Monday, December 22, 2014

Comments on Prof S.N. Balagangadhara's paper, 'What do Indians Need, A History or the Past?'

Last updated on 2nd February 2015

This post became a longish one over time as I added material to the original post. It has been divided into the following sections:

My comments mail to ICHR on Prof. Balagangadhara MAKA paper/presentation
Prof. Harbans Mukhia's comments
Prof. Rajaram Hegde's comments
Prof. Romila Thapar's views on related matters & comments
Chairperson ICHR, Prof. Y. Sudershan Rao's comments

My comments mail to ICHR on Prof. Balagangadhara MAKA paper/presentation

Given below is the text of an email I sent today (22nd Dec. 2014) to the Member-Secretary of the Indian Council of Historical Research,

I am a retired-from-commercial-work software consultant, and blogger on spirituality and religion, who found the discussion related to Prof. S.N. Balagangadhara's recent Maulana Abul Kalam Azad memorial lecture convened by ICHR, to be of great interest.

I went through most of Prof. Balagangadhara's paper (37 pages) titled, "What do Indians Need, A History or the Past? A challenge or two to Indian historians",, and the comments on the lecture/paper put up on ICHR website. Given below are my comments on those parts of the paper and comments that were of interest to me.

With reference to the paragraph in Page 9 where, Prof. Balagangadhara talks of a "radical disjunction between what the historians think they are doing ('seeking explanations about the past') and what they do (collect factoids)":

I disagree with the above words OR maybe I did not get the right meaning/context related to it. The history books I read including some volumes of Will Durrant's history of the Western & Middle-Easten world certainly gave me some decent explanation about the past of the peoples in these parts of the world. Sure, there could be some flaws in those explanations but they certainly were not simply a collection of (dusty) records/factoids.


In Pages 9 & 10  of Prof. Balagangadhara's paper he mentions the different attitudes to history of Peter Comestor and Babbington Macaulay as well as similarly different attitudes of the "European intellectuals (who) looked at the Greek myths during the Italian Renaissance" and the "'heroes' of the European Enlightenment". The former groups viewed the myths 'sympathetically' from which kernels of truth had to be extracted whereas the latter groups viewed the myths as imagination of poets and so not historical facts. I found these sections to be very interesting and informative.


With reference to the paragraph on Page 11  of Prof. Balagangadhara's paper dealing with attitudes of Catholics and Protestants towards miracles:

I find the above paragraph to be quite startling. Balagangadhara (Balu) claims that Protestants did not believe (and perhaps his view is that they still do not believe) in miracles outside of what is recorded in the Bible. I tried to check this with some sources on the net. and give some info. on it. The latter link states, "Belief in miracles is thus obligatory in the Roman Catholic Church, although belief in any specific miracle is not necessarily so. Classical Protestantism, however, has confined its belief in miracles to those recorded in Scripture."

So Classical Protestantism may not believe in miracles outside of those recorded in scripture but that may have got diluted over time in various Protestent groups/sects.
Pentecostalism, as a movement, began in the United States early in the 20th century, starting especially within the Holiness movement. Seeking a return to the operation of New Testament gifts of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues as evidence of the "baptism of the Holy Ghost" or to make the unbeliever believe became the leading feature. Divine healing and miracles were also emphasized.
--- end wiki extract ---

So at least one sect of Protestants which originated in the early 20th century, do believe in miracles outside of those recorded in scripture.

The other startling issue in the above paragraph is the poor view of History that Protestants are claimed to have. I will not accept that view unless there are other established sources of knowledge which supports that view.]


With reference to paragraph in Page 12  of Prof. Balagangadhara's paper dealing with Macaulay being a child of the Protestant attitude to the human past:

Balu claims that European enlightenment thinkers 'merely reproduced' in secular garb (Balu's view of) the Protestant attitude to the human past! I wonder whether this claim is backed by leading authorities of history.

Balu then states that Macaulay was a child of (Balu's view of) the Protestant attitude to history. I looked up wikipedia on Macaulay,,_1st_Baron_Macaulay#Historian, which notes that he was also a historian. I could not spot any mention in the above wiki page, of Macaulay having the kind of attitude towards history that Balu claims Protestants had/have.
Interestingly, Macaulay is referred to as a "Whig historian". From, "Whig history (or Whig historiography) is the approach to historiography which presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians emphasize the rise of constitutional government, personal freedoms, and scientific progress. The term is often applied generally (and pejoratively) to histories that present the past as the inexorable march of progress towards enlightenment." ... 'While Macaulay was a popular and celebrated historian of the Whig school, his work did not feature in Butterfield's 1931 book. According to Ernst Breisach "his style captivated the public as did his good sense of the past and firm Whiggish convictions".'

So I find it hard to accept that Macaulay had the attitude to history that (in Balu's words) "Human history does not edify; at best it disappoints. Any human flourishing that we might want is not provided by stories about the past."

The next claim of Balu is that today's 'historical attitude' is solidly rooted in (Balu's views of) Protestant Christianity. Really? Second half of 20th century and early 21st century historians' ideas about why study the human past and how it ought to be done, are not based on sound rational lines! I find this very, very hard to accept as I am quite sure that leading historians from the world over would be able to provide a very good rebuttal to this claim of Balu.]


With reference to the first two paragraphs under section 'The common end' in Pages 12 and 13  of Prof. Balagangadhara's paper:

I think, as Indians, we have to accept that Western science & technology, and so its military hardware, was way, way ahead of what Indians had, when India came under British rule. The British rulers naturally would have been able to dictate terms to Indian intellectuals by policies of favouring those who accepted the British views and ignoring or even punishing those who dared to challenge British views. After independence the Indian intellectuals would have been able to start the process of getting freed from the deeply embedded British influences. I guess that would have taken a few decades. But, say around the last quarter of the 20th century and early 21st century, wouldn't some Indian historians have taken an independent (free from British imposed views) view of Indian history?

Prof. B.P. Sahu and Prof. Harbans Mukhia in the comments to Prof. Balagangadhara's lecture,, argue that over the past fifty years or so, at least some Indian historians have taken a non-Eurocentric view of Indian history. Further their comments state that Indian epics and puranas also contribute in some way (though not as historical events) to this understanding/view of Indian history.

Regarding Ramayana and Mahabharata (traditionally accepted versions of these epics in India), I personally believe that they must be largely truthful accounts but with some inaccuracies/variations perhaps. Specifically I believe Rama and Krishna to have been superhuman/divine figures who accomplished superhuman tasks. But these are my beliefs. I do not view them as scientifically/historically established facts as I have the impression that historians have not been able to find incontrovertible proof regarding Rama and Krishna having been historical figures and having accomplished the superhuman tasks that the epics & puranas state. So I can understand Indian historians not being willing to accept that Rama and Krishna definitely were historical figures. Some Indian historians may even take a stand that they may be fictional figures created by imaginative poets of the past. I will not agree with the view of the previous sentence but, in the absence of scientific/archaeological data that proves historicity of Rama and Krishna, I think they are entitled to have such a view. However, if they state that it has been established that Rama and Krishna are not historical figures (like an American professor of religion claims, in the case of Rama), I will vehemently disagree with them. Absence of scientific evidence is not evidence/proof of absence.]


With reference to the paragraph in Pages 18 and 19 of Prof. Balagangadhara's paper describing the distinction drawn by a young Indonesian between a story and history:

This angle of Balu's paper, namely, 'historicity of epic (e.g. Ramayana) is irrelevant to its truth', may be a crucial part of the paper. However, this angle does not interest me as I believe that most of (the widely accepted versions in India of) the Ramayana and Mahabharata are truthful accounts. I also realize that many Indians, including rationalists/intellectuals/historians, will not agree with my beliefs in this regard, and so this angle of Balu's paper may be of great interest to them.


With reference to paragraph in Page 32 of Prof. Balagangadhara's paper giving his understanding of adhyatma:

In my belief based on my understanding of Hinduism including Advaita, 'Ananda' is one aspect of (the goal/fruit of) adhyaathma. Perhaps the more important aspects are knowing from experience (or experiencing) that one's existential reality is an unchanging truth felt in one's being ('sat') separate from the changing mind and body, and, at a higher realization level, experiencing that one is in all of creation/life and all creation/life is in one. The latter involves experiencing feelings of others like joy, sorrow, hunger, pain etc. Even higher levels of realization involve knowing (intuitively, I guess) the past and cause-effect karma of oneself and others, within a life and across multiple lives.

Now, I realize that my above beliefs would not be acceptable to many, especially in the intellectual and academic community. Specifically, Indian history will not treat such beliefs as the (established) truth. That's fine by me.

----------------------------- end (main) text of mail sent to ICHR --------------
[An update on 2nd February 2015:
I was quite pleasantly surprised to note that the Indian Council of Historical Research,, updated its comments document, to include comments from me (and others). The document link is available on the home page link given in earlier sentence. The document link url is, and my emailed comments provided above appears from page 3 onwards. Another email of mine which has extracts from Prof. Balagangadhara's paper as well as Prof. Mukhia and Prof. Sahu's comments is also included later on in the document.]
I thought it appropriate to include some extracts from Prof. Harbans Mukhia's comments titled, 'The Changing Face (and Fate) of History' (, Pages 4 & 5) on Prof. Balagangadhara's paper/lecture. I have also included some comments from me within square brackets [].

[Ravi: Please note that I tried to get the email id. of Prof. Mukhia to take permission from him for putting up the extracts below on my blog but was not successful. Mail to his JNU email id listed in his jnu profile page,, bounced back. I have presumed that he will not mind me putting up the extracts below from his comments which are freely available on the above mentioned/linked comments document put up on ICHR website without any copyright notice on it.]

During the 18th, 19th and much of the 20th century, History, much like other science and social science disciplines, was dominated by the Positivist/Marxist paradigm which had posited an objective reality out there amenable to recovery through incremental knowledge of facts which would ultimately reveal the truth.
The embedded certitude of the existence of a singular,unambiguous Truth and its recovery was premised here, emulating the methods of natural sciences. ‘Scientific History’ was the elevating phrase used by its practitioners. It also had a clearly European provenance.

[Ravi: 'provenance' is defined as place of origin and/or chronology of ownership.]

Over the decades the realization grew that unlike the facts of the natural sciences which are given and immutable, social ‘facts’ resulting from human action are malleable. History as a social science does not have the luxury of a single Truth, but diverse truths, open to a variety of interpretations.
In lieu of a Euro-centred history, the consensus among professional historians all around is that the world we inhabit was made up of contributions from all societies, civilisations and cultures throughout the past, whether in the arena of crops, techniques, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, ideas, cultural mores, whatever.

[Ravi: That's very good.]

Positivism, by emphasizing the singularity of Truth, had differentiated between history as the embodiment of the Truth and mythology as its opposite, implicitly fictitious. The use of ‘myth’ for mythology was especially conducive to this misunderstanding. The evolving vision, however, looks at mythology too as comprising ‘facts’, although of a different order than the facts of historical events. Mythology actually has a much wider reach in all human societies than historical facts have and requires a much subtler comprehension. Thus the study of mythologies of different societies and cultures brings to the surface a whole range of values they had imbibed over the millennia underneath the overarching good vs evil syndrome.

[Ravi: Positivism viewed mythology as implicitly fictitious! That seems to be the problem with some historians who say that it is "established" that Rama is not a historic/real figure! How can that be "established"! Ridiculous! All they can say is that they do not have scientific evidence to establish that Rama was a historical/real figure, like Jesus has been "established" as a historical/real figure even if the miracles attributed to him in the New Testament are not "established" as genuine/true in the academic field of history.]
For long history had a mono-causal explanation: conflict between civilisations embodied in religious difference. The Christian crusades against Muslims; the ‘Muslim’ rule in medieval India and so forth. All other facets that contribute to social and historical change were subsumed in it. Today, religion is one among a milieu of facets which constitute historical causation and historical change, important but not determinist. Indeed, no single facet is given the determinist status.

[Ravi: I was so happy to read the above. Many conflicts around the world today, which are painted as purely religious conflicts by some sections of writers, politicians and the media, seem to me to be rooted in socio-economic issues. While extreme interpretations of religion may be an important factor in these conflicts, the socio-economic issues may be the real driving factors for the conflicts.]


The small extracts given below are from Prof. Rajaram Hegde's comments titled, What have we gained by "Historical Consciousness?", (, pages 6 to 11) on Prof. Balagangadhara MAKA lecture/paper and discussion (involving Prof. Rajan Gurukkal). I have also included some comments from me within square brackets [].

Unless we have theories about the cultural differences between the West and India, social sciences in India will not advance beyond the colonial era. As a part of this exercise, one has to understand what these Western terms and concepts mean, and build hypotheses on Indian culture to explain the meanings of Indian terms and concepts. Balagangadhara has initiated such a task. A basic ground work is needed to make any further propositions about Indian history and culture.


The early colonial scholars who tried to reconstruct Indian history had noticed the lack of a sense of history or historical consciousness in Indian culture. This very fact made them initiate the project of writing a history of India. Our Itihasa and Purana corpus was labeled as myths. Some scholars argued that these myths also contain historical information. Since then a further debate has come into existence: do Indians really lack a sense of history? Due to the lack of sources, Indian history was reconstructed on the basis of these so-called myths too. Today Indian Historians believe that these myths are disguised histories. [Ravi: From, (In the context of Greek mythology being viewed as disguised history) "Early philosophers tried to rationalize the fantastic events in myth by claiming that they were distortions of historical fact."]


I find Balagangadhara’s paper a significant step forward, in the right direction,in this context. His arguments account for my intuitions of Indians who are brought up with the itihasa-purana tradition. Answers to questions like, ‘What do Indians mean by Itihasa?’, 'What is its role in our life?', 'How can we rediscover our accessibility to this tradition?', are important for him.
[Ravi: I fully support Indians rediscovering accessibility to the tradition of Hindu itihasas and purunas. I have had fair level of exposure to a system (not as a student but as an observer and as a software lab. course teacher) where the itihasa-purana traditions were and are taught as Sunday School (for students in regular schools/colleges) or as a kind-of religion-moral subject as well as extra-curricular activity (for schools/colleges/campuses following regular board/university syllabus but in a strong multi-faith with Hindu faith being dominant environment). It seems to me that the teaching of history in the schools and colleges/campuses referred above, was and is as per the syllabus of the associated educational board/university and was separate from the teaching of/exposure to itihasas and puranas. But, as I was not directly associated with teaching of history, I am not sure if my presumption is correct.]


Views of Prof. Romila Thapar, one of India's distinguished historians,, on Itihasa-Purana 'historical consciousness' and related matters:


The Past Before Us - Historical Traditions of Early North India Hardcover – Import, 8 Nov 2013
by Romila Thapar (Author)

[Book Description]
The claim, often made, that India--uniquely among civilizations--lacks historical writing distracts us from a more pertinent question, according to Romila Thapar: how to recognize the historical sense of societies whose past is recorded in ways very different from European conventions. In "The Past Before Us," a distinguished scholar of ancient India guides us through a panoramic survey of the historical traditions of North India. Thapar reveals a deep and sophisticated consciousness of history embedded in the diverse body of classical Indian literature. The history recorded in such texts as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata is less concerned with authenticating persons and events than with presenting a picture of traditions striving to retain legitimacy and continuity amid social change. Spanning an epoch of nearly twenty-five hundred years, from 1000 BCE to 1400 CE, Thapar delineates three distinct historical traditions: an Itihasa-Purana tradition of Brahman authors; a tradition composed mainly by Buddhist and Jaina scholars; and a popular bardic tradition. The Vedic corpus, the epics, the Buddhist canon and monastic chronicles, inscriptions, regional accounts, and royal biographies and dramas are all scrutinized afresh--not as sources to be mined for factual data but as genres that disclose how Indians of ancient times represented their own past to themselves.

--- end extract ---

Ravi: Terrific! Going by the above description of her book, Prof. Romila Thapar has taken a non-Eurocentric view of ancient Indian history. That, if true, disputes the view that all leading Indian historians of today suffer from/have British colonial attitudes to Indian history. Yes, she may not view (any single version of) Ramayana and Mahabharata as a factual account but then I guess the academic field of history will need decent evidence before (any single version of) Ramayana and Mahabharata can be accepted as factual/historical accounts. However the description states that she "reveals a deep and sophisticated consciousness of history embedded in the diverse body of classical Indian literature" and I presume that this literature would include Ramayana and Mahabharata. If so, the influence of Hindu versions of Ramayana and Mahabharata on the 'historical consciousness' of the majority Hindu population of India, as well as on the non Hindu population but to a lesser extent perhaps, may be an accepted 'social fact' in Indian history. [BTW I plan to read this book in the near future.]


[Prof. Romila Thapar in an answer to a question:] There is a tendency to assume that if as a historian you are studying the ‘Mahabharata’, you are doing it because you are treating it as sacred literature. But you are not. As a historian you are treating the text in the context of its society and you are analyzing it in a secular, rational fashion. This creates problems because for the person of faith, these are events that happened and these are the people who actually lived and taught and so on, whereas for the historian whether the persons and events are historical is not the prime historical concern. What matters is to ascertain the broader historical context that the texts describe and their function as literature encapsulating society. We have no actual evidence that these people lived. Till we find that actual evidence, we can’t make a judgment on it. These are two separate realms but unfortunately what is happening today is that there is a tendency on the part of people speaking for faith – not everybody but a small fraction – to demand that the historian concedes historicity to that which the people of faith believe to be history. This the historian cannot do. History today has to be based on a critical enquiry, not on faith.
--- end Prof. Thapar answer extract ---

Ravi: I tend to agree with Prof. Thapar on this. Till historians find evidence that the persons mentioned in Mahabharata (one of the well accepted versions of it in India) were real people, historians can't say that they were historical figures. I would like to add that neither can they say that they are fictional as the absence of evidence (so far) is not evidence of absence. Now I have faith that most of the Mahabharata (well accepted/popular version(s) in India) is true mainly because my spiritual master, Sri Sathya Sai Baba, said it is true. I believe that Sri Sathya Sai Baba had (mystical) knowledge of actual events related to Mahabharata and Ramayana. But that is a matter of my faith in Sri Sathya Sai Baba's mystical powers - I cannot expect a historian to go by such faith and accept (most of) Mahabharata as historical fact. However, the same historian may, in the belief/faith and intuitive aspects of his/her personality, accept (most of some version of) Mahabharata to be a truthful account (but still not historical fact as that needs rational evidence).

The article, Fallacies of Hindutva Historiography by Romila Thapar, dated Jan. 3rd 2015,, seems to be a response to Prof. Balagangadhara's MAKA lecture.

I found the following extract from her article to be very relevant for this post:

These (historiographical) changes have occurred primarily in India but also in universities outside India that teach and research Indian history, such as in Japan, Europe and the United States. Historians of the 19th century may have been searching for “the truth” about the past, but we no longer do so. We cannot arrive at the ultimate truth of what is not fully accessible to us. This is even more so in the study of ancient history. What we try to do is to analyse the evidence that we have and attempt to understand and comprehend what the many pasts of a complex Indian society may have been, and how they may have been interrelated.

--- end extract ---

Ravi: Thapar's clear statement that we cannot arrive at the ultimate truth of ancient history of India as it is not fully accessible to us, must be applicable to Ramayana and Rama. So, it seems to me, historically it may be virtually impossible to establish whether Rama is a historical figure or a non-historical/fictional figure. It is just too far back in the past!

I submitted the following comment (slightly edited to fix a typo) to the article web page (comment under moderation now):
As a person who is not a scholar of history, I find this article by one of India's leading historians to be quite informative and thought provoking with regard to the challenges involved in scientifically/rationally determining (to the extent possible) the history of ancient India related to Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas. However, it seems to me that a largely common core set of events and characters across multiple Hindu versions both of Ramayana and Mahabharata, has got embedded in the consciousness of many Hindus and is viewed as a 'religious' truth by them (including me). How does one balance the approach of scientific history with accepted versions of Ramayana & Mahabharata among religious Hindus in India today, seems to be the big challenge for Indian historians now. I wish them all the best and hope that the debate & the arguments remain civil and do not become a mini Mahabharata war :-).

--- end submitted comment ---

Chairperson ICHR, Prof. Y. Sudershan Rao, on Balagangadhara MAKA lecture and Ramayana & Mahabharatha as truths

Short extracts from, and comments on,, dated Nov. 17th 2014:

[Prof. Y. Sudershan Rao [YSR]:] Professor Balagandhara is a very well known philosopher and theoretician. I invited him to speak because he's neither Marxist nor Rightist in his approach. His question to Indian historians was that do Indians need a history or a past and whether historiographical methods can be applied to our Itihasas and Puranas.


[YSR:] History writing in India is just about 300 years old and is not exactly reflective of our past. The first generation of history writers in India was European, the second generation was nationalist and the third generation in the post-Independence era was dominated by Marxists, who use European tools of analysis. The Europeans have not considered Puranas and Itihasas as historical sources and simply called them myths. If Rama's story is not true then how has he survived in the collective memory for so long? People do not care whether Ram is historical or not. He is truth for them. India's need is a special study of its past and the truth of its past cannot be denied. We need to Indianise our history writing.

[Ravi: I find this to be very interesting. However, it seems that some leading Indian historians are concerned about this effort. As just a reader of history and not a history academic, I find this debate fascinating.]

[Interviewer:] You say Ramayana and Mahabharata are "truths", but we have many versions of both in our country. So what is the real truth?

[YSR:] I am not here to question the beliefs of people. The content of one Ramayana may be different from the other but the existence of Ram, Sita and Ravan is consistent. That's the truth. I might not know anything about my great great grandfather but I can't deny his existence for lack of evidence or how else would I be here? Similarly Rama's existence need not be proved by historical procedure. What benefit are you (historians) going to get if you deny the existence of Rama? Why do you want to try to prove he is not there?

[Ravi: Can simply the existence of multiple versions of Ramayana and Mahabharata in India make all the versions completely false? Is it not possible that over centuries and millennia after the actual events of Ramayana and Mahabharata (according to Sri Sathya Sai Baba, Sri Rama was living around 20,000 years ago and Sri Krishna was living around 5,000 years ago,, the accounts of events took various forms as they were passed on from generation to generation and moved from one region to another? Is it not possible to extract a largely common kernel of persons and events from some well known versions of these epics in India? I must also mention that such a largely common kernel of the epics may still need supporting evidence for it to be considered as established historical truth. But, it seems to me, that this largely common kernel cannot be viewed automatically as historical falsehood if supporting evidence is not available - it would have to viewed as not resolved whether it is true or false.

Even the gospels including the non-canonical gospels related to Jesus Christ have some differences in their account of events about Jesus Christ and his disciples. Does that mean all the gospel accounts, including the non-canonical gospels, are completely false? I believe the historian view is that it is not established that all the common parts of the gospel accounts are historical truths. Neither has it been established that they are historical falsehoods.

"Almost all scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed, but scholars differ on the historicity of specific episodes described in the Biblical accounts of Jesus, and the only two events subject to "almost universal assent" are that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and was crucified by the order of the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate. Elements whose historical authenticity is disputed include the two accounts of the Nativity of Jesus, the miraculous events including the resurrection, and certain details about the crucifixion."

I am quite shocked to know from Prof. Y.S. Rao's comments that some historians seem to deny the existence of Rama and are trying to prove that Rama was "not there". How can they "prove" that Rama was not existent!  I think such efforts need to be strongly challenged academically and, outside academia, intellectually. For an example of such views and my criticism of it, please see my post: Criticism of (non) Historicity of Rama content in Harvard Religion Prof. Diana Eck's 2012 book, India: A Sacred Geography,]

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