To the Beguiled History of Myths

In the introductory lectures of my undergraduate History majors program, my Professor, who herself has done sincere research on ancient Indian religion exclaimed with frim conviction and her peculiar yet sensitive authority, “Ancient Indian History is an exceedingly disputed discipline and therefore I would like if my students come with an open and inquisitive mind rather than prejudices based on popular understanding.” The constant references she made to the survival threats faced by a very reputed Marxist Historian - DN Jha, owing to one of his academic publications The Myth of the Holy Cow, made young students feel as if studying history was an act of rebellion. Indeed, it was. 

The Myth of the Holy Cow deeply analyses the erstwhile tribal nature of Hinduism (my professor would have rectified me right here and replaced the word ‘Hinduism’ with ‘Brahmanical traditions’) and advanced that the sacred features associated with the cow came much later as a means of ensuring relevance by Brahmanical traditions and that the cow along with other cattle was a dominant part of the Ancient Hindu diet. I wonder if the mere idea of this sound claim based on material and largely literary sources has any place in the new, ultra-glorified version of Indian History. 

In a linear concept of time that dominates the material world, the cliché that roots of the present lie in the past appears to be fairly true. Efforts of the lay folk to understand the past result in the consolidation of myths that do not have the backing of historical evidence but are certainly sanctioned by popular sentiment. It would be sheer naivety to ridicule the simple existence of myths that Marxist historians are liable for. It seems that they try to explain beliefs and values with their sophisticated academic understanding, primarily based on economical dynamics, and in this process they tend to refute inclinations of the same masses they aim to represent. This has been one of the major drawbacks of this school of thought, whose dominance in historical literature cannot be overlooked. Nevertheless, myths are what they are: claims that can be employed to study history but can never be considered History itself. Since myths have the power of popularity, political adventures to use myths in order to pass the test of public judgment is not a recent phenomenon. Colonial settlers in Asian and African countries had left no latitude to exercise the supremacy of Western ideas and thoughts over indigenous culture. Descendants of Chengiz Khan and Taimur had to localize their ideas to muster the support of people from an absolutely different land. References from Ramayana and Mahabharata, the epics which denote the epitome of mythical creation have been invoked by several contemporary political leaders in their speeches. The use of myths in political endeavors is inevitable but to consider myths to be an integral part of history or rather history itself to create the dichotomy of ‘us’ vs ‘them’ is the beginning of something very dangerous. 

Recently, the University Grants Commission has introduced several changes in the syllabus of History at the undergraduate level. The new syllabus emphasizes the glorious Vedic and post-Vedic past and at the same time neglects aspects of Mughal History by reducing the number of papers of this period. Furthermore, changes in historiography by focusing upon Nationalist Historians like K. P Jaiswal, R. C Majumdar, and the infamous R.S Altekar are very evident. Changes such as this correspond with the right-wing agenda of the ruling party to demonize a community and reduce them as second-class citizens (trends visible in the introduction of CAA-NRC as well) while glorifying every aspect of the majority’s history. History not only validates regimes but a monopoly established over it implies authority and empowerment over the present. The process of dynamism and adaptiveness that characterizes history makes it impossible to look at it in the light of warring communities. 

History was once a study of political lineages and dynasties. Then, with the coming of the 70s and the rise of progressive movements, the call for a more economic and egalitarian history gained prevalence. Successive periods recorded an emphasis on socio-cultural histories. And now, when it was time for history to belong to the sects that never enjoyed the privilege of dominance and whose history was merely a result of the privileged and appropriated attempts by entitled sections, a regressive turn has been taken. Instead of studying about Dalit-Adivasi History and Women’s struggles in a male-dominated world, aspiring historians are ordered to study the hegemony itself, about the ‘great idea of Bharat’. The societal ramifications of this rewritten history should generate waves of concern in every sensitive soul.

For me, studying history was always an act of rebellion. To study the origins of oppression is necessary to critique oppression. The changes in the syllabus reflect transformation to a way of life that is based upon animosity and acceptance of hegemony. In such an arrangement, simple liberties are threatened, let alone rebellion. But, from the perspective of a young academic enthusiast, isn’t it viable on my part to question why I am not able to exercise my basic right to study pure History based on evidence? The state, like the Brahmanical traditions which it aims to glorify in the new syllabus, doesn’t like to be questioned. Once, a Gargi (whose example nationalist historians use to romanticize the position of women in Vedic society) was guillotined for putting tough questions to a male-dominated assembly of Brahmins. I wholeheartedly hope that History doesn’t repeat itself. After all, a rewritten history is better than a repeating history of this kind!