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Home > History Writing at Risk > India: The Uses of the Past

India: The Uses of the Past

by Mukul Dube, 5 December 2014

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[Likely to appear in “Mainstream” weekly Completed on 5 Dec 2014]

Almost all people seek to justify their beliefs and their actions by invoking the past. They look to the past also to find ways to claim that they are better than others. They speak of past glories, whether real or imaginary, to make the barrenness of the present easier to live with. We think, foolishly, that we are better people because our ancestors did something great or were exceptional. We forget that no past greatness can wipe out the fact that today we are at the bottom of the heap.

If we accept that ancient India had technological marvels like aircraft and television, we must also ask why they disappeared and had to be re-invented by people in other lands thousands of years later. The development of any technology is marked by few dramatic or revolutionary events and by a prolonged process of plodding evolutionary improvement. The process is always documented. What is new today can be traced back to its origin. Ask anyone who has studied the history of the motor car or that of surgery.
No successful technology has ever died out. Technologies that work are constantly improved and refined. It was only in ancient India that we find the horse chariot surviving (but not evolving) and the magnificent flying machine being piloted into nothingness.

The claim that plastic surgery existed long ago because Ganesh has the head of an elephant on a human body is perhaps the most ludicrous and weak-minded. For one thing, it assumes that drugs and techniques to prevent tissue rejection were also present. But its chief claim to puerility is the way in which it mixes up the worldly with the divine.

The universe of divinities exists in a kind of static continuity. What was true at the beginning remains true now and shall remain true always. Sequences of events in which divine characters squabble and marry and beget offspring are evidence that the tales were plotted by humans. In speaking anthropomorphically of your divinities you let the cat out of the bag. If our gods have the frailties of humans, who other than we humans can have created them? It is another matter that we continue to venerate gods whose actions, as invented by us, have been stupid or morally indefensible.

The fact is that the only recorded evidence of plastic surgery in ancient India has to do with the reconstruction of women’s noses cut off by jealous husbands. We are thus left with the conclusion that the expression “ancient India” refers not to the past of humans like us but to the fooling around of divinities among themselves. It is fooling around, as no one tells us what good comes of putting an elephant’s head on a human body. As divinities are by definition eternal, they must still be fooling around. What is to prevent the Modis of the land from inventing new gods with even more fantastic anatomical anomalies?

More and more, people refer to “tradition” to object to the things that other people do. A recent example is kissing. If kissing goes against “tradition”, then so do the sculptures at Khajuraho and other places: so we must conclude that the “tradition” referred to is older than around a thousand years. It is never defined or dated, of course, and therefore exists as a convenience which can be invoked against any damn thing you dislike or do not yourself possess.

It should not surprise us that this obsession with the past is linked to religion. I mean not any particular religion but all religions, but here I shall focus on Hinduism, whose adherents form the bulk of India’s population, and its illegitimate child Hindutva, whose new political power enables its marauding goons to do what they please on the streets. I shall quote something I wrote over a decade ago.

“The Sangh Parivar seeks to justify its every action by reference to a mythic past. This past is not what really existed, so far as historians have been able to reconstruct it: it is a creation, taking on new features daily to meet new requirements. Not content to mess with the present, the Parivar moulds the past as well, applying the adjective ’Vedic’ to anything it pleases, without a glimmer of understanding of what the word represents. This ahistorical construction of the ’Vedic’, cobbled together piecemeal, is then sought to be pressed with a steam roller on all Hindus, all Indians, on the whole of India” (from the Introduction to The Path of the Parivar, Three Essays Collective, 2004).

The depiction of myth as fact, of fictions as history, has come to have the backing of the State. Under the new dispensation, people who are
labelled historians are seeking ways to establish religious clap-trap as the “glorious past” of India. This is a neat way to keep the minds of Indians away from reality. India now does what the economic rulers of the world direct it to do, and we are told to forget the plunder of our natural resources and the suppression of our rights as workers by having this “glorious past” dinned into us daily. Opium has long been used for such purposes.