The Historical Wasteland of Hindu ‘Exceptionalism’
Anyone who has spent a good deal of time studying the historical narratives found across the wide span of Vaidika, Pauranika and Itihasika literature in order to reconstruct a chronologically sound tradition, complete and coherent as far as possible, would understand the gargantuan demands of such a task. The sheer volumes of work one has to consult in the process, filtering out the mythology in which the textual accounts are deeply shrouded, dissecting the repetitions of names and etcetera are just ‘another day’ of intellectual labour.
Unfortunately for the Hindu tradition, a sense of lethargy has crept into and eating away the attempts to reconstruct a linear and sensible narrative. This lethargy itself can be attributed to the stereotype that ancient Indian historiography does not exist and there is simply no evidence to shed light onto the main actors and key events that shaped the hoary days of the Vedic people. This stereotype was a very comforting thought to several indologists because it gave them the freedom to reconstruct their own narratives, fuelled by their own ulterior motives, and unhindered by the need to cross-reference with native sources, because there simply weren’t any. The only concerns were archaeological (or even the lack thereof as nothing is convincing as negative evidence) or linguistic evidences.
While we respect the advances made in the above stated fields as well as genetics and approve of the general conclusion that there was definitely an entry of West Eurasians into Bharatavarsha from the Northwest, we should not neglect the vast treasures of Hindu texts which, notwithstanding the fantastic and obviously fictional theme, still offer a detailed remembrance of the earliest times of the Indo-Aryan people in Bharatavarsha. This stereotypical disdain for the Hindus’ historical self-awareness led to the above-mentioned lethargy among scholars. This lethargy led to a single-minded focus on the issue of the entry into India and consequently any important text had to be made instrumental to this unhealthy obsession; or if it could not be, it was relegated to the status of imaginative fiction. The Puranas fell victim to “criminal”-neglect. And the motive is not hard to infer.
The Puranas, with their elaborate descriptions of a settled people, cities, urban development and accounts of renowned personages, were too boring. The relative stillness of the Puranas could hardly account for a useful discussion on the Indo-Aryan incursion by the bottle-neck Northwestern frontier, which must have upset and displaced the local population, and thus must have involved a degree of force, resistance and clashes. A martial document was needed to further the agenda of the academia and the Rig Veda was perfect! But are not battles described in the Puranas as well, you may ask. But the Pauranika texts often describe these battles with unambiguous locations and characters, which were hardly relevant to the bygone event of Indo-Aryan foraying into Bharatam. The Rig Veda with its vagueness, lack of details about the contenders in a battle, sites with untraceable names, was truly perfect! The Rig Veda with its generous use of the word, ‘Arya’ and high frequency of hymns that centred on the Arya’s struggles against the Non-Arya, was a perfect candidate for the much needed chronicle of the Aryan invasion (Or migration as they prefer to call it now) of Bharatam.
This naiveté on the part of the indologists has led much of their audience (Including many Hindus who uncritically consume the information presented to them) to buy into the myth that the Rig Veda is the starting point for Hindu history when a reading of the Puranas would tell us that the Aryans had settled in Bharatam for more than a millennium before even the earliest parts of the Rig Veda were composed. Of the various historians and western Indologists who approached the issue of Hindu antiquity, most have developed a strong bias against the veracity of the accounts found in the Puranas, giving the flimsiest of reasons such as the Puranas were written far later than it should be, in order to be considered as an acceptable Pramana for historical knowledge. However, the Puranas, much like the Vedic texts, were transmitted and proliferated thorough oral transmission though not safeguarded with the same level of sacrosanct respect for its textual integrity. Thus, it was subjected to sectarian interpolations (Stories were written to further the Shaiva-Vaishnava agenda), confusion of names in rather long-winded accounts of events (due to a lack of systematic and disciplined memorization, as it was with the Vedas) and other literary ‘memes. However, the Vamsa, or the ruling dynasties of various countries in Bharatavarsha, was, for the most part, consistent as Pargiter had taken great pains to highlight. And by a meticulous method of omitting erroneous entries and contextualizing sudden jumps between distant generations, it was possible for him to reconstruct the genealogy of the Ancient Hindu dynasties.
It is high time we abandon the concept of Hindu ‘exceptionalism’ in our approach to its history, where we assume that the Hindus were exceptionally indifferent to preserving a comprehensive historical record of the most ancient times, the clans that thrived, the kings and priests who wielded power and the places which were seats of power and culture. They were clearly interested in preserving that data for posterity as exemplified by the abundance of genealogical information found in the Pauranika and Itihasika texts. It is also in the best interests of the Hindus to explore the original texts and derive a proper historical understanding through some Prayatna. In the next post, we would take one of what I believe to be Pargiter’s essential conclusions about ancient Indian traditional history, about the great King Sudasa of North Pancala and Samvarana of the Hastinapura lineage, and explore an interesting discovery that I had encountered during the course of my own investigations into the text.