Peddler of myths

Print edition : August 22, 2014

Y. Sudershan Rao, the new Chairman of the ICHR. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The temple dedicated to Rama in Bhadrachalam in Khammam district of Telangana. Sudershan Rao says, "A look at the people and the fact that his having lived there for a while is in the collective memory of the people cannot be discounted in the search for material evidence." Photo: G.N. RAO

The makeshift temple at the spot where the Babri Masjid stood, in Ayodhya. Sudershan Rao, according to the historian Romila Thapar, wants to encourage historical and archaeological research to support the theory that there was once a temple at the site of the Babri Masjid. Photo: Subir Roy

Social scientists fear that the new ICHR Chairman may revive the Sangh Parivar’s long-standing history rewriting project using Hindutva as a tool.

THE appointment of Yellapragada Sudershan Rao as the Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), India’s premier body that funds historical research, is seen as the first attempt by the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government to rewrite the country’s history. Sudershan Rao is a long-time believer of the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva agenda and a professor of history at Kakatiya University in Warangal, Telangana. His appointment has been resented by professional historians who see it as a step to Hinduise history writing. During the NDA’s term in government at the Centre during 1999-2004, its Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi had initiated far-reaching changes in history writing by appointing historians associated with the Sangh Parivar in various institutions, censoring significant scientific historical projects such as “Towards Freedom”, and commissioning a complete overhaul of history textbooks in schools.

The history rewriting project has been an integral part of the Sangh Parivar’s agenda for many years now as Hindutva activists believe that Indian history writing is greatly influenced by Marxists and “pseudo-secularists” who present a Eurocentric and colonial view of India. Joshi attempted to rework history to provide a “true perspective of Indian history”. Instead of trying to interrogate the evolution of the subcontinent’s society and economy in the last many centuries through textual, archaeological, and other accepted tools of social sciences, the Sangh-affiliated historians have viewed history through the prism of Hindutva. As a result, subjects such as Hindu epics and folklore, Hindu mythology, Muslim invasion in the medieval period, Akhand Bharat (an idea of India that comprises all the nations of the subcontinent and South-East Asia), Fascism and Adolf Hitler, spiritualism and yoga found prominence in Joshi’s project of rewriting history.

Professional historians affiliated to premier Indian universities have, time and again, proved that the Sangh Parivar’s history-writing project is marked by a tremendous lack of time-tested historical methodologies and, often, gross factual inaccuracies. More importantly, Sangh-affiliated historians have tried to further give simplistic, folklore-based explanations for significant periods of history and dismissed any complex interpretation and inquiry.

Sudershan Rao follows a similar pattern in his academic research. He claims to work on the Hindu epics, especially the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. His Mahabharata project claims to establish not only a date in which the epic was written but also how people at present practise what is written in the Mahabharata. In one of his interviews to the media, he has articulated his academic interests, most of which are oriented towards the ideological concerns of the Sangh Parivar.

For instance, he said an interview to Outlook magazine: “Western schools of thought look at material evidence of history. We can’t produce material evidence for everything. India is a continuing civilisation. To look for evidence would mean digging right though the hearts of villages and displacing people. We only have to look at the people to figure out the similarities in their lives and the depiction in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. For instance, the Ramayana mentions that Rama travelled to Bhadrachalam (in Andhra Pradesh). A look at the people and the fact that his having lived there for a while is in the collective memory of the people cannot be discounted in the search for material evidence. In continuing civilisations such as ours, the writing of history cannot depend only on archaeological evidence. We have to depend on folklore too.”

Greater India

Similarly, he also supported the theory of a greater India: “The ICHR should encourage research about India and Greater India—from South-East Asia all the way to Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. There is enough archaeological evidence to show the connect of our civilisation there.”

Despite the fact that topics such as religion and caste have been subjects of philosophical discussions and debates for many years and innumerable academic work of repute has been published on these subjects, Sudershan Rao’s views on such topics bear an unpolished, uninformed colour. For example, to a question on the accusation that he may try to foreground a simplistic religious interpretation of history, he said: “I am a Hindu and a Brahmin. To be a Hindu isn’t a religion. In my personal practices, I can adopt religious practices of the community to which I belong—as a Saivite or a Vaishnavite. But that is not what being a Hindu is about. Religions are recent manifestations. I feel there’s only Sanatana Dharma. There was no conflict between communities or on religious lines as there was only one Sanatana Dharma. Now there are several reasons for conflict to take place. Besides, Muslims are the only ones who have retained their distinct culture. Can Christians or Muslims say all religions are one? A Hindu can say that. There was no conflict when there was Sanatana Dharma. Conflict or contests came about when temples were destroyed and mosques built on the sites in medieval times.”

He not only shows scant respect for minorities and Dalits in his views but also tries to justify half-truths. His views on Ayodhya have a striking resemblance to the hate-mongering speeches of Uma Bharati, Union Minister for Water Resources, and Sadhvi Rithambara during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. “Is it not a fact that mosques as structures came to be in India in A.D.1000? Is it not a fact that the mosque was built by a lieutenant of Babur? A historian can only enlighten people on the facts of history. Historians can at best say evidence of earlier remains of a Hindu structure are there. Conflicting views are created by political leaders. If Ayodhya is not the place of Ram, where did he live? Looking at the present structures in Ayodhya, we can see people still living the way that finds a mention in the Ramayana. Historians can only give their opinion to enlighten people.”

His opinion on untouchability is also formed more by brahminical interpretations than by material evidence of years of injustice recorded in the same Puranas and epics he is quoting from. “The question of untouchability is relatively recent, as recent as 3,000 years. And it has its basis in the economy. It was not based on social status. Did we hear of untouchability before this period of 3,000 years? Let me give you an example. Sage Vishwamitra went to a Dalit hut and asked for dog’s meat as he was hungry. The Ramayana and [the] Mahabharata are replete with instances of different castes; did we find a mention of untouchability there?”

In his blog (http: //ysudershanrao.blogspot.in/2007/09/indian-caste-system.html), he defends the Hindu caste system by addressing it as “the evolutionary process of the civilization to answer certain requirements of complicated living of the people based on material compulsions”. He writes: “The system was working well in ancient times and we do not find any complaint from any quarters against it. It is often misinterpreted as an exploitative social system for retaining economic and social status of certain vested interests of the ruling class applying the Marxist jargon which has no respect for the ancient systems and philosophy whether Indian or the other. Some institutions in course of time become redundant when they outlive their need. Indian caste system, which has evolved to answer the requirements of civilization at a later phase of development of culture, was integrated with the Varna system as enunciated in the ancient scriptures and Dharmasastras. The Varna system classifies functions and attitudes of a human being addressing entire humanity.” The blog is replete with anti-Muslim statements.

He goes on to say: “The Varna classification and caste system are not one and the same. They differ in respect of aims and functions in many ways. The caste system classifies the community while the Varna classifies the functions of an individual. Varna leads one to Moksha (the liberation of the soul) while caste system is meant for the material and human resource management of a civilized society. There is flexibility in the interchange of Varna as we have several examples in the ancient literature of individuals born in Shudra castes acquiring Brahma Jnana [the Ultimate Knowledge].”

Sudershan Rao’s opinions are based on ancient Indian religious texts and their brahminical interpretations, which were made popular over the years by the Sangh Parivar. However, professional historians have relied on a pool of historical resources before providing any extrapolative analysis, and these analyses are often much more complex and closer to reality. Historians have propounded theories, many a time unpopular, after rigorous academic research. The debates between professional historians has always been well-informed and followed the underlying principle that history writing should aim to provide a broader picture of the past and how societies evolved over centuries instead of furthering a simplistic political agenda.

It is against this backdrop that Indian social scientists view Sudershan Rao’s appointment as the introduction of a majoritarian religious agenda into historical studies and fear that such blatant misuse of a discipline may ruin not only the credibility of Indian history writing at a global level but also shape uninformed popular opinion in the long run.

Historians’ response

The noted historian Romila Thapar, in her response to the government’s move, writes in India Today: “The two issues that he [Rao] has highlighted in his statement to the press as the agenda for his chairmanship are also prominent in the Hindutva view of Indian history. One is that of proving the historicity of texts such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and establishing the dates of the texts and their central event. This is a subject on which there has been endless research for the last two centuries. Indologists and historians have covered the range of possible investigation discussing philology, linguistics, archaeology, anthropology and even astronomy to try and ascertain a definitive chronology for these texts. But to no avail, as a precise date eludes them.”

She says that the epics are now source material used by scholars and precisely because they are epics, “they need not be restricted to a dateable event, and that it was thought legitimate to insert additions into the text as time went on, as is characteristic of ancient epic literature”. She adds that what Sudershan Rao wants to press for is to encourage historical and archaeological research to support the theory that there was once a temple at the site of the Babri Masjid. This, she says, is a “largely political statement” as the report of the excavation at the site in Ayodhya is not publicly available.

“Searching for the dates of texts that by their nature do not conform to a single date may be of interest to some, but surely the historian should be more concerned with trying to understand the broader picture of the past. This would involve studying how societies were formed in various parts of the subcontinent, how they changed and evolved over centuries, and how we have arrived at where we are today. In this enterprise, it helps if history is treated as a social science and studied as such. Events and personalities from the past can mark changes in the flow of history. Historical research in India is no longer limited to trying to prove that narratives of the ancient texts were historically accurate,” she writes. In the same article, she states that epics have multiple editions written during different time periods and historians have largely accepted the argument of V.S. Sukthankar of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, who in 1957 stated that the composition of the texts had no precise date and lay in the time bracket of 400 B.C. to A.D. 400.

She further says: “Professor Rao’s second comment was regarding his objection to the introduction of Marxist tools of research by the ICHR during the chairmanship of Professors R.S. Sharma and Irfan Habib. Professor Rao should be more familiar with the ICHR since he was appointed to the Council by the first BJP government of 1999-2004. He should know that for most part of its existence, the ICHR has been under the chairmanship of non-Marxists such as Lokesh Chandra, S. Setter, MGS Narayanan, and so on. So if they had wanted to remove the so-called ‘Marxist tools of research’, there was nothing to stop them from doing so.”

Mythology and history

Similarly, another senior historian, Harbans Mukhia, falsifies the dichotomy between mythology and history as is being projected by Sudershan Rao. He argues that this dichotomy, created by the positivist school in the 18th century, has already been resolved among professional historians. “To begin with, it is a false dichotomy and no hierarchy of status is implied between them. The difference between the two does not amount to dichotomy and they do have much in common. Both history and mythology are creations of human imagination. History, however, is limited to retrieval of verifiable ‘facts’ and evidence from the past, which is construed as a reality, even as it varies from one school of history to another or even from one historian to another. Mythology has no such limitations. It is not bound by space, chronology, and evidence that is indisputable. Space and time here are entirely created in the mind, just as in a novel, even as it bears semblance of reality. The nature of folklore is similar,” he writes.

“Does it then imply that mythology does not reflect any reality? Mythology, fiction, poetry and paintings relate to a different genre of reality which could, for convenience, be grouped under culture, of which religion is also an important segment, even as the two are not synonymous. In that sense culture and mythology also acquire the characteristics of an objective reality that governs our attitudes and behaviour as social beings. Indeed, the reach of culture in any society is far more pervasive than that of historical facts. If Ram was to be treated as a real historical figure, as a ruler of a small and insignificant kingdom of Ayodhya, compared, for example, to the massive Maurya or Gupta Empire, he would have been relegated to a minor footnote in history books. A good test is to try to recall the name of another ruler of Ayodhya—very unlikely to come to one’s mind. Ram’s pervasive presence in India is because he is a cultural icon. No real ruler’s presence in the life of India’s millions, even that of Asoka, comes anywhere near it,” he adds. He asks Sudershan Rao which version of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata is he trying to authenticate in terms of historical veracity as there are multiple editions of the epics, each equally diverse and imaginative in scale.

Many historians have protested, in writing, against Sudershan Rao’s appointment in an effort to sensitise the government towards professional history writing and its relevant debates. The Modi government has ignored these protests bringing back memories of the enormous transformation history writing in India underwent during the NDA’s previous stint. Professional historians devoted a lot of time and effort to put history writing back on its rational, imaginative, and pluralistic track after that project.