December 4, 2001


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Arvind Lavakare

The P & R of Indian history

History has created history. For the first time, an ephemeral evil concept has been transported to events of ancient times. Some of India's parliamentarians have accused the Vajpayee government of "Talibanising" our education, and pseudo-secularists of all hues and hubris have gleefully joined in. All because the Vajpayee government merely recommended that certain passages in the current school textbooks on the country's history should be deleted on the ground that they today offend certain communities.

Amidst all the heat and hullabaloo of the ensuing controversy, The Indian Express did a wise thing. On three successive days from November 27, it put, on its op-ed page, the portions of our history textbook that the government's Central Board of Secondary Education wanted deleted. It is perhaps part of an ongoing series the newspaper wishes to run for the general public's informed opinion.

The first three pieces did give the intelligent reader an insight into the minds of the textbook's author and of its protagonists. And though The Indian Express did not say whether the CBSE wanted the whole passages or only parts thereof guillotined, all the three texts it published arouse disturbing thoughts.

The first in that trilogy is titled "The Varna System" and comprises 388 words. The second, untitled, is of 100-odd words and the third has 196 words, entitled "Brahmanical Reaction".

Let's deal, first, with the smallest passage of 100-odd words. The newspaper printed in bold and bigger type the words therein recording that "People certainly ate beef..." in referring to people living in the "chalcolithic" age in southeastern Rajasthan, western Madhya Pradesh, western Maharashtra and "elsewhere".

Note the author's hauteur in not explaining "chalcolithic", the utter vagueness in the choice of "elsewhere" and the alacrity to point out that beef was surely eaten although 85 per cent of India's population considers eating cow's meat sacrilegious. The author's bravura style seems to have revelled in wanting to rub salt to injury by contrasting this beef bit with the statement that those people "did not take pork on any considerable scale", thereby hinting, however loosely, that Muslims did not violate their religious dictate on pig's meat -- at least on whatever is meant by "any considerable scale".

A relevant question would be whether the eating preferences or habits of our ancestors should be highlighted as history to our teenage students or left for research in related fields such as gastronomy. In conspicuous contrast was the approach of the Indian History textbook prevalent in the mid-eighties for students of the elite Indian Certificate Secondary Education. In its one paragraph on the dietary practices during the Vedic period, it said, "Meat was not forbidden, but it was served only on special occasions like religious festivals or sacrifices." Now that is a factual, sober statement, which even a shankaracharya would not object to.

Let's pass on to "The Brahmanical Reaction". Its theme is that the opposition of Ashoka and Buddhism to animal sacrifice and womanly rituals adversely affected the income of the "brahmanas" who therefore developed an antipathy towards Ashoka. Now since the ultimate disappearance of Buddhism from India had little to do with the "brahmana" class's alleged hostility, it seems pointless for the author of "Ancient India" to have gloated over that bit -- unless it was to derive vicarious pleasure in sacrificing the innocent minds of school students to the author's personal caste aversions.

Lastly, there's the author's mini-essay on the varna system. The current textbook concerned would have the student believe that the four-fold functional division of social classes into priests, warriors, peasants and labourers was codified in "laws" that "enjoyed the sanction of both the state and religion". This sweeping declaration on "state" supremacy is debatable, considering the earlier mentioned ICSE textbook's account of political life during the Rig Vedic period; it stated that "as the concept of the state had not yet come into being, people owed their allegiance to the tribal chief and not to the state. That is perhaps why in the Rig Veda janapada (territorial kingdom) has not been referred to even once."

In support of its contention that "varna laws" were sanctioned by religion, the current CBSE textbook says, "The Bhagvadgita taught them [the various classes] to lay down their lives in defence of their own dharma rather than adopt the dharma of others which would prove dangerous."

The above averment is first of all contrary to a hymn in the Rig Veda cited in the ICSE textbook of the mid-eighties. That hymn says "I am a poet, my father is a physician and my mother is a grinder of corn", thereby making the book's three distinguished authors to write, "The hymn proves the fact that there was no rigidity attached to the caste system."

With regard to the CBSE textbook picking on the Bhagvad Gita in support of its indictment of the practice of "varna laws", the obvious reference is to verse 35 of Chapter III of the sacred scripture. As explained by Swami Chinmayananda in his book The Holy Gita, that verse says, "Better one's own 'duty', though devoid of merit, than the 'duty' of another well-discharged. Better is death in one's own 'duty'; the 'duty' of another is fraught with fear [is productive of positive danger]."

As though anticipating the misinterpretation of the above verse by cussed and careless writers of history books, Chinmayananda used his immense erudition to first explain that "dharma" essentially means "the Law of being of anything in the world" and then asserts that "swadharma is not the duty which accrues to an individual because of his 'caste', which is ever a sheer accident of birth." Rather, he says, "swadharma means the type of various vasanas one discovers in one's own mind." He therefore concludes that "to act according to one's own taste, inborn and natural, is the only method of living in peace and joy." To act against it, he says, is fraught with danger.

It must be added here, even at the cost of digressing, that Swami Chinmayananda was no defender of the caste system as practised by the Hindu Brahmin of yore by invoking verse 13 of Chapter IV of the Bhagvad Gita. That verse says, "The four-fold caste has been created by Me according to the differentiation of Guna and Karma; though I am the author thereof, know Me as non-doer and immutable."

Chinmayananda admits, "This is a stanza that has been much misused in recent times by the upholders of the social crime styled as the caste system in India." He unhesitatingly blamed the "decadent Hindu Brahmin" for very conveniently quoting the first quarter of the stanza to "give a divine look of godly sanction to a tragic social vivisection" while, in reality, the basis on which the Gita made the classification was "by the differentiation of the mental quality and physical action".

The significant point here is that while a great sage didn't overlook history while discoursing on the Gita, a so-called historian chose to sidestep a sage's interpretation while blaspheming that Holy Scripture. But then that is not an uncommon quality in the leftist intellectuals and their fundamentally secularist supporters who deem it their very own "dharma" to castigate almost every move of the Hindutva proponents.

The time has truly come for all of us to examine afresh the very purpose of writing history. Is it to deride the past so as to create bitterness in the present? Is to come to callous conclusions without recourse to deep and sensitive study?

In this context, attention needs to be drawn to An Outline of American History, a continuing publication of the United States Information Agency. In its 303 pages (excluding photographs and references), there is no attempt whatsoever to hide the five most embarrassing and demeaning events of that great country's past: (i) the long saga of slavery; (ii) the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; (iii) the mindless McCarthyism; (iv) President Nixon's Watergate treachery and (v) the Vietnam disaster. But the almost clinical account of those five events aggregates 538 words... just 46 words less than what the CBSE's "Ancient India" devotes to caste bias, beef-eating and "brahmanas". And, yes, the Ku Klux Klan is mentioned in that American history, but just once!

Is then the Vajpayee government's effort to merely recommend a cleansing of our school textbooks on history even remotely akin to "Talibanisation"? Shouldn't the nation even think of removing our history's P&R -- poison and rape?

Arvind Lavakare

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