What’s a ‘Corrected’ Version of Indian History?

The Indian Council of Historical Research circulated a concept note, which, in its endeavour to present the ancient Indian political systems in a good light, draws a false equivalence of Sanskrit terms with the ideas of modern political discourse.

Last week, Union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan said that “students across the country will be taught the ‘corrected’ version of Indian history under the New Education Policy from Vasant Panchami on January 26.” He was speaking at a programme organised jointly by the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliate Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana.

Teaching a ‘corrected’ version of history, needless to say, is just another attempt on the part of the government institutions to glorify India’s ‘ancient traditions’ as something unique and progressive.

In its effort to showcase India’s glorified past, the current dispensation’s penchant for tracing any modern idea in any field of study – be it science or politics or even any of the social sciences – to the ancient Indian civilisation continues unabated. It appropriates particularly those ideas which enable it to demonstrate the superiority of the ancient Hindu civilisation.

In November, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) co-hosted the ‘Akash Tatva’ conference with another RSS-affiliate, Vijanana Bharati, where it wanted to draw a parallel with modern science. Then, later in the same month, the ICHR put out a concept note purporting to provide the correct approach to studying India’s ancient political history.

The note was issued by University Grants Commission chairperson, M. Jagdesh Kumar, in his letter to all governors – who are also chancellors of state universities – across the country, asking them to hold lectures on themes that relate to the ancient Indian political system.

The universities were asked to arrange these lectures on the topic, ‘India: The Mother of Democracy’ on Constitution Day, November 26 – a move that was supported by the Ministry of Education.

The chairperson urged the universities to hold lectures on the ‘ideal king’ and the ‘democratic traditions in ancient political arrangements like khap panchayat’, among other themes.

A distorted version?

The “corrected” version of the Indian history, which the minister mentions, is actually a distorted version, both in the case of ISRO’s conference as well as the ICHR concept note.

The concept note was titled “Bharat: Loktantra ki Janani” (India: The Mother of Democracy). It opened with the idea of Bharat as an ancient civilisation and claims, with a sense of pride, how democracy as an idea was born here. The ICHR also released a book with this title, on November 24.

The note makes a grasshopper-like movement from one idea to the other and weaves disparate elements of civilisational discourse into a paean to the ancient Hindu polity. In this process it attempts to read modern ideas of political discourse into India’s ancient institutions.

It presumes that there was a territory marked and denoted by the name Bharat during the Vedic times or even later. As Rajesh Venkatasubramanian notes, referring to B.D. Chattopadhyaya, Bharatavarsha was only an imaginary cosmographic scheme and there was no “concrete geographic reference” to it in the Puranas.

Further, there is no reference to Bharat as a country even in the Vedas. It only refers to a Bharata tribe.

Macdonell and Keith’s Vedic Index of Names and Subjects, an authoritative source on Vedic names, refers to it as the name of the people occupying a region around the Ganga and the Yamuna and gaining victories over other tribes. Vedic Index gives the names of the kings of this group of people and the sacrifices they performed.

The concept note, in its endeavour to present the ancient Indian political systems in a good light, draws a false equivalence of Sanskrit terms with the ideas of modern political discourse. Terms like democracy, self-governance, autonomy, assemblies (in non-monarchical institutions) find mention in the note and these, it claims, prevailed in ancient institutions in India.

This is the usual manner of claiming civilisational superiority resorted to by Hindutva ideologues, and now, the government through its institutions is trying to find a Sanskrit term and equating it with supposed analogues of modern ideas and, then by implication, claiming that “we had this very idea as part of our discourse in our ancient civilisation”.

This becomes evident if one examines the matter in the concept note. In particular, we need to understand what some of the terms used in the concept note meant in the ancient literature.

Also read: Bhagavad Gita in Schools: Rote Learning of Illiberal Theological Text Will Trump Rational Inquiry

The concept note draws a distinction between prajatantra, janatantra and lokatantra. The note avers that prajatantra is exactly the same as democracy. Though the term has come to mean ‘democracy’, the use of the word ‘praja’ to capture the idea of democracy doesn’t seem to be appropriate. A slightly critical examination of this term will show the inappropriateness of this “straight translation”.

Praja, in Sanskrit, originally meant offspring, children, procreation and birth. The Monier Williams dictionary shows that this was the meaning of the word in the Rigveda.

Later the word came to mean ‘subjects’ – in Kalidasa’s work Raghuvamsha and Shakuntala. Kalidasa was a court poet who lived around the 4th century CE. His use of words would obviously reflect the then prevalent monarchical system with which, it is reasonable to assume, he would be more conversant.

What did lokatantra mean? It meant a system or the course of the world. The note says that this meant a “community-system oriented towards the welfare of the community”. The word, it appears, cannot be associated with this meaning, at least during the ancient times.

The usage of words, definitely, does change with time. One does not object to such a change. But to draw from the present meaning of the word that there existed the modern idea at some time in the past is not at all a valid argument.

Modern democracies or republics have citizens whereas monarchs rule over subjects. How can prajatantra be a democracy then? It is a different matter that the word is being used as such in the vernacular but the word-meaning of praja does not go well with the idea of democracy. Such an understanding only indicates that the ideas of the ancient political systems are incompatible with that of the modern political discourse.

The concept note appeals to the sacred idea of Dharman (also dharma) and presents a list of virtues like compassion, empathy and non-violence that guided life in society. However, it should be noted that dharma did not mean these virtues primarily in the context of political institutions during the ancient times. Dharma always meant Varnashrama Dharma, i.e. the four-fold caste system prevalent in society then. The note is completely silent about this.

The king was the upholder of dharma which meant that he should ensure that the subjects observed the respective duties assigned to the four castes. If any member of a particular caste did not observe his assigned caste duties, the king was called upon to punish the member. Such was the prescription of the law books.

It would be interesting to note danda (punishment) formed an important part of the king’s duty so much so that politics in the ancient times came to be known as dandaniti.

The texts often cited, in the context of how dharma operated within a political context, are the Manava Dharmashastra (or the Manusmṛiti), the Shantiparva of the Mahabharata and the Arthashastra.

Also read: The Laws of Manu and What They Would Mean for Citizens of the Hindu Rashtra

After terse comments on dharma, associating it with virtue, the ICHR note then attempts to show that the political institutions of ancient India were non-monarchical. For this, it talks about the idea of assemblies being prevalent in the form of sabha and samiti as a “feature of the government”. The impression it tries to convey is that the people discussed issues in the process of discharging tribal business.

This whole paragraph on sabha and samiti seems to have been borrowed from Volume I of The History and Culture of the Indian People (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan publication, fifth edition, R.C. Majumdar, pp. 356-357, Chapter XVII titled ‘Political and Legal institutions’ authored by V.M. Apte).

This note ends this paragraph with a Rigvedic hymn, also quoted in the above publication, but wrongly mentions the author as Ghosh in the parentheses.

It is also significant to note that this borrowing has been done by selectively omitting some words. Perhaps, this may have been done with the intent to advance views convenient to the spirit of the note. As an example, the following may be cited:

The term sabha is often mentioned in the Rigveda and denotes both “the people in conclave” and the “hall”. This is what Apte’s essay in the above publication says. Even the Vedic Index notes this and also says that the hall was used for playing the game of dice. However, in the concept note, the word “hall” seems to be left out to suggest that the word only meant association and coming together of people in keeping with the original claim that how the spirit of democracy prevailed.

Therefore, the idea, perhaps, is to emphasise this aspect and leave out the other aspect (i.e. it also denoted a hall).

Further, the Vedic Index, citing Hillebrandt, notes that sabha and samiti cannot be distinguished and the sessions were attended by well-born men (su-jata) and not the dasas and sudras (the lowest caste). R.S. Sharma, in his critical study, Aspects of Political Ideas and Institutions in Ancient India, also mentions that the sabha was constituted by the Brahmins and elders. This is completely contrary to what the concept note claims: that there was no aristocracy and that the Indian people were infused with the spirit of equality.

It is also interesting to take note of Beni Prasad’s observation in his The State in Ancient India. He argues that the caste system not only undermined the possibility of democracy but of aristocracy as well, by dividing society. He also claims that the “elimination of democracy and aristocracy left the monarchy as the dominant type of government”.

Both R.C. Majumdar’s edited volumes and Beni Prasad’s work were disposed towards presenting a glorified account of ancient institutions. But there was still some kind of restraint in their accounts. In fact, Prasad warns of “the risk of reading modern or preconceived notions into the terms and documents of the ancient times”.

Against this background, the ICHR would do well to heed Prasad’s words and desist from presenting what it views as a “corrected” version of ancient Indian history in the form of reading modern ideas in ancient Indian thought.

S.K. Arun Murthi has taught philosophy in the Humanities and the Social Sciences department, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali, Punjab.