Rewriting Indian history
Written History has been almost always only a record of external events. Recording various external events and interpreting them through the use of select political and economic criteria has been the predominant approach of the ancient as well as the modern historian towards understanding history. However, such an approach neglects to recognize psychology as an important driving force of human action and would therefore seem to be limited and, worse still, error-prone. Sri Aurobindo writes:
It is not surprising therefore that in history and sociology attention should have been concentrated on the external data, laws, institutions, rites, customs, economic factors and developments, while the deeper psychological elements so important in the activities of a mental, emotional, ideative being like man have been very much neglected. This kind of science would explain history and social development as much as possible by economic necessity or motive,—by economy understood in its widest sense. There are even historians who deny or put aside as of a very subsidiary importance the working of the idea and the influence of the thinker in the development of human institutions. The French Revolution, it is thought, would have happened just as it did and when it did, by economic necessity, even if Rousseau and Voltaire had never written and the eighteenth-century philosophic movement in the world of thought had never worked out its bold and radical speculations.
The objective view of society has reigned throughout the historical period of humanity in the West; it has been sufficiently strong though not absolutely engrossing in the East. Rulers, people and thinkers alike have understood by their national existence a political status, the extent of their borders, their economic well-being and expansion, their laws, institutions and the working of these things. For this reason political and economic motives have everywhere predominated on the surface and history has been a record of their operations and influence. The one subjective and psychological force consciously admitted and with difficulty deniable has been that of the individual. This predominance is so great that most modern historians and some political thinkers have concluded that objective necessities are by law of Nature the only really determining forces, all else is result or superficial accidents of these forces. Scientific history has been conceived as if it must be a record and appreciation of the environmental motives of political action, of the play of economic forces and developments and the course of institutional evolution.
Soon after India attained independence in 1947, Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru convened a meeting of eminent historians with the objective of rewriting Indian history. Because the history that was prevalent then in India had been written by the colonial rulers and other Westerners, it was decided that Indian historians would need to rewrite the country’s history from the Indian point of view. It was a laudable step. Although it was also hoped that the subjective elements of History would be brought to bear on the study and rewriting of Indian history, that did not happen. It was revealed subsequently both in the news media and in academic circles that political interference and ideological positioning had stymied the incorporation of subjectivity in the rewriting of Indian History. The books that were eventually written evoked criticism from a wide range of academics and historians who complained that due importance was not given to ancient India and that the contribution of the Hindus to the national culture and development was greatly diluted if not overlooked. What was the reason for the deficiencies besides the political? It is believed that the historians who were tasked with rewriting Indian History were influenced by Western thinkers into believing that Reason is the highest instrument of knowledge in opposition to the Indian idea that subordinates reason to Spirituality and declares the existence of a force that is superior to Reason. Here we come to a fundamental difference between the Indian approach and the Western approach toward understanding life, culture, and history. Sri Aurobindo explains this in the following words:
“Philosophy and religion are the soul of Indian culture, inseparable from each other and interpenetrative. The whole objective of Indian philosophy, its entire raison d’etre, is the knowledge of the spirit, the experience of it and the right way to a spiritual existence; its single aim coincides with the highest significance of religion. Indian religion draws all its characteristic value from the spiritual philosophy which illumines its supreme aspiration and colours even most of what is drawn from an inferior range of religious experience. The Western mind draws its guiding views not from the philosophic, but from the positive and practical reason. He does not absolutely disdain philosophy, but he considers it, if not a “man-made illusion”, yet a rather nebulous, remote and ineffective kind of occupation. He honours the philosophers, but he puts their works on the highest shelf of the library of civilisation, not to be taken down or consulted except by a few minds of an exceptional turn. He admires, but he distrusts them. Plato’s idea of philosophers as the right rulers and best directors of society seems to him the most fantastic and unpractical of notions; the philosopher, precisely because he moves among ideas, must be without any hold on real life. The Indian mind holds on the contrary that the Rishi, the thinker, the seer of spiritual truth is the best guide not only of the religious and moral, but the practical life. The seer, the Rishi is the natural director of society; to the Rishis he attributes the ideals and guiding intuitions of his civilisation. Even today he is very ready to give the name to anyone who can give a spiritual truth which helps his life or a formative idea and inspiration which influences religion, ethics, society, even politics. This is because the Indian believes that the ultimate truths are truths of the spirit and that truths of the spirit are the most fundamental and most effective truths of our existence, powerfully creative of the inner, salutarily reformative of the outer life.
With these points in mind, one can venture to take up the task of rewriting Indian history.