Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, head of the Indian Council of Historical Research, explains his take on Indian history, the problem with ‘western tools’, and the necessary ‘exaggeration’ required in history writing to inspire the nation.


In the morose confines of the dirt-streaked building that houses the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), change is afoot. In June 2014, Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, an obscure 69-year-old historian from Kakatiya University in Andhra Pradesh, was appointed its head. The appointment raised a firestorm of protest from academics around the country. Rao’s academic credentials were doubtful—he hadn’t written a single academic paper in a peer-reviewed journal. But what he had going for him was a long and continuing stint with the Akila Bharatheeya Itihasa Sankalana Yojana, an organisation set up by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leaders in 1978 “to write Bharatheeya history from a national perspective”.

In his Chairperson’s Diary, written a few days after taking charge, Rao makes no bones about his agenda for ICHR, stating that “researches directly sponsored and conducted by the ICHR are mostly guided by the modern schools of historiography of the West”. He goes on to say that, “In the 60 years of our Independence, we are yet to evolve a methodology to study our remote past with Indian perspective”.

In this conversation, Rao explains his take on Indian history, the need to redress the wrongs that “western tools” of historiography have visited upon it, and the need to re-imagine history in a way that is “inspirational”.

In your writings, you talk about the need for a new set of ‘tools’, a new framework for examining India’s history. What exactly do you mean?
Modern historiography, like other art forms, has its own history—in this case of just about 300 years. The art of historical writing is a modern craft, the procedures of which have been framed by European scholars.

In contrast, Indian civilisation is one of the most ancient in the world, with archeological evidence (offering a conservative estimate) dating back to 7,000 years. Many aspects of our history are unique to India, and cannot be analysed through procedures and tools(of history writing) that were framed in countries not as old.

Western historians have focused on written records as evidence of the past, to the point of excluding other sources. By that measure, our understanding of Indian history only starts from the 3rd or 4th century BC, when the first written records—the scriptures of Ashoka—appear.

The fact that we don’t have earlier evidence does not mean that there was no writing before this. The Indus valley seals dating 5,000 years contain writing. That we haven’t been able to translate them yet, is a different matter.

So what are the sources of Indian history?
Our sources and traditions of history are primarily oral. Instead of literature we have ‘orature’ or literature in oral form. The Vedas are the best evidence of this. These oral accounts were only committed to writing after the Magadha period.

[Here Rao conflates history as outlined in the epics with more conventionally accepted theories. The Magadha period refers to an eponymous kingdom ruled by a series of Vedic civilisation kings. The history of this kingdom, which ends around the 2nd century BC, is narrated in the Mahabharata.]

Most of the canonical texts of the Vedas, and of Jainism and Buddhism were put into writing in the 300-400 years that followed. However, the traditions and the history mentioned in these texts extend in a continuum back all the way to the Indus Valley civilisation. [This is in keeping with the efforts of a number of ‘Hindutva’ historians to link the Vedic period and the Indus Valley civilisation].

Western historical research accelerated after the wars of the 20th century—and has focused more on modern history. In India, on the other hand, ancient things are more important.

Approaches to modern and ancient history are necessarily different. Take for example, the generation gap. Rapid changes and the hectic pace of life today mean that 30 years might be enough to constitute a generation divide. But in the past change was so slow to come that it might have taken a few centuries for a divide of similar magnitude to appear.

Things like this have to be taken into account when we look at Indian history. We need to therefore give oral evidence far greater credibility; and while examining it we must discard the tools of western historians in favour of a set of tools created specifically for this.

Are you’re saying that texts like the Ramayana and Mahabharata are veridical accounts?
Yes, of course. The Ramayana was a history of those times. The fact that its narrator Valmiki was both a participant as well as an observer bolsters our confidence in its veracity. Look at the Greek epics on the other hand—they were penned centuries after the events they describe. Inaccuracies could have crept in, in the interim. The narrator as participant is not a literary device, rather it’s an indicator of accuracy.

People like Valmiki were scholars who were documenting their lives. We believe that they are rishis, who know the past, present and the future. In this they’re aided by their understanding of causation.

Present historians have a lot to learn from sages like him. For one, nowhere does Valmiki conceal any facts, even about people who were generally considered above reproach. The good and the bad, Ram and Ravan, both appear in these pages, and the virtues and vices of both are laid out. Nothing and nobody is censored.

Valmiki doesn’t even hesitate from pointing out failings in Ram. The Ramayana has also been honest enough to state that Ram was not the greatest king of his lineage. That honor goes to Raghu. Neither does Valmiki shy away from questions; every possible question about that period has been asked and answered.

While doing this he does not preach. Morals are not taught in these texts, rather they’re seen through the actions of personalities. Vedic manuals are similarly egalitarian. They offer so many paths and options for individual freedom.

Some historians have even raised questions about Ram’s existence. The epics have listed his entire genealogy; he was the 62nd or 63rd in a lineage that continued all the way down to the Mahabharata. How can any one imagine all those names? He most certainly did exist.

Even if some of the names were missing—does the fact that you don’t know the name of your great-great-grandfather mean that he did not exist? He most certainly did. Your presence is proof of his existence.

So we’ve been looking at these texts incorrectly?
When we look at history it needs to be sans all previous perceptions. If you already have a framework into which you’ve slotted a text you’re not going to accept someone else’s perceptions.

Our discussion of history, unlike what usually happens today, needs to be done with a peaceful and scientific temper. We should be able to use ICHR as a platform for this.

But how do we handle the exaggerations (superhuman powers, supernatural occurrences, etc.) in these texts? Isn’t it necessary to correlate with some real events, else don’t they call the veracity of the rest of the text into question?
There are many things in these texts that we don’t understand. The Puranas are the history of the other lokas; Bhishma lived for 180 years; Draupadi was born of fire, not parents, etc. We shouldn’t get fixated on these things. If we can’t find an explanation for them we should set them aside until we do find explanations. Unfortunately the present generation of historians continues to question them blindly.

It’s similar to why it’s not important to find exact dates for Akbar’s reign. If the dates were to change would it really make a large material difference? Some of these occurrences might be exaggerations, but their goal is to inspire you to higher things. In these circumstances there is nothing wrong with positive exaggeration.

Our effort should be to adapt lessons from the past to the present. Looking at the dates of Chandragupta Maurya or the authorship of certain texts is far less important than analysing the actions and thoughts. This is what the Shastras have done.

[Contrary to what he says here, the bio-data on his blog lists the Mahabharata Project, sponsored by the Sanathana Dharma Charitable Trust, as one of his ongoing research interests. The projects considers the Mahabharata war as the “anchor for the History of Bharat”, attempting to “review original sources—astronomical, Puranic and historical—for fixing the date of the war”. Fixing the date of the war has been a long-standing effort of Hindutva historians.]

The Saraswati river is also mentioned in the Vedas. Do you believe it exists?
I don’t have any doubt whatsoever that the Saraswati exists. Anyone who has taken a dip at the Sangam (confluence) in Allahabad can attest to it. Historians today demand new evidence—like satellite imagery. I don’t have a problem with that, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

In many instances the tools and procedures of history writing (as found in ancient Indian texts) are sharp enough for complete accuracy. But they have been ignored by contemporary historians. Our own principles allow us to date the Mahabharata war to the 4th millennium BC.

We must realise that every line of approach [he’s referring to “western methods”] has its own limitations. How do you call the Puranas a myth? They may not be in the chronological order in which we’d like them to, but they still have to be taken into account.

What happens when there are conflicting accounts of the past? You’ve been researching tribal history and literature—do you find any such conflicts here?
The unity of India’s culture was not based on religion, or similarities of political and social systems. Our unity was based on ‘sanatan dharma’, a system so accepting that it did not even denounce Ravan.

[Sanatan dharma or eternal dharma is used most commonly as a “native” term for Hinduism. It is mentioned in Vedic literature; and was used by the Hindu revivalist movement to connote an orthodox outlook unaffected by the social and political changes brought about by movements like the Arya Samaj. Its use is preferred over “Hindu”, considered a Persian imposition]

Tribal communities were no different from civilised communities of those times. In the past, most intellectuals lived with tribal communities in the forest—there was no clash between them. The social varna (caste) system was not applied to tribals.

Till the 18th century, hill-dwelling tribal communities mingled with people from the plains. There’s an example from Peddapuram in Andhra Pradesh, where the British were trying to construct a railway line through territories inhabited by a tribal group. They approached the Raja of Peddapuram for support, which he declined. Instead he supported the tribals in their fight with the British spanning 20 long years.

Sanatan dharma gives the individual freedom. It is the basis of our secular thought, and it is the reason why there was little conflict between civilised and tribal communities.

Problems only arose during the colonial period, when the British fomented strife between the two.

[According to his Rao’s blog his “Tribal Research Project” done under the guidance of “Pujyasri” Satguru Sivananda Murty, an “accomplished Master in the fields of Spirituality, Sanathana Dharma, Bharateeya Culture and Vedic Science”, focused on the culture and the beliefs of the Chenchu, Koya and Gond tribes of Andhra Pradesh.]

What is your opinion of history as it is currently taught and practised?
As a student I read all the classics. Since that time much water has flowed down the Yamuna, but we’re still reading Vincent Smith’s books on Indian history. [Here he is referring to classic history texts like Smith’s Oxford History of India, The Early History of India, etc.]

In the last 60 years many texts on history have been written from a more Indian perspective, but are we prepared to include them? The National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT) hasn’t moved beyond recommending those same texts with their worn colonial and Marxist interpretations of history.

There’s also a strange phenomenon taking place in current historiography, where historians are focusing ever more on microscopic details. They focus in the extreme on the economy of a particular period, for example. Unfortunately they’re not giving us any idea of our history, of the broader picture.

Even now it is difficult to find a comprehensive book on Indian history. The books we have are either colonialist or nationalist. [The latter refers to a school of anti-colonial historians that emerged towards the end of the 19th century. The prime effort of this school was to resurrect India’s golden age, juxtaposing it with the wretched present.] The job of the historian is to inspire, but how many present historians can claim to do that?

Most students today have no idea of India’s ancient history. So how do we make history pertinent to the present generation? History is important insofar as it inspires us in the present.

Has there been any move towards creating the new set of tools (based on cultural and religious sources) that you’ve talked about?
Nothing has happened in this direction at the ICHR in 40 years since it was created. The present class of intellectuals has confused issues for themselves and for others.

Interpretations of history have a bearing on fraught contemporary conflicts like Ayodhya. How do we proceed in such cases?

All I want to say here is that we have to believe what’s in the Vedas, since that is the only source that we have.

[The Atharvaveda describes Ayodhya as a “city built by God and being as prosperous as paradise itself”. According to the Ramayana, it was founded by Manu, law-giver and first man in the Vedas. It was also the capital of the Surya dynasty to which Ram belonged. Vedic traditions have also been used to claim the Ram Janmabhoomi site, with some historians arguing that the pillars excavated at the site point to it being used for a king’s yajna.]

Postscript: Apart from the project to put a date on the Mahabharata, some of the other projects Rao has been involved in are: Project India to document major sites of religious and historical significance, including the “Ashramas of ancient Sages” and “Historic sites of the Ramayana and Mahabharata”; the History of Religion in South Asia Project that aims to study religious rituals from the “Vedic times to the present”; and the Tribal Research Project.

Listed among research achievements on his blog is the “Proposed application of Pendulum Theory of Oscillation between Spirituality and Materialism based on the Cosmic Phenomenon and Indian Yuga (Epoch) Systemic Approach, to the Historical process”.

(AKSHAI JAIN has worked with Outlook Traveller, Mint and Tehelka. He now freelances, and his latest hobby-horse is science journalism.)

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