Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Historians in a bubble

Originally posted here

As defined by its constitution its primary object is the “promotion and encouragement of the scientific study of Indian history”.
That is the main objective of the Indian History Congress, a body with 9,000 members as claimed by its website. What does “scientific study” mean? Here’s what Wikipedia says –
…refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning
The same Wiki link also contains this definition by The Oxford English dictionary –
“a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”
 Yes, the Oxford dictionary says scientific study examines, scrutinizes hypotheses and modifies them accordingly. But should history have its basis in hypotheses? Or should it be based on empirical study of available evidence as seen in the Wiki definition? History, as everyone knows, is a study of past events. And how does one study past events? You may say by examining trails left behind by the bygone eras. Now if we were to do that would the outcome of such an exercise be congruent with the approved and established record taught in schools? We all know the answer to that.
Now when our historians, or at least those historians with a vice like grip over the establishment, claim to employ “scientific study” of history they are implying something. That the study of history needs special skills gained by special training. This automatically disqualifies a large number of people from having the privilege of examining history. It may be safe to assume that only those 9,000 members of the Indian History Congress are qualified and approved to do this.
But why must it be so? Why is the aam aadmi or the enthusiast kept out of this? If there is historical record available from past, why not put it up for examination by all? Is that because certain forcefully established hypotheses will crumble under the slightest scrutiny? This religious guarding of domain by our historians is highly irregular. Especially when science welcomes scrutiny and questions.
And the “scientific temperament” of our historians goes all missing when faced with dissent. Questioning their hypotheses invites curious label pasting and you are branded a heretic for doing so. This is an exercise in convenience and there is hardly anything scientific about it.
And then there is the question of sources. Some of our historians do not understand ancient languages such as Sanskrit. They rely on translations by such people as Max Muller who did not know Sanskrit himself. And such translations were carried out by early Jesuits in attempt to map Indian knowledge and culture. So our historian’s sources are secondary and tertiary reproductions of poor translations of ancient Indian history and knowledge.
In India we have a tradition of oral record keeping and narration of history. The Vedas and Puranas were maintained and handed down using oral traditions. Another example of this oral tradition is folk songs of Maharashtra in the form of Powada that recount the life and times of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. These oral traditions have strict and rigid rules to adhere to when learning and performing. But there is general skepticism towards such traditions among historians.
History is more than study of records kept by Jesuits in India. Much of our history is among the people, in traditions and languages that the Jesuits did not understand. Much of our history lives and breathes among the native people. It is but natural that a large amount of history of our land can be found among our own people. Such an important source of input is shunted out of the “scientific study”. Our historians have been diligently guarding their sanitized bubble from which convenient hypotheses are postulated and propagated for consumption..

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