If You Have No Written History, Do You Have No Past?

When I was a schoolboy in the 1960s I was taught that Indians have no “sense of history” and did not record history. I was taught that only Chinese visitors to India, the Mughals and the British actually recorded history for India. This of course was part of the general education that was designed to teach me about the worthless country I lived in and useless people that I was born amongst, and how I had to “improve myself” by knowing all the faults that India and Indians had.  The “history” I was taught was the history written by superior people who had kept written records, unlike Indians. It is now clear to me that similar ideas have been drummed into the minds of millions of young, impressionable Indians from my school days right down to this day.

I have seen Hindus getting (justifiably) angry about these attitudes. People argue that our “smritis” or “that which is remembered’, such as the puranas, and epics like the Ramayana are our history. These protestations are met with smirking rebuttals like “How could a man like Ravana have 10 heads” or “How could Shiva use an elephant’s head to create Ganesha?”. This cannot be “history”. History, they say, is a written record of events with dates and names and places. The written record and the dates are considered important. The battle of Panipat was on abc date. Napoleon was born on xyz date. So this “history” is claimed to be an accurate record of people and events from some old period. One might ask “What about the times from when people had no written records?”. That has an absurd answer – “That is “pre-history”. But reality is not that absurd.

Like everyone else I had four great-grandfathers. I don’t know all their names. I don’t know what they did, when they were born, where they were born. Nothing. I do know some stories about their lives. But there is no record of dates and places. There is no “life-history” of my great-grandfathers. Does this mean that they did not exist? It would be ridiculous to say that. If I knew details like their date of birth or had other records it would not make family narratives about them less true. The lack of a written record to document a “history” makes no difference to the fact that my four great-grandfathers did exist, and they form a part of my past. The important point here is that all of us have a “past” – a time that came before us, a time when people existed before us and those people said and did things. I have heard stories about my great-grandfathers that make their lives real to me and I do not need their birth records, school certificates or first person accounts to prove the stories. Memories of our past survive as narratives in families and communities. Puranas and epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata are orally recalled and retold narratives of our past. Other cultures, sadly now wiped out, had similar oral narratives, like the Aborigines of Australia, and some African tribes. In fact a bestseller book called “Roots”, written by black American writer Alex Haley, was a journey of discovery of his tribe in Africa from where his ancestors were kidnapped and brought to America by slave traders. The memories were retained as oral narratives passed on from parent to child even after they were taken to America as slaves, with newer facts being added to the narrative. It was this oral narrative which the writer used to rediscover his past and that of hundreds of others. No one will call such African narratives by the name “history”. But these narratives are more meaningful and relevant to their native cultures than any history that can be taught.

That illustrates the difference between Hindu epics and puranas compared with history. Our epics and puranas are a huge body of memories of our past from a prehistoric period, from before people could write. They are tales that tell of how people lived, their joys, sorrows, their troubles, their emotions and valuable lessons learned from life in a long lost prehistoric period. The narratives of our past are often mixed up with fantasy, magic and superhuman or irrational stories, but they are all about our ancestors, their beliefs and their lives. And new narratives were added as time passed. The fact that there are no dates and no documents does not make any difference to the point that they are illustrative of our past. They may not be “history” by dictionary definition, but they are our past. “Itihasa” is a great word for them and a word that we should use rather than “history”. Itihasa is much older and much more than mere “history”.

Our itihasas have a better record of our prehistoric past than any history book or any historical record. Any Indian who grows up hearing tales from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas or the Panchatantra will have a mental image of life in the past in India 5000 and more years ago. We know that in the hoary past, people had many of the same concerns that we have today such as  love, jealousy, happiness, sorrow, hunger, greed, births and deaths, quarrels, journeys and duties. Compare that with what one might read about ancient prehistoric humans in what is laughably shown to us as “history”. Search the Internet for something like “Life in the bronze age” . All you will find is dry pointless detail of the type you are forced to mug up as history in school. We have “dates” for those boring details as if those dates matter. It makes zero difference to anyone whether Bronze Age was 5000 years ago or 3000 years ago if the sort of detail we know about them is banal and inconsequential like “People made bronze tools. They had fire. They hunted animals.” We get no detail about their real lives.  With such colourless facts to deal with, historians search morbidly for “evidence” in graves wondering if ancient humans had feelings and emotions and whether they mourned their dead or not,  as if those ancient people were logs of wood.  Compare this ludicrous inanity with the magnificent detail of the Mahabharata which our “history teachers” claim was in the Bronze Age. Here our past is laid in front of our eyes in 16 million colours, along with guidelines about how to deal with the future.

There is another critical point about recalling our “past” as a narrative from memory compared with the fact that written records inevitably get destroyed by the ravages of time. The oldest written records are just a few carvings or symbols on pottery or stones. History written on paper barely lasts 200 years. Photographs and photo film do not last more than 100 years. Digital records on floppy disks have lasted less than 20 years. A similar story holds true for audio and video tapes. Digital records on compact disks exist – but those disks often degenerate in a decade or so and require special hardware and now obsolete software to retrieve the records. Digital records in the cloud can be lost in a few years unless the infrastructure to maintain them can survive the ravages of time that could include earthquakes, severe storms, war or even meteorite hits. Ultimately, as long as humans exist, the most enduring method of storage and retrieval of past events is human memory, passed on from parent to child, from person to person because humans have survived every single one of the disasters mentioned above. That is what our puranas and epics represent.

In India we have an unparalleled record of our past. Dismissing our itihasa as “It is not history” was a colonial construct that allowed others to rewrite our history through their often biased and ignorant eyes. The specious claim that Indians are “ahistorical” needs to be rejected in the knowledge that our past as recorded in our narratives or smritis is what makes us what we are rather than the cooked up history that has been forced down the throats of Indians from the pre-independence period till today.

An incurable patriot, Dr. Shivsankar Sastry is a surgeon by profession; and a historian, thinker, sociologist and military aviation enthusiast by choice

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