Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation

Fact based Pride: Why Attempts to Reclaim India’s Past Needs Sustained Support

India’s intellectual class, including many eminent scientists have raised a hue and cry over the ISRO chief Shri S.Somnath’s rather innocuous statement about the achievements of ancient Indian science and its contribution to the overall development of human civilization. The reaction was not just limited to a storm in a twitter cup- it was deemed serious enough to merit a full article in several newspapers, including India’ premier English daily the Times of India (TOI). The TOI article in particular (BSS questions ISRO chief claims, May 30th, 2023) carried stinging criticism of Shri Somnath by a group of scientists under the banner of Breakthrough Science Society (BSS). 

It is important to analyze the substance of such criticism of Shri Somnath’s praise of Indic achievements in science and technology because it represents a very important strand in Prime Minister’s Modi’s speech on August 15th 2022. Two of the ‘panch pran’ mentioned by the Prime Minister relates to cleansing our mindsets of the intellectual slavery and submission that was a result of centuries of foreign domination, and developing genuine respect and pride in our Indic heritage. This pride does not have to be jingoistic, but a genuine assertion of self-confidence and belief in our abilities. 

On the face of it, some of the criticism by BSS (and other such intellectuals) sound reasonable. They make the broader point that developments in science and engineering in the ancient world were a result of constant interactions between different cultures through trade and people to people linkages between the major civilizations of the ancient world, i.e., Indian, Persian, Greco-Roman, Egyptian, and Chinese. Such linkages led to exchange of ideas resulting in discoveries and important developments in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, medicine, metallurgy and civil engineering. 

This back and forth diffusion of ideas is an absolute fact, and this author, as would any other reasonable person, cannot but agree with this factual assertion. But was our current ISRO chief contradicting this fact? If one reads the substance of his statement made during convocation ceremony at the Maharshi Panini Sanskrit and Vedic University, he was essentially underling the achievements of ancient Indic science, not denigrating the achievements of others. His was a call for recognition of India’s ancient achievements, not negation of the achievement of others. 

Was his praise of Indic contributions effusive? Of course, it was. After all the point of a platform such as a convocation ceremony is to inspire young minds and instill in them a sense of confidence. Shri S.Somnath was making the bigger point that the culture and civilization to which the graduating students belonged to has a long tradition of scientific enquiry and achievement, and that it had made significant contributions to the advancement of scientific thought through the ages. This assertion is important because there is a long tradition of down-playing and negating Indic contributions to the material history of the world. 

The two pertinent questions that every reader must ask at this point is 1) why do some eminent Indian scientists and engineers feel the need to emphatically assert the achievements of Indic science in public platforms, and 2) why is there always a backlash from the ‘intelligentsia’ about it. The answers are intrinsically related to what Prime Minister Modi laid out in his Independence Day speech. 

Colonial education has long tried to undermine any genuine assessment of Indic civilizational contributions in the field of material science and engineering. Western scholars, while extolling ancient Indic philosophical achievements to some extent, wanted to drive a narrative of a passive Indic civilization that borrowed must of its material achievements from discoveries made elsewhere. This narrative helps support the idea that material progress was essentially a result of encounters with a series of invaders who brought new ideas and innovations which the Indic population simply adopted to local conditions. 

This is in sync with Marxist historiography that broadly sees economic history as a linear progression from ancient agrarian societies to modern industrial ones. As per Marxist understanding, eastern civilizations, and among them primarily the Indic civilization, were largely passive, and made little genuine material progress up to the later medieval period whereby invasion and colonialism shook up a feudal and largely unchanging agrarian society.  

It also gels well with the broader narrative of human history which is taught in the major western universities and largely dominates global intellectual worldview. As per this narrative, most major intellectual discoveries in mathematics, engineering, astronomy and medicine happened in Greece or Rome, and these ideas ‘spread’ to rest of the world where they were adopted. Thus ‘western civilization’ as represented by the Greco-Roman civilization was the fountainhead of material civilization. 

It follows that other important material innovations such as democratic forms of government, institutional structures such as independent corporate and commercial organizations, systems of banking, credit, and insurance are also attributed to ancient Greco-Romans, or their later descendants during the European renaissance. Such innovations are also are supposed to have diffused to rest of the world and adopted locally. Thus, the ‘West’ were idea givers and the ‘East’, including India were idea takers. This whole narrative establishes the intellectual superiority of the west in civilizational terms. Much of these ideas date back to the colonial era, and what is being dished out now is old wine in a sophisticated new bottle. 

Any casual reading of both popular and academic works of world history written by scholars across western world, and scholars from developing countries including India who teach and do research in these western institutions will clearly show how this narrative has been brazenly ingrained into the whole discipline of history. Some of these biases are so widespread that they found their way into Indian school textbooks. 

This author remembers Kalidas being described as the Indian Shakespeare and the Chanakya as the Indian Machiavelli in his school texts. Kalidas lived a millennium before Shakespeare. Chanakya’s Arthashastra is perhaps the first proper exposition of political-economy known to mankind and includes references to key economic ideas such as progressive taxation, fiscal incentives for better governance, state-led industrial policy and many more such concepts that are relevant to this day. In other words, a work far more complex and richer than Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’. Chanakya lived and worked some 1200 years before Machiavelli. Yet Chanakya is described as the Indian Machiavelli to Indian school students! These examples underline the sheer absurdity of how history was written and taught by the mainstream intellectual establishment in India for decades. But they also underline the implicit assumption of western intellectual superiority that has seeped into mainstream teaching and writing of history across the world. 

Thankfully, this intellectual domination is being challenged, and that too with facts and research. More and more scholars from non-European and non-North American backgrounds, and from Universities and institutes in Asia and Africa are challenging these assumptions. When one is attempting to challenge long established narratives that are still patronized by powerful intellectual elites, it is not possible always to be subtle. Voices of reason against ‘scientific evidence’ of racial inferiority being peddled by scholars from the same renowned temples of learning in the west could not have afforded to be subtle 150 years ago, and we must thank our stars that they were not! That long intellectual struggle against racial theories was a key element of the freedom movements against colonial domination. 

But despite this pushback, the eco-system still largely remains an echo chamber of many outdated theories, poor analysis and double standards. There are two standard approaches that are used to continually deny or denigrate achievements of ancient Indic science, engineering and socio-economic developments. 

#1 Absence of evidence presented as definite proof

It is ironic that mainstream historians simply accept the fact somehow ancient Indians were not interested in recording knowledge-basically the textual evidence or record needed to establish historical facts. Surely a common-sensical question to ask would have been how did a sophisticated civilization whose intellectual and cultural influence stretched from present Afghanistan to Vietnam and Indonesia, an area twice as large as Europe, functioned without maintenance of records. Logic demands that civilization that build some of the largest libraries and repositories of knowledge in the ancient world could have done so only if it had copious amounts of written material across several subjects and specializations. 

It is an established fact that the great libraries located in centres of learning like Nalanda, Taxila and Vikramshila, were some of the largest in the world in their time, and contained huge repository of written record of scholastic achievements across different disciplines.  Islamic conquest of India not only resulted in massive destruction and loss of this huge wealth of knowledge, the subsequent lack of substantive patronage of temples, monasteries and other Indic centres of learning prevented any serious attempt for preservation of this written repository. Maybe our lack of written record to substantiate intellectual originality or independent discoveries has something to do with this wanton destruction. 

Like in the case of Indic monasteries, it was the church and associated clergy in Europe that played the critical role in preservation and dissemination of ancient knowledge. In fact, several of Europe’s great Universities are associated with the Church. These include Oxford, Cambridge. Salamanca, Vienna and many others.  

Imagine an alternative world where two things happened. First, the Arabs do not preserve and build on the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans. Second, the outcome at the battle of Poitiers in 732 was a different one, i.e., the Islamic armies would have triumphed and eventually overrun Europe, and gone on to destroy hundreds upon hundreds of Christian churches and monastic orders that preserved historical records and served as the foundational basis for many of its great Universities. 

Would the bulk of the written scholastic record of the Greco-Roman world and associated medieval commentary on the same survived under such circumstances? Possibly not. Much of the written record produced painstakingly before the invention of modern printing would have been lost to posterity. 

It is in that sense ironic that the loss of Raja Dahir of Sind to Ummayad general Muhammad bin Qasim and the victory of Charles Martel at Poitiers over Ummayad general Abd al Rahman both take place in the first half of the 8th century at two ends of the earth. Europe was lucky, its victory allowed it to survive destruction and retain its link to its ancient civilization through well-preserved repositories in well patronized centres of learning. India was less fortunate. A series of defeats eroded significant chunks of its civilizational heritage and disrupted the intellectual linkages to its ancient past. 

This resultant scarcity of written records due to their wanton destruction has led to obvious challenges in establishing precise chronology and sequence in the context of Indic treatises in astronomy, medicine, mathematics and other fields. But many of the Indic treatises seem to indicate familiarity with complex theories and concepts going back centuries. Lack of physical evidence of these older materials cannot be conclusive proof of their absolute non-existence in any logical mind. Unless of course you are an ‘eminent’ historian of the Indian variety. 

It is therefore possible and in fact probable that many of these concepts travelled from East to West, not just West to East, i.e., from India through Persia and Egypt to the Greco-Roman world. But the absence of written record is treated as clinching evidence that these concepts must have travelled in the other direction. Indian references to more ancient Indic sources of knowledge are treated as ‘ahistorical’. In many cases this reflects double-standards since equally tenuous textual evidence as often treated as proof to underline Greco-Roman or western originality. Increasing instances of logical refutation of such hypocrisy and absolute truth claims is creating significant heartburn for establishment historians in India and their patrons in the west.   

#2 Original is always western-or not Indian

A casual reading of articles on ancient Indian architecture, civil engineering, sculpture, irrigation systems, metallurgy, medicine, food and textile technology would all indicate an attempt to show that Indians were constantly adopting innovations from others. Whether it is the handloom, the critical invention for the ancient world’s most potent industry-textiles, iron-foundry and casting techniques, or systems of irrigation or recipes for food. It seems that India was almost always the recipient of sophisticated ideas from outside. All of this is based on very little evidence. 

But logic holds that when a certain part of the world is substantially richer that others it represents a certain sophistication and higher level of economic productivity, and that it would be a major originator of ideas and inventions. It is on evidence that the Indian provinces of the Persian empire, which in themselves where just slivers of Western Punjab and Sindh, contributed more to the Persian treasury than all the other provinces of that vast empire combined. Surely such a sophisticated civilization, so advanced materially, that just small part of it generated more wealth than a huge empire, could not have been a mere recipient of knowledge on engineering, architecture, medicine, hydrological management. In fact, logically such an assumption is ludicrous, and surely required more enquiry by modern Indian historians. Instead, what we have is pedantic repetition of the few lines of Greek or Persian texts that survive, and use the absence of Indic texts (for obvious reasons) to establish originality outside India. 

Some examples are indeed logic defying. How did ancient India emerge as the world leader in textile, medicine, and steel and dominate world markets without having developed the basic innovations in these sectors? How come cuisines that require a vast array of spices that are grown in India, but not found in Persia or middle-east have been deemed to have originated in locations where such spices were difficult, if not impossible to come by? How come Indians adopted what was aesthetic in Greek styles of sculpture but the Greeks took nothing Indic back to their shores? Were the Greeks blind to aesthetics, or so parochial that they rejected any foreign influence? 

Unlike what our scientist friends from BSS are claiming, the dominant narrative in history do not indicate mingling and exchange of ideas, which must have happened, but unidirectional flow from a superior west to a materially inferior Indic civilization, which as pointed out above seems to be logically inconsistent.  

Let us end with the examples of democracy, corporations and the double entry-accounting system. Ancient Buddhist literature clearly points to the existence of independent republics with limited adult suffrage. It also points to clear institutional design of elected committees and councils, rules of governance, and concepts like the quorum. The same Buddhist and Jain literature indicates the existence of independent and powerful commercial guilds and corporations that had their own by-laws, and a well-defined system of rules governing commercial transactions, contracts, responsibilities and liabilities for itself and its members. A complex system of accounting, called the bahi khatah, that closely resembles the double entry system of accounting has existed in India since time immemorial. As have multiple forms of credit instruments that were honored by financial networks maintained by Indian merchants across the ancient world. 

Yet, apparently democracy was invented in Greece, corporations in medieval Italy, and a 15th century Italian cleric called Lucas Pacioli is the ‘father’ the double entry system of accounting.  When Prime Minister Modi asserts India as the ‘mother of democracy’ it represents much needed and overdue course correction. 

#3 Misinterpretation and misrepresentation

Where subterfuge is not possible because extensive written records actually exist, deliberate misinterpretation is used as a weapon. Just one example will be adequate to demonstrate this. A number of Indic scholars have commented on the fact that historical records show that Indic civilization was unique among ancient civilizations in not having an institutionalized form of slavery, possibly having only mild forms of bonded labour. 

This has been corroborated by ancient foreign visitors to India such as the Greek Megasthenes and Chinese Huen Tsang who commented on the lack of institutionalized slavery and generally humane treatment of servants and bondsmen. 

Yet this extremely positive aspect of Indic civilization is largely downplayed. In fact, scholars such as Upinder Singh (daughter of the former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh) have gone to great lengths to use references to ‘dasas’ in Vedic texts to indicate that slavery was common in India. That the world dasa does not translate into slave has been pointed out by many scholars, but this has not prevented the likes of Dr. Upinder Singh to indulge in misrepresentation that undermines the genuine human rights related achievements of India’s ancient civilization. 

A great recent example of misrepresentation appeared in the online ‘Print’ magazine (The Dutch have apologized for their part in slave trade. Now, India must own up to its mistakes by Pravin Swami). The article presumptuously asks why India does not acknowledge its own history of slavery-referring to the large-scale enslavement of Indians by Turkic Islamic invaders starting from 12th century. 

That most slaves exported out of India were ‘kafirs’ or non-Muslims is on record. This is consistent with behavior across the Islamic world in medieval ages where slaves were largely drawn from a non-Muslim population. Yes, there were importation of Muslim slaves into India, especially women. But this was largely due to the racialist preferences for Persian or Central Asian women slaves by the Muslim ruling elite who were themselves from these regions. 

By white-washing the industrial scale enslavement of Indians by Turkic invaders, and their massive large-scale exportation outside-in numbers comparable to the African slave trade led by European powers, it tries to undermine the genuine commitment of Indic civilization to more humane standards before its conquest by Turkic invaders. It mischievously tries to showcase half-hearted attempts to stop slavery by Aurangzeb-the most bigoted of the Muslim rulers in India, and ownership of some Central Asian origin slaves by some members of the Hindu Maratha elite as an attempt at proving that all of Indian elites were complicit in this industrial scale slavery that India’s Turkic and Afghan invaders imposed on the local population. All of this by the way—this large-scale enslavement of ‘kafirs’ is on record by contemporary eye-witnesses, including Shri Guru Nanak ji, the first Sikh Guru. Perhaps Afghanistan, Iran and Uzbekistan need to reckon and acknowledge the part played by invaders from their regions in enslaving millions of Indians-we Indians were the victims not the oppressors. 

Why the recent Josh?

There has been significant pushback against this passive, unidimensional interpretation of Indic history-ancient, medieval, and modern. Indian scholars based here in India and outside have exposed double-standards in objective evaluation of evidence, deliberate misinterpretation, and innuendo that was used to push a particular narrative. Why this new energy in challenging the establishment narrative of Indian history? The left-pseudo liberal scripted reply is that a BJP government in power is pushing its own ideological agenda. This is not true. What this government has done is to only open the doors and windows of institutions of research and learning, allowing for a level playing field to all scholars with merit, instead of allowing the academic progeny of a limited number of ‘eminent historians’ rule the roost. 

But even more than that, it is the coming of age of an entire generation of Indians born in the 1980s who benefitted from the transformational changes in Indian society starting in the 1990s. Liberalization, the internet, and the major political shift that forever ended the monopoly of the Congress as the national political monolith all democratized access to information and opportunities. It is this generation that is producing the scholars and intellectuals who are providing evidence-based counterfactuals to a version of history designed to downplay genuine achievements of the Indic civilization and unquestioningly accept the western worldview of history in order to get few crumbs of US dollar funding or paid vacations to American and British campuses. 

This new josh, this new energy, this intellectual churn or manthan is the real cause of the angst among the left pseudo liberals. And we must keep up the josh. We must never stop asking our ‘eminent’ intellectuals where was your sense of balance when our textbooks called Chanakya the Indian Machiavelli and Kalidas the Indian Shakespeare? Why did you not protest all the Eurocentric interpretations of history being taught across the world, and instead quietly accepted funding from the same institutions? Why were you not angry with the repeated proclamations of democracy and human rights to be ‘western values’ and shout from the rooftops with contrary evidence? Where were you when narratives of Greco-Roman civilizational superiority bordering on racism was aired from Discovery channels or published in popular rendering of history? 

We must never stop asking, and never stop shouting. Never. And so, Somnath sir, thank you for adding to the josh.

Dr. Pritam Banerjee is a Senior Research Fellow with Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation.