'India never had a golden age'

Interview with Prof. D.N. Jha, historian.

Published : May 23, 2018 12:30 IST

Prof. D.N. Jha,  former professor of history, University of Delhi. He says he prefers the slogan Jai Hind over Bharat Mata ki Jai.

Prof. D.N. Jha, former professor of history, University of Delhi. He says he prefers the slogan Jai Hind over Bharat Mata ki Jai.

LONG before many historians called the Hindutva forces’ bluff with respect to Indian history, Professor D.N. Jha had talked about the not-so-divine status of the cow in the Hindu religion. Basing his argument largely on scriptures, he came up with The Myth of the Holy Cow . Hindutva outfits panned the book but could not dispute the words of the holy texts he quoted. Jha stood his ground, and the cow began to be seen as a political rather than divine animal. “The bull rather than the cow deserved a divine status,” he argued, saying that there have been temples dedicated to Nandi.

For the past few years, the soft-spoken academic has been waging another battle: safeguarding India’s pluralist past. Be it raising his voice against atrocities inflicted on minorities and Dalits or exposing the shallowness of the Bharat Mata ki Jai slogan, Jha’s arguments are rooted in history. He has argued that the way forward is not through a slogan like Bharat Mata ki Jai but Jai Hind, not through Brahmanical superiority but egalitarianism. He disagrees with any notion of a mythical golden age in Indian history, arguing that kings, whatever their religion, have always waged battles for political superiority.

In his latest book, Against the Grain , released recently, he continues his battle for writing history right.

Excerpts from an interview:

The Constitution says “India that is Bharat”, yet there was no concept of Bharat as a cohesive nation for the longest time. How do you explain this anomaly? Also, with the given history, how honest is it to make a slogan like Bharat Mata ki Jai the benchmark of nationalism?

It is true that Bharata as a country evolved over a long time. It does not occur in the entire corpus of the Vedic texts, though the Bharat tribe is mentioned in some of them. The first mention of Bharata in the territorial sense is found in an inscription of the Kalinga king Kharavela (1st century BCE), but in later Sanskrit texts (which I have consulted) wherever it is mentioned, its geographical connotation remains, by and large, ambiguous. It is only in the late 19th century that Bharata came to denote the whole of India as we have it today. This coincided with the rise of Indian nationalism, but, curiously, it now appeared as a mother. The earlier Bharata morphed into Bharata Mata in a song of Dwijendra Lal Roy (1863-1913) and she figures as such prominently in several other late 19th century works, including Anand Math of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya. This change of gender—Bharata becoming a Mata (mother)—may be a theme of the nationalist discourse among specialists, but it is strange that Queen Victoria was visualised as a guardian of Mother India. Equally curious is the depiction of India as Lady Hind holding the flag of the British Empire jointly with Britannica in cartoons published in the Hindi Punch as early as 1904. So a non-specialist may ask himself, what kind of nationalism was this? Historically, Bharata Mata is hardly a century and a quarter old; her contemporary, gau mata, is almost the same age. Recently, the Madhya Pradesh government created another Mata, Rashtramata, out of Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s “Padmavati”. So I am confused which of these Matas could become the benchmark of Indian nationalism. I would, therefore, prefer Jai Hind over Bharata Mata.

Prominent travellers to India, including Francois Bernier and Johann Gottfried von Herder, refer to mild-natured Hindus, those who assimilated what they could, made space for everyone. Yet we have Alberuni’s distinctly different account. When exactly do we notice a change from Hindus being gentle people to those who considered foreigners impure or mlechha? If the tolerant tag is well deserved, how does one explain the Brahmanical hostility to Buddhism?

I would say that both views are largely correct. When Alberuni (973-1048) wrote about the intolerance, haughtiness and conceit of Hindus, conflict between Brahmanism and Shramanic religions (Buddhism and Jainism, especially the former) was at its peak; Buddhism was on the verge of being driven out of the country as appears from the sustained Brahmanical assault on Buddhist establishments.

In fact, Brahmanical intolerance of other religions is amply attested by our sources, and you are right in saying that Brahmins treated foreigners as mlecchas. It is possible that Alberuni may have made his statement against this background of antagonism between Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical religions.

Also read: Prof D.N. Jha (1940-2021), a rare historian who wore his knowledge with ease

But at the time when foreigners like Francois Bernier (1620-1688) and others wrote about India, the religious scenario was different: there was no religious rivalry between Brahmanism and Shramanism; Buddhism had almost disappeared from the country of its birth and had settled outside India; even the contradiction between Hinduism and Islam was not very sharp.

Also, one has to keep in mind that alongside the long history of sectarian conflict within Brahmanism and its antagonism towards other religions, there is, in India, an equally long history of the coexistence of religions, and of mutual borrowings among them. This syncretism is an important feature of India’s religious history. And despite the much-trumpeted conflict between Hinduism and Islam, even these two religions borrowed much from each other. An example of mutual borrowing between the two religions that comes readily to mind is the identification of the cult of the Muslim Satya Pir with that of the Satyanarayan Puja, prevalent in Bengal and adjoining regions. So it is likely that Bernier and other foreigners took notice of this kind of long syncretic tradition of India and spoke of tolerant Hinduism.

In recent times, we have had the exclusive and exclusionist leanings of Dayananda Saraswati and Ramakrishna Paramahansa being readily accepted. Is that the way forward?

No, I don’t think so. Dayananda Saraswati founded the Arya Samaj in 1875; the same year he wrote a book called Satyarth Prakash whose last two chapters are devoted entirely to the denunciation of Christianity and Islam. Nor are the teachings of Ramakrishna acceptable as a way forward. His ardent and most prominent disciple, Vivekananda (1863-1902), who founded the Ramakrishna Mission in 1897 for the promotion and propagation of Advaita Vedanta, spoke of religious tolerance but spewed venom against Islam as is indicated by the statement that “from Pacific to the Atlantic for five hundred years blood ran all over the world… that is Mohammadanism” (Shakespeare Club of Pasadena, California, February 3, 1900). Given these facts, the ideas of neither of the two “great” spiritual masters are acceptable. Moreover, as we are aware, their ideas are feeding into Hindutva which in everyday life these days means lynching of Muslims and Dalits, attacks on mosques and churches, horrendous crimes against women, etc.

The best way forward, therefore, is to leave the people to themselves. Every individual should be allowed to practise the religion of his choice without the direct or indirect interference of the state as guaranteed by our Constitution.

In the run-up to the Karnataka Assembly elections, we have had a unique case of the State government deciding to confer on Lingayats the status of a distinct religious community. How well founded in history is the claim or the decision?

I would not like to discuss the electoral politics of Karnataka; I leave that to political commentators. But so far as the Lingayats are concerned it is well known that their emergence as a major religious force in north-western Karnataka took place around the 12th century. Basavanna contributed greatly to their movement, which differed from orthodox Hinduism in many ways. It was anti-Brahmanical, anti-caste and anti-Vedic; its followers, both men and women, wear a linga (which they call ishtalinga) on their body and do not bother about the worship of an idol in a temple. Given this background of Lingayats, I feel there is some substance in recognising them as a separate religious community.

Also read: ‘The cow was neither unslayable nor sacred in the Vedic period’

With the advancement of aggressive Hindutva, we have had a number of Dalits, and even leaders like Mayawati, threatening to convert to Buddhism. Is it not a reverse flow of events? I ask this because in history we have instances of the victorious king imposing his faith on the vanquished. Like the Pandian king of Madurai, a practitioner of Jain faith, being forced to convert to Saivism.

The legend of the Pandian king has been extensively written about and scholars have questioned its authenticity. But so far as the conversion of Dalits is concerned, I would to like to say that their mass conversion to Buddhism or even to Islam has been caused largely by the inequities of the Indian caste system, which is defended by Hindutva ideologues. In this context, it is worthwhile remembering the conversion of Babasaheb Ambedkar to Buddhism, in 1956, along with nearly half a million “untouchables”.

In “Against the Grain”, you refer to Hindutva ideologues who look at ancient India as some kind of a mythical golden age, a time when there was social harmony, economic prosperity, etc. How well founded is the claim?

During the freedom struggle, Indian historians indulged in an uncritical glorification of pre-Islamic India: the Indian state was described as a constitutional monarchy; tribal oligarchies were equated with Athenian democracy; the village assemblies (sabhas) in south India were portrayed as little democracies; the period of the Gupta rulers was treated as the golden age when the Indian people were happy and prosperous and lived in peace and harmony. This picture of ancient India supplied an ideological support to freedom fighters; but after India’s Independence it served no such purpose though the Hindutva ideologues have clung on to these ideas, and, inspired by them, even our Prime Minister has made laughable statements about the Indian past on several occasions. But a scientific analysis of our sources amply proves that at no stage in history the common people of India witnessed a truly golden age. The history of India, like that of any other country, has been a story of social inequities, exploitation of the common people, religious conflict, and so on. The idea of a golden age has always been abused, in India as well as in other countries.

Also read: 'State should rely on historians'

Even as the fight over the Babri Masjid goes on and on, we know that some Buddhist structures were not left untouched by revivalist Hindu kings. For instance, Hindu temples in Nalanda university. If so, is it true that our entire history has been a game of “might is right”?

What you describe as “might is right” may be true at one level. But that is also an oversimplification. It may not have been the king who always played a role in case of religious confrontation. The Babri Masjid was demolished with the connivance of the Indian state. In history, the adherents of one religion may have played a prominent role in attacking the religious establishments of other religions that they perceived as their rivals.

The reason for this may have been rooted in deeper historical processes and one can’t argue that so and so king imposed his religion on others. For example, when we speak of the Brahmanical assault on Buddhism, it will have to be seen against the background of the doctrinal changes in Buddhism and Brahmanism, as well as in their changing social and material context, their social base and their source of patronage, etc.

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