When Propaganda Passes for History

Why is the Culture Ministry sponsoring exhibitions that no serious historian will do anything other than guffaw over?

Minister of State for Culture, Mahesh Sharma visiting the Unique Exhibition on “Cultural Continuity from Rigveda to Robotics”, in New Delhi on September 17, 2015. Credit: hinduexistence.org

SILLY-CON VALLEY: Minister of State for Culture, Mahesh Sharma visiting the ‘Unique Exhibition on “Cultural Continuity from Rigveda to Robotics’”, in New Delhi on September 17, 2015. The panel he is looking at is titled, ‘Solar eclipse fourteen years before war in 3153 BC when Pandavas left for 13 years of exile after losing everything in the game of dice’. Credit: hinduexistence.org

When does good archaeology become pure propaganda? And what does it tell us about what is passing for history and culture these days? Seeing the exhibition which described itself as a ‘Unique Exhibition on Cultural Continuity from Rigveda to Robotics’ certainly made me ask these questions and think about the motivations in putting together this display.

The exhibition, organised between September 1723 at the Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi , was the brainchild of the Institute of Scientific Research on Vedas whose director, Saroj Bala, is a retired member of the Central Board of Direct Taxation. With support from the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Ministry of Culture, its message was that ‘Vedic Culture provided the foundation on which the superstructure of Indian civilisation is being laid till date’.

The message was writ large in the various panels that presented a great deal of ancient India within the Vedic framework. It is Vedic people, for instance, who set up advanced centers of learning like Takshashila, Ujjain and Nalanda. If weaponry was found in sites stretching from Haryana to Uttar Pradesh, these are seen as part of the Ramayana references to weaponry. And yes, dates on the basis of astronomical observations in Vedic texts and the epics were shown in the exhibition as a sure fire way to predict, among other things, the exact birthdate of Ram – which is said to be January 10, 5114 BCE. In fact, from Balochistan to the Ganga plains, archaeological sites from 7000 BCE to 2000 BCE were presented as supporting a cultural continuum which represents ‘Vedic culture’.

Obsession with dating

Preparing water-tight calendars of the past on the basis of astronomical years has a long history that goes back to Biblical scholars such as Archbishop James Ussher in the 17th century. It was he, for instance, who provided a date of the biblical flood as being in the year 2348 BCE. On the basis of biblically based estimates, he provided an even more precise one for the creation of the world. This happened around 6 PM on a Saturday which was October 22 in the year 4004 BCE.

The Ussher chronology, incidentally, was consigned to the dustbin of history around the middle of the 19th century because it did not fit in with the archaeological indications of human existence much before that time. While biblical chronology still has some diehard adherents, it would be an embarrassment for any archaeologist worth her salt to be engaging seriously with it. To put it another way, it is part of the prehistory of modern archaeology. The creation of modern archaeology, in fact, is based on the assumption that artefacts and monuments have a history that goes beyond textual sources, and very frequently, they do not illustrate the lives and deeds of people and events mentioned in religious literature like the Bible. Evidently, the organizers of the Vedic exhibition do not have any such reservations. Their motivation is very much in a mould that the 17th century Ussher would have completely approved of. It is another matter that no scholars in their right minds will go anywhere near their travesty of Indian civilisation.

More seriously, the organisers have not considered the implications of astronomical calculations on the basis of which precise dates for epic heroes and events have been offered by them. Dates do not exist in isolation. They have to be seen in relation to each other, offering a connected and continuous chronology. So for instance, what does all this mean for the date of the Buddha or that of the Maurya dynasty? The implications of the textual chronology would result, for instance, in placing Ashoka hundreds of years before the 3rd century BCE. This doesn’t make any sense in the light of the contemporary rulers in Asia and beyond that are mentioned in Ashoka’s inscriptions. That is why a scholar as recently as 2014 wrote that ‘It would be irrational to ascribe specific chronologies to the various dynasties that one encounters as early as the Rigveda and the later Vedic literature and as late as the epics and the Puranas’. Significantly, this is not the opinion of a left-wing historian but the widely respected archaeologist Dilip Chakrabarti – who wrote this in a series that is supported by the Vivekananda International Foundation.

Immaculate conception

The other motivation that stands out is a determination to squeeze archaeological cultures of diverse lineage and region into an all encompassing womb, that of the ‘Vedic civilisation’. Interestingly, this only includes societies whose subsistence pattern is strongly agricultural. That there are early agricultural societies in north and northwest India and Pakistan is well accepted but, unlike what the ‘unique exhibition’ states, we are looking at different cultures here. Mehrgarh in Balochistan with an 8th millennium BCE antiquity of wheat and barley cultivation is qualitatively different from what can be seen at Lahuradeva in the Gangetic plains in the 7th millennium BCE. Within the Gangetic plains itself, there were distinctive yet interacting lifeways. Around the time when Lahuradeva flourished, there were scores of hunter gatherer societies around meander lakes and streams in the central Ganga plains. Such hunter gatherers, though, don’t figure in this Vedic story at all.

Why was the ancient Indian fondness for cattle consumption missing in the mounted exhibits? The image of our ancestors wolfing down vast quantities of meat is obviously not congenial to those who feel that the past must serve the prejudices of the present.

There are, at least, two other major problems with this story. First, the subsistence pattern of such agricultural societies is selectively presented. Cattle bones, for instance, are the most common animal remains at places like Mehrgarh and in Harappan times. Why was this fondness for cattle consumption missing in the mounted exhibits? The image of our ancestors wolfing down vast quantities of meat is obviously not congenial to those who feel that the past must serve the prejudices of the present. The second problem is that in their enthusiasm to rewrite history, the organisers seem to have ignored the arguments of archaeologists who turned up this evidence. Lahuradeva’s copper objects are an instance in point which have been pushed back to 5000 BCE in the exhibition – completely ignoring the unambiguous manner in which the excavator placed them in the 3rd millennium BCE. This is how good archaeology becomes bad history.

While many more pages can be filled up with the fictions and fallacies that I saw masquerading as history in the Lalit Kala Akademi, it is not my purpose here to catalogue them. What needs reiteration is that this was an exhibition whose design told viewers that the Rigveda and the epics are thinly disguised accounts of an actual sequence of historical events. It also put forward a fantasy in which all agricultural societies in north India over four thousand years, regardless of their differences, could be viewed as the archaeological interface of Vedic civilisation. All this is so misleading and manipulated that it does not even deserve the label of bad history.

May I add that it is ironic that while the Prime Minister is spending millions trying to bring Silicon Valley to India, we already have a Silly-Con valley in the shape of a bunch of people who are trying to con us into believing their self-serving myths via futile exhibitions that no serious historian will do anything other than guffaw over.

Nayanjot Lahiri is Professor at the Department of History, University of Delhi


    // For long the left leaning historians who monopolised the ICHR and other forums have been twisting and turning history at their will.//
    Sir, I do not know if you are an expert in the methods of studying history, but to dismiss intellectual stalwarts like Irfan Habib, Bipan Chandra, Romila Thapar, Harbans Mukhia and others, just like that, requires one to be a greater master in the subject. If you are not, kindly read what they said and debate them reasonably. Otherwise, we are simply listening & internalizing rightist-propaganda & crap (which has nothing to do with reason).

    //Let us forget hair spliting arguments and carry on with our present struggles.//
    As another hard-working Indian, I agree with you Sir.

    • sudhirb

      The intellectual stalwarts you mentioned above have bashed medieval history badly, which is not only wrong but motivated to denounce Hindu kings like Hemu, known as Hem Chandra Vikramaditya, who also happens to be the last Hindu Emperor of India coronated in Delhi on 7th Oct.1556 at Purana Quila in Delhi after defeating Akbar’s forces. These authors have eclipsed Hemu completely from History and perpetuated only Mughals of that period.Even Akbarnama mentions Hemu 74 times and denounces at times/appreciates him as the greatest Hindu warrior who won 22 battles against Afghans and Mughals from Bengal to Punjab during 1553-56.Hemu, who came from a family of ‘RajPurohits’ had helped first Sher Suri,then IslamShah nd Adil Shah from 1540-56 with cannons,cereals and support of Hindus against invading Mughals. But these biased historians did not mention anything on all this anywhere in history books. History needs to be rewritten now.

    • Anil Maheshwari

      The personality-cult has damaged the field of study in History in India. The ICHR should publish the list of beneficiaries of the fellowships, awarded by it during the last three decades. I found the books on history by

      Abraham Eraly, the author of four acclaimed volumes on premodern Indian history—The Last Spring: The Lives and Times of the Great Mughals (later published in two volumes, as
      Emperors of the Peacock Throne and The Mughal World), Gem in the Lotus:
      The Seeding of Indian Civilisation, The First Spring: The Golden Age of
      India and The Age of Wrath: A History of the Delhi Sultanate, more interesting then the established historians.

  • Vladimir Tweeterov

    Excellent points, but apt to be wasted on nickerwallas. You should realize that the first testing ground of the ‹i›Make (up) in India‹/i› initiative is Indian history.

  • sudhirb

    The author is ridiculing the exhibition as propaganda because she is not updated on all the sciences involved in analysing Vedic scriptures and has a silly-mindset. Several organisations in India have arranged dozens of seminars during last decade on dating and analysing Vedic scriptures on various parametres, which were attended by experts from various fields. Similarly, datings of Ramayana and Mahabharata are also an outcome of those and some specialised seminars, which make sense. Just because indian historians considered Sanskrit scriptures as ‘mythologies’ and made fun of them till now, the great-value scriptures can not remain ignored if new generations want them to analyse scientifically. Various objections raised by author on exhibits of ISERVE are baseless, and can be replied point wise.

  • kingjohnthegreat

    In the entire history of the study of Indian civilization, there has
    not been a single piece of evidence- mark that, not ONE- to suggest that
    the Indus Valley Civilization was “Dravidian.” In fact, all modern
    genetic studies conclude rather unambiguously that the origin of the
    Dravidian peoples was in the Deccan peninsula. They never lived in the
    where Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were built. If you bothered to keep up
    even marginally with modern linguistics, you would be well-aware that
    Brahui has been confirmed to have migrated North to its modern-day

    position during medieval times. The entire area around it is purely
    Indo-Aryan speaking. The hypotheses of people like Parpola and
    Mahadevan, interpreting the fish symbol in Harappa as “Meen,” are pure
    speculations. There is not a shred of proof that they are actually
    correct. In fact, modern linguistics is quite strongly against a
    Dravidian-speaking Indus Valley Civilization. It is almost impossible,
    given the totality of the evidence currently available.

    there has never been one single piece of conclusive evidence that the
    so-called “Aryans” ever “came from Central Asia,” regardless of what DMK
    supporters in TN love to believe. And no, “the work of countless
    archaeologists” by no means has ever “confirmed such a migration.” In
    fact, archaeology is one of the strongest evidences against the entire
    “Aryan migration” paradigm. I strongly recommend that you read “The
    Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate”
    by Edwin Bryant. He deals thoroughly with the entirety of
    archaeological evidence relevant to this debate.

    Incidentally, it has again never been proven that there is any “Dravidian influence” on early Sanskrit. That was an old
    (that there was supposedly “sub-stratum influence of Dravidian in the
    Rig Veda), but this has virtually been abandoned today. There was
    definitely no Dravidian influence in the early parts of the Rig Veda,
    but some still try to argue for such influence in the later parts,
    although the problem with this is that there is simply no proof
    it. On the other hand, there is definitely Sanskrit influence even in
    the earliest Tamil (although this is distinct from “proto-Dravidian,”
    whatever that may be). Even the earliest Tamil grammar- the Tolkappiyam-
    is clearly aware of Panini’s grammar. Tamil did not even exist before
    500 BCE at the earliest. By the way, the name is Panini, not “Pannini,”
    and varna, not “varnna.” And any supposedly “unique” features in
    Sanskrit could easily have been improvisations in the language itself,
    later passed on to the other Indo-European languages by the EMIGRATING
    Indo-Aryans, although this cannot be conclusively proven.

    there is no reason whatsoever that the Aryans could not have been the
    natives of North India, just as the Dravidians were the natives of South
    India. Nobody has ever been able to present conclusive evidence that
    the connections between the Vedic culture and other Indo-European
    cultures could not have originated in India, with
    the direction of
    influence being westward rather than eastward. These things are not
    conclusive, but it is utterly wrong to say that one hypothesis has been
    “proven” at the expense of another. At present, we simply don’t know.

  • Soumyakanti Chakraborty

    Very rightly said by Prof.Nayanjot. I love her books and am a big fan of her work.

  • The bulk of the Rig Veda was compiled between 1650 BC and 1380 BC – this tallies perfectly with all mainstream theories.
    There is no need to revise any dates.
    Yet, all aspects of Indian culture can be explained logically and wonderfully.
    Read my papers with the maps

    Sujay Rao Mandavilli