A Question Of Urgency: How Long Are We Going To Deny Our Civilisational Continuity?

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Dec 27, 2022 07:06 PM +05:30 IST
A Question Of Urgency: How Long Are We Going To Deny Our Civilisational Continuity? The Ekamukha Linga fromthe Gupta period.

As the year 2022 moves from the present into the past, two separate incidents, seemingly unconnected in two entirely different settings, opened my eyes for the immense need of creating a widespread awareness for civilisational continuity in our narratives.

Today, scholars and authors like Dr Vikram Sampath are working for that much-needed narrative awareness. The fact is that we as a nation and people are immersed in a deep, all-pervading true narrative of civilisational continuity. It surrounds us. It permeates us. It animates us. But we have falsely and forcibly denied ourselves that reality.

All we have to do is look with our own eyes – the eyes of our civilisational self and there it is right there. Here are those two events.

I

I have always wanted to visit the National Museum at Delhi. At last I could visit it only this December, 2022. I started with the Harappan gallery at the ground floor and went through the exhibits that led to the classical period.

The Harappan Gallery starts with an acknowledgement of Saraswati river. The very first exhibit calls the civilisation the ‘Indus-Saraswati’ civilisation. And that is it.

There is no explanation as to why it is called so. There is no exhibit showing the related satellite images. Personally I would like to have an exhibit even showing the controversies surrounding it – should it be 'Harappan civilisation' or should it be called 'Sindhu-Saraswati civilisation' and whether the paleo-channels were glacier-fed or monsoon-fed, etc.

Such open-ended panels would actually trigger the sense of exploration and interest and a genuine quest for truth. It seems that a lame lonely board is kept to give a sense of cost-effective satisfaction to the powers that are – a false sense of ‘Yes we have done some correction.’

A Question Of Urgency: How Long Are We Going To Deny Our Civilisational Continuity?

It serves no purpose.

But the real problem, and the I found very disturbing, came later.

At the Harappan gallery, under the very explicit category of religion and ritual, stands a vertically near ellipsoid stone. The panel heading simply says ‘stone’. Not even ‘proto-Shiva Linga’, if they wanted to be extra-cautious. And there was no panel highlighting the ‘Pashupati’ seal.

The 'Stone' of Harappan period.
The 'Stone' of Harappan period.


Then as we move into the classical era—from early to fifth century CE— almost three thousand years separating them, we find Shiva Lingas – which show a remarkable similarity to the ‘stone’ placed in the section of ‘religion and rituals’ of the Harappan period.

Kushan period : Chaturmukha Linga (Second Century CE)
Kushan period : Chaturmukha Linga (Second Century CE)

Then comes the Ekamukha Linga, majestic and worthy of meditative prayers, whether in a museum or in a temple. It stands silently in the museum - one among the many pieces placed there in chronological order. The cultural and civilisational, leave alone the spiritual magnificence waiting to be told properly.

Ekamukha Linga - Gupta period.
Ekamukha Linga - Gupta period.

After the serene Ekamukha Linga of Gupta period there is also the Linga that shows on each sides Vishnu, Brahma, Surya and Maheshwara. That was sixth century CE.

So, from the Mature Harappan period of 2,750 BCE to sixth century CE in present-day Uttar Pradesh there is not only cultural continuity but also an inclusive evolution - diverse spiritual traditions coming together in harmony in the Linga. What a great story to tell the young generation!

But I see school students walk past the exhibits, never caring to even glance at them, and nor their accompanying teachers caring to explain. How can they and why should they? They are presented as just random exhibits arranged in a dull, chronological manner.

Siva Linga with Brahma, Vishnu, Surya and Maheswara in each side: Sixth century CE
Siva Linga with Brahma, Vishnu, Surya and Maheswara in each side: Sixth century CE

We have light years to go in making our museums places where people are overawed with civilisational and spiritual magnificence.

Should not the museum highlight this continuity? I asked the guide who was accompanying us. I will not blame him in the least. It was a Sunday and he was there merely as a volunteer – purely out of passion for history. He had taken a course though he was employed elsewhere. He stuck to a narrative: 'We do not speak about Harappan continuities in religion. ‘Brahminical’ follows the Buddhist'.

Why do we deny the obvious civilisational continuity so forcibly? Does it hurt just to make the guides point out the continuity? It is not contrived. It is not an imposed narrative. It is natural and obvious.

Can we correct this anomaly in the new national museum that is coming up, and not just for the Shiva Linga but for all murtis?

II


Whenever I go to Chennai, I stay at the Vivekananda Kendra. Sri. Bala Subramaniyam of Vivekananda Kendra, a dear friend, also makes it a point to get some work done for the Kendra and it is always a pleasure.

This time he asked me to accompany him to Sivakasi. The calendar for 2023 was being produced and the theme chosen was lesser-known freedom fighters.

As the designers and graphic artists work on the freedom fighters, let us work on the notes he said. That is actually also a learning experience. So I readily agreed.

Bhagwan Birsa Munda, whose birth anniversary comes in the month of November was chosen for that month. As we went through the paintings and pictures showing Bhagwan Birsa, one interesting observation surfaced – the absence of the sacred thread.

Of course one cannot find the sacred thread in the photo of Birsa Munda. After all they were the photos taken after his capture by the British. It would have been either removed or lost. But everyone knows that the sacred thread was a powerful part of the Birsa movement, at both the spiritual and socio-cultural levels.

Bhagwan Birsa Munda even provided a Satya-Yuga connection of the sacred thread to his followers – they wore the sacred thread then. He was only bringing back the ancient sacred symbol that was lost in between. He also made the household worship of Tulsi a part of his movement.

Then why these symbols, so central to the spiritual strength of his movement, not shown in paintings that depict Bhagwan Birsa Munda? Would not Bhagwan Munda himself be happier to see him depicted with the sacred thread, holding his bows and arrows, rather than without it?

The act of Bhagwan Birsa making his followers wear the sacred thread, should also be read as a statement against the colonial view of tribal communities as totally cut of from the rest of the so-called ‘caste Hindu communities’.

There are differences but there are also connections – strong umbilical chord-like connections. The British only insisted on the differences and made them look like 'unrelated aliens', which in turn helped the British side with either side, based on their divide-and-rule policy.

In that policy, the sacred thread and the Tulsi plant were obvious hindrances. But why are we harbouring that British perception and continuing it?

Birsa - sacred thread and the sacred Tulsi
Birsa - sacred thread and the sacred Tulsi

So when the calendar was finalised, the sacred thread was there on his shoulders as Bhagwan Birsa Munda would have himself proudly worn it while speaking to his followers on freedom—spiritual, social and political. There was the Tulsi plant in the background too.

III


So as the year closes the ‘stone’ in the National Museum, never associated with Shiva Linga and countless paintings of Bhagwan Birsa Munda with his sacred thread removed, both ask us the same question – how long are we going to deny our civilisational continuity and connections?

How long we are going to be oblivious to the truth that surrounds us, unites us and is waiting for us to realise it to strengthen and invigorate us into nation-building?

A Question Of Urgency: How Long Are We Going To Deny Our Civilisational Continuity?

How long?

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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