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Q & A: The Verity of the Indian Itihasa

(Extract­ed from talks at Vikasa, Rishikesh, Decem­ber 2016)

This is a very inter­est­ing and eye-open­ing dis­cus­sion on how the deep tra­di­tion­al sci­ences (shas­tra) and his­to­ry (iti­hasa) of the Indi­an civ­i­liza­tion have been ground­less­ly inval­i­dat­ed and termed “myth­i­cal”, there­by leav­ing us no room to even explore and ver­i­fy their valid­i­ty. These sci­ences are vast and use dif­fer­ent kinds of met­rics to val­i­date their hypothe­ses and there­fore might not fit into the scope of empir­i­cal sci­ence that we cur­rent­ly adopt. Mod­ern his­to­ry’s record of human beings goes back to just 10,000 years, while the Indi­an iti­hasas and puranas talk about very ancient times, from the begin­ning of cre­ation of the uni­verse. Huge time scales, of the order of 8.64 bil­lion years and beyond, are described in the Mahab­hara­ta. Iti­hasas like the Mahab­hara­ta are his­tor­i­cal­ly accu­rate because they are record­ed by an author­i­ty, not just any­body, and their tes­ti­mo­ni­als are passed down. The facts and accounts are true because they are “peer-reviewed”, to use mod­ern lan­guage!

We human beings have a long his­to­ry; it is just that most of it is not in our con­scious aware­ness. What we study from cur­rent his­to­ry is not suf­fi­cient to know our past. We need to look much deep­er into our past through the study and research of the Indi­an shas­tra and iti­hasa.

So we were look­ing at Euro­cen­trism and its effect on us even now, not just us, in India, but actu­al­ly world­wide, right from our sense of dress­ing, sense of edu­ca­tion, the mode of edu­ca­tion, even the mode of doing sci­ence, is typ­i­cal­ly Euro­cen­tric. For exam­ple, med­ical sci­ence. When I say med­ical sci­ence, imme­di­ate­ly what jumps to your mind? The cur­rent form of allopa­thy, the west­ern med­ical sci­ence. You don’t think of Ayurve­da or Yoga or all the superb sci­ences that we have (the tra­di­tion­al knowl­edge of the Indi­an civ­i­liza­tion). In fact, many peo­ple think these are fake sci­ences. Thou­sands of years of valid­i­ty and you call that a fake sci­ence! How valid is that? And hence, it becomes impor­tant to under­stand this frame­work or world­view that you are look­ing through, to arrive at a judge­ment. Arrive at a val­ue judge­ment, right? So that is what we call as Euro­cen­trism — the frame­work that you use to arrive at a val­ue judge­ment, is Euro­cen­tric. It is not mul­ti­di­men­sion­al. It is not diverse, includ­ing all. Only now, in the Unit­ed Nations we are talk­ing of all-inclu­sive frame­works, indige­nous frame­works and so on. Still you just look at pop­u­lar view, look at our own mind­sets, you will respect a per­son who is able to talk in Eng­lish. You will look down upon a per­son who is not able to com­mu­ni­cate in Eng­lish. So how do we arrive at these process­es of con­di­tion­ing? That becomes very very crit­i­cal to under­stand because once you under­stand the process­es, you have a han­dle. Why are you the way you are? “Ah! I am like this. That is all.” So that does not give an expla­na­tion. Say, for exam­ple, our sci­ences — how deep they have been. We have been dis­cussing so many things, do you think they are unsci­en­tif­ic? They are very much sci­en­tif­ic! Just that it might not fit into the scope of empir­i­cal sci­ence that we adopt now. It might not fit into the scope because these are vast sci­ences. They use dif­fer­ent kinds of met­rics to arrive at those hypothe­ses and val­i­date those hypothe­ses. But because of his­tor­i­cal rea­sons and the pol­i­tics of his­to­ry, these have sud­den­ly been inval­i­dat­ed. Not sud­den­ly, over a peri­od of time, they have been sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly dis­man­tled. Which lead to the famous state­ment of Swa­mi Vivekanan­da in 1905, I believe. He said, “50 years of Eng­lish-run insti­tu­tions of edu­ca­tion, has not pro­duced one clear-head­ed Indi­an intel­lec­tu­al.” Strong indi­vid­ual. Because sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly, a child is tak­en to school, and taught that his father is a fool, that his grand­fa­ther is a lunatic, that the whole bunch of scrip­tures are books of lies, all that is drilled down, until that per­son has no spine.

Just as Shyam explained, African slaves, how could you win over a very pow­er­ful war­rior nation, like Africans? actu­al­ly cut­ting them com­plete­ly off their roots. Right from the nam­ing, every­thing is cut off, sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly, and then you don’t have an iden­ti­ty, which is what gives you your strength. So that has been done not to that extent (in India), but def­i­nite­ly has been done. To be able to become aware of this itself, you need to actu­al­ly look at his­to­ry which gives you the lens­es to become aware of this.”Oh! I am act­ing this way and this is the back­ground with which, because of which I am act­ing this way.” That is when you will have the dis­tance to be able to look at your­selves objec­tive­ly. Else, it will not be open to rea­son. And that is what has hap­pened, where we have assumed that this is the only par­a­digm, there is no alter­na­tive that can be avail­able. And any alter­na­tive that is avail­able is fake, is dan­ger­ous, jin­go­ism, and all those con­no­ta­tions asso­ci­at­ed with it. So even look­ing at the Mahab­hara­ta, the rea­son why we are look­ing at it is exact­ly to bring out these alter­na­tive aspects from our own per­spec­tives, that is an essen­tial process of antahkarana shud­dhi. Chit­ta shud­dhi, where only that you are able to actu­al­ly see it for what it is, so to be able to get that view, that per­spec­tive, is the rea­son why we also look at his­to­ry. Now the great­est tragedy is that, in the past 250 years all the his­to­ries that have been cher­ished in this land as iti­hasas…

Before going into that, you know, how does his­to­ry get built? If you look at the process, it is very inter­est­ing. What is it called? “His – sto­ry” Whose sto­ry? Athukaa­ga son­tha katha, soga katha illa pa (Laugh­ter) Naan eppa­di irun­then, ippo ippi­di irukken! (Laugh­ter) (“His – sto­ry” does not mean my sto­ry, my sad sto­ry — “How I was before! Now how have I become!) Not exact­ly along those lines, okay? So “his – sto­ry” also reveals the process by which that is built. It is tes­ti­mo­ni­al based. So it is passed on, you hear tes­ti­monies from whom you have shrad­dha in, and that you take it for the word. And that is a record­ed instance. And that is passed down. And hence this is how, the tes­ti­mo­ni­als being passed, become his­to­ry. Now all of these tes­ti­mo­ni­als that com­prise our iti­hasas, our puranas, and all of those tes­ti­mo­ni­als, have just been pushed aside and called ”Mythol­o­gy!” Just been pushed side, or called pre­his­to­ry, “You can­not ver­i­fy it, sor­ry, it does not work.” Who is who to ver­i­fy these things? These are tes­ti­mo­ni­als. How does his­to­ry work now? See, it works exact­ly this way, right? Tes­ti­mo­ni­als are col­lect­ed, ver­i­fied, cross-ver­i­fied, cross-checked and a com­pre­hen­sive his­to­ry is built. His­tor­i­cal account is built. That is what we call as his­to­ry.

Then the only way we can get his­to­ry is by belief? On the basis of belief?

It is tes­ti­mo­ni­al. Even now for exam­ple, how do courts of law work? Some­one comes and say “I bear tes­ti­mo­ny to this episode.”

Sir, but the main­stream his­to­ry which we all learn in school is high­ly manip­u­lat­ed.

So that is where we have the pol­i­tics of his­to­ry. So it depends on who writes the his­to­ry books. With what inten­tions they write it.

For exam­ple, while study­ing in 8th, 9th and 10th, in civics, I still remem­ber, we used to study more about Indi­an Nation­al Con­gress and about free­dom-fight­ing rather than the ancient his­to­ry of India. And then his­to­ry talks about the Aryan inva­sion that nev­er hap­pened.

Good we did not lis­ten to those class­es! (Laugh­ter)

There was also you know, in a recent research, we found the argu­ment rea­son­ably valid. It was shown how these var­i­ous char­ac­ters from his­to­ry, they are from his­to­ry, were used by the then for­ma­tive gov­ern­ment, to actu­al­ly estab­lish cer­tain social­ist ideals, and hence for exam­ple, Ashoka was glo­ri­fied. Tsk! There was Chan­dragup­ta Mau­rya, led by Chanakya. He was not glo­ri­fied. Chan­dragup­ta Mau­rya was not glo­ri­fied, but Ashoka specif­i­cal­ly was glo­ri­fied. In a very spe­cif­ic light. It was to do with the pol­i­tics of that time and hence it was not with the equal vision that his­to­ry was treat­ed, some­thing was pro­ject­ed for a very spe­cif­ic under­ly­ing cause, inter­est.

I was just reflect­ing on the way I learnt his­to­ry in my school days. My blood nev­er boiled that actu­al­ly the British­ers had come and killed so many of our peo­ple. It was almost taught like a fact, you know, “Okay 1857 revolt” It would just be a ques­tion- “___ revolt hap­pened in the year___” (Fill in the Blanks ques­tion). And we just mechan­i­cal­ly fill that. And there were ter­ror­ists, Bha­gat Singh. And hence the clar­i­ty or the con­nect of the his­to­ry teacher becomes so very impor­tant. It has become most like a sub­jec­tive aspect where, the entire onus on pre­sent­ing his­to­ry lies in the hands of the his­to­ry teacher. How much pas­sion he or she is able to bring. So in fact, recent­ly, we have also start­ed think­ing along the lines of hav­ing a sto­ry­telling work­shop for his­to­ry teach­ers, so that they bring out the emo­tion­al con­nect to the land when they present about our coun­try. See, just 1000 years of record­ed his­to­ry, there is so much to tell. But it needs to be told in a way, because the bha­va is so very impor­tant, and that is miss­ing from the his­to­ry text­books. Because it is, it has been tak­en in a very dif­fer­ent way. You need to build a con­text to present the facts. Here also we are pre­sent­ing facts, that is what is iti­hasa, but you build the con­text.

In our his­to­ry text­books, isn’t Mahab­hara­ta sub­ject­ed to any agen­da, polit­i­cal agen­da?

Oh, it has always been at the cen­tre of all polit­i­cal agen­das! (Laugh­ter) In fact, the very fact that peo­ple don’t access it is because of polit­i­cal rea­sons. (Laugh­ter)

How do we know that the his­tor­i­cal accounts in the Mahab­hara­ta are not dis­tort­ed?

Okay, that is a very valid point. So we come to the essen­tial ques­tion, “How do you prove the his­toric­i­ty, or how does sci­ence of his­to­ry work?’ Or sci­ence itself, how does it work? Sci­ence the way it works is like this. What are the prime tenets of sci­ence? Ver­i­fi­a­bil­i­ty, repro­ducibil­i­ty and empiri­cism – these are the pri­ma­ry tenets of sci­ence. Giv­en those ground con­di­tions you should be able to repro­duce them and get the same result. Now that is okay for such sci­ences, but how about his­to­ry? So we have what is called tes­ti­mo­ni­als, by an author­i­ty, not just any­body. You can have tes­ti­mo­ni­als from any­body but that will not hold the same val­ue, but by an author­i­ty and they would not give out any lie. Why? Because their cred­i­bil­i­ty is at ques­tion, because they have peers. Peer pres­sure works. They have peers. Even now, we pro­duce results…for exam­ple, we are com­put­er sci­en­tists, we pub­lish in peer-reviewed jour­nals. It is peer-reviewed. That is, the body of sci­en­tists which hold that sacro­sanct posi­tion which pro­vide cred­i­bil­i­ty for the sci­ence that comes into our text­books. So from those jour­nals, the text­book authors actu­al­ly col­late it, orga­nize it sequen­tial­ly and that is how text­books are pro­vid­ed to you on your desks. This is the process of sci­ence and sci­en­tif­ic dis­sem­i­na­tion. Now, that cred­i­bil­i­ty is at stake. Nobody in their right minds would ever do it. For exam­ple Ein­stein would not give out a lie or a wrong state­ment sim­ply because it is record­ed for pos­ter­i­ty, and any­body can ver­i­fy it at any point in time and say,”We are a bunch of fools believ­ing that guy. That guy has lied.” And that’s it, the whole struc­ture would fall. They would not do that. So it is kept up by the peers, con­tem­po­rary peers and also lat­er peers, in soci­ety. That’s exact­ly how it is kept up with us. A sad­hu san­nyasi will not behave in an odd way because there are peers who will com­ment on it, crit­i­cize it, and they would lose their stature, if they do an odd act. And hence they would not lie. Vyasa Mahar­ishi had his peers.

In the Indi­an con­text, it is also their own swad­har­ma.

It is not just the body of peers, it is also your high lev­el of self-esteem or self-val­ue that you have worked towards build­ing. And there is no bet­ter thing than that. And that, the full author­i­ty of that rests with Brah­ma­ji, you know (Brah­ma is the cre­ator of our cur­rent real­i­ty). That is how we trace it back. The full author­i­ty of it rests with Brah­ma­ji. It is like an open book. If Vyasa Mahar­ishi com­mits some­thing, he would not just lose cred­i­bil­i­ty in the mor­tal world, he might in fact escape in the mor­tal world. But sor­ry, the line of rea­son­ing is much deep­er. All the way up to Brah­ma­ji he would have to answer, because as we chant (in the Vyasa Stu­ti), Vyasa hap­pens to be the son of Parashara, who hap­pens to be the son of Shak­ti, who hap­pens to be the son of Vasishtha, who hap­pens to be the son of? Brah­ma him­self. In fact, that it is rea­son why peo­ple would, in Brah­min com­mu­ni­ties they would do Abhiva­daye, explain­ing their important…the rishis that gov­ern their lin­eage, the entire lin­eage, what sutras gov­ern them, gri­hya sutras, what texts gov­ern their reg­u­lar lives, all that is men­tioned and that back­ground is estab­lished. Only if you are emp­ty of that back­ground, you are a nobody or anony­mous, you would do fun­ny stuff. Oth­er­wise you would not risk it. That is called hon­our. You would not risk your fam­i­ly’s hon­our. That does not mean you don’t explore. That is dif­fer­ent. Sin­cere explo­ration is always wel­come, but not wrong stuff, you would not lie, because your entire back­ground, back­ground cred­i­bil­i­ty, is at stake. So ear­li­er when peo­ple used to appoint, that is why you would find, an impor­tant qual­i­fi­ca­tion for any appoint­ment to a crit­i­cal post, was they should be kuli­na, mean­ing com­ing from an excel­lent fam­i­ly back­ground. It is not just suf­fi­cient that they are excel­lent, but they need to come from excel­lent fam­i­ly back­ground, because the fam­i­ly will pro­vide that sort of an intel­li­gence that enhances the indi­vid­ual. Even sci­en­tists acknowl­edge this.

A per­son­’s whole fam­i­ly rep­u­ta­tion is at stake. And it is his respon­si­bil­i­ty to be true to it.

And why? Rep­u­ta­tion not just for rep­u­ta­tion’s sake, because every­thing is based on that word. So we gen­er­al­ly rea­son out, all the way up to Brah­ma­ji, for exam­ple, even trac­ing back one’s lin­eage, it gen­er­al­ly is traced back all the way to Brah­ma­ji. Brah­ma­ji not nec­es­sar­i­ly in a human form, okay? That is an anthro­pocen­tric view of cre­ation. Need not be so. Brah­ma­ji can assume any form. It can be any which way. It can be an “it”, “he”, “she” who is to define that? So the ques­tion of cred­i­bil­i­ty, tes­ti­mo­ni­al becomes very very crit­i­cal. That is how you will see that all our shas­tras, all our texts, sec­u­lar, reli­gious, any­thing, all of that would have a divine ori­gin. Divine ori­gin. For exam­ple, Dan­da Niti, polit­i­cal sci­ence, Niti Shas­tras, actu­al­ly it is clear­ly men­tioned that Brah­ma­ji orig­i­nat­ed it for the wel­fare of all beings so that there is no con­flict of inter­est. That is how it orig­i­nat­ed. So there is a clear line of author­i­ty, a line of rea­son­ing. Just as we have now. Just that we have sit­u­at­ed our­selves in a very nar­row time peri­od of his­to­ry. Just maybe about 2000 years. And we say only that is valid. Every­thing else is invalid. That is what has been taught now. But that does not inval­i­date the whole thing that we pos­sess. It does not inval­i­date our shas­tras. Just that we have been real­ly, that has been real­ly pushed into us.

(Smrithi ji) I think we also have these archeo-astro­nom­i­cal sci­ences.

Yeah tomor­row we will look at a lit­tle bit of astro­nom­i­cal evi­dence. See for exam­ple, in Tamil Nadu, there is a clear line of rea­son­ing of Kumari Kan­dam1. Taen Madu­rai, not the cur­rent Madu­rai. Taen Thamirabarani, not the cur­rent Thamirabarani. I come from the land of Thamirabarani, you know, but Taen Thamirabarani is men­tioned. Taen Podi­gai Malai is men­tioned, not the cur­rent Podi­gai Malai. And it is there in the col­lec­tive mem­o­ry. How can we just like that dis­miss it as myth­i­cal? Lemuria, Atlantis have been termed myth­i­cal, that is all not his­to­ry. Such col­lec­tive mem­o­ry rea­son­ing can­not be dis­missed just like that. Kumari Kan­dam is very much part of Tamil col­lec­tive mem­o­ry. Passed down from father to son and daugh­ter. Kumari Kan­dam is Lemuria. Just like Atlantis, ear­li­er than that Lemuria? Like you have Sri Lan­ka, everything…It was sup­posed to be a huge piece of land. It was sup­posed to extend from Mada­gas­car. But those cul­tur­al mem­o­ries have still been retained. But our cur­rent sci­ence, that is where as Indi­ans, we face a clear con­flict, where we are taught one thing but the cul­tur­al mem­o­ries actu­al­ly indi­cate some­thing more. It is more expan­sive that just what we are taught. And we are taught that only this (cur­rent sci­ence) should be believed and that our tra­di­tion­al knowl­edge is not sci­en­tif­ic, it is super­sti­tion.

Explana­to­ry notes

(Image Source:

1 Silap­padikaram, one of the five cel­e­brat­ed Tamil epics, writ­ten in the first cen­tu­ry A.D. by Ilan­go Adi­gal, makes fre­quent ref­er­ences to a vast tract of coun­try called “Kumari Nadu”, now iden­ti­fied as Lemuria or Gond­wana­land by Euro­pean schol­ars, extend­ing far beyond the present Kanyaku­mari, the south­ern­most tip of mod­ern India, lying sub­merged in the Indi­an Ocean. It is said that ancient Madu­rai, or Taen Madu­rai, was the seat of the Tamil Sangam (lit­er­ary acad­e­my) and Kavat­a­pu­ram was the cap­i­tal of the Pandyan king­dom. Penin­su­lar India extend­ed from Kanya Kumari, form­ing a sprawl­ing con­ti­nent touch­ing Africa in the west, Aus­tralia in the south and occu­py­ing a large por­tion of the Indi­an Ocean. From 30,000 B.C. to 2700 B.C. nat­ur­al cat­a­clysmic land­slips occurred as a result of earth­quakes and vol­canic erup­tions which peri­od­i­cal­ly affect­ed the sur­face of the earth and the ocean beds. As the con­ti­nent of Lemuria was sink­ing in the west­ern por­tion, peo­ple migrat­ed to Asia, Aus­tralia and the lands of the Pacif­ic. - Sri M. Govin­dan, “Baba­ji and the 18 Sid­dha Kriya Yoga Tra­di­tion”

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