The Hindus of Hindustan: A Civilizational Journey. Meenakshi Jain. Aryan Books. 2023. Pages 318 pages. Rs 995.
Unlike “eminent” Left historians, who have tended to view the past entirely through an ideological lens, a new group of non-Left historians has taken up the job of reading the past using the principle of Occam’s Razor.
The principle, named after the 13th-14th century philosopher William of Ockham, holds that even if there can be many complex interpretations of fact, the simplest one is the one most likely to be right.
One of those non-Left historians who stands out from the crowd is Meenakshi Jain, whose recent output of books has been nothing less than outstanding.
I deliberately use the term “non-Left” as a label here, for the term “Right” has become a reductionist one.
Jain’s books, which stand in sharp contrast to the Left’s ideologically-invented versions of history, include The Battle for Rama, Rama and Ayodhya, Vasudeva Krishna and Mathura, Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples, and Sati: Evangelicals, Baptists Missionaries, and the Changing Colonial Discourse. If you want to read facts without any ideological biases, Jain is the one to be read.
Jain’s latest is another excellent work of non-ideological history. Called The Hindus of Hindustan: A Civilisational Journey, it can be considered the unbiased historian’s equivalent of Samuel Huntington’s 2004 book Who are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity.
Jain’s book has not been written with the same purpose as Huntington, who was trying to discover core American values in a salad-bowl nation, but it serves to define who we are as a nation, too.
Is the Hindu identity the creation of British colonialism, or something with roots going deep into ancient history?
Did the waves of invasions from the north make us a nation without an identity, or did the core Indic identity seep into those invading the land?
What changed after the Islamic invasions of north-west India?
Jain’s answer is unambiguous: India’s “national consciousness and cultural continuity in India go back many millennia.” And this consciousness permeates not only Hindu literature, but also Jain and Buddhist texts.
Though many modern historians and academicians now concede that India was not just a bunch of separate peoples irrationally lumped together for convenience, Jain’s book drives the final nail into the coffin of British era history-writing, which only the Left has refused to distance itself from.
Sir John Strachey said in 1880 that “the first and essential thing to learn about India” is that “there is not, and there never was, an India”.
Non-Left historians have never agreed with this view.
Radhakumud Mookerji, writing in the early twentieth century, wrote two books, The Fundamental Unity of India, and Nationalism in Hindu Culture to debunk the colonial thesis.
Modern western academicians like Diana Eck now acknowledge that Indians indeed had a sense of “a sacred geography”, a sense of nationhood developed through the “footprints of pilgrims” travelling all over India from ancient times.
Jain’s book should end all arguments about whether we were ever a nation, and what defines us. She traces the sense of connectedness of the people with the land as far back as the 63 verses of the Prithvi Sukta in the Atharva Veda, which some have called the earliest “national song”.
Jain says that the mapping of the sub-continental landmass, which was the basis for seeing all those who lived there as one people, had been completed by around 500 BCE, and Kautilya, in the Arthashastra, talked of politically unifying the land from the Himalayas to the seas.
The book is broadly divided into two sections, with the first part (comprising 14 chapters) focusing on the making of early India, and the second half mapping the challenge from Islam, which provided the discordant note to the Hindus of Hindustan.
The second part includes five chapters, including one on why the early foreigners joined the Indic consciousness, but the later ones, largely Muslims, did not.
The early foreigners included the ancient Iranians, the Greeks (Yavanas), the Sakas (Scythians and Parthians), the Kushans and even the Huns. All of them absorbed the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain sensibilities of the civilisation and sought to assimilate.
The Hindu aversion to the new Muslim invaders, says Jain, emanated from the fact they did not seek support from the established priesthood, but instead asked them to embrace the Quran.
The new foreigners did not seek absorption and assimilation into the civilisation that existed for centuries, but instead wanted to remake it in their own image, an image formed in the harsh deserts of Arabia.
As Octavio Paz, Mexican ambassador to India in the 1960s, wrote in his book on India, Islam came to India fully formed, and the two civilisations (Islamic and Hindu) stared at each other in “mutual incomprehension.”
The incomprehension was more a Hindu problem, for they could not conceive of an idea like Islam which was inflexible and unwilling to merge into the larger consciousness of India.
Meenakshi Jain’s book is a must-read not only for Indic people seeking to rediscover the truths of their identity and history, but also for those who think everything Hindu came from colonial map-making and Nehruvian and Left history-writing.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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