Neglect of history and obsession with the past

लो अतीत से उतना ही जितना पोषक है
जीर्ण-शीर्ण का मोह मृत्यु का ही द्योतक है
तोड़ो बन्धन, रुके न चिंतन
गति, जीवन का सत्य चिरन्तन
धारा के शाश्वत प्रवाह में
इतने गतिमय बनो कि जितना परिवर्तन है।  — Dwarika Prasad Maheshwari

One of our historians has noted, rather ruefully, the lack of taste for accurate historical writing. ‘India, for its great literary heritage’, wrote D. D. Kosambi, ‘has produced no historical writers comparable to Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Livy, Tacitus’. Despite of the fact that many Indian kings of the middle ages were  not only ‘incomparably superior in their education and literally ability to contemporary rulers in Europe’, they also ‘personally led great armies to victory in heavy warfare’. None of them consider it worthwhile to write anything comparable to Caesar’s Commentaries or Xenophon’s Anabasis. ‘The tradition was of graceful court drama, an occasional hymn in praise of the gods, or a witty epigram’. Kosambi commented further that only Rajatarangani written a Kasmirian named Kalhana  (A.D. 1149-50) and continued by two successors can be called anything like a historical document. And ‘this chronicles suffer from all the mannered conventions of Sanskrit poetry, in particular the fatal double entendre that manages only to obscure whatever reality the author meant to portray’. Even when the period Kalhana was describing was ‘a period was of desperate struggle between the central power and feudal lords in Kashmir’, he cared not to note the ‘actual time and place’ which can ‘hardly be compared in quality, depth, content to the account by Thucydides of the Peloponnesian war’. For the rest of the country, till the Muslim period, we have nothing even as good as Kalhana. Some older written records which survived such as Puranas ( = the ancient stories), ‘are only religious fables and cant with whatever historical content the works once possessed heavily encrusted by myth, diluted with semi-religious legends, effaced during successive redactions copied by innumerable, careless scribes’. Forget constructing the past from it, one can not even make ‘as must as king-lists’ [1].

Judging the quality of contemporary historical writing in learned journals and books is beyond me. However, it is easy to notice apathy towards history around us. Many of Indian states are bigger than most of the European countries but a few books are being written about what can be called their history. National scene is somewhat better. There is no channel dedicated to history. And I wonder about the numbers of Indians who can tell their family lineage which goes back more than 2-3 generations (I plead guilty). The prominence of oral culture at the cost of written culture for knowledge-exchange can not be the main reason behind this for one notices that they do like to talk about history either. There is perhaps something in our culture which makes us indifferent to our history. When a British born Indian historian wondered about this Indian apathy towards it historical monuments, he was told by an Indian friend, “You must understand that we are Hindus and we burn our dead.”

Yet, there is ever increasing obsession with the past. This obsession has little to do with knowing the past accurately but it is largely animated by a desire to glorify it. Tradition of dispassionate pursuit of history never had a strong presence in India and our current value-system does not encourage it either. It is a widely shared belief among students and their parents that history (any form of humanities indeed) is a subject which only last on the merit-list would take-up in school and a real looser will pick it up for a profession.

One needs not be a psychologist to notice the growing feelings of misery among Indian about their nationality. This feeling is sustained by lack of dignity and self-respect in the present. But much of it also goes back to our close encounter with western powers during colonization which humbled our traditional pride and took away a part of our dignity. If one looks at the writings of Indian intellectuals during this time, they were doing two things simultaneously : telling people abroad how great are things Indian (its spirituality, its way of life, the whole civilization indeed) and used superlatives to describe them; and castigating fellow-citizen at home for this-and-that and asking them to change their medieval mindsets and customs. Indeed, most of the reformers who went abroad to deliver lectures were of this kind. They painted India as ‘greatest civilization’ abroad and they felt ashamed of the same civilization’s current state at home and prodded their countrymen with great emotional appeal to change [2]. Their heirs have now started talking about India and Bharat. They themselves belong to India which contains what is all good and rest of us belong to the Bharat, an unchanging and backward country for which they only have scorn and pity. Educated people are self-consciously virtuous everywhere, in India they are excessively so.

Indians are deeply conscious of being Indian. They really feel proud when a match is won by their team, a rocket is successful launched by ISRO, a missile is tested by DRDO, one of their movies is given or nominated for a Oscar, an Indian buys a company abroad, a person with Indian name goes to space, and an Indian is recognized by western world. And they flaunt this pride aggressively. Western awards have come to mean a great deal to them. Their newspaper’s global news is all about Indians doing well abroad. The xenotrophism  — the attraction to the foreign, this loving (and hating) preoccupation with what Kingsley Amim called “abroad” — is to be accounted for largely by the sense of superiority of foreign things and the inferiority of Indian things. The obsession has reached to a level that our more exuberant psychologist has noted that if good Indian and good Chinese has lived a virtuous life, they  have started going not to heaven but to New York. Abroad has become a status-symbol and it is chased with a great zeal. It perhaps makes them lower on their self-esteem but it helps them stand tall is a deeply status-conscious society.

Those who are left behind despite trying really hard develops a growing sense of social-worthlessness and also suffer from an acute sense of inferiority. The difference between who has left, who is about to leave and those who could not leave can do real harm to their self-esteem. Present and Future of India do not offer them any possibility to overcome these feelings either.  The media and newspapers are competing with each other to spread the feelings of misery about present and future. They try to overcome this by constructing two nations theory. Their newspapers are filled with stories telling them how pathetic is the situation is in their country; and it has become a fashion among intelligentsia to find a crisis everywhere. It is not entirely their fault if they feel sad, ashamed and miserable about India. Nonetheless, they are mortified by all of this. They see it more of an outcome of some moral deficiency rather than an outcome of their own actions which can be changed. This can only lead to fatalism and the enhanced feelings of misery about being Indian itself.

History, especially when it is poorly documented, can be invoked with great effect to lessen these feeling of misery. And an increasing number of Indians are willing and even eager to be convinced of the myths of national greatness and glory. It is a seductive myth and like all myths, when evidence in support are lacking they are created and easily accepted. History demands that when evidence are lacking,  the argument must rest without a conclusion but those who are already determined to conclude something about their past, myth and not history offers them vast opportunities.

Indian civilization has many achievements to its credit and there is nothing wrong for feeling proud about it. But when a past is invoked in India, as in many other countries which locates their utopia in the past, it is usually to glorify its achievements and not to speak of its failings. It is unbelievable that any nation can have only achievements and no failing. What do they try to achieve by brushing a nation’s failings under the carpet rather than elevating the moods? Nonetheless, those who are told of the grandeur of past also see the misfortune of present. And it is explained due to ‘the intervention of colonial rule’ and the plunders by ruthless attackers before them.

The same text-books that represent the India of the past as a land overflowing with milk and honey also represent colonial rule as a period of relentless plunder, spoliation and degradation…. The British were no doubt alien intruders who disrupted a contented and harmonious way of life. But were they the first or only intruders to do so’ What our radical and liberal historians have started is being continued further back into the past by other historians. A recent account of the pristine greatness of India and its spoliation by the British ends by saying that perhaps the gloom had set in earlier, around AD 1000. Who were the bearers of this pre-British gloom’ Could they have been Afghans, or Turks’ The myth of the destruction of everything that was good in India by the British has extensions that may not all be pleasing to those who have contributed to its making.

There are many among us who are too willing to construct  a past where there is only grandeur and glory and no failing. And almost all of us are too willing to accept this version of past as the only version. It may have been a great tool in elevating the mood of many Indians but this mood-lifting by construction of myths is not going to do much good to their self-esteem. The obsession with ‘glorious past’ is sustained by hatred for the present and little hope for the future. The reasons behind this hatred may not be easy to find or remove [2]. And these seductive myths are not going to help remove it. But this obsession with glorious past can easily divert attention from the dispassionate pursuit of history. History is best pursued by those dispassionate individuals who have the desire to know what they really were and not by those who see history a tool to overcome the state of feeling sorry for themselves.

References:
[1] An introduction to the history of Indian history, D. D. Kosambi, pp9-10
[2] The intimate enemy, loss and recovery of self under colonial rule, Ashis Nandy


Dilawar

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Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

3 thoughts on “Neglect of history and obsession with the past”

  1. This was an amazing read! I think something a bit similar is the case also in Arabic countries; and I may derive that this formula doesn’t only work with eastern (or middle-eastern countries) but the whole majority of the third-world, or less-cultured lands.

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