Knowledge of Indian psyche a must for understanding Indian history – Shivaji Singh

Rishi : Eye of In-sight

Prof. Shivaji SinghHuman history consists of actions and behaviors; actions and behaviors are related to intensions; and intentions are governed by psyche. … Indian psyche may be defined in terms of Indian chiti, that is, the Indian social and symbolic worldview.— Prof Shivaji Singh

History is not just a narrative of events and processes in some space-time context, nor space and time are the only coordinates of history. History is, at a deeper level, a ‘sense of the past’—an awareness rooted deep down in a people’s psyche. Writing nine centuries ago, the famous Indian historian Kalhaa, the author of the Rājataragiī, designates history as ‘Bhūtārtha’, that is, ‘Meaning or Sense of the Past’:  

Ślāghyaḥ sa eva guṇavāna rāgadvesh-bahishkṛtaḥ
Bhutārtha-kathane  yasya  stheyasyeva  Sarasvatī.           

“Praiseworthy is that man of quality alone who is above (the feelings of) love and hatred and whose intellect remains steady while narrating the sense of the past.” — Rājataragiī 1.7

It is this ‘sense of the past’, based on steady intellect, that gives relevance to the discipline of history. With centuries and millennia receding behind, records of past are gradually obliterating and submerging in the womb of oblivion, and there is indeed some wisdom in the saying ‘Let the dead past bury its dead’. But, the ‘sense of the past’ continues. It never dies. It lives forever as part and parcel of our being and helps unfold our becoming. Why is that so?

This is because, as I have already noted elsewhere,[1] yesterdays are indestructible. They remain subtly present in today and have an inevitable impact on tomorrow. It is this indestructibility of yesterdays that has made history an important discipline all over the world. Being a sizable segment of collective memory and a part and parcel of effective social psyche, history acts as a powerful vehicle of culture and tradition from generation to generation. History shapes and defines the social identity of a people in course of its process. It teaches men lessons to learn from the past. It acts as a source of morale in times of distress. Imparting education of historical knowledge should, therefore, aim at developing positive collective memory and healthy social psyche. In fact, historical knowledge is of use only when it contributes to our wisdom.

Recently, Prof S. N. Balagangadhara of Ghent University, Belgium, posed a pertinent question: ‘What do Indians need, a History or the Past?’ He underlined this question by making it the title of his Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Memorial Lecture organized by the Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi, in 2014.[2] By ‘Past’ he means the sense of history I am talking about here today. Unlike history which is just a kind of information, sense of history is a sort of inner-formation that keeps our consciousness vibrant. History is useful only when it has a sense. History is just a record if it has no sense. History is dangerous when it is given a wrong sense. That is what I intend to emphasize in this address.

But, what do I mean when I say that space and time are not the only coordinates of history? Let us now come to that.

Mānasa (Psyche): An Important Coordinate of History

No history could be conceived without a reference to space and time. This is unanimously accepted. Hence, space and time are called coordinates (parameters or circumscriptions) of history. But, they are necessary, not sufficient, coordinates of any history involving human beings. Human history consists of actions and behaviors; actions and behaviors are related to intensions; and intentions are governed by psyche. This systemic interrelatedness (Zusammenhang) implied in human history needs to be understood.

Then, again, nobody would disagree to the principle that history should be judged, not pleaded. Even those who knowingly or inadvertently plead history wouldn’t deny this principle. However, it would be prudent, I think, to go a step further and add or, rather, qualify: History should be judged in the context of the Mānasa (psyche) of the people whose history we are judging. Like Space and Time, Psyche must always be taken as an important coordinate or point-of-reference in history. One may even go further and say, psyche is the basic coordinate for space-time sense itself is psyche-relative.[3]

I believe, therefore, that Indian psyche is the one and the only correct lens to look at and judge Indian history. But, what is Indian psyche? What are its main characteristic features? Let us explain briefly.

Defining Indian Psyche (Bhāratīya Mānasa)

You go to any part of India from Kashmir to Kerala, meet a rich or a poor Hindu of any varṇa, jāti and profession; you will find that he/she shares the same or almost similar perceptions about dharma and karma, about jīvātmā and paramātmā (individual and absolute Self), about āvāgamana (birth-rebirth cycle), about puṇya and pāpa (virtue and sin), etc. Taken together they constitute a typically Indian mental make-up that transcends the geographical boundaries of India. It is present in varying degrees in all Diaspora Indians wherever they are in the East or the West. This is commonly designated as ‘Indianness’.[4] This Indianness is reflected not only in commonality of cosmological and eschatological beliefs; it is expressed also in day to day behaviours, attitudes and manners. It emanates from the social and symbolic worldview—the Chiti or the collective Chitta—that the Indians share and within which they acquire their basic responses.

Indian psyche may, therefore, be defined in terms of Indian chiti, that is, the Indian social and symbolic worldview. As we shall presently see, this worldview is centered around an unique concept called Ṛita. But, before we explain this Ṛita-based social and symbolic worldview it is necessary to see how Indian tradition perceives human mind.

Indian perception of the architecture of human mind    

Indian tradition attaches great importance to human mind and has gone deep into its analysis. A distinction between ‘mana’ and ‘chitta’ is clearly implied in several Rigvedic references.[5] Look at the following famous Rigvedic verse:

Samāno mantraḥ samitiḥ samāni samānam manaḥ saha chittameshām,
Samānam mantramabhi mantraye vaḥ samānenam vo havisha juhomi.

“Common is our prayer, common our assembly. Common is our mana along with our chitta. With our common prayer I approach you and offer our common oblation to you.” — Ṛigveda 10.191.3

In this verse Mana and Chitta are mentioned separately along with Mantra (prayer or counsel) and Samiti (assembly) when Agni (the ritual fire) is being invoked for fostering unity and accord in each of them. This makes it quite clear that a distinction was indeed made between Mana and Chitta even in that hoary past that we call the Rigvedic Age.

A perusal of the relevant Rigvedic references shows that Chitta is an agency of mental activity related to but different from that of Mana. A distinction is made between ‘Manana’ and ‘Chintana’ the functions respectively of Mana and Chitta. Scholars not well grounded in indigenous Indian paradigm of psychology often fail to notice this distinction and use ‘Manana’ and ‘Chintana’ in the same sense of ‘thinking about’, ‘reflecting on’ or ‘comprehending something’.

There are several subtle differences between the two, but the main distinctive feature is that while the function of Chitta is ‘reflection’ that of Mana is ‘paying attention’. For Chintan, therefore, it is not necessary that the object being reflected upon be present before the eyes of the person doing Chintana

The distinction between Mana and Chitta was further clarified by later Vedic thinkers who dived deep into the mysteries of human consciousness. According to the Taittirīya Upanishad (3.10), the individual Self is enclosed by five different sheaths (koshas). In an ascending order they are:

  1. The physical body (Annamaya Kosha),
  2. Energy sheath (Prāamaya Kosha),
  3. Mental sheath (Manomaya Kosha),
  4. Intellect sheath (Vijñānamaya Kosha) and
  5. Emotion sheath (Ānandamaya Kosha).

Subhash C. Kak[6] comments on these koshas in a language understandable to modern-day science-oriented scholars, and I quote him:

These sheaths are defined at increasingly finer levels. At the highest level, above the emotion sheath, is the self. It is significant that emotion is placed higher than the intellect. This is recognition of the fact that eventually meaning is communicated by associations which are influenced by the emotional state.

The energy that underlies physical and mental processes is called Prāa. One may look at an individual in three different levels. At the lowest level is the physical body, at the next higher level is the energy systems at work, and at the next higher level are the thoughts. Since the three levels are interrelated, the energy situation may be changed by inputs either at the physical level or at the mental level. When the energy state is agitated and restless, it is characterized by rajas; when it is dull and lethargic, it is characterized by tamas; the state of equilibrium and balance is termed sattva.

The key notion is that each higher level represents characteristics that are emergent on the ground of the previous level. In this theory mind is an emergent entity, but this emergence requires the presence of the self.

According to the Sānkhya system, an individual mind is conceived to have five constituent parts: Mana, Ahankāra, Chitta, Buddhi, and Ātman. It may, however, be noted that in this enumeration Ātman is not considered to be a finite category. These constituent parts of mind have been discussed at great length in ancient Indian literature. These discussions provide a deep understanding of the structure and function of a normal human mind.

Later on, in what the historians call the post-Vedic Period, a simplified concept of four-limbed Inner Self (Antaḥkaraṇa Chatushṭaya ) became stereotyped. According to it, the four limbs of Antaḥkaraṇa were organized in an order of hierarchically increasing potency as Mana, Chitta, Buddhi and Ahankāra. Without going into details, the main features of Antaḥkaraṇa Chatushṭaya may be briefly summarized as follows:

Mana is the lower mind. It collects sense impressions about external objects through the five sense organs of hearing, touch, sight, taste, and smell. However, it’s quite choosy. It collects only those impressions of the objects in which it is made interested by Chitta. Mana is extremely powerful, as attested to by the Bhagavadgītā (6.34). It controls the body and sensory organs. But it cannot control Chitta, Buddhi and Ahankāra since they are higher and increasingly more powerful mental agencies.

Chitta keeps stored the pieces of information and experiences gathered by Mana. It is a sort of memory bank of the mind. It occasionally reflects on them but always keeps them ready in a ‘recall mode’ to be supplied to Buddhi if and when desired by the latter. Buddhi, the Intellect, rationalizes the info received from its subordinates (Chitta, Mana and sense organs). It often indulges in its abstraction, and draws its opinions and conclusions on the basis of that knowledge. Ahankāra is the most powerful of all the limbs of Antaḥkaraṇa. It is the I-consciousness, that is, the awareness of an individual’s Self-identity. This understanding of the structure and functions of human mind continues in Indian cultural tradition till today.

Latest trends set in the field of science by quantum physics[7] and cybernatics[8] have now made it somewhat possible to interpret at least partly the ancient Indian concept of human mind in scientific jargon. From system theoretic angle human mind may be described in terms of its morphology and ecology conceived as subsystems. Mana, Chitta, Buddhi, and Ahankāra are the hierarchically organized constituent parts of human mind. They constitute the morphology of human mind. Koshas (sheaths), Guṇas (sattva, rajas and tamas) are its oscillating states. Geo-cultural features of the cultural tradition constitute what may be said to be the ecology of human mind. Both these morphological as well as ecological systems continue interacting with each other ever maintaining a dynamic equilibrium between the two. This ensures continuity in change which is the real sense of being eternal (Sanātana).

It is also important to note that Ahankāra (I-consciousness or Asmitā) manifests itself in two ways: (a) as a physical and habitual self-awareness, and (b) as an ideal self-awareness. Ordinarily a person perceives his self-awareness in terms of his physical and social being and identifies his self with his body. This is an instinctive human tendency present everywhere and in all ages. But, then, there is an ideal self-awareness too which men accept as distinct from their physical and habitual self-awareness, and which is derived from the cultural tradition to which they belong and varies accordingly.[9]

Chiti, the fountain head of Bhāratīya Mānasa

The origins of Indian Chiti (that is, the social and symbolic worldview from which Indians acquire their basic responses) are untraceable. They go back beyond the earliest times to which Indian literature, archaeology, linguistics, folklore and visual art remains like sculptures and paintings lead us to. Indian tradition takes it to be eternal, not a product of history.[10]

Chiti’ is the fountainhead of Mānasa or psyche. Although bequeathed to us by Vedic seers, this concept of ‘chiti’ was introduced to modern socio-cultural and political discourse by Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay first of all through an essay published in Rāshradharma in 1948. Later on, he elaborated this concept in his speeches and writings particularly in the series of lectures on Ekātma Mānava Darśana that he delivered at Mumbai during 22nd to 25th April 1965.[11]

In one of his above mentioned lectures at Mumbai, he has clearly stated:

It is true that the society is composed of a number of individuals. Yet it is not made by people, nor does it come into being by mere coming together of a number of individuals.

In our view society is self-born. Like an individual, society comes into existence in an organic way. People do not produce society. It is not a sort of club, or some joint stock company, or a registered co-operative society. In reality, society is an entity with its own ‘Self’, its own life; it is a sovereign being like an individual; it is an organic entity. We have not accepted the view that society is some arbitrary association. It has its own life. Society too has its body, mind, intellect and soul. Some western psychologists are beginning to accept this truth.[12]

Many more scholars have expressed similar views. G. C. Pande, for instance, writes:

Human community is not an externally related assemblage of physical individuals but a common self-consciousness where the perception of ideal values provides the force which controls the blind instincts or calculated search for mere interest and the individual recalcitrance arising from it. It is the working of higher rational and moral values which constitutes the inner core or unity of human societies.[13]

Among Western scholars William McDougall was perhaps the first to realize the importance of collective and integrated psyche in formation of human social groups. In his famous book The Group Mind, published as far back as in the first quarter of the last century, he has tried to sketch the principles of mental life of groups and their bearings on national life and character. McDougall takes due precaution to ward off any possible misunderstanding that his views were influenced by, or even had any sympathy with, the political philosophy associated with German ‘idealism’. He devotes several pages of the preface of the book to explain how his views and approach differ from those who hold forth German ‘idealism’ and finally remarks:

I have striven to make this a strictly scientific book, rather than a philosophic one; that is to say, I have tried to ascertain and state the facts and principles of social life as it is and has been, without expressing my opinion as to what it should be. But, in order further to guard myself against the implications attached by German ‘idealism’ to the notion of collective mind, I wish to state that politically my sympathies are with individualism and internationalism although I have, I think, fully recognized the great and necessary part played in human life by the Group Spirit and by that special form of it which we now call ‘Nationalism’.[14]   

My purpose of taking this diversion of peeping into the mind of the author of The Group Mind has been mainly to guard against a possible misconception. Since William McDougall, the author of the book under reference, has been referred to by Deendayalji in some of his writings and speeches, any aspersions on McDougall for his imagined sympathy to German ‘idealism’ were liable of being transferred to Deendayalji by a cunning pseudo-secularist. I wanted to eliminate any chances of this possibility.

McDougall suffers from the Western prejudices of his time against India and Indian culture. Like majority of scholars of his generation, both Indian as well as foreign, he believes in ‘Race Theory’ that has been discredited now. But, in spite of all this, he must be remembered for some pioneering contributions that he made in the field of Collective Psychology. First and foremost, he attempted a total catharsis of Collective Psychology of his time that was badly polluted by advocates of German ‘idealism’. Then, he took the lead in emphatically advocating the idea that ‘nationalism’ is an expression of collective spirit; and his concept of ‘spirit’ is almost identical to what Deendayalji has designated as Chiti.

William McDougall deserves to be remembered for yet another leading contribution. He underlined the common perception that the mind of a group of higher order like a socio-cultural, religious or political group or a nation is an aggregate of individual minds “plus a mystical and shadowy entity, the spirit of the whole, that hovers uncertainly above the individuals and intervenes only on great occasions, in national crises, in wars, revolutions, general elections and general strikes”. And, although being a traditional psychologist he prefers to explain it in terms of Gestalt Psychology[15] and openly admits: “It continues to be permissible for the historian and the man of letters to write of the soul or spirit of a people.[16]

In fact, it is this ‘soul or spirit of a people’ that the Indian intellectual tradition conceives as ‘Chiti’, the innate social and symbolic worldview from which men acquire their basic responses.

Propagation of Dharma is India’s ordained national mission

That, nations have their unique inherent missions to fulfill, is not a new idea. It was underlined prominently by the Italian nationalist and patriot Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872) over a century and a half ago. “Every people”, stated Mazzini, “has its special mission, which will cooperate towards the general mission of Humanity.”[17] In fact, to Mazzini, it is this given mission of a people that constitutes their sense of ‘nationalism’.[18] Many eminent thinkers have endorsed this view of Mazzini about ‘national mission’ ever since. As an illustration, I quote below Annie Besant:  

As Mazzini truly said: ‘God has written a line of His thought over the cradle of every people. That is its special mission. It cannot be cancelled; it must be freely developed.’

For what is a Nation? It is a spark of the Divine Fire, a fragment of the Divine Life, out breathed into the world, and gathering round itself a mass of individuals, men, women and children, whom it binds together into one. Its qualities, its powers, in a word, its type, depend on the fragment of the Divine Life embodied in it, the Life which shapes it, evolves it, colours it, and makes it One. The magic of Nationality is the feeling of oneness, and the use of Nationality is to serve the world in the particular way for which its type fits it. This is what Mazzini called ‘its special mission,’ the duty given to it by God in its birth-hour. Thus India had the duty of spreading the idea of Dharma, Persia that of Purity, Egypt that of Science, Greece that of Beauty, Rome that of Law. But to render its full service to Humanity it must develop along its own lines, and be Self-determined in its evolution. It must be Itself, and not Another. The whole world suffers where a Nationality is distorted or suppressed, before its mission to the world is accomplished.[19]

Annie Besant is perfectly justified in maintaining that ‘spreading of the idea of Dharma’ is India’s divinely allotted mission, India’s very purpose of existence as a nation.

Some historical manifestations of inherent Indian mission

The manifestation of India’s mission may be traced back to the Rigvedic words ‘Kivanto Viśvamāryam’. It is not a slogan or a clarion call to proselytise, as misunderstood by some. As is clear from its context, it is a pious inner wish, a cordial prayer to make the whole world noble: Indram vardhanto apturaKivanto Viśvamāryam (Ṛigveda 9.63.5).

Similarly, when the Manu-Smiti (2.20) enjoins that people all over the world should learn their distinctive duties and behaviours from the learned people of this country, it is subconsciously expressing the Indian mission, not indulging in vain boasting.  

In modern times, it was this inherent mission of India (namely, spreading the idea of Dharma) that was being fulfilled through Swami Vivekanand when he addressed the Parliament of World Religions at Chicago in September 1983 that was followed by a large number of his speeches in different cities of USA for about two years and his lecture tours and interactions with people in England and Germany.

Swami Vivekanand was fully conscious about this predestined mission of India. “We Hindus”, says he, “have now been placed, under God’s providence, in a very critical and responsible position. The nations of the West are coming to us for spiritual help. A great moral obligation rests on the sons of India to fully equip themselves for the work of enlightening the world on problems of human existence.“[20]

What is Dharma?

What is ‘Dharma’ which is the cornerstone of Indian psyche and whose practice and propagation is thought to be the divinely ordained mission of India? One thing is evident; it is not religion, a fact endorsed also by the Supreme Court of India.[21]

On this issue it would be most appropriate to consult Bharat Ratna P. V. Kane, the renowned author of the multi-volume History of Dharmaśāstra. He writes: “The writers on Dharmaśāstra meant by Dharma not a creed or religion but a mode of life or a code of conduct, which regulated a man’s work and activities as a member of society and as an individual and was intended to bring about the gradual development of a man and to enable him to reach what was deemed to be the goal of human existence.”[22]

Dharma, like Artha (economic interests) and Kāma (satisfaction of sexual, emotional and artistic instincts) relates to human beings in general, not to any particular class, community or nationality. This is why the three are put together in a single category Trivarga constituting the first three Purushārthas (objectives of human life). The enumeration of characteristic features of Dharma in ancient Indian texts as, for instance, in the Manu Smiti (6.92) as also the etymologically derived meaning of the term lead us to one and the same conclusion, that is, Dharma is an innate sense of duty and outlook—a sort of basic nature—that governs actions, activities and behaviors of human beings.

This understanding of Dharma becomes still clearer when we consider it in context of Ṛita.  Ṛita is a concept found exclusively in Vedic faith-system. It is the central concept. Other concepts such as Satya, Dharma, Tapa, Yajña, Devatā and Purusha, etc. are derived from it or are closely related to it. In fact, Ṛita is the utsa (the fountainhead or original source) of the entire Vedic faith-system. Let us, therefore, try to comprehend this basic concept a bit more closely.

Several scholars have tried to grasp the meaning of Ṛita. Methods employed have been mainly: (a) root derivation or etymology of the term, (b) considering its textual variations in literature to find a generally applicable sense, and (c) examining its modern cognates with the implicit belief that they continue to carry the original meaning of the term. The methods are indeed justified but the outcomes, however, are far from being uniform.[23]

Basically Ṛita stands for the ‘Law’ or ‘Order’ according to which the entire universe and all its animate and inanimate beings are moving on their ordained paths. The Chinese concept ‘Tao’ appears to be nearer in meaning but it fails to fully express the connotation of Ṛita. The western concepts ‘Lex naturalis’ and ‘Archetype’ are comparable but not equivalent. Its renderings in English as ‘Eternal Order’ or ‘Cosmic Order’ too are inadequate. In fact, Ṛita is an entity that is cosmic in its spatial extension and eternal in its time dimension, but it is something more additionally. Unlike natural laws, it has consciousness and a nature. Its nature is to be proper, true, divine, pious, religious, perfect, brilliant, glorious, and all else which is noble and desirable all rolled into one.

The Rigvedic people believed in an Ultimate Reality or Essence, a belief that was to characterize Indian culture throughout the subsequent ages and become one of its hallmarks. Ṛita is considered to be the mental perception of that Reality (Ṛitam mānasam yathārthasankalpanam, Sāyaṇa on Rigveda 10.190.1; and Satya is the verbal expression of the same Reality (Satyam vāchikam yathārthabhāshaṇam, ibid.) Ṛita and Satya are, thus, not two different entities. They are two modes in which the same entity, the Ultimate Reality, becomes perceptible to human beings. In the Upanishadic dictum ‘Satyameva jayate nānṛitam’ (Mundakopanishad, 3.1.6), meaning ‘Satya alone triumphs, not Anṛita’, Anṛita is pitted against Satya as its antonym. This again testifies to the Ṛita-Satya identity.

Just as Ṛita and Satya are identical, Satya and Dharma too are one and the same. The Bṛihadāraṇyaka Upanishad (1.4.14) confirms: “Verily, that which is Dharma is Satya” (Yo vai sa Dharmaḥ Satyam vai ). Thus, Ṛita, Satya and Dharma are three dimensions of one and the same Essence or Ultimate Reality. Bhāratīya Mānasa (Indian psyche) takes that Essence as ‘Human Ideal’ and interiorizes its three dimensions, Ṛita, Satya and Dharma, respectively at mental, verbal and practical application levels (that is, at the levels of mana, vachana and karma).

Thus, Dharma is acting in tune with the Ultimate Reality or Essence conceived as a Cosmic, Eternal and Noble Order.

Indian history needs contextualization, not just decolonization or Indianization

Understanding Indian history in the background of Indian psyche is what I mean by contextualization of Indian history. Let me repeat what I said earlier: Human history consists of actions and behaviors; actions and behaviors are related to intentions; and intentions are governed by psyche. This systemic interrelatedness (Zusammenhang) implied in human history needs to be understood. And, Indian history should be fully contextualized by taking into consideration the third coordinate besides time and span, namely, psyche. Then, and then only, Indian history can be properly comprehended and interpreted.

Contextualization is more comprehensive a task than decolonization and indigenization (that is, Indianization in Indian context). Contextualization may involve decolonization and/or Indianization but it is a task much more inclusive in scope and basically different in nature. In fact, it is a holistic framework of looking at various segments of the ‘past’ in the background of contextual psyche.  

Currently, we are passing through an overall thought revolution known as ‘decolonization of mind’. It is an anti-colonial and postcolonial consciousness. It entails washing away mental distortions produced by colonialism by going back to one’s indigenous roots and thought systems. Since colonization was a global phenomenon (remember the cliché, Sun never sets in the Empire), decolonization has got to be global. In Africa, we find the famous Kenyan novelist and postcolonial theorist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o titling his book on the role of language in literature as Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (published in 1986). In America, we see eight Indigenous intellectuals coming together to create the volume entitled For Indigenous Eyes Only: A Decolonization Handbook (published in 2005).[24]   

Worth mentioning in this context is also the international conference on Decolonizing Our Universities held at Penang, Malaysia (June 27-29, 2011). The participants in this conference belonged to as many as four continents. They had arrived at Penang from far separated places, from Nigeria in the west to Japan in the east and from Turkey in the northwest to Australia in the southeast. This shows how widespread in space is this yearning for decolonization. The following few lines from the summary of discussions submitted by the delegates at the end of this conference deserve our attention:

We agreed that for far too long have we lived under the Eurocentric assumption—drilled into our heads by educational systems inherited from colonial regimes—that our local knowledges, our ancient and contemporary scholars, our cultural practices, our indigenous intellectual traditions, our stories, our histories and our languages portray hopeless, defeated visions no longer fit to guide our universities—therefore, better given up entirely.[25]

Brushing away Eurocentric assumptions and reinvigorating indigenous intellectual traditions are the two intertwined aspects of decolonization. Recently (5-7 February 2015) a Conference entitled Strategic Retreat was organized by Dharma Civilization Foundation[26] at Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Sansthan, Jigani, Bengaluru. Several speeches delivered in this conference provide valuable insights for historians engaged in removing colonial distortions in Indian history. Decolonization is indeed useful and necessary. Eurocentric assumptions need to be brushed aside. Contextualization, however, is a perspective that transcends temporal situations like colonization or decolonization and provides a general framework for doing history.

The term ‘Indigenization’ has a distinct meaning. It should not be taken to stand for decolonization, much less for contextualization. When you take an idea or a theme from an alien source and modify it to suit your national needs it is called Indigenization. That is the literal meaning of the term. Indigenization is useful in many academic disciplines and, therefore, welcome. But, it is hardly of any use in history. In fact it has created several misconceptions.

Under constraints of time, I shall be able to draw your attention to only two wrong notions that have been perpetuated by uncritical indigenization: one relates to misapplication of the materialist conception of human progress to Indian history, and the other pertains to the misconception that ancient Indians lacked historical sense.

It is wrong to impose a materialistic view of human progress on Indian history  

Most of the historians and archaeologists even today refrain from using the words ‘Vedic Civilization’ because in their understanding a culture can be called a civilization only when it has been urbanized and they believe that the Vedic people were a non-urban people. The fact, however, is that every society has its culture as well as its civilization. While culture is reflected in mental refinement, civilization is expressed by worldly material progress. So, how they take ‘Vedic Culture’ to be true but ‘Vedic Civilization’ to be false? In fact, they consciously or subconsciously believe in a materialist conception of human progress. Wherefrom have they acquired this idea? It is not far to find it.

It was suggested initially by Lewis H. Morgan in 1877 in his book Ancient Society: Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization. Frederic Engels adopted and developed this notion in his famous essay entitled The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (written in German which appeared in Zurich in 1884). From there it was taken up by V. G. Childe and applied in the field of archaeology.

Needless to add that this materialist conception of human progress is totally inapplicable to Indian history. Indian psyche is basically spiritual. It does not deny worldly gains. Rigvedic prayers stand witness to the fact that the Vedic people were optimistic, not otherworldly. They desired prosperity and victory. But, they believed in the philosophy of tyaktena bhuñjīthā so emphatically advocated in the Īśāvāsyopanishad.

The misimpression that ancient Indians lacked historical sense

Many foreign scholars, as also several indigenous ones, have censured ancient Indians for their lack of historical sense. From Alberuni in the eleventh century down to some (whom I need not name) in the present (twenty-first) century, for literally a millennium now, this blame on ancient Indians has been orchestrated. But no one has ever tried to explain why that is so. Why should ancient Indians be so different from their contemporaries inhabiting other parts of the globe? Why has India failed to produce a Thucydides or a Sima Qian?

The fact, however, is that ancient Indians did have a sense of history as we understand history today, that is, a record of human actions, activities and behaviours that are conceived to be worth preserving. But they had simultaneously a higher perception of history in tune with their psyche and the tradition that their psyche had created.

Let us first take the normal (empirical) sense of history. As I have discussed in detail elsewhere.[27] far back, in as early a period as the Rigvedic, as many as three genres of historical narratives were distinguished: Praśastis, Gāthās and Nārāśasīs. In the Later Vedic period, three new forms of historical narratives came into existence. They were: Akhyāna, Itihāsa, and Purāa. Other varieties like Vamsanucharita (genealogy of kings) and Charita (history of heroes) followed soon. But, as has been ably demonstrated by Professor Arvind Sharma, this record is to be met with mainly in the inscriptions.[28]

However, the ancient Indians developed, besides the normal (empirical) history called Ākhyāna, a more nuanced concept of history. It was a sort of Vyākhyāna, rather than Ākhyāna. They designated it as Itihasa.  It is based on a cyclical concept of history, repeating but not replicating, and couched in time cycles of yugas and kalpas. Although the idea of kalpa is presently traceable back only up to Mauryan times,[29] it must have been there all along since it is a part and parcel of the innate Indian Ṛita-based chiti.

Itihasa aims at perpetuating and strengthening the tradition. It is a reflection and reassertion of the perennial ‘you reap what you sow’ principle (karma-phala-sambandha-svabhāva) maintained by tradition. History provides particular instances to substantiate the moral laws held by a tradition. This is why Kauṭilya’s Arthaśāstra (1.3.2) takes Itihāsa to be a Veda. The Amarakośa (1.6.4 and 2.7.12) designates Itihāsa as Purāvṛitta and takes itihya and itihāvya as synonyms of pāramparyopadeśa (Teachings about   Tradition). Professor G. C. Pande is perfectly justified when he says that:

By connecting the particular empirical instances with ideal meanings revealed in tradition, Itihāsa accomplishes the impossible task of spanning the gulf between the empirical and the transcendent. Itihāsa, thus, is not a collection of stock tales but a storehouse of wisdom, of Veda.

This brief analysis should suffice, I believe, to make it clear that Indians have from the very beginning an empirical as well as an ideal sense of history. In accordance with their Ṛita-based psyche they attached more importance to idealized history than to empirical history. Therein lies the reason why India preferred to produce a Vyasa and a Valmiki, not a Thucydides or a Sima Qian. This also explains why the Indian tradition gives more importance to memory and orality than to writing and historiography. Writing and historiography distance the past from the present, whereas memory and orality make the present and the past coexist.

But before I close, let me humbly respond to Professor Balagangadhara’s question: What do Indians need: A History or the Past? My considered view is: We Indians need both our History as well as our Past. There is no binding to choose only one of the two. We can, as our ancestors did, have both, But, like our ancestors we should preserve only that history which is worth preserving.


  1. Reference is to my Foreword to Smt. Kamlesh Kapur’s Portraits of a Nation: History of Ancient India (published in 2010) pp. vii-viii. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers.
  2. N. Balagangadhara (2014): What do Indians Need, A History or the Past? A challenge or two to Indian historians.  7th Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Memorial Lecture, organized by ICHR, New Delhi. Available on Internet. Link:
  3. Cf. Modern Scientific versus Bhāratīya Traditional Sense of Time. My Lecture delivered at All India Conference on Hindu Cosmology in Consonance with Modern Science, organized by Bhāratīya Itihāsa Sankalan Samiti at Tirupati on February 10-11, 2007.
  4. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, despite all British impact on his education and personality, had a 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.” All current discourses relating to ‘Idea of India’ or ‘Personality of India’ are centered around this concept of Indianess.
  5. Antiquity of the Rigvedic hymns is debated. However, there cannot be any doubt that some of the hymns were composed when the river Sarasvati was flowing in full force. Latest hydrological studies relating to the river show that the image of the ‘Mighty Sarasvati’ presented by these early Rigvedic hymns matches only with conditions in Hakra Wares Culture period (8th–7th millennium BCE). Vide Sarkar, A. et al. Oxygen isotope in archaeological bioapatites from India: Implications to climate change and decline of Bronze Age Harappan civilization. Sci. Rep. 6, 26555; doi: 10.1038/srep26555 (2016).
  6. Subhash C. Kak (1997/2005): ‘Science in Ancient India’, published in S. R. Sridhar and N. K. Mattoo (edited): Ananya: A Portrait of India, pp. 399-420. New York: AIA.
  7. Quantum physics has proved the existence of ‘God’ in its own way. It is not the God who sits in heaven dolling out rewards and punishments. It is a power beyond nature that often overrules the laws of nature. Its existence explains ‘why biological beings have feeling and consciousnesses’. See, Amit Goswami (2008): God is Not Dead. Charlottesville, Virginia: Hampton Roads Publishing. First paperback edition published in 2012.
  8. Cybernetics, particularly the systems thinking derived from it, has proved extremely useful for understanding complex phenomena.  In fact, systems analysis was applied first of all in comprehending the complex networking of human brain. Thereafter it was fruitfully applied in fashioning guided missiles and other ‘intelligent’ systems. After its success in the field of organismic biology and control engineering it was applied in different areas of social sciences too since it was realized that human action and behaviour are equally complex. For a brief outline of Systems Theory, see Shivaji Singh (1985); Models, Paradigms and the New Archaeology, pp. 46-59. Varanasi: Dept. of Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology, Banaras Hindu University.
  9. For a detailed analysis of self-awareness, see G. C. Pande (1985): An Approach to Indian Culture and Civilization, pp. 133-39. Varanasi: Dept. of Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology, BHU.
  10. Professor G. C. Pande remarks: “That the social and symbolic world within which men acquire their fundamental responses is a fragile and historic human creation rather than a natural perennial fact, is an idea which grew up and gained currency as recently as the nineteenth century.” See for this quote his book An Approach to Indian Culture and Civilization, p. 7. See on this point also his book Bhāratīya Paramparā ke Mūla Svara, published in 1989 (2nd Ed.) p.1.
  11. Vide Dīndayāla Sansāra, A portal created by Dr. Shyama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation. Link:
  12. Vide for fuller details, my presidential address Need for Revitalizing Bharatiya ‘Chiti’, the Fountainhead of Indian Nationalism delivered at the 9th National Conference of ABISY, Gwalior, October 26-28, 2012.
  13. C. Pande (1985): op. cit. p.14.
  14. William McDougall (1920/27): The Group Mind, p. xi. Cambridge: The University Press.
  15. Gestalt psychology, devoted mainly to the study of perception, emphasizes the fact that the whole of anything is greater than its parts and that the whole requires for its interpretation laws or principles that cannot be arrived at by the study of parts alone.
  16. William McDougall, op. cit., p. xiii.
  17. P. T. Bury edited (1960): The New Cambridge Modern History, Vol. 10, p. 225. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  18. Ignazio Silone (1939): Living Thoughts of Mazzini, p. 17. London: Cassell, and New York: Longman.
  19. Quoted from The Case for India, presidential address delivered by Annie Besant at the 32nd Session of Indian National Congress held at Calcutta on 26 December 1917.
  20. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1970-1971), Vol 3, p 139.
  21. Cf. The Supreme Court of India’s three-judge-bench judgement dated 11th December 1995 on a number of appeals which arose from the decisions of the Bombay High Court relating to the validity of the elections of certain candidates to the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly.
  22. V. Kane (1968-77): History of Dharmaśāstra, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 2.
  23. For details see, V. M. Apte (1942): ‘Ṛita in the Ṛigveda’. Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, Vol. 28.
  24. Now, a new volume, as a sequel to the earlier one, has appeared in 2013. Edited by Waziyatawin and Michael Yellow Bird. It is entitled: For Indigenous Minds Only: A Decolonization Handbook.  
  25. Visit the site Inside Higher Ed, see ‘Decolonizing our universities: another world is desirable’. Link:
  26. Dharma Civilization Foundation is an USA-based non-profit organization with the mission: “To establish the systematic study of Dharma, its interpretation and application through the creation of academic and intellectual infrastructure and institutions”. Visit:
  27. Reference is to Contending Paradigms in Indian History: Did India lack historical Agency?, Chairman’s Address delivered by me at the International Conference on Indian History and Geopolitics, organized conjointly by ABISY and Indic Studies Foundation, USA, at India International Center on January 9-11, 2009.
  28. Arvind Sharma (2003): Hinduism and Its Sense of History. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  29. In Aśoka’s Rock Edicts Nos. 4 and 5 we find the words ‘ava kapam’ (yāvat kalpam) and ‘āva samvaa kapa’ which mean up to the end of kalp. P. V. Kane remarks that the word samvaa in ‘āva samvaa kapa’ may refer to samvartaka, the name of the destruction whose fires and clouds, according to the Mahābhārata (Vanaparva 188.69), bring kalpa to an end. See, History of Dharmaśāstra, Vol. 3, pp. 889-90.

» Prof Shivaji Singh is the former head of the Department of Ancient History, Archaeology and Culture, University of Gorakhpur. He is presently the National President of the Akhila Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana (ABISY). This address was presented at an Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) conference in New Delhi on March 27, 2017.

Manu and Seven Sages of Sanatana Dharma