India in Europe’s Orwellian Past – II
by Bhaskar Menon on 20 Nov 2018 4 Comments

Brainwashed Indian Historians

Many Indian historians internalized the European view of India. The dada of colonial era Indian historians, R.C. Majumdar (1888-1980), even went to the extent of declaring the lack of historical sense one “of the gravest defects of Indian culture.” In Ancient India he wrote that the “the aversion of Indians to writing history” defied “rational explanation.” Indians “applied themselves to all conceivable branches of literature and excelled in many of them, but they never seriously took to the writing of history, with the result that for a great deal of our knowledge of ancient Indian history we are indebted to foreigners.”


That assessment of Indian shortcomings reflected the British claim that they had brought the Indian past into the light of history. Indian historians also generally accepted James Mill’s classification of their country’s past into Hindu, Muslim and British periods. (They seem not to have noticed that Mill’s decision to call the colonial era “British” rather than “Christian” highlighted the absurdity of religious labels on the complexity of India.)


The baroque British theory that a race of White “Aryans” invaded the country, bringing Vedic civilization with them, further mangled the conception of the “Hindu period.” With that theory, Europeans laid claim to the origins of Indian civilization, and as the “Aryans” were supposedly proto-Brahmins, it gave a racist spin to the caste system. Those who glibly gave voice to the “Aryan invasion” theory seem never to have actually visualized what it involved: the invaders would have had to drive their horse-drawn chariots and cattle up and down steep Himalayan passes while also composing and memorizing the Vedas and fighting the “Dravidian” Dasyus.


Indian historians have not responded coherently to these absurdities. The best of them – K.M. Pannikar (1895-1963) for one, in Asia and Western Dominance (1959) – have presented Indian perspectives without subjecting Europe’s deeply flawed and dishonest historiography to a critical review.


D. D. Kosambi  


In the absence of an alternative conceptualization, all Indian historians have worked within the main European framework or its narrower Marxist subset. Kosambi, for instance, declared on the first page of his much reprinted An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (1956), that he saw his task to be “the presentation, in chronological order, of successive developments in the means and relations of production.”


That formulation was necessary, he said, because India lacked the historical source material available in Europe. He echoed Hegel: “India, for all its great literary heritage has produced no historical writers comparable to Herodotus, Thucydides, Polibius, Livy, Tacitus. Many Indian kings of the middle ages (e.g. Harsa, circa 600-640) were incomparably superior in their education and literary ability to contemporary rulers in Europe; they had personally led great armies to victory in heavy warfare. Nevertheless, not one seems to have thought of composing a narrative like 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.”



In elucidating India’s lack of appropriate historical source-material Kosambi wrote that in Europe the written record was “powerfully supplemented by archaeology;” the spade had substantiated even the Homeric account of Troy, once dismissed as pure myth. In contrast, the “desultory” archeology of India had made “numerous epigraphic finds” without being able “either to restore a reasonably comprehensive dynastic list or to define the regnal years and complete territorial holdings of those Indian kings whose names survive.”


He noted that although the Bible was a religious work, it had “far greater historical and archaeological value than any similar Indian book, because the people who transmitted it had continuous contact with the site and were used to describing places and events with a trader’s accuracy.” In India, it was “still impossible to say where the great theme battles of the two epics Ramayana and Mahabharata were fought, let alone when – if indeed they represent any historical event at all.” He made no concession to the Indian time frame several times longer than the Biblical, or the disabling interference of colonial rule.


Kosambi’s dismissive attitude towards the Indian epics has been characteristic of all Indian historians working within the Western framework. The most brainwashed among them, Ram Sharan Sharma, even declared that his examination of “inscriptions and sculptural pieces found in Mathura dating back to 200 BCE and 300 AD,” require that “ideas of an epic age based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata have to be discarded.” He has also questioned if Rama and Krishna had any basis in reality.


Such lack of respect for the central realities of Indian existence is the reason why our historians have applauded the sophisticated art of deductive archeology developed by Europeans to piece together complex stories from mute stone and shard, but have rejected as “historical material” the world’s oldest and most continuous oral and written tradition. Ironically, many of them accepted the European concept of the mythical “Aryan race” extracted from the same oral and written record.


The outraged response to all this from Hindus who take their faith seriously drives the modern Hindutva movement, and that has set off a catfight on the nature and meaning of Indian history. As the Hindu reaction has been captured by an illiberal political element originally fostered by the British as a foil to inclusive Indian nationalism, it has resulted in more heat than light; and under attack, the “Left” historians have entrenched their position and become actively anti-Hindu.


Romila Thapar

Perhaps nothing better reflects the prevailing situation than the work of Romila Thapar, the doyenne of Left historians who authored A History of India in 1966 and reissued it in a thoroughly revised and enlarged edition in 2004. The two versions offer a fascinating contrast in their treatment of Hinduism.


The Pelican Original of 1966 had this to say about Hinduism on page 132 of Chapter 6: “Brahminism did not remain unchanged through all these centuries, nor was it impervious to the effects of Buddhism and Jainism. Some of the Vedic gods had quietly passed into oblivion and some were being reborn as new gods with additional attributes. This was the time when the Brahminical religion assumed features which today are recognized as Hinduism.


“To call it Hinduism at this stage is perhaps an anachronism, since the term was given currency by the Arabs in the eight century A.D., when referring to those who followed the prevailing religion of India, the worship of Shiva and Vishnu. But for the sake of convenience the religion may be described as Hinduism from this point onwards. Hinduism was not founded by a historical personage as a result of a revelation; it is not a revealed religion but grew and evolved from a variety of cults and beliefs, of which some had their foundations in Vedic religion, and others were popular cults which became associated with the more sophisticated religion, a concession which the priests had to make to popular worship.”


In the much expanded 2004 edition, the topic of Hinduism was moved up to page 3 of Chapter 1, and Thapar expressed a completely different view.


“In the course of investigating what came to be called Hinduism, together with various aspects of its belief, ritual and custom, many [British Orientalists] were baffled by a religion that was altogether different from their own. It was not monotheistic, there was no historical founder, or single sacred text, or dogma or ecclesiastical organization - and it was closely tied to caste. There was therefore an overriding need to fit it into the known moulds of familiar religions, so as to make it more accessible. Some scholars have suggested that Hinduism as it is formulated and perceived today, very differently from earlier times, was largely born out of this reformulation.”


The British “reformulation,” Thapar explained, “influenced the emerging Indian middle class in its understanding of its own past.” It was “the genesis of the idea of the spiritual east,” a theme “firmly endorsed by a section of Indian opinion during the last hundred years” because it “was a consolation to the Indian intelligentsia for its perceived inability to counter the technical superiority of the West …. At the height of anti-colonial nationalism it acted as a salve for having been made a colony of Britain.”


Thapar did not explain her dramatic shift in assessing the nature and history of Hinduism, but it is not difficult to see a polemical motive: her new view clearly intended to pull the rug out from under her vociferous Hindutva critics. But she has tried to make amends with her book The Past Before Us, which responds to my criticism of her stance on the Delhi University controversy over the teaching of an essay about the Ramayana. See here, here and here. (In the process, she pirates my overall concept of Indian history, even paraphrasing the title of one of my blog posts, The Future of the Past.”)


Catering to European Prejudices

The view of Hinduism as a chaotic conglomeration of beliefs without an organizing framework is neither new nor unique to “Left” historians. It has long been part of the arsenal of Christian missionaries and all variety of other propagandists.


In 2004, (the same year that Thapar’s revised book appeared), Pankaj Mishra, an Indian writer who has made a career of catering to Western prejudices, proclaimed, “there was no such thing as Hinduism before the British invented the hold-all category in the early nineteenth century.” In his view, that “made India seem the home of a ‘world religion’ as organized and theologically coherent as Christianity and Islam.” (This opinion reveals just how little Mishra knows what he is writing about!)


In 2005, British academic Brian Pennington expanded on that thesis in more scholarly fashion in Was Hinduism Invented? Briton, Indian and the Colonial Construction of Religion. Other than favourable reviews in a few small Catholic publications and predictable fulminations on the Internet from the Hindutva brigade, there has not been much of a response to these disreputable excursions; a key-word Internet search found only a single Indian review of Pennington’s book, a laudatory note by a member of the faculty at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University! Judging from that sadly inexpert comment and the generally terrible quality of book reviews in the Indian Press, it is probably safe to say that Indian readers haven’t the faintest idea of what Mishra and Pennington have written about.


All the foregoing indicates the need for an Indian perspective of the European intellectual world that will bring into focus its pirate history and dependence on spear-carriers like Romila Thapar, R.C. Majumdar and Pankaj Mishra to diss the home team.



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