Asserting National Narratives with Credibility

21 Nov

It is not unusual for countries to glorify their own past. Nor is it unusual to include that in the schooling system – one that is normally considered a quasi public good, and thus controlled by governments. India too has been focused on it’s own past in the curricula that have served an entire generation and more. Yet, it does not seem to be enough. The current controversy on a mid year switch to Sanskrit away from German is going to run it’s course. It will be debated away as a procedural correction, not an ideological position taken by anyone specific. Yet, the bigger issue will remain – how much of India’s past should shape India’s future.

There are good arguments on either side. On one hand it is undeniable that India has had a glorious and under-researched past in the fields of drama, literature, science, medicine, strategy, economics, architecture and more. It has shared much of it’s knowledge freely in the world – so much so that much of it is deeply embedded in the histories of many countries. Some of it is remembered – such as the work done by Indian artisans in the great Alhambra in Spain, or as India is fond of reminding everyone – the invention of the zero. It is also undeniable that India was a colonised country, and every country that finds itself subjugated for a time feels undermined. Without going down the cul-de-sac of blame storming, there does seem to have been a loss of self worth, possibly a loss of national pride. Or so it is said, and retold, often by those who have not been able to participate in, or learn about moments of national pride.

The discourse for greater national pride is often undermined by the very same people who espouse the cause. It is difficult to deal with calls for greater attention to be paid to one’s history when the general level of discourse reflects both ignorance of the past, and worse – a lack of rigour in process. For those who seek to vilify some leaders in history and glorify others often speak from hearsay, not research. Having heard a part of the story, and liked it, they add to the noise. This does not help – any shallow argument is soon exposed and gets little respect. To be able to lay claim to anything one must first build a solid credible foundation before laying siege to current beliefs.

This is not to deny the possibility that India may have invented everything that is great and good in the world today. Of course it is possible. Unlikely, but possible. The nature of knowledge is to advance itself iteratively, incrementally. One learns something, shares it across the world. Then someone adds to it. Shares. It goes on, often with a few people making the same grand discoveries at about the same time without having collaborated or even known each other. The game for credits is important, sure, but only in a world of patents and trade agreements. This is where one must step carefully and build a strong argument rather than allow oneself to become a mocked nation. The tendency of Indians to claim everything as Indian but not be able to back it up with any solid audit trail has made it into a bit of a global joke – and this is the trap to avoid. There have been sit-coms with this theme as a meme, and more.

It is easy to leap at the slightest link between current scientific discoveries and similar references in Sanskrit texts – both ancient and more recent ones. Sanskrit was one of the languages of the erudite. It had a discipline and process that enabled dense conversation and communication of deep knowledge. So much so that unraveling it is a science in itself. This is where there is a huge gap in our understanding of the achievements of the past. Just an assertion in a text, or a verse from a mythological or literary text is not enough to claim it as ‘Indian’ knowledge. There needs to be a much more rigourous research process that builds the arguments towards such claims. This is where one feels the lack of a strong research culture in the social sciences in India. The capacity for such research will need to be built as one builds the case for one’s history. Greater investments in higher education research are the first step. Autonomy is an essential ingredient – let the counterfactuals fight it out to build muscle in the arguments. A more realistic understanding of our own history and position in the world is essential to a generation that has been unrooted by rapid growth to give it a sense of it’s own direction and purpose.

A version of this article appeared in the Daily Pioneer on November 19, 2014 and is linked here: http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/oped/sanskrit-lessons-in-indian-civilization.html

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