The new chairman of ICHR argues that faith and reason can go hand in hand in the writing of history.
OUTLOOK INTERVIEWS YELLAPRAGADA SUDERSHAN RAO
The media describes him as an RSS man and the author of the Mahabharata Project, but very little is known about the mild-mannered historian from Telangana in academic circles.Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, the new chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), describes himself as a colonial historian and argues that faith and reason can go hand in hand in the writing of history.
You have lashed out against Marxist historians and their interpretation of history. Why is the writing of history a Right vs Left debate?
I think it is time to think about India’s history from an Indian perspective. For the last 60 years, our writing and understanding of history has been influenced by the West. Indian research has been far too dependent on the West to write its own history. We are dependent on their translations and interpretation. And, these are my personal views, history writing in India is Euro-centric and imperialistic. The ICHR, I understand, is in the process of acquiring digital records from centres of history in the US and Europe. This will not only give us access to our own records but will also aid us in writing history from our perspective.
You have been appointed by the BJP government. Don’t you think institutions such as the ICHR should be free of politics?
The MoU (memorandum of understanding) prepared by the founding fathers of ICHR gave the powers to the government to appoint heads of social and historical institutes. I have no qualms in admitting that these appointments are political. Have previous heads of social institutes been questioned about their appointments? Why are these questions asked only about me? The government has been formed by a democratic process. It has been elected by the people. To question that is to question democracy itself. Unlike other social institutes, the ICHR attracts a lot of attention because history is an important subject. But history belongs to the people. We have not shown or written a comprehensive history of India to the people of India. History is by the people, for the people and of the people.
You are the author of the Mahabharata project? What is the project about?
There is a certain view that the Mahabharata or the Ramayana are myths. I don’t see them as myths because they were written at a certain point of time in history. They are important sources of information in the way we write history. What we write today may become an important source of information for the future in the future. When analysed, of course, they could be declared to be true or false. History is not static. It belongs to the people, it’s made by the people. Similarly, the Ramayana is true for people…it’s in the collective memory of generations of Indians. We can’t say the Ramayana or the Mahabharata are myths. Myths are from a western perspective.
What does that mean?
For us, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are true accounts of the periods in which they were written.
But shouldn’t the writing of history be rooted in historical evidence and research?
Western schools of thought look at material evidence of history. We can’t produce material evidence for everything. India is a continuing civilisation. To look for evidence would mean digging right though the hearts of villages and displacing people. We only have to look at the people to figure out the similarities in their lives and the depiction in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. For instance, the Ramayana mentions that Rama had travelled to Bhadrachalam (in Andhra Pradesh). A look at the people and the fact that his having lived there for a while is in the collective memory of the people cannot be discounted in the search for material evidence. In continuing civilisations such as ours, the writing of history cannot depend only on archaeological evidence. We have to depend on folklore too.
Are you for correcting the writing of history?
I won’t put it that way. But real history has to come through. I am a follower of truth. The ICHR should encourage research about India and Greater India—from Southeast Asia all the way to Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. There is enough archaeological evidence to show the connect of our civilisation there.
What is your view on Ayodhya?
Is it not a fact that mosques as structures came to be in India in 1000 AD? Is it not a fact that the mosque was built by a lieutenant of Babur? A historian can only enlighten people on the facts of history. Historians can at best say evidence of earlier remains of a Hindu structure are there. Conflicting views are created by political leaders. If Ayodhya is not the place of Ram, where did he live? Looking at the present structures in Ayodhya, we can see people still living the way that finds a mention in the Ramayana. Historians can only give their opinion to enlighten people.
Doesn’t correcting history pose a problem? Why only cast it in the context of two communities? How about Dalits and untouchability?
The question of untouchability is relatively recent, as recent as 3,000 years. And it has its basis in the economy. It was not based on social status. Did we hear of untouchability before this period of 3,000 years? Let me give you an example. Sage Vishwamitra went to a Dalit hut and asked for dog’s meat as he was hungry. The Ramayana and Mahabharata are replete with instances of different castes, did we find a mention of untouchability there?
As a historian, are you trying to give a religious interpretation to history?
I am a Hindu and a Brahmin. To be a Hindu isn’t a religion. In my personal practices, I can adopt religious practices of the community to which I belong—as a Shaivite or a Vaishnavite. But that is not what being a Hindu is about. Religions are recent manifestations. I feel there’s only Sanatana Dharma. There was no conflict between communities or on religious lines as there was only one sanatana dharma. Now there are several reasons for conflict to take place. Besides, Muslims are the only ones who have retained their distinct culture. Can Christians or Muslims say all religions are one? A Hindu can say that. There was no conflict when there was sanatana dharma, Conflict or contests came about when temples were destroyed and mosques built on the sites in medieval times.
Didn’t Hindus destroy Buddhist monuments?
I agree. But Buddhism was on the wane then, in decline. But were thousands of people killed as they were in the raids to the Somnath temple? I won’t use the word corrections here. But the real history has to come up
Is the ICHR head saying Hindus destroyed Buddhist monuments? How many such instances were there?
When we say R & MBH were written at a certain time & while proceeding to analyse it now , are we ready for “falisfiying” people’s beliefs ?
Also, is there a guideline in Hindu scriptures on what can be taken up for analysis ? Are R & MBH part of that?
That is a part of what needs rewritten, although it’d be better if he mentioned the record of Buddhist iconoclasm in Bharata instead of drawing up contrast with Somnath. The whole business of “anything against vaidika tradition is fine” for the only reason that it is the central pillar on which our culture stands, is the problem with commie narrative and that doesn’t get really addressed unless the Bauddha antagonism is brought out.
Problem is not with analysis (all smriti literature can be analyzed/deduced/refuted) itself but with analysis done by untrained (today academics are untrained anyway). There are several renderings of the same itihasa story, which means you cannot have a single academic narrative. So it will be interesting to see what ICHR does.
Prof SN Balu puts is quite well: you theory of religion (or history) exists to the total exclusion of lived experience. Basically Indian Itihasa-Purana is the lived experience, and lessons from it. You don’t need a chronology approved by the libtards to tell this much to the nation, the inheritor of such lived experience. There is no need to justify or explain “historicity” or evidentiary value of Itihasa-Purana.
That however, is just tip of the iceberg. Real problem of life: living traditions accrue knowledge with time, hence our current recordings of previous few centuries need to become part of such knowledge of lived experiences. Are Hindu folk even ready to think in these lines, forget rising to this task?
Good and audacious interview. I some how get the feeling that the complete interview is not posted here.
History is of the people by the people and for he people. The people is important Here. It is history of Indians and hence can only be told out of their collective memory. And only such history will be useful FOR the Indians to learn lessons from it in not repeating those mistakes. There cannot be a better purpose of history than that.