By Rabindranath Tagore
The history of India that we read and memorise for our examinations is really a nightmarish account of India. Some people arrive from somewhere and the pandemonium is let loose. And then it is a free-for-all: assault and counter-assault, blows and bloodletting. Father and son, brother and brother vie with each other for the throne.
If one group condescends to leave, another group appears as if out of the blue; the Pathans and the Mughals, the Portuguese and the French and the English together have made this nightmare ever more complex.
But if Bharatavarsha is viewed with these passing frames of dreamlike scenes, smeared in red, overlaid on it, the real Bharata-varsha cannot be glimpsed. These histories do not answer the question, where were the people of India? As if the people of India did not exist, only those who maimed and killed alone existed.
It is not that this bloodletting and this carnage were the most important things in Bharatavarsha even in those miserable days. Despite its roar, the storm cannot be regarded as the most important event in a stormy day. In that day too, with sky overcast with dust, the most important thing for man was the flow of life and death and of happiness and sorrow that moves on in the countless village-homes, even though beclouded. But to an alien passer-by the storm is the most important thing; the cloud of dust devours everything else from his view. For he is not inside the home; he is outside. That'swhy in the history narrated by the foreigners we get the accounts of the dust, of the storms, but we do not get even a word about the homes. Those histories make you feel that at that time Bharatavarsha did not exist at all; as though only the howling whirlwind of the Pathans and the Mughals holding aloft the banner of dry leaves had been moving round and round across the country, from north to south and east to west.
This article on the teaching of history in India was written by Rabindranath Tagore in August 1903.
However, while the lands of the aliens existed, there also existed the indigenous country. Otherwise, in the midst of all the turbulence, who gave birth to the likes of Kabir, Nanak, Chaitanya, and Tukaram? It was not that only Delhi and Agra existed then, there were also Kasi and Navadvipa. The current of life that was flowing then in the real Bharatavarsha, the ripples of efforts rising there and the social changes that were taking place?none of these find an account in our history textbooks.
But our real ties are with the Bharatavarsha that lies outside our textbooks. If the history of this time for a substantially long period gets lost, our soul loses its anchorage. After all, we are no weeds or parasitical plants in India. Over many hundreds of years, it is our roots, hundreds and thousands of them, that have occupied the very heart of Bharatavarsha. But, unfortunately, we are obliged to learn a brand of history that makes our children forget this very fact. It appears as if we are nobody in India; as if those who came from outside alone matter.
From which quarter can we derive our life-sustenance when we learn that our tie with our own country is so insignificant? In such a situation we feel no hitch whatsoever in installing others? countries in place of our own. We become incapable of feeling a mortifying sense of shame at the indignity of Bharatavarsha. We effortlessly keep on saying that we did not have anything worth the name in the past and thus for everything, from food and clothing to conduct and behaviour, we now have to beg from foreigners.
Fortunate countries find the everlasting image of their land in their own history. It is history that serves as the introduction to one'sown country during one'schildhood itself. In our case it is just the opposite thing that happens: it is the history of our country that has kept our own land obscured to us. From the invasion of Mahmud to the arrogant imperial declaration of Lord Curzon, all the historical annals till yesterday are only a mass of strange mist for Bharatavarsha. These accounts do not give clarity to our vision of our motherland. In fact, these only serve to cloud it.
Our real ties are with the Bharatavarsha that lies outside our textbooks. If the history of this time for a substantially long period gets lost, our soul loses its anchorage. After all, we are no weeds or parasitical plants in India. Over many hundreds of years, it is our roots, hundreds and thousands of them, that have occupied the very heart of Bharatavarsha.
These accounts throw a beam of artificial light on such a spot that in our own eyes the very profile of our country is made dark. And in that darkness the illumination of the pleasure chamber of the Nawab makes the dancing girl'sdiamond ornaments gleam and the purple froth of the wineglass of the Badshah appears as the bloodshot sleepless eyes of excess and dissipation. In that darkness our ancient temples cover their heads and the peaks of the tombs of Sultans? sweethearts fashioned in white marble and embellished with gorgeous craftsmanship haughtily bid to kiss the world of stars.
The sound of galloping horses, the trumpet of elephants, the clang of weapons, the wavy grey of the vast array of army camps, the velvet covers flashing golden rays, the foamy bubble-shaped domes of masjids, the eerie hush of that abode of mystery?the inner apartments of the royal palaces with eunuch guards keeping vigil over them?the ensemble of all these strange sounds and colours and sentiments produce an enormous magical world in that darkness. What is the point in calling this the history of Bharatavarsha? All these have kept the Indian ancient text of eternal and beatific value (punyamantra) covered within the jacket of an Arabian-nights romance. Nobody any longer opens that book; and our children commit to memory every line of the Arabian-nights romance. And later, on the eve of its dissolution, as the Mughal Empire lay dying, it signalled the beginning of a spate of deception, treachery and murder, as though among a group of vultures coming from afar and descending on the crematorium. Is an account of this too the real history of Bharatavarsha?
And then began the English rule with its five-yearly divisions like the crisscross houses on the chessboard. Bharatavarsha is even smaller there. In fact, the only difference it has with the chess-board is that here houses are not evenly distributed between black and white; here ninety per cent are only white. For the sake of just a morsel of food we are now buying everything, from good governance to good legal system to good education, from a huge ?Whiteway Ledle Store?. All other shops are now closed. It may be that from courts to commerce, everything relating to this concern is ?good?, but in a corner of its clerical office the space assigned to Bharatavarsha is awfully small.
The superstition that history has to be similar in all countries must be abandoned. The person who has become hardboiled after going through the biography of Rothschilde, while dealing with the life of Christ is likely to call for his account books and office diary. And if he fails to find them then he will form a very poor opinion of Christ and would say: ?A fellow who was not worth even a nickel, how come he can have a biography?? Similarly, those who give up all hope of Indian history because they fail to find the royal genealogies and accounts of the conquests and defeats in the ?Indian official record room? and say, ?How can there be any history when there is no politics?? are like people who look for aubergine in paddy fields. And when they do not find it there, in their frustration they refuse to count paddy as a variety of grains at all. All fields do not yield the same crop. One who knows this and thus looks for the proper crop in the proper field is a truly wise person.
An examination of Christ'saccount books may lead one to a poor opinion of him, but when one inquires into other aspects of his life, the account books become utterly irrelevant. Similarly, if we view from a special perspective, with the full knowledge that in matters of politics Bharatavarsha has been deficient, this deficiency cannot be dismissed as of no consequence. By not viewing Bharatavarsha from Bharata-varsha'sown perspective, since our very childhood we learn to demean her and in consequence we get demeaned ourselves. An English boy knows that his ancestors won many wars, conquered many lands and did extensive trade and commerce; he too wants to be an heir to the glory of war, of wealth, of success in commerce. We learn that our ancestors did not conquer other countries and did not extend trade and commerce; to make just this fact known is the very purpose of the history of India. What our ancestors did we did not know; therefore, we also do not know what we ought to aim for. Therefore we have to imitate others. Whom should we blame for this? The way we get our education since our very childhood, with every passing day we get increasingly alienated from our own country till a sense of rebellion against the land of our birth overtakes our mind.
Even the educated people in our country are often dismayed and are found asking every now and then, ?What do you mean by our country? What distinctive attitude marks it out? Where is that located now? Where was it located before?? We cannot have answers to these merely by raising questions. Because the issue is so subtle and so vast it cannot be comprehended through mere arguments. Neither the English nor the French, or for that matter, the natives of any country can answer in one word the question; what is the distinctive attitude of one'sown country or where is the real location of its spirit? Like the life inside the body, this spirit is a directly perceptible reality. And like life, it is extremely difficult to fathom it through logical definitions. Since the very childhood it enters our being through diverse avenues in diverse forms; and it finds passage into our knowledge, our love, our imagination. With its wonderful powers it unobtrusively fashions us; it does not allow the growth of a barrier separating our past from the present. It is by the grace of it that we are not delimited, we are not atomised. How can we give expression in a few words of logical precision to this primordial and hidden spirit endowed with a wonderful vigour, in order to satisfy the sceptic inquirer?
(To be concluded)
(Translated from Bengali by Sumita Bhattacharya and Sibesh Bhattacharya, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.)