The “conversation” on Indian history has once again failed to rise to the level of one by remaining within the usual terms of discord. One group calls itself secular and scientific and its opponents communal and driven by myths, while the other calls itself proudly Hindu and “Indian” and its opponents Marxist and pseudo-secular. It is, however, not a balanced contest. The imbalance has less to do with the politics of the moment and who’s in charge in New Delhi, and a lot more to do with issues of intellectual imbalance and imagination-stunting; simply put, we are able to detect, contest and ridicule the claims of one side for its sheer unprofessionalism, but we are oblivious, and perhaps even touchy, when it comes to some of the fairly ridiculous claims that exist on the “scholarly” side, our side, that is.
For one, we still seem to teach in our textbooks the idea that Hindus are foreign conquerors of India. Despite the serious criticism scholars have expressed about the “Aryan invasion” theory, even the same scholars sometimes go on as if the theory’s implications are true. Some go so far as to compare Vedic Hindus to the Nazis. I wonder why we have to find that any less ridiculous than the claims of less “distinguished” academics in India who say strange things about ancient Indian rishis inventing stem cell research and thought-powered planes, cars and the like. One, we dismiss outright as myth and right-wing national fantasy. The other, we not only fail to call out as old colonial-era racial nonsense, but actually go on to celebrate as cutting-edge work that is standing up bravely to saffron historians. We would do well to remember that nonsense we fail to call out as nonsense is perhaps far more harmful than the funny stuff that we can plainly see as such.
The truth is that we have not made the social investment needed to create a story about our past that is objective, professional and at the same time, meaningful to our living realities as Indians, Hindus and others. It is a strange thing that, for most people in India, it is not the stuff they memorise in history textbooks that is meaningful (and why would it be, when the books lack respect for not just what they call “myth” but objective reality too?) but the bits of sthala puranas, comic book panels, anecdotes, rumours and, of course, faith, that constitute history. If we are serious about the relevance of history to India today, then it behoves us to try and find a common ground between the desire that young Indians seem to feel for a better story of themselves, and the sterile world of our colonial-era scholarship, with its lazy Eurocentric categories. And for that, the scholarly community will have to find some way of getting over its high-horse attitude to seemingly low-intellect issues like cow-seva and the deeply devout way in which we think of gods and goddesses in this country.
The trouble with current historiography is that it remains stuck in the tyrannies of the modern episteme. There is an obsession with modern civilisational paradigms on both sides; even if those on one side claim subaltern agency and such, and posture themselves as being on the side of the underdog, literally and otherwise. The other side, of course, speaks about stories like Rama’s ancestor and the cow, but in its anxious insistence on imposing present-day ideas of civilisation, consumerism and perhaps the use of assisted reproductive technologies, ends up losing sight of what is really going on with cows, snakes, elephants, monkeys, and indeed, life itself, in Hinduism.
As I propose in my forthcoming book, Rearming Hinduism: Nature, Hinduphobia and the Return of Indian Intelligence, historiography needs to go beyond not only Eurocentrism and simplistic “saffronisation” (though the two are hardly equal in scope, power or rationale) but, indeed, beyond species-ism and anthropocentrism as well (and merely talking about dogs and horses as metaphors for social groups as pseudo-subaltern historians try to do is hardly good for animals and for scholarship about animals). Books like Florian Werner’s The Cow: A Bovine Biography, Jeremy Rifkin’s Beyond Beef, and Nanditha Krishna’s Sacred Animals of India show us it is virtually impossible to tell the story of the world without addressing the central role the cow has played not only in humanity’s economic existence but indeed in humanity’s cultural and spiritual life as well.
We argue these days, tediously, about who ate or did not eat beef in the past. We fail to see, though, even if it stares vehemently at us from our art, sculpture, “myth” and more, the living world of nature from which we have come, and about our place in which we have grown increasingly arrogant about modernity. A better history of Hinduism, Hindus and India, could prove vital at this present moment, when everyday environmental devastation seems to go hand in hand with our everyday indifference to one of humanity’s oldest cultural and intellectual investments in ensuring a less cruel, equal and sustainable relationship to nature. That may be the “way of life” Hinduism was and might be again, if we learn to put things together honestly and, indeed, scientifically. Our ancient glory was not in how we viewed machinery, but life itself. The desire to understand that for ourselves now should replace the current obsession with both puranic aeronautics and postmodern Hinduphobics.
The writer is professor of media studies,University of San Francisco