indian ancestry who now resides in the United Kingdom. He has won all the major awards in English literature including the Nobel Prize in 2001. He has also written a number of best-selling books on India.

In one of his interviews (not included here), Sir Vidiadhar said: “The (second) millennium began with the Muslim invasions and the grinding down of the Hindu-Buddhist culture of the north. This is such a big and bad event that people still have to find polite, destiny-defying ways of speaking about it. In art books and history books, people write of the Muslims ‘arriving’ in India, as though the Muslims came on a tourist bus and went away again. The Muslim view of their conquest of India is a truer one. They speak of the triumph of the faith, the destruction of idols and temples, the loot, the carting away of the local people as slaves, so cheap and numerous that they were being sold for a few rupees. The architectural evidence—the absence of Hindu monuments in the north—is convincing enough.” – Editor

Dileep PadgaonkarDileep Padgaonkar interviews V. S. Naipaul, The Times of India, July 18, 1993

Q: The collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent rise of Islamic nations in Central Asia, the Salman Rushdie affair, similar harassment by fundamentalists of liberal Muslim intellectuals in India: all these factors taken together persuaded some forces to argue that a divided Hindu society cannot counteract Islamic fundamentalism.

A: I don’t see it quite in that way. The things you mentioned are quite superficial. What is happening in India is a new, historical awakening. Gandhi used religion in a way as to marshal people for the independence cause. People who entered the independence movement did it because they felt they would earn individual merit.

Today, it seems to me that Indians are becoming alive to their history. Romila Thapar’s book on Indian history is a Marxist attitude to history which in substance says: there is a higher truth behind the invasions, feudalism and all that. The correct truth is the way the invaders looked at their actions. They were conquering, they were subjugating. And they were in a country where people never understood this.

Only now are the people beginning to understand that there has been a great vandalising of India. Because of the nature of the conquest and the nature of Hindu society such understanding had eluded Indians before.

What is happening in India is a mighty creative process. Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on, especially if these intellectuals happen to be in the United States. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

However, we are aware of one of the more cynical forms of liberalism: it admits that one fundamentalism is all right in the world. This is the fundamentalism they are really frightened of: Islamic fundamentalism. Its source is Arab money. It is not intellectually to be taken seriously etc. I don’t see the Hindu reaction purely in terms of one fundamentalism pitted against another. The reaction is a much larger response … Mohamedan fundamentalism is essentially negative, a protection against a world it desperately wishes to join. It is a last-ditch fight against the world.

But the sense of history that the Hindus are now developing is a new thing. Some Indians speak about a synthetic culture: this is what a defeated people always speak about. The synthesis may be culturally true. But to stress it could also be a form of response to intense persecution.

Q: This new sense of history as you call it is being used in India in very many different ways. My worry is that somewhere down the line this search for a sense of history might yet again turn into hostility toward something precious which came to use from the West: the notion of the individual….

A: This is where the intellectuals have a duty to perform. The duty is the use of the mind. It is not enough for intellectuals to chant their liberal views or to abuse what is happening. To use the mind is to reject the grosser aspects of this vast emotional upsurge.

Q: How did you react to the Ayodhya incident?

A: Not as badly as the others did, I am afraid. The people who say that there was no temple there are missing the point. Babar, you must understand, had contempt for the country he had conquered. And his building of that mosque was an act of contempt for the country.

In Turkey, they turned the Church of Santa Sophia into a mosque. In Nicosia churches were converted into mosques too. The Spaniards spent many centuries re-conquering their land from Muslim invaders. So these things have happened before and elsewhere.

In Ayodhya the construction of a mosque on a spot regarded as sacred by the conquered population was meant as an insult. It was meant as an insult to an ancient idea, the idea of Ram which was two or three thousand years old.

Q: The people who climbed on top of these domes and broke them were not bearded people wearing saffron robes and with ash on their foreheads. They were young people clad in jeans and tee-shirts.

A: One needs to understand the passion that took them on top of the domes. The jeans and the tee-shirts are superficial. The passion alone is real. You can’t dismiss it. You have to try to harness it.

Hitherto in India the thinking has come from the top. I spoke earlier about the state of the country: destitute, trampled upon, crushed. You then had the Bengali renaissance, the thinkers of the 19th century. But all this came from the top. What is happening now is different. The movement is now from below.

Q: My colleague, the cartoonist, Mr R. K. Laxman, and I recently travelled thousands of miles in Maharashtra. In many places we found that noses and breasts had been chopped off from the statues of female deities. Quite evidently this was a sign of conquest. The Hindutva forces point to this too to stir up emotions. The problem is: how do you prevent these stirred-up emotions from spilling over and creating fresh tensions?

A: I understand. But it is not enough to abuse them or to use that fashionable word from Europe: fascism. There is a big, historical development going on in India. Wise men should understand it and ensure that it does not remain in the hands of fanatics. Rather they should use it for the intellectual transformation of India.

Rahul SinghRahul Singh interviews V. S. Naipaul, The Times of India, Jan 23, 1998

Q: You gave an interview to The Times of India, which was interpreted by the BJP as supporting them in the destruction (of the Babri structure). Do you think you were misunderstood?

A: I can see how what I said then could be misinterpreted. I was talking about history, I was talking about a historical process that had to come. I think India has lived with one major extended event, that began about 1000 AD, the Muslim invasion. It meant the cracking open and partial wrecking of what was a complete cultural, religious world until that invasion. I don’t think the people of India have been able to come to terms with that wrecking. I don’t think they understand what really happened. It’s too painful. And I think this BJP movement and that masjid business is part of a new sense of history, a new idea of what happened. It might be misguided, it might be wrong to misuse it politically, but I think it is part of a historical process. And to simply abuse it as fascist is to fail to understand why it finds an answer in so many hearts in India.

Q: Couldn’t it just be communal prejudice?

A: It could become that. And that has to be dealt with. But it can only be dealt with if both sides understand very clearly the history of the country. I don’t think Hindus understand what Islam means and I don’t think the people of Islam have tried to understand Hinduism. The two enormous groups have lived together in the sub-continent without understanding one another’s faiths.

Saananda MenonSadanand Menon interviews V. S. Naipaul, The Hindu, July 5, 1998

Q: You have been rather vehement about Marxist, leftist interpretations of history. What did you see as a major flaw in their arguments?

A: Probably not so much the Marxist interpretation of history as Marxist politics which, of course, is entirely criminal. Such disrespect for men. I think that is enough; that is condemnation enough. This lack of regard for human beings.

Q: Well, that is not specific to Marxists politics alone. All brands of organised politics, all parties mirror each other in their behaviour and have discredited themselves. But what about Marxism as a tool for analysing history?

A: You see, Sadanand, I have not lived like that. I never looked for unifying theories. I think everything is particular to a country, a culture, a period. In another context, I do not like people taking ancient myths, shall we say, and applying them to their own period. I think the ancient myths come from an ancient world. Sometimes very many ancient worlds come together in an epic work and to apply that narrative to modern life is absurd. Something like that I feel about these unifying interpretations of history. It is better just to face what there is. It is better not to know the answers to every problem, before you even know what the problems are. The Marxists, they know the answers long before they know anything. And, of course, it is not a science. It deals with human beings.

Q: You have given some signals during your visit here this time about your—it may be a wrong word—your “happiness” with the emergence and consolidation of some kind of parasitic Hindu political order here. How do you sustain such a thesis?

A: No. I have not done that actually. I have talked about history. And I have talked about this movement. I have not gone on to say I would like Hindu religious rule here. All that I have said is that Islam is here in a big way. There is a reason for that and we cannot hide from what the reasons were. The great invasions spread very far South, spreading to, you know, even Mysore. I think when you see so many Hindu temples of the 10th century or earlier time disfigured, defaced, you know that they were not just defaced for fun: that something terrible happened. I feel that the civilisation of that closed world was mortally wounded by those invasions. And I would like people, as it were, to be more reverential towards the past, to try to understand it; to preserve it; instead of living in its ruins. The old world is destroyed. That has to be understood. The ancient Hindu India was destroyed.

Q: Many things changed and many things overlapped in Indian history due to many diverse interventions. But do such processes over time justify the line of “historic revenge” with retrospective effect? Does it make that inevitable? What do you see unfolding before your eyes here today?

A: No. I do not think so. It need not happen. If people just acknowledged history, certain deep emotions of shame and defeat would not be driven underground and would not find this rather nasty and violent expression. As people become more secure in India, as a middle and lower middle class begins to grow, they will feel this emotion more and more. And it is in these people that deep things are stirred by what was, clearly, a very bad defeat. The guides who take people around the temples of Belur and Halebid are talking about this all the time. I do not think they were talking about it like that when I was there last, which is about 20 something years ago. So new people come up and they begin to look at their world and from being great acceptors, they have become questioners. And I think we should simply try to understand this passion. It is not an ignoble passion at all. It is men trying to understand themselves. Do not dismiss them. Treat them seriously. Talk to them.

Q: But don’t you think this tendency is only going to increase—this tendency to whimsically and freely interpret religion or history at the street level?

A: I think it will keep on increasing as long as you keep on saying it is wicked and that they are wicked people. And if we wish to draw the battleline, then of course, you get to battle. If you try to understand what they are saying, things will calm down. – Hindu Vivek Kendra, 199?

Babri Masjid Demolition 1992

A look at recent findings about the ‘mythical’ River Saraswati – Anil Kumar Suri

Ghaggar-Hakra (Saraswati) River

Ghaggar-Hakra River

Bharadwaja RishiSarasvaty abhi no neṣi vasyo māpa spharīḥ payasā mā na ā dhak |
juṣasva naḥ sakhyā veśyā ca mā tvat kśetrāṇy araṇyāni ganma ||

(“Please do not deny us your water, O Sarasvati! Please do not spurn us, leaving us to travel to other lands distant from you!” — Rig Veda (RV, Mandala 6, Sukta 61, Verse 14 – composed by Bharadvāja)

Few topics in Indian history have been the subject of as much debate and controversy as the Vedic River Sarasvati. Notably, in the last year, the Sarasvati has been the partial subject of a bad opinion piece by Mihir S. Sharma in the Business Standard, a rambling column by historian Irfan Habib in The Hindu and, most recently, a poorly researched article by Devdutt Pattanaik in Swarajya itself.

I shall try to bring the reader up to speed with the latest evidence pertaining to the Sarasvati, and its implications for Indian history. In the process, I also hope to illustrate how these three articles represent the three standard methods employed by those who present a false picture of Indian history—outright denial, obfuscation, and interpolation after convenient distortion, respectively.

The background

A school of historians has long denied that the Sarasvati was ever a literal river (this theory finds Sharma’s approval). Those who do concede it was indeed a river cannot agree on its location; for some of them, it is the descriptions of the Sarasvati, such as a great river (nadītame, RV 2.41.16), one characterised by great floods (arṇah, RV 1.3.12, 6.61.8) etc. that are not literal. Thus, while it is common to read that the Sarasvati is identified by some scholars with the present-day seasonal Ghaggar-Hakra, it is equally common to find it identified with the Helmand River in Afghanistan (which was known in ancient times as Harahvaiti), or described as a purely mythical river. In his article, Habib tries to play up this ambiguity, whilst failing to provide a balanced account of current evidence. Figuring out the truth about the Vedic Sarasvati is crucial to the larger question of settling if there was an influx of Indo-Aryan people to the subcontinent around 2000-1500 BCE, after the decline of the “native” Indus Valley Civilisation, which is claimed by many historians to have been the case (and repeated by Pattanaik).

The originally roving, horse-borne, cattle-herding Aryans—verily the cowboys of the 2nd Millennium BCE—are believed to have composed the Rig Veda after settling down in the northwest. After graduating to an agricultural lifestyle almost overnight, they slowly spread down the Gangetic plain through the 1st Millennium BCE, which is also supposed to be the period of composition of the “later” Yajur, Sama and Atharva Vedas, and the events described in the epics (the Ramayana and the Mahabharata). The Sarasvati occupied pride of place in the Rig Vedic pantheon, being described as the personification of a benevolent, life-sustaining river, and elevated to the giver of knowledge and wisdom.

According to the Satapatha Brahmana (2.3.4), no-one would venture to cross the Sadanira river (identified with the Gandak) as it was untouched by a Brahmana’s holy fire; then, the sage, Gotama Rahugana travels with his sacred agni from the banks of the Sarasvati and takes it to the other side of the Sadanira, where it is used to clear the forests and prepare the land for agriculture. Archaeology tells us that agriculture began on the eastern bank of the Gandak no later than the 3rd Millennium BCE. The Sarasvati once flowed from the mountains to the sea (RV 7.95.2). However, later, some Brahmanas and the Mahabharata say that the river no longer extended up to the sea, but came to an end in the desert. Eventually, the Sarasvati did vanish, coming to be preserved in popular memory as antarvahini, implying that its channels had become subterranean, and being regarded as present at the Triveni Sangam at present-day Allahabad for ritual purposes. Communities of Sārasvata Brahmins, who believe their ancestors originally resided in the Sarasvati valley can today be found all over India.

The questions

There were some old studies which had concluded that probably no major river existed in that Ghaggar-Hakra region in the Holocene (i.e., the last 10,000 years) at all. Some historians, like Habib in his article, went to town with this theory, implying this basically put an end to the possibility of finding the Rig Vedic Sarasvati there. This suits those arguing in favour of an Indo-Aryan migration into India very well. However, some obvious questions present themselves.

Firstly, why are there so many Harappan sites in the Sutlej-Yamuna interfluves if there was no source of water?

Secondly, how did the Harappans manage without an irrigation network in such a dry place? After all, the Mesopotamians and ancient Egyptians had to rely on extensive irrigation to sustain their agriculture.

And where anyway is the Sarasvati the Rig Veda extols so much, even as it mentions it along with the Indus and its tributaries?

Indeed, mapping of the Ghaggar-Hakra region has shown the presence of many dry channels. However, this could imply that either the Ghaggar-Hakra was once much larger than it is today, or that rivers like the Yamuna and the Sutlej once flowed into the Ghaggar-Hakra, but later changed course to join the Indus and Ganga respectively, as we know them today. If it was the Sutlej and Yamuna that once fed the Ghaggar-Hakra, when did they move away?

Peter CliftThe latest evidence

A team of geologists led by Peter Clift have come up with extremely insightful answers to these questions. Using a geochemical technique called uranium-lead (U-Pb) zircon dating, they were able to establish that the sediments from the various rivers—Indus, Beas, Sutlej, Hakra and Yamuna—could be distinguished from each other and, further, the sediments from the dry channels matched with those from the Sutlej, Beas and Yamuna rivers, suggesting that it was these rivers that were flowing in the dried up channels.

Next, analysing the sediments by radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating, they were able to determine that the Yamuna sediments were deposited in the channels (i.e., the Yamuna last flowed into the Ghaggar-Hakra) about 50,000 years ago, and the Sutlej and Beas about 10,000 years ago. There was also no sediment from the Yamuna, Sutlej or Beas in the main channel of the Ghaggar that could be said to be less than 5,000 years old. All this implies that the Ghaggar-Hakra was a much bigger river before the Holocene, but this would have been well before the supposed arrival of the Indo-Aryans around 4,000 years ago, and even the rise of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

So does that mean that there was no major river there in the last 10,000 years? Does the Sarasvati of the Vedas belong to an entirely different region, or is its description a significantly embellished one, or is it altogether mythical?

Here is a twist in the tale: all that the study of Clift and his group tells us is that the Ghaggar-Hakra was not a glacially fed river, unlike the Indus, Ganga and their tributaries, but probably a monsoon-fed river like all the rivers of central and peninsular India. A word of caution: Clift and group worked only in Pakistan, and have not studied the Ghaggar or present-day Saraswati Nadi in India.

Perennial, monsoonal Sarasvati

The fact that geological studies have indicated the ancient Ghaggar-Hakra did not have its origins in Himalayan glaciers, but in the Sivalik ranges, does not rule it out as the likely Vedic Sarasvati, as some have tried to needlessly argue. The Rig Veda says that the river extended from giri (RV 6.61.2, 7.95.2) to samudra (RV 7.95.2), so its origin in the Sivaliks cannot be a problem. Indeed, popular belief has it that the Sarasvati originated in Adi Badri in the Sivaliks, which is part of the Sapta Badri pilgrimage sites.

Clift and his group describe the Sarasvati as a perennial, monsoonal river with multiple courses, fed by many streams, and with gentle floods that contrasted sharply with the fury of rivers like the Indus, that very effectively sustained agriculture in the Harappan civilisation.

This picture explains the extremely high density of Harappan settlements in the region between the Yamuna and Sutlej rivers, rather than along any one course. It also explains why the Harappans did not need recourse to canal irrigation for agriculture. To take the example of Haryana, Bidyut Bhadra and colleagues point out that clustered Mature Harappan (2600-1900 BCE) sites are located in Jind and Karnal districts near paleochannels, as well as Late (1900-1300 BCE) and Post Harappan (1500 BCE and later) sites along streams like the present-day Saraswati Nadi and Markanda River, which join the Ghaggar.

When the river swelled in the monsoon, it would gently flood its plain, leaving it ready for the sowing of winter crops like barley and wheat. Unlike the glacially-fed Indus and its tributaries, the Sarasvati did not pose the danger of unexpected floods from early melting snow in February/March that might destroy the crop, which could be harvested in the spring.

This explains why the agriculture in that region was based on barley and wheat, unlike the Gangetic plain, where it was based on rice. Interestingly, it can also explain a common tradition: that of offering barley (jau) on the occasion of the spring festival of Sarasvati Puja on the day of Vasanta Panchami, although barley is not commonly cultivated—it may well be a several millennia-old practice that we have faithfully retained!

Given the extremely munificient and gentle nature of the river, with none of the danger of floods common to the other rivers, it is little wonder that the Sarasvati came to be eulogised as ambitame, nadītame, devitame (“greatest of mothers, greatest of rivers, greatest of goddesses”, RV 2.41.16).

Also, it may have been peculiarly conducive to the establishment and development of agriculture in the region. Already, Rakhigarhi in Haryana, believed to be close to the paleochannels of the Sarasvati, is turning out to be the largest “Harappan” site by some distance.

Archaeology may yet show that the earliest evidence of sedentism and agriculture may be in the Sarasvati region rather than the Indus Valley, as is currently the case. By enabling sedentism and ensuring food security very easily, the Sarasvati probably made possible further development and progress, which is why a grateful people elevated the personification of the river to the status of goddess of learning and culture.

In another study, Clift et al. also throw light on the possible factors behind the poorly-understood urbanisation process in the Indus Valley Civilisation. The Harappans seemed to have developed a sudden urge to build cities around 2600 BCE (not 8,000 years ago, as Pattanaik states!), leading to rapid and widespread urbanisation in just about a century. Even as aridification had set in, a remarkable stabilisation of rivers and reduction in the intensity of floods occurred, that proved conducive to intensive agriculture and, subsequently, urbanisation. However, the decline in the monsoon, reaching its worst around 2100 BCE tipped the scales, triggering the decline of the Harappan cities. The Sarasvati itself started drying up around 4500 years ago, and was completely covered by sand dunes around 600 CE.

Contrary to long-held theories that Indo-Aryans entered the subcontinent at this juncture and began imposing their culture on the natives, we find the development of distinct regional characteristics, and the shift towards hardier crops like millets and kharif crops after 1900 BCE, suggesting that there was no new population—much less one with rudimentary agricultural skills as the incoming Aryans would have been—but a native one that knew the land and conditions intimately enough to diversify and adapt quickly in a rapidly changing scenario. More importantly, the Indo-Aryans seem to have had an apprehension that the declining monsoon may well lead to the vanishing of the Sarasvati, as the verse in the beginning of this article suggests. That can only mean one thing. Interestingly, Clift and his group seem to think so too, for they conclude:

“This is a testament to the acuity of the Rig Veda composers who transmitted to us across millennia such an incredibly accurate description of a grand river!”Swarajya, 26 june 2016

» Anil Kumar is a materials scientist at Los Alamos in the USA.

Sindhu Saraswati Civilization

Rakhigarhi Dig Siteplan

Rakhigarhi resident looks over ancient site

See also

Why are Indian historians in a denial mode? – David Frawley

Indus Valley Script

Vamadeva Shastri / David FrawleyIt is time for … deconstructionist historians to be deconstructed. Such historians, whose view of the world is purely outward, do not have the insight to appreciate India. … Their historical accounts reflect the attempt of a recent ruling elite to rewrite history in its own image—and to deny legitimacy for any other group, even if it requires denying the very existence of India before they assumed power! – Dr David Frawley

India today is a strange country in that, uniquely among the nations of the world, it seems to be afraid of its own history.

If we study current historical accounts, particularly by India’s academic left, the most important fact about the history of India is that there is no real history of India. This is because such scholars are unable to see the existence of any cohesive entity called India before 1947.

India as a real country in their view is attributed mainly to Jawaharlal Nehru and his followers after independence on a region that, though previously under the umbrella of British rule, was otherwise lacking in unity, continuity or perhaps even civilisational depth.

Such historians are happy to negate the history of their own country. Their accounts of India’s history are largely denials of any enduring country, civilisation or culture worthy of the name. Their history of India is one of foreign invasions, temporary or vanished empires, internal social divisions and conflicts, and a disparate and confused cultural diversity. They regard India as a melting pot or conglomeration of widely separated peoples and cultures coming together by the accident of geography that hardly constitutes any united country or national identity.

Unfortunately, such Indian historians, particularly with political alliances with left historians in UK and US, are introducing their anti-India ideas into Western academia, which still does not understand India’s very different civilisational model.

King Porus (Puru) & Alexander at the Battle of Hydaspes (Jhelum)Such studies forget that national identity is cultural, not simply political. India did not become a British state under British rule or an Islamic state under Muslim rule. The older Indian/Bharatiya culture continued.

These anti-India views are easily countered by a number of historical facts.

The first is that outside people and countries have long recognised a civilisation called India.

After Alexander the Great came to India in the fourth century BCE, the Greek historian Megasthenes wrote a book on the region called Indika, in which he noted an existing tradition in the country of 153 kings going back over 6,400 years. The Greeks overall lauded the civilisation of India.

 Chinese travelling monk in India Hiun Tsang (c. 602–664)Buddhist pilgrims in the ancient and medieval period, particularly from China, honoured India and its great culture during their travels. India’s cultural influence spread to Indonesia and Indochina in the East and into Central Asia, extending on a religious level to China and Japan.

The ancient Romans lost much of their wealth in a one-sided trade with India and the Europeans long sought the riches of India. Columbus, of course, found America by chance while looking for a more direct sea route to India.

Second, India, like many countries, has more than one name. The Indian Constitution says the “India that is Bharat”. Bharat is the main ancient name for the region going back to King Bharat, an ancient ruler long before Rama, Krishna or Buddha.

The Bharatas were the main people of the ancient Rig Veda, who ruled from the Sarasvati region. They eventually split into several groups, one of which, the Kurus, became dominant in late ancient times, as the main people of the Mahabharata.

Modern historians can more easily deny history to the name India than to Bharat and so ignore the other name of the country.

Third, India has probably the oldest, largest and most continuous literature of any civilisation. The Vedas with their many thousands of pages dwarf anything from the Middle East, Egypt or Greece of the ancient period.

Geography is an important topic in these texts. The Vedas speak of a land of seven rivers, Sapta Sindhu, extending to the ocean, of which the Sarasvati River was the most important. The Persians in their oldest Zend-Avesta remember the area as Hapta Hindu. Sindhu, Hindu and India are related terms.

The Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas outline a sacred geography of India/Bharat from Kailas in the north to Lanka in the south, Assam in the east to beyond the Indus in the west. Buddhist and Jain texts do the same, showing a common culture and geography.

Around this sacred geography, Indians built numerous temples and recognised numerous sacred sites, revealing this vast region and its cultural unity.

Sadhu with horn at Kumbha Mela 2013Along with these sacred sites are numerous festivals and pilgrimages. We see this in modern India, which has the largest tradition of pilgrimage in the world, notably the massive Kumbha Melas that bring in tens of millions of pilgrims. Pilgrims throughout India visit these sites, with South Indians commonly travelling as far as the Himalayan temples of the north. Festivals like Diwali are elaborately celebrated throughout the country.

Ancient Indian literature contains a calendar system still widely followed, the Panchanga. Indian calendars extend from historical time of thousands of years to cosmic time of billions of years.

Fourth, extensive new evidence of archaeology upholds the cultural continuity of the region. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) claims that in the Haryana/Kurukshetra/Sarasvati river area there is evidence of a continual development of agriculture and civilisation from 8000 BCE, extending through the Harappan urban era. This area hosts Rakhigarhi, the largest Harappan site, more extensive than Mohenjodaro or Harappa.

The Harappan Civilization—also called the Indus Valley or Saraswati Civilisation—is the largest and most uniform urban civilisation of the ancient world in the third millennium BCE. It ended with the drying up of the Sarasvati River around 1900 BCE, which the Geological Survey of India (GSI) has verified. The Vedas refer to the different stages of the Sarasvati river from an ocean-going stream to drying up in the desert, showing they resided on the river long before its termination.

Consistent with their negative line of thought, leftist historians ignore this information or accuse archaeologists of political bias in their findings.

Lastly, but equally important, the independence movement drew inspiration from the older history of India/Bharat, with such revered figures as Swami Vivekananda, Lokmanya Tilak and Sri Aurobindo seeking to revive the ancient culture. Even Mahatma Gandhi’s mantra was Ram and his idea of India was Ram Rajya.

Not surprisingly, most of these independence leaders have been ignored by the same group of historians, who have made Nehru tower over them, with some afforded diminished roles and others forgotten altogether.

Muziris (Muchiri) port marked on the ancient Roman map Tabula PeutingerianaThe Congress party, the main support for such historians, has since named every major institution or initiative in India possible after the three members of the Nehru family who became prime ministers. They have little regard for other Congress prime ministers like P. V. Narasimha Rao, whom they have also almost erased from history.

Yet at the same time today, India’s great culture and civilisation through Yoga, Vedanta, Buddhism, Sanskrit, Indian music and dance is once more influencing the entire world—expanding in spite of this historical denigration.

It is time for these deconstructionist historians to be deconstructed. Such historians, whose view of the world is purely outward, do not have the insight to appreciate India, because it is not a mere political formation but a vast spiritual culture.

Their historical accounts reflect the attempt of a recent ruling elite to rewrite history in its own image—and to deny legitimacy for any other group, even if it requires denying the very existence of India before they assumed power! – Vedanet, 30 June 2016

» This article originally appeared in Swarajya Magazine behind a paywall.

» Dr David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri) is a Vedacharya and includes in his unusual wide scope of studies Ayurveda, Yoga, Vedanta and Vedic astrology, as well as the ancient teachings of the oldest Rigveda. Tweet him at @davidfrawleyved.

Sindhu Saraswati Civilizational Area Map