History, Pride and Textbooks

History has dark and bright sides. It can hurt and it can inspire. But at the end, it can only make our understanding better and move ahead with wisdom.

History is often called the new battlefield. It figures prominently in online columns and on television debates. Of late, there have been great observations by Dr. David Frawley and Sandeep Balakrishna  in their articles.  This essay attempts to build on those lines with a focus on the role of textbooks.

The issue of re-writing textbooks is not new but most fiercely fought one in this so-called battle. It’s seen as a matter of gaining control and shaping a particular narrative. But there is a general agreement that the textbooks need to be presented within an Indian context.

The well-known Aryan invasion theory has now mutated into Aryan migration theory and this too has been questioned and disproved using various  methods.  It has always been at the center of controversies surrounding history.

thaparIndia’s most famous Marxist historian Prof. Romila Thapar recently questioned if the word ‘Aryan’ matters anymore! While I respect her scholarship, one can’t say that the word does not matter anymore. Because it has brainwashed the people of India for generations and is considered the gospel-truth.

I remember vividly a social studies lesson which talked about ‘Aryans’ – the outsiders who invaded India and established their culture over natives and Dravidians. This was in 3rd grade and half the class was barely 8 at that time. It did feel like a huge statement. Looking back, one would wonder what the rationale was behind introducing such a subjective and complex topic to kids at such an impressionable age while in higher grades, we had events that can be termed as ‘recorded history’ and not ‘theories’ like the Indian National Movement, French revolution etc.

It can be said that for many kids in that generation, the only source of history lessons would be textbooks. Not many took history beyond 10th grade and fewer took history at undergraduate level as it was only one of the many options out there. In this backdrop, one can see the importance of history textbooks as they clearly shaped the thinking about the past and how we see ourselves.

People have been arguing for and against using history to create a sense of pride in a nation. But it has always been used to do so. This is seen in folk arts too which were used to tell the stories of great deeds of warriors, saints and inspire people. The problem is when facts are suppressed or selectively used to shape a specific narrative.

History textbooks in schools had voluminous chapters devoted to English, French, American and Russian revolutions because they resulted in democracy. Boston Tea Party, Treaty of Versailles and Bolsheviks are presented in great level of detail.

The Delhi Sultanate too is discussed in detail as part of Indian history even if some of the rulers did not rule significant parts of North India. But the fact that Rudramadevi, daughter of Ganapatideva of Kakatiya dynasty was crowned as co-regent at the age of 14 and had a long reign of more than 25 years is hardly mentioned since it’s dubbed as regional history.

When science and technology have caught the imagination of many in the past century and are called great equalizers, do Indian kids know the important discoveries in math and science that originated from India?

We earlier read the current numerals as ‘Arabic numerals’ which were later called ‘Indo-Arabic’ or even ‘Hindu-Arabic’ numerals. Another famous case is that of the oft-quoted Pythagoras Theorem. Many generations grew up not knowing that Baudhayana from India and others from China and Babylon discovered this theorem much before Pythagoras and some even proved it.1,2 Maybe this can’t be publicized enough because it was part of ‘Sulba Sutras’, that deal with geometry used in Vedic sacrifices and anything Vedic is a matter of religion.

The lines between science, religion and spirituality were mostly blurred in ancient India. The clear separation of those was a purely Western concept which is now being challenged by theoretical physics.

There surely is an element of pride in knowing that this Pythagoras theorem evolved independently in India or that scientists from India gave solution to the general quadratic equation. And knowledge of events of this kind can definitely motivate students to develop a scientific temper and take up research in pure sciences.

Canadian-born winner of Fields medal, Prof. Manjul Bhargava said on many occasions that Sanskrit poetry and mathematics of Brahmagupta taught by his grandfather who was a Sanskrit scholar was an important factor in developing his interest in mathematics.

manjulWith a British model of studying history coupled with leftist ideologues at the helm, few generations of Indians ended up with low self-esteem. There are so many untold facts about our achievements in physics, metallurgy, math and Ayurveda that are ought to be taught in schools and merit further research.

A Vedic scholar who specializes in Mimamsa was speaking on ‘Science in Vedas’ at an event organized by TTD (managing board of Sri Balaji temple).  He said that an iron ball (Ayo-gola) dropped in boiling water releases iron and the water has special medical benefits. And that this is why when seasoning is added to Rasam in south India, it’s not just transferred but the hot iron ladle is completely immersed into the liquid. I later read that this concept is used in Ayurveda. 3

Ayurveda has never been given its due but fares better compared to other streams of knowledge due to collaborative research. When we were kids, anyone suffering from jaundice would be taken to the nearest Ayurvedic physicians as Allopathy offered no treatment. After a decade or so, patients would only mostly go to Allopathic physicians but they were prescribed ‘Hepatinic’ a proprietary Ayurvedic medicine packaged in a regular tablet strip (FDA approved). That surely is some progress4.  Still Ayurveda doesn’t find a big mention in the ‘history of science’ section.

Post-graduate programs in the history of mathematics and history of science are offered in USA but in India the lines are thickly drawn when it comes to multi-disciplinary degrees. Students of history can only study anthropology and sociology but can’t study human genetics or linguistics even if relevant. Well that kind of variety just doesn’t exist.

The television debates on these topics can be very amusing. The anchors in mainstream media with all their biases intact, somehow brush aside credible statements from men of science with a ‘but’ and keep highlighting some sporadic instances of terrible mix-ups.

A politician acknowledged that we need to revisit history and carefully avoided anything connected to Vedas or Ayurveda and talked about just medicinal plants! There sure is a whole body of knowledge from tribal cultures that needs to be taught. But such debates make us realize how some topics are untouchables in the name of ‘saffronization’.

It’s appalling that at a time when we argue about revisiting history to develop pride and motivation, these arguments are greatly stifled by some extremists who use it for politics, jingoism and false sense of pride. They believe that everything we ought to know is in Ramayana, Mahabharata and other ancient texts and make attempts to thrust those as history.

Shatavadhani Dr. Ganesh, a great scholar in Sanskrit, Kannada and Telugu and himself a man of science said that he has only sympathy for people trying to prove that every single event in the epics did happen. They are mythology and were written mainly to spread the teachings of Vedas to common man.

The answer to the lack of knowledge of our achievements in the past is definitely not the kind of experiments we see in textbooks and other books of Haryana and Gujarat. When parts of Ramayana and Mahabharata are prescribed in textbooks they should be presented only as epics.

Only when there is historical evidence of a particular mention should that move to the side of history. All this jingoistic push does is that it makes our current cream of historians and mainstream media hyperventilate at the very mention of Vedas or ancient texts. And in that process, trivializes this whole issue that merits a concerted scientific approach.

purANamityeva na sAdhu sarvam na chApi kAvyam navamityavadyam

santaH parIkshyAtanyatarat bhajante mUDhaH para pratyayaneya buddhiH

This is a quote attributed to the great Kalidasa and can be loosely translated as:

Just because it’s old everything is not correct

Just because something’s new it is not to be looked down upon

Wise men accept things after careful examination

Only fools depend on others’ intellect to judge things

The so-called Right needs to know this and there is the other side that believes ‘purANamityeva asAdhu sarvam’ just because its old everything is incorrect. Credible achievements are drowned somewhere in the middle.

History has dark and bright sides. It can hurt and it can inspire. But at the end, it can only make our understanding better and move ahead with wisdom.

While it will take time for history textbooks to showcase past achievements given the present bias, there is need for books for kids in the non-textbook genre that present verified facts. Something along the lines of ‘Makers of Indian Literature’ series by Sahitya Akademi may help. In this internet era, kids shouldn’t wait for generations like we did to know more about Brahmagupta, Sridharacharya, ‘Hemachandra numbers’  and Baudhayana.

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  • Naanu Naanu

    Santi Pasumarthi Sir,

    Your article swells my heart.

    It’s like Oasis to troubled mind.

    Only if our HRD minister & ICHR Chairmen do read this & try to implement it, It would be the greatest service they can do for this country.

    One particluar line in your article stands out.

    “The lines between science, religion and spirituality were mostly blurred in ancient India”

    True, Adding turmeric to milk, Pasting Turmeric to face are both religious & good-for-health.
    Traditions started with noble & useful purpose, leading to path of health & well-being.
    Somewhere, probably somewhere meaning was lost, purpose got muzzled & traditions became millstone.

    Each generation is only rediscovering the greatness, India already had.

    On Textbooks, Kaipullai Vettai’s blog has some excellent thoughts…..
    All the history of India between 500 AD to 1200 AD got wiped out.
    Right from Abdul Kalam Azad to Arjun Singh to Smriti Zubin Irani, this has not been corrected.
    For starters, The Andaals, Basavannas, Annamayyas & PurandaraDaasas who stressed self-effort of individual for self-upliftment & community upliftment is no where mentioned in History Textbooks.

    Basavanna’s economics suits so much with MIlton Friedman (No Free lunches, Earn first, Donate next & eat last….. is mighty ennobling the soul).

    What’s worse is
    leftist talk is hijacked by people for whom There was no Ramachandra in India.
    right wing talk is hijacked by those can’t bear a shambooka or shabari.

    Karma neh….

  • Savarkar’s Disciple

    Hindus should ask for a law to be passed which declares NEGATIONISM IN HISTORY as illegal. Just like in 2001 EU passed a law about not denying Genocides commited in Europe and forced TURKEY to accept the Armenian Genocide as a part of its History we too should push for such a law.But then who will represent the Hindu side since there isn’t a Hindu Political Party to stand up for any of the Hindu Causes.

  • Dr. MS

    So…lets find a new way to fight for social and economic justice. A wonderful article by Darren Walker on why philanthropy is not enough.

    Why Giving Back Is Not Enough
    By DARREN WALKER

    During the 20th century, an entire field of institutional philanthropy emerged and flourished in the pattern of Carnegie’s mold. Iconic American families — Gates, Knight, MacArthur, Mellon, Rockefeller — endowed and expanded foundations that built schools and libraries, developed new vaccines, revolutionized agriculture and advanced human freedom. My own organization, the Ford Foundation, has given billions to support everything from public television in the United States to microlending in Bangladesh.

    Our work has been indisputably for the good: Millions of people around the world have access to new tools and resources with which to improve their lives. A few months ago, the World Bank estimated that, for the first time in history, fewer than one in 10 human beings lives in extreme poverty. This is progress.

    And yet, for all the advances made in the last century, society’s challenges may have outpaced philanthropy’s resources. Today, the cumulative wealth of the most generous donors seems a pittance compared with the world’s trillions of dollars’ worth of need. Generosity, blooming as it may be from legacies of both Carnegie’s age and the newly enriched, is no longer enough.

    The world may need a reimagined charter of philanthropy — a “Gospel of Wealth” for the 21st century — that serves not just American philanthropists, but the vast array of new donors emerging around the world.

    This new gospel might begin where the previous one fell short: addressing the underlying causes that perpetuate human suffering. In other words, philanthropy can no longer grapple simply with what is happening in the world, but also with how and why.

    Feeding the hungry is among our society’s most fundamental obligations, but we should also question why our neighbors are without nutritious food to eat. Housing the homeless is an imperative, but we should also question why our housing markets are so distorted. As a nation, we need more investment in education, but not without questioning educational disparities based on race, class and geography.

    Our self-awareness — our humility — shouldn’t be limited to examining the problems. It should include the structures of solutions, like giving itself. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said not long before his assassination, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” It is, after all, an offspring of the free market; it is enabled by returns on capital.

    And yet, too often, we have declined to question our own circumstances: a system that produces vast differences in privilege, and then tasks the most privileged with improving the system.

    Whatever our intentions, the truth is that we can inadvertently widen inequality in the course of making money, even though we claim to support equality and justice when giving it away. And while our end-of-year giving might support worthy organizations, we must also ask if these financial donations contribute to larger social change.

    In other words, “giving back” is necessary, but not sufficient. We should seek to bring about lasting, systemic change, even if that change might adversely affect us. We must bend each act of generosity toward justice.

    We, as foundations and individuals, should fund people, their ideas and organizations that are capable of addressing deep-rooted injustice. We should ensure that the voices of those most affected by injustice — women, racial minorities, the poor, religious and ethnic minorities and L.G.B.T. individuals — help decide where and what philanthropy puts money behind, not in simply receiving whatever philanthropy decides to give them.

    We can wield data and technology, see through a diversity of viewpoints, and draw upon a century of philanthropy’s success and failure to identify and address the barriers holding people back.

    This modern giving charter should look different in different settings. At the Ford Foundation, our efforts will focus on inequality: not just wealth disparities, but injustices in politics, culture and society that compound inequality and limit opportunity. We will ask questions like, are we hearing and heeding those who understand the problems best? What can we do to leverage our privilege to disrupt the drivers of inequality?

    Others in philanthropy will take different, but no less effective, approaches. Many already are answering King’s call, working intensely toward a world that renders philanthropy unnecessary. Ultimately, we each must do our part to ensure that giving not only makes us feel better, but also makes our society more just.

    Gandhi talked about this,

    “If you tremble with indignation at every injustice then you are a comrade of mine.”
    ― Ernesto Che Guevara

    “Once you realize that trickle-down economics does not work, you will see the excessive tax cuts for the rich as what they are — a simple upward redistribution of income, rather than a way to make all of us richer, as we were told.”
    ― Ha-Joon Chang

    “The opposite of poverty is not wealth. In too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.”

    “Denouncing evil is a far cry from doing good.”
    ― Philip Gourevitch from his book, “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families”

  • N.Paramasivam

    It is our duty to take the actual history of India, like that of Rudhramadevi, to the next generation. Historians like Romila Thapar, Ramachandra Guha etc blacked out the details. Two generations were given wrong history of India. I hope that we will undo this wrong