History teaches us many things, positive as well as negative. But do we take care to learn our lessons well. It does not provide solutions to the pressing problems instead it helps us to ignore them.
"THOSE WHO do not learn from history...” The common cliché warns of dire consequences of ignoring history. But what can history teach us?
Think of India’s problems. Poverty is one big issue. Illiteracy, lack of health care facilities and sanitation are some others. Degradation of the environment and the pressure of a high population on the land is too a looming problem. History does not suggest solution to these problems, only possible consequences of ignoring them.
India has a ‘communal’ problem mostly; a seemingly unending set of disputes between groups of Hindus and Muslims and this has its roots in history. May be history can help us with this problem. Or may be history is the problem.
History was cited by all sides to the dispute in the recent Ayodhya Ram Janmabhoomi versus Babri Masjid case. I don’t intend to go into what history says, except to say that I believe there is strong circumstantial evidence suggesting that the Babri Masjid was erected in 1526 [8?] AD [by one of Babar’s generals] on the site of a demolished Hindu temple, and there is direct evidence that site remained sacred to Hindus in subsequent centuries. But there is something far more curious and interesting in history. Strongest case for the theory of temple demolition is made from Muslim sources.
Indeed, much of what we know about temple demolitions comes from court historians of Muslim rulers who did these things. These are typically panegyrics praising the ruler for doing away with idolatry. (There is a school of historians that finds primarily economic and political reasons for temple desecration, but that a topic for another debate. ) For instance, take a look at the Vishwa Hindu Parishad web page. The Hindu sources only go towards proving that a temple existed. Evidence for a demolition comes from Muslim and European sources.
Then there is the case of Somnath. There is no dispute that Mahmud of Ghazni destroyed the temple (Shiva) in Prabhasa Patan, Saurashtra in January 1026 AD. Mahmud retired from India, and area remained under Hindu rulers, who later rebuilt the temple. Some two hundred years after Somnath demolition, the ruler of Gujarat, Arjunadeva, made remarkable Veraval grant of 1264 AD. With the blessings of Pashupatacharya of Somnath, the king made a grant of land and revenue from the Somnath temple to a ship-owner, Noradina Piroja, to build a mosque. (There is a school of historians that finds primarily economic and political reasons for this grant -- doesn’t that sentence sound familiar?). Whatever the reason for the grant, the religious temper at that time could not have been like that of today’s India.
As I’ve noted in my previous article, Hindus were never a history-minded people. Unlike Islam and Christianity, the Hindu religion does not rely on historicity of a Founder. The central fact in Islam and Christianity is the Revelation received uniquely via Prophet Muhammad or from Jesus Christ. For Hindus, the Revelation, or reaffirmation of the Revelation, happens constantly. So perhaps, history has been peripheral to Hindu concerns.
Perhaps records of temple desecrations were not kept out of shame, or out of indifference? Or maybe they have been lost. A modern interpretation is that our Hindu ancestors failed to learn from history, were foolishly noble and generous, welcoming even those who would destroy them. Reform and revival of Hinduism requires that modern Hindu take cognizance of Hinduism’s long history as a victim of invasions, temple desecrations, forced conversions, and so on.
Just as some Hindu reformers would do away with idol worship (murti-puja), others would introduce history as an essential part of Hindu ideas. Hindus should learn to take an eye for an eye, history demands it. A much delayed eye, the Babri Masjid, but probably better late than never. Should Hindus adopt a program based on a reading of the history of the last millennium? Perhaps history has something to say about that.
watched (and intervened) in fascinated horror as during the 1990’s, Yugoslavia self-destructed. The Serbs were a people with a reputation for high courage and daring. Situated on periphery of European and Ottoman empires, and repeatedly swallowed by one or the other, they had to fight for their existence. Along the way, Serbs have collected several hundred years of grievances and grudges, and they cling on to these with same intensity that they face battle. The paranoia engendered by their national myth made them prone to worst excesses of nationalism.
The bloody war in Sri Lanka is in part because of a national myth of Aryan Buddhist Sinhalese having a perpetual struggle with Dravidian Tamils. (Never mind that ancient Tamil kings were called ‘Aryan’ by ancient Singhalese)
So, clinging to history can be fatal, history certainly teaches us that. I think that our Hindu forefathers were really smart, and knew that one has to deal with real people, here and now, and not with the ghosts of history. I see this as the real lesson of history.