How to teach Indian history, and how not to – N. S. Rajaram

Kamlesh Kapur

Dr. N. S. RajaramIt is now a time-worn cliché that the teaching of Indian history has been distorted. The real question is how to correct it. A committed teacher has taken an important step by showing how to go about doing it. – Dr N. S. Rajaram

Speaking before the Kerala History Association, Kochi on 18 Dec. 2005, Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, then President and among the most respected intellectuals in India observed: “The best historians present us with descriptions and analyses of the past that make unfamiliar times and places somehow comprehensible. In seeking to penetrate the veil of the past, we end up by studying how other individuals and societies dealt with the practical and existential problems at least related to our own.” 

After this sage observation, Dr. Kalam came specifically to Indian history and noted: “My observation is that in India many have written history of India [coming] both from the Indian historians recently and by those who had conquered us. So far, even 58 years after Independence, the dogmas, rituals, systems and norms of the historical past, imposed by the last millennium of invasion and conquest, still continue to condition our minds.” Most tellingly he emphasized: 

“We tend more to conform to the past [as described by our invaders and occupiers], rather than think in true freedom and create a future, free from the pain of the past. Now time has come, in the 21st century, we need new breed of historians who can make the past meet the present and create the future….”   

More than a century before Dr. Kalam, Swami Vivekananda told a group of youngsters (1891): “Study Sanskrit, but along with it study Western sciences as well. Learn accuracy, my boys, study and labor so that the time will come when you can put our history on a scientific basis. … The histories of our country written by English writers cannot but be weakening to our minds, for they talk only of our downfall. How can foreigners, who understand very little of our manners and customs, or our religion and philosophy, write faithful and unbiased histories of India?”   

He then went on to observe: “Naturally many false notions and wrong inferences have found their way into them. Nevertheless they have shown us how to proceed making researches into our ancient history. Now it is for us to strike out an independent path of historical research for ourselves, to study the Vedas and Puranas and the ancient annals (Itihasas) of India, and from them make it your sadhana (disciplined endeavor) to write accurate, sympathetic and soul-inspiring history of India. It is for Indians to write Indian history.” 

Without resorting to polemics, Vivekananda exhorted his youthful audience to “…never cease to labor until you have revived the glorious past of India in the consciousness of the people. That will be the true national education, and with its advancement, a true national spirit will be awakened.” What he left unsaid was that such an approach would need them to develop new tools of historical research leading to new methodologies 

Historical method 

One scholar who appears to have taken this message to heart is Smt Kamlesh Kapur, an educator of great experience both in India and the US. She has put her knowledge, experience and the spirit invoked by Dr. Kalam and Swami Vivekananda into practice in producing the book Portraits of a Nation: History of Ancient India. In addition to giving the facts of history as can best be reconstructed the author provides details of methodology used and historiography.  

A book along these lines should have been, and could have been, written fifty years ago, but was not. The reasons are several, but two need to be highlighted because they have persisted. First, there was the Nehruvian feudal establishment; and pandering to his tastes and prejudices became the route to recognition and career success. This meant that the views advanced in Jawaharlal Nehru’s amateurish and entirely Eurocentric Discovery of India became entrenched in history books as the “authorized” view. To go with this, a whole generation of historians beginning with Romila Thapar and R. S. Sharma were trained by a single British professor, A. L. Basham of the School of Oriental Studies in London. Basham was more a religious scholar than a historian or archaeologist, but his legacy has persisted. 

It is unhealthy for any institution to be so in-bred in its research and faculty, with everyone trained to think the same way. A prime example is the Center for Historical Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Until recently it was dominated by the Marxist historian—and Basham student—Romila Thapar and a clique around her. A singular feature of ‘scholars’ belonging to this clique is their ignorance of Indian languages, especially Sanskrit. This is true of Thapar also though it has not stopped her from writing extensively about Vedic India! As a result they are totally dependent on English translations made by colonial scholars. This has resulted in what Sri Aurobindo called their “lack of sturdy independence” and “excessive deference to European authority.” 

What this clique has produced is copycat scholarship, with status tied to how closely they follow their erstwhile European masters. This makes them oppose any revisions to Eurocentric models like the Aryan invasion theory and the Aryan-Dravidian myth. In fact, the strongest defenders today of these discredited notions are not Europeans anymore but their Indian followers. Harappans as Dravidians and victims of the Aryan invasion is propagated not by European scholars but Dravidian politicians like Karunanidhi. (One exception is Asko Parpola who was paid a generous reward by Karunanidhi for endorsing the DMK ideology built on the scientifically discredited Aryan-Dravidian divide.) 

This sheds light on another aspect of the post-Independence history establishment, especially of the JNU-AMU (Aligarh Muslim University) school, known more for political activism than any contributions to scholarship. Underlying their political posturing is the denial of everything good about India. Vedas and Sanskrit were brought by invading Aryans; Indian astronomy is of Greek origin; Muslim invaders including Babar never destroyed any Hindu temples—you get the drift. 

Much of this can be explained by the fact that this arrogance and posturing is a façade to cover up their deficiency in scholarship and inferiority complex. Being ignorant of both science and primary sources (in Sanskrit), they feel their best defense lies in denial and attack. This came to the fore when this writer and the late Natwar Jha in 2000 proposed a solution to the Harappan script puzzle by linking its language to Vedic Sanskrit and presenting readings of a large number of inscriptions. 

This of course demolishes the Aryan-Dravidian myth. The reaction of JNU-AMU clique was not any attempt at refutation, but a personal attack in the Communist magazine Frontline. Even here, Romila Thapar, lacking the self-confidence to deal with our work (based on Vedic Sanskrit), went to Hindu-baiter Michael Witzel of Harvard to mount the attack. (The recent attack on Subramanian Swamy and Rajiv Malhotra by Witzel and his colleague Diana Eck is not without precedent.) 

In pursuit of their goals, this clique has not hesitated to deny and even falsify evidence. A prime example that had tragic consequences was its denial and falsification of evidence for the existence of a prior temple and its destruction beneath the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. This was noted by the judge who severely criticized these scholars for their role. In its judgment on the long-standing Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, the Allahabad High Court flayed the role played by several witnesses including Thapar’s protégé Shireen Ratnagar.  She was forced to admit under oath that she had no field experience in archaeological excavations in India. 

Still their hostility bordering on hatred towards their ancestral land and culture is hard to comprehend. They owe everything to India; unlike Indian scientists and professionals, they would be nonentities in the West. Perhaps Shakespeare said it best when Julius Caesar was murdered by his erstwhile followers: “What private griefs these men have, alas, I know not.” 

Be that as it may, Kamlesh Kapur in Portraits of a Nation: History of Ancient India suffers from no such deficiencies or ignorance of primary sources and science. She displays a refreshingly original approach to the sources. She observes that the Vedas, the Rig Veda in particular has been the most faithfully preserved text of the ancient world and hence has suffered least in terms of interpolations. We must treat the Vedic records—names, dynasties, astronomical statements, etc—as the most reliable and accord them the highest priority. 

This is a valuable insight: it means that statements that seemingly violate our beliefs—like Aryans as nomadic invaders—cannot be dismissed. If the Rig Veda describes a maritime society of rivers, oceans and ships as David Frawley pointed out more than 20 years ago, we cannot ignore it and insist that it was nomadic-pastoral. Also to be admired is the author’s bold multidisciplinary approach by looking at natural history, genetics, and archaeo-astronomy in addition to the usual sources like archaeology and literary records. In fact, some of this material appears for the first time in a textbook (as opposed to articles and research monographs by Oppenheimer, Cavalli-Sforza and this writer). 

In the process, the author succeeds in building a sound foundation in historiography not only for her book but for all future students of Indian history. A particular strength of the book is that its author is no ivory tower academic writing to impress peers, but an educationist who has worked with students and teachers for many years. She has seen the problems at ground level, and has produced a book that is at once up to date and pedagogically sound. 

To appreciate the value of Kamlesh Kapur’s work it helps to have some idea of the magnitude of the distortion, nay perversions, inflicted on generations of innocent young minds by self-serving academics in the name of history. It is a vast subject, but here is a brief summary. It is a case study in how not to teach history, or any subject for that matter. 

Historians or ‘distortians’ 

While most educated Indians now have at least an idea that their history has been distorted, few know the lengths to which “scholars”—European and Indian—have gone to preserve and perpetuate the Aryan myth. Given the Aryans’ importance to their worldview, it is extraordinary that after two hundred years of voluminous outpourings, these scholars are still unable to identify them. Originally they were claimed to be a race related to Europeans but science has discredited it. 

After the defeat of Nazi Germany, scholars avoid overtly racial arguments but the basic idea of an invasion by Europeans bringing civilization to India is retained even if they acknowledge that ancient Indian records know nothing of any such invasion. All we have are repeated assertions of their central dogma. As expressed by the late Murray Emeneau, a leading linguist: 

“At some time in the second millennium B.C., probably comparatively early in the millennium, a band or bands of speakers of an Indo-European language, later to be called Sanskrit, entered India over the northwest passes. This is our linguistic doctrine which has been held now for more than a century and a half. There seems to be no reason to distrust the arguments for it, in spite of the traditional Hindu ignorance of any such invasion.” 

This is typical of the field, with arguments closer to theology than to science. In short Emeneau and his ilk are telling us: “Evidence be damned, we know Aryans invaded India and brought the Vedas.” Aryans are needed because there can be no Aryan invasion without the Aryans. It is a case of the tail wagging the dog, but theology cannot exist without such “logic”. Scientists, however, had long ago dismissed the idea of the Aryan race. As far back as 1939, Sir Julian Huxley, one of the great biologists of the twentieth century had observed: 

“In England and America the phrase ‘Aryan race’ has quite ceased to be used by writers with scientific knowledge, though it appears occasionally in political and propagandist literature…. In Germany, the idea of the “Aryan race” received no more scientific support than in England. Nevertheless, it found able and very persistent literary advocates who made it appear very flattering to local vanity. It therefore steadily spread, fostered by special conditions.” 

These “special conditions” were the rise of Nazism in Germany and British imperial interests in India. Its perversion in Germany leading eventually to the Nazi horrors is well known. The fact that the British turned it into a political tool to make their rule acceptable to Indians is not generally known. A recent BBC report acknowledged as much (October 6, 2005): 

“It [Aryan invasion theory] gave a historical precedent to justify the role and status of the British Raj, who could argue that they were transforming India for the better in the same way that the Aryans had done thousands of years earlier.” 

That is to say, the British presented themselves as “new and improved Aryans” that were in India only to complete the work left undone by their ancestors in the hoary past. This is how the British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin put it in the House of Commons in 1929:

 “Now, after ages, … the two branches of the great Aryan ancestry [Indians and the British] have again been brought together by Providence…. By establishing British rule in India, God said to the British, “I have brought you and the Indians together after a long separation. … It is your duty to raise them to their own level as quickly as possible …brothers as you are….” 

Preposterous as it sounds today, it was a ploy to create an Indian elite loyal to the British rulers by flattering them as long-lost brothers, now being uplifted from their degraded state. The ploy was so successful that English educated Indians continue to cling to this fiction long after the British themselves admitted to the fraud. While the British can live without their creation, their followers in the Indian history establishment cannot do without it. Their identity no less than their politics is bound up with it. 

All this is a matter of record. Our historians don’t have to learn Sanskrit or study the Vedas to understand it. Yet they are curiously reluctant to expose such passages that bring their whole history into discredit. They loudly denounce the Nazi misuse of Aryan myth, but carefully avoid mentioning its British version. Worse, they continue to perpetuate it by resorting to various subterfuges. 

Thomas Trautman (Aryans and British India) makes no mention of these even while acknowledging the British effort to create an Indian identity through a concocted Aryan kinship. In India: Brief history of a civilization (2011), he falls back on the Aryan migration—or invasion—with Sanskrit as a foreign import. He resorts to spurious arguments like the ‘rare’ depiction of the Aryan horse in Harappan archaeology to preserve the Vedic-Aryan, Dravidian-Harappa divide. (Why? Did those horses speak Sanskrit?) 

When I presented some of this material at a workshop in the U.K., a member of the audience, not a historian, joked that these people who engaged in distortion on such a monumental scale should be called “distortians” rather than historians. Historians in the audience did not find it funny. 

In the U.S., these “distortian” scholars are in a state of near panic and running to wealthy Indians for money with cries of “Sanskrit in danger if you don’t fund us.” Our response should be: “Sanskrit thrived for thousands of years long before any of you Indologists appeared on the planet. Vyasa, Valmiki, Bhasa, Kalidasa nor any of the great figures in the Sanskrit pantheon needed to go to you distortians or your blighted departments.”  – Vijayvaani, 18 February 2017

» Dr N. S. Rajaram is a mathematician who publishes on topics related to ancient Indian history and Indian archaeology, alleging a Eurocentric bias in Indology and Sanskrit scholarship, and arguing for the Indigenous Aryans theory instead. He publishes with Voice of India, New Delhi.

Portraits of a Nation: History of Ancient India by Kamlesh Kapur

Even the greatest specialists have failed to prove the Aryan Invasion Theory – Koenraad Elst

Koenraad Elst

Shoaib DaniyalThe Belgian Indologist Dr Koenraad Elst responds for a second time to the Scroll.in article “Video: An animated map shows how Sanskrit may have come to India” by Shoaib Daniyal published in 2015, which challenged the theory that the Aryans are indigenous to India. Dr Elst’s first response to Daniyal’s article is here.

Theory of origin

While I do not much mind an ignorant pen-pusher pontificating about the Aryan invasion debate, some concomitant modesty would at least be in order. Ridiculing any scepticism about the 19th-century Aryan Invasion Theory merely shows that the writer is quite unaware of the state of the art.

So he equates the rivalling Out-of-India Theory with Flat Earth and Creationism. But it is very easy to find material evidence against both the latter, such as the fossil record. By contrast, your contributor is quite unable to muster any evidence against the Out of India Theory. Even Harvard professor and Aryan Invasion Theory champion Michael Witzel admits that no material evidence of Aryans moving into India has been found “yet”, that is after two centuries of being the official hypothesis sucking up all the sponsoring. So, your correspondent thinks himself superior, successful where the greatest specialists have failed?

Cultural continuity

A year ago I was participating in a Delhi conference on the Sindhu-Saraswati Civilisation. While there, I received an e-mail from one of the world’s foremost specialists on the linguistic aspect of Indo-European origins, H. H. Hock, all the way from the US. Predictably, he upheld the now-dominant invasion scenario and added that no one takes the Out-of-India Theory seriously today (though it was the dominant assumption from 1786 till ca. 1820).

Among linguists, this is approximately true: Nicolas Kazanas, Shrikant Talageri and myself have been in splendid isolation in those circles. But then, linguists who can competently argue in favour of the Aryan Invasion Theory are hardly more numerous. As I have verified at several specialist conferences, most concerned linguists do not work on the problem of the origins, which has an aura of obsoleteness, and blindly follow the dominant theory because it happens to be what their textbooks contained. Which is what non-linguists like the cited team from Auckland also do.

However, while I read this e-mail, I was surrounded by the creamy layer of Indian archaeology. Each professor read his paper presenting the findings at a particular Harappan site where he was digging, and each of them reported a complete cultural continuity, no trace of an invasion.

Sitting next to me was the dean of Indian archaeology, the nonagenarian professor B. B. Lal. When he was young, he made his name by “proving” that the archaeologically attested Painted Grey Ware indicated the Aryans on their way into India. That “proof” is cited till today in favour of the Aryan Invasion Theory, at least in India. But in reality, Lal himself has renounced that hypothesis decades ago, realising that his posited link with Aryan invaders was itself based on a tacit acceptance of the omnipresent Aryan Invasion Theory. Today, he emphasises that there is no trace at all of any Aryan invasion.

You choose to poison the debate by insinuating a Hitler reference into it. Suit yourself, but again it proves your ignorance, for Hitler was a zealous follower of the Aryan Invasion Theory. If the Out-of-India Theory has been associated with Hindutva (wrongly, for V. D. Savarkar, who launched this political concept, was an Aryan Invasion Theory believer), its alleged political use is at any rate only a trifle compared to the Aryan Invasion Theory.

The Out-of-India Theory has been upheld mostly in one country for a few decades by a few scholars without any political power. By contrast, the Aryan Invasion Theory has been used politically for some 160 years by major state actors such as the British Empire and Nazi Germany, and in India by Jawaharlal Nehru, the Ambedkarites (though B. R. Ambedkar himself emphatically rejected it), the Dravidianists, the missionaries and of course, the secularists. If you don’t like the mixing of scholarship with politics, you should first of all lambast the Aryan Invasion Theory, not the Out-of-India Theory.

May Allah—or Whoever serves as God to you secularists—give you the wisdom to keep your mouth shut on topics you don’t know enough about.– Koenraad Elst

» Dr Koenraad Elst is a Belgian indologist and historian who publishes with Voice of India.

Human migration out of Africa to India and then to Europe.

Can Devdutt Pattanaik really save Hinduism from Western distortions? – David Frawley

Devdutt Pattanaik

Vamadeva Shastri (David Frawley)Devdutt Pattanaik is a popular interpreter of Hindu sacred stories, what are now, not always respectfully, called “myths”. In a recent article “From Macaulay to Frawley, from Doniger to Elst: Why do many Indians need White saviours”, he claims that “Indians do not really need Europeans and Americans to tell them what Hinduism, Sanskrit or Vedas were, are or should be.”

Attacking both Western critics and Western defenders of Hinduism

The title of the article appears appealing given the many Western distortions of Hinduism. Yet strangely, Pattanaik criticises both Western defenders of Hinduism as well as critics, lumping them both together as if they were two sides of the same bad coin, suggesting that neither understands the Hindu tradition.

Pattanaik would like us to think that he is honouring this tradition of great yogis that has suffered so much from colonial, missionary, Marxist and neo-modern misinterpretations. But in the majority of his own writings, he himself follows the current politically correct Western scholarship that denigrates Hinduism at a cultural level and downplays its deeper philosophical and yogic dimensions. His comments on Hindu gods and goddesses are often in terms of modern psychology and leftist politics, as if these deities were human beings with personal problems and social biases, not symbols of transcendent and cosmic powers.

Now Pattanaik is suddenly critical of the same controversial Western scholars like Wendy Doniger and Sheldon Pollock that he has previously defended. The mythological approach he uses is an approach they also use and is very different from India’s own dharmic school of thought. Is he questioning that mythological angle that he has so extensively promoted?

Looking deeper, Pattaniak’s article betrays a subterfuge. His critique of Western defenders of Hinduism appears more strident than his questioning of anti-Hindu views. Clearly Western scholars defending Hinduism are his main target, and by implication the defence of Hinduism itself.

India connections of Western interpretations of Hindu Dharma

Pattanaik makes a point that one has to be born a Hindu to be a real Hindu that is connected to “birth” and “geography”, no doubt to discredit any Western attempts to speak for Hinduism. This is historically easy to disprove given the numerous Hindu temples and kingdoms from Angkor Wat in Cambodia to Vietnam and the Philippines whose populace were not simply born Hindus in what is now India.

Yet the deeper question in all such discussions is the nature of the interpretations given, not the skin colour of the person advocating them. Most important is the methodology that such interpreters follow. Individual scholars are usually representatives of schools of thought that must be examined overall.

The denigrating approaches of such as Doniger and Pollack have prominent Indian supporters, notably Marxists like Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib, whom Pattanaik does not mention. Similarly, the view of Hindu Dharma by Western Hindus has its roots in teachers from India. The books of Sitaram Goel and Ram Swarup have framed much of the defence of modern Hinduism. Yet this trend goes back to Sri Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda, Lokmanya Tilak and India’s Independence movement that challenged Eurocentric ideas of religion, culture and history.

Mahatma Gandhi’s criticism of Christian missionaries is also relevant here. It ultimately is based upon Vedic texts that address the nature of the mind and the meaning of human life in a very different manner than dominant Western schools of thought.

Pattanaik has tried to place Hinduism’s Western defenders on the “right”of the political perspective, with its critics on the “left”, forgetting that right and left in politics are Western views, not Indian and neither is dharmic. He reflects the statements of anti-Hindu writers who routinely label Hinduism as right-wing and regressive.

Pattanaik further describes Western defenders of Hindu Dharma as “authoritarian” and “Abrahamic” in approach, as if they were presenting a distortion of Hindu Dharma. This is also nothing new. The same charge is made by Luytens’ Delhi against any Hindu groups in India that have sought to proudly promote Hindu Dharma. Such verbal theatrics only shows that he remains ambivalent about presenting Hindu teachings in a respectful manner. He does not otherwise criticise Abrahamic traditions.

Problems with ancient history

Pattanaik seems to have a particular problem with the historical view of the Harappan or Indus Valley civilisation as Vedic, as supported by Western Hindus. Yet, this is also the view of the Archaeological Survey of India and its former director general Prof B. B. Lal. It is the view of the Geological Survey of India based upon Landsat Satellite photography and numerous ground water studies of the long dry Sarasvati River. It is the view of India’s great gurus today. To call it into question because it is also a view of white Hindus is neither accurate nor sincere. It suggests that Pattanaik does not like the idea of a history of India that gives prominence to Vedic and Hindu contributions.

Is sadhana necessary to truly understand Hindu Dharma?

Hindu teachings, as in the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads, have at their core a yogic pursuit of higher consciousness, including experiences beyond the human intellect and its limiting dualities. They hold that the physical world is but an outer aspect of a multi-dimensional universe of consciousness, with our inner self having many bodies and many births and ultimately extending beyond all time and space.

Pattanaik does not seem comfortable with such yogic spirituality, which Doniger and company routinely ignore or dismiss, though he throws a few Sanskrit terms around in order to sound traditional. He is particularly unhappy with my claim that Yoga sadhana should be part of any authentic interpretation of Hindu texts. Yet that is not merely my personal view, it is found in all the great traditions of India that emphasise meditation over mere book learning. If sadhana is not part of one’s study of Hinduism, one can only claim to have the view of an outsider.

Is Pattanaik changing his views?

Pattanaik’s article is a cover-up for his own errors and prejudices. It is an effort to surreptitiously disown his own past with Doniger and company, perhaps out of fear of being judged politically incorrect by these Western critics that he has often kowtowed before in the past. Attacking Western defenders of Hinduism along the way affords him the appearance of being a neutral observer, and makes it more difficult for him to lump with what Doniger and company castigate as the Hindu right that they usually decry as fascist as well.

Make certain, Pattanaik is no detached observer, but has a vested interest in the very negative interpretations of Hinduism that he now seems to question. He has so far shown little interest in any defence of Hinduism whether by Indians or Westerners, much less promoting its deeper Yoga and Vedantic teachings. While there is nothing wrong with changing one’s views, it is better to be honest about it and admit one’s mistakes. – Swarajya, 1 January 2017

Indraprashta vs. Dinpanah: Nothing communal about the name Indraprashta – Koenraad Elst

Indraprashta

Koenraad ElstIndraprastha was founded as the capital of the Pandavas’ small-time kingdom but the area was destined by fate to become the capital of the Delhi Sultanate, the Moghul Empire, Samrat Hemachandra’s short-lived empire, British India spanning the whole subcontinent, and now the Indian Republic. It is a source of pride, and worth celebrating, that here, the “righteous ruler” once chose to highlight the great universal ideas personified in Indra. – Dr Koenraad Elst

Indraprastha was the town founded by the Pandava brothers of Mahabharata fame as their capital. Here, the eldest among them, Yudhishthira, became the “ruler of righteousness” (dharma-râja). More than three thousand years later, on 22-23 November 2016, the Draupadi Dream Trust held the first Indraprastha Conference in the National Museum, Delhi. This was part of a larger initiative on Indraprastha, with an exhibition in the Purana Qila (Old Fort). This fort itself had been built over the ancient site of Indraprastha, now partly made visible by archaeological excavations.

Among secularists, there is predictably an attempt to sow doubt about this. In his 2015 book Where Stones Speak: Historical Trails in Mehrauli, the First City of Delhi, Rana Safvi argues that the finds under the Purana Qila have not been established to be the Pandavas’s city, which was but “mythological”. In particular, they are claimed not to contain the characteristic Painted Grey Ware, as per the 1954 excavations by India’s top archaeologist B. B. Lal. However, 62 years later, the nonagenarian Lal edited the brochure of the present exhibition and, taking into account several excavations since then (which Safvi feigns to ignore), he asserts that PGW was indeed found there, and that it was certainly the city of the Pandavas. Mehrauli was not the oldest part of Delhi, Indraprastha was.

(This repeats two earlier and similar attempts at secularist deception, involving the very same archaeologist. When Lal discovered the temple’s pillar-bases underneath the Babri Masjid, the secularists started nitpicking about his field-notes, when his final report was already in the public domain and affirmed the existence of the temple remains. And till today, defenders of the Aryan Invasion Theory keep on citing as proof of the invasion the identification by the young Lal of the PGW as showing the Aryan invaders on their way deeper into India, a view that he has long dismissed as immature. As ought to be well-known, Lal has for decades testified that there is no proof for this invasion whatsoever, and that Vedic India and the Harappan civilization were two sides of the same coin. In all the three cases, the secularists cite an early or even a non-existent position of Lal’s to trump his well-known mature position.)

Lord IndraLightning

A prastha is an open space, a clearing in the forest where you go and settle, a “colony”. Thus, a vanaprastha, an elderly person who withdraws from society, is “one who goes and settles in the forest” or “one who has the forest as his colony”.

The new town was dedicated to Indra. He was the god of the thunderstorm that puts an end to the oppressive summer heat and opens the rainy season. That is why among the 12 Vedic solar months or half-seasons, he rules the first month of the rainy season. As the Rg-Vedic seer Vasishtha says in his celebrated Hymn of the Frogs, both the priests and the frogs croak with joy when the first rainstorm breaks: the frogs because of the advent of water, the priests because of the manifestation of their god, Indra. Implicitly, the priests’ recitation is humorously likened to the frogs’ croaking.

He was also the slayer of the dragon Vrtra, a model for all the dragon-slayers in the world, such as Zeus killing Typhon, or Saint George, or Siegfried, or Beowulf. In Iran, he was transformed into a demon, but his nickname Verethragna (Vedic Vrtrahan, “Vrtra-slayer”) then became a popular god in its own right. There, we have an Indra on the side of both good and evil.

Less poetically and more philosophically, the Atharva Veda puts him at the centre of the sophisticated concept of Indrajâla, “Indra’s net”. In this net, a diamond in every knot reflects every other diamond knot, and thus the whole. The West needed another four thousand years to develop the similar concept of the holographic paradigm.

In India, Indra’s cult gradually declined after the Mahabharata age. Originally an embodiment of masculine strength, he becomes the subject of poetic variations extolling his (and his wife Shachi’s) sexual prowess. Like his Greek counterpart Zeus, he gets involved in flings on the side, such as with sage Gautama’s wife Ahilya. While becoming a character of fun, he further gets disavowed by the Mahabharata hero Krishna. In the famous Govardhan episode, Krishna lifts a mountain and holds it like an umbrella over the common people to protect them from the storm, embodiment of Indra’s wrath. This spurs on the further decline of the Vedic gods and their replacement with the now-familiar Hindu pantheon. By the time Hindus start building temples in the last centuries BCE, Indra is no longer worshipped.

However, the Buddha arrived just in time for Indra to play a role in his career. it was Indra himself who persuaded the freshly awakened Shakyamuni to start preaching his newfound path. Buddhist monks then spread the cult of Indra to foreign lands as far as Japan. Indra’s weapon, the lightning or vajra, became the emblem of instant Enlightenment. The sought-after “Self-nature” (Chinese zixing) is present all the time, deep in all of us; but when we embark on the path of meditation and finally awaken to it, it strikes like lightning.

Dînpanah and the religion

When the Muslim conquerors incorporated the area into their capital and built the Old Fort there, it was apparently not a case of “a Hindu sacred site destroyed to make way for a showpiece of Muslim power”. Indraprastha had largely fallen in disuse centuries before the conquests, leaving pride of place to other parts of Delhi. Still, the conquerors were aware of the site’s past as Indraprastha, for in his Ain-i-Akbari, Moghul chronicler Abu’l Fazl writes that it had been built on the site of “Indrapat”. There was probably no explicitly communal angle to it when the Muslim rulers chose the Indraprastha site.

That changed when the second Moghul emperor Humayun decided to reorganize the area as his own glimpse of paradise, calling it Dînpanah, “refuge of Islam”. Dîn is the general Semitic word for “justice, righteousness”, even “religion” (roughly, dharma). It was in this sense that the syncretistic emperor Akbar was to use it when he founded the Dîn-i-Ilâhî, the “divine religion”. This new religion was meant as a confluence between Hinduism and Islam, symbolized by Akbar’s newly-founded city of Ilâh-âbâd (“divine city”, wrongly transcribed by the British as Allahabad) on the Ganga-Yamuna confluence. But this religion did not exist yet in Humayun’s time.

Akbar’s usage of Dîn accorded with its original Semitic meaning once used by the Arab Pagans. But it deviated from the meaning that Mohammed had conferred on the term during his rulership in Arabia: specifically the religion of Islam. It is in this more limited sense that the word came to be used in names like Saifu’d-dîn, “sword of Islam”, and likewise in Humayun’s Dînpanah, “refuge of Islam”. Humayun’s rulership of Delhi was short-lived, and when he finally recovered it, he found his Dînpanah in disarray. He did not get a chance to rebuild it for he died soon after. So, it only had a very fleeting existence and made no mark at all in Delhi’s long history. By contrast, the earlier town of Indraprastha had existed for many centuries.

Recently, some well-meaning but illiterate bureaucrat came up with the idea that Lutyens’ Delhi should be renamed as Dînpanah. However, naming a central neighbourhood of Delhi after a particular religion might not go down well with the preponderantly secular-minded population. Probably the bureaucrats who considered naming the area’s development project Dînpanah had not considered this because they had not realized the meaning of Dîn. At any rate, the plan was shelved when they learned of the far better credentials of Indraprastha.

ZeusThe god

Now, some usual suspects will object upon hearing anything with the Vedic god Indra in it: “Communal!” They are mistaken. There is nothing communal about the holographic paradigm. There is nothing communal about sudden Awakening. He is the same storm god whom we find the world over: Zeus among the Greeks, Jupiter among the Romans, Thor among the Vikings (whence Thursday), Marduk in Babylon, Ba’al in the Levant. Note how Indra is likened to a bull, how Zeus seduced princess Europa in the shape of a bull, and how Ba’al was famously worshipped as a bull in the Biblical episode of the Golden Calf.

In fact, in the Golden Calf events, two faces of the storm god were in confrontation: not just Ba’al but even Moses’ god Yahweh are evolutes of essentially the same god. A lesser known face of the storm-god was indeed Yahweh among the Midianite Beduins in northwestern Arabia. Among them, then led by chieftain Jethro, the fugitive Egyptian prince Moses found asylum. That is when he acquired both a wife and a new religion. Yes, Yahweh was originally an Arab storm god, whose name was misinterpreted by the Bible authors as “He who is”. His name stems from a verbal root h-w-h also attested in the Quran, and meaning “to move in the sky”. This is both in the sense of the storm-wind’s blowing (an image of the palpable though subtle power of heaven) and of an eagle swooping down to catch its prey (an image of the sudden whims of destiny).

This Yahweh, this choleric storm god, was then taken to Egypt, apparently in the age when some of Pharaoh Akhnaton’s monotheistic reform was in the air. Next, he led Moses and the Israelites in the legendary Exodus through the desert. He remained powerful, sovereign and choleric, but was theologically transformed into the Biblical “jealous god”, who tolerates no second god beside him. This Yahweh, the sender of prophets, was later to be embraced by Mohammed under the name Allah, from al-Ilâh, “the god”.

Long live Indraprastha!

So, everybody can feel happy with the name Indraprastha. No Muslim invader ever destroyed a temple to Indra, for he had been worshipped before the Hindus even used idols housed in temples. Indra throwing the lightning (elsewhere “Thor’s hammer”) is an apt image of a heavenly intervention in earthly affairs. Everybody naturally considers thunder and lightning to be the prime symbol of heaven’s unchained might over us. Thus there is nothing communal about this name, on the contrary: Indra’s thunder storms are a pan-religious symbol, an embodiment of the basic unity underlying the plurality of religions.

Indraprastha  was founded as the capital of the Pandavas’ small-time kingdom but the area was destined by fate to become the capital of the Delhi Sultanate, the Moghul Empire, Samrat Hemachandra’s short-lived empire, British India spanning the whole subcontinent, and now the Indian Republic. It is a source of pride, and worth celebrating, that here, the “righteous ruler” once chose to highlight the great universal ideas personified in Indra. Therefore, the open-minded Delhiites all agree: Indraprastha amar rahe! – Koenraad Elst Blog, 30 December 2016

» Dr Koenraad Elst is an indologist and historian from Belgium who publishes with Voice of India, New Delhi.

Purana Qila Delhi

Righting a Historical Wrong: Bring back Bose and the INA on Rajpath – G. D. Bakshi

Subash Chandra Bose with his Indian National Army

G. D. BakshiThe post-Independence Intelligence Bureau (IB) and sections of the bureaucracy ostensibly remained loyal to the erstwhile British masters. For almost a quarter century after Independence, the IB kept reporting to MI-5 about the whereabouts and activities of Netaji’s kin. The INA men were treated as traitors and not taken back into the Indian Army. – Maj. Gen. (Retd) G. D. Bakshi

The nation enters its 71st year of Independence in 2017. With this, the upcoming Republic Day parade will mark a significant milestone in the life of the Republic. It would be a time to reflect and see where we are going. It would also be a suitable occasion to set right a grave historical wrong. The basic issue concerns the narrative of state the Nehruvian dispensation had crafted for itself in 1947. It had claimed that India was a unique state that had gained its Independence solely by the use of soft power tools of non-violence, persuasion and non-cooperation. Force and violence, they claimed, had no role, whatsoever, in India’s freedom struggle.

This narrative was deliberately crafted by the spin doctors of Nehru to gain political legitimacy and the right to rule. It was designed to counter the legend of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army (INA). Of the 60,000 INA men, 26,000 perished in the war in Burma. Was that non-violence? The historical fact, however, is that non-violence had dismally failed to get India its Independence. Its last charge was the Quit India Movement of 1942. Unfortunately, the British had employed some 57 battalions of white troops to crush it ruthlessly. All Congress leaders were flung into jails and released at the end of the war. Many of them, while in jail, had struck Faustian bargains with the British. So how and why did the British quit India just two years after the end of war? This is the critical question of our freedom struggle.

Azad Hind FlagThe key British decision-maker in this exercise was Lord Clement Attlee who took over as the British Prime Minister at the end of the war. In 1956, he visited Kolkata as guest of Justice P. B. Chakraborthy, then Governor of West Bengal. The two had a long conversation about the events of the freedom struggle. Chakraborthy asked Attlee point blank, “The Quit India Movement had failed dismally in 1942. Why then did you leave in such a tearing hurry just two years after the war ended? Attlee’s reply was direct, forthright and unequivocal, ‘It was Subhas Bose and his INA.’” He explained that though the INA had lost the battles of Imphal and Kohima, the post war trials of the INA officers had enraged the people of India. There had been major mutinies in February 1946 in the Royal Indian Navy and the Air Force, and finally the Army.

The British decided to leave. The original date was 1948, but Mountbatten preponed it to August 1947. Thus the prime catalyst and trigger for the British to leave was Bose and his INA. Unfortunately, the British had their final revenge by handing over power to an Anglophile elite. They made Mountbatten the first Governor General of free India. The post-Independence Intelligence Bureau (IB) and sections of the bureaucracy ostensibly remained loyal to the erstwhile British masters. For almost a quarter century after Independence, the IB kept reporting to MI-5 about the whereabouts and activities of Netaji’s kin. The INA men were treated as traitors and not taken back into the Indian Army.

The Nehruvian dispensation blanked Bose and the INA completely out of the history books. The court historians fabricated a new history of the freedom struggle based entirely on non-violence and Satyagraha. To live up to this exaggerated narrative, Nehru became a great pacifist. He told General Sir Roy Bucher, India’s first Army Chief, that independent India didn’t need armed forces. Police forces were sufficient! He marginalised the military and sidelined it. He starved it of resources till we met the disaster of 1962 at the hands of the Chinese. That abject humiliation opened our eyes and made India’s leaders turn to real politic. Armed forces were expanded and modernised. It did well in the 1965 war with Pakistan and won in Bangladesh in 1971. – The New Indian Express, 24 December 2016

»  Maj. Gen. (Retd) G. D. Bakshi has served two tenures at the Directorate General of Military Operations where he dealt with Information Warfare and Psychological Operations.

British troops leaving India in 1947.

Tipu Sultan: Shades of grey – Sanjeev Sanyal

Tipu Sultan

Sanjeev SanyalGiven [Tipu’s] record of brutality towards fellow Indians, it is difficult to think of him as a great freedom fighter. At best, he belongs to the shades of grey that mark a lot of history. – Sanjeev Sanyal

Despite their success in Bengal and control over the sea, the British were far from being the masters of India. The Marathas would remain the biggest threat to their hegemony for another half a century till they were finally defeated in the third Anglo-Maratha war of 1917-18. The East India Company also had to contend with the hostility of a number of other rulers such as Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore. Tipu is often portrayed as a great patriot in Indian history textbooks for having opposed British colonization but his record is not so straightforward. While it is true that he fought the British, he was constantly trying to subjugate other Indians—the Marathas, the Nizam of Hyderabad, Travancore, the Kodavas of Coorg to name just a few. He was also considered a usurper by many of his own subjects.

Tipu Sultan came to the throne in 1782 on the death of his father Hyder Ali. Hyder Ali had usurped the throne of Mysore from the Wodeyar dynasty that he served as a military commander. Over the next few years, Tipu crushed all dissent within his kingdom as well as took over the smaller kingdoms adjoining Mysore. The Karnataka coast and the Kodavas of Coorg (now Kodagu in Karnataka) soon found themselves under savage assault. The indiscriminate cruelty of Tipu’s troops is not just testified in both Indian and European accounts but also in the letters and instructions that Tipu himself sent to his commanders on the field

You are to make a general attack on the Coorgs and having put to the sword or made prisoners the whole of them, both the slain and prisoners, with the women and children, are to be made Mussalmans…Ten years ago, from ten to fifteen thousand men were hung upon the trees of that district since which time the aforesaid trees have been waiting for me.

Around 1788, Tipu Sultan turned his attention on the Kerala coast and marched in with a very large army. The old port city of Calicut was razed to the ground. Hundreds of temples and churches were systematically destroyed and tens of thousands of Hindus and Christians were either killed or forcibly converted to Islam. Again, this is not just testified by Tipu Sultan’s enemies but in his own writings and those of his court historian Mir Hussein Kirmani. Interestingly, one of the things that Tipu loudly denounced in order to justify his cruelty was the matrilineal customs of the region.

Not surprisingly, hundreds of thousands of refugees began to stream south in Travancore. Tipu now used a flimsy excuse to invade the kingdom founded half a century earlier by Marthanda Varma. Travancore’s forces were much smaller than those of Mysore but Lannoy had left behind a well-drilled army and a network of fortifications. A few sections of these fortifications have survived to this day and can be seen north of Kochi, not far from where the ancient port of Muzeris once flourished. Tipu’s army was repeatedly repulsed by the Nair troops but Travancore knew that it was up against a much larger military machine and was forced to ask the East India Company for help.

The British responded by putting together a grand alliance of Tipu’s enemies that included the Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad and, in 1791, they marched on Mysore. Within a few months, the allies had taken over most of Tipu’s kingdom and were bearing down on his capital, Srirangapatna. Eventually, he was Napoleon (1806)forced to accept humiliating terms—half his kingdom was taken away and he was made to pay a big war indemnity. Given his record of reneging on treaties, the East India Company kept two of his sons hostage till he paid the indemnity.

Friendless in India, Tipu now began to look for allies abroad. It is known that he exchanged letters with Napoleon and had great hopes of receiving support from the French. He also wrote to the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul and urged a joint jihad against the infidel British. The problem was that Napoleon had occupied Egypt and the Ottomans considered the French the real infidel enemies and the British as allies! The Ottoman Sultan’s reply, later published in the Madras Gazette, makes the point clearly: “We make it our special request that your Majesty will please refrain from entering any measure against the English.”

British intelligence was fully aware of what Tipu was doing and decided to finish him once and for all. The allies again March on Srirangapatna in 1799. The Mysore army was a shadow of its former self and the allies had little difficulty in reaching the capital. After three weeks of bombardment, the walls were breached. Tipu Sultan died fighting, sword in hand. The allies would restore Mysore to the old Wodeyar dynasty from whom Tipu’s father had usurped the throne. Napoleon would do little to rescue his ally but the siege of Srirangapatna would bolster the reputation of a thirty-year-old British colonel named Arthur Wellesley. Now remembered as the Duke of Wellington, he would defeat Napoleon 16 years later at Waterloo.

The Srirangapatna fort lives on a river island just off the Bangalore-Mysore highway. The final siege is so well documented that one can wander around the area and get a very good feel of how the last weeks unfolded. Tipu’s personal effects were taken by the visitors and most of them were shipped to England where they can be seen in various museums.

Tipu died a warrior’s death, defending his fort to his last breath. Moreover, despite the extreme cruelty towards Hindus and Christians in Kerala and Coorg, there are also instances of his making generous grants to temples. His critics will argue that most of these were given after his defeat in 1791.

It is difficult to say if this was a genuine change of heart or a tactical retreat by a cornered bully desperately looking for new friends. Still, given his record of brutality towards fellow Indians, it is difficult to think of him as a great freedom fighter. At best, he belongs to the shades of grey that mark a lot of history. – Newsbred, 23 October 2016. Excepted from The Ocean of Churn by Sanjeev Sanyal.

» Sanjeev Sanyal is an Indian economist, bestselling author, environmentalist, and urban theorist.

Finding the Body of Tipu Sultan

See also

Decoding the Idea of India – Michel Danino

Ramayana & Mahabharata

Prof Michel DaninoWhen the ancient Greeks referred to “India”, the Chinese to “Tianzhu” or the Arabs to “Hind”, they had in mind something more than a mere geographical expanse beyond the Hindu Kush or the Himalayas; what their testimonies express is an underlying cultural unity as a defining factor for “India”. – Prof Michel Danino

It is often said that Indian history is not very different from that of other parts of the world: the same power struggles, the same tales of warfare, treachery or conquest, the same social injustices and exploitation.
The conclusion, explicitly stated or not, is that India’s road to progress lies in the modern “idea” of a “secular” nation built on the democratic structures and principles that post-Enlightenment Europe created for itself. Nothing better can be conceived of, apparently, even though Western democracies are increasingly beset with challenges to their very foundations.

But let us remain with India for now. As a nation, modern India, thus, emerged from the colonial age; there is no dispute on that. But did something identifiable as “India” exist earlier? When the ancient Greeks referred to “India”, the Chinese to “Tianzhu” or the Arabs to “Hind”, they had in mind something more than a mere geographical expanse beyond the Hindu Kush or the Himalayas; what their testimonies express is an underlying cultural unity as a defining factor for “India”.

Said al-Andalusi, a Spanish historian and astronomer, for instance, wrote in 1068, “The Indians, among all nations, through the centuries and since antiquity, were the source of wisdom, justice and moderation. They were a people endowed with virtues of self-control, creators of sublime thoughts, universal fables, rare inventions and remarkable conceptions.”

History of IndiaAt the other end of the spectrum, we find a British historian, John R. Seeley, spelling out in 1883 the colonial gospel: “India is not one country, and therefore it has not one civilisation. It has not even so much unity as it seems to have…”

It was therefore the colonial rule that created that unity and made India one nation. If so, what did the Vishnu Purana, a text at least 1,500 years old, mean when it stated, “The country that lies north of the ocean, and south of the snowy mountains, is called Bharata”?

Indologists have long identified a few mechanisms that helped create the unity underlying the rightly celebrated, mind-boggling diversity that strikes any student of India. One of them is the institution of pilgrimage, a most effective way, along with trade, to get people to travel the length and breadth of the subcontinent.

Networks of shrines were consciously created, although we shall never know their creators: the char dhams at the four “corners” of the land (Badrinath, Rameswaram, Dwarka, Puri); the fifty-one Shakti mahapithas dotting the entire map, including what are today Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, where parts of the body of the deceased Sati are said to have fallen, turning the land into a metaphor for the divine mother; the twelve Jyotirlingas; the Kumbhamela sites (originally twelve of them); the 108 Divya Desam shrines to Vishnu; and numerous regional networks.

The result: “India has, for ages past, been a country of pilgrimages. All over the country, you find these ancient places, from Badrinath, Kedarnath and Amarnath, high up in the snowy Himalayas down to Kanyakumari in the south. For, from the very beginning of history, the people of India always thought of themselves as a people belonging to one great country. What has drawn out people from the north to the south, and from the south to the north in these great pilgrimages? What is the common thought that has made them travel from one region to the other? It is the feeling of one country and one culture, and this feeling has bound us together.” The author of these remarks is not some Hindu communalist but the very embodiment of post-Independence secularism—Jawaharlal Nehru himself.

Second mechanism, closely related to the first, is the creation of a sacred geography in which mountains, rivers, trees and animals, are imbued with divinity; I will return to this in the next article in this series. And a third is the spread of the two Indian epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana, across the subcontinent and far beyond. It is remarkable how these two grand tales, replete not only with heroism but with human frailty and treachery, captured people’s imagination. The Mahabharata lists 363 communities (janas) across the map, and many of them, including some that we today call “tribal”, returned the compliment by taking pride in owning the epic, translating, adapting or retelling it in endless variations. In Tamil Nadu alone, a recent survey enumerated “about a hundred versions that have come down to us in folklore forms”!

Much more than the Vedas or the Upanishads, the two epics culturally united the land (and much of Southeast Asia) in a tight web. “India has all along been trying experiments in evolving a social unity within which all the different peoples could be held together, while fully enjoying the freedom of maintaining their own differences. … This has produced something like a United States of a social federation, whose common name is Hinduism.”

Again, is this the utterance of some jingoistic mind? Judge for yourself, since Rabindranath Tagore is its author, however offensive it might appear today to a certain class of Indian intellectuals. Note the key phrase, while fully enjoying the freedom of maintaining their own differences.

The whole process was not one ordered by some central religious or political power; it was organic, decentralized and self-regulated. And note the word “Hinduism”, clearly not in the sense of a narrow set of dogmas imposed by a privileged coterie, but as a bewilderingly complex phenomenon of interaction between all layers of Indian society, in which deities, rituals, beliefs and even texts freely travelled back and forth. That too will call for further discussion. – The New Indian Express, 31 October 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: micheldanino@gmail.com

Puranas