A lesson from Bhandarkar about the need to rein In historical fantasies

Food for thought piece by Kiran Kumbhar in Wire:

While Bhandarkar urges us not to consider the great epics and the puranas etc. as strict historical accounts, he says they have historical significance in that “one can gather from them information as to what men and women did and thought in those days.”

He also does not dismiss the natural bias that Indians possess since the literature and the antiquities we examine “are our own”. “We must not cease to read our Sanskrit and vernacular works for the pleasure and instruction they afford to us. Only we must take care that our partiality for them in this respect does not obscure our judgment when we have to examine them critically.”

Bhandarkar too, who had drowned himself completely in India’s ancient Sanskrit past, approached the literature in both these ways. He mentions an incident when he told Professor Buehler that the third act of the ‘Uttararamacharita‘ brought tears to his eyes whenever he read it. The professor was surprised. “This constitutes the difference in the points of view of the Indian and European,” Bhandarkar remarked. The study of India in the late 1700s and 1800s was dominated by Europeans, and Bhandarkar desired that by the successful application of such critical research methods as he championed, Indians must take “our legitimate place among the investigators of the history of the country, and not allow the Germans, the French and the English to monopolise the field.”

It is unfortunate that even today, as a result of our “extravagant admiration for ancient Hindus” (as Bhandarkar termed it in 1918), many of our scholars are doing research that does not adhere to strict academic standards, and is mostly propelled by non-academic and political agendas. If we, however, do succeed in separating academic studies from such ulterior and fantastical motivations, we will, as the old man prophesied, “prepare the ground for healthy progress in the future,” and in fact “find a great deal in the past of which we may honestly be proud.”


4 Responses to “A lesson from Bhandarkar about the need to rein In historical fantasies”

  1. MS Says:

    The Wire has cherry picked a particular Indian scholar’s quotes that fits its overall political positioning. Meanwhile the field of historical research has turned away from strict scientism. World over, historians have started accepting sources in mythology, oral history, literature, linguistic and cultural artifacts. Western scholars have moved on, but we are still stuck.

    Kiran Kumbhar displays much deeper ignorance on current research on topics like Vyasa or the nature of mythology himself. Words like Magic Realism that were coined in 20th century are just beginning to describe the nature of our mythological tales and their metaphor and symbolism. In this world, it is definitely possible for the author to coexist with multiple generations of characters. Such interdisciplinary view was not probably available to Bhandarkar in his world that was critical of ‘backward Indians’. He doesn’t seem to have been aware of contemporaries like Carl Jung and Zimmer who literally built modern Psychology based on Indian thought systems.

    The philosopher Schopenhauer pointed out that Aristotle’s Organon is merely one of the pillars of epistemology and Knowledge can exist beyond the confines of Western Science. Modern Epistemology has gone further, and it is the Japanese and Western scholars today that extol the systems of Buddhism, Vedanta and Yoga. Modern linguists describe how the Puranas with their metaphorical and symbolic content convey meaning at much deeper level in the psychology stack.

    The movement today is not to evaluate if Indian mythology is ‘scientific’. Rather it is to understand where they fit in the Epistemological Gallery. Bhandarkar wouldn’t have done that.

    Kiran Kumbhar and The Wire need to move beyond simplistic countering of low level approaches, and start studying torch bearers like the scholar and writer Jeyamohan. The best Indian thought today is outside the English speaking sphere.

    • Amol Agrawal Says:

      Hi MS, Please dont get angry :-). Kiran was writing things for ignorant people like me. I mean how many people even know about Bhandarkar. I bet most people in Pune will have no idea either. The kind of ideas you have, I strongly suggest you to start a blog and write about all these ideas. It will help open more of our mind’s closed windows.

  2. MS Says:

    :)) Amol – Sorry if that comes across as angry ! Learnt a lot of this from Jeyamohan, truly one of the giants of Indian thought today. He is a prolific writer and essayist in Tamil. A few of us amateurs are beginning to translate his works, hoping to get mainstream attention in future. A couple of translations that illustrate the sweep of his thought

    1) http://swarajyamag.com/culture/am-i-a-hindu

    2) Translated by me: http://swarajyamag.com/culture/jeyamohan-on-the-question-of-being-a-cultural-hindu

    Appreciate any feedback, thanks !

    • Amol Agrawal Says:

      Hi MS. I have very little ideas about all this and cannot comment at all. Hence I requested you to start a blog and educate us. I totally agree that we need to follow the non-English speakers but we hardly know anything about them. So start something and keep telling us whom and what to read.

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