How 'Secular' Scholars Distort History

Meenakshi Jain

The Observer, August 6, 1998

For the first time since Independence, History itself is news. Like the once impregnable Berlin Wall, the seemingly unassailable Left-dominated fortress is suddenly vulnerable to the plaintive bleatings of those hitherto in the intellectual wilderness. These underdogs among historians have finally managed to force the issue between contesting interpretations of our past.


On public trials the whole industry of history-writing has flourished this half-century. Given the stakes, the reticence of the Left-dominated school in defending its case is surprising. Beyond barbs aimed at 'saffron-tinged' scholars, they seem to have little to say. But their silence on matters of such crucial importance cannot now suffice to forestall the debate.


Indian historiography in the post-independence phase has been characterised by the remarkable similarity between western scholarship on India and the works of Indian historians, whether Marxist, secular or liberal. Writings of this genre present Hindustan as the aggregationist story par excellence: A patchwork of communities, dialects and religion from time immemorial. This view of history, largely uncontested so far, is now facing its first serious challenge.


One typical piece of western analysis, which found fertile ground in Indian historiography, reads..."within the one society and culture there are ... alternative representations, each pretending to universality... Intra-culture translation therefore becomes a central problem for anthropological investigation, because it is a central problem within the Hindu world itself. To ignore this by privileging one representation at the expense of the others is to reduce complex multiplicity to misconstrued uniformity to reduce the sociologies of India to a single sociology."


In book after book, we hear the same refrain. Another work, for instance, argues that "there is hardly a single teaching in Hindustan which can be shown to be valid for all Hindus, much less a comprehensive set of teachings." These motivated and highly disruptive theories from western sources are faithfully reproduced in any number of Indian works. These too, decry attempts to reduce 'the multiplicity of classical traditions' in the subcontinent to one unitary tradition that is Aryan-Hindu and high caste.


Indian scholarship of the Left variety also comments adversely on the 'modern search for an imagined Hindu identity from the past.' It is claimed that 'the need for postulating a Hindu community became a requirement for political mobilisation in the nineteenth century when representation by religious community became a key to power and where such representation gave access to economic resources.'


The persistent denial of the integrity of Indian civilization is accompanied by denigration of agencies perceived as unifying. Vedism and Brahmanism being singled out for attack. Vedic literature is reviled as the handiwork of Brahmins who are accused of concealing their 'authorship and interests' by declaring the Vedas 'apauruseyas' (authorless) for, it is alleged, 'anonymity lends considerable authority to a discourse by obscuring its source'.


The Veda-centrism of Hinduism has failed to impress such historians. The fact that the seeds of all subsequent philosophic ideas of the Hindus can be found in Vedic literature is routinely overlooked. Diversity is highlighted without comprehension of shared underlying values and assumptions.


When the study, of India was in its infancy, Max Mueller commented on the existence of a national or popular philosophy, a large manasa lake of philosophical thought and language from which thinkers could draw upon for their own purposes. For those willing to see, there was ample proof of the coherence of the Hindu tradition. Irrespective of sect, sex, caste, class, all believed in karma, rebirth, mukti, nirvana. All linked the notion of Maya to that of Brahman. All felt the discovery of cosmic illusion was meaningless unless followed by the quest of absolute Being. All observed the same general principles of ethical conduct.


The entire populace was encompassed by the tradition. Smriti disseminated the shout message to the general public. Mythology was another powerful medium by which philosophic thoughts were regularly expressed at the popular level. As a consequence, all inhabitants were bound in a unity of spiritual temperament. Despite this overwhelming evidence of the existence of a unitary civilization, the divisive and unfounded themes of domination, suppression, and segregation continue to be presented as the theme songs of Indian history.


The Left's insistence on an atomised, splintered heritage has had interesting fallouts. India is presented as the quintessential no- man's land. Aryans (though it is now accepted by all scholars that there was no 'Aryan Invasion' after all), Indo-Greeks, Shakas, Indo-Parthians, Kushans... the list of foreign invaders, settlers and rulers has been formidable from the very early on. So, they argue, no group or community can legitimately claim 'national' right to the land.


It is to justify these theories that the ancient history of India has been written in recent decades. The reality, they say, is of 'a fragmented, largely oral set of traditions' and a disparate population. And it is only a Brahmanical contention that 'Indian civilization is a unified whole based on a shastrik, authoritative tradition of which Brahman priests and sectarian preceptors are the principal bearers...'


One does not have to overstate one's case to make the point that major political implications for modern India flow from this ‘altruistic’ scholarship, western and Indian. Hindus stand disarmed in the context of succeeding epochs of Indian history. Muslims, for instance, then appear as simply one more group in the long list of immigrants. The fact that the previous settlers (Kushans etc) thoroughly immersed themselves in the Hindu tradition and in no way disturbed the tenor of the land becomes a mere technical point, often overlooked at that.


The rigours of Muslim rule are thus made to appear as not so severe. Muslim repression gets offset against Aryan/ brahman/ upper caste exploitation. The Brahmin ‘strategy’ of co-opting 'local', ‘Indigenous’ cults gets equated with the 'Composite culture', supposedly encouraged by Mughals. As regional societies with their distinct languages, script, literature and art flowered in the India of 600-1200 AD, so successor states of the Mughal empire strove consciously for 'a mixture of transcendent Mughal and immanent local-regional traditions'.


The Hindu-ness of India just dissolves in the pages of these history books. When there was no civilization native to the land (as this school seeks to establish), where was the question of clash with Invading civilizations?


The Orientalists gifted back to India her golden age. So they too, have fallen prey to modern scholarship. The charge against them is that, "by looking for the roots of western (Aryan) civilization in Vedic and early Hindu scriptures, (they) created an image of the decline of 'Hindu society' after the 'Muslim invasion.' All this led to the Hindu nationalist construction of the glorious Hindu past and of the 'foreignness' of Muslims". This is the genesis of the Hindus-as-an-imagined community theory.


The Left critics of Orientalism have gone further, spreading their tentacles to embrace Vivekananda and Gandhi. They contend that "Vivekanand... was able to systematise a disparate set of traditions... made available by the Orientalist project and to make it into Hindu spirituality as the sign of a Hindu nation that was superior to the materialist west. What we see here is a combination of Hindu spirituality and nationalism informed by Orientalism. Vivekananda's work inspired Gandhi...."


Thus, the debates about the past spill into the present. Hinduism is sought to be minimised as one of many 'religions' existing in the subcontinent, in no way entitled to special status - a position no longer acceptable to a growing body of Independent historians. So politics is mixed with history and history with politics. Finally the process of separating the wheat from the chaff may have begun.


(The author is a historian and professor at Delhi university.)

© Meenakshi Jain