November 22, 2002


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The Rediff Special/Michel Danino

Majestic, fluid, quietly mighty! In many ways, the waters of the Brahmaputra encapsulate the North-East. We saw them only late October, after their summer fury had abated yet the great river's beauty still fills our eyes. Cutting open the Himalayas, bringing life and fertility to this huge valley, and providing a gateway to the rest of India, how hard it has worked through the ages.

On its banks stands the Vivekananda Kendra Institute of Culture, our first halt in Guwahati. Buzzing with activity, among other things it conducts considerable research and documentation on the North-East's ancient cultures and traditions. I had the honour of delivering there the Bhubaneswar Bharthakur Memorial Lecture, on the theme of The Invasion That Never Was; with the help of slides I presented recent archaeological and cultural evidence to show the falsity of the divisive nineteenth-century Aryan invasion theory -- a theory which, as we discovered a few days later, is still much misused in the North-East in order to convince tribals that they have no connection with Indian "Aryan" culture, no identity of their own, and would therefore be better off embracing Christianity.

Missionaries and others who have recourse to such perverse arguments really belong to the colonial dark ages -- for massive evidence from archaeology, anthropology and other sciences, piling up in recent decades, has thoroughly disproved the theory of an Aryan invasion of India. It simply never took place, nor was there ever any Aryan race or any Dravidian race. It is time these crude and unscientific distortions of India's past are laid to rest forever; they have done enough harm to the Indian people as it is. Do we really have to blindly perpetuate colonial myths in this 'scientific era'?

Science was also the topic of a talk and slideshow I gave at the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, about India's scientific heritage, highlighting some of the early -- and pioneering -- developments in mathematics and astronomy in ancient India.

Back in the city, this was followed by a well-attended public lecture organized by the Bharat Vikas Parishad, on the theme 'Is Indian Culture Obsolete?' Focusing on some essential roots of Indian culture, I explained why, in my view, the answer to this question can only be in the negative, and why India still has much to contribute to the world - perhaps even more today than in the past.

The next day took us to the Kamakhya temple with its impressive underground garbha griha. We also enjoyed the sweeping view of the city from atop the Nilachal Hill, near the quiet Bhubaneswari shrine. After a flight to Dibrugarh, we left eastern Assam through Marguerita, braving the roads with a four-wheel drive jeep and an expert driver -- but "road" is too noble a term for these endless series of bottomless potholes and gaping mudpits, eloquent and back-breaking testimonies of State neglect. It was a relief to enter Arunachal Pradesh, where we remained at foothill level for a few days, during a teachers' orientation camp organized by the Vivekananda Kendra. This spiritually-oriented service organization based at Kanyakumari is well known in Assam and Arunachal for its 25 excellent schools and numerous balwadis.

History and culture were the central themes of the five-day camp -- and so the many distortions Indian history remains burdened with, from Harappan to colonial times. Again we touched on the discarded yet still widespread Aryan invasion theory, the many features of the Harappan civilizations that have survived to this day, the grossly unscientific race concept (still in vogue with our professional division-walas), the essential continuity of Indian civilization, also how the organic, polymorphic, assimilative, integrating entity called "Indian culture" succeeded in cementing the subcontinent, giving to, but also taking from, regional and tribal sub-cultures, without ever imposing itself on anyone....

We talked of science and technology, ecological heritage, the caste system, India's considerable and always peaceful contributions to world culture, but also how to make the teaching of history more living and relevant to a student. India has so much rich history -- tragedies but also achievements, wars but also peaceful expansions, advances in art, science, literature -- yet few countries have been so clumsy in projecting their heritage to their younger generations. A look at the drab and sad textbooks in use in various parts of the country is enough to put one off learning history, not to speak of the heavy ideological biases they often inflict on Indian students; Marxist historians have long been past masters at this game, which is why they are so loud against any attempt to alter their misrepresentations and provide a fair, ungilded, and unmuddied perspective of Indian civilization.

A few public programmes -- at Kharsang, Jairampur, Marguerita and Changlang -- brought into sharp focus some of those misrepresentations, together with the racial biases introduced by colonial scholars. Often, following my positive projection of Indian culture -- which evoked surprise, so deep the habit of self-denigration has gone -- there would be the usual objections: but look at the perverse caste system, look at the imposition of Aryan culture on the Dravidians, on the tribals, note how this region never had any links with India, was always separate culturally, linguistically, racially, see how Hinduism is now trying to convert the tribals....

It was not too hard to guess that most of the questioners were devout Christians or recent converts. Nor was it hard to show the incurable ignorance all such statements were founded on. For instance, the fact that the North-East, repeatedly mentioned in the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, in Kautilya or Kalidasa, and of course in several Puranas, was always regarded as just one of the regions of Bharat, a fact confirmed by the existence of tribal versions of the Epics, also by archaeological finds from the 4th Century AD onward of established Hindu and Buddhist settlements (I am sure that more systematic excavations would push those dates further back). Or again the falsity of the racial concept and the non-existence of any so-called Aryan or so-called Dravidian race. Finally, the inherently non-aggressive nature of Hinduism, in contrast to the inherently aggressive nature of Christianity (recall the Pope's call for "a great harvest of faith from Asia" during his state visit to India; can we imagine a swami visiting the Vatican and calling for Christians to convert to Hinduism?).

So when my questioners, subtly or not so subtly, tried to paint Hinduism in a bad light, they found the spotlight on Christianity rather uncomfortable, especially when I pointed out that not a single pre-Christian culture or religion of ancient Europe was allowed to live, or that Christianity's essentially non-rational, unverifiable, dogmatic foundation was the cause for its virtual disappearance from the West, where more and more people are now turning to yoga, meditation (as in America), or (as in France) to Buddhism. Such debates have of course been taking place all over India, but it is distressing to see how they stick to obsolete theories, discarded misconceptions, and unjustifiable strategies of systematic conversion and division of society.

The last point was brought to us in sharp focus during our interactions with a few tribals of Arunachal, who voiced the same distress at the methods used to secure conversions to Christianity: not only monetary allurements, but psychological pressure on the sick, promises of cure upon conversion, pressures to rope in the rest of the family when the promises don't materialize, and finally to throw out of the family those who continue to "worship Satan". In fact some missionaries and Christian educational institutions openly refer to tribals, Hindus, and Buddhists as Satan ka bachcha [children of Satan] while Christians are Ishwar ka bachcha [children of God]. We heard several heart-rending tales of teenage boys or girls having been thus expelled from their families when they refused to convert, accused by their own parents of being "Satan". Converted families are then instructed not to have contacts with the non-Christians, as a result of which they refuse to take part in traditional harvests and other aspects of the community's collective life; the centuries-old harmonious working of the community suddenly becomes divided, and indeed division is a great way to secure conversions: "divide and convert", until you can "divide and rule".

That ultimate step is already visible in the militant movements of the North-East, most of which are rooted in Christian ideology. Witness the conversions the militants secure at gunpoint in remote villages at night, a fact asserted to us repeatedly. I remembered a Don Bosco father in Tamil Nadu telling me a few years ago how "tribes have no future within the Indian Union" and explaining why he was exhorting them "to take up guns". It all fell into place.

The real tragedy is perhaps not the devious methods used by Baptists or Catholics alike -- for, after all, the whole of Christian history is full of them and tainted in deep red. Rather it is the failure of the government to fulfil its primary duty of protecting from aggression peace-loving citizens and endangered communities and cultures. And the failure of educated Indians ("miseducated" would be more correct) to ably project the specific values of Indian culture, such as the oneness of humanity, the essential divinity of man, or the complete spiritual freedom to choose one's path towards the manifestation of that divinity -- values that are conspicuously absent from Abrahamic religions (notwithstanding the hollow slogan that "all religions preach the same truths": unfortunately they don't). Surely, one may be critical of a few aspects of Hinduism or Indian traditions; but to throw away a gem because some mud has stained it is plain ignorance.

The flight from Dibrugarh to Guwahati followed the Brahmaputra, whose hundred branches meandered lazily around countless islets. The Himalayas glistened to the north, a perfect line of white peaks hovering over the clouds and kissed by the setting sun. Yes, that which has its roots beyond time cannot die. That which has countless forms will always be reborn.

French-born Michel Danino has been settled in Tamil Nadu for 25 years; he has given many lectures in India and is co-author of The Invasion That Never Was. He is also the convener of the International Forum for India's Heritage.

Also read:
Distorting History 2
Distorting History 1
More reports from Asam
More reports from Arunachal Pradesh

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