Ancient Indian History
The unique story of a culture is captured in its history. But the arbiters of historiography have labeled every culture apart from their own as myth and legend. This course will explore the obfuscated history of Bhāratavarṣa in the light of the Purāṇas, and advance the case for writing and living the true history of this land.
Every civilization has a past age vs. the current age, and a specific critical path of world history has ensured that modern civilization places this marker at the birth of Christ. We divide all of history into a Before Common Era (BC) and a Common Era (AD), or the age before Christ and the age now- the age of Christ. In this linear view of history, the past is always the age of myth, of gods and demons, of a time when humankind could not differentiate between truth and fiction, or natural and supernatural. The current age is the age of progress, of reality and history, of stories of personalities that we can take as truth. But this is so because what we have as “history” today is but the felt-experience of one specific civilization- the West. The felt-experience, or history, or civilizational memory of other civilizations can be approached academically, but it is not given stature or platform. The felt-experience of every other civilization is but mythology, the residual memory from a time when we were savages, primitive and supernaturalistic- or so it is said. History is but the art of deciding what to consider and what not to consider in the narratives we build. We of the Common Era have decided not to consider ancient literature in our historical narratives, to place it not in the content of the current age but of the age past- of myth. What else explains the dismissal of what ancient Indians called itihāsa- this is how it was? Or the reduction to an ahistorical mess what they called purāṇa- stories of old? In fact we have the wisdom of hindsight. We can see in their literature the accretion of material, the deposition of culture, paradigm and interpretation over archaic kernels of truth and history. That we throw the baby out with the bath water only hinders our knowledge, it does not reduce the relevance of ancient histories. And we do this for our history alone. That Alexander was considered a son of Zeus does not come in our way, when we think of him as a real monarch. That Achilles too was blessed by Zeus prevents not the historian in searching for the real Troy. In his foreword to The Vedic Age, the formidable KM Munshi wrote: “To be a history in the true sense of the word, the work must be a story of the people inhabiting a country. It must be a record of their life from age to age presented through the life and achievements of men whose exploits become the beacon lights of tradition; ….; through efforts of the people to will themselves into organic unity. The central purpose of a history must, therefore, be to investigate and unfold the values which age after age have inspired the inhabitants of a country to develop their collective will and to express it through the manifold activities of their life. Such a history of India is still to be written.” Such is the mission of this course on Ancient Indian History, in that it asserts that Indian history, from the advent of the Mesolithic to the Iron Age, no longer need be revealed to us by mute archaeology alone. Our tradition carries tales that show the Neolithic, hint at the Chalcolithic, and chronicle the Bronze and Iron Ages. Beginning with the first manvantara of Paurāṇika tradition, Indian history remembers seven ages, of which the seventh is the current. In them we see a transformation of the history of one age into carried memory of the next, over and over such that the history of the seventh age has become ‘mythological’ to us. This course will map stories in Indian traditions to what we know about life and civilization in the Indian subcontinent since prehistoric times, and to prove that what is myth to the Common Era carries true history of the ages past. It will show how the Indus Valley civilization isn’t as silent as we’re led to believe, and that both it and its antecedents are well attested in literature. The Palaeolithic humans that progressed through Mesolithic to Neolithic in India were not mute. In their festivals they sang the ballads of their times, and over late night fires and sleepy bedsides they transmitted stories to their children. Stories that are still available to us in an unparalleled continuity of civilization. When our ancestors settled down and began to plough the fields, when wild species were domesticated, when they learnt the passage of seasons, the nuances to tame the earth and the technicalities to extract metal from rock- this too was recorded. As were the tribes, men and women instrumental to such changes. Innovators of one age became mythic to the next and godlike to the rest, but the transmission of stories continued and a continuity of civilization was thus entrenched. Several millennia of Indian and often world history are available to us if we approach our literature with the mindset of a skeptical historian, not a dismissive dogmatist. After the first two sessions of this course, we will follow in tradition of the great Purāṇas, which follow a specific structure in their contents- Sarga, Pratisarga, Manvantarāṇi and Vaṃśānucarita.