Vedic studies are not a recent phenomenon: Yellapragada Sudershan Rao

Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) chairman Yellapragada Sudershan Rao speaks to G Sreedathan on controversies surrounding the government body. Rao says the colonial mind is so deeply entrenched in the Indian psyche, that they somehow want to keep Aryan migration alive for purposes better known to them. Edited excerpts:

Historians and academicians allege that you have been appointed to head ICHR to suit the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)'s notion of history. Even economist Amartya Sen had said you have not done any worthwhile historical research. What do you have to say about it?

Professor Amartya Sen's coinage Argumentative Indian very well applies to the present generation of the Indian intellectual class. The ancient Indian intellectual tradition was based on tarka, wherein two discussants would put forth before the assembly of scholars what all they know about the contested topic, supported by pramana. The merits and demerits of this intellectual exercise were assessed by the collegium and one would gracefully acknowledge the weakness of his proposition. The judgment was objective and impartial. You can take the example of Sankaracharya and Mandana Mishra, where Mandana Mishra's wife was the judge. Mandana Mishra accepted his defeat, took to sanyasa and became Sankara's disciple. The present class of argumentative intellectuals thrive by condemning others and their views. Their arguments mostly follow their political ideologues. The idea of appropriating history is generated from the idea of political aggrandisement. One becomes vocal and vociferous when he imagines a threat to his holding. Not being an Argumentative Indian, I might have disappointed Professor Amartya Sen and the likes. Their disillusionment is so unbearable to them, that they set aside minimum decency and professional ethics in condemning the other. However, I thank them for showing interest in me, and I take their comments in good stead for my introspection.

In one of the interviews, you have said there was a need to look at history from an Indian perspective. What is the problem with the Marxist or, for that matter, Western narrative or approach to historiography? Is there a need for an Indian perspective?

Your question itself says that we have been looking at our history from the Western window. The post-independent historiography till now is dominated by the Marxist thought. All our historical perspectives are based on the Western theories on society, economy, and culture. We can easily identify the birth of these social theories in the Enlightenment Era in Europe. These theories and understandings, are, thus, based on the European experience, limited to a few centuries. Even if we apply empiricist methods of social sciences to historical studies, the wider sample is always desirable. In such a case, India offers a huge corpus of inscriptions, artefacts, and monuments, dating back to at least four millennia. The much-developed orature backed by continuous, well-developed civilisation, stable society, prosperous economy, diversified religious practices, profound knowledge systems, and philosophies from times unknown must be more welcome for an unbiased historian to work on. (Orature is a body of poetry, tales, etc, preserved through oral transmission as part of a culture.) Let us see history as it stands before us, without using a coloured glass in the guise of 'proper' perspective. General people believe that intellectuals would lead them to know what is/was real. We historians have a greater responsibility than a general intellectual.

According to newspaper reports, there is an effort to push back the antiquity of the Vedas by some Vedic scholars. Is ICHR associated with this project?

Vedic studies are not a recent phenomenon. The study of the Vedas has been continuous since times much before our historical period began. We need not try to push its antiquity backwards. The efforts of dating Vedic literature by Western scholars and English-knowing Indian scholars are also known to us for at least two centuries. In the pre-Independence period, the problem drew the attention of both colonial and national intellectuals. In the post-Independence period, the Marxist school took the brief from the colonial and imperialist schools, coming in the way of every sincere effort to find the truth. Not only archaeologists, many other scientists belonging to disciplines, geology, anthropology, astronomy, etc, have attempted in their ways to find the antiquity of the ancient Indian civilisation. A scientist searching for truth must be open-minded to accept what comes out in his research. The present trend of hypothetical research and trying to justify our own hypothesis does harm to historical studies. A historian should allow himself to be led by his data. He should not resort to select data to confirm his opinion. The Marxist school starts with the assumption that the present is definitely better than the past. This determinism conditions the writing of history. While (socialist philosopher) Karl Marx could substantiate this linear progression with his understanding of the European past; India offers a totally different picture, where astonishing culture and civilisation coexisted with uncivilised but cultured tribal life, each thriving in peaceful coexistence. Civilisation, too, had several levels of development simultaneously at several pockets. The same phenomenon still continues in India, while the West has gone for a uniform pattern. These aspects of the Indian life and culture offer great inspiration and scope to the present genre of historians to work on.

This move may bring back the debate on the Aryan invasion theory. What is your view on the Aryan invasion theory?

The fathers of this theory have denounced it after they realised during the Second World War that they burnt their fingers. But it was continued in Indian intellectual circles further for some years in the post-Independence era, but they too had to moderate the theory as Aryan migration. The colonial mind is so deeply entrenched in the Indian psyche, that they somehow want to keep it alive for purposes better known to them.


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