Research, Essays, Commentaries – Inspired by the Social-Cultural-Political Thought of Sri Aurobindo (PLUS a bit of photography too!)
In my book on Indian National Education, published last November, one chapter takes up the topic of History and Heritage. A few weeks ago I read an article in Daily News and Analysis (DNA), which made me revisit that chapter. Not because I raise some similar points there, but because in my chapter I ask even more fundamental questions about learning and teaching of History — why should we even bother about what is taught in our History classes, and why is it important that we know our History?
I will first share Michel Danino‘s article from DNA, titled, Why saffronisation of Indian history is not the only grave issue concerning it. This will be followed by excerpts from the relevant chapter from my book on Indian Education.
With tiresome predictability, the appointment of the new Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) has been greeted in the media (and recently in the Lok Sabha) by the old refurbished charges: some members are ‘known to be close to the BJP or the RSS’ while others demand a Rama temple at Ayodhya; the ‘saffronisation’ of the institution is rampant, warn a few select ‘noted historians’. One of them announces doomsday: ‘The move will alter the very foundation of Indian history.’ And so on.
We have heard it all before, indeed several times. With good reason, the authors of such charges are counting on the public’s short memory: after all, Arun Shourie’s landmark study, ‘Eminent Historians: Their Technology, Their Line, Their Fraud’, was published in 1998. It is still in print, though, for those who would like to (re)discover how Leftist historians manipulated ICHR, drawing funds year after year for non-existent or eternally delayed projects, occasionally plagiarising works submitted by others. Shourie’s exposure—entirely backed by official records—provoked a few self-righteous and contemptuous ripostes, but none of the manipulations he brought to light was discussed, much less disproved. The ‘eminent historians’ soon became ‘distinguished’ or ‘noted’ historians, and business went on as usual.
The ‘reddenisation’—if we must play by the palette—of institutions, textbooks and curricula over several decades has led to a shrill polarisation of historical controversies. Whether it is the Aryan issue, the Saraswati river, the Ayodhya controversy, the brutality of Islamic invasions, the darker side of the colonial rule, the role of nationalism in the freedom movement, the cultural roots of Indian civilization, those who have dared challenge the politically correct notions of the day have been demonised as ‘Hindu nationalists’, ‘chauvinists’, ‘communalists’, etc. (here too, we have quite a colourful vocabulary). Yet among the best scholars leading such challenges we invariably find not ‘RSS ideologues’ but respected, mainstream Indian and Western academics, whose views our ‘noted historians’ have taken care never to discuss.
Because history perforce touches on issues of identity, culture, nationality, every country naturally has its share of ‘historical controversies’. A sign of mature intellectual life is the existence of academic and media platforms where diverging or even opposing perspectives can be debated through civilised exchanges. There are no such platforms in India; the mud-slinging we see instead is a sad reflection on the immaturity of our intellectual life. To the general public, it looks as if every Indian historian must be aligned with one of the two camps and there can be no scholarship except at the two ends of the political spectrum—a misconception encouraged by most of our sensation-hungry media. In reality, in a discipline dominated by Eurocentric, Marxist and post-modernist perspectives of India, there has been a growing and healthy trend to critique those models, question their validity in the Indian context, bring into play wider ranges of sources and data, and hear scholarly voices across the whole spectrum. This trend needs to be encouraged.
Other important issues confronting Indian history have been eclipsed by the high-decibel controversies. One of them is the neglect of India’s knowledge systems, which remain poorly researched and are kept out of most history books. It is all very well to ridicule crackpot theories about ancient aircraft, but why should we not bring to the student’s attention the genuine advances ancient India made in mathematics, astronomy, town planning, water management, agriculture or medicine (including surgery)? Why does no Indian university offer a degree or PhD programme in history of science? With very few exceptions, our historians have ignored this wealth of intellectual and material developments, yet claim to give us a faithful picture of India—an India which, they would have us believe, failed to produce any useful knowledge. But such was precisely the assertion of nineteenth-century colonial historians!
Epigraphy and manuscriptology are languishing too: in a generation or two, no one in India will be able to read any of the millions of manuscripts dealing with every topic under the tropical sun. In fact, history as an academic discipline in India is in poor health: few talented students are drawn to it, the average competence of teachers at school or college is unsatisfactory, and there are major problems with both content and pedagogy. It is not just the rote learning plaguing most of our schooling; it is also the undue emphasis on dates, kings, wars and dynasties rather than on a genuine understanding of India’s past, society and culture. Uninspiring and often outdated textbooks haven’t helped; in my view, education must move away from textbook-centric pedagogy to shift the focus back on the teacher. It is for her or him to keep abreast of recent developments, find innovative methods of teaching, offer multiple viewpoints and perspectives, use old ballads, dramas, multimedia material (including films and games), involve the students in mini research projects or take them on a trip to some museum, monument or heritage site. This is the biggest challenge facing history in India: to show students what a fascinating field it is—because history is ultimately about understanding ourselves.
As for the new ICHR, let it be judged on its performance. If it promotes poor scholarship or dubious projects solely aimed at glorifying ancient India, it will deserve censure; if it can take a few steps, however modest, towards rescuing the discipline from its current decay—and from ideologies of all hues—it will have outshined its predecessors.
This article was first published HERE.
About the author: Michel Danino is an Indian author, originally from France. He participated in the translation and publication of the works of Sri Aurobindo and of the Mother. Danino also edited India’s Rebirth (a selection from Sri Aurobindo’s works about India, first published in 1993) and India the Mother (a selection from the Mother’s works about India). He engaged himself also for the preservation of tropical rainforest in the Nilgiri Hills. In 2001, he convened the International Forum for India’s Heritage (IFIH) with the mission of promoting the essential values of India’s heritage in every field of life. Danino is the author of The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati (Penguin India, 2010), guest professor at IIT Gandhinagar and member of ICHR.
In this chapter, I will explore the question — why it is critically important for Indian children and youth to know about Indian history and heritage?
Quoting Bhartrhari, Prof. Kapil Kapoor said in one of his inspiring talks that once upon a time an internally confident, intellectually rich India might have said — “What does he know who knows only his own tradition?” But sadly, today we live in times when we may say — “What does he know who does not even know his own tradition?” An unfortunate effect of modern education in India has been that Indians have been cut off from their own cultural traditions. They are unaware, for the most part, of the richness and the wealth of their Indian heritage, of the grandeur of the India that once was, of the intellectual, scientific and cultural contributions India made to the world culture and knowledge, and of the potential that is hidden in India.
UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, 2001 emphasizes dialogue of cultures and civilizations, and asserts that creativity draws on the roots of cultural tradition but it flourishes in contact with other cultures. Wouldn’t it make sense that if we want Indian youth to develop and draw upon their innate creativity, they must be made deeply and critically aware of the vast rich diversity and unity-in-diversity of their Indian cultural traditions?
One of the greatest secrets revealed by the Indian spiritual knowledge is that only when a human being finds and lives from the inner self, can he or she most embrace the universal being and become one with it. Only when one becomes truly independent, self-possessed (in a deeper sense, not just self-centred in the outer sense) and self-ruler (master of one’s impulses, instincts, thoughts, and desires), can one become the ruler, master and shaper of the world in which one lives. Only a swarat can grow into becoming a samrat, according to Sri Aurobindo. It essentially means that when one truly lives in the soul one is also living in complete oneness with all, because then the distinction between self and other is no more.
On a more practical level, this deepest truth implies that one must consciously and in full awareness try to know oneself in all its totality and inter-related layers. Not only that, but one must also make continuous attempts to live truly, as much as possible, in accordance with the inner truth that guides and determines one’s path of life. When our self-expression — the line of work we do, how we connect with others, how we grow through our life experiences, the kinds of experiences that motivate us, everything — begins to flow from our inner centre of being and is in accordance with our unique law of being, we may see we are on the path of discovering our swadharma (the true purpose of our existence in this life). This is certainly not an easy task. But it is the first necessity.
It is true not only for the individual but also for the nation. Only when Indian children, youth and people know the inner history of India and its evolutionary march, can they truly be connected to the Indian spirit and work toward manifesting it through their own works and actions.
It can be facilitated through proper education and exposure. In the previous chapter I spoke of some practical changes that are necessary if we want education to become a way of helping children make gradual progress in their journey to discover their inner law and truth of being, their dharma.
This journey of self-discovery however must be made in the context of another journey, that of discovering their nation and its heritage. Only when we know where we are coming from, we can truly begin to figure out where we are at the present, and how we can go ahead in future.
This learning about India’s heritage and history doesn’t need to be and should not be a chauvinistic and narrow-minded retelling of the past glory that India was. At the same time, we don’t want to shy away from the truth that India was indeed once upon a time a glorious land with great many riches of knowledge in all spheres of human life and activity, including material prosperity.
We must also help the youth of India learn about the deeper, inner driving forces of history, the significance of various psychological factors that have shaped India’s history. This is important because when we understand History only from the point of view of outer events (dates, key figures etc.), we get only incomplete knowledge – e.g. while studying the period of British colonization of India, a study of the inner, psychological factors may help reveal that which had gone missing from the collective Indian psyche to bring that kind of oppression upon us? What were the larger world forces that led to the independence of India when it happened? Obviously, it can’t be just be one man’s non-violent revolution. So what other deeper psychological and wider outer forces were going on in the world at the time which made it possible? Why not before? Such wider and deeper inquiry can also lead to many other interesting exploratory opportunities for learners and teachers. And so it goes.
Learners must also be given full opportunity to critically evaluate and understand the reasons behind India’s decline and downfall, the outer and inner factors that led to it, the impact such a downfall has had on shaping the present-day India, and how a different future can be made possible. Instead of ideologically driven history wars which have a sinister political agenda, educational thinkers and policy-makers must figure out ways to facilitate a developing sense of unity among learners through a deep, critical study of Indian history that is free from preconceived mental biases and prejudices.
All this is not possible to be done in an isolated History class, instead some serious thinking is required on how age-appropriate study of Indian culture, heritage and history may be made an integral part of learners’ overall educational experience. Perhaps this can be made a running theme throughout the school curriculum, integrated within many subject areas, and with a great many variety of individual and group learning activities planned to facilitate a holistic learning experience. Wouldn’t it be rather a matter of common sense to speak about the Indian connection to the value of Pi (π) in a Mathematics class? Or how about bringing up the great architectural knowledge of ancient Indians and other engineering marvels in India in a science class? Many such examples can be thought of. All it requires is some good intent and creativity….
When we fail to appreciate, love and really know what our heritage and cultural richness is all about, we fail to appreciate what other cultures are all about. We fail to understand the uniqueness that each culture has, we in fact fail to appreciate the great diversity of world cultures because we have not understood what makes our own culture unique and different. We only imitate and that too not very well. We reduce other cultures to their mere outwardly forms, because that is all what we know about our culture. Only when we can appreciate our culture because of its inner truths and dimensions, we can be somewhat equipped to begin an understanding of how other cultures are inwardly different from ours.
Only then the possibility of a healthy dialogue of civilizations and cultures may arise. Because as India teaches us, those who live most powerfully in themselves can also most largely use the world and all its material for a greater self-discovery and can most successfully help the world and enrich it out of their own being.
In the next chapter, I take up this topic again and add a few more insights.
The book is available for purchase at: