By Devdutt Pattanaik
Western scholars often state that Indians do not have a sense of history. Rows over films like Padmavati confirm that. Unlike their Chinese, Arabic and Greek counterparts, ancient and medieval Indians show little interest in historical documentation, except maybe land grants on copper plates or stone walls of temples. For the average Indian, not just Hindus, myth and legend are both historical facts. There is violent outrage when TV serials and Bollywood do not stick to imagined pasts. History based on scientific method that challenges traditional notions of the past, is seen simply as Western conspiracy to undermine India’s greatness.
Myth is indifferent to history and geography as it tries to transcend space and time, as in case of Ram and Krishna, while legend anchors itself to history and geography to legitimise a tribe or clan, as in case of Padmavati. Politicians turn myth into legend and legend into history as they seek control over history and geography.
European politicians of the 19th century insisted that Christianity is based on history, but Hinduism is based on mythology, to delegitimise the faith of the colony. Many 21st century Hindu fundamentalists still fall for the century-old bait and argue that Hinduism is also historical, when in fact, the question they should ask is: how can God be a historical fact? If God is not a historical fact, then how can the Son of God, or God’s last messenger, or God’s commandments, be historical facts? No faith is based on historical fact. They are all based on myth.
Indians are not conventionally historical because Indian thought – Hindu, Buddhist and Jain – sees the world as having no beginning (anadi) and no end (ananta) and time as cyclical. By contrast Abrahamic faiths see time in linear terms; the world with a beginning (Genesis) and end (Apocalypse) and so history is important.
Hinduism sees the past as invalid, and prefers the timeless (sanatan) doctrine (dharma). Judaism, Christianity and Islam need the past of ‘Original Sin’ as that marks the beginning of their time. But no historian will call Original Sin an historical event, or Eden a geographical location.
The attempt to make Hinduism historical and scientific mirrors the attempts to make Christianity historical and scientific since the 19th century. As discovery after discovery revealed that the earth is not flat, that the earth is not the centre of the universe, that the world was not created in seven days, Europeans began the scramble to make Jesus historical, hence more scientifically valid in their eyes. True God and false gods arguments of the pre-Enlightenment Age gave way to scientific versus mythological religions.
Eventually, religion lost its battle. Science, and history, along with rationality, functioned very much like the jealous God of the Bible, and termed all faiths as myths, by which they meant falsehoods. In America, the last of these battles is being fought as Creationism is seen as an alternative to the Evolution. In India, some Hindu fundamentalists want to replicate that absurd American model, no doubt under the influence of those extremist Hindu Americans, who aspire to be as scientific as their Bible-bashing counterparts.
Jesus may be an historical figure based on slim scientific evidence, but no historian will verify claims of his birth from a virgin or his resurrection after death, tales that are crucial to establish him as the ‘Son of God’. Likewise, Muhammad may be historical based on slightly more robust scientific evidence, but no historian will validate tales of his meeting the archangel Gabriel, or his magnificent ride from Mecca to Jerusalem to Paradise, also crucial to establish him as the ‘Final Prophet of God.’ Attempts to make Ram and Krishna historical figures, who lived 5000 and 7000 years ago respectively, based on scriptures that are 2000 years old, ignoring all manner of archaeological and epigraphic evidence, forget that Ram and Krishna derive their power by being ‘avatar’ or mortal forms of God on earth, a concept that falls outside the realm of science.
We give science too much power. It’s a method of understanding the world based on measurement; that is all. Technology uses that understanding to control the world. In the 19th century, scientific approval was key. However, in the 21st century, people are more wary. A scientific life is not necessarily a good life, or even a desirable life. For science can NEVER tell us how to distribute wealth and power fairly. People have tried. Wars have been fought. Capitalism and communism are still engaged in a moral, ‘rational’ catfight.
Meanwhile, gripped by the ‘gospel of industrialisation and development’, the earth’s ecosystem has been ruined and half of world’s wildlife has been lost in past forty years, according to wildlife experts, to enable 1 per cent of humanity to control over 50 per cent of scientifically generated wealth. Yes, fewer wars, lesser mortality rate, better health, higher lifespan, antibiotics, mobile phones, cars, planes, more human rights, thanks to scientific thinking, but also far more entitled mouths to feed. Tribal gods, who sustained biodiversity for thousands of years, would be chuckling at the gods, or God, of science.
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