Confusion Over Indian History

Asoka - the Pillar of lions
From The Editor's Desk

(Hinduwebsite Editorial - Exploring Truth Amidst Illusions and Distortions)

There are many confusions about Indian history. Until India became independent, Indian history vacillated between two extremes.

On the one side was the nationalist version of a golden era ruled by kings of great valor and virtue who were patriotic and religious to the core and who fought against foreign aggressors such as Alexander and Aurangzeb.

On the other side was the European version of a pagan culture that had its roots in the ancient cults of Indo-European communities who lived and ruled as if the earth belonged to them and their kind.

The first approach attempted to inculcate feelings of nationalism and nationalist pride in a rather submissive and apathetic community that was deeply divided on caste and regional basis and paid no attention to the vacuum of leadership.

The second approach attempted to legitimize the aggressor's historic connection with the region and thereby their right to rule the country as the modern successors to an ancient and lost civilization and their right to superior knowledge, culture and wisdom.

Lost in this epic drama was an era of about a thousand years of gory history that was soaked in blood and brutality, persecution and religious discrimination against a vast number of innocent people by a succession of unrelenting and cruel Islamic invaders who excelled in plunder and pillage.

When India became independent, an elite group of historians bred on the ideology of the left emerged. They injected a fresh dose of Marxism, socialism and communism and interpreted Indian history as the history of tribal and feudal communities characterized by class conflicts, agrarian divisions and exploitation of the poor and the week by the rich and the powerful in the name of religion and hereditary rights. They attempted to separate Indian history from its religious history to the extent possible and interpret its past with a secular mindset glossing over the rather unpleasant facts in generalizations. What was lost or compromised in the process was the truth of India's ancient past.

Truly speaking, the history of India is not the history of a nation but the history of various groups of people who lived in the Indian subcontinent and practiced diverse religious beliefs, ranging from the highest to the lowest and the vilest. Presently they belong to different nations, nationalities and religious groups, comprising present day India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Parts of China, Russia and Iran. They also belong to different linguistic and cultural groups, some very Indian, some partially Indian and some very foreign.

There is a section of people, who want us to believe that the ancient people who lived in the Indian subcontinent have the same national identity as the people of modern India and perpetuate the nationalist fervor that we should feel a deep emotional connection with those who lived in the subcontinent centuries ago. Unfortunately, this is not true. If those people come back to life, they would hardly recognize the modern Indians and vice versa. Even their languages were different.

Another noticeable factor regarding Indian history is the amount of hostility shown by some Indians towards the European historians of the British times.

The fact is these historians were pioneers in the study of ancient India. Before them no one evinced as much interest in the history of the land as they did. Without their contribution and dedicated work, probably Indian history would have been practically nonexistent until the past century.

They might have had their own flaws and religious prejudices, but they did introduce India to the western world unlike any group of Indians ever did. Few Indians like Raja Rammohan Roy did study the ancient texts and tried to explore its past; but from their biographies we learn that they suffered hardships for choosing unrewarding careers.

Until the European historians arrived on the scene, Indians showed little interest in exploring or preserving historical records or ancient scriptures. In fact, the Indian elite of British times were inimical to the idea of revealing the religious texts to all classes of people, especially the Sudras.

It is approximately the same situation today. In India, religious scholars and intellectuals receive little attention from the public. Few pay attention the preservation work they do. Caste divisions prevail, and some over enthusiastic groups want to rewrite and glorify Indian history rather than understand the truth and learn from it.

Here are a few facts regarding ancient India. They may be controversial in nature and may be even wrong in some context. I chose to present them because I feel it is necessary for us to challenge ourselves and our prejudices to cultivate tolerance, discretion, right thinking, right knowledge and right views.

1. Fact: Since ancient times, Indian subcontinent has been inhabited by diverse groups of people. They were not Indians in the same sense as the people of modern India.

Explanation: They lived in a different world. They were bound by their family traditions and lineages rather than their national identities. Some of them led pastoral and nomadic lives and wandered from place to place. This group includes not only Yajnavalkyas and great rishis but also the Chandalas, Lokayatas and other outcastes whom the higher castes despised. So when you put all the ancient people who lived in the subcontinent into one basket and identify yourself with them, you have to remember that they were diverse groups of people who belonged to different social and historical backgrounds.

2. Fact: Indian subcontinent was probably inhabited by a group of Aryans at some point in its long history.

Explanation: The word Arya and its variants, such as Ayya, are frequently used in India even today across many cultures. The scriptures call the subcontinent as Aryavarta or the land of Aryans. Aryaputra was a common epithet. However, we do not know whether these Aryans, were white, black, brown or mixed and whether they were original inhabitants or came from outside.

3. Fact: Geographically a vast part of Indus Valley civilization is located in Pakistan and Afghanistan and forms part of their local histories as much as it forms part of Indian history. So is the case with the Buddha, who was born in present day Nepal rather than India.

Explanation: The Indus valley civilization covered a very large area, larger than the ancient Egyptian kingdom. Unfortunately, we have no clear information about this civilization. The subcontinent also witnessed the rise of many tribal groups, republics and communities, who were outside the pale of mainstream culture for a very long time. The Buddha belonged to one such community. In the Vedic worldview, the Buddha was a heretic born to mislead people and lead them astray as part of God's plan to destroy the asuras.

4. Fact: The people who practiced the Vedic religion were not Indians, in the same sense as the modern Indians.

Explanation: Vedic civilization passed through many phases of development. They lived in an entirely different times, worshipped different gods and followed a different religious, social and economic system that has little resemblance to the prevailing one.

5. Fact: The religion of the Rigveda is no more practiced in India.

Explanation: The Vedic gods such as, Indra, Varuna, Agni, Mitra, Usha, Aditya, Soma, Pusan, Maruts, Rudras, Vasus, Visvadevas, Asvins, and Prajapati are degraded and replaced by a new pantheon. We may chant their names in Vedic rituals, but we do not give them the same importance in daily worship as we give to Ganesa, Venkatesa, Hanuman or even Shirdi Sai Baba.

6. Fact: Hinduism is an idea or a concept, but not an actual religion in the sense of Christianity, or Islam. Hence it does not have the same continuity or historical identity as in case of these religions.

Explanation: Brahmanism, Saivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism and several ascetic traditions have their own independent histories. They had their own pantheon, code of conduct, teacher traditions, scriptures, philosophies, ritual and practices. At times bitter rivalries existed between these groups.

7. Fact: Present day Hinduism has little resemblance to the religious traditions practiced in ancient India, except perhaps with regard to the caste system, treatment of women and poor, and a few temple traditions.

Explanation: Whether it is meat-eating, human and animal sacrifices, polygamy, widow burning, ban on overseas travel, untouchability, joint family system, purdah system, or methods of worship, modern Hinduism is very different from the traditions and beliefs practiced in ancient India.

To be politically correct and avoid controversy we may create our own versions of history according to the modern values and mindset and indulge in self-deception. Then we may never know the truth and never learn from our collective past.

Today, many people in India are scared of writing or speaking about India's past or make movies about historical events and people, because they do not want to invite controversy and threat to their lives. This must change. If we take pride in the Upanishadic statement, "Satyameva Jayate," we should let truth speak for itself and allow freedom of thought and churning of ideas to distill truth.

A Hindu who believes in rebirth ought to be free from these prejudices because there is no guarantee that we are always born in the same religious community. What we defend and uphold in this life we may castigate and condemn in our next birth. If you persecute someone now, you may be born in the family of the persecuted and suffer from the consequences of your own actions.

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