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October 26, 2005

Meaning and Identity from History

Found this very nice post about Indian history: Revisioning Indian history.

Apart from the good material in the post, there are some very informative comments as well.

Some comments from Sanjay caught my attention -- he gave links to the Gulf of Canbay excavation, which says it was dated to around 7500BC, and a video link which reportedly points out that all non-African people have origins in South-East Asia, based on Oxford DNA study.

But I dont agree with his insights in his last comment. I am pasting his comment below for sake of preservation. And I added another comment on that page, which also I am pasting beneath his comment below, for archiving.

Recently, several intellectuals have made the point that an obsession with history (more specifically, an historical narrative) is primarily a Western phenomenon. For the european, a historical grand narrative that stood unbroken & unchallenged was a marker of the current power equation (winner take all including the writing of history), an alpha-male type display. Any challenge to it was to be fiercely resisted because it represented an actual or potential erosion of power.

Others have noted with irony the sight of Indians clawing & fighting about historical narratives & have concluded that it demonstrates the extent to which both the indian Left & the Right remain mentally colonized to this day.

Note the recent furore over the movie Mangal Pandey (which went all the way to L.S.) & the potential of conflicting historical narratives to lead to actual street conflict.

There is yet a third group of intellectuals who are re-examining the reaction of europeans upon their first encounter with Indian history. European scholars were aghast "Indians have no history, nor a concrete sense of history", they sniffed. Without history, you're "pre-historic' & "backward", they claimed.

This judgement made some of our babus very ashamed & they worked up significant amounts of sweat as they went about the task of trying to prove the white folks wrong. Very few indians, including gandhiji btw, reflected deeply about why Indians were ahistorical & chose NOT to write grand historical narratives.

To understand gandhi's support for ahistoricity, lets consider an historically attested event such as the holocaust. There are two historical narratives one could construct around this event:

1. The holocaust must never happen to the JEWISH people again
2. The holocaust must never happen to ANY people again

Method #1 leads to a narrative which freezes Jews as perpetual victims; nazis/ germans as perpetual evil doers. Even in 2042, kids will be taught what the germans did to the jews 100 yrs ago. Once community becomes evil forever vs. the other.

Method #2 recognizes that good & evil resides within each of us, it is not "us vs them", no one is perpetually good, nor perpetually evil. There is no point in perpetually demonizing one single community at the expense of another. Therefore, it leads to a historical paradigm where real names of people & communities are erased. Yet, there is also the imperative of recognizing that evil did happen & that we do need to learn from history. So, you mythologize the names - the good guys become the pandavas; the bad guys become the kauravas. You erase the historical tracks, yet you preserve the learning from history.

#2 leads to the ahistorical paradigm which our ancestors must have thought was correct for India.

In my view, if Secular-Right India is seeking a position on Indian history, then it is more authentically Indian, more principled, more defensible, more sensible, more evolved to choose the ahistorical position than to get mired in Left vs Right debates. There are far more important things to do.


My comment:

This is with reference to the above post by Sanjay.

Sanjay, I think that sometimes #1 is also important.

History, apart from lessons, also provides the very very important sense of "meaning" and "identity". The meaning and identity part of history does not come out if you dont have more particulars about the event (like a narrative, timing details, who-who, etc).

For example, lets imagine a situation similar to the movie "Memento" -- lets say he keeps forgetting what happenned in his past, but still he manages to keep lessons he learns by writing it onto pieces of papers in his pocket. Now, at any given time, he will have all the lessons he learnt in his life, but he wont know what to do now, and why. He wont know who he is, and what is his meaning and purpose.

Knowing lessons means he will know the rules of the game, but he will have no clue as regards to the game's objective.


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Do try and read the most recent book that has come out by Amartya Sen - just released this month.

I ve been wanting to read this, would do that as I grab a copy.


Incidentally, I heard of this book on the radio 3-4 days ago. There was a interview of Amartya Sen about this book there, and people were calling to ask him questions. There were some people who quarelled with him, and tried to prove him wrong, having very little knowledge of their own. Those were desi students like us.

I also tried to call him, but I did not remember the phone number correctly which he had announced at the beginning at the program :-(.

Yeah, sure, the book should be good...!

Thanks for posting my thoughts
here. I agree with you that history does provide meaning & identity. However, it cannot be denied that identity & meaning are also inextricably linked with bias, chauvinism, prejudice & exclusion.

Therefore, that same history to which we turn for identity & meaning should be rejected if it does not, in parallel, also teach us to transcend or overcome (not destroy) our own identities, chauvinism & bias.


Hi Sanjay,

I agree with you on that - we should be strong enough to reject all biases and other negative things that history brings in us.

But for that reason, we shouldnt eliminate history completely. Which you also seem to agree. :)

I can see this is going to be a long discussion :-)

All I said was that, if we're going to link identity & meaning to history, then we better make sure that history also teaches us to overcome chauvinism & bias.

Failing that, it may be better to have no history.

It does teach, right?

For example you yourself learnt that from it?

This is the standard argument -- we cannot dump history just because it also gives bad things -- just like we cannot dump science because it also teaches us out how to make bombs.

Actually, I am favoring history so much here, because some of my most blissful times have been when I have been able to connect with my remote history, not even mine, but of my ancestors, and understand myself based on that background. I then get a clear idea of what I have to do, what should be my priorities, and goals of life.

This happenned recently.

Without that connection, I find myself, unable to make big decisions.

I then realize that many happy people I know are connected to their past - their contentment arising from their daily life was actually a result of their believing that this is what they are here for, which was a belief because of their understanding of their history (i.e. theirs and their parents history, and sometimes grandparents, etc).

Then, sometimes when I read about Ancient Indian History, I find more meaning and identity in what I do.

(i dont mind long discussions ;-) )

I think we need to clarify whether we're both on the same page on our understanding of "history".
I suspect that we're talking apples & oranges.

From your posts, I gather that you're thinking of individual or personal history whereas I'm thinking of history at the macro level i.e. history of a nation, region, group etc.

Please clarify.

Hi Sanjay,

No. I am trying to understand both personal and group history, and beleive that both should have equivalent effects on us, though at different levels and to different degrees.

I know that one appeals to individual identity, and the other a "group identity". But, our group identity is also important I think, since it forms a starting point for our individual identity and possibly a source of guidance later on.

Group identities are stronger since they have been formed over a longer time than your individual identity, and have formed among lives of a large number of people.

Anyway, as I said, when I read about Ancient Indian history, I also feel a sense of identity, which also feels nice to me.

I understand that you have read much more about Indian history than me, dont you think it has somehow had an influence on you, on subconscious levels? Like on the feeling that you are an Indian?

Anyway, Sanjay, overall I think we understand each other... :)

I think you should write more on your blog. :)


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