“Indians have no sense of History.” Is that right?

We often hear from Westerners that Indians have no sense of history. But is this true? Actually, this is just a colonial myth spread first by German philosopher Hegel. It has no basis. This myth was debunked by Professor Shivaji Sinh at the International Conference on Indian History, Civilisation and Geopolitics (ICIH-2009). I reproduce here excerpts from his paper that he presented at the conference.


jointly organized by
Indic Studies Foundation, California, and
ABISY, New Delhi
India International Center, New Delhi
Jan. 9-11, 2009

A ‘superb’ colonial myth: Ancient Indians lacked the sense of history

The colonial era of Indian history was an era of historical myth-making. Innumerable myths were created and propagated to falsify history with a view to change Indian psyche and denationalize Indian identity.

The Aryans constituted a race of people culturally backward and barbarous but physically vigorous and bellicose! They were the sole possessor of horses and horse-drawn chariots that provided them superior maneuverability in battles against their enemies! They invaded India, destroyed the Indus cities and drove away their occupants, the Dravidians, to South India!

Indian people had always been ruled by despotic and tyrannical rulers! The Indian society was static; it remained substantially unchanged throughout its long span of existence until the arrival of the British! The root cause of India’s backwardness was its (Hindu) religion! India as a concept never existed till the British imperialists invented it! So on and so forth; the list of colonial myths is endless.

Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan succinctly puts it: “The West tried its best to persuade India that its philosophy is absurd, its art puerile, its poetry uninspired, its religion grotesque and its ethics barbarous”.

Most of these myths have been exploded and the ones remaining are in the process of meeting the same fate, despite the efforts of the intellectuals who still uphold the colonial paradigm and try to redefine and reproduce the myths in a new jargon. However, the myth according to which ancient Indians had no sense of history may be said, in a sense, to be a ‘superb’ myth of a sort for it continues and it continues as a commonplace view!

The origin of the myth is traced back to German philosopher G.W.F Hegel (1770-1831) and his Euro-centrism. Hegel is on record to have stated: “India not only has old books of religion and brilliant works of poetry but also old codes of law … and yet it has no history”. He indeed suffered from Euro-centrism, a bias shared by many scholars of the colonial era.

Rajeev Malhotra has exhaustively quoted from his writings to demonstrate Hegel’s Euro-centrism. I would like to add that Hegel was still more parochial in his outlook for he takes the Mediterranean region, not Europe as a whole, to be the pivot of historical transformations. In fact, it was partly his peculiar metaphysic and his obsession with thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic and largely his ignorance of ancient Indian literature that came in his way of recognizing the age-old Indian historical tradition. Be that as it may, his metaphysic and his dialectic are long since discredited.

Years ago, Bertrand Russell had rightly observed:

“I cannot see any justification, on the basis of his [Hegel’s] own metaphysic, for the view that world history repeats the transitions of the dialectic, yet that is the thesis which he developed in his Philosophy of History. It was an interesting thesis, giving unity and meaning to the revolutions of human affairs. Like other historical theories, it required, if it was to be made plausible, some distortions of facts and considerable ignorance. Hegel, like Marx, and Spengler after him, possessed both these qualifications. It is odd that a process which is represented as cosmic should all have taken place on our planet, and most of it near the Mediterranean. Nor is there any reason, if reality is timeless, why the latter part of the process should embody higher categories than their earlier parts — unless one were to adopt the blasphemous supposition that the Universe was gradually learning Hegel’s philosophy.”

Myths have their own life-time, their own duration of existence. And, when, as in the present case, a myth is created by an eminent philosopher like Hegel, whose influence by the end of the nineteenth century had made most of the intellectuals of America and England largely Hegelian, it has got to last long.

But, the real reason for its longevity lies in British colonial interests in India that wanted to show that the Indians were backward, living in prehistory and so in dire need of foreign help to modernize and begin history. The rest of the story as to how the Colonial Power launched on a major project of creating ‘a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, words and intellect’ is too well-known to be repeated here.

Writing years after Independence, A. K. Warder notes:

“The standard imperialist version of Indian history, worked out during the colonial period, is now, most remarkably, taken for granted among modern Indian historians of almost all persuasions, not least among them the ‘Marxists’ (who in this respect remain Hegelians; S. A. Dange is an honourable exception), as well as among academic historians in all other countries, again regardless of political persuasions.”

In fact, as it is said, one can recognize a cat only if he/she has a picture of a cat in mind, a mental model or an idea of the cat, so to say. The history taught in the colonial era infused in the minds of Indians the modern idea of history which is European in origin. This idea of history had sprouted in Graeco-Roman tradition and developed under the shadow of the 18th century European Enlightenment.

It is very much different from the ancient Indian indigenous sense of history, known as Itihasa, that had originated and developed in ancient Indian philosophic-cultural context. History, as we know, ‘develops in close juxtaposition and with constant interactions of associated scheme of ideas’. Since, the formations of the ancient Indian sense of history and the modern European idea of history had occurred in different cultural-intellectual environments, it was natural that they differed in their tone and tenor and more particularly in their ethos.

As people all over the world, including India, have at present the modern idea of history in their minds, they fail to recognize ancient Indian historical tradition or recognize it only to the extent to which it anticipates the modern view.

Indian historical discourse is in a state of chaotic confusion and disarray today. Several paradigms of Indian history are endlessly contending with each other for their justification and supremacy. As a result, we have several versions of Indian history current simultaneously. An impartial person willing to know something about India’s past is in a fix, unable to decide as to which one is a trustworthy version. In such a situation, the very utility of history for society is becoming doubtful.

Myths and Indian History

The Aryans were a “non-urbanized people and semi-barbarous” who destroyed the non-Aryan Harappan Civilization and “the Rigveda is the epic of destruction of one of the great cultures of the ancient world”. This is the view adopted and expressed in the prestigious UNESCO publication entitled History of Mankind, Vol. 1.

One may not wonder on the assertion of the Aryan Invasion Theory in this volume for it was published at a time when that theory was accepted as a Gospel truth. But it is certainly surprising to hear that the early Vedic people were ‘semi-barbarous’ people. Can anybody degrade a people as semi-barbarous who have the honour of bequeathing to posterity a literary composition like the Rigveda considered to be one of the earliest, if not the earliest, human achievement of its kind, and which contains high philosophical thoughts of several enlightened souls like Rishi Dirghatamas?

The reason for this anomaly lies in application of a totally alien-to-Indian-psyche definition of ‘civilization’ in Indian history. This definition, still prevalent among historians and archaeologists, does not entitle non-urban peoples like the Vedic Aryas (who were erroneously supposed to be merely a village folk) to be called civilized. The definition is based on a materialist conception of history. It was initially suggested by Lewis H. Morgan in 1877 in his book: Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization.

Frederick Engels adopted this definition in his famous essay: ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’, written in German which appeared in Zurich in 1884, wherefrom it was applied in the fields of archaeology and history by V. G. Childe. The definition is defective in several respects, but we need not elaborate the points here. Suffice it to say that a definition given from a particular view-point cannot hold good for others who do not accept that point of view.

Many more examples can be cited in which outlandish concepts, totally unfit for Indian historical circumstances, have been unduly inserted in Indian historical discourse. But, instead of listing them I would like to draw your attention to another type of unwarranted imposition on Indian history pertaining not to concepts used in it but to its very structure.

The structure of any historical narrative depends mainly on its periodization and a proper periodization must indicate the major turns and twists in the spirit of the people concerned, that is, the people whose history we are considering. But, as we know, the periodization of Indian history was done by James Mill on the basis of three major influxes of foreigners in India, be they invaders or traders/colonizers.

He divided Indian history into three periods: the Hindu, the Muslim and the British beginning respectively with the (presumed) Aryan and successive Muslim and British arrivals. But Mill was a knowledgeable person, and he was aware that he was violating the basic principle of periodization by keeping in view the outsiders not the insiders. So he propagated the myth of Indian passivity. He asserted that the Indian past had been that of an unchanging, static society. Mill’s periodization still continues with cosmetic change as the ancient, the medieval and the modern. The structure of Indian history he conceived remains intact.

But, consider, for instance, the situation of India in the 17th century. We find an unmistakable upsurgence in the rise of Ramdas and Shivaji in Maharashtra, the Gurus in the Panjab and the Rajputs in Rajasthan. The upsurgence continues through time and, despite political and economic domination by Britain, finds expression in the Great Uprising of 1857 and in thoughts and actions of Dayanand Sarasvati, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Vivekanand, Tilak, Shri Arvind, and several other saints and savants.

K. M. Munshi designates this period in Indian history as the ‘Age of Modern Renaissance’. There have been periods of great expansion and efflorescence in Indian history as well as times of distress when Indians have displayed commendable resistance. The monotonous periodization: ancient, medieval and modern fails to project the paradigmatic trajectory of Indian spirit.

Finally a word about the ‘Idea of India’ that too has been distorted because of westernized thinking. The Idea of India and the understanding of Indian history are interconnected. If you want to know about India, you need to go through books on its history albeit a bit cautiously. But, if you want to write the history of India, you must be conversant with the personality of India before hand. Several scholars do not appear to be sensitive to this interconnection and take the issue of the ‘Idea of India’ lightly.

Thus, in his H. D. Sankalia Memorial Lecture entitled ‘The idea of India and its heritage: The millennium challenges’ (delivered in 2000), D. P. Agrawal remarks: “Nations are essentially spatio-temporal concepts, which change with time and geography. So let us not get bogged down into such mires but address the more substantive and challenging issues”.

Agrawal is a senior scholar and an old friend of mine whose scholarship I highly admire despite differences of opinion on historical issues. However, I fail to see why Agrawal taking the ‘Idea of India’ as a millennium challenge finally whisks it away as a less-substantive or less-challenging issue. India is not just a spatio-temporal entity that has been changing with time and geography. India has a personality of its own, and the millennium challenge is to define that personality.

In his lecture, Agrawal quotes the famous words from Nehru’s Discovery of India that depict India as “an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously”. It is true that Nehru emphasized the miscegenation and accretion of cultures in India; and that was true for most of the early epochs of Indian culture.

Living at a time when the Aryan Invasion Theory was accepted as an article of faith, Nehru could not think of an original indigenous culture of India. He could not see that the ancient palimpsest he was talking about had, in fact, an original inscription engraved on it so deeply that layer upon layer of subsequent engravings could neither hide nor erase it.

Nevertheless, despite all British impact on his education and personality, Nehru had occasional glimpse of ‘Indianness’. In his Foreword to Filiozat’s India (1962), he writes: “There is an Indianness which distinguishes every part of India … That Indianness is something unique and deeper than the external differences.” Nehru felt this Indianness emotionally and intuitively but he could not locate its primary source (utsa).

In fact, Bharatiyata or Indianness cannot be defined in geographical and political terms. It can be defined only culturally as a set of values based on intuitive recognition of transcendental spirituality. Spirituality, it may be noted, is a category of perception higher than religion or even morality. Bharatiyata or Indianness is distinguished by a spiritual vision of life, which the Vedic rishis have bequeathed to humanity.

We have to rewrite the history of India afresh. In fact, we have to restore the status and prestige of Indian history that it genuinely deserves. We have to correct the image of the Vedic šryas that has been badly maligned. We have to expose colonial and post-colonial historians’ ulterior motives. And, above all, we have to free Indian historical discourse from all such notions, assumptions, orientations, models and theories that are extraneous to Indian experiences of the past.

If you want to read the entire paper of Prof. Shivaji Sinh, I have posted it here:


1 Comment

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One response to ““Indians have no sense of History.” Is that right?

  1. Incognito

    >>>”In fact, Bharatiyata or Indianness cannot be defined in geographical and political terms. It can be defined only culturally as a set of values based on intuitive recognition of transcendental spirituality. Spirituality, it may be noted, is a category of perception higher than religion or even morality. Bharatiyata or Indianness is distinguished by a spiritual vision of life, which the Vedic rishis have bequeathed to humanity.

    Absolutely wonderful.

    Each sentance of above paragraph is gem.

    The ancient sages identified with Brahma, all pervading, beginingless, endless.
    With that consciousness, past, present, future becomes non-existant.
    That is why historical narratives are not seen in ancient indian texts other than those used as stories to guide the spiritual vision of life.

    The western world view considers world to have a begining and an end. In such a purely materialistic world view alone is history, events and personalities of relevance.

    In a spiritual world view such as the one that ancient indians had, it is only the guidance towards a spiritual vision of life that is important.
    That is why the Vedas, Upanishads and even Puranas do not convey meaningful historical narratives. They are not meant to such.
    That is also why the names of the Rishis who created the Vedas are not known.
    They were the ones who transcended personal identities and realised themselves to be Brahma and declared- ‘Aham Brahmasmi’.

    This is the spiritual vision of life the Vedic rishis bequeathed to humanity.

    Wonderful! Amazing.

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