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In legendary historian DD Kosambi’s excellent work on ancient India titled ‘Myth and Reality’ (1962), he writes about his essays, almost as if for 2016 India; “they are based upon the collation of field-work with literary evidence. Indian critics, whose patriotism outstrips their grasp of reality are sure to express annoyance or derision at the misplaced emphasis..”
Broadly defined as a story of the past, history has come to mean much more. In a society which is so diverse, it has often come to mean very different things to different people. History is a story that needs to be told cautiously sometimes but nevertheless must be told, taught and studied.
The bid of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) to announce that it is now going down the route of collecting detailed “folklore”, “custom” and “only documenting what is heard”, about the very distant past, appears fraught with monumental issues.
Scholars have written copiously on the foolishness of discounting the role that myths play in understanding life and society, and the value of fiction, stories and tales passed on. To be unmindful of prevalent legends would leave us the poorer in comprehending much harder material truths. But problems begin, when legends, myths and history are all sought to be confused.
The function of recording, teaching or studying History, is surely to learn lessons from the past, to be familiar with compatriots, to learn and unlearn about other lives, or at least that is the purpose we hope history serves for us, when taught in schools and beyond.
Historiography is serious and contested terrain but ground rules about what constitutes evidence and what hearsay suggests that it is very important that the difference be maintained.
There is no harm therefore in knowing about myths and legends, but to be able to tell clearly what a piece of pottery, jewellery, a grave or a monument or cooking utensils tell you about people long gone before us should be a priority in a vast and old civilisation like ours.
History is more important, when governments are involved in writing (and rewriting) textbooks. Textbooks being among the most useful ammunition to control young minds. The1980s phase in our neighbouring state of Pakistan survives uptil today in dangerously altered textbooks, or how history is studied in middle-schools. A recent project by two Pakistani scholars, Qasim Aslam and Ayyaz Ahmed, studies how differently Indian and Pakistani textbooks, learn about exactly the same facts. Not that India has got it all right, but the necessity of feeding myths to Pakistan was such a dominant idea there, that History was firmly pushed out of the frame.
Myths, being privileged over history writing, have been known to serve a useful political purpose. The myth of Aryan supremacy would have been a useful account to spin support for the Nazi view of the world in its time. When the ‘superiority’ of White-skinned plunderers in Africa had to be established, myths and legends, hearsay and anecdotes over years would have been a useful tool to establish why it was the way things should be. Which of us has not heard a story whispered at a monument which says the exact opposite of what we have known to be a recorded fact about the monument/area/people?
If only to avoid history from repeating itself, either as tragedy or a farce, it may be well worth the while of institutions like ICHR, tasked with serious historical research to do exactly that. Myths have a place, but for India to have a functional present and future, they must not be confused with history.