Learning From History – At Peace With History (The Sceptical Patriot)

Just finished reading “The Sceptical Patriot”, a book that examines the veracity of popular “India Facts” like Invented the zero, Sanskrit is the best language for computers, India never invaded another country, India was once the most prosperous nation, Plastic surgery was developed in India … The author deals with several such “facts” that gets bandied over email, facebook, dinner conversations and more. He deals with them in a layman-friendly and mildly-funny text of 200 odd pages.

The aim of the book and also this post is not to mock, belittle or ignore India’s past achievements but to take a realistic view based on the evidence available.

In almost all the cases, the author finds that the evidence is inconclusive and the claims rest on rather shaky ground. The author rates the facts on a scale of 1 to 10 and only one “fact” scores more than 8. Curious about which is that one fact that Indians can be proud of with certainty and which are the ones that are in all probability fabrications? I will desist from being the spoiler and instead encourage you to buy the book.

The Skeptical Patriot
The Sceptical Patriot

Exaggerating the past and using a false sense of pride to prop up one’s career, is arguably the most effective political move of all time. Right from kings to the nazis to modern day protectors of “asmitas” and cultures have all looked to milk false pride for political gain.

Although exaggerating history is a global phenomenon, it seems more pronounced in  developing countries and in the propaganda of religious groups.

The only counter strategy is to get people habituated to examining history and get them to see how history is always open to interpretation.

Also, whether India was once “Sone ki chidiya” (Golden Bird) or not, does not change the present for Indians. We have the choice of going on and on about a supposed glorious past or instead focusing on building a glorious present and future. We will jeopardize the future if we choose to stay stuck in our version of the past.

Again, I am not suggesting that we should mock, belittle or ignore our past achievements. We certainly should use that knowledge to better plan, prepare and motivate. But we also need to take history with a pinch of salt and know when to stop working the pride machine.

For example, empathizing with those suffering or seeking justice for the oppressed, is far more important than whether something is historically “correct”.

History is anyway written by the victors or reconstructed later from evidence scattered over time and distance. Only a few hundred years back we had little knowledge of the Indus valley civilization, the scale of the Chola dynasty or the Buddhist period in India.

Also history has always been bent and twisted by those in power and succumbed to broad interpretations and misinterpretations of the ruling class.

So it’s important to learn from history but it’s just as important to not be obsessed with it or link your pride and prestige with it. There’s a line on the back cover of the book “when the future is uncertain and the present unstable – the past gets embellished until it becomes a portent for future generations” (Portent = sign or warning that a momentous or calamitous event is likely to happen.)

AryabhataI recently was at an event where the speakers went on and on about the supposed glories of  ancient India and about restoring that culture and glory. To my surprise the “glorious India” bit was connecting with many in the audience, they seemed to love the idea of thinking of themselves as descendents of some super race. Who cares about evidence!

If India was once a glorious, intellectual and mighty nation; Great. Good. Wow. Yippie. Hurray, Cheers!!! But what if it was not? Does that have to affect my current sense of pride and belonging to India?

Try this: Find one country that does not think that it has a glorious past. One, just one!

Hanging on to supposed past glories is a very natural tendency, but we can’t take it so far that it influences our decisions today. Even worse is when we look to correct past wrongs. That’s a sure shot way to disaster.

I tend to think of it this way, even if one major incident in the past is changed, in all probability I would not be on this planet. So if the Marathas had won at Panipat or if the British had not invaded or if my great–great-great… ancestor apeman X had not fallen for the enchanting apewoman Y, I don’t know where India would be placed, but “I” would be doomed.

So when we learn from history, it’s imperative to also be at peace with it. We cannot change history but we can change the present and the future based on our ideals and understanding today!