A Lesson from Bhandarkar About the Need to Rein In Historical Fantasies

It is unfortunate that even today, as a result of our “extravagant admiration for ancient Hindus” (as Bhandarkar termed it in 1918), many Indian scholars are doing research that does not adhere to strict academic standards.

Ramkrishna Bhandarkar was a towering Indian scholar who has left behind a huge corpus of work in Sanskrit studies, and in the history and culture of India. Pune’s prestigious Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, which was named after him, was founded as a tribute to him in 1917 on his 80th birthday.

Born in Ratnagiri in Konkan in 1837, he studied at Mumbai’s Elphinstone College and later taught Sanskrit there. He was also the first Indian professor of Sanskrit at Pune’s Deccan College. Apart from being an excellent scholar, he was also a committed social reformer.

As a student, in 1853, he joined the Paramhansa Sabha, a secret society founded to oppose the evils of the caste system and regularly spoke in favour of social reforms including those relating to women’s education and widow remarriage. He held that it was the duty of the “true patriot” to “fearlessly expose” the “faults in the character of his people.”

One such fault Bhandarkar wished Indians would get rid of was the absence of a “critical and comparative method of inquiry” in historical research, a fault that persists to this day. In 1918, at the age of 81, he gave a crucial speech at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. In all probability, the speech was read out by someone else since he was confined to bed at the time.

The speech is available in the first volume of the Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute and holds relevance even a century later. Having spent his entire life studying India’s history and culture, and the Sanskrit language, on one hand, Bhandarkar seemed eager to pass the baton to young scholars, but on the other, he was woefully unimpressed by what he called “the temptations of an Indian scholar – he is prone to see good in everything old.”

One suspects that stalwarts like Romila Thapar and Amartya Sen, who are now both in their 80s and are no doubt eager to see more young Indians carry their work forward, might be going through similar conflicting emotions.

“I have already tried to impress on our students the importance of the pursuit of a critical and comparative method of inquiry, but these lectures do not seem to have produced a very wide effect,” Bhandarkar rued in his 1918 speech. In one of those lectures, given way back in 1888, he said:

“A critical inquirer is one who does not accept an account of an occurrence just as it is presented to him. He subjects it to certain tests calculated to prove its truth or otherwise. He takes care to ascertain whether the person giving an account was an eyewitness to the occurrence, and if so, whether he was unprejudiced… Before admitting a narrative as historical, one ought to ask himself if the object of the author was to please the reader and excite the feeling of wonder, or to record events as they occurred… We have very few works in Sanskrit literature [which pass the tests of ordinary probability and where the object of the author is to record events]. The Vikramankacharita, the Harshacharita, the Gaudavadha and the Rajatarangini are works of this nature.”

In the 1918 speech, Bhandarkar expressed exasperation over “persons who find in the Rgveda allusions to X-rays, railways and what not.” Recounting an interaction with a young scholar, he said,

“Several years ago a young enthusiast came to me and wanted to know if in the course of my search for manuscripts I had come across a copy of the Maya Samhita which, he said, contained instructions for the accomplishment of wonderful feats [extraordinary feats]. On my replying in the negative, he said that Europeans must have found a copy of the Samhita; for otherwise how could they have possibly made the discoveries and inventions such as those of the telegraph, the telephone and others?”

This absurd tendency to appropriate almost every Western scientific advancement to ancient India, which India’s prime minister also unfortunately harbours, is the “natural failing of the Indian scholar”, Bhandarkar warned. He also talked about how “we are apt to feel shocked if anybody were to tell us that Vyasa is only a mythical figure without any historical counterpart”. He patiently cites a number of reasons for his holding such a commonsensical view.

He reminds listeners how Vyasa is also considered as the author of all the Puranas, apart from the Mahabharata. “But these [Puranas] contain conflicting views, and the same author cannot be considered as speaking highly of the gods Siva and Visnu in one place and making contemptuous observations about them in another.” He also adds, “Vyasa is said to be the grandfather (by means of Niyoga) of both the Pandavas and the Kauravas, and yet he lived long enough to watch their deeds and write about them after the time of their death or ascension to heaven, and thus compose a voluminous work beyond the working capacities of an old man.”

While Bhandarkar urges us not to consider the great epics and the puranas etc. as strict historical accounts, he says they have historical significance in that “one can gather from them information as to what men and women did and thought in those days.”

He also does not dismiss the natural bias that Indians possess since the literature and the antiquities we examine “are our own”. “We must not cease to read our Sanskrit and vernacular works for the pleasure and instruction they afford to us. Only we must take care that our partiality for them in this respect does not obscure our judgment when we have to examine them critically.”

Bhandarkar too, who had drowned himself completely in India’s ancient Sanskrit past, approached the literature in both these ways. He mentions an incident when he told Professor Buehler that the third act of the ‘Uttararamacharita‘ brought tears to his eyes whenever he read it. The professor was surprised. “This constitutes the difference in the points of view of the Indian and European,” Bhandarkar remarked. The study of India in the late 1700s and 1800s was dominated by Europeans, and Bhandarkar desired that by the successful application of such critical research methods as he championed, Indians must take “our legitimate place among the investigators of the history of the country, and not allow the Germans, the French and the English to monopolise the field.”

It is unfortunate that even today, as a result of our “extravagant admiration for ancient Hindus” (as Bhandarkar termed it in 1918), many of our scholars are doing research that does not adhere to strict academic standards, and is mostly propelled by non-academic and political agendas. If we, however, do succeed in separating academic studies from such ulterior and fantastical motivations, we will, as the old man prophesied, “prepare the ground for healthy progress in the future,” and in fact “find a great deal in the past of which we may honestly be proud.”