When Propaganda Passes for History

Why is the Culture Ministry sponsoring an exhibition on the Rigveda that no serious historian will do anything other than guffaw over?

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