History is anything but just his story; not even as an allegation. I am not referring to the embedded gender politics, something which cannot be done away with, over here. The ideas about the past are not the concerns of specialists (academic researchers, hobbyists and quizzers) alone. Even though such an allegedly elitist scenario is more desirable against the games which have been going on in the Colosseum of the Indian political theatre, it is just a wishful thinking. In fact, there is quite a lot to worry about the kind of narratives that claim invention of plastic surgery, genetic science or aeroplanes citing stories from mythology, discovery of sophisticated Mathematics based on ambiguous history, and giving legitimacy to pseudo sciences. In the latest edition of this entertainment unleashed for the public consumption, the posturers (and their poster boys) seem to be on an impressive victory streak against the tiny minority who argues for maintaining scientific temperament and historical reasoning based on evidence. This situation should be a delight to the Neros from the past. As they would have said then, the score is: Lions 1, Christians Nil. The continuation of such a scenario will have disastrous consequences not only to the scientific and academic establishments, but also for the social life of the nation.
Nationalism and History
Glorification of the past, often in gargantuan scales that tend towards absurdity is a part and participle of the idea known as nationalism. Although this might appear condescending to many a people from this nation whose modern identity is defined based on a certain nationalist premise, may I request such a reader to bear with me and engage with the chain of reasoning proposed here. Nationalism as an ideology,recognises the power of a shared myth. It holds the supremacy of a shared myth as a material and intellectual source within a real or mythological territory- the holy land. It could be a promised land, as in the case of Israeli Jews, the land of the pure whom they snatched from the infidels as in the case of Muslims of Pakistan, the Golden land (Shonar Bangla) for people speaking the same language with shared cultural bonds, as in the case of Bangladesh, an ageless civilization build up on Vedas, as in the case of Hindu Nationalism in India. Of course, there are milder and harsher forms of the same expression with varying degree of inclusiveness. All of them share one common characteristic- being mostly wrong and exaggerated.
Nationalism has a certain idea about “who we were” which forms its central premise unlike many other competing secular ideologies, which too might have their own unique dealings with the past, though not in such an exclusive scale.This very structure necessitates the creation of an imaginary other, the fifth column as per the logic of a staunch nationalist. If you pursue the logic, it becomes clear that the idea of a perceptual cultural war is embedded in the nationalist fabric; there is our culture and their culture,and we have to defend ours’ supremacy in our holy land. Of course,most of the organised religions too work on the same principle, with the territoriality constraint relaxed.
The inherent logic behind the conception of nationalist identity, whether its proponents are conscious about it or not, is straightforward. Human beings moved to the top of the food chain by forming close knit communities, which helped their survival and improved efficiency as hunter gatherers during the birth of early civilisations. Ability to communicate abstract ideas (common language, symbols and idioms), collective imagination (myth and religion), sense of past (identity and history), insider-outsider rules (the patriot and traitor),territorial assets (holy lands) etc. were keys to the survival of early communities, even though material efficiency of the system might have served as the motivation for forming communities.
After the early stage of anthropological evolution when relatively small,simple and homogeneous communities were formed for material reasons,there were competing communities. For this reason each had to device stricter rules of engagement for people within (the earliest laws) and discriminators to determine the insider from the outsider.Growth was inevitable because of the security and relative prosperity provided by this arrangement. With growth came strife, both within and with outsiders. The reasons ranged from immediate material concerns like food, shelter and mating rights, to struggles for power and prestige. Kinship and bloodlines could no longer be the major binding factor for the larger community, although it did matter for the passing of the baton of power or the rudimentary property rights. The earliest cultural expressions found in Bronze age communities testify to the fact that flourishing abundant communities had a strong cultural binding as evidenced through the ancient centres of worship or common burial sites. They have most probably achieved this through maintaining common myths, however little we know about them. The Ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia, the Pyramids of Egypt, the palace of Knossos in Minoan Crete,Delphi in ancient Greece, Kalibangan in Indus valley etc. were all more than places of religious worship or ritual. They were symbols of collective imagination that bound the community, often by ruthless force and social policing.
We must remember that during the formation of such communities or tribes, human beings knew very little about nature. This played a major role in coming up with imaginary deities associating them with the powers of nature – the earliest religions. Fear was the idea and wonder was the ink. They probably were also the institutions that laid down common meeting places and rules for social cohesion, at a time when life was harsh and leisure time to ponder freely was not within the reach of most people. We know this to be true at least about the early agrarian societies. This urge for a binding culture,often expressed through religion, is very much a part of the nationalist discourses.
During the inception of such communities the average life span was not more than 35 years. Given the number of uncertainties that could arise from natural causes, future was a big enigma. Naturally past was cherished . This helped the creation of common myths and a sense of identity for there was hardly any incentive for people at large to invest in the completely unfathomable future, which they wish they knew better. Interestingly, this ability to see past through rosy glasses is the result of the evolution of human brain to protect itself from trauma. An average pre-modern human being, generally speaking, had invested more in a sense of past, than pondering about ways for a bright future. Changes were usually extremely slow and most often arising from the catastrophic failure of one type of system. This was an experiment that went on for the largest period in the history of the species homo sapiens.
Let us just pause and add all these together. We see an average nationalist’s cultural anxieties, exaggerated sense of territorial and cultural identity, appearing right in front of us. They are not completely illogical, although the underlying logic is just a tribal notion of self preservation which we can, and I would argue must,forsake for good in this era.
Objections to the Glorious History Project
All human beings, even those who live in sophisticated, technologically advanced, modern, liberal societies, crave for a sense of identity.It has to be admitted that our perception of the past is inextricably linked to our sense of belonging and being. But the question is whether we have to invent a past to bolster the collective ego of the population. In my opinion that would be a folly even if done in moderate proportions. I would argue my case with four reasons.
The first reason to argue for an evidence based world view as opposed to an imagined glory is that exaggerations and wild speculations does no value addition to this field of knowledge known as history. Every serious student of knowledge has a serious commitment towards truth,which has an intrinsic value whatever be its practical implications.The second reason comes from a long term utilitarian premise. A sense of glory and feel good can possibly fake confidence, but erodes away the intellectual and questioning ability of the population, directly affecting the scientific temperament and creative abilities required for growth and flourish. When faced with real challenges of the modern world, critical thinking ability counts well above blind faith in honour. My third reason has a psychological premise. The exaggerated sense of identity is a kind of fate belief. In many cases, it ties people down to a logic that we can do better because we did better once up on a time. Some people might consider this harmless, but when you substitute the work ethic and resolve to excel or succeed with some kind of imaginary genetic, territorial or cultural spirit, more often wrongly, the result is a stagnant mind.This in turn would produce a stagnant society where critical enquires cease to exist . Last but not the least,given that the history of all human cultures is filled with violence and aggression, there can be no glorious past without defining the ‘others’. While, one can argue that there could be groups which might have done more harm than the rest in certain regions, during various time periods in history, perpetuating a sense of victim-hood of own imagined people, or excessive triumphalism over one’s cultural prowess, will create more human victims. This is well evidenced by the history of genocides. As a corollary to the same argument, it should be noted that successful, developed modern societies are not relatively less exclusive. Their ability to co-operate with other groups and deal with each other more compassionately are important in a globalised world.
Glorification Vs Rational Discourse
The often taunted argument from the nationalist side is that the non-nationalist discourses suffer from biases and deliberately underplay the contributions of the dominant majority, whose voice they assume themselves to be. It is possible that at least some of their criticism against other schools are well founded. But glorification, in my opinion, is not a good defence mechanism against other dominant political discourses. It is a kind of psychological imbalance. At the very outset, this is a political claim which could very well be true on occasions, but largely a statement to stake a claim to legitimacy because of alleged fault of other schools than own merit. I would not like to meander to the political dimensions of this claim here. As a student of science, I do have reservations against this form of special pleading. History is perspective. But as they say in media, the facts are sacred, the comment is free. The facts which we tend to agree on historical knowledge, more often,comes from analysing material evidences. There is a scientific process which cannot be bypassed in reaching those conclusions. The narrative woven around it should also fit all the possible evidences(as much a possible), consistent with the established timeline and satisfy the Occam’s razor. Often the nationalist history about ancient past forgets about the Occam’s razor, and goes for a sky hook. This is very much evident when people claim Vedic civilisation dates back to 10,000 BC, planes were invented in ancient India or such interesting arguments. This approach, I would argue, comes from an extreme sense of self-importance or insecurity, which does not go well with the spirit of science or the process of building knowledge.
If such is the condition, what could possibly be the rational discourse about the past, for amateurs? In my opinion, the beginning of a sensible understanding about history should start from detaching the question who we are from what we can do. In a strict biological sense this need not be true. But we must remember that biology is the story of millions of years while history, at best,have a few thousands to talk about. The second proposal is to put things into perspective. This is not to argue that we should not derive inspiration from verifiable stories from history, or even mythology while understanding what it is. This is to emphasize that we must avoid falling in the trap of a supremacist view point. Remember that we are just a bunch of evolved primates whose early grand parents happened to have settled on this particular landmass (the alleged holy land)some time during the last 100000 years or so, probably after migrating from East Africa. But then, we are also just one among the millions of species currently non-extinct, which is a tiny minority among the huge number of species that has ever existed, on a remote planet which is known to be 4.5 billion years old. Even our planet is just one among the more than 100 billion ones present in the Milky Way, which is just one among the more than 100 billion galaxies in the known universe, which is around 13.7 billion years old. Actually,we, language, ethnicity, religion, culture, society and pride, are truly that unimportant! It is important that we keep this in mind,which ever field of knowledge we might be dealing with.
I cannot rephrase the conclusion any better than Carl Sagan’s own words, which is as much applicable to history as science:
“This adventure is made possible by generations of searchers strictly adherent to a simple set of rules. Test ideas by experiments and observations. Build on those ideas that pass the test. Reject the ones that fail. Follow the evidence wherever it leads, and question everything. Accept these terms, and the cosmos is yours.”