We wrote on Meerabai exactly 2 summers ago, extolling the epic economy of words in her bright Bhakti songs (Simpliflying with Meera). We had taken leave not with answers, but with the following questions:
On the basis of records and relics, Lord Buddha or Emperor Ashoka are clearly Historical figures? The same cannot be said about Rama or Krishna? On the basis of written records and gospels, notwithstanding the absence of physical evidence (chodo Turin-wurin) , the Christ appears to be a Historical figure, though many myths naturally surround him, they even surround YF. So also for Prophet Muhammad. Can the same be said for Meerabai or Tulsidas or Surdas? To couch our curiosity in a different manner, could there be a process by which history is authentically propagated on basis of oral or social tradition alone? DD Kosambi tried his hand at drawing inferences about the history of say…culinary practices, from the way ladies use a pestle and grinder in parts of Maharashtra. But that’s like extracting oil from sand, as cowbeltwallahs say (ret me se tel nikalna) . Miniscule output to input ratio. That’s how the efficiency of an engine is defined. There are ways to do that, we are happy to report. But more of it later.
No one wrote like Meera, and as the finger-prints are so distinct, there has to be a distinct entity Meerabai. No ghost can be possessed of those talents. But the larger question remains….Is there a process by which history is authentically recounted on basis of oral or social tradition alone? In the absence of archaeological or documentary evidence?
The ‘literate’ Hindu classes, who write the Nation’s spiritual and social software- mince the 1-2% brahmanical or quasi-brahmanical gentlemen, have no use for objectivity. Consciously or unconsciously, they do not separate History from their own persona. They look upon History as something laaive, wherein they reside, their bounden role being righting past ‘wrongs’. They eat, drink, walk, talk, ooze, History, and urinate fire…
William Dalrymple in his Last Mughal writes with breathless excitement about the treasure houses that our state-controlled Archives are, especially Delhi’s National Archives. Simultaneously he muses how and wherefore this objective evidence was never taken on board by the Hindustanis. Because it’s anathema to their cause naturally….How Dalrymple interprets the archival material is a lesson to be learnt, if we have to tread this soil with sanity, and not let the clear stream of reason lose it's way into the dreary desert sand of prejudice (ha, ha, ha..)
For instance -ki bolchi?...Mrinal Pandey’s role is not even marginal in the whole sequence of events, and according to Dalrymple, Pandey first reared his head in Savarkar’s book “The Indian War of Independence- 1857”. In the absence of a God, Voltaire would rather invent Him, and following the same process, Savarkar manufactured a Brahmin…Pandey…
Dalrymple concludes after going through mountains of physical records, that the uprising was basically precipitated by the aggressive stance of the evangelical Christian Missionaries, who launched a crass campaign deprecating Hindustani culture, forced the British rulers to crack down on the existing Mughal masters, seeking to break their spirit, hoping to engender a wave of conversions….
So then: why do we as a society refuse to- or manage not to- outgrow History? History sort of hot-foots us, stalks us, haunts us, out-paces us, and leaves us mentally deranged. What else can one say of a society where a High Court judge ordains handing over a parcel of land to his own community, because he believes that the public believes that the Almighty was born there…no kidding! Read Justice Sudhir Agarwal’s judgement on the Babri Cases, delivered on 30th September 2010 (must read EPW article by Professors Supriya Verma and Jaya Menon).
For one, we have this megalomania about our civilisation. George Bush (Jr.) thought India’s PM was Indira Gandhi, when in fact she had departed for the nether regions decades back. (He could name the Taiwan President) We were appalled not with the dumbness of a would-be President, but with the fact that India was not on the top of the mind of the world’s strongest human being (after Rajinikanth, that is). The megalomania is facilitated by the absence of physical moorings on the ground. Archaeological evidence for existence of a person is anyway not there in case of Hindu traditions because we do not inter our dead or bury relics like Buddha’s tooth. Muslim chronology is supported by tombs, Buddhist buttressed by holy relics and inscriptions in stone, but a non-existent Hindu King can merrily reside in the bosom of romantics, interpolated for aeons. The lack of history’s milestones enhances the possibility of our Hero’s survival, and he can safely be placed in any era!
DD Kosambi grappled with the issues. He stumbled into ancient history or Indology “fell as it were, through the roof”. This is what he writes in his celebrated work Adventures into the Unknown:
To teach myself statistics, I decided to take up some practical problems from the very beginning…” Examples from the field of education failed, him and so he crossed over to a statistical study of punch-marked coins. Attempting to unravel the chronology of coins, he was constrained to learn Sanskrit. Then, as part of his continuing research on statistics, he embarked upon a study of Bhratrihari’s epigrams (subhashitas) and ran aground, as there were bewildering contradictions in his philosophies as professed in different texts. He goes on to say:
“My countrymen eked out doubtful sources with an exuberant imagination and what L. Renou has called ‘logique imperturbable’. One reads of the revival of Nationalism and Hinduism under Chandragupta II, of whom nothing is known with certainty. Indian nationalism is a phenomenon of the bourgeois age, not to be imagined before the development of provincial languages..”
However, being a Marxian, his task was simpler than that of a literary sleuth like CVB (sort of Macroeconomics vs. Micro). We quote him again:
One of two positions had to be taken. Either India has no history at all, or some better definition of history was needed. The latter I derived from the study of Karl Marx, who himself expressed the former view. History is the development in chronological order of successive changes in the means and relations of production…Indian history has to be written without the episodes that fill the history books of other countries. But what were the relevant sources? Granted that the plough is more important than a dynasty, when and where was the tool first introduced? What class took the surplus produced thereby? Archaeology provided some data, but I could get a great deal more from the peasants. Field work in philology and social anthropology had to be combined with archaeology in the field as distinguished from the site archaeology of a ‘dig’…Tracing a local god through village tradition gives a priceless clue to ancient migrations, primitive tracks, early trade routes and the merger of cattle breeding tribesmen with food gatherers which led to firm agricultural settlement….Field investigation continues to give new and useful results…
Well, DDK could escape with those lachchedar words, but when it comes to pronouncing on a dazzling comet which streaked across our literary and spiritual skies, one can’t just hide behind Karl Marx’s back and say booo..(he, he, he, sorry..)
Yes, there is a sort of literary planchette which can tell a lot about people or events from words and words, it is called Vyas Parampara, and we shall write about it by this weekend in the next post, for the 1000 word limit set by Missus has been breached by us!
* George Bush: it really happened in 1999 when he was Governor of Texas and was being ragged by journalists, who asked him to name the heads of state of Taiwan, Pakistan, India and Chechnya
* About Meera bhajans: Celebrated singers who have lent voice to Meera bhajans are MS Subbulakshmi, Lata Mangeshkar and Vani Jayaram, and music directors who have set them to music, Pt. Hridaynath Mangeshkar (Lata Mangeshkar) and Pt. Ravi Shankar (Vani Jayaram). Lamenting on his life's major regrets Pt. Ravi Shankar counts his act of touching Meera's bhajans as one of them- no one can recreate the Balasaheb-Lata magic, he said. Deadly axis, I sayyyy...
* Supriya Verma and Jaya Menon, of JNU's Archaeology deptt. were independent academicians observing the digging operations. They filed affidavits with evidence stating that the ASI created fake pillar bases etc. etc., to create evidence of the alleged temple, which affidavits the Hon Court refused to take on record on technical grounds. Some relics were also suspected to be planted at the site by so-called Rambhaktas.