October 01, 2015

India: Delhi University's Sanskrit Department leads the Hindutva charge to reimagine India’s ancient history (Shoaib Daniyal)


At Delhi University's Vedic Chronology seminar, discussions on flying chariots, Mahabharat-era TV

DU's Sanskrit Department leads the Hindutva charge to reimagine India’s ancient history.
Photo Credit: Shoaib Daniyal
The British historian Eric Hobsbawm once remarked, “Historians are to nationalism what poppy-growers in Pakistan are to the heroin-addicts: we supply the essential raw material for the market."

At a seminar on Vedic Chronology organised by the Sanskrit Department of the University of Delhi this week, however, it was Sanskritists who were attempting to push a little dope to afford Hindutva supporters some momentary bliss.

Held from September 26 to 28, the aim of the symposium was clear: it wanted to push back the date of the Vedas far beyond the current consensus among experts. The Rig Veda, the oldest Vedic Sanskrit text, is dated between 1500 BCE and 1200 BCE. Speakers at the seminar, though, sought to push this date to 6000 BCE (and some even further). In his keynote address, the head of the University of Delhi Sanskrit department, Ramesh Bharadwaj, blamed the 1500 BCE date on “foreign scholars” and “Indian progressive historians” who had conspired by holding “conferences in Europe and America”.

“Indian history ended with RC Majumdar, in the 1970s, who was the last rashtrawadi historian," Bharadwaj stated.

Non-historians writing history

One of the oddest things about this reassessment of ancient Indian history was that Sanskritists, and not historians, archaeologists, anthropologists or linguists, were carrying out this exercise. This is a bit like getting your English professor to write a history of the reign of Queen Elizabeth because she teaches Shakespeare. Bharadwaj dismissed this criticism by pointing to histories of ancient India written a hundred years ago by Sanskritists.

Noted historian, DN Jha, however, suggested another possible reason. “The Sanskrit department at Delhi University is a bastion of Hindutva politics," he said. "It is no wonder they are undertaking this, rather than the modern fields of study that this issue actually relates to”.

It is maybe due to this academic mismatch that so much of what was discussed at this conference ranged from the vapid to the absurd.

Bizzaro history

Many speakers ­– including Ramesh Bharadwaj himself – held up Raj-era political leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s attempts to date the Vedas using astronomical methods as an example of how things should be done. While Tilak was clearly an abundantly competent leader of people, his expertise in the rather specialised field of ancient Indian history is rather more suspect. In one one of this research tracts, Tilak, for example, claimed that that original home of the Aryans was the North Pole.

Speaking on the first day, lecturer Gunjan Agrawal attacked western historians for believing in a 1648 book by Irish clergyman James Usher that predicted that the world was created “at 9 am on 23 October 4004 BCE”.

“Till today”, Agrawal claimed, “[western] historians have been unable to free their thinking from this date." Another bias was carbon dating: “We are getting increasingly reliant on scientific methods such as carbon dating,” Agrawal said. “Let us not forget that these methods were invented by Westerners and fit into their history, not ours."

Agrawal ended off with an estimation of the birthdate of Lord Ram. Working through the Hindu ages and plugging in the fact that “Lord Ram was born in the Treta Yug”, he convincingly surmised that “in this way, Ram is at least 900,000 years old” – a remarkable number given that our species Homo sapiens only arose around 200,000 years back.

Mahabharat television

On the second day, Vikram Viveki from Punjab University decided to tackle some common misconceptions regarding the timelines of modern inventions. “Do you think the television has been invented now?” he asked in an ascendant tone that could barely hide his condescension for everyone enslaved by false Western knowledge.  “No! The TV has been there since the time of the Mahabharat. Even missiles are not a new invention. Science is made and destroyed again and again and if we don’t accept this, then the mantras in the Vedas will simply not make any sense."

Viveki also decided to end of with a truly remarkable googly. At this seminar to decide the date of the Vedas, bravely breaking form, he went on to conclude that this entire exercise was absurd since “the Vedas are timeless because God himself said so in the Vedas”. This attempt to date the Vedas, Viveki held, was “due to the fact that foreign rulers such as the English and the Muslims dominate our thinking even now”.

Another speaker, Sudhir Arya, decided to further strengthen this approach by arguing on the basis of the literary merit of the Vedas: “I challenge anyone to even compose a single mantra like in the Vedas – then only will you come to know whether the Vedas were a creation of God or man”.

Pushpak Viman science

In another powerful fact buster, Rishi Raj Pathak, held forth on the antiquity of the Ram Setu, the bridge that linked India to Sri Lanka in ancient times. Modern science had insidiously dated it to be far younger than it actually was, he said. Pathak, however, claimed he had ordered a specimen Ram Setu rock via the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. After validating the authenticity of the rock, by checking whether it floated on water (it did), he conducted his own research and managed to prove the carbon dating wrong.

The robust fact checking at the seminar wasn’t confined only to the speakers. The environment of open enquiry meant that even the audience was keenly involved. Audience member Dr Subhash Chandra, assistant professor of computational linguistics at the Department of Sanskrit, University of Delhi, keenly expounded on the topic of the Pushpak Viman, Ravan’s flying vehicle as mentioned the Ramayana.

“Like today’s electronic items can be password-protected, it was the same way for the Pushpak Viman,” he explained to the other audience members, who were listening with rapt attention. “Similarly, GPS-like technologies and voice-activated commands can easily describe the other features of the Pushpak Vimaan, which didn’t run on fuel but ran on mercury. It’s really not that difficult: if the science can exist today, it could have existed in prachin kal, ancient, times as well."

Modi-fying history

All this might be good for a laugh but at the end of the day, it is, of course, alarming to know that all of this is happening at one of India’s premier educational institutions. Mahabharat-era television sets, prachin Sri Lankan flying chariots and the literally divine origins of books are being discussed with all seriousness in the hallowed halls of Delhi University.

But the impulse seems to flow from the very top. Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a speech in which he seemed to suggest he believed that cosmetic surgery and reproductive genetics existed thousands of years ago in India. As supporting evidence, the prime minister gave the examples of Mahabharat hero, Karna and the god, Ganesh.

This particular Vedic Chronology seminar, though, goes far beyond the personal beliefs of the prime minster and is the result of the climate that has been created since May 2014 after the Bharatiya Janata Party took power at the centre.  The head of the university’s Sanskrit Department, Ramesh Bhardwaj, admitted  this rather candidly. “The timing for this is right," he said. "If this same thing had been said a decade back at Delhi University, we would have faced a lot of opposition.”

Hindutva's antiquity frenzy

Professor DN Jha, who once taught history at the University of Delhi, has an explanation for why Hindutva has a tendency to create such bizarre history. “They suffer from antiquity frenzy," he said. In this frenzy, everything from the Vedas to GPS needs to be pushed so far back into the past, that it belies rationality. “No serious historian would treat their conclusion as credible,” remarked Jha.

Of course, critiquing Hindutva history using rationality and logic might simply be water of a duck’s back, since much of this seems not to be a serious study of the past at all, but simply an exercise in political evangelism.