The soft-spoken Dr. Y Sudershan Rao has seen a few controversies coming his away as the Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). Allegations of saffronisation have been flung at him many times, especially given Rao’s past association with the RSS-linked Akhil Bhartiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana. Rao says Hindutva is an irreligious term applicable to all Indians and hence not condemnable.
As for his critics, he rues that Indian culture is a secular enough term for them, but Hindu culture is not. This shows Colonial thinking, nothing else, he argues. His pet project, a Hindi magazine for ICHR called Itihas, recently kicked up a row with its very first edition as one of the authors claimed the iconic ‘Dancing Girl’ of Indus Valley was indeed Goddess Parvati. Here, in a lengthy conversation with News18’s Eram Agha, Dr. Rao answered queries about the Dancing Girl and his new pet proposal: a new international centre for excellence for Indological studies to be based out of the BHU campus in Varanasi. Excerpts:
Why is the ICHR in news so much?
The subject of history is something, which interests everyone… some want to know what’s happening to his or her history. So everybody is interested… Everyone can have his own view about their past. Everybody will be looking forward to what would they have in future and how this present will influence them in future. We have the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, (CSIR), Indian Council of Social Science Research, (ICSSR) and Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) etc. But people’s attention is mostly drawn to ICHR – it would be more in the news than any other council. That is the greatness of the subject not merely of the council.
The ICHR has proposed the International Centre for Excellence for Indological Studies and Research to be situated in the campus of Banaras Hindu University. Tell us more.
I will explain the idea. Suppose you begin from the scientific evolution of the 19th century. Earlier, there was no demarcation of subjects into botany, philosophy etc. Everything was consolidated knowledge. After that, we graduated to making them into different subjects and disciplines. By the 20th century, most of these disciplines were termed as basic sciences and those basic sciences changed to applied sciences because most of it is technology-oriented. Later on, we started speaking of inter-disciplinary subjects. So there is no specialist subject that can stand on its own without its relationship with others.
Similarly, history is not the history of the past century. In the 18th century, we only had a political history. But now we have so many aspects of history. There is gender history, working class history, industrial history, history of science. These branches have become independent branches by now.
Earlier there used to be universities where we could have all the subjects. But those subjects have grown so much that each subject is going to be a university by itself. You call it a health university, technological university etc. So history cannot be on its own now. It needs so many sciences – geology, botany, chemistry environment etc. These applications are involved in the study of ancient past. So now remote sensing is also being used in the archeological lab. Everything has grown.
Suppose if I am writing history and as a student of history knowing only English I can take my sources only from English records and not consult records in other languages. So whatever I am researching is only dependent on English sources, what about the alternate sources?
When I am speaking of India I am only speaking of British India because I am only consulting British records. But I am forgetting the fact that India, at least 1/3rd of India has been independent throughout the time. It was never under foreign rule. So this at the end of the 19th century we started calling it as native India, ruled by the native rulers. That part of India remained native under the native rulers, but whenever we are writing about the history of India we are writing only the history of British occupied India not the entire one. All this needs to be looked into, so it needs a university by itself. This is what ICHR has proposed.
Please run us through the details of the proposal…
What we have proposed is that there should be a centre for studying Indian history in tandem with aligned disciplines. For instance, we have lakhs of epigraphs, which have not been studied so far. Most of them are lying in different places and are not even cataloged. So whatever we are writing about, quarreling about, discussing, is only based on the same material. We are only giving different interpretations to the same material but are not trying to find out other, new material, which is equally important.
And we have not collected the material about India from the repositories in other parts of the world. We don’t know what material is available on India in Netherlands for instance. We are now requesting them if any digitized records are available that we can have access to for our research scholars. For all this, a small university department may not be enough, and even a council like this which has limited resources cannot do it by itself. So we are proposing an international centre where all those interested in the subject from across the world should come. Attention could be paid to the scholar class. India offers a lot of ground to study.
We have ancient literature dating back to at least some thousands of years. No other place can boast of having such ancient literature as is available in India. American historians are not interested in studying their own ancient America. They are interested in India, why? Why not be interested in ancient America, ancient Latin America? They are ignoring the history of their own land. Europe for that matter, it is a developed part of the world, they also say they have modernized us. But do they look with confidence into medieval Europe? Do they go into ancient Europe? These are the questions I am asking because India can boast “We have so much!” Being developed countries are you attentive to your ancient past? Is it because of the fear that they have something in relation to Indian culture? As a student of history you have to go into the background of the problem we are encountering now.
As a result these studies have to be taken by an educational institution. That is why there should be a good international center for studies on Indian history, giving scope for the training and also giving skills in language. Now the clan has become mostly social scientists. But historically if we have this kind of training they should be able to study ancient history taking help of modern sciences.
Modern historians have mostly become social scientists?
Mostly. Because they are only studying the present and sometimes you try to relate this to ancient Puranas, Shastras and say that this has been there. Everything has been there in history not only good, even bad things are found. History should have the facts. What line you want to take is left to you. Also because history is the knowledge about the past and what we are generally doing today is not history but interpretative history – same thing you are interpreting in a different way, and I am seeing it in a different way and both are based on the same material. But we should also see that this base widens. The source material should go up and on that, the ICHR has to work on.
One of your projects, a Hindi magazine for ICHR called Itihas has run into controversy because the author of the paper has identified the iconic Dancing Girl of Indus Valley with Goddess Parvati. Is it an interpretative thing?
Yes, it is only an interpretation. Why should it not be Parvati, when there is a concept of Shiva there? You should not reject the idea. For example, you take only Dancing Girl, the dance has come from Nataraja, who is Lord Shiva, and his consort. The dance of Shiva is about how the Jagat (the world) works. In the earliest European interpretations itself, Pashupati is taken as Shiva. When we look into it as someone who does not know anything, he will say “She is woman”. Is that an interpretation? Do I need you to tell me that she is woman, is this a way of interpretation? This shows how basic we are in trying to interpret a thing of 3000 year past. A very loose interpretation.
Somebody might say she is Parvati, and somebody might call her a Dancing Girl, somebody might identify her as a woman. We make all these interpretations from our modern sense. This is how everybody interprets from the knowledge he has acquired so far. Most of the cultural things have continued even today. That is the greatness of India. It is an unbroken civilization.
But why is it so that whenever is an attempt to link Harappa with Vedic times there is no semblance of consensus?
You have already delineated both of them. Harappan civilization has come much later. The earlier thing you have is only the literary base. It started with having an early Veda, later Veda and then post-Vedic period. This declaration has also been done on the basis of literature but is it chronological and where is the source for this? This history of Vedic literature could only be seen from Puranic chronology. In Puranas there is no reference on which Veda came first. We are only basing our arguments on literature. But one basic thing is Vedas have been handed over to us only at one time. How can one be sure about the chronology? Vedas, Puranas have come and after that Shastras developed. We cannot say which one was developed and when. It is better not to say about it.
It has been composed by many rishis. Most of the things have been lost already even by the time of Ved Vyasa.
Every time Dancing Girl will be identified with Parvati or the Priest King with Shiv Bhakt the critics will see politics in it. It will be viewed as building a case for Hindutva.
You are politicking in the name of Hindutva only to condemn Hindutva. Whose country is this? Let’s come to the basics: This is the mother country for Hindus, all others have different mother countries. India is the only mother country of Hindus. If you think it is your mother country, I welcome your view, I am not questioning them, but you’re questioning Hindus in their own country calling it as Hindutva.
Let me ask you, who are you then? You also question yourself, from where have you come? Religion is different. Hindu is Hindu desha. All other countries call it Hindustan. So why do you feel shy to call your country as a Hindu country? What is India, from where India has come? Why do you hesitate to call yourself Hindu? That is the basic question that a student of history is asking you. Not as a Hindu or anybody else. I know India has a long past it was called Hindus by others and was accepted. Hindutva is not a condemnable thing. Hindutva is not a religious denomination. So if I say Indian culture that looks secular to you. But the moment I say Hindu culture, it is not secular to you. That is how modern intellectuals are thinking. This is a colonial and Euro-centric thinking and should change.
We don’t call it Buddhist, Jaina or Vaishnava or Shaiva country – all of us come under Hindu umbrella, and this is a foreign term given to us, you will not have it in Shastras and all. Hindutva is not communal in my understanding. We are all Hindus. Even if the one who says I am not a Hindu is also a Hindu according to Hindu tradition. Whether you believe in God or not or whether you follow Purana or not it does not matter. Hindu should not be understood under these denominations. Hindu is a Hindu desha. I like Shaivism, someone else may practice Buddhism but I have no quarrel with the Buddhist. Why should I? That is secularism. But here they are questioning that somebody is a Hindu. How can that be secular? That surprises me and many other intellectuals.(More Sunday Features)