Indian history is a museum of stories, of the rise and fall of kingdoms, of bravery, revolution and defiance. It is a ‘cultural experience’, like author and historian John Keay writes. In our country, it is also an incomplete memory that may soon fade into obscurity.
The history of nations relies heavily on the memory and chronicles of contemporaries at every stage. Our history is dotted with great scholars and writers. We have the best treatises on statecraft and society.
However, when the British looked to justify their ruling over us three centuries ago, they said we were a people with no sense of our past, no political ambitions and savages who needed civilising.
In fact, the first chapter of our history was written by an English judge called William Jones.
Jones arrived in Calcutta in 1783. Two years hence, Jones began to learn Sanskrit. Already a scholar of Greek and Latin, learning Sanskrit showed Jones the similarity between the three languages. He presented his theory at a meeting of the Asiatic Society, which he formed.
He said, “The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them, a stronger affinity… than can possibly have been produced by accident.”
This discovery of Jones established that the finesse of Sanskrit meant that the Indian civilization was older than any in Europe. William Jones probed our history through Sanskrit literature from our classical age, and got mired in a web of dates.
The only certain date of ancient Indian history was 326 BC, the year Alexander the Great invaded the Punjab. Sanskrit literature however had no chronicling of this event.
In his book India Discovered, John Keay describes how Jones discovered the starting point of a 2000-year old history.
Alexander’s successor, Selecus Nicator sent an ambassador Megasthenes to India. Megasthenes’ record of the age named an Indian court at a place called Palibothra, situated at the confluence of the Ganges and the Erranaboas. The record also describes in detail about the court and its ruler ‘Sandracottus’.
“But where Palibothra was, which river the Erranaboas was supposed to be, and who Sandracottus was, all remained a mystery,” writes Keay.
Jones settled on Patna, the ancient name for which was Pataliputra, closest to the Greek Palibothra. But, the Ganges does not merge with any river at this city. Keay says Jones thought the river must be Son, which once joined the Ganga near Patna before changing course. Son was also called the Hiranyabahu or golden-armed.
Keay writes, “Erranaboas could be Greek for Hiranyabahu; in which case Erranaboas was the Son after all. Palibothra must indeed mean Pataliputra. That left Sandracottus, the Indian ruler whom Megasthenes had so much admired.”
Jones found an alternate spelling for Sandracottus was Sandraguptos. This proved that Jones had indeed unearthed the story of the founder of the Mauryan Empire, Chandragupta Maurya.
This discovery was immensely important in the writing of our entire history – backward from this point to the birth of the Buddha and forward, using lists of kings in Sanskrit literature.
Jones not only gave us a sense of our past, but also an identity, an evidence of our civilisation. It went on to show the British that their subjects did have political ambitions far greater the Alexander’s, a culture far richer than Europe’s and a language far more refined than classical Greek.
But, while we love talking about our rich past, we fail to take constructive steps to discover more or perhaps just preserve it.
History is unpopular in Indian society. There are very few investments in historical research and experts on the subject could be termed an endangered species.
Anirudh Deshpande writes in the Economic and Political Weekly, “The past is important to Indians, but history is not… A large part of the problem lies in the fact that the market and the sciences in general have marginalised the humanities in Indian society.”
This spells a dangerous trend, as history is also political. Our fading memory of the past is often our greatest weakness in the face of political manipulations of India’s story – history becomes a partial comment, constructed to suit a political agenda, uplift a favoured segment of people, a point of conflict and an excuse for censure.
An amnesia of our past was solved to a certain extent by the writings of some British officers and later, many Indian historians. But our neglect of the subject is leaving it in ruins, and may just push us into amnesia, once again.