Tag Archives: teaching history

Oh History! My History!

A .1.The other day I was reading azygos’s very well written article

The Marxization of the Upanishads wherein he discusses the skewed attitude of one of our showcased historians Romila Thapar on ancient Indian history and heritage. I agree with azygos, entirely. I wonder what prompted a trained historian to take a lopsided view of things. I also share Melody Queen’s anxiety about the contents of Indian History curriculum in school; as also the issue of young Indian intellectuals’ cold shouldering history, as an academic pursuit.

2. In a way of speaking, the issues are related. The way in which history is written, the manner in which it is taught in the schools and the light in which history is understood   are largely responsible for keeping the bright minds away from history. I am not suggesting there are no good histories.

3. There is plenty of good History along with some bad ones, as it happens anywhere else, even in science. Good history can be recognized by the honest use of its sources, by transparent methods, open-minded interpretations and a balanced presentation. In fact, understanding history is a part of what is good history. There is a difference between writing History and recording the past, which is the task of an administrator. History is the study and analysis of the past.

4. Now, the writing of History is based on the subjectivity inherent within whatever academic is writing that history. Our experiences and view of life also matter. Our attitudes are shaped within the contemporary environment. It is not possible to bring in cold objective standards to measure a work of history. Further, a good history of one generation may become the bad history for the next generation. Thus, there are difficulties in identifying good history.

5.  As someone said to me the other day, human eye and human mind have much in common. The eye cannot see things that are too close to it – you need someone else (or a mirror) to look at the speck of dust fallen into your eye. The eye cannot see very distant objects either. Similarly, human mind cannot look at itself and cannot foresee too far. They both operate in a limited range. Both can be mislead.

5.1. History does the work of a mirror in addition to providing long-term perspectives. If there is a limitation to History, it is the human mind that works at it and that looks at it. So long as our minds are cluttered with cobwebs of bias or motives, History would remain tainted. This was my main concern, along with the helpless anxiety watching History abused by some self-proclaimed rationalists who decry anything of value in Indian history or in the Vedic past. They do not realize that History is not merely a process of discovery; it could be a process of liberation too. Then, how does one liberate ones mind?


B. Writing of History

1. History has always been a contentious subject. Some say, History is what the victor writes and that historians are condemned to repeat themselves. Some others call History a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel.

2. The reason such epithets are hurled at History is mainly because any one event will have many versions of the truth and it is difficult to judge objectively which version   of that “truth” is the truth. In the process, History is often misinterpreted and misunderstood. It would therefore be useful to look into such factors as:who wrote the history, about whom? Why they wrote it? How they wrote? Etc

3. Who? And About Whom?

3.1 What we call “history” of the ancient times are invariably the writings of the “civilized” societies about the ‘‘others”. Such writing were usually triggered either by curiosity about the “other” or by revulsion against them. Even the celebrated historians of the bygone ages loved to write about strangers’ .And, those writings were not history per se, as we understand the term today.

3.2. What was significant in those histories was their dominant theme: “they’” are different from “Us “, they are less than “Us”.

3.3 The “Us” versus “Them” syndrome has always prevailed in History. It continues to operate. For instance, the histories, as recognized, of USA-native Indians, Spaniards- Latin and Central American kingdoms, Australia-native Aboriginals, New Zealand- Maoris etc. are so heavily lopsided it leaves one gasping for a breath of sanity.

3.4. The political and economic domination of one nation over the other also led to distortions in the histories of vanquished nations. During the times of the British Empire , the English wrote the histories of the East and India . It was quite common in those histories to deprecate or mock at anything East or Indian. For instance, let us take James Mill’s the History of British India , which was a standard reading of the Imperial cadres about to embark on a voyage to the land of “deceit and perfidy”. The author of the “bible for the British Indian officers” never once visited India nor was he familiar with any Indian language. Nevertheless, Lord Macaulay described the book “the greatest historical work which has appeared in our language since that of Gibbon”. The theme of Mill’s history was to brand India as a land of “inferior civilization”, to deprecate India ’s achievements in science, medicine, art or philosophy, to attribute anything of value in India to the largess of the Europeans. The message to the “boys” was: the Indians are lesser humans, they are unlike “us” treat them as such and be weary of the “deceit and perfidy”.

In Thapar’s case too, she identifies herself with an ideology and looks at “them”; and they are not “us”.  The result is a distorted view of ancient Indian history.

4. Why?

4.1. Histories have been written or rewritten for a whole set of wrong reasons.

Histories were written, rewritten not to reveal the past but to obliterate or erase the past; to impose a pet political or religious ideology and to prop up new heroes and to condemn old heroes. Added to that, was the abuse of history to support whatever a group or a political leader wanted to show. Histories have been written to teach children hate a particular group or a country.  Therefore, if anyone claims a monopoly on a particular piece of history, it is then heavily tinged with an ulterior motive.

4.2.Take for instance the case of Romila Thapar’s views on Upanishads .Here, the effort to thrust an ideology or the anxiety to project herself as a  rationalist hence  be acceptable to  those that matter; appear to be dominant. The commitment to an ideology overshadows the historian. The understanding of the ethos of the Upanishads and the interpretation of the events in the context of its times, sadly get lost in the din. Certain of her observations leave you speechless:

– Upanishads were not the outcome of philosophic-spiritual enquiries but a ploy by Kshatriyas to discourage the Brahmaical wastage of wealth in rituals, so that the surplus money could be used for maintaining powerful states.

-Upanishads have relegated the Vedas and the old doctrines to an inferior position.

-Those of uncertain social origin such as Satyakama and women such as Maitreyi, the wife of Yajvavalkya were included perhaps to make a point.

4.3. It is amazing how anyone could come up with such notions and worse still call it an interpretation of history. She grossly misunderstood the Upanishads and the essence of its times. I fail to understand what she meant when she said that by recognizing women and a few others the Rishis were trying to make a point. What point? To whom? What were they trying to prove?

Is she suggesting that the Rishis were anxious to seek justification and approval from Marxists who might appear thousands of years later? She is obviously imposing her prejudice of gender bias on a past generation that had an unbiased worldview and a unique self-perception. Whereas a good History interprets the events in the context of its times and in the light of its ethos.

Her comment that Upanishads did not come about as a philosophical development but as a ploy hatched by Kshatrias to cut costs on Yagnas (sacrifices) is a gross misinterpretation of our intellectual heritage. To start with, the Kshatrias who performed them as a means for attaining their aspirations never viewed Yagnas as an economic activity. She imposed her views on a generation who were totally unconcerned with such ideologies. The Marxists/Socialists have long discarded the so-called Marxist idea she imposed. They no longer view all human activities as economic activities; else, how does one explain the acts of a Gandhi, a King, and a Mother Theresa or even of a suicide bomber. She took an out dated and a myopic view of human aspirations. Understanding History is a part of good History. You do not find that understanding here .

A paper titled “A socialist analysis of the materialist conception of History” produced by the Socialist Party of Great Britain states, “A short acquaintance with Marx’s writings would show how absurd it was to attribute such a superficial view to him.” The same holds good for Thapar’s interpretation of Upanishads.

  ( )

Perhaps there are few other social sciences as badly abused as history.

[That brings to my mind one of the characters in a much-discussed Kannada novel Aavarana written by SL Bhyrappa. The book is centered round the way in which Indian History is written and interpreted.  For more on it please read Aavarana by SLB

Please also check a copy of his article: What would be the fate of TRUTH if a Historian turn’s to be a Fiction author?]

5. How?

5.1 History along with Economics and Government falls Under “Social Sciences”. Many, however, wonder whether history is a science or an art. Jared Diamond in his essay why did Human History Unfold Differently on Different Continents for the Last 13,000 Years says, even historians themselves do not consider history to be a science. Historians , he says , don’t get trained in the scientific methods; they don’t get trained in statistics; they don’t get trained in the experimental method or problems of doing experiments on historical subjects. Further, though each branch of History demands individual skills and insight, not much is done to fine-tune the objective tools to suit the specialized requirements.

5.1.1. Contrary to the popular notion, history never repeats itself – similar things happen but they are never the same. The study of history has so far not yielded any sort of model of human society that can predict events with any sort of precision, it never will. It is not a science. If history is art, then so is a jigsaw puzzle. History probably has more in common with philosophy or maybe even law, in that it is about finding truths about a thing.

[Jared Diamond says, some may be justified in saying History is closer to art than science. I, however, feel History is independent of those classifications. The reason those labels were created was, perhaps, to form different administrative departments at universities. For instance, in England it is an Art; in USA it is a Social Science; and in Germany it is a Science.

[I am not aware of the status of History and its place in Indian Universities, today. I request those well informed on the issue kindly to post their views.]

5.2 Another school argues History is science. The word science, they point out, is derived from its Latin root “scientia” meaning “producing knowledge or science” and therefore it allows them to seek knowledge by whatever methodologies that are available and that are appropriate. They say, there are many fields where replicated experiments (as in physics or Chemistry) would be immoral, illegal, or impossible. History is one of such fields and historians are justified in adopting methods that are appropriate to their field.

5.3. There is a view that states History is an audit. This view is based on the premise that both history and auditing are “evidence-based” practices. Sources, in both cases, provide evidence to support judgments and opinions. It says if Historical methods are carried out properly, it will help “maximize the chance of arriving at the truth”.

5.3.1. There is a counter argument to this view. It points out that truth needs to be tempered by fairness and understanding in the context of its times: mere correctness is not enough. Moreover, judgments of fairness cannot so easily be reduced to matters of practice and method. The accounting/auditing methods do not provide options/choices. Where no single viewpoint emerges as the “best explanation”, then it would be unethical for the historian to present a single position as the only position. Further the audit repots usually say,”this financial statement gives a true and fair view, not the true and fair view. Hence the motives of the preparers of financial statements need to be critiqued, not just the statements themselves. The analogy between history and auditing is brittle and should not be pressed hard . (

5.4 There are those who say, it is neither science or art nor commerce, History is memory. History is not the story of strangers. It our story had we been born a little earlier. History is memory; we have to remember what it was like to be a Roman, or a Jacobite or an Asoka or even – if we dare, and we should dare – a Nazi. History is not abstraction; it is the enemy of abstraction.

5.5. They argue that if you cannot feel what our ancestors felt, then all you can do is judge them and condemn them, or praise them and over-adulate them.  According to this school, you have to feel and think like your ancestor.


I think it is not one or the other approach. The basic question is how to write a good, credible and a balanced history. It is the judicious combination of the three; the scholarship, the objective methods and an understanding of the ethos of the times that helps the historian to gain a better insight into the past humans and their ways of living, based on evidence and several perspectives.


It is needless to point out what was lacking in Thapar’s approach; there was not a speck of understanding of what she was dealing with. I share azygos’s conclusions.


C. History in Schools

1.  Undue importance is placed on memorizing dates, names, battles, regions etc. It would kill a child’s interest in history if the child were to be forced to learn without understanding.

1.2. Dates have a limited role in the learning of history. They provide a point of reference. The important things are: the causes and consequences, continuity and discontinuity, changes, innovations, response to a challenge etc. Time in History is a kind of relationship. The present is the result of the choices people in past made while the future will be the coming together of several events developing today .The understanding of processes is more important than learning facts by heart.

1.3. Unless History catches the imagination of the child there is little possibility of him/her pursuing it later in life. The teaching methods in middle and high school levels are crucial.

2. the basic question is; How do we present India in the best light, in a balanced manner.

2.1. Melody Queen makes very valid observations on the difficulties and the risks involved in teaching Indian History to Indian children in foreign lands. She feels,” the situation isn’t going to change much unless independent, unbiased research is encouraged.” Then, pursuing a study history in the academia is a trade off -cost vs. benefit. University, education is an expensive proposition. In addition, peer pressure and social stigma in Indian circles are attached to study of History.


2.2. The study of history is not rewarding. Job opportunities are few. They are not well paid. The career prospects are dismal. Not many young and bright opt for History in the Universities. These are realities of life.

2.3. The issues mentioned by Melody Queen  relate not merely to academia but to the community as a whole. They go beyond the issue of teaching History; they involve the question of the identity of a community and of valuing cultural conservation.

Suhag A Shukla, legal counsel for the Hindu American Foundation states that Hindus are just beginning to join the civic process in the US, the description of Hinduism that reflects the practice of Hinduism should be expounded upon; for that, inputs from the community are essential.


It is good that the community has some say in what should go into the textbooks. That however brings in its wake the responsibility to arrive at a clear and balanced view of our religion and culture. That again underlines the need for professional study and research.

2.4. The problems cited by melody Queen are not confined to USA; they are relevant in today’s India too. In fact, the position in India is worse. The History-situation in India is pathetic.

2.4.1. The Indian History Congress (IHC) held its 66th annual session at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, West Bengal , 28-30 January 2006. In its Resolution (Two) expressing its anxiety about the History textbooks prepared for schools, it states, “The IHC does not agree with the reduction of space set aside to History in school teaching and the proposed trivialization of the substance of History, in the name of reducing ‘information burden’ or making facts ‘interesting’. The IHC also feels that there were no adequate reasons for doing away with the pre-saffronization History text books, which had been widely acclaimed.”


Not only that the history input is diminished, but also its quality is uncertain. We are not sure how we present the Indian History to our children.

Please read an article written Shri S L Bhyrappa about how the History text books come to be written in India   What would be the fate of TRUTH if a Historian turn’s to be a Fiction author?

2.4.2. As regards research and other studies in Indian History, there is no mention or anxiety expressed about their status in either the 66th or the 67th Annual sessions of IHC.

The resolutions passed at the Indian History Congress held its 67th annual session in Kerala, on March 10-12, 2007 do not go beyond expressing anxiety over           Government intervention in the administration of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the National Archives of India (NAI).


3. Melody Queen mentions that a significant number of those who write on Indian History are not Historians per se. (I am not sure about that.)Yet, those young persons write about History out of love for the subject. However, I wonder whether, what they write about History is regarded as History in the academic circles. The reason is they are not a part of the trained, professional academia; and it takes a certain discipline and training to be a Historian. For instance, Professor Michael Wetzel remarks what the non-specialist academics write on issues outside their areas of expertise is not scholarly but is of a religious-political nature promoted by Hindutva.


I am aware what I have just stated is debatable. I wish it provoked some sane debate.

3.1. Regarding Wetzel’s last comment, I fail to understand why it should be dubbed Hindutva if one writes, with reason, that about 2000 years or earlier the ancient Indians made great strides in philosophy, mathematics, medicine and literature; and they had universal vision and perspective of life. Those are facts. If they are presented cogently why should it offend the “secular minded” gentries?

3.2.Amartya Sen , the noted economist , in his book Identity and Violence said, “One of the oddities in the post colonial world is the way non-western people tend to think of themselves as quintessentially “the others”…they are led to define their identity primarily in terms of being different from western people. Something of this “otherness” can be seen….even in the contribution this reactive view makes to fundamentalism”.

In effect what Sen is saying is that even though the ex-colonies got rid of the colonial yoke, they live perpetually trying to convince themselves that the yoke no longer burdens them. With due respect to the Nobel Laureate, I beg to differ. If he were talking of India , I would call it an oversimplified cliché. If one tries to find ones roots and ones identity, it is a process of self-discovery and it certainly cannot be construed as an endless stream of reactions to a bygone relation. It is the beginning of a process” when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance”, as Nehru put it. But , as V.S. Naipaul said every awakening has its fringe groups. We need to say we have a point of view; and say it with restraint.

3.3. At the same time, it is essential to maintain a sense of balance in projecting our past and to avoid over adulation. Mark Tully says a sense of balance is the hallmark of Indian tradition. He writes in his India ’s unending journey, “ India ….believes in perpetual search for balance. So , the answer to any question can never be final, no theory should be closed to questioning, and no policy should be taken so far that it creates imbalance.” I hope that balance and sanity will prevail and guard against over adulation.

D. Understanding of History

1. I wish to emphasize again, all History is not bad History. There is truth in History. There are facts in History that one cannot deny, things did happen. History is -an ever-changing and fascinating puzzle with both personal and cultural significance. A good student of History will always look for the other point of view, knowing that our understanding of History changes over time. I have always looked upon that as a process of learning, a self-discovery.

1.1.The discussion under paragraph B was to put on guard saying , there is always going to be fundamental flaws in History, just as in any Academic field and be fore – warned of that and learn to spot the bad apples. That was NOT a general view on History.

2. The bad History will always be there. Nevertheless, our historians can evoke awareness and educate our ordinary men and women and especially our children about good history. If they can project a vision for History, what should History be in future and what human spirit should aspire for, then they would have rendered a great service to the country and its future generations This is not a day’s work, they need to keep chipping at it every day .

3. My impression is, the writing of history and reading of it has improved, thanks largely to the enthusiasm of the younger generation. As the walls crumbled, as the ideologies vanished and as the world shrunk, the views have broadened. Access to history and historic materials has vastly improved. The very fact we lay our hands on a variety of texts, writings etc. and discuss history openly on this Forum is a tribute to spirit of history. I hope that we will eventually arrive at a convincing method for explaining patterns of human life and human history.

That will , however, remain a distant dream unless : our Government and Universities honestly address the basic issues relating to teaching Indian History, pay greater attention and importance to History in the Universities, lend greater support to  the Research organizations, make study of History a rewarding career ; and  our Historians do not tend to work towards approvals and justifications.

4.  How I wish more members joined the debate on the issues brought out in azygos article, Melody Queen’s comments and this note..!!  It concerns all of us.

Please visit  Where do we go from here? for more discussion on “Invading the sacred and other issues”.


Posted by on September 1, 2012 in History


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