Sunday, April 8, 2018

History and Us

Normally, I should have been the last person to say anything about history. It is true that like any other small kid, I also had learned stories from Ramayana, Mahabharata, Vedas, and above all, the glorious achievements of the great Maratha king Shivaji, revered like a God by most people in Maharashtra, from my mother and grandmother. During my school days, I had also watched number of excellent films in Marathi on silver screen, about this great king. However, that was about everything I ever did with studies of humanities, particularly History and Geography. From eighth grade, I opted for the technical subjects and never even opened any history book. I managed to keep myself away from historical dates, years, births, deaths, battles, treaties, and armistices, so plentifully mentioned in all books on history. Later, I opted for Engineering as my career and after passing out, launched myself in the real world of manufacturing things. I never really repented my choice of my career. Subjects like history and geography were simply forgotten, only to be remembered occasionally, while reading an odd column in Sunday newspapers over a cup of tea. 

After a long span of many decades, when I finally exited the world of elevations, plans, raw materials, and quality controls. I had plenty of time on my hand. I started reading books on many assorted subjects. I read Hawking’s and Weinberg’s treatises on Nuclear Physics, travelogues of Herodotus and Ibn Battuta, Philosophical books like Dnyaneshwari (Where I must admit to have failed miserably to understand anything of substance), books on Genealogy and migrations. It was then that I hit upon some book finally, name of which I do not recollect now, on ancient history of India. It was a great revelation to learn about India of the past, its unimaginable wealth, great Kings, who ruled here, and the series of murderous invasions from northwest by some of the most barbarous and cold-blooded tyrants, India had to face. Along with history, came its natural partner, Geography. I soon realized that one could never really understand history, if he does not know enough of Geography, of which I was again very ignorant. Luckily, I found my salvation through Google earth, and from then on, I was oversold to history.

Yet I had my choices. I loved the history of people from Sindhu-Saraswati Civilizations. I read about their subsequent migrations to Gangetic plains, central India and eventually to northern Maharashtra, where they interacted with indigenous people coming from north and east. The Buddha, Buddhism, and its slow demise in India were the next. I read about Satvahana, Vakataka, Chalukya and Yadava kings of Maharashtra. I must admit that I somehow never felt interested in medieval history of India, though an interest for a brief period, made me read a few books about kingdom of ‘Vijayanagara’ in south. Jumping a century or so, I came to Marathas and finally to Peshavas. They obviously remain my all-time favourites. I tried my hand at writing a few articles that dealt with bits of this glorious history. I also managed to travel to many historical places of interest in India.

I think readers are likely to question my intent in giving above a long list of topics, in which I have managed to read a few books. However, relax! I have no wishes to claim to be a historian. I accept that reading a few books on history, does not make one a historian. As I see it, it needs decades of study and research, field trips, and some original work, before anyone could even hope to achieve some credit in this direction. Yet I feel that, whatever efforts I have put in, give me some credentials to express my thoughts about  a dangerous new trend that is emerging out in India or particularly in Maharashtra. With the advent of social media, we suddenly have multitudes of young historians, who have very little knowledge of historical facts, yet claim to be in knowledge of everything. This by itself is harmless. Problem comes when these people start integrating their  sentimentality with historical facts and start believing that historical facts believed so far are incorrect and history actually was, the way they think it is. They forget that no historical fact can be accepted, unless it is backed by solid archaeological evidence or a manuscript.

Early warnings of this new malignance, had appeared a decade ago, when one of the well-known and famous historian, Late. Ninad Bedekar had openly declared that neither he shall write a line or utter a word in future about history of Marathas, even though; it was always his favourite subject. I still remember that I had listened spellbound to a lecture of this knowledgeable historian sometimes in late seventies, about unknown historical spots in city of Pune.  However, he had sensed the new danger and preferred to keep himself away. Today, the problems are becoming even more alarming with advent of social media.

As I have mentioned above, history of Buddhism remains one of my favourite topics. I have managed to write a few lines about Early Rock cut Buddhist temples of Maharashtra and the iconography found therein, after visiting some of them and the museums, which display many of the beautiful icons and murals from these places. Other day, after reading my comments (all based on museum legends and well known books written in nineteenth or twentieth centuries) on one such mural displayed in a museum, one of my facebook friends, commented that he had started getting doubts, whether I was really a Buddhist or not? This absolutely alarmed me. I could not understand how my young friend had assumed that I was a Buddhist. Perhaps, this young man had already this preconceived notion in his mind that the people, who can write about rock-cut Buddhist temples of Maharashtra, have to be Buddhists. After receiving his comment, I simply posted a paragraph from the famous book ‘Cave temple of India’ by Fergusson and Burgess, in support of what was my contention. My friend’s reaction was even more deadly. He promptly told me that Fergusson and Burgess were foreigners and did not know anything about India. Sorry! M/S Fergusson and Burgess, your research is no longer valid in twenty-first century India, because you were foreigners and not even Buddhists. I was however,  not going to take this lightly, so I posted a photo of the Legend, displayed by the museum, where this controversial  art object was displayed and told my young friend that this legend exactly supports, what I am saying. A prompt reply came that he does not care about, what museum says. After this, it became too much for me and I felt that there was no point in continuing my conversation. I simple removed the particular photograph, on which the whole conversation in facebook was based and unfriended this young man to end the matter.

I have given details of my conversations with this young friend solely to make my readers aware of bringing in sentimentality, while reading or studying history. For such readers, there are many reasons for such an absurd point of view.  The most important reason perhaps is the prides these people possess in belonging to a particular religion or community. Off course, they are perfectly free to enjoy their pride, but that does not mean that they should lead themselves in historical theories that cannot be backed up by any evidence.

Remember George Orwell’s famous book 1984. In this book, the leading character of the novel, Winston Smith, is a member of the Outer Party, who works for the Ministry of Truth, or Minitrue in Newspeak. Minitrue is responsible for propaganda and historical revisionism. Smith's job is to rewrite past newspaper articles, so the historical record always supports the Party's agenda. The workers are told they are correcting misquotations, when they are actually writing false information in the place of fact. Minitrue also destroys all previous editions of revised work. This method ensures there is no proof of government interference.

I am afraid that present attitude of the young budding Historians from social media almost borders the diktats or decrees of the Inner Party from Orwell’s 1984. To hell, with your evidence! Whatever we say is the truth, because it suits, greatness of our religion or community. If the trend continues, I am afraid that study of history, instead of being an occupation of a few scholarly aspirants, would then turn into a hazardous field, where facing abuses or even rioting mobs would soon become an order of the day and we might as well close the museums, as Afghans did in Kabul during Taliban regime.

Study of history (with accompanying geographical factors) can be quite rewarding. It gives a rare insight into a country’s past. History is not a list of dates and wars. History can tell us why Sindhu-Sarswati Civilizations collapsed, not because of any invasions but because of the successive failures of monsoon rains over years and years. History can tell us why India could never emerge in the past as a united country, except for reigns of a couple of Emperors (separated by eight centuries apart). History can tell us why India always fell before a powerful invader, as fractured small kingdoms were no match for the might of Greeks, eastern Scythians (Shakas), Yui-zhi (Kushans), Kidarites (Huns), Hephthalites (White Huns), Mongols, Islamic Iconoclasts from Arabia and Persia, and finally Moghuls. History can tell us why land of India, so rich in resources, always ailed as it was divided on basis of castes, communities, and religions. However, to understand all this and much more, a reader has to have an open mind, free of prejudices, injected in him by the false prides in religions and communities. The reader should have enough sense not to look at history under terms of reference of present day world and condemn every tradition and belief of our ancestors. I would be last person to suggest ever that we should adopt ancient traditions and customs. They are no longer relevant. However, to label them as anti-social, casteist or chauvinistic would be equally wrong as people had adopted these operating under totally different factors such as abysmally low (by today’s standards) average age to which men or women survived, fear of foreign invasions, rule of tyrants, draughts, floods  etc. The list can be endless. With an objective and curious mind, history rewards you; no other subject can ever match. 

9 April 2018

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