Indian Culture & History: Whose Narrative Should It Be- 4

What makes Indian culture and history unique is the multiplicity of conflicting narratives that it is made up of.

What makes Indian culture and history unique is the multiplicity of conflicting narratives that it is made up of. From those emerging from the Indian gaze to the foreign gaze to the current Revivalist narrative, this four-part series covers them all with the intention of reconciliation.

Part 1 covers the Indigenous and the Ambedkar views, both emerging from the Indian gaze. The Indigenous narrative believes, as our sages intended us to, that spirituality is at the core of our heritage, while the insightful and nuanced Ambedkar narrative has many claimants based on selective and narrow readings of the Dalit leader.

Part 2 focuses on the foreign gaze to straddle the Colonialist, Orientalist and Marxist views. The Colonialists preferred to see Hindu India as culturally backward and believed it was ripe for the subjugation and propagation of their faith. The Orientalists took over from the Colonialists in English, and European Universities were followed by American ones. They support the Aryan Invasion Theory and view our cultural history, including the Sanskrit language and the Ramayana, from a lens of Brahminical oppression. The Marxists, who were entrusted with writing Indian History post-Independence, see the pre-Islamic period as one of strife and the Islamic period as one of cultural renaissance.

Part 3 brings us back to the Indian gaze with the Revivalist scholars positing that the Marxist and Orientalist views are a distortion of our narrative.

How do we resolve this conflict and reclaim our narrative is the subject of discussion in this concluding part of the series.

Where do we go from here?

It is quite clear that the conflicting narratives need to be reconciled. This is the root cause of discord in our society. The resolution of this conflict will help first to bind us, second, to articulate a vision for India, which most can agree with and third, generate inner energy that comes from deeply shared values.

When we juxtapose the narratives, two main issues emerge:

  1. The challenge posed to the hitherto accepted history of India
  2. The unresolved ideological basis of our nationhood

History of India

The first imperative is for the Marxists, Orientalists and Revivalists to discuss the historiography of India. So far, the Marxists and Orientalists have refused to debate with the Revivalist scholars. Sheldon Pollock has refused to debate with Rajiv Malhotra. Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib and others are happy to take on RSS and BJP ideologues who they can easily demolish, but shy away from engaging with serious scholars. Shrikant Talageri says that he was offered a scholarship to Harvard if he was willing to be flexible on his criticism of AIT. Michel Witzel, the Harvard professor, has ignored his persistent arguments against AIT.

One problem appears to be the centuries of investment made by Orientalists and Marxists in their version of historiography that makes them loath to give up on long held theories. There is also the politics of power associated with entrenched academicians both in India and the west. Hindu chauvinists who claim imagined dates of events or that Sanskrit travelled from India (Vedic Sanskrit is different from Panini’s Sanskrit according to Talageri) give a handle to the western scholars to disregard Indian scholarship. Another reason is that the Revivalists are termed sectarian and allied to Hindutva politics.

The need to sort out the data, analyze it and discuss conclusions, remains. As the Revivalists put up more and more data based arguments, the need is only amplified. The Aryan Invasion, chronology of Vedas, link between Vedic and Indus Valley civilizations, ancient cultural unity, flow of knowledge, the real nature of Islamic invasion, the truth about Hindu resistance to Islamic invasions, restoration of the real stature of Hindu rulers are many of the issues that need to be revisited, debated and reconciled.

I illustrate this with the example of Ram Janmabhumi, where there were claims and counter claims. It is only through facts that the issue is moving towards resolution.

In a 1989 paper titled “Political Abuse of History”, JNU historians led by Romila Thapar stated that there was no temple at the site. Professors AR Khan, Harsh Narayan and AK Chatterjee critiqued this. The weight of the temple argument was stronger, yet the Marxists tried to manipulate facts to support their argument. Instead of focusing on facts, they questioned motives. Another argument they offered was silence of people in the medieval period on Babri Masjid.

A 1975-76 excavation led by B B Lal of the ASI discovered pillar-bases that must have belonged to a building larger than the Babri Masjid. This led them to believe that there might have been a temple at the site. Lal submitted a preliminary report. Subsequent to the report all facilities for further excavations were withdrawn. In 1992 another team of eight eminent archeologists including Dr. K M Srivastava and Dr. Y D Sharma examined artifacts at the site. They concluded that these fragments belonged to a Nagara style temple dating 900-1200 CE.

Despite such evidence in favour of a temple, the entire media, political class and Orientalists dubbed it a Hindutva concoction. All this, while the temple sat buried and was eventually confirmed by a large scale excavation in 2003. This excavation was conducted by ASI and led by Dr. B R Mani, under the direction of the Allahabad High Court.

I narrate this story to assert that the only way to resolve such issues is to ascertain facts. Of course, it is possible that despite this, many may still hold the view that the Ram temple is a Hindutva concoction because that is what they have been led to believe by the media and interested parties.

On culture, the real issue is whose narrative it should be. Literary theory encouraged viewing literature from many lenses. As Northrop Frye noted in his “Anatomy of Criticism”, some critics tend to embrace an ideology, and to judge literary pieces on the basis of their adherence to such ideology. Thus, Sheldon Pollock views our shastras from a Marxist lens, Wendy Doniger from a Freudian lens and earlier Max Muller from a Eurocentric lens. But there is also the straight reading, as the author intended. India’s is the only narrative where the straight reading or indigenous view counts for nothing. The Orientalists and Marxists view prevails. Once a discussion takes place, the straight reading can be established as a valid point of view. If the discussion is thwarted because of vested interests, then, there is a case for the Revivalists to assert themselves.

The implications of accepting the Revivalist version are far reaching. Firstly, we will know that we are one race. The Hindus, Muslims, Dalits, Dravidians, Tribes and Castes all share the same DNA. There will be a case to reassess the caste system, or what is left of it. Once the distinction between Varna, Jaati and Caste is understood, the remaining rigidity can begin to ease. There will be a need for Hindus and Muslims to have a serious conversation about common ancestry and the fact that we are all victims. It will help to establish our own narrative, values and vision.

Reconciling Competing Ideologies

At the time of independence there were broadly three competing ideologies: the two-nation theory proposed by the Muslim League, the Gandhi-Nehru Secularism and the Hindutva ideology. Today, as a debate rages between Secularists and Hindutva, there is another narrative, which I call the Pragmatist narrative. I would like to deal with this narrative first.

Pragmatism

This narrative holds that we should focus on technocracy and meritocracy to grow the economy, modernize the infrastructure, reduce corruption and make the administration efficient. The past is too complex and the identity issue is equally complicated. Many believe that immediate history is what matters. The further we go back, the less its importance to our lives today. Pragmatists believe liberalism is what matters and culture is created now and here when different people intermingle. They view the rise of Hindu sensibility with suspicion and feel it is majoritarian, monolithic and a threat to modern values.

The Revivalists believe that the philosophical foundations of Indian culture evolved over millennia and is the culture that if revived, can energise India. The Pragmatists however dwell primarily on the current degeneration of Indian culture and ethos. This differing perception of what Indian culture entails is at the root of the disagreement between Pragmatists and Revivalists.

Some of them belong to a cosmopolitan set with its attendant world view of eclecticism. Let us look at this view as well.

At the end of the cold war, Francis Fukuyama argued that the world had reached the end of history in a Hegelian sense. Human rights, liberal democracy and free market economy had become the only remaining ideological alternative in the post-cold war world. More recently, Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, declared his country the first Post National State. He said there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada; there are shared values of openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, equality and justice.

The late Samuel Huntington, former teacher of Fukuyama disagreed with him. According to him the world was reverting to a normal state of affairs, characterized by cultural conflicts. With economic modernization and dislocation, people are separated from local identities. He said that religion has replaced this gap and provides a basis for identity. This transcends national barriers and unites civilizations. This consciousness is being driven by the fact that while the west has reached the peak of its power, other civilizations now have the will, resources and power to shape the world according to their own values. He went on to say that this century would see the division of the world into Christian, Orthodox, Islamic, African, Hindu, Sinic, Japanese and Jewish Israeli civilizations. Some of them will clash and some will form partnerships from time to time. Just 17 years into this century one can see that Huntington was prophetic.

As far as Trudeau’s proclamation is concerned, most Canadians surveyed opined that there did exist a distinct Canadian identity and culture, thus disagreeing with their prime minister. Globalization may yet take Canada the way USA has gone recently. Further, it is possible that Trudeau said this because he felt it is dangerous to affirm a dominant culture that suppresses or marginalizes those outside the main stream.

There is no debate on technocracy and meritocracy to develop a country. The examples often taken by the Pragmatists are that of Singapore and the USA. But both countries have underlying values based on their religion. USA has Christian values of organization, respect for rules, and a reverence for hard work. Singapore has strong underlying Confucian values that shun insubordination in favour of maintaining the delicate balance of society, of discipline and politeness. In conclusion, transnationalism just does not exist on any significant scale. Each nation has a dominant culture with strong underlying values.

My point is underlying values are required to fire a society. Our history of the last one thousand years is such that we do not have any agreement on what our underlying values are. With the weight of nearly ten thousand years of history, India cannot move ahead without resolving the issues posed by one thousand years of subjugation. They will keep rearing their heads till we do.

However we have to agree with the Pragmatists that an incredibly diverse society like India must have strong pluralistic values and the government needs to be even handed with diverse communities.

Two-Nation Theory

This ideology was based on the theory that Muslims and Hindus are two distinct civilizations and cannot co-exist. Muslims need a homeland separate from Hindus. It is important to note that the Hindu view was not for a separate Hindu homeland but that Hindus and Muslims could co-exist in a pluralistic society.

In the sub continental context, the two-nation theory is under tremendous stress. Pakistan was vivisected in 1971 and what is left of it has become dysfunctional. Its obsession with India has led it down a path where it has become a threat to the world. This ideology has come at a very heavy cost to its people.

Secularism

In a multi-religious society, tolerance for all religions is a necessary condition for peace and progress. To achieve this, Nehru superimposed western secularism on a society with nearly seven thousand years of continuous civilization. This version of secularism as practiced in India has proven to be deeply flawed, with disastrous consequences.

In the west, secularism was a natural development. Religion was overbearing and had a major influence on public policy, education, institutions and ideas. As the state became stronger, it began to assert its power and, at some point, separated the church and the state. This reduced the church’s influence over governance, institutions and ideas.

Once science disproved the scriptural creation theory, the scriptures too lost their infallibility. Still later, when nationalism developed, it did so around political, and not religious ideas. Around this time, rapid industrialization happened. This required new values like scientific temper, socialism and equality. These were often in conflict with religious values. Secularism thus went a long way in negating the regressive aspects of Christianity and moved the society towards nationalism and modernity. As George Friedman puts it “Secularism is the cousin of Christianity.”

If we look at the history of secularism in the west, we can discern three important conditions that helped it get accepted, and in fact, succeed.

  1. At a fundamental level, secularism works in a belief system where God is separate from His creation. In Abrahamic religions, God is a personal God, separate from His creation. Hence everything to do with matter can fall in the secular bucket.
  2. Religion is regressive and in conflict with modern values and thinking.
  3. Religion is exclusivist and does not support the pluralistic liberalism so required in diverse societies.

All these conditions existed in the west. It is to the credit of the Christian world that they broke away from the constraints of religion to achieve stupendous material wellbeing and world power.

This system was supplanted upon India. Let us see if the enablers were present in India.

  1. Indian values, developed over millennia, do not separate God from creation. The fundamental values are summed up in the Mahavakyas – ‘Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma’ and ‘Aham Brahma Asmi’ (‘All of this is Brahman’ and ‘I am Brahman’). So the fundamental basis for western secularism, the separation of God and creation, does not exist. One might argue that this is high philosophy and not embedded in lay people’s belief. What would you conclude when you see that rivers, mountains, trees, stones, teachers, parents and many more have divinity bestowed upon them by the masses? The philosophy is therefore very much alive in people’s lives.
  2. Second, in the west, religion was regressive and its influence needed to be curbed. This is again not the case in India. The separation of Smriti and Shruti fundamentally separates the church and the state. Unlike Abrahamic religions, which had blasphemy and apostasy, there is no such concept in India. Indian traditions encourage free and bold thinking.
  3. Third, there is the question of pluralistic liberalism in modern society. Since Christianity did not suit multiculturalism, secularism was required to encourage such values. In India again, this is not the case. The one theme that has given rise to all subsequent Indian thought is Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti – Truth is One; sages call It by various names. India has always been plural, accommodating many sects and heterodoxy in its fold. So even liberalism existed in our own culture.

In fact our culture went a step ahead of secularism. While secularism negates religion, pluralism celebrates all religions.

It is sobering to contemplate the fact that for millennia before the Islamic invasions began, India did not know what religious persecution was.

You can see why secularism did not work in India. It had no foundational basis. The problem it was supposed to solve did not exist. Hence secularism was never successful in pushing religion into private spaces. It accentuated religious conflict instead of solving it. Political parties indulged in appeasement in this confused milieu. The minorities, instead of progressing, got ghettoized and further alienated.

The biggest loss was one of moral values. We lost our relationship-based code of ethics and duty, and at the same time, did not adopt the rule-based social structure of western societies.

This is a classic case where an alien system, developed in a particular set of circumstances, was sub-planted upon a pre-existing system with disastrous consequences.

According to Koenraad Elst, “India is unique as a civilization that embodies spiritual values reflecting its overriding concern for Dharma or justice and righteous code of conduct. Of late, some politicians and intellectuals are holding up something they call ‘secularism’ as the foundation of the Indian nation. But secularism is a negative concept. All it originally meant is the negation of any role for organized religion, particularly intolerant and exclusivist religious beliefs, in the government. The same people deny also any role for India’s spiritual tradition (Sanatana Dharma) in national life.”

Hindutva

The third competing ideology as a basis of nationhood was Hindutva. It has a very mixed connotation today. Many see it as exclusivist and therefore inimical towards religious minorities. Hindutva fanatics and Hindu chauvinists further fuel this perception. Equally, the anti-Hindutva forces go too far by clubbing genuine scholars and liberals with Hindu sensitivity under the Hindutva banner, with associated negative connotation. Here too an understanding is required.

The term Hindutva was coined by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and explained in his 1923 book, Essentials of Hindutva. The quest of Savarkar was to discover the basis of nationhood and unity of India. Our ancestors lived in the area called Sapta Sindhu (Land of seven rivers around the Indus). In Avestha, the people and the land was referred to as Hindu, since ‘S’ became ‘H’ in that language. The people spread across the land and went as far south as Sri Lanka. Bharata expanded his sway over all these lands from Sindhu to Sri Lanka. Bharatakanda or Bharatavarsha became an appropriate expression. However it could not suppress the cradle name Sindhu.

Savarakar wrote:

“But this new word Bharatavarsha could not altogether suppress our cradle name Sindhus or Hindus, nor could it make us forget the love we bore to that River of rivers – the Sindhu, at whose breast our Patriarchs and people had drunk the milk of life.

Although the epithet Bharatakhand succeeded in almost overshadowing the cradle name of our nation in India, yet the foreign nations seem to have cared little for it, and as our frontier provinces continued to be known by their ancient name, so even our immediate neighbors – the Avestic Persians, the Jews, the Greeks and others clung to our ancient name Sindhus or Hindus.”

In the Buddhist period, the Lichis and Huns invaded the frontiers, but the Buddhists, steeped in Ahimsa, were not up to putting up a resistance. It fell upon the Hindus to defend the land.

Savarkar said:

“So the leaders of thought and action of our race had to rekindle their Sacrificial Fire to oppose the sacrilegious one, and to re-open the mines of Vedic fields for steel, to get it sharpened on the altar of Kali, ‘the Terrible’, so that Mahakal – the ‘Spirit of Time’ be appeased. Nor were their anticipations belied. The success of the renovated Hindu arms was undisputed and indisputable. Vikramaditya, who drove the foreigners from the Indian soil, and Lalitaditya, who caught and chastised them in their very dens from Tartary to Mongolia, were but complements of each other. Valour had accomplished what formulas had failed to. Once more, the people rose to the heights of greatness that shed its lustre on all departments of life. Poetry and philosophy, art and architecture, agriculture and commerce, thought and action felt the quickening impulse which consciousness of independence, strength and victory alone can radiate. The reaction as usual was complete even to a fault. ‘Up with the Vedic Dharma!’, ‘Back to the Vedas!’ The national cry grew louder and louder, more and more imperative, because this was essentially a political necessity.

This brought about an intense identity consciousness and welded a nation cutting across sects and regions – “Not Hinduism only. Sanatanists, Satnamis, Sikhs, Aryas, Anaryas, Marathas and Madrasis, Brahmins and Panchamas — all suffered as Hindus and triumphed as Hindus.”

Hinduism cannot explain this unity. If you refer to the Hinduism of the Vedas and Puranas you would be describing the Orthodox Hindus. The heterodox Hindus would be left out, not to mention the Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Samajis, Lingayats and others. Hence, Savarkar argued that Hinduism does not appropriately describe the unity of India. He coined the word Hindutva with three elements – Rashtra (Nation), Jaati (Race) and Sanskriti (Culture).

Anybody who looks upon the land from Sindhu to the southern tip as the land of his or her forefathers, who inherits the blood of the race traced back to Sapta Sindhu and shares the culture of the land (its history, literature, art, architecture, law, rites, rituals, ceremonies, sacraments, fairs and festivals), is bound together by Hindutva. About Christians and Muslims, Savarkar said that they qualify in every way except that they consider their holy land to be in Palestine or Arabia.

Thus, Hindutva sought to explain the glue that binds India’s immense diversity. It combined race, motherland and culture, and expanded beyond Hinduism, though Hinduism was part of it.

In 1925, RSS was formed and adopted Hindutva as its ideology, as did the Hindu Mahasabha of which Savarkar was the president. RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha were opposed to Partition and believed that Hindutva could provide the basis of nationhood.

In the current shrill debate on Hindutva, it will be sobering to recall what the honourable Supreme Court had to say about Hindutva:

The 3-judge bench of the apex court, led by Justice J. S. Verma, in 1995 held that Hindutva is a way of life of the people in the sub-continent and not a religion. Even though the above issue is currently under examination by the 7-judges bench of the apex court in another constitutional matter, the 1995 judgment of the court still prevails.

Back to Dharma

Secularism, as we have seen, never really worked in India. It helped the west break away from an intolerant and exclusivist religion, unleash creativity and embrace modern values more suited to nationalism and industrialization. The three circumstances that enabled the acceptance and success of secularism were:

  1. Separation of God and creation
  2. Need to negate a regressive religion in public life to enable progressive thinking
  3. Need to negate exclusivity in religion to promote liberalism

In India however, none of these underlying conditions prevailed to warrant the imposition of western secularism.

  1. In Dharma, God and creation are not separate.
  2. Dharma is not regressive. In fact, it encourages questioning, rationality, free and bold thinking.
  3. Dharma is not exclusive. The one theme that has given rise to all subsequent Indian thought is ‘Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti’ – Truth is One; sages call It by various names. Religion is constructed by building truth upon truth and not rejecting preceding beliefs. Hence, the worship of ancestors and elements, separation of the universal and individual consciousness, unity of all consciousness, even atheism are seen as aspects of the one truth. Nothing is rejected or suppressed. All thoughts are included.

Dharma covers vast ground. Knowledge (Vedas), Philosophy (Darshanas), Ethics and Duty (Dharma Shastras), Wellbeing (Ayurveda & Yoga), Mysticism (Tantra), Transcendence (Yoga) and Prayer (Agama) are all covered by Dharma.

Dharma therefore is more suited to India’s belief system and potentially can succeed where western secularism failed. Let us examine the objections to reclaiming Dharma.

1.It will be exclusivist and monolithic, say the Pragmatists.

 

I think their objection stems from the fact that they view Dharma from a western perspective of religion. This approach will hold religious sway in public life with great suspicion since it sees religion as an impediment to pluralism and progress. Seeing Dharma just as one views Christianity or Islam will make one conclude that what the Revivalists want is exclusivism. Moreover, western nationalism is based on political ideas, while we have seen India’s unity is based on a cultural idea. Swami Vivekananda says it best:

“One common ground that we have is our sacred tradition, our religion. That is the only common ground. In Europe, political ideals form national unity. In Asia, religious ideals form national unity. The unity of religion therefore is absolutely necessary as the first condition of the future of India.”

2. Will Dharma give the freedom to Muslims and Christians to be an intrinsic part of society, feel included and contribute to its progress?

Dharma has accommodated many thoughts and sects in its history. Religious prosecution is absolutely alien to Dharma. Once we open our minds we can connect with our common cultural and racial unity. Swami Vivekananda explains the basis of respect for all religions in the Indian tradition:

“You cannot make all confirm to the same ideas… If you and I and all were to think the same thoughts, there would be no thoughts to think. We know that two or more forces must come into collision in order to produce motion. It is the clash of thought, the differentiation of thought that awakes thought.…The question arises how can all these varieties be true. If one thing is true, its negation is false. I place my conclusion. Each religion takes up one part of the universal truth. It is therefore addition, and not exclusion. System after system arises, adding ideals to ideals. This is the march of humanity. Man never progresses from error to truth but from truth to truth”

3. All this is fine but we see fanaticism in the rise of ‘Hindutva’ and it is scary.

 

We are seeing a stream rise. Our culture built over millennia got suppressed but did not die. We are seeing a revival. When such a revival happens, people with every kind of orientation participate in it. There will be the scholars, liberals, warriors and fanatics. This is the way. Is there not fanaticism on the left and in good measure? Fanaticism does not diminish the potential of Dharma. However it will be wise to heed Swami Vivekananda again:

“In India there is a tremendous revival of religion. There is danger ahead as well as glory, for revival sometimes breeds fanaticism and sometimes goes to the extreme, so that it is not even in the power of those who start the revival to control it…it is better to be forewarned.”

Dharma is our own heritage. There have been serious attempts by foreign powers to destroy Dharma. Islamic invaders brutalized our culture with wonton destruction, genocide and forced conversions. The colonialists were more manipulative, but had the same objective. Foreign ideas like Marxism and Orientalism have misinterpreted and distorted our cultural ideas. Despite all this, Dharma has survived.

I quote my friend and scholar A K Raha:

“While on historicity of Indian culture, we need to address the following question: Is Indian culture time-tested for its validation? Here we may rely upon Sir Arnold Toynbee, the author of the Clash of Civilizations and one of the greatest philosopher-historians, if not the greatest. According to him, when two civilizations come in conflict, the superior one survives and the inferior one perishes. In olden time, civilizations were associated with religion, like Buddhist, Christian, Islamic etc. So far as Christian and Islamic civilizations were concerned, wherever they conflicted they won lock, stock & barrel, converting the entire territory into their respective identities. The only exception was India, which, despite Islamic rule for 6 centuries and British rule for another 2 centuries with proselytization on a massive scale, remained pre-dominantly Hindu in ideal & spirit. This would not have been possible unless the base of Indian culture was encrypted with spirituality. At the cost of repetition let me reiterate, spirituality is neither communal, nor religious. It’s universal and all pervasive.”

We started by asking ‘Whose narrative should it be’. By understanding all the narratives and their lenses, we can see how we lost control of our narrative. Once we see the motivations behind each narrative we are in a better position to discern our own narrative, make a convincing case for it and, in time, take it back.

I would like to end by invoking the great Swami Vivekananda:

“We must build an India greater than what she has been. There have been periods of decay and degradation. I do not attach much importance to them… A mighty tree produces beautiful ripe fruit. That fruit falls on the ground and decays and rots, and out of that decay springs the root and the future tree, perhaps mightier than the first one”

References

  1. History and Nature of Secularisation and Secularism, Jrank
  2. Samuel Huntington, Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order
  3. Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works, Books 1,2,3
  4. V D Savarkar, Essentials of Hindutva
  5. Interview with Koenraad Elst on Ayodhya, Indiafacts.org, 8.1.2014
at@er.om'
Atul Sinha is a former senior corporate executive. He is the founder director of a leading Brand Design company. An interest in Indian spirituality led him to pursue a PhD program at Svyasa Bangalore. He writes on Vedanta.