Irfan Habib still searching for the Saraswati River – Yvette Rosser

Ostriches & Marxist Historians

Yvette Rosser“I was professionally embarrassed for Irfan Habib regarding his lack of scholarly research, when thirteen years ago, he made this uniformed comment, ‘It matters little that the ‘mighty Sarasvati’ supposedly flowing down to the sea through the desert is a sheer figment of the imagination with no support from geography or geology.’ (Outlook, February 13, 2002.) Back then, I wrote: ‘these are very strong words for a respected historian to use when there is overwhelming documented scientific evidence that a huge river did flow in that part of western India 3800 years ago.’” – Dr Yvette Rosser

Irfan HabibIn the 17 April edition of The Hindu, a sarcastically penned article, printed prominently at the top of the page in the Opinion-Comment section, titled “Searching for Saraswati”, was written by the renowned historian, Professor Irfan Habib.

The attached cartoon reminded me of an article I wrote in 2003, titled “Ostriches and Archaeologists”, which discussed the long-standing disputes between a vocal group of Indian historians (formally self-identified as Marxist historians, but since the fall of the USSR, now calling themselves ‘progressives’) versus the Archaeological Survey of India (aka: mainstream Indian archaeologists).

My humorous title, “Ostriches and Archaeologists” reflected the absurdity that archaeologists are digging in the earth to discover historical artifacts, while this group of historians, colleagues of Professor Habib, have their heads buried in the sand refusing to look at the emerging evidence regarding the discovery of the paleo-geographic river bed of the long-dried up Saraswati River, as well condemning as other pre-modern (aka: Medieval) archaeological excavations.

Prof B.B. LalIn 2003, I vetted a copy of that article, “Ostriches and Archaeologists” to Professor B. B. Lal, who is often referred to as the father of Indian archaeology. Months later, I visited him at his home and his son who is a pilot and an officer in the Indian air force said to me that he hadn’t realized that his father, an octogenarian scholar, was a revolutionary. I replied with the famous quote, that in times of deceit and cover-up, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.[1]

In my research regarding India’s Social Sciences a dozen years ago, under the heading “Historiography in the Headlines” I noted that there was a vocal group of historians in India, who for decades have used the mainstream media to further their causes, while consistently refusing to look at archaeological evidence. Irfan Habib was among the usual signatories who critiqued not only archaeologists, but their material finds as well.  Even the artifacts were condemned as communal and saffron, if they incidentally lent credence to the ancientness of Dharmic traditions.

Artifacts are not saffron unless they were buried in ochre colored soil for a few thousand years. Facts are not Saffron, unless you are afraid of them and hope to sarcastically trivialize the emerging data, which Habib does like a seasoned pro. Using the reducto ad absurdum fallacy to reduce the argument to the absurd, converting an intellectual debate into a lopsided political one and avoiding the facts by ridiculing the supposed ‘intention’ and source of the data, Professor Habib’s critique was mostly political with very few historical considerations.

Instead of talking about merits of the case his strategy was to be distracted by side issues, bringing up controversies then changing the topic, and by sleight of word, Habib uses a bait-and-switch methodology to avoid the real issues at hand.

IVC SiteFor reasons tied up with ideological predispositions, there is a group of very vocal historians in India who have staked their professional careers against the research emerging from IVC sites in western India.  These professors fight pitched battles in the media and on the Internet to oppose the very existence, much less the evolving nomenclature of the Sindhu-Saraswati culture. Yet, strangely, despite being supposedly objective academicians, they are operating in complete denial of archaeological and other contemporary scientific data. For some strange reasons that are very detrimental to India’s social sciences, these historians’ minds are closed to dispassionate examination of contemporary historiographical research.

I was professionally embarrassed for Irfan Habib regarding his lack of scholarly research, when thirteen years ago, he made this uniformed comment, “It matters little that the ‘mighty Sarasvati’ supposedly flowing down to the sea through the Desert is a sheer figment of the imagination with no support from geography or geology.” (Outlook February 13, 2002.)  Back then, I wrote: “These are very strong words for a respected historian to use when there is overwhelming documented scientific evidence that a huge river did flow in that part of western India 3800 years ago.”

More than a decade ago, being thus astonished, I commented that “perhaps Professor Habib can be excused for not being up to date in paleogeology and satellite imaging, or even contemporary research on ancient Indian geographical history, since his specialty is Medieval India, but it is surprising that, being thusly uninformed, he has taken such a strong stand.”

You can well imagine how surprised I am when I witness, more than thirteen years later that Professor Habib has still not updated himself professionally. Yet ironically, he continues to use his valuable time to write op-ed pieces in the popular press condemning his archaeological ‘others’—a sad testament to the sorry state of social sciences and historiography in India.  After reading a random news report about some local water reclamation project in Haryana, Habib based his supposedly academically informed critique entirely on that scant bit of yellow journalism, and due to the dreaded saffron dominance in Haryana, Habib is overtly political in his critique. Facts be damned!

Ghaggra-Hakra (Saraswati) RiverThe only professional study to which Habib refers in this article is from the eighties. Whereas in the last thirty years there have been scores of scientifically sound research projects including paleogeological studies (with chemical analyses of soil samples), geographical studies, climatic studies, satellite imagery and landstat photography, isotope analyses, dozens of excavations by Indian and non-Indian archaeologists that support the hypothesis that there is a dried up riverbed of a great river that ran approximately where the seasonal rivers Ghaggar-Hakra now flow, as can be seen in satellite images. It ran down and around, heading in a southwesterly direction, wandering as rivers do over the millennia, from where it gained strength fed by other rivers, between the Yamuna and Sutlej, just where the ancient Hindu scriptures tell us this river used to run, and as Habib finally concedes in the last two paragraphs of his paper.

Ultimately, 4000 years ago, the legendary Saraswati River dried up due to tectonic activity and climatic changes, first slowly over centuries, forming numerous oxbow lakes before sinking into the sands of Rajasthan and disappearing into the sands of time.

Contrary to Habib’s claim in The Hindu, the Saraswati didn’t emerge from a ditch in Haryana, but as actually mentioned in the article upon which he based his critique, and in countless other documentations, the Saraswati originated in the Himalayas, where it emerged from the “foothills of the Shivaliks in the Adi Badri area” which is between Dharmasala and Simla. Hardly a “nullah” in Haryana!

In fact, recent research of soil samples in the Rann of Kutch and where the Saraswati emptied into the Arabian Sea have found Himalayan sand particles, particular to Uttaranchal in the sedimentary composition. These tests were conducted years after the 1980’s era study cited by Habib in The Hindu.

In Habib’s characterization, he sarcastically suggested the BJP government in Haryana should dig ‘two or three tube wells … to create an official spring.” Habib is confused as to the course of the ancient river. He should actually know this bit of geographic knowledge since he is an Indian historian who continually writes about this issue in the media!  He knows well that the Saraswati ran between the Yamuna and Sutlej as mentioned prominently in the Vedas and other historical Sanskrit texts and has can be seen on a modern landstat map.

Ghaggar RiverSeemingly, Habib cannot overcome the fact that in contemporary India, there is no roaring and raging Saraswati River running between the Yamuna and Sutlej, where the Saraswati was located. But I urge Professor Habib to visit the area and he would see that even today, the buried courses of the Saraswati still yield sub-surface water in the Rajasthan desert. “This sub-surface water in the desert comes from the Himalayan precipitation that flows through the buried courses of the Saraswati. Since the meagre rainfall (150mm) in the Rajasthan desert cannot contribute substantially to the perennial supply of sub-surface water, it is the quietly flowing Saraswati under the sub-surface of earth that is the source of year-round sub-surface water.” Dr Kar adds, “Field investigation by the researchers confirmed the existence of buried courses of the Saraswati River. It has been found that the areas through which the Saraswati flowed supports lush green vegetation today even during the summer months in the desert. In fact, some wells dug along the buried course of the Saraswati have yielded sweet water only at 30 to 40 metres.” [Quote from: Dr Amal Kar, senior geomorphologist at the Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI) in Jodhpur.]

I urge Professor Habib to visit the area before he condemns it again. He may also see, like the senior geomorphologist at the Central Arid Zone Research Institute, what seems like “a miracle in the Thar desert!” Or maybe it is just an ancient dried up river that still exists in some capacity below ground. Professor Habib may remember that after the dreadful earthquake in Bhuj in 2001, a spring opened up in the desert and clear fresh water flowed for days. There are many such stories across that broad area, from decade to decade, that report the emergence of a spring even after a mild earthquake.

But Professor Habib mocks the whole issue and dismisses the arguments and lumps all the informed and involved scholars into some kind of saffron stew that need not be heeded by the readers of The Hindu. He also seemingly dismisses satellite photography. No wonder for the last five millennia, Hindus thought that the Saraswati River must be mythical since they couldn’t find it on a map. Through the centuries, the popular lore considered that this non-existent, mythical Saraswati River, praised so prominently in the Rg Veda must be an underground river and it was presumed to meet the Ganga and the Yamuna at Prayag, in Professor Habib’s backyard. That old myth of an underground Saraswati has been demolished by contemporary research. A Times News article on June 15, 2002, stated that Habib, who “has written extensively on Saraswati, feels the exercise is a ‘waste of money.’” Then why, decade after decade, does Professor Habib continue to sensationalize the Saraswati and keep on writing ‘historiography in the headlines’ harping on a topic he refuses to research?

Heinrich Zimmer was a professor of Indology at Heidelberg Near to the end of his editorial comments in The Hindu, Habib cited Heinrich Zimmer for advocating the concept that the Saraswati is not an independent river but actually another name for the Indus. Heinrich Zimmer, whose excellent books on Indian art were published posthumously by Joseph Campbell passed away in 1943, decades before either the paleo-geological studies or satellite photography revealed the existence of the Saraswati River. [2]

To conclude his tirade directed towards researchers excavating along the banks of the Saraswati River, Professor Habib knowledgeably cites the verses in the Rig Veda where the Saraswati is mentioned and other relevant Sanskrit texts, such as the Panchavimsha Brahmana and the Manusmriti, where “Brahmavarta corresponds exactly to Haryana.”

In his final, strangely-worded sentence Habib writes, “From ancient tradition itself we thus have a depiction of the Saraswati that mocks neither geography nor history.” If that is true, why then did Professor Habib write an entire article that mocks the scientists researching the Saraswati River? Why, then, after all these decades didn’t he do his research? He would know that no scholars are trying to ‘stretch’ the Saraswati to pass below Allahabad. Obviously, purposes other than those of reason and common sense are at work guiding Irfan Habib’s perspectives.

Scholars researching the Saraswati River have embraced this relevant quote by Mahatma Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Ultimately, research regarding the Saraswati River will continue moving forward and Professor Habib will prattle on in the popular press about saffron artifacts.  The sheer volume of the evidences will win the argument. – IndiaFacts, 23 April 2015


  1. That article “Ostriches and Archaeologists” emerged from my PhD dissertation, which was an investigation of historiographical approaches used in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. My dissertation: “Curricula as Destiny: Forging National Identities in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh”, compared secondary Social Studies textbooks in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, three countries with thousands of years of shared history but very different contemporary perspectives of those events.  Among resulting publications: Islamization of Pakistani Social Studies Textbooks, RUPA, New Delhi, 2003. (See this review:
  2. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization by Heinrich Zimmer. Edited by Joseph Campbell (1946).

» Dr Yvette Rosser first visited India in 1970, where she met Neem Karoli Baba who advised her to go to graduate school. She subsequently attended the University of Texas at Austin, where her Master’s thesis in the Department of Asian Studies examined the treatment of India in the social studies curriculum and how India and Hinduism are described in academic treatments. Her 2003 Ph.D. dissertation, Curriculum as Destiny: Forging National Identity in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, is a study of the politics of history in South Asia.

Saraswati River Map

The state of ancient Indian historical studies in modern India – J. K. Bajaj

Prof Dilip K. ChakrabartiThis is a summary of the talk by Dilip K. Chakrabarti given at Lala Diwan Chand Trust in Delhi on 27 November 2014 and sponsored by the Centre for Policy Studies and the Diwan Chand Institute of National Affairs. Dr. Chakrabarti is Emeritus professor of South Asian Archaeology, Cambridge University, and Dean, Historical and Civilizational Centre, Vivekananda International Foundation, Delhi.

A number of points regarding the present state of ancient Indian historical studies deserve consideration. Out of the few hundred universities and university-level institutions, only a few offer courses in ancient India. Even among this handful of institutions, the places where the subject is taught with some kind of competence and expertise are very few. Why is the study of ancient India in modern Indian educational system so limited and so poor? The answer is rather unpleasant: we Indians are not seriously interested professionally in our ancient past; there is no prestige in its study and at the end no job. More unpleasantly, there is also some hostility from the vested interest groups of historians of “modern India.” To give only two examples, Nalanda International UniversityProf. Gopa Sabharwal, in which the Ministry of External Affairs is directly involved, is known to have recently filled the posts in its “school of historical studies.” The selected professor/dean is an anthropologist with specialization in Rajasthani folk literature. The academic credibility of another professor recruited to this school seems to be his knowledge of the Korean language. He has done some translation work but his research credentials in history are not at all clear. A third person recruited on a junior level seems to have done primarily de-construction work so far; detailed empirical research does not seem to have played any major role in his research record. Although the other recruits have something to do with history, none of them has anything to do with ancient India. Secondly, Presidency College University in Kolkata does not have any ancient Indian historian among the people recently recruited for its Department of History. For the last 50 years at least historians of the West Bengal universities have shown profound contempt for ancient India. This has taken different forms, one of which is that the MAs in Ancient Indian History and Culture, and Archaeology are usually not recruited for history teaching in the undergraduate colleges of the state.

R.C. MajumdarThe third point is that ‘”Hindu-baiting” is also a feature of many of the current studies on ancient India. Upinder Singh, a Delhi university historian, criticizes R.C. Majumdar by saying that he equated ancient India to Hinduism. She forgets that Buddhism and Jainism, two other visible religions of ancient India, were offshoots of Hinduism and that historians like R.C. Dutt had no hesitation to equate ancient India to Hindu civilization. When it comes to the study of the religion of the Indus civilization, a good number of Indian and foreign scholars are rather disturbed by the mention of Hinduism in that context. Hindu-baiting is also manifest in the way the status of Hinduism as a religion has been denied by various scholars. Their idea is that if the census operators of British India had categorized people not as Hindus but as adherents of Siva, Vishnu and others, Hinduism would not have emerged as the majority religion of India.. It would have emerged as an agglomeration of different sectarian groups. Western scholars have consistently argued this ignoring the overarching principle of unity that one finds in the Upanishads and they have been joined by Indian scholars like Romila Thapar.

H.D. SankaliaThe fourth point is that there is very little sense of nationalism among the Indian ancient historians and archaeologists of the post-Independence generation. The situation has deteriorated so much that any claim of high antiquity for anything Indian is viewed with suspicion. It is this almost endemic attitude which prevented people from looking at Indian history in proper historical perspective. H.D. Sankalia’s influence on Indian archaeology has been enormous — he was a kind of archaeological guru in the Deccan College, Pune, but according to him the sun of civilization for India lay always in the West. This is a bizarre opinion, but it is this attitude which still persists in the institute where he spent many years.

Bankim Chandra ChattopadhyayThe fifth point is that most of the teachers and students of ancient India feel no affinity with the history and culture of the period because they do not have much clue to the language in which the ethos of the period manifested itself. There was a time when Sanskrit was more or less compulsory in Indian schools. As most of the Indian languages are rooted in different forms in Sanskrit, the sense of alienation between the past and the present was much less. A Bengali of my generation could fall in love with the Sanskrit-inspired passages of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, among others. Not many Bengalis of the modern generation can read them in original. I consider that a calamity for Bengali culture but we cannot do anything about it unless the study of Sanskrit is made mandatory in schools. – HPI, 1 December 2014

» This report prepared for Hindu Press International by Dr. J. K. Bajaj, Center for Policy Studies, Chennai.

Why I am not a Hindu – Koenraad Elst

Dr Koenraad Elst“I am a friend. And that loyalty is not dependent on the attitudes of some Hindus towards my person. I am convinced that, in spite of some human failings, the best Hindu doctrines are true, and Hinduism is a far more desirable world view and way of life than its challengers.” – Dr Koenraad Elst

How I did not become a Hindu 

Both Sita Ram Goel and Vamadeva Shastri (David Frawley) have written a book called How I Became a Hindu. I could never write such a book because I have deliberately made a choice not to identify myself as Hindu. In this article I will explain “why I am not a Hindu”. 

Leaving Christianity

Before starting out, let me put aside any possible confusion with another publication in existence: the book Why I Am Not a Hindu by Kancha Ilaiah, a convert to Christianity. I have seen post-Christian Westerners grimly use it as a formidable argument against Hinduism, not realizing that it is an ordinary missionary pamphlet against caste, to which Hinduism is falsely reduced. Unlike Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian and Ibn Warraq’s Why I Am Not a Muslim, hefty tomes written by apostates who knew their childhood religion very well, Why I Am Not a Hindu is a caricature for simpletons. It starts out with a few interesting sketches of caste life in his childhood village, but then descends into unwarranted theoretical speculations for which he is simply not equipped.  Essentially he assumes, like most haters of Hinduism, that “Hinduism is caste, wholly caste and nothing but caste”, and that the only way to break free from caste is to destroy Hinduism root and branch. The author is hopeful that Hinduism is indeed losing out, and a recent book by him muses about a “post-Hindu India”. That is of course the missionary vision.

It is not my vision. I think Hindus are better off staying Hindu, and that South Asian Christians and Muslims had better shed their divisive faiths and return to the Hindu civilization which their ancestors left. I know first-hand that there is life after apostasy from Christianity or Islam, being an apostate from Christianity. I belong to the generation that collectively walked out of the Church. In my society, the Flemish part of Belgium, the vast majority in my childhood used to be practising Catholics, now these are only a small minority. There is no danger that many will return to the faith, even on their deathbeds:  the knowledge pin-pricking the basic Catholic truth claims is just too strong. 

Recognizing one’s friends

However, when tempted to think that that is obvious, internet Hindus are there to accuse me of being a clog in a world conspiracy, mostly as a missionary agent. These people really live in a fantasy world, for a real-world organization that means business, such as the Church (actually any Church), would at least pay its agents. Well, I am not being paid by the Church nor by any other lobby group. Worse about their lack of worldly wisdom is that they haven’t heard about the very real decline of the Church. Anachronistically, they are still fulminating against T.B. Macaulay and Max Müller and feel very brave when kicking against corpses; more recent developments have passed them by. Yet, I keep on meeting Hindus who assume I am a believer, even after having read me, or who suspect I merely claim to be past all that in order to gain the confidence of the Hindus, but am secretly an agent for the Church.

Not being able to recognize your own friends is a very serious drawback in life. It is my experience that Hindus are very defective in this regard. One of the five books of the Pañcatantra is meant to teach “the art of making friends,” originally to three not-so-gifted princes. Presumably the fables succeed in making even these dummies understand how to make friends. Among Hindu activists, by contrast, I notice a greater proficiency in the art of making enemies. This takes two forms: treating friends as enemies, and turning friends into enemies.

In the diaspora Hindu movement in the US and the UK, I have been privy, just in the last three years, to good initiatives getting marred by infighting, defections and hostilities against ex-friends. In this case, it seems to me that giving names and details will only make matters worse, so I won’t. But one example I can easily divulge is the attacks on myself.  Ever since I took upon me the unpleasant job of giving Hindus feedback about their glaring and costly mistakes in history rectification initiatives, I have received quite an amount of hate mail. And mind you, I am not using the term “hate mail” (or “death threats”, a term used by Romila Thapar, who was safe and sound but couldn’t stand being criticized) lightly. It does not mean a mail from someone who disagrees. If only internet Hindus were to argue dissenting points of view, that would be fine; but more often than arguments they just give you abuse.

One serious example of making outsiders into enemies concerns those Hindus who borrow conspiracies about the Jews. Some Western forums and websites specialize in stories about “the Israeli secret service Mossad having engineered the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001” or about “the Jewish bankers behind the world financial crisis of 2008” (and of 1929 etc.). Individual internet Hindus sometimes internalize this line of rhetoric, and they are too blind or too self-important to see that they are beautifully playing into the hands of their enemies. After centuries of Hindus giving a uniquely good treatment to their Jewish minority, after V.D. Savarkar and the BJP supporting Zionism, after cases of collaboration between American Hindus and the “Jewish lobby”, and after the mounting military cooperation between Israel and India, the powerful Indo-American secularist lobby, well-entrenched in the universities, would love to break this Hindu-Jewish alliance. Enter the Hindu lobby, that gives them all they want to hear, and especially to quote. Those lobbyists (once more confirming S.R. Goel’s impression that they are “the biggest collection of duffers that ever came together in world history”) are easily capable of driving a wedge between the Hindu activists and any friends they threaten to make. But the internet Hindus concerned are too smug and too wrapped up in their fantasies to see the strategic implications of their fanciful arrogance for the broader Hindu cause.  

In India, the Hindu activists are closer to power, with a handful of BJP governments in some states or other, and now (December 2014) even a BJP government at the centre. Power tends to quell infighting, firstly because there are constructive things to do, with tangible tasks and results; secondly, because any individual disgruntledness or unease can always be bought off with a post or perk. But that is the peace of the lowest common denominator. It is OK that Hindus don’t roll on the floor fighting each other, but it is another question whether they are focused enough to achieve anything in their times in power – other than keeping the enemy out of power.

At any rate, I am a friend. And that loyalty is not dependent on the attitudes of some Hindus towards my person. I am convinced that, in spite of some human failings, the best Hindu doctrines are true, and Hinduism is a far more desirable world view and way of life than its challengers. 


I do know that numerous Hindus object to foreign converts and spew their venom at “white Hindus”. They may even be the same people who otherwise like to quote the praises of Hinduism by Arthur Schopenhauer, Mark Twain, Romain Rolland and other Westerners. At one time I was not aware of this phenomenon. And yet it is but the in-your-face dimension of a deeper-seated mistrust and unease among Hindus of any transgressing of the boundaries between inside and outside Hinduism.          

Indeed, at one time I was so enthusiastic about Hinduism that I had made up my mind to formally convert. I mentioned my desire to become a Hindu to Prof. Kedar Nath Mishra, the philosopher of Banaras Hindu University who had accepted me as a Ph.D. candidate. However, I immediately noticed his lack of enthusiasm, much in contrast to how a Muslim would react. Out loud, he only commented that this matter should certainly not be hurried. This is in fact only common sense: even responsible Christian missionaries eager to make conversions still insist on verifying whether a candidate is serious. If he loses his initial fervour for his new religion and quits it, this would mean that much ado had been about nothing, and constitute a greater loss of face for his conversion sponsor than his accession was a gain. So, the temporization is universal and reasonable. But I sensed there was more to it than that.

One is member of a caste by birth. There is no conversion possible from one’s own birth-group to another. All the castes combined have been called Hindu society, so one is a Hindu by birth. One is born within a community, and while people can change jobs, swap wives or borrow new ideas, they cannot change the facts pertaining to their birth. So, Prof. Mishra was born as a Hindu and has remained a Hindu until his death; while I was born as a non-Hindu and will die as a non-Hindu.

Even Hindu organizations explicitly preaching and practising conversions, such as the Arya Samaj and the Vishva Hindu Parishad, only target former Hindus or people on the margins of Hindu society. Their “recoversions” only concerns Indian Muslims or Christians whose ancestors were Hindus, or tribals who only recently were seduced by the missionaries. We see the same thing among other national religions. In the Iranian community of Los Angeles, as well as in Ossetia and Tajikistan, many Muslims reconvert to their ancestral Zoroastrianism (even though the Ossetes’ Scythian ancestors may have largely escaped the specifically Zoroastrian reform of the Iranian religion), but the Zoroastrians do not welcome non-Iranians. In Yakutia, an ethnically Turkic republic within the Russian Federation, the traditional Turkic religion (which is not Islam) has become legally recognized in 2014. The Russian Orthodox Church (more nation-oriented than the Catholic and Protestant Churches) did not object, on the understanding that only native Yakuts would feel attracted to this religion, while Russians would remain Orthodox. So, outside Christianity and Islam, and even within some strands of Christianity, there exists an identification of religious traditions with national communities, into which one has irrevocably been born (or not).

Many Hindus welcome converts, and take pride in the existence of Westerners who have embraced Hinduism. However, I do not want to enter a house where other inhabitants object to my presence. I don’t mind if they object to my ideas or my conduct, but if they object to my very presence, I have to take their attitude into account. And so, I am only too aware of those other Hindus who find it rather bizarre that outsiders would want to become Hindu. Moreover, their negative attitude does not amount to disrespect: most of them can respect me as a Westerner, it is only the strange inclination to perforce self-identify as a Hindu which they object to.

Traditionally, Hinduism only knows collective conversion, or at least integration which Christians might describe as conversion, i.e. a whole existing community that retains its own ways and autonomy but accepts the over-all framework of Vedic society; and very exceptionally, individual conversion through marriage. If an existing Hindu community accepts you as a son-in-law, then everybody accepts you as a member of that particular community. One never knows whom one may yet meet in life, but so far, this hasn’t happened to me. 

Link with India

This fact of a rejection by others, by a sizable part of the legitimate Hindu population, is already enough for me not to call myself a Hindu. It is a conception of converting religions to consider the most true or somehow most desirable religion as the one of which we should be a member. If you wax enthusiastic about a Hindu practice like yoga, most Hindus will say: go ahead and practise it, become a European yogi, or as the case may be, a Japanese yogi, a Rastafarian yogi, a Hottentot yogi. At the end of your life, you may write an autobiography: Story of a European Yogi, but please don’t affect being a Hindu.

A second reason is that “Hindu”, as the Persian form of Sindhu (the Indus river), refers to India. Originally it meant “one who lives at or beyond the Indus”, a purely geographical term meaning “Indian”, later the Muslim invaders turned it into a geographical-cum-religious term: “any Indian Pagan”. According to V.D. Savarkar, a Hindu is one who considers India both his Fatherland and Holy Land. The West now has a sizable Hindu population, but they are for the most part People of Indian Origin. When Hindus praise the work benefiting Hinduism that I have done, they typically speculate that I “must have been born in India in my past life”. So, there is always that connection to India. Well, at present I may be a regular traveller to India, but my roots lie in Europe.

To put it crudely, I don’t care for India. It is true that Hinduism grew up on Indian soil, and I strongly disagree with those colleagues who insist that “yoga isn’t from India”. Of course India is historically the place where Hinduism grew up, and even now India is worth defending against those who besiege it. But the ideas and practices that make up the beauty of Hinduism could have come about elsewhere too, and partly they have. Religions related to or typologically similar to Hinduism have existed though they have largely been wiped off the map by Christianity and Islam, and even these have preserved certain traditions that Hindus would feel familiar with. So, India as the cradle of Hinduism is a fact of life, but it is also relative and a shaky foundation for a religion that sees itself as the eternal Dharma. “One day, India too will go,” to quote my yoga teacher Dr. Pukh Raj Sharma from Jodhpur. 

Compare with Christianity. Numerous Hindus have the tendency to identify Christianity with the West. In reality, Christian missionaries see it as the universal truth, equally valid for Indians as for Westerners. The geographical claim is at any rate historically untrue: in the Roman Empire, the Christians were called the “Galileans” to mark their religion as an import into the West from the Middle East. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem as the site of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection has a certain place in Christian history, if only because it provided the casus belli of the Crusades, but it testifies to the Europeans’ awareness that Christianity originated outside Europe. European ex-Christians with nationalist convictions hold it against Christianity that it is foreign. The Christian answer to that would not be to deny its foreign origin, but to insist that it is the true religion and that therefore everyone should accede to it. As for European culture and its national divisions, these can get a place in Christianity: inculturation has a long history, and to a large extent, national folklore has indeed merged with Christianity. So, in India’s case, a feeling of Indianness is welcome to flourish in Indian churches, using Indian materials during rituals or singing Indian music, as long as everyone believes in the imported teachings of the Church. 

Secondly, this identification with a nation just doesn’t apply. The motor car has been invented in the West, but the cars on the Indian roads apply the exact same mechanical principles which the German inventors once implemented to build the first motor car. There is no such thing as “Indian car mechanics,” this science is universal. The Law of Gravity was discovered by an Englishman, Isaac Newton, but would have been just the same if it had been discovered by anyone else, anywhere else. Likewise, anything true is universally true, so if the Christian core teachings are true, they should also be accepted as true by Indians; if not, they are not true for Westerners either. That is why it only shows incomprehension to argue about whether Christianity is or is not Indian; the only sensible question is whether it is true. Yajñavalkya never argued about the Indianness (a concept that didn’t even exist yet) of the doctrine of the Self. Nor did Shankara engage in debates about whether Dualism was more Indian than Non-Dualism; he only cared about which view was more true. So, let us follow in the footsteps of these great Indian thinkers and forget about Indianness.

However, Hinduism pertains to more than just the truth of a doctrine. It effectively also has a geographical component. For that reason, I may agree with the Hindu thinker Yajñavalkya, be doctrinally on the same wavelength, yet not be a Hindu. 

Hinduism as Paganism

Without creedal religions like Christianity, the world simply consists of a landscape of different sects or traditions. These are not foreign to one another, as witnessed by the practice of interpretatione romana, i.e. Julius Caesar’s approach of the Celtic deities he encountered in Gaul and whom he “translated” into the corresponding deities in the Roman pantheon. The practice already existed in the ancient Middle East, and can easily be seen in the names of the week days, where the names of the planets were translated from Sumerian to Akkadian and Aramaic, these to Greek, thence to Sanskrit and Latin, thence to Hindi, English etc. The planet Jupiter was Marduk to the Babylonians, Jupiter to the Romans, Thor to the Brits, Guru to the Indians, etc.

The ancient Arab traders went on pilgrimage to the Somnath Temple, because in the moon-bearing Shiva they recognized their own moon-god Hubal. And conversely, Indian traders doing business in Arabia went to the Kaaba in Mecca because its presiding deity Hubal was clearly their own Shiva. Yes, in the human netherworld there were local differences, but these were not consequential. The places from which you see the starry sky are different, but the stars in heaven are the same.

So, I have decided to focus on the absolute unity of heaven, more than on the relative difference of the vantage points on earth. Therefore, I don’t care any more about being from here or from there, the truth would in each case turn out to be the same. It doesn’t change anything to my world view or my way of life whether I artificially try to change myself into a Hindu or naturally define myself as being European and all other levels of identity that happen to apply to me. 

A Hindu name

In Western yoga circles, I know numerous people who have received a Sanskrit name, and many of them also use it. A few have even gone to the town hall or the court to change their civil names and officially register the Sanskrit names. Though I have received quite a few initiations (diksha) from Hindu gurus, somehow I have never been given a Sanskrit name. Fortunately so, for that saves me the trouble of having to decide whether to actually use this name or not. Probably not.

Not that it matters to me if others do it. Most Westerners who have a Sanskrit name live among Westerners and so there is no occasion for confusion. By vocation, I am more in touch with Hindu society, and that makes it confusing if I would adopt a Hindu-sounding name. (For the same reason, I disapprove of converts to Christianity retaining their Hindu names, a new Church policy consciously seeking to confuse and conceal.) Also, it is but normal that those who become Hindu monks get a monastic name, just as a Catholic monk changes his civil name to a given monastic name.

My own given name is Germanic and profound enough. Koen means “brave”, raad means “counsel” “deciding what is to be done”. Its Greek equivalent was Thrasuboulos, which happens to be the name of a victorious general, national liberator and pioneer of democracy in Athens, killed in battle while fighting for his polity. So, I will just keep it.

That also happens to be the Hindu thing to do. Thus, some equality-minded Hindus hide their caste-specific last name, e.g. calling themselves (to name one example I have known) Maheshvari Prasad instead of the recognizably Brahmin name Maheshvariprasad Sharma. Yet, they will never intrude into another caste by giving themselves a last name suggestive of another caste identity, say Maheshvariprasad Yadav or Maheshvariprasad Varma. So likewise, I will not intrude into the Hindu commonwealth by claiming a Hindu identity and calling myself by a Hindu name.

Hindus don’t have this notion of a creedal identity. A creed or world view can be chosen (and indeed I have the experience of trading in a religion imposed on me for another persuasion); while an identity is simply there. So, I just accept that I carry the non-Hindu name Koenraad without having chosen it, and I will not choose another one. ♦

A Marxist critique of the Modi government’s ICHR nomination – Koenraad Elst

Dr. Koenraad Elst“Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known for having a low opinion of diplomas and having more respect for achievement. That is why he nominated Smriti Irani, underqualified but a proven hard worker, to the Human Resources Development ministry, who in her turn thought of Prof. Rao as the right choice for the ICHR. Let us hope that she knows of qualities of his that we have yet to appreciate.” – Dr Koenraad Elst

Prof Romila ThaparRetired historian Romila Thapar has written an opinion piece (“History repeats itself”, 11 July 2014, India Today) giving the standard secular reaction to the appointment of equally retired historian Y. Sudershan Rao as chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research. It gives the predictable (indeed, predicted, see K. Elst: “A Hindutva historian in office”, 11 July 2014) show of indignation hiding an inside reaction of satisfaction at the BJP’s renewed display of incompetence in reforming the field of history.

Yellapragada Sudershan RaoStatus

“The appointment of a historian whose work is unfamiliar to most historians shows scant regard for the impressive scholarship that now characterises the study of Indian History and this disregard may stultify future academic research. Given that the writing of history in India over the last half-century has produced some of the finest historians, recognised both nationally and internationally, one is surprised at the appointment of Professor Y. Sudershan Rao as chairperson of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR). Professor Rao’s work is unfamiliar to most historians, with little visibility of research that he might have carried out. He has published popular articles on the historicity of the Indian epics but not in any peer-reviewed journal, and the latter is now a primary requisite for articles to be taken seriously at the academic level.”

Here we have, at some length, the usual status-mongering. It says, in short, that Prof Rao is not “eminent”. It is a rather sophomoric argument: outsiders (such as politicians) and beginners imagine that academic status has a whole lot of meaning, and that you can’t be a serious scientist unless you have this kind of status. Insiders, however, have a far lower opinion of this academic status. Sometimes, indeed, it is only given to people of exceptional merit. From these highly visible cases, outsiders extrapolate to all others. But in many more cases, it is the mediocre minds and the faithful followers who get promoted, while the really talented people are blocked or are encouraged to seek more lucrative employment outside academe.

The mechanics of the presence or absence of status is as follows: the Indian Left jealously guards its power position in academe and decides who gets status within the Humanities, or who is blacklisted and kept out. Then the politicians select their sources of authority or their interlocutors by the status they “have” (i.e. which the Left has conferred on them), which is turn enhances their status. And then the India-watching circles abroad go by the status which individuals turn out to have acquired in India, and further increase their “eminence”. Thus, Romila Thapar’s own nomination to American chairs after her retirement in India crowned her career of being an ever more eminent historian in India.

The focus on status is a long-standing practice of the Indian Left, and for a good reason. As Sita Ram Goel already remarked in his anti-Communist days, the Indian Communists made sure to create status for those loyal to them. If you were a writer, they would arrange for you to be invited to a writers’ conference in Moscow and get an award there, and then you would be introduced in India as an “internationally acclaimed writer”. This was all the more important because people in general base their judgment on status, but no one more so than the Hindus. Indeed, the fabled Hindu money-bag will rather sponsor an enemy with status than a friend without it. The BJP will rather nominate a “secularist” with status than a proven Hindu loyalist without it. So, in the case of our Communist writer, they will honour him for his status, not realizing that this status has purposely been created for him by their declared enemies. And they will shun a pro-Hindu writer because he has no status, ignoring or disregarding the fact that he has been denied any avenue that might have led to status. The last thing they think of is to make an effort and create status for people who are perceived as belonging to the Hindu camp.

Smriti IraniThe BJP role in education

To be sure, there are provincial universities where the Leftist lobby’s power in limited. Education is largely a matter for the States, so BJP State Governments control a fair number of second-rank but nonetheless real nominations. Indeed, if they had meant business, they could have created a centre of excellence developing a more objective counter-narrative to the dominant Leftist version of history. Still, they do get to fill vacancies for history professors once in a while. These do not confer the kind of status that Jawaharlal Nehru University can offer, but they should at least be sufficient to groom a set of historians outside the Left’s sphere of influence. And indeed, even as an outsider, I can off-hand enumerate a handful of credible and competent non-Left historians, among whom a new ICHR chairman might have been picked. India is a big country, and non-Left historians may be seriously underrepresented, but in absolute figures they are still a force to be reckoned with. Prof. Rao himself is a veteran of one such little-known university in Warangal, Telangana.

As for the process of peer review, upheld by Romila Thapar as a key to academic status, it has come under criticism for being highly susceptible to corruption. Thus, Indians might think of Northwestern Europe as much cleaner than awfully corrupt India, but right on my doorstep, Tilburg University in the Netherlands has been through a sensational fraud scandal in 2011-12. Social psychologist Prof. Diederik Stapel had built a whole career on much-applauded papers, nicely peer-reviewed, and in their conclusions very welcome among the “progressive” crowd. But then it transpired that he had a long-standing practice of making his research data up, so as to suit his preconceived “conclusions”. The investigative commission appointed for the case not only discovered large-scale fraud affecting the work of other researchers as well, but specifically reprimanded the reviewers who had okayed Stapel’s work so often. This was but an extreme case of a general phenomenon: papers get easy acceptance from peers if they support the dominant view, but are held to far more demanding standards if they are at odds with it. In India, just imagine what it would take for a history paper with “communal” conclusions to be accepted by a Leftist-controlled review panel. So, of course Prof. Rao cannot boast of many peer-reviewed publications, but that says little about the quality of his work.

A serious look into his output, however, reveals that he is indeed not the man from whom we can expect an overhaul of the Indian history sector with respect for the normative methods of history scholarship. Here we have to concur with Romila Thapar: “Rumour has it that since he is working simultaneously on various projects, a recognised monograph has still to emerge. The projects are linked to spiritualism, yoga, the spiritual contacts between India and Southeast Asia, and such like. Whatever connections there may be between these themes and basic historical research, they are at best tenuous, and it would require a mind of extraordinary insight and rigour to interweave such ideas.”

For a professor teaching lessons about historical method, it is rather poor to base herself on “rumours”. I have remarked before that the dominant scholars are often “fishwives”, who believe and then propagate mere gossip. Nevertheless, an internet search and our limited findings there give a first confirmation of her impression.

MahabharataHistoricity of the Epics

According to the eminent historian: “The two issues that he has highlighted in his statement to the press as the agenda for his chairmanship are also prominent in the Hindutva view of Indian history. One is that of proving the historicity of texts such the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and establishing the dates of the texts and their central event.” At least in the case of the Mahabharata battle, we are on fairly solid ground in assuming that it was a historical event. The same is true of the Trojan war, although Iliad enthusiasts also have had to struggle against skepticism before this was generally accepted. On the other hand, many embellishments as well as unrelated stories and discourses are of other dates.

She observes: “This is a subject on which there has been endless research for the last two centuries. Indologists and historians have covered the range of possible investigation discussing philology, linguistics, archaeology, anthropology and even astronomy to try and ascertain a definitive chronology for these texts. But to no avail, as a precise date eludes them. To go over the ground again in the absence of new hard evidence would merely be repeating familiar scholarship—but it may not be familiar to Professor Rao.”

The available investigations have brought us much closer to a serious chronological assessment than she seems to assume. Only, it does not favour the historicity of “the” Epics. They confirm that traditions were collected and expanded over centuries, and additions made even after a redaction meant as “final”. Only believers treat the Epics as a divinely revealed text that has to be dated as a single whole. From the wording in the newspaper’s rendering of the interview, it seems that Prof Rao belongs to the believers rather than to the historians, but then again, most Indian papers are not above manipulations.

After her defeat in the Ayodhya controversy, she still uses the present ICHR discussion to fool the world once more with her negationist thesis: “Professor Rao’s other statement to the press of there being archaeological evidence to support the theory that there was once a temple where the Babri Masjid later stood, is largely a political statement as the report of the excavation at the site in Ayodhya is not publicly available. Those few who have had the chance to read the report may not agree with the statement.” Are we to suppose that her own interventions in this debate were not political? The negationist stand against the pre-existence of the Ayodhya temple was an extreme example of how the Humanities often serve to provide a scholarly veneer to theses that arise purely from political motives.

Marxist Historian Prof. R.S. SharmaThe ICHR’s chairmanship

An interesting point is this: “Again, according to what was published in the newspapers, Professor Rao’s second comment was regarding his objection to the introduction of Marxist tools of research by the ICHR during the chairmanship of Professors R.S. Sharma and Irfan Habib. Professor Rao should be more familiar with the ICHR since he was appointed to the Council by the first BJP government of 1999-2004. He should know that for the most part of its existence, the ICHR has been under the chairmanship of non-Marxists such as Lokesh Chandra, S. Setter, M.G.S. Narayanan and so on. So if they had wanted to remove the so-called ‘Marxist tools of research’, there was nothing to stop them from doing so.”

The ICHR chairmanship is largely a ceremonial and administrative post. If the holder of the title is not particularly dynamic, not much power inheres in it. That is why the Left didn’t mind giving it to non-Leftists once in a while. They themselves are interested in real power, i.e. the power to change things according to one’s own designs, whereas most Hindus are only interested in office. (I thank Arun Shourie for correcting me when I once parroted the usual complaint that most politicians “only want power”. The right expression was: “they only want office”.) Office means you get all these photo opportunities and TV appearances, a fat salary and glittering perks to show off. A child’s hand is easy to fill.

I doubt that the enumerated ICHR chairmen ever had the instruments to remove the Marxist influence from their institution. But at any rate, there is little signs that they ever tried. The Marxists, by contrast, only desire office to the extent that it is an avenue to real power. Indeed, the history of their acquisition of cultural and educational power is one of a division of labour: Congress politicians, originally around Indira Gandhi, would get the glamorous offices, whereas their Communist allies would do their long-term moles’ work in the less conspicuous cultural-educational sector.

The good element in this sobering assessment of the ICHR chairmanship is that Prof. Rao may perhaps not be the best historian, but he can still do a fine job is what the post in meant for: put the right people in the right places and inspire them to do the research needed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known for having a low opinion of diplomas and having more respect for achievement. That is why he nominated Smriti Irani, underqualified but a proven hard worker, to the Human Resources Development ministry, who in her turn thought of Prof. Rao as the right choice for the ICHR. Let us hope that she knows of qualities of his that we have yet to appreciate.

Marx & EngelsReal Marxism

The eminent historian, who is not known to have protested when Tom Bottomore’s Dictionary of Marxist Thought describes herself as a Marxist, takes issue with the loose use by Prof. Rao and many others of the term Marxism: “It is perhaps worth pointing out that the kind of history that is often dismissed by Hindutva ideologues as Marxist is not actually Marxist but bears the stamp of the social sciences. The distinction between the two, despite its importance to the interpretation of history, is generally glossed over by the proponents of Hindutva. This is largely because they have scant understanding of what is meant by a Marxist interpretation of history and therefore fail to recognise it. For them, a Marxist is simply someone who opposes the Hindutva ideology. Consequently, a range of historians unexpectedly find themselves dubbed as Marxists.”

It is not just Hindutva ideologues who point to the preponderant influence of Marxism on India (which is simply a fact), and neither is it only them who use the term Marxism a bit inaccurately. And here, she does have a point. What she calls “the social sciences” is her name for the scholarly veneer that the Leftists in academe give to their own ideology, but that ideology is indeed not always Marxist, and these days less and less so. Marxism was one specific school of thought in the Leftist spectrum, and after it has been abandoned in the Soviet Union and more gradually in China, it has had to give way in India too. Nothing ever dies in India (as Girilal Jain observed), and Indian Marxism will take a long time to wither away, but it is a fact that postmodernism, postcolonialism and other forms of egalitarianism are taking over where Marxism once flourished. To the average Hindutva observer, whose understanding of these ideological distinctions is blurred at best, these remain all the same.

Let me give a single example of the difference between Marxism and the more current forms of Leftism, one that Prof. Thapar will certainly recognize. The Marxist historian Shereen Ratnagar asserts: “if, as in the case of the early Vedic society, land was neither privately owned nor inherited by successive generations, then land rights would have been irrelevant to the formation of kin groups, and there would be nothing preventing younger generations from leaving the parental fold. In such societies the constituent patrilineages or tribal sections were not strongly corporate. So together with geographic expansion there would be social flexibility.” (in Romila Tapar, ed.: India: Historical Beginnings and the Concepts of the Aryan, National Book Trust, Delhi 2006, p.166)

Nowadays it has become fashionable to moralize about the caste system, with evil Brahmins inventing caste out of thin air and then imposing it on others; Neo-Ambedkarites give a lead in spreading this view. But hard-headed Marxists don’t fall for this conspiracy theory and see the need for socio-economic conditions to explain the reigning system of hierarchy or equality. In particular, it is pointless to lament the inequality of “feudal”, pre-modern societies, as the socio-economic conditions for equality didn’t prevail yet. Socialism (or, to name a fashionable instance of egalitarianism: feminism) simply couldn’t exist or emerge in a feudal society. However, the pastoral early-Vedic society did have the conditions for a far more equal relation between individuals. In the later Vedic period, the caste system emerged, first with mixing of castes (caste was passed on in the male line, but the father was free to marry a woman of another caste, see the Chandogya Upanishad or still the Buddha), then with endogamy. So, the Marxist, materialist and “scientific” analysis is quite distinct from the “petty bourgeois” idealistic view.

M. M. Joshi is the former BJP Minister of Science and TechnologyReal history

Prof. Thapar feigns bad memories of the A.B. Vajpayee government, when the established historians laughed without end at the sight of the Hindutva crowd’s incompetence: “During the BJP/NDA government of 1999-2004, there was a frontal attack on historians by the then HRD minister M.M. Joshi. (…) The present HRD minister, who unfortunately is unfamiliar with academia beyond school level, gives the impression that in this case she may be doing what she perhaps was appointed for: Carrying out the programme of the old history-baiters of the BJP who now have a fresh innings.”

It should not surprise us that the august professor, in spite of her Marxism, so openly disdains the proletarian HRD minister. It is the old glorification of status all over again. While her Marxist school has waged a very long attack on real history, so that a lot is to be cleaned up now, she is right to have a low opinion of M.M. Joshi’s tenure and initiatives. Marxists were at least sophisticated in their distortions, and hence could win over most of the India-watchers abroad, but the Hindutva history-rewriters were clumsy and disdainful of quality control. It is as yet too early to know whether Mrs. Irani or Prof. Rao are willing and able to do better.

Her final point sums up her judgment of the new situation, and I need not comment on it: “Again, rumour has it that the ICHR did send a shortlist of its recommendations for chairmanship to the HRD ministry. The list had the names of historians who had helped construct the ICHR into a viable research body. But that list seems to have conveniently got lost in the ministry. Therefore, a different name was pulled out of another hat and the person appointed. If this is so, then the prognosis is both predictable and drear.”

» Koenraad Elst distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. He studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy. He blogs at

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Modi’s critics inadvertently admit they have rewritten India’s history – R. Jagannathan

R. Jagannathan“The progressive secularisation of texts under the Nehru-Marxist consensus has ensured that most Indians have been badly severed from their own roots and ancient knowledge. Attempting to correct this balance is hardly the same as majoritarianism or ‘saffronisation’ in the negative sense.” – R. Jagannathan

Smriti IraniCritics of the Modi government have always believed that the BJP — as an affiliate of the Sangh Parivar — has a “saffron” agenda. The initial statements made by the new HRD Minister, Smriti Irani, and the new Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, seem to have confirmed the suspicions of card-carrying “secularists” in this regard.

I find most of the criticisms meaningless for the simple reason that “saffronisation” seems to be, by definition, wrong, even without defining the term clearly. Since nobody has volunteered a definition, I will do so.

Yellapragada Sudershan RaoSaffronisation can have three possible meanings or implications. One is the narrowest one — which is the imposition of a majoritarian ideology to write a new history that supports this majoritarianism. We are yet to see anything like this in the pronouncements or acts of either Irani or Rao.

Two, “saffronisation” could be a corrective or counter-point to the current view of history. And, three, it could be an effort to acquaint the majority community itself with its past — something that has been systematically denigrated in this country in the name of a synthetic secularism.

There could be other definitions, but for now I have defined it my way. Of these three definitions, saffronisation is a problem only in the first case — and that too, only in a limited way.

Before we start to examine whether the Modi government is at all going to “rewrite history” and “saffronise” it, let us debunk one bit of nonsense straightaway. The very allegation of “saffronisation” contains within it the guilt of the accusers. It tells us what they have been doing for years is rewrite history “their way”.

You can rewrite history in the saffron way only if you believe what is currently called history is “the right way”, with unchallengeable “facts”. Our current rendering of history is, in fact, a version written in the post-independence period, when the Nehruvian-Marxist consensus was that history should be “secular”. So when the Left attacks the Sangh for trying to evolve a “nationalist” version of history, they are effectively admitting that Prof. R. S. Sharmathey had a “secularist” project where history had to be seen through their lens – and their lens alone. They were the ones who rewrote history.

In the “secularist” rendering of history, the contributions of ancient Indic civilisations – from the Vedic age to the time of the Buddha and Mahavira and the age of Vedanta – must be dismissed as minor or criticised as Brahminical and savagely inegalitarian; the extreme iconoclasm that came with Islamic invasions must be categorised as mere aberrations; and heroes must be found outside the Hindu tradition to make history truly “secular”. Hence the extreme eulogisation of Akbar as a secular hero when most of pre-Islamic history has been largely secular.

This is not to say we need to wallow in a past history of perceived wrongs, nor am I trying to invalidate the Marxist way of looking at history. But, by that same token, there can be a Sangh way of looking at history too. It is not an illegitimate enterprise.

A thief will always divert attention to others so that his own thievery goes undetected. This is what those accusing the government of attempting to rewrite history are trying to do: evade responsibility for their own rewriting of history by showing up someone else’s attempt.

Prof Vivek DehejiaAs Vivek Dehejia, economics professor at Carleton University, Ottawa, wrote in Mint newspaper some months ago: “We have inherited a Victorian conception of history, foisted upon us by our colonisers, that the telling of history consists of uncovering certain ‘truths’, that these truths in turn are based upon uncontested facts, and that these may thus be woven into the tapestry of a tale whose veracity cannot be questioned without appearing to be either retrograde or revolutionary. Modern scholarship turns this view on its head. History is, rather, the telling of a story, the creation of a narrative, which involves the careful selection of facts one deems pertinent and an argument (explicit or implicit) about the causal relationships that bind those facts together into a compelling tale.”

Once again: If there can be a secular version of history, there can be a Sangh version too. A saffron version of history can balance the Marxist version which, anyway, is not going to go away.

Then, there is the question of Smriti Irani’s alleged exertions to rewrite school textbooks with more material from sacred Hindu texts like the Vedas and Upanishads. I can’t see how this can be wrong, especially if it is not meant to rubbish any other text or community.

The progressive secularisation of texts under the Nehru-Marxist consensus has ensured that most Indians have been badly severed from their own roots and ancient knowledge. Attempting to correct this balance is hardly the same as majoritarianism or “saffronisation” in the negative sense.

Sidin VadukutSidin Vadukut, writing in Mint newspaper on July 4th, has no problem with this aspect of Irani’s efforts. He writes: “Teaching ancient texts in schools, for what it is worth, is a good idea. Both religious and secular texts are important storehouses of a civilisation’s history, culture and intellectual development. Yet I cannot recall a single ancient text of any variety that I was properly exposed to during my schooling. Yes, I was well-drilled on the existence of the Vedas and the works of assorted ancient scientists and Sangam literature and all that. But could I quote a single line from any of them, let alone with contextual awareness? Nope.”

This leaves us with the final charge: that Sangh loyalists are being planted on the Indian Council of Historical Research, a fact reported with subtle derision by The Telegraph recently. The headline to the story is: “Mahabharat historian gets research reins.” The impression one gets is that somebody steeped in mythology is now going to redirect history — which is for real historians.

The initial paras of the story start in the same vein: “A retired history professor who has written articles arguing that stories from the Ramayan and the Mahabharat are truthful accounts of events that took place has been named chief of the ICHR, the government agency to promote historical research. Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, whose interests include Vedic literature, Sanatana Dharma and Bharatiya Sanskriti, set the tone for his three-year tenure after taking charge on Saturday.”

Lakshman, Rama & SitaSo, a retired professor can’t head the ICHR? And does an expert on India’s two best-known epics automatically make himself ineligible for a post involving historical research?

And did he really say that the Ramayan and Mahabharat are truthful accounts of events? His exact words were this: “The stories of the Ramayan and the Mahabharat cannot be termed a-historical just because there is not enough archaeological hard evidence. Excavations cannot be done in many places since people are living there and you cannot evict them. A lot of historical material has come through cultural, anthropological, archaeological and ethnographic studies in the last 60 years about the continuous Indian civilisation. The findings can be compiled by researchers. I think the ICHR should support historians interested in doing work on these aspects.”

This is hardly the same as claiming that everything in the two epics is historical fact.

Krishna I am not trying to say Rao and Irani will end up writing or researching the “right” history, but surely they are entitled to do so. If Middle Eastern sites can be excavated to find proof of Jesus’s existence based on Biblical claims, is looking for fact in the Ramayan and Mahabharat necessarily a dubious exercise?

Whether what Smriti Irani and Rao will end up doing will be right or wrong we will know only when they actually show us what they do. Right now, all talk of “rewriting history” and “saffronisation” is a load of bull. The government’s critics are crying wolf too early. –, 5 July 2014

» R. Jagannathan is currently Editor at Web 18, which is part of Network 18. In a journalistic career spanning 35 years, he has edited several national general and business publications, including DNA, Business Today, Business World, Business Standard, Indian Management, and Financial Express. He blogs at Newthink.

Sanskrit: First words recorded on a gramophone disk were from the Rig Veda – WHN

Thomas Edison HMV had once published a pamphlet giving the history of gramophone record. Gramophone was invented by Thomas Alva Edison in the 19th century. Edison, who had invented many other gadgets like electric light and the motion picture camera, had become a legend even in his own time.

When he invented the gramophone record, which could record human voice for posterity, he wanted to record the voice of an eminent scholar on his first piece. For that he chose Prof. Max Muller of  England, another great personality of the 19th century. He wrote to Max Muller saying, “I want to meet you and record your voice. When should I come?” Max Muller who had great respect for Edison asked him to come on a suitable time when most of the scholars of the Europe would be gathering in England .

Friedrich Max Muller by Lock & WhitfieldAccordingly Edison took a ship and went to  England. He was introduced to the audience. All cheered  Edison’s presence. Later at the request of Edison, Max Muller came on the stage and spoke in front of the instrument. Then Edison went back to his laboratory and by afternoon came back with a disc. He played the gramophone disc from his instrument. The audience was thrilled to hear the voice of Max Muller from the instrument. They were glad that voices of great persons like Max Muller could be stored for the benefit of posterity.

After several rounds of applause and congratulations to Thomas Edison, Max Muller came to the stage and addressed the scholars and asked them, “You heard my original voice in the morning. Then you heard the same voice coming out from this instrument in the afternoon. Do you understand what I said in the morning or what you heard in the afternoon?”.

The audience fell silent because they could not understand the language in which Max Muller had spoken. It was ‘Greek and Latin’ to them as they say. But had it been Greek or Latin, they would have definitely understood because they were from various parts of  Europe. It was in a language which the European scholars had never heard.

Max Muller then explained what he had spoken. He said that the language he spoke was Sanskrit and it was the first sloka of Rig Veda, which says “Agni Meele Purohitam”. This was the first recorded public version on the gramophone plate.

अग्निमीळे पुरोहितं यज्ञस्य देवं रत्वीजम |
होतारं रत्नधातमम || Rig Veda 1.001.01

aghnimīḷe purohitaṃ yajñasya devaṃ ṛtvījam |
hotāraṃ ratnadhātamam || Rig Veda 1.001.01

Why did Max Muller choose this? Addressing the audience he said, “Vedas are the oldest text of the human race. And “Agni Meele Purohitam” is the first verse of Rig Veda. In the most primordial time, when the people did not know how even to cover their bodies and lived by hunting and housed in caves, Indians had attained high civilization and they gave the world universal philosophies in the form of the Vedas”

When “Agni Meele Purohitam” was replayed the entire audience stood up in silence as a mark of respect for the ancient Hindu sages.

The verse means

“Oh Agni, You who gleam in the darkness, to You we come day by day, with devotion and bearing homage. So be of easy access to us, Agni, as a father to his son, abide with us for our well being. ”World Hindu News, 29 April 2014

Victor V Disc Phonograph (Gramophone) ca. 1907

How climate change ended world’s first great civilizations – David Keys

David Keys“Research, carried out by the University of Cambridge and India’s Banaras Hindu University, reveals that a series of droughts lasting some 200 years hit the Indus Valley zone—and was probably responsible for the rapid decline of the great Bronze Age urban civilization of that region.” – David Keys

Indus River ValleyThe world’s first great civilisations appear to have collapsed because of an ancient episode of climate change—according to new research carried out by scientists and archaeologists.

Their investigation demonstrates that the Bronze Age ‘megacities’ of the Indus Valley region of Pakistan and north-west India declined during the 21st and 20th centuries BC and never recovered—because of a dramatic increase in drought conditions.

The research, carried out by the University of Cambridge and India’s Banaras Hindu University, reveals that a series of droughts lasting some 200 years hit the Indus Valley zone—and was probably responsible for the rapid decline of the great Bronze Age urban civilization of that region.

The findings correlate chronologically with drought evidence found over recent years by other scientists who have examined deposits from the bottom of the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman as well as stalactites from caves in North east India and southern Arabia.

It’s now thought likely that the droughts at around that time were partly responsible for the collapse not only of the Indus Valley civilization, but also of the ancient Akkadian Empire, Old Kingdom Egypt and possibly Early Bronze Age civilizations in Greece.

“Our evidence suggests that it was the most intense period of drought—probably due to frequent monsoon failure—in the 5000 year-long period we have examined,” said University of Cambridge Palaeoclimate scientist Professor David Hodell.

Drought in IndiaThe scientists studying the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization obtained their new evidence from a dried-up lake bed near New Delhi which is just 40 miles east of the eastern edge of the Indus Valley civilization.

They detected the climatic conditions by examining isotopic evidence from the shells of snails that had lived between 6500 years ago and 1500 years ago.

The isotopic values of the calcium carbonate in the snails’ shells reflected the isotopic value in the water in the lakes at the time they lived.

Because water with oxygen 16 isotopes evaporates more quickly than water with ‘heavier’ oxygen 18 isotopes, the scientists were able to measure changes in evaporation rates over time. This allowed them to identify the start and end of a previously unknown 200 year-long severe drought in the north-west India region which lasted from around 2100 BC to approximately 1900 BC.

In that period, the Indus Valley ‘megacities’—some with populations of up to 100,000—rapidly declined. Populations shrank and the old urban civilization, which had lasted 500 years, collapsed.

“Archaeologists are really in a unique position when investigating climate change in the past, because we hopefully get to see what people were doing in the ‘before, during and after’ phases. We therefore get an opportunity to investigate how ancient populations responded to climatic and environmental Male figurines from Harappachange. How did they cope with periods of water stress? Were their existing ways of life resilient? Were they forced to adapt in order to survive, and if so, precisely what did they do,” said University of Cambridge archaeologist, Dr. Cameron Petrie.

“For the Indus populations, it looks as though living in large groups became untenable, and it was much more sustainable to live in smaller groups. This is of course a huge simplification of a complex process, but this transformation is the underlying dynamic.

“By investigating responses to environmental pressures and threats in the past, we can hopefully learn from the past to engage with the public, and the relevant governmental and administrative bodies to be more pro-active in issues such as the management and administration of water supply, the balance of urban and rural development, and even the importance of preserving cultural heritage in the future,” said Dr Petrie.

The new research is reported in the journal Geology. – Times of India, 3 March 2014


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